Jefe Branham Blog: Sleepless Nights on the CTR
Pushing the Limits
By Jefe Branham
The 2012 Colorado Trail Race was to be my fifth time to the starting line of this event. With three decent finishes under my belt along with plenty of soul scorching lows and silly giddy highs, why do it again? For one, the CTR offers a massive adventure in a relative short period of time, taking time away from work, life, etc., is minimal, yet the experience puts life’s troubles in perspective. Second, I just knew I could go faster, and that sort of knowledge tends to fester if not let loose on the trail. How much faster, well, the only way to know is to get out there and race. I did put in tons of time planning and scheming. I was going light, no sleeping bag, no pad, simple and fast. If there was a question about a piece of gear, if it wasn’t easy on the scale or multi-purpose, it got tossed out. It wasn’t about comfort. I studied Owen Murphy’s record splits from 2009, at first I was just in awe at how much faster he did it than my fastest time. With more time staring at those numbers the less ridiculous the splits seemed. Hard—oh yeah. Impossible—no. I wasn’t set on breaking the record, simply going as fast as I could.
The pace from the start seems pretty fast. I don’t usually mix it up in front, but I want to hang with the big boys as long as I can. Right off the start, a lead group (Jesse Jakomait, Ethan Passant, Jeff Kerkove, Kevin Thomas, myself, Dan Miller-Lionberg, Kurt Sandiforth and Matt Schiff) forms, with the first four breaking off as we crossed the Platte River. The first day is all about balancing speed with some amount of reserve; better to go far than go fast. It is so hard to let those fast guys slip away....
The wildest thing about such a pace is that the landmarks pass by so much earlier. Kenosha Pass, Georgia Pass all go by so soon, so much more sunlight left. Yet the sun still sets, the rain still comes down, the lightning eventually bounces about the sky. Then comes the long hard haul up Miners Creek and up and over the Ten Mile Range. This is a demon that lurks in the minds of the CTR racer. It is a brutal climb that can send shivers down the spine even months away from the race. If pushing pretty hard, you can get over it in the dark. Here, things get interesting, the first signs of weakness, tiredness sets in, folks start to crack, stumble, look for relief. The best strategy is get over it and push on.
I am able to get up Guller Creek and just below Searle Pass when the constant drizzle and the flashes of lightning convince me to sleep a few winks in the last tall trees. I set the alarm and curl up in the bivy, helmet, shoes and gloves still on. I dream that it is my dog, not my bike, sleeping next to me. I awake to the sound of a person coughing, two sets of lights going past and up Searle. I yank off the bivy and am in pursuit, only to end up walking my bike most of the way from Searle to Kokomo Pass and losing sight of the other riders. Atop Kokomo, the huge moon sinks behind the mountains with a glow of smoky tendrils in the swirling clouds. It is pretty bad ass.
I roll gingerly down into Camp Hale and bump into Max Nuttleman, who is chill and quiet as if out for a leisurely ride. I cruis into Leadville for some more food and get lost in the grocery store. I buy a ridiculous amount of food and amuse the employees of City Market, as I shove as many gummy bears as I can into my bags. I push on and set sights on Buena Vista. It feels like the miles fall behind easily as I near the last climb before descending to Clear Creek Reservoir when Ethan flies by me up the last hill then bombs down the road to BV. Guess he, too, heard Jesse is out in front. I keep up a good pace, eating and drinking and hit Buena Vista hours and hours ahead of normal. I head out and crawl up lower Cottonwood Pass back to the CT. I consider tossing food overboard as I struggle to ride my bike up the pavement. Once I hit dirt, the weight seems more manageable, and I get my flow back rolling up and out of drainage after drainage.
I sleep again just north of Highway 50 after passing a sleeping Jesse. Again, I set my alarm for an hour and bivy up with everything still on, not willing to give up any time. I awake shivering, sore and tired, I get up, roll out, cross the highway and engage the great demon of climbing Fooses Creek. The last couple hundred yards push one to the brink of exhaustion, but then it’s the Crest Trail! Of course, it is the coldest part of the day, and I go slapping through the many puddles standing in the trail. My toes and hands are freezing cold and stiff by the time the sun comes up, and Ethan passes me again, still flying. About the same time we tangle horns with perhaps the greatest demon of the CTR, the Cochetopa Hills. Hard to say exactly why the Hills hurt so much, but they do. It is rough, rugged and washed out, but there is something else there that has to be experienced to know how they can break you down. The key is to stay positive, not let the stray negative thought creep in and spoil your day, it is always hard and I still exit the Hills a different man every time.
I escape the Hills and push through Cochetopa Park as the sky opens up with rain, hail and thunder close enough to make me duck and flinch. I keep my ax to the wheel and grind, grind, grind, flying up Los Painos (Pinos) Pass, determination burning hot inside me. I lose some momentum on the long drawn-out climb up to Slumgullion Pass as the sun sets again behind the thick rain clouds. Rolling the pavement over to Spring Creek Pass, thankful for this lonely bit of highway, my tires flick speckles of rain and mud into my eyes as I drift all over the road. I feel the weight of so many miles behind and can barely keep my eyes open. I almost sleep at the Spring Creek Pass, but there is no water and I have only a liter left. So I push on, up and up and crash out at the intersection with the Camp Trail, with a small spring and the last big trees for 30-some miles. I set the alarm for an hour and a half, and pass out instantly. I wake up before my alarm and get up and walk my bike up to tree line. My ass is too sore to sit on right away. I manage to mindlessly pilot my way through the Coney’s section.It seems so quick and easy, this demon must have slept as I crept by in the we hours of the night. I hit Carson Saddle and just can’t believe I am here already, on target with Owen’s splits, although the numbers are getting quite fuzzy. The famed Cataract Section lives up to its reputation for gorgeous views and tough riding, most between 12,000-13,000 feet. I feel slow, but it all falls in behind me and soon I make it to Stoney Pass and plunge down into Silverton.
I stop and refuel, eat fruit and drink some coffee. My right shoe is almost worn through to the toes so I attempt to duct tape it. I just know it’s not going to last. Confident there are enough calories in my bags, I set off and climb up Molas Pass back to the CT, almost getting crushed by passing motorists. Yikes!
I hit the singletrack and try to ride as much as I can. There is only 70 miles left. At this point of the race it becomes so easy to fall apart, slow down, sleep too much. The alternative is to dig real deep and see what you are truly made of. It’s not an easy choice and there is no one to encourage you. I am not feeling fast or fresh, but I push. I lose the perspective of the wonderful trail I am riding. I only seek to get to the next spot, the next check point. I remember Jenny telling me at the start to smile, so I shrug off the grumpy serious face and pull through to Rolling Mountain Pass with a smile. I fly along, cross Cascade Creek, up to Bolam Pass and put my head down trying to make the most of the waning daylight. I make it to Blackhawk Pass by 7 p.m. and am so stoked. It hurts like hell, but I am putting the miles behind me. I continue to push hard into the setting sun.
Shortly after darkness takes over the forest, I begin to unravel. I am not smiling anymore. The drive that has been keeping me moving is uncompromising in the need of forward motion, but my eyes can no longer focus. My heart needs a break. I begin to forget who I am, where I am, what the hell is so important to keep moving for so long. There is only this spotlight that shows me the way, the only way. Forward, forward, forward. Little questioning voices ask, “Why? Why only forward? Why is it ‘This Path’ only? Why make it hurt so damn much?” These little wondering bits of light are smothered by dull, blank mindless determination. After all these hours and days of trying, pushing, suffering, I can’t stop now, can’t stop, can’t stop. I blow through a 5 Hour Energy in five minutes, I eat GU after GU. Things are getting really weird. I keep falling off my bike, off the trail. Each time I feel like I may plunge right off the earth. I decide to sleep for 15 minutes, get my eyes back, give my brain a break. I push forward another hour debating this short nap. I keep reminding myself who I am, what I am trying to do, where I am going and why. Finally, I stop, set the alarm and fall asleep next to a tree, no bivy, just laying there. I get up to the alarm, jump to my feet and march on. My head is still fuzzy, but my eyes are able to see straight, my determination is strong, and I force myself to ride on up to the Indian Trail Ridge.
At the last high point on the ridge I find Ethan. He is laying in the trail, his bike cast aside. He wakes up and is looking pretty shelled, shaky and cold. When I ask if he needs anything, he replies: a coat. I tell him I have everything on. It is cold and above 11,000 feet and past midnight. He asks if I want to go around. I tell him to get up and we will walk our bikes down. We get down to Taylor Lake, and start riding. We pedal over to Kennebec Pass then carefully plunge down the sliderock downhill, full of big water bars and flash flood washouts.We get down a good ways and stop. Ethan sits down and shuts off his light. He’s warm enough to take another nap and declines my bivy or any food. I want to be finished and take off down the trail. I hit it with everything I have. I assault the climb with all that is left in my legs. It hurts so much, I still have to get off and walk, but it flies by. The downhill to the trailhead goes on forever, I just want to be done, to be done pushing myself, to no longer feel so on edge. I cross the “finish line” into the trailhead parking at 5:38 a.m. I broke four days. I sit down on a curb and eat my last chocolate rice crispy and wonder what to do next. No one stirs. I don’t feel exuberant or glorious, just wiped blank. I had done what I had thought was impossible. Damn, that was hard.
Images by: Jordan Carr