Aaron Johnson | Colorado Trail Race: A Self-Powered Adventure

Colorado Trail Race: A Self-Powered Adventure

December 28, 2016  •  4 Comments

Whew. This was a tough one, definitely the most difficult and involved creative project I've worked on. Ever since I did my first bikepacking race back in 2013, I knew I wanted to someday make a film about these events. It's so interesting to me - the amazing beauty of the landscape, the self-reliant nature of the race, the beautiful simplicity of the experience, and I wanted to find a way to share that with people in a manner that would be appealing even to those without any knowledge of these events.

I went into the CTR this past summer with the primary goal of racing fast, and a half-baked secondary goal of maybe trying to create this film I've had in the back of my head. To be honest, I was much more focused on the racing, and did not put much thought or anything into shooting a film, other than bringing along a GoPro and planning on pulling it out occasionally to capture a nice sunset, or capture my thoughts when I was feeling inspired or downtrodden or whatever. I had filmed this race before, back in 2013, and wasn't really interested in just capturing the same GoPro footage that I did back then. Indeed, I recorded a lot less during this race - I focused more on capturing my thoughts during the race, from how I was feeling, to thoughts before trying to sleep for an hour or two, to my state of mind during the low parts of the race. I didn't think much of it until after the race, when I saw that maybe I could actually pull off an interesting film, one that focused more on the human aspect of racing these events, rather than just the beauty of the route.

The problem was, I had nowhere near enough footage to create a film, and knew I'd have to get back out on the trail and spend many days getting some quality B-roll and race-reenactments. Now that I have a drone, I knew I could get some good aerial shots of both the scenery and myself by putting the drone on autopilot to follow me as I rode through some of the best parts of the trail. I spent an additional 7 or 8 days in the weeks and months after the race traveling to different parts of the course and shooting aerial footage and timelapses, as well as using a new GoPro helmet swivel mount I recently got to get those 360 degree video shots of me riding. These days were mostly filled with frustration, as the weather was often absolutely horrible, especially the several days I spent in Silverton and up on Segment 23. There were days where I'd drive up to Stony Pass in pouring rain and lightning, sit in my car for 6 or 7 hours waiting for the rain to stop, getting only a few short minutes to film during breaks in the weather. (The weather was so bad, I actually rescued a few hypothermic thru-hikers who were in pretty serious trouble!) It was funny that the weather was so perfect and sunny during the race, yet when I tried to go back and film, I got nothing but rain. But through all of that effort (I went back and filmed on Tenmile, Searle Pass, Twin Lakes, Buena Vista, Fooses Creek, Segment 23, Silverton, Molas Pass, and Kennebec Pass), I was able to get enough footage to start putting together a story that finally at least scratched the surface of portraying the grandeur of the Colorado Trail.

I wanted to show more of the human side of the race - why people do these events, how it affects them, etc. - so I decided to do some in-person interviews of a couple of the racers. The first obvious choice was Stefan Griebel, the guy who started the race back in 2007 and has kept it alive and flourishing over the years since. I also wanted to interview Jefe Branham, as someone who not only has set numerous record and won the event several times, but has more experience on the trail than maybe anyone else. And finally, the person who has completed the trail faster than any other human, Neil Beltchenko. These three interviews were exactly what I needed to craft an interesting story, and I'm so grateful to them for taking the time to share their thoughts and motivations with me. There are so many other amazing people and interesting personalities - I would have loved to have gotten a female perspective on this event - but I unfortunately did not have enough time or resources to pursue all these people. Maybe food for a future project!

I'm excited with how the film turned out, as it comes close to portraying the spirit of these races. Also in keeping with the race spirit, I set out to create this film in the Do It Yourself ethos - all filming and production was done entirely by myself, without any outside support, financial or otherwise. (Neil Beltchenko did contribute a few videos taken during his race, and my dad, Lewis Johnson, helped film a bit at the race start and when I finished at 2am in Durango. Joe Polk at MTBCast was also nice enough to allow me to use the racer call-ins from the last 4 or 5 years). I am so grateful to those who did help me indirectly - my dad, for driving me to the race start and picking me up in Durango, not just for this race but for the 2013 and 2015 editions, as well as supporting me in the other races I've done over the years - and my wife Megan, for her endless patience and encouragement as I spent many days out filming and weeks holed up in front of my computer, agonizing through the painstaking process of sorting through hours of footage - her encouragement and feedback kept me going and helped craft the finished product. And everyone else who was in the film or offered feedback - thank you as well. My main goal with all of this is to simply inspire people to strap some bags on a bike and get out there, not necessarily to race but just to spend time in the wilderness and connect with the landscape in the unique way a bicycle enables.


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