(This is a report in progress! Just posted it to share the intermediate version for fun. Enjoy!)
In September of 2017 I raced my first ever mountain bike race - the Vapor Trail 125, the hardest race I could find up in the mountains of Colorado. After four years of 100 mile running races I was well and truly burned out on the idea of spending my summer training for yet another huge odyssey-on-foot... but I still wanted to get up into the high country, and I know by now that my best source of motivation is the fear of a big race on the calendar.
What to do? The year before, out in Leadville pacing Aaron Steele, I'd met a mountain biker who'd raced the Leadville 100 Mountain Bike race the weekend before. I'd congratulated him on his finish and asked how hard he thought the bike race was compared to the 100 mile run. He scoffed, disgusted that I would consider a Leadville finish to be anything more than the accomplishment of a child.
"Leadville is a race for children," he told me. I could see a darkness behind his stare, like the darkness that never quite left Bilbo's eyes after he surrendered the ring to his nephew Frodo. "If you want a real mountain bike race, go check out the Vapor Trail. Grass roots, starts at 10pm... Hard. Fucking. Core."
This guy was an addict. I wanted to learn more but Aaron was coming into the aid station and I had to leave.
The next spring I opened up my "Athletic Life List" Google Doc to complete the annual ritual where I try to pick an endurance event big enough to fill the emptiness inside. There it was... the Vapor Trail, the newest entry, one of the few mountain bike races. I started my research and found confirmation of Bilbo's claims. From the Vapor Trail 125 website:
The Vapor Trail 125 is like riding two Leadvilles in a row, and one of them is at night.
All over the internet, former Vapor Trail competitors were spraying poison at Leadville. Leadville was a 3 out of 10. Vapor Trail? 10 out of 10. Hard Fucking Core. Jealousy over Leadville's popularity and success? Of course not. Just raw, rock hard honesty from the toughest cyclists no one's ever heard of.
The Vapor Trail is 125 miles of mostly single track mountain bike trails at high elevation; it starts at 7k and spends most of the race in the Collegiate peaks over 9k, with multiple passes over 12k. 17,000 feet of elevation gain; the race starts at 10pm, with the toughest parts of the course at night in freezing temperatures; the aid stations are spaced far apart, with a 34 mile gap at night.
And, oh boy, the first crux. The race is also application only! From the VT's "Cycle the Earth" page.
The people who participate in this event have to have done this sort of thing before and proven that they know what to do and what to have in order to take care of themselves.
I spun a web of half-truths and shady arguments about how well I thought my skiing, running, canoe and triathlon background had prepared me for the VT and fired off an email to the race organizers, Tom, Earl and Shawn.
They were convinced - troubling given their responsibility to keep out racers that were a danger to themselves, which I most certainly was - and sent me a registration form.
I trained! I had no idea how to train. I got out for big rides on the mountain bike and slowly improved. I preserved the on-sight by never riding any piece of the course. I was confident about my climbing ability, but what about these huge descents? Would I even be able to ride them? Or would I careen off the side of some mountain a dozen hours in, too tired to squeeze the brakes?
It was a wonderful summer riding with Jenna and exploring new trails and a new sport, with my senses heightened by the slow drip of fear and adrenaline that my background awareness of the Vapor Trail provided.
Finally, it was September. The honeymoon was over. We packed the car and drove to Salida to certain death or eternal glory.
The start was scheduled for 10pm on Saturday, September 9th. I spent the day obsessing over questions I should have answered months before. How much food should I pack? How hungry do people get on the bike? What shirt should I wear? Unable to make decisions, I defaulted to road bike tights on the bottom and my skiing costume (Capilene Air hooded long sleeve, light shell) on top to deal with the six hours of freezing night temperatures.
Here's my bike, my trusty steed, ready to rage around the collegiates:
I drank a lot of coffee. In the afternoon I drove with Jenna to Absolute Bikes to check in and meet the race organizers and maybe some other athletes. Jenna bought a map as I struck up a conversation with one of the staff.
This guy - I can't remember his name - was racing as well, on a single speed bike with no suspension. What the hell? I asked him what the theory was, why he was getting after it on such unsuitable gear.
"You know that climber dude, Alex Honnold?" he asked me. I replied that I did. "Everyone else is up there with all sorts of gear and ropes, but he's just getting it done. Free soloing. Single speed mountain biking is the free soloing of mountain bikes."
I thought, but didn't say - isn't trail running sort of the free soloing of mountain biking? Sorry, my man. You're definitely not the Alex Honnold of mountain biking.
Home, more coffee, pasta for dinner, an attempt at a nap.
showed up at the place for the race meeting. sweating and nervous. shit, we have to go back home. Okay, not that big a deal.
Went home, watched some shows, got ready... got back and got on the bike, watch all set up, the heaviest I'll be all day. I was wearing my short euro bibs and a ski top.
Start to Aid 1 (26.5)
Neutral roll out was really good. I was nervous I wouldn't be able to keep up!
Kept my light off, drafted, pee break... got to the highway, crossed and on that first turn everyone took off. Lady BOUNCING up and down constantly. I didn't say anything or make friends... made the requisite jokes about how we were close, right??
I slowly started picking people off on the uphill, but was getting pretty fucking cold in the toes even there at the start. Jesus. Just keep going. Taint was hurting.
Really hard to motivate to STOP and eat since people catch up to you so fast. I remember the night, noises on my bike, looking around at the big mountains and just hanging out alone far back in the pack. I passed one guy on a single speed. What the hell.
I was a little dizzy when I jumped off the bike at the start of the CO trail. Your glasses fog up immediately when you jump off the bike - went over and tried to pee, couldn't really. came back and got a snack. We weren't quite in last place... there were maybe 8 riders behind me? Put on the toe caps, houdini, got out of there.
Took off down the CO trail and the monotony was over. Felt really good to mix it up. I was conservative. I hate the off-camber stuff. but no one was catching up, and on the very chunky descents I was happy to have my big bike. first hike a bike, wasn't sure what to do. HOLY SHIT I'm redlining. hiking the bike is hard. full of sweat. Don't worry, keep going, drink water, eat.
okay, it mellowed out for a while, I started talking to some other folks, IDed by their kits and colors.
went off trail once. Almost ate shit on the descent on the really knobby section.
Aid 1 (26.5) to Aid 2 (60)
Boom, rolling into the first aid station felt great. the first big test of the night was complete. I took a breakfast burrito... but was too nauseous suddenly to take a bite. Couldn't sip the coffee, couldn't handle the tailwind. I was bloated from bouncing around on the bike. I went off to try to take a shit, which required me to take off EVERYTHING, then turn off my light so no one would see me. Couldn't perform, headed back and I was able to drink the coffee and open up a bar. I nibbled on the burrito for the remaining.
Next was some long distance that I couldn't recall. I was alone. took too long in the aid on purpose, who cares. long, sandy stretch, bike was going faster. maybe 5 miles? got to the insane rockfall, kept going... insane views of big peaks on the right. Couldn't stop staring at the drop. was it pulling me in??
finally after 5 miles or so we hit... a road?? that went on for SO LONG. It was, I think, 14 miles from the aid station before we hit the next section. I would so much rather the race be hard than monotonous. It's much easier to tough it out when it's hard for everyone and you're transitioning back and forth. Instead I BECAME my taint, standing up and down, thinking about it constantly. Getting colder.
The group transitioned at one point. light behind me. I left my glasses, fuck, had to go back. Tried to pee, got a little out.
Okay, finally on to hancock pass. met the dude in jorts. Asked him what was on underneath. The hike a bike began... we were 7 hours in at this point, 5 am. dawn was coming. We jumped on to ride every so often but it felt GOOD to hike. I was warm, ate some food, kept going, made time on others.
Hancock pass was ultra chunky. Light in the sky from the full moon. Passes take like 10 minutes, and you're pretending to be casual but it feels great to move by someone.
Finally the top, big descent in moondust. Still really good on my bike. This was supposed to be the most horrible stuff, so super confidence inducing.
Jesse Ward on the next climb! Kylie. bacon aid station at the bottom, walking our bike past the bike puddles at the bottom. super happy to see that mini aid station. I got some coke and bacon, then we moved on to the next monster hike a bike section. with little bits of riding in the middle. HUGE push up to 12,800 feet. Higher than hope pass. I felt great at the altitude though!! Met Jesse Ward here on his rigid bike. Jesus, dude.
Time had passed quickly and I hit the summit just as light was starting to show. I decided that the descent would be super cold... got myself some food, put on my heavier jacket and gloves, pulled up my hood. BIG MISTAKE.
When I started down the hill it was immediately too hot.I was jamming, now that I could see better, but the gloves stretched on my fingers and were also too hot. Finally had to pull over, light battery was loosening, bouncing around, unplugged itself... FUCK no. I was alone. Kylie and Jesse had blasted way ahead. Had to stop for 12 minutes to fuck with lights, get my heavy clothes BACK off, by the time I was done the sun was coming up again. Was I going to be in last place again??
The descent was like 90 minutes long, flow track the whole way, all sorts of rollers, water. I almost went off the side. tell the tale of the crazy turn, bike gyration, etc
No one passed me. got some food. insane kicker, sweating, tried to blast the next descent but got blasted by kylie. Here I was thinking I'm such a stud.
Aid 2 (60) to Aid 3 (74)
This was the big test and I'd passed it. I hung out for ~20 minutes, not in any huge rush at all, enjoying NOT racing as crazy as I do in running. got some pancakes with syrup, sausages, coffee... hung with jenna. Dave Wiens cleaned the shit out of my bike. sounded so good when I finally left. again tried to hit the bathroom, saw pretz, ditched a bunch of lights, gear, changed shirts... it makes a HUGE difference to get rid of all that shit.
next section was, again, a huge climb as the sun came up. got some food in me and just ground it out. There was a guy next to me at the start of the climb who was asking where I was from based on my bike... and was just remaining weirdly quiet. Were we lost? dude, fucking tell me. We're blasting down this dirt road and he seems like he's following ME. Did I fuck this up??
Huge climb, 2k feet, switchback, again can't stop thinking about the taint. Took some pepto and salt pills which helped a lot. At the top, finally I could see it from the elevation profile, it turned into a descent from old monarch pass to monarch pass. I bombed it and then realized at the bottom of the scree descent, when I popped out at the highway, that I was at the WRONG spot. Okay, whatever. I went a mile up the road for some extra gains and saw Jenna and Pretz in the parking lot.
Aid 3 (74) to Aid 4 (84.5)
More coke. Bathroom break. Ditched ALL my stuff - lights, pack, switched to the tiny pack, ditched the frame pack... left without sunscreen on my legs. Not a good situation. Up the hill, this lady pushed me on the butt. Check out the video evidence. Didn't know why it was happening but of course it's all right there!
Drank my second ensure. Big part of the plan.
At this point I felt GOOD. 51 miles to go. It's so much, but I told myself it was "mostly downhill". There were so many big climbs to go. Passed a couple of guys on the uphill, cleaned some hard stuff... legs were feeling fresh now that the sun was up and I had all of that shit off of my back. So much better. We cruised along the trail, storms off in the distance, making great time. The whole thing is amazing. Not much notable here.
Hammer the descent, meet the guy talking about the the Telluride 100 and wanting to tell me about how much harder it was. Just stay ahead.
I popped out at the bottom. what is there to say? The trail was wonderful, we had a net descent and here I was, already at the next spot.
Aid 4 (84.5) to Aid 4, Again (96)
Okay, top of the loop. Ditched my arm warmers with Jenna. Pretzel tried to run along with us. I miss that little dude. He wants to run but of course we can't let him. I have some more bacon at the next aid station and joke with the guy who's finished his loop, blasted in. Everyone's really nice here. I don't have any mechanical issues, so I get some coke out of the single cup the entire aid station is sharing, take some bacon and get out of there.
Punchy 600 foot climb or so, but staring at the elevation on the watch makes it just totally fine. Thunder is RUMBLING ahead. This seems like a big mistake. Calculated risk... Jenna wasn't at the actual aid station so I don't get my actual shell. I push forward in a very light t shirt, about to descend 2k feet to the bottom of the climb that breaks everyone, with weather about that's threatening to open up on me. Not a fun situation.
But I crested the roller and started dropping, and HOLY SHIT it's just ledge drop after ledge drop. Then we're down by the river and it just keeps going, rolling over sharp shale, humming along slanted trails by the river. THere are a few spots where it's obvious that EVERYONE has run off the edge of the trail. I'm so nervous about this that I ride up on the inside of the trail. Danger here is that you knock your foot and get pushed off.
Finally at the bottom. Dude catches up with me. Tells me he smokes weed once a year and it's here at the bottom. Anti-nausea. Thunder booming. I say no because my race is going well so far and I don't want to fuck it up (obviously??)
Mostly clean the ascent. It's not THAT terrible, just endless, but so is the rest of the race, right? If it were a little more dry and slippery it would be absolutely terrible. I push a little, at one point I think I'm lost on a road with no turns... I catch kylie again and she tells me this makes no sense. Pass the jorts dude. Even with my stopping I'm in the mix. Creaking in my bike gets worse and worse.
Okay, finally I start seeing the signs from racers, the food haikus. Jam in, see Jenna again, 29 miles to go. SO EASY! I take the houdini and get out of there. The storm's holding off.
Aid 4 (96) to Rainbow Trailhead (104)
As these race reports draw to a close the exciting things stop and everything merges into just good riding and events. Time stretches out. Miles start to pass my more quickly. Unless you bonk and go REALLY DEEP into the hole time dilation makes the report more boring.
That happened after the end of the loop. More ups, more downs. It's unclear what mileage is left... except I actually have a GPS that tells me EXACTLY what is left, so no one can disappoint me with their vicious lies of omission, 0.5 miles off, losing my trust.
Finally we make it to the HUGE descent, I'm chasing Kylie, she's super fast. But I catch up, she lets me pass and I finally let myself open it up through some less sharp turns. THese are the best turns of the whole race. I drop her, flying downhill... eventually cross the river, aid station at the start of the rainbow trail.
Rainbow Trailhead (104) to Finish (125)
It's so cute!! They're pouring individual cups of coke! One at a time of mexi-coke. They also have the most delicious bacon and egg rice cakes of all time. Holy shit. So nice, then we get out of there... it's fast but not too fast. I'm in second. Kylie lights it UP at some point and passes me and we drop the jorts dude. He doesn't want to push the uphills. I'm feeling good but she's like standing up and just hammering away.
Gunning it, getting closer. It's a long, hard single track trail. At one point we almost get mowed down by some motos. I hit myself hard in the nuts with a pedal smash at the end. hold it the fuck together. sun's getting hotter. Finally the massive final descent to the road, 10 more miles. THE ROAD NEEDS TO BE STEEPER!!!
We gun it in. I tuck the whole way down, but with the massive headwind only hit 30mph or so. I catch kylie by the time we get to Pancha Springs and offer to swap leads drafting in to the end, 5 miles to go. We do this, she never offers to pull, just drafts, and I figure that the awkward time spent wondering how to ask her to lead is actually good for making the time pass. Would have been cool except she snaked me at the end on the final jam around the back of the bike shop!
Solid middle-of-the-pack finish.
What would I do "differently" next time? How does this compare to running?
Not as bad as a running race at ALL. I'm not as physically destroyed. It was a little faster, but not faster than, say, Vermont, and that fucked me up bad. I had maybe an hour of overheating and shaking before getting my appetite back and wanting to head out to dinner. Not that hard.
I think the Keto thing is such a power move for massive races like this. Not even that strict, but a diet that emphasizes fat burning gives you major slack for not eating that much during the race.
Bike handling skills... I need to work on letting off the brakes and ripping the descents a little harder, but I was totally capable on the descents and more than capable on the uphills. Sustained higher output effort is something I didn't quite have, but that's okay.
Organization on the bike needs to change, as well as a plan at the aid stations. I had a huge advantage when I was wearing gear from other sports, basically. Cycling shit is super heavy and not that well optimized. The little salomon running packs are amazing.
Would I do it again? In the middle of it my "experiencing self" was not that happy. But it's fun to have done that shit!! I think I'd like to do some more 50-60 mile big adventures. Like doing Whole Enchilada as a loop, stuff like that. Do I want to, or care, to get that good at mountain bike racing? I'll save my development for skiing. That feels like a more pure target. So fun to have the range, though!
Bikepacking route: https://bikepacking.com/routes/vapor-trail/
Old school website: http://www.vaportrail125.com