What It's Like to Ride the Colorado Trail

Riding the Colorado Trail isn't easy. Racing it is even harder. This year, Seth put together a clean run and finished it in 6 days. He explains what it took, from eating every 20 minutes to sleeping 5 hours a night.

What It's Like to Ride the Colorado Trail

Written by
Bruce Lin

Published on

Posted in
Features

Imagine waking up at 3 am, wet and cold, and getting on your bike to ride for 18 hours. Now imagine doing that for multiple days in a row. That’s what it takes to conquer the Colorado Trail Race (CTR). The Colorado Trail is over 500 miles long with more than 70,000 feet of elevation gain. CTR is a true beast, and every year, dozens of riders attempt to tame it. It has no entry fee, no registration, no support, and no prize money. It’s just you against the clock, the elements, the trail, and yourself. As a bikepacking race, you carry all your own gear and sleep in the wilderness. The winner will complete it in about four days. Most riders will need one to two weeks. Many don’t make it to the finish. 

Seth Holmes, a Purchasing Manager here at TPC, had his first crack at CTR last year but knee pain forced him to drop out early. He decided 2022 would be his year, and went back for vengeance. After six days of riding, Seth crossed the finish line in Durango, Colorado in 9th place. Needless to say, we were all pretty impressed by his achievement. After giving him a few days to rest (he needed it!), I tracked him down to find out what it's like to ride the Colorado Trail as fast as you can. 

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Seth’s 2022 Colorado Trail Race Stats

Colorado trail raceTotal distance: 529mi
Total elevation: 72,500ft  
Total time: 6d 10hrs 11min
Average distance per day: 82mi
Average riding speed: 7.5mph

Why did you want to do the Colorado Trail Race?

Seth: The Colorado Trail has been on my radar for years. Back when I was living in New York, I watched a YouTube video of these guys doing a backpacking trip across the Colorado Trail and it looked amazing. I had never been to Colorado. I was hardly even a mountain biker then. But the challenge appealed to me.  

When I finally moved to Colorado I met [our co-worker] Kevin who got bit hard by the CTR bug. He encouraged me to race it with him and I guess I ended up getting bit too. I’ve really fallen in love with the Colorado high country since moving here. I suppose, riding as much of it as you can in a week is my favorite way to experience it. 

Give me a general overview of how it went.

Colorado trail raceIt’s actually hard to recall a lot of it now, but I really remember the last hour or two when I was dropping into Durango. I was thinking about the previous six days and, I don't know, I kept thinking of the word “flawless.” I didn’t want to celebrate too early since I still had to hold it together to the finish, but I was so pleased. I felt like I really nailed it and I couldn't believe it. It was six days on the bike, riding up to 18 hours a day. So much can go wrong. But I didn't crash once. I didn't pull out my tool wrap once. I know some people got caught in some really bad storms. I only got caught in a few.

Did you change your approach this year?

Yeah, last year was the first time I did it. Mentally, I don't think I was prepared for what I was throwing myself into. This year, I had a much better idea of what I needed to do to race it successfully.

It's not about speed. It’s about always moving forward.

Jefe Branham, the race director of CTR, says something along the lines of, “The race is won in the dark and it's won in the rain.” You can go as hard as you want all day. But if you sleep all night, the person that was going slower than you during the day is going to pass you because they're going to keep riding. I don't think I fully grasped that concept last year. It's not about speed. It’s about always moving forward.

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How did you handle food and water?

2022 Colorado trail raceFortunately, it was cloudy or overcast almost the entire race, which was great because the temperature stayed very cool. I didn't have to take on a lot of water. My carrying capacity was only about two liters with a 1.5-liter hydration pack and a 26-ounce bottle. A water filter is a key part of the kit. 

Handling food was one of the things I really learned a lot about last year. I dropped out because of knee problems, but I probably would have DNF’d anyway because I was so behind on calories. This year, I set up an alarm on my head unit to remind me to eat every 20 minutes. Occasionally, I'd silence it, but I probably went no longer than 45 minutes without eating for the entire six days. My mouth hurt so bad from all the salt and sugar. It probably hurt worse than my legs. 

On the first day, I started with 5000 calories of Skratch Superfuel and pretty much drank all my calories. I also carried date balls and nuts for a little more substance. Then by the second day, I transitioned to stuff like gummy bears and peanut butter. I would go to a store and buy a jar of peanut butter. I carried a bamboo spoon and every half hour I'd just eat a spoonful of peanut butter. That was really good. And then frozen gas station burritos. Just let them thaw out in your pockets. 

How much did you sleep?

I aimed for about five hours of sleep every night. It took me a couple of days to get into a good rhythm. If you just try to lie down after you’ve been riding for 18 hours, there's no way you're falling asleep. Your body hasn’t cooled down and your brain is so active, especially after seeing so much. There were days where I had to stay alert for 90 continuous miles of singletrack. It can be difficult to shut your mind off after all that.

I didn’t start to get good sleep until the third night, which I think is pretty normal. At that point, your body is just begging to stop and rest. I'd hit my limit and pass out by 9-10 pm. Then I didn't have much problem getting up and getting back on the bike by 3 am. 

What was your worst moment?

My worst moment came on day two, starting at Kenosha Pass, getting over Georgia Pass, dropping into Breckenridge, and then going up Tenmile Range into Copper. That was the toughest day mentally because you feel like you're putting in a lot of work but you aren't getting very far. I only managed to ride 48 miles in 16 hours. The terrain is among the most brutal out there. It's just straight up or down. 

What was your best moment?

2022 Colorado Trail Race finishFinishing. Just finishing was definitely the best. A close second though would be the stretch from the top of Fooses Creek to Marshall Pass. I've ridden that section of trail probably 9 or 10 times now and I absolutely love it. Even though the weather wasn't very good when I was up there, there's something about that seven miles of singletrack. It’s just jammin’. It’s full gas. It's so good.

Tell me about your bikepacking set-up.

On my bike I had a custom frame bag from Rockgeist, a small saddle bag, and then a front roll. My front roll carried a 40-degree sleeping bag, my sleeping pad, and a tarp shelter made out of Dyneema from Six Moon Designs. That set-up kept me dry as long as I got it up before it started raining. 

I kept my tools, two battery caches, and some other random heavier stuff in my frame bag. I carried battery-powered lights that are rechargeable. A lot of people try to run like a dynamo hub but you're moving too slow most of the day to charge anything. That's what the battery cache was for. I actually didn't recharge my lights at all which was nice. I just used it to charge my phone, my GPS tracker, and my head unit.

My rear saddle bag is only three liters. I kept all of my extra clothes and a pair of thick gloves in there. I had two pairs of socks, two bibs, a base layer, a road jersey, and a long sleeve sun shirt with a hood that can go over or under my helmet. My feet get cold when I sleep so I had a pair of down booties too. 

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Tell me about your bike set-up.

Colorado trail race bike Pivot Trail 429I rode my Pivot Trail 429, which is definitely a little bit bigger of a bike than what a lot of people would opt for. It's a trail bike with a 120mm of travel in the rear and a 130mm fork. I really love it though. It's comfortable for all day riding. It's pretty efficient with the DW-Link suspension. For tires I ran the Maxxis Ardent Race 2.35” with CushCore Pros front and rear. I ran a 28t oval chainring on a Shimano 12-speed drivetrain. 28x51 is a nice easy gear. I know some people tried to run a 30t or a 32t, but I think going easier is worth it. You're not spinning out that often. 

All of the obsession over gear or bike choice evaporates when you get out there. It’s so much more about the rider.

That said, your bike is important, but there's a fair amount of people that do this race on singlespeeds and hardtails. Some people even do it on a full rigid. It's really wild how all of the obsession over gear or bike choice evaporates when you get out there. It’s so much more about the rider. I got beat by three singlespeeders and the winner did it on a hardtail. I think that's totally epic. It's way more about your physical and mental preparation.

Did you train for CTR?

Yeah, I used a coach. Specifically, a coach who has done CTR four times now. That’s really beneficial since a lot of coaches won’t necessarily be in tune with what CTR entails. In the lead up, I rode anywhere from 10-18 hours a week. Obviously, it’s a big advantage living in Colorado. I was able to ride a lot of the trails that are in the race. 

Beyond that, I already enjoy hiking and backpacking. I did a lot of that leading up to the race. If you finish the Colorado Trail in about six days, you will spend about an entire day hiking or pushing your bike. If you're not used to hiking or pushing your bike, you probably won't fare well. 

How did you handle the mental challenges?

Colorado trail race terrainMy coach definitely challenged me and would ask me really good questions like, “What will you do if this happens or that happens, or if shit really hits the fan.” We tried to plan for everything. That sort of mental work really prepared me. 

If you're in a bad headspace, there's a pretty good chance you're not eating enough.

During the race there are constant ups and downs throughout the day. For me, the lowest point each day was an hour or two before the sun came up. I’d get a 3 am start each day, and after riding for an hour or two I’d feel so drained. But then the sun comes up and you get a second wind. I'd start to really feel great again. I love coffee and caffeine but I would try to wait until 3-4 pm before having any caffeine. I didn't want to overdo it and it gave me something to look forward to.

Also, I'm a strong believer that if you're in a bad headspace, there's a pretty good chance you're not eating enough. I’d wake up wet and cold and if I just slammed food in my mouth for the first 90 minutes, my mood would eventually turn around. You really start to understand the connection between not feeling well and being under-fueled. 

Do you think you’ll do CTR again?

Colorado trail raceI think the Colorado trail is going to stay checked off for now. I mean, it's always going to be there, but I’m just so thrilled with how my body responded after I got into the groove. Now, I want to try something, not necessarily bigger, but something different. I want to see other parts of the country. I've never been to Arizona. I have no idea why it appeals to me but I like the idea of doing the full Arizona Trail — having to strap your bike to your back to hike across the Grand Canyon. I loved watching Lael Wilcox do it. It's like, just crazy enough, but also doable. 

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