When Katya Rakhmatulina rolled into Junction Creek just shy of 9pm as the third women’s finisher of this year’s Colorado Trail Race, she was greeted with raucous cheers and congratulations. The crowd included a solid group of women bikepackers, including Katie Strempke, Elizabeth Sampey, Emma Millar, and myself, but the biggest congratulations came from this year’s women’s race winner, Alexandera Houchin, who hadn’t slept since Sargent’s Mesa several days prior and was still awake and going strong.
“It was tough,” was Katya’s initial summary of the route before delving into the details of her fast start with minimal sleep, nearly quitting while pushing her bike up Fooses Creek in a cold drizzle, and finding new motivation while drying out at the Greens Creek shelter after a thru-hiker built a fire. She was all smiles, albeit tired ones, as she laughed at her ability to take a race out hard and then implode spectacularly.
Watching the two amazingly strong women (Ana Jager had to leave to catch a flight earlier but had spent much of the day cheering in other racers) be genuinely excited for each other epitomized what, to me at least, this year’s CTR was for women — a massively competitive race with one of the deepest women’s fields the event has ever seen, but one that was filled with support and mutual respect.
From the start of the race, it seemed apparent that the women’s record was going to fall. It was just a matter of who would come out on top. Alexandera had four previous Colorado Trail finishes and two wins, Ana Jager was fresh off winning the women’s Tour Divide in just a hair over 19 days, Katya had won Bones To Blue, setting a new women’s FKT in late June, and Elizabeth had been leading the CTR on record pace in 2018 when her rear hub exploded just 35 miles from the finish.
Katya was the one to take the race out fast, opening a sizable gap on the rest of the women’s field through Leadville, into Buena Vista, and on towards Fooses Creek. Alexandera, with plenty of experience with the race, was familiar with the tactic and had seen many people explode trying to ride the first and easier half of the route faster than they should. The weather this year wasn’t doing anyone any favors with thunder and lightning storms as riders crossed high and exposed passes, rain throughout the nights, and water-damaged trail everywhere.
For many, the crux of the CTR westbound is crossing highway 50. It’s an easy place to bail down to Salida for a warm meal, bed, and DNF, and beyond is the committing Sargent’s Mesa, the Los Pinos detour, and the Coney/Cataract segments where bailing becomes increasingly difficult. This year, the top three women, all riding within a few miles of each other, faced the crossing in deteriorating weather. Alexandera slowly crept up towards Ana on the gradual climb up Fooses Creek and they tackled the steep hike-a-bike at the top together not far behind a struggling Katya.
“I was cold hiking uphill,” Katya recounted. She was ready to quit, wondering why she was even bothering going up the hill. When she reached the top of the Crest and some day bikers had told her the weather wasn’t going to improve, it was nearly over. But she made her way to the Green’s Creek Shelter for a pause. A thru-hiker made a fire for warmth and that reset her perspective. She’d pushed hard in past races, including on the sleep deprivation front, and knew how miserable it could get. She had told herself that she wanted to be able to have fun out on the CTR, and now as things seemed to be falling apart, she remembered her goal. The shift in view got her out of the shelter and moving towards Durango at a more sustainable pace.
Meanwhile, Alexandera and Ana had gone past, riding together before Alexandera made her move in Sargent’s Mesa. The race through Sargent’s all the way through to Silverton saw Alexandera using her savvy to push hard where she knew she could get away, but a dogged Ana holding the gap to something that always seemed closeable and tenuous. “I couldn’t break her,” Alexandera said afterwards. The two came back together just a few miles shy of the drop into Silverton after Alexandera got caught high on Cataract Ridge in a thunderstorm with a leaking tarp in the middle of the night while Ana was able to stop lower and at the edge of the storm. Conditions were dire for Alexandera, and she thought, “I’m going to freeze to death up here. And Jefe (CTR race unorganizer) is going to be so disappointed in me.”
They both made it through the night, rolling into Silverton soggy but alive.
When they left Silverton, the gap was small enough that a flat tire, simple mechanical mishap, or a need for a nap could have thrown the race in either direction. Alexandera was running on a rear wheel with three broken spokes, and Ana was holding her shoes together with a Voile strap and a long piece of string. There were no guarantees going into the final miles.
But in the end, it was an all-night push that brought Alexandera to the Junction Creek trailhead at 6:33am in the morning as winner of the women’s CTR at 6 days, 2 hours, and 33 minutes, finishing sixth overall, and setting a new women’s overall FKT. Ana would lay down for a short nap before finishing around 11:30am as second woman and seventh overall, an incredibly impressive run for the CTR rookie.
Krista Rust, a Durango local and bikepacking-curious fan of the CTR since 2009, had set herself up at the finish line with her van and dog Kenna to greet racers with a propane fire and a spread of food, drinks, and chairs, including beer generously provided by local Ska Brewing.
Listening to Alexandera and Ana trade stories highlighted just how hard the two had raced. Over and over, Alexandera exclaimed, “I tried so hard!” with stories of running up the steep uphills, convinced that Ana was just behind her ready to make the pass.
The morning crowd grew and dwindled as various people came by to offer congratulations, bring donuts, and watch others finish. Will Bodewes, the men’s CTR winner came by with his family, bringing flowers from their Durango garden for Alexandera, Ana, and Krista. Even a bout of rain that sent everyone running for shelter couldn’t disperse the fun. It was only hungry bellies and the desire for a real meal that finally sent people on their way.
And as 9pm rolled around and the pink KR dot approached the Junction Creek trailhead, the crowd gathered again to cheer in a courageous ride. And while the races and rides were impressive in their own right, it was the love between all of the women racing this year that really stood out as something special.
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