When Jesse Jakomait, sleep deprived, with nerve damage to one hand, numb toes and ravaged shoes, rolled his mountain bike off the Colorado Trail just after midnight July 30, there were no raging crowds there to greet his arrival.
But had the crowds been at the dark trailhead parking lot in far-west Denver, they would have been looking at the new record holder for one of the most grueling bike races in Colorado, the Colorado Trail Race. The 38-year-old Jakomait, a Colorado Springs resident and one-time Olympic hopeful, had just mountain biked 540 miles from Durango in a record 3 days, 20 hours and 44 minutes.
Only two people cheered Jakomait as he got off his bike – one was taking him home, another handed him a bag of food. And if amazed crowds had been there to ask Jakomait how he did it, and why, the answer to both questions would have been the same: obsession.
“This has been an obsession of mine that feels like it has been going on for a lifetime,” said the Canadian-born Jakomait, a few days after his record-breaking ride. “You roll in, and the nature of these races is there is no real finish line. It’s just this big personal challenge. A personal quest.”
Jakomait’s quest began in 2010, when he decided to stop chasing his dream of making the Canadian Olympic mountain biking team, an all-consuming goal that kept him racing incessantly. It was time to give up racing as an occupation, get a real job and become a “weekend warrior,” he said.
“Moving to Colorado, I just started falling in love with all of these other adventures you could do,” he said. “Just going out from sunup to sundown. Trying to enjoy things more than being extremely strict with training and intervals and heart rate.”
By that time, the Colorado Trail Race, which challenges mountain bike riders to ride the entire trail, was just 3 years old. It started out with “a couple of guys getting together, trying some crazy adventure,” Jakomait said, but became a full-on race, attracting scores of riders, some of whom ride for days with little sleep.
The trail runs for nearly 600 miles between Durango and Denver, and those who ride or walk it gain 70,000 vertical feet from start to finish. The trail goes up and down nearly every major mountain in its path, and cuts right through the heart of the San Juan Mountains in southern Colorado. By foot, completing the trail is a six-week or monthslong goal, Jakomait said – something that riders reduce into a few sleepless days. For the race, there are no entry fees, no course markers, no prizes and no aid, beyond a GPS tracking device with an emergency button given to each rider. The one perk is that family and friends can track riders online as they trek across the state.
“I cried the first time when I finished that event,” said Jakomait, who has started the race five times before, and finished it four times. “You’re crossing the state in the hardest way possible. Under your own power and by your own means.”
For training, getting in the mileage on the bike is crucial, and Jakomait often goes for several hourslong rides during the week. Surviving the race is a question of how much food and gear each rider can carry; finishing the race in record time is a question of how much sleep riders are willing to lose.
For years, Jakomait lost riding time to exhaustion – the former record holder, Jefe Branham, passed Jakomait in the night as he slept. This time, Jakomait kept himself to three hours of sleep, and took a cue from adventure racers by falling asleep just before dawn and waking with the sunrise. He was trying to trick his body into thinking it had slept the night through, but he still found himself battling hallucinations and urges to collapse into sleep on soft grass.
As he rode, stumps turned into cars with weird objects strapped to the roof. Roots looked like pelicans coming out of the ground.
“It plays with your mind, and I had to constantly try to tell myself that none of this is real,” Jakomait said.
While his lack of sleep gave Jakomait the winning edge, his hourly intake of food – even when eating was the last thing he wanted to do – kept him going.
“Getting fuel in your body is the most crucial part out there,” he added. “You can’t not eat something.”
The three towns, sometimes with hundreds of miles apart, on the route allow riders to stock up on whatever food they can keep down, Jakomait said. Gas station fare often has to suffice – Pop-Tarts, beef jerky, gummy worms. Jakomait heard of one record-setter who lived off Twinkies for days.
Beyond food, Jakomait carried few tools for survival – a sleeping bag, rain jacket and pants, bleach to purify water, a razor blade for a knife, matches, duct tape and bike lights.
The rest of Jakomait’s success was up to sheer iron will. The will to eat when he couldn’t, the will to not sleep when he so desperately needed it, and most of all, the will to set aside many of the basic instincts that come with traveling in Colorado’s backcountry. When most people along the Colorado Trail were focusing on early starts and quick descents off lightning-exposed peaks, Jakomait and other riders found themselves starting to scale mountains as the sun set.
“It’s getting dark and you’re at the bottom of a mountain starting to climb up,” he said. “You are trying to pay attention. If there’s lightning, you’d have to hunker down in a valley for a bit. Then, you just keep going, no matter what.”
As of Aug. 1, only eight riders of the 70 registered had finished the ride, and many more still had days of riding ahead of them. Jakomait’s body was ravaged. In addition to numbness in his toes and nerve damage in his hand, Jakomait lost 10 pounds in less than four days. When he got home, Jakomait was too tired to sleep; it will take days for his toes to recover.
A ride like that is not healthy for the body, he added. But, despite its miseries, the ride seems to have done wonders for his soul.
“This race haunts me every year. I feel like now, that’s the best that I think I could ever do with that. I feel at peace with that trail,” Jakomait said.
He doesn’t think he’ll race the route again.
“I think I am really content to just watch it on the Internet.”
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