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The 2017 Colorado Trail Race Was Brutal - Recap

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The Colorado Trail Race runs from Durango to Denver, with racers covering 538 miles of challenging, high altitude terrain. The route roughly follows the Colorado Trail itself, with a few alternate segments that take cyclists around Wilderness sections where mechanized travel is not permitted. As a fabled race in the ultra distance and bikepacking community, its unsupported ethos dictates that racers be self sufficient from start to finish, with no help being taken that is not available to all other racers, ie. convenience stores and bike shops.At 4am on Sunday, July 23rd, fifty seven racers gathered for an unceremonious start to the 2017 CTR (Colorado Trail Race), taking them through Durango to the western terminus of the Colorado Trail. First to the trail was none other than Kurt Refsnider, a former Tour Divide champion. A host of incredibly capable ultra racers would be hot on his heels for many miles to follow.The trail was first conceived in 1974, and through a lengthy partnership with the US Forest Service, the non-profit Colorado Trail Foundation, and many volunteers, it was finally completed in 1987. Until 2013, the CTR had always started in Denver and finished in Durango, and now it alternates from year to year between the two cities. In years when it starts in Durango the attrition is severe, with the mighty San Juan mountains pummelling racers with their lofty peaks from the get-go. It's the equivalent of being thrown straight into the ring of fire.

For most this is a battle for completion, but Chris Plesko was one of the select few with victory on his mind from the onset of the race. Chris was aiming for the CTR record with a sub four day ride on his fully rigid single speed. That sounds like a ridiculous goal, but this is the same man who owns both of the fastest Tour Divide singlespeed times.

This year there are quite a few incredibly fast racers in attendance, like Seth Michael and Kurt Refsnider. Seth was racing on a steel hard tail that he built himself (check out Lost Trail Cycle Co.). On the eve of the first day it was Kurt Refsnider leading the race. From there it was mostly a downhill coast on the highway into Silverton, where leading riders would race the clock to arrive at the general store for a re-supply before it closed. It was also the last time we saw Kurt in the lead, as he would later pull out due to knee pain that crippled his advancement.The next two segments of trail would deliver a death blow to many of the racers' dreams of finishing the race. The weather on Blackhawk Pass was vicious, with pelting hail and lightening bolts booming down within fifteen feet of the trail. It would serve as one of the first true trials of determination for many racers. Despite the hail, rain, mud and cold that besieged racers on Blackhawk Pass, Greg Lewis would push on and ultimately take second place by the end of the race. Chris Plesko dealt with water shortages due to a malfunctioning filter pump, but that wasn't the end of his struggles. He had ridden through the night, in the rain, through the supposedly haunted Cochetopa Hills leading up to Sargents Mesa, and then Marshall Pass. He was only sleeping about one or two hours per night, and in a fog of sleep deprivation he forgot to orient his bike in the direction he needed to proceed before falling asleep in his rain gear. It took him about twenty minutes to figure out which direction he needed to ride after waking up from his nap. With intermittent rain atop the 12,000 foot plus Kokomo Pass, Chris pushed on with the Ten Mile Range looming in the distance. He would ascend and descend that range in the fog and dark of night. At one point while still above treeline, he laid down and slept on the trail, only to be passed in the night by Seth Michael.While Seth pushed on, Chris Plesko's race would end in disaster. The chronic fatigue of riding a rigid singlespeed coupled with an over-the-bars crash while descending Kokomo Pass resulted in his hand not being able to hold onto the bars any longer. Even with the finish less than a day's ride away, the dangers of pushing on were simply too great to risk further long term injuries.And just like that, Seth Michael's steady pace would crown him the 2017 Colorado Trail Race Champion. There is no prize for winning, no televised finish, no podium. The finish is anti-climatic, but those who know will be awed by Seth's accomplishment in the face of utterly brutal conditions. Well done Seth, and congratulations to all the CTR finishers this year!
Colorado Trail Race - Recap and Results
With a high five to the trailhead sign, it was time for some real mountain biking: 6,300 feet of singletrack climbing in the first 23 miles.
Colorado Trail Race - Recap and Results
Kurt Refsnider lead the now strung out pack of racers as he ascended to the Indian Ridge Trail segment at 12,300 feet and change.
Colorado Trail Race - Recap and Results
Garrett Alexander would be the third person to crest the Indian Ridge Trail section, and also one of the few leaders at that point to actually finish the race.
Colorado Trail Race - Recap and Results
Chris Plesko recently won Elevation Outdoors' popular vote as "Colorado's Resident Bad-Ass". He's the real deal and one of the nicest people you might ride a bike with.
Colorado Trail Race - Recap and Results
Jonathan Basham from West Virginia was one of the early front-runners, and actually led the race through the latter half of the San Juans.
Colorado Trail Race - Recap and Results
Dana Ernst of Flagstaff, AZ and Greg Lewis ride through a colorful alpine field of flowers on a seemingly pleasant day before the skies opened up and rained down much hail and lightning bolts upon the weary racers.
Colorado Trail Race - Recap and Results
Seth Michael pushed through one of the many-to-come sections of hike-a-bike while looking down on Taylor Lake.
Colorado Trail Race - Recap and Results
Some people carried their bikes while others would push. Whatever it took is what worked to get through these very vertical sections.
Colorado Trail Race - Recap and Results
A shout out to Colorado's State Flower, the Columbine, and a sign of things to come.
Colorado Trail Race - Recap and Results
Meghan Newlin on her way to being the sole female finisher of the 2017 CTR.
Colorado Trail Race - Recap and Results
Brett Stepanik would become the first person to complete the Triple Crown of ultra bike racing aboard a singlespeed: completing the Arizona Trail Race (750 miles), the Tour Divide (2,745 miles) and the Colorado Trail Race all within the same year.
Colorado Trail Race - Recap and Results
Kurt Refsnider leading the race on the eve of the first day as he rides past Little Molas Lake. It would also be the last time we saw Kurt in the lead as he would later scratch from the race due to increasing knee pain.
Colorado Trail Race - Recap and Results
Apporaching Little Molas Lake, Chris Plesko had ridden into second place at this point in the race.
Colorado Trail Race - Recap and Results
Greg Lewis still wearing his rain pants after a brief reprieve from the hail, rain, mud and cold that besieged racers on Blackhawk Pass.
Colorado Trail Race - Recap and Results
The southern Colorado alpine hamlet called Silverton serves as the only place to resupply with food and get a hot meal for the next 200 some-odd miles. Getting through the first segments of the race to Silverton before the stores close is of utmost importance for anyone considering a fast ride of the course
Colorado Trail Race - Recap and Results
Just follow the trail markers. The Colorado Trail is very well marked, but route finding is never as easy as it sounds when you factor in rain, fog and the dark of night combined with excessive fatigue and sleep deprivation.
Colorado Trail Race - Recap and Results
The high point of the Colorado Trail at 13,271 feet is surreal. You can spend hours there and not see another soul.
Colorado Trail Race - Recap and Results
For many of the segments through the San Juan Mountains the elevations rarely dip below 12,000 feet, and, while the elevation can be soul crushing, the views are amazing.
Colorado Trail Race - Recap and Results
Dana Ernst was one of the many racers who would scratch. The incessant rain and cold took it's toll on everyone this year.
Colorado Trail Race - Recap and Results
At this point Chris Plesko was rationing his water because his water filter pump had quit working leaving him with a set number of water treatment tablets to get him through to the next stop where he could resupply with drinkable water.
Colorado Trail Race - Recap and Results
A break from the rain and some dry dirt between Marshall Pass and Fooses Creek with 13'er Ouray Peak looking above.
Colorado Trail Race - Recap and Results
Seth Michael doing some gear re-arranging on Marshall Pass.
Colorado Trail Race - Recap and Results
At times it seemed the rain would never stop, and it didn't.
Colorado Trail Race - Recap and Results
There were reports of ten or so coolers littering the route. This is absolutely not "trail magic." This is irresponsible, goes against the very grain of why these races exist, and gets bears killed. Despite any good intentions, please stop it.
Colorado Trail Race - Recap and Results
Red skies in the morning CTR racers take warning.
Colorado Trail Race - Recap and Results
Behind these clouds lies the top of Mt Elbert at 14,433 feet, which is the tallest peak in Colorado.
Colorado Trail Race - Recap and Results
A stoic moment with Jonathan Basham near Twin Lakes.
Colorado Trail Race - Recap and Results
This marmot was far more interested in the contents of my camera bag than who would be riding up to Kokomo Pass next.
Colorado Trail Race - Recap and Results
Turns out, the first racer up Kokomo Pass was Chris Plesko. Being on a singlespeed meant he was mostly pushing this entire 3,000 feet climb, ouch (it really hurt with gears too!).
Colorado Trail Race - Recap and Results
Looking up at Kokomo Pass. The weather can turn in an instant in these high mountain passes, and when lightning bolts start to crack around you there is no place to hide. Frightening is putting it mildly.
Colorado Trail Race - Recap and Results
Jonathan Basham trying to rejuvenate his swollen legs with a soak in the cold waters of a creek below Kokomo Pass. While he was still very much in the race in second place, just hours behind Chris Plesko, the relief was only temporary. Later that evening Jonathan scratched upon arriving at the gas station at Copper Mountain.
Colorado Trail Race - Recap and Results
And just like that, Chris Plesko was out of the race.
Colorado Trail Race - Recap and Results
They say what doesn't kill you will make you stronger... No doubt, we'll all cheer him on when the story continues.
Colorado Trail Race - Recap and Results
Now at the head of the race, the rain continued and Seth Michael pressed on.
Colorado Trail Race - Recap and Results
Seth Michael before rolling into the old burn zone of the 2002 Hayman Fire. The forest fire was Colorado's largest ever as it scorched 138,114 acres and claimed six lives before being extinguished.
Colorado Trail Race - Recap and Results
Your 2017 Colorado Trail Race Champion, Seth Michael.