I’m Going to Need a Bigger Shovel- Attempting to Dig Out of Holes on the Colorado Trail

By: Sarah Higgins

Prefer to listen? Here’s Sarah reading her story.

Keep moving forward. A simple, yet difficult task, especially when you are talking about the Colorado Trail. I could hear my friend Hannah Dhonou constantly saying, “We’re closer than we’ve ever been,” a phrase she continued to say as we rode the last 80 miles of the Idaho Smoke ‘n’ Fire race last fall in an AQI of 200+ due to nearby wildfires. I remember that race well. I had plenty of tough moments between the smoke and frigid temperatures, but overall so much fun. That phrase kept me going during the Colorado Trail Race, until it didn’t.

We’ll start with a little back story: This past year has been a major lifestyle change for me. I went from working in a bike shop in Flagstaff, AZ to a full-time Physical Therapy student at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. Days that were spent constantly playing and obsessing about bikes were replaced with long hours of sitting, studying, and having to pay attention in class. On top of that, this winter was BRUTAL. Seriously, it never stopped snowing in Utah. I spent a lot of time on the trainer (I know, gross), road biking (also gross), and nordic skiing, which was a huge change from my winters in Arizona. The idea of the CTR lingered in the back of my head all winter. I had finished a couple 300ish mile bikepacking races in 2022 and felt ready to take it to the next level. Being a mountain biker, riding through the mountains of Colorado on technical singletrack was inspiring. Plus, the Grand Depart was during a break from school, so I didn’t have any good excuse to not be there.

This summer, I had the opportunity to do a clinical rotation in Moab, UT for three months, which meant close access to world-class riding and big mountains. I rode like crazy in preparation for the CTR, doing big link-up mountain bike rides from town, exploring the La Sals, and sneaking into Colorado every chance I could get. It was a real treat to spend time in the place I learned how to mountain bike, some 20-odd years ago. 

The days leading up to the race were super fun. I met up with Hannah Simon in Salida, where we did a pre-ride of Fooses Creek with our friend Emily, and swapped bikepacking stories over beers. In Durango, Katie Scott organized a dinner for all the WTFNB riders of the CTR. It was fun to meet all the people who made up this EXTREMELY strong field of riders and talk all things bikes.  The day before the race was spent packing the bike up, staring at GPX files, and stuffing food wherever it would fit. I managed to fit an entire frozen pizza and ten eggo waffles in one of my bags, truly a proud moment.

Just like that, it was time to ride. Hannah and I rolled out from my friend Curb’s place, which was conveniently around the corner from the start line. I couldn’t believe it. I was at the start line of the race I had been dreaming about for almost a year. I had heard in a podcast recently that a race is just a celebration of your training. I was ready to party. As we pedaled off into the night, I was surrounded by names that I knew from the bikepacking world. Alexandera. Katya. Ana. Lael. Even Karin Pocock, a CTR vet who I had met during Pinyons & Pines this year. To say I had a bit of imposter syndrome was an understatement.

I felt strong pedaling my bike on the first section. I eventually caught my friend Lilly and rode with them for a while. Lilly and I met a few years back at Roam Fest and have stayed in touch since. We spent most of the summer exchanging texts about the CTR, everything from gear to irrational fears. I have a lot of love for Lilly and knew they were bound to throw down a fast time (5 days, 23 hrs might I add!). I had decided against wearing a heart rate strap for the race, knowing those numbers would stress me out. My heart was pounding out of my chest trying to stay on Lilly’s wheel, so I knew it was time to let them go. They were MUCH faster than me, and I did not need to blow up in the first 25 miles.

Hannah and I pushed up Kennebec and Indian Trail Ridge together, which was the first major hike-a-bike (HAB). The HAB up Indian Trail Ridge felt more like a rock climb than a mountain bike trail. I watched Alexandra float up the giant rock steps from afar, thinking “oh it must not be too bad.” Hannah and I grunted our way up the rocks, laughing about how absurd it was to be pushing our bikes up that kind of terrain. I could see the La Sals off in the distance, a reminder of all the time I had put in to be there in that moment. The riding that followed was incredible. There were several sections of fast, flowy singletrack that could make anyone smile. I felt my flow state come on, hitting all the little jumps and putting my foot out to whip around the corners. The mountains were insanely beautiful and made me forget about my constant breathlessness and the little feelings of fatigue creeping into my legs. Despite the challenging terrain, that day was one of my favorites ever on a bike. 

I struggled with food and water the first day. No amount of water could cure the dryness of my mouth and my stomach felt nauseous. I texted my friend Leigh Bowe that evening, asking her if it would be a good idea to get over Rolling Mountain Pass tonight, then just descend to Silverton in the morning. She told me to go for it, especially if I was feeling good. Leigh has become a good friend over the past couple years. We met coaching youth mountain biking in Flagstaff and have continued to ride together since. She’s a two-time CTR finisher as well, which made her my go-to person for beta, advice, and encouragement. I think Lilly and I are her biggest fans.

Taking Leigh’s advice, I made it up Rolling Mountain Pass and ripped down the tiny alpine singletrack in the dark. As I was riding, I spotted a massive owl on top of a trail marker, as its yellow eyes lit up in the glow of my headlight. It was so cool! The descent was by no means technical, but the narrow walls of the thin strip of singletrack constantly grabbed at my pedals, causing me to almost crash a few times. It kept me alert, but also told me it was time to lie down.  I slept restlessly for four hours the first night, waking up with coughing fits every so often. 

The descent into Silverton the next morning was epic, one that I’ll never forget. The trail, the sunrise, everything. I was in my happy place, feeling alive and motivated to cover ground before the forecasted thunderstorms began. I made it to Silverton right when the gas station opened and went straight for the coffee and breakfast sandwiches. Not going to lie, it was the worst gas station I’ve had to resupply in. I mean, what gas station doesn’t have Pop-Tarts or frozen burritos? I settled for a bunch of pastry items and planned to hit Cathedral Ranch for a proper resupply.

With my bags full of snacks, I hiked up Stony Pass as efficiently as I could, knowing thunderstorms were rolling in fast. The next 30 miles were above tree line, so things were about to get exciting. I rode with Nate, Bryan, and Petr over Cataract Ridge as the storm rolled closer and closer. Eventually, the storm arrived right above us with big booms of thunder and lightning. We hunkered down by a massive boulder, wrapped in tarps and rain gear for 45 minutes, waiting for it to pass. The thunder subsided, but it continued to pour rain for the next three to four hours. Everything was soaked except for my hands, which were tucked away in NRS neoprene gloves, a new addition to my bikepacking kit, via a recommendation from Lilly. 

We pushed our bikes in the rain for what felt like forever. It was miserable, but I was still having fun. Moving up and over steep mountains at 12,000 feet is seriously the coolest thing. The mountains were vibrant green, and clouds were rising from the valleys below, which made for good entertainment. I had some long moments of self-talk, convincing myself that I was strong and could make it through this, despite my discomfort. I kept telling myself, “This is way better than being at school,” a joke a friend and I made while suffering up a rock climb in Sedona a while back. I contemplated that idea, and ultimately decided I’d rather be cold and wet in the mountains instead of sitting in a classroom.

I made it up to the high point right at sunset. The boys were much further ahead at this point, so I shared that moment with myself and a disgusting muffin at 13,271 feet. The clouds had cleared out, so I had a 360-degree view of some of the most beautiful mountains I’ve ever seen. Shooting stars flew left and right across the night sky as I descended Carson Saddle in the dark. I felt so tiny, with the small glow of my headlight revealing my presence on the massive peaks. I only went about 50 miles that day, but it was some of the most magical riding I’ve ever done. Nothing compares to riding up and over the San Juans.

I had a hard time sleeping that night. I couldn’t get below 12,000 feet, causing my heart rate to remain elevated as I attempted to fall asleep. I woke up shivering a few hours into my sleep. My tarp was wet from the storm earlier and was dripping ice-cold water on me and soaking everything I had under it. I didn’t bother putting things in drybags earlier, mostly because I wanted things to air out. I put on my rain clothes for extra warmth, took the tarp down, and slept/shivered for a little longer.

The next morning, I enjoyed the sunrise while walking my bike over Jerosa Mesa towards Spring Creek Pass and the La Garita wilderness bypass..  The bypass was a nice change of pace. Instead of playing this constant on and off game with the trail, I was actually riding my bike. I made it to the Cathedral Bike Ranch, where Annette awaited with hugs and a well-stocked resupply store, a bikepacker’s dream. I took my shoes and socks off and examined my swollen feet for the first time in 2+ days. My soles looked awful…kind of like a wrinkled, worn-out sponge. The skin was intact, just painful from the miles of walking in my clipless shoes.

I left Cathedral with more food, including burritos and Pop-Tarts and started up Los Piños Pass. I’ve always thought I liked gravel, but towards the end of the detour, I found myself wanting to be back on the trail. I guess that’s the mountain biker in me. The gravel was boring, especially because I was alone, which allowed my mind to wander. Thoughts of self-doubt started to creep in, that I wouldn’t finish in time to get back to school. That was the caveat with all this, I had a deadline. My first day of the semester was the following Monday, with my flight out of Denver being that night. I had to finish before then, which was starting to stress me out, especially with slow miles ahead. I reassured myself that I was doing great and that it was too early to tell what was going to happen. 

Sargents Mesa sucked. I heard it was a moto trail, but figured people just said it sucked because they didn’t know how to ride rocks. Ignorant rookie, Sarah. The trail is littered with massive rocks that make it unrideable, especially on a loaded bike. My lowest point was getting passed by a backpacker while pushing up a hill. I eventually caught back up with the backpacker and walked with her for a while. Her name was Barb. She was a 68-year-old from Colorado, section-hiking the trail over the course of four years. Her goal was to be done with it by the time she was 70, which I thought was the raddest thing in the world. I’ve gotten to work with a lot of older individuals as a physical therapy student over the past year and let me tell you, there are some older folks doing some RAD things, Barb being one of them. I left Barb feeling inspired and continued to wrestle my bike over the rocks. 

Thunderstorms were building as I started the climb up to Marshall Pass. I knew Monarch Crest and Fooses were next, which are some of my favorite trails. If Sargents sucked, Marshall Pass sucked even more. I kept walking and walking, looking at my elevation profile on my Wahoo to see if I was any closer. I started getting frustrated, feeling like I was not making any progress. Eventually, the trail went straight up the mountain and was covered with microwave-sized rocks. I looked up at the trail and started crying as I began to push my bike. A hiker coming down the trail saw me struggling and told me, “Oh it gets way worse up there.” Thanks, asshole. The frustrations were mounting, and I was beginning to find it difficult to pull myself out of the hole I was constantly being put in. I pushed on, trying to remind myself that I was getting closer to the end with every step.

After covering 30ish miles in twelve hours, I made it to Fooses Creek. I dropped into the steep, skiddy, rut-riding, joy fest of a trail. I had ridden most of it the week before, but felt a little squirrely on my unloaded bike. This time, my bike weighed 50 pounds and was glued to the trail. I rode the rut all the way down with the biggest smile on my face. All that frustration was gone, and I felt unstoppable. I got to the bottom and shoved a bunch of food down. Feeling motivated, I took a caffeine pill, and planned to ride hard for the next six hours or so. 

The weather had other plans. It started pouring rain during the descent towards Shavano Campground (which I did not know was there). I decided I needed to take shelter fast, as I did not want a wet, cold night. I found a semi-flat spot just off the trail to set my tarp up and hid under it. I ate my  cold-soaked ramen I had made earlier in the evening as the rain came down harder and harder. I slept lying downhill for about three hours and woke up sliding into a fallen tree. It was time to go. 

Princeton Hot Springs was fifteen miles away, and Buena Vista 35 or so. I started at 2am, hoping to be in BV by lunch. I hit the campground less than a mile down, which had clean, warm pit toilets. Dang. A warm, dry place to sleep was minutes away from where I had taken shelter from the rain.  Whatever, I slept fine. I pushed on, jamming to the Holes movie soundtrack (the best riding music there is), feeling like I was making good progress through the night. I looked down at my Wahoo at one point and found I had gone six miles in a little less than two hours. Are you kidding me? I’m going that slow? It took me five hours to get to Princeton Hot Springs, which was extremely frustrating. How was I going that slow? When I arrived at the lodge, Dean was there, frantically pulling things out of his pack. He told me he had dropped his wallet somewhere on the trail. Thirty minutes later, Josh came rolling up with Dean’s wallet. Trail magic at its finest! Dean bought us breakfast at the hot springs, and we swapped bikepacking stories over coffee and a warm meal.

I hung out at the hot springs longer than I should have, trying to charge my dead cache batteries and make sure all my devices were at 100%. Texts from friends were coming in, which gave me some much-needed encouragement. Hannah Simon had sent me a text saying, “Thinking of you, this shit sucks!” I laughed and remembered that (almost) everyone was having a shitty time, not just me. I headed up the pavement out of Princeton, getting blasted by the sun. Twenty miles to BV. We can do this, keep moving forward. Eventually, I broke again. More up and down, more on and off. I was mad and annoyed. I just wanted to be in BV! I finally hit a point where I could see the highway, which was relieving. However, the trail had other plans. Instead of utilizing a perfectly good gravel road to get to the highway, the trail continued to climb in its rocky, windy, messed up way for a few more miles. Not surprising. Needless to say, I enjoyed those highway miles to BV.

In BV, I had the bike shop look over my bike, making sure that nothing was going to explode on me during the second half of the ride. I ate, charged my stuff, and left with a clean, working bike. I wanted BV to be my reset, my starting over point. But as I pedaled out of town  on the gravel road, I let the self-doubt creep in again. There was no way I was going to finish in time. My sister was going to be at the finish line if I finished Sunday, which was a huge motivator for me earlier in the week. I don’t get to see her much because she is a cadet at the Air Force Academy, so it was going to mean the world to see her at the finish line. I started to feel sad again, which sent me into a negative spiral.

I took an early night, stopping at 7:30 as I watched thunderheads blow in around me.  I set up my tarp, ate, and slept for six hours, which felt so good, but also not enough. I woke up the next morning, setting no expectations, other than to keep moving forward. I hit Twin Lakes as the sun came up that morning. I stopped and ate a Pop-Tart and watched the sky turn all sorts of pink and purple. 

Watching the sunrise, I finally hit my rock bottom. I started to cry, thinking about what lay ahead, how tired I was, and the fact that I was moving so, so slow. The long days of riding alone had worn me down and I felt like my brain had given up completely. I had pushed past my breaking point multiple times the past few days and was no longer finding the joy in what I was doing, which was a major indication for me to reassess why I was out there. Yesterday had sucked, the day before had sucked. I was so sick of walking my bike up every single hill. I called my mom and just started sobbing. We concluded that I needed to be done, that my time on the trail was over. I texted Leigh to tell her I was done, which hurt more than it should have. Hannah Dhonou reassured me that my decision was okay, especially because I was following the “no scratching at night” rule. Thanks for that, pal.

I hate failure. I hate quitting even more. In past races, I had been able to will myself through hard times, but this was different. My brain could no longer keep going, which was such a weird feeling. Riding alone had also taken its toll. Keeping my brain on task became increasingly difficult and I let it get the best of me. It’s much easier to push through the hard moments when you are with someone. I felt like I was in no-man’s-land, with no other racers near me. As I sit here writing this, I still have some regret for pulling the plug because of that. Quitting just doesn’t sit well with me.  I’ve been struggling to find peace with that decision, which feels silly to say because after all, this is just a bike ride. I have no doubt that I was physically capable that week to finish the Colorado Trail. Mentally, I was not.

I questioned my desires to “race” multiple times over the course of the week. One of my least favorite parts of racing is the night riding, simply because you miss seeing everything around you. I felt that especially in the San Juans and as I rode over Carson Saddle. I could tell I was up high and had views for miles but couldn’t see any of it. I’m a sucker for the high country, so it hurt not getting to enjoy those views. Going fast on the CT also has its downfalls. My body felt like it was slowly withering away, especially due to lack of sleep. I questioned, why not just tour and have a good time, instead of always having to make forward progress?

If I learned one thing over these five days, it is to throw expectations out the door, especially on the CT. It’s so easy to plan out a race, saying you’ll cover this much ground, be somewhere in a certain amount of time, or finish the damn thing.  However, so much can happen in the mountains, whether it be fatigue, weather, or mechanicals. It feels almost unfair to expect yourself to endure something so hard, when really you should roll with the punches as they come. Plus, riding bikes is supposed to be fun, and I think setting expectations takes the fun out of it for me. 

I’ve always had this extreme thirst for adventure and pushing my limits as a human being. I constantly find myself finishing a trip and immediately thinking about the next one, which is frustrating at times. I question if I’ll ever be satisfied or if I’ll always be chasing more. With school right now, my adventures are fewer and farther between, something I’ve been adapting to. (My classmates would argue otherwise, I seem to have the best school/play balance). I thought about this a lot during my time out there, wondering if I’d feel satisfied after this adventure.

As I sat in class this week, I thought about where I was a few weeks ago, riding my bike in the mountains of Colorado. I felt an extreme amount of gratitude and satisfaction, knowing what I did was something most would never dream of doing.  I recognize this now, especially after working with patients this summer who were just happy to put their socks on by themselves, walk thirty minutes, or not be laying in a hospital bed. I think it’s easy to take the ability to participate in these adventures for granted, especially while we struggle to push our bikes over rocks or pedal at 13,000 feet. Our bodies are incredible tools for experiencing the Earth, showing us how small and vulnerable we are, as we stand at the high point of the Colorado Trail or as we hunker on a ridge line in the middle of a thunderstorm. It’s such a special feeling, one that keeps me grounded in life.

Sure, I didn’t cross the finish line, but my body did not fail me. If anything, it proved how strong it was, that it could take something on like the Colorado Trail.  It’s hard to accept failure at something that has occupied your time, energy, and resources (RIP my bank account).  However, I want to remember the good moments too- seeing the sunrise over the mountains every morning, ripping down high-country singletrack, and feeling on top of the world on every pass. It’s these experiences that fuel my fire for adventure, make real life bearable, and keep me moving forward. 

Luckily, I have a short-term memory and will be back for the finish one day.

Congratulations to everyone who finished this year. I have so much respect for y’all.

A big thanks to:

Katie, John, and Bill- for getting me to Durango.
Emily and Curb, Bill, and Chad- for giving me a place to stay.
My grandparents- for picking me up in Twin Lakes.
Rachel- you inspire me every day.
Leigh Bowe- For literally everything.
Lilly Hacker- For putting up with me all summer.
Hannah Dhonou- For filling me with encouragement and stoke.
Dave Wilson- for the awesome bags.

And to all the people who sent me messages, went on training rides, and filled me with stoke over the course of the year, thank you. Y’all make my life brighter and better, and I am so thankful to be surrounded by a rad community.

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2 responses to “I’m Going to Need a Bigger Shovel- Attempting to Dig Out of Holes on the Colorado Trail”

  1. wow what a great adventure that didn’t end the way i thought it would and kudo’s for your short term memory and heading back one day

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