Let’s start with the conclusion: My Leadville journey is not over. After three years, I have completed an important leg. I covered the entire Leadville 100 Course and beat every time cutoff. But the coveted Silver Buckle remains just out of my grasp. My time was 12 hours and 39 minutes, 5% too slow to be among the 888 truly elite “official” finishers of the race, including Lance Armstrong – 2009 Leadville champion. Instead, I am one of 85 poor souls lost in the purgatory of the Leadville “unofficial” finish – more than 12 hours, but less than 13. According to the race results, I was 948th overall out of 1430 entrants and 437 either did not start or did not finish, a huge percentage.
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The shotgun blast went off at 6:30 am. Those of us towards the back of the mass start barely noticed at first. There was little movement back here. Then we began to inch forward. After 1 minute and 35 seconds, we were across the start line and riding in a tightly packed field covering about a ½ mile of 6th Street towards Leadville Junction. If you have ever ridden a criterion, you know what this feels like. The difference is there are 1200 riders, on mountain bikes, and few have ever ridden in a pack. You do your best to stay away from the unsteady riders and try to guard your line down the three mile 25 MPH road descent to Leadville Junction. The rain had stopped around 6:00 am and the temperature hovered around 37 degrees. The roads were slick and a massive rainbow hung above the mountains in the distance — a good omen.
When we hit Leadville Junction, the course turns onto the dirt. I did my best to avoid the caterpillering crowds starting up the St. Kevin’s (pronounced Keevins) and somehow managed to clean the entire first seven mile climb. The rain had created a tacky surface which aided my ability to ride slowly and carefully around the slower riders without having to come off my bike. I reached St Kevin’s peak at the ten mile mark a little more than one hour after the start. In practice rides and in 2008, this section had taken me 10 minutes longer, so I was pleased and convinced that I was on my way to make my first time goal of 2:35:00 at the Pipeline outbound aid station.
A quick CarBoom got my sugar levels back to normal and I quickly descended the short rolling dirt sections that lead the course back to Turquoise Lake Road. By now, the cold rain had restarted and Turquoise Lake Road was cold and slick. The two mile road descent is the fastest portion of the course (for me) – averaging 30 + mph on the windy roads with a top speed at 40 or over. Elden (Fatcyclist) Nelson’s Leadville race ended here when he overcooked one of the corners and careened off over an embankment into the trees (he was ok). Kyle Johnson, a motocross veteran who had won a Leadville entry in a Lifetime Fitness essay contest, coached me down the fast descent. (I met Kyle, along with Bahram Akradi, CEO and Founder of Lifetime Fitness, on a memorable training ride up Columbine peak. We had stayed in touch over the ensuing weeks before the race.)
Like St. Kevins, I rode well up Sugarloaf but lost a minute or two over last year due to the slow wet conditions. I reached the peak at 19 miles in about 2 hours and 3 minutes. This left me only 32 minutes to pucker through the harrowing Powerline descent and power the 6.5 miles of roads to the Pipeline aid station. By now, I could barely feel my fingers. Shifting was difficult. And much to my surprise, I was much faster on the Powerline descent than much of the rest of the crowd that I was stuck in. The rain had improved the traction down the normally slippery hard packed descent and, for the most part, the survivable line through the dried rivulets was easy for me to spot. Earlier riders had created a darkened trail through the mine field of obstacles. Being faster than the masses was a mixed blessing. Navigating a safe line was tough enough without the constant braking and course corrections necessary to get around so many overcautious racers.
Rolled into the Pipeline Aid station at 2 hours 47 minutes, 9 minutes faster than last year, but also 9 minutes behind my desired pace. I didn’t stop and rode right back out again. My first planned stop was Twin Lakes at 40 miles. So far, my travel light strategy was working. Carrying only 50 ounces of liquid over the climbs definitely saved me some energy.
I pushed through the rolling 12 mile stretch to Twin Lakes (finally beginning to warm up in the warm sun) and through the new single track which replaced the dreaded Cobra drop. Unlike Cobra, the new single track did not require an ambulance parked at the base and there was no need to navigate around fallen racers. A good course change, but one which adds 1.5 miles to the former 102 mile course. My Twin Lakes time of 3:49:03 was 14 minutes slower than my goal time, largely as a result of the new section. Steve Goden, who had graciously agreed to travel from Cleveland to support my effort, greeted me with a fresh backpack loaded with water and food. I wolfed down a quick PBJ on whole wheat tortilla, oiled my chain, and set off to the Columbine climb.
A few minutes up the course Lance Armstrong, looking like a man possessed, flew past me in the opposite direction. No words of encouragement this year, just pure scary focus and intensity. It would be many minutes before Dave Wiens, 6 time champion, would pass by. He too looked a lot less casual than last year. The climb to Columbine is difficult on the best of days. I tried to stay one gear higher than my comfort zone and pushed towards the turnaround. I passed a few people on the climb, as I had on the St. Kevin’s and Sugarloaf climbs, but the altitude was starting to get me. When I got to around the tree line, at 11,300 feet, the thin air and extra gear had me starting to be dizzy and a bit nauseous. Every time I took a sip of water, the lightheadedness got worse. Eventually, I reached the death march, a section of the course too steep for mere mortals like me to ride. I got off the bike and got into the long line of riders pushing their bikes up the hill. I felt better when I was riding. It was starting to get cold again and the rain was picking up. I kept trying to move forward while dodging the riders going down. Near the top, the trail leveled off a bit and I got back on the bike and pedaled to the aid station at the turnaround. I limped in at around 6 hours and 20 minutes, well off my 6 hour goal. By now, the rain had turned to sleet (or snow or hail – who could tell?) and the temperature was hovering back around 39 degrees. I grabbed some hot soup and noodles, forced down a ham sandwich with mustard (no turkey left), and slugged some electrolytes. I pulled my arm warmers back on, but didn’t stop to put on my rain jacket. And I started back down.
The beginning of the Columbine descent is fairly easy, but it quickly deteriorates into nothing more than a rock filled gully, a line of racers pushing their bikes up the left and me trying to pick my way down on right. I need to try to pick up some time on the descent. Steve welcomes me back to Twin Lakes with a coke, a chicken sandwich and a half bag of salt and vinegar chips. By the time I am out, I am 25 minutes past my goal. I eat the chips on the climb back out of Twin Lakes and look, in vain, for anyone to pull me back to the single track. I catch a few riders on the single track (or maybe they caught me, I really can’t remember) and work my way back to Pipeline. By now, I am assuming that my race is done. How can I make up 25 minutes?
I pull into the Pipeline aid station with the clock showing about 8 hours and 25 minutes– Steve is about the only crew left – grab a few slugs of coke and another PBJ and set back off. I see Molly, Kyle Johnson’s wife (the moto crossing Lifetime fitness contest winner), still waiting for Kyle. I thought he was in front of me. He’s not going to make the 9 hour aid station cutoff. I keep rolling back towards Powerline.
On the road just before the Powerline turnoff, Joanne and the kids surprise me. Noah and Zach run down the road alongside me. The unexpected family reunion gives me a recharge. I storm down the turnoff, and ride through the stream that most riders go around to the bottom of Powerline. Unlike Lance, I can’t ride this section, I push my bike up the steep incline with as much conviction I can muster. Suddenly it dawns on me – during our prerides Kevan Millstein rode the section from Pipeline to the finish (about 28 miles) in 3 hours and 15 minutes – if I can do it in 3 hours and 30 minutes, I can still finish in 12 hours. I try to pick up the pace. The extra effort pushes me into oxygen debt again and I start feeling lightheaded again. But I keep pedaling, and pedaling, and pedaling for what seems like hours. Each time I am certain that I am at the top of the climb, I see another section stretching upwards in front of me. I am moving in slow motion. Finally, I cross under the powerlines at the top of Sugarloaf and begin the descent back down to Turquoise Lake. I take some risks on the descent, but still get passed by someone who really knows how to ride this stuff. I need to work on my descending skills.
10 hours and 42 minutes at the May Queen campground – more than a half hour faster than last year, but still on the bubble – maybe. I need to climb 3.5 miles to the top, descend 8.5 miles back to Leadville Junction and then climb the final 3 miles to the finish on the dreaded Boulevard. I need to get this all done in 1 hour and 18 minutes. I shift into the middle ring and try to grind my way up the road climb to the final aid station at the peak of St. Kevin’s. I am losing it though. I find my eyes closing while I pedal up the hill. I am not sleepy, but somehow my mind is telling me that closing my eyes is a good thing to do. I hope I can get past this before the descent. Three quarters of the way up, I get off the bike. Not sure why I did it, but it was the wrong move. I come close to toppling over with the bike. Better get back on the bike and pedal. That feels better. Like on Powerline, I am in slow motion. It takes hours to get to the turnoff to the aid station. Or maybe it was just 44 minutes, but it seemed like hours. No soup. Only diet coke. Damn. Give me some of those mini Snickers bars. I shove three snickers bars in my mouth and ask the aid station guy if I can make it to the finish by the 12 hour mark. “Lance made it to the finish from here in 40 minutes. You got 40 minute legs?” So much for 12 hours. I wobble back onto the bike and push off. I recover a bit on the descent and try to push it again when I get to the road.
But I am in slow motion again. People are passing me. I hit the Boulevard. My eyes are closing while I ride again. Not good. The last thing I need after 100 miles on the bike is a 3 mile uphill grind to the finish line. Clock says 12 hours and 8 minutes. There goes my “if the course were 100 miles like it was supposed to be I would have made 12 hours” rationalization. I slog through the final three miles slowing with every pedal stroke. My GPS predicts my finish time at 12:20, then 12:28, then 12:36. Wait. That’s Joanne and Tashi. Noah and Zach are running alongside me. I see a red carpet. It’s the finish line! 12:39:13. I have a medal around my neck. Someone takes my timing chip. Am I still on the bike? I need soup. Forget soup. I want a Larkburger!
Kevan Millstein finished an hour ago with some young gun named Miller. Jim Snyder was 15 minutes ahead of them. But I got here before they rolled up the carpet. (Yes. They really roll up the carpet and take down the finish line while those cold delusion people are still straggling up the Boulevard.)
Next year I want my buckle. Better start training now.