Six Days on the Colorado Trail

CT 1, PG 0 = a personal win

At the high point of the Colorado Trail

At the end of the day there is nothing but the journey, because the destination is an illusion. — Rich Roll

I’ve raced a lot of ultra endurance bike races and can definitively say that the Colorado Trail Race (CTR) is the most challenging race I have ever attempted. In addition to the lead up to this race (see post from July 21) , I learned more in my 6 days on the Colorado Trail (CT) than in any race I have finished. Last week, my learning transitioned from Zoom conferences to dirt trails, from discussions with physician colleagues to trail conversations with fellow bikers and hikers, from searching articles on Pubmed to studying the course, including water sources and campsite locations in the Colorado Trail Guidebook and Databook, and from interacting with other docs on medtwitter to the One of Seven Project CTR spreadsheet saved into my iPhone.

It was all about the ultra bubble. This is what many of us who do ultra-endurance events live for — this hallowed place outside of your daily life, a place you enter where the focus shifts from life’s day-to-day problems and events to a sole focus in the present moment on how will you move forward, minute-by-minute, pedal-stroke-by-pedal-stroke, climb-by-climb and segment-by-segment. And, if you let it, the ultra bubble is where you get “really raw and real with yourself” in the words of David Goggins, in order change your perspective and your life, if you let it.

So as I navigated the Colorado Trail in all of its natural, rugged beauty, here are the lessons that resonate, born out of the ultra bubble.

Looking back toward the high point, with the moon in view

You are capable of more than you know. Choose a goal that seems right for you and strive to be the best, however hard the path. Aim high. Behave honorably. Prepare to be alone at times, and to endure failure. Persist! The world needs all you can give. — E. O. Wilson

The CTR is 533 miles in length, with 75,936 feet of climbing, and it is one of the most challenging trails to ride in the world, at elevations between 5500 — 13,200 feet. Technically it is difficult, with steep climbs that often require pushing the loaded bike up over rocks and boulders (while walking on foot), and then gnarly descents on loose gravel coming down off the mountainside. It is a true testing ground for one’s own physical and mental strength, and the CT is unparalleled in beauty and expansive views. It is the mountain and you, and although there are many hikers and bikers also making their journey at this time of year, often there is nobody else within sight. At times when you look back from where you just came, whether a steep climb or down off a rocky mountaintop, you realize in real time how you are capable of more than you knew you were. Each day is filled with such moments when you overcome these palpable adversities and get up and over the mountains, and it is okay to take micro moments throughout the day to take stock in your own strength.

Day 2 Under blue skies at the top of Blackhawk Pass

The hardest thing, after all the work and all the time spent on training and technique, is just being in the moment. — George Mumford, author of The Mindful Athlete

My first 5 days of the ultra bubble were mostly spent in the moment. As I saw the trail extend before me, at times 0.25–0.50 miles to the front and going up and up and up, with hikers coming toward me from way up high, I would divert my gaze closer on the trail and focus on getting over the rocks or around the bushes. I experienced singletrack trails flowing through fields of wildflowers. I saw Marmots peeking out at me from around a bend around a bush. And when I came upon rocky stairs that were hip level high, making me step up first then turn around and hoist my bike up behind me, there was no looking beyond that very minute.

However at other times when I was concerned about my bike’s brake malfunction or failing seat bag, I found I was shifting my thinking out of the moment to getting through a segment of the trail rather than experiencing each moment of the trail. And on the evening of the fifth day, after riding over 70 miles to get back on track, I set an intention that night to ride another 70 the next day, without realizing the difficulty of terrain I would face, or the issues I would be presented with. Riding through the trail, working to conquer a segment shifted my experience out of the present moment until I recalled the words of my friend, Appalachian Trail thru-hiker and blogger, Sarah Robison, “Roll with the Colorado Trail, PG. Don’t try to beat it.” I refocused my mind on where I was (at least until my final bike gear breakdown that would come to end my race).

Big Hope on the Colorado Trail

Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity. — Seneca

Preparation is key, but it isn’t everything. No matter how much you prepare, the unexpected will happen, and it is how you deal with that fact that will either make or break the experience.

In the months leading up to the CTR, I prepared. I set aside some of the extra life/work projects aside and wedged in my training, from the Peloton to the trails, studying about the Colorado Trail, and learned how to set up my tent, filter water, and pack my bike, including mosquito repellent. I honed my system and planned out nutrition. I communicated with Sarah and and another friend and 2021 Tour Divide Finisher, Todd Watchmaker. I made lists and worked at checking boxes to get ready for the race. And my biggest struggle (and biggest victory) was overcoming my inner critic, “Reviewer #2,” to actually make it to the starting line confident that I had prepared the best I could.

Despite all the preparation, on day 1, two bike mechanical issues came up to introduce the unexpected into my race. I never had issues with the Magura hydraulic brakes on my bike until day 1 of the CTR, but after I ascended onto technical terrain above 10,000 feet I felt a softness to the brake that impeded both confidence in descending as well as an ability to push my bike up steep ascents (push-brake-step-step became push-brake-slide back-step-step). Due to the accentuation of this problem at high elevation, it must have been an air bubble that expanded at the lower atmospheric pressure of altitude (picture the opposite of what happens to plastic bottles that you drink when you’re in the mountains and then come back to lower elevation). So I pumped/primed the brake before places I would want to stop and just kept going, slower and with some rear wheel slide outs, at times stopping to walk around a steep switchback, and worked to keep going to get to a bike shop somewhere. The second issue was my seat bag frame. The jarring of ascending and descending the CT makes it pretty easy to imagine bolts and screws coming loose on the trail, but that said, I didn’t think to tighten down the bolts with my multitool before leaving for the starting line. So on my way up out of Durango, I discovered the absence of the left bolt holding my seat bag frame onto the bike. I pulled out my large Salsa 30 inch rubber straps and did my best to secure it to the seat and seat post. As I came down out of the mountains toward Silverton, my brake worked better at lower elevation, but the seat bag continued to present issues. Nonetheless I made it to a hardware store, got a bolt, and was now good to go to proceed on to the next segments.

On day 4 after the high point at 13,258 feet, however, the brake would become more treacherous again, and the seat bag would once more become loose, so I made the choice to divert off course to drop into town for a real fix with John, the Lake City “bike guy,” who swapped out my brake entirely to a SRAM BB7 front brake (a fix for both worn brake pads and the air bubble in my hydraulic brake), and tightened down my seat bag with Loctite. Good to go.

After the climb back up from Lake City and back on trail

You know why the goldfish is the happiest animal on earth? Got a 10 second memory. Be a goldfish. — Ted Lasso

When in town I allowed myself to be a bit frustrated, and it was the first moment in the race that my inner critic, Reviewer #2 chose to speak up. But after about 15 minutes, and an evening camping in town and talking with fellow travelers before ascending post-storms back to the race course, Reviewer #2 realized she really had no really voice in this quest. She quietly got back in the mental sidecar.

Seat bag frame failure of the Arkel Seat Bag on Day 6

Failure is what you make of it. Failure can be an opportunity. Mistakes are feedback for learning. — George Mumford

The sixth day would be the day that didn’t break me, but it did break my bike. I woke up at 3:30 to hit the trail by 4:30 AM, and… promptly went off course due to navigation issues. After riding back (up) to my starting point and had trouble finding it until I could ask a hiker to point me toward the trailhead sign in the overgrowth. So I called that extra 6 miles of down-and-back a “warm up.” I moved on. Segment 17 toward Sargent’s Mesa was harder than I expected, mostly pushing the bike uphill over technical boulders and rock gardens. And then after making it through to segment 16 when I stopped for food and a water check and to put on my rain jacket and rain pants, I noticed soon after that my seat bag post had completely broken on the right side. Similar to day one, I went into troubleshooting mode, standing on the trail and envisioning how to rig the bag and rack to be rideable. I texted a my family and friends for suggestions. Could I strap it to my backpack? I tried, but it was too awkward. Could I strap it to my bars? I ended up doing that when it completely broke on both sides, however I was not sure that this could this last another 1.5 days to Buena Vista for a bike shop repair, especially since it would again slow me down and I was already starting to get low on food. Unable to sort out how to make a sustainable fix to the bike at this point, I decided to end my race this year at Marshall Pass. I called my parents and — miraculously — my dad was able to drive and find me at the end of a dirt road just before dark, four hours from home.

At mile 230.5 on the course, Marshall Pass was the end of my race this year, but not the end of my quest to ride the Colorado Trail. I put in the preparation and hard work, and the failures I experienced in this race will help me succeed when I again take on the trail in the future. The CT for me is unfinished business, but not out of a feeling of failure — rather out of a feeling that it still calls to me to take on another adventure.

When I ride this in the future, I will pack less with a lighter setup, and reconfigure my bike with mechanical brakes (more likely — though still an internal debate) or freshly bled hydraulic brakes (and fresh brake pads, as well as spare brake pads in my bike first aid kit). I’ll also know better how to make more of my own bike repairs. And when the unexpected again arises, as it inevitably will, I’ll be ready for that too.

And in the meantime, I’m going to hold on tightly to the memories and lessons from my time in the ultra bubble. As I get back to work as a lung and ICU doctor, back to the ongoing pandemic and delta variant surge, I will carry these 5 lessons I learned from the ultra bubble back to real life.

  1. You are capable of more than you know.
  2. How you deal with the unexpected (that will happen) will either make or break the experience.
  3. Keep pulling yourself back into the present moment.
  4. Be a goldfish. Don’t dwell on the setbacks.
  5. Learn from your mistakes, and then come back to ride another day.

Last but not least, I’d like to thank all of those who supported me in getting to the starting line and taking on this adventure. Thank you to my family and friends, near and far, and also thank you to all the people who ordered Panache Heroes gear to support the Dr. Lorna Breen Heroes’ Foundation and raise awareness about healthcare worker wellness!

And this real race is not yet over. If you’d still like to support our efforts to normalize mental health of healthcare workers, especially in the ongoing pandemic, please consider making a donation to my Facebook fundraiser here — all of your funds will support the important advocacy work of the Dr. Lorna Breen Heroes’ Foundation.

We created a jersey and shortswith Panache and campaign to raise awareness for healthcare worker wellness with the Dr. Lorna Breen Heroes’ Foundation
Driving to Durango with my dad and a surprise visit at the start from Darlene and Enoki!!!
Ready, set, and almost go (at 4 AM on Sunday)!
Views from the Colorado Trail
A waterfall coming up out of Durango
A mama moose and her baby (left) and view up toward Marshall Pass (right)

Physician, athlete, and lover of the outdoors. Seeking to understand how we manifest our best selves. Inspired by hope. Opinions are my own.