Readers of my blog know I take pride in being a participant in a myriad of endurance events: Running, swimming, nordic skiing, Ironman, road cycling, cyclocross, and mountain biking. Note my studied use of the word participant instead of competitor. I am not now, nor have I ever been an elite athlete. In fact, in the realm of the athletic, I have become comfortable with the fact that I have minimal genetic abilities. Ten years of pack a day smoking didn’t improve my natural abilities. I am a mediocre athlete at best. Any achievements stem from a determined and dogged refusal to accept my stunning lack of talent as a limiter. This innate masochism makes me particularly well suited for participating in endurance events.
In light of this it shouldn’t be surprising that I don’t recall winning any race. A podium here and there in some esoteric event with a particularly weak field is to be expected: even a blind squirrel stumbles upon a nut from time to time. Participation is about enjoying your surroundings and the company of like minded individuals, a kind of active tourism. It is about enjoying the challenge presented by the event. Participation is NOT about turning yourself inside out to beat the next guy or to meet some arbitrary time standard
Well I am sorry to report that after participating in the Leadville 100 three times, I have determined that participation alone can not earn you a buckle, at least not if you are a 50 year old with a genetic predisposition for couch warming.
The story of my 2010 Leadville experience isn’t exciting. No tumbles and no epic equipment failures. The only drama was internal. Sure I missed breakfast and had some early nutrition issues, and my hydration pack and hands both froze during the initial rollout from the 6th and Harrison start, but, all in all, no excuses. Indeed I had every possible advantage: A top coach from Carmichael Training Systems,my best starting position ever, a state of the art lightweight 29er.
I just wasn’t fast enough.
The rollout was the best part of the day. When the shotgun went off at 6:30 am, I was close enough to the front to see the favorites. The line of 1400 starters stretched back 1/4 mile up the narrow street. Over the next 3 miles, I did my best to stay out of the way of zealous competitors intent on getting to the front of the unruly pack before the single track. I held my own, kept the rubber on the pavement, and tried to maintain good position for the single track.
St. Kevans (Pronounceed KEEVANS) is the first climb. 7.2 miles from the low point to the high, about 1350 vertical feet. It’s a lumpy, rocky, steep climb with lots of grunty little ramps. I rode on plan, keeping my heart rate at an average of 80% of max and summited in about 57 minutes (1:04 from the start). I didn’t put a foot down the whole climb. Considering the crowds, this was an accomplishment in itself. Only later did I understand the price I paid for this. I was paying so much attention to my staying upright that I didn’t bother to drink.
I paused at the road marking the end of this section, slammed a couple Cliff Blocks into my face, and plunged down the 3.75 mile descent. My speed maxed out at 37.
Now, five steady even miles up Sugarloaf. First, pavement then gravel, then rocky ATV roads to the peak. My HR was a bit low, 76% of max, but I was starting to feel the altitude. 49 minutes and 1200 vertical feet later I reached the final section of the fearful Powerline descent. A long string of cyclists clogged the lone safe line down Powerline. A single poor descender can clog the works like an underpowered motorhome up a windy mountain road. On Powerline most are over cautious. Those that aren’t are dangerous. There are few safe places to pass. On the way down we pass a multi cyclist pile up on the side of the trail. It’s clearly bad. I try not to look. Plenty of others are tending to the injured. Don’t want my rubbernecking to add me to the body count.
Finally I splash over the makeshift log bridge, up the embankment and onto the long road to the Pipeline aid station. A stiff head wind greats me. I glance at my GPS: 2:30. That can’t be! The first aid station is at about 28 miles from the start. How can I be six long miles from the aid station? The reality sinks in: I am not going to make my 2:35 goal for the first aid station. If I can get there in 2:45 or better, I still have an outside chance at a buckle, but I need to scramble. Last year I made it in 2:46. In practice last week it took 2:48. A dark cloud descended on my previously buoyant mood. I slogged through the gusty miles and hit the aid station in 2:47:55.
I am already in trouble and I know it. Time is not on my side. Instead of eating and drinking through the aid station, I pedal through with my head down thinking of the next 12 miles to Twin Lakes Dam. I have 1:13 to get there before the time cutoff. Last year I was riding stronger than this and it took 1:03. No time to eat, just push.
A bit more than an hour later, I start the descent down the paved road into Twin Lakes and I see flashing lights coming my way. Another bad crash? No. It’s Levi and JHK heading back to the finish line. Last year I went by Lance after reaching Twin Lakes aid station, 1 ½ miles up the road. The year before, Dave and Lance cheered me up Columbine as they passed, 3 miles up the trail. How can the leaders have this much extra time gap on me? I must be really slow. I glance at my GPS – 3:52!#&$. I am still a mile from the aid station. If I don’t get there in less than 8 minutes my day is over.
The unthinkable seeps into my head: “How bad would it really be to miss the first time cut? My chances of getting the buckle are already slim. At least my day will be over.”
Race director Ken Chlouber’s voice echoes in my head. “Never quit. This race is not for crybabies.” I think of Joanne and the kids waiting at the CTS tent with my supplies for the Columbine climb. I think of all the people who wanted to do this race and didn’t get in. I think: “If you have to ask yourself whether or not to make that cutoff, you don’t deserve to be here. Pedal!!!”. I crank it.
Joanne and the kids are waiting for me with the supplies they and my CTS crew have packed for me. They are screaming: “Hurry!” I don’t even stop. I throw off my hydration pack. (If I had followed my hydration plan, it would have been empty. Noah told me today it was almost half full. 50 ounces of fluid in 4 hours. Not nearly enough.) I take the newly prepped pack from Joanne, and pedal through the aid station. 3:59:18.
“Yikes. That was close.” I yell to some spectators to make sure: “did I make the cutoff ?”. Their affirmative shouts tell me it is O.K. to slow so I can finally take care of some urgent business in the woods. (If you’ve never attempted this in racing bibs and a hydration pack, you don’t realize the complexity.) Upon my return I take a minute to find my whole wheat organic PBJ rollups and wolf down my first real food of the day. I also slug down some water and start to pedal again.
The numbers are rolling around my head. If I can climb Columbine in the same 2:02 I did during last week’s pre-ride, I will hit the top at 6:15. Last year I was 6:25. My descent in pre-ride was 6 minutes faster than last year. Shave another 20 minutes off my best time for the rest of the course and I still have a slim chance for a buckle. “Pedal!”
My gut has other ideas. A half mile later I am doubled over with dry heaves. I try to keep moving while I push my bike and drink some water. I down a couple salt tabs, get back on the bike and try to move the pedals. It’s slow, but I am moving. More than I can say for some that I roll by. I realize now that I am one of the walking dead – those riders too slow for the buckle, but unable or unwilling to give up.
I cajole a guy with a single speed to start pedaling again. He has buckled at Leadville 8 times. Not today. He turns around and heads back down. His parting words: “don’t prolong it. Call it a day. Don’t run on ego.”
This isn’t about ego. Quitting isn’t an option. Some riders heading the other way give us scornful looks as they fly past us downhill. We are slowing them down by making them ride a slower line to avoid running us down. But most take the time to shout encouragement. “Just pedal”; “One foot in front of the other”; “Never give up!”.
Slowly my stomach settles and I regain a bit of strength. I am not sure if the kind words or the two gels I force down are responsible. I try to continue to drink water. My fantasy of a 2:02 climb has faded. One hour blurs into two and then three. The number of riders going the other way begins to slow, and their encouragement evolves into “almost there.” More than 3:30 hours after leaving Twin Lakes, I complete the 10 mile climb to the Columbine Turnaround – 51 miles and 7:32:15 since the start. I drink, I eat, and I make sure I am steady enough to complete the 10 mile return to Twin Lakes. My fastest split from the turnaround to Twin Lakes was 36 minutes. My fate at Twin Lakes is clear.
As I enter Twin Lakes, I see my son Noah out of the corner of my eye running alongside me. My youngest, Zach, is just inside the line demarking the aid station boundaries. He has been crying. I was so slow on the climb up Columbine, he thought I had been hurt. The race officials in the yellow shirts stop me. My buckle bid is over.
Crazy as it sounds, I love Leadville. During the race and my pre rides, I have ridden with a legion of great people. Champions and other athletic tourists. CEO’s and carpenters. Men and women of every description. All sharing a love of the outdoors and the allure of the pedals.
I have become obsessed with that buckle. This will be my last year as a participant in the Leadville 100. If I am fortunate enough to gain entry and return to race again, (reportedly 15,000 applied for the 1500 entries), I will return as a competitor. I don’t yet know how to accomplish this, but I am committed to transforming my sightseeing self into a well tuned competitive machine. I am going to start with shorter races where the suffering will be short and build from there. I may need help from those of you who are true competitors. I don’t expect that I can completely overcome my poor genetics, but I really want a buckle.