The Vapor Trail 125 Race Report by Carey Lowery
After 5 years of knowing about this event and 3 years of suffering at the hands of Eric Wever, I finally decided to throw my resume into the ring and seek a stamp of approval. That's right, you just don't sign up for this one. I had to write a letter to the director convincing him that I would not die during his event and then had to list races to "back it up." With races like PMBAR, Double Dare, P36, and Pisgah 111K, I felt ready to tackle 125 miles (100 of which is above 9000 feet), 18,000 feet of climbing, weather which could change in a minute, and a 10pm start.
I went into this with no expectations other than to finish. To ensure that I would not go into crack-head racer mode, I brought along my camera. My concerns were with the altitude and how my feet would respond to 17+ hours of being on them. Because of my neuropathy, I have limited my riding/racing to no more than 12 hours. The longest this season was the Maah Daah Hey at 12 hours and I had some painful moments there.
Grateful for my riding buddies and the warm and dry start conditions.
Finally, after a painstakingly long day, the gun went off at 10 pm. The start was a nice, leg-warming 5 mile neutral roll out, with a short break just before the highway crossing, so that we all had the chance of adjusting clothing and bladder levels. Once the road turned to dirt, it was game-on for all the fast dudes and dudettes. I comfortably settled in to the back of the pack and pedaled a sustainable pace that would hopefully last the next 16-20 hours.
The night gently wrapped its arms around me and as I rode away from Salida, the stars greeted me with a sparkling brilliance, something that I don't get the chance to see back home. When I arrived at the trail head around 11:45 am, I stopped to add a layer of clothing. Once on the Colorado Trail, I had to turn off the philosophical thoughts and turn on all the skills I have acquired over the years to ride a fairly demanding trail by head lamp.
A few short HAB's, some tricky bridge crossings, lots o' rocks, lots o' flow, some jumps, one Sasquatch-like rustling just off the trail, and the final steep descent had me popping out onto the dirt road a very happy camper. Well, until I tried to raise my dropper post ... and nothing but crickets. Oh, crap! I stopped, got off the bike, and tried to lift my dropper. It came up, but then drooped back down. After cycling it through its range a few times and being unsuccessful, I rode my "clown bike," to Aid Station #1, which was fortunately only a mile up the road.
Fortunate to be able to scout this section as it was a little more sketchy in the dark.
Matt the Mechanic (and an awesome one at that), quickly jumped on my situation, and bled my droopy dropper at 1:50 in the morning, by dim light. Bleeding it had no effect; unable to fix my post, I quickly pulled out my Enduro collar which fortunately I had brought (just in case). Matt installed it, while I ate a couple dates and an Ally's Bar.
I rode off into the unknown, thinking how my super duper dropper that had once made descending fast and furious, was just now dead weight that I was going to have to drag around for the next 100 miles. I quickly kicked those bad thoughts out the door and reveled in how I was blessed to be tackling this race. I soon came to the rockslide across the narrow gauge railroad trail.
Bacon and dates: foods of biking fools at 3am.
After scrambling over the rockslide, I came upon "JRA Superfan" Jake from Golden, Colorado. Together we rode the steady grade up to St. Elmo and then continued on climbing up Hancock Road. This section was not physically hard, but seemed to go on forever. And the cold was settling in. Jake and I talked a bit, but found more comfort as silent partners, sharing the pace up to the Alpine Tunnel.
Arriving at the trailhead, I came upon Kip's bike, but no sign of Kip. I called out his name and from the bushes a few yards away, he replied. I think he was making race weight. Good idea, so I dropped trou right where I was, modesty be damned!
With frost on the vegetation, and feeling the cold penetrate my core, I pulled out some chemical warmers, knee warmers, ear band, and jacket. I struggled to put it all on, as my fingers were frozen and unwilling to do what I told them. Several minutes later, we were off on the Alpine Narrow Gauge Trail, Jake, Kip, and I. This railbed was rougher than the first, as a lot of ties were still left. In most places I was able to skirt around them, but every now and again, I got my teeth rattled riding over a section of them.
With belly full and combustion beginning, my core quickly warmed up. The climb up to Tomichi Pass at 11,900 feet, followed by a short descent and then THE SLOG up to the top of the mountain at 12,400 feet was the second hardest section of the course for me. 1000 feet of gain in 1 mile is NO JOKE. Think Farlow Gap, but 7000 feet higher. Fortunately, the sun was rising, and what a spectacular sight that was. It made the climb bearable.
Filling my pouches with more dates.
And the Copper Canyon single track descent made the climb worthwhile. This descent is the longest one I have ever been on. And while some lesser descents I have ridden over the years have been almost unbearable at the end, this one was fun ALL THE WAY DOWN. 11 miles and 3500 feet of elevation loss. In between techy rock gardens were ribbons of flow. Super fun, despite my handicapped dropper. One little kick to the crotch at the end, but over fairly quickly, and then dropping on down into Snowblind where Aid Station #2 sits. Jake had popped off the back during the climb up to Canyon Creek, but I expected him to catch us on this 1 hour + descent.
Honored to have Dave Wiens making pancakes, sausage, and coffee.
I scarfed down a banana with some espresso-strength coffee while Tom Purvis lubed my chain. I had to light a fire under Kip. I could tell he was wanting to sit down and get some enjoyment out of this station, but now was not the time to pull up a chair to a smorgasboard of goodness. Having spent 10 minutes here, I was ready to roll. My plan for this race consisted of "smell the roses" pace up to Aid Station #2 and the remainder would be at party pace. I was feeling pretty good and anxious to get to Monarch. But between me and the Monarch Crest was 11 miles and 2500 feet of climbing. As we pedaled away, I looked for Jake, but there was no sign of him. I hoped he was alright.
After a slight descent through the valley, we turned left and began the climb up to Monarch Pass. I tried pushing the pace a little, but my stomach was heavy and not feeling so well. I backed it off and watched Kip pull away. About halfway up, even though I was not going any faster, I reeled him back in. I was getting hot and ready to shed some layers and told Kip so. He stopped as well and revealed that he was not feeling well either. I attributed my heavy gut to eating too much fat and protein, which was just not digesting at this altitude. Once I finished shedding, I told Kip I would soft pedal and wait on him. But he said to go on, he did not want to hold me back. I figured at the pace I was going, he would soon catch up, but that would be the last I saw of him until after the finish.
Aid Station 2.5 on Old Monarch Pass Road
Once at the top, I began to feel better. I hung a right on the Continental Divide Trail and began single tracking my way to the new Monarch Pass, where my pit crew awaited.
Course was well marked, never took a wrong turn, but sometimes nervously wondered a bit as there was not much in the way of confirmatory flagging.
I made it to Aid Station #3 around 10 am. Zeke, Anne, and Lisa were all there to help. While I shed more clothes, emptied my CamelBak of nonessentials, refilled with water, and reapplied Chamois Butt'r, Zeke lubed my bike while Anne and Lisa picked up my discarded items. This was my quickest stop thus far, just shy of 5 minutes.
With a happy gut, I was ready to enjoy the rest of my ride. The Monarch Crest Trail was gorgeous. I wanted to take so many pictures, but forced myself to stay on the bike and enjoy the flow. The trail was in great shape, although it was a bit sketchy in places, since it had been so dry leading up to this race. Funny, but as I rode the trail, memories of 2009 came flooding back: buttsliding down snowpack that covered the trail, following Kent's wicked lines down the descents, and taking photo ops with Zeke.
I was about 3 miles from Marshall Pass, descending a technical rock garden, when I heard a crash and a bang. I looked down and my Feed Bag had yardsaled everything out of it, including my camera. I panicked! I stopped and quickly found my multi-tool and food. But the camera was nowhere to be seen. I ran back up the trail about 1/3 mile to no avail. After 5-10 minutes, the racer in me told me to forget it and go. So I looked up at the sky and said, "It is in your hands now."
I was a bit dejected finishing up the descent. About 5 minutes into my pity party, Riley rolled up behind me. I pulled over to let him by. He stopped and asked if I had lost a red Olympus camera.
Tears about came to my eyes. I wanted to hug the crap out of him, but instead took my camera back and followed his lines down. Back in happy mode, I rolled into Aid Station #4.
I knew that the Starvation Creek Loop was going to be hard. I was mentally prepared to grind my way back out of the hole I would ride down on some sweet flowy single track. I kept my load as light as possible, only taking 30 ounces of water with me. The loop started out by climbing up a jeep road. Thinking that the climb was not that long, I began to wonder if somehow I strayed off-course when the climbing went on and on. Finally, I saw the turn off onto the Starvation Creek Trail.
Otherwise known as the Loop of the Walking Dead
Starting at an elevation of almost 11,000, this trail descends 4.2 miles and loses 1800 feet of elevation. Feeling the flow, pumping the bike through the turns, negotiating the 1/2 track sections of rock that had slid down the slopes onto the trail, I was all shits and giggles. And then just about the point where I began to realize I am going to have to climb out of this hole, I popped out onto Poncha.
And this was one of the nicer sections of Poncha Creek Road.
Legs that had not been used in the previous 25 minutes were now considering a mutiny. This road was a tough SOB, like riding uphill on marbles for 4 miles. The grade was not too steep, but throw in a loose double track climb at mile 95 that soars to the heavens and try riding it without being demoralized. Towards the top, I alternated between walking and riding trying to eek out every bit of ATP I could. Three times I thought I saw the Vapor Trail sign that would signal the top of the climb, but when I got closer, it was just a rock or a stump or a cluster of flowers.
The soul crusher was over in 1 hour 15 minutes. I decided to celebrate by cramming my mouth full of potato chips and made niceties with the aid station volunteers who knew Kent and Maryann. I also refilled my CamelBak for the final time with TailWind, which, BTW, is a pretty darn good endurance fuel.
Thinking it was "all downhill from here," my right eye twinged like Scrat's from Ice Age when I caught my first glimpse of the Colorado Trail up to Silver Creek. I clawed my way up those last 800 feet, pedaling on pure determination. Seeing the Silver Creek trailhead, I knew that everything from here was "icing on the cake." I ... was ... going ... to ... finish!
Silver Creek was a chunkier version of Starvation and quite a few more scree fields to maneuver through. Real tire slicers for sure, I settled during these sections trying to pick a safe line as opposed to just blasting through.
Coming down from 10,500 feet to 9000 feet, I could breathe again. I rolled into the last aid station, scarfed down more potato chips, filled my water bottle, and headed down the Rainbow Trail. This trail is smooth, fast, and mostly downhill. There are 10 kickers, 1/2 of which I walked. My overall feeling at this point was one of elation. Barring anything stupid, I figured I would make it to the finish under 19 hours. Having pre ridden this section two days prior, I was very comfortable going at speed. And I had the fire to do it, too. I suppose having the altitude governor on the previous 17 hours kept me from going in the red, thus allowing me to have some power left in the engine.
I took in the last few miles of single track for all that it was worth. I was almost sad to see Hwy 285 come into view. Zeke was there, patiently awaiting my arrival and ensuring that I popped out from my back country adventure unscathed. Ever my safety net, Zeke is always on the lookout for me. Part of it is obligation, as he was the one who gave me this contagion called endurance racing. But most of it is just the friendship we have built over the last 10 years.
The last 10 miles was like the Snake Creek Gap paved finish on steroids: 5 miles coming off of Monarch at speeds reaching 40 mph, followed by 5 miles of a 3% descent down into the town of Salida. My legs were blessed with a slight tailwind pushing me to the finish.
67 racers started, 48 finished. No podiums, no prizes. Finishing this beast and the adventure along the way was the prize. And a pretty cool touk.
Thanks to all the volunteers who endured long hours and cold temperatures to ensure that this adventure was full of rainbows and kittens.