I was in Denver airport on the morning of Monday, September 10th, 2012, with a few hours to kill before my connecting flight to Charlotte, NC. I was in a good mood, happy to be going home, but my body was badly beaten up after a weekend of mountain biking. The pain in my back did not allow me to sit at the gate for a long time. And it was far too early for a beer at the bar, so I attempted to pass the time by idly walking around the terminals. There was a problem though. Every step caused a jolt of pain in each knee. Just picking up each foot to move it forward was accompanied by an ache in the muscles of my thighs. I was surprised by the intensity of these aches and pains, but I was not complaining, I was content to walk with them through the airport. They felt more like something earned, some sort of prize, rather than a hardship. They were pleasant reminders of the previous few days.

I first met Steve and Andy at the start of my freshman year of college at the University of South Carolina, back in the fall of 1984. I had spent essentially all of my life in New Jersey, and leaving for South Carolina represented a big move. Other than a visit that previous spring for incoming freshmen, I’d never been. I only knew of the place from a cousin who grew up in NJ like myself, and who attended a few years earlier and had recommended it. Back then, there were no Facebook groups or any other mechanisms in place to help me choose a first-year roommate in the dormitory, and I knew no one there. I was a nervous freshman, more than a little uncomfortable being on my own in a new and strange place. On move-in day, I met Andy, who would be my roommate for all of that first year. We got on well, I think, despite the fact that I was an order of magnitude messier than he would have liked. Unlike me, Andy was from the area, and as such, there were in attendance a number of his friends from his high school graduating class. Steve was one of those friends that I ended up meeting. Steve and I both had roommates that were away on weekends quite often, so we ended up spending time together in the dorm, drinking cheap beer and listening to a lot of music. After college Steve and eventually, Andy moved out to Colorado Springs and settled there with their families while I remained on the east coast. 

38 years later, I was happy to answer when I got the call from Steve’s wife in 2006 that she wanted to organize an outing for us to celebrate Steve’s 40th birthday.

The Rocky Mountains in Colorado rise abruptly and dramatically, in a north-south line, from the flat high plains that lie immediately to their east. This demarcation is known as the “front range” and it is where Colorado Springs is located. In addition to providing spectacular scenery, it also allows for easy access to the mountains. For this first trip, we planned to hike all the way up Barr Trail, in nearby Manitou Springs, to the top of Pikes Peak, with an overnight stop at Barr Camp, which claims to be the highest (in elevation) lodge in the U.S. I was intrigued by the possibility of traversing this much distance and elevation, and I was excited for the opportunity to take it on with Steve and Andy. Unfortunately, I had never hiked in mountains like these, or for that matter, really ever hiked any serious distance at all. This would prove to be well beyond my abilities, and I did not make it all the way up the 7,390 feet of elevation change and 13 miles of the trail to the summit of Pikes Peak. As we hiked a few miles beyond Barr Camp (app. 11,000 ft.), headache and fatigue set in and we decided to turn back. I should note that this same trail, with its tremendous uphill climb, is home to a running race called the Pikes Peak Marathon. There, men and women – far fitter than I – run, not walk, all the way to the summit and back down again. Though this initial hike did not result in the success of a summit for me (and required an extraordinary physical struggle), it was a good time with old friends in a majestic location. Future annual outings pitted me against other physical challenges that were equally beyond my capability. The joke started that the goal of these trips was to try and kill Bill. Thereafter, the goal of the organizers, my friends, would be to plan an activity up in the mountains in order to try and “Kill Bill.” The name stuck. 

The 2012 installment of “Kill Bill” would be the first of several mountain bike rides. Not just any mountain bike ride, but an “epic” one, set to take place in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. When I refer to Coloradans using the word “epic” I do so without irony or sarcasm. People in Colorado do seem to use the word, generally when they are feeling “stoked” about something. In truth, they have a lot to be “stoked” about. Coloradans, at least in the front range and west, live in a setting surrounded by snow-capped fourteen thousand foot mountains (commonly referred to as “fourteeners”, they are the highest mountains in the continental US) that rise sharply from broad valleys, nature on a scale that does not exist where I am from on the east coast. Depending on how you count them (it can vary slightly) there are about 67 14ers in total in the continental US. 53 of those 67 are in Colorado. It truly is a grand, “epic” place to be.

The mountain bike rides chosen for Kill Bill events, in and amongst these mountains are equally epic. They are trails that people travel great distances to experience: long, typically all-day rides over high mountain passes with many hours spent above the tree line with sweeping long-distance views. I always felt like an imposter on these rides, as they are widely written about and probably occupy spots on the bucket lists of actual mountain bikers. If I Google search “epic Colorado mountain bike rides” the first article I find references the top 10 all-day rides, and I have done 3 out of the first 5 listed. This coming weekend’s ride would take us along a section of the Colorado Trail that ultimately leads to the town of Breckenridge, some unknown time later in the day. Most of the ride would occur between 9,000 and just under 12,000 feet in elevation at its highest point. Here is a description of the trail, if the internet is any judge, this really is one of the ‘not-miss’ mountain bike trails in Colorado, a state quite full of great mountain bike trails. The Kill Bill reference seemed like a good one, considering the substantial challenges that would face me on all of these. Maybe I would just have a heart attack and drop dead? Perhaps a mountain lion or a bear would get me? I certainly wasn’t in a position to ever speed away from anything. Nonetheless, I felt like I was ready for my first ‘epic’ mountain biking experience.

I went out to Colorado that year with an ample supply of confidence. Never having ridden a mountain bike before did not seem like a particularly important reason for concern. Nor did riding a bike in the mountains either, for that matter. In September of 2012, at the age of 46, I was in the best shape of my older adult life. At that time I was logging about 120 miles a week on my road bike. A few nights a week I’d join a local ride, working my way up to the front of the group – with relative ease.  And there were longer 75-mile outings on weekends. I was even riding the monthly 10-mile time trials at Charlotte Motor Speedway (7 laps around a 1.5-mile NASCAR track near my home, sadly, the race series ended a few years ago). Known in cycling as the “race of truth”, in a time trial you are timed as you ride on your own over a given course. 10 miles is not a very long distance over flat ground for a cyclist, so I was essentially riding as fast as I could at maximum effort for around 25 minutes, it was a monumental effort each time. Even with the assistance of GPS and friends in attendance, it was common for competitors to get so tired and confused that they would either stop a lap too soon or too late, both resulting in disqualification. Fortunately, that never happened to me, but it did take me a minute or two after crossing the finish line each time just to be able to talk or think clearly. I had put in a lot of work on a bicycle. Yes, I was confident.

Having just landed in Colorado, it was time for me to learn how to ride a mountain bike. My first ride ever would be at Palmer Park in Colorado Springs. The scenery at Palmer Park is quite impressive considering it is basically in the middle of a city and can be reached by bicycle from the house I was staying in. As a setting for a mountain bike ride, particularly a first mountain bike ride, I think it is hard to beat. There are long-range views, rock formations, and cacti. According to the internet, Palmer Park sits at 6,407 feet above sea level, compared to the 761 feet above sea level of Charlotte NC, where I had done virtually all of my cycling. At an elevation of 761 feet, there is approximately 97% of the oxygen available in the atmosphere relative to what exists at sea level. At 6,407 feet, there is only 80% oxygen, a drop of 17%. This might not sound like a big deal, and in the course of casual activity, say walking over level ground, or casually biking on flat streets, it isn’t, in those situations, I didn’t feel anything different. However, at this elevation, even moderate exertion such as carrying a suitcase up a flight of stairs at Steve’s house at 6000 feet, left me out of breath with my heart racing. It turned out that riding a mountain bike up and down hills, over rocks and roots, would require something much greater than moderate exertion. And it would require it a lot of the time.

We picked up the mountain bike I rented at a local bike shop for the weekend and Steve took me to the trail to show me the basics. I looked like a cyclist, at least, I had all the right clothes and was dressed for the occasion, including my clip-in pedals which the bike shop was nice enough to put on the bike for me. I knew I was in trouble very shortly after arriving. I took the bike off the car carrier and pushed it around, it felt heavy, so much heavier than the feathery carbon fiber road bike I had been riding for the last few years. I got on and attempted a few turns around the parking area with my feet firmly clipped onto the pedals. Shortly after I got moving my enthusiasm was replaced by surprise and concern. Though I was pedaling with great effort, I could barely move the bike forward at all. The heavy bike on the soft ground sapped all my forward momentum. I was wobbling in the way one does when trying to keep a bicycle upright while moving very slowly. Sort of the way a nervous child looks the first time they pedal a bike on their own. Eventually, it just stopped, and with my feet locked into the pedals, I flopped to the ground on my side. I was shocked to be laying on the ground already, this soon, before even reaching the start of the trail. Fortunately, the ground was soft and sandy, the only thing that hurt was my pride, though there would soon be much harder falls onto far less forgiving objects. I began to realize this was going to be more difficult than I had been anticipating. On this first day, for a mountain bike newbie, the rocks, boulders, and uphill and downhill sections were incredibly difficult to navigate. Lack of technique, (pulling up on the wheel going up and over things, pushing your weight way back going down and over things), as well as endurance, would prove to be two very difficult obstacles to deal with on that day.

The author, at Palmer Park, on a big rock.

Above the treeline on the Colorado Trail, approaching Georgia Pass. I struggled mightily there. Other cyclists can be seen ahead of me.

I was used to measuring my effort on long-distance road bike rides at home altitude, monitoring my heart rate, riding a steady tempo, and making sure I didn’t get over my maximum heart rate with short bursts of effort, as I knew those took a long time to recover from and I generally had a long way to ride back home. There though, I had no ability to conserve energy or wind, the slightest uphill effort left me out of breath with an unusual and uncomfortably long recovery time. All of this occurred during the “warm up” ride, the ride in the mountains to follow would be much higher in altitude, between 9,000 and just under 12,000 feet. And the terrain was constantly changing as well, like a rollercoaster, a rollercoaster with lots of sharp rocks to fall on. And I fell on a great many of them.

After finishing the “warm up” trail we rode out of the park seeking beer, food, and recovery. I regaled in the scrapes and wounds and the blood trickling down my leg that spoke for my efforts. In truth, I would not appreciate the extent of the beating I took until several days later, as I was feeling the pain in my legs while limping through Denver airport on the trip home. It would take several of these rides before I could even begin to manage these conditions, even a little bit. And it would only be long after this ride, back at home, on the relatively soft cushy pine needle-covered mountain bike trails near my home in Charlotte that I started riding after this first trip, that I began to appreciate just how difficult my first ride was. And that was just the warm-up. I had a lot to learn, and no time to learn it.

The next day it was time for us to pack up all the bikes and gear and head out to the mountains for the big ride. For this weekend we would be joined on the ride by Kent, a friend of Steve’s and an actual mountain biker, and Andy. We drove out to Steve’s cabin in Alma, statistically speaking the highest (in elevation at 10,578 feet) incorporated town in the U.S. featuring the highest Post Office as well (thanks Wikipedia) and a population of 279.  We stayed there the night before the big ride and prepared for our effort the next day. I believe at least some of the preparation involved drinking a prodigious quantity of beer. The morning of the ride was clear and cold enough for there to be frost on the windshield. Kent, Steve, and I, along with Andy driving, packed up the truck and drove to the drop-off point: an entrance point on the Colorado Trail called Kenosha Pass. The ride would take us along a section of the Colorado Trail up and over a high mountain pass that will ultimately lead us to the town of Breckenridge, some unknown time later in the day, where beer and food and Andy with the truck awaited us.

At the start of the trail, I was full of energy and excited to be heading out. The trail wound through the trees, aspens turning yellow. I could smell the evergreens. It was welcoming, and peaceful, the air was crisp and I felt thrilled and lucky to be in that setting. Full of enthusiasm, I started out too quickly, not having any sense of what I was up against. Within the first few minutes, I was struggling up every small uphill section, and I was laboring at the back of our little group. It should be noted Kent and Steve are actual mountain bikers, who ride all the time, maybe not in these specific mountains, but in others just like them in this part of the world. As such, they were far fitter and able to manage the trail in a way I could not. Steve would have to stop and wait periodically for me to catch back up, but I never was able to keep pace with the guys. It was hard to be the person holding everyone up. But Steve was a sport about it, making sure to use his vantage point in front of me to stop periodically to get a picture of me riding up along the trail. I tried to smile for them. Though this was the Colorado Trail in September, up high in the mountains, it was a perfect weather day. It started cold but it was sunny and warmed up to a comfortable pleasant temperature by afternoon. After a few hours, I took off my jacket and put it in the backpack I was carrying with all my food, water, and first aid supplies. I had no familiarity with the area, and I was expecting our group to be mostly out by ourselves in the wilderness. In actuality, there were many other hikers and bikers (all passing me) out on that day. I had numerous opportunities to talk to passers-by as I frequently needed to pull off the trail and sit and rest. Most of the people I talked to seemed concerned about my well-being, I must have been in quite a sorry state, as I got a number of concerned looks and questions along the lines of “Are you OK?” Most were cyclists, and I shared my story about my lack of experience and how this was my first ride in the mountains. The responses were a mix of “Good for you!” along with a few shakes of the head, “Good luck.” I met a person who was solo backpacking the entire Colorado Trail (567 miles) with their dog and even they thought I was in over my head. I agreed. 

The first section of the trail winds up and down through an alpine forest, with occasional breaks where there are sweeping views of valleys below and mountains in the distance. Coming from North Carolina, where the mountains are a series of rolling hills that gradually make it to around 6,000 feet at most, the scale and size of the beauty of the mountains in Colorado are striking. Then, around seven or eight miles in, the trail started to climb steadily upward. This was an easy section of trail from a technical perspective, not a steep climb at all, which eventually rose above the tree line, so no roots and very few rocks. The scenery in the woods among the aspens had been pleasant enough, but on a clear day such as that one, once I got above the treeline the scenery was vast and expansive. I could see distant peaks for miles. Unfortunately, the trail kept going up climbing to its highest point, Georgia Pass, where my Garmin GPS would eventually read 11,786 feet. The trail was a thin ribbon that wound gently upward to the top of the pass through a grassy field on a clear blue sunny day. I could see the top in the distance, along with the many hikers and cyclists who had attained it and were gathered there, but it took me an age to get to the top. Every 50 yards or so I had to pull off the trail and either catch my breath or move out of the way for a cyclist who was barreling down the hill in the opposite direction, straight at me. One of these downhill travelers was a woman with whom I chatted briefly earlier in the ride. She was returning from the top (many cyclists ride out and back from Kenosha to the top of the pass, as opposed to our through route) and stopped as she recognized me slumped over the handlebars desperately trying to catch my breath. “Good for you! When I saw you back there, I didn’t think you were going to make it. Not much more to go.” It was true, there wasn’t much more to go, I felt like I could throw a rock to the top of the pass from there. I thanked her and then got going again, determined to finish the last 100 yards or so in one big push. Which I did, with great difficulty and at an agonizingly slow pace. I had come far already that day, and it was a tremendous relief to finally be at the high point of the pass, knowing that there was nowhere higher to pedal. I had completed the hardest part of the ride and I enjoyed looking back down at the trail I had just ascended. There was a long-range view for miles around, and a sense of accomplishment. There was also the satisfaction of knowing that most of what was ahead was generally downhill. Unfortunately, I was about to learn that downhill did necessarily mean “easy”.

The ride down the mountain, the “easy” part now began. Starting out again from the top of the pass, our group was rested, reassembled, and suitably fortified with food and water, and we headed down the trail. Still, above the tree line on the other side of the pass, the trail wound downhill and I picked up speed rapidly in a way that made me immediately nervous. Descending back into the trees, the trail was fast and ‘technical.’

If you are not familiar with mountain biking and its terms, ‘technical’ seems to equate to ‘difficult,’ meaning the trail contains many obstacles; boulders, tree roots, drop-offs, and jumps. In general, any encumbrance that prevents you from just idly pedaling along and enjoying a nice day out on the trail. ‘Technical’ requires skill, experience, nerve, and constant vigilance for what is just up ahead of you. This is one of the great pleasures of mountain biking, it requires constant presence and focus. If your mind drifts off to some other thought, perhaps some email you got last week that got on your nerves, or whether or not you closed the garage door when you left home, you will generally find yourself on the ground pretty quickly. For someone like myself, prone to rumination, the forced presence of mountain biking is akin to meditation. 

It is also fair to say that my relief over the big climbing being over was short-lived. The downhill technical sections of the trail came quickly and were bone-rattling. The seat of the hardtail mountain bike I had rented (in subsequent rides I always rented a full suspension bike that was much easier on my back and its defective disks) kept rattling loose under my body weight. Some sections came up too quickly around blind turns, so I didn’t have a choice but to ride them. Or try at least. There would be a few more falls on this “easier” part of the ride, but I was generally able to avoid the pointiest, worst looking of what was on the ground fortunately. I saw other obstacles early enough to have time to stop and consider, then get off and walk around them. Fatigue, aches, and pains from earlier falls all made each upcoming obstacle seem more and more difficult. I became more unsure of myself the further I went. 

One section of the trail did not resemble a trail at all, at least it was impossible for me to see anything that resembled a trail, just a small field of boulders ranging in size from grapefruits to perhaps small pumpkins. I knew I had no hope of riding this and when I got done walking to the bottom, I had caught up with Steve and Kent.  We sat for a few minutes off to the side, waiting to see if anyone else was going to try it. There were several brave young men and women that day who simply barreled over those rocks at high speed and moved past us as if they weren’t there at all. This is a conundrum of mountain biking. The easiest and probably safest way to negotiate difficult terrain sometimes is to roll over it as quickly as possible, and not give your front wheel a chance to catch something and send you flying. Of course, the faster you are going, the greater the likelihood you are going to break an old bone or two when you crash. Thus on this day, there were a few downhill bits I saw and had the nerve to ride and there were a few others that I did not. By now I was eagerly looking forward to the end, I knew it was getting closer.

Then, suddenly, and without warning, the trail emerged from the woods. All that was left now was a long downhill stretch of gravel and dirt service road that meant the end of the trail and the easy ride into Breckenridge. Being free of the perils of the trail and its dangers was liberating, and it was a relief to finally be able to keep up with the guys. I felt re-energized by the recognition of where I was and how far I had come. Unlike the top of the mountain pass, this was really the end, at this point, there would be no further danger. I was going to make it.

I arrived shortly thereafter in the town of Breckenridge, at the truck where Andy was waiting. I reported home that Kill Bill was a success. It was a success in terms of the place and the ride, it was in fact an “epic” ride, full of expansive beautiful scenery and tremendous challenge. I made it, and I enjoyed the sense of satisfaction I felt at the end of something as difficult as this. The guys did not succeed in killing Bill, I persevered, and I lived to ride, albeit slowly, another day.

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