The Hardest Race I Ever Loved: The Vapor Trail 125

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By Michael Franco, CTS Athlete

Ah, the Vapor Trail 125. I had my first foray into this race last year and by all accounts, it was the toughest damn thing I had ever done…by far. The race starts at 10 PM in Salida, CO at ~7,000 feet above sea level, and the event objective is to be finished by the following nightfall. You cover 125 miles, over 17,000′ of climbing, and traverse and ride along the Continental Divide several times. As you can probably figure out, the first 8 hours of this race are in the dark in the backcountry of Colorado. Needless to say, there are many challenges you are faced with over the course of this adventure.

The 2015 Vapor Trail for me was a triumph, simply because I finished. But it was also an absolute disaster. It’s funny, because I don’t think I really realized how much of a disaster 2015 was until after this year’s race. I pretty much did everything wrong last year. I didn’t get enough rest the week leading into the race. I went out too hard in the beginning. I didn’t drink enough. I certainly didn’t eat enough. I spent too much time at aid stations, etc. I committed about every foul you can commit. But it wasn’t surprising. I hadn’t ever done anything like that event. I had raced 5 ultras in the 2 years leading up to this, but each was a 100 miler that had ride times of 10-12 hours. The Vapor Trail 125 is a completely different animal. As the event website says, it’s like racing two back-to-back ultras, except one is at night. I actually survived the night, but after that, I spent the second half of the race feeling horrible. At one point I honestly thought I might need medical attention. But at the end of the day, I survived the 2015 Vapor Trail 125, finishing a hair under 20 hours, and what I gained from it was invaluable. I came away with knowledge.

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A couple veterans of the Vapor Trail told me I was crazy to race it two years in a row. But I was determined to go back and have a better night and day on the bike. Sure, it would be great to improve on time, but honestly my goal was to ride smarter and ultimately feel better throughout the race. Wherever the time fell, so be it. The preparations began months in advance. My training officially started in January, as my CTS Coach, Jane Marshall, threw just about everything in the arsenal at me. Long endurance rides when most people weren’t even riding outside yet, countless interval sessions, short and peppy after-work trail rides, as well as time on the trainer and spin bike. If you ride and train seriously, this is nothing you’re unfamiliar with. But as I approached the big day, I had to take a hard look at all aspects of the event to try to improve my overall experience.

FOOD

First and foremost was food. In 2015, I brought all the same race food I had used at events all year. The problem was that after 8-10 hours, I simply couldn’t eat that food anymore. Call it being burnt out from eating it all year or just burnt out from eating it all night, it didn’t matter. My body was rejecting it. For most people, not eating enough in a race this long spells trouble. So for 2016, I set out to determine what food I could eat throughout the event. I landed on rice balls. The cookbook Feed Zone Portables has several recipes and I felt that this would be the winning ticket. My amazing wife prepared 4 different variations for the race and that, coupled with energy chews, would be my primary fuel. The other food issue I had was frequency of eating (and drinking). I didn’t eat or drink often enough. For this race, I would set a timer on my Garmin to beep every 20 minutes, letting me know to eat and drink. If I stuck to this, I had a good chance of staying fueled and hydrated properly for the duration.

SLEEP

The other big issue that haunted me in 2015 was lack of sleep. I was wired all week leading up to the race and I was trying to make sure all my equipment was ready, so I didn’t sleep enough for several nights prior. In addition, the race starts at 10 PM and I can’t sleep during the day, so I was going to go through an entire day, night, and day without sleeping. The end result in 2015 was that I was a delirious zombie for much of the 2nd half of the race. I felt like I was hallucinating at times. I brainstormed with Jane on how to overcome this, given that I knew I wouldn’t be able to sleep during the day before the race. She suggested that I try to bank sleep, meaning I would sleep an extra hour or two each night for the week leading up the race. We decided this was the best hope for improving on this particular challenge.

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RACE DAY

So when it was time to line up, I had a full arsenal of rice balls and energy chews and I was extremely well rested. At 10 PM sharp, the 2016 Vapor Trail 125 began to pedal into the night, following behind a police escort for roughly 40 minutes before we hit the dirt road where the escort peeled off and the race officially began. I was immediately forced to decide if I would successfully conquer another important mistake from the previous year…pacing.

Everyone took off like a shot out of a cannon. I knew how long an effort this would be and how important it was for me to stick to my guns, so I maintained a mellow pace. After about 15 minutes, I turned around to see how many riders were behind me and I realized that the lights following me were from the sweeper car. I was in last place. This was where the first glimmers of doubt entered my mind. I pushed that out of my head and continued at the pace I had set. Within a couple minutes I came up on a rider. A few minutes later, I passed another. This continued for three and a half hours and when I reached the first aid station around 1:30 AM, I had passed half of the field. This is where my confidence began to grow. I had maintained the same pace and I was reeling people in. It was working!

I pushed forward and began a railroad grade climb up Chalk Creek that takes about 2 hours. Shortly thereafter, I began the slog up Hancock Pass, which was a new addition to the race this year. What a treat! A sea full of baby heads and no small amount of walking for mere mortals such as myself. Luckily, I had the company of Liz Carrington for some of this climb and the subsequent hike-a-bikes. After cresting Hancock, we descended and then began the glorious climb up Tomichi Pass. Tomichi also has some brutal riding and hiking, so reaching the top is a happy moment. Unfortunately, you are only greeted with a short descent that takes you to the Canyon Creek trail, which at this point in the race for me, turned out to be a 50 minute hike-a-bike. By the time we reached the top of Granite Peak at roughly 12,800′, I was extremely ready to be done hiking. Here I came to a great realization. It was still dark and last year it was getting light at this milestone. I was ahead of last year’s time! However, the best news was the amazing descent to follow. The Canyon Creek descent is one of the most memorable in Colorado. High alpine rough terrain, fast flowy singletrack, tree covered rock gardens, and creek crossings. All the makings of an amazing trail.

When I reached the second aid station at Snow Blind, I was greeted by my friend Ernie Johnson, who resupplied my food and fluids and took my heavy lights and batteries. I was 40 minutes ahead of last year and in an effort to keep trimming time, I spent only a few minutes on the exchange and set off. It was at this point last year where the wheels started coming off. I think this was primarily due to not eating enough at night. This year was a complete 180. I felt great! I stuck to my 20 minute timer and had fueled perfectly to this point. Just had to keep it up. I proceeded up the Old Monarch Pass Road climb, another two-ish hour grind, and when I reached Monarch Pass at about 9:20 AM, I was still feeling good. I was an hour ahead at this point and going strong.

I hit the Monarch Crest and this was by far the high point of my race. In 2015, I was an absolute zombie, barely able to stay on the trail and getting off the bike numerous times even on relatively easy pitches. This year I was on Cloud 9. I felt amazing and was having an absolute blast! I scorched through this section and hit the Marshall Pass aid at 11:00 AM. This is the where the race organizer really sticks it to you. The course now takes you on the brutal 10-ish mile Starvation Creek loop. You have a short climb, followed by an awesome descent that drops you down about 2,500 vertical feet. The bad news is that as soon as you finish the descent you have to climb 4.5 miles up Poncha Springs Road back to Marshall Pass! In the first 4 miles, you climb 2,200′ up a loose, rocky jeep road that is probably the worst 4 miles ever ridden on a bike (in no small part because of what you have been through up to this point). After what seemed like an eternity, I reached the top of Marshall Pass around 1 PM and was once again happy to see Ernie waiting there with more food and drink. I loaded up for the final push and pedaled away. After climbing a bit more, I was treated to a ripping descent down the Silver Creek Trail. I was starting to sniff the finish line, but I had to stay focused, as there was still nearly two hours left and no shortage of technical sections. I finally hit the last dirt stretch of the race, the Rainbow Trail, which has just about everything a good mountain bike trail should have, including punchy climbs thrown in to keep you honest. I had one high speed washout on the Rainbow, but was lucky enough to land in a soft pile of dirt and not injure myself. I brushed myself off and kept moving forward.

THE FINISH

I soon reached the pavement on Highway 285 and alternated tucking and pedaling my way into the finish in Salida at 3:32 PM, with a total time of 17 hours 32 minutes and a 10th place overall finish. I had crushed my 2015 time by nearly 2.5 hours! All the problems I faced in 2015 shaped how I approached my race in 2016. I banked sleep and rested extremely well before the event. I implemented a fueling plan that provided sustainable energy and was edible for the duration. I was diligent about eating every 20 minutes so my energy would never falter. I maintained a steady pace for 17.5 hours, and I managed my time at aid stations much better than the previous year. With the help of my coach, Jane, and my incredible wife Kelsey, we laid out a plan to conquer this monster and we were able to execute it nearly to perfection. I didn’t think it was possible to feel good throughout an event that long, but I was wrong. With the right training, preparation, and knowledge, it is possible to have a “textbook” ultra-endurance race.


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Comments 20

  1. Super recap of an absolutely stellar race Michael! Congrats on the accomplishment and way to stick the overall plan/pacing.

  2. Congrats! I’ve had a very similar experience riding Leadville 100 MTB race in 2015 and 2016.
    Lessons learned in 2015 allowed me to significantly improve my finish time – and above all the way I felt throughout the race – in 2016.
    Consistent training/preparation, well rested at the start line, good nutrition and hydration plan put into action and commitment and focus during the race – that is the key to success!

  3. Michael, Great story! The Vapor is the toughest one day race there is. Going back to back is huge. It sounds like you made some great decisions to crush your previous years time. I love this race and the people @absolutebikes. Congrats on a great race! Wear that beanie with pride my friend!

    1. Thanks Eric! I can’t imagine a harder one day race for sure. The guys at Absolute Bikes, Tom Purvis, the volunteers and all the racers are what really makes this such an awesome event. These are now the only 2 beanies you’ll catch me wearing!

  4. Congratulations on managing food, water, and effort. 2015 looks like it was a tough year for everyone, e.g. Kerkove slowed by 2 hours from 2014. Was the course different or the weather worse?

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