I recently lined up and raced on the Kokopelli Trail. The race started at midnight in Fruita Colorado and ended in Moab Utah. The race covers around 142 miles and around 14000 feet of elevation gain. Terrain wise the trail covers most of the different types of topography mountain biking has to offer. This, coupled with being forced to ride through the night guarantees AT LEAST 12 to 13 hours in the saddle. It is a unique challenge and took an extensive amount of preparation and mental fortitude. Nate kindly asked me to share my thoughts on the experience, and below is a basic run down of how I prepared and how the race itself went.
This was all about getting miles in the saddle! During the whole season I was training for more explosive efforts as well as coming back from 5 months on the trainer due to injury, so a lot of time was spent trying to get old numbers back. I am sure everyone reading this has done interval sets and races etc, so I’m assuming you can imagine what this type of training looks like. However, due to the longevity of this event, once a week or so we would be looking at getting in a 6 plus hour day in on the mountain bike. We really wanted to focus on getting in a consistent effort and finding my race rhythm. But more importantly we wanted to train my gut to handle the effort while digesting enough food to keep the wheels spinning. I knew that the race was going to be somewhere between 12 hours (this would have been a new record, so probably a lot longer for me) and 19 hours (if you are over 19 hours in finishing time you are picked up from the course and kindly asked to stop pedaling). The only way you can keep up an effort this long is to feed the body! So what you are looking at here is about 1 gel or some sort of food every 45 minutes, and about 26 ounces of fluid every hour. At first sticking to this regime made me feel bloated and like I wanted to vomit all over the trails I was on. Eventually though, your body gets used to it and you can start to tell you are finishing off big days feeling fresh. More importantly though I really enjoyed the big rides! As mentioned earlier I was chasing fitness all season, and it was nice to always have a goal that wasn’t as top end based. It was a great mental break to be able to go out and feel like you had more control of your effort and weren’t coming up short all the time. It was really good for me mentally and to feel like I was progressing. The importance of feeling progress cannot be overstated.
There are a lot of runs on this course that are actually quite technical. At the best of times I am quite the squirrelly descender. My lines are all over the place and I probably didn’t set up that huck correctly. Once you are tired enough, you can always expect to descend more poorly than you usually do. A lot of people in the Rockies can brap brap endur-bro down the gnarliest of sections, but I am willing to bet they start to make mistakes when they are so redlined they can taste blood in their mouth and can’t feel their arms. Descending completely blown is a unique skill. We knew I had a lot of work to do on this and still do. Racing is the best training for these efforts, however I didn’t have enough time off work to get to a lot of them. Nate designed a workout for me (or I’m pretty sure he has multiple athletes doing this) where I rode up some of a climb at tempo for the first 5 minutes or so, ratcheted it up to LT the last several minutes, and then threw myself down a technical descent. We would loop this 3-4 times. This effort was a lifesaver and really helped me with my handling skills. It was the only reason I could find flow 100 miles plus into the race.
First and foremost the Kokopelli Trail is around 144 miles of jeep road, double track, single track, forest road, slick rock, and sand. It’s constantly changing and a bit tiring to tell where the trail actually is. The trail is fairly well marked if you are taking your time, however if you are trying to make good time and or racing at night, it’s extremely difficult to stay on course. Because of this riding with the course map downloaded to your head unit was a huge tool. Having turn-by-turn directions the whole way is pretty much the only way to go, and in fact you weren’t allowed to start the race without it. Because the necessity of having navigation requires a lot of battery, I electrical taped a shock proof and water resistant external battery to my stem. At about 12 hours into the race I was able to plug my head unit into it and keep using it. I also brought a spare pack in my hydration pack as well. That way I had two ready to go if needed. As mentioned above, the race started at midnight. I ended up running a light on my handlebars and a light on my helmet, both set at 250 lumens. Both lights were rated for much higher settings, however I needed them to last around 6 hours. Setting them at 250 lumens was my best chance at having light the whole night. They both still ran out and my original plan was to plug my handle bar light into an external battery at around 6 AM. I did do this, however I found out that you couldn’t charge and use this particular light at the same time, so I was stuck floundering and descending gingerly at dawn. This is something I need to figure out if I race again next year. Other than that I rode with a 1.5-liter hydration pack stuffed with a few things other than water. Most important of which were pliers and a quick link for my chain. Believe me, the last thing you want to do in this race is walk 20 miles to the next aid station alone and in the desert. I also prepared a drop bag that I would get handed to me around the 110-mile mark. This was filled with extra food, lube for my chain (Moab is dusty folks!), and sun block to reapply.
Race start was 12 AM in downtown Fruita Colorado. There were around 20 or more of us lined up to race the entire race solo, and around twenty or more people there to race the trail as a relay. The start was supposed to be neutral but as most races go, it got heated pretty quickly. A local really wanted to throw down and a hand full of others really wanted to clear the first section of trails as quickly and easily as possible. The best way to do this is to follow someone who knows the lines, especially when it is pitch black outside. The first two sections of the trail are Mary’s Loop and Troy Built. These trails are fairly rocky and a bit technical here and there, again, especially at night. You basically meander around the cliffs of a valley and do a bit of climbing. The trail is dangerously close to cliffs that would be fatal if you fell off of them. It was a unique experience riding at night knowing the pitch black to your left or right was expansive nothingness with a river down below you. It was definitely a trip. After a few pedal strikes and boggles I settled into the second group. This group sort of splintered in a more technical section and then reformed and splintered again over and over again. Complete with stops along the way to check our GPS devices to make sure we were going the right way. Myself and two other guys eventually lost contact with some better bike handlers, and then eventually dropped a few others to ride into the 40-mile marker at 9th, 10th, and 11th. During this section I was hyper diligent to get a gel every 45 minutes and chug water and NUUN like it was going out of style. I also ate an entire pro bar each aid station, so roughly every twenty miles. I also refilled the two bottles I was carrying and the hydration pack at each station. This trend would continue. After the 40-mile section my group of three was riding through the easiest part of the course. Mostly paved or dirt roads and very little climbing. I decided that we were going too slow and kept telling myself that this was free speed. We were wasting time if we didn’t pick up the pace. I decided to pick up the pace and drop them. I never really saw either again except for briefly on the next single track section when I was struggling with my lights. One of them yelled at me and asked how it was going, I said “well” and that was the last I heard of him. Miles 50 – 100 were pretty un-eventful. I got lost a few times and chugged fluids. I was clearing everything competently but not necessarily crazy fast. Just riding around mostly. At around mile 100 there is an aid station right before a 20-minute climb and some tech. It is at the Dewey Bridge section if you are familiar. You more or less start making your way up the La Sal Mountains and descend a bunch of super chunky jeep road. So chunky that you are forced to walk in a few sections. At this point in the race I got a bit greedy. I spent very little time at the aid station and threw in a bit of digger on the first climb. I rode from around 9th to 5th on the climb, cleared two descents and some hike a bike, and on the next technical climb all hell broke loose in the legs. I hadn’t left enough gas in the tank to clear the technical climbing of the next section. These climbs weren’t crazy difficult, its just that I had no matches to pull up on ledges anymore. I started cramping everywhere and I had to take several walking breaks to keep the quads and calves from quivering. I ended up going so slow I lost all the spots I had made up. My lesson was learned though. Slow your roll when you already have a hundred miles in your legs. It was also in the mid 90’s at this point in time, so there wasn’t any coming back from dehydration if you already messed it up. My goal for the next 30 miles or so was to just keep moving, manage the cramping, and stay hydrated. I eventually hit a point when I was gagging on dry foods. So it was fluid based energy the last several hours. I also kept up the mantra of “Free Speed”. Every time I hit some down hill or a power section, I would remind myself that these were the easy sections and I needed to relax and keep the pressure on. It was a huge mental chore to stay that positive, but at this point I think it was the only thing that was going to work. My body wasn’t going to magically feel good anytime soon. I eventually finished the race in 7th place at 16 hours and 56 minutes. The winner came in at 14 hours and 29 minutes, and the last finisher was 15th at 19 hours and 31 minutes. These times really put the effort in perspective I feel.
AFTER THE RACE
The race was definitely the most mentally and physically taxing thing I have ever done. I had a few mistakes and a few mechanicals and it was extremely difficult to stay positive the whole time, but I think forcing yourself to keep going in an event like this really helps you manage stress and take things as they come. If the race is 140 miles long things are guaranteed to go wrong. It’s a lot like life in general really. If you are alive for 90 years I’m sure not all of it will go swimmingly. I also think this race presents a unique challenge from a racers perspective, you are forced to make decisions on where it is logical to ride harder to clear sections and where you might want to slow up a bit to make the next actual mountain bike section palatable. It begins to be a lot more tactful than some other endurance events that don’t have as challenging terrain. Other than that, the legs ended up being ok after a day of rest and some foam rolling. The only body problems I had afterwards were some almost jet lag like feelings from being awake for over 24 hours. But anyway, the race is a total blast and you should put it on the bucket list. If you have actually made it this far and through my rambling, thanks for reading!
Best of Rides,