Aaron Johnson | 2015 Colorado Trail Race

2015 Colorado Trail Race

August 03, 2015  •  3 Comments

The Colorado Trail Race has been bouncing around in the back of my head since I first rode it back in 2013. It was my first bikepacking experience, and completely blew my mind. I've been hooked on self-supported bikepack racing ever since, focusing on completing all the other Western US races, and have done a lot of them - AZTR750, California Sierra Trail Race, Stagecoach 400, Dixie 200. I wasn't sure I ever wanted to repeat a race - there are so many adventures out there, why repeat something I've already done? - but the CTR has had this pull on me, more so than any of the other races, and I wanted to come back and test myself, now that I'm much more experienced. Better bike, better equipment, better fitness - my goal was to finish under 5 days (my previous time was 5 days, 19 hours), and I felt confident. Also quite a bit more nervous than my first go - ignorance was bliss the first time, but now I knew what was coming!

Day 1: Durango to top of Stony Pass

4am start - 65 nervous and excited bikers in downtown Durango. Chatted with Kurt and a few others as we pedaled through town to the trailhead - good catching up. There were some heavy hitters of bikepack racing here - Kurt, Jesse, JayP, Jefe, Alice Drobna, among others - and I had no plans to chase them, just start super easy and calm, and work into it. The first climb is always tough - 6,000 feet straight up to 12,000+ ft - and I focused on just taking it easy, keeping my effort low. I was a bit slower to Kennebec Pass than last time, but felt totally fine as opposed to completely shelled like before!

Kennebec Pass in the rain. Photo by Andrew of Bedrock Bags and Packs - I've been using their packs for the past couple years, love them!

Kennebec Pass in the rain. Photo by Andrew of Bedrock Bags and Packs out of Durango - I've been using their packs for the past couple of years, love them!

After a bit of rain near the pass, the weather seemed to be holding as we crossed Indian Trail Ridge. My main goal was constant motion - minimize stopping, minimal picture taking (so hard for me, especially amongst some of Colorado's best scenery!), basically no dicking around, and I was already pretty far ahead of my previous pace just by not stopping. I was leapfrogging with Jefe Branham, Alex Lussier, Joe Grant, and Aaron Denburg all the way up to Blackhawk Pass. The pace was fast but comfortable, my bike was working perfectly. I was stoked on how fast all the landmarks were passing by!

Aaron Denburg on Blackhawk Pass

Aaron Denburg on Blackhawk Pass

Blackhawk Pass

Blackhawk Pass

Blackhawk Pass

Blackhawk Pass

Blackhawk Pass

Blackhawk Pass

I was anxious to get up over Rolling Mountain Pass before any afternoon thunderstorms came in. The miles after Blackhawk Pass went by quickly, and I soon found myself on the long, rocky descent down to Cascade Creek, at the base of Rolling Mountain.

Rolling Mountain

I was having so much fun on my Ripley, ripping every descent, as opposed to getting pounded like last time on my hardtail. I think I started to have a little too much fun, as I hit a particularly gnarly section on this descent a bit too fast, lost control of the front-heavy bike, and launched a spectacular front flip 180 off the side of the trail, down 10 feet into a bush, laughing my ass off but very glad it was a bush, not a pile of sharp rocks. Whoops - let's back it off a bit, shall we?

Jefe gaining Rolling Mountain Pass

Jefe Branham on Rolling Mountain Pass

Descent off Rolling Mountain

Jefe descending off Rolling Mountain

Nearing Molas Pass. Photo by Criss Furman.

Nearing Molas Pass. Photo by Criss Furman.

Approaching Silverton

I chased Jefe the rest of the way into Silverton, and got there at 6:30pm - 90 minutes faster than last time! Yes! I felt great, plenty left in the tank. Quick dinner and resupply at the Silverton Grocery, and I headed off to tackle Stony Pass - 3,000 feet straight up to the top of the San Juans.

Twin Rippers

Ibis Ripley - no better bike for this

Jefe blasted off ahead - I knew I wouldn't be seeing him again. Soon I found Aaron Denburg, and we began the long hike together as the sun went down. Aaron is a machine, and it was all I could do to keep him in sight. Especially impressive because he was sick, puking his guts out several times during the hike up - he just kept moving. It was a gorgeous night, huge bright moon, no lights necessary. So peaceful to hike up through the silent grandeur of the massive peaks surrounding us in the dark.

Night hike up Stony Pass

As we neared the top at 12,000 feet, I decided to catch a few hours of sleep in a small ditch shielded from any wind, and slept like a baby until 2am. Several people passed me during the night, and I was looking forward to chasing them down. The upcoming segments are the most incredible parts of the trail, and I couldn't wait to get to work on them. The night was perfect, warm and peaceful.

Day 2: Stony Pass to Sargents Mesa

San Juan sunrise

The early miles of Segment 23 went by so quickly compared to last time, I was shocked at how far I got before the sun started to come up. This is too easy!

I was joined by Joe and Alex as we approached Cataract Lake, grateful for the company. Joe is a professional ultrarunner, riding a fully rigid bike with Woodchipper drop bars - a perfect bike for the Tour Divide, but basically a torture device for CTR! He said he hadn't done much bike-specific training, just out for a fun adventure between running the Western States 100 last month and UTMB in a few weeks. I couldn't believe how he was crushing it - falling behind a bit on the descents as he just got rocked on the rigid, but clawing his was back ahead of us on every climb. It was obvious he was in a lot of pain, especially his hands, but ultrarunners are a tough breed. He had some cool stories to keep us entertained about the Hardrock 100, which crosses some of the exact terrain we were on.

We made it to the high point, Coney Peak at 13,200 ft, around 9:15am - more than 3 hours ahead of my previous pace. Nice. We had caught Aaron again, and had a blast chasing him on the long descent off Coney. Jarosa Mesa sucked as usual, but not nearly as bad as last time, and I found myself at Spring Creek Pass way earlier than expected. The rest of the day was peaceful, easy - the La Garita detour is one I actually quite like, and those 60ish miles go by so quickly.

Los Pinos Pass

Los Pinos Pass

Joe and I were together as we rejoined the Colorado Trail, plenty of daylight left. I had been looking forward to a cold Coke from Apple, but as we passed his spot, he and his little oasis of goodies was nowhere to be seen! Damn! I felt bad for getting Joe's hopes up, he'd never heard of Apple and seemed pretty excited when I told him about him.

Joe and I quickly made our way to Hwy 114, the start of the climb up to Sargents Mesa. I had started to get some severe pain in a tendon on the front of my right shin - very strange, never had any pain there before, but it had become excruciating for any sort of hiking, and standing out of my saddle, which was weird. Joe had hit a bit of a rough spot too, so we took our time refilling water at the highway, popped some ibuprofen, and started slowly up the long climb. I started to feel much better as we got onto the singletrack, and got a bit ahead of Joe as we climbed back up to one of the CT's most infamous sections, Sargents Mesa. Everyone hates it, some say it's haunted, but it's basically a long stretch of almost unrideable trail, littered with baby heads and gnarled roots. I had hoped to get through it before sleeping, but as I stopped at a creek to refill water at about 9pm, Joe caught back up to me and said he was wrecked and needed to sleep. I wanted to keep going another hour or so, but my shin tendon was killing me and I preferred to have some company on this night crossing of the mesa, so I decided to stop with him. We set alarms for 12:30 am, which would give us plenty of time, hopefully, to make it to Buena Vista the next evening, absolutely critical as our food supply was dwindling and BV was the next resupply point. (I didn't make it there last time, which resulted in a horrible, starving night spent on the trail, 20 miles from BV).

Day 3: Sargents Mesa to Buena Vista

No sleep came for either of us - we both just laid there uncomfortably, swatting bugs for 3 hours. I just felt very unsettled, couldn't relax, heart beating out of my chest - I blame Sargents Mesa, that place really is haunted. Blearily, we got moving around 1am. The mesa was SO, SO much better on a full suspension! I didn't think it was bad at all this year. Somehow, Joe made it through just as fast as me on his fully rigid - incredible - and we caught up to Aaron Denburg again. The descent to Tank 7 creek was muddy, wet, and frigid, and slightly unnerving as we woke dozens of cows from their slumber and they trampled around, half asleep and frightened by our lights. I got ahead of Joe and Aaron - I later learned they took a wrong turn - and I was so cold by the time I got to the bottom, I took off as fast as I could up the climb to warm myself back up.

As many things were proving to be, this climb up to Marshall Pass wasn't nearly as bad as I remembered. A few sections of ridiculous hike-a-bike, but not bad. The sunrise was incredible from the top.

Sunrise near Marshall Pass

Marshall Pass arrived at 7am - WOW! I was here last time around mid-afternoon! I got a burst of energy with the rising sun, and made quick progress up to the top of Fooses. The descent down Fooses was fun, but a sloppy, muddy mess, and I was glad when it was over. Downhill hike-a-bike through mud isn't my favorite.

After a bit too much fiddle-farting around at Hwy 50 - forgetting to fill my bladder, talking to some hikers, putting on sunscreen, and general lazing about, I got started around 10am on one of my least favorite parts of the trail - the deceptively long traverse along the foothills of the Collegiate Range to get up to Buena Vista. This trail destroyed me last time, and I quickly lost steam on all the steep ups and downs, and endless rocks and creek crossings. I had plenty of food left to get me to Mt. Princeton Hot Springs, and it was getting really hot in the midday sun, so I slowed way down, and took it easy for a bit. This was the first time I had done this section in the daylight, so most of it seemed unfamiliar, and I had no memory of a small but frustrating climb up to the final descent to Princeton. I pulled into the hot springs completely fried by the heat around 2:30pm. I grabbed an ice cold coke and a couple frozen burritos, and lay comatose in a shaded grassy field, but was continually bothered by curious tourists wondering what the hell I was doing. I quickly got fed up by all the questions, and got back on my bike with less rest than I'd hoped for. The road climb back up to the trail was boiling hot, and I was dizzy and barely crawling by the time I reached the trailhead. I had to stop again, 20 minutes lying in the shade, before I could think about moving. I was discouraged by a sign at the trailhead - "Cottonwood Trailhead 17.2 miles" - I thought this section was only 10 or 12 miles! Dammit. It was 4:30pm, and I needed to get to BV ASAP for some dinner and resupply. I started feeling better as the temperature dropped, and this section of trail was a bit more rideable than the previous miles, and I soon found myself descending down to the creek and making my way up the valley towards the road. It ended up being around 12 miles - either that sign was totally wrong, or I misread it in my heat-drunken state - but I was overjoyed when I popped out on the road, with an easy 5 mile coast down into BV. I had done it! Made it to BV before the stores closed, a critical milestone if I wanted to achieve my goal of sub-5 days. My shin tendon had begun to act up again, very painful, so I decided to get a hotel in BV, spend some quality time icing and massaging it, and get some good rest before tackling the 2nd half of the course. I was asleep in a warm bed before 9pm, alarms set for 1am.

Day 4: Buena Vista to Copper

I opened my eyes, confused and disoriented. The clock read 4am. WTF!! I somehow had slept through 3 alarms, an extra 3 hours. I scrambled to get ready and checked the tracker - several people had passed me and were at least a couple hours ahead. Crap. But on the bright side, I felt indestructible as I pedaled up the road towards Clear Creek Reservoir, and I knew it was going to be a good day. I was planning on skipping Leadville and not stopping until Copper, which I estimated was 12-14 hours from Buena Vista. The morning was beautiful and fueled my stoke - I was making such good time and got to Twin Lakes in no time. The Halfmoon Creek segment flew by, and was a blast. I was at the Leadville detour about 6 hours after leaving BV, which seemed crazy fast to me.

Aspens, approaching Twin Lakes

Side note: one huge improvement in my race this year was the lack of any stomach or digestive distress. Usually, after days of hard exertion and eating nothing but processed food and candy, I start feeling very sick, making it hard to eat anything, causing me to slow down. This year, however, I started taking probiotics in the weeks leading up to the race, and kept taking them twice a day throughout the race. This was HUGE - I had zero stomach problems, and was therefore able to eat so much more than in the past. I was mowing down the calories, which I think helped me move much quicker. I think all the exertion, plus the extremely unhealthy diet, wreaks havoc on the digestive flora, causing most of the stomach problems racers experience. I can't overstate how great it was to feel good, and HUNGRY, and be able to eat!

Before I knew it, I was at Camp Hale. I had no idea where any of my competition was, but several different groups of hikers told me I was the first biker they'd seen all day. That meant I had somehow passed everyone who'd passed me as I slept - they all must have gone into Leadville, which I'd skipped. Sweet, I was back up in fourth place! (Jesse, Matt, and Jefe were way up ahead, unreachable by me, so fourth was the best I was gonna get. Fine by me!). With renewed enthusiasm, I started the long hike up to Kokomo Pass. This was another section I had previously done in the dark, so I was excited to see some new scenery. And it did not disappoint - absolutely beautiful day, wildflowers EVERYWHERE, gorgeous trail. Some of the best views and riding of the trip so far.

Nearing treeline, approaching Kokomo Pass

Kokomo Pass

Kokomo Pass

Kokomo Pass

Searle Pass in the distance

Searle Pass in the distance

One thing was beginning to worry me, and threatened to ruin this perfect day and race. Starting this morning, and getting progressively worse throughout the day, my rear hub had been making loud popping and cracking sounds whenever I pedaled hard. At first I thought it was the chain slipping, but soon realized it was the freehub body, the pawls starting to slip on the hub body teeth. Every bikepacker's worst nightmare - potentially a race-ending mechanical, definitely not fixable on the trail! It seemed to be holding as I got up over Kokomo and Searle passes, and I hoped and prayed it would hold for the rest of the race.

I began to unravel a bit during the descent to Copper - I was getting tired, my hub was getting worse, and the descent was taking longer and had a bit more uphill than I'd remembered. I finally made it to the Copper Conoco at 6:30pm, and called around to as many bike shops as I could find in Copper, Frisco, and Breck. Only the Copper shop said they might be able to fix my hub - apparently nobody stocks Easton hub components - but they were already closed. I decided to keep going - maybe the hub would hold, maybe I could baby it through the rest of the race? Not too many steep climbs left! I bought my final resupply of food, and started the climb up Tenmile, hoping to get up and over Tenmile and up a ways into Gold Hill before stopping for a couple hours of sleep.

Tenmile is mostly a hike, but there are several rideable sections, and it became quickly clear that my hub was toast. It had developed tons of play, even when I kept tightening it, and any hard pedaling would make it skip. Fuck. I couldn't believe it. I made it to the intersection with the Wheeler Pass trail, and sat down, unsure of what to do. An absolutely gorgeous sunset filtered in through the trees. I could keep hiking and get up over Tenmile, and take my chances with the many bike shops in Breck/Frisco in the morning, or I could descend back down to Copper, and go to the bike shop there that said they had the parts to fix it. Aaron Denburg finally caught up, and encouraged me to keep going, to take my chances in Breck, but I decided my best chance was to head back down to Copper and try their bike shop in the morning. I passed Joe and Sam Koerber on the way down, bid them good luck, and set up camp beside the Copper bike path.

This is where the mental side of this sport can really mess you up. On the one hand, I was super bummed to have had to stop - I was having the race of my life, feeling great, and wanted desperately to continue racing those other guys and trying to beat my goal of sub-5 days, which was well within reach. On the other hand, I was cold, pretty exhausted, sore, and told myself that if I didn't finish, it would be no big deal - I'd already completed the race once before, and I knew the rest of the course wasn't that great - especially the Tarryall detour - and that I'd already ridden all the parts worth riding. These two little devils battled each other in my mind as I tried to sleep - finish the race, even though my goals are out of reach? Or just call it quits, you've already seen it before, there's no point in finishing if you can't reach your goals and be competitive?

The next morning, I headed back to the coffee shop at the Copper Conoco, and finally got ahold of someone at the bike shop. After describing my situation, they said they didn't have the parts in stock to fix the hub. Well I guess that's it, then. I'm out. Two hours later, I was back down in Boulder, my race done.

At the time, I wasn't too disappointed - I guess the evil devil won out. Why bother finishing, you've seen it before, who really cares? But in the days since I pulled out, I've been absolutely haunted - and flabbergasted - by my decision to quit. What the hell was I thinking? Why didn't I just buy a new wheel and continue? I could have tried harder to find a solution! You've gotten through worse situations before. Who gives a damn if I couldn't meet my goal? The time, money, and energy spent, and sacrifices I made over the last few months to prepare for this race, seemed like they were all for nothing, because I made a terrible decision to quit when I really didn't have to. Of course, I'm being hard on myself and it wasn't all for nothing - I had an incredible four days out there, surpassing all expectations and even the amazing experience I had back in 2013 - but I will always regret not doing everything it took to finish what I had started. For me, the 2015 CTR will always be an unfulfilled memory. I will never forget what it feels like to quit something you wanted so, so bad - that's so not me, I never would have expected myself to do something like that. But that's the thing about these races - sometimes they lead to huge personal triumph and let you shine in ways you hadn't expected, and sometimes they reveal unexpected cracks in your character, weaknesses that you'd rather not face. I guess I cracked, in a way I never thought I would, but now I am so much stronger because of it - I will never forget what it feels like to DNF for no good reason, to let myself down.

Congrats to everyone who battled through to the end and finished! I'll be back someday for a 3rd go - maybe next year, maybe 2018? I want to see the course in the other direction. Thank you to Stefan Griebel for putting this shindig on; to the Colorado Trail Foundation for creating and maintaining the Colorado Trail; to my wonderful fiancee Megan for her tireless support; to my parents for their support, driving me to Durango, housing me in Boulder, and picking my sorry ass up in Copper; to my coach, Mike Schultz, for getting me into the best shape of my life; and to everyone else I met on the trail - such an inspiring group of people!


chris farney(non-registered)
awesome read, amazing riding it sounds. guess you'll be back with a steel freehub body?
Aaron Johnson
Susan - thanks! It was great riding with Alex during parts of day 1 and day 2, he was super strong with a great attitude. Glad we could provide a little entertainment for you to watch :) Maybe we'll see you out there one day?
Susan Sheard(non-registered)
Thank you so much for this amazing story about your journey and the stunning visuals that accompany it. You have created a fantastic account of this crazy-ass race and I so appreciate getting a sense of the terrain you had to battle. I am married to the love of my life, Alex Lussier, and I was obsessed with following all of you via the Spot tracker. I feel like I got to know each one of you just a tiny bit during the process—Jesse way out front (nuts), then Jefe, Sam and the two Aarons, Alex and Joe for awhile before JG caught your group, then Alex and JP, that Papa Murphy (also nuts), and of course our buddy and triple-crown finisher Dylan. I kept my eye on all the women too, especially Alice Drobna—single-speed, really? I can also vouch for dozens of friends and family in the US and Canada who were hooked—and probably still are. When I read your post that you needed to head in to fix your hub I was bummed and then super sad when you had to quit. It plain ole sucks when your equipment fails. I hope you can make peace with it for now and make another run down the road.
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