As I prepared to ride this year's on the sly version of the Kokopelli Trail race, everything felt quite different from last year. In many ways that was expected and even normal I suppose. Last year I had finally finished a race that made me so excited about the whole unsupported ultra scene in the first place. Even a second half melt down couldn't take away the joy I felt rolling for miles down Sand Flats road with tears in my eyes, knowing that I did it and I couldn't wait to see my wife's beautiful face around the final bend. I had agonized about my water supply, food choices, lighting, navigation and at the last minute, being prevented from even starting by the BLM. Despite all the challenges, I gave myself no easy way out. As far as I knew, Marni would drive directly to the finish and wait for me there. I did not have a phone or any way to contact the outside world. When the nervous starting line jokes were finished and the huge field spread itself out along the 142 miles of beautiful desert, I was on my own.
This year my preparation was purposeful and without undue agonizing. My fitness was fine and I knew the trail. I looked forward to the new direction and seeing things in the daylight for the first time. Food, water, Steripen, my SPOT, sunscreen and a few other essentials found their way into my pack early in the week. Clothing was packed in my cycling bag allowing a last minute decision. I loaded a pared down GPS track into my Etrex to prevent any wrong turns but I felt like I knew the way without it. I washed weeks of mud and dust off the Monocog and selected a 36x20 gearing combination, my favorite choice. The days clicked by and I never quite got the good rest that I wanted but it didn't worry me. The race would only last through one night, I could survive. Plus I felt fresh and strong regardless. Soon Friday arrived and Marni, Turbo and I packed up to leave, right on schedule. We picked up Essam in Fruita on the way down and by 11pm I was greeting a few friends in town, preparing my bottles and digging out the right clothes from my pack.
I kissed Marni goodbye at 11:30pm and told her I would see her tomorrow in Fruita. Goodbyes are so much less stressful now that we both have several years of experience and dozens of races to draw from but I still miss her. Then we were off and it was time to focus. An unassuming group of cyclists rolled through the bike trails of Moab and up Sand Flats road. The group grew a few more riders strong in the Slickrock parking lot and at the midnight beep beep of my watch, we left. Immediately Kenny and I rode off the front, eager to begin the 4000 foot climb ahead of us, well aware that over the mountains would lay the hot desert and each minute wasted now would hurt us later. Thirty minutes up the road, a section of washboard ejected one of my bottles. I turned to retrieve it rolling down the hill and Kenny kept pedaling. I think we both assumed it was a momentary separation. I wouldn't see Kenny again until the finish.
Once my bottle was safely back in my possession I continued onward. Soon nature called and I stopped again. Moving once more found me riding with Pete Basinger and I was happy to chat as we climbed higher. We rode together. We rode slightly separated, trading positions. The wind was odd and swirled all around us, gusting and changing directions frequently. The night was warm though and still in the back of my mind was the heat of the coming day, urging me upward quickly. The moon lit the dirt road well and less than two hours from our start my tires hit the pavement at the top of the climb. Down, down, down, I dropped in the chilly night air. I wanted to put on my jacket but I was loathe to stop again. I dislike stopping for anything but the essentials when I'm on my own. Pete's lights traced each turn below me, not far ahead and I assumed I would catch back up to him on the climb. I wouldn't see Pete again for more than 12 hours.
I made the right turn up the La Sal Loop road, beginning the second climb of the night, feeling strong and optimistic. I was climbing well. The two riders ahead of me would have to stop for water. I intended on riding to the end without stopping although I had several options to allow a stop if necessary. I noted my GPS elevation at the bottom of the climb, knowing I had around 2000 feet to gain to reach the summit and next descent. Up I began to climb and down my eyelids began to move. At first I fought like normal. The late night sleep monster is now an old friend. We've done battle on dozens of occasions and I expected this to be no different. I climbed higher and the sleep monster fought harder. One third of the distance to the top I stopped. I leaned over my handlebars and closed my eyes. The air was calm and warm and I tried to take the briefest of naps to appease my opponent. The wind gusted. I opened my eyes and climbed higher. Several more times I stopped to nap on my bars. It wasn't working. I walked for a minute despite my legs climbing excellently. My gearing was perfect, I was strong. But the sleep monster was relentless.
I heard Eric before I ever saw him, riding by the moonlight with his lights switched off. I hopped back on my bike, eager to have a friend in my fight to stay awake. We finished off the climb together and I'm sure I amused him in my sleepy state, unable to hold any sort of straight line. Both of us donned our relatively warm clothes at the top of North Beaver Mesa and I ate some cookies. On the descent Eric made a wrong turn down the Paradox trail. That brought back memories and I said hi to my old friend from last year then yelled to Eric his mistake. He easily caught back up to me despite my lights creating near daylight in front of me. Soon he disappeared down the trail, his lights visible now and then below me. My legs felt strong but I couldn't stay awake. I continued on alone fighting off sleep. I wouldn't see Eric again for more than 12 hours.
How I ended up on the ground of my own decision making and not due to falling asleep at the handlebars is anyone's guess. Negative thoughts crept into my head as I faced a new challenge for the first time in my still fresh ultra career. I would have to sleep. How long? Where? Would a mountain lion eat me? Would I be cold with no bivouac gear? Should I drop out? I would have to take my best guess at the answers to all of these questions but even the negative thoughts couldn't make me quit, at least not yet. Sometime near 4:30am I came to the top of a short climb. I got off my bike and put the hood of my jacket up and laid down in the sand. I set the alarm on my watch for 15 minutes. Closing my eyes was so satisfying. I had been fighting it with every trick I knew for hours, other than drinking the coffee I had forgotten in the cooler. The night felt warm enough and huddled into my jacket with my arms around my legs in a ball, I was not cold. I drifted in and out of sleep for 13 minutes, when Don happened upon me. "Are you okay?" "Yes, I just couldn't stay awake. But I'm going to keep riding now." Don must have paused while I stumbled to my feet and saddled up again. We chatted about those behind and ahead of us, food and all those other small talk conversations that occur between two bike racers in the middle of nowhere in the predawn hours. I was more awake now although Don still pulled away on every downhill. I would regain ground on the climbs and as dawn broke on Rose Garden Hill, I sleepily pushed my bike to the top. I was discouraged that my body was letting me down, not allowing my legs to do the work they so desperately wanted to do. Don stopped to adjust clothing and I took another nap. I saw a bright light below us but it never caught up. Time sitting around was still time wasted in my mind and we soon were moving again. With each ledge and climb I began to grow stronger. First I kept up with Don, then I passed him. I would recover on each flat section and he was regain contact. The further we climbed, the more I pulled ahead. I was so thankful for his company earlier but now I couldn't slow down. I yelled back one last time that we were nearing the top and turned to keep climbing. I was awake.
The rise above Rose Garden Hill shouldn't be great for a singlespeeder but for some reason it was perfect. Soon I began descending and if I wasn't totally awake, I was about to be. While flying down Entrada Bluffs road at more than 20 miles per hour, a bobcat dashed directly in front of me! I only saw him for a moment but it was awesome. No doubt more scared of me than I of him, I still quickly continued on down the road, now totally jazzed. I dropped into Cottonwood, following tracks and riding almost everything. A quick hike out and more descending brought me hollering and cheering myself on past a multiday tour group just having breakfast. They cheered back but I was already on my way to the river. I rolled past the remains of poor Dewey bridge and leaned my bike against the bathroom. I had no desire to stop but it was now morning and I had tasks to attend to. If I was lucky, stops would be limited from here on out. Sunscreen was applied, water bottles rearranged, sun glass lenses switched and bathroom duties attended to and then I was back on the bike at 7:35am. I had some apprehension about riding Yellowjacket Canyon in this direction due to sand rumors but soon I found it totally rideable and as enjoyable as riding the opposite direction. Only a pause to lube my chain or water the sage kept me from turning over the pedals nonstop. My average speeds were rising and my mojo was building. The chase was on.
I knew there were 3 riders ahead of me and plenty of miles left to cover. I spotted them quite a lead with my napping but it did not matter. I would do what I could now and ride hard. And ride is all I did. I didn't stop for water. I drank my food from a bottle. If I couldn't ride I walked...fast. Reports from jeeps and other riders always pinned the local of Kenny, Pete and Eric somewhere in the distance, not far ahead but never in sight. Still I pedaled. Mcgraw bottom, Cisco, Westwater. I still had plenty of water so I didn't stop. At the turn off the pavement towards Rabbit Valley, now some 100 miles into my ride I put on more sunscreen and downed some extra Endurolytes. It was heating up but I felt good. More miles passed. Up and down, up and down. The GPS mercilessly wound a path in and out of the valleys when I knew the shortest distance to the trailhead followed the highway not more than a couple miles to my left. And yet I followed the carsonite posts and dotted GPS track as they led to my treasure. With every hour it grew hotter and the distance to Salt Creek grew shorter. That was my goal, find the creek and use the water to cool my body. A day rider noticed my pack and haste and questioned me on my ride. We chatted for several minutes about mutual friends and he asked if I had enough water when we reached his turn off in Rabbit Valley. I said that I did and switch my hydration tube to a fresh 2.5L bladder to ease any fears he had. We said goodbye and I ground up the gravel road towards the creek alone, the highway now tantalizingly close but off limits.
It seemed that the gravel road would never end but somehow it did and I found myself dodging toaster sized rocks as I slowly descended. I covered ground more quickly climbing on the gravel. A circuitous and very technical trail brought me riding and walking slowly down to the creek. As if it could not be too easy, shrubs guarded the trail just before the creek, slapping and scratching my now tiring legs. Still racing despite seeing no one for hours and hours, I talked myself out of a dip in the cool water and instead just filled up a water bottle. Armed with my "air conditioning", I began the hike-a-bike out of the drainage, up to the trail above. Just a few switchbacks up, I saw a jersey, then a camelback. I recognized the jacket strapped to the back, it was Pete. Even more motivated, I hurried up the broken rocks, dragging my bike behind me. By the time I was able to ride again, Pete and Eric were further down the trail, almost out of sight. I figured that I had been catching them all day so I still had time to reel them in. Troy Built and Lion's were a solid mix of hard riding and plenty of hiking. I repeatedly dumped rapidly warming creek water down my shirt to ward off the heat as I kept my pace as high as I could muster. I fueled myself with a Honey Stinger gel and forced water down at every chance. Soon I passed Pete. He was digging licorice out of his pack and looked beat but said he was doing fine. I kept moving before he rallied and could catch up with me since he is a strong rider. Eric was still dangling out ahead. Finally I reeled him in as well but it was short lived as I was on the edge from going so hard. He passed me back and I worked to keep contact, then just in sight a couple short hills ahead of me. We finally reached the turn for Mary's loop and I realized he went the wrong way. Now out of sight, there was nothing I could do but hope he realized his mistake. We'd all come too far to make a mistake now. With my GPS confirming the route, I turned the other way and wound my way around the final bits of trail. Feeling the pull of the finish I kept on the gas and more miles passed. My body responded well and I cleaned an amazing amount of technical obstacles considering the 15 hours of riding in my legs. I began to follow my watch instead of looking for other people, hoping to duck in under 16 hours. I rode faster and faster, downhilling with less and less control, the rigid fork hammering my hands. I knew I was on the final downhill of Mary's loop when I heard a beep that let me know it was 4pm. Darn so close. Still I pushed and was relieved to reach the relatively smooth gravel that led to the finish. Up one final climb, pedaling hard, fighting to the end. I felt the gradient level out and the tension fade from my body. It was over. Below be a few hundred yards in the parking lot sat Marni and friends, waiting with drinks and cookies. I coasted down the hill and raised my arms up. Adam and Marni had the cameras out so I gave them a finishing wheelie and a high five. A kiss from my sweetie and I traded my bike for a chair. 16:04, my first singlespeed Kokopelli.
I sat in the chair, very happy with my day despite the time being a bit off my pre-race goal. I was most pleased that I rallied after the struggles of the night. It was a new experience for me and a new lesson learned. And just like every hard lesson I've learned for myself riding long distances on a bike, that experience is like money in the bank. There will be other Kokopelli rides and other rides far beyond. When people ask why I do it, it's easy to say honestly that I enjoy both the beauty and the suffering that go hand and hand out on the trail. Also I love learning more about myself and the strength I possess inside that is bottomless, if I allow myself to keep digging. Until next time...and next lesson.