September 01, 2016

2016 Leadville Trail 100 Mountain Bike Race

Rest and Reward
10 years.  I have been at this Leadville nonsense for 10 years.  The picture above contains 8 silver buckles (awarded to those who finish in between 9 hours and 12 hours), 2 gold buckles (awarded to sub 9-hour finishers) and one big-assed 1,000-mile buckle.  Those buckles may just be pieces of metal, but they represent so much more.  They represent blood, sweat, tears, pride, accomplishment, endurance, discipline, happiness, sadness, frustration, strength, ego, stubborn will, focus, relentless self-belief, recaptured (or clinging) youth and, in the immortal words of Ken Chlouber, "grit, guts and determination."  Each buckle tells a tale and each tale is inextricably tied to the story of a man with cancer (Allan Goldberg) challenging his best friend (me) in 2006 to enter a stupidly unthinkable race. Allan is now over 8 years deceased, but he lives on through these buckles and that big one up there truly idealizes the perseverance and toughness that were the cornerstones of his life.

    The 2016 Leadville 100 mountain-bike race was held on Saturday, August 13, 2016. I had my sights set on this particular version of the race for the past 5 years as I badly wanted that obnoxious WWF-sized buckle awarded to those select few who have completed Leadville 10 times.  I viewed my impending 10th finish as both a milestone and a stepping-stone as well as a culmination, a transition and an affirmation.  Without being too melodramatic, the Leadville 100 now inhabits a large chunk of that valuable internal real estate that makes up the "core of my being."  Yes, I supoose it is just a meaningless one-day race in the mountains of Colorado, but it has changed my life in ways I could have never anticipated 11 years ago.  Specifically, it has fueled three major passions that now define me and that impact everyone close to me, namely (1) a year-round quest/thirst for exercise and training that I hope to continue for the rest of my life, (2) a heightened love for the Rocky Mountains that has resulted in Lisa's and my escaping life and running off to Colorado for 8 weeks every summer, and (3) a huge philanthropic commitment to the First Descents cancer organization for which I currently am serving my 8th year as Chairman of the Board of Directors.  Maybe my life is like that scene in the movie City Slickers where Billy Crystal's character, Mitch, is alone with Curly, played by Jack Palance, and Curly is giving Mitch some life advice.

Curly: Do you know what the secret of life is? [holds up one finger] This.
Mitch: Your finger?
Curly: One thing. Just one thing. You stick to that and the rest don't mean shit.

Mitch: But, what is the "one thing?" 
Curly: That's what you have to find out.

Maybe Leadville is my "one thing."  Deeeeeeeep.  

But enough waxing philosophic . . . or rhapsodic?  This is supposed to be a race blog.  My 10th race blog.  And as this 2016 race was eerily similar to 2013 (almost to the second), I am going to try to breeze through this sucker and just hit the highlights.

First, a quick recap of my prior 9 years:

2007 - Newbie. Finished in 11:11 with major cramps inbound
2008 - 5 flat-tires, but improved to 10:35
2009 -  Breakthrough year with first sub-10 finish of 9:56
2010 - PR with a 9:43
2011 - Early tire problems put me at the back of the pack and I could never mentally recover. Dawdled at aid stations and rode in with friends. 10:43
2012 - Felt like I was finally in sub-9 shape, but suffered three flats between mile 15 and mile 20. Race shot.  Grrrrr.  9:52
2013 - VICTORY!!!  Big Buckle.  8:54
2014 - Lost the mental edge from 2013. 9:15
2015 - Heat bath.  I hate heat.  9:23

For year 10, I had two main goals.  The first was to simply finish upright to collect the giant 1,000-mile buckle.  The second was to collect that giant buckle in a blaze of glory with a return to sub-9-land. For the first time since 2008, I decided to dig out my heartrate monitor from a dusty closet box and follow a formal training plan.  A guy named Cody Waite had just thrown down a 7-hour finish in the 2015 LT100 and offered a detailed 6-month plan for a very reasonable price. I reached out to Cody, listened to his training philosophy and purchased the plan in December. I then convinced Cody to provide the plan and some monthly coaching to the First Descents Leadville team (which consisted of some 25 racers). I also dangled the plan as bait to convince my Rockville buddies, Kevin Kane and Dave Flyer, to join me in Leadville again this year.  Dave did Leadville with me in 2008 and vowed never to return.  Kevin has had a love/hate relationship with the race, but most of the hate has been self-inflicted due to lack of training. Because of Kevin's spotty history with the race, I kind of made him promise to follow the plan with me. Also joining us in the race (but not the training plan) was Gary Morris ("GMO"), an original Team FD member who was doing Leadville for his 9th time, and Jamie Malin, owner of the Kind Bikes & Skis in Edwards CO and long-time unofficial supplier of equipment, parts and service for select Team FD Leadville members.

Cody's plan called for several months of slow base/foundation development at low HR zones and then an increase in intensity starting in May and continuing through mid-July.  It also included a weight-room regimen, which was definitely a change for me.  It was a pretty easy plan to follow, especially on indoor bikes through the winter, and it got me in pretty good shape by spring. The only thing that troubled me was that I didn't have my normal power in late April and early May and was concerned that the plan went a little too overboard on the foundational stuff.  This concern was crystallized when I struggled with some hard climbs at a "climbing-camp" in West Virginia the first weekend of May and then fully manifested in early July with a miserable crampy outing at the Silver Rush 50 in Leadville where I finished some 30+ minutes off my desired pace.  Needless to say, after Silver Rush, I more or less blew off the rest of the plan and just rode hard with both volume and intensity for the last month.

As usual, taper week (the week leading into the race) really sucked.  It is tough to do big rides week after week after week and then suddenly force yourself to sit on your ass to rest for the big race.  I did institute one small change in the week as starting Wednesday, I topped off every meal with a healthy sprinkling of salt to try to overload my internal sodium storehouse. This was in direct response to my early cramping at Silver Rush. 
2016 Team First Descents Leadville -
With Leadville 100 Founders Ken and Merilee

Fortunately, taper week ended with one of the coolest moments in my Leadville race career and, frankly, one of the sweeter moments of my life.  If you are reading this blog, you probably know well my Leadville story from Allan to First Descents to Team First Descents to Team FD's hitting the $1Million mark for funds raised  for FD through Leadville in 2015.  Anyway, at the pre-race meeting on Friday, I got a special call-out from Josh Colley (Leadville race-director) for both my 10-years and for Team FD's accomplishments in Leadville over these 10 years.  That was great, but what followed was really special. I stood up to wave and slowly others in the crowd stood up to applaud. This cascaded into a standing ovation and I couldn't hold back the tears.  Below is a video of the moment captured by GMo. Unforgettable.

Race day began with the 3:30am alarm, a quick inhaling of scrambled eggs and pancakes, a swigging of a bottle of electrolyte-laced water, a drive up to Mike ("Leadman Emeritus") and Laurel McHargue's house in Leadville, three trips to the porcelain throne, meticulous donning of gear and sunscreen, some deep stretching, a group photo, a freezing ride to the start in 33 degree temperatures and the usual anxiety-ridden countdown of the final minutes until the 6:30am shotgun blast.  It was a stunningly gorgeous morning without a cloud in the sky.  While 33 degrees at the start is a bit bone-chattering when you are just wearing a thin bike jersey and spandex shorts, I was pretty excited that we weren't going to have a repeat of last year's hot weather (when it 45 degrees at the start). So no complaints from me about the weather this year!

Settling in at the McHargues - 5:15am
Donning the Gear - 5:35am

Stretching - 6am

Group Shot before Heading to the Start - 6:05am
Fly, Jamie, Brent, Kevin, GMo, Leadman Emeritus

My race and pacing strategy for this year was pretty similar to the previous 3 years.  The only real difference was that I would be using a heartrate monitor and I vowed to keep my heart-rate below 155 at all times. If I was truly in sub-9 shape, then I should be able to stay on a 9-hour pace below 155 without blowing up over the last 43 miles..  Time targets were as follows:

Carter Summit - 50 minutes

Sugarloaf summit - 1:32

Pipeline Aid - 2:05

Twin Lakes - 2:55

Goat Trail - 4:05
Columbine Aid - 4:40
Twin Lakes - 5:15
Pipeline - 6:15
Powerline Summit - 7:30
Carter Summit - 8:05
Finish - 8:55

The start to Carter was pretty uneventful. Within about 200 yards from the start, I was passed by a big dude who seemed late for a meeting and I cozied in behind him and drafted all the all the way down to Leadville junction.  I kept things pretty steady and conservative on the flats before St Kevins and also didn't push too hard during the climb up St. Kevin's and over the rollers between St, Kevins and Carter Aid.  I was pleased to reach the pavement at Carter at 49 minutes.  After a frosty Turquoise Lake road descent, I picked up the pace a bit on the pavement climb and the Hagerman Pass Road dirt and continued steadily on the Sugarloaf climb, reaching the summit at 1:31.   

Bottom of Powerline 
Top of Singletrack
Bottom of Singletrack.
Pulling into FD Aid Outbound
The Powerline descent was a blast this year. Riders were spaced enough apart to go our own paces and I never felt pressured or held up. I reached the pavement at the bottom of Powerline at 1:46, connected with a group of about 6 riders and rode a strong paceline to Pipeline, arriving at the aid-station at 2:03.  So far so good.  No cramping, no muscle weariness, perfect temperatures and no bike issues.  The Pipeline, like the 28 miles preceding the Pipeline, was uneventful.  We had a slight tailwind, the crowds were thin, the single-track section was smooth and fast, I felt strong on the short climb up and over the ridge and even better on the bomb down to the First Descents aid station at Twin Lakes, arriving at 2:49. Lisa, my lovely wife and crew-chief, got me in and out in about 30 seconds flat and, after a quick high-five and smooch, I was off again.

After crossing the Twin Lakes Dam, I hit the 40-mile timer at 2:51, which was 4 minutes ahead of pace. These 4 minutes immediately turned out to be precious as I made the mistake of chugging about 18 ounces of fluids during my 30 seconds at the FD aid station . . . which was on top of chugging about 12 ounces of fluids about 5 minutes before hitting the FD aid station. Needless to say, I was feeling a bit bloated leaving Twin Lakes and was forced to slow-pedal up over the ridge into Lost Canyon and then up the first steep stretch of Columbine climb.  This probably cost me 3-4 minutes, but I started feeling a lot better once I hit the campground at the first switchback and was able to to then settle into a great pace for the next 5 miles.

The three leaders (Todd Wells, Joe Dombrowski and Jeremiah Bishop) all passed me on their return at about the 5th switchback.  This was the highest I had ever made up the climb before being passed by the leaders.  I wasn't markedly faster than last year, so obviously those guys were on a bit slower pace than when they shattered the record in 2015.  This observation proved to be correct as the winning time this year was 6:19 . . . 21 minutes slower than the winning time in 2015. Regardless, they were still freakish freaks.

I hit the bottom of the Goat-Trail at 4:03 and was feeling great.  I was still 2 minutes ahead of pace and I successfully avoided those dark places where my mind usually wanders on the climb up Columbine.  However, I recalled that I was in this same spot at this same time in 2014 and couldn't hold it together.  I vowed to keep pushing this year.  The bottom of the goat-trail moved well and I didn't have to take my feet off the pedals until the steep right x-roads veer about 1/3 of the way up. After dismounting and walking about 30 steps, I felt the first twinges of some impending leg cramps.  Here we go again.  I immediately popped 3 S-caps into my mouth.  Each S-Cap contains 320mg of sodium. I even chewed them for maximum affect. That oral infusion of 1,000 mg of sodium did the trick as the cramps quickly dissipated and never returned.  As soon as the trail grade flattened, I rode for a few minutes, walked again at the steep S-turn section and then rode the rest of the way, arriving at the Columbine turnaround at 4:38.  As I still had plenty of fluids and wasn't feeling any hunger pangs, I bypassed the aid-station and headed straight back down without a stop.

The Columbine descent was a bit dicey this year.  As well as we moved on the ascent, the pace heading down was a bit conservative and the line of riders coming up extended solidly about 2/3 of the way down the mountain.  This made it difficult to really open up the throttle (or fully release the brakes) until near the bottom.  I passed Jamie about halfway down the goat-trail about 20 minutes behind me.  Then I reached GMO and Kevin as they were walking up the Goat-trail about 45-50 minutes behind me.  Kevin was kicking ass to be up that far and GMO was about the pace he expected to be.  A little further down was Flyer.  He was looking down at the ground, but I think he was doing ok.  The road was a bit sandy and soft and I actually overshot one of the switchbacks and nearly slid into a strand of trees, but was able to rescue myself.  I hit the valley floor at 40+ mph and had to regain control before turning onto the path back toward the ridge.  As that path turned upward, my hamstrings and calves screamed a bit from the lengthy descent, but they loosened quickly and I was up and over the ridge and through the timer at Twin Lakes right smack on my sub-9 pace at 5:15.

As I pulled back into the FD Aid station, I was conflicted by positive and negative thoughts. On the positive side,  I wasn't overly exhausted and was still on a 9-hour pace.  On the negative side, I definitely felt that I had worked pretty hard to stay on pace and had not given myself any cushion or margin for error.  Once again I was faced with a choice about what I was willing to endure over the final 43 miles.  In 2013, the choice was dictated by a rabid eye-of-the-tiger hunger to get that sub-9 Gold buckle if it killed me.  In 2014, I was at this same spot at the exact same time . . . literally to the minute, and the fire simply extinguished on the first climb out of Twin Lakes.  In 2015, I was already 10 minutes behind at this point and there was no decision to be made. This year, the fire had returned.  I really wanted another Gold buckle to commemorate my 10th.  So I wasted no time at the aid station and willed myself to hit the first hill as hard as possible . . . if only to put me in the right frame of mind.  This lasted all of about 10 minutes.  By the time I reached the single-track, my pace had slowed and groups of riders were starting to pass me.  I tried to summon the extra energy, but I didn't have it.  I muddled through the single-track and kept the strongest pace possible through the rest of Pipeline just hoping that I would hit the timer still on pace.  Sure enough, despite the struggle, I hit the Pipeline timer at 6:16, just 1-minute off pace.  In 2013, I hit Pipeline at 6:15 and finished in 8:54. If I could simply repeat my 2013 performance over the last 30 miles, I would be fine. I just needed to take it one segment at a time.

The next checkpoint was the base of Powerline. I needed to get there by 6:40.  As usual, there was a stiff headwind, but I just kept plugging along and, lo and behold, I hit the base of Powerline at exactly 6:40. So I next set my sights on reaching the Powerline summit by 7:30.  To help my cause, I pedaled a few chunks of the lower-section where I usually walk and was able to reach the first false-summit without keeling over. I was also pleasantly surprised to be offered a few cups of Dr. Pepper from some volunteers on the trail. The rest of the climb was the usual painful monotonous drudgery.  I walked a couple spots where I just didn't want to overextend and I forced myself to keep pedaling through those spots where a nice nap would have been preferable. Powerline is always the low point of the race. However, I had been through this 9 time before and it was nothing new.  I knew it would suck, it did suck and I know it will suck next time. Despite the begrudging acceptance of the suck, I still couldn't help asking myself the annual question of why the hell I keep doing this to myself each year.

After climbing for days . . . well, actually 51 minutes . . . I reached the Powerline summit at 7:31. There was no time to relax. I tore down Sugarloaf and was particularly thankful that I had switched this year from a hard-tail to a full-suspension bike as I was able to ride a line that would have crushed my lower-back on a hard-tail. At the 180 turn at the bottom of Hagerman Pass Road, an angel handed me a bottle of Coke. I downed it in 3 swigs. I furiously pedaled down around the south end of Turquoise Lake and began the St. Kevin's climb at 7:45 . . . which is exactly where I was in 2013 at this spot. In 2013, I did this climb in 19 minutes. I was feeling calmly confident that I could match that. I stood on the pedals for most of the first half of the climb and kept the chain in the front big-ring. I was now passing those very same riders who had passed me back on the Pipeline. I felt myself slowing a little on the top-half and I started day-dreaming about more Coke and salted watermelon at the Carter Aid station. Finally, I hit the last curve, saw the spectators crowding around the turn-off for Carter and charged into the Carter Aid station at 8:05. Barring a mishap, I was now feeling pretty good about another sub-9. I knew it was about 50-minutes to the finish and I knew I had enough reserves in the tank to do it.

I quickly chugged three cups of Coke, scarfed down two pieces of watermelon and locked my cleats back into the pedals for the final 12 miles. I still had an outside shot of besting my 2013 time, but I really was only focused on the 9-hours. I struggled getting up and over the 3 short punchy climbs before the St. Kevins' descent and had to walk the 3rd one because it came upon me too quickly to switch gears. I blasted down St. Kevins in full glory knowing the end was near and, once again, fully enjoying the dual suspension. There was a slight headwind that slowed me down in the flat section in the valley, but I kept a hard pace as I was suddenly questioning whether I had miscalculated the time. I reached Leadville junction at 8:32 and the bottom of the Boulevard at 8:37. Just 3.5 miles to go.

I was able to keep a pretty strong pace the first half of the Boulevard, but then really started petering out with about a mile to go.  By then, I knew I was comfortably going to make it under 9 and I also knew that a PR was out of the question.  I made the turn onto 6th Street at 8:52 and even though there was still one more short climb before the cruise to the finish, I started feeling total joy and elation. I rode up that short climb with a huge smile on my face and really made it a point to savor all of the sounds and visuals over those last few blocks toward the finish.  I had been riding the last 5 miles with a small group, but with about 500 yards to the the finish, I decided to let them go ahead of me so that I could hit the red carpet alone.  The last few hundred yards were filled with fist-pumps and fist-bumps and howls of delight.  About 50 yards from the finish I spotted Lisa and gave her a massive grin. Then my niece and nephew, Noa and Eli, jumped from the crowd and flanked me on each side for the final few pedal strokes to the finish. My last act of the race was to pull a wheelie at the finish line and then cruise right up to Merilee for the post-race medal and hug.

My final time was 8:56:37 (even though the finish clock showed 8:57:31; the reason for the discrepancy is that it took a good 50 seconds to actually cross the starting line in the morning and the official time is based on each person's actual start, not when the gun goes off). I felt nothing but joy and satisfaction and not a whiff of that tearful emotion that hit me in waves when I finished the race in 2013.  It was the perfect ending to a 10-year story.  Now I guess it is time to start a new story.
Noa and Eli by my side.
Hamming it up.

Here comes the wheelie!

Brent, Fly, GMo and Kevin at the Finish

1,000-Mile Buckle - Class of 2016

POST-SCRIPT - Jamie finished in 9:46.  That was a personal best by about an hour.  GMo finished in 10:24.  Ho hum day for him, but pretty much what he expected.  Kevin was on a sub-10:30 pace for much of the day, but bonked a bit on the Powerline climb. He finished at 11:03 which crushed his previous best of 11:56. His line a few minutes after crossing the finish: "Apparently, training makes a difference!"  I think I may have been more excited for Kevin's finish than my own! Fly came in at 11:56, which was nearly identical to his finish time in 2008.  He was thrilled to get another buckle and promptly retired from bike racing.  We had three other DC area friends who were supposed to race with us.  Larry Weinberg punctured a lung and broke 10 ribs in a crash at the Silver Rush.  John Murray broke his scapula in a crash in the Pipeline during a training ride.  John Ourisman suffered a concussion and a broken rib in a crash descending Meadow Mountain in Vail in mid-July.  His family forced him to sell his mountain-bike after that.  Finally, a special mention for FD Alum Nate "Scooter" Post. Scooter missed the 8:45 time-cut-off at Pipeline inbound by about 10 minutes, but pulled the cancer-card and convinced the authorities to let him keep riding. He finally crossed the finish line in the dark at 13:55. An amazing display of grit, guts and determination!

As of this writing, the 2016 Team FD Leadville team had raised over $208,000 for First Descents. This was by far our most successful year ever.