I blame soccer. Specifically youth soccer. A year ago, I was naive enough to volunteer to coach my daughter’s soccer team when they sent out the email saying “no coach – no team”. By doing so, I immediately got added to the ‘sucker’ list and within a couple of days, had the same “no coach – no team” email for my son’s team. I know nothing about soccer, but my kids enjoyed having me out there, and I knew that wouldn’t last – so when I had to choose between the normal Spring XC race series, or spending my weekends on the soccer pitch, I chose soccer and my kids.
I needed something to focus on for me, though, so the thought of doing one of the longer ‘destination’ races during the summer came to mind. The Telluride 100 was my first choice because it’s run by someone I know, it’s not super crowded like Leadville, and the location was cool. I also thought it was a 100k and didn’t realize it was 100 miles until I went to sign up – but by then I was committed.
The Telluride 100 is billed as the “Most Beautiful Race on Earth” and I think it’s a pretty accurate description as the views are phenomenal – at least when you have enough oxygen to see. I think they could also add “Most Brutal 100 Miler on Earth” and be pretty accurate, too. The race covers almost 100 miles, with 15,000 feet of elevation gain, topping out at almost 13,000 feet above sea level. To put that in perspective, that’s 40% more climbing than the famous Leadville race. It’s a mix of rough fire roads and singletrack, with a small amount of pavement connecting sections. They limit the race to 100 participants, which eliminates the crowding of the larger races. Historically, the race has had about a 45% ‘Did Not Finish’ rate, so it is a real challenge.
I didn’t really do much “training”. I learned long ago that trying to do structured training while dealing with a job, family and other important things in life is a recipe for burnout for me. I just focused on extending my long ride each week from 2 hours to 4+ hours. I also added in lots of hills the last few weeks, but you can’t realistically train effectively for big mountain climbs in Austin. I spent most of my time working on pace and figuring out how to eat on the bike. I did a couple of 50+ mile races as a leadup, and performed well, but I was far from confident leading into the race. I’d never attempted anything with that much climbing, and climbing at altitude added a whole other dimension to the challenge. My goals reflected that reality – my only goal for the race was to finish. I figured my time on the bike could be anywhere between 10 and 15 hours, and figured somewhere around 11.5 hours to be most likely.
I woke up at 4:30am on race day, ate breakfast and headed with the (very sleepy) family to the start line. I love that you can roll up 10 minutes before the start and not have to deal with long queues. Right at 6:00am, they blew the horn and we started out of town with a neutral roll out. After about a mile, the lead jeep pulled off and the race was officially on.
The race had 4 major climbs, and the first was was the infamous ‘Black Bear Pass’. This is a famous extreme 4×4 trail. Search on youtube and you can see lots of cool videos of jeeps flipping down the mountain. We were climbing in reverse of what motorized vehicles would do. The climb was 7 miles long, gaining 3,800 feet over that distance, via a series of switchbacks that took us through some spectacular views of waterfalls and one of the first alternating current power generating stations built in the US. The dirt road surface was pretty tame at the start, but got consistently rougher as we headed up. Near the top there is a series of rock ledges called ‘The Steps’. At sea level, these might actually be ridable. After 6+ miles of climbing and in the thin air of 12,000+ feet, even the pros were reduced to hike-a-bike. For me personally, I intentionally took it as easy as possible on this climb. I knew I had a very long day in front of me, and I didn’t want to waste energy chasing other racers that I’d desperately need later in the day. I even stopped to take photos along the way, which is way out of character for me. The lack of oxygen at the top of the climb was very apparent. It was almost cartoonish how slow everyone was moving. I felt fine on the bike, though, and crested the climb in about 2 hours and started the descent down.
Black Bear Pass from Telluride. It’s a lot worse than it looks.
Bridal Veil Falls on Black Bear Pass
The descent down was beautiful, with incredible views of the mountains, small alpine lakes and lots of sheep. There were a few vehicles making their way up the backside, but they were polite and encouraging – moving over to make room and cheering us on. After a few minutes, the course transitioned to a paved highway for a fast, and very cold, descent down to the start of the next major climb – Ophir Pass.
Ophir climbs about 2000 feet over 4 miles, so a much easier challenge than Black Bear. I got off my bike a couple of times because I saw other riders in front of me doing the same, but after a while I realized I felt fine and got back on the bike. I crested the top of the climb, where they were cooking bacon at the feed zone. It smelled great and I liked the concept, but I decided not to risk it and took a pass. The descent down Ophir was fast and fun, though the constant transition between bright sunlight and shadow made it difficult for me to see any trail features – which raised the adrenaline level quite a bit. The course continued down for a few more miles before we crossed over a short bit of pavement and hit the ‘Galloping Goose’ trail.
Galloping Goose is an old railbed that’s been converted to singletrack. It’s fast, swoopy and fun and I had a smile on my face the whole time. The course followed this down to a dirt road, which then tied into double track by a river, and finally ended at the feed zone. I reloaded bottles and bars, and then hopped on a nice mellow section of singletrack that climbed 3 miles back to town. A short trip on the bike path back to the start line, and I was done with loop 1.
I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have a few thoughts of stopping at the end of the first loop. It was already an epic ride, and I was tired. Luckily, my wife and kids had strategically positioned themselves halfway up the next climb, so I had my motivation to continue. I reloaded bottles and food and took off down the River Trail.
After a short bit, the course turned onto what I consider the nastiest climb of the day. It was only about a mile long, but it was straight up, 25% grade, loose but with enough embedded rocks to make it technically challenging as well. There wasn’t even a nice view to make it more palatable. Some folks with better fitness and higher hematocrit were riding it (or at least part of it) – I was reduced to hike-a-bike, and even that was painful. Luckily, it was short, so after about 25 minutes of torture, the course turned onto Village Trail and continued up the mountain in a much more reasonable manner.
As I hit the first major clearing on the trail, I could see Josie a few switchbacks up the climb. I put on a brave face and gallantly tried to climb all the way up making it look effortless. I made it to about 30 feet away from her before I finally ran out of steam and decided to start looking like I felt. Michelle and Braeden walked down and I stopped for a few minutes to hang out with them. I ate half of Braeden’s PB&J sandwich, drank most of Josie’s water, and then got back on the bike before I got too comfortable.
Leaving the fam after stealing their food and water…
From Village Trail, the course turned onto Prospect trail, which mixed a few much enjoyed downhill breaks with an overall uphill trajectory, and then moved onto the final push up to Alta Lakes, which is a deserted mining town. Lots of beautiful views and nice tree-lined riding, but I was definitely feeling the effects of the day’s effort. I crested Alta Lakes and started down the dirt road. The descent down was really the first smooth downhill we’d had all day, and spending time on the saddle recovering was much appreciated. There was a fair amount of uphill vehicle traffic, and lots of blind turns – which combined to make it not wholly relaxing, but it wasn’t bad. After a few fast miles downhill, the course crossed a paved road and hit the T-35 trail.
T-35 was a steep and narrow section of singletrack that thankfully we were going down and not up. It was fast and fun, though my arms were getting tired from grabbing the brakes by the midway point. T-35 popped out on a dirt road and that took us back to the Feed Zone. I reloaded on fuel and took off for the final climb of the day.
The transition over to Last Dollar Road was a riverside trail that would have been nice if there had not been a mudslide earlier in the week. As a result, there were several sections that were wiped out or under several inches of thick, red mud. Luckily, this didn’t last long and we crossed pavement one more time and hit the bottom of Last Dollar Road.
20 Miles to go – I mean 26 miles!!!
Up to this point, I’d had basically a perfect race. I wasn’t setting any speed records, but my pace was good and I’d been mistake-free. I’d kept up with my hydration and nutrition. I hadn’t wasted any energy. I’d had no mechanical issues and I felt honestly pretty good… Optimism can be a dangerous thing…
I’d studied the course profile well and have no excuse, but for some unknown reason I way underestimated the final climb. As we were heading up, I’d heard a few folks talk about the hard, 3 mile, 12% climb and that stuck in my head.
It was ‘hot’ at ~ 80d and the climb was fully exposed to the sun. 80d seemed like winter to someone from Texas, and I finally had an advantage over all high altitude natives. People were dropping like flies – pushing their bikes, sitting in shade, etc. I felt good and had plenty in the tank, so I opened it up a little and started pushing harder than I had all day. I passed probably 6 or 7 riders on the climb and crested the top feeling super happy that I was done with the climbing. I made the turn onto the next section, where the volunteer working the turn asked me if I needed any water. I said ‘nope – it’s all downhill from here – I’m good!’, to which he responded – ‘uh – no. You’ve still got six miles of climbing to go….’
Anatomy of Deflation.
It was total deflation. I’d made the mistake of thinking I was ‘done’ and to realize that I’d completely misjudged the climb and still had significant climbing left to do was a miserable shock. I’d backed off my food intake on the last climb because I thought I was done, and then found myself depressed, low on blood sugar, and facing 6 miles of climbing that I did not want to do.
About half the people I’d passed on the first part of the climb passed me back as I slowly pouted my way up the hill. “Yeah – who’s pushing the bike now, flatlander?” I was questioning the ethics of the race organizer. I was hallucinating – seeing the gray jeep that I’d knew would be at the real top of the climb hiding in the woods every switchback. Flies were thick, and I wasn’t going fast enough to get away from them. Finally, after what seemed like hours, I make a turn and finally see a gray jeep that doesn’t fade away as I get closer. I grab a couple of bottles and start the descent back to the finish. Of course, there was one more ‘little’ one mile climb thrown in on the route back – just for fun – but I’d gotten over my mental breakdown by then and handled it without any drama. I finished the descent, crossed the road, hit the bike path and happily pedaled my way across the finish line.
The first person I see is Josie, who happily tells me that she’s been “waiting for HOURS” and that I “was one of the last people to finish”. Gotta love direct kids. Then Braeden comes up to tell me the story of his lost shoe, and then Michelle with a chair and I knew I was finally done.
It took me about 12.5 hours to finish – a bit slower than expected, but my goal on this one was just to finish, and I met that goal.
Big thanks to Tobin and Jennifer for organizing the race. It’s an amazing event, well coordinated, well supported and everything you’d expect from one of the best race organizers in the country. To Cindy for letting me ride down with her and squat at her campsite. To Cindy, Sandy, George, HJ, Charlie, Maureen, John, Tony, Jason, Paulette, Hoss, Jen and I sure I’m forgetting some others – for volunteering and making it feel like a TMBRA race, and to all the other volunteers for spending your entire day out doing something for free just so people like me can race. And special thanks to my wife and kids, for cheering me on and always supporting me on these crazy endeavours. They keep me young.