Helicopters. There were helicopters overhead. They were circling and getting ready to film . . . us. It was 6:15am on Saturday, August 15, 2009 and I was lined up with my trusty Gary Fisher Hi-Fi mountain bike at the intersection of 6th and Harrison in Leadville, Colorado along with 1,390 other mountain bikers anxiously awaiting the shotgun blast for the start of the 16th Leadville Trail 100 mountain bike race. Whoa, long sentence. This was my 3rd straight year participating in this event. It has become the highlight of my annual athletic calendar. All trails point to Leadville, yada, yada, yada. For a recreational amateur athlete mountain biker, it is our Super Bowl . . . it is a spiritual event for the spiritual and non-spiritual alike . . . it inspires obsessed men and women to spend hours and hours and miles and miles on a bike on country roads and trails and in the gym in the hopes of finishing a 100 mile trail race (actually 104 miles) within 12 hours (silver buckle) or within 9 hours (gold buckle) or in some time frame better than the prior year. In the big picture, will a 10 hour finish versus an 11 hour finish really matter? Probably not. But I can assure you that finish times sure as hell mattered to me and these other 1,390 folks. Anyway, where was I? Oh yeah, we had helicopters. The 2009 Leadville 100 had hit the big-time. Lance Armstrong was back to avenge his loss in 2008 to six-time Leadville champion, hall-of-fame mountain biker and all around great guy, Dave Wiens. This year, Lance was fresh off a 3rd place finish in the Tour de France and the Leadville 100 had gained international recognition due to his participation. So, ok, the helicopters were there for him, not for the rest of us. But still, THERE WERE FRIGGIN’ HELICOPTERS here to film a bike race in which I was competing! Suhweet!
I’m not going to spend much time giving the background for the hows and whys I was lined up to race in the Leadville 100. Nor am I going to get too descriptive in explaining the nuances of the course. For that info, see my blog entries for 2007 and 2008. In short, I do this race because my best friend, Allan Goldberg, challenged me to do it in the summer of 2006 when he was rediagnosed with cancer and was facing 6 months of chemo and radiation. He joined me at the start line in 2007, but very sadly passed away in June, 2008. I carry the torch. Needless to say, the Leadville 100 is a mountain bike race starting in Leadville, Colorado. Leadville, at 10,200 feet, is the highest incorporated town in America. The race route goes out some 51 miles over 3 mountains and then returns 53 miles via the same route (the extra 2 miles are due to a slight detour at the finish). In total, the route contains nearly 14,000 feet of cumulative ascent and the great majority of the race occurs at altitudes in excess of 10,000 feet. It ain’t for the weak-hearted, asthmatic or jelly-legged.
Once again, I was joined by several friends and we all raced under the colors of Team First Descents. Over the past 3 years, we had used our participation in the Leadville 100 to raise nearly $300,000 for the First Descents cancer foundation, an organization for which Allan Goldberg was the Executive Director until his passing. This year’s group included Kevin “Hoof” Kane, Neil “Nile/Schnizzle” Markus, Gary “GMO” Morris, Dave “Gonzo” Gonzales, Dean “Deano” Gregory, Eric “Brooks” Brooks, Kevin Carter, Jamie Malin, Mike “Leadman” McHargue, Ryan “The Bachelor” Sutter and Barry Davis.
I had spent my usual 4-6 months training for this race and hoping that I had reached peak fitness in the days leading up to Leadville. I had built up my endurance nicely with several long rides including the Tour de Cure century in June, the 120-mile Triple Bypass road ride in early July and the 85-mile Copper Triangle in late July. Additionally, I had done a lot of intensity training throughout the year with several nights a week of winter ice hockey followed by many interval sessions on the indoor bike in early spring. Coming off last year’s time of 10 hours and 35 minutes, my realistic goal for 2009 was to beat 10 hours.
Unfortunately, Murphy’s Law has a neat way of intruding upon this race. On the Tuesday night before the race, I was hunched over a toilet divesting myself of the contents of my stomach. Stomach flu. Nice. So much for that tasty gourmet mac-n-cheese I ate for dinner that night. I proceeded to spend all day Wednesday on the couch with nausea and fever and really didn’t eat much solid food on the Thursday or Friday before the race. I lost 3.5 pounds through the ordeal and that isn’t really the kind of weight you want to lose before a race of this magnitude or effort. I did my best during the days to ply myself with liquids, including 3 Recoverite shakes per day to ensure that I was getting sufficient carbs and protein into the system. That seemed to do the trick as I felt pretty good when I awoke on race morning. That lasted about 10 minutes as I went into the garage and found my rear tire completely flat. NFW!!!
If you read my blog from 2008, you’ll remember that I went through 6 tubes during the 2008 LT100. No two issues were alike. Just a barrage of bad luck and bad tires. This year I converted my tires to tubeless tires in the hopes of avoiding the issues of last year. I had no issues with the tubeless tires all summer . . . until the morning of the race. I pumped up the tire to 60psi and then threw it on the car for the ride to Leadville. I then went back in the house and ate a scrambled egg breakfast burrito and filled a bottle of Powerbar formula. Over the past two years, I drank a bottle during the ride from Eagle-Vail to Leadville and then downed another bottle right before the race. This year I decided to cut that in half and only drink the bottle right before the race . . . mostly in the hopes of avoiding a bathroom break 20 minutes into the race.
We arrived in Leadville at 5am and parked at Leadman’s house. By the way, Mike got the name “Leadman” because he competes in (and has won) the Leadman competition. A “Leadman” is a guy who successfully completes a 10k run, a trail marathon, a 50 mile bike race known as the Silver Rush, a 100 mile bike race (LT100) and a 100 mile trail run (which occurs exactly a week after the 100 mile bike race) . . . all in the same 5 week period of a summer. In other words, Leadman is absolutely insane. But I digress. Upon arrival I immediately checked my tire and found that it had dropped to 20psi during the car-ride. For you non-bikers, that’s not enough air pressure. I couldn’t believe this was happening. There were foamy air bubbles around the rim caused by the tubeless sealant escaping through air holes. I was hoping that the sealant inside the tire just needed to spread and that it would happen through rotation of the tire once I started riding. We rode the bikes down a few blocks to the start area and slotted ourselves at the front of the 9-10hour finisher section. We then hoofed it back to Leadman’s house where we spent the next hour suiting up, applying lube and sunscreen, doing ‘business’ and generally feeling anxious. At 6am, I downed my bottle of formula and at 6:05 we all walked back to the start area.
OK, so now let’s return to the helicopters. For the first time ever, the Leadville 100 would be professionally filmed. Parts of the race, including the start, were going to be simulcast live via the LT100 website. Other footage would go toward an hour-long documentary about the race that will supposedly be shown in theaters this fall. Pretty damn cool. The 15 minutes prior to the shotgun contained the usual crowd noise, loudspeaker announcements and tangible excitement among the racers. I could feel the racers’ collective and pervasive need to urinate, but it was too late for that. At 6:30am, the shotgun went off and the 2009 Leadville Trail 100 was underway.
There is usually a very slow police escort out of the town that continues for the 3 mile pavement descent out of town. This year, with Lance’s return, the police escort flew down the pavement and the race was ON. The pace down to Leadville Junction (where the pavement meets the first dirt road) was twice as fast as anything I’d seen the last two years. People were flying down and jockeying for position before we even hit the dirt. Not what I was expecting. Nile and I had decided to try to ride the same pace together for as long as possible in the hopes that we could help each other in the Pipeline section. I wasn’t interested in a break-neck start as I really wanted to conserve my energy for later in the race. This year’s race was actually the first that I didn’t have any split-time goals. As I said above, I wanted to break 10 hours, but I mostly wanted to ride a good race and feel good throughout. I figured that if I rode smart and kept a steady pace from the get-go that my finish time would take care of itself. I also had a fear of bonking because of a bad experience that I had just a month ago when riding the first 60 miles of the course at too fast of a pace. Oh yeah, and I was puking 3 days ago and hadn’t really eaten anything solid since Tuesday. Just a minor detail.
The 800 foot rocky St. Kevin’s climb was its usual congested self. It was pretty cool having the helicopter follow the masses all the way to St. Kevin’s, but now it had taken off over the mountain presumably to follow King Lance and his court. The pace of the St. Kevin’s climb was pretty similar to last year. There was room to pass people, but the effort required to pass just didn’t seem worth it. Ooh, I forgot one important detail. Back-up 10 minutes. Just before the start, the sky turned dark and it started to rain. It was also 39 degrees. 39 degrees + rain = SUCKS! To evidence the fact that we really are smarter than the average bear, we wore our jackets from the start through the beginning of the St. Kevin’s climb. About halfway up the climb, the rain stopped so Nile and I shed our jackets as we were starting to heat up. We made it up St. Kevin’s without issue, but then had a little mishap as we crossed the top ridge of Kevin’s. Some guy stopped short in front of Nile and Nile stopped short in front of me. I hit the brakes and tried to turn sideways, but couldn’t keep my balance and toppled over. Unfortunately, I used my left hand to break my fall and it landed right on a rock. Direct hit. OUCH. I got back moving again, but my palm was killing me. I tried to shake it off, but no dice. This was just something I was going to have to live with for the next 9+ hours. However, to show just how manly I can pretend to be, I’m not going to mention the bruised hand again in this narrative. Just know that it did hurt throughout. Especially on the descents. Especially whenever I hit a rock or bump. Especially . . . oh shut up. At about the same time, I asked Nile how my back tire looked and he said he thought it looked low. That was NOT the answer I was looking for. I said that we should just get through the next 3 miles of rolling trail and then take a look when we hit the pavement descent.
We went through Carter Aid station and hit the pavement at about 57 minutes. Although I had no time split goals, this was slightly slower than I expected for that first section. I quickly hopped off the bike to check my tire. Satisfied that the pressure hadn’t changed since the start, I jumped back on the bike and began the 3.5 mile white-knuckled pavement bomb down and around Turquoise Lake and continued with a decent pace up the 1.5 mile pavement climb to Hagerman Pass Road on the other side of the lake. Things now were pretty uneventful except that it started to rain again . . . but not hard enough to make me want to put the jacket back on. Nile and I were still together as we made the turn onto Hagerman Pass Road and we did a conservative 9-10mph clip up a couple miles to the 180 degree turn-off onto the Sugarloaf trail and the climb to the top of Sugarloaf summit. Now it was raining pretty steadily, so I picked up my pace to warm-up. Somewhere over the next few hundred yards, Nile fell back and I kept going. My fingers and toes were getting numb and I just wanted to get to the top of the trail and get down the other side. I reached the top at about 1:45, which was pretty much the same time as last year.
The descent down Powerline was brutal. Powerline is a steep, rocky, sketchy 2 mile trail among a series of powerlines that drop down the east side of Sugarloaf mountain. On a good day, it is pretty hairy. However, with rain and freezing cold, the trail was a muddy mess and the descent was a bit treacherous . . . especially considering that mud was flying onto my glasses and making visibility awful. Our descent was further enhanced by the eerie crackling sound overhead caused from water hitting the electric lines. I made a very conservative descent as I didn’t want to take any dumb-assed risks that would prematurely end my day. Toward the bottom of the descent, I saw Barry walking his bike down the hill. I asked him what happened and he said that he slashed his tire in 3 places and that his race was over. Bummer. The torturous descent lasted about 17 minutes. In training in dry conditions, I had been doing it in 9 minutes. Oh well. When I reached the bottom, I turned right onto the pavement and rode slowly in the hopes that Nile would catch up. When he didn’t appear after a few minutes of slow pedaling, I latched onto a paceline of about 6 riders and rode the line for the 5 miles of pavement that would deposit us at Pipeline Aid station and the beginning of the Pipeline section of the course. Although it was pouring rain, I decided not to put my jacket back on as I could see patches of blue sky ahead. So much for the average bear.
I reached the Pipeline Aid station (Mile 28) at 2 hours and 18 minutes. This was 15 minutes faster than last year, but that’s only because I spent 20 minutes last year trying to fix a flat tire on Powerline. So it was no great shakes. I tried to find another group of riders to join in a paceline for the next 12 miles, but everyone was already pretty spread out and mountain bikers in general are pretty clueless when it comes to working together. So I just pushed steadily (but not too hard) on my own for pretty much the entire Pipeline section. I made a very conscious effort to keep a constant pace and to never let my heartrate exceed 150 beats per minute. In retrospect, this was probably too conservative and unnecessary.
At 3 hours into the race (9:30am in the morning), I topped the last ridge of the Pipeline section and elatedly flew down the other side of the ridge, crossing Rte 82 at the bottom and skidding right into our aid station in the Twin Lakes’ parking lot. After 3 hours of cold riding, I was so excited to see the warm smiles of Lisa, Bailey and our crew. I took quick stock of the race to this point. Other than borderline hypothermia on Powerline, there had so far been no real issues, no real excitement and no worries. I was feeling slightly sluggish from the flu, but I was starting to feel strength in the legs. I probably hadn’t drank as much as I should, but that could be blamed on the cold. I had finished my 70 ounces from the Camelback, but had only eaten one package of Clif Shots versus the 3 that I had budgeted for the first 3 hours of the ride. Thus I was arguably a little calorie deficient heading onto Columbine.
At the aid station, Nick McHargue informed me that I was “only” 53 minutes behind Lance. Thanks Nick. Nice pep talk. Didn’t make me feel TOO emasculated! Jamie Malin had arrived a few minutes before me and we decided to ride up Columbine together. In fact, Jamie’s exact words were “let’s just do a nice casual ride up Columbine.” Sounds good. What’s the rush? Enjoy the day right? We waited a couple more minutes for Nile and, like “a phoenix rising from the ashes,” he suddenly appeared. We gave him a minute or two to do his thing and then Jamie, Nile and I took off through the Twin Lakes parking lot together. At the end of the lot, the road turns to single-track for about ¼ mile and then the trail takes a right turn across the Twin Lakes Dam (which is closed 364 days per year). The next few minutes were very cool as there were hundreds and hundreds of spectators on both sides of the Twin Lakes dam and the three of us flew through the tunnels of people in our matching black Team First Descents uniforms. It was great to hear a lot of “go First Descents” comments.
Just across the Dam is the giant Twin Lakes Aid Station. From there, the race goes through an access gate and climbs about 500 feet up from the Lake over a small ridge, drops into a valley for about a mile and then continues on a 9-mile 3200 foot climb to the Columbine Mine. As we climbed the ridge out of Twin Lakes, Jamie shot forward at a much faster pace than I wanted to maintain. What the hell happened to the “nice casual ride?” Nile and I kept a reasonable pace, busted out into the valley and began our long climb into the sky on the Columbine dirt road. I continued trying to keep my heartrate below 150 and that translated to a comfortable pace of about 5 mph. After the first half-mile or so, I could no longer see Jamie in front and Nile had dropped off my back. It looked like it was going to be another long solo climb up Columbine. I plugged in my tunes on my Thump MP3 sunglasses and plowed forward. As I approached the campground at the end of the first straight-away, I heard the first calls of “rider coming.” Would it be Lance? Would it be Dave? Would it be both together like last year? Would it be some upstart? Suddenly, a one-man freight train in black flew by at about 50 mph. I could make out the “Mellow Johnny’s” logo on the back of the shirt and knew it was Lance. Holy crap was he moving! But where was Dave? I looked at my Garmin (bike computer). It was 3 hours and 40 minutes into the race. How big was the gap? I continued my slow plod and 13 minutes later, Dave Wiens went flying by in solo 2nd place. Wow, Lance was simply superhuman to have opened up a gap of some 15 minutes on Wiens (using higher math, I added 2 minutes to the gap as I was now about a mile higher on the mountain . . . just in case you were wondering how 13 minutes became a 15 minute gap). Too bad. I was really pulling for Dave. Nothing against Lance, but I think most of the field was pulling for Dave.
About halfway up the climb, I finally started feeling some power and rhythm in my legs for the first time of the day. I picked up my pace just a little and started passing other riders, including Jamie toward the top of the jeep-road section. There was a point when the heavens opened and we were greeted with another cold windy rain. I considered putting the jacket back on, but was able to see blue skies through the clouds and really didn’t want to stop my momentum if I was only going to take the jacket off again in 10 minutes. After about 7 miles, the jeep road ends and the last 2 miles is a steep rocky trail above the tree-line. When I hit the first rocky steep section, I was able to stay on the bike for the first ¼ mile or so. Then the line of traffic just made it too difficult to pedal and I hopped off and began walking. I didn’t mind the walking so much, but I couldn’t stand how slowly the line of walking riders was moving. Damn. I guess I should have tried going out faster from the start. For the next 30 minutes, I shuffled between riding and walking and passed riders when there was room. I was having no breathing, stomach or cramping issues and felt relatively good. I arrived at the Columbine Mine Aid station about 5 hours and 20 minutes into the race and had made the 10-mile upward trek from Twin Lakes in roughly the same time as last year (about 2:01). I guess there really was a difference in my strength this year as last year I felt like I had crushed the climb in 2:01 and this year I felt like I took it fairly moderately. Additionally, I’m sure the wet surface of the climb made things slightly slower this year.
During the ascent, I finished my entire 70 ounces of Powerbar in the Camelback and another 10 ounces or so from my water bottle. At the Columbine Mine aid station, I wasted no time. First I gave a quick skyward salute to Allan. On a training ride two weeks ago, Jamie Malin and I rode to the top of Columbine and I spread some of Al’s ashes. Al never made it the top of Columbine during his lifetime as he skipped the Columbine training rides in ’07 and then missed the cutoff time at Twin Lakes on race day. He vowed to come back in 2008 to reach the top, but it wasn’t to be. I figured it was appropriate for a part of him to spend time for eternity at a place he never reached in life.
My apologies for the deviation. Back to the race recap. After saluting Al, I pulled into the aid station, chugged 3 cups of Gatorade and pulled out (a premature evacuation?) From the Columbine Aid station, the race route re-traces the course back to Leadville. The cool thing about an out-and-back course is that every rider, at some point of the Columbine climb or descent, will pass every other rider in the race from Lance Armstrong and the leaders on the way up to the slowest struggling racers on the way down. Upon leaving the Columbine Mine aid station, there is a ¼ mile hill that rises from the aid station before taking a right turn north for the big descent. As I crested the little rise, I started searching out FD jerseys. Quick comment about the jerseys. This year’s jersey was designed by Mike Friedberg of Vail. It was a very unique design and it took me some time to get used to it as it wasn’t really my style. However, the public reception to the jersey was fantastic and I had grown to really like wearing the full kit. Of course my favorite part of the jersey was Allan’s initials on the back.
I first spotted Jamie who was just cresting the rise from the other side and who was now running about 5 minutes behind me. I next saw Gonzo and Deano a few minutes later as they were approaching the final small climb toward the aid station. As for the others, Leadman, GMO and Ryan passed me as I was ascending. Ryan was probably 50 minutes ahead of me, Leadman was about 30 minutes ahead and GMO was about 25 minutes ahead. As I descended, I passed Brooks farther down, but I couldn’t find Nile or Hoof. Nile was the most perplexing as he should have been no more than a few minutes behind me.
The descent through the rocks was pretty sketchy because of the huge number of riders still climbing. I just stayed on the tail of the rider in front of me and took no chances. My arms were not screaming in pain during the descent as they were in past years. I think it is because I made a forward adjustment on the positioning of my brake levers. It’s the little things. Once I was back on the jeep-road, I rode the next 7 miles of descent at the usual break-neck speed and was amazed at how much farther down the road the last struggling riders extended as compared to previous years. Granted, I was about 20 minutes ahead in pace over 2008, but there were still people ascending when I was over halfway down the mountain.
At the bottom, the sun was shining and it was turning into a beautiful afternoon. As I busted out into the valley, I started focusing for the first time on where I stood timewise and what it meant as far as a possible finish time. I was pretty sure that I was right on the edge of a 10-hour pace. I probably shouldn’t have wasted so much time being conservative and nonchalant, but I didn’t see any reason why I couldn’t make up for it on the homestretch. As I climbed up and over the ridge back to Twin Lakes, I strangely came upon Hoof. I say strangely as it was a very odd place for him to be at that stage of the race. As I caught up to him, I yelled “Kevin, what the hell are you doing HERE?” He simply responded “Bonk issues, race over, kick ass.” I was sure there was a story behind that one, but now wasn’t the time to focus on it. I flew up the last little hill of the ridge and then bombed down to Twin Lakes, arriving at the aid station at 5 hours and 55 minutes. Twin Lakes aid station is such an awesome arrival after Columbine. For one, you are flying through with some great speed after the ridge descent. Second, it is a tunnel of cheering people that extends from the base of the ridge all the way to the dam. Riding inbound through that tunnel is really one of the great thrills of race-day.
At 5:55, I was 22 minutes ahead of my Twin Lake inbound arrival in 2008. In 2008, I finished the race in 10:35. If I subtract 22 minutes from my 2008 finish, a ride to the finish this year at an identical pace to the last year would put me back at Leadville at 10 hours and 13 minutes. This was going to be tough as I really thought I rode a strong last 44 miles last year. This year I would have to be at least 13 minutes stronger if I was going to beat 10 hours. After crossing the dam, I hightailed it through the Twin Lakes parking lot and arrived at our little aid station at exactly 6 hours. To my shock and dismay, Nile was with the girls as his day had been cut short on the Columbine climb due to mechanical issues with his bike. I was so bummed for him. Unfortunately, I had to keep focusing on my own race. As I hadn’t drank anything during the Columbine descent, I quickly chugged half a bottle of Powerbar formula, swapped out my Camelback and grabbed a new bottle of formula for my bottle cage. I grabbed 3 new packages of Clif Shotblocks, a baggie of S-caps (sodium pills), switched out my gloves and Thump glasses and got the hell out of there. I probably lost a minute searching for gloves, but no biggie . . . I could make that up.
I hit the climb out of Twin Lakes at a pretty good pace, alternating between sitting and standing the whole way up. I pedaled hard down the dirt road and arrived at the new Pipeline singletrack section behind a line of about 10 riders. In years past, this section was known as the Cobra or North Face. It was mean and steep and required pushing the bike up a 20%+ grade for about 500 yards. This year, that section was removed and a new 1.25 mile serpentine singletrack was cut into the hill. It made the return a little more pleasant, but the added distance also meant an additional 6-7 minutes of riding. Additionally, the singletrack was so narrow that it was impossible to pass anyone. Thus one slow rider led to 9 riders frustratingly following in his wake. It took about 12 minutes to climb the trail. I didn’t account for this extra time in my calculations. I was now worried that a minute here and a minute there could derail my 10-hour ambitions. I was starting to get tired for the first time as well. I tried to push a good pace back to the Pipeline aid station, but I couldn’t find any fellow riders to work with and was riding into a bit of an annoying headwind. It was high time to start conversing with myself. “Brent, how ya feeling?” “I’m feeling good dammit!” “Are you sure?” “Yes, I’m sure dammit!” “Are you reeeeaaaaaally feeling good?” “Yes, I’m reeeeally feeling good dammit!” “Well if you are feeling so good, DAMMIT, then pick up the fucking pace!” “Oh blow me!” Ok, so maybe the self-conversation wasn’t such a great idea. At least I was amused for a good three minutes. During this 12-mile stretch, I finished a full bottle of Powerade and refilled the bottle with water when I hit the Pipeline Aid station at mile 73. I was there in 7 hours and 7 minutes. I was now 23 minutes ahead of last year, but not making up enough ground to break 10. With Powerline looming, I was starting to have my doubts. At Pipeline aid, I ate a piece of watermelon and learned that Lance Armstrong had finished in an astounding 6 hours and 28 minutes and Dave Wiens finished nearly 30 minutes later. Bummer for Dave, but pretty amazing for Lance. I just shook my head at the absurdity of Lance’s time, hopped back on the bike and continued riding to the pavement section that would lead me to the beast . . . Powerline.
At this point of the race, experience truly kicks in. In my first effort in 2007, I still wasn’t even sure I would finish at this point. My legs had started cramping and I had no race-experience from which to draw inspiration. In 2008, I was exhausted and pained and simply dreading Powerline, but I had no doubts of finishing. This year, I was tired and sore but had no dread. I simply accepted as fact that there was some suffering ahead, but also accepted as fact that I would have no problem getting through it. The only question was how long it would take and how much I had left in the tank. It was more an intellectual curiosity than a fear or worry.
I kept a great pace from Pipeline to the base of Powerline, but again could find no fellow riders for a paceline. I continued alternating between sitting and standing and was able to pedal in the big ring that entire section. Unfortunately, it was now getting really hot out and that didn’t bode well for Powerline. Additionally, I was starting to feel some queasiness in my stomach and also felt some slight stomach cramping. I rode the first flat section of Powerline and then walked the steep section at a snail’s pace. As I approached the top of the hike-a-bike section, I reached down to my pack to pull out an S-cap and discovered to my horror that all of my S-Caps and Shotblocs were gone. Somehow they must have popped out over a bump or something. This wasn’t good. I still had over 2 hours and a good 20 miles of riding to go including most of Powerline, all of St. Kevin’s and all of the Boulevard back up to town. Without sodium and food, I wasn’t sure how I could make it the whole distance without being severely slowed by bonking or cramping. As I was lamenting my predicament, I suddenly I felt a vibration from my Camelbak. It was my phone. Damn phone . . . why did I bring it and why didn’t I turn off the vibration? How annoying. Damn phone. Wait a minute. I have a damn phone with me! Maybe I should . . . uh . . . use it! To quote my youngest daughter Bailey, “DUH!” At the top of the hike section, I pulled to the side and called Lisa and made arrangements for her to meet me in 45 minutes at the spot where Hagerman Pass Road meets the pavement with some S-Caps and food. I was saved! I slogged up the remainder of Powerline, riding most of it, but walking in sections to conserve strength. Although I am too well aware of all the false summits on Sugarloaf, it never fails to bum me out to reach a plateau, turn around a bend and see the trail climb up some more. Then again, to finally reach the top of Powerline is borderline orgasmic. After cresting the top, I ecstatically bombed down the back of Sugarloaf knowing that I was getting close to the finish and that the hardest part of the day was now over. I met Lisa and Hoof and crew at Hagerman Pass Road, took a few gel packs and immediately swallowed 2 S-Caps. My Garmin showed 8 hours and 34 minutes. They offered me encouragement, but at this point I really didn’t think sub-10 was possible as I thought I was still a good 45-50 minutes away from the Carter Aid Station at the top of the St. Kevin’s pavement climb and from there I would be 55-60 minutes to the finish. Additionally, I was right on the edge of total exhaustion and simply didn’t think I’d find the energy to make a last run for it. Thus 10:10 to 10:15 was looking more and more like a reality.
Regardless, I pedaled hard down to the base of Turquoise Lake and, as I was rounding the turn, Lisa drove up beside me and asked if I needed anything else. A light bulb went off in my dim brain – maybe if I shed some weight, I could ride up the hill faster. Seemed logical. I quickly unhitched the front of my Camelbak and threw it and everything in my shirt pockets into the back of the car. At this point, I figured I could make it home with one water bottle as I’d be able to refill it at Carter Aid. I started up the 3.5 mile St. Kevin’s climb at 8:39 and was astonished by how quickly I settled into a strong rhythm. The steady cadence of a road climb was actually giving my legs life. Alternating between sitting and standing, I scooted up the climb at a good 7-9 mph and passed some 30 riders on the ascent. Suddenly I was at the top and making the turn onto the trail, arriving at Carter Aid at 9:02.
So this was it. I had 58 minutes to make it across the line. From Carter Aid, there are three short thigh-busting climbs over a 3 mile rolling trail section followed by a nut-chattering descent down St. Kevin’s. I was riding alongside a big guy in white as we approached the first hill and asked if he thought we had a shot at sub-10. He said he was in an almost identical spot in 2008 when he hit Carter Aid at 9 hours and crossed the line in 9:58. He said that we’d have to push it though. It was make or break time. I went through my options. I could mosey in with most of the riders around me and finish in 10:05 or 10:10 or I could put my legs through 58 minutes of sustained hell and hope that a sub-10 finish is worth the pain. A flood of rationalizations crossed my tired brain. Does it really matter if I’m 9:58 or 10:06? What difference will it make to my life? Isn’t it enough that I’ll still have a vastly improved time over last year? What’s the point of wasting myself over a number? WELL F**K THAT NOISE!!! To hell with the rationalizations. I wanted sub-10. I could taste sub-10. The words “sub-10” were about to highlight my biking resume for the next 12 months.
I pushed as hard as I could up each of the 3 hills while other riders were walking. I felt badly as I was one of those walkers on these hills two years ago. I was gasping for breath and my legs were screaming at me. I covered the 3 miles in about 13 minutes, reached the top of St. Kevin’s at 9:18 and crushed the rocky descent as fast as I safely could. I hit the dirt road at top speed at 9:23, put the bike into the big ring and pedaled as furiously as my dulled legs would allow. At this point there was nobody in front of me and nobody behind me. I was a little disappointed to be solo as I was riding into a headwind and it was keeping my speed below 20mph (where last year I was flying through this section at about 27mph).
I hit the pavement at Leadville junction at 9:34. In 2008, I think I covered this last section from Leadville Junction to the finish in about 25 minutes. As long as I didn’t have a mechanical issue or sudden leg cramp over the next couple of miles, I was now pretty certain for the first time in hours that I was going to do it. I hit the bottom of the “Boulevard” at 9:40. I had ¼ mile of fairly steep rocky terrain, about 2 1/4 miles of dirt road and a mile of pavement to go to the finish. After getting through the rocky bottom section, I stood up and kept the bike in the big ring for the entire trek up the Boulevard. I was possessed. I kept a pace of between 12 and 17mph going up the hill, passing riders one by one (including Chris Carmichael). I hit the top of the dirt road at 9:53 and felt utter elation. Not only was I going to break 10, but I was going to do it comfortably. I powered up the last little pavement climb and broke out into a huge grin as I saw the finish line just a half mile ahead. It is one of the most beautiful sites in the world. I zipped up my jersey (gotta look presentable!) and literally flew up 6th street to the finish.
Even better than the human tunnel at Twin Lakes is the last 500 yards of the Leadville 100. Spectators line both sides of the street and they heartily clap and cheer every racer as he or she approaches the finish. It is magical and something that will keep me coming back year after year. As I approached the red carpet that leads to the finish line, my daughter Bailey broke free from the crowd and ran up alongside me. I then heard the Leadville mayor announce my name and hometown and then my time as I crossed the line. 9:56:51. Yeeeehaaaa! Total jubilation. I made up nearly 40 minutes over last year with a good chunk of the faster time having nothing to do with last year’s tire delays. I was simply faster and stronger and was willing to push beyond the pain to achieve a goal . . . as arbitrary as that goal may sound to a non-racer. In a weird way, I felt even more empowered than I did the first time I finished this race in 2007. Although I had to overcome cramping adversity in 2007 and some mental darkness, I was realistically never in danger of not finishing and there was never a point where I really had to push myself beyond my limits. Today I had to reach into an empty tank and scour for dormant drops of energy.
On Sunday morning I returned to Leadville for the Awards Ceremony. For the 3rd time, my name was announced in the hallowed halls of the gym to “reverberate through the ages in the hills of Leadville” (according to Ken Chlouber). I received my 3rd silver buckle and a yellow sweatshirt with my name and time on the sleeve.
Lance Armstrong showed up and gave a great victory speech (which can be viewed at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_xppDlW4nHI&feature=PlayList&p=9676291A6C74A49B&playnext=1&playnext_from=PL&index=52). He was humble and spoke about how Leadville revived his racing career. Dave Wiens likewise spoke very well. Dave thanked everyone for supporting him over the years and encouraged everyone in the audience to get out, enjoy the outdoors and stay healthy. After the speeches, I got a picture with Ken and Merilee and congratulated them on putting on another awesome event and told them I couldn’t wait to come back next year.