Monday, July 29, 2019

Neverending Ouray

They say no one escapes the Ouray 100 experience — not runners, not volunteers, not even the race director, an impish and ambitious creator who, while attempting to plant a radio repeater on the top of Mount Abrams, ended up spending an unplanned night in the woods and missed the start of the race. 

As a mere crew person, my moment came while descending the Million Dollar Highway just after 11 p.m. Friday — in my car, mind you. An incredible storm raged overhead, streaks of lightning and sheets of rain so thick that the fastest setting on the windshield wipers couldn't keep up. I'd just watched Beat and two other runners set out in this storm, bound for exposed slopes of Richmond Pass. I'd also watched a number of runners drop out of the race at Ironton aid station, spooked by lesser storms that rumbled across the region all evening long. The worst arrived just after sunset. Several spectators joined me at the shoulder of the highway, jaws slackened as an ominous black fog boiled upward from the valley. I didn't have my camera on me, and the light was bad anyway, but I now wish I had a photo of this moment. "It's The Nothing," I thought, and recoiled with a chillingly visceral reaction to pop culture reference that hadn't occurred to me in years. Funny, the images that remain in memory. The more vivid the imagery, the more difficult it becomes to separate fantasy from reality. 

Like many children of the 80s, I loved the macabre fantasy films that were all the rage at the time, with their terrifying puppets and traumatizing storylines — "Labyrinth," "The Last Unicorn," etc. My favorite was "The Neverending Story." I frequently watched a version that I recorded from television on VHS, pausing the tape to cut out the commercials. It's been about three decades since my last viewing, so my recollections are vague, but the gist of the story is that human imagination is dying, disappearing into "The Nothing" — an electrical storm that swallows our fantasy world and leaves a void in its wake. Growing up in mountain climate of Salt Lake City, thunderstorms ranked among my deepest fears, even as a child. I was an animal-lover who found the murderous wolf in the film to be compelling, even cute, but The Nothing — that was stuff of nightmares. 

I watched my love walk into The Nothing, and then headed back to town to catch a few hours of sleep before our next connection. The Million Dollar Highway, often regarded as one of the scariest paved roads in the United States, cuts a narrow path over the Uncompahgre River Gorge — there's hundreds of feet of dropoff on one side, no guardrails or shoulder, and a sheer cliff on the other. Once you start down the gauntlet, there's nowhere to stop or turn around. With visibility as poor as it was, I had been thinking about pulling over to wait out the rain, but suddenly I was in the narrows, and it was too late. Powerful waterfalls cascaded over the cliff and created veritable rapids on the road, roiling whitewater over cobbles and sand deposited by the storm. The pavement was littered with these rocks, some fist-sized, and in the headlight beam could see more tumbling down the cliff. As I crept through the cascades, I could hear pebbles hitting the roof of the car, like hail. Another image flashed through my memory, a scene in The Neverending Story when big rocks blew away. I wondered when my Nothing would come down. If the flash flood didn't sweep my car off the edge, surely we'd be crushed by a boulder. That would be just my luck. I'm not even partaking in a dubious adventure this time; I'm just on the periphery, experiencing my worst childhood fear. 

(Addendum: Here's a YouTube video illustrating what this scenario would look like during the daylight, in what looks like lighter rain and smaller waterfalls.) 

But let me back up. It's summertime in the San Juans, where, if places could be bipolar, these mountains would be an ultimate case study. Heart-rending in their beauty one moment, heart-stopping in their ferocity the next, sometimes literally the next heartbeat. Beat was preparing to run a race here, the Hardrock 100, but it was cancelled due to record snowpack. So he returned to another that he swore he wouldn't do again, an unmasked monster with 42,000 feet of climbing in 102 miles, which he managed to finish in 2018. The amount of time it takes to cover such ground puts anyone at the mercy of the heartless whims of these mountains, whatever that may be. To battle through this race once is a classic experience with the archetypal journey: exploring the heart of darkness, discovering one's true self, hopefully emerging victorious. To return is ... well ... probably foolhardy. 

Of course, this is just what Beat does. He's embarked on so many preposterous journeys that he doesn't even keep track anymore. And he'll never be satisfied with defeating a challenge; he always feels compelled to return, for his own reasons. So we were back in Ouray this past weekend for the 2019 Ouray 100. 

 We arrived in town early enough the evening before the race that I was able to get out for a hike up/jog down on the Portland Trail, which started just a few blocks from our hotel. My hiking and running efforts since my mid-May MCL injury have been uneven, to put it nicely, and I'm still having issues with pain and instability that my physical therapist insists are normal (I've cleared nearly everything I've attempted with her, as I do not what to have to deal with this indefinitely. Not that her approval is any guarantee, but believing in a voice of reason gives me comfort. However, I went a little hog-wild with the miles this weekend, and there are multiple reasons why that was unwise. It's just that these sinister mountains are so good at luring in victims.)

 This was a fantastic outing. The Portland Trail reminded me of hiking in the Pacific Northwest, lined with lush green conifers and ferns. I felt strong; it was admittedly quite fun to just float up a mountain without the burden of a heavy machine underneath me (really, climbing on a bicycle is my favorite form of motion, and it's usually faster than hiking, but that doesn't change the fact that it's often incredibly strenuous.) Suddenly, seemingly without effort, I was at a high point on the trail to Chief Ouray Mine, looking at my watch and realizing that I needed to turn around. By running downhill I was able to nearly stick to my timeline, and felt surprisingly secure doing so. However, tinges of pain in my knee bothered me during the night. Laying in the dark room, I made my decision — I'm just going to ignore this.

 The race began at 8 a.m. Friday, with volunteers directing the start because Charles the race director was still stranded somewhere high on Mount Abrams. It was an auspicious start nonetheless, with 90-some bright-eyed runners heading out from a playground at the town's center. Beat noted that there were few Ouray veterans — mostly rookies in this year's field. "They have no idea what's coming."

 Skies were already overcast, with a strong chance of afternoon thunderstorms. I wanted to squeeze in another hike, and opted not to waste any time by heading directly to the Old Horsethief trailhead, where I planned to climb as far as I could before thunder scared me down.

 The Bridge of Heaven is the final climb of the Ouray 100, miles 91 to 102, gaining and then descending 4,800 feet over those mere 11 miles. That's just par for this insane course, but the Bridge of Heaven in itself is not a small thing, and can be quite exposed above 12,000 feet. So I skedaddled as much as I could manage, so drenched in sweat that even my lower pants were clammy, which I've decided is a good strategy for me at these altitudes — to cover up my sun-sensitive skin and sweat out my clothing until it cools me down. As long as I have enough liquid and electrolytes to keep my system working, this has been effective. However, if the storms begin to move in and the air temperature plummets 20 or more degrees with high winds, suddenly being soaked is not so ideal.

 Thus I found myself on top of the Bridge of Heaven in record-for-me time, squinting suspiciously at the dark skies and shivering profusely. I set up for this selfie on the trail sign and accidentally knocked the Ouray 100 hole punch onto the ground. Due to wilderness restrictions, the Ouray course is forced to make a series of out-and-backs to high points. On a map the course looks like a deranged spider. This allows for the maximum amount of elevation change, as there are no flat connectors between the big climbs. It also requires these hole punches as proof of arrival. The small plastic device bounced several times and nearly rolled off a cliff as I chased it frantically, not wanting to be the idiot who lost the punch before the first racer even arrived. "There's no way this is going to survive the whole race," I thought as I scooped it up. Amazingly, this one did, although most others were lost.

 One selfie taken and core temperature dropping rapidly, I began racing down the hill as much as my braced knee would allow. The sun came back out for much of the descent, which calmed my anxiety enough to finally take a break at a trail intersection two miles and 2,000 feet lower.

 Here I followed a faint social trail to the edge of a short knife ridge. I was chuffed at my rare bravery in the face of exposure for crawling to the end of this ridge. But I did it in an ugly way, stooped over with four-point contact on the ground at all times, and thus decided this feat wasn't something to brag about (but here I am, mentioning it anyway.) It was nice to crouch at this overlook and gaze into the lovely town of Ouray, one of those places Beat and discuss among our ever-lengthening list of fantasy places to retire (for the record, the top places on my list are reserved for the Far North, and always will be.)

I decided to take the long way around on the New Horsethief Trail, with a fair amount of jogging to make it back to town in my allotted timeline — 15 miles and 5,000 feet of climbing in five hours. It was just barely enough time for a shower and a quick pack-up before I needed to head up the highway to meet Beat in Ironton. It would be another weekend of endurance crewing where there is only a handful of excess hours for either hiking, eating or sleeping, and you only get to pick one. Since I always choose hiking, the lack of the others often tires me out more than even racing does.

Indeed, as soon as I sent Beat off on his first Red Mountain loop, I decided I had at least two hours to spare for another outing. Moving slowly on sore legs, I only made it as far as the upper waterfall — another 4.5 miles, with about 1,800 feet up and then down. It was a lovely diversion.

 While shooting photos of the waterfall, I saw Brett Maune making his way up the slope. Brett is one of the understated legends in this sport. He's a multi-time finisher of the elusive Barkley Marathons and I believe still holds the course record. He has a number of thru-hiking accomplishments as well. For his successes, I don't think he has any sponsors and stays under the radar for the most part, for which I respect him all the more. Being a bit of a fan girl, I admit I shadowed him for a short time as he continued to climb. "It's so steep," he said meekly, and after that only spoke in low-rumbling groans. Racers were only about a third of the way through the course, and even Brett Maune was hurting by this point. No one can escape Ouray's heart of darkness.

 In the seven hours I spent at Ironton as Beat made the two loops, the evening was mostly pleasant with intermittent rain, and a few close thunderclaps — but nothing I considered too ominous. I was surprised as I listened to several runners hand in their bibs at the aid station, citing concerns about weather. "I'm not going to risk it with lightning," one said to a course marshal, who replied, "Well, then you signed up for the wrong race."

When the The Nothing moved in, the skies opened wide, and lightning lit up the clouds as sheets of rain pummeled and nearly collapsed the meager canopies housing the aid station. Nothing was left dry. I hid in my car, but finally decided I didn't care and stood around in my best rain jacket, using a borrowed umbrella to protect Beat's drop bag. I counted the seconds before every thunder clap, and never heard anything terribly close, but the lightning illuminating the darkness was dramatic. More runners dropped out. Beat prepared to head out and I was deeply concerned, but I know it's futile to project my anxiety on him.

"I have everything I need to wait it out if necessary," he said, indicating he would stay below tree line until the storm passed.

"Make good choices," I replied meekly.

The next morning appeared as though the storm never existed. Skies were clear and blue, the road was dry (but still littered with rocks.) The air was warm and calm. Only a few small dents on the roof of the car gave any evidence of the few seconds of terror I experienced. Beat also didn't have a bad experience. He and two others climbed together in the pouring rain until they reached the pass just after midnight, when the The Nothing broke apart and retreated, as quickly as it arrived.

 Crystal Lake is about two thirds of the way into the race, 66 miles in 25 hours. Beat looked strong, and although he said he was having stomach issues, he was still moving well. Similar to last year, I had two hours to spare after he left the aid station, and decided it would best be used climbing to Hayden Pass. Last year I was able to catch and pass Beat near the top. This year, I managed to climb the 2,300 vertical feet a few minutes faster, and did not see him.

 We all grasp for our own sense of accomplishment, and I was chuffed that I was able to climb Hayden Pass a bit faster than 2018, even though I was in better hiking shape last year, and didn't stop to chat with as many racers as I did this year. Lately I've been working on bolstering my self-confidence so I can again attempt something huge, which will never happen if I keep telling myself I can't. The bicycle training has been fun, but feeling strong while hiking means a lot to me, right now. And the strenuous bicycle training no doubt has helped with that.

During this climb, with my tired legs and wobble knee, I still managed the illusion that I was a warrior and nothing could touch me. I was amazed that such a fearsome night could lead to such a beautiful morning. And of course my mind wandered back into memories of The Neverending Story, which I hadn't thought much about before, but it really does serve as an allegory for the adults of my generation, the insubstantial and ever-fading GenX. The Nothing represented the loss of hopes and dreams, the vacuum that remains in the absence of imagination. The heroes of the story aren't raging against anything more or less than the dying of the light. The villains of the story are existential despair and those who would exploit that. The cute wolf even voiced this prominent dilemma of modern culture: “Because people who have no hopes are easy to control; and whoever has the control, has the power!”

The villain in my heart is this nihilism, a fear of nothingness so intense that I seek out these extremes, the inhospitable mountains with their bipolar weather and frozen tundra containing nothing that can sustain my life, just to assure myself that an incredible world exists beyond me and beyond all of the machinations of humanity, and it will go on. I go to these places, I shiver with the discomfort of cold wind and a primal fear of the darkening sky, and I feel a depth of peace. I know everything will be okay.

Meanwhile, Beat just kept marching along, unfazed by much of anything. My two hours of hiking passed and I made it back to town just in time to watch another bout of The Nothing move in, with intense winds that blew away tents and more drenching rain. It continues to amaze me how strong and steady Beat remains, and how seamlessly he can knock out these incredible efforts. I'd be thrilled if I could manage just a single Ouray 100 in my life. Even if I manage to make the math work out based on my own experience and training, my self-doubt will likely never let me try (what I wouldn't give to once again possess the hubris of my "mountain-running years" — 2011-2014 — although they were marked with enough trauma and failure that I can't fathom why I'd want to go back. I suppose the answer remains: "Rage, rage against the dying of the light.")

The morals of this story, I suppose, are: Beat is incredible, and knocked out yet another near-impossible challenge in 44 hours and 20-something minutes, one of only 18 to 30 finishers (the number I keep hearing is different) from a field of 95. Nature is frightening, but it's a force that will save us, not end us, even if it does, technically, end us. We all need to end somewhere. But the world goes on, and the story never ends.

🎶Ah-ah-ah, ah-ah-ah, ah-ah-ah 🎶
Monday, July 22, 2019

Pedal-powered rotisserie

I was having second thoughts about the Summer Bear. This is my off season. I've been in injury recovery and haven't sharpened much of anything. Then I received the e-mail offering a few details about the still-secret course: 205 miles with 23,000 feet of climbing, made up of chunky unimproved Forest Service roads, lost singletrack, found singletrack, county roads, as little pavement as possible. "You might want to pick up a fishing license so you don’t have to pay astronomical fees if Search and Rescue needs to haul you out." .

.. Hmm, that sounds like a little more than the overnight holiday that I had in mind. 

The way I see it, there's suffering, and then there's summertime suffering. The latter cuts deep. If I'm going to haul my delicate lungs and reactive skin through the dust and bugs and blazing sun, I'm going to have to really want to see what's on the other side. Is the Summer Bear too much challenge to be a holiday, but not quite enough to justify the phlegmy cough and inevitable heat blisters? Of course, how can I pass up a chance to get on my bike and ride it through the mountains for an entire day (or possibly three?) 

Of course, I can't make a solid decision until I've tested my resolve on at least a couple more training rides. I planned two this week, day-long endeavors where I was out the door at 9 a.m. and didn't return until evening. An eight-hour-plus block of time does open up more possibilities. I've never pedaled to the Continental Divide from my doorstep, to start. So on Wednesday I set out for Rollins Pass.

Temperatures were already climbing into the high 80s when I set out at 9 a.m. A blow-dryer wind was cranking out of the west — steady 17 mph, gusting to 22. Pedaling mainly due west into this desiccating wind caused my throat to feel raw, and sweat to evaporate before it left my skin. My shirt was bone dry and felt like it had just been removed from a dryer. Dust and tiny rocks buffeted my face as my pedals moved in slow motion against this convection oven.

Grind, grind, grind. Three highly taxing hours passed before I even arrived at Moffatt Tunnel, where I normally start this hard ride. Rollins Pass is a beautiful and scenic route that I tend to attempt only once each summer. One year is just enough time to forget how tedious it can be — for 14 miles, the route climbs interminably on a railroad grade littered with babyhead boulders and minefields of loose rocks. I spend most of my time weaving through babyheads and trying to maintain traction on the loose stuff, so the rare smooth patches of dirt are almost jarring. The grade is so gentle that it doesn't look like it's climbing, so the 5-6 mph pace I can manage at my best effort becomes aggravating. I was surprised to see snowfields lingering in late July, but stepping off the vibration machine and punching my hot feet into the snow felt good.

The west wind amplified as I neared treeline. Sometimes I'd look up from the rock puzzle and notice the way the trees beside me lingered, as gusts obstructed any hint of forward motion. Beat and I had plans to meet up in town, so I had my tracker running so he could watch my progress. Near Needles Eye Tunnel, I received a text from him. "Looks like you're still way out there. Maybe I'll just go home." I looked at my watch. Six hours! It was after 3 p.m. At this rate, if I didn't turn around soon, I wasn't going to be home by dark.

Still, I had made all of this effort just to get to this point. I climbed above the tunnel and observed the final mile to the pass. The trestles were still blocked with piles of snow, and the upper bypass trail promised another hour-plus of mainly hiking to reach Rollins Pass and return. I decided to save the goal of pedaling from home all the way to the Divide for another day. Of course, I still managed to faff around for another half hour: hiking along the ridge, enjoying the cooling wind when I didn't have to pedal into it, and admiring James Peak.

The return trip took less than three hours, which surprised me, because there's still a bunch of climbing through the foothills to get home again. I'm a careful and slow downhiller, but with the west wind at my back, I almost didn't have a choice but to be a little speedy on the tediously bumpy descent of Rollins Pass. En route, I passed three Jeeps and a burly truck that were creeping down the road at well under 10 mph. 

Thursday was a gym day. I've been moving up weights each week in an effort to build strength, while continuing to do my physical therapy recovery exercises. The one-legged squats were going well, so I did sixty of them — 40 on my bad leg, 20 on my good. Of course, when I woke up on Friday, much of my body was wracked with DOMS. The quad muscles were particularly sore. I was having a tough time walking. Oh, yay, perfect for another long ride.

This day was even hotter than Wednesday — 91 degrees at home, 103 degrees in Boulder, and honestly didn't feel much cooler at 9,000 feet. There was less wind, but I wasn't even moving as well as I had two days earlier. It was hot, and something was just off about my body. Snacks caused vague nausea, so I had avoided eating. Perhaps I was just bonked. I took quiet but rough back roads to Tolland and started up the inferno of Mammoth Gulch with nearly four hours on my watch.

Strangely, this horrible climb was my favorite part of the day. For me, there is always a tipping point of ridiculousness where I think "gah, this really is the worst," and it fills my heart with a perverse sort of joy. Dark comedy. The rear wheel slipped constantly as a battled through dusty chunder up consistent 13-15-percent grades, sweat pouring down my face with such a painful amount of salt that both eyes were often clamped shut, and only the hot, hot sun for company. Not a soul was around. Not even mosquitos or flies. I almost hoped I'd be forced to pull over for a jeep, so I'd have an excuse to throw a foot down and walk to the remainder of the steep pitch (I admittedly did take a short break and snapped this selfie, but only after the grade lessened significantly. There's another nice view of James Peak. Hi James!)

Instead I arrived at the Upper Apex Valley, 10,500 feet, briefly happy and utterly spent. I'd have been overjoyed if the remainder of the ride was downhill, but that was far from the case. My route had five more crushing climbs — the first a tear-inducing bump to get out of the Apex Valley, the second a thousand feet of gain on busy pavement, the third forcing another thousand feet of rolling climbs through the gap on Gap Road, the fourth a dizzying grind above Highway 72 to avoid the road closure, and the fifth on the unholy rollers of washboard beside Gross Dam Reservoir. Also, there were a few more bumps to get home. All in all, this mere 66-mile ride had 9,200 feet of climbing.

Anyway, I felt unwell. Not necessarily nauseated anymore; I had gotten some food down, and I still had plenty of water. But I felt out of sorts. A little drunk might be one way to describe my state — lightheaded and woozy. Over the years I've fallen out of the habit of using electrolytes. I drink plain water and tend to snack on a variety of bars, and there wasn't much salt in the mix I had on this day. But I hadn't thought about that. Most of my hard efforts take place in cooler conditions, and I've become complacent about such things — "placebo effect" I'd quietly think when running friends raved about pickle juice. (Of course, when I tried pickle juice on a hot day, I thought it was the most delicious drink.) As I weaved and faltered on the steep climb up Peak to Peak Highway, I had finally convinced myself I could use salt. I pulled into the Gilpin store, the only potential resupply on my entire route. The place was mobbed — weekend holiday types in RVs and on motorcycles, stacked at least ten deep at the cashier line. I didn't have patience to wait, so I refilled my water bladder with ice and left.

The rest of the ride was just awful. I've had worse, of course, but this was a long commute on the struggle bus. The muscles in my shoulders and calves felt like they were pulsing. My quads hurt like hell. My head was spinning at times. The ice water wasn't really helping. I regretted not waiting at the store long enough to buy some Gatorade and jerky. And the sun just beat down, and beat down, and beat down. By the time I reached the climb out of Gross Dam, I genuinely wondered if I'd make it. The tires had almost no traction on the dusty washboard, and if engaged the necessary effort to power through the slippage, I felt alarmingly faint. A steady stream of Friday evening traffic barreled past me, stirring up dust clouds. Things were bad. Outside sucks. I'm going to spend the rest of the summer indoors, working out at the gym. Stick a fork in me, I am done baking.

When I finally arrived at home, I wobbled through the door and braced myself several times to plod up the stairs. Beat took one look at me, walked into the kitchen, and returned with two chewable salt tablets. I ate them, and similar to the pickle juice, they tasted like the most amazing flavorful substance I'd ingested all day. Fairly quickly, I began to feel better. It was still 90 degrees outside, and 84 inside the house. A few heat blisters had formed on the back of my hands, even though they'd been protected with sun gloves. My core temperature still felt too warm. So really, the only reason I had to feel better was the intake of electrolytes. Another valuable lesson learned, yet again.

My resolve to stay indoors until autumn had already melted away by the following morning at 6 a.m., when Beat was waking up for a run to James Peak. No way I had that in me, but a casual hike to Rogers Pass was sounding pretty good.

The hike was still much harder that it should have been. Shoulder and quad muscles still ached, I continued to feel woozy and wobbly, my knee brace chaffed badly beneath my hiking pants, and this trail is always steeper than I remember it being. But it was a gorgeous morning — a bright blue prelude to a dark and thundery afternoon. It was fun to see all of the wildflowers blooming on the tundra.

Even ptarmigans enjoy the view of James Peak. Hi James! I had quite a bit of FOMO not going for the peak on this day, but indeed I had barely settled down to enjoy my late morning snack when I saw Beat loping down the ridge, already back from the much-longer-than-it-looks climb. I was bummed to have to get up and leave. I could have stayed all day ... except for the dark clouds that billowed overhead as we descended, and the thunder that rumbled ominously nearby. We barely beat the downpour that pummeled the car for most of the drive home. The descent didn't even take two hours. It continues to amaze me how quickly mountain weather changes.

Blistering heat or terrifying thunderstorms. After my hapless training efforts, I feel even less confident about the Summer Bear. And yet, I'm more excited than ever. 
Sunday, July 14, 2019

Summertime rolls

 Well, the rough season is here. I write this as I listen to thunder rumble outside. My body is a constant annoyance — legs, butt and shoulders peppered with inflamed welts (mosquito bite allergy), sinuses clogged with pollen, lips blistered and bleeding, skin blotched with sunburn (I can't miss a even of small patch of SPF 50 for an hour. The lips are a lost cause. Even pure zinc oxide rubs off too quickly.) The window air conditioner is rumbling in the enclosed bedroom as indoor temperatures climb into the 80s. I'm hung over because I spent way too much time in the sun this week. I'm scanning the weather forecast for a hopeful outing to the high country later this week ... lots of scary thunderstorm risk to contend with. Yes, summer is a challenging season, where every outdoor adventure must necessarily be accompanied by discomfort. I grapple for motivation, and occasionally force myself into the fearsome barrage of UV radiation, lest I come down with a real case of summertime S.A.D.

I imagine this is how the majority of people feel about winter. I empathize, people.

As I wait out the latest thunderstorm to embark on a muggy Sunday afternoon run, my outdoor moving time this week is already up to 22 hours. I'm stoked about that. Before this week, my summer was fairly low-key. During our 10 days in Germany, I made brief attempts to reboot my running. There were the early days when temperatures were in the high 30s Celsius with humidity, and I'd return after five miles, as drenched as though I jumped in a lake. There was the moment, a quarter mile into a run on a flat path with no obstacles, when my bad leg just crumpled and I hit the deck. There was the set of 106 stairs outside the technical college where Beat embarked on hill-training repeats. He'd do 20 while I did 15, for less than a thousand feet of elevation gain that left me feeling as worked as though I'd climbed a big mountain. There was also lots of touristing, visiting historic sites such as an abbey built in 1258 and a 60-meter-high boat lift for barges on a canal, and of course Beat's father's 80th birthday festivities with tons of good food and a relaxing boat ride. There was a proper vacation surrounding my pathetic attempts at running, and it was nice.

By the time we returned to Colorado, I was feeling some training guilt. I've been doing a lot of soul-searching about upcoming ambitions (will write about this soon.) More immediately, I signed up for a single summer race that is not necessarily a small thing — a 210-mile self-supported mountain bike race called the Summer Bear in Steamboat Springs. Spending 15 days off the bike during what should be peak training weeks wasn't ideal, so on Wednesday I carved out most of a day to make up for that. The weather was friendly, with temperatures in the high 70s rather than 90s, although climbing above 9,000 feet means I still need full leg and arm sun sleeves. I rolled out on some of my favorite local gravel climbs, washboarded and dusty, before turning onto Peak to Peak Highway near Ward. I thought about targeting Estes Park, not yet realizing that it was still another 35 miles of steep rolling hills away.

I managed 25 of those miles to Meeker Park before I hit a line of construction traffic. With people milling around outside their cars, it looked to be a long wait. I veered off the road to a take a break by Chapel on the Rock (built in 1936 - not quite the history of an 800-year-old abbey, but beautiful nonetheless.) I'd been battling severe jet lag for the past hour, and actually dozed off for a few seconds, just deep enough that I snapped awake to feel severely disoriented. Fearing the sleep monster would continue to haunt me if I waited around for too long, I decided to turn back. The ride still ended up at 103 miles with 9,600 feet of climbing. It occurred to me that I haven't ridden a "century" in some time ... perhaps years, since road-riding was a more regular thing for me while living in California (lots of tough rides in the Colorado log, but none quite topping a hundred miles.) Anyway, beyond the jet lag, I felt strong on this ride, which was heartening.

On Friday I joined friends for an overnight bikepack outside Eagle, Colorado. Betsy and Erika are also training for the Summer Bear, and Betsy organized the trip after asking local professional endurance cyclist Jeff Kerkove to suggest a route for her. We all had the GPS track and little else in the way of knowledge about it, but at least Erika had paper maps for later assessments ("is this really the right way? Really?") It was only about 80 miles overall, and we were all a little blasé about prep, rolling out for a crack-of-2 p.m. start. We actually ran into Jeff as were gazing at a map and he was returning from a training ride. He took this group photo for us.

Eagle is part of the region where the Rocky Mountains meet the Colorado Plateau, a stunning landscape of redrock cliffs rising toward the snow-capped summits of the northern Sawatch Range. It has been high on my list of regions to explore ... let's face it, I haven't seen that much of Colorado. So I was excited for the opportunity. Even if it meant a tedious I-70 commute to squeeze this trip into a 36-hour window.

Photo by Betsy Williford
Crossing Nolan Creek to reach Old Fulford Trail. Just 10 miles into the trip, we were already wandering back and forth, wondering where we were even going. This is why my physical therapist told me to wear the knee brace for this ride.

The first of several steep double-track climbs. Erika and Betsy performed impressively on their loaded fat bikes.

We descended to Fulford Historic District, elevation 9,860 feet, population "odd." This is another of Colorado's many semi-ghost towns, named after a miner killed in an avalanche in 1891. Now apparently more of a recreational community, Fulford wouldn't be an easy place to access in the winter, but it's hard to beat the setting.

More vistas at a bridge over Brush Creek.

Hat Creek Road, still blocked with a gate due to snow cover, took us 2,000 feet higher to a pass at 11,100 feet. Steep, rutted and dusted with loose pebbles, this climb was demanding yet "spinnable." Colors became saturated as shadows grew long, and I was in my zone. Contentedness peculated in my blood as I stomped through snow drifts and grunted around precipitous hairpin curves, gazing at mountains almost incandescent in the evening light. This is my heaven, right up until it becomes my hell. The duplexity makes me appreciate this zone all the more. 

Beautiful vistas awaited us just below the pass, with long views into the Holy Cross Wilderness. I rode my brakes, trying to prolong these fleeting moments next to the sky.

Betsy was fairly gassed by the top of Hat Creek Road, where we'd already climbed nearly 6,000 feet in a mere 29 miles. There was only one more hour of daylight, and it was clear we needed to keep rolling.

We descended all the way back to Brush Creek Road, the fast track to our point of origin. If we simply stayed on this road from the start, the ride to Crooked Creek Pass would have been a whole lot easier. But then it wouldn't have been nearly so late, nor the light so gorgeous.

Avalanche Peak made a stunning appearance as we raced the fading light to the end of a spur on Jeff's GPS track. I figured there was no reason for him to send us down here unless the camping was awesome, and I was eager to ride to the end.

Crooked Creek Reservoir. This did seem a nice spot to camp, but possible private. Plus, the bugs were bad, and it was surrounded by cattle. We continued to descend into the valley, watching a herd of elk gallop through the gorge.

The route ended at an intersection that was crowded with campers — apparently this is a popular spot for climbing, and also this is just typical Colorado in July. The crowds were a disappointment, but it was apparent that my companions felt an urgency to nail down a camp site before it was fully dark. Had I been alone, I probably would have kept riding until I could find more solitude. As the sky faded to deeper shades of purple, we wheeled the bikes through a bumpy marsh until we found an unoccupied fire pit. The woods only held open spots big enough for Betsy's tent and Erika's bivy, so I plunked down on the dewy shoreline of Lime Creek. It was a beautiful setting, though, with the sound of cascading water to lull me to sleep.

Wider view of camp in the morning, from where I enjoyed my peanut butter oatmeal and coffee at the fire pit. Yeah, okay, it was a nice place to camp.

Mist rising off the creek in the morning. I awoke to a thick coat of frost across the fly of my tent, so I guessed it dropped a few degrees below freezing overnight. I slept cozy in my brand new Sea to Summit Spark sleeping bag, my first new "summer" bag in 12 years, after a number of years freezing in a worn-out Mountain Hardwear Phantom 32. Such luxury, to camp in the mountains in a lightweight sleeping bag and stay warm! Since I tend to do the majority of my camping in the fall and winter months, my summer system still baffles me. It weighs almost nothing — two-pound tent, one-pound sleeping bag, and a 12-ounce pad. I may curse my holey Thermarest NeoAir to the sky and back, but when it actually holds air, it's wonderful.

Heading out to climb the long road we'd descended the previous evening. We ended day one at around 40 miles, and expected the same mileage for day two, but we naively hoped for a little less climbing and maybe more easy rolling descents.

After the climb out of the Crooked Creek Valley, there was only supposed to be one 2,000-foot climb and a few small rollers. But the 2,000-foot ascent proved to a tease, with endless rises and drops around drainages as the powerline road skirted a broad ridge between Brush Creek and Gypsum Creek. The heat of the day was beginning to crank, there was little shade, and the UV force at 10,000 feet made me feel like I was hunched over the surface of the sun. I slathered on more sunscreen and drank gulps of still-cool creek water, but I felt cooked. Summer is hard.

Beneath the first stand of aspens I'd seen in a couple of miles, I met another trio of bikepacking ladies. What are the chances? I suppose this whole bike-camping thing is becoming fairly popular. I learned the women were from Leadville, and were also fully cooked by what they viewed as low-altitude heat away from their high mountain home (our altitude at the time of meeting was 10,200 feet.) We compared routes and it was funny to learn they were on a similar two-day trip, even though our plans came from different sources. Their route was all downhill from there, and we both assumed mine would be the same. We agreed to meet up at a brewery for lunch in a couple of hours.

Of course, I had no idea where our route actually went from here. None of us did. Betsy was enjoying the views but seemed to be struggling with the climbing. We accidentally bypassed a ridge trail to instead take the parallel jeep track called Hardscrabble Mountain Road, which earned its name with jolty babyhead rocks and endless, pointless ups-and-downs.

From there we spent some time lost and gazing confused at Erika's map, but we managed to reconnect with the route with a long climb to the also-aptly-named Fire Box. This was a nasty, chundery descent, a downhill hike-a-bike even for my more skilled friends with monster truck bikes. Betsy had enough of all of this, and voiced this opinion to us. I too was wondering about bailouts, but at this point I'd spent a fair amount of time scrolling through the screen on my GPS, and understood that we were locked in a gorge surrounding Abrams Creek and fairly committed to whatever Jeff had in mind. That proved to be more doubletrack climbing and a long singletrack traverse through the oak brush along dry hillsides as all three of us ran out of water and thunderstorms bared down from the high country.

In the race to beat the rain to town, Betsy suddenly broke out of her funk and outpaced Erika and me, as we struggled with woozy dehydration and dizzy vertigo along the steep side slopes (the vertigo was probably just me.) It was fun to watch her bust out a strong ride when just miles earlier she was vocally insistent that she was going to keel over. Endurance does this for everyone, at some point. It's heaven to hell and back again. That's what makes it so addicting. We ended this day at 42 miles and 5,500 feet of climbing spread across 8.5 tiresome hours, and promptly hit the local saloon for massive plates of food.

All in all, a great overnight with a little something for everyone. 8/10 would ride again, although I still have a whole lot of Colorado left to explore.