Courtney Dauwalter, Payson McElveen and the Colorado Trail FKT
Two of the world’s top ultra endurance athletes – one on a bike, one in running shoes – tackle the 490+ mile Colorado Trail FKT. Both cut short, both hungry for more.
Payson McElveen is a 2x national champion in marathon mountain biking and a gravel cycling pro. Courtney Dauwalter is a global ultrarunning icon and winner of both Western States and UTMB. One on a bike, the other on two feet, both attempted the Colorado Trail FKT this summer and ended at similar points. Courtney made it 309 miles after 105 hours running. Payson went 370 miles in 68 hours on his bike.
With the likelihood of sleep deprivation, dehydration, possible lightning storms, every imaginable trail surface, and almost incomprehensible elevation gain, the Colorado Trail FKT attempt has all the makings for an impossible number of emergency situations. Payson and Courtney reflect on their attempts in this Prokit Original Q&A.
FKT stands for “Fastest Known Time” and represents the speed record over any given route.
Colorado Trail. Depending on the route, the CT comprises between 490 and 567 miles of trail between Denver and Durango and passes through some of the most spectacular scenery in the Colorado Rockies. End to end, you travel through high mountain lakes and towering peaks of six wilderness areas and eight mountain ranges and climb upwards of 90,000 vertical feet. The average elevation of the Trail is 10,300 feet, topping out at 13,271 feet.
What is the current Colorado Trail FKT for your sport?
Courtney Dauwalter: 8 days, 30 minutes is the current FKT for the CT using the Collegiate West option, which is the route I was doing. Bryan Williams set this FKT in 2017. The record taking the Collegiate East option was just set this past month by Mike McKnight at 7 days, 13 hours, 16 minutes.
Payson McElveen, @paysonmcelveen: 530 miles, 73,000 feet for climbing: 3 days, 20 h, 44 min by Jesse Jakomait in 2015, beginning in Durango. Jesse slept four total hours during his effort, and it took him five attempts.
What was your inspiration to tackle the CT FKT?
Courtney Dauwalter: I was inspired to do the Colorado Trail because it sounded like a beautiful way to explore the state I live in, and I was intrigued to test myself at a new distance. 500 miles of singletrack sounded like the perfect way to spend some days!
Payson McElveen: The year of COVID has opened up the opportunity for all kinds of new bike-oriented adventures. I spent much of the summer exploring the 100 or so miles of the Colorado Trail nearest my home, and got more comfortable on that kind of terrain. I’ve always enjoyed those big high country adventures, but they take so much out of you that during a typical race season, so I can’t afford to do them regularly. I’ve also been interested in bikepacking and bikepack racing ever since my dad did the Tour Divide a handful of years ago. He got so passionate about the training, gear selection, logistical preparation etc. that I knew there must be something pretty cool about it. I’ve also been inspired by some of the really successful bikepack racers like Lael, Rebecca, Mike Hall and others. It’s a very different kind of competitive experience than the sort of racing I’m familiar with, but I figured if not this year, when? I decided to do it only two weeks before actually taking off, so pulling all the gear together and making a plan happened a little bit feverishly. I wanted to go after the FKT just because I really like testing myself and discovering my limits, but knew my lack of experience and preparation made that goal fairly remote. I figured worst-case I’d have an awesome adventure and gain loads of experience.
Courtney: There were some fantastic sunrises out there! I was also so thankful and excited to share miles with all of my pacers. Those are memories that I’ll keep forever.
Payson: So many! News had traveled pretty fast, I guess, so from the first hikers I saw, folks were cheering and wishing me luck. That was fun. Ripping across Indian Trail Ridge in the snow was unique and pretty memorable as well. Also, after surviving a pretty harrowing first 48 hours, I thought my mission might be done once I reached the Princeton Hotsprings area. I slept an hour and a half, and felt like a new man. The following 15 miles of trail to Buena Vista were gorgeous. I felt inexplicably strong based on what I’d put my mind and body through the previous two days, the fall colors were going off, and the trail was just amazingly fun and flowy. Those were a good couple of hours.
Courtney: I was really sleep deprived during some of the sections and had to stop frequently to take trail naps. During one of those sections, I wasn’t sure we would ever make it to the next aid stop with how slowly I was progressing down the trail!
Payson: So many! The first one was maybe 19 hours in. It was about 3 AM and I decided to try to get a bit of sleep. I’d packed a sleeping bad and emergency bivvy, along with lots of warm clothes. I’d practiced in temperatures in the low 40º’s, but it was hovering around freezing when I stopped. I just couldn’t stay warm enough to fall asleep. I just got up and kept riding until about 10 AM when it had warmed up enough for a nice 30 minute siesta in the morning sun. That was all the sleep I got in the first 48 hours, which was one of the big mistakes I made.
Another lowest point was running into a section of trail that had been destroyed by trees blown down during a storm. For over a mile, the trail was totally unrecognizable, completely covered by 10-foot tall, downed trees. It was so bad that I got lost repeatedly as I tried to climb under, over, and through the twisted maze. It took me over an hour to make it through. That was the first time, 220 miles and 40 hours in that I got really frustrated.
Shortly thereafter, I had a pedal fall off the spindle… a first for me. I had to descend one-footed for a good number of miles. John, my team manager finally showed up with a spare pedal. That was the end of my record chase, as my effort was no longer self-supported, but I decided to press on anyway wanting to continue pushing my limits.
The other lowest moment that comes to mind was on day 3. I was about 370 miles and 68 hours in, but starting to fall apart from sleep deprivation. I’d only managed 1.5 hours of sleep to that point because of the cold. Kokomo Pass is this incredibly difficult, 2,500 foot ascent to above treeline that is mostly unrideable with a loaded bike. I remember just trudging up this unbelievably steep mountain, hungry, cold, in the dark, and just completely coming apart. My achilles hurt from hiking, back and arms from pushing, dizziness from hunger, lack of sleep, and it was just all compounding to make for the most suffering-filled moment of my life. Both my hands and feet had been numb for hours, and I remember thinking “I think I have found hell on earth.” Eventually the trail descended to Copper Resort. That’s when Nichole met me and told me to look in the mirror. My face was so swollen that I barely recognized myself. We determined that I’d incurred some pretty significant pulmonary edema, and with her coaxing, we decided to call it a wrap on a first attempt at this record.
How did you prepare mentally, physically and emotionally? Anything you’d do differently?
Courtney: Physically, I worked on building a strong endurance base, as well as basic strength through regular bodyweight exercises. This wasn’t much different than normal preparation. Mentally, I knew it would be a game of patience and persistence, and I was pumped to get my feet on the trail and start! Emotionally, I expected a rollercoaster and was prepared to stay in the fight, no matter what feelings were present.
Payson: I decided to ride the Colorado Trail just a couple of weeks before doing it, so preparation was minimal. I was pinched between a previous project, and the rapidly descending cold of fall. I did my best to chat with some of the veterans of this route, read a lot, and practiced riding with lights and sleeping outside with my gear once. I didn’t really feel prepared before, and definitely didn’t feel prepared during. This was my first bikepacking trip! What I’d do differently in the future is an extremely long list, but I learned so much by riding most of the course at speed that I am excited to implement those lessons eventually.
How did it compare with other multi-day adventures or long races you’ve done?
Courtney: This was the biggest adventure I had ever taken on, but it is still the same simple motion as every distance I have ever done. Running is simple in that way! I tried to stay in the moment, enjoy where my feet were, and take it all in. The end goal was to arrive in Denver, but breaking it down into much smaller parts made it more manageable.
Payson: Incomparable, really. Every other bike thing I’ve done completely pales in comparison. I remember thinking back on how destroyed I was after Kanza or the White Rim or Leadville or other big events and just laughing at how much of a walk in the park they seem in comparison. I mean, no disrespect for those other events, but just the sheer number of hours of absolute struggle just to move forward, literally day after day, with no respite, was something I never could have imagined. This challenge is just absurd, really. I have so much respect for the athletes that do this sort of thing year in and year out. Extraordinarily tough people.
Most important item?
Courtney: My crew!
Payson: A good attitude. Seriously. Wanting to be there, embracing the incredible challenges as they came one after another, unrelentingly, was key.
Courtney, what do you tell your support crew going into something like this? What is the most important role they play?
Courtney: Having a crew for something like this is huge, and I feel really lucky I was able to find some friends and family to join me in this big adventure. My crew knew that I wanted to push myself and they were ready to help me do this with words of encouragement and plenty of snacks. For me, just seeing them and knowing I was sharing this big mission with them out there made it really special.
What did you think about on the trail?
Courtney: Lots of hours to think meant it ranged from best nacho toppings, to my family, to world events. The whole gamut!
Payson: Not too much, in hindsight, beyond what I was actually doing. There is so much problem solving, maintenance, and focus required at any given moment that I just remember being super zeroed in on the task at hand. Eat, drink filter water, charge light, navigate, don’t crash, pedal hard, hike hard… there’s so much to do that you just got into a bit of a fugue state right off the bat. I’ve never had time stretch and compress like that before. The whole thing felt like a dream, honestly.
How much do you pay attention to health metrics and data on an attempt like this?
Payson: At first I did, but eventually I realized it just didn’t matter too much. Your body just does such weird stuff out there. In the first 10 hours, I was trying to keep my HR in endurance zone, not even hitting tempo, if possible. But eventually I got so fatigued that my HR just seemed to stay super low at 115-125. Even on the hardest efforts to clean a steep section of trail it wouldn’t break 130. Kind of scary, honestly!
What made you stop the FKT attempt and when did you know?
Courtney: I was having trouble breathing very early on in my attempt and the conditions of my lungs kept worsening as the days passed. I was wheezing and coughing up a lot of stuff, and all the breathing trouble was making it impossible to sleep or get real rest. My crew became very concerned, did some of their own research, and attempted to problem solve it on the go. They finally made the tough decision to bring me to a nearby hospital at mile 309. At the hospital, they found my blood oxygen levels to be dangerously low and diagnosed me with acute bronchitis. I’m very thankful my crew was paying attention and followed their instincts to get me to a hospital when they did.
Payson: When I pulled into Copper Resort, I knew it wasn’t safe for me to continue without getting some real sleep. That was my plan, then to press on. But my girlfriend was really startled when she saw me. My face swelling was really striking, and then I realized my hands and feet were incredibly swollen as well. I also developed the nastiest cough I’d ever had. My girlfriend is a medical professional, and she knew that I was developing pretty serious pulmonary edema. I thought my feet and hands had been numb from the cold, but it ended up being nerve damage. Three weeks later, my big toes and two fingers are still tingly all the time.
Will you attempt the FKT or Colorado Trail again?
Courtney: Absolutely! Getting to experience 309 miles of the CT has me more excited than ever to do it again, and to, hopefully, make it all the way to Denver.
Payson: Yes, but probably after my current race career (assuming racing is back on in 2021). I really want to apply all that I learned. I am proud of my effort, and really feel intrigued by the puzzle that is bikepack racing. The route totally humbled me, and that feels good too. I definitely want to get back out there, just not sure when that will be. My research will continue in the meantime!
For people struggling with motivation, what message do you hope you send through attempts like this?
Courtney: We are capable of much more than we give ourselves credit for, physically and mentally. When I was just starting out in ultra running, I dropped out of my first 100 mile race because I convinced myself that I wasn’t strong enough or fit enough to make it to the finish line. Start small, be patient, and keep building on what you have.
Payson: Through passion and dedication, you can work up to almost anything. When I first moved to Colorado, I could barely ride in the big mountains. Coming from Texas, I never would have imagined being able to even consider tackling such a huge route.
What was in your Colorado Trail Kit for nutrition, gear, and resources?
- Nutrition and hydration: Tailwind, Honey Stinger waffles & chews, gnocchi, Ramen, mashed potatoes, pancakes, pierogies, quesadillas, pizza, coffee
- Shoes: Salomon S/Lab Ultra 3, Sense Ride 3, Ultra Pro
- Gear: Salomon S/Lab Sense Ultra 5 hydration vest, Salomon filter flask, Injinji socks, Squirrel’s Nut Butter anti-chafe, Suunto 9 watch, Sufferfest beer, Addaday massage tools
- Map Apps: Gaia, Guthook
- Nutrition and hydration: In the beginning, GU products and some sandwiches. Once that was out, a totally random assortment of gas station food.
- Bike: Trek Top Fuel with 2.35 Maxxis Ikon tires
- Gear: Assortment of borrowed bikepacking bags; an Osprey hydration pack bladder in the frame triangle bag with a Sawyer in-line water filter; Garmin inReach so people could track me; Garmin 530 for navigation; sleeping bag, emergency bivvy, beanie, winter gloves, wool base layer, puffy jacket with hood, buff, rain jacket; Anker Powercore II power bank for recharging electronics, black diamond battery-powered helmet light, Light and Motion handlebar light.