Report from Leadville 2011

Ready to go

At the cabin, ready to go

When I retired in 2010 I wanted to make certain I didn’t just sit down and wait to die. I needed a challenge, so I took on  what is known as the biggest, baddest mountain bike race in North America – the Leadville 100. Our Colorado cabin is near Leadville, I had bought a mountain bike in 2001, just two years after my transcontinental bike trip, and I had watched the 100 as a spectator with growing intrigue. I enjoyed mountain biking, but had never entered a bike race in my life, let alone a mountain bike race… let alone “the race of all races”. It was going to be a monumental challenge… and a great way to start retired life. In the words of Friederich Nietzsche: “That which does not kill us makes us stronger”, ummm, right?

Once I got my lottery confirmation (a sign that God wanted me to do this, of course 🙂 I began reading everything I could get my hands on in order to know everything I possibly could about how to prepare. I found Art Fleming’s invaluable yahoo email group and devoured it. Art became an indispensable advisor. I found blog entries and read them cover to cover. I looked at youtube videos of the course and tried to imagine it mentally and physically (note: you can’t).

And… everything I read seemed to indicate that a guy like me could never do this. It was like learning a foreign language. I was overwhelmed by the talk of ergonomics, weight, components, gearing, power numbers, tire pressure :-), etc. etc. etc., and when I learned about the amount of walking (hike-a-bike) on the course, I was particularly discouraged. Because of degenerative ankle arthritis (forty years of soccer playing, coaching and refereeing plus bad genetics) I could no longer run, and on many days barely walk (I have a handicap hangtag, for cryin’ out loud). Not only could I not train right, I probably wouldn’t be able to survive the first hike-a-bike section.

But I was in it, and if I couldn’t run, I could bike (I mean, it IS a bike race), so I simply made a point of getting on the bike, mostly my road bike (trails are too mushy to ride in the spring in Illinois), for 40 miles, then 50 miles, then 60-80 miles. I put over a thousand miles on the bike by May. I had no clue if it would be good enough, but it was all I could do. I also started doing push-ups and crunchers – just old school stuff – to get some upper body strength. No weight room. No gym membership. No personal trainer. No purchased training plan.

Assuming my training to be entirely inadequate, I set a goal of making the 4-hour cut-off (at Twin Lakes outbound). If I could do that, that would be an accomplishment, wouldn’t it? So that remained the goal… until we arrived at our cabin above Twin Lakes and I began to ride the course. Starting in late June I was able to ride every piece of the course repeatedly. I did combinations of different sections, three or four times per week. I remember getting lost trying to find the right Columbine access, and also on the Pipeline and St. Kevins. In the process I discovered that I could struggle up the hike-a-bike sections, and my split times were not so terrible, so my goal evolved to making the 9-hour cut-off (at the Pipeline inbound). It wasn’t until late July, after going out on group rides from the Cycles of Life parking lot, when I realized I was at least as strong as a bunch of other people in the race, that I started to think that maybe, just maybe, I might have a shot at finishing the race, and if everything went my way, maybe, just maybe, I might get a buckle. If nothing else, I was 30 pounds lighter and feeling healthier and stronger than I had felt in decades, so it was a win-win proposition…unless I killed myself. That Nietzche thing.

So friends and family gathered at the cabin in the days preceding the race. I had my crew and aid station plans meticulously in order (I was not going to be flying through the aid stations – I wasnt’ trying to break nine hours). I ate a natural foods frozen pizza as my training meal, and headed to bed early Friday night. It was happening.

Friends and family ready for race day

Friends and family ready for race day

Note: All pictures in this blog entry come from Leadville 100 locations as close as possible to the blog references to which they’re connected. Some are of me; most are not. They are not necessarily all from the 2011 LT100, but I couldn’t find 2011 photos from all locations.

Also note: I’ve embedded some youtube videos (mostly helmet cams) that show various places on the course. Some are from the 2011 race, some not, but as above, the course is the same.

The following blog entry was written over the course of the two weeks immediatly following the 2011 race. They’re my best recollections of the feel of that day.

Saturday, August 13, 2011 – Race Day – Probably due to age, I get less excited about things than I used to. I was in bed at our cabin above Twin Lakes by 9:00 p.m. Friday night and asleep in five minutes; alarm set for 3:30 a.m. Woke up at 3:00 from a deep sleep and had to do what men my age have to do (pee, that is). Bad timing, as I was sure it robbed me of a half hour of sleep. I laid back down and actually fell back asleep until the alarm. Got up as quietly as possible, made my glass of chocolate milk and drank it while I made two packets of oatmeal. (Brief mental discussion: do I take my usual 3 Aleve? [I’ve got arthritic ankles] Put drugs in my system? Answer: Yes.) Added a ton of raisins, and then a fistful of walnuts on top when done. It took me 20 minutes to eat it, but it tasted good and hot and filling. It was the right way to start the morning.

I went in the bathroom and suited up. Bryan was ready to go. Lois, Roger and Sandy all got up to wish me well. It was hugs and kisses and then off into the darkness at 4:40.

Within a mile I made Bryan pull over so I could just make sure my shoes were in the back of the truck. Can you imagine getting there and discovering you’d forgot yer shoes??

As we drove up 24 toward Leadville, first light began to reveal itself. It looked like it was going to be a beautiful day. There was a full moon over Mt. Massive, it was about 40 degrees, crisp and clear. As we pulled into Leadville, a shooting star fell out of the sky and we joked about whether that meant good or bad luck. At this point, stars weren’t going to decide the day. It was about legs, heart, and nutrition. I had thought about this ride to Leadville for months. I didn’t feel anything I thought I was going to feel: I only felt ready to go. I was going to completely enjoy this day.

It’s very strange to pull into a small mountain town at 5:15 a.m. and find it crawling with activity. Riders in full gear, jackets, gloves pedaling up and down Harrison. Cyclists in every phase of preparation, getting bikes off racks, pulling on shoes, spandex, jerseys, camelbaks, gloves. We found a good parking space on 4th and off-loaded the bike. I was still in sandals, but I took a quick ride up and down 4th to make sure the bike was dialed in. All good.

I was wearing a big over-sized fleece, baseball hat, gloves… but first things first. We walked over to 6th Ave. to find the first-timers corral and check in. There was a mass of bikes laying on the pavement for about three blocks. I laid mine down in the first open space available, just back of the swimming pool. Where do we check in? Oh, guys will come around with clipboards, don’t worry about it.

Lay your bike down

Lay your bike down

Ok, evacuation time. We went back to the truck, got the toilet paper roll and headlamp Art recommended and headed over to 2nd St. where I knew there were four porta-potties that wouldn’t be as crowded as the 20 in front of the gym (huge lines extending across the street). There were still lines, but they were maybe only 10 people long, and someone in line said… “if you have your own tp, that one on the end there ran out, so you can go right in.” Thank you, Art. And also for the advice on the headlamp, if you get my drift. I did my thing and left the rest of the roll. Bryan was shooting the full moon (that would be the one setting over Mt. Massive.) We watched this awesome “moonset” for a few minutes, then headed back to the truck where we sat with the engine on, warming up for a bit. Then, it was time to get suited up.

I had decided to go with the poncho for warmth until St. Kevins where I would stop at the base and pack it into the camelback. Then I would have it for rain if I needed it later. I also wore my full-finger rain gloves AND my K-mart brown cloth garden gloves over them. Put the over-sized fleece over the whole thing to keep warm until a couple of minutes before the gun. Ok, maybe not the fashion statement, but I knew what was going to work for me.

As we walked over to 6th St., things began to get real. Shivering. Cold or nerves? Both, probably. As we got there I spotted Frank who was just getting there. Met Anne, his girlfriend, and said good morning to Dave and Tim. Bryan was filming everything. 1700 riders now converging all on the same place.  There was now at least a full block more of bikes and riders behind my bike. Frank decided to just join the race from the curb where he was. After handshakes all around, I made my way through to my bike just as they opened Harrison St. to close up the corrals. Everyone was moving their bikes about 25 ft. forward, but I wasn’t to mine yet. It was still laying right where I left it and the crowd flowed around it til I got there. Music over the loudspeakers, periodic announcements either plugging LifeTime or revving us up (like we needed it), first light breaking, Mt. Massive looming larger by the minute directly in front of us, riders stamping in the cold, lots of quiet conversation, jokes, some small groups holding hands and praying together. Pretty awesome. I drank it all in.

Found myself standing next to four women who were clearly there together. “Where you from?” I asked. “San Diego!” “Hey, my old home town! I’m from Chula Vista. Hilltop High School, class of ’67!” “Really?? I teach there!” one said. And so for the final few minutes before the gun, I had the opportunity to speak with someone who is teaching PE at my old high school, and who knew the family of John Rindone, the great Civics teacher who inspired me to major in history and become a social studies teacher. Pretty great.

I turned on the handlebar cam to record these last few minutes before the start, and then the start, wondering whether the height of the camera would catch anything other than the butts of the people in front of me.

And then… “ONE MINUTE!!!”

I was ready. Too old to be nervous.

Then… way off in the distance, a shotgun blast. Some whooping, cheering.

Start of the 2010 LT100

Start of the 2010 LT100

And then…nothing. It was probably 30 seconds before we began moving, and another two minutes or so before we crossed the start line. I thought I’d be caught up in this moment, but the fact is I was already planning my first wide turn at the end of 6th, thinking about staying clear of as many bikes as possible, thinking about my plan for St. Kevins, the first big climb.

The start - Photo by Tim Gormley

The start – Photo by Tim Gormley

I made the first turn at the end of 6th Ave. way left and wide, as suggested to not get pinned in, and off we went flying down the hill in the dawn light, a whir of tires on pavement and spinning rear sets and sounds of cowbells zinging by. It looks more crowded in the pictures than it really was. Made the right turn onto 9 the same wide left-side way I made the first turn. Taking no chances. It got colder and colder as we descended, and even with two layers, my fingers were numbing up. My flying poncho got quite a few humorous remarks on the way down the hill (my flying poncho whips by at 5:45 of this video, depressingly near the back of the pack). I’m quite certain it was the only poncho worn in this race (and probably any other, for that matter).

At the Junction I got my first open glimpse of the valley ahead. I thought, “Oh, look at the mist on the river. How beautiful!” only to realize that what I was looking at was a 3-mile cloud of dust on the St. Kevin’s approach caused by 1500 bikes ahead of me churning the dirt to fine powder. Art had warned of this and Bryan had given me his firefighter’s bandana which I had around my neck ready to go.

The dirt road was narrower than the pavement and there was quite a logjam at the turnoff. After getting to a place where I could take one hand off the handlebar, I attempted to pull up the bandana. This was a lost cause as I could never get the thing adjusted right over my mouth with one hand. I gave it up and just left the thing around my neck. The dust was bad, but not choking. At one point in this slow-moving herd, I began singing “Oh give me land, lots of land, under starry skies above, Don’t fence me in!” but nobody seemed to pick up on the group sing idea, and I dropped it. Killjoys.

It was the traffic that was more of a concern. We were moving significantly more slowly than my needed pace to get to Carter’s Summit, with a sea of riders ahead as far as the eye could see. Well, nothing could be done about it and everybody said don’t worry about it – it was what it was, and I wasn’t about to lose my race by forcing my way through this traffic jam and endangering my bike in the process. Instead, I found the pace and watched the sun rise over the Mosquitos, an unforgettable sight, and way ahead the cows scattered, just like the movie. (Only had to avoid one massive fresh cowpie).

I thought I’d be taking the poncho off at the base of the St. Kevin’s climb, but it was still chilly, so I made the turn and started the climb. It was there that I found the single disadvantage* to the poncho: the “dress” blocked my vision of my chain, making it impossible to verify what gear I was in; would have to do it by feel, which became a non-issue since the CofL guys had my bike so dialed in. As I geared down as the grade increased, my gearing was perfect. (*The advantage was it kept my legs warm.)

Can’t really describe the crowd on the St. Kevin’s climb. Wall-to-wall bikes. On the lower ascent, before the steep grades, moving much more slowly than I needed and wanted. I had thoughts of missing my time. How much time would I lose on this first stretch? Would I finish in 12:03 due to this? But again, there really was nothing one could do.

As a result of this thinking, and this pace, and the intense concentration it took to avoid other bikes, the climb up Kevin’s was the “easiest” ever. There were already a lot of people walking! I found myself at my “pilings” marker just before the hairpin, and then around the hairpin before I knew it. I had passed many more bikes than had passed me (at least in my own mind) and I expected the road to clear a bit at that point. It didn’t, but within another mile or so I was at least able to begin riding more at my pace, not theirs.

Discovered that the handlebar cam had been installed too loosely when I looked down and the lens was staring up at me. Now not only would I have to think about holding the On/Off button in for 5 seconds each time I wanted to film, but I would have to be constantly checking to see that the camera was pointed in something like “straight ahead” mode instead of “straight up”. This was a worry: a millisecond lapse of concentration on the 20 feet in front of you can be catastrophic to your race. We’ll see how this goes.

Now I began to find the beginning of an unexpected role as advisor. I thought I was a rookie, but it turns out that having been on the course all summer gave me knowledge many around me who were on it for the first time didn’t have. So, for instance, when we approached that sharp descent with the counter-intuitive right turn to the gate I was able to warn many around me to check their speed and get their bikes under control. This kind of advising was a trend that repeated itself at the intriguing spots on the course all day long.

That ride through the woods after St. Kevins is really a thing of beauty. The sun was up enough to now to be splashing through the pines, and I began to be able to let the bike out on some of the short descents. This was FUN! But… I was still worried about my time.

Before I knew it, the Carter’s Summit junction arrived and I turned onto the hardtop. I glanced at my watch as I hit the pavement – 1 hour, 10 minutes. Only five minutes off my split time! It had felt like I was losing twenty. I pulled over and laid the bike down – time to remove the flapping poncho and reveal the Superman underneath. Took off my gloves and useless bandana. Let’s get ready for this race.

As I was changing, Frank rode by with a quick, “Everything ok?” I assured him I was fine, just changing. I worked fast, got my helmet back on, everything set, and jumped back on the bike for the wonderful paved descent behind Turquoise Lake. Again, knowledge of the course was good. As many were hitting their brakes on every curve, I knew which ones really needed the brakes. Knowing that the road was ours put my mind at ease and I cut many of the blind left curves to my advantage.

Note about my speedometer/odometer here. I don’t have a $350 Garmin – “just” a $50 wireless unit… which was simply not working. I guess you get what you pay for. I bought it at a bike shop in Naperville just this spring, and as the speedometer read 4 mph while I was doing at least 40 I envisioned bringing the thing back to them, laying it on the counter, and informing them of just what a piece of crap it was. (Note: at the end of the race, my trip odometer informed me that I had just cycled 5.4 miles). So I had no idea how fast I was descending Carter’s, but I was down in the full crouch and from past experience, it was between 35 and 40 on the faster parts. Easily the single most fun part of the course, but I wondered (as most do) what shape I would be in for the ascent of this hill at the 90-mile mark.

As I rounded the last fast curve near the bottom of the descent and hit a straight section behind Turquoise Lake… a black Audi came up the road toward us, clearly intent on going up that road. WTF!!!! Somebody was going to get killed, coming around a blind curve into its front grille at 35 mph. I yelled some quick expletives at the driver going by, and then moments later yelled at a group of volunteers who had clearly allowed this car to go past them. Really?? I know the race bible says to be prepared for vehicles on any part of the course, but I figured that was just a CYA statement for legal purposes. Guess not.

But it was what it was, and now the ascent on the other side of the lake began. Things were well-spread-out by now, and that pull up the pavement was routine. The sound of cowbells pulled me to the crowd at the Hagerman turn, and then it was onto the well-graded gravel for the 2-mile easy climb toward the next “big” climb, Sugarloaf. I was remembering to take in the scenery, and it was a gloriously beautiful morning in the Colorado Rockies.

Climbing toward Hagerman

Climbing up the backside of Turquoise Lake toward Hagerman – 15 miles in

I felt well within myself, settling into the race. I was religiously sucking down the camelbak, one or two pulls every several minutes. Had to pee, always a good sign that hydrating is on schedule, so I pulled over at the base of the Sugarloaf turn and relieved myself, knowing that I was going to be expending a lot more effort as soon as I hit Sugarloaf.

Things clumped up again on the narrow and rocky Sugarloaf ascent, but nothing like St. Kevin’s, which was almost 15 miles behind now. As always, I actually enjoyed this climb, picking my line up and through and around the rocky road.

Sugarloaf climb gives a spectacular view of Turquoise Lake

Sugarloaf climb gives a spectacular view of Turquoise Lake. Wasn’t I just down there a few minutes ago??

I felt good, strong, but didn’t want to blow myself up here. The few glances at my heart monitor indicated I was running around 160 bpm, which concerned me a little as it was maybe 10-15 bpm higher than I felt I should be on this climb. Was I going to blow up by the 50th mile???? Maybe it was just the adrenalin rush of race day? I filmed here again, having to constantly readjust the camera angle as I picked my way up the rocky road.

Anyway, I cleaned the Sugarloaf climb without incident and in a very good mood and now… the descent of Powerline. I decided to just shut the camera off, even though Powerline descent is perhaps the most dramatic part of the trip. But I knew the camera would flop around and I just didn’t want the temptation of reaching over to try to adjust it. Off.

Ok. How would this go with so many other riders in vicinity? I’d had no practice run of Powerline in a crowd. The answer: quite well. As I began the descent I reminded myself, “Focus. Focus.” I was able to move with riders around me who were also moving at my pace. At only one place on the descent did I have to slow more than I wanted to, when I was trying to slingshot one of the hills and the guy in front of me didn’t know the terrain and had slowed way down. I was forced off the bike, which meant walking the remainder of the hill. Oh well.

At the top of the last descent I remembered to take in the wonderful awesomeness of that steep drop as we looked out into the Arkansas River valley with this rutted cliff in front of us.

Last section of the powerline
Last section of the powerline, taken on a training ride Aug. 4 – Photo by Bob Graham

And then… down down down, rear wheels scratching as we hit the brakes to keep the edge of control in our favor and not the hill’s. I warned all around me to take the inside line on that last big left turn, and then it was down the last stretch, avoiding the wheel-eating ruts.

Bad things can happen on the Powerline

Bad things can happen on the Powerline

Me with the wheels on the ground

Me with the wheels on the ground. I don’t like this picture because I look stiff as a board. Actually felt relaxed, but aware.

Made it!

The base of Powerline was an absolute dust bowl. It had been a dry summer, and a dry pre-race week.

Dust Bowl I

Dust Bowl I

Dust Bowl II

Dust Bowl II

Now the stream-crossing. As I pedaled the road toward it I wondered what the traffic would be like at the crossing. There are three plank bridges and also the option of just plowing across the water. Unlike a month ago when it was 2 feet deep and 20 feet wide, now it was only about a foot or so deep, thanks to Ricky, Tom and the rest of them who cleared it out the day before. As much as I love splashing through water, I thought about the possibility of sleet on top of Columbine and decided not to soak myself.

Bad things can happen crossing the stream

Bad things can happen crossing the stream.

That meant one of the plank bridges. Sure enough, traffic was clogging here to a point, but I had to make a quick decision. I chose the left bridge. To this date I had never ridden the bridges. I’m not one of those kinds of riders, and the idea of dropping my front wheel a foot and half into the water and then face-planting in the stream did not appeal to me. I always walked.

But today every rider in front of me rode across, and I knew that if I got off and walked, every rider behind me would have to do the same. I wasn’t going to be “that old guy who screwed me at the bridge”. So I had to do it, right?

It’s a tricky little approach* as you have to navigate over a rocky patch just before you get onto the bridge, so you don’t get a clean run-up. The planks are about a foot and half wide, the stream about 10-15 ft. across. Well, here goes nothing. (*I notice in 2012 videos that the plank was twice as wide as 2011 and the approach to it was smooth. Things like that, and the gradual “smoothing out” of the course over the years by thousands of repetitions over the same lines, makes me wonder if the race is becoming gradually less-challenging.)

Crossing the creek

Crossing the creek

Aaaaannnndddd….nailed it. I was so pleased with myself after crossing, that I let my concentration drop for what, one second? My front tire hit a sandy patch on a curve maybe 20 ft. after the creek, and I was on the ground before I even knew it. “Rider down!” “You ok, man?”I was standing back up just as quickly as I’d gone down. “Yeah, I’m fine” even while feeling like my whole left side was chewed to pieces. Sure enough, blood was streaming from my left knee and left elbow. Worse was what I was feeling on my left hip. Bone bruise? How fast and nasty would that tighten up?

Lois tends the arm at Twin Lakes - Photo by Tim Gormley

Lois tends the arm at Twin Lakes – Photo by Tim Gormley

Only option was get back on the bike as quickly as possible, and I’d find out soon enough if there was a problem that would prohibit riding further.

This HD youtube clip from 2012 shows the steep base of Powerline all the way across the creek and onto the road. It was much less dusty in 2012, as can be seen by the wet road conditions approaching the creek. Somewhere around 4:11-4:13 is where I inexplicably went down. Still don’t know what I hit.

I ground my way up onto the pavement where lots of people and lots of cowbells were urging me toward the fish hatchery. By the top of the first little climb on the pavement I had done the head-to-toe inventory and figured nothing was broken that couldn’t be fixed tomorrow.

I forced a 3-man pace line at the fish hatchery* and we flew onto the Pipeline, arriving there within two minutes of my split time of 3:40. I made a quick stop at the HerbaLife tent there to tell Anne to call Lois and tell her to have the First Aid kit ready (but not to panic). (*As I flew around the corner at the hatchery I saw a mom with a 4-year-old feeding the trout, just like Lois and Anna at the same place back in June.)

Anna and Lois at the Fish Hatchery in June

Anna and Lois at the Fish Hatchery in June – Photo by Bob Graham

After a quick pee (you know the Beach Boys song, Good Hydrations), I jumped back on the bike and took off down the Pipeline. I don’t remember anything from Pipeline other than it was effortless and I felt like I was cranking (for me, that is).

On the Pipeline outbound

On the Pipeline outbound – all business

I knew I was well within the 4-hour cut-off time, barring mechanical issue, and I was just having so much fun.

Down the single-track

Down the single-track – having fun

The single-track was fun; I would have been frustrated at the pace if I hadn’t known I was well within the cut-off.  I ground my way up and over the moraine and onto the blacktop to the stunning first view of Twin Lakes. Our cabin is six miles up the valley. Then down, down and across Hwy. 82 and into the sea of tents along the frontage. Thought I saw Dave Wiens by a tent on the left as I flew by. Almost everybody at tents was either pre-occupied with or looking for their rider, so the cowbell action here was limited, but it was still very cool to ride this gauntlet of mountain biking people and equipment. Truth is, the dam is half aid station/half party zone. It’s the single most-accessible place on the course by car, and it serves as aid station for riders at both the 40-mile mark and again at 60 miles on the return.

Yeah, thanks

Sign-holders approaching the dam – Yeah, thanks.

Lots of encouraging signs at the dam

Lots of encouraging signs at the dam

Twin Lakes dam scene

Twin Lakes dam scene

On the move through Twin Lakes

On the move through Twin Lakes outbound

Then across the dam where my crew, but especially Lois and Anna would be waiting. I crossed in a line of riders and I saw Bryan fumbling with the camera just as I approached the end of the dam where I became visible to him. And then there was the Herbalife tent, first one on the left. I had made the cut-off with 25 minutes to spare, I was bloody, I was having a blast. I pulled in, Roger took my bike (I told him the camera was flopping all over the place and pretty useless. I can’t remember what else I filmed on the way over Pipeline), Sandy took my camelbak, Lois took me and marched me over to a chair in the tent. “Sit down”. Helmet off, glasses off. She started spraying first aid spray onto my cuts, but quickly realized that the blood had coagulated and scabbed over in the hour and a half since I went down, and there was no point in digging around in there to try to clean things out. I think I got a drink of ice water, and I know I got a wonderful cold wet washcloth on my face and neck. Awesome. Then Wes was saying, “Two minutes” and within seconds after that he was saying “Three minutes. Get back on the bike, Bob”. Time to go. Helmet on, glasses cleaned (wonderful!), fresh clean face, first-aided, cold-drinked, bike wheeled up and off I went into the first traffic opening, guided by Roger. I noticed the camera was gone, not readjusted; I was a little disappointed, but had other things on my mind as I pedaled away toward the Stooges – and this is where I had my first little pang of doubt, fear and loneliness. I had had Lois and Anna to look forward to all the way to Twin Lakes.

It's not that steep, but still...

It’s not that steep, but still…

Now I felt I was on my own, tackling the biggest climb of the race.

Leaving Twin Lakes, heading for Columbine - Photo by Tim Gormley

Leaving Twin Lakes, heading for Columbine – Photo by Tim Gormley

But it was quickly back to full concentration as I went through the gates toward the Four Stooges. Again, climbing seemed effortless, although I quickly realized that my chain hadn’t been lubed. Sounded so dry. I wondered if that would work on me mentally by the top of Columbine: “dragging” that dry chain for all those miles. I kept expecting the leaders to be coming back through, which I really didn’t want on the narrow Stooges section. There was a logjam on the first Stooge and as a result I had to dismount and walk the top. I was a little disappointed as there was a good crowd there and they were cheering riders who topped the Stooge on the bike. I wanted to explain, “Hey, I can ride this thing any day of the week – it was the guy in front of me!” but of course no one really cared and it really didn’t matter.

Over the Stooges and onto the flats… and there they were, the first leaders coming back at me. In 2009 I had stood back near the base of the singletrack and watched Lance Armstrong, Dave Wiens and a string of other leaders plow up the hill inbound as riders were still coming down. The downhill riders got off their bikes and moved off the track. I wondered if that would be the case with me, but here I was on good “two-lane” road, approaching Columbine, and knowing it would be that all the way up to treeline.

I didn’t really care about who was leading the men. In fact, I didn’t really even know who the leaders were supposed to be. But I kept my eyes open for Rebecca Rusch, and was surprised to see what I thought were at least three women pass me on the flats (although  it’s not as easy as you might think to distinguish male and female in a bike race). No Rebecca! It wasn’t until I was in the trees on the first steep incline of Columbine that I saw her flying down the hill past me. I gave her a huge “DGN!!! Go! Go! Go!” shout-out, and she was gone. (Rebecca graduated from the high school where I taught – Downers Grove North High School, Downers Grove, Illinois and we had met for the first time earlier in the week.)

Meeting Rebecca Rusch

Meeting Rebecca Rusch

Rebecca Rusch barreling through Twin Lakes aid station

Rebecca Rusch barreling through Twin Lakes aid station

Now the long march. Lower Columbine seemed never to end. It’s beautiful (2:30-3:10 of this video), if you can appreciate beauty at Mile 45 and climbing.

Switchback on lower Columbine

Switchback on lower Columbine

Lower Columbine

Lower Columbine: at my speed I had plenty of time to admire the beauty

It’s not that I ran out of energy; just that even though I “knew” Columbine climb, today it seemed to take forever to get to that big old military truck on the hairpin, and even longer again to get to the tripod.

Passed one leader sitting by the side of the road who had come off his bike at what, 35 mph? He was seriously road-rashed and was holding his shoulder. When we asked him if he was ok, he said yes, broken shoulder, and help was on the way. We pedaled on without breaking cadence.

For the record, I stayed on the bike all the way to what I call the tripod, at the turn just before the first hike-a-bike. Ken Chlouber was sitting astride an ATV there, and I made the decision to ride that first steep section until I just didn’t feel like it anymore. That got me maybe 15 yards up the hill before I dismounted, joining the long line of walkers. This is the hill I pedaled in most training rides after my first, but I remembered Art’s advice that it’s just not worth burning up energy here just to show other riders that you can stay on the bike.

And this is where I knew now for a fact that the 2011 race was not the glory race of previous ones: Yes, no movie. Yes, no Lance or Dave. But the definitive sign? No PBR guys halfway up that hill. The bloom was off the rose.

The PBR guys

2010 – The PBR guys – they offered roasted wienies and PBR on silver trays in formal wear halfway up the first walking section on Columbine

I walked the little short section of relative flat and up the next hill (again, I had ridden this whole section in training), and then remounted to ride the rest of the way up to the junction before dismounting to join the Bataan Death March (apologies to any family or soldier who went through that horrifying  time) at the Goat Trail. It had taken me an hour and forty five minutes to get there from the dam. The line stretched up and up. It was not the worst day for my ankles, but it definitely wasn’t the best. I had training days where hike-a-bike sections were no pain at all, but today I couldn’t follow Art’s advice of baby steps down onto flat feet to avoid gastroc cramps. Had no choice but to go balls of feet. More exactly, I used ball of right foot, putting left foot down flat and facing 10 o’clock.

Trudging up Columbine

Trudging up Columbine above treeline

Up, up and up we walked. Very little conversation. Not excruciating, just such a long hike. I had met Tom Lining the week or so before the race and he gave me an invaluable piece of advice: keep moving. No matter how crappy you feel, keep putting one foot in front of the other. I took it to heart, and inscribed those words on my handlebars for when I might need them most.

Keep Moving!

Keep Moving!

You've got to keep moving

You’ve got to keep moving

I wasn’t worried about time lost here, not so much because I knew my time was fine (I wasn’t really sure), but more because there was nothing else I could do about it anyway. Downhill riders flew by in depressing numbers.

On Columbine it's mentally difficult to watch descenders fly past you knowing you're still two miles from the summit

On Columbine it’s mentally difficult to watch descenders fly past you at 25 mph knowing you’re still a mile from the summit and hitting 6 mph max. Even more depressing to hear them say “Almost there!”

As I began to move into my pain cave and run mental heroic images of myself and the others around me, I was confronted with the thought of American slavery: millions of  people reduced to inhumanity by the greed and power of others, a lifetime of labor, day in and day out, death bringing their only freedom, and I’m thinking I’m somehow heroic for volunteering to climb a hill for a couple of miles with my bike? Really? The hike-a-bike got a lot easier when put in historical perspective. Being a history teacher is a good thing.

I rode the rideable section between the two hike-a-bikes. Many were still walking, I assume altitude-affected. I was having zero altitude issues. My heart rate was now lower than it was on Sugarloaf, and nowhere near blow-up phase. My heart sank a little when Doc Wenmark flew past descending, on his 45-lb. Mukluk. I remembered his words from the rookies meeting the day before: “If you stay with me, you’ll be guaranteed a buckle.” How far behind him was I?

Doc Wenmark on his fat bike ascending the upper reaches of Columbine

Doc Wenmark on his fat bike ascending the upper reaches of Columbine

FINALLY… I could get back on the bike again for good. My legs were strong, lungs good, and it felt good to get off my feet. The final rideable mile or so are indescribably beautiful. It’s one thing being up there in a 4WD vehicle; it’s another to know you got yourself up there one pedal stroke at a time.

The upper reaches on Columbine

The upper reaches on Columbine

Bob around 12,000 ft on the Columbine ascent

Bob around 12,000 ft. on the Columbine ascent

Approaching 12,600 ft., waaaaayyy above treeline, the wildflowers still beautiful, I climbed the final few grunts to the peak, and then flew down the hill to the turn-around. The aid station there was a buzz of activity. Lots of guys handing out every kind of drink you could want. I said no thanks to all (I made a point of thanking every volunteer I possibly could all during the race. Impossible to hit them all, but I did my best.).

I had semi-decided I wouldn’t stop at the turn-around, but I wondered as I approached whether the temptation to stop would be too strong, relax for a few minutes, take in the “moment”, etc. As I approached the turn-around, though, there was no question in my mind: no stopping here. I’d get my “rest” on the way down the hill.

There’s a time-warp on this section of the course. Your mind tells you you were hiking for hours. In fact, it was a little more than 30 minutes from the Goat Trail to the turn-around.

After the turn-around, of course, there’s that aggravating little climb back up to the high point. Many were walking this. Again, I assume altitude, not lack of training in most cases. I was motivated – I had just hit the half-way point of this race. I was DOING this thing! Besides, it hurt less to ride than to walk.

After the turnaround, a lot of people were walking back to the high point

After the turnaround, a lot of people were walking back to the high point

The upper part of the Columbine descent (note: this clip is from early July when the snow was still blocking some of the trail) got crowded with riders who had clearly never ridden it and were consequently on the brakes way more than they needed to be. At one point near the rock-pile I had to hit the brakes so hard that I had to unclip my right foot and hop-brake in order not to pile into the rider in front. Then it was a 2-footed “straddle walk” for about 15 ft. before being able to get back on the saddle again. This part of the descent wasn’t nearly the fun it should have been and had been on training rides. This was definitely the most crowded section of the race since St. Kevin’s. I note for the record that there were still a LOT of riders walking up that hill while I was riding down. I started to call encouragement to them, but remembered how much I hated hearing that from guys who were on their way down while I was still hiking up, so I just shut up and rode.

And this was where I hit Jerk #1 of the day. It’s narrow to begin with. You’re trying to stay right, well clear of ascenders, many of them semi-oblivious in their personal pain caves. Creeping down the rockpile behind a lot of slow-slow-slow riders, I feel a guy passing me on my right in the six inches between me and the bushes. My spinal reaction was to pull left, which doesn’t necessarily put you into head-on collision course, but it puts you off the line which you are so deeply concentrating on drawing for your own front wheel. Once thrown off your chosen line on a descent, there’s danger of losing it.

So I gave the guy a yell as he went by, “Hey, you need to say something when you’re coming up behind riders.” He was ahead of me now, held up by the rider in front of him, and he actually looked half-way around, and said in a clear, strong voice, “Sorry, I lost my voice.” Wow. That was cheeky. A bunch of riders around me expressed mutual disgust for this guy as he flew off down the hill. I was really hoping to ride past his broken body somewhere down the hill, but no such luck.

The last steep descent of upper Columbine, just coming down to the tripod, were as bone-jarring and eyeball-shaking as the first time I rode it. I thought, “Man, I am losing energy if I’m feeling this descent this much, but once I reached the treeline, the rest of the descent was a good, fun, fast ride, unimpeded by traffic. I knew the turns well and was able to let the bike run. I saw my last ascending rider near the base, and thought, “that guy is never going to make the 8-hour cut-off at Twin Lakes. What is his incentive to keep going?” And then just as quickly realized, “just getting to Columbine summit is an accomplishment”.

Before I knew it I was safely back down on the flats and headed back up the dreaded Stooges, one of my least favorite little training sections because they represent my least-favorite kind of mountain biking: up down up down up down. I’m much better on up up up up up up down down down down down. Today, though, the Stooges were lined with people and cowbells and I flew up and down them like they weren’t even there. Coming down the last Stooge where I had gone over the handlebars just two days before, I concentrated extra hard. No problem today.

Now it was a short downhill run to the dam and Lois and Anna and my friends again. Two hours, twenty minutes to the summit: less than 45 minutes back to the dam again. My watch told me I was making the round trip in just over three hours and would be getting to the dam at around the 6:40 mark. If I was an hour 20 to Pipeline from there, that would still put me at the 9-hour cut-off in 8 hours!! Wow. Better than I expected. So far so good.

I pulled into Twin Lakes at 60 miles with maybe a bit less positive energy than at the 40-mile mark, but still pumped nonetheless. I had done a good job of consciously sucking down my camelbak, although it wasn’t quite drained this time. I knew I was ahead of my best time estimates and I knew I was feeling good. The hip and the road rash were non-existent. I sat again, got my face wiped off (ahhhh!!!), drank ice-cold water (ahhhh!!!), and asked Lois for a shoulder rub as the camelback was beginning to wear on me from the 40-minute descent. The shoulder rub was magnificent and I never had a shoulder or neck pain for the rest of the race.

Wes gave me the 2-minute and 3-minute countdown again, but I said, “I’m taking five minutes here,” and I’m glad I did. Just a couple of extra minutes to collect myself, take extra ice-cold water (did I mention it was ICE-cold?), Roger oiled the chain, Anna gave me a hug, and then… back on the bike.

Leaving Twin Lakes: 40 miles to go - Photo by Tim Gormley

Leaving Twin Lakes: 40 miles to go – Photo by Tim Gormley

Once again, as I rolled away across the dam I experienced a strange ennui: ahead lay 40 lonely miles, the last 20 unknown, including the ascent of Powerline. What would happen? Would I be able to do this? I wouldn’t see Lois and Anna until the finish line. I wanted to see them sooner than that.

But by the time I was at the other side of the dam, it was back in race mentality. I flew down that little singletrack of the Colorado Trail faster than I had ever done and onto the frontage road lined with trailers, tents, people and cowbells.

Now for one of those little challenges. Where the trail leaves the frontage road it jumps up an embankment about 10 very steep feet to Hwy 82. In training I had only been able to navigate this one time, barely, without having to jump off and walk my bike up the rest of the way. And here it came. I slowed down to let the path clear, then swung way wide to the left, much wider than anybody else, and cranked right straight for it as hard as I could in middle chain ring. My momentum carried me almost to the top and the middle chain ring was the perfect gear for getting myself over the hump. I got a huge cheer from everybody, somebody gave me a push I didn’t want, and over the hump I went, dodging that one nasty rock, and across Hwy. 82, thanking the staties there for stopping the traffic which was backed up about 100 yds. on both sides.

Now for the first climb since the top of Columbine. What would my legs have after almost an hour of “rest”? As I began the blacktop ascent up and over the Twin Lakes moraine I got my answer. I was pedaling in the same gear I used in my training rides and feeling no diminishing of energy. I would have this same question (what’s left in the tank?) as I approached every remaining climb of the day. Fortunately, I would have the same answer.

CR 310 outbound

CR 310 outbound

I zoomed down the county road (CR 310) heading for the single track. Would riders hold me up on the single track? Would I hold up riders behind me? As it turned out the “pace line” I was in on the single track was just perfect for me. I didn’t feel like I had to push extra hard, nor was I feeling (like I did on St. Kevin’s) that I was being held. I navigated the tree roots perfectly and headed over toward Lil Stinker. I slingshotted it as best I could, but it was depressingly near the bottom that I got off my bike. A girl came up from behind, calling that she was going for as much of it as she could… and she made it about halfway. We all called out encouragement and congratulations to her on her accomplishment, but I also wondered whether the expenditure of energy would haunt her later.

Looking over the edge of Lil Stinker; Picture doesn't do it justice

Looking over the edge of Lil Stinker. Picture doesn’t do it justice. It’s a steep hill.

Lil Stinker is just that. So steep, so hard to climb for what, maybe 25 yds? Here’s Lance Armstrong and Dave Wiens on it in 2008. I was able to find a pretty firm path with minimum slippage by staying to an edge. I sure didn’t just hop back on the bike at the top. It took me a minute or so to collect my energy.

But once back on the bike and headed toward the Pipeline again, all was right with the world. The little switchbacks were pure fun, and only one climb proved to be anything but easy. At one point as I was tearing around a curve following the rooster tails of dirt and dust from the three or four bikes in front of me, the thought just burst into my head, “I’ve always wanted to do this!” I don’t know where that thought came from. If it had been true I certainly wasn’t aware of it consciously, but it was such a joyful moment. I think the thought represented the idea of great epic adventure, not specifically the Leadville 100. In any event, I was very aware at that moment that I was living a dream come true.

The rest of the Pipeline seemed unconscious, just flying effortlessly along, wind in my face. An hour and ten minutes later I pulled into the Pipeline HerbaLife tent, right on the 8-hour mark – I would have four more hours to complete the course, feeling more confident by the minute of finishing under 12 hours, with still that one nagging question of whether or not I would hit the wall and be done.

I took a quick leak behind the tent and because my chain definitely needed more oil, one of HerbaLife’s mechanics treated me like one of their own. He did a magnificent job and that was the end of my chain issues for the rest of the day. (In fairness to Roger, I think my chainlube of choice sucked.) I made one tactical error here. I asked Anne to please call my crew and inform them that I had four more hours to reach the finish line. Problem: I had never informed my crew that my training splits showed I should be about 3 ½ hours from Pipeline to finish line, so this information from Anne told them that I’d be in right at 12 hours. In fact, I really didn’t know for sure how long it would take since I had never ridden more than 80 miles of the course before. (As a result, my “early” finish surprised almost everyone – except Lois, of course – and no one would be at the finish line when I came across.)

As I pulled away from Pipeline I fully expected those late afternoon headwinds across the flats to the fish hatchery… and they weren’t there. I hate headwind more than climbing; much more mentally defeating to me, so this was a wonderful gift. I wanted very much to find a pace line, but riders were so stretched out at this point that it proved to be difficult. I looked behind me to see who I could wait for.  No one. Ahead of me about a hundred yards was the one rider I might reach. I did seem to be gaining on him, so without expending too much effort I caught him after a few minutes and asked him if he wanted to form a 2-man pace line. It was better than nothing. He agreed and off we went. I asked him how if he was making his times, and it became quickly apparent I was dealing with a person in a very negative place. He said he had been hoping for 9-hours, but a flat tire and some other problem had destroyed that dream so now he was just trying to finish. We traded the lead up to the left turn to the hatchery, but by then his negative aura was palpable, even though he never said another word, and I really didn’t want it to cover me. (Odd side note here: the entire day was sunny with one exception – while I was riding with this guy, the lone cloud of the day came and covered us. At the time I took it as a comfort from the sun, but I wonder now if the cloud was a symbol that I was actually riding with Lil’ Abner’s Joe Btfsplk.

Joe Btfsplk

Joe Btfsplk

As we approached 300 there was a pretty big crowd there and it occurred to me that Lois could have driven to that point and parked to see me coming around that corner without having to worry about driving in all the way to Pipeline. I kicked myself a little bit for forgetting to suggest that possibility. Man, it would be great to see her.

As we turned west into what should have been the strong afternoon headwind, I was amazed to discover that… it was a tailwind!!! And a fairly strong one. Strong enough that, as the Eagles say, you could hear the sound of your own wheels turning. This WAS my day!! I took off in the lead of our mini-pace line with the wind at my back. I turned around after a bit to see my partner had dropped off the back. I didn’t wait for him and never looked back again.

I approached the fish hatchery curve, when what to my wondering eyes should appear… the Subaru, parked by the side of the road! Lois had figured it out. Great! As I drew closer, I saw a woman get out of the car. She was short and had black hair. Same car, wrong woman! As I went by, I said with a smile, “That was mean. You have the identical car as my wife and I thought you were going to be her.” She laughed and said, “Sorry!” (I saw this woman at the finish line and we laughed about it again.)

Around the fish hatchery I began thinking about Powerline. Well, it was going to be what it was going to be, and there was only one way to find out what that was going to be. Down off the blacktop onto the gravel road leading to the stream. As earlier, it was lined with spectators, all shouting encouragement and ringing cowbells. As I passed the area that had taken me down earlier I yelled silently to no one, “You got me the first time. Not this time.”

But now it was back over the bridge with almost no thought about it, thoughts on what was waiting. And then I heard my name being called. It was Tim, camera in hand. That’s right – Frank had said that he and Dave were going to get to Powerline. I gave him a yell, thanking him for being there. As I made the left turn out of the brush, there it was, looming over our heads: the Powerline. It was thick with spectators who enjoyed watching others suffer.

The Powerline - 80 miles in

The Powerline base – 80 miles in

And now the great unknown: Up to this point, I had done every piece of the course in the order it came. I wasn’t so worried about the lower walking section. It was getting back on the bike at the top of that first summit. Could I possibly ride it all the way to Sugarloaf? If not, how much time would I lose, and would it cost me a buckle?

It's the De-energizer Bunny: it keeps going and going and going...

Photo by Bob Graham: It’s the De-energizer Bunny: it keeps going… and going… and going…

As I dropped into the necessary gears to begin the climb as far as I could make it, there was Dave, giving me a shout-out from the left side of the trail. I really barely know Tim and Dave, but it was a really great boost seeing them there.

I decided to ride as far as I felt I could without expending crazy energy; I made it around the first big bend and about half-way up the “right-turn” hill. I could have ridden higher (I had in training), but again, it was an energy-saving decision, and I think it was the right one. So the long march began (mine started at about 1:43 on this video), and boy, it was. Even though it’s a shorter hike-a-bike than Columbine, it’s steeper and by this point on the course, it seemed longer. As on Columbine, I couldn’t get both feet flat to the ground and I worried again about my gastrocs cramping. This was the only place on the race course that the “Keep Moving” on my handlebars really came in handy. It was very tempting to stop and rest several times, but… keep moving, even if it’s tiny steps.

If Rebecca walks it, I'm walking it

If Rebecca walks it, I’m walking it

For the most part, I picked a good line to walk (believe it or not that makes a difference – you want to be on the high side of your bike – if you are lower than your bike it’s just that much harder since it already feels like you’re pushing your bike from underneath). This section of the race is the only section where I remember glancing up and the hike-a-bike summit seeming to be no closer than it was five minutes before. It was also the hottest part of the race. The sun was seeming to beat straight down (3 p.m.??) and somebody’s blog later said their Garmin read 96 degrees. I passed quite a few riders stopped and off to the side in their respective worlds of hurt.

At any rate, the summit was finally reached, as it always is. I did stop for a minute or so there to collect myself and re-group. And now… what? I climbed back on the bike for the short and pleasant descent of that first false summit. Because I knew the course, I knew I could fly down this and slingshot my way a good piece up the next hill. I passed by a number of riders who didn’t know this and were already walking again.

One of the things that was always formerly discouraging to me is just how fast you lose momentum from going downhill to going uphill. You’re not a car or a semi with thousands of pounds to carry you up and over the next hill, so it’s amazing how little oomph you actually carry into the next hill from the previous descent. You go from 30 mph to 4 mph depressingly fast, almost like it’s not fair. And after 80 miles, it seems even less so. But this was the value of my summer training on the course. I had accustomed myself to this fact and did not let it get me down, so I quickly geared down and got after it. 4 mph was fine – it was twice as fast as walking, wasn’t it?

I determined to grind away on upper Powerline until I just couldn’t grind anymore, at which point I would walk. As it turned out, a motivation began to reveal itself the higher I went. I found I was passing riders who were significantly younger than me just often enough to keep me going. This would not have been sufficient motivation if in fact I didn’t have the legs to stay on the bike, but I did, so it was more a question of heart and mind than legs.

Another factor in knowing the course. Powerline ascents in training were discouraging because of the false summits. They say there are four… or is it five. The fact is it’s hard to exactly define “summit” on that blasted hill, and with mental fatigue playing games with your mind, you lose track anyway (“ok, this is the last summit, right? D__N!!!”). So the game I played in my mind was simple: when you think it’s the last summit, it isn’t. There WILL be another one, so don’t get your hopes up. I did know that bottom of Powerline to the beginning of the Sugarloaf descent is about an hour for me, but of course I hadn’t checked my watch at the bottom of Powerline so I wasn’t sure exactly how much time had elapsed. I just know I kept grinding my way up that hill, one turn after another, picking my way up and around the “bowling ball” rocks.

After a long, long time, two things happened relatively simultaneously. Because of my familiarity with the course, I did feel that I was approaching the real summit (things begin turning right and you can begin to see more daylight – then again, I didn’t really quite allow myself to believe it). And that’s when I caught up with Doc Wenmark. I recognized the 45-pound mukluk with the huge snow tires before I recognized Doc, but there was no mistaking it. My heart gave a leap: I was going to buckle! Doc really looked like he was struggling (if there was one place on the course you’d struggle with a 45-lb. bike, this would be the place). I gave him a shout from behind, something like, “Hey Bill, I know I’m going to buckle now!” Really, I was so happy to see him. His response was several squeezes on the rubber ducky handlebar horn, which made me laugh.

Doc Wenmark - first to ride a Salsa Mukluk in the Leadville 100

Doc Wenmark – first to ride a Salsa Mukluk in the Leadville 100

As I drew level with him I said something that I immediately realized sounded mean, but didn’t mean to be at all. Days before when I had taken that picture of Bill on his bike in the parking lot, he had called it his “giggle bike” because it just made him and anybody who saw it giggle. So in my typical wise-ass fashion, I asked him as I went past, “Are you still giggling now?” I really thought that this man was so up-beat all the time that the question would be taken in the humor in which it was intended. As I pulled up right behind him, he pulled over and stopped (which surprised me), and it almost seemed like he did that just so he could get a look at this f___er who was making fun of him. As I passed, it wasn’t a smile I saw on his face.

Oh well, I blew that relationship, but this wasn’t the time to stop and apologize. (Read about this interesting man here.)

I had a race to finish. After passing Bill I realized that indeed I was truly near the summit. I had ridden the entire upper section of Powerline… after 80 miles!!!!! Holy crap. I was going to do this thing, and I was going to do it in under 12 hours. I can’t quite describe the euphoria I felt at this moment, as I climbed the last hundred yards or so to the beginning of the Sugarloaf descent. NOTHING was going to keep me from the finish line now. I didn’t care if I had to crawl across it, dragging my bike behind me. NOTHING.

The Sugarloaf descent was a jolt back to reality. As much fun as it was to pick my way along this somewhat-difficult rocky jeep trail on the way up it so many hours before, it was much less fun to pick a line that didn’t jolt your hands off the handlebars and your eyeballs out of their sockets on the way down it at 25 mph  (yes, I ride a hardtail). It’s maybe four miles tops, but boy was it a relief to get to the bottom and turn onto the smooth gravel of the Hagerman Pass road.

Because I was feeling pretty good about my time, I allowed myself to drift down the two miles of Hagerman to the blacktop. It was such a relief and rest and recovery time. I had drained the last of my camelbak on the way up Powerline and was now working my way down my water bottle, taking long pulls as I anticipated the long blacktop climb up to Carter’s Summit. Again, the questions: would the Carter’s climb be the place I hit the wall? I turned onto the pavement to begin the 2-mile descent to the back of Turquoise Lake, pedaling pretty hard, getting speeds of probably 30+ mph (but who could be sure).

My water bottle was pretty warm and about 2/3 empty by the bottom of the hill, so when I saw the family at the bottom as the Carter climb began offering squirts of water on the neck and ice-cold bottles of water to riders on the move, I thought, “this is good”. I refused the water on the neck, but traded out my mostly-emptied Courage Classic water bottle (just dropped it on the pavement) for one of the ice-cold bottles offered on the run by a 10-year-old girl. As I took the bottle and rode away, I realized two things simultaneously: it was one of those skinny little water bottles you buy at the store, maybe half the volume of a real water bottle, and… it was only half full!!! WHAAAAATTTTT???? How can you give a half-full bottle of water to a rider going up Carter’s Summit!!!! I was pissed, but what are you gonna do? I’d just have to nurse that thing to the top. Note to self: never take food/drink offers from strangers during a race.

Once again, I found myself with the energy to climb. Once again, my climbing gears up Carter’s were the same gears I was using in my training rides up Carter’s, which had been after only 20 or 40 miles (for the record, middle chain ring, top three rear gears). Once again, I was passing people, both riding and stopped by the side of the road, getting passed by few (or at least that was my impression).

And once again, I attained a summit with my legs still under me and never having gotten off the bike, this time at the 90th mile. I pulled into Carter’s Summit aid station and stopped. I had about an hour and half to get to the finish line. There were two more sections that had climbing: three or four short but steep little grunts to get to the St. Kevin’s descent, then the Boulevard, and then the final little son-of-a-gun up 6th Avenue by the hospital. But all the long, grinding climbs were behind me.

The volunteers filled my camelbak with water, and I drank something from the tables (water, Gatorade??). Two, maybe three minutes there, and then back on the bike to finish this thing out. I headed through the gates toward St. Kevin’s with the only remaining question again being whether I would hit the wall before I hit the finish line, but at the same time knowing that even if I did, I was going to drag myself there. Truth is, that wall question was diminishing by the minute: I was getting pretty excited.

Once again, having ridden the course paid off at several places on the stretch from Carter’s to Kevins, particularly approaching the little hidden steep climbs, where I could either speed up or gear down appropriately. I nailed every climb, including the tricky little counter-intuitive left turn on loose sandy gravel leading directly into the last hard little climb in lowest (or is it highest?) granny gear. Almost everybody I saw there was off their bikes walking it.

As I hit the hairpin leading to the St. Kevin’s descent I knew with finality now that barring accident or mechanical failure, I was going to get a buckle. I descended St. Kevin’s moderately fast, but at the same time making certain that this would not be the place that took me out of the race. Hitting the flats at the bottom of Kevin’s Gulch, I felt like I was on wings, flying along the relatively level stretch of three or four miles there, floating over sandy stretches.

And then, as though to say, “You’re not getting through this thing without knowing I’ve been here” Mother Nature threw a powerful wind gust straight in our faces. Speed dropped precipitously. Sand was thrown in our eyes and mouths. Holy Mackeral! What IS this? And then as suddenly as it hit, it was gone. Maybe 30 seconds. We flew onto the blacktop, crossed the river and the railroad tracks and headed laterally over to the Boulevard. Getting closer. Getting closer.

The conventional wisdom says that when you hit the dirt trail at the start of the Boulevard (start at 9-second mark) you have a half hour to the finish line. My watch said I had over an hour. Nothing was going to stop me now. I made the sharp left from the sandy level track onto the steep, bowling balled section, and just plowed my way through it. I noted here, as with other places on the course, that a thousand riders ahead of me had laid the line that day, so all I had to do was follow their trail. This was much different from the training rides. Here again, there were riders walking or stopped by the side of the trail as I passed.

Tom Lining heads up the Boulevard on a training ride

Photo by Bob Graham – Tom Lining heads up the Boulevard on a training ride

After the rocky section, the Boulevard “levels” out into a steady smooth climb to the Leadville astroturf field. I don’t remember my legs turning any more. The horse was smelling the barn, and before I knew it I was climbing onto the blacktop of McWethy Ave. for the one block over to the final right turn onto 6th. Back to spectator/cowbell land again, which only grew in size and volume as I began that last slow climb up to 6th St., which seems like such an insignificant little hill when you’re driving into town. But it’s Mile 102 (or is it 103?) and no hill is little at this point.

6th Avenue - Mile 103: But it's so easy in a car

6th Avenue – Mile 103: But it’s so easy in a car

I found myself catching up with a 20-something guy who was clearly laboring. I saw in his body language as I came up behind him that he was hurting bad, even thinking of getting off the bike. I pulled up next to him: “How you doing?” “I got nothing left – can’t do it.” “Oh no you don’t. You haven’t come 102 miles to get off your bike now.” “I got nothing left”. His face was white, his stare was blank. “Put your head down and pedal. Don’t look up. Just keep pedaling.” I stayed with him, encouraging, cajoling, coaching him along. At one point I looked over and he was looking up to the top of the hill which didn’t seem to be getting any closer: “Hey hey hey, I said No Looking Up!!!!” This actually got a laugh out of him, a good sign. As we topped that last hill I knew he had it and I began to pull away. I heard a “Thanks, man” as I left him, and then there it was: the Finish Line!

Just four of five blocks to go, and I was going to enjoy this moment. Although it was less dramatic than I had imagined while training in February in Illinois (these things usually are, aren’t they?), the crowd was amazing for that late in the day. Everybody there hoping for their loved one or friend to beat 12 hours. Cowbells. Music? Then the P.A. system booming out names. Then the final block and I found myself pumping my fist, smiling, laughing. “Rrrrrobert Graham, from Twin Lakes, another local…”. I hit the red carpet.

Boom Shack-a-Lack

Boom Shack-a-Lack

What a Day!!!

What a Day!!!

Where was Lois? Anna? Bryan? Wes? Roger? Sandy? I veered over to the right and got off my bike. Someone was taking my chip anklet off. Somebody else was hanging the finisher medal around my neck. I didn’t look at my time, but I knew it was something around 11 ½ hours. I felt fantastic. I had legs all the way to the finish line! I hadn’t bonked. I had had a blast all day long. Shannon Gipson came up and gave me a hug and said “Congratulations, Bob”. I told her, “When I saw you last March I hoped maybe I might make the 4-hour cut-off, but I sure found out  ‘you can do more than you think you can’.”

Over to the chute to the courthouse lawn, and there was Lois! Big hug. Roger took my bike. Siga and her friends were there. And then, there was “Slainte Steve” Rodgers in street clothes. Had he finished hours ahead of me? No, turns out he had developed a knee problem that finally forced him to call it quits on Columbine. How about Tom (Lining)? Steve said Tom didn’t make it to the 10-mile mark – somebody clipped into his rear derailleur and tore it right off his bike. Holy mackerel.

And then I began to feel faint from the talking, just like I was running out of air, so I said my goodbyes to Steve and began to follow Lois to find a place to sit down. But I decided I needed to sit down a little earlier than that. Lois didn’t see me and went on ahead, so Anne, a nurse, said, “Let’s get you over to the medical tent.” She took me by the hand and we wove through the crowd.

Lots of cots

Lots of riders in this condition

The med tent looked like a M.A.S.H. unit. Riders lying on cots, some with oxygen masks on, some looking comatose, blank stares, huddled shivering in sleeping bags. I sat down on the end of a cot, feeling better already. A well-meaning nurse brought me a cup of Gatorade Recover, which tasted so god-awful I ended up throwing it onto the grass under the cot when she wasn’t looking. She then spent about ten minutes trying to get a reading on a little finger-clip thing that was supposed to read my oxygen/blood content and heart rate. It didn’t work. My heart monitor was still running, so I just read my HR for her every couple of minutes. She told me I should lie down, but the cot was not quite on the level and my head was lower than my feet which was not comfortable at all, so I just sat up again. After another 10 minutes of trying to get my numbers, and several other nurses trying to do the same, I just felt better and said I was fine.

Then they said let’s get those scrapes cleaned out, so I went down to the end of the tent and sat in a chair. This was a mistake. By this time, Bryan had showed up with the camera so he got all the gruesome details on video. First, they sprayed the scrape on my knee with a solution from a pump-sprayer. I asked what this miracle solution was. What’s that you say? Cold water?!! Hmmm. So you’re spraying cold water on road rash that has been dry for over nine hours. Ok, you’re the medical professionals, so what do I know. Then she began scraping at the knee with a folded-over gauze pad. Holy crap, it hurt, but I thought to myself, they must know what they’re doing, right? (and Bryan is filming), so gut it out. Ok. Done. Now on to the hip. This one hadn’t been touched since it was under the bike shorts, and it was a dandy. Swollen as well as nasty-bloody. It wasn’t long after she began scraping on this one that I felt myself going faint. Let’s see – you’ve just ridden 11 ½ hours on a mountain bike. I’m certain your physical reserves are in solid-enough shape for us to scrape away at multiple flesh wounds with no other solution than cold water. Hey, I’ve got an idea – how about sandpaper? At one point in this process, someone asked me what the most difficult part of the day had been. My answer was, “THIS!!!” Anyway, as she continued to scrape I got my head down between my knees, but that wasn’t doing the trick, so she stopped for awhile so I could keep from passing out.

Bottom line, I was there at least another half hour trying to “collect”. I don’t remember much here – whether they tried again or not. I do know that at one point, Wes and Lois alternated massaging my shoulders and neck, which felt absolutely wonderful, and that finally Lois just told the nurse, “I’ll take care of the third road rash at home tonight.” I think she was as frustrated as I was that the pain level was just too much for someone already fragile.

Somewhere in here my training buddy, Frank Gepfrich, found me at the tent. He had missed his buckle by fifteen minutes. That’s tough. (2013 note: Frank came back with a vengeance and buckled in 2012 in a time close to 11 hours.)

Frank Gepfrich, Tim Gormley, Randy Welch and me in the med tent

Frank Gepfrich, Tim Gormley, Wes Howard, Randy Welch and me in the med tent. I’m trying to smile.

Reservations had been made at The Grill for 8:00 with our Lithuanian guests and crew, and when Lois and I arrived our table for thirteen erupted in a huge sustained cheer. The restaurant was jammed with riders, crews, families, etc. so the mood all around was great. At one point Ken Chlouber and Merilee Maupin, the original organizers of the race (they are both still very active on race day – Ken runs the Friday pre-race meeting, fires the shotgun to start the race, and is all over the course – Merilee greets riders at the finish line, and I saw her between Kevin’s and Carter’s Summit outbound, too) came in and the entire restaurant gave them a huge standing ovation.

Service was absolutely horrible. You’d think the restaurant might have had a clue to add staff, but it’s Leadville, so… our order didn’t come for more than an hour! I ordered a cheese quesadilla and a diet coke, but after about two bites had to head off to the bathroom where those two bites left immediately. Felt immediately better, but by the time I got back to the table, my quesadilla was a cold, hard thing.

The HerbaLife table was right next to ours, and that’s where I found out that Nate Whitman had finished in 7:05, just missing his goal of breaking seven hours. Also got the word that Rebecca Rusch had finished first again. Wow. (She had invited me to her post-race party, but I knew I wouldn’t be able to go as family and friends came first.)

We got back to the cabin at about 11:00, at which time Lois began cleaning my elbow. But within a minute my head was back down between my knees, and ultimately I ended up laying down on the floor. Never did pass out, but had all the symptoms leading up to it. Lois finally did what those nurses should have done in the first place: she gooped the elbow, hip and knee over thickly with first-aid cream, then covered them with gauze, taped them lightly, and we went to bed. It was midnight. Due to our guests leaving in the morning, and a lousy night of sleep, I didn’t make the awards meeting the next morning. But…

a month and half later:

The Buckle with Shannon and Malin

The Buckle with Shannon and Malin


About robertwallacegraham

Retired high school teacher, curmudgeon, soccer coach, bicyclist, etc. etc.
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2 Responses to Report from Leadville 2011

  1. Diego says:

    I received this blog post from a friend since I’m planning on doing Leadville this year. I wanted firstly to congratulate you on your achievement but also to ask you what you ate/drank for the race. Did you have any particular nutrition strategy? In my personal case, I know I can probably handle the distance (I just did two consecutive 90km days at race pace), the altitude I hope I can handle (it usually doesn’t bother me when I go skiing), but the nutrition part I’m not sure what I will do.

    • Diego, Well, maybe better late than never. I haven’t been on the blog all summer and fall or I would have responded earlier. Hope you did well. If you did, then your nutrition was obviously right for you. In my case, I went with exactly the same plan I went with in 2011 and it got me another buckle. I’m in my 60s, and I am able to be at altitude for almost a month prior to racing: these may be two variables that change things. I go liquid only, following the advice of Art Fleming, a 10-time buckle winner and in 2012 the first man to buckle at age 70 (and again this year at age 71). Art says your brain needs every bit of oxygen it can get in this race, and that any solid food you take in during the race is going to pull oxygen away from where it needs to be in order to digest your solids. So… stick with liquid. Art uses one NUNN tab plus 3 scoops of HEED powder in one water bottle. Three of these bottles will fit into a 70-oz. camelbak. You use one camelbak from the Start to Twin Lakes, a second one from TL up Columbine and back to TL, and a third one from TL to the Finish Line. You can supplement with chews or goo, and maybe a bottle on the downtube for that third leg is a good idea. Just stay away from solids. Having said that, you see a lot of people scarfing down all kinds of solids, so it’s a very individual thing. All I know is I got two buckles and have not had a nutrition issue in either race at altitude.

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