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.
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.”
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.
“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.
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!