August 23, 2014

2014 Leadville Trail 100 Mountain-Bike Race

Top 'O Columbine
It's been 2 weeks since the 2014 Leadville 100 and I have been struggling with this, my 8th chapter of Leadville blogging.  After 7 finishes and 7 blogs, is there really anything left for me to say?  Well, obviously yes based on the fact that a bunch of words ramble on beyond the end of this sentence!

In 2013, I achieved my ultimate quest for a sub-9 hour finish and a coveted Gold Buckle. That stupid shiny buckle represented years of hard work and provided me with endless moments of glory, fulfillment and, I daresay, rapture. Seriously.  I'll say it again: RAPTURE.  That stupid shiny buckle also instilled me with a level of confidence and hubris that made me think that an 8:30 finish might be in the cards in Leadville this year.  So naturally, I tried to follow a similar training program this year as 2013 with many short, high-intensity rides and lower overall volume.  I spent hours on the spin bike through the winter, played ice-hockey two nights a week, did many strenuous rides of the 2-4 hour variety and climbed a lot of hills fast.  What I didn't do were long hard rides and I also rarely pushed myself when I was tired (i.e., no consecutive-day intense efforts).  I did no races in the spring.  As of July 10th, I had only done one ride of over 62 miles and I cut that one 20 miles short at that because I was hot, bored, hungry, tired and bored (extra "bored" for emphasis).  Most significantly, I never once felt the agony of crushing my legs during a 5th, 6th or 7th hour of a ride.  So while I felt very strong this year, the million dollar question is whether I would have endurance strength for the last 40-50 miles of the race.  Actually it was more of a 10-dollar question, but I digress.

Team FD

Once again I would be racing Leadville as a member of Team First Descents.  Team FD is a concept created by me and my late best friend Allan Goldberg to take on an athletic challenge and raise money for the First Descents cancer foundation  For a full discussion of First Descents and Team FD, read one of my prior Leadville blogs.  In short, the 2014 Team FD Leadville had 26 racers and we had raised over $130,000 for First Descents as of race-day!
2014 Team First Descents
I started the 2014 Leadville 100 from the red-corral.  I believe this corral included all of those who finished between 8:30 and 9:30 in last year's LT100, plus several racers who qualified with fast times in some of the Leadville Series affiliated races.  I don't know why they use colors for the corrals.  I wish they would come up with something more creative and appropriate to describe each group.  For example, the first corral with all the Pros could be called the "Extraterrestrial" corral because they are either all on PEDs or are from another planet.   The second corral with all of the 8-ish hour guys and gals could be the "Stud" corral.  My corral, the third corral, could be the "Pretender" corral since we pretend to be studs, but we really aren't. Then what follows could be the "Average Joes," "Strugglers," "Newbies," "Daisy-Pickers" and finally the "Deluded."  Damn, I digressed again.  Race morning was a typical beautiful Colorado morning with temps around 38 degrees and few clouds in the sky.  I have Canadian blood on my father's side and actually crave cold weather, so I started with only my shorts, jersey, arm-warmers and a trash-bag inside the front of my jersey (which I would immediately pocket the second I reached the first climb).

The gun went off at 6:30am and after a slight hold-up due to what I think was a downed-tree and orange cones questionably paced about 100 yards beyond the start, we were off down 6th street at a very vigorous pace.  As mentioned above, I had started the year with aspirations of an 8:30 finish.  However, some inexplicably tiring rides in the weeks before Leadville knocked me down a few mental pegs and I had re-set my goal by race-morning for anything under 8:59:59.  To that end, I was looking to meet or beat the following splits:

Carter Summit - 52 minutes
Summit of Sugarloaf: 1:34
Pipeline Aid Outbound - 2:05
Twin Lakes Aid Outbound - 2:55
Bottom of Columbine Goat Trail: 4:05
Columbine turnaround - 4:40
Twin Lakes Aid Inbound - 5:15
Pipeline Aid Inbound - 6:15
Summit of Powerline - 7:30
Carter Summit - 8:10
Finish - 8:59

The pace was strong to the end of the pavement at Leadville Junction and through the three miles of flattish dirt-road to the base of St. Kevins and continued at a fairly steady rate all the way up the first climb.  I felt very little stress on the climb and had no issues riding at the speed of the pack.  After cresting the top to mild inner-applause, I hit the three-mile section from St. Kevin's summit to Carter Summit with a lot of energy and made sure to scale back a bit on the two short, punchy climbs in that section as there was value to be gained redlining (that's a heart-rate term for the uninitiated) to gain some 30 or 40 seconds in the first 10 miles of the race.  I reached Carter Summit at 50 minutes and was pretty satisfied to that point.  Unfortunately I had to pull over for 30-45 seconds when I reached the start of the pavement descent as one of my rear-brake cables was rubbing against my rear tire and the noise was driving me batshit.

The pavement descent down to and around Turquoise Lake was fast and cold and I slurped a good 15 ounces of fluids from my Camelbak to make up for the lack of intake over the first 50 minutes.  While I wanted to hammer up the pavement on the far side of the lake, I kept my pace at a steady 10-11mph and continued at a similar speed for the entirety of the Hagerman Pass dirt road.  Making the U-turn onto the rocks on Sugarloaf, I slowed a little as I started to feel the first twinges of overexertion and I felt that it was still too early in the race to push it.  Plus the Sugarloaf climb is truly my favorite climb of the race (yes, there is such a thing as a 'favorite climb'!) and I always find it a great spot to take in all of the views and sounds of the race.  I crested Sugarloaf at 1:32, two minutes ahead of 9-hour pace.

When I rode the Powerline descent a week before the race, I was slightly alarmed by the condition of the terrain from a recent spate of heavy rains.  The ruts were deep and there were piles of loose rocks in various spots that I thought could result in yard-sale crashes and spilled hemoglobin on race day.  Fortunately, either some trail-maintenance was performed during the week leading up to the race OR the flow of a few hundred riders before me on race-day had smoothed out the descent and it was actually not too bad. I was able to be conservatively aggressive (and oxymoronic!) and was happy to not get held-up by slower descenders.  Upon reaching the pavement at the bottom, I immediately began seeking a group of riders to join in a paceline for the next 5 miles to Pipeline.  To my amazement, all of the riders around me were spread apart and nobody seemed willing to work together.  Year after year I marvel at how we neanderthal mountain-bikers can't seem to figure out how to ride and work together on this section.  I finally joined with two guys just past the Fish Hatchery, but neither had a clue about taking turns.  Then a 3rd guy went flying past in a rush of misplaced pride, but his pace was ridiculous and I didn't want to burn myself out trying to keep up with him. As it turns out, he blew himself up and I caught and passed him about a mile short of Pipeline.  Regardless, I wasted a lot of pointless energy over this 5-mile stretch with much of it being ridden solo.  I hit Pipeline Aid at 2:05 . . . again right on schedule.

Lower Powerline Creek-Crossing

The Pipeline section was pretty uneventful.  I didn't try to crush it and, once again, I couldn't find any pace-lining riders.  Thus I probably expended more energy than was necessary, but I still managed to reach my fantastic crew (consisting of my wife Lisa and my good bud Kevin Kane and his wife Jill) at 2:52 and the Twin Lakes timer at 2:55 . . . still on sub-9 pace.  I exchanged my 70-ounce Camelback for a 50-ounce Camelbak, exchanged my bottle and sucked down a quick gel and was on my way to tackle the big hairy beast known as Columbine.  At this point I wasn't sure what to think about my race.  I didn't feel particularly good or particularly bad and just assumed (hoped?) that I would continue following last year's form as I climbed Columbine.
Twin Lakes Aid Outbound

After passing through the tunnel of colorful humanity at Twin Lakes, I rode fairly slowly on the short ascent up from the dam and also began the main Columbine dirt-road climb at a pretty benign pace.  I knew that the grade on the opening stretch of the climb was actually the steepest section of the lower climb, so I stayed in my lowest gear and just took my time finding a good climbing cadence.  There was no upside in trying to kill this section.  As I passed the 2nd and 3rd of the 10 switch-backs, I actually started feeling pretty good and was able to settle into a great 5-ish mph pace for the full 6 miles of the dirt-road climb.  The leaders once again passed in the opposite direction between the 3rd and 4th switchback (same as last year) and I once again paid them no mind.  Like I said, Extraterrestrials.

I reached the Goat Trail at 4:03, two minutes ahead of 9-hour pace and 2-minutes ahead of my 2013 pace.  Here the trail becomes rocky and steep and while I began riding the lower section of the rocks, I quickly started to feel that old familiar twinge of leg-cramps and decided to walk for a little bit.  Bad mistake. Within seconds of getting off the bike, the cramps hit both of my quads in full-force.  Imagine a vice-grip clamped on each leg, a few inches above each knee, squeezed one turn too tightly.  I bit into two S-Caps, chugged some fluids and continued gingerly walking until the grade flattened a little and then I got back onto my back and tried pedaling slowly in my easiest gear.  I was able to pedal up to the X crossing where the trail veers even more steeply up to the right and then the cramps hobbled me again.  I couldn't believe that I was still dealing with these cramping issues 8 years into this race.  So I got back off the bike, walked for awhile, then rode for a bit, then walked up through the S-turns, then rode for a bit, then cramped again, then gnashed my teeth, then walked for a bit, then stretched, then rode for a bit and then finally took the left turn at the top, crossed the last ridge and descended down to the Columbine aid turnaround.  As I hit the bottom, I looked at my Garmin and was a bit dismayed to see 4:41, now one-minute behind pace.  How the hell did I lose 3 minutes on that stretch from last year?!?!  I don't think I walked more this year than last.  The only thing I could think was that the walking pace must have been slower this year than last.

I saw no reason to stop at the aid station and since I was a bit pissed about losing time, I continued right around the little aid-station cul-de-sac and headed right back up the short hill to the ridge.

The Columbine descent this year was a bit sketchier than normal.  The local authorities had performed fairly extensive road-maintenance this summer and a lot of gravel had been laid down for some reason.  This made the surface a bit more slippery and required a little more braking and speed governance than in prior years.  Plus the line of riders still climbing extended pretty far down the mountain.  I felt nothing but sympathy for the poor souls who were still climbing up as I descended through the 5th, 4th and 3rd switchbacks and who essentially had no chance of finishing the race.
Columbine Descent
What felt like a slower pace down Columbine was confirmed when I I arrived back at Twin Lakes at 5:18.  I had lost another 2 minutes to 9-hour pace and was now 3-minutes off 9-hour pace.  My legs were still kind of sore from the cramping and I was starting to feel my first real energy depletion.  The next climb out of Twin Lakes would tell the tale of this race.
Descent into Twin Lakes Inbound

I pulled up to my crew (which had grown to include my mom and her husband Jesse, who were making their virgin appearance at the race) and swapped Camelbaks and bottles and downed another gel.  I put on my best sub-9 face, but my first doubts were creeping in about whether I could close the deal again this year.  Those doubts were immediately crystallized when I hit the climb out of Twin Lakes and my legs simply didn't respond.  No pep.  No snap.  No energy.  No verve.  No more synonyms.  To make matters worse, I was faced with a hellacious headwind that further sapped my morale.  By the time I reached the single-track section of Pipeline, I pretty much knew my race was over as I just didn't have the energy or the drive to put in the continued effort that was needed to not only make-up the 3 minutes that I had lost, but to even maintain a sub-9 pace.  Suddenly, it occurred to me that my 2013 Gold Buckle had become that proverbial 'albatross around the neck.'  In those few moments of plodding up the singletrack, I was suddenly able to justify my lack of inspiration and desire by the fact that I had already achieved what I wanted to achieve (in 2013) and I simply didn't feel like destroying myself to do it again.  Moreover, I convinced myself that I didn't want to risk putting in a massively painful effort only to arrive at the finish-line in 9:03 or 9:04.  That would be excruciating.  So for the first time in 8 years of Leadville, I simply accepted my fate and figuratively quit.  I arrived at Pipeline Aid at 6:22, losing yet another 4 minutes.  At that point, I was 7-minutes off sub-9 pace, the headwinds were howling and I was mentally checked-out.  It was zombie-time.  Oh, and my frickin' Ipod battery died.

From Pipeline, I loafed over to the base of Powerline, did the usual walk up the steep first 1/3 of Powerline, stopped at the first ridge to rest and enjoy a Coke, happily walked the bike several more times on the upper sections of Powerline and crested Powerline at 7:40.  Amazingly, even with the slow-down, I only lost another 3 minutes on this section. Kind of confounding actually.  And as in my 7 previous efforts, I felt a form of mild euphoria knowing that the hardest part of the race was now behind me.

I gleefully bombed down the Sugarloaf descent and even took a few minutes to hang with my friends Kevin Kane, Mike and Sunni Lamond and Nick McHargue at the Hagerman Road U-turn.  I then actually summoned some some late-in-the-game renewed energy for the St. Kevin's climb . . . mostly because I just wanted to be done.

I reached Carter Summit Aid at 8:22 and stopped to have some salt-laced watermelon and a few cups of Coke and then, after thanking all the aid-station volunteers, continued on.  In 2013, I covered this last 13 miles in 50 minutes.  A repeat of that performance would have me across the line at 9:12.  That simply wasn't going to happen this year.  Every bodily reaction and feeling was just a bit slower this time around.  My traversing the 3 miles to the top of St. Kevin's was slower, my descent down St, Kevin's was slower (mostly because I decided to take no risks that would jeopardize my finish), my jaunt over to the Boulevard was slower, my climb up the Boulevard was slower and, finally, my push up the final hill on 6th Street was slower.  Whatever.

For the 8th time, I crested the final little hill on 6th Street and enjoyed the unrivaled pleasure of cruising down and then up the last few blocks to the red-carpeted finish line, crossing the line at 9:17.  The coolest part of my whole day was when my buddy, Brad Reiss, popped in on his scooter in the last 100 yards (he has MS) and trailed me up the red carpet and over the line.  While not totally satisfied with my time, I knew in my heart of hearts that it was a time that I deserved.  It was my second best time in 8 Leadvilles and was perfectly respectable.
Red Carpet

"Perfectly respectable."  That sounds nice, but I had to be honest with myself.  What went wrong?  Why did I fall apart after 60 miles and why couldn't I summon the incentive or desire to push through it?   I think if I shine a harsh light on myself, the answer is that I lied and I cheated this year.  I lied to myself by convincing myself that the simple act of crossing the line in sub-9 hours last year would permanently lift me over the hump and lead to a string of sub-9 finishes going forward.  I cheated myself by decreasing my endurance training in 2014 based on the faulty logic that I could achieve the same, if not more, by doing less.  Unfortunately, the Leadville 100 platitude "there are no shortcuts" took a dog-sized bite out of my ass this year. By not doing any long endurance training and by not pushing myself on tired legs, I was simply not equipped to maintain the same exertion level after mile 60 as I did for the first 60.  Does it make any difference to anyone but me?  Emphatically not.  Will it light a new fire in me to train harder in 2015?  I probably can't and won't answer that until next Spring rolls around.

Anyway, to bring everything back to the correct perspective, I finished the race for the 8th time, I got my 8th buckle, I didn't get hurt, I had another fantastic spring and summer of training, I met new people whose posts I will be forever stuck following on Facebook, I remain in pretty much the best shape of my life while getting deep into my 40s and, best of all, I once again was part of a group of riders who raised a significant amount of money for First Descents . . . money that will allow many young cancer survivors to seek outdoor adventures that are no less incredible than the one in which I get to participate on the second Saturday of every August in Leadville, Colorado.

A few final notes:  From among the 26 Team FD riders, I believe that there were 3 Gold buckles and 14 Silver buckles.  The fastest Team FD time was turned in by Craig Cohn at 8:38.  I had two long-time riding buddies from Maryland riding with me this year, Dave "Gonzo" Gonzales and Gary "GMo" Morris.  Gonzo trained like a madman this past year in hopes of going sub-10 for the first time and he succeeded with a 9:51.  GMo skipped Leadville in 2013 and really didn't get himself into great riding shape in 2014, but he came back out and managed to throw down an 11:15 finish despite wrestling with a tire issue for a good 35 minutes on Powerline outbound.  Finally, I have mentioned my friend Mike McHargue in several prior blogs.  Mike is a former multiple Leadman finisher and raced in his 9th Leadville this year on a brand new hip and finished in 10:13.  I look forward to seeing Mike earn his 1,000 mile buckle in 2015!