Where Eagles Fly - The Vapor Trail 125: Part One
"From such places you do not return unchanged." -Reinhold Messner
My light swept back and forth across the night sky like a searchlight hunting for enemy planes. But it wasn't planes I was searching for. I sought some understanding of what I was witnessing, or better yet, what I was a part of. I stood alone atop the Great Divide; my only companions the crescent moon and a billion stars so close that I wanted to reach up to them, just to see how they felt. Five hours into the 2012 Vapor Trail is when I stopped riding and realized that I was not in control and that I really never would be for the remainder of the adventure. The sky, the mountains, and the terrain would be calling the shots, not me. It came clear to me that throughout the coming hours my surroundings would grant me triumph as well as defeat, over and over again.
The Vapor Trail 125 is not to be taken lightly. This is a race of truly epic proportions as it takes riders 125 miles deep into the Rocky Mountains. The course climbs an estimated 20,000 feet and dances all over Colorado's famed 14'ers (mountains that exceed 14,000 feet in elevation). The rugged and gorgeous Colorado Trail plays an integral part in the course, as do several mountain passes that are rich with history. I had sniffed out the Vapor a few years back, but honestly didn't feel I had the chops for such an ordeal. I'm a Minnesota boy. How could I be expected to ride in the 'high country’?
The years came and went. I began to score some good rides in some big Midwest races, such as the Trans Iowa, Dirty Kanza 200, and several 12-hour events. Little did I know it, but I was working my way toward the Vapor. I followed the event each year, monitoring the players and finish times, all the while marveling at their toughness. "Could I be like them? Am I like them?” I wondered.
An email to Tom Purvis, race director was the start of my slippery slope. I figured if I made contact with Tom just maybe things would get so out of control that one day I'd find myself lining up for the event. It's a trick I like to play on myself; one subtle move that starts a process that's hard to stop. Tom was great and he seemed genuinely excited by my interest in his "ride", but he tells it like it is, and asked me directly for a list of past accomplishments on a bike that I felt qualified me for the event. This got my attention, and while it was the first time the Vapor raised my heart rate, it wouldn't be the last. I compiled a nice list, popped it in an envelope and held it a long moment before dropping it in the mailbox. I thought, "Letting go of this paper could potentially change your life", and watched it slip away into the box.
The quaint mountain town of Salida, Colorado serves as the start and finish of the Vapor. The need to spin ten hours of car time out of my legs was upon me, so I hopped on my Spearfish and went exploring. The nerves of knowing I was in this event were all over me, and I had to do what I do, ride them out. First things first, I was off to Absolute Bikes to get a feel for the shop that put this whole thing together. Immediately, I met other riders and started to feel more at ease. Next, a pizza never hurt anybody. All in all, I was about relaxing and trying to stay off my feet.
Race day was different than normal. In order to keep the stakes high and to ensure riders are finishing in the daylight when they are most assuredly running on fumes, the event start time is 10PM, with shutdown being sunset the following day. The nighttime start was confusing to say the least. I spent the day sorting through gear, making decisions on what to bring, what not to bring, checking and re-checking. I lay around the hotel room watching movies starring Jack Black, which would oddly prove to be a blessing later as I would chuckle through the pain. Usually it's a lyric from a song, or sometimes an entire song...but for the Vapor Trail it would be the beautiful scenery surrounding me, and scenes from "Shallow Hal" playing in my head.
Deeply concerned about the weight of my pack I lifted it over and over again, hoping that it would somehow be lighter the next time I picked it up. I pulled things out of it, only to put them back in. I didn't know what to do. The mountains were an unknown for me. I'd read a lot about them and didn't want to be caught unprepared. I'd bring what I felt I needed, despite the weight. Plus, I felt relief in knowing that Aid Station 3 allowed a drop bag to be waiting. This kit swap would prove to be my motivation, as I'd be traveling with a much lighter setup for the daylight hours. I'd ride for checkpoint 3, and once I was there everything would be better, or so I thought.
I lingered in the back of the start area feeling very much like a stranger in a foreign land as I watched ultra-fit endurance athletes laugh and joke with each other as if they'd been riding together for years. My nerves began to rise once again. I had no one to kiss for good luck or even a living soul to fist bump. Suddenly, while feeling very alone, a voice called out, "What's your name?" "TIM!” I excitedly and embarrassingly exclaimed. "Where ya from?” he followed as he coolly leaned against the bridge we stood upon. "Duluth, Minnesota...We don't have mountains there"...uggggh...stupid. Struggling to gain some sense of composure I mustered what little bravado I had in me and asked, "You? Where you from?” "Austin, Texas. We don't have mountains there either", he sarcastically replied. I let out an impish giggle and tried to change the subject to gear choices as I'd seen him eyeballing my pack. We discussed the pros and cons of each item until the race start was upon us, and wished each other good luck. It was time to go!
The wild card in this event would most definitely be the altitude. After all, it is advertised as a "high-altitude ultra-endurance" event. This factor worried me the most; it was one area I knew I'd never be able to control. Acute altitude sickness strikes randomly. I hoped I'd be spared, because if it does choose you there's no riding through it. All riders were told that the rollout through town would be neutral and that a police car and motos would control the pace at around 10-15 mph. Finally, we were underway. 'Well, this is it, you made it to the Vapor and you're doing it', I thought.
25 minutes later I found myself slipping to the back of the pack during the rollout. 'We're not even riding that hard and I'm sliding backward!', I thought. Moving up in the field as they told stories to one another required an effort I wasn't comfortable making, not yet anyway. 'What's wrong with me?' was the question I kept asking myself. As the neutral start ended and we began the climb out of Salida it occurred to me that there just wasn't enough oxygen getting to my muscles. I figured I was operating at about 70% of my normal potential. In that moment it seemed that my fitness was that of myself eight years ago but I didn't care, I was in the Vapor Trail and that was all that mattered. I augured in for the climb.
The first 14 miles climbed without reprieve. The slope never let off so I tried to slip into a comfortable rhythm. Each turn showed me more of the same. At one point I asked out loud, "Am I riding to the stars?”.
As the hours passed my main headlight began to warn me that the battery was getting low. I'd need to pull off for a quick battery swap at some point, but not yet. The moon began to hang lower and the stars shone brighter, and seemed to grow bigger as I climbed toward them. It felt strange to move toward the sky and actually notice my progress. Strangely, I welcomed the hard-packed gravel climb. I wanted to get up into the ozone. That's what this race was supposed to be about!
This way to the Continental Divide...
Tomichi Pass found me scratching and clawing up its trail to the Continental Divide, pushing my bike, with a pack on my back that was simply too heavy. I kicked steps as if making a bid for the summit of Everest, often losing ground as my stiff-soled cycling shoes lost their purchase. Quickly, I'd squeeze the brake levers in an effort to stop my backslide. Once on top, I took a moment to survey my surroundings, I was awestruck as the mountaintops disappeared into the black of night. This was the "high point" they had talked about...simply magnificent. Just then I saw a headlamp bobbing as another racer battled his way up the switchback foot trail. As he mounted up I noticed how he never hesitated to take in the splendor. He'd obviously been here before so I asked him, "Is this the high point?" It seemed silly to me, because with the stars being only about 15 feet above my head how could it not be? Snapping his cleat into his pedal, he looked at me and flatly said, "Nope", riding off while I stared blankly into the empty space where he had just been.
As I pushed on I hooked up with a couple other riders. I'll admit the inky black night and the mountains jutting up all around me had me a bit spooked. I hung on every word my new friends said as they rattled on to each other about their recent conquering of the Colorado Trail Race (a multiday singletrack slog across the state of Colorado). I felt good as they allowed me to lead a long fireroad-style descent through the pass. I tried to offer them the speed I knew they were capable of, yet I was leery of the softball-size rocks strewn about the jeep trail, and I didn't want to outride my lights. Danger was all around me; a black abyss to one side, a high rock wall shooting to the sky on the other.
During a relatively smooth section during this descent, I took a deliberate look to my right in order to get my helmet light on something, but it seemed to shoot out into space. "What the...?” I thought. It didn't make sense, so I tried again. This time I shot the beam down toward the ground but off the right and it hit me like a slap in the face. I was blasting down a bench cut trail on the side of a mountain. The abyss to my right was just that, an abyss. Once my light had something to bounce off I lost my breath as I took in the sheer drop that existed just feet from my wheels. I grabbed a handful of brake and told myself, "Be careful, you could die!"
The men I rode with during this period were class acts. They seemed genuinely impressed that a guy came all the way from Minnesota to ride in the mountains and was actually doing it! I appreciated their encouragement as it quelled my rising doubts. As the elevation gain began again we were off our bikes and pushing once again. The chill of the night was resting squarely on our shoulders as we carried on up the trail. My ankles rolled countless times and my heels came out of my shoes as I tried to find the good line up the trail. I wondered just how big my feet would be as I felt my shoes tightening around the already swelling joints.
In fact, many physical problems were beginning to nag at me. My primary injury seemed small, but captivated my mind for much of the event. The main knuckle of my left middle finger ached so badly from gripping the bars. Well, actually the problem originated from trying to lift the washing machine at home back onto the shims. I heard a large pop in the finger as I heaved the monstrosity back up onto the paint sticks where it was supposed to rest. "Ouch!” was all that resulted from the pop and maybe a few choice words. Little did I know it would plague me for the entirety of the Vapor Trail. I would frequently shout, "Stupid washing machine!” over the coming hours as I flew down descents that required hand strength that was beyond me.
Cloaked in darkness I scanned my surroundings looking for the "high point". Walking, followed by short spells of riding, wore on. Finally I asked, "Where is it? Where is the "high point"? One of my partners looked up and to his right, extended his arm in a pointing motion and simply said, "Up there." In the distance stood a dome-like peak, far above us, yet it didn't really look that far away. But, I had already learned that here in the mountains things often appear much closer than they really are. "We'll be up there around sun up", he said. 'Sun up?' I thought quizzically, 'It's the middle of the night right now.' Trying to make sense of his statement I brushed the screen of my GPS to see the time. 3AM...sunrise was still three and a half hours away. My heart dropped.
--------TO BE CONTINUED WEDNESDAY...