Three days and a few hours into the 2022 edition of the Colorado Trail Race, the top three women worked their way up Fooses Creek towards the Monarch Crest trail, all within a few miles of each other, and all within the top ten of the overall race. It was a cold and rainy morning, keeping with the theme of a very wet race. That far into the route, it was the closest women’s race in the history of the event. Katya Rakhmatulina was the first up to the Crest, having lead the race from early on, but Alexandera Houchin and Ana Jager were hot on her heels and closing fast. All three women have an impressive bikepacking racing resume, and dot watchers everywhere were excited to see how it would all shake out.
Two days later, as the women’s race comes down to the final 85 miles from Silverton to Durango on the morning of day five, barring disaster, it’s down to just two vying for the win. In the pre-sunrise hours on a foggy and damp morning, Alexandera and Ana rolled into a Silverton within minutes of each other, having come off of an exciting night up on the beautifully difficult Segments 22 and 23.
A day earlier, after passing Katya, potentially while she was napping at the Greens Creek shelter, Alexandera decided it was time to make her move through the infamous Sargent’s Mesa. Rocky, steep, and generally unpleasant, it’s dreaded by most racers. Some would argue that it’s haunted. If one were looking for a place to create a gap, it’s as good of an eight-hour segment of trail as any. Especially if you’re really fast at pushing your bike. Passing lots of racers in the process of rallying the downhills and pushing hard on the uphills, Alexandera worked her way up in the field, seemingly opening up a gap on Ana. But the young Alaskan didn’t seem phased by Sargent’s. “It didn’t break her,” Alexandera noted, sitting in front of the Silverton gas station 24-plus hours after the hard effort, eating biscuits and gravy and drying out wet feet and gear, “She’s so strong.”
Many wondered if Alexandera’s single speed would put her at a disadvantage on the long Los Pinos road detour when compared to Ana on her geared bike. After watching Ana’s impressive Tour Divide-winning performance earlier this summer, it’s obvious the woman can pedal a bike. But the gap didn’t seem to shrink as the miles passed. To open up the gap even more, Alexandera would blow by the new resupply at Cathedral Cabins while Ana stopped. Having a food option between Princeton Hot Springs (or Buena Vista for many) and Silverton is a game changer in terms of having to carry a massive amount of food along the remote section of the route. A large majority of racers seem to be taking advantage. Ana came away from Cathedra Cabins with a bag of muffins and rave reviews of the hosts.
While the weather was nothing short of glorious for most of the day, heavy rains and an electrical storm moved into the San Juans at sunset. Alexandera got caught out on Cataract Ridge, the absolute last place someone would want to be when electricity is in ths air, when clear skies turned dark in a matter of minutes. Ana stopped just shy of the worst of it.
“I was up on this ridge and running around like a panicking crazy person trying to find a flat spot that wasn’t soaked,” Alexandera said. And once she found a spot, she discovered that there was a hole in her tarp from it rubbing up against her bike. She remedied the dripping water by tossing her rain jacket over her sleeping bag. “What a disaster. It was fine, and then it was terrible.” She recounted the story with wide eyes, thankful that she made it through the night, even if she wasn’t able to sleep with the crackling atmosphere.
Listening to the story in front of Silverton’s Coffee Bear, waiting for a resupply to open, Ana felt pretty good about her decision to stop a little bit earlier. She’d had a better view of the sky and her thought process consisted of, “I’m not going up there! That looks horrifying!” Ana would make up the extra miles in the dark of the morning, passing Alexandera and holding a small gap coming down Stony Pass and into town.
Alexandera, a veteran of several Colorado Trail Races and tours, says that this was the wettest and hardest traversal of the trail that she’s done. And of the close women’s race, “It’s so fun. I’ve never raced this hard in my life.” Even with the dire conditions, it seems like the women’s course record is going to fall to one of these women when they get to Durango, most likely in the early pre-dawn hours of tomorrow.
It’s on the order of 85 miles to the finish from Silverton, including some of the premier bits of trail of the route. But none of it is easy, including the final 20-plus mile descent (with a 1,000 foot climb in the middle of it) from Kennebec Pass down to Junction Creek. Alexandera got a jump on Ana leaving town and held an hour lead once on the trail, but with many miles to go, and a decidedly awful weather forecast, it’s still any woman’s race.
Follow the race over at Trackleaders.com.
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