August 22, 2011

2011 Leadville Trail 100 Mountain bike race

August 13, 2011
Leadville, Colorado

Leadville 100 Course Map
Here we go again.  Another Leadville 100 in the books and time to encapsulate the experience for personal posterity.  I really don’t know what to say about this race that I haven’t said in four previous narratives describing my superhuman . . . well . . . slightly-above-average human exploits.  So I guess I’ll just start typing and hope the anti-drivel muse makes an appearance.

August 13, 2012 was the date of my 5th consecutive participation in the Leadville Trail 100 mountain bike race in Leadville, Colorado.  Known as the “Race Across the Sky” and made famous by two movies of the same name, the Leadville 100 is known and respected as the toughest one-day endurance mountain bike race in the United States.  It consists of 100 (actually 103.5) miles of biking at altitudes between 9,200 and 12,600 feet and includes cumulative elevation gains of between 12,000 and 14,000 feet depending on what kind of measuring device you use (personally, I like the one that says 14,000).

In the summer of 2006, my late best friend, Allan Goldberg, connivingly convinced me to sign up for Leadville in 2007 by telling me he had cancer.  I told him that I had back rash from time spent on the couch.  He said that he had to do 6 months of chemo and radiation and that I needed to get off my ass and train.  How logical.   However, it obviously hit home as I accepted the challenge, completed the race in 2007 and have been hooked ever since.  From 2007 through 2010, my finish times in the race have steadily improved from 11 hours and 11 minutes in 2007 to 10:35 in 2008 to 9:57 in 2009 to 9:43 in 2010.  It was a trend I hoped to continue in 2011.

As with the previous 4 years, I was racing this year as a member of Team First Descents.  First Descents is a Colorado-based cancer foundation that operates free weeklong outdoor adventure programs for young adult (ages 18-39) cancer survivors and fighters.  Allan was the Executive Director of First Descents when he challenged me to my first Leadville 100 and we called our first group of riders in 2007 “Team FD”.  Additionally, we used the race as a fundraiser and raised some $85,000 for First Descents.   Sadly, Allan passed away in June, 2008, but the Team FD concept has blossomed in his memory.  Over the past 3 years, Team FD has not only continued to grow for the Leadville 100, but the concept has grown into First Descents’ largest fundraising arm with over 400 athletes participating in athletic challenges around the U.S. and using the challenges to raise money for First Descents.  By the way, I am now Chairman of the First Descents’ Board of Directors and my wife, Lisa, is a full-time Director of the Team FD program for First Descents.  It has definitely become a family affair.  This year, there would be 24 Team FD riders racing in Leadville, including First Descents’ founder and CEO, Brad Ludden, as well as several past FD participant/survivors.

OK, so there’s the obligatory background in a nutshell.  Now let’s get to the race.  Actually, let’s go backwards just a little bit first.  In 2010 I trained like crazy shooting for a magic Sub-9-hour time and was pretty burned out by race-day.  While I had a decent race, I didn’t enjoy the experience as much and blamed it on the training burn-out.  In 2011, I vowed to take a different approach to training and let the chips fall as they may.  I did plenty of long fun rides in the spring, but probably 50% of the mileage that I rode in 2010.  When July hit, I was still pretty fresh and embarked on a solid 5 weeks of Colorado riding with several big rides like the Double Triple Bypass and Silver Rush 50 with some big hikes interspersed with the riding.  I got a lot of rest and I built myself up to a peak a week before Leadville and then tapered perfectly during that last week.  In short, I was chomping at the bit for the race and truly felt that 9-hours was a possibility.  At worst, I figured I would be able to realistically finish in the 9:15 to 9:30 range.

This year, for the first time, riders were going to be started in corrals based on one’s best finish time in the previous three years.  As there were apparently 1900 riders registered for the 2011 race, that was good news as I was assured of starting the day in front of about 80% of the field . . . including some 800 first-timers.  My plan was to go hard from the start and simply stick with the strong riders and hope that the fast pace would carry me through several of the early check-points in times at or just under a 9-hour pace without having to overly extend myself.  From there, I would hopefully will myself through the pain to achieve the goal.
Pre-race fuel

Lisa and I stayed at the Leadville home of Mike and Laurel McHargue for race-weekend so that I wouldn’t have to get up at 3am in Vail and make the drive up to Leadville.  Like it mattered.  I woke up on race-morning at1:30am and never fell back to sleep.  At 4am, I finally got out of bed, went to the bathroom and went downstairs to eat some pancakes and prepare my nutrition for the day.  At 4:45, some of the Vail crew arrived including a few fellow Team FD riders Gary Morris (“GMO”), Matt Hayne (“Mateo”) and Andrew Fleming (“X2C”).  At 5am, GMO and I rode over to the start and placed our bikes at the front of our corral and then went back to the McHargues for final pre-race prep (bathroom, sunscreen, dress-up, pep-talk, pre-hydration, butt-balm, etc.).  At 6:05 we walked back to the start line to begin the day-long adventure.
Off to the Races.
The temperature at the start was around 40 degrees but it really didn't feel that cold.  There wasn’t a cloud in the sky and sunny warm weather was predicted for the entire race.  Hydration was going to be critical with that forecast and it sounded like clothing decisions would be minimal.  I had already stowed my rain-jacket in the car and decided to take my chances without it.  Although I was going to start the race with arm-warmers, I knew from experience that I would likely have them off halfway up St. Kevins.

The gun went off at 6:30am sharp after a (fool)hardy count-down and we were off.  GMO and I stayed together down the pavement at a very fast-pace and I felt absolutely fantastic.  This was going to be the day and GLORY WOULD BE MINE . . . until it all quickly went to hell.  Just as we were about to make the right turn onto the dirt at Leadville Junction (mile 3), I felt my rear wheel slide and I looked down in disbelief to see a flat rear tire.  “NO, NO, NO . . . not here” I screamed to myself.  There couldn’t be a worse place on the entire course to get a flat-tire as the race has not yet had a chance to spread out.  “Flat fucking tire” I yelled to GMO and started to pull over.  He asked if I wanted his help and I told him to keep riding.  I knew what a flat at this moment meant and I absolutely didn’t want to screw up his race too.

I quickly pulled off my pump and a CO2 cartridge and tried to fill the tire with air.  If it was just a slow puncture leak, I was hoping to get right back on the bike and at least get up and over St. Kevins before the crowd and then deal with the tire.  Unfortunately the CO2 just blew air into the pump, but not into the tire.  I didn’t know if the canister was bad, the pump was bad or the air valve on the tire was bad (or the more likely reason - I'm just an idiot), so I decided to give it another try with a second CO2 canister.  Same thing happened.  Fuck, fuck, fuck.  This was unbelievable.  I then tried to hand-pump the tire, but it appeared that air was escaping from the valve-stem hole in the rim.  At this point, I ripped the tire off the rim in frustration and emptied out all the gooey tubeless sealant (much of it splattering on me).  Upon closer inspection of the valve, I noticed that it was loose and that the rubber o-ring was missing.  The O-ring prevents air from escaping through the valve hole.  So at least I knew the culprit.  Nothing I could do about that now.  I just couldn’t believe that after 5 weeks of mountain biking on this bike with these tires without a single issue or loss of pressure, the tire chose this precise moment to start leaking air.  By now, the entire field had whooshed by and it really made no difference how long it took to fix the tire as I was going to be in the very back regardless.  Ken Chlouber and Scott Giffin (LT100 Founder and LT100 Race Director) happened to be nearby and offered to help, but there wasn’t much they could do.  I grabbed a tube out of my pack and put the tire back together.  I started furiously hand-pumping when Scott mentioned that he had a foot-pump.  Borrowing the foot-pump, I pumped the tire up and was back on my way.  When initially I pulled off to the side of the route to fix the tire, my Garmin showed that 6 minutes had elapsed since the start.  When I got back on the route, it said 21 minutes.  15 frickin’ minutes to change the tire!  I was thoroughly frustrated, angry, deflated, depressed and even a bit embarrassed.  The worst part of all is that there was a dude filming the whole thing.  I really hope that I handled myself with some degree of poise and didn’t unleash a torrent of audible expletives, but I really can’t remember.

Jumping back on my bike at the 21 minute mark, I started pedaling like mad to catch up to a field of riders that was now probably 2 miles off in the distance when the cold, hard realization hit me that my race was over before it began.  A year’s worth of training and anticipation snuffed out by a very poorly timed mechanical.  To someone who doesn’t know the race, you might wonder why the race was lost from a 15-minute rest-stop?  Couldn’t I still go for 9 hours or maybe 9 hours and 15 minutes?  The answer is an emphatic no for a rider like me who pretty much needed a perfect race to hit that mark.  It isn’t just the 15 minutes it took to fix the flat, but it is the immeasurable time I would continue to lose trying to get through the St. Kevin’s and Sugarloaf climbs and Powerline descent riding behind and among much slower riders.  I also knew that while strong, I wasn’t strong ENOUGH to put in a max-effort to make up the time.

To take my mind off the sobering reality, I started counting the riders as I passed them.  Since I was in absolute last place, the only thing that would keep me interested in the short-term was passing as many riders as I could.  One, two, five, fifteen, thirty, fifty, seventy-five, one-hundred.  I passed over 100 riders between the base of St. Kevins and Carter Aid station.  I passed anywhere I could while also trying not to be a total dick.  I shot through holes in the crowd or darted around riders walking their bikes.  I passed on the side-hill berm on the left-side of the trial and in the ditch on the right side of the trail.  I hit Carter Aid Station at about 1:10 and finally freed myself on the pavement.   Again, the cold realization of my predicament hit me as I was a full 20 minutes off the pace I needed to be on for sub-9 and 15 minutes behind my actual 2010 pace that resulted in a finish time of 9:43. 

I got into a tuck and tore down the pavement as fast as I could safely go, passing still more and more riders.  I kept pedaling hard, down around Turquoise lake and up the pavement on the other side. By the time I made the u-turn onto Hagerman Pass Road, I decided to stop counting riders that I had passed as it was now well over 200 and counting was becoming distracting. Unfortunately, that still put me behind 1400 riders, of which a good 500-600 probably wouldn’t finish in under 11 hours.  I continued up Hagerman Pass road at a pace faster than I’ve ever done on that stretch and then ran smack into the next traffic jam on Sugarloaf.  Again, I had to pick my spots to pass riders going up Sugarloaf and was often slowed to a standstill.  I finally reached the top of Sugarloaf at 2 hours.  I was now 30 minutes off a sub-9 pace and 22 minutes slower than 2010.  I still hadn’t re-set any time goals as I was just trying to make up as much ground as possible and then re-evaluate when I got to Twin Lakes. 

The Powerline descent was just as frustrating as the St. Kevins and Sugarloaf climbs as the line of riders was thick and descending skills among that group just weren’t that great.  Actually, that’s probably an unfair statement.  There were likely many good descenders.  Unfortunately, it just takes a few poor descenders to hold everyone up and there just aren’t many safe places to pass and I didn't want to risk a crash that would end my race or someone else's.  So what is usually a fun white-knuckled smiley-faced descent was a lesson in patience and wrist-pain from riding the brakes. 

Damn, this must be depressing as hell to read.  Let me switch gears.  It was a stunningly beautiful day and I was constantly making myself take a deep breath and enjoy the scenery.  There was still a lot of riding left to be done and there was no use riding it in a funk and ruining the whole day.  When I hit the Powerline aid station at 2:30, I finally decided that any attempts to reach any of my time goals would be futile and that I should just do everything in my power to enjoy the day.  When it came down to it, I was healthy and strong and I was getting to ride my bike all day long in some of the most beautiful mountains in the world.  I got unlucky, but it was time to stop worrying about time and simply worry about embracing the ride itself.   I did, however, need some incentive and it didn't take long to find some. What I decided was that I needed to catch-up to some of my fellow Team FD riders and ride the 2nd half of the race with them.

So that’s what I did.  I put my head down and rode fairly hard through the Powerline section and arrived at the First Descents’ aid station at about 3 hours and 20 minutes.  I tried to ride in with a smile on my face as Lisa and Kevin both knew that I must be pretty disappointed to be arriving so late and I’m sure GMo had told them about the flat.  I shrugged it off, grabbed a new Camelbak and bottle and continued on my way and did my best not to be a downer in front of our awesome crew who had dedicated their day to making life easier for us riders. 

Off to Climb Columbine
I crossed the dam and went under the timing balloon at 3:25 and proceeded through a human tunnel through Twin Lakes that was larger than any of the previous 4 years.  Obviously the two movies combined with the larger number of riders had inflated the ranks of spectators.  In retrospect, I wish I had slowed down through this section if only to read all the signs and look at all the funny costumes and outfits.  Heading up the little climb out of Twin Lakes, I started feeling my first leg-weariness of the day.  I had obviously expended a lot of energy getting around some 800 riders over the past 30 miles and riding solo for long stretches of the Powerline and now it was coming home to roost.  I started up the main Columbine climb pretty slowly as I was feeling sluggish and a bit apathetic.  About halfway up the fire-road climb, I saw Mateo in the distance and picked up the pace to reach him.  We spoke for a little bit and then I started feeling a little surge of energy and started standing on the pedals and passing groups of riders.  I turned around and was psyched to see that Mateo was staying on my wheel.   Over the next 3 miles or so, we probably passed some 50-60 riders and I was starting to think that we could actually lay down a pretty decent time getting to the top.  Unfortunately, that became a no-go when we got to the steeper rocky section as there was not only a line of walkers, but the line was not moving very well.  I was actually happy to get off my bike and walk for a few minutes just to give the legs a break.  However, after a few hundreds yards, I wanted to get back on the bike, but there was nowhere to ride as descending riders were coming fast and furiously and ascending riders were slowly meandering up the trail. 

We were able to ride the flattish section approaching the fork and I had to open a few quick S-Caps on my tongue as my right knee started to seize with a cramp, but then we were off and on the bikes again for the next 25 minutes after the fork and the cramp went away.  This part was really frustrating as the walking pace was absurdly slow and I actually started to go a bit crazy with simple boredom.  Finally we finished the walking and happily rode across the top ridge and into the Columbine Aid station at about 5 hours and 30 minutes.  It had taken 2:05 to go from Twin Lakes to Columbine.  I was hoping to do this in 1:45.  I was admittedly slow the first few miles, but then picked it up pretty well for the dirt road.  Unfortunately, I think about 5-10 minutes were lost at the top solely because of the slow pace of walkers.  Then again, at this point, it really didn’t matter.  It’s not like I was going to go nuts worrying about a 10:18 finish versus a 10:28 finish.  If I wasn’t going to at least beat my 9:43 from last year, then the only thing relevant was another buckle.

Mateo and I hung around the Columbine aid station for about 8-10 minutes as we waited for Brook Edinger and Brad Ludden to arrive and get some food and then the four of us took off down the mountain together.  It was cool having a line of 4 lime green Team FD guys descending in the face of the ascending crowd, but we unfortunately had company in front of us by way of about 5 slow single-file riders who had become well-schooled in the fine art of squeezing the shit out of their brakes.  It was brutal.  There was nowhere to pass and nothing we could do except get in line, squeeze our brakes and count down the minutes until we would hit the open fire-road and pass.  When we finally reached the fire-road, I immediately shot past all three of my guys and all 5 of the guys ahead of us and bombed down on my own.  Other than the switchbacks, I barely hit my brakes the entire way down the mountain.

I hit the Twin Lakes aid station at about 6 hours and 18 minutes and rolled into the First Descents’ aid station a few minutes later.  At this point I’d pretty much lost my mojo and decided there was no point in rushing through the stop so that I could shoot for some time that was still going to be in excess of 10 hours.  So I took off my helmet, grabbed a seat and kicked-back.  I was feeling pretty hot and slightly light-headed so I dumped a bunch of water on my head and ate some watermelon.  Kevin and Lisa got my new Camelbak and bottle ready to go, but I wasn’t moving at quite their speed.  In the meantime, Brook, Mateo and Brad all arrived from their Columbine descent and each of them managed to get their crap together and get rolling before I finally got motivated enough to get my ass back on my bike.  I probably spent a good 10 minutes at our aid station.  That was easily the longest time I’ve spent at an aid station in 5 years.  Whatever, there was no rush and it was good to channel my inner Jamie Malin (who spent 20 minutes lounging at this aid station in 2009).
At least I'm smiling.

So this is what's it like to sit and rest during a race.

As I left the FD aid station, crossed highway 82 and started up the climb from Twin Lakes, I saw Mateo and Brad in the distance, but I just couldn’t get motivated enough to pick up my speed and chase them.  I figured I'd catch them sooner or later.  By the time I hit the single-track, the sun was blazing, it was hot as a furnace and I was having trouble getting fluids into what had rapidly become a distended stomach.  I was thirsty as hell, but a single swig from my Camelbak would uncomfortably fill me up.  I also felt some pressure in my “back-side” and hoped that I could make it to Pipeline Aid without having to take a detour into the woods with some toilet paper.

Fortunately, the rest of Pipeline passed pretty uneventfully and I avoided the toxic detour.  However, as soon as I rolled into the Pipeline aid station, I made a beeline for the Porta-Potties and spent the next 5-6 minutes . . . um . . . making myself feel better?  I can’t say this “emptying” gave me renewed enthusiasm, but I was certainly more comfortable in my seat upon leaving the aid station!  As the FD Aid station was located beyond the official Twin Lakes time check and the Pipeline Porta-Potties were located before the Pipeline time check, my split for this section was a pretty abysmal hour and 22 minutes, thus putting me at Pipeline at around 7 hours and 40 minutes. 

I quickly looked for Brad and Mateo, but they were nowhere to be seen.  However, as I was pulling onto the dirt road after Pipeline, I spotted a Team FD kit in the distance and started turning the pedals a little quicker to catch whoever it was.   It turned out that the kit belonged to X2C and I caught up to him near the Fish Hatchery as we approached Powerline.  X was his usual cheery self and he actually led the way for the first half of Powerline.  Did I mention that X is a cancer survivor, former FD camper, camp director at several FD camps this summer and all-around amazing guy?  I couldn’t help but be inspired by his infectious energy and, by the time we hit the top half of Powerline, I was pretty determined to stay on my bike the rest of the way even though most other riders around us were getting on and off their bikes.  About ¾ of the way to the top, we came upon Brad walking his bike.  He looked pretty spent, but there were no concerns about his getting the buckle as he had plenty of time to spare.  We kept riding and soon came upon Brook walking a steep rocky section.  Again, I had no concern about his getting the buckle, so I gave him some encouragement and I kept riding.  About 300 vertical feet short of the summit, I turned around to tell X that we were almost at the top, but he had fallen back somewhere and was now nowhere to be seen.  Oh well, alone again.

Powerline continued to provide its usual maudlin entertainment right up to the last vertical foot.  I passed one guy who said that his bike computer read 94 degrees.  In my 5 Leadvilles, we’ve had unusually hot weather in 3 of them, but nothing like this.  I was craving fluids, but still couldn’t get anything down into my stomach.  I was actually pretty shocked that I hadn’t started cramping yet.  I finally reached the top at about 9 hours and 10 minutes and considered waiting for my bedraggled friends.  However, that consideration lasted about 1 second as Mateo was still ahead and I just wanted to get done with this race.

With the inevitable triumph and glee that accompanies the summiting of Powerline, I bombed down the rocky section of the Sugarloaf descent and the Hagerman Road dirt section and tried to find either Kevin or Nick McHargue at the u-turn onto the pavement so that I could get rid of my Camelbak as I’ve done the last two years.  While there was a dude down there yelling my name, I saw no sign of Kevin or Nick and just kept going.  I learned later that the guy yelling my name was a friend of Nick’s and he was waiting there with a fresh bottle for me.  No matter, I still hadn’t touched the bottle on my frame since Twin Lakes and I was able to attach the empty Camel to my handlebars so that I could ride up St. Kevins unladen.  Just before starting the climb, however, a rider in front of me had his rear tire literally blow up in my face.  I stopped for a few minutes to try to help and ended up giving him a spare tire and then took off again.  By now I was so uncomfortably hot that I had removed my bib shoulder straps and let them hang down my sides and had completely unzipped my jersey.  Throw in the distended stomach hanging out over my shorts and I'm sure I was quite the vision.    Starting the St. Kevins climb, there were some saintly folks with water jugs and I allowed (i.e., begged) them to dump about a half gallon of water all over me.  Ahhhh, so nice.

The St. Kevins climb was no big deal.  I was able to alternate standing and sitting and did the climb in about 25 minutes, arriving at Carter Aid Station at about 9 hours and 50 minutes.  As I was pulling into the aid station, I saw Mateo pulling out, so I made my stop very fast, swigging a few ounces of coke, biting into a watermelon and moving on.  I caught Mateo on the first of three mini-climbs and told him to get behind me.  I also told him that our goal was to not put our foot down (i.e., get off the bikes) the rest of the way.  We covered this little section without any difficulty and suddenly found ourselves at the top of St. Kevins with one more descent to go.  I jumped ahead and blasted down St. Kevins and really noticed for the first time just how much the trail had been graded since last year.  There were no more huge rocks or trenches and I barely needed to touch the brakes the whole way down.  I was even smiling.

I shot out onto the dirt road at the bottom and was approached by a rider that I had passed on St. Kevins.  I thought he was going to lay into me for riding dangerously so close to the end, but instead he smiled and said “that was awesome man!  Way to descend!”  (I learned later that his name was Roger Villmow and he was also completing his 5th Leadville.  Roger finished the race about 30 seconds behind me).  For the next few miles, I slow-pedaled to give Mateo a chance to catch-up as, at this point, I thought it would be cool to finish together.  He caught me just before Leadville Junction (site of my flat-tire mishap some 10 hours ago) and I looked at him and said, as a point of pride, “let’s finish strong.”  We both took it fairly slowly up the first steeper, rockier section of the Boulevard and then stood up and pounded most of the remaining miles back into town.  We reached the pavement at the top of the Boulevard, took the right on Harrison and crested the last hill and then saw the finish in the distance.  I asked Mateo to slow down for a second so that I could zip up my jersey and then we cruised the last mile to the finish, crossing the line side-by-side at 10:43:something, capping a long frustrating day with a very meaningful ending.
Side-by-Side finish . . . a great moment.

Brent and Mateo at the Finish
My #1 Crew-mate and Life-mate!


So buckle #5 is in the bag.  I’m halfway to the 1,000-mile buckle.  This race will be memorable for having 24 Team FD riders, 20 of whom finished and got buckles.   It will be memorable for having raised over $110,000 for First Descents.   It will also be memorable for having ridden with several first-timers who succeeded with great first races.  However, it will always gnaw at me that I didn’t check my valves more closely to ensure they were air-tight.  I don’t know whether I had a 9-hour finish in me this year.  For the first time in 5 years, I felt great at the start with no anxieties.  I’d ridden strong in the weeks leading up to Leadville and truly felt that if I had placed myself with 9-hour riders at the start and stuck with them through Twin Lakes, that I would be able to push myself through the last 60 miles to stay on pace.  Unfortunately, the early flat tire destroyed that chance.  I can’t blame the flat for the 10:43 finish.  I certainly could have kept riding hard and come in somewhere around 9:45.  However, the flat was too big a mental blow to force myself to endure a whole lot of torture for a 9:45.

While this year’s experience made me hungry for my return in 2012, it also illustrates how fickle bike-racing can be.  It sucks that a whole year’s worth of training and miles on the bikes can be derailed by something so stupid as an unsealed valve 6 minutes into the race.  It will be hard to get similarly motivated next winter knowing that something like that can happen again.  Then again, maybe it will be good to have a little inspiration fed by the need for payback!


Side Notes:  Team FD rider Dirk Sorenson won the coveted "Last Ass Up the Pass" award granted to the last rider to cross the finish line before the 12-hour shotgun blast.  Dirk literally crossed the line AS the gun blasted.   Team FD rider and Leadman competitor Marty Saturn was literally the last ass up the pass as he crossed the finish line (or what was the finish line before it was disassembled) at 13 hours and 52 minutes in the fading light.  The fastest Team FD rider was once again Ryan Sutter with a time of 8 hours and 11 minutes.