A myriad of thoughts swirl through the mind before a race like the Vapor Trail 125. For me, being rather new to the mountain bike race scene, I see a lot of unknown faces and I think, “wow this guy looks badass,” or “this guy is super confident.” I am slowly gaining confidence before I race, but the ultimate goal is always to finish. This summer I committed to three major races: The Arizona Trail Race, The Colorado Trail Race, and the Vapor Trail 125.
The Vapor Trail 125 began this past Saturday at 10:00pm in Salida. 66 riders dialed in their bikes, lights, and clothes for 125 miles and 20,000 vertical feet of climbing in the great Rocky Mountains of Colorado. After the neutral roll-out to HWY 285, the pace seemed slower then I anticipated. One thing I was nervous about prior to the race was the number of strong, accomplished riders that were registered. I figured a bunch of riders would go out and smash it right off the bat, but that was not the case.
The first bit of the Colorado Trail was fun, with the lights glowing through the aspens. I couldn’t have been more pleased with my new Ay-Up lights. Even on the low setting they were super bright, and they lasted the whole 8 hours of darkness.
The Colorado Trail section passed quickly as I made may way up Chalk Creek to the first aid station. I felt good–just as the rain started to come down. I filled up on fluids and got going quickly.
I ended up riding with Christian McCarthy for most of the way up Chalk Creek, and all the way up to Hancock. We pushed each other up the road climb at a very satisfying rate, passing Jesse Jakomait while he stopped to get his rain coat on. At that point, I think we were both worried that we were going too fast, but there was no slowing down. I kept my pace, and soon found myself all alone.
From Hancock, I slogged my way up the steep Alpine Tunnel section, which is normally a hike-a-bike (HAB). I was so surprised I could clear those short power climbs with my new XX1 drivetrain–I was riding a 32 chain ring up front and was worried I went too big. I have to admit, if I had that extra granny gear I would have used it, so I’m glad I didn’t.
Somewhere on the East side of the divide I ran out of water. I was too far from aid station #2, so I needed to fill up my bottles in a stream. I found a good running stream and got going quickly. I reached another section of HAB and went as fast as I could, lifting my bike over my shoulder and running up some of the super steep sections. It was dark, but I could just feel the beauty around me. I can’t wait to head back and do this section in the light of day.
I finally made it to the top of the divide and was ready for the long descent… or at least I thought I was ready. The descent turned out to be more painful than the climb. I could hear myself thinking, “man, I would rather be climbing right now.” My hands and triceps were throbbing. I definitely thought I was going to get passed on that section: It was wet and I was taking it slow, since there’s no sense in hurting yourself out in the middle of nowhere if my goal is just to finish.
I saw lights up in the sky–a lot of them. I couldn’t decipher if they were stars or racers. They flickered red; I was sure there were a few people in front of me. I finally arrived to the Tomichi Valley floor and aid station #2, a bit rattled from the descent. I filled up on fluids and a few snacks, and was kindly offered some pancakes… uhhh, yea! I asked the friendly Gunnison folks how many were ahead of me. Someone said, “you’re the first.”
“No f***ing way, I’m not sure where the route goes, but I am sure I saw people on the ridge in front of me,” I responded.
Someone replied, “well, unless they didn’t stop, we are sure you’re in first.” I quickly collected myself, and pushed on up old Monarch Pass.
I started the climbed at what I thought was a solid pace. I soon saw a light and then another climbing below me. I was sure they spotted me, so I turned off my lights for a bit in hopes that the motivation of catching me would not make them push harder.
The climb was long, and got quite steep towards the top. I always stayed in a higher gear than I was comfortable with. That’s the way these races work: punish yourself, and it will be all worth it in the end… hmmm, right.
I finally made it to the top, and started to descend down to HWY 50. The sun graced me with enough illumination that my mechanical lights could retire for the day. I reached the highway with the volunteers cheering me on–it felt so good! The Vapor Trail 125 has so many great volunteers, and they are so energized. It really helped keep my morale up.
I stocked up on some snacks, ate a lot of bacon, and filled up on fluids. Someone said I was ahead of Tostado’s record, and I just thought to myself, “what in the world is going on? Am I in a dream?”
The climb up to Monarch Crest was the most beautiful experience of the race, riding above it all with pink clouds glowing in the sky.
The Crest went well… I think. I’ve ridden it before, but so has almost everyone else. I pushed my limits on the downhill, nearly crashing a few times. Food kept falling out of my jersey, and all but once I backtracked and picked every bar up.
The Crest trail finally turned into road, and I arrived at Marshall Pass. At the Marshall Pass aid station, I again filled up on fluids, but accidentally left one of my bottles there.
Starvation Creek was foreign to me–I asked the volunteer at the aid station what to expect. He said, “the climb up starvation is a bitch.” Those words haunted me. Note to self, do not ask questions about the trail ahead, just keep riding.
I missed the turn to Starvation but quickly realized my mistake, only wasting about two minutes. The descent was rugged, and the climb was painful. After a full night of climbing, my legs, butt, and mind were exhausted. I crawled up, trying as hard as I could to stay out of my lowest gear. I kept looking back for Jesse, as I knew he was right on my heels. I finally made it back to Marshall Pass for the second time, picked up my water bottle, and was ready for the big descent.
It was my first time on the Rainbow Trail (big mistake), and there was a lot more climbing on the way to the trail than I had anticipated. Every last climb was excruciating, and I started to slow my pace. A lot goes through your head in a race like this, but more so towards the end. “Can I hold on to first? Will I completely bonk and not even finish in the top 5?” I had to remind myself that finishing is an accomplishment in itself, and that is what I focused on towards the end.
I climbed up the Colorado Trail, and eventually got to the Rainbow Cutoff: again, another epic downhill. I was really wishing I had a full suspension bike at this point. My back started to cramp up, making the descent much slower then I wanted.
I made it to the last aid station, absolutely crushed. I needed to stop, but I didn’t. I regret not eating any food there; in hindsight, it was a big mistake. I’m relatively new to racing (this was my first year racing competitively), and it has been a huge learning experience.
I left the final aid station and began the lower section of the Rainbow Trail that would eventually drop me onto HWY 285. The rolling trail was fun, but the power climbs were steep. I tried and tried, but fast biking was no longer an option. Eventually, the “cougar,” Jesse Jakomait, who had been chasing me down all race, caught me. I saw Jesse for the first time since aid station 1, only 15 miles from the finish. I was off my bike for a brief HAB section as he rolled up. I told him “good work,” gave him a high 5, and got back on the saddle.
After that, I worried that even more people would soon pass me. I gave all that I had left to try to prevent it. Short climb after short descent, I finally made it to HWY 285. It was not quite over, however: the XX1 drivetrain does sacrifice a bit of speed when going downhill. I was a little worried that Christian, who I knew had at least a 2×10 drivetrain, would have more gear to push downhill. I pushed it as hard as I could and got as aerodynamic as possible, and I reached Poncha Springs with no one in sight behind me.
I hit County Road 120 and knew the pain was over. All of that worrying about getting passed, bonking, and not finishing the race disappeared. A sense of accomplishment set in, and I was stoked! I rolled into Salida, and turned into the Absolute Bikes parking lot with about a dozen or so people cheering me on. It felt great: I had finished my rookie attempt of the Vapor Trail 125 in 13 hours and 5 minutes! I only finished five minutes behind Jesse. I really can’t believe that I had this type of performance in me–I have no Idea where it came from.
My three major races for the year are in the books, so now it’s time to drink some beer and have some fun!
Major props to my teammates: Jari Kirkland for smashing the women’s record, Evan Ross who dealt with a flat tire yet managed to get 6th place, Jefe Branham who set a personal record as well racing 1,325 miles this season, and Brian Sullivan who rode on a single speed rigid–crazy, dude.
I cannot thank the people who put on this race enough. It is a true test of anyone’s abilities, and you guys really put on an amazing event. Thanks to Earl Walker, the event director, for dealing with permits, aid stations, and coordinating the volunteers. Your work does not go unnoticed. Thanks to Shawn Gillis, owner of Absolute Bikes, for letting us call your shop home for a few hours before and after the race. Thanks to Tom Purvis for being the face of such a great race: you’re a great person to have in this industry. Thank you to all the volunteers who helped me get through all those aid stations so swiftly.
Last, but certainly not least, I need to thank Team Griggs Orthopedics and Rhett Griggs for giving me this opportunity to race for one of the best teams in Colorado. I know you went out on a limb to bring me on, and I can’t believe the support I have received since joining a group of world class athletes. I couldn’t be more thankful! Big thanks to SRAM and the amazing XX1 drivetrain, and Rock and Roll Sports for dealing with our orders! Lastly, thanks to my other sponsors, Alpineer, Acli-mate Go To Guide, Pike Builders, Crested Butte Mountain Resort, Rudy Project, Elk Mountain Lodge, High Mountain Concepts, Chucks Glass, and Squirt.