Grappling with Fear and Exhaustion on the Colorado Trail

By: Hannah Simon

There’s something to be said about fear in ultra-endurance endeavors. You take yourself out into the wilderness alone with only what you yourself have decided to pack on your bicycle.

You’ve asked your friends, acquaintances, and strangers on the internet and at the coffee shop who rolled up with loaded-down bikes, glinting with the dirt and grime of the trail: What do I take? How do I train? What do I eat? Where do I sleep? The endless questions that seem to have elusive answers all pointing to just getting out there and doing it on your own.

It’s common to hear from non-male individuals that they are scared of embarking on outdoor adventures alone. Some of that fear is of the dangers of nature, dangers of others on the trail, or being injured and unable to help themselves. I have been fortunate to not experience much of this fear. Call it ignorance, or a false sense of confidence in my ability to handle whatever situations come my way, but I have managed to evade most hesitation related to fear. There is an endless rotation of emotion that one goes through during an ultra. During the 2023 Colorado Trail Race, I grappled the most with fear.

The fear arrived a couple days into the effort. I stopped myself along a steep, rocky descent, suddenly overwhelmed by tears at the thought of myself, or a fellow racer, striking a pedal on the wrong rock at the wrong moment along the bench-cut alpine trail and toppling over the edge of the mountain. We come out here and push ourselves to complete one of the most technical hiking trails as fast as possible, while lugging along 60-pound bikes.

If you’re racing an ultra, you’re absolutely exhausted. That few hours of sleep the night before did not restore your cognitive function and the fifth ProBar you smothered in peanut butter did not boost your calorie deficit such that you have any business traversing mountains. We’re typically running on empty whilst also trying to make significant forward motion toward the end.

It is decidedly dangerous to be mountain biking in such poor condition. Why is it encouraged to drive yourself into that state of delirium just to get the faster time on the trail? I recognize that completing something like the CT the fastest is an incredible physical feat. There’s no doubt that an accomplishment like that is absolutely impressive. While recognizing these efforts, I hope to also instill that your speed is not the only metric determining your accolades.

I commend your decision to stop and sleep before finishing the last 40 miles of singletrack. I champion your thought to stop, take your shoes off and dry out your fatigued feet in the afternoon sun. I am thrilled that you called your loved ones when you got into one of only two towns you go through to tell them you’re taking care of yourself! I encourage that you pick out every significant moment of stillness along the rigorous effort that is the CT to really take a breath and understand where you are, what you’re doing. It is remarkable to push our bodies to do these highly taxing races faster each time; however, ensuring that you make it through to the end of the endeavor with enough spirit to get yourself to the start of the next one is of much more value than ruining yourself for a faster time on this one.

I’ve realized one of my most prideful accomplishments in these ultras is getting to the finish line and being a fully functioning human when I arrive. Often, people comment that I seem “totally fine,” like I haven’t been slogging through the trenches for days on end. I’m often back on my bike within hours of the finish, back to full days of work and normal daily tasks. I am able to jump back in because I prioritize taking care of myself while I’m out there.

We’re often told throughout life to slow down and smell the roses. This sentiment not only encourages us to really take in the world around us, but it also speaks to what kind of enjoyment we can find when we give ourselves the opportunity to stop and address our needs. I wish there wasn’t such a culture around suffering in ultra racing. The suffering will come; it’s inherent. I think it’s important that we accept comfort when it’s available, too, and take pride in taking care of ourselves, while also riding fast.

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One response to “Grappling with Fear and Exhaustion on the Colorado Trail”

  1. I love this Hannah – I too think similar thoughts when I’m out there. Like maybe there is a different way than the amped up sufferfest way? I always feel that I do my best when I nurture myself through, not beat myself up through. It’s bikepack racing’s little-known secret.

    And congrats on your triple crown! Keep smiling and taking care of yourself!!

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