Leadville IS an epic event. Epic in size, distance, and status. No other bike race in my humble career had ever taken as much planing, training, and logistics as this one. What follows is my account of the lead-up and race day events. Grab a beer, this one could take a while:
My cousin Doug and I set decided in the fall of '08 to do something special the following year to celebrate our coming of age (he 40 and me 35 right near New Years). We briefly toyed with the idea of climbing a mountain somewhere, but ultimately decided to grab something more in our wheelhouse, and do an epic bike race. The Leadville 100 seemed like a natural fit.
For those unfamiliar the Leadville 100, its a 100 mile mountain bike race in Colorado with 12,400 of climbing that peaks out at 12,500+ on the top of Columbine Mt. There are more brutal races on the calendar, some lasting several days, but few with the stature and allure of Leadville. Those strong willed enough to finish in under 12 hours are graced with a beautiful hand made silver belt buckle. On average only about half the riders finish this monster. If you are lucky enough to survive the ever changing elements, deal with the altitude, miss out on any major bike mechanical, and have good legs on race day, AND finish the 100 miles in under 9 hours you receive the highly coveted gold buckle. And even though the previous year only 7 riders east of the Rockies made the cut, of course, thats what we were after.
Skip ahead 10 months of training and planing to 3 days before the race. Doug scored us some schweet digs in Copper Mt, and we did our final prep by pre riding the first 30 miles of the route on the days leading up. The weather was great and we felt confidant. Race day arrives, we were still confidant, but the skies were a threatening.
Race day: 38 degrees and clouds a rolling in. We lined up with 1600 other eager racers in the biggest mess of overpriced aluminum, steel, carbon fiber, and rubber you've ever laid eyes on. Bikes on top of bikes on top of riders. We got to the line a full hour before the start but still only managed around 300th place at the gate. Bummer. No worries, its a long event we thought. At precisely 6:30 AM the shotgun fired and we were off for the race of a lifetime. The pace quickened and as we got strung out while navigating the rule city roads, a rainbow appeared near the base of our first climb. It was an unbelievable sight as the flowing mass of multi colored jerseys careened like a ribbon into the fog and 38 degree rain.
(A little back ground. The course is 50 miles out and back. Starts with the climb of St. Kevin's, then Powerline, a check at pipeline, a second check at Twin Lakes then up Columbine, turning around at the top and making the return trip through each of the previous spots.)
Our plan was to stick together as much as possible to help cheat the wind on he flatter sections by working together, however, we quickly got separated by my youthful exuberance on the first climb. I soft pedaled over the top though and regrouped with Doug. We drag raced up the rocky Powerline climb passing groups of riders as we went, frequently shaking our hands trying to keep warm. Going down Powerline the trail gets steep, and passing is difficult. I popped out at the bottom and quickly regrouped with Doug on the road section to the first check.
I had made some time sheets showing at what time we needed to be at each check to stay on our 9 hour target. The effects of the cold rain were taking their toll on Doug's legs and he was having trouble keeping up, yet we still made it to the first check right at the prescribed time. A quick bottle refill and we motored towards Twin Lakes and a meeting with our crew.
In this short 45 min section, I got ahead of Doug a bit and started to see the writing on the wall, sticking together wasnt working today. My ultimate dream was to cross the finish line together, hands in the air, comfortably under 9, but it wasnt to be this day, and I knew that I must forge on solo.
A quick stop at Twin Lakes, had me fueled, with new dry gloves, and ready to get ahead of the 9 hour pace. I motored up Columbine, catching a glimpse of Lance Armstrong as he ripped down. Columbine is a brute. 3000 feet up at 10% or more to 12,600 feet with some sections near the top virtually un-rideable. This beast threw down the gauntlet. It started with the spongy gravel at 8%, then a baby head filled Jeep trail awaits as the trail pitches up some more. If that doesn't get you down, it steepens even more, forcing you into a bike pushing crawl. And finally it tried to blow me off with 30 mph wind and sleet. Oh yeah, and there is NO air at over 11,000 feet. Remember 1600 people paid to do this...
I finally made the turn around and bombed down to Twin Lakes again to meet the crew. I was fully expecting to be 15 min ahead of schedule, as I thought my effort on Columbine was superb, but arrived right on time again. CRAP! Here is where I almost lost the day. Instead of eating the carefully measured food I had laid out and taking what provisions I needed to get to the next check, I grabbed a GU flask, 1 bottle, and a little debbie cake. Everyone reading will know whats going to happen next.
Bonk!!!!!! The short trip from Twin Lakes to Pipeline about killed me. The tank was empty, and the motor gurgling for some fuel. I knew right away what I'd done. The demons you face during a race, started coming at me full bore. The race is over, I dont know if I can even finish, much less in 9. I'm done. I'll have to sag. Stupid, stupid, stupid.
I conceded to hit the Pipeline check and stop for 5 min to eat. Once there the unbelievable support staff stuffed me full of sandwiches, Coke, gu, bars, hell I dont know what I ate, I was completely out of it! From studying last years times I knew that no one left Pipeline after the 6:15 mark and made the 9 cutoff. It was now 6:20.
I stopped for a quick tinkle past the outbound check, and started on. The last 25 miles consist of 4000 feet of climbing, two passes, and a 500 foot march up to town. To say my resolve was fading was an understatement. But I plodded on. I made the top of Powerline without too much fanfare and studied my time. 7:35. Hummmmm...can I make it???
Remembering Ken C. the race directors speech from Friday, I resolved to "Commit to never quit." and aging hammered on. My bike setup was working really well and I was catching riders on the decent. I hustled down the gravel section, eating a bit, and rounded the corner at the start of the final climb. St. Kevins going back consist of a long paved section, some Jeep trail at the top and a technical decent.
A glance at the Garmin said 7:42. Now the demons in my head are tapping a keg turning up the stereo, cause its party time. "You'll never make it, your too tired, you've been riding almost non stop for 8 hours." Followed by, "you've been training all year, you've only got one shot, and "you've got to dig deep, just like the pioneers of Leadville man"!!!!!! So I again hammered on.
8:11 and I reached the top of St. Kevins. Oh now this is serious said the good demons! "You've really got a chance, but its going to take a serious effort" "Your going to come up 2 min short," said the bad. This is where the thought of failure really started to piss me off. No way was I not going to leave every last stinking shred of effort on this course. I would not QUIT!!!!
I absolutely bombed down St. Kevins. To quote Phil Ligit, "He's taking all kinds of risk." And I was. I should be a blood stain on a coniferous tree right now. But I somehow kept it straight, launching 20+ feet down the trail after each water bar and scaring the chamois of passed riders.
8:27 and I'm at the bottom. The run-in is different than the route out, and was unfamiliar to me. I put my head down and into the wind I pushed. My legs crying in pain, and my lungs gasping like a 80 year old asymmetric smoker.
8:44 and 3 miles to go. I did the math in my head. 3 miles in 15 min thats 5 miles an hour, no 20 mph, no....crap my heads a mess...just pedal damit!!!! After a rocky rise, the road turns into a false flat, straight and goes off into the distance. The demons return. "Its too far, your dead, better luck next year." NO..."this is it, time to rise up, find something extra, remember all the suffering you've endured, just 15 min and the pain will turn to glory!!!!"
8:55 pavement! That's it, the town. Oh God, I'm not going to make it. It's too far. What have I done! Go man go! A guy on the side of the road screams encouragement, "You've got the buckle man hurry!" I stand on the pedals, my speed goes down. CRAP! My lungs were wheezing, my heart jumping through my base layer, my legs throbbing as if being beat by a bat. I crest the ridge to see a 1000+ fans and crew just two blocks away surrounding the famous red carpet.
8:56 --- Two blocks, I cant cover two blocks in four minutes, its over. The wheezing continues. I was deep in the pain cave, and I'd dropped my flashlight! I cant believe I came so close only to come up short. I'm peadling squares, and cant keep a line. All the oxygen my lungs can scrub from the thin air is getting forced into my legs, and my brain was getting none! Just a bit more now, WAIT...there's the carpet...WHAT I made it....clock...clock...where is the clock...8:57.20 OH SHIT...I did it!!!! I have to stop....
....the demons disappear. The crowd screams, I hear nothing. My head on the bars, I gasp, and finally regain my senses. Its over. I did it. I can see straight again. After a bit I rise up, only to find a giant video camera in my face, as a older lady dressed in yellow adorns me with my finishing medal.
8:57.20 = Gold
My reward was bitter sweet, however. My "brother from another mother", cousin, training partner, and friend wasn't so lucky on this day. He crossed the line about a half hour back. Cold rain, doing a number his legs early, he dropped too much time on Columbine. This race takes it all from you, whether you finish in 7 hours or 12, it hurts. To come up just short of your goal, pours salt in the wounds. His result tempered my feelings of success, as we were in it together. I know he'll be back though, to get his redemption on the mountains.
I called my wife while sitting on a step just off the main drag. The emotions of the day grabbed ahold of me, and I was unable to speak as tears flowed down my face. She gave me a 1000 mile hug, and the tears dried up. I couldn't wait to get home and share my experiences with her.
Will I be back...sure. Time has a way of stripping away the pain, and floating the memories to the top. I can feel Doug mounting a comeback, and a certain Green Beans will surely try his hand again in the future. I'll be there to cheer them on from the comfort of their draft should they choose to tackle the beast again!