Racing with Fire: Reflections from the Bones to Blue Bikepacking Race
150 miles into the 250-mile Bones to Blue race in Truckee, California, Elizabeth Sampey had to call it quits. Find her reflection on the experience, including her self-shot GoPro video, alongside some great photos taken by Anthony Cupaiuolo along the Tahoe Rim Trail…
I arrived in Truckee in a cloud of smoke and surprise. In my often spontaneous way I had decided to race the Bones to Blue only a few days prior and hadn’t checked the air quality forecast before pointing my van west. I should have known better, as fires often rage through California in the summer, but I live under a rock. And so it is.
Over the few days leading up to the Grand Depart we all watched the smoke blow in and out with the winds, and finally it was decided by the race director that whoever wanted to give it a shot could do so and see what happened. I had driven nearly 12 hours for this race, which being mostly singletrack had been on my list for a few years. I’d passed through Tahoe about a month earlier and gotten a taste of some of the trails. They were chunky, engaging, and fun, through beautiful pine forests and subalpine meadows peeking out to expansive lake views.
And to be honest, I was antsy. Most races this year have been cancelled due to the Covid pandemic, and I’d spent the summer riding, running, and packrafting through the Sierra backcountry staying away from people as much as possible. I felt strong, and was missing my usual outlets for exercising that strength. I also have a history of lung infections and a generally low immune system, and there was a part of me that hesitated to exert myself in the midst of a wildfire during a respiratory pandemic. But the only things I’ve ever regretted in life are those I haven’t tried, and not wanting to wonder “what if,” I decided to give it a go.
Around 20 intrepid souls came to the starting line at 6am; half the original field had elected to sit it out until conditions improved. I was wearing a respirator mask hoping I’d be able to use it for at least some of the race. After our neutral rollout the group took off like it was a cross-country race. Yikes! I got swept up in the excitement and instinctively surged to keep up. Out through the rolling hills behind Truckee we went, and within minutes I found myself tearing my mask off and gasping for air. Eventually I found myself 4th in line on a narrow trail in a huge cloud of dust, and I pulled off to the side to let everyone pass and the dust settle. I didn’t need this on top of the smoke, and with 250 miles and around 40,000 feet of climbing ahead there’s no need to sprint at the start. I laughed at myself for being sucked into the “racer mentality” and set off again at my own pace.
The first loop, the “Bones” loop north of Truckee, is around 65 miles. There’s a lot of uphill, and frustratingly I found myself having to back way off and spin easy on nearly all the climbs. Breathing deeply caused a sharp pain in my chest, and pushing through that was a hard no for me. If I’m going to put myself in a potentially unhealthy situation, I’m at least going to be smart about it. I made a deal with myself that if I could keep my effort just easy enough that I wasn’t having pain while breathing, or having coughing fits, that I would keep going.
A few hours later as I was spinning up a climb in a meadow, a smiley, happy woman with long braids named Rylee caught up to me. She was psyched and feeling good, and reminded me of myself in the Arizona Trail race last year. We rode together for awhile, chatted, and laughed a lot. She had just come off 8 months of bike touring, and was new to racing but obviously very strong. We entered a long chunky downhill together and I pulled ahead with my full-suspension trail bike. She wasn’t far behind and we whooped and hooted at each other, laughing as we flew down the mountain into a smoke-filled valley.
I tasted it as soon as we hit the bottom and when we started climbing I felt the pain in my chest again. I pulled to the side and told Rylee to go ahead as I got off my bike and walked to slow my breathing. I felt an initial pang of frustration at the fact that my lungs weren’t cooperating. How are the other riders able to go so fast in this smoke and I can’t? I knew those thoughts would do me no good, and I refocused on my own experience. Even if I can’t ride hard, I can still enjoy the trails. And enjoy them I did. The climb and descent of Hole in the Wall, a highlighted trail in the Truckee area, was insanely fun and once again I was psyched to have a bike that danced effortlessly over the chunk and a bikepacking setup that let me ride the way I would on a naked bike.
And this became the theme of my race. I finished the Bones Loop rolling back through Truckee and didn’t feel at all tired; I hadn’t ridden much in the past month so I wasn’t in the best shape but having to keep my effort in check extended my stamina. I was still having a blast riding the trails, so after cruising through the McDonalds drive-thru and loading up on cheeseburgers and chicken nuggets in addition to the nuts and dried fruits and cookies I still had on my bike, I decided to continue on to the second loop: the “Blue” Loop, a circumnavigation of Lake Tahoe.
I made my way south and east through the trails above Kings Beach as the sun set. I could see the smoke filtering through the pines, and I put my mask back on for the more mellow rolling terrain. Night fell and I was amped. This is my favorite part. I wanted to ride fast and I did, welcoming and indulging the onset of energy that always somehow surges through my body in the blanket of the dark even if I’ve been riding all day.
Around midnight I started to feel the smoke again and decided to call it. I found a flattish spot to throw my bivy down, poked around a bit to make sure I wasn’t camping on an anthill, did my usual routine of throwing back a recovery drink and some CBD capsules, and crawled into my bag. Just as I was drifting off to sleep I heard a tiny but loud commotion on the ground above my head. Something was running back and forth across my Tyvek ground cloth. I flicked on my headlamp and yelled “HEY!” But I saw nothing, so I tried to go back to sleep. I heard the commotion again and this time I shoved my fingers in my ears and tried to ignore it.
Then I felt something crawling on my legs. I sat up and turned on my light again. Ants. Massive black carpenter ants, all over my bivy and apparently now in my sleeping bag. Ugh. I hadn’t seen any sign of them earlier. I got up and moved my bivy down the hill and across the trail. Kicked the pine needles around, looked again. Nothing. I crawled back in and began to drift off to sleep. Around 30 minutes later I heard the same thing. They’d found me here too! Ugh. I repeated the process of moving again, to no avail. I was on their turf and they were very curious. Finally, after lying awake for about 5 hours in 3 different locations while the ants had a party in my sleeping bag, I admitted defeat and got moving. At least my body had gotten a rest even if I didn’t sleep.
Day Two brought more long climbs and spectacular descents, both chunky and flowy terrain, and my first lake views. As I made my way above the eastern side of Lake Tahoe I realized again how smoky it was. The only part of the lake I could see was just below me. I was feeling the effects of no sleep but reminded myself I’ve done this before, so I pressed on making sure to keep my breathing in check. I finally got a break near Marquette Lake; the smoke was clearing a bit so I was able to ride fast and feel good. I hadn’t caught any other racers and figured they were all far ahead of me. What I didn’t know was at this point all but three of us had succumbed to the smoke and the hard initial pace and dropped out.
The 2000ft climb out of the Marquette basin up to the high point of the Tahoe Rim Trail and the famous lake overlook really tested my patience. Smoke had rolled in again and the trail was steep enough in many sections that I couldn’t keep my breathing easy enough while pedaling to keep chest pain at bay, so I slowly pushed my bike for nearly the whole climb.
I finally crested the ridgeline, remounted my bike and started making my way along the chunky trail when I suddenly felt discombobulated. Where am I? I’d actually ridden this section of trail before and didn’t recognize any of it. Knowing I was sleep deprived I got paranoid and pulled out my phone for my backup GPS. Am I lost? Where’s the lake? I scanned the landscape. My eyes landed on a lonely, empty bench nestled among some rocks. Holy crap. I’m AT the high point. This is the overlook. A month ago this spot boasted expansive views of Lake Tahoe and its surrounding peaks. Now, everything was shrouded in grey so thick I could almost reach out and grab it. This isn’t good.
On the bright side I knew what was ahead: my favorite descent in the whole area, punctuated by built up drops and rock rollers and punchy short climbs with tricky moves. I launched into it and quickly became lost in the dance with my bike and the trail, laughing and whooping out loud to no one but myself, floating through the eerie mist.
I rounded a corner on a short uphill as a bright blue helmet popped up from behind a rock with a huge camera lens pointed straight at me. I nearly fell off my bike, then broke into a huge grin with recognition. Anthony! I whooped with delight and rolled up to him. It was my friend Anthony Cupaiuolo, a local photographer and videographer who I’d worked with in Iceland on a film project five years earlier, and who had shown me this exact trail back in June. This area is literally his backyard, and he had dot-stalked me on Trackleaders and come out to shoot some photos and share some miles.
I wasn’t moving quickly on the climbs, so it was easy for Anthony to sprint ahead and set up for some shots as I came ripping through the descents. We went on this way for a few miles before hitting my next resupply at Summit Village. Anthony watched in amusement as I went about restructuring my fuel in my frame bags while inhaling an entire pizza from the local brewpub and three cans of ice-cold sparkling water.
I took out my phone and checked Trackleaders for the first time, and that’s when I realized with surprise that there were only three of us left. I was the third, and in the lead was Rylee! She’d been about two hours ahead of me most of the day. I had a surge of energy and felt psyched for her, happy she was having a good race, and at the same time I wanted to try and catch her. I knew I still needed to keep my effort in check, but there were still over 100 miles left in the race — anything can happen. Anthony decided to go a few more miles with me before dropping off the Rim trail to head home, and I planned to ride well into the night so I was happy to have the company a bit longer.
We made our way back onto the Rim trail, and Anthony rode ahead to snap shots as I spun slowly up the long ascent to Monument Pass. But something felt strange. I wasn’t having chest pain, but I couldn’t get air in and my leg muscles started to burn like they were in an anaerobic sprint. Weird. I got off my bike and stood beside it. I was wheezing hard, both on my inhale and exhale. I felt like I had maybe 30% of my breathing capacity. I opened my frame bag and fished around for an inhaler I had shoved in there for emergencies, took two hits and started walking slowly while trying to control my breathing. I saw Anthony stopped at the top of a rise, hollered to him what was going on, and told him he should ride ahead as I was going to focus on attempting to stop the wheezing.
It took me two hours and nine hits of the inhaler to go six miles. I coasted the downhills and walked the uphills, taking 10 steps at a time and then stopping to wheeze. I could barely even spin on the flats. Pushing my bike slowly through the impending darkness and thickening smoke, I had a straight talk with myself. Can I continue? Should I continue? I was just about to hit mile 150. I still had 100 miles left to go. The smoke had actually been overall better that day, but the effects of it all had caught up with me and my lungs were saying enough.
I have a personal rule that if I’m hurting for whatever reason in a race to the extent that I am seriously considering quitting, I sleep on it. At least for 20 minutes, and if it’s late I call it a night and see how I feel in 4-5 hours. But this time, I literally didn’t want to sleep on it. I didn’t want to sleep out here, in this smoke, and make my lungs suffer all night. That isn’t recovery.
I walked along and thought about the last month of my life, spent mostly on the couch recovering from an untimely case of pyelonephritis during the Colorado Trail ITT attempt I had started with my friends Alex and Justin at the end of July. Realizing what was happening I abandoned my race after only 12 hours in favor of going to the doctor and getting antibiotics. This had contributed to my growing angst and unfulfilled desire to race my bike, and ultimately my decision to start Bones to Blue to begin with. I began this race accepting that there was a chance I might not finish. I had made the commitment to myself that I would only keep going if it felt okay and safe for my body. Up until this point, it had. And now it didn’t. I did not want to spend the next month of my life on the couch, off my bike, again, recovering from the effects of smoke inhalation.
I found Anthony waiting for me below the final push to Monument Pass. “I think I’m done,” I told him as I wheezed my way up to him. “Yeah, you don’t sound good.” He knew better than to try to sway my decision either way. “I’ll rest for a bit at the top of the pass before I make the final call, but I’ve used this inhaler nine times and it hasn’t done anything for me.” He rode ahead and I pushed the final 600 feet to the top. I sat down and ate some food, already knowing my decision felt right and I felt at peace with it.
Ultra racing is hard. It’s hard on the body and it’s hard on the mind, especially when sleep deprivation is involved. I know what it feels like to suffer in a long race, and I also know what it feels like to feel great the entire time. I’ve been racing bikes for 13 years and through that journey I’ve come to know my body intimately. Racing is my greatest passion, it’s where I’m the best version of myself and it’s my opportunity to remind myself what I’m made of. I’m tough as nails, but I’m also smart. I believe racing is all about personal autonomy and making my best decisions, even if they might not be someone else’s. Some races, for my own reasons, are worth giving everything for regardless of the consequences. And some aren’t. The key is making that choice and owning it.
As I dropped off Monument Pass and away from the race route, following Anthony’s lights as he plunged through the dark towards the lake below, my attention turned back to my bike and the chunky, loose, fun trail underneath my tires. I was dancing on that edge of control, drifting corners and boosting off rocks into turns, spontaneously giggling like a fool, my lights illuminating only what was ahead. Focus forward, not backward. Respond to the now.
The following day Rylee would go on to be the sole finisher of the race and set a new women’s record. For me, right now, here in the dark, there was a screaming fast 2500 foot descent ahead of me on a technical trail I’d never ridden before. My favorite place to be. I felt the familiar sensation of energy and elation rush through my body, let out a whoop, and sailed away into the night.
Watch Elizabeth’s GoPro video she shot below…
Congrats to all the participants at the 2020 Bones to Blue—it looks like this year was a particularly challenging event.