Words and Photos by Reese Ruland
I used to run away from home on a monthly, if not weekly basis as a child. It became such a habit that my parents began to help me back my bags. To be clear, there was absolutely no reason for any of this. My parents were and still are wonderful. If anything, perhaps my five-year-old self just wanted an adventure. I never went much farther than my neighbors back yard, where we would meet and usually ended up defending some fort or became spies trying to collect intelligence on god knows what. Come dinner time I typically forgot that I had run away. I would scamper home and throw my runaway bag to the back of my closet for next time. The duration of my getaways wasn’t the focus. The escape from the ordinary was what I craved.
Eventually, we all leave the comforts of our home and after we do we spend the rest of our lives creating our own homes. We redefine or reimagine what “home” is to us. For some of us, home is a structure or a place. For others, it’s a familiar feeling. Maybe both. No matter how you define it, you know you’re there when everything in your world feels right. But after time even that can feel routine and you desire a break from the ordinary.
For me, Colorado is home. More specifically the trails of Colorado are home. They are relentless in both their toughness and beauty. With each passing season, the trails offer up a new set of challenges that I’ve come to enjoy and crave. I can’t even begin to fathom the number of miles I’ve run, times I’ve fallen, or sworn I was going to die from them over the years. Recently I moved away from Colorado. An act I thought I would never do. Why would I move away from a place I found so comforting? I think I was just bored and needed an adventure. Yet months after moving I find that I leap at every opportunity to go back to Colorado. Which is precisely how I found myself on the start line of the Aspen WEDU 50, a 50-mile mountain bike race conceived by Lance Armstrong.
When he first mentioned the idea to me he promised that the course was course was minimally technical and that I’d be just fine. However, he was basing this analysis on nothing. Sure he knows I can run an ultramarathon on trails, but he had never seen me mountain bike. No one has really witnessed me mountain biking because I don’t ride one with dedication. But I overlooked this glaring detail and committed myself to this ride. How could I turn down a trip to Aspen in the fall?
A week before the event, at which point I still had not committed any training time to, I had a Specialized Epic mountain bike shipped to Colorado. I’d never ridden the bike, but hell, I’d never really ridden any mountain bike, so I assumed my familiarity with the set up would be negligible at best. I also didn’t have any mountain biking shoes to wear, but luckily a pair of S-Works XC shoes were given to me. Only later did I notice that my feet are in fact not the same size and a 38.5 doesn’t leave a lot of wiggle room for my right foot. But again just another line item on the list of things I was willing to overlook for the sake of going to Colorado.
I threw a heap of gear into a bag, crossed my fingers hoping it would all work and flew to Colorado. Upon arriving in Aspen I decided I should ride the bike at least once before the race. So I promptly jumped on the bike and searched for trails. Unsuccessful in my attempt, I ended up riding roughly six miles of pavement. Which, coincidentally, was just enough riding to realize that the saddle height and position I eyeballed, made my knees writhe with pain. The solve was to just slam the saddle forward. Another item added to the list.
The morning of the race I woke up with terrible vertigo. I stumbled around the hotel like a drunkard as I tried to get ready. I couldn’t fathom bailing on the race. I resigned to kit up and ride the first few miles through town with the rest of the 75 riders.
It was a typical cold morning in the mountains. Bundled up in a long sleeve jersey, I headed towards the start line. Everyone was buzzing around the pop-up tents like bees around a hive. As the start time drew nearer, everyone began to line up. A few words about the course were said and before I knew it, someone yelled, “Go!” And like that, a peloton of riders set off towards downtown.
I was comfortable for the first few miles of the ride. I was able to talk with the other riders, my vertigo seemed to have vanished and I was warming up. Before I knew it, the asphalt had turned into dirt and we were climbing quickly above the town. The sun was just cresting over the mountains. As the light hit the hills, the yellow aspen trees slowly lit up as if they were trail markers lighting the way for us.
Before the ride began I told myself I would stop at the top of the climb and turn back around. But that was before I regained my composure and before I had a chance to take in the mountains.
Before I knew it, I was rounding the top of the hill and heading down a trail I was not even remotely qualified to ride. My teeth clattered around in my head as I rode over rocks. My arms and body were rigid like a breadstick. Having not properly set up my suspension I looked like a shake weight bouncing around. More skilled riders, who appeared to be one with their bikes, whizzed by me at an alarming rate. Not wanting to crash, I ended up walking my bike through some of these sections. I was perfectly content with taking it easy here. There would certainly be plenty of opportunities to exhaust myself.
To my surprise, the first descent was the only real technical part of the course that I had any difficulty with. After that, I was (mostly) good. Though that’s not to say that there weren’t plenty of sections where I white knuckled the bars. I’m a quick climber and slow descender, so I wound up playing leap frog with the same five people throughout the ride. Despite the ride being fairly flowy, the course was by no means easy. True to most Colorado mountain trails, you were either climbing or descending. Being unfamiliar with mountain biking, I was shocked at just how difficult going downhill on a bike actually is. It was by far the most exhausting and terrifying part of the entire event. And here all this time I thought coasting was supposed to be relaxing. But as the miles ticked by I got more and more comfortable with handling the bike. Learn by doing, right?
The riding was truly amazing. I spent the majority of the day either riding on ridges that offered sweeping views of the mountains or on trails that wound through brightly colored aspen trees. I couldn’t think of another way I would have wanted to spend the afternoon. Though no matter how much I enjoy being out on trails, a desire to just be done always engulfs me when I’ve been pushing my body for an extended period of time. That recognizable feeling of not just wanting to be done, but needing to be done came over me at about mile 40. I was over pedaling and turning and braking. Going up. Going down. And if I had to go through any more sets of tight switchbacks I was going to lose my mind.
I was thinking all of these negative things when I briefly took a second to tear my eyes away from the stem of my bike and look around me. I was riding a great bike, in an amazing place with so many interesting and nice people.
With this in mind, I managed to enjoy the last part of that ride. Coming down from the quiet mountains back into the bustling Aspen, I felt as if I were just returning to reality from some distant and secret utopia. There weren’t a ton of people at the finish line when I crossed, which was something I appreciated. The whole race atmosphere was extremely modest. The focus was less on making a huge deal out of the event and more on just getting out on the trails with friends for a spectacular ride in the mountains. No one was concerned about their time or fighting for the hole spot. We were all there to go big. To collectively push ourselves. After all the WEDU motto is, “solidarity for the solitary.”
The post-race BBQ at Lance’s house mirrored the feel of the entire event. It was low key and unpretentious. Everyone sat around talking about the race, eating great food and drinking cold beer. As we sat around the fire pit rehashing our experience of the race, I realized that maybe for just a short while, we all were our former child selves running away from home in search of adventure. We were here for the shared experienced of a place, riding not despite the effort but because of it. We were keeping alive the sense of wonder and play we still had as kids. We might not be protecting a fort or gathering intelligence, but we were escaping. On Monday I’d return to California and my normal adult life, but for just a weekend I found the runaway bag I thought I’d left at home as a kid.