All In: High Times and Heartbreak on the Colorado Trail

Prologue:

The Colorado Trail Race is an “unofficial” 550 mile, self-supported bikepacking ultraendurance race with over 80% singletrack and around 75,000 feet of climbing. It runs the length of the Colorado Trail from Denver to Durango, with three dirt road bypasses of wilderness areas where bikes aren’t allowed. The race switches directions every year, giving athletes a different perspective going northbound from Durango to Denver. It is an “underground” race, meaning there is no entry fee, no prize money, and no official podium. There is no permit, no money is exchanged, and there is no rider support, so the race is not “official” — for those who inquire, we are all just on a big fast group ride.

However, none of that matters. The “CTR” is widely known as one of the toughest and highest-profile ultraendurance bike races in the world. People come from all over to test their mettle on this high-altitude course, and the list of top times reads like the “who’s who” of ultra racing. It is a bucket list item for many bikepackers to complete this race.

The ability to do well in the CTR depends on multiple factors: riding fast, as little time as possible spent stopped at resupply points or along the trail, and the ability to deprive yourself of sleep to ride as long as possible. Many of the top riders sleep only 1–3 hours per night during their effort. The men’s record for this race is currently just under 4 days, and the women’s record is just over 7 days. It is very common for over 50% of people who start the race to pull out before the finish, as it is a brutal course that takes its toll on equipment, body, mind, and spirit.

I have many years as an endurance racer under my belt, competing successfully in 100-mile single day races and in multi-day stage races (where you start and end each day in a designated spot, and get the whole night to sleep and recover). I have also had extensive experience bikepacking through multiple countries, often at high altitude. But I had never combined bikepacking and racing. Sleep deprivation would be new to me, and I was nervous about this aspect of the race as I also was about weather. Last year it rained and stormed the entire time, and racers battled mud, lightning, and freezing temperatures as only 25% of the field finished.

When I first played with the idea of racing the Colorado Trail, I thought about my options. I could do it more like a “fast tour,” riding all day at a good pace but stopping at dark for full nights of sleep, and not really pushing myself. Or, I could go all in. I had taken a break from serious training for competitive racing over the past two years to focus on expedition riding, and the thought of jumping back into a serious training schedule was at the same time daunting and exciting. Do I still have what it takes to commit at this level?

I decided to make a spontaneous attempt at the classic Kokopelli Trail, which runs 140 miles from Moab to Fruita, and see how it felt to be on my bike all day and ride through the night. During that ride I remembered how much I love being out on my bike at night, alone, in the wilderness. I remembered how much I loved watching the sun go down and come back up again from the seat of my bicycle. I remembered how proficient I am at using my mind as a tool for success. And even though I wasn’t well-trained at that point, I remembered what it felt like to go fast and focus on a goal. It felt good.

After the Kokopelli ride, I made the decision to go all-in and commit fully to the Colorado Trail Race. Including a 500-mile bikepacking expedition to Puerto Rico, I dedicated six months to training and preparing for this race. I completed structured bike and run workouts for the first time in nearly three years. I prioritized training above anything else. I pored over maps and guidebooks and GPX tracks and trip reports from those who had raced in years prior. I talked to friends who had done the race and took notes as they told me their secrets. I consulted with ultraracing legend and coach Kurt Refsnider who knows better than anyone how to excel in this sort of race, and picked his brain for training tips, gear recommendations, and in-depth beta on the CTR course that I knew would be invaluable — like where to find water and how many calories I would need to buy at resupply points.

I felt my body growing leaner and stronger than ever, and my heart and mind becoming ever more confident in my abilities. I knew I had the capacity to perform very well if I could keep myself together and execute a good race strategy. I didn’t broadcast it, but a record-setting ride and race win was very much in the forefront of my mind.

My CTR rig: Juliana Joplin size small, with IndustryNine Enduro 310 Carbon 27.5" wheelset, Maxxis Aggressor 2.5" tires, all bike bags from Revelate Designs except custom framebag from Bedrock Bags and custom downtube bag handmade by Kurt Refsnider. I also wore a small 2.5L hip pack during the race and clamped a 1L water bottle to the right leg of my fork using radiator hose clamps and a Salsa bottle cage. Total bike + gear weight somewhere around 60 lbs. (And yes, I live in that van.)

Day 1:

My alarm pierced the quiet darkness at 4:00 am on the morning of July 29, 2018. I was already lying in bed wide awake, not having slept a wink all night. I had been dealing with last-minute technical difficulties with my bike and my Garmin InReach tracking device, and when I finally slipped between the sheets at 1 am I was way too wired for sleep.

As the minutes counted down to 5 am when I had to leave for the Grand Depart of the Colorado Trail Race, I tried to logic through the existential crisis I was having: Since the Colorado Trail can be raced as an individual time trial, do I skip the Grand Depart to get a good night’s sleep and start the next day instead? Or do I suck it up and go to the Grand Depart already sleep deprived, in a race where so much depends on sleep deprivation and the ability to ride through the night? My exhausted brain wasn’t functioning.

In the end I decided to start with everyone else and figured I would try to catch up on the first night by sleeping a little longer than originally intended. I was nervous about starting on no sleep because I already didn’t know how my body would do with a week of sleep deprivation under high intensity performance, but I decided to put it out of my mind and just believe I could do it.

Lesson learned: Have your shit together early. And be prepared that despite your best efforts, things might not always go as planned and the only thing you can change about it could be your attitude. Pick a thought that serves you, and choose to believe it with your whole heart.

Race Time

The race started only 10 minutes after my arrival. I nervously waved goodbye to Kurt who had dropped me off at Waterton Canyon, and headed out with the lead pack up the road. My heart pounded with excitement and I even got a little choked up as we sped away… after six months of thinking about nothing but this race, it was FINALLY here and I was FINALLY pedaling up the Colorado Trail with 90 or so other crazies. I was in good company as I looked around and saw many of my heroes in ultra racing that I have followed for years, many of them also friends, and we chatted as we cruised up the road towards the singletrack.

As the road climbed, the pack broke apart. I looked over and saw only one other woman in the lead group with me. Her name was Ashley Carelock, and she was wearing an Amy D Foundation kit. My heart melted and I immediately took a liking to Ashley. “AmyD,” or Amy Dombroski, was a good friend of mine who was killed in a training crash in Belgium five years ago, and I would think of her often through the race as I saw Ashley in her kit. Chatting with Ashley revealed she was as friendly and lively as I had hoped. She was a successful 12- and 24-hour racer in her first bikepacking race, and I could tell she was strong.

We started up the singletrack, and right away I started having the shifting problems that were plaguing my bike the night before. My chain falling all the way down the cassette as I attempted to shift into easier gears, and me having to stop and get off and fix it. This happened a few times and I lost momentum as I had to pull over off the trail, and I saw Ashley’s kit disappear into the distance. I was passed by my friend Jefe Branham and by Pete Basinger, who I’d never met but with whom I have many mutual friends, and chatted briefly with them as they rode away.

Finally my bike started working properly, and I actually felt like I was making time as I wound my way through the old Hayman burn area and around Buffalo Creek, an area with which I was very familiar from my days living and riding in the Front Range. There were lots of hikers and day riders in this section, and all of them happily pulled over to cheer me on as I passed.

Then came the Tarryall Detour. 50ish miles of gravel road climbing up and over the mountains towards Kenosha Pass, bypassing the Lost Creek Wilderness Area. For some reason in this section my roadie instinct kicked in and I was on the hunt for Ashley. I knew she couldn’t be far ahead, and I locked out my suspension and went into time trial mode. I motored past many of the men who had passed me on the singletrack, and surprised even myself with how strong I was climbing. The sky clouded over and threatened with some thunder and raindrops, and I was grateful for the little cooldown.

About halfway up the detour, I saw the blue and orange of the Amy D kit. It was Ashley. I did a self-assessment and I still felt very strong, ready to make the pass. We chatted briefly as I sailed by, and she said “I’m sure we’ll see each other again later!” “Oh yeah! See you up there!” I responded. I knew at that moment it would be a race between us, though I had no idea exactly how close our battle would become. Friendly but very competitive — the best kind of racing. I pushed on, determined to put as much distance between myself and her as possible as long as I felt good.

Day 1 of the Colorado Trail Race — fresh and feisty, before I realized I had forgotten my breakfast burritos.

Further down the road, after a few water stops and one too many cookies, my adrenaline started to wane. I was feeling the effects of not sleeping the night before, and I was starting to get drowsy and nauseous. I had plotted out a big mileage day for myself, wanting to put in at least 125 miles as the road section would make it easy to bank miles, but I was struggling.

I had forgotten my two breakfast burritos in Kurt’s truck, and while I had enough calories to make it to the first resupply at Copper, my body is used to having real food when I do long rides instead of just snack food. Doubts started to sneak into my head: should I have waited a day and started when I could get a full night of sleep? Was I stupid for having started on no sleep? Did I totally screw up my entire race?

NOOOO….!! I stopped myself in my tracks. I am NOT ALLOWED to think these things. I made the decision to race and now I had no choice but to believe with all my heart that it would not affect me. I pressed on. I passed the Stage Stop saloon and restaurant where many of the racers were stopping for dinner. It was about 6 pm and I desperately wanted to stop for some real food. But the place appeared to be busy and the last thing I wanted to do was wait for an hour or more and lose the lead I had gained on Ashley. I told myself I could make it another day just on snack food, and I pressed on. I was determined to make it to the Kenosha Pass campground.

When I finally turned back onto the Colorado Trail after the long and arduous Tarryall road detour, I breathed a sigh of relief. I was back on singletrack and I felt at ease among the aspens and riding through the meadows as the sun went down. It was stunning and it was hard for me to not stop and take photos. I was running out of water, but I knew there was a pump at the Kenosha campground. When I finally arrived there, I filled up with water and continued up the trail. I didn’t want to sleep next to any loud RV generators, and I made it a few miles up the trail before the sleep monster made me shut it down around 11 pm. I had been racing for 17 hours.

I crawled under a pine tree, unrolled my bivy and blew up my sleeping pad (for the first and only time during the race), and set my kitchen timer for 6 hours of sleep. This is a lot for an ultra race for someone wanting to break a record, but I knew I needed to recover from getting no sleep the night before. It would be worth it if I could ride stronger the next day.

Sunset on the first night, red from the smoke of nearby fires as I make my way towards Kenosha Pass.

Day 2:

I had a hard time falling asleep because of the adrenaline from riding — I’m one of those people who can’t exercise too close to bedtime — and laid awake for at least an hour. Somewhere around 2:30 am I woke up to pee. I crawled out of my bivy and I was surrounded by a dense fog or haze. It was very warm outside. My eyes were blurry and I felt wide awake. I thought to myself “man, if this was the actual race, this would be great! I’m up before my alarm. Since it’s just training I’ll try to sleep a couple more hours.” I crawled back into my bivy.

When my timer went off, I laid there in a daze. I had probably only slept a few hours. Then, some riders went by quietly, their lights flashing in between trees. “Shit!! I’m in the race!! This is the REAL race!!” I thought to myself as I awoke with a start and shot out of my bivy. I must have been really out of it. I had spent so much time preparing that my whole world revolved around preparing and practicing for the race, that my tired brain hadn’t registered that I was actually now IN the race and it was go time! I packed up as quickly as I can — which still took me 20 minutes — and was on the trail.

As I climbed away from Kenosha towards Georgia Pass, I was met with an unwelcome sensation. A sharp stabbing pain in my left knee at the joint line. The physical therapist side of my brain kept running through possible causes. “Hamstring tendon. IT Band. Lateral quad. All just tightness from yesterday’s ride. Or, the old lateral meniscus tear that I had back in grad school, over 10 years ago. Could it be that cropping up again? No way.” I engaged my glutes and hip flexors more for my pedal stroke to take the pressure off my knees and whatever was pulling on them. But the pain got worse.

Soon I wasn’t able to put any power into the pedals with my left leg, and I was relying on my right leg to move forward. I couldn’t stand and climb at all. When I wanted to stand on the bike to descend, I had to push myself up with my arms and stand with my left knee locked. It was awkward and uncomfortable and I started to get worried. Was this going to get worse? Was this an actual injury or just pains from being on the bike so long? In my head before the race I had decided that I would push through all manners of “riding pains,” but that if I felt I was risking or experiencing a real injury, that I would pull out. It wasn’t worth doing damage to my body that could keep me off the bike for months or even longer.

I cruised down the Georgia Pass descent, relishing in the fun and technical descent that I had ridden before in the Breck Epic race years ago. Although my knee was still hurting, I was able to stand on my bike and ride the technical trail as long as my right leg was in front to pump me over any momentum blockers and I kept more weight on my right leg than the left.

Then came the neverending climb up West Ridge outside Breckenridge. I’d raced this twice before, and it had cracked me both times. It just goes on forever. I was determined not to let it crack me this time, and I spun up trying to use muscle activation as creatively as I could to take pressure off my right knee. As a physical therapist, I do this often — my knowledge of functional movement allows me to “hack” pedaling mechanics to load and offload certain muscles and joints when needed. It usually works.

Finally the switchback descent came and I took it easy. I was feeling sort of wobbly. Up the next climb and I heard a friendly voice: “Liz?” It was Jeff, a bike racer from Breckenridge who I knew through social media but had never met in person. He had raced the CTR five times. I stopped and we chatted for a minute. He asked how I was feeling, and I told him I felt pretty good aside from being nauseous with not having had any real food for two days and trying to survive on snacks. He told me that he had half a sandwich in his backpack and I was welcome to it if I needed it.

As delicious as real food sounded right then, I turned it down. I didn’t want to compromise my result in the race by taking outside assistance from someone I knew (even just through the internet). I had more than enough calories to make it to Copper, and I could suffer through snack foods until then. Jeff rode down the trail with me for a couple of miles, and I stopped to get water near the intersection of Hwy 9 going into Breck. We chatted a bit more while I filled up, and then I was off, heading up the trail to the Tenmile climb.

Climbing hard in view of where I would be racing on the CTR in the springtime Salida 720, a race I did for training.

And oh, the Tenmile climb. Holy hell. I had no idea how long and difficult that was going to be. No one had warned me about that! I felt like it took me forever, and in the middle there was a giant wall that I had to drag my bike up while trying to keep my footing on the steep slippery surface. Holy shit. My arms and shoulders were SO TIRED. I was starting to shuffle my feet and move at a snail’s pace upward. I could see the pass up ahead, and thought that was the top. “I only have to make it to there,” I thought, “and then I get the fun Wheeler descent into Copper.”

Just as I crested the pass, I realized that was NOT the top. There were countless miles to go, contouring along the sides of the peaks, and generally trending uphill. Ohhhh man. I turned to look back the way I had come, and making big strides gaining quickly on me I saw Ashley. She looked strong as she pushed her bike uphill, and she was maybe two or three minutes back from me. I smiled and waved at her, and then got the hell out of there. Seeing her lit a fire under me that I so desperately needed in that moment, and I rode steadily and quickly along the trail, getting off sporadically to hike over big rock features in the trail. She was riding steadily and quickly as well, but she wasn’t gaining on me. Finally, FINALLY, the real top of the climb came. I bumbled along the rocky ridge for awhile, wondering when the actual descent would start. Finally it did, and I was plunging downhill at a speed I would normally reserve for shredding on an unloaded bike or racing an enduro. I knew I wanted to stop in Copper, and if Ashley saw me make the turn that would be a great opportunity for her to make a big push to get away. I wanted to get a ways in front so I could sneakily make the turn to the Conoco without being noticed.

The Wheeler descent was ridiculously fun, save one crash where I got moving too quickly and blew a corner, skidding off the trail and depositing myself on the ground. Oops. None the worse for wear I got back on and kept shredding. It was a long descent and a great reward for the work I had just done on the climb. I knew Ashley wouldn’t be far behind me, but as I reached the bottom I didn’t see her. I emerged onto the bike path, and there cheering for me were some of Ashley’s friends and supporters from her team the Amy D Foundation. They were there taking some videos of her ride and cheering her and the other racers on along the way. I didn’t necessarily want them to see me turning to ride to the Conoco, either, so I turned left like I was continuing on up Searle Pass. When I was out of sight of anyone, I left the trail, headed to the pavement and shot down to the Conoco to resupply with real food. Ah, the silly games we play in bike racing. :)

At the Conoco I was in heaven. FINALLY, real food! Hot food! A fellow racer was there eating a whole pizza, and offered me a slice. I happily obliged. I then ordered three breakfast burritos, one of which I made short work of, three sausage kolaches, and a double espresso which I promptly slammed. That was all I needed, I had plenty of calories and this stash of real food would surely supply me to my next resupply which would be Buena Vista. I had originally planned to get all the way to Leadville before stopping to resupply, but my last-minute change of plans with my sleeping schedule meant I was a few hours off my intended splits and would miss the open hours of the Leadville Safeway. No matter, I had plenty of food and now I would get to take the Leadville Bypass instead of having to ride the extra miles into town.

As I rode the highway back to where I left the trail from the Conoco, I called Kurt. I was in good spirits and chatty from downing the espresso. I told him about my ride so far and about the knee pain that I had experienced the day before which seemed to have worked itself out on the long hike-a-bike. I told him how fun the trails were and how I was loving the descents, how my bikepacking bags were carrying great and my bike was handling well and how good I felt on the Tarryall road and how much I loved riding in the dark. I told him how sleepy I had been the entire first day and the weird thing that happened when I woke before my alarm and didn’t realize I was in the real race and not just practicing. He told me that my friend Jefe was riding strong in 2nd at the front of the pack, and that Ashley was still behind me. I’m not quite sure exactly all that I said, but he told me I was riding a great pace and that he was proud of me. Coming from him, someone who has raced and won countless ultras and coached countless ultra athletes, his words meant a lot.

We hung up as I started the climb to Searle Pass just as the first light of golden hour hit the mountains. I was bolstered by the conversation and by the espresso and the real food that made me feel amazing, and by my last memory of riding Searle Pass which was my best friend Sienna’s bachelorette party five years ago where we all went topless at the top of the pass and jumped around and took silly photos.

I was climbing well and a guy named Joe who was riding really fast came up behind me and passed me. We rode together for maybe 15 minutes, the longest I had ridden with anyone yet. I hate talking with people in races usually but we talked about vans and races and he said he had toured the CT with his wife before, and it was fun to hear about that. I would rather listen than talk while I’m racing. If I start telling stories I lose focus.

Joe told me that there was another woman maybe 20 minutes behind me, someone other than Ashley. He said she was really fast on the downhills and a great bike handler. I figured it was Laura, the young ultra-triathlete who had started the race. I had chatted with her just a bit online, and knew her background was strong. I wouldn’t be surprised if she was starting to gain on the other racers. (Apparently the other woman was actually Ashley, but she had changed clothes so Joe hadn’t recognized her. But it certainly lit a fire under me to think there was another woman that close!) The sun went behind the ridge and I stopped to pull on a layer. Joe was gone in an instant. That guy climbs FAST.

Before long I hit the top of Kokomo Pass. Knowing that whoever was behind me descends fast, I wanted to make sure I had full use of my dropper post (the whole inch and a half that was available with my seatpost bag) and my rear suspension. I pulled everything out of my Revelate Vole bag except my bivy sac and put it in my tiny collapsible Sea to Summit backpack. Then I started the descent off Kokomo.

Practicing my descending with a loaded rig on technical trails on one of my pre-CTR training rides.

And What An Amazing Descent It Was. Holy crap. This, even on a fully loaded bike, was one of the top descents I have ever done in my entire life. It was SO MUCH FUN. The trail quality was unreal: technical but flowy, great conditions, and I dropped probably 3000 feet. (I actually have no idea, I didn’t have an altimeter on my etrex 20, but this is what it felt like.) It went on forever, and I was literally hooting and hollering all the way down the trail even though I was alone.

This descent was one of the top five highlights of my entire race. It was right before I would need to turn on my lights — and in this I also knew that Ashley and whoever else was behind me was going to end up descending this in the dark. As great as bike lights are, technical descents are always faster in the daylight. I flew down this section and at the bottom I stopped to refill water. No sign of anyone around. I was psyched and ready to ride into the night. I donned my helmet light and one more layer, and I was off.

The climb up Tennessee Pass was fast. I caught Joe again and another rider Max, who is a friend of Kurt. The three of us hammered up the singletrack climb: Joe first, then myself, then Max all in a row. We were silent as we were all working hard. This went on for a couple of hours. Finally I stopped to access some food, and Max stopped to eat as well. Into the night went Joe. Max and I went together for another 20 minutes or so, then I looked behind me and he was gone. No lights, only darkness. He must have stopped. I thought I might catch Joe and I continued on until I reached the Camp Hale/Tennessee Pass parking lot trailhead. No Joe. I was a little discombobulated as I knew the Leadville Bypass was somewhere around, but maybe not yet… I found the continuation of the trail and continued at the fast pace I had been going.

This singletrack was really fun, and especially at night. Up and down all through the woods on a beautiful, high-quality trail. I finally popped out onto the highway and turned on my rear blinky. It was cold. REALLY cold. Leadville is high, and cold. I decided right then I did not want to camp anywhere around there. I put plastic produce bags over my cycling gloves and my rain jacket on, opening the pit zips for ventilation. Then I went into time trial mode, hammering up the road towards Leadville as fast as I could. It was 11 pm and I was surprised at my energy. I had been riding for 19 hours and I felt great. At the turn for the Leadville Bypass it was midnight and I was still cranking. I rode up, up, up towards the Mt. Elbert trailhead, finally reaching the gravel road that leads to the trail of Colorado’s highest fourteener.

It was then that I started feeling the same pain in my left knee that I had fought all morning. I didn’t want this to take hold and become a big problem again, so I decided to call it a night so I could rest it, even though I didn’t feel tired. I rode along and started looking for good places to bivy. I finally located a flat spot under some pines, so I pulled over. I quickly unrolled my bivy, slid my sleeping bag inside, took off my shoes and bike shorts and leg warmers and pulled on my merino wool tights. I left everything on top on, and pulled my puffy coat over it all and put on my polar fleece hat. This would become my routine for the remainder of the race. I didn’t even bother blowing up my sleeping pad — the ground looked soft enough and I didn’t care. I mixed up my recovery drink and quickly slammed it as I cleaned my nether regions with a wet wipe and applied some antibiotic ointment. I had been warned about major saddle sores and wanted to do my best to keep clean so they wouldn’t develop. I slid into my bag, set my timer for 3 hours and quickly fell asleep. It was 1:30 am. I had been racing for 21 hours and had covered 97 miles.

One of my last training rides before the CTR. Photo by Leigh Bowe

Day 3

I woke to my alarm at 4:30 and felt surprisingly awake. I hadn’t heard any riders pass me while I was there. Eager to get moving again, I quickly threw my sleeping gear into my bags and got back on my bike, leaving on just my merino tights to pedal in during the chilly morning hours. Ooooh, my tender bits were a bit tender. Yikes. I’d never ridden two hundred-mile days in a row before, and 21 hours was the longest I’d ever spent on a bike before. I turned on some music to keep my mind off of it and made good time along the road. Apparently I was too distracted, as before too long I realized I had passed the turnoff to the Colorado Trail in the dark by a couple of miles. Damn it. I turned around and hauled ass back to the turnoff.

After getting onto the trail I made good time along this section and had a heap of fun. The singletrack between the Mt. Elbert trailhead and Twin Lakes is REALLY GOOD. I couldn’t believe I’d never made the effort to ride it before. It was ridiculous fun in the dark and as the sun came up as I was making my way down to Twin Lakes I was blown away by how beautiful it all was. I stopped to snap a couple of photos with my GoPro before cruising the singletrack down to the Lakes. Then there was a long hike-a-bike around the lake and up over the next ridge. I hiked a lot of it and was able to spin up some of it with my tiny 26 tooth chainring. Finally I was back on the highway and cruising towards Buena Vista. The route takes riders from the highway onto the river road in the back of BV, and the 10ish miles of river road took longer than I felt like it should. It was hot, but so beautiful. I watched paddlers in the whitewater alongside the road, and wished for a minute I was in my boat instead of on my bike. My butt and crotch were starting to really hurt and I was ready to be in BV and off my bike for a bit. But man, was it stunning. I’ve spent quite a bit of time in and around BV and had never been along this road. I was really happy to be there.

When I finally got to Buena Vista, it was early afternoon and I had my choice of stores to go to. I elected the grocery and it was maybe a bad choice. It was too big and very crowded with people. No one seemed to be in a hurry, and people meandered down aisles without a care in the world. I was in a hurry and agitated with having to make my way around people. I had calculated that I needed 6,000 calories to get me from BV to Silverton. I had my calculator on my phone and was counting down as I put things in my cart. I bought a beef empanada from the deli and a fresh donut to eat right away. I got two deli breaded chicken strips which were apparently 420 calories each. Those would be clutch. I bought precooked breakfast sausages which were so delicious on the first section and the only real food I had, and 4 precooked Jimmy Dean breakfast sandwiches which were sausage, egg, and cheese on croissants. Some Little Debbie oatmeal cream pies, nutty buddies, and some random cookies along with some meat sticks and a handful of other things which I don’t remember. A good mix of snacks and real food to propel me over the hardest sections of the CT, Sargents Mesa, Coney, and Cataract, all the way to Silverton. I went to check out and the lines were SO. LONG. I was in line for a full 20 minutes, and by the time I got out to my bike I was super agitated. I shoved everything on my bike as quickly as possible and got on the road. OH shit! I didn’t get my espresso or refill water! Fortunately there was a drive-through coffee stand on my way out and they refilled my water for me as I shot my double espresso.

I called Kurt as I spun out of town, warming up my legs after the long break. I was in good spirits again but frustrated at how long the grocery stop had taken me — it had taken nearly an hour. I’m not sure what all I said but he told me that I had made up a lot of time riding through the night. He encouraged me to keep my steady pace and not worry about losing time in BV. Then I was on my way, pedaling hard up the Cottonwood Pass road.

As soon as I hit the singletrack I was in familiar territory. I had raced this stretch the opposite direction during the Vapor Trail 125 back in 2012. I raced it in the dark then, but I remembered it was very chunky and steep — downhill. This time I would be going uphill. The trail was exceptionally sandy with all the horses that had been on it, and my riding quickly turned to pushing as the pitch turned steep.

As my pace slowed, I thought about Ashley and if she would catch me. Thinking about Ashley made me think about Amy, whose namesake foundation was on Ashley’s race kit. I missed Amy. She was a pretty special human. I thought about how she always was a bit of a rebel, being confident in what she wanted and what was best for her as an athlete instead of going along with what anyone else thought she should do. “Do YOUR thing,” she would tell me. “Don’t let anyone else wave their shiny shit and distract you from your own dreams.” I thought about the time she invited me over for coffee just so I could hear her downstairs neighbor practice her laughing therapy which Amy found hilarious. I thought about the time we roomed together at XC Nationals and we talked late into the night about life and love. Amy was a special one.

I finally crested the top of the climb just before the sun went over the ridge. The golden light filtered through the aspens and warmed my skin. A tall cyclist named Ben from Buena Vista was off his bike and napping in the grass, soaking up the last rays. He awoke as I passed, joining me for the descent and riding ahead when I stopped to add a layer. I rode on into the night. For some reason I really wanted to reach Highway 50 and get on to the bottom of the Fooses Creek climb before I stopped to sleep that night. And that segment of trail proceeded to chew me up and spit me out. It was the most frustrating section of the entire CT for me. Steep hike a bike up and out of ravines, only to get on my bike and coast downhill for maybe 50 feet before having to get off again and push my bike up over my head out of yet another ravine. This went on for HOURS. I was getting so frustrated. I was tired but at this point I was out of water and really wanted to get water before I slept. So I pushed on another hour and did not pass water. I was starting to get bumbly on my bike and make mistakes. When I hit my pedal and almost plummeted over the edge down into the ravine, I decided to call it a night somewhere high up on the trail. I was on a pretty steep mountainside, so I pulled out my bivy and bag and planted my feet firmly against a large tree trunk and my body uphill. I set the timer for 4.5 hours. I’m not sure what time I actually stopped or how many miles I rode that day.

As I lay there trying to fall asleep, I started having coughing fits. My lungs had filled with fluid — pulmonary edema from the exertion — and I coughed up fluid all night. I started to feel feverish as I first felt like I was burning up and then freezing in turn. I felt nauseous and achy. I wanted to sleep so badly, but I couldn’t stop coughing. I wanted to drink water but I didn’t have any. I lay there for a few hours, worried. Has my body finally given in? Have I pushed the sleep deprivation and effort too far, gotten myself sick? Is my race over? I stared at my timer and I had been lying there four hours and hadn’t slept at all. I NEEDED water. I saw the lights of another cyclist go by. I decided to get up, pack up my gear and keep moving.

Day 3, early morning light on beautiful Twin Lakes after one of my favorite sections of singletrack in the whole race, in the shadow of 14,000+ft Mt. Elbert.

Day 4

The time until sunrise went by in a blur. I tried to ride as much as I could, but I was useless trying to balance or power my bike up any climbs. I reached water at around 5 am. A few hours later I was struggling to push my bike up a hot, steep, rocky climb. I was nauseous and stumbling, leaning on my bike for support. For the first time I very seriously considered pulling out of the race. I wasn’t able to ride because I was too dizzy to even stay on my bike. I wasn’t making good time hiking either. The more I walked, the more nauseous I got. I was having a hard time putting food in.

As I trudged along I searched hard for a reason to keep going. My rationale went something like this: “If I hated myself or if I hated my body, I could see pushing on as a punishment. But I don’t hate myself or my body. I have no motivation to ruin my body out here. Why am I still out here? I am going so slowly and I can’t even ride. It will take me months to get to Durango at this rate. I wanted to do this because I was curious about how the experience would be, how my body would respond… and the answer seems to be ‘not very well.’ I think it would be stupid to keep going.”

Then the other side… feeling helpless at the thought of pulling out, because for some reason I really did NOT want to pull out though I couldn’t figure out why, and the feeling that maybe I didn’t have a choice and my body wasn’t going to cooperate so that I could continue felt awful. At one point I’m pretty sure I fell asleep standing up, resting my arms and head on my bike. Then…

“Hey, are you okay?” It was Ben, hiking up behind me. He must have made camp before I did somewhere in the woods. I told him I had gotten sick overnight, hadn’t slept, and was dizzy and nauseous. I told him I was trying to make a decision about pulling out when I got to Hwy 50. Ben told me that if he was in my situation he would find a nice place to lie down in the sun and take a nap, and see how I felt when I woke up. I thought that sounded like a good idea. Then he offered me some CBD oil for my nausea. I was happy to oblige. I gratefully put a nasty tasting dropperful under my tongue, let Ben pass as we wished each other luck, and he was soon out of sight. I wouldn’t see him again.

I struggled to the top of the steep climb and emerged onto a plateau filled with nice pine trees. Knowing I would likely lose my lead if I did this but thinking my race was over anyways, I found a soft place where the sunlight was filtering in between the trees, laid down, and set my timer for 90 minutes — one full cycle of sleep. I sent a text to my friend Eryn in Gunnison telling her I might be pulling out at Hwy 50 and may need a pickup, and that I would get back to her in a couple of hours to let her know for sure. Then I passed out.

I woke briefly to the sound of three riders going past quickly in a group. I raised my head slightly and saw a flash of blue and orange. One of the riders was Ashley. I no longer cared. I had to sleep. I turned over and fell back asleep. I awoke again 30 minutes later to someone saying my name. “Liz? Are you okay?” It sounded like someone far away, in a dream. I must have really been out. I sat up to see my friend Andrea Wilson looking at me, concerned. I was discombobulated and confused at how and why she was right here.

Andrea lives in Salida and works at Absolute Bikes. She is a fellow bikepacker and endurance racer. We had raced the Vapor Trail 125 together a number of years back. She had gone to the Hwy 50 crossing to do a day ride and cheer Ashley and me on as we came through. She had been watching us on Trackleaders and knew we were close. When she left, my dot had been ahead of Ashley’s. When she got there, she saw Ashley come through and not me. She decided to ride backwards on the course and see if I was back there, and just barely saw my jacket through the trees.

As I started to wake up I looked at my timer. I had only 4 minutes left of my 90 minutes. I told her what had been going on and that I was going to make my decision about pulling out once I got to the highway. If I was able to ride any of the trail over the flats and downhill, and feel like I was not at a huge risk of crashing and hurting myself, I wanted to continue. But I had no idea if that was possible. I packed up my bike awkwardly, got on, and started to ride. Andrea rode down behind me. That 90 minutes of sleep and the CBD oil must have been the magic ticket, because I was able to ride my bike again, didn’t feel nauseous, and overall felt quite a bit better. We finished the descent and I gave Andrea a hug goodbye and told her I was riding on. She told me she thought Ashley was probably around two hours ahead. I filled water and started the long climb up Fooses Creek.

The climb up Fooses was uneventful. It was nice and shady and I was surprisingly making good time. It was amazing how much the 90 minutes of sleep made a difference. The last push up to the Monarch Crest was slow, but I felt much stronger than I had. I was so grateful and relieved that I didn’t have to pull out, though I still wasn’t sure why. My strength gradually returned as I rode on and on and on through the Monarch area, over Marshall Pass, and finally starting the climb up onto the infamous Sargents Mesa.

Everyone I had ever talked to about the CTR had told me horror stories about Sargents Mesa. They talked about it being haunted and about eerie dead ghost trees from old burns and about weird noises and relentlessly rough terrain and miles upon miles of no water. All except Kurt. He had told me that it was beautiful and not all that hard and that he liked it. There’s always one weird one in the group.

When I reached the top of the mesa, it was just the beginning of golden hour. And it was absolutely stunning. These hours spent on Sargents Mesa were another of my top five highlights of the entire race. It was desolate, and very still — almost eerie still — but the temperature was cool and perfect, and the light filtering through the trees reflected beautifully off the new foliage growth under the tall skeletons of charred trunks. There was some hike a bike, but not much, and the rough rutted technical descents with rocks littered everywhere reminded me of the riding in Guatemala. I went fast and really enjoyed myself.

Near dark, I passed a group of thru hikers who had made camp. They told me that the group of three, two men and Ashley, had just passed about 20 minutes earlier if that. I was making up time! With a fresh burst of energy I donned my lights, pulled on an extra layer, and set out to ride into the night. I wanted to pass Ashley after she had made camp, if possible. It was seeming like she made camp earlier in the night and started riding earlier, while my pattern was to ride late into the night, sleep in the wee hours of the morning, and start riding again an hour before sunrise. If I could put some time on her tonight I might be able to get away. Sure enough, around 10 pm I passed three riders bivied just off the side of the trail. I guessed it was Ashley’s group. I pedaled hard, wanting to put as much time in as I could.

Around midnight I started to get tired and make mistakes. I was nearing the descent off Sargents Mesa which I knew was long and technical, and it made more sense to sleep before that and ride the descent after some rest. As I rode I found a perfect soft bivy spot in some new growth ferns under some tall dead pines. Once again I didn’t bother with my pad, I pulled out my sleeping bag and curled up on the soft ground. I set my alarm for three hours and for the first time fell asleep immediately. It was the best night of sleep I would have the entire race.

Bikepacking in the Rico mountains of the massive San Juan range in southwestern CO as training for the CTR. Photo by Kurt Refsnider

Day 5

I awoke slightly before my alarm to the sound of riders passing on the trail. I had no doubt it was Ashley and the two guys she had ridden with the day before. I waited until they had ridden out of sight, then leaped out of my bag and packed up as quickly as I could. There was still quite a bit of up and down until I finally hit the descent off the mesa, which as described was long and technical. I was riding fairly well and having fun in the early morning hours. As the grey morning light of sunrise appeared, I finally hit the gravel road that led to Hwy 114 between Sawatch and Gunnison. It was FREEZING in that valley. I needed to stop for water, but I didn’t want to stop moving, it was that cold. Finally after the highway I filled at a creek. I put on all of my layers — even my puffy coat and puffy skirt that I used to wrap around my butt and thighs to keep me warm at night — and pedaled at a steady pace up and out of the valley. I didn’t take those layers off until I was halfway up the long steep climb leading to the third detour of the route, the La Garita wilderness detour.

The detour was around 60 miles of gravel road passing through the La Garita Wilderness, where bikes are not allowed on the trail. It was here that I got to work chasing down Ashley. I knew she couldn’t be far ahead — an hour at most. It was also here that I started to feel some pain in both my Achilles tendons. I focused on being efficient with my biomechanics and not pushing too hard of a gear. The pain got worse, but I wasn’t worried. I assumed it was from all the hike a bike the day before, and knew I had a full day of road pedaling ahead of me.

About two hours in, I caught Ashley. She was no longer with the two men, and was riding slowly. She seemed surprised to see me and said she knew I had passed her in the night, and didn’t see me bivied off the trail when she had gone by this morning. She had thought I was still ahead. After chasing hard all morning I was happy to spin an easier pace and we rode together for half an hour or so, chatting about the race and our digestive systems and our lives and backgrounds and the dreaded saddle sores we had both developed over the last day or two. Then I slowly picked up my pace but continued to spin an easy gear. When I reached the top of a climb, I looked back and was surprised to not see her close behind me. I took off.

Wanting to put in some time on Ashley but not wanting to crack myself, I rode at a slightly higher than moderate pace pushing just a little up the last very long climb. I passed two other men who seemed surprised to see me. Finally cresting the hill, I was happy to see the long gravel descent that would take me to the end of the detour and Slumgullion Pass. But my relief was short-lived when I realized how far I still had to go. Miles upon miles of gradual climbing — and it was HOT. At this point it was mid-afternoon and the sun was beating down. There was no shade, and no wind whatsoever. At this point I would have been happy for even a headwind, something to cool the fire that was enveloping me. I stared longingly at the trees off the side of the road, and the beautiful raging creek in the gully below taunted me. I started to lose focus and my pace slowed considerably. My saddle sores felt worse than they had so far, and I started to get intermittent sharp twinges of pain in both my Achilles tendons.

I finally cracked, got off my bike and walked for five minutes just to give my body a different position of movement. I saw a short trail leading to the creek, and on a whim I dropped my bike and walked down to the creek. Taking my helmet off, I dunked my head and hands in the creek. The water wasn’t even that cold, but it felt so good. I let my hair drip down my back. Refreshed, I got back on my bike and continued my spin up the road. The relief didn’t last long though, as my hair dried quickly in the sun and with it came a stench that turned my stomach. It smelled like cow manure, and I remembered all the pastures I had ridden through. Gross.

At this point in the race, all I wanted to do was this. Alas, there would be no trailside naps “just because” in this ride. Photo of lazier times by Kurt Refsnider

I needed an intervention. For the first time I put in my headphones and turned on some music for the final miles. Still, as I rounded the last corner and saw the cars on the highway only a mile away, I knew I needed a break. I made it to the outhouses at the turn to the highway and went around the backside to hide. I lay in the shade, set my timer for 20 minutes, and passed out.

When my timer went off I felt immediately more awake. I sat up, ate some food and drank the last of my water. Just then a young woman popped around the corner of the outhouse, wearing fancy clothes. “Ma’am, are you okay?” “Yeah, I was just taking a nap in the shade here. It’s been hot.” “Are you sure? Do you need anything, food or water?” I could see the worry in her eyes as she obviously didn’t believe me. I reassured her that actually I was fine and had everything I needed. I got back on my bike and rode out into the parking lot where a whole van full of tourists who had obviously stopped to use the outhouse were standing there staring at me. I smiled and waved as I turned onto the pavement and headed up towards Spring Creek Pass, where I would start the most difficult and daunting segments of the Colorado Trail: the Coney and Cataract segments, nearly 40 miles of all high alpine riding above treeline down into Silverton.

This section is intimidating because there are nearly no escapes in the event of a lightning storm, and it was afternoon monsoon season in Colorado where nearly every day there are a few hours of rain, thunder and lightning in the high country. Since we started the race we had been really lucky with weather, however, and hadn’t gotten rained on at all. I was crossing my fingers that it continued. I was also excited that I would likely be riding this segment at night, when it is much less likely to be storming. I had ridden this in the other direction with Kurt as a mellow tour and I was happy to have seen it in the daylight before. It was beautiful. But I was hoping to get through at least a good portion of it in the dark before I slept for a few hours.

At Spring Creek Pass I finally started to become concerned about my Achilles tendons. They had become painful enough that each twinge felt like I was being sliced by a scalpel, and the twinges were becoming more frequent. I took off my shoes and adjusted my cleats, slamming them all the way back in their tracks so they were as close to the center of my feet as possible to take load off the Achilles.

As I started up the trail to Jarosa Mesa, the gateway to the San Juan mountains, I heard rumbles of thunder off in the distance. I had to smile. The San Juans are the wettest mountain range in Colorado, and I had spent the past month riding all over the San Juans in the rain for my training rides. True to form, they reminded me what they were capable of as rain came in waves. I pulled on my rain coat and opened the pit zips for ventilation as I climbed up to the mesa and towards the sunset.

I crested the Jarosa Mesa and got my first view of the San Juans in the entire race. I stopped in my tracks and said “WOW” out loud to no one. This was the third of my top five highlights of the entire race. The view was stunning. Golden light bounced off peaks and ridgelines as dark storm clouds swept up the valleys. The contrast of light and darkness stirred an energy inside me that I knew was as much a part of the place as it was of me. As I stared at the sea of high peaks stretched out before me, I felt like I was being welcomed home. This mountain range had secured a place in my heart over the last three months and finishing my race riding this beautiful terrain I was familiar with would be a perfect way to celebrate my effort.

Be still, my heart. Rewarded for my efforts in the first 5 days of the CTR with my first view of the San Juans as I crest Jarosa Mesa at golden hour.

Bumping happily along across Jarosa Mesa, which is covered in volcanic rock with only a faint trail through the haphazardly strewn small boulders, I was making good time. This section reminded me of riding in parts of Iceland. There wasn’t much flow to it and trying to pedal consistently would be useless, so it was more about gaining momentum by pumping the bike and sneaking in pedal strokes when possible, taking care to avoid the sharp points of the rocks which could puncture tires. I saw the yurt where Kurt and I had turned off the CT to descend into Lake City on our bikepacking tour to explore the Alpine Trail instead of continuing to the pavement. As I dipped back below treeline for the final time before heading into the alpine and up to the high point of the route at Coney Summit, a loud rumble of thunder sounded overhead and a wave of rain stopped overhead and decided to stay awhile. I pulled on my rain paints. It was 8:30 pm and nearly dark. If it was raining up high, it was going to be cold.

I passed by a few male racers that had just made camp at the base of the trees. They told me there were a bunch of racers who were staying in the yurt up the hill, and asked me if I was continuing on. One of them also told me he had checked the Trackleaders race tracking website and had seen that the 3rd and 4th place female racers, Leigh and Alexandera, had made time on Ashley and me during the La Garita detour. They must have hit the road in the evening and moved much more quickly than Ashley and I had in the heat of the day. I told them I had planned to try and get over the high point before calling it a night, but it depended on the weather. They wished me luck as I rode off.

Thirty minutes later I reached treeline. This was where I had decided to make my final call about continuing up. The rain had become steady and started to fall harder, and thunder was rumbling. I saw a flash of lightning far off in the distance. It was just after 9 pm and dark. I quickly made the decision to bivy just below treeline, get a few hours of sleep early, and make a big push over the mountains after midnight when hopefully these storms had passed.

I also knew that once I made the move, I would have to hold it until the end. It was the only way that I knew for sure I would have a good chance at breaking away from Ashley, Alexandera, and Leigh. It was going to be potentially up to 48 straight hours of movement with no significant rest. It was risky after what I had already been through — the potential was definitely there for me to crack. But I knew I was capable of it and I knew it was my only chance to get a solid gap on the other women.

With that plan cemented in my mind, I crawled into my sleeping bag I had put under the canopy of some small pine trees just barely off the trail. I was soaking wet with even my wet and muddy bike shoes on. I no longer cared. I needed to be as efficient as possible. I set my alarm for 1 am, 3.5 hours of sleep, and passed out immediately.

At the high point of the Colorado Trail on Coney summit, NOT in the race — I got to tour this section a few weeks before the race began. In the actual race, I passed this point around 2 am! Photo by Kurt Refsnider.

Day 6

I woke at 12:30 am to the sound and lights of two riders passing me. I heard them talking and it was two male voices. Relief. I packed up as quickly as I could and was on the trail by 12:45, riding up towards the looming hulk of Coney Summit far in the distance. The sky was still cloudy and it was drizzling on and off but it seemed like much of the storm had passed. I was soaking wet inside and out. Riding through the drenched bushes that had overgrown the sides of the trail felt like going through a car wash. Fortunately I was wearing both my rain coat and pants which insulated me from the wind and kept me warm as long as I was moving. Soon the trail got steep and riding turned to pushing. My Achilles tendons quickly resumed their intermittent twinging and I took small steps to keep from overstressing them.

Finally I reached the steepest part of the trail, which I knew from when Kurt and I had ridden it the other direction. It required shouldering my bike and scrambling up the rocky face, as it was too steep and the ledges too high for someone my height to push the heavy bike up. I am no stranger to carrying my bike on my shoulders. “At least I haven’t just resupplied food,” I thought. The rain had improved the trail conditions from last time I was there; it was no longer slippery and loose and gaining traction was much easier.

I took the final high step up onto the final ledge with my left leg and shifted the bike slightly on my shoulders. I gave a strong pushoff with my right leg, shifting my weight forward so as to not fall backwards under the weight of the bike. And then I felt it: a snapping sensation in my right Achilles tendon that felt like I’d been stung by something, and a fiery zing of pain running up my calf to the back of my knee. Oh shit. I stumbled to my knees but I was on the upper ledge, and I quickly stood up and righted my bike. I tried to take a few more steps and was not able to put weight on my right foot in the flexed ankle position. I couldn’t fight through the searing pain in my Achilles. I didn’t want to think about it, but with my 10 years of experience as a physical therapist I knew very well what had happened. I had just torn a part of my tendon. I searched my brain for shreds of hope. “It could be just a small partial tear. There’s lots of tendon still left.”

There was nothing I could do but continue on. I was on the side of a peak in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night. I went for my stash of ibuprofen which I had been slowly eating to deal with the pain of my saddle sores and my knee early in the race, and both Achilles over the last day. I had only three left. I swallowed them down and resorted to sidestepping up the trail, pushing my bike beside me and using it as somewhat of a crutch. It worked. As long as I could keep my right foot flat, I could keep moving. Up I went — very, very slowly.

After what seemed like hours I finally reached the high point of the entire Colorado Trail, atop the Coney summit. At this point I finally got to go downhill for awhile. It was still very dark but I knew the trail from here and knew I could still go fast. I could no longer stand on my right pedal while clipped in, but I could balance on my heels on both pedals and have minimal strain on the Achilles. And that is exactly what I did for the next hour.

I passed a huge group of tents just after the Coney saddle, likely thru hikers all camped together. I passed “Pika Camp,” the beautiful spot that Kurt and I had camped on our tour where his entire helmet strap system and one glove got eaten by pikas during the night. This was just at first light, and also where the trail turned back uphill. I refilled my water near here, and began the slow trudge in the upward direction, sideways.

The next hours went by incredibly slowly. I had been looking forward to speeding through Coney and Cataract segments since I knew the trail and I was finally feeling good. I should have been able to ride most of this trail, but I could not put any power into the pedals for the climbs without searing pain running through both my Achilles. My right ankle had lost all mobility into dorsiflexion (upward flexion), I assumed because of swelling in the tendon, and it could not put any effort into the pedal stroke at all. So I was again forced to hike sideways where I could have been pedaling.

I was so frustrated at my Achilles for not being able to match the energy and effort level of the rest of my body. I wasn’t tired at all, the rest of me craved fast movement. I wanted to put time into the other women and knew I had made a good move by going over Coney summit at 1 am. But here I was, slowly and painfully sidestepping up the many climbs of this alpine region instead of riding strong like I knew I could be. It was all I could do to not let this crack me. “You HAVE to keep moving,” I told myself. I had no other choice. I put in music again. Storms moved in and out, and I got intermittently soaked. I no longer cared.

It was just before Cataract Lake that I ran out of food. I hadn’t anticipated having to move so slowly through this segment. If I had been able to ride my bike I would have had plenty of food to get me to Silverton. My only hope at this point was to make it to Silverton, replenish my stores of ibuprofen and get some actual athletic tape and try to support my Achilles on both sides as much as I could to keep going.

Or I could pull out at Silverton. But once I got there, I would be SO CLOSE. Only 80 miles to Durango from Silverton over the most beautiful section of trail yet. I had fought through so much already, with my body breaking down slowly one system at a time and somehow miraculously bouncing back. I didn’t want to quit.

Some training rides included stopping to smell the flowers and take in views I knew I wouldn’t get to see during the race, as I would pass by in the dark hours of the night. This one was on the Cataract segment.

Finally after what seemed like YEARS I reached the final detour of the route: Stony Pass. The CT heads through wilderness here to reach Molas Pass, and people on bikes turn left down the Stony Pass road and descend into Silverton, to then climb up the highway 10 miles from Silverton to Molas Pass and turn back onto the trail for the final segment. This also gives cyclists the option for a resupply in Silverton which is much needed since the previous resupply was way back in Buena Vista.

I was having a hard time even standing on my pedals with my heels at this point, so I stopped and taped up my ankles the best I could using gorilla tape. It didn’t stick very well to my skin, but maybe it would do something. The Stony Pass is a long steep descent covered in loose babyhead rocks, and as I started descending the skies opened up and let loose on me. It POURED rain and loud thunder rumbled and I could barely see as I made my way down the pass road, trying to move quickly but still being safe. It was freezing cold. After the steep descent the road flattens out and there is a slight downhill into town, making it about an hour between the top of the pass and rolling into downtown Silverton. It looked like lighter skies ahead and I was anxious to get into town and get food. I was pretty hungry at this point and had been about 5 hours with no food.

Just at the base of the steep section, I felt something funny and turned around to look at my rear tire. It was going flat. Oh great, just what I needed right now. I must have pinch flatted on a rock somewhere. It was still raining. I jumped off and grabbed one of my tire plugs from my top tube bag. Fortunately I saw the hole right away. It was in the tread and spitting sealant. I shoved the plug into the hole before all the air was completely out of the tire. I started pumping it up with my little hand pump, praying it held. Some sealant was spitting out of the interface with the bead and rim as well. Fortunately it held, and I only put enough pressure in to get me into town. There was a bike shop there, and I could stop and use a floor pump.

I slammed my heels onto the pedals and was able to grind out a fast and consistent pace on the pavement down into town. First thing I did was hobble into a cannabis shop. I walked in soaking wet and covered in mud. The 10 people in the room stared at me like I was some sort of half-drowned Sasquatch. “Do you have any CBD oil?” I asked as the puddle around my feet grew. I knew it would help my Achilles to rub this in to it. “Nope, we’re completely out,” said the guy behind the counter. Damn.

I got back on my bike and started riding through the incredibly packed town. Tourists everywhere both walking and driving. It was hard to ride down the main street. I realized I didn’t remember where the bike shop was. I started calling out “Does anyone know where the bicycle shop is?” Hoping someone would at least point me to the right direction. But everyone just stared at me with blank faces and bulging eyes. My own eyes landed on a sign for pizza at a gas station. I rolled up and ordered two huge slices of the piping hot pizza on display at the counter. The woman was very nice, let me use the bathroom to clean up a bit (my first pee in a real toilet in 5 days — ha!) and told me that the bike shop was right out the back of her shop and across the street. Score. I wolfed down one juicy slice of pizza, shoved the other in my feed bag and headed over to the shop to pump up my tires. Both were low pressure, and I inflated them to well over what I usually ride them at hoping to avoid any more flats in the final stretch.

Last stop was the Silverton Market. I had been there before and knew exactly what I wanted. Remember the little cuts all over my tongue and back of my mouth that had been hindering my food intake since Day 2? They were out in full force, getting worse throughout the race. Most of my ibuprofen had been consumed reducing this pain and swelling enough that I could eat what was needed to keep me going. All the food I got for the final stretch needed to slide down easily with minimal chewing and no sharp edges, and I needed 6000 calories worth of it. I took out my calculator on my phone and started the calorie countdown. I bought four breakfast burritos, two cream-filled donuts, three brownies, three packages of Hostess cakes, a green Naked Juice smoothie which I drank right there, and six hard boiled eggs. I also bought a giant roll of athletic tape and a bottle of ibuprofen.

The real reason I race bikes: so I can stuff my face with donuts.

I took three ibuprofen, packed my bike and headed out of town. It had started to rain again and there was no sense taping my feet in the rain. I couldn’t bring myself to take off my disgusting bike shoes in the tiny market. I would scare away all the customers. As I started my final pavement climb up Molas Pass, heels on the pedals, I called Kurt for a final time. I hadn’t heard his voice since Buena Vista and talking to him made me giddy. I chattered away about everything that had happened: How he was right about how beautiful and lovely Sargents Mesa was, it had been my favorite section so far. The incredible light on Jarosa Mesa and my first view of the San Juans, where we had ridden together. How I had made the decision to camp at Coney treeline and head for the alpine just after midnight. How frustrated I was to have had to sidestep nearly all of Coney and Cataract after being so excited to race on it after touring it. How I wasn’t able to pedal anything steep or technical but I had bought fresh tape and ibuprofen and was really hoping I could make my Achilles hold out long enough to finish.

Kurt told me that I had put nearly two hours into Ashley and that Leigh and Alexandera were only two miles behind her. They were all just finishing Cataract as I was climbing out of Silverton. I tried not to think about how much farther I could have been had I been able to ride Cataract. As it turned out, Kurt had needed to use tape to save his race from an injured Achilles in an ultra once before as well, and just before my phone lost signal he told me how he had taped it that made it possible for him to ride.

When I reached Molas Pass the rain was still moving in and out, but it looked like I had a bit of time before the next wave. I pulled off my slimy shoes and did the best I could to scrub the five days worth of caked dirt off my feet and legs with a wet wipe. Then I taped them up as tightly as I could. The taping technique was designed to essentially act as a replacement Achilles, taking the strain almost entirely off my Achilles in the neutral and dorsiflexed position. I put on the dry pair of socks that I had stashed in my bag on the occasion that I might get really cold. I had been wearing the same pair of socks the entire time, to ride in and sleep in, and to give my tape the best chance to stick I went for the dry pair.

It was 5:00 pm when I left the top of Molas. I reset my Garmin etrex20 time and mileage numbers. I had already been moving for 17 hours straight and I knew that the final 70 miles of trail was likely going to take me another 18–20 hours. I had never ridden for that much continuous time before. I didn’t want to look down at my Garmin and have the numbers potentially psych me out.

I decided to tell myself a story and set the scene for my final stretch: “Okay, it’s nearly golden hour, your favorite time of day to be out on your bike. You’ve just driven up here from town and parked at Molas Pass. You’re about to begin a 70 mile solo bike ride on the most beautiful stretch of trail in all of Colorado. You’re well-rested and feeling fresh. You’ll ride into the sunset and through the night, just because you love night riding. The cool night air and smell of the forest will give you energy. You’ll ride all night and when the sun comes up you’ll be somewhere on top of the high ridgelines, overlooking the Rico mountains — the very mountains you’ve fallen in love with after spending all summer there. You’ll be so thrilled to see them at sunrise. And then you’ll end your 70 mile ride shredding down the thrilling Kennebec Pass descent into Durango. You’re on a record pace and all you have to do is move consistently and not make any mistakes, just like on any old bike ride, and you won’t get caught. These 70 miles are going to be fun.”

And off I went, into the golden hour. One more wave of rain hit me, soaking my dry socks. And then the clouds cleared, revealing the evening sun, and the landscape around me exploded into a world of color and light. This was the fourth of my top five highlights of the whole race. As I turned the corner to a full view of Engineer Mountain, I was reminded of my friend Tricia who took her own life last fall. She lived in Durango and this was her favorite ride. I’d done it with her countless times. As I rode up the trail I let myself flash back to times I’d climbed that very section with Tricia, talking the entire time about anything and everything. When I hit the trail junction where we would always go left off the CT to shred the descent down Engineer, I had a clear image of Tricia as I had seen her so many times on that descent: huge beautiful grin, long dark braids flying as she bounced playfully down the trail. It made me smile. I left Tricia at the turnoff silently thanking her for her company, letting her memory go her favorite way as I turned my awareness back to my own ride.

Be kind. And love your life sometimes, too. Do what makes you happy, and live with purpose and intention. Because really, we’re pretty damn lucky to be here. In memory of Tricia Leigh Shadell. ❤

I was feeling good making great time up the climb, and before I knew it I was at the top of Rolling Hills Pass. My robust tape work was doing its job, and I was only getting occasional twinges in my Achilles. It felt so good to finally be able to climb hard again. I stopped briefly at the pass to snap some photos and take in the 360 degree panorama of incredible views. The sun was just about to set behind the western ridge, and the landscape around me was bathed in warm golden light. I enjoyed the last feeling of warmth as I donned my lights and pulled on my layers, and as the sun slipped behind the ridge I began my descent.

Last rays of light atop Rolling Hills Pass in the San Juans on the homestretch of the CTR, the only human anywhere around. Once again, I hit a long and technical descent just before nightfall and it was heaps of fun.

The descent off Rolling Hills Pass was as fun as I had remembered. Kurt and I had toured this weeks before on a day ride, and the memory of us laughing and hooting was fresh in my mind. Even as a loaded bike my Juliana Joplin was playful and eating up the miles of technical trail. I was thankful to be riding this in the last minutes of daylight as once again I knew it would be slower for the other women in the dark. As for me, I was flying. I knew what was around every turn, where the climbs were and what the trail was like, even in the dark. I was ready for all of it and finally, FINALLY, my body felt good. The Achilles tape was working and I could ride clipped in. I charged up the climbs and stayed focused on the descents. I knew at some point I would probably have to nap, but it took until the wee hours for me to start losing focus.

When I finally did lose focus, it went quickly. The hallucinations started and I was seeing dinosaur skeletons in every dead tree off the side of the trail. It didn’t worry me, it just seemed interesting. I knew I was tired and I walked the technical sections, not wanting to chance a potentially race-ending crash if I was to get hurt. When I found myself frequently crashing slowly into the uphill side of the trail on easy sections trying to avoid falling off to the downhill side, I knew it was time to stop.

But I didn’t want to stop long. Being the final night of the race, I knew Ashley, Alexandera, and Leigh were all coming for me. The race was close enough that if I made any mistakes, that could be it. We all wanted the win and we all knew it. Even though I had a solid gap it was still anyone’s game. I leaned my bike against a tree just off the side of the trail and pulled on my puffy coat and polar fleece hat.

This would be my very first “shiver bivy” — the term for taking a quick nap without your sleeping bag and bivy sack so that you would be too shivery to sleep more than a brief amount of time. I laid down right in the trail so that if anyone was to pass me, they would have to step over or around me (or right on me) and I would wake up. I set my kitchen timer for 20 minutes and passed out. At that point I had been riding for a full 24 hours.

When my alarm went off I felt alert, which made me excited. I had been skeptical when friends like Kurt and Jefe had told me in the past that only a short nap could make you feel alert enough to keep riding into the night. I thought maybe that only applied to people like them, who I considered superhuman. So I was pretty thrilled to feel so awake. I got on my bike and was able to ride normally again, and continued my steady pace winding across the flanks of the mountains that gradually climbed towards Blackhawk Pass.

A few hours later the dinosaurs appeared again. I started to get sleepy and lose focus. Not long afterwards I was jolted awake by the sudden appearance of a giant bright light that had come up behind me out of nowhere. Ashley?! My heart skipped a beat and I put a foot down, head on a swivel looking back. I laughed out loud when I realized it was the moon. I kept riding, and this happened a number of times more. Every time I would see the flash of light behind me my heart would jump, and I had to remind myself that it was still only the moon. The dinosaurs got more frequent and started to move as I passed. I saw a flash of bright light ahead of me lighting up a talus field. It left, then appeared again. Was I about to be abducted by the alien dinosaur skeletons? Was I going nuts?!

Apprehensively, I rounded the corner to where the light appeared to be. I was relieved to see two racers packing up camp. It was Donnie and Todd, two guys I had ridden with way back on Day 1 and had seen briefly since then. They were happy to see me again this late in the race and riding fast. They were the ones who had been riding with Ashley when she passed me as I was sick and napping in the woods back on Day 3, to when I passed her again on the La Garita detour on Day 4. I stopped to chat with them. They had elected to sleep early because they wanted to see Indian Trail Ridge in the daytime. They had also looked at Trackleaders not too long ago, and told me that I had about a four-hour lead on Ashley at this point. She must have stopped and slept somewhere in the early hours of the night.

I continued on, using the energy I had from the chat to get as far as possible before I stopped again for a shiver bivy. I made it another 30 minutes or so before I started crashing into the uphill side of the trail again, and this time I stopped right away. That sort of riding was inefficient. I pulled out my puffy jacket and fleece hat again, laid down right beside the trail, and this time set my timer for 45 minutes. This should carry me all the way to the end. I heard Donnie and Todd ride by maybe 15 minutes later. I woke up shivering just before my alarm, wide awake. In less than 5 minutes I was back on my bike pedaling towards the looming hulk of Blackhawk Pass. As the trail steepened my Achilles started to twinge, so I got off and hiked, but I was still making good time.

Interval training to the top of Blackhawk Pass, weeks before the CTR began. Again I was grateful to have ridden this in the daylight before I raced it in the dark! Photo by Kurt Refsnider

I hit the top of Blackhawk Pass at 4:45 am. This was the fifth of my top five highlights of the entire race. It was pitch dark except for a velvet blanket full of stars overhead. I was completely alone. I looked around behind me for a full five minutes, back in the direction I had come. I could see down the entire valley and my last 5–6 hours of riding. I saw no lights, no signs of life. Only me. A shiver of excitement ran down my spine. I had done it — my strong midnight push the night before, 28 hours earlier, was enough to crack my small lead wide open. If I was being followed, it was not closely. I knew the remainder of the route well and I felt wide awake and strong. My body was cooperating, finally adjusted to the rhythm of the race. All I had to do was ride mindfully at a moderate pace in a consistent rhythm, not crash and get hurt, and I was well within the record time and set up for the win. I knew I could do that. Patience, now.

All smiles during a ripping fast training ride descent of Blackhawk Pass. Photo by Kurt Refsnider

I rode down Blackhawk Pass carefully, knowing I could not screw up. I stopped just before treeline to fill all of my water vessels from the spring coming out of the talus field that I knew would be there. I also knew it would be a long time before I would see water again. I reached the bottom of the pass and started the climb up the Highline section of trail towards the famed Indian Trail Ridge. Just as I had told myself in my story when I started the final section at Molas Pass, I saw the first light of morning appear over the Rico mountains that I knew so well. The highline section pops frequently out of the trees to reveal some incredible vistas to the south and east, and I stopped to watch in silent awe as the sun rose up over the serrated eastern ridgeline. This was my final (and 6th, ha) highlight of the race — the silence, the sunrise over the peaks I knew and loved so well, the knowledge that I was only 40 miles from the finish of the race and feeling amazing. I stood there another few minutes to take it in.

What an incredible ride this had been so far. My body still felt great aside from the occasional Achilles twinges. The tape was holding strong. My energy levels were lifted by the morning light, and I felt refreshed. I looked at the time, and I was just about to roll over Day 6 and counting hours of this race. The current course record was 7 days and change. I was well ahead of record pace, my calculations had me finishing somewhere around 6 days and 8 hours. All I had to do was keep riding consistently like I had been doing, taking it easy on the technical sections and the final descent down Kennebec Pass, and I would roll into Junction Creek with the race win and the new course record.

It hardly seemed real — and it wasn’t, yet. I still had to keep it together for another 8ish hours. But I knew I had a strong lead and I knew I had it in me. I knew I was capable; I had known that going into this race without any doubts. I had put the time in over the past 6 months with my preparation and training. I had kept moving despite so much already in the past days, through sickness, injury, and all manners of body aches and pains. My mental game had remained strong, and since Silverton my body seemed finally ready to fully cooperate. I had seen in the last 12 hours how I was capable of riding when my mind and body were actually on the same page, and in that moment I finally felt like a true ultra racer. I knew the rest of the course well. I couldn’t wait to ride it. I got back on my bike and continued my steady pace up through the woods.

Final sunrise of the CTR, a quiet magical moment high up in the San Juans. It was 5:30 am and I had 40 miles to go. I felt great and had been riding strong for the past 28 hours. My body had finally decided to cooperate. At this point I knew I was on my way to a victory and new women’s course record.

The beginning of the end

Around two hours later, at 7:30 am, I was on an easy descending traverse over halfway through the highline trail when suddenly my rear brake went all the way to the bars with nothing there. The rear of my bike fishtailed and I went careening into the uphill side of the mountain, my right shoulder and torso slamming into the fortunately soft dirt. Whoa, what in the HELL was that?! I stood up, righting my bike, and grabbed my brake. Nothing. Something had obviously severed my brake line…? No matter, I still had a solid front brake. I was more than capable of riding the Kennebec Pass descent with only a front brake. I got back on my bike and tried to coast away, but my rear wheel wouldn’t roll. What in the actual fuck…?!

I got off and took a closer look at my rear wheel. Holy shit. The side of my hub that my brake rotor was attached to was about 75% gone, the freehub body completely sheared off. My rotor was dangling by two bolts. I looked around for the missing piece of my hub body. Nothing, nowhere. I had to think quickly. I pulled out my bike tool and started to unscrew the remaining rotor bolts, then quickly realized the part of the hub they were screwed into was also coming right off. I pulled out my thru axle, disengaged my rear wheel and grabbed the rotor and yanked it out. I put the wheel back on, unscrewed the brake caliper from the frame, and ziptied it to the frame so it would not be in the way of the wheel rolling. I definitely didn’t have a brake now, but I could probably still ride.

The beginning of the end.

I got back on the bike, put my chain in the middle of my cassette, and started slowly pedaling. It was making an awful noise, and the rear wheel was floating all over between my chainstays. Sketchy, but it was working. I pedaled easily along the flats and coasted gingerly downhill, hovering carefully above my weaving bike. When the trail turned upwards the grinding noise got worse. I jumped off and jogged alongside my bike, noticing that the rear wheel was hitting first one side of my chainstays and then the other. “Maybe I shouldn’t use the drivetrain at all,” I thought. I could run across the flats and uphills, and hopefully coast the downhills slowly. It was 7:30 am and I was 37 miles from the finish. I could make this work.

This is when shit got crazy. I began talking out loud to all my bike parts, giving them encouragement and trying to be a motivating team leader: “Okay guys, here’s how this is going to work. You’re all just going to have to do a bit of extra effort now to hold together for the final stretch of this race to make up for the injured parts that can’t help anymore. We’re only 35 miles away. We’ve lost a few members of the team but the rest of you are all strong. I’m going to make this as easy on you as possible by only riding on the downhills. I’ll run the rest. I feel strong, I know we can do this. We’ve got this. Only a little longer.” Like a good captain, I rallied my troops with all the enthusiasm and positivity I could muster.

I ran uphill and across flats and coasted the few downhills we had for two miles. Then, I sat on the bike for one coast and it felt different — like I was sort of hanging in space. I looked back at my rear wheel. It looked the same, but something felt off. I addressed my team: “Okay guys, I’m not going to ride anymore. I’ll make it easy on you and just run the whole thing. It’ll be fine. I feel great. Just hold together, all you have to do is roll now. No more weight.”

I pulled off my non-drive side pedal so my legs wouldn’t get caught up in it. I ran easily beside my bike, and at that moment I still had no doubt I could finish the race and probably still win it. I had spent a good portion of my training running, and my shoes fit me well — though my left shoe had been taped to my foot for two days since failure of the Boa-style upper closure system left me with no other way to tighten my shoe. I could run 35 miles rolling my bike. No problem.

Creeeeeak… grind… zing! My bike wheel stuffed up inside the space between my seat tube and the two sides of my chainstays and refused to roll. I reached down and gave my wheel a shake. Am I seeing things?! Is this a hallucination? My cassette now seemed to be disengaged from my hub, and there was nothing keeping my wheel from just sliding side to side, back and forth at its leisure. I tried to roll it again to no avail. I couldn’t keep the tire from stuffing against the frame. It was useless.

I addressed my troops again: “Okay guys, think light. You’re about to get a free ride down this mountain.” I picked up the bike and threw it over my shoulders. Not having worn a backpack in this race, it was awkward and I only made it about half a mile under the load and not moving quickly. Think fast. There HAS to be a way. I dropped my bike and detached all my bikepacking bags, strapping them to my body in any way I could think of. Around my waist, my chest, over my shoulders. I couldn’t figure out any way to strap my handlebar roll bag around me so I left it on the bike. I pulled off my useless rear wheel and tied it to the tiny roll-up backpack I had packed for carrying extra food at resupplies, slinging it over my shoulders.

In disbelief at what was happening, but determined not to give up. Carrying my bags, my bike, and its broken parts across the final segments of the Colorado Trail.

Now all I had to carry was my bike sans rear wheel, and my handlebar roll bag and frame bag and their contents. Likely around 40 pounds, with the other 20 strapped to me. “Okay, here’s what we’re going to do,” I told myself — still talking to all my partially-working parts like the captain of a team — “All you have to do now is hold on, just stay attached to me, and we’ll make it in. We’ll run until Ashley catches us on her bike. If that happens we’ll throw in the towel. But until then we’re running. There’s still a chance we can come out ahead.”

I threw my frame over my shoulders and ran for 13 miles. There isn’t much to say about that. It was awkward and painful. I went through waves of frustration and indignance — “this isn’t fair! I’ve come so far, I’ve worked so hard to get ahead and I’m almost done, why is this happening now?!” And systematically pushing these thoughts out of my mind and focusing back on awkwardly running with my heavy load, trying to step lightly and not turn an ankle. Keeping a positive mindset and telling my body over and over again, “you can do this. you can do this. you can do this.”

As I approached the start of Indian Trail Ridge, I realized I could no longer feel my feet. I was running on dead stumps. Where did my feet go? Surprised, I looked down. My lower legs and ankles had ballooned to well over twice their normal size and my shoes looked like they were about to burst open and explode. Whoa. Holy shit, what is going on. It was nearly noon. I had been running with my broken bike for over 4 hours. No one had caught me.

I stopped in a meadow, unstrapped my load and set my bike down. I needed to take a minute and figure out what to do. Without thinking I ripped off my shoes and my swollen feet exploded out. They were huge and wet and raisiny. My Achilles tape that had kept me going for the past 19 hours was somehow still firmly attached, though it had obviously stretched under the stress of running. I stood up barefoot and tried to walk around. My right ankle gave out with a sharp twinge of pain. It would barely hold my weight. How did I just run 13 miles?! I hobbled back to my shoes and contemplated how I was going to stuff my massive feet back into them. Shit, I shouldn’t have taken these off.

Whoa. This is what exploded out of my bike shoes up on the top of Indian Trail Ridge.

I took a deep breath. “Okay team,” I said out loud. “Let’s be logical and think this through. We have 7 miles of Indian Trail Ridge, which is up and down and pretty technical. Then we have 15 miles of the Kennebec Pass descent, save a few miles of climbing in the middle. But it’s mostly all downhill to the finish. If Ashley can ride her bike, she’ll be moving at 25 mph. We are going to be hobbling awkwardly downhill trying not to get hurt. All of you are pretty heavy for me to carry. And I’m not sure how to get my feet back into these shoes. Ashley’s no doubt been gaining time on us for the past 5 hours. I can’t believe she hasn’t passed us yet. Depending on how far back she is, there’s a really good chance she’ll pass us on the downhill, and all our efforts will be for nothing.”

I had come into this race with ambitious goals. Finishing the CTR was nowhere in those goals. I’ve bikepacked for 40 days straight across the Peruvian Andes — I had zero doubt that I had the ability to finish the Colorado Trail. My goal was to win the race and set a new course record. That is what I had trained and prepared for since I first looked at the stats and realized I had the capacity to do that if I worked hard. I had dedicated six months to preparation for that goal. I was not willing to sacrifice my body any more than I already had just to finish this race if my actual goal was no longer possible. So, that was the question: Could I stay ahead of Ashley and of the current record pace on foot for the last 22 miles, knowing how much downhill lay ahead?

Broken parts and a broken heart.

As I sat there contemplating, a male racer came out of the woods and around the corner. It was Dana Ernst. “Hi!” I said. He asked if I was okay and I said yes, but my bike was broken. I asked him if he had passed Ashley. He told me she was maybe 45 minutes behind him, that she and him had both cracked pretty hard overnight and were moving very slowly. I thanked him as he continued to climb slowly up the trail.

With that knowledge, my decision was made. Ashley hadn’t been feeling great, she was moving slowly, and she was 45 minutes behind me still making up time across the flats and on the climbs over the past 5 hours as I had been running. I might be able to keep some distance on the ridge, but there was no way I could stay ahead of her as soon as the trail turned downhill. And once I started the Kennebec descent there was no other way out. I would have to hobble all the way to the finish even after she passed.

Twenty-two miles from the finish, my race was over.

Finally, after 513 miles of riding and 13 miles of running carrying 60 pounds of awkward gear, after 6 days of efforts, only 22 miles and 4–6 hours (by bike) from the finish, I threw in the towel. My race was over.

I pulled out my InReach for exactly the purpose it was intended for. I sent a text via satellite to my friend Gary, who lived nearby and had been watching my dog over the past week. “Bike broken. I’m out. Need ride.” With the text would also be my location. Gary knew the area and was experienced in backcountry travel. He would be able to find the closest access road to pull me off the course. I had no idea where I was in relation to a road or a trailhead. My phone had no signal and had died overnight anyways.

Gary responded right away and said he was already on his way. He had been watching my dot on Trackleaders and he and his wife Dina were actually on their way to Junction Creek trailhead to meet me at the finish as I rode through, race winner and new record holder.

Instead, they diverted their course and would be evacuating me off the route as a DNF.

Once the decision was made, I collapsed onto the grass and pulled the tape off both my ankles. Everything hurt. My tongue was so painful I couldn’t eat and I could barely drink. I couldn’t feel my feet, just a dull pulsating throb throughout my lower legs with a faint tingling sensation.

For a brief minute I felt a wave of disappointment and disbelief wash over me. I was devastated at what had happened. I really thought I had it. I had felt SO good since leaving Silverton. And Durango was SO close. Just 22 miles and four to six hours away by bike, after I had ridden 526 miles in just over six days. I was so close.

But still, considering my goals and my situation, I knew I had made the right decision. I left it all out there, I did everything I could. I had done my best and executed my race perfectly. My luck just ran out. My ultimate goal, always, is to do my best in every moment — and in this moment, the decision to end my race was my best.

I sat there an hour before I heard Gary call my name. I had no idea which way he’d be coming from or how far I would have to hike to reach his truck. I saw him hiking up an opposing ridge towards me, and he had my dog Cody with him. I called Cody and he seemed genuinely surprised as he ran towards me. I gathered up my explosion of bags and broken parts as Gary reached me. He had found a trailhead that was just over a mile from where I was stopped.

Sitting in the sorry heap of my broken bike parts, soaking in my epic failure but proud of my efforts, I was happy to see my dog and my friend Gary who had come up to help me haul my 60 pounds of useless gear off the Colorado trail.

Gary picked up my bike and I strapped my load back on, and we slowly made our way downhill, the wrong direction, away from the Colorado Trail and my run at the CTR record. I still couldn’t feel my feet and my right ankle was doing a lousy job at holding me up. I could barely walk. I was in shock as the effects of the sleep deprivation and how hard I had pushed my body set in. This was really it. I was done. Though I had been sitting there for well over an hour, Ashley had still not passed.

My friend Gary helping me haul my useless load down the wrong side of the mountain.

Looking back at Trackleaders after the race, it appears Ashley had passed the spot where I was stopped less than 20 minutes after Gary and I headed down into the woods. She had no idea what had happened to me until she finished the race hours later, and someone told her that I had to pull out and she had won and set the new course record at 6 days, 14 hours and 33 minutes.

I know from my own experience Ashley must have been both happy and sad. No one likes to win a race like that, at someone else’s misfortune, but at the same time she had most definitely earned it just as much as I would have. She and I turned each other and ourselves inside out on that trail for over 6 days straight, we had both fought through all manners of suffering to keep moving, and in the end luck was on her side and not on mine. I am proud of her efforts as well as mine, and proud of the part we both played in each other’s race. Had the competition between us not been so close, neither of us would have stretched the limits of what we were capable of.

In a race of this length on terrain this brutal, luck plays a huge part, for better or for worse. As for the hub that blew up on me and ended my race — I’ve ridden those hubs and wheels in some of the most rugged terrain all around the world on expeditions, and I’ve never had a problem with them until this moment. Overall I’ve been mostly lucky in my 11 year bike racing and 4 year expedition career. This was the first time I have ever had a major mechanical failure.

The leftovers of a stroke of bad luck.

Afterword

If you play this game long enough, your unlucky number will eventually come up. Mine came up at the absolute worst time I could think of, at the expense of a major race win and course record in one of the toughest and highest-profile ultraendurance races in the world.

But some things in life we don’t get to choose. All we can do is the best we can with the cards we’re dealt.

I have no regrets about anything related to this race that was within my control. I did what I had set out to do — train, prepare, and execute to have a record-setting, race-winning ride — with no doubt in my mind that I was capable. My curiosity around how the experience of racing an ultra would feel and how my body would respond was satisfied.

In the end there was nothing else I could have done to change the result. I went all in, and came up short even though I did everything I could. I made the best decisions for myself in each moment and owned all my choices. I left it all out there and walked away when it was time.

I realized that somewhere along my way through life I have learned the difference between being fully invested in an outcome, and attaching my identity to the outcome I want. Meaning: I didn’t play small for fear of being disappointed if I didn’t achieve my goal — because I knew it would not shake my identity as a human and my overall well-being. We can only control what we are able to control, in sport and in life. We can’t control other people, the weather, the cycles of society or nature, the inner workings of mechanical equipment, and so many other things. We can prepare and execute to the best of our ability, be all in, and at the end sometimes we have to let it go.

I dreamed big, committed, and went all the way; whatever the outcome. I was fully invested in what I wanted, but kept myself from getting attached to it. In the end I was heartbroken, but proud of my efforts and I was able to walk away with no weight on my shoulders knowing I could move forward onto other things. This chapter in my life had come to a close.

What a wild ride it was.

Some of my final training rides. I got to experience the most beautiful riding in the world, and had some of the happiest moments ever in my life training for this race. I met amazing people and felt stronger as an athlete than I’d ever been. I chose to go all in, committed fully, and followed through. No regrets. (Photos by Kurt Refsnider)
Yep, definitely no regrets. (Photo by Leigh Bowe)

About the Author:

Hey, I’m Elizabeth Sampey. I am a professional adventure athlete, focused on multisport expeditions and endurance mountain bike racing. I am a body alchemist — facilitating transformation in and through the physical body — via my multi-dimensional mentoring, consultation and coaching work, teaching at retreats and workshops, and adventure/impact storytelling via public speaking, writing, and media content creation. I am a Doctor of Physical Therapy, which fuels my intimate knowledge and passion of the human body, the body/mind/soul connection, and our limitless potential. Follow me on Instagram at @elizasampey and check out more of my work at www.vitalmotionlife.com.