Singletrack Issue 124 : Getting’ High In Colorado

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Rich Rothwell is a successful and experienced British endurance racer, but the 500-mile Colorado Trail Race nearly broke him. Fortunately, it merely changed him for life. 

Words & Photography Rich Rothwell

The head of the Fooses Creek Trail hung a tantalising 50 metres above my head. It had taken eleven miles and well over two hours of gradual woodland singletrack ascent to get this far. The firm trail had now turned to loose marble-like gravel. It reared up to an improbable angle. So near was still quite far.

It was late afternoon. Thankfully the sting had left the sun that had beaten relentlessly through the thin air from the moment it broke the horizon many hours before. Fatigue was at a new high late on day three in the Colorado Trail Race. I was approaching 3,500m of elevation and feeling it.

Kick some footholds into the scree. Push the bike one foot forward. Apply brakes. Pull on the bars to level my body with the bike again. Repeat. A slow process, but every inch brought me closer. Pain was building in my left knee, but I thought nothing of it; something is going to hurt doing this, right?

After what seemed like an age I joined the Monarch Crest Trail and hung over my handlebars, heart racing and gasping for breath. I saw nothing but my feet for five minutes. Altitude gets you like that; it constantly gnaws at your energy levels, but at times overwhelms and engulfs your body. Hard efforts often left me reeling.

Then I lifted my head. The Great Divide Trail merged here with the Colorado Trail. An iconic spot. The cool and still late afternoon air was soft and incredibly peaceful as I gazed out across layers of high ridges and peaks. Lungs vaguely replenished with oxygen, I followed a further section of flowing singletrack to a grassy plateau and couldn’t resist sitting down to properly enjoy the tranquillity. It was bloody hard to get here, but bloody worth it.

So long ago.

It was the middle of a Northumbrian winter when the idea of entering the Colorado Trail Race (CTR) became a full-blown plan. I was making shortlists of dream races. What race had huge mountains? Miles of epic singletrack? Was long, but not too long? Many of the current crop of bikepacking races look incredible, but I’m not particularly interested in gravel roads and paths – I love mountain biking. In mountains. 

After an incredible experience on the Highland Trail 550, the 500-mile-ish kind of distance appealed as it could be completed on minimal sleep and in a manageable amount of time. The CTR was the obvious choice.

Except it’s in Colorado. At high elevation. Often in remote wilderness. And the route takes you 527.5 miles directly away from the start point and airport at Denver. What could possibly go wrong?

Months of research, questions, and preparation began. I am very grateful to all of those people, both in the UK and in the States, who answered my myriad questions. This challenge was so alien, so new, that it made everything feel fresh again. Nothing is more motivating than stepping outside your comfort zone. Altitude was a big question mark. By chance I developed a friendship with Dr Martin Barwood from Leeds Trinity University. Martin specialises in endurance events in extreme environments. Would I like some advice? Hell yes!

Crunch time.

Being armed with knowledge is one thing. Standing on the start line among a very strong field at Waterton Canyon, Denver, at 6am was another. I’d spent seven days acclimatising and checking out resupply points on the course. Useful recce for sure, but jet lag and poor sleep do not make for a restful week. Best laid plans and all…

Nevertheless, I’d been preparing for this for months and the process resulted in a calm state of mind. This was going to be an incredible adventure as well as a race. 

We set off along the flat canyon and a lead group developed. I stayed up near the front, my logic being that I should make hay while the sun shone, (or cover some ground while at the relatively lower altitudes).

Amazing snaking singletrack rose and fell and the pack spread out. I tried to just relax and enjoy the ride. The sun’s heat was building now and as the trail gained elevation, huge vistas of canyons and cliff faces opened up against crystal clear blue skies.

Eventually the trail hit the first wilderness detour – a gravel road that circumnavigates protected sections of the Colorado Trail. This initially brought respite from the demands of some very technical trail riding. The novelty soon wore thin. Wrapping round the base of the mountain range, the sun beat down on the gravel. My Garmin hit 38 degrees. Climbing was gradual, but it didn’t feel it. Progress was frustratingly slow; I would normally be making light work of this, but it felt like wading through the proverbial treacle. Timon Fish and Chris Plesko, two singlespeeders, hung tantalisingly out of reach ahead of me.

After what seemed like an age, the track joined a tarmac road and headed west – straight into a solid headwind. Fending off cramp, my jersey displayed telltale salt tidemarks; I’d been working harder than I realised. 

I eagerly scanned ahead for a sight of Stage Stop Saloon; the symbolic 100-mile mark and a chance to refuel. The owner is an avid supporter of the CTR and ensures racers are well catered for.

I pulled up as Timon and Chris pulled away. No hurry; this was a rare and valuable opportunity to eat some real food. Sitting with Jeff Kerkove (who later sadly had to retire from his fifth attempt at a CTR completion), I devoured spaghetti and meatballs. 

Kenosha Pass and Georgia Pass, erm, passed, pleasantly as I’d rehydrated and addressed the calorie deficit. Jeff had got ahead of me again after Stage Stop, but it was reassuring to later see a rider of his quality sitting on a large boulder, gazing out across the stunning plains below, enjoying the sunset, and a very large sticky bun. You can’t hurry these things.

And then the craziness began…

What followed was a ‘miscalculation’ on my part. In the dark, in the (significant) rises and falls around Breckenridge, I’d identified a lower point on the elevation profile to get some sleep. You really want to sleep as low as you can if possible. The problem was that I had misread the profile and the expected dip in the trail did not come. I kept pushing into the night, unknowingly on the lower slopes of Ten Mile Pass (3,600m). Eventually realising my error, I stopped at 3,200m, crawled into my sleeping bag, and curled up behind a rock.

It didn’t take long before the craziness began. A mind working overtime along with adrenalin, fatigue – and altitude – resulted in a light sleep punctuated by audio and visual hallucinations. The trail became a busy high street complete with lively conversations, car horns, and a warm breeze…

Two hours later, I rolled out from behind my boulder, staggered around a bit, dizzily repacked my bike, and continued to stumble up the monster climb. 

After much rising and falling, the descent to Copper Mountain began. Every battle has its spoils, and the following section was a route highlight; swooping singletrack careered towards spiky mountain peaks, turned right, and fell down the hill. It then disintegrated into steep rock gardens followed by a high-speed off-camber trail that wrapped round a precipitous gully. Half an hour of white knuckle full throttle fun shook off the sleep demons!

A brief detour to Copper Mountain for breakfast and it was time to hit the next massive pass. Kokomo topped out over 3,500m and I spent a good part of it in the pleasant company of Scott Sidener, chatting together as we purposefully hiked up the beautiful Alpine pass. Another gem followed – imagine your favourite high-speed, rock-spitting Lake District descent and then add half an hour to it.

Another world of plastic play tents.

The valley bottom was another world after the cool high mountain air; it was stifling hot, still and dusty. I hooked up with other riders here and felt honoured to ride with Jefe Branham, four-time CTR winner, so I knew I was on the pace. Or going to blow…

Rolling ground followed with a relatively easier section to Leadville [which sits at over 3,000m/10,000ft – Ed] and I took another opportunity to grab some real food. Onwards in the direction of Buena Vista we skirted the lower slopes of the Columbine Mine climb, made famous from the Leadville 100. A circuit of endless swooping singletrack around Twin Lakes was another highlight, complete with stunning sunset and a welcome drop in temperature. 

I arrived in Buena Vista after midnight. The 24-hour store was close to a children’s playground complete with soft grass and a plastic play tent. Perfect. I slept till 3am before making the vital resupply stop.

The next section was intimidating: over 200 miles with no resupply options, the highest points on the course, and vast dry stretches. Fellow racer Aaron Thrasher and I paced around the 24-hour store grabbing improbable amounts of food, much to the bemusement of the vaguely interested cashier. We thanked her and explained that without these stores, we couldn’t keep moving through the night. She sort of got it.

The sun grew hotter and the traverses from Mount Princeton Hot Springs produced some very rough trails and steep hikeabike sections. Progress slowed. It was red-hot and bone dry. Finding water became a preoccupation, but some genuine trail magic occurred at Shavano Campground when some crazy freeride dudes offloaded five litres of ice-cold water my way.

That afternoon was tough, but I eventually crested Fooses Creek Trail and dived off into the hazy dusk. The first real strains were starting to surface.

Far too hard. Far too real. 

Once again I carried on far into the night. A steep, rubbly descent was risky to ride so I dismounted and my left knee, now visibly swollen, buckled under me. Bugger. I felt a flush of panic. After an unstable scramble downhill, it was painful to ride or walk uphill. I took some ibuprofen and tried to put it to the back of my mind. I knew it would not go away. 

Water was also a subplot – you couldn’t find it when you wanted it and when you didn’t want it, it was all around you and chilling the air. Eventually, late into the night I found a warm spot under some fallen trees. Perhaps fortunately, I slept through my alarm and got a bit more recovery.

Waking at dawn I felt like death. My throat was dry and rasping. I got on my bike and pedalled with lead legs for about 20m before stopping, bending double and gasping for breath. It was a bit too real for my liking. I walked another few hundred metres before remounting.

The morning sun broke through and I was approaching Sargents Mesa, a notoriously dry section. I made sure I didn’t miss the water source on Sargents because there would be no more for many miles after it. Forget your gushing waterfalls in the Scottish Highlands… a dribble of water seeped up from under grass, ran over a slab of rock and into a foot-wide puddle surrounded by cow crap. This pretty much set the tone for the rest of the route. It’s a good job I took a filter and water treatment. 

Suitably refreshed and refilled, I slogged through the loose rocks and rolls that make Sargents such slow going. Despite significant knee pain, it was not the fearsome slog I’d been warned of, helped hugely by the cheery thru-hikers who were always friendly and encouraging (incredibly they walk the whole trail).

Some respite was brought by the second gravel detour, physically if not mentally. I could now pedal in relative comfort, but 50 monotonous miles on a rolling gravel road with no shade and little water was testing. Stopping briefly at an isolated farm, I was eagerly invited to use the tap. The farmer and his wife told me the CTR and the Tour Divide were the biggest events of their year. The interaction was incredibly humbling and simple. I hope they were not disappointed; I was not. 

Getting high with nowhere to sleep. 

Night four closed in. A huge hypnotic road descent whipped me up to 45mph and I had to pinch myself to realise my speed. Gradually ascending trail followed, and I watched my altimeter climb. Up and up. A warm, still night. Just keep going up. I felt good. I calmly ambled on. Off and hiking. Wall-steep hairpins appeared. Carry on? Why not? A very precarious scramble followed as I pinned myself and my bike against the rock steps and ledges. Probably a good job it was dark.

I was up, and it felt like the dark side of the moon. Riding across the gently curved surface I saw a sign and knew immediately it was the Colorado Trail highpoint – 4,045m [13,271ft]. My breathing was strangely calm. There would be struggles ahead, but for the first time I allowed myself a pat on the back and dared to believe I would finish this crazy race.

Down but not very far. I’d anticipated more height loss but instead dropped into a scree-ridden gully that soon became a difficult push out again. It was 3am and I’d planned on a bivvy. There was not a single patch of flat non-spikey ground. I dragged my bike on. Up and up once more. Almost at 4,000m once more I resigned myself to a long night. Another pass crested and still nowhere to lie down. The wind had picked up. It was cold. I needed to lose some height which I did as the sun rose. Exhausted, I gave up on finding ‘a good spot’ and curled up on a scree slope. Half an hour of broken snoozing later I sacked it off as a bad job, got up, and cracked on. Happy holidays.

The next day (or whatever it was) more than made up for it. My favourite section! Dramatic and sheer high mountain passes that killed my knee to get up but with pedals level I could ride at pretty much maximum. 

An incredible ridgeline traverse ended with the equally incredible high-speed descent of Stony Pass all the way down to Silverton. Buoyed by successfully pushing through this huge section of wilderness, I allowed myself some time once more and ate a square meal.

We’ll worry about that later. 

Silverton to the finish at Durango – half a day, that’s what they reckon. I enthusiastically climbed past Molas Lake and up a stunning leafy valley. Job’s almost a goodun. Or so I thought. Enjoying the singletrack a little too much, my front wheel slid out. Down but OK. Derailleur not so; a bent cage and broken jockey wheel had me cursing my early celebrations. I got most gears working except, ironically, the lowest. My light bracket had also snapped. Worry about it later, eh?

The afternoon wore on and as evening fell I disappeared into a maze of damp fern-like plants with zigzag climbs, narrow descents, and precipitous drops. My knee did not like this. It was hard to push up as the trail was so narrow. My increasing loss of control made descending plain scary. I was losing massive chunks of time and in significant pain. 

Then my helmet lights ran out. With no bar bracket my only option was to zip tie and gaffer tape my bulky Exposure Six Pack to my helmet (try it when you’re not tired, just for comedy effect). Still, it meant I could continue.

After cresting one more eternal zigzag climb, I descended into the San Juan National Forest and instantly everything changed. Damp turned to absolute tinder-dry dust. Initially I thought nothing of it, but when my water ran out I realised my mistake. Why would there be water here? Vast sections had recently been (and still were) on fire. With no option but to push on, I got increasingly dehydrated. Water became an obsession; I couldn’t think about anything else. I could no longer wet my lips, and my throat was closing up. The zigzagging trail continued to taunt me and suck my remaining energy.

Sucking on a marsh.

Eventually I found a small muddy marsh. It took me around half an hour to skim one litre of usable water off the surface of the silt. I salivated as I counted down the long fifteen minutes while my water treatment activated…

I gave up my dream of a sub-five day finish. Exhausted, I lay down on a bed of soft leafy foliage and, without any battery left for my alarm, downed a handful of caffeine tablets, hoping they would wake me up. Around two hours later they did, and I hobbled off once more through the seemingly endless San Juans… 

There was more to come despite the misconception that it was ‘mostly downhill from here’. On other days I would have relished the challenges of the Highline Trail but the rideable had become the unrideable and with one weak leg, walking these descents was more hazardous than riding them.

Eventually the (mostly) final descent towards Durango began. I was caught by Californian dude Justin Smith (with whom I’d developed a great bond). Some friendly rivalry kicked in as we descended at stupid speeds, neck and neck, into the rock and root labyrinth of Junction Creek.

Frustratingly though, there was an extra sting in the tail – a sprint finish would have been on the cards, but for a massive climb in the valley that my knee simply wouldn’t let me ride. Justin rode away to take fifth place. 

Where everybody knows your name.

I meandered through the final rises and falls and was cheered on by groups of trail riders who knew the score. People know your name and position all the way along the CTR – all the way… It can bring a tear to your eye.

Fortunately, after the final hikeabike slogs, the descent to the finish line was a corker – swooping berms with rock slabs embedded in them, followed by flat-out, straight-line rock gardens. Despite the struggles of the last 48 hours in particular, I broke out into a big, foolish smile. 

I’d done it: 22,000m of climbing, 527 miles of big mountains and high altitude, 12 hours sleep, 5 days, 6 hours and 15 minutes. Sixth place. My race concerns had gradually morphed into an ever-dangling carrot of completion. It’s a bloody hard thing to do and the CTR is no small undertaking. Mountain biking writ large.

I skidded into a car park to be greeted by a couple drinking champagne and orange juice out of the back of a car. The guy had incredibly just finished walking the route. They knew of my race and asked me to join them to celebrate. I didn’t need asking twice… the champagne tasted like nectar. 

Realising that I hadn’t yet finished, I moved on to car park two for the official meeting party. I sat with Justin Smith and Pete Basinger, drank beer, ate sausages, and whole blocks of cheese, and we all struggled to articulate the highs and lows we had experienced and endured. Nobody who rides the CTR comes out the other end unchanged.

Rich would like to thank: Team Cycles, Hunt Wheels, Exposure Lights and Altura Cycling.

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