August 24, 2015

2015 Leadville Trail 100 Mountain-Bike Race

Another year, another buckle, another tough race, another fantastic Leadville experience.  Number 9 was much like several of the others: grueling and fun, miserable and rewarding, unmet expectations, but satisfying nonetheless.  My 9th was a lot like my 8th, so I might as well just jump right in.

I had a tumultuous 3 months leading up to this year's race with two bad bike crashes mixed in with a bunch of May and June travel that kept me sidelined off the bike for long periods of time.  From May 5 to June 20, I was on my bike a grand total of 5 times.  Needless to say, I arrived in Colorado on June 30 with a lot of question-marks about my fitness and low expectations for Leadville.

My custom upon Colorado arrival is to do a fitness test which consists of riding from our home in Eagle-Vail to the peak of Beaver Creek ski resort.  It is an 11-mile climb with a 4,000 foot elevation gain. When I'm strong, I can usually do the climb in 1:45.  When I'm out of shape, I'm closer to 2 hours. This year was 1:55.  Not great, but not horrible.  On July 11, I raced the Silver Rush 50 mountain-bike race in Leadville.  I started casually with my buddy Dean, but picked up the pace and ended with a respectable finish time of 5:39.  Not quite as good as my 5:24 PR in 2013, but also not horrible.  I continued to steadily add miles through July and early August and felt that I was pretty close to 2013 form (my only sub-9 hour Leadville finish) when Leadville arrived.  However, I also knew that I would need a perfect race with perfect weather conditions in order to achieve a second gold buckle.

My plan for the 2015 race was to ride hard for the first 40 miles and try to give myself some time cushion when I got to Twin Lakes at mile 40.  In prior years, I tried to conserve energy for the first 40 so that I could hit the Columbine climb harder.  That worked in 2013, but not in 2014.  So I figured "what the hell," let's change things up this year.  Time targets were as follows:

Carter Summit - 50 minutes
Sugarloaf summit - 1:30
Pipeline Aid - 2:00
Twin Lakes - 2:50
Goat Trail - 4:05
Columbine Aid - 4:35
Twin Lakes - 5:10
Pipeline - 6:10
Powerline Summit - 7:25
Carter Summit - 7:55
Finish - 8:45

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  For a full discussion of First Descents and Team FD, read one of my prior Leadville blogs.  In short, the 2015 Team FD Leadville had 26 racers and not only had we raised over $130,000 for First Descents as of race-day, but about 3 days before the race we hit the $1Million mark for total raises since Team FD Leadville's inception in 2007!  Not bad for a bunch of scraggly mountain-bikers.  And we all looked great in our new Primal race kits!
2015 Team First Descents

Race morning began with the usual 3:30am wake-up, 3:40am blueberry pancakes, 3:50am toilet visit, 4am car-load, 4:10am bottle of fluids, 4:15am departure, 5:05am arrival at Mike and Laurel McHargue's house in Leadville, 5:10am toilet visit #2, 5:25am donning of riding gear and application of sun-screen and butt-balm, 5:45am toilet visit #3, 5:55am street photo and 6am departure for the start.  This year I was starting from the green corral based upon my Silver Rush finish . . . which is kind of absurd considering that my 9:17 finish at 2014 LT100, which would have put me one corral behind the green, was far more impressive than my 5:39 Silver Rush finish.  All hail the powers that be.

At 6:15am, standing in the back of the green corral, I had my first moment of dread. It was warm.  Well, relatively speaking.  It was 44 degrees, but that was warm for a race that typically started in the low 30s.  There was no need for a jacket and no need for the plastic bag that I usually stuffed down the front of my jersey for the cold pavement ride down to Leadville Junction from the start.  This was not a good sign for me.  Heat is my kryptonite and a warm start forshadowed a hot day.  With that, I quickly downed about 10-12 ounces of fluids to pre-hydrate.

After Dave Wiens' kid sung the national anthem, the shotgun went off at 6:30 and Leadville #9 began.  It took 2 minutes for the riders in my corral to reach the starting line, but then things picked up quickly. The ride down the pavement and all the way through the base of St Kevins was at a very fast pace . . . the fastest of my 9 races.  St. Kevins was a bit crowded and so was the 3-miles of trail between the top of St. Kevins and Carter Aid, but I still managed to reach the pavement just past Carter Aid at 50 minutes on the dot.  So far so good.
Hagerman Pass Road

Pipeline outbound - Singletrack
The pavement descent was fast and warm and the ensuing climb up pavement, Hagerman's dirt and Sugarloaf rocks was smooth and fairly effortless.  I crested Sugarloaf at 1:32.  Considering the 2 minute delay in getting to the start, I was still right on pace.

The Powerline descent was a little slower than I would have liked, but I made it down without issue and found a great paceline group on the pavement around Fish Hatchery that stayed together all the way to Pipeline Aid, which I hit at 2:06.  By the way, the tunnel of people at Pipeline Aid was incredible and extended for a good half-mile on both sides of the trail.  Anyway, I kept pushing a strong cadence (for me) all the way through Pipeline, continued pedaling hard up the last hill before Twin Lakes, and bombed down the other side arriving at the First Descents' aid station at 2:50.  Lisa and Kevin (Kane) got me in and out in less than 40 seconds and I crossed the dam and hit the Twin Lakes timer at 2:53.

Mountain-View Lot - Twin Lakes outbound
Looking for the FD Station
Kevin - Octopus Man

So, 40 miles into the race I was feeling good and, while I was a few minutes short of my aggressive 8:45 pace, I was a couple minutes ahead of my pace from 2013.  The problem was that I had pushed pretty hard and only had a couple minutes to show for it.  Not exactly the cushion for which I was hoping. Up to that point, I had ingested approximately 90 ounces of fluids and 2 S-Caps an hour in anticipation of the hot weather ahead.  And it was definitely getting hot.  I climbed the hill beyond Twin Lakes and dropped into Lost Canyon and was met with an immediate change in climate.  It was as if somebody had turned up the thermostat 10 degrees. The cliche'd 'moment of truth' was now upon me.  How my legs responded in the next 10 minutes would dictate the rest of my race.  Unfortunately, my legs told me to fuck off.  As I started the long climb up Columbine, my legs turned to rubbery mush and I felt like I was riding in deep wet mud. Dozens of riders passed me in the first mile of the climb.  Before even the second switchback, I was already looking forward to walking my bike on the goat trail. I usually don't get that feeling until about the 8th of the 10 switchbacks.  And I still had an hour to go before even reaching the damn goat-trail. Around the 2nd switchback, the race  leaders, consisting of a group of 5 professional aliens, passed me the other way on a maniacal pace that would ultimately result in 2 guys breaking the 6-hour mark.  It's good to be young.

The slow slog continued slowly and sloggingly until I finally reached the Goat Trail at 4:21. I have had Columbine climbs before where I thought I was climbing at a snail's pace and was surprised to see that I actually didn't do too badly from a timing standpoint.  This wasn't one of those times.  I lost nearly 15 minutes on the climb. WTF? To add insult to injury, when I finally got the joy of dismounting and walking the bike, the leg cramps set in with a fury. The next 40 minutes consisted of leg-rubs, fluid-chugs, S-cap chomps, slow spins where possible, excessive sweating and the final transition from having fun to having no-fun.  I also ran out of fluids before reaching the top.

I hit Columbine Aid at 4:50 and had to quickly stop to fill a bottle with some kind of red fluid (Gatorade Roctane?).  I then slowly trudged back up the little aid-station hill and began the descent down Columbine.  Strangely, about halfway down the descent, my leg cramps had moved from my thighs to my quads to my calves and finally to the flats of my feet.  This was new and unusual.  I had to unclip my shoes from the pedals a few times at 40mph to shake out my feet.  This just slowed me down some more.  Meanwhile, the line of riders coming up Columbine continued all the way down to the 3rd switchback.  Things could have been worse . . . I could have been one of them.  After tearing through what was now a heat-bath on the valley floor, I made the descent into Twin Lakes and crossed the timing checkpoint at 5:26.

I felt like ass. I was hot and thirsty and trying my best to keep the cramps on the shelf.  Sub-9 hours was going to be a tall, if not impossible, order at this point.  I pulled back into the First Descents aid station at 5:28 and didn't bother trying to rush out. I chugged a bottle of fluids, ate a gel, rapped with Lisa and the gang for a few minutes and then headed back out for the final 40.
Return to Twin Lakes
No hurry today.

Damn it's hot!
As I started slowly spinning up hill into the Pipeline section, I figured that I should just lay back and not kill myself.  Then I remembered that I did the same thing in 2014 and this was history repeating itself.  Then it got hotter. By the time I reached the single-track climb, my Garmin was showing 98 degrees . . . though I'm pretty sure it wasn't more than mid-80s. Now I finally understand what people mean when they say "ground temperature" is different from "air temperature."  

At the top of the single-track, I hit the wall and just wanted to be done. As such, if I was going to feel this miserable, I should at least push harder and try to go faster to decrease the time that I would be out here feeling miserable.  Logical, right? So I started doing some calculations and picked 9:30 as a realistic target-time to beat, with 9:15 as a reach.

I hit Pipeline Aid at 6:33.  This was 18 minutes behind my 2013 pace when my final time was 8:54.  Equaling my 2013 time for the last 28 miles would put me at the finish at 9:12. With this heat, there was no way I was going to come close to 2013 as I knew that Powerline was going to crush me.  And it did.  The only thing I can liken this year's Powerline climb to is one of Dante's Rings of Hell. During the walk up the steep first 1/3 of Powerline, I was borderline hallucinating from heat exhaustion.  I'm pretty sure I recall people handing out cups of water at the first false-summit and I'm pretty sure I simply asked them to dump it on my head . . . but I really can't remember.  The rest of the climb consisted of a combination of walking, riding, panting, sweating, grunting, groaning, cursing, spitting and zombie-gazing at the ground in front of my front-wheel.  This was the worst Powerline climb since 2007 when I had to walk the whole thing because of leg and stomach cramps.  

I finally reached the top at 7:50.  Usually I'm pretty elated at this spot and descend Sugarloaf with a grin. Nothing but grimaces this time. I rode the rocky first section pretty conservatively as I was still within my 9:30 target and realized that my primary goal at that point should be finishing safely and getting that 9th buckle. For the first time in 3 years on a hard-tail bike, I was also wishing I had full-suspension.

The St. Kevins climb was slow and steady and I was pretty happy to have a tail-wind.  About halfway up, I started dreaming about the Cokes I was going to chug when I got to Carter Aid station . . . and I don't drink soda.  I reached Carter at 8:27 and fulfilled my daydream by downing 3 cups of Coke and 2 slices of watermelon.  In 2013, I covered this last 10 miles in about 50 minutes.  I figured I was good for about 55 minutes this time . . . which would put me in right around 9:23. I made it through and down St Kevins without issue and then made it through the dirt-road section to the pavement at Leadville Junction when the cramps smacked me again.  This time in the groin. Really?  I bit into my last two S-caps, chugged a quick 15 ounces of fluids and spun the pedals for a few minutes in a really high gear until the cramps dissipated and then made the turn onto the Boulevard at 9:05.  It took about 14 minutes to get back to 6th Street and another 4 minutes to get up Cry-Baby Hill (or Mom's Hill if you are Ricky McDonald) and down 6th and up to the red carpet.  Final time:  9:23.  Another medal, another hug from Merilee, a better hug from Lisa, a high-five from Kevin, another buckle, another collapse on the sidewalk in an exhausted heap! 
Red Carpet

9th Finisher's Medal

All things considered, I was pretty satisfied with 9:23. Between the heat and the cramps, not to mention the several months of poor training, sub-9 was a big long-shot this time.  I still finished fairly close to the 20th percentile of all riders who started the race . . . which is about where I have been percentage-wise for the last 3 years.  There are a lot of men and women who are much faster than I am, but I am still faster than most.  On the eve of my 48th birthday, I can live with that.

Next year will be a momentous year as I will be riding for my 1,000-mile buckle.  I'm hoping to get a big contingent of friends to join me and, at some point, I will have to decide whether I am going to "race" the 2016 race or just ride in the back with my friends.  For now, it's beer and chill time.

NOTE 1 - my long-time friend and partner-in-crime, Gary Morris, was riding his 8th LT100 this year.  He didn't do much training, but still thought he could throw down a time in the mid 10s.  Blaming a mild case of pulmonary edema (a condition he read about in an airport magazine), Gary struggled to an 11:48 finish, upon which Kevin stated "Gary, you really thought you could Kevin Kane your way through this race, didn't you?"

NOTE 2 - a week after the 2014 LT100, I took my friend John Ourisman on his maiden mountain-bike ride in Beaver Creek.  John is an avid endurance road-cyclist and was looking for his next challenge.  He figured, why not Leadville?  So he trained all winter and spring, joined Team FD and, at 62 years young, went out and completed his first LT100 in 11:02.  The big question is whether he will come back for more.

NOTE 3 - my friend Mike McHargue was going for his 10-year buckle and had a rough day.  He fought severe dehydration for the last 30 miles and dry-heaved his way to the finish line and then directly to bed.  He got his 1000 mile buckle though!

NOTE 4 - This was also a particularly sad year in Leadville as the heat contributed to the Leadville 100s first fatality when a 55-year old man named Scott Ellis suffered a massive heart-attack at the top of Powerline.  This was his 19th LT100 and he was supposedly on about a 10:30 pace when he succumbed.  You just never know.  Carpe Diem.