The Kokopelli Trail Race this year was a remarkable event for me in many ways. It was the longest (in time) ride I’ve ever done. It was the first time I’ve done an unsupported endurance ride. It was the most scared I’ve ever been on a ride.
And, by far, it was the most epic ride I’ve ever been on.
By a lot.
In other words, I’ve got a lot of story to tell, and I hope you won’t mind if I take a few days to tell it.
Meet Your Friendly BLM Representatives
The ride started — or nearly failed to start — with a little bit of drama. At about 10:30pm Friday night, about 50 of us gathered at the Loma trailhead to participate in what could hardly be called an organized event.
And that’s when the BLM agents rolled up, asking for Adam Lisonbee, our ringleader.
Without a heartbeat’s hesitation, we gave him up.
For the next half hour, everyone in the group argued whether what we were doing required a permit. Our point was that there was no registration, no fee, no list of participants. We were just a rather large group ride, with some (but definitely not all) people hoping to go fast.
The BLM’s argument was that we were a little too big and a little too organized (there was a web page, an organizer, and a name for what we were doing) to be called a group ride.
The argument went in circles, with nobody conceding anything. I stood in the back of the group, torn between wanting to get riding and the weaselly hope that the whole thing would get canceled, because then I’d have an ironclad excuse for not following up on my boast that I would do this ride.
Fortunately / unfortunately, the BLM eventually got tired of arguing, wrote Adam a ticket (which we all chipped in to cover), and then skulked around the parking lot until midnight, which is when we all took off.
So, what do you carry if you’re planning to do a 142-mile mountain bike ride, completely self-sufficiently, through both the night and heat of day?
Well, I wore bib shorts, a sleeveless jersey, a short-sleeved jersey on top of it, arm warmers, and knee warmers. Here, you can see me guiltily suiting up, while Kenny looks on angrily, wondering why I’m wearing knee warmers after he’s heeded my advice to destroy his own.
For food, I packed 18 packets of Clif Shot Bloks, 6 Honey Stinger protein bars, and a gallon of water (100oz Camelbak bladder and 2 large water bottles mounted on the frame).
For light, I used a CygoLite Dualcross 200, rented from a local sports store, and a LED headlamp, which made wearing my helmet very uncomfortable.
I was keeping it simple.
Terror and Pain
Starting the Kokopelli Trail at midnight from the Loma end of the trail means that you are going to ride every bit of the technical part of the trail at the very darkest part of the night. Even so, it was a warm night, and I took off my knee warmers within fifteen minutes of starting the ride, never to put them back on again for the remainder of the race.
Anyway, the first section of the KTR is called Mary’s Loop. It’s not too bad, even in the dark. Still, I was spooked, thinking frequently that this was the trail from which my sister had taken an 18-foot drop while mountain biking in the daylight.
This trail leads to Troybilt, which is a terrific trail if you know it well, and if it’s daylight. I, alas, do not know the trail well, and there was only the tiniest sliver of moon, which supplemented the bike lights not even a tiny bit.
And that’s when the worst moment of my whole day happened.
About an hour into the ride, I was riding along Troybilt, finishing up a fast downhill section. It emptied into a dry riverbed, which sorta-kinda-but-not-really looked like it was the trail. I followed it for a moment, but didn’t see enough tire marks in the sand to convince me I was on the right track. I turned around and followed it in the other direction.
I couldn’t find a trail anywhere. I was lost.
I started a slow walking spiral, looking for something that might be a trail. And, in a few minutes, I found it — the reason I hadn’t seen the trail before was that it started up on a ledge about three feet above me. I had to lift my bike onto the trail to continue.
What a relief. I wasn’t going to DNF an hour into a race just because I couldn’t find the trail.
I hoisted my bike up onto the ledge, then held it in place with my left hand while I stepped up onto what would have to serve as a step.
And then the hard plastic cleats on my bike shoes — relatively new bike shoes, which I have been riding for only a month or so — slipped. I tumbled backward, scraping up my right knee. Twisting around to the right, I put out my right arm to protect myself.
You know, no matter how many times I dislocate my shoulder, it never gets old.
I stumbled around for a few minutes, angry, hurt, and feeling very alone. To make matters worse, my arm wouldn’t go back into the socket easily like it usually does. It took several tries, and hurt much worse than usual when it finally seated itself.
My shoulder would throb the rest of the day, making ugly, muffled popping sounds at strange, unexpected moments.
Once I had myself back together, I hoisted my bike — which had fallen to my side when I fell — back onto the trail, I didn’t even look at it to see if it was OK. I just got back on and started riding.
Or rather, I got back on and tried to start riding. Unfortunately, the chain immediately got sucked between the spokes and big cog. I got off, got the chain back in place, and started riding again.
Same result. OK, something’s definitely wrong.
Peering at the rear derailleur by the light of my headlamp, I could see: the derailleur was bent and cracked. I tried shifting it, but except for the fourth ring, it hopped all over the place.
My bike was now officially a three-speed. I was screwed.
“OK, fine,” I thought. “Now I’ve got three legitimate reason to quit the race: broken bike, cut up knee (I knew I could play it up to make it sound like it was more painful than it really was), and dislocated shoulder.”
But first, I needed to get to a place where I could bail out. I figured that Rabbit Valley, about twenty miles into the ride, would be a good place to quit — it was close to the freeway, and there was a good chance I’d get a phone signal.
Meanwhile, I may as well keep going.
After I finally picked my way down the canyon and up the other side to the big open frontage road that leads to Rabbit Valley, I started thinking about what it meant to quit. It would be the first time I had ever quit any race. I didn’t like the thought of that. More importantly, though, right now my wife is having to be tough every single day of her life. If I quit this race even though my bike was still rolling, even though my shoulder was back where it belonged, even though my knee injury was purely superficial, how tough would I look?
I decided to keep going until / unless my bike truly could not be ridden. And I looked at my new pink headset dozens of times throughout that day to remind me of that.
There was a time when I looked to Tyler Hamilton for an example of being strong through pain.
Now I just look to my wife.
Rabbit Valley is an ATV paradise, criscrossed with dirt trails. Some of them are marked. Other times, I had to use my very best Boy Scout skills and try to figure out which way the Kokopelli trail went. Mostly, I did this by getting low to the ground and shining my light at the trail. The shadows of all those bike tracks showed up more clearly that way.
And, to my credit, I never got lost for more than ten or twenty yards at a time on this ride.
At one of the moments where I needed to stop and assess which trail to take, I happened to look up.
I had never seen the stars so clearly. So I took a moment and enjoyed it. Then I rode for a few minutes and did the same thing. I don’t get to see the Milky Way so brightly very often, and it was definitely worth taking the time to look.
By 4:00am, I was marching my bike up a steep climb out of Rabbit Valley and to the plateau that drops to the next big section of the ride — Westwater to Cisco. While hiking, I noticed that what had started as faint discomfort from my shoes was rapidly blooming into full-blown pain. If you want to imagine how it felt, imagine taping a pencil right where your feet press against the cleat of your pedals. It wouldn’t hurt at first — you’d just say, “hey, there’s a pencil in my shoe.” After a while, though, it would hurt a lot.
As the day progressed, the pain in my feet (both feet, same place) would become the single most prevalent feature of the ride.
For right now, though, I was just marching my bike up. And then I slipped and fell, tumbling in a backwards somersault. I stood up, praying nobody saw. Nobody had (that I know of). So I put my Camelbak back on.
And then I quickly took it back off.
Evidently, my roll in the grass had left the mesh back of my Camelbak full of goatheads.
With nothing else to do, I spent ten minutes picking them out as best as I could. But I’m sure I’ll never get all of them out.
By the time I got to the plateau that leads to Westwater (now approximately 35 miles into the race, I think), I had made a judgment call on lights. First, the Cygolite DualCross rocks, and I want one. It provided useful light throughout the entire night and beyond.
Second, the headlamp sucked. I no longer wanted any part of it. So I took it off — the batteries still good, the headlamp in perfect working condition — and hung it on the branch of a tree sticking out into the trail. The next person who comes along that trail gets a free light. Lucky her / him!
I rolled to the point where I needed to either head to Westwater and fill up with water or continue on to Dewey Bridge. I had plenty of water, as far as I knew, so I parted company with a couple of guys I rode and talked with for about an hour — guys who I could not now pick out of a lineup, because all I saw of their faces was bright headlamps.
It was starting to turn light, which somehow made me more comfortable about getting out the iPod (riding in the dark with one would have eliminated one too many senses). I left the lights on, curious to see how long they’d burn and figuring that number would be useful to mention in this blog when I strongly recommended the CygoLites for endurance nightriding (about nine hours, with the final two hours at full power).
I ratcheted up to the big ring and started pedaling along the fast, rolling, sandy singletrack, singing along with Johnny Cash’s “I’ve Been Everywhere.”
Forty miles down, 100 to go.