Shults, a Telluride ski patrolman and program director for Helitrax, the helicopter skiing outfit, is one of the premier endurance athletes in Colorado. With the balance of a mountain goat and the stamina of a coyote, Shults glides across huge swaths of terrain, on foot or on a mountain bike, at a pace unimaginable to mere recreationists.
In 2006, Shults finished second in the brutal Hardrock 100 running race, covering 100 miles of San Juans high country, with a total 33,000 vertical feet of climbing, at an average elevation of 11,000 feet, in 30 hours and 29 minutes.
This July 4th he finished second in the Rundola sprint up the Telluride gondola line from town to the Coonskin ridgeline. The guy who beat him is 20 years old, from Boulder. Joe is 51.
Now he’s taking on an athletic challenge with even bigger numbers. Beginning July 30, Shults will attempt to ride the entire Colorado Trail, all 470 miles of it (including about 300 miles of single track), from Denver to Durango, in something like five days.
It’s called the Colorado Trail Race. The rules are simple. There is no race fee, no registration, no support, and no prizes. You don’t even have to go on the agreed-upon start date, but most riders do. You are self-timed and on your own recognizance, though you must carry, Shults says, a SPOT transceiver, a Satellite Personal Tracker, which indicates where on the route you are and how long you’ve been out. And can be used where there is no cell coverage to signal for help.
You must be entirely self-supported, under only your own power along the entire CTR route, the website says. You must have no pre-arranged support, no friends with couches, no supply drops, except for mail drops to a Post Office along the route. You may sleep in a motel if you want, and buy food from a store along the way, but you may not take advantage of rest or supplies that every other racer doesn’t also have access to. And, finally, according to the website, you mustn’t break the law: no trespassing, no riding in Wilderness, no littering (dropping gear to lighten your load, even if you plan to come back and get it later).
Shults did mention one form of help that a racer can accept: “a random act of kindness.” The race’s founder, Stephan Griebel, calls this “Trail Magic, totally unexpected, unplanned support, e.g. a random person giving you a coke or an orange.” But that’s it; otherwise you’re totally on your own. Come rain, hail, broken bikes, broken bones, whatever.
“Joe is pretty much a solo mission guy,” said Mark Rikkers, a fellow Ophirite and executive director of Ridgway’s dZi Foundation, for whom Shults is fundraising with his ride.
“I’ve raised money for dZi before,” Shults said. “I raised $8,000 for them with my last Hardrock. This long distance stuff is pretty self-indulgent. You spend a lot of time alone, training and competing. I’m just trying to get money from people to help people [in Nepal, where dZi does its work]. I feel a little better about what I’m doing that way.”
“Joe’s using the fundraising as a source of motivation,” said Rikkers.
(Yet another Ophir connection: Boulder resident Brad Platt, brother of Ophir mom/writer/athlete Corinne Platt Rikkers, will also be riding this year’s CTR, and fundraising for dZi. He did the race once before, in 2009. “It beat him up pretty bad,” reported Mark Rikkers. “He said he’d never do it again. But after visiting Nepal in the interim, he got inspired by our work and said, ‘Sure, I’ll do that.’” (Platt said in an email: “I guess three years was long enough for me to forget the bad parts.”)
Shults rode the Colorado Trail Race course last year, just to check it out. He described some of the sections where the race course deviates from the CT. “There are some sections where you have to divert around wilderness areas.” One detour takes the riders around the Lost Creek Wilderness in the Kenosha Pass region. Another skirts the Holy Cross/Mt. Massive Wilderness near Leadville. A third goes through Buena Vista to miss sections of the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness.
“I think I might send some stuff to the Post Office in B.V. (Buena Vista),” Shults said. “Although that’s a risk, because they’re only open from nine to five. What if I get there at night? Strategy is a big part of it. When to stop and rest. What to carry. For example, you could start the race light and try to make it all the way to Leadville in one push before picking up your tent and sleeping bag. But that’s 155 miles. That’s a bold move. I think I’ll start with all my gear... I will buy some food along the way.”
The three keys to the race, he said, are equipment, strategy, and the mental/physical side. He’s not worrying about getting lost. “The CT is amazingly well signed anymore. You can download GPS maps with 75 waypoints. But I don’t have time to download all that. And I don’t want to spend the ride looking at a screen.”
That said, Shults also acknowledged that parts of the ride are “super remote. Like the part around the La Garita Wilderness between Saguache and Silverton. It’s out there, man.”
What about breakdowns? Shults’ repair kit is “pretty much minimum: some chain links, a tube. You just hope you don’t break a rim. You definitely have to know how to take your bike apart.” And it helps to be inventive. On another backcountry race, Shults stuffed toothpicks in his overheated disc brakes to get down a long, steep hill.
“The worst part is psychological. Especially if the weather goes really bad. It can be snowing or hailing and lightning. There’s a tremendous temptation to bail. But I’ve learned that if you take a little rest, eat well, and if you’ve trained well, you can recover and get back on. There’s a pretty high attrition rate on this race, about 50 percent. Similar to the Hardrock.”
Shults insists he’s not riding the CTR to win. Although no one who knows him would be surprised if he did very well indeed. The record for the event, which started in 2007 with just 10 participants (Shults said he expects somewhere in the neighborhood of 75 to start this year), is 4 days 3 hours and 20 minutes, by one Owen Murphy in 2009. That’s better than 100 miles per day for four days and nights, with lots of what Platt called “hike-a-bike over the 65,000-plus feet of elevation gain. I just remember the fun parts,” he said, “being on the move for a week, self sufficient, riding an amazing trail though amazing places, the sense of connecting Denver to Durango under my own power.”
And, this time, for both men, there will be the added satisfaction of doing it for a worthy cause. If you’d like to contribute, you can contact Joe Shults at email@example.com. And Brad Platt at firstname.lastname@example.org.