The morning of the Grand Loop Race I was relaxing in the lobby of the GJ Super 8, enjoying some “free” raisin bran and reading the paper. I turned to the horoscope section just for fun and found this:
You will have abundant energy the next few days but it’s best to pace yourself – you can’t do much with a pile of ashes
Let’s just say the pre-race vibes were as good as they get. I had a rare day to relax before the start. While that may drive some nutz, that’s a luxury I never have, and it set a great tone and mood for the start. MC read it as overconfidence, but in truth I was oh so relaxed, content with the prep I’d done for this monster, and was downright excited to get going.
I’d ridden much of the course already. The Koko obviously has seen my tracks a few times, and 2 weeks prior I’d attempted a solo GL venture only to be turned back by snow at the beginning of the Tabeguache trail. So 2/3 of the course I’d already ridden; I’d generated routes via mapping software to be loaded to my GPS for all of it, knew the profiles and elevations well, had done my homework.
Weight and heat were big concerns. I wanted to minimize heat exposure because in late spring/early summer I’m not adapted to it yet. If there was a way to hit all the big climbs at night or early in the day…and lighter than 2 weeks ago…
Putting these concerns in my pressure cooker lead me to a plan of a fairly aggressive start with minimal food supplies, relying on the Bedrock store for resupply. Then move on to Tab creek for a short bivvy, getting some much needed rest – before making the big push to attain the Uncompaghre plateau in the darkness before the heat set it.
The other key piece of the puzzle was the Roubideau section of the Tabeguache. Difficult routefinding, difficult trail conditions – I had to be through that section before dark set in on Sunday, otherwise I knew I’d end up having a forced bivvy. Beyond that, the plan was to go until I blew. I expected routefinding and trail conditions to be much easier after Roubideau. If I could keep going to the end, great – if not, so be it. Sleepytime is good too.
As it turned out, I stuck darn close to that plan and had very few problems. The big push from Tab creek all the way to the end was a bit over enthusiastic, but I was still able to finish the loop in record time. Here’s how it went.
Planning for 3 days self-supported is new to me. I’ve been on one very steep learning curve since doing the first overnighter back in March. I started the GLR at least 25 lbs lighter than my first overnigher (!). It turns out you don’t need slippers, a coffee press, a big coffee mug and who knows what else I was hauling. My equipment was pared down to this (not shown is my sleeping kit that attached to the bars). About 14 lbs before water but including food.
We (all 7 of us) met at the Tageguache trailhead in GJ with MC to head to the official start at the Kokopelli trailhead in Loma. At 6pm, it was fairly warm and arid, but not so much that we didn’t chat like schoolgirls for the entire 20 miles. We rolled along at a nice easy pace; Stephan & I compared notes on our “secret” weapons, homebrew LED light systems that threw huge lumens but burned few watts; MC and I chatted about all sorts of stuff – he’s a real “idea man” and the more time I spend with him the more I want to; Chris and I chatted about bikes, tires, prep – ya know the geeky stuff.
One gent made the haul from Washington for the race, Dave Kirk.
Dave had the most unique bike setup/gear choice. Everything was on his bike, he didn’t even have a pack. That had to be comfy, at least on the rideable parts of the course.
By comparison, Chris had almost nothing on his bike.
MC ambles up the course a few minutes ahead of us so he can snap some shots of us coming through. We are left to make our own start. As we head up the first hill out of the parking lot, I move forward and hear Stephan say something like “well I’m not holding that pace” and that’s the last I heard of anyone. Solo time from there on out.
As I came by MC, he said he bet Scott a pint of ice cream I’d take 6 hours off the record and wished me a good ride. Considering he held the record, I found this remarkable and a real testament to his character. It was a great sendoff, and added to my already building mojo by providing a concrete goal to shoot for. I wasn’t gonna be responsible for MC losing a bet if I could help it!
Riding to Salt Creek in the daylight was a treat. I’d done this section 5 times this year, each time loaded, each time in the dark. I never really liked it that much. But in the waning light it was a hoot! It only took about 1:45 to hit the top of the hikeabike, and Plesko was close behind. He was looking quite strong. I changed into clear lenses and fired up the deisel.
Everything was flowing like butter, the desert landscape crunching under my wheels at a nice clip. I don’t know if there were tailwinds, but it felt like it. A nearly full moon was casting light and shadows all over, the temp was perfect, and damn was it good to be cruising steadily. At the top of the Bitter Creek climb I looked out and saw all the riders lights close together. It let me know this was a race, not a solo TT – and the sensation made it completely different. I realized that with competition present, I was riding considerably faster than 2 weeks previous.
And so the desert section went – quickly. I had a flat spot between WW and Cisco, but the McGraw section started to wake me up and by Yellowjacket I was on fire. The turbo kicked in big time here and I knocked that bit out in 1:05. When I hit Dewey bridge the moonlight was making the white stanchions glow so bright I busted out the biggest cowboy howl I could muster. I was just overwhelmed. Riding across the bridge, somebody was camped on it. A group of sight impaired teens (as I later learned) were camped on the bridge. No wonder they were so confused as I stepped over them and informed them there would be 6 others behind me – this was a race. “Whhhaaaat?” Just past the bridge, somebody comes running my way – it was Lynda, my crack buddy who was camping there. She was on a family rafting trip and wanted to get some shots of the riders coming through. We chatted a bit, I ate a lot, a quick hug and it was off to the shandies.
I had not been looking forward to the Shandies. These steep sections of Entrada Bluffs road are super loose sand with rocks, traction is tough and when loaded it can be really draining. Not tonight. I was making good time, so did all the Shandies in the dark. The sun didn’t come up until after Hideout actually. That was perfect timing for a breakfast stop – time to make coffee and have a bagel with hummous – yum! I was stoked to be here so early and was way ahead of schedule. Taking 30-40 minutes for breakfast was just fine. I learned in the solo ride that going sans coffee is suicide for my GI, so I brought lots and lots of the black gold on this trip.
All caffeinated and fed now, the climb up North Beaver mesa went quickly and I began the Paradox trail by10am or so. The goal to do the climbing before the heat of the day so far was on track.
I really love this section of riding. There’s a lot of climbing to it, and it hurt me some last time. This time I was mentally prepared and and just cruised along soaking up every view the east side of the La Sals could offer – and that is many. This is a hidden wonderland…
Flowers were everywhere.
It’s all gravel road – the surface at least isn’t very tough.
Just before dropping to the paradox valley (named so because the Dolores river carves across it, not through it as every other river in the world does in it’s canyon) Buckeye res was oh so inviting. I now regret not spending some time going for a dip here. Beauty spot.
The descent down Carpenter ridge is steep! It’s a real brake burner and I felt my levers getting closer to the bars.
Headwinds in the Paradox valley, and they were pretty warm. Nonetheless, I hit Bedrock store at 2:18. I was shooting for 4, so I had some time to kill. First things first: get some ice cream, a Frappaccino, and a V8 and put it all down the hatch. That done, I considered the next move. It was in the mid 90s outside and no clouds. If I kept moving I’d be at Tab creek by 5:30 or so – then what? I don’t like dry camps, and the next spot beyond tab creek with water is the far side of Glencoe Bench – 4-5 hours when feeling good from tab creek. That just was way more than I wanted to do – and I don’t think I could have. It was hot. Plus, I was a bit sleepy…and there was a comfy chair in the Bedrock store…and a swamp cooler…and as it was built in the 1800’s it was as if time was standing still – peaceful. I sat in that chair and had a great, cooling nap. The gal in the store didn’t say a peep and I thanked her when I woke. She was completely unfazed.
Next, get the supplies to finish the route. Some of that included pop-tarts, but I didn’t want the entire box, only 3 of the 4. A group of Prescott college students had drove up, on a boating trip by the looks of their gear. I asked them if they wanted the extra pop tart and one guys eyes really lit up. Sweet tooth in the group, eh? We chatted about what I was doing – they were fascinated. Then, one of them offered me an orange. I’m a real fruit bat and to my dismay there was no fresh fruit at the store – my mouth burst into watering mode. “Hell yea!” As he goes to get the orange, it dawns on me that could be construed as support – strictly against the rules of this event. This was the hardest decision I made the whole race, to tell this guy no thanks I really don’t want that orange. Relating that story to MC post trip it turns out it was within the rules to accept it since it wasn’t planned…oh well. Next time I’ll accept!
In the meantime, it had clouded over a little. Still warm, but the ride through the Dolores canyon to the confluence of the San Miguel was quite pleasant. Intermittent shade from canyon walls made it much cooler. I was in no hurry here since I was only going to Tab creek. Once at the creek at about 7:30, I soaked my legs in the creek a bit before making dinner. The leg soak trick worked well for Lynda & I at TransRockies last year, so what the heck. It sure felt good. I was snoring solidly before the sun went down…
I hate alarm clocks and never use them. I let my body decide when it’s time to get up – and it usually tells me it’s time darn early. Sun at 12:14 am is precisely when that happened this time. And holy moly did I feel good – no stiffness, soreness, just ready to get chomping on a big day.
Since I was pretty tired arriving at the creek the night before, the first order of business is something I did an awful lot of – filtering water. My filter choice was based on weight more than speed. I think I got those priorities wrong. Oh well. Note the coffee is already made. Seeing a theme here?
I’m embarrassed to say how long it took between waking up and getting rolling, sometimes I just don’t know where the time goes. But anyway, there were still many hours of darkness left.
This section of the Paradox is a bit of a bear. It starts out well enough, but quickly turns to one hike a bike after another – both up and down. It is not well marked either, but thanks to my GPS work and previous rides here I made short work of this difficult section. It was interesting to see how many signs there actually are, they show up so much better in the dark under lights!
The rough, sandy, nasty conditions give way to grassy meadows and ponderosa forests on Glencoe Bench, still one of my favorite sections of the Grand Loop. This was the site of breakfast/coffee # 2. Often the trail was only defined by dead dandilions.
2 weeks ago it was much wetter in all the meadows. This time conditions were much, much faster. It was a blast cruising this section this time.
Big views into the upper reaches of Tabeguache creek.
Next is the magical Aspen forests of Hauser road. The road is well graded most of the way, but does get steep towards to the top. At this point I’d been riding, oh maybe 5 hours but was feeling really good. I kept having to check myself: “back it down harris, remember the horoscope – can’t do much with ashes!” It started to get really cool as I approached Divide road. Finally, I hit the top at about 10am.
After a quick spin down the Divide road, I’d hit Transfer road and quickly enter the beginning of the Tabeguache trail. This is where I was turned back by deep snow last time – only 2 weeks previous. What would it be like now? There wasn’t much snow left on Divide road and that was encouraging. But the real trouble spots were north facing slopes that receive little sunlight. At least I had most of the day to work it out….
As it turns out, the snow was GONE. There were a couple of drifts to go around, and plenty of swampy areas, but it was really all rideable. I was surprised, and relieved.
This was as far as I got last time – there was no exposed dirt AT ALL. Now there is no snow. That was fast.
The singletrack was actually quite tech – lots of roots, steep in spots and demanding. Even with good conditions it wasn’t very fast going, and I was beginning to feel human. Just in time, I hit the Roubideau trail proper, a fast, rocky descent of about 1000 feet on two track. This is where conditions really take a turn, and the beginning of what I figure would take a lot of time – must finish before dark.
The Uncomphagre plateau is massive. Now that I’ve seen it from the Divide road – a dirt road that follows it’s spine – and the Tabeguache trail, it’s still hard to wrap my head around just how immense this landform is. The Roubideau section drops away from the spine of the plateau and crosses 15 (!) drainages before climbing back up onto the spine. The Tab trail designer is a bit twisted methinks, and I thank him/her for the demensia. It goes something like this: rocket down some steep eroded scary ash hell trail to the bottom of a drainage, cross a creek getting your feet wet, then hike out the other side with said wet feet. A few of the ups are rideable, most are not. From canyon bottoms you have no clue where on earth you are, other than inside your cloistered forest home. In between drainages are mesa tops where the world opens up to massive views and the riding is oh so easy and pleasant.
Typical trail conditions.
The last 3 of these drainages were huge with 15-30 minute hikes out of each. This is Potter canyon, filled with marshes and small lakes, it was absolutely gorgeous. It was tough going but is there a better place on earth to be? Despite my dislike for hike a bikes, there was no complaining coming forth. The pics just don’t do this spot justice. It’s a real “have to be there” place.
I was a bit unsure what conditions were going to be like after the last drainage crossing. My GPS routing was telling me to turn left where there was no trail or road, and I was loathe to leave the nice track I was currently on. Unsure what to do, I sat down and pulled out some food, something I almost always did when unsure of which way to go. No coffee this time though ;) Then I looked up and saw a Tab trail marker pointing right where my GPS was telling me to go. Well I’ll be. The GPS routing work saved the day once a gain. I thought about Fred who didn’t have a GPS and how it was going to be so confusing for him at this spot, especially since I had overshot the turn leaving tracks in both directions.
Heading off into the grass, a trail began a 100 feet later. It was faint, slow, bumpy, and prolly my least favorite part of the whole Tab. I was ready for some fast moving roads and this was a slow boat to China. Oh well. Finally, FINALLY, this slow piece of semi-trail mostly grass led to a major dirt road. Just before the intersection there were all sorts of aspen logs tossed across the trail and no trespassing signs – and a Tab trail marker sign. Access issues on the horizon here for sure.
A short while later I came to Cottonwood road. Fast, scenic riding. Oh yea! I had made it through the Roubideau with plenty of light to spare – it was about 5pm. I celebrated the day with a 2 hour nap, dinner, and coffee. A large area of stately ponderosas and the soft pine mat underneath was too inviting to pass up.
It’s just amazing how much coffee & a nap can bring me back to life. Cruising the ups and downs of Cottonwood road in the waning light was truly magical. The evening light was filtering through the fresh greeness of apsen trees. John Denver’s “Rocky Mountain High” was doing loops through my conciousness. I know according to most of the reports I’ve read of folks doing this loop I should have been deep in the pain cave right now, but honestly, euphoria was closer to my state of mind. I almost feel like I should be apologetic. Almost.
Climbing up 25 mesa the ponderosa gave way to spurce/fir as I gained ~ 1,500′ towards the high point of 9,600′. It was now dark and almost spooky here – this was new terrain, the first time night riding in unfamiliar terrain this trip. A huge canyon or drop off seemed to loom off to the left and I wished I was there in time to catch that view in the daytime, but the nap was worth it.
Soon I’d be hitting the Divide road, and shortly after that stretch came the Dominguez section. It was all new to me and not knowing where the next water would be I stopped and filtered to capacity. It’s a good thing I did this where I did, because there was some climbing afterwards and it was getting cold. I needed the warm up.
Divide road was fast and easy and mostly with tailwinds. It was a rush to descend at 30 mph through deep forests in the dark. Eyes were everywhere, picked up by my homebrew lights. However, it was getting cold. I stopped several times to put on more layers, and before long I was going homeless style – I was wearing everying I had.
Dropping down off the top of the Unc towards Dominguez creek, it’s all downhill. And it got MUCH colder. I was beginning to have some difficulty – I couldn’t see very well and was shivering. The constant descending offered no relief to the cold.
I was hoping to make it to the finish in one push through the night, but I’d been on the move for roughly 21 hours at this point and it didn’t feel at all safe to continue. Time to concede and bivvy.
I was soooo cold. All chammied up, wearing everying I had with me, I crawled into my bag. As always, I put some calories down the hatch before sleeping, but not much this time. I had to get some heat going. Coyotes were howling away all around me, but that didn’t keep me from drifting into deep sleep.
I didn’t budge until daylight, about 5.5-6 hours later. First thing I did was check the trail for tire tracks – something I always did after bivvying. With no reports coming my way, I had no idea if anyone was close behind. I half expected to see Plesko’s tracks – but there were only my own.
Damn was it cold! A water bottle had frozen, my bivvy was covered in ice. This wasn’t the expected weather…and meant the extremes of this event were something like upper 20’s to mid 90’s. As always though, coffee and food snaps me right into action, and after sleeping for what seemed forever, I felt like a million bucks. It’s time to knock this thing out. I only had 55-60 miles left to go at this point and ~ 15 hours to do it to best the record pace. Only a catastrophy was going to stop me from ensuring MCs ice cream!
Yesterday at the end of the Roubideau section I left my chain lube somewhere…luckily I had a bit of olive oil with me. It makes good chain lube, FYI!
Clipping into the pedals today was a little different than the day before. I was a bit tight and it took some time to warm up. Fortunately, Dominguez road has some great rolling climbs after crossing the creek. It is wide open sage plains, big views in all directions but the sort that a camera just doesn’t catch well. Flowers were off the charts as well. It wasn’t long until I was back in the groove, and since this was the last day I was raising the pace some and loving it.
Before I knew it the road was dive-bombing down to Dominguez campground. A real ripper of a descent and the scenery was turning towards red sandstone canyon country. Then it hit me – BAM! I was so choked up. This is when I knew I’d finish strong, that 3 days of hammering away was within my grasp, that I was on the final leg of the most difficult cycling journey I’d ever done. And, that I’d set a new course record in the process. But it wasn’t so much these thoughts that triggered it, but the scenery, the sensory overload. Tears began to roll…just as they had done on day 7 at TransRockies last year.
Holy crap Harris, there’s people at the campground, pull your shit together man! I hate it when folks interfere with a white moment…
The campground is an awesome oasis, fully equiped with vault toilets. Ah, the good life. After filtering a bunch, rolling up the road a couple hundred yards there’s a pipe coming from a spring..doh! I filled another bottle just for good meaure. After a short steep climb out of the canyon, it’s on to the Cactus park section.
Cactus park was a blast. There’s a slightly descending road, very sandy, that you can just fly down. What a surprise that was, moving 20+ in the sand for miles. In general, the Dominguez road and Cactus park sections have a lot more descending that ascending as you go from 8900 at Divide road to ~ 5000 at Hwy 141. That isn’t to say there isn’t any climbing, it’s still the Tab after all. But nothing too tech or demanding. Cactus park proper was very green and I was pushed by massive tailwinds coming across it. Just before the final descent to 141 is this spot:
An awesome limestone ledge with big views, much like Murphy’s on the White Rim. I christen this the Murphy’s of the Grand Loop :) I stopped here for 2nd breakfast which consisted of a bagel, almond butter, and cold soup. Odd combo, yes – but after the descent to 141 I was going to be hitting the 9 mile climb “no mas hill” in the heat of the day. Salty soup seemed like the thing to toss down. My options were a bit limited now anyway.
I started up 9 mile at 11:30. At under 5,000 initially, it was hot. At first it is techy singletrack, most of which I found unrideable. This was seriously bumming me out – I didn’t know if it was going to be like this all the way or not – but it quickly turned into jeep track with improving conditions. As it turns out, it was mostly a middle ring affair.
This was the homestretch in my mind. Only 22 miles left! Time to drop the hammer, and that I did. I was maching up that hill. It was effortless, I felt weightless, I was grinning ear to ear. And I was sweating like a glass of icewater in the tropics. About an hour from 141 I hit the 6500′ mark (the climb goes to 7200), and at the same time got the gurgling sound of an empty camelback bladder. NOOOOOOOOOOOOO! Things could get real ugly out here all of a sudden. I backed the pace waaay down to conserve that last bottle of water I’d grabbed from the Dominguez pipe.
Now I was a bit ticked at myself. I had totally underestimated how much water I’d need in the final stretch, and what was worse in the heat of hammering that climb I wasn’t even paying attention to how fast I was drinking. Worst of all, I had to back it down. That was just not what I was in the mood for right then and there.
Suddenly, unexpectedly, I found water. Manna from heaven? When your mojo is strong, it can sometimes make up for stupid mistakes, but it’s best not to count on that…anyway, I was oh so relieved. And hydrated.
The next few miles were quite technical, but more down than up and before I knew it there was my little red truck in the distance. I rolled into the Tabeguache trailhead parking lot at 3:02 PM, for an elapsed time of 2:19:47, completing the hardest, most demanding event to date. The satisfaction of completing this loop is as immense as the Uncompaghre plateau. There are only a few of us that have managed to finish this one out.
That is the end of my ride story, but it isn’t the end of the experience. There’s a lot more I’d like to say – in time – regarding MC’s part in this ride and my continuing “education”; those that have helped me achieve this goal either through direct support or inspiration; a thing or tow about what I know of other rider’s rides; and some about the state of ultra racing in general.
But it’s high time I get something posted, the hits to this blog have been off the charts lately, so here ya go, thanks for reading, and here’s to more adventures!