Lesson #1. If you want to do something very hard, tell everyone about it. And then make yourself be accountable to all those folks rooting for you.
If you are reading this blogpost, no doubt you are aware that I am new to bikepacking and ultra racing. I wasn't sure how I would do during the CTR, but I knew it would be tough and that I would be tempted to quit (AKA scratch) at some point. I was very public about my intentions and I tried to make my race meaningful to my community, so that when I was tempted to scratch, I would know that everyone watching my dot on trackleaders would know right away, and their disappointment would haunt me just as much as my own.
If you want to know more about my fundraising efforts and why I decided to do this as a memorial ride for Tricia and my sister, Melissa, read about it here.
The morning of day 1, just after leaving the trailhead as I was pedaling the dirt road through Waterton Canyon, my eyes welled up with tears for the first of many times. Prior to this summer, I wasn't too much of a cryer- and usually only got blubbery in moments of great sorrow or frustration. At that moment, surrounded by about 90 crazy kooks all doing what we loved for various reasons, I was choking back tears of happiness to have come so far in this journey and to have finally seen it to fruition. I was thinking of Tricia and hoping that she would smile to see me there.
Lesson #2. Don't underestimate what you are capable of. Pack some decent lights.
In training for the CTR, I did a lot of overnight bikepacking trips. I tried to ride terrain that was part of the Colorado Trail, or very similar in difficulty. My hardest day was a 16 hour effort involving 9,000 feet of climbing/descending and 60 miles of riding. I was cracked the next day and had to rest. So I figured that during the race, I wouldn't be able to maintain efforts like that day after day, and that I would only plan to ride during daylight, about 6am to 9pm. I would aim to sleep 7-8 hours every night. My light system included a rechargeable Black Diamond headlamp and 2 tiny commuter lights on my bars. I figured this would be enough to get me to a flat spot to sleep in the dark and that I didn't need anything stronger. It also meant I didn't have to worry about charging huge 800 lumen lights. I wouldn't have to carry a heavy battery brick and various cords and plugs to keep the lights running. Well, I was wrong. My first day consisted of about 110 miles and 15,000 feet of climbing, and the biggest ride of my life thus far. I only stopped to camp because the fella I was riding with, (Cody, RN), decided it was time to camp and I was certain I would get lost in the dark without him. We had already missed a turn and gone about 1/2 mile downhill in the wrong direction. I slept great for about 2 hours, but then wanted to ride more. My mind was racing all night as I lay in my shelter, wishing I had a good light system and a GPS line to follow. I peeked out from under the edge of my shelter tarp and watched as a group of 4 riders rolled by, joking and chatting with each other in the dark at 1:30am. I desperately wanted to join them, but knew that by the time I could pack everything up, their lights would be gone and I'd be fumbling with my phone, worried that I was lost.
Day 2 was very familiar terrain for me which gave me quite an advantage. I was awash in texts from friends as I rode through all my favorite trails in Summit County. I used to live about 20 yards from the Peaks Trail TH in Frisco, and I had so many memories from those segments of the CT. Going up Miner's Creek trail was a lonely place. I played the first of 2 songs that I would listen to during the entire CTR on my phone for a little mental boost (In The Wind, Lord Huron). (The second song came on day 6 during a celebratory moment- Ring Of Fire, Johnny Cash). I crested the Ten Mile Range at sunset and ripped down Wheeler trail to Copper in some spectacular golden hour light. I couldn't have imagined a better farewell to my old home.
Without a doubt, the number one reason that I was able to go as fast and as far as I did each day while feeling good and having fun, was because of the amazing people I got to spend a lot of quality time with out there on the trail. On day 3, I met Chris. He was possibly the most fun individual I rode with. On a Trek Slash, he knew how to throw a proper whip while descending, despite the extra weight of the bikepacking setup. And he had a goofy sense of humor. On day 3 I made it from Copper to Buena Vista, another one of my favorite sections. Thanks to Chris, I learned about the Leadville Bypass and managed to get a call in to Boneshaker Cycles in BV (after a tip from Katie on Kokomo Pass informed me that Cycles of Life in Leadville was closed on Tuesdays). I paid for my new light over the phone and Dave had it charged up and waiting for me outside the back door when I arrived at 8pm. Bypassing Leadville was a very good call as it kept me moving and likely saved me over an hour. I'm sure I would have gone to Safeway and High Mountain Pies and all my favorite spots. I used to live and work in Leadville, and I love that town. And the Bypass was great, taking me to places I hadn't been for years. I stopped at the golf course and had a delicious, cold Gatorade. Hanging out with Chris was such a mental boost, I felt like I was figuring things out and I got a strong start to day 4, almost halfway to Durango!
I don't think I was actually hallucinating at any point on the trail. However, as I started up the singletrack below Monarch Crest and the Fooses Creek climb, I found myself in another lonely place. I suspect I was hungry and dehydrated as the segment from Mt Princeton Hot Springs to Highway 50 was grueling and long. And then, somehow the song playing on repeat in my head got rather intense, "Don't stop, get it get it ..." (Feel Good Inc., Gorilaz) and I noticed that everywhere I looked there were hearts. On the trail the rocks were heart shaped. Pieces of tree bark were heart shaped. Clouds. Lichen on rocks. Leaves. Shadows. I felt surrounded by love and hope and even though I'm not spiritual and this might sound a little crazy, I was sure that Tricia was with me on the trail. At a certain point, a pair of little yellow butterflies flew into my face and one of them fluttered on my lips and then flew away. This magical bit of twilit climbing went on for a spell. I passed a small camp of hikers about a hundred yards down the trail and heard them yelling across the valley to their friend, "Horale guey, donde andas!?!" This added to the surreal feeling of that segment. I briefly conversed with them in Spanish and wondered if I had been launched into some parallel realm. Shortly after, I started up the switchbacks and there was Chris! He seemed happy to have caught me and I was motivated to keep him in my sights for the last stretch of the climb, in the dark, above treeline. At the pass we added lights and layers, and then ripped down Monarch Crest blanketed in a velvety sky of stars. I slept great that night, with a belly full of ramen.
Day 5 was by all accounts a raging success. I woke up with the light before dawn, ate my oatmeal and used the bathroom at Marshall Pass. I was packed up and ready to go before 6, but I noticed that other folks were stirring and I was excited to say hi to Alexandera and Artec. I had ridden a bit with "Art", an ICU nurse from Flagstaff the day before and he had told me a few stories about "Alex", who I had only met very briefly the day before above Clear Creek reservoir where I passed her looking very tired, but hadn't really chatted with her. I had been looking forward to finally talking to Alex and learning her story.
We started Sargent's Mesa and the 4 of us (Artec, Alexandera, Jim and myself) carried on nicely, and seemed to be pushing each other. Breaks were short as I didn't want to be left behind and alone, so I got a lot more efficient at using my purification tabs. At a certain point, the terrain was surprisingly loose and rugged. The descents were numerous and enduro-worthy, and Jim, Art and I lost sight of Alexandera. I was sad that she wasn't hanging with us, but also stoked that I was ahead of her (and possibly in 3rd place for women?!?) When the 3 of us got to the La Garita Wilderness detour, I was warned that it would be long and grueling. I settled in and commenced doing as much stretching as I could while pedaling the same pace as the fellas. My right hand hadn't regained sensation since Buena Vista, but I continued to do my carpal tunnel PT as much as I could, while in the saddle. We climbed into the night and my energy and ambitions started to waver. I continued to climb, but I started to noticed that I was feeling less energetic and that it was harder to be positive and chatty. I decided at 10:30 pm, after about 16 hours of hard riding to camp at Slumgullion Pass, a closed campground with a locked bathroom along a desolate highway in the middle of nowhere. Greg, a CTR'er who had just ridden back up from Lake City (he ran out of food), and was camped under the shelter of the roof of the closed latrine, just on the other side of a stone and wooden wall from me. I pitched my shelter, made and ate my ramen and was inside my sleeping bag before Art and Jim had pedaled off. I was hopeful that I could fall asleep quickly and get to Spring Creek in time to catch them leaving in the morning. It was only about 10 miles further down the highway, but involved another climb.
Well not long after 12pm, just as I was beginning to drift off, a car pulled into the parking lot and shined its headlights directly on the bathroom and my shelter. I was very annoyed. I glared out from under the edge of the tarp into the headlights. The window rolled down and I heard a familiar Southern twang shout out, "Leigh Bowe!" My response wasn't aggressive, but it wasn't exactly welcoming and it may have included a "WTF?" Bree offered cookies which I rejected. In my sleepy state, I was upset that she might put me in a situation that might compromise the integrity of the rules of the race. She then remarked that my friends up the road (Art and Jim) were happy to take cookies and than proceeded to feed cookies to Greg, (who I never actually saw in the light of day, but I chatted with through the wall of the latrine). I begrudgingly took 3, very amazing cookies, but declined fruit and chocolate (*facepalm*) and didn't think to ask for water. I learned the next morning that Alexandera gladly accepted the cookies, bar of chocolate and a juicy peach and I felt like the biggest rookie.
I awoke at about 3:30am, before my alarm went off, feeling energized and ready to ride.
I started offering to share food anytime I was having a snack with other people around, pretty early in the race. Most racers seemed hesitant to accept at first. But eventually most everyone was experiencing some form of flavor fatigue and intense hunger. We basically spent a week talking and thinking about food. On day 5, I had offered to Alexandera a drink of my coffee (cold brew, dairy free, instant latte- just mix in Nalgene with tasty stream water, throw it on your bike and shake for about 15-20 minutes ;). She also took some Muddy Buddies. Art was partial to my Korean BBQ Pork jerky, which was great because I left Denver with like 3 pounds of it. On day 6, arguably the crux move of the CTR and definitely the high elevation and most exposed to the elements of days, there was rain predicted. It seemed like it might not storm, but as we were in Colorado, there were no weather guarantees, other than the increased likelihood of lightning in the afternoon. I met Dana in the morning- and rode with him briefly. He was quite fast despite having had to ride down to and back from Lake City after a broken spoke. He also happened to be a lightning strike survivor and I'm sure he has some incredible stories.
On day 6, I was feeling really strong and was sharing lots of food. Jim, Art and I had just it the high point of the CT, Coney Summit and climbed back up to Carson Saddle and were sharing a cold Coke that Jim had brought. I was elated that we were through the scariest, most exposed section and none of us had been hit by lightning. Alexandera showed up and I was happy to see her, and a little surprised. I knew she hadn't slept much and I was really impressed that she had caught up to us. I decided that it was go time and I asked Art to take a picture of me with my phone as I was dropping into (IMO) the most epic scenery of the CT, Cataract Lakes.
Lesson #7. Never go full enduro. If you are going to go full enduro, do it properly. Don't be too lazy to take a piece of equipment that you had planned all summer to ride with just because the car with your knee pads in it disappeared for a few minutes just before the start.
I'll admit that I may have been showboating a little when I dropped in from Carson Saddle, I rode fast and strong for a few hundred yards, having a blast. I had to grab my phone back from Art, so I aimed to stop on large slab of rock and found myself launched from my bike and tumbling off trail. I landed on my right side and was annoyed. My leggings were torn, my knee was scuffed and my right hip felt bruised. I turned to look back up at my friends, who didn't seem at all interested in the fall. I glanced at my knee and saw that it was a bit more than a scuff and I figured I needed some stitches. I contemplated my first aid kit, which included bandaids, dirty duct tape wrapped around my water bottle, blister pads and a needle and thread. None of this seemed adequate, so I decided that the laceration wasn't as bad as it looked and that I needed to just deal with it until my options improved. At that point Art and Jim showed up. I think Alexandera was fixing something on her bike, but she was on scene about a minute later. After we had established that I had crashed (apparently nobody saw it), and that I had a decently large, gaping hole in my knee, I was presented with a big bandaid and some athletic tape. I quickly bandaged the wound. Like a child, I felt like if I couldn't see the large, fleshy hole, then it wasn't really there. Art suggested irrigation and I declined, feeling suddenly very hurried to get to Silverton before the knee refused to work anymore. I jumped on my bike and continued riding down. I suspect that there was probably some discussion about what to do about the bleeding girl they had been riding with for the past 2 days, but I don't know the details.
I'm not sure if it was the jerky or the fact that he is a nurse or if maybe Artec just drew the short straw, but his pace seemed to slow a bit and I noticed that he was taking more breaks than usual as I slowly pushed and pedaled and descended my way to Silverton. I didn't want to hold anybody up, but I also was grateful not to be left alone with an oozing wound. The mental strength that I gained from having someone nearby was remarkable. It was about 33 miles, 3,500 feet of climbing and 5,500 feet of descending into Silverton. The final descent from Stony Pass was the worst, and I started to wonder if the cut in my leg might make me have to scratch. Up until that point, it was full blown denial. I wasn't taking great care of myself; I started eating and drinking less often immediately after the crash. I had texted Bree, who happens to be a PA and she was meeting me in Silverton with my proper first aid kit (which includes a small skin stapler) and I had reserved a hotel room in Silverton. I figured we could irrigate and close the wound in the bathroom and if the swelling wasn't crazy in the morning, I could continue the race.
Bree gave it her all, but felt strongly that 5 staples were not enough, that the risk of infection was too high, and that I may have partially torn my patellar tendon. Artec also seemed to think the situation was hopeless and that I needed proper medical care (more than the 3 of us could provide in the hotel bathroom). I called Matt and Sienna and finally gave in to some of the tears that I had been choking back for days. I scratched and let Bree take me to the nearest open medical facility, Mercy Medical Center ER in Durango.
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After negative x-rays and a whopping 7 staples (staples preferred over sutures as it was over a large joint in a patient who might consider returning to activity sooner than recommended), I was back in the van, feeling really defeated. At first I was angry with Bree because I had tried so hard not to scratch and I had learned that I was less than 10 miles from both first and second place women (Liz Sampey and Ashley Carelock at that time), and I really felt like we could have made the 5 staples work. I slept for 2 hours, and then awoke at 1:30am, very uncomfortable. The discomfort in my knee quickly became unbearable- it seemed that the lidocaine had worn off. I tried elevating my knee on a pillow- I found the ice pack from the ER and tried that and then I began to writhe and moan. It was pretty bad. I think it was more mental anguish than physical pain, but the pain was really intense. The van was a mess and I couldn't find the hydrocodone or even any ibuprofen. This went on for approximately an hour (I think I woke the neighbor's dogs with my moaning) until I managed to turn on a light, move enough to find ibuprofen and hydrocodone. I slept hard until 9am.
When I awoke, I felt fine. Well, about as fine as when I woke the day before (pins and needles in right hand, sore saddle area, tired legs). I lay there for a bit, thinking about my options. I had no idea what to do with the day. And then, I thought about going for a ride. And then I thought about where to ride, and the only sensible thing to do seemed to be to go back to Silverton and ride to Durango on the CT. I called Matt and we both agreed that finishing the ride, even if I was out of the race, seemed like the most logical thing to do with the day. Bree was happy to drive me to Silverton (after a shower), and I became anxious to get moving quickly.
We pulled into the same stall in front of the Avon Hotel that we had left from the night before, and who do we see walking out of the hotel? None other than Artec! He still had to swing by the bike shop and I needed ramen. So we arranged to meet at the grocery store and rode out of town together, discussing at length our mutually satisfying breakfasts.
I finished the CT the following evening at about 6pm. Liz, Bree and Art met me at the Junction Creek TH. We met with Alexandera the next day for ice cream.
My result is unofficial because by accepting outside assistance when I got in Bree's car to go to the ER, I broke a race rule. My dot changed to a recreational rider dot, and I didn't actually finish the race. Despite that, I do feel like I finished the CTR and I did it faster, stronger, and kinder than I had thought myself capable of. I made countless friends and hopefully I touched some of those people in a positive way and managed to sprinkle some of Tricia's kindness around while I was out there.
Thank you so much to everyone who had a hand in this journey. There is no way I could ever name all of you, but I am forever indebted to Bree Reza and Artec Durham for putting the pieces of me back together out there. I could not have finished without them. But really, I owe so much gratitude to everyone who raced, followed the race, donated to CIF or said a kind word to me this summer. Thank you all.
Please reach out if you have any questions about bikepacking, the Colorado Trail, brain health or if you just wanna say hi.