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Jesse Jakomait, on and off the bike

November 15, 2018

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (AP) — It’s rather odd to find Jesse Jakomait this way — in a hoodie and jeans, walking. Walking. Just walking the mostly flat trails of Ute Valley Park after work.

The sun is still up, so shouldn’t Jakomait be up in the mountains on his bike, grinding uphill and shredding down to his heart’s desire? Isn’t this his evening custom, as well as his morning ritual?

Yes, come 4 a.m., he’s still pedaling up Old Stage Road and traversing Jones Park, logging several miles and thousands of vertical feet, leaving enough time for a shower before his 9-to-5 as a design engineer of SRAM bike parts, breaking up his days with lunchtime weight lifting and ending them on the trails and then home, where there is no TV.

Riding is still his heart’s desire. But it’s not his only desire. You have to understand the new Jesse Jakomait, which he’s discussing now during this pleasant stroll.

He starts with this: “I turned 40, and my whole body fell apart.”

A torn hamstring. A separated shoulder. A foot problem that he delayed long enough, deciding finally on a surgery that paired a boot with the sling. You can understand how these months of no physical activity affected Jakomait. Though, they weren’t as painful as the divorce at the start of the year.

The lifestyle, he admits, is not exactly conducive to relationships. But the sunrises. He talks about “all these amazing sunrises.”

“I don’t know, man. It’s stuff like that that make me enjoy my life choices.”

The sunrises were spectacular this summer, when he went out exploring some of Colorado’s most remote terrain as a physically recovered man. He went on foot, seeing no souls for two- to four-day stretches spent linking one high point with another. Currently, he doesn’t expect the snow to stop him from adding to the 80 summits he’s racked up since March.

By his own standards, this level of peak-bagging is “definitely not quite normal,” he says. Then again, this is the new Jesse Jakomait, away from his bike.

Just ask his friend and fellow rider, Robert Powell.

One example of the Jakomait he’s known is described in Durango, where he saw Jakomait win a 100-mile race, then proceed the next day to crush Strava segments — he’s notorious for sweeping up local records — and then the next day summit the gnarly Lizard Head above 13,000 feet. Another example is that time Powell rode alongside Jakomait to the trailhead of fourteener Mount of the Holy Cross — after Jakomait spent the dark hours of the morning riding out his own 50-mile sufferfest.

“I think it’s kind of changed over the years,” Powell says. “When I first met him, it was more about chasing down Strava and the accomplishments. And more recently, I feel like it’s more about the adventure.”

Putting a record behind him

It’s been three years since Jakomait entered mountain biking immortality. That was the praise of the cycling community after he covered the Colorado Trail’s 550 miles and 75,000 vertical feet from Durango to Denver and finally, after four maniacal attempts, set a record in three days, 20 hours and 47 minutes.

Then, the next summer, his record was beat by an hour. The good sport praised the victor, going a step further to say that Neil Beltchenko’s choice to start from Denver was even bolder.

But quietly, Jakomait felt a twinge of torment.

He was forced to face the same questions anew: Could he pack lighter? Could he pedal harder? Could he cut one or all of those three hours of sleep? Could he better push through the cold, wetness and hallucinations?

He’d seen pelicans flock from the ground, and he went somersaulting through the air after clipping a tree, falling hard and not knowing which way was up before hopping back on the seat. That was just one weird, harsh moment. For months afterward, he felt as if his heels would snap every time he stepped into shoes, and his nerves were shot; he couldn’t pinch his pants zipper.

“I’ve tried to put that Colorado Trail Race thing away,” Jakomait says.

But the question loomed after the new record: Could he do it all again?

It’s the temptation of so many endurance athletes, says Peter Bakwin. He was chasing ultrarunning records in his prime, and now in Boulder he oversees fastestknowntime.com, the clearinghouse for the outdoor world’s obscure, obsessed-over records.

“It’s a deep question, about motivation,” he says. “In large measure, I think, it’s because of the types of experiences that we have doing this stuff. ... When you really test your limits, particularly in nature, I find you are really working at this interface between the physical, psychological and spiritual.

“I think that’s why people get into this, because they have experiences, states of consciousness if you will, that they can’t explain and can’t tap back into any other way.”

Upon reaching “perceived limits,” he says, two things can happen: “Either you stop, because you’ve reached your limit, or you break through and find a deeper source of energy.”

Feeling content

Jakomait has never been short on energy. He got his first mountain bike for Christmas 1989 and soon after got hooked on becoming an Olympic racer. He worked out of college until realizing that racing compromised work and work compromised racing. So he quit and tried to make racing his living.

He moved to Tucson, “living like a monk,” he says: reading training books and clipping grocery coupons in an unfurnished apartment, pedaling for five or six hours a day.

“I felt like I did way better than I ever thought I could,” he says, “and it still wasn’t enough to make a salary.”

Jakomait rejoined the workforce in Colorado, where he got hooked on something else entirely: rock climbing. This was an escape from cross-country racing.

Then Jakomait discovered these long, high-alpine tests. He attempted a 24-hour race in Steamboat Springs.

“I went in there super scared,” he says. “I ended up doing like 35,000 vertical feet, won the race and set the course record. I was blown away. I just kind of realized, if I keep eating, I can keep pedaling for, I don’t know, it seemed like kind of forever.”

Jakomait packed his calendar with contests, the burn and sleeplessness never enough to keep him from the next one. He’d recover, and he’d want more. Another highlight came in 2011, when he smashed the Kokopelli Trail in 12 hours and 18 minutes, a record that still stands today.

That could very well be beaten, he says. And he sounds OK with that.

And he sounds OK with being off the circuit.

“It took over my life,” he says, “racing almost every weekend from the time I was like 16 until maybe a couple of years ago.”

No, he hasn’t gone back to the Colorado Trail.

It’s not that he’s lost ambition; he’s recently eyed the Arizona Trail Race and the bike portion of the Iditarod Trail Invitational. It’s just that he feels he’s done his best on the Colorado Trail, and that’s enough. And he’s been drawn to other wilds.

“I think,” says his friend Powell, “he’s getting more to the point where he’s recognizing the beauty of the whole thing.”

Jakomait has more summits on his mind. But for now, he has the sunset at Ute Valley, and as the trail splits left, right, left, right, he walks assuredly, knowing he can’t go wrong.

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