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2009 Vision Quest Mountain Bike Race

Saturday, March 7th, 2009

Recently named by Bike Magazine as "One of the 10 toughest mountain bike races in the world", the Vision Quest climbs and descends 11,000ft over 57 miles. It is an intimidating course and can be humbling as well.

The day started off at 5:30AM, a half hour before dawn. I had no sleep the night before thanks to my brain spinning. Over 350 riders packed the starting line, and the ride began at a chilly 40 degrees. The temperature quickly dropped to freezing as we gained a few thousand feet of elevation and the sun's rays were still hidden from view by the mountain peaks we would reach later that morning. Around 8AM I reached the first long downhill of the day: Motoway.

Descending Silverado Trail, aka "Motoway", with the sun rising.

I was feeling good, but worried about cramping because the climb up along the ridgline had been exhausting and it was difficult to convince myself to eat with the cold temperatures and my heart rate at maximum. Lots of riders suffer from leg cramps after a sustained downhill because the lactic acid builds up in your muscles. Sure enough, after refueling at the bottom of Motoway--the first of three aid stations--my energy was dropping fast and my legs began the first signs of cramping. By the time I was mid-way to 4-corners I was really suffering. I started having serious doubts about being able to get to the peak, let alone complete the ride.

As one rider passed me, he offered some encouraging words, and it helped to raise my spirits. Thats how the vibe of this "race" was. The Vision Quest it is entirely a different kind of race that what one would normally think a "race" entails. It is a day of personal challenge where each individual tests himself or herself and battles against all odds at any cost to just finish. Ranking and time for most doesn't matter. Everyone was very friendly and cool.

Training for the Vision Quest. My goal was just to finish.

It was the little fuel I need to keep the cranks spinning. I drudged on, blasted some music as loud as I could stand it, and over the next 2 hours life slowly came back into me and I made it all the way to Santiago Peak, the highest point of the race at 5,500ft.

Almost to the peak

Looking over Orange County

Looking the other direction over Lake Elsinore.

It sure was cold at the peak but the view was magnificent! Just as I started enjoying the view, the road wound around the backside of the peak and soon found myself riding through patches of snow.

This photo was taken a few days earlier by another local rider.

Then came the harrowing yet fun descent of "Upper Holy Jim Trail", a short but lose set of granite switchbacks. Fatigued from the climb, I went over the bars around the second or third turn (having just passed a rider who bailed on the very first corner), but got up quickly and continued, not losing more than a couple of seconds a blow to my pride. But it was a good reality check and made me more cautious. Not a minute later I passed another rider who was tugging on his bike stuck in some Manzinita bushes who had just tumbled around a lose rocky switchback. The trail, it seemed, was making good work of everyone.

Upper Holy Jim.

Lower Holy Jim (photo taken a couple years earlier)

Six miles and an hour later around 11 AM I reached the bottom of the mountain and the second aid station. I was thoroughly fatigued by this point and was wishing I had signed up for the Counting Coup Event instead of the Vision Quest. Half of the people riding were doing the Counting Coup, which ends a couple of miles out a flat dirt road after the aid station. I wanted so bad to turn right follow them and go home because I knew what was in store next if I turned left to go back into the mountains a third time.

The third and last climb of the day is more of a hike-a-bike than a climb. The first few miles is rocky but rideable until you hit a wall thats what's known as "West Horsethief", 2 or so miles of switchbacks that end at the ridgeline.

West Horsethief

Thanks to the home court advantage, I had practiced this segment two weeks earlier. After getting blisters from hiking in bike shoes I decided to bring along a secret weapon: trail running shoes.

While everyone was pushing their bikes and moving at a snails pace up West Horsethief, I was moving at a hair above a snails pace, and over perhaps an hour or so, I must have counted 11 or 12 people that I passed. Despite having my earplugs in, each time I passed someone I always heard a voice in the background say "Hey! Are those tennis shoes?"

At the top the views were again beautiful, but I my eyes and stomach was fixated on the hamburgers and chips that were being served. Yes, that's right, burgers! In the middle of nowhere, on the top of a mountain!

No I was not delusional--there's actually a cool guy named Brian that drives his van on the dirt road along the ridgeline, unloads his BBQ, and starts grilling "dog soldier" burgers for all of the riders. I managed to stomach two handfuls of chips and half a cheese burger, giving the rest to his trusty Labrador, who one year ate 18 burgers, and happily devoured mine.

Trabuco Canyon Trail (my favorite)

With lifted spirits and a full stomach I left the third aid station. After a few miles along the ridgeline I began the last descent down Trabuco Canyon trail. This trail is very sketchy, with lots sharp rocks that can puncture your tires, and exposed cliff sides the whole way down (the trail is on the side of a steep canyon). I crossed my fingers, hoping that my luck would hold and I wouldn't get a flat, and rolled over the rocks with an aching back and spent muscles. But by this time I didn't care...Maybe I was because I was visualizing the finish line in my head, or maybe it was the cheeseburger. A few stream crossings later and I was back at aid station #2, which I flew past en route to the finish.

Five miles of fire road and many more mud puddles later I reached the finish line, coming in at 7hr, 52min, over an hour faster than my 2007 time of 9hr 4min. As it turns out, somewhere along Trabuco my frame cracked at the rear drop out, and my headset started coming loose as well. As luck had it, the bike stayed together.

Overall the day was perfect. Great weather, trail conditions, and no flats. Although I ended up cracking my frame on Trabuco and my headset started coming lose the last 5 miles, nothing slowed me down. I couldn't ask for any better luck. I would like to thank the Warrior's Society and all their volunteers for making this ride possible and offer congratulations to everyone that finished.


2010 Vision Quest Update

I raced the VQ again this year and came in at 7hr 39 min. Congratulations to all the finishers and also to those who attempted the course. The event was after Daylight savings time kicked in this year so we rode for an hour in the dark! You could see an ant-like trail of lights all the way up Blackstar. The sun came up for me just after riding past the doppler tower. The shilouette of riders ascending the main divide ridgeline with a glowing sky in the background was my unforgettable vision for the day. Thanks again to everyone who came out and gave me their support!

Descending Motoway

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