Thanks and CONGRATS to Mike Franco for sending us the latest update from his spectacular 2015 racing season . . . GMSV
UPDATED Sep. 23, 2015
So this story starts back in August of 2013. I had just come off my first season of mountain bike endurance racing and I was hooked. At the end of the season, I decided I wanted to find the hardest races in Colorado and register for as many of them as possible in 2014.
The four “A” races I decided on were the Bailey Hundo, the Breck 100, the Breck Epic, and the Vapor Trail 125. I had heard that there was a vetting process to get into Vapor, so in January of 2014 I emailed Tom Purvis with Absolute Bikes to start the process. After getting razzed for emailing him so early in the year, I submitted my race resume from the previous year and waited anxiously for a response. Tom got back to me with bad news: I didn’t have a long-enough history of endurance racing and night racing. The only hope he gave me was that based upon my results at the Breck 100 and Breck Epic, he may let me in.
After the Breck 100 (where I had a great race and placed 6th in my age group), I emailed my results to Tom. After some deliberation, he got back to me and told me I was in. Unfortunately, I had already committed to riding The LoToJa Classic the same weekend, so I got a rain check for 2015.
Fast-forward more than a year and the weekend had finally come. Friday afternoon, I headed down to Salida with my wife and daughter so I would have a full 24 hours to get situated and mentally ready. Saturday evening at 7 PM, I headed to registration at Absolute Bikes with my buddy Ernie Johnson, who completed the race in 2012 and was here to suffer again.
At 8 PM, the race staff went through the racer meeting and then sent us off to sweat for an hour and a half. 9:45 PM came before I knew it and we were all lined up on the F Street Bridge, ready to start what could be the hardest single day mountain bike race in North America.
At 10PM, we headed out, led by a vehicle that we would follow for several miles out of town. We climbed in a mass group until the pavement turned to dirt, then the lead car pulled off and the race truly began. I fell into a very steady, if not slow, pace as I knew this was going to be a long night and an even longer day to follow.
I reached Blanks Cabin at 11:47 PM, after 14 miles and nearly 3,000 feet of climbing. This was the first checkpoint and the start of the first singletrack section on the Colorado Trail. I was about 10 minutes behind my goal for this checkpoint, but I wasn’t going to worry about it this early into the race.
This segment of the Colorado Trail is burley. A tough trail in the daylight = downright crazy in the middle of the night. I love technical riding and typically do pretty well on these types of trails, so I wasn’t concerned. Within the first 15 minutes that mentality almost cost me the race. I came into a really gnarly, rocky section that was clearly marked with lots of pink tape and decided to ride it after a slight hesitation. That slight hesitation scrubbed just enough speed, causing me to flip over my bars in slow motion.
I landed hard in a pile of rocks, banging up my left knee, left thumb and right palm. I hopped up quickly and assessed the damage to both my bike and my body. The bike was fine and my body would just have to deal with it. I got lucky. I would need to make better decisions the rest of the race if I wanted to finish this.
I made it through the rest of this technical 12 mile section without further difficulty and came to the first aid station of the race at 1:37 AM. I was back on my time target, so I had made up ground on the Colorado Trail.
Now let me tell you about this aid station and frankly all of the aid stations…just freaking awesome. They had exactly what you needed at whatever point in the race they were located and the volunteers were absolutely incredible. As soon as I rolled in, someone grabbed my bike and another person asked me if I wanted a hot breakfast burrito. They had a fire burning and hot coffee, both of which were a welcome sight at 2 in the morning in the mountains. I sat down next to the fire, put in toe warmers, slipped on my booties, and switched to warmer gloves. I then filled up my 100 oz bladder, my water bottle, and my extra liter platypus bladder, as it would be around 6 hours before I would see another aid station. I slammed down half a burrito and took off.
The next section was a 17 mile climb up a narrow-guage railroad grade, during which we would ascend another 3,400 vertical feet. This was the first mentally challenging point in the race. We literally climbed for two hours in the pitch black at the same pace with almost no variation. Every once in a while I would encounter another rider and make a failed attempt at small talk.
I felt at times that my mind was playing tricks on me. I had never ridden for this long at night and it was starting to mess with my head. I can’t say for certain if it was on this section, but there was a surprise mini aid station somewhere between Aid 1 and Aid 2. This was a sight for sore eyes. They had a fire burning and had cooked up a pile of bacon. I also took this opportunity to put on my thermal jacket, as the cold was starting to get to me.
After continuing the slog, I finally reached some singletrack that led me to the Alpine Tunnel, which would be my first summit of the Continental Divide. At this point, the course had taken us to nearly 12,000 feet and it was about 4 in the morning.
The next section was brutal. After a really sketchy descent, we climbed up to Tomichi Pass, during which I’m sure I hiked my bike more than a little. After summiting Tomichi, there is a short descent and then the infamous Vapor Trail hike-a-bike. This hiking segment was like climbing a 14’er with your bike. It was a steep, rocky, loose, technical trail that took nearly an hour to get through.
I finished pushing my bike to the top of Granite Mountain around 6:25 AM, just as the sky was beginning to get light. Other than the finish line, this was my favorite point in the race. I was sitting on top of the world at 12,600 feet watching the sun start to rise over some of the tallest mountains in the US. Absolutely mind-blowing.
After leaving this gorgeous summit, I started what I feel is the best descent of the race on the Canyon Creek Trail. What a blast! This was a full hour of amazing downhill singletrack. I was having so much fun, I almost didn’t even notice my fingers going numb from the continuous descending in the wee hours of the morning.
After a short punchy climb, I reached Aid 2, the famous Dave Wiens pancake station, around 7:45 AM. I grabbed a plate of food and coffee and sat next to the fire to warm up. This is where I came to the unsettling realization that I had not eaten enough during the hours of riding in the night.
I was starting to feel low on fuel and my body was letting me know. I knew that food was my only way out of this, but of course when you need it most is when food sounds the least appealing. I ate as much as I could stomach, which was one pancake and a couple pieces of sausage, and set out.
After a couple really cold miles, I started the fun grind up Old Monarch Pass Road, which is about 2,500 vertical feet in 9 miles. This is mostly a railroad grade climb, but it is another gift that keeps on giving, as it took me almost an hour and a half to reach old Monarch Pass. This was the second summit of the Continental Divide and from this point, the race would keep us on the Divide for two or three hours straight.
After a short fun section of singletrack, I reached (new) Monarch Pass at 10:20 AM (only 20 minutes off my time target), where I was greeted with Aid 3 and my drop bag.
So here was some good news/bad news. Good news: drop all the extra heavy weight including lights, batteries, warm clothing, heavy pack, etc. Bad news: I felt awful and was starting to have sleep deprivation catch up to me. I felt like I was in a dream and it almost felt like I was having an out-of-body experience. This was a major milestone in the race for me. I felt like my training and fitness got me to this point, but from here on out, it would be a mental game to be able to keep pushing and finish the Vapor Trail 125.
As I was sitting down and eating some food, Derek and Lisa Strong, fellow racers I had met at the Gunnison Growler, came over to say hello. They were shuttling the Monarch Crest that day on a casual ride and gave me some words of encouragement.
After I left Aid 3 to start the beautiful Monarch Crest, I was lucky enough to see Derek and Lisa a few times and their cheering and support was exactly what I needed. I’m sure they had their doubts as I know I had to look pretty terrible, but I can’t thank them enough for giving me the push that I needed.
The Monarch Crest was extremely hard for me. I was running out of gas. After 10 miles, I descended into the Marshall Pass Aid Station (our first of two times though this aid), which is where I reached the low point in my race.
I felt absolutely horrible. I honestly thought I might need medical attention. I laid down in the dirt in the shadow cast by the tent. I thought that maybe a quick power nap would help. I asked a volunteer to wake me up in 15 minutes and attempted to sleep. I quickly realized that sleep was impossible, so I got up and sat next to another volunteer. He could tell I was hurting, so he gave me a pep talk about the next section that I was dreading the most.
The Starvation Creek loop takes you off the East side of the Continental Divide, drops over 2,000 feet, and then drags you back up those 2,000 feet to the same aid station at Marshall Pass. From what the volunteer told me, it should take 2-2.5 hours. I would be happy to make it in 3.
The pep talk worked. I decided to keep on pushing and headed out on the Starvation Creek loop. I ran into my friend Ernie right at the beginning as he was just completing the loop. During my brief conversation with him, he told me how horrible the climb was, which is not what I wanted to hear at the point. I left him and started an incredible singletrack decent which ends at Poncha Creek Road.
I then turned and began the brutal climb Ernie just finished telling me about. I actually went into this with such dread that it ended up not being as bad as I was expecting. Before I knew it, I was back at the Marshall Pass aid station right around 3 PM, completing the loop in about 2 hours! I was fired up! This was one of my highest points in the race. I know felt that I could finish this thing.
As I rode up to the aid station, Tom Purvis really made my day by coming up to me, shaking my hand, and saying “you’re doing this to prove I was wrong for not letting you in last year.” I don’t know about all that, but I was definitely doing this to prove to myself that I could push my body and mind to limits I hadn’t yet discovered.
As I was leaving Marshall Pass, it was 3:10 PM and Tom told me I had 3 hours left. Now that I felt confident I would finish, my secondary goal of finishing under 20 hours kicked in. I would need to finish this last section in less than 2 hours and 50 minutes to meet this goal. I was going to have to push to achieve it.
I was back on the Colorado Trail and Continental Divide (3rd time hitting the Divide), climbing and rolling along until I finally descended to the amazing Silver Creek Trail. Around 4:30 PM, with an ear-to-ear grin after a badass downhill, I hit the final aid station. I grabbed a delicious rice, bacon, and egg roll and booked it for the last dirt/singletrack segment of the Vapor.
The Rainbow Trail is 11 miles of goodness that would be SO much more fun when you are fresh. I still had a blast though. I pushed hard throughout this section knowing I had little time to spare. The flowy, buffed-out descents put an even bigger smile on my face than Silver Creek.
As I spit out onto Highway 285, it was 5:30 PM and I had about 10 miles of pavement to Absolute Bikes, the finish line. I dropped the hammer…or what was left of it.
Between pedaling, tucking, and a little bit of hoping, I rolled into Absolute Bikes at 5:54 PM, 6 minutes ahead of my goal. I was greeted by Tom Purvis (again shaking my hand and reiterating that I did this to prove him wrong), my incredibly supportive wife and daughter, and the cheers/cow bells of other racers, volunteers, and friends.
I had done it! I raced all through the night and the next day, for 19 hours and 54 minutes, over 125 challenging miles, with nearly 20,000 feet of climbing.
Thanks to Tom Purvis for giving me a chance this year, Earl Walker and all the volunteers for supporting us all night and all day, Corky Grimm and Jeff O’Brien with Green Mountain Sports for always taking care of me and my bikes, and especially my wife Kelsey for being there for me all year and supporting this crazy habit I have.
Cheers to everyone and the Vapor Trail 125, a truly epic adventure.