Saturday, September 29

Oh Cougar Where Art Thou?

Good freakin' grief!

Something was slain...something.

We met Sam at Eben G Fine park this AM to carpool up to the start of the Cougar Slayer in Eldora. It was cold at the high school where Mandy dropped us off. A stout wind blew off the snowy peaks pushing us back as we rode toward the hamlet of Eldora.

We were both hoping the rising sun would warm us. Sooner than we thought we were both sweating as we climbed up out of town. Right in our faces the initial climb had us huffing and grunting over baseball sized rocks as we climbed above the valley. I guess I assumed after the steepness the ride would ease up. I guess I assumed he Cougar Slayer was like most every other MTB ride I've done...short hard sections with long sections of easy to make up for it. I was wrong.

I was somewhat familiar with the terrain we'd be traversing. I'd actually mapped a somewhat similar route not too long ago. But after the unofficial official running of the Cougar Slayer on September 22 there were some questions that Sam and I both had.

Why were there 13 that began and only 6 that finished? And why did those 6 all have sub-seven hour times if the challenge was to finish in less than eight?

Sam and my wife both speculated that people quit because there was no real pressure to finish. I agreed. But something kept nagging me from the back of my mind.

I'd been fretting over how I would track my ride. After a few real world tests my iPhone just didn't seem like it would perform for a full 8 hours. I even have a solar charger I can use to extend the battery life, but even with that it seemed like I was going to fall a couple hours short unless I could surprise myself with a 6 hour finish. Considering the predominately negative elevation profile that may not have been out of the question.

I emailed the organizer Jon to ask what I could do. He offered the use of a Garmin GPS for the day. I gratefully accepted. The day we met for the handoff I asked why only 6 finished. His answer was that the course is HARD. Then he elaborated that there are lots of technical descents. That didn't satisfy the nag in the back of my mind.

Thinking back to the course (I have an eidetic memory for maps and space) I couldn't see anything crazy. In fact, the only technical terrain I could think of was the section I scouted last week. While admittedly tricky, it was nothing compared to a lot of my rides of late.

Was I unimpressed because of the magnitude of my recent mountain biking experience?

Was this thing actually going to be harder than Leadville or the Alpine Odyssey? No way!

I tried to rationalize. Maybe this Cougar Slayer thing was the pinnacle of achievement for those who bailed. Maybe they had not trained for Leadville. Maybe they attempted this thing on a whim, or a lost bet, or out of blatant ignorance. Perhaps...perhaps Sam and I had an edge over this thing.

Could we crush the cougar?

We agreed on a 6:30am meeting time at the finish. That was unnecessarily cruel.

It ended up being 7:30 when we rolled toward Eldora. Soon our questions would be answered. To make a long story short (TOO LATE!) the course is HARD.

From Eldora we climbed for 7 miles up a road that felt more like a creekbed. If water had been flowing down it I'd have called it Class III. 

On the shoulder of Caribou Hill we were rewarded with an amazing panorama of the snow clad North and South Arapahoes and the knowledge that we'd get a nice descent to Caribou and then on down past Rainbow Lakes. Mandy was supposed to meet us just past Rainbow Lakes so we could resupply.

The descent to Caribou was not bad. It got better further down. But then when we turned north from Caribou heading toward Rainbow Lakes Road we found ourselves on a cyclocross course. Or, that's what it seemed like anyway. As Sam described it, just as we'd get up to speed we'd come to another water hole, have to dismount, skirt the water, and then get back on the bikes. Over and over and over and over.

By the time we reached the intersection where I thought we were meeting Mandy we were muddy and wet. We could have blended in with a cyclocross field no problem.

And then I made my logistical blunder. Remember I said I have an eidetic memory for maps and space? Well, I got slightly confused. Without going into great detail, suffice it to say we missed Mandy at the first aid stop--totally my fault--and lacking adequate cell service we had to push on to Brainerd Lake.

The section between Rainbow Lakes Road and Brainerd Lake Road follows the Sourdough Trail. I assumed "trail" would mean nice singletrack, a welcome relief from the creekbed crawling we'd been doing for 14 miles. Not so much.

Sourdough was somewhat harder and more technical because it was singletrack. The initial section up from Eldora was hard, but it was a two track road; that means more room to maneuver. Sourdough kept us confined and struggling to stay on our bikes.

On the second half of Sourdough before Brainerd Lake Road something happened. Where earlier in the ride I had been consciously focused on picking my lines, powering over basketball-sized rocks, and NOT falling over, during the latter miles I found myself in a state of FLOW.

My mind zoned out. I stopped looking at every rock and root, I stopped thinking about powering over obstacles, and I began operating on autopilot. Even my internal dialogue seemed to quiet, and for a few miles I was just riding. I didn't feel tired. I didn't fear falling. I was engaged in the moment.

Then the miles started to catch up, the low fuel tank began affecting me, and I started to feel the pull of gravity and the bite of fatigue in my legs. The state of flow ebbed.

Still the trail stretched ahead of us and on we pedaled. By then it was painfully obvious we were too far down on our pace to finish in less than 8 hours.

After the eternal Sourdough Trail we reached Brainerd Lake Road. No Mandy. I checked my phone. I had no service but I did have a text from Mandy. She had second guessed herself, thinking she had missed us because we were so far behind our pace, and had gone on to Gold Hill.

Brainerd Lake Road was at mile 20. Gold Hill was at mile 44 after a climb up Lefthand Canyon followed by the heinousness of Lickskillet Road. At Brainerd Lake Road we were both out of food and I was also out of water.

It didn't take long for Sam and I to agree there was no way we could finish in less than 8 hours and without food there was no way we could keep going on the course.

We decided to ride down to the Peak to Peak and then straight out the ridge to Gold Hill. So we turned toward the Peak to Peak. Brainerd Lake Road loses elevation fast.

We bombed down the paved road like meteors. I knew it was coming, and saw the tight right hand curve, but I underestimated the radius. As I leaned hard into it I found myself unable to stay to the right.


But them I had completely crossed the oncoming lane and was in the gravel of the shoulder. As I skidded toward the dropoff on the outside of the curve I was feeling much like I did at Emerald Lake two weeks ago. Well, I didn't think I was going to die today, but I was pretty sure I was going to get hurt. As I skidded in the gravel I tried to get free of my pedals. No luck.

I came to a rest laying on my side mere inches from the short bank on the edge of the road still clipped into my pedals. As I was grinding to a halt I heard a commotion. When I twisted around I saw Sam laying in the gravel a few feet behind me still clipped into his bike. I imagine the look on my face was as comical as the look on his.

We got going again and plodded the remainder of our ride out to Gold Hill. We needed food. We were tired. First we had to ride south on the Peak to Peak a few miles being wary of the aspen gawkers. The last few miles of riding were on the dirt Gold Hill Road. Finally we rolled into the cool old town and saw a white Suburbaru Forester parked along Main Street.

We ate. Mandy passed around cold cans of Coca-Cola. Then Boone said:

"So why didn't you finish this one?"

It was hard Boone. It was hard.

In fact, that might have been the hardest 35 miles I've ever ridden. Tonight I feel like I rode a full 70. 

While waiting for us at Rainbow Lakes Road Mandy and the kids saw two moose:


Despite my meticulous planning, detailed cue sheets, stellar weather and our determination to finish we fell short due to unforeseen sustained technical terrain, a logistical nightmare (no cell service and a lack of familiarity of the area by all) and a missed turn.


  1. Such gorgeous photos... while I know it was a rough ride and it didn't go as planned, it's so beautiful! Hopefully, it will be an experience to look back on and laugh about later. I know it's still fresh now. I was sharing with Sam that perhaps had you had markings on the trail (I'm not sure if this happened during last weekends' supported ride?), that might have made it more possible to finish? Regardless, I'm glad you both gave it a go, and I love seeing the photos of fall in the mountains.

  2. It was a great experience. I think if we'd just been our for a fun ride, and not trying to do it in a certain timeframe we'd have enjoyed it a lot more. But the terrain kept holding us back.

    I learned that I need to train to power over that kind of stuff. I know I said there was nothing like that at Leadville, but the truth is I didn't ride the stuff like that at Leadville. The upper stretches of Columbine are also loose, steep and rocky. Begin able to crush the Cougar would give a person an edge on Columbine. You might still walk, but you'd walk less. Same with Powerline.

    So I find myself pondering how early in the spring I'd be able to go back up there and try the route again. And I almost cry.

    Oh well, I have some similar rides I can do closer to home.

    It was a great time to be in the mountains, and I've definitely had rides where I've suffered more. I think we did pretty good considering...

    Perspective is good. I'm not really depressed about bailing. I think it was a great learning experience, and a great bookend to my efforts of the past year. I wish we'd crushed it, but now I know what I got to do to crush it next year.

  3. Man, as hard as that was...I'm having trouble NOT wanting to go back and do it again! I must be sick in the head.