Sweet beanie

In to the Ether

Sweet beanie

Sweet beanie

Even the name is ethereal, haunting, mysterious- The Vapor Trail.

Sometime in the not too long ago, “Dude, you should totally do Vapor” several people.

“Not a fucking chance! I will never do that race- it’s just stupid” me.

October, 2013, sitting in Jonathan Davis’ RV in Moab, “Dude, you should really do Vapor next year. It’s a Colorado classic!”

“You know, maybe I will.” The Vapor Trail 125 got penciled in to the 2014 race calendar.

Registration opened while I was in Nepal. As it was the 10th anniversary, the 75 rider limit was reached before I made it back to the states. I ended up 13th on the waiting list. For some reason, at least 87 other people were interested in a race that 1) Is 125 miles 2) crosses 12,500’ 3) crosses the Continental Divide three times 4) includes 18,000’ of climbing and 5) starts at 10:00 pm!

Eventually I got an email that my ticket was punched- I had a spot in the Vapor Trail if I was still interested. There was no hesitation- IN… I was also already signed up for my yearly go at the Park City Point-to-Point the weekend before the Vapor. I knew that was probably not the wisest of planning, but sitting in front of a computer in June, it was easy to convince myself I’d have plenty of time to train, and to prepare, and you know, “take it easy” at Park City.

Long story short- I went out way to hot at Park City. I cracked early, recovered, and then pushed way too hard on some goofy “Enduro” segment mid-race. I cramped bad on the outside of my quad and pedaled through it to the point of setting off my right IT band. It was only irritating at first but by mile 60 it became debilitating. I’ve had problems with this IT band since my teens but with regular yoga (CorePower), Massage (Troy Lyons at Balancing Body Works), and foam rolling, it’s been pretty good the last couple of years. By the time I crossed the finish line, my IT was toast. I couldn’t even walk up or down a flight of stairs. The Vapor was out!

Once I got back home, I committed to daily yoga, and vigorous foam rolling hoping that the flare up was just acute inflammation from the cramp and some magic would intervene. I made the call on Tuesday to Tom that I was likely out for the Vapor, but I’d be happy to volunteer if I couldn’t race. I gave myself a 5% chance of being healthy enough.

Wednesday night my knee stopped hurting and I planned a short but hard ride on Thursday. If I felt no pain whatsoever, I would pack for Vapor. After an hour and a half, my knee was ok. I called several friends to get their advice- it was pretty much what you’d expect, “dude, you don’t want to push yourself to serious injury.”
So I gathered all my gear together and planned to head down to Salida on Friday. As a bonus, the dismal weather forecast was shaping up to be just slightly unpleasant. Then on Friday more things went south. While trying to seat a new tire, the rim blew out straight in to my shin. The impact was hard enough to knock the free-hub body and cassette off the hub and left me with one of the worst swellings I’ve ever had. I was concerned it was going to rupture and I was going to bleed out. I grabbed a bag of ice and elevated my leg to keep the throbbing down. It also appeared that I knocked my wheel out of alignment- I’d have to stop by the shop on my way out of town get a quick true-up.

Once at the shop we realized the wheel was toast- my guess is I actually crumpled it at Park City. There was no fixing it. I had to drive all the way back home to dig out a spare wheel I haven’t used in over a year. I then had to find new end-caps to swap from quick-release to a 10 mil through axle. Then we had to reem out the Stan’s hub because even with the new end-caps, the 10 mil axle wouldn’t fit.

Just touch it, I dare you

Just touch it, I dare you

It was a cluster fuck! I still wasn’t even sure I was going to race. By the time I finally got to Salida I was mentally fried. The reality of the situation was finally kicking in- I was seriously considering racing 125 miles less than a few days after being unable to climb a flight of stairs. It was madness. But I repacked my gear and “slept on it.”

Proper race fueling

Proper race fueling

Saturday morning started with mimosas- race prep. I had a plan; I knew the bail-out options. At the worst, I’d pedal the 27 miles to aid 1 and get in some sweet night riding on the Colorado Trail. Oh yeah, I’ve never ridden single track in the dark… not once. Actually, I’ve never ridden a bike at night except a few short blocks to the bar. This was all getting to be a bit much, but it was a plan. After the mimosas and general fucking about, I managed a decent 2-3 hour nap. When I woke up the race was weighing heavy and the anxiety was approaching a crescendo.

Racer meeting with Tim Lutz and Kyle Taylor

Racer meeting with Tim Lutz and Kyle Taylor

“I can turn around at any point.” True, but that point can sometimes be hours away from anything remotely resembling civilization. I packed my LAT 40 map; all was good. And even the weather forecast was improving by the minute. Things were finally shaping up. After the race meeting I had one more internal debate on whether to pull the plug or not, and pulled on the chamois, double checked my over-stuffed Ergon backpack, and headed to the start line at the bridge on F street downtown. It was packed with tourists, bikers, townies, and even some roller girls. The excitement and anticipation was incredible. And finally, at 10:00 pm we started out behind the police escort to a chorus of hoots, hollers and cheers. I love this shit!

These neutral starts are always hotter than you’d expect. But I was more or less content with hanging in the back. Once we hit the dirt road to Blank’s cabin, the pack surged. I stayed behind and tried not to let it get to me- 125 miles is a long, long way to go. I think I was the second to last rider to hit Blank’s Cabin. The CT was wet and slippery and quite tricky in the darkness. But it was a whole new trail now that I only had a focused beam of light in front of me. It was also humid and my glasses kept fogging in the cold air with the effort I was putting out. Luckily most of the fog would clear on the downhill sections. This trail has some serious techy bits. It was a blast and I even started to reel in a few riders towards Aid Station 1 at Cascade Campground.

It all starts to get a little hazy at this point. I didn’t really say much at Aid 1. I fumbled with refilling my water bladder getting tangled in the cables from my headlamp, declined the breakfast burritos, and headed off on the long, long climb up Chalk Creek in the darkness. The small field had spread out and I spent much of the climb alone, occasionally passing someone, or getting passed, the solitary lights coming and going quickly. I was in a zone- I’ve been here before during midnight starts to climb some alpine peak, but that was in the long ago time. The world goes strange in the middle of the night, far from city lights with only the sounds of your own breathing, or a creek intruding on the solitude of cranking out the miles. A catatonic rhythm sets in with the minutes freezing then flowing by in waves.

Apparitions appear in the shadows, with the occasional realization that somehow the moon that was over to the left is suddenly over to the right with no recollection of turning. But the confusion is fleeting until the next time, and then it all fades in to the fugue state of the mind. My feet are numb, they have been for a while, but it’s finally starting to register. I should probably stop and put on some shoe covers. Inertia is overwhelming. I pedal on… my feet are numb. I finally stop at the Alpine Tunnel trailhead. I take a moment to look around at the surrounding peaks bathed in the near full moon. The view is incredible. I also notice that the neoprene straps I have on for my IT bands are digging in to the backs of my knees, but they are buried beneath my leg warmers. I decide to just bear the pain. The Inertia is strong. The straps continue to eat away at the back of my knees.

Lick it, I dare you...

Lick it, I dare you…

My feet are instantly more comfortable as I start to pedal again. I know there was hike-a-bike around here, but the timeline is non-linear. I also know there was the most amazing moonset with a glowing orange moon surrounded, but not blocked, by thick puffy clouds. There was Orion shining brightly in the night sky. There were headlamps and red lights bouncing along. All these visions melded together in time.

There was also a quick steep bit of single track just after the alpine tunnel tracks with a sharp right turn onto a road with 6 inches of pea gravel. I hit the deck hard enough that my right hand went numb, and my hip stiffened for several hours. Then I remember some really sketchy steep single track, frost on the grass, and a dusting of snow on the pine trees. I remember the long slog up to Tomichi pass walking a lot, occasionally riding, and just being in that zone. There were thoughts, conversations with myself, every once in a while a burst of blues lyrics out loud until I couldn’t breathe from effort and altitude. There was always up.

The hike up to the summit of Granite peak from Tomichi was something I’d read about, heard about, but I still wasn’t quite prepared for how steep it was. Far above I could see lights bobbing along the switchbacks against the faint outline of the upper ridge. It was steep enough that hiking while pushing my bike was problematic. I brought straps to hang the bike from my pack like I did in the Yak Attack, but the inertia was just too strong to stop and take the time to rig it up. Near the summit the first dawn light started to appear. That transition is always so surreal to me. My brain struggles with the emerging details around me- rocks and tundra start to come in to focus, night slowing giving way to day.

As we crested the top, I was giddy to get back on my bike and get to it. So giddy in fact, that a mere 20 yards later I crashed after my wheel grabbed the side of the very narrow rocky trail. I righted myself and set my mind to more focused concentration. I picked up speed quickly and then began one of the most awesome descents I’ve done- Canyon Creek. It starts above tree line- rocky and steep, and soon descends into high-alpine aspen and pine groves turning in to a flowing berm-fest- fast, fast, fast- 10 miles of downhill all at an hour when most people haven’t even awoken- 50 miles and 10,000’ of climbing into a race. It’s unreal. And it ends with a punishing uphill slog before another quick twisty downhill into Snow Blind campground. I rolled in to cheers from a group of intrepid volunteers and friends Lacey and Blaze who had woken up at 4:30 in the morning to be there. These cats ROCK! Lacey got me coffee and I swapped out some gear and briefly stood by the campfire to warm up before heading off- 61 miles down, 64 to go…

Blaze’s partner Margaret rolled out with me and quickly dropped me even on the downhill to Old Monarch Pass road. Once we started up, I lost sight of her quickly. On the best days I suck on long slogs. This section is 10 miles and 2,400’ of climbing. But the sun was up and the warmth felt great, even though my mind was slipping. I couldn’t concentrate and was in a strange funk- an out of body experience as the kids call it- like watching myself on TV, but in a foreign language with no sub-titles. Some gut rot started to settle in as well. This section finally ended with a sweet mile and a half of single track before dumping out at new Monarch Pass, another aid station, and Lacey and Blaze cheering once again.

Volunteers were everywhere. I was given a comfy camp chair and soon my drop bag appeared- it held all the necessities, a change of bibs and jersey (I only changed my jersey because I Just couldn’t imagine having to change bibs), a bag of pickles, some rice bars, a can of coke, and a crisp, cold, delicious can of beer- Coors Original, The Banquet Beer! A bit of beer 12 hours and 75 miles in was just the ticket. I stripped off all my cold weather gear, and there was still no pain in my IT bands. Bail options are easier at this point so there was no reason not to continue. At every mile I feared my knee was going to blow and I was going to have to quit- but I was okay with it- to a point. The more miles I put in, the more heartbreaking I knew it would be if my knee gave out. I’d be happier turning around at mile 20 instead of mile 90.

From here we hit the Monarch Crest trail- some of the sweetest single track in Colorado. It was only 10:00 am and the trail was littered with shuttle riders who would clap and cheer as I raced past. It was a huge boost, and I rolled in to the aid station at Marshall Pass in fairly quick time. Once again the volunteers were awesome and I headed out feeling good. And that’s when the wheels fell off. There is a brutal steep fire road climb heading out to Starvation Creek. This seems to be the section that crashes the hopes and dreams of a lot of Vapor Trail riders. Normally steep technical down hills are where I do best, but on this day, on this section, I just had nothing to offer. Everything was off, the fatigue was getting to me and the first glimpses of doubt started coming in waves. Ultimately though, I was just happy to still be pedaling and was able to adjust to the discomfort. When I started the 5 miles long slog back up to the same Marshall Pass aid station I had left hours earlier, I knew that even walking my bike was awesome. I was out here, riding the Vapor Trail. The trudge did truly suck- do not get me wrong- it was horrendous, but it was the Vapor- it was all good. By the time I reached Marshall for the second time, Peter was there with his goofy grin and acerbic wit- and so were the storm clouds. I was happy to see Peter, and not at all surprised to see the clouds.

I downed some more coke, declined the sandwich and chamois butter Peter trucked in, and donned my rain jacket to head out on the last 25 miles which of course started with another long uphill before hitting Silver Creek. Again, this is one of the premier trails in Colorado. It’s steep, fast, rocky in bits, and just an absolute gas. The grin was back in full force, even if the focus was a little blurry. I kept my speed a bit in check- it would be idiotic to blow the race at this point for a few extra minutes.

There was one final aid station at the start of the Rainbow Trail. I opted to grab a seat in a camp chair cheerfully offered by yet another awesome volunteer. I munched on some salty chips and fresh Colorado peaches and tried to prep myself mentally for the next nine miles of the Rainbow trail. This section is deceivingly brutal. The profile just doesn’t prepare you for the punch in the gut climbs that appear among the swoopy, fast sections. Walking was the order of the day, but the end was coming in to sight. As I rode on, I suddenly realized that there was no way home than the way to the finish. At the top of the last major climb I knew my way was clear. I opened up for the final downhill and really savored all the Vapor had to offer and my eye was back on the clock. There’s always that magic number one focuses on during a race- even with all the setbacks I still had a number- it was long gone, but a new one took up space somewhere along Starvation- just be under 20 hours. I pinned it down Poncha Pass and then highway 120 back into Salida- one final big effort from the legs, luckily all downhill, and rolled across the line in 19:34. It didn’t win me any trophies but it won me a whole lot more- it earned me a finish in the Vapor Trail 125 and cheers from friends, a burger, beers, and a cool-assed hat!

Fuck Yeah Bitches!

Pro-tip- Pro Towels!

Pro Towel Love!

Pro-tip- Pro Towels!

Pro-tip- Pro Towels!

Besides the obvious- a bike and legs to pedal, the one thing I wouldn’t do without on the Yak Attack, or any stage race, is a ziploc bag full of Pro Gold Pro Towels! The Yak Attack is 8 days long- plus pedaling days on either end, and sees everything from dry, silt-covered jeep roads, to river crossings, to deep unforgiving mud, and long stretches of snow and ice. Many stages can see all of the above conditions over the course of a day. The bike, along with your body, takes an incredible beating on this race. On top of all of this, bike washing facilities are pretty spartan to say the least. As the elevation increases, temperatures drop, water approaches freezing temps, and the will to thoroughly clean your bike rapidly declines.

Bike cleaning at 14,500'... My friend here did not have Pro Towels, and i didn't have any more to spare

Bike cleaning at 14,500′… I didn’t have anymore Pro Towels to spare

On several stages, Pro-Towels were the only thing I used to clean up my bike at the end of the day. They are tough enough to stand up to everything you can throw at them- no lint, no falling apart in your hands, and impregnated with grease and grim busting citrus solvents. Pro Gold makes a ton of great cleaning, and lubrication products, but Pro Towels are my favorite of the lot. It’s amazing how much you can get done with such a small towel.  I buy them by the tub and transfer to ziploc bags for travel, but they also come in single-serving packets that stash in a pack for mid-ride-mud-rub-downs.

If your local shop doesn’t carry Pro Gold, they’re missing out- but you can also order on-line (or find a new shop).

Blessings before Race Time

2014 Yak Attack Stage 6

 

Blessings before Race Time

Blessings before Race Time

The first whistle blew around 5:30 for the 6:00 am bag drop- no matter, I was already awake. With no blankets or sleeping bag to wrap up in for the three hours until race start, there was nothing to do but get up… getting dressed was an excruciating affair as everything seized up in my chest. I should ask Tyler just how much I wailed during the morning.

Tea, I need tea.

It only got worse when I went for my morning constitutional. Squat toilets are pretty “rustic” in the best of circumstances. In Manang, where everything freezes, things go from bad to worse in a hurry. Add in 50 or so porters that used the three toilets before you and well… I didn’t get any photos, but the images are deeply burned into my brain. Toilets of the damned…

Eventually we piled out into the frozen muddy start area. It’s a “short” day- only 16 Km – 10 miles… that’s all plus 3,700′ of climbing. How hard can it be? Of course, you’re starting at 11,500′ and finishing at close to 15,000′, “Hardest 10 miles you’ll likely ever ride.” Fact!

Getting my scarf

Getting my scarf

It’s a bit blurry from here. I remember grunting, moaning, yelping at every bump, every stutter along a cobbled road, a rutted jeep track, a post- holed path through the snow and ice. The stage was steep from the get go: the ice thick, the ruts treacherous, and the despair a bottomless well. The adrenalin was gone, the mud deep, and the will tested.

Looking back from Thorong Phedi at the end of a long day

Looking back from Thorong Phedi at the end of a long day

I pushed on- choices were few- continue, or go back. I visaged no relief in a death-ride jeep back down the valley on an endless journey to Kathmandu. Up, ever up, pedal, pedal, pedal. “Harden the fuck up,” I repeat endlessly between self-pitying cries of stop, wait, sleep.

Courtyard at Thorong Phedi lodge

Courtyard at Thorong Phedi lodge

Gerrit Glomser

Gerrit Glomser

I likely pushed my bike almost as much as I rode it. The track was rough, technical at times and on reminiscence, RAD! High peaks, tight single track, endless views, and lung searing altitude. This is why I came to Nepal.

Parking Lot Thorong Phedi

Parking Lot Thorong Phedi

Suck it up Butter Cup. Eventually, far in the distance, the finish line came in to view. Rocky, snowy, desolate, and so comforting.

“This was a day I never, ever want to repeat.”

Finish line Stage 6

Finish line Stage 6

Sam the Doctor, and Tobias

Sam the Doctor, and Tobias

This was the lowest of the low. I was broken; I was beat, but I was carrying on. The yak attack continued to claim casualties as the very strong Ayman Tamang had to turn around just a couple miles outside of Manang due to a persistent chest infection.

View up valley from Thorong Phedi

View up valley from Thorong Phedi

Living in a Fortress

Living in a Fortress

“You can pour over the results as much as you like for the first 6 stages, but nothing matters until pass day,” prophetic words from Neil Cottam as we sat huddled in the lodge in Thorong Phedi at the base of Thorong La.

The lodge at Thorong Phedi

The lodge at Thorong Phedi

Rajeev Rai

Rajeev Rai

My appetite was cooked- it’s clear the altitude was hurting me. I didn’t realize until the next day that I was also coming down with a cold. Everyone was suffering to some degree- some more than others. Yuki’s face had swelled to twice it’s normal size- he looked like a boxer after 15 rounds of brutal punishment. The belly demon was wreaking havoc with multiple riders.

There's a storm-a-brewin'

There’s a storm-a-brewin’

As clouds settled in and snow began to fall- 3:00 am was going to come all too soon and there was still mud to clean off my bike. Washing it down with cold water in sub-freezing temps was not appealing. But I was smart enough to pack a Ziploc bag full of ProGold Pro Towels. They were enough to get my drive train clean, and most of the heavy mud off the frame. Every ounce of mud is another burden to carry over the pass- a clean bike is a light bike.

Cleaning duty in sub-optimal conditions- Pro Gold Pro Towels for the win!

Cleaning duty in sub-optimal conditions- Pro Gold Pro Towels for the win!

I barely ate dinner. This was not going to help power me through the following day, but I just couldn’t stomach any food- classic signs high altitude. I bundled up for another fitful half-sleep and waited for the whistle to start the march over the pass.

We go that way - looking up towards Thorong La

We go that way – looking up towards Thorong La

Start Line

2014 Yak Attack Stage 5

Start Line

Start Line

Both my memory of the race, and available photos from the bike start to get a bit spotty at this point. My mind was constantly absorbed by the pain in my chest. My gopro mount broke on Day 4, and I just didn’t have it in me to stop too often to take photos…

Sleep was rough. There were no positions I could find that did not hurt. I’m sure my moaning, and occasional outbursts of pure pain did not help Tyler’s sleep either. Dawn came all too quickly and now that there was no jeep access, the bags needed to be ready long before the start of the stage- this includes your sleeping bag, unless you want to carry that in your pack.

The steep sides of the valley made the morning cold and uninviting. But the grand send-off, complete with candies and the ubiquitous yellow scarf set a good tone. Once formalities were dispensed, we trucked off down the road and across a large bridge to the start. It seems customary to tie the scarf around the bridge- both for luck, and to prevent the scarf from wrapping up in the drive train, or front wheel.

Views are never-ending

Views are never-ending

The goal for the day was simple- finish. Whatever it took, cross the line. I wouldn’t have the adrenaline from the day before to help me along. It was a relatively short 20 mile day, with only 3,600′ of climbing- almost a rest day by Yak Attack standards- however, the finish line was above 11,000′ and there would be snow.

Getting steep and slippery

Getting steep and slippery

The whistle blew and the pack surged forth. I took a more steady pace along the awesome loamy forest start. The rough jeep track was no fun on the ribs, and I couldn’t help but moan and groan fairly continuously as I pedaled along, but I was able to move forward and that’s what counted.

Mud, snow, and mountains

Mud, snow, and mountains

I settled in to a rhythm, and once again started to reel some riders in along the way. I think it was shortly after the aid station at Pisang that we hit the first stretch of snow. It was brutal. There was a decent, ableit narrow, packed trail, but it was rutted deep with human and animal foot prints. Mules are heavily used on this section of the trekking path. Normally I can motor over snow track like this, but in my current state, it was pure agony. Eventually, the snow gave way to awesome rolling track and I even caught Tyler and Wendy again. I kept them in sight for a bit but then dropped off.

The view from Manang

The view from Manang

Then came the mud- deep, soul-sucking mud. I was prepared for the stifling heat down low, the cold and snow up high, but I was not prepared for the mud. It was the kind of mud that sucked you in. The kind that reeked of shit, piss, and other foul things. It required upper body English that wrenched my ribs in a most unpleasant way. And every time a bit of mud would splatter up into my mouth, or nose, I feared I too would get the dreaded belly rot that was making the rounds.

Downtown

Downtown

Pro-tip: I personally think water bottles are a bad idea on this race. There’s just no way to keep them clean from the mud and the muck- and there are nasty things in that muck. It’s hard enough keeping the nozzle of a camelbak clean enough.

Looking up-valley from Manang

Looking up-valley from Manang

Close to Manang I was convinced I had missed a turn, even though we were on the only navigable ”road.” I turned around and hiked back up the muddy hill I had just managed to come down for a good 20 minutes before the med team’s jeep appeared and assured me I was now backtracking. I turned around, saddled up, and proceeded to take another slow speed crash in the mud. Not good.

Gangapurna and Peter Butt- big mountain, fast man

Gangapurna and Peter Butt- big mountain, fast man

I eventually hit the final steep climb into Manang- all around surrounded by the high peaks of the Annapurna. Then the familiar town gate with prayer wheels, and then a long, seemingly endless rough mud and rock track to the far side of “town.” I thought it was a cruel joke, but it was just this tiny Himalayan village’s example of urban sprawl.

Stats: 20 miles, 3,600′, 22nd, 3:03, 0:58 off lead

One \bike, lots of spectating

One \bike, lots of spectating

We had finally arrived into the heart of the Himalaya. We were now above 11,500′ in Manang and the following day was an acclimatization rest day. Best of all, Manang has an entire cottage industry built around real coffee (Lavazza), and “German” bakeries. There are many, and they all seem to serve many of the same creations- pies, cakes, rolls, and other pastries. Perhaps one of the best items is the yak cheese sandwich. I well sized loaf of soft bread, fresh semi-firm yak cheese, and a sort of cole slaw mixture that tastes so much better than it sounds.

Feeling insignificant

Feeling insignificant

Manang is a perfect spot towered over by 7,000+ meter peaks with stunning unimaginable views in every direction. There are even multiple cinemas, though they all tend to show the same movies- choices range from Seven Years in Tibet, to Touching the Void, to a few other mountain themed movies. It’s all a bit surreal.

I also want to give a HUGE shout-out to Raj Kumar Shresta. It was pretty obvious that I was feeling a bit out of sorts, and when I finally got up enough motivation to head out to the back field to clean my bike, Raj Kumar had already taken care of it. He probably had this bike cleaner than any other time except when I first bought it. I am humbled by the warmth, compassion, and general awesomeness of the Nepali riders. Namaste Raj Kumar!

Gangapurna

Gangapurna

Rob Burnett feeling the belly demon

Rob Burnett feeling the belly demon

Bakery central

Bakery central

2 slices of Black Forest cake

2 slices of Black Forest cake

 

 

Town water tower

2014 Yak Attack Stage 4

Valley Views

A long way down

Stage 4 was another combination of stages from previous years. It was to be another epic day in the saddle- 51 miles and about 9,000′ of climbing. It’s all up, with a nice spike of steepness coming in around mile 16. The down bits are few and far between, so I knew my chances of making up time were slim.

Something just wasn’t right in the morning. I was ready to go with plenty of time before the start, but then realized I wasn’t quite ready. Things got away from me quickly and suddenly I was racing to meet the whistle as the other riders started to leave the hotel grounds for the start about a mile or so down the road.

I was flustered, and foggy-headed. I strapped on my pack, and as I was heading down the steep rocky hill in front of the hotel, I suddenly found myself spread eagle, face down in the dirt, bleeding from my knees and elbow. I had wrecked trying to turn my Garmin on- caught a bad rock or dip, or who knows what. That definitely hurt and rattled me pretty good.

I limped my way to the start and when the whistle blew again, I knew I was in trouble. My legs were replaced with leaden replicas. I could not pedal worth a damn and saw the main group peel away from me quickly and I had nothing to offer in return. This was going to be a long day. As Tyler started to pass me, Garrit rode up next to me (he was playing photo-tourist today), looked over and shouted, “Don’t make it so easy on him, out of the saddle!” as he started to sprint away begging me to suck his wheel. I tried, but it was a miserable effort. I settled in to a slow rhythm again and was caught by Phil who usually runs sweep, “uh-oh.”

“I’ve got nothing Phil, this is gonna be a long day.” and he too pedaled away from me. I didn’t want to start wallowing in self-doubt so I just lowered my head and pedaled on. We were still only a few miles in, and I knew there was a long way to go.

Somewhere around the time the trail kicked sharply, I suddenly found my legs. I found that hilarious since historically, I am absolute shite climbing, but there I was starting to reel people in as the grade got steeper, more loose, and somewhat techy and chunky. I had caught and passed Phil, and was now trading back and forth with Tyler, and I think at some point even passed Wendy for a bit. I was starting to feel pretty good for the first time that day. I was still with Tyler and Wendy as we pulled in to the aid station at the half-way point. I downed a quick slug of water, and ate a few biscuits and followed Wendy out of the aid leaving Tyler behind. The trail got very steep and very loose again, and Wendy started to pull away.

Aid Station before the fall

Aid Station before the fall

Start of switchbacks

Start of switchbacks

We were switch-backing our way up the valley side and the heat was really bearing down. I was definitely red-lining but wanted to keep Wendy close and pace her as much as possible. The track I was on was getting way loose with big bowling ball rocks so I started to move over to a clearer track. At some pointe I stalled a bit and was about to un-clip when suddenly my cleat would not release. Yup, the mental notes from stage 1 and 2 came back suddenly- it was clear my cleat had rotated again. This all happened in a flash, and suddenly I was falling on to my right side- SLAM! I landed on the wrong end of my handle bars straight to the solar plexus just to the side of my sternum. My full body weight came crashing down on my bar end.

Yeeouch!

Yeeouch!

The wind was completely knocked out of me- I find this one of the scariest moments, especially after redlining up a steep hill to suddenly have no ability to breathe. I tried to remain as calm as possible reminding myself that breath would return soon. I hunched over, finally free of the bike and counted, desperately waiting for my diaphragm to start working again. From behind me I could hear Tyler asking if I was okay.

I was decidedly not okay. Finally a short gasp came, I heaved, groaned, and waited for a second breath, “Ohhhh fuck!” More short shallow breaths followed. Adrenalin started to take over. I righted myself and my bike. Things were hazy, but I started to walk, stopping to straighten my bars, Tyler still checking on me.

Then I noticed the “click.” It felt like my ear bud was bouncing off my heart rate strap, or maybe I had broken my heart rate monitor around my chest. I pulled up my jersey, and angry welt almost the perfect shape of my bar end smiled at me. My strap was fine, and my ear bud was nowhere near it. I pushed on my ribs, “snap, crackle, pop”- my fingers melted into what is normally solid bone.

“I fucking straight up broke my rib.” It was matter of fact- anxiety flooded me, was this the end of my race?

“Do you want to go back to the aid station- it’s just down the hill.” That hill had cost me too much to retrace. No way was going back down.

“Hell no!”

“Do you want me to stay with you?”

“No, go on, nothing you can do.”

There was probably a bit more yelling, a bit more cursing. I was pissed and didn’t really know what to do but keep moving my feet. Tyler took off and I continued to walk my bike up the steep grade. When it started to kick back, I got on and pedaled. This was suffering at its worst. I pulled over to readjust things. I ditched my heart rate strap as it was not helping things. I readjusted the straps on my camel bak. I pedaled some more, then I stopped to fix my cleat; I definitely didn’t want to take another tumble. I went on like this for a while. Time crawled to a standstill. I stopped again. People were now catching and passing. It was hot, dusty and endless.

I stopped for a longer stretch, poking and prodding my chest. First Paul appeared and offered help, then Phil came around the corner. I told them what happened and Phil looked at me, “Are you going to wait here for the sweep vehicle?”

“Fuck no!” the anger wasn’t at Phil, or the question, but at myself, for being in this spot. Just over halfway through the 4th day- the days only getting harder from here. I did myself in good. What the fuck was I going to do- ride in a jeep? Take a bouncing metal deathtrap all the way back to Kathmandu? Give up? No, I was pushing on.

Then the jeep appeared with the race Doctor sitting shotgun.

“I’m all fucked up.”

The doctor agreed I likely broke something, but there wasn’t much to do. He gave me some paracetamol and asked if I wanted to ride in the jeep. This wasn’t happening.

I waved everyone off, and got back on my bike. It was going to be a long day, and I needed to move if I was to see the end of it.

Trudging along and getting views

Trudging along and getting views

I don’t really remember much from here. I do remember some stunning views- we were getting deep into the mountains now. I think I pulled away from both Phil and Paul, and traded back and forth a bit with the jeep. There were waterfalls, and glacially cold water crossings. My feet were soaked and cold. Rickety bridges appeared across scary river crossings. It got steeper and steeper. Alcoves of waterfalls dropped the temps a good 20 degrees inducing some slight shivering. I pedaled on. Then a massive snow-capped jagged peak appeared and I stopped to take a photo- this may be my last chance.

Getting views

Getting views

I plodded on, turning the cranks, willing myself into Chame. I passed a couple more people before finally hitting the outskirts of Chame; I spun the prayer wheels as I went through the arch. It felt like forever to reach the finish line at the far end of town. I pulled in to the courtyard and collapsed in a heap on the stairs. It was cold. This was a forbidding place. I was mentally wasted, but I was at the finish.

My mind never really returned the rest of the day. I struggled to get my bike cleaned and shit put away. Every movement was a supreme effort. I gobbled down the ibuprofen and paracetamol. I tried for a shower but regardless of the signs, there was no hot water to be had anywhere. Then I grabbed my flask. It was full of 18 year Jameson whiskey- a celebration for a far off race finish that was now in serious doubt. Might as well kill the pain. I sat in the eating area and soothed my aches.

BOOM! View from "downtown" Chame

BOOM! View from “downtown” Chame

Tomorrow was a shorter day, but we were getting up there in altitude. It took everything I had to finish stage 4 and I really didn’t know if I could continue, but there was only one way to find out.

Stats: 51 miles, 6,900′, 7:07, 20th 2:51 off lead

Chame Shangri-La

Chame Shangri-La

Hand cutting stone

Hand cutting stone

Lots of wood, but no warming fires

Lots of wood, but no warming fires

Downtown

Downtown

Local residents

Local residents

Town water tower

Town water tower

Don't Believe the Hype

Don’t Believe the Hype

Warmth will not return anytime soon

Warmth will not return anytime soon

Start line jitters

2014 Yak Attack Stage 3

Start line jitters

Start line jitters

This is the only stage that starts with a downhill close to the hotel. I had done this same downhill and taken 3rd during Trans-Nepal. We ran a staggered start with 30 seconds between each rider starting with the slowest. My goal was to catch as many rabbits as possible before we hit the road at the bottom of the downhill where the route turns uphill for a while before upgulating along on a fair amount of sealed road. I manage to real in a good 7-8 riders, and while I probably burned a match or three doing it, I really enjoyed the downhill. I’m not sure why I pushed so hard but I had an absolute blast railing this downhill for just over 5 miles. I certainly paid for it later on in the day, but I came here to have fun, and fun is what I had.

Cooler spectators than The Tour

Cooler spectators than The Tour

I was caught pretty quickly by some of the last riders I’d passed, but it took the leaders at least a little while to catch me given my head start. It was humbling to watch them pass by like I was standing still. Suck a wheel? Not likely with these cats. I was eventually caught on the road by Tyler, and was able to hang on to his wheel into the finish where I just nosed him at the line. The day ends with the steepest climb of the stage, after the finish line- typical Yak Attack!

Still looking fresh

Still looking fresh photo by: GuaravMan Serchan

We’re now getting in to parts of the race I didn’t get to see during the Trans-Nepal. Day three ends in Besi Sahar, the gateway to the Annapurna circuit. you can just start to get good glimpses of the high Himalaya. It was one of the easier days but still clocked in with a respectable mileage, and some decent climbing- even the easy days are hard in Yak Attack. One rider was claimed on the day when Johan, already suffering with a torn back muscle, broke his seat post and finally had drop the race. To his credit, he completed the rest of the stages on foot including the pass. This race brings in the tough ones for sure.

Stats: 37 miles, 3,545′, 3:21, 23rd 1:03 off lead

Finish line congrats

Finish line congrats photo by: GuaravMan Serchan 

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Beyond Rangoon

DSC_0804It was a sad, beautiful, melancholy song. A simple set of finger bells in one hand and a small wooden clicker in the other to keep time and provide the rythm line.                         
The voice was pure, though I understood not a word.
Propped up on one side by a primitive wooden crutch- a proxy for her lost leg, her other arm was tended by a small child. His job- collect the alms and place them in the small metal can hanging on the crook of her arm.
They passed on up the alley and her  voice eventually faded into the darkness, swallowed by the streets of Chinatown, Yangon.

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Mind your line

2014 Yak Attack Stage 2

Gearing up for stage 2

Gearing up for stage 2

I think the idea for upping the ante on The Yak Attack had been in the works for some time. Phil (race director) mentioned during Trans Nepal that he was considering combining some stages for future races. This year stages 2 and 3 were combined into one long stage going from The Famous Farm all the way to Gorka. I’ll be honest, I was a bit concerned. Even though it is not a horrendously long stage, clocking in around 51 miles, there is over 8,000′ of climbing. My knees were not feeling the best, and this is only day 2 of 8 days of riding with another monster stage 2 days later (combined stages 5 and 6 for a new stage 4). We also hit the low point of the race in elevation, and temps were going to be warm. But first, we needed to descend a narrow busy, sealed road for 5 miles and then, of course, climb a steep bit for a good mile or so to the start. This is Yak Attack, no freebies allowed.

Terraces

Terraces

The stage wasted no time in getting started as you climb an ever steepening grade for about 6 miles- all told, about 2,500′ of elevation gain. I was getting passed but settled in and just made sure I kept turning the cranks. At some point near the top, I started to reel some folks in, and then we got a great downhill. which of course led to another even steeper climb. At the top it is standard, beautiful upgulating (undulating, with more up than down, always up…) Nepali riding before another even longer downhill. I think it was here that I caught Tyler sitting on the side with a flat. I offered the obligatory, “are you good?” but the response was not positive. I hit the brakes and helped him get his valve core unstuck so he could put in a tube. From there I continued down and eventually came to a rickety suspension bridge across the river. Nothing much to do but ride it- better to spend as little time on this bridge as possible.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Enp-pjBYbLc

Bridge traffic

Bridge traffic

After the bridge was some steep hike-a-bike on loose dirt. It was hot but I felt okay. I caught at passed another rider (Thomas maybe) and was surprised to be pulling away from him on the climb that followed. The first aid station was only 13 miles in but felt like forever. The next section to aid 2 was rolling, occasionally up, occasionally single-track, and occasionally very rough. I was putting some time on a few riders from stage 2 but was caught by Tobias just as I was leaving aid 3. As I was taking off, I suddenly noticed John Salskov sitting on the threshold of the shack/shop. “You ok John?”

Snapshot(2)

Working the fields

Working the fields

John was decidedly not ok. Heat stroke, Nepali stomach bug(s), general body break-down. He looked like shit and was talking of having to bail. I told him to rest, there were hours before the cut-off, and try to recover before I took off. Unfortunately, John ended up having to take the jeep from just past aid 3 to the finish. He was not the first or last casualty of the race.

Phenomenal course markings- Snow Monkey does an incredible job!

Phenomenal course markings- Snow Monkey does an incredible job!

I found another gear leaving the last aid station, and felt the freshest I felt all day. It seems maybe I am finally learning to pace a bit, and also benefitting from doing a lot of long rides. This is good because you set off on yet another long climb from the day’s low point, up, up, up. I did some walking, some riding, some grinding, and once again took a good tumble going up hill when I failed to release my right cleat- mental note. It was a dusty landy, and I was covered in fine silt now reddish brown where I had been black lycra.

Walkin' bushes

Walkin’ bushes

Mind your line

The stage finished with more rolling, upgulating riding with stellar views everywhere. We were riding through centuries old terraced valleys and ridges. And then the finish line came in to view. I felt great as I crossed the line- it was a beautiful stage. It would make a great one day race all on its own. The knees ached, but nothing debilitating and I hoped I hadn’t dug too deep a well for the following days. Besides combing old stages 2 and 3, there were some significant reroutes to reduce the amount of time spent on roads. The race is all the better for it. Good job Phil Evans!

Stats: 51 miles, 8,300′, 7:04, 22nd, 2:30 off lead

Snapshot(6)

En fuego...

Stroked by Heat

A quick break from the Yak Attack posts which will resume tomorrow….

En fuego...

En fuego…

It’s best to remain calm when the heat descends in crashing waves. move slow, deliberate… I often forget this in my rush to nowhere. it is a different pace in southeast Asia- I imagine similar to that sitting porch side in Savannah or New Orleans in the thick heat of high summer.

Night1 bangkok 003I don’t handle the heat all that well. throw in humidity and my sweat factory goes into overdrive. one minute i am sauntering through the crowd quickly followed by debillitating near heat-stroke. i seek relief. water, air temp, is surprisingly effective,but the best is ice cold beer. it does less to really cool than to steel the mind against the heat.

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A cold cucumber salad with crab and enough chilis to stoke the fires of hell is also a great bromide. perhaps it is due to the searing joy filled pain in the mouth that the rest of the body no longer minds, grateful for the respite.

Night1 bangkok 00620140318_123919My linen shirt, long sleeved and loose fitting performs better than all the latest high-tech garments the adventure clothing companies crank out en masse. but it still helps to go slow. Savor the walk through crowded streets. The thick air is redolent with both the sublime and foul within steps, but no worry. lingering, preferably out of the direct inferno of the sun, is better than overheating.

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That's a lot of gear

2014 Yak Attack Stage 1

That's a lot of gear

That’s a lot of gear

The awesome Videographer was working his way among the racers, ”What are your expectations for this year’s Yak Attack?” if I had been asked this a couple months ago, my answer would have been a lot different than this day. What are my goals- to finish. Of course, it’s a race, and once the pedals start turning, even knowing I have no shot of doing “well,” I can’t help but push myself as hard as I can.

Me and Raj Kumar with Yuki and Rob

Me and Raj Kumar with Yuki and Rob

That’s the real deal isn’t it? At the end of the day, will I feel like I did my best- did I push hard enough? Did I leave too much in the tank? Did I crumble mentally, or did I put in an effort I can be proud of. Podiums are awesome, don’t get me wrong, but the Yak Attack is a different sort of race save for the very few, extremely gifted riders at the front of the class. This is an adventure.

Stage 1 starts with a long “group ride” uphill to the start line at Shivapuri National Park. It is pretty common for Yak Attack days to either start, end, or both with an untimed stage, usually uphill. We reached the top and regrouped for a short few minutes before the whistle blew and we were off on the extremely steep rocky start that eased back to some great single-track.

Waiting game

Waiting game

Not the first or last of the mud

I had ridden a lot of stage 1 during the Trans-Nepal. The short but techy rock garden was as fun as I remembered, and there was some mud, rocks and then a fabulous first view of the mountains- absolutely stunning.

Once the Himalaya came into view, we deviated from previous courses. Instead of a fast sealed road descent, we climbed further up and right on muddy jeep road to a new, gigantic, brake burning descent. It was the kind of descent that starts to just destroy your hands and legs, even though you’re going downhill.

Leading Tobias

Leading Tobias

I was screaming down the descent with Thomas- a German living in the Yukon, and another German, Tobias. I had just started to open a gap on Thomas when I came up on Tyler (fellow Coloradan now living in Kathmandu) and Ram- of the Nepalese army riders. Ram had taken a big spill, was repeating himself a lot, and had some big contusions and scraps on his face and a broken helmet. Did I mention that Tyler was the one that found me after crashing out at the Breck 100 last year? Is this good or bad luck? Tobias and I stayed with Ram and Tyler for several minutes to make sure things weren’t desperate. We were a good 10 miles from either the start or the first water station, pretty much in the middle of a nowhere on the steep sides of the Kathmandu valley.

I eventually took off with a goal to update the docs at the first water station. It took longer than expected. My knees started to act up on the remaining downhill and I was actually looking forward to some flatness. We pedaled along cobbled, bouncy primitive roads until aid 1. I updated the docs, and gave some info on location and Ram’s state. There really wasn’t any easy way to get transport to where he was located, but I left the particulars to them before heading off. Keep this in mind, we were at the start, very close to Kathmandu and it was still a huge proposition to afford any reasonable care in the event of shit getting serious. This is no joke, and only gets more serious the further along the route one goes. This is committed.

The day finished with a horrendous, hot, and normally dusty hill climb to the finish. Last year my cranks were literally falling off on this climb due to a loose spindle, and I had to walk a few sections. This year I was determined to get it clean, which I did, but I lost a good amount of time to Tobias who pulled away from me near the bottom. This hill cracked more than a couple top riders in the heat- but the recent rains at least meant the dust was minimal. I crossed the line in 23rd that day- not stellar, but about where I belonged.

From the finish it’s a short, uphill march to the Famous Farm- the best accommodations in the entire race. At the entrance to the farm, I fell over when I failed to unclip from my pedals- mental note…

Stats: 30.3 miles, 2,907′, 3:15:32, 23rd

Well earned beers and Kind bars

Well earned beers and Kind bars

The Famous Farm

The Famous Farm

Chillaxin- Rajeev, Tyler, John and Rob

Chillaxin- Rajeev, Tyler, John and Rob

Race prep central

Race prep central

Mr Marcus strolling

Mr Marcus strolling

The bounty

The bounty

Best eating of the trip

Best eating of the trip

Awesome views everywhere

Awesome views everywhere