Report from Leadville 2013

Here’s my race report from the 2013 race, written in the days shortly after the race in August. My two Leadville experiences are a “tale of two cities”. My first LT100 was a dream day. My second one was much less so. I have two buckles. I earned them both, but boy, that second one wasn’t pretty.
At the end of this post is a list of post-race reflections on why the 2013 race was so much more difficult. Not on that list: every day is a different day – sometimes you eat the bear and sometimes the bear eats you.

August 10, 2013 – Race Day 

I woke up before the alarm clock (set for 3:30), after a fitful four hours of “sleep”. I laid in bed for the ten or fifteen minutes until the alarm went off, then up to make the “traditional” double oatmeal with raisins breakfast – this after the daily glass of chocolate milk. Then suit up and run down the checklist. My son-in-law and daughter, Mike and Ruth, bless their hearts, were up by 4:00, and we all headed down the hill to pick up Alex in Twin Lakes at 5:00 and head for Leadville.
It looked like it was going to be a beautiful day – deep purple sky giving way to lighter shades as we drove in. NO CLOUDS!!
We got to town about 5:40, finding a parking place on Harrison less than a block from 6th. The bank time/temp read 39 degrees. I jumped on the bike and rode up the street back to where we had seen a Leadville cop had pulled over an SUV right at the curve coming into town? Really? Is that the way you want your race day to start? I thought I’d offer a word of encouragement. Got there and it was a non-racer pulled over, so I left it alone.
Back to the car, where we got shoes, gloves, etc. on and got our bikes over to our corral. Alex and I got a pretty good spot toward the front of what was going to be the single largest corral of riders. They really seemed serious about somebody being with the bikes at all times, so we took turns, one of us staying with the bikes, the other using the porta-potty. I was able to say my goodbyes to Ruth and Mike and then lost sight of them as they moved on down the street for a better view of the start.
I don’t remember much of the last few minutes before the gun went off. For some reason, the scene seemed surreal, and I had a feeling at one point like that dream we all have of being on stage at a packed Carnegie Hall, just sitting down at the Steinway in our tails, and realizing we have no idea how to play the piano. What was I doing here?
In fact, I didn’t feel sharp, in focus, and that feeling would be with me all day. Slightly fuzzy. The 2011 race day lives in much more vivid memory for me today than this race of just a few weeks ago.
After the national anthem, which was actually sung acapella, beautifully and non-country-musically, by a female soloist, the final countdown was inaudible to those of us in the cheap seats. As two years ago, I never heard the shotgun, just a distant shout that informed us the race had started, and then the now-customary wait to be able to move. Unlike two years ago, this year there was no joking around about this waiting to move, and this was my first inkling that the back corral contained more seasoned riders than 2011. Just a lot of serious faces, focused ahead of them on their start, very little group feeling. Okay then.
And then, off we went, creeping along for a block or so before the start line, having at one point to put feet on the ground, but finally able to get a little movement and sweep across the start and begin my chip time. I had the presence of mind this year to start my Garmin at the start line so I’d get accurate stats.
I remember at some point as we swept down 6th Avenue toward the first little hill thinking, “this just doesn’t feel the same as 2011”. My, how true that would prove to be.
The three miles down the hill toward the Arkansas were uneventful. I was better-equipped this year. I was wearing good fleece gloves over my fingerless gloves and my hands felt much warmer, even though the temp was colder. And of course, this year I was wearing my yellow rain jacket, zipped and velcroed to the max, as opposed to the “unique” green poncho of 2011. In addition, Alex had lent me a set of arm and leg warmers. I had never used these before and they would prove to be very valuable assets as the day wore on.
As we crossed the river and made the turn to go over the tracks, there was the customary logjam as not only is there a 90 degree turn onto the dirt, but the dirt road is significantly narrower than the blacktop. It was another point where I had to unclip and put my feet on the ground for a few seconds before traffic began moving again. I expected this, and more to come on the flats leading toward the St. Kevin’s climb (and let’s make sure we’re pronouncing this right – it’s Keevin’s- and no, I have no idea why).
But for whatever reason, there was nowhere near the tight traffic this year as 2011 on this 3-mile dirt road, and I was able to move at whatever speed I wanted. This may have led to my first feeling of the day that I was slower than the others in my corral. I felt like I was pushing to keep up, and I don’t like that feeling. And it’s not like I was racing their race; I was pushing to maintain the speed that I knew I had to maintain in order to make my cut-off to Carter Summit. This was not a good sign. In 2011 I had felt like I was master of my domain, riding better than most, or at least WITH, most others in my corral, helping out, advising a lot of newbie riders (even though I was a newbie myself, I had spent a month prior to the race training on the course, so I knew it well). Today, I felt like a stranger in a strange land, riding with a lot of people who were flat out faster and more fit than me. The month off in June began to weigh on my mind.
As I rode along, however, I was overwhelmed by the beauty of the moment. I remember the moment the sun broke over the Mosquitos to our right and began flooding the valley. It brightened the color of the hundreds of jerseys and jackets in the long line of riders ahead of me, and brought a cheer to the day. And then it got better. Ahead of us I could see the most beautiful bank of mist laying across the valley, reaching its fingers across the road where it met the trees. I’ll never forget cresting one hill and seeing the unbroken line of jerseys, hundreds and hundreds of them, moving for a mile ahead of me into that mist through which the sun was now shining. A lifetime moment… which was unfortunately the highlight of the day.
At the turn to begin the St. Kevin’s climb, where I often stop to pee, I had no need to do so, and so began the slog up the hill that just keeps getting steeper and steeper. And now the traffic increased exponentially, just like on any highway at rush hour when you begin to climb even the slightest hill. I believe I was forced off the bike two separate times because I just couldn’t make it through the riders ahead of me. In both cases I was able to remount after just a few steps and keep going. Unlike two years ago, I suffered on St. Kevin’s, but never dismounted of my own volition, largely because my pride wouldn’t allow it, not because I didn’t want to.
Again, I realized that this wasn’t 2011. By the time I reached the hairpin, that short but amazingly-long 15 minutes later of grades up to 21%, my heart rate was in the 170s, a problem that would stay with me for the next 50 miles. Unlike 2011, traffic thinned out after the hairpin and I was able to ride my race all the way to Carter Summit. And again, unlike 2011, it was a much more difficult piece of the race. Those little climbs after the hairpin just weren’t fun this year.
I got to Carter Summit in 1 hour, 5 minutes. I’m pleased with anything under 1:10, but again, somehow it just seemed to be so much harder than 2011 and not nearly as fun. And I just didn’t feel “in” it. Why?
From Carter Summit it’s that wonderful 3-mile sprint downhill on the pavement behind Turquoise Lake. As in 2011 I achieved my fastest time of the day here: 41 mph in the full racer crouch most of the way. Unlike two years ago, I left my jacket on because it was still chilly with a bite to it. Down, down, down and then the grind two miles uphill to the Hagerman Pass Rd. and another two miles of light climb on the newly-graded, almost-pavement-like Hagerman road. No washboard! Good going up at 10 mph, but it would be even better news for the return at twice that speed.
I forced myself to pee at the turn onto the Sugarloaf climb, even though I didn’t really feel like I had to. This in itself was a bit alarming, as not peeing usually means improper hydration. But what’s this??? My urine was burning as it passed from my body. This is a heck of a time to be passing a gallstone. It was really painful. No time to worry about it – it would be what it would be. Although I had felt like I had been hydrating regularly, I began to wonder. (In hindsight of a month later, I’m thinking that my hydration was insufficient in the weeks before the race, not necessarily on race day itself. More on this later.)

Sugarloaf

Near Sugarloaf summit, Mile 15 – (note photo-bomb guy taking leak in background)

And there it was again. I should have been cruising up the Hagerman road at 10-12 mph. Instead I was struggling at 8-9. The Sugarloaf climb, which I usually look forward to, was less enjoyable, and more of a struggle than any time in the past, including the 3 or 4 times I had done it in the previous three weeks. I was just expending too much energy, and my heart rate in the 160s on a relatively minor climb was proving it in numbers.

And I was still cold. The jacket stayed on.
And now… the Powerline. It was a highlight of the day. Unlike 2011, I was never obstructed from going as fast as I felt I could, and hopefully I didn’t hold anyone up. I knew by the top of Sugarloaf that this day was going to be a struggle, and that one advantage I had over a lot of racers around me was knowledge of the course. I also knew that I had descended Powerline without dismounting (somehow) three weeks before in what Art Fleming described as the worst condition he had ever seen it in his 10-plus years here. So I knew I was going to have to get my buckle on descending, contrary to what all the experts say.
So I let it fly on Powerline. No, not in Alban Lakata/Todd Wells fashion, but I’m guessing as fast as anybody in my age group, maybe faster. For whatever the reason, I’m a good descender, and feel confident in letting my bike take the lead. I just stay back as far as I can on the saddle and let ‘er buck. I had no incidents of any kind, not even a little “scare”, on the Powerline descent this year, and I felt very, very good at the bottom of the run, all fifteen thrilling minutes of it.
Powerline is very difficult to describe to anyone who hasn’t ridden a mountain bike. And the YouTube helmet cams just don’t do it justice. There are certainly more technically-challenging descents in the mountain biking world, but there is something about the raw physicality of the Leadville Powerline that I think makes it unique. The wheel-eating ruts that run vertically along with you can be as much as two feet deep. One momentary lapse of concentration and your day is over. The bowling ball-sized rockpiles you have to navigate through at speed also present the challenge of knowing that one wrong decision two seconds ago will result in you going over the handlebars. Now put rockpile and ruts together. Now multiply that by a good five or six places like it. Think you can let up near the bottom? It’s like those Colorado highway signs on I-70 for truckers: “Don’t relax! Six more miles of danger!” The wrong move near the bottom on the 90 degree turn while you’re navigating down an 18% grade along a foot-wide strip of loose Rocky Mountain composite granite with a gully on your right and a 50-foot hillside on your left… well, you get the idea. And finally, you have to maintain an intense level of concentration for the entire descent. This is not like going down some 50-foot drop at your local singletrack park. This is a solid fifteen minutes of brow-furrowing, laser-stare, no-blink concentration. One micro-second lapse equals the end of your day. With 1500 racers, there are some who do end their day here. If you’re reading this and aren’t a rider, you’re thinking it’s crazy, but it’s not. It’s doable, but it’s not for the faint of heart. You have to look forward to it. If you’re afraid of it, it’s either going to eat you alive or you’re going to creep along at a rate so slow as to infuriate the hundred riders behind you.
At the bottom of Powerline, you head across the new “ABC” bridge (built by Art, and two other guys starting with a ‘B’ and a ‘C’) across the creek (the bridge is now widened to at least two feet – it’s like an interstate for cryin’ out loud), and then you climb up onto the pavement and head over to the fish hatchery and on toward the Pipeline.
For the record, I maintained my concentration this year and did NOT fall off my bike ten feet after crossing the bridge.
After rounding the curve on 300 by the fish hatchery, I caught up with a pace line that was frankly moving too fast for me. Looking back, it was probably a mistake. There was almost no wind, and I would have been smarter to go it on my own. But the common wisdom is that you “must find or create a pace line between the fish hatchery and the Pipeline.” And so I did.
The good news is that we averaged 23-25 mph for the approximately five mile distance. But by the time we broke off onto the dirt doubletrack that leads over to the Pipeline, I was pretty gassed. And I never took the lead once! Again, my heart rate was soaring – in the low 160s!! This is CRAZY high! Should be 130s, maybe low 140s at tops. What was going on? My legs were hurting too much, but more to the point I was feeling gassed. Just no “oomph”, no kick, no ability to take it up to the next notch. And I wasn’t to Mile 30 yet.
And now my mind began to enter the picture. I began doing what you never must do – I began looking ahead. “I’ve got 15 miles of the Pipeline, then the 10-mile Columbine climb, then I’m only at the half-way mark…”, and I began to settle to the realization that it wasn’t going to be my day.
I crossed the Pipeline chip mat at 2 hours, 39 minutes, almost dead on my interval of 2:40. But I was in trouble and I knew it. The rest of the Pipeline to Twin Lakes was a struggle. It’s pretty flat (as flat as it gets anyway – in fact, there are six climbs that the Sunday bike rider might well be walking), and then there’s a 2-mile steady ascent on good gravel over the moraine just before descending into Twin Lakes. Again, no ability to kick it up to the next level. Just plodding, plodding. Hurting.
Add to this, at some point on the Pipeline my left hamstring began acting up. The back story is that I had been struggling with this hamstring for months. It never got bad; just “there”. But now, here I was at Mile 35 and it’s starting to twinge. But wait, now my quads were beginning to ball up! What??? The only time that EVER happened to me was last year in the Iceman, at Mile 25 of 30 after I was just pushing so hard and was so unfit, that it felt like two tennis balls that were at some point going to force me off the bike and onto the ground. Fortunately, that course leveled out and I was able to finish the race. But here I was at Mile 35 with Columbine, not to mention the Powerline ascent ahead, miles ahead. But WAIT! now my stomach was beginning to feel queasy!!! This could NOT be good! Too many miles ahead of me. A bad stomach forces many, many riders to end their races (http://fuzzyblackdog.wordpress.com/). Between the ham, the quads and the stomach, I was really becoming even more convinced now that this was simply NOT my day today. I had NONE of these issues two years ago.

Pipeline

On the Pipeline outbound – Mile 35 or so

Hamstring, quads, stomach issues…

Even crossing the dam was a struggle. And what’s this!? The leaders, three of them, came tearing across the dam, nose to tail. There was such a long line of us heading outbound on the “good” packed-down gravel that they were just ripping toward us through the loose stuff on our left. It didn’t seem to be slowing them down. Holy crap! Two years ago I didn’t see the leaders until I was over the Stooges and on my way across the flats to Columbine (another 2 miles ahead). I was on my splits, so it was clear that these guys were on their way to a course record… but that was their world. I had a long way to go and I was hurting.
Again this year, thanks to Frank Gepfrich, (http://www.herbalife24basecamp.com/2012/08/herbalife24-frank-gepfrich-rider-spotlight/), the friend I made and trained with back in 2011, my crew was under the HerbaLife “umbrella”. I assumed the big black and green HerbaLife tent would be highly visible right near the dam; they’re a major sponsor, after all. But I had never seen the dam so chaotic and so crowded- a sea of tents and flags… and I simply couldn’t find HerbaLife. About halfway down the road there was a big ambulance blocking the entire road. I couldn’t see around it, but surely HerbaLife wasn’t THAT far from the dam – they’re a prime race sponsor! I must have missed it. I circled back toward the dam, somewhat frantic and frustrated, asking at the main LRS feeder tent, “Where’s HerbaLife, where’s HerbaLife????” Thank goodness someone understood me, and said they were way down on the right. I headed back down, but volunteers were blocking the right side of the ambulance, and the left side was being kept open for outbound leaders. As I approached it looked like I was going to have to actually stop for this traffic issue. It’s an indicator of my increasingly frustrating state of mind that this was bothering me as much as it did – that I was already beginning to realize that every second might count.
Just as I approached the ambulance, it began moving, then stopped abruptly. The guy in front of me actually hit the rear bumper and came off his bike. But I saw an opening to the left; the volunteer waved me through and I tore around the ambulance and quickly saw the HerbaLife tent on the right. (I later discovered that that ambulance was there for a spectator who had had a seizure. By coincidence, she was the girlfriend of one of my Chicago friends, Carlos Sintes, who I had trained with back in the spring. She ended up okay, but it finished Carlos’ race. Even though he eventually went on, he lost 45 minutes and didn’t make the 9-hour cut at Pipeline.)
I pulled in, skidding to a halt and there were Ruth and Mike! And Roger and Sandy! And Frank’s friend, Dave, who I hadn’t seen since 2011. Can’t begin to explain how GOOD it is to see people you know at the aid stations. One of my goals was to make my aid stops much faster than 2011 by staying on my bike, not getting off and sitting down under the tent like I did before. And I really felt I was doing that. Bryan has this entire stop on video. Comparing this stop with the aid stop in 2011, there’s just a completely different feel. In 2011 I gushed about how much FUN this was – and I was bleeding in three places then!! This year I stated quite early in the stop that I was worried about my heart rate, that I was having problems with my legs, and there’s somewhat of a haunted, detached look on my face pretty much the whole time. I was panting; couldn’t catch my breath. I thought the stop was fast; in fact the video shows that I pulled away from Twin Lakes aid after – are you ready – 4 minutes, 26 seconds!!! Granted, the camelbak had to be adjusted a couple of times, and there was some fumbling about my rain jacket (Sandy was semi-insisting that I wouldn’t need it any more. I had to insist that I did – it was going to get cold on that mountain. I had only taken the jacket off about fifteen minutes earlier – at the base of the singletrack, I think – and I was still wearing the arm and leg warmers up). (I also got a bit upset at Sandy because she said I was behind my time of two years ago. I corrected her sharply; that in fact I was ahead of my time of two years ago. I was into Twin Lakes at 3 hours, 38 minutes, just a little ahead of where I was in 2011. But I think the real reason I was cross with Sandy is because I was just cross: I knew how much trouble I was in.)
And now…Columbine. I left the comfort of family and friends and headed up the hill toward the Stooges. Unlike 2011, I was able this year to climb right up and over them without a struggler in front of me forcing me off the bike. And then it was across the broad valley ranchlands to the base of the Columbine climb. I kept looking for Rebecca (Rusch), but never did see her. Saw what I thought was a woman pass by, but again, that was their world.
Passed through a mini-Twin Lakes dam scene where the road comes in from Granite. Amazing the number of tents now set up at this alternate/impromptu/unofficial aid station. Must have been 100 yards of tents lining the road here. Lots of cowbells and waving and cheering. I wasn’t in the mood. I knew what was waiting. And I figured Columbine was going to be where either my hamstring and/or quads and/or stomach and/or dead legs were going to do me in… or not.
Somehow that first steep incline right at the start of lower Columbine was okay, but then I fell into my “new” pattern: simply no get-up-and-go. I plugged away up the hill at speeds mostly in the 3-4 mph range, significantly slower than my 5-6 mph training average. Importantly, I never got off the bike, but part of the reason for that is that it’s more painful for me to walk than ride: so, lesser of two evils.
And now something ELSE: a headache began to form itself around my temples. Oh great. I’m just above 9000. What’s this going to be like in two hours at 12,000? What *else* could go wrong? I had NONE of this in 2011.
After what seemed hours (because it was) I finally felt the tripod (it’s what I call that metal mining structure just before the first steep climb that signals the beginning of “upper Columbine”) nearing, but not before a frustrating experience. There was a guy ahead of me, walking… and I simply couldn’t catch him. I’ll say in my defense that I have never seen a guy walk this fast, but still, I mean, come ON! This was so demoralizing. I must have followed him for two miles before finally passing. Sheesh.
I got to the tripod and stopped to pee (more pain!!) and put my jacket back on. The quad issue had dissipated to nothing. The hamstring hadn’t sprung. My stomach issue was gone. The headache was minimal. Even my heart rate had dropped into the 140s now, where it should have been tens of miles ago. I should have felt more thankful than I did. It was sunny, but cold. Decision time. Jacket or no? Decided no – I’d use the leg and arm warmers. What to ride and what to hike-a-bike now. I decided, again against most advice (you’ll waste energy that you need to have later), to try to ride the first steep section. So I did, and made it probably ¾ of the way up before getting off the bike. This is when I found out that, true to the day, my feet were going to be problematic. I have been having some issues with the toes on my right foot, and I now found that I simply couldn’t place full weight on that foot in a “straight-ahead” gait. I had to turn the right foot almost 90 degrees to the left and just use it as a “place-holder” while I pushed off with my left. One-legged hike-a-biker.
I got back on the bike whenever I could, but there’s probably a good mile (?) of hike-a-bike, along with everybody else, and it was, in fact, painful. I thought briefly about what got me through two years ago – comparing my self-imposed “misery” with the real misery of 18th and 19th century American slaves. I tried that this year and just didn’t have the mind for it. Fuck that, just walk and get it over with. I do remember at one point glancing up and seeing the line stretching up and up what seemed like Jacob’s Ladder to the heavens. It was discouraging. I was cold. Everybody else raved about what a perfect day it was. I was cold.
Finally, I reached that point where I could get back on the bike and grind away to the summit. I was not enjoying the “beauty” above treeline this year. My feet were appreciating being back on the bike again. And again, the remaining climb to 12,600 feet was a slow grind. So discouraging to be so much slower than any training ride. What was going on???

columbine

Ascending Columbine, about 12,500 ft., Mile 49. Lost 20 minutes on this climb. Disaster.

I reached the summit and coasted down the hill to the turn-around, which I barely noticed. I felt like I was in a mental fog. I knew I had taken too much time getting to the summit, but I was unclear on just how much time I had lost. I just knew it was time I didn’t have to lose. (In fact, my time from Twin Lakes to Columbine turn-around was 2 hours, 35 minutes. This was the first split time I missed, and I missed it by a LOT. My target was somewhere between 2:05-2:15, so I lost somewhere between 20 or 30 minutes here… and I was shooting for splits that would give me an 11:30 finish. This is where I knew I was done for the day. Again that little voice began taking control: “If I just lost a half hour on Columbine at Miles 40-50, how much more am I going to lose on Powerline at Mile 80, or on the climb to Carter Summit at Mile 90? I’m done.”) I gave no thought to stopping at the Columbine summit aid station. Seemed senseless in light of the 45-minute “rest” I was about to get on the way back downhill to Twin Lakes.

Powerline inbound

Trying to put the best face on for the camera, just past the Columbine turn-around at Mile 50. Homeward bound. (I beat that guy to the finish line by seven minutes.)

Now the word “rest” is a very relative term, because descending Columbine is a test. It’s not anything as technical as Powerline, with the exception of a few short steep spots on the upper reaches. The test comes in its length. I descend pretty well, so I knew I could cut it loose here. But it’s a test of physical strength, especially the arms and hands. Forty-five straight minutes of high-speed (for me, that’s 20-25 mph) descending. The road is quite rough at the top and you feel like the eyeballs are going to get jarred loose from their sockets. Everything’s a blur, literally, on the upper section (2 miles), but again you have to trust the bike and your instincts. Once “lower” Columbine is reached (8 miles), the road “smooths” into decent fire road, but you’re always braking. There are about six hairpins you don’t want to over-shoot or lose your traction on. So it’s alternatively letting the bike run out, but then knowing you’ve got to get it under control for the next hairpin, then letting the bike run, etc. etc. etc. For 45 minutes. By the time you get back down to the ranchland, the forearms, wrists and neck are pretty sore from maintaining the same position for so long.
Also, I knew that my time up Columbine was poor, so I felt I had to get what I could on the descent. So I was probably a shade more reckless than I should have been. What did it get me? Two minutes. I made it down in 43 minutes, two minutes faster than my desired split time. Whoopee.
I was in trouble.
And I REALLY knew I was in trouble when I pulled into Twin Lakes again. The HerbaLife tent was down. This meant that ALL their riders had come and gone and they were packing up to go home! THAT was depressing.
The demeanor of my crew was subdued. Though they tried not to show it, I knew they had been expecting me a lot earlier. Heck, I had been expecting me a lot earlier. I don’t remember anything from this aid station stop other than a feeling of impending doom. We changed out the camelbak and I hit the road. There was a little less enthusiasm in Ruth’s “You got this, Dad”. I’m pretty sure they, like me, were thinking I didn’t.
As I rode away, I created a new, “realistic” goal. “Ok, I’m not going to buckle. There, I’ve said it. So just give it everything you’ve got until you either give out or cross the finish line. You should be able to get a finisher medal (for an under-13-hour finish) if your legs don’t give out on you before then. In any event, just keep going until you can’t go any more.” In fact, although I felt bad for disappointing Mike and Ruth, who came all the way from New Hampshire, this re-adjusted goal set my mind at ease for the first time in many, many miles of worry.
Things didn’t get any easier physically, but I at least now had a new approach: keep going until you physically can’t go any more. I was not going to allow myself to be defeated mentally.
So across the dam and up the moraine and over to the single track. Okay.

Singletrack

The start of the single-track, inbound, Mile 65

Up the single track, through the woods, over to Lil’ Stinker, the short but super steep hike-a-bike, and wheeled onto the Pipeline. Okay. Not fun, but okay.
Up and down the swales and across the Pipeline. Barely conscious of riders around me or the environment, or the circumstances. Somewhere I stopped to take off the jacket again. I don’t know where. (2014 note: Where did I put it on? I’m not wearing it in picture on Singletrack.)
I barreled through Pipeline aid station, wondering not so much if, but how and when Powerline was going to do me in. I knew I didn’t have much left in the tank, so it would probably be Powerline where I went down.
I crossed the Pipeline chip mat 1 hour, 19 minutes after leaving Twin Lakes. This was a good fifteen minutes behind my planned split time. In 2011 I did this split in 1 hour, 5 minutes. And that was the FLAT part of the course! Now I was a MINIMUM 35 minutes off my splits for an 11 hour, 30 minute finish. If you’re doing the math, that’s a 12 hour, 5 minute finish. No buckle.
But for some strange and absolutely irrational reason, I felt for the first time since very early in the race, that I might have a chance to buckle. After all, I was close. But I was also keenly aware that I was on the bubble, and so did every rider around me from that point on. Two years ago, I was riding from Pipeline to the finish line (last 28 miles) with a certain degree of comfort, knowing I had a pretty good time cushion. This year, I was exactly where I had hoped I never would be at that point: riding desperately on the border of Buckle Land. On the other hand, having any chance was a lot better than my feeling 15 miles earlier of having no chance.
Of course, the headwind had started back at the dam, but Pipeline is rather sheltered in the trees so you don’t get it too bad. But after Pipeline aid, you head out to the blacktop and there’s not a tree in sight. It was approaching mid-afternoon now and the wind really picked up. Serious headwind. Of course. I scrounged a pace line: all two of us. And then we found Dave, another “old guy” I had trained with on several of Art’s rides. Very nice man. He was hurting, like me, so we joined up and encouraged each other. Our third rider soon dropped us two old, tired guys, so for most of the blacktop all the way to the hatchery, it was Dave and me, trading leads about every 30 seconds. I felt like the stronger of the two, and that gave me strength: I had to lead – Dave was counting on me. At one point, Dave told me he couldn’t take his turn, and it was alright. I pulled another turn. I knew we were going to make the shelter of the trees pretty soon. And we did. At that point, I moved on ahead, and my gut feeling was that Dave just might not make it. (So it was one of the great pleasures of the day to see him cross the finish line just a few minutes after me and get his buckle. He told me he couldn’t have done it without me, but I think it’s just as much the reverse.)
And now… Powerline. There simply wasn’t anything to do but do it, right? I mean, you don’t train for a year to quit at the base of the Powerline. I made a point of riding at least a few feet farther up the steep base than I rode in 2011 (maybe 2/3 of the way to the 90 degree left turn). Then off the bike, again the feet really hurting. So much that I actually got back on the bike for what is probably a 20-yard rideable section on that first steep hill. I remember getting to the top of that first false summit, the steepest behind me now, stopping to rest, and thinking, “Thank Goodness! I will NOT have to walk again until the finish line.”
Or will I? I still had forty-five minutes of Powerline ascent ahead of me. Tricky, rock-strewn, gullied, and still steep enough. In other words, not just climbing, but pulling the front wheel over rocks and across gullies for another three miles. Two years ago I rode the entire rest of the Powerline without stopping. But two years ago I had energy. Today, I didn’t know how I’d even gotten this far. I peed, then stepped over the center bar, clipped in, took a deep breath and went after it.
I remember a few things. I know I was forced off the bike several times by technical mistakes compounded by the fact that I was going so slow that my front wheel could have hit a pebble and it would have grounded me. How slow? My Garmin kept ‘beeping’ off because it was reading 0 mph, that’s how slow. It irritated me, because I knew I was moving, but I bet it happened more than thirty times in the next hour. And then… NOOO!!! There was that walking guy again!!!! Ahead of me again!!! Same guy!!!!! And I couldn’t catch him…. Again!!!!! This was a revoltin’ development (that’s an age-appropriate joke). After what seemed ages, I finally did catch up with him and remarked on his amazing walking pace. He told me he hadn’t really trained for the race, but he was a big hiker, so his race plan was to walk every hill and then descend like crazy. He didn’t say this in a friendly way; almost like I was bothering him by asking. He took off on me again, and in moments was a good ten yards ahead of me. Grrrrrr.
Finally I passed him just as we summited. When? Just about an hour after starting the ascent. Like the descent of Powerline, there’s a mystique on the ascent. It becomes timeless. You want to keep track of the false summits, but by this point in the race your oxygen-deprived brain isn’t able to remember the number. Was that the third one, or the fourth one? Oh, forget it, just keep climbing. You know it’s going to end, but it’s like a form of hell – there simply is no time attached to the pain. You just keep going, knowing only that it’s going to end SOME time. (I guess that’s not like hell, then.)
I don’t remember any particular stab of joy upon summiting. There was no time for emotion. I had to get my ass down Sugarloaf, and I tore it up. I don’t have a specific Sugarloaf split, but I know I descended that hill faster than I had ever done before. It was a blur. It was desperation time and I knew this was my last real chance to go real fast for any amount of time. Every minute counted now, and I had minutes to make up if I was going to buckle.
Sugarloaf isn’t technical, but it’s also not smooth. That same eyeballs jarring out of sockets feeling (I don’t ride one of them new-fangled 29” full-suspension bikes that just roll over everything like your grandpa’s Caddy. Mine is a 13-year-old 26er hardtail, emphasis on the HARD, feeling every little rock, like your great-great grandpa’s covered wagon. And I was feeling every jolt on my 63-year-old spine on this descent.)
But it was a thrill, I have to say. And I knew that the newly-graded Hagerman road was going to work in my favor. Two years ago I coasted down Hagerman road, resting. Today, I put the hammer down and hit the mid-20s for most of the two miles. Same thing on the 2-mile descent behind Turquoise Lake.
And then… the big 3 miles of steady pavement climb to Carter Summit. It’s Mile 87. What’s in the tank?
Turns out, enough. One of the main things that pulled me up that hill is that I knew Mike and Ruth were waiting at the top. I had had the foresight to anticipate that Mile 90 might be a good time to see family again. I remember wishing two years ago that I had seen Lois again somewhere between Twin Lakes and the finish line. So I asked Mike and Ruth to make the effort. And they did. And knowing they were going to be up there at Carter Summit is exactly what I needed.
I’ll be honest, it was a long, grind up that hill, but I seemed to be making my training speed of 5-7 mph. In any case, I couldn’t have gone any faster, so it was going to be what it was going to be. As I neared Carter Summit, my watch read 5:15 p.m. Once in training I had specifically timed myself from Carter to the Finish Line. I had heard you should make it in an hour. I did it on relatively fresh legs as fast as I could: 1 hour, 3 minutes. But that was after only twenty miles, not ninety. I now had 1 hour 15 minutes. This was going to be close.
Mike saw me approaching the summit and ran to the turn-off with me. I saw Ruth there. My heart felt good. I had been planning on stopping at the aid station. I was needing to pee. Badly. I was low on hydration. But I simply couldn’t afford to stop. I yelled something to the effect, “I’ve got to keep moving. Can’t stop!” and I never slowed down as I turned off the pavement for the haul across to St. Kevin’s. I hoped they knew how much their being there meant.
I’m not going to say it was easy, but I was motivated now. There are three “grunts” on the way to the Kevin’s descent, and they were no fun, especially the 100-yard one after the sharp left turn at Ken’s Corner. But I stayed on the bike the whole way. No more walking.
When I passed the old mine tailings I knew it was a long downhill ahead of me. Again, I had to throw caution to the wind and let it rip down St. Kevin’s. You don’t want to crash your race at Mile 95, but I had to take chances.
I hit the flats at the bottom of Kevin’s, that place where a half a day ago (or was it months) I had ridden in the other direction through the magical morning mist. And now it began to rain. As far as I can tell, I’m the only rider it rained on all day. But it was after 6:00 now and it was a cold rain. My jacket was in my camelbak and I simply was not going to take the chance of losing a buckle because I stopped to put it on.
I was flying now. Unconscious. Can’t say I was feeling no pain, but the finish line was within reach and maybe, just maybe…
I crossed the river and headed over to the Boulevard, that last little kick in the teeth they throw at you just so you know it’s not going to be easy. I remember very little of the Boulevard except checking my watch. A lot. I did not like being on the bubble, but now, for the first time, it was becoming increasingly clear that barring sudden collapse I was going to get a buckle. I remember not being quite able to digest the fact. For the better part of eleven hours I was resigned to the fact that I wasn’t. Now, in what seemed the space of a relatively few minutes, I was having to deal with the fact that I was. I couldn’t wrap my fuzzy-headed mind around it. It wasn’t really registering as anything other than a “fact”. I’m glad I’d ridden the Boulevard a number of times before race day; otherwise it can get to you mentally, as in “Will this *&#@&-ing thing ever end??” In fact, that slow, smooth climb on good gravel was painful, but at Mile 101 of 104, what is pain?
I made the last climb up 6th Avenue, looking for my marker pick-up truck in the driveway on the right that told me I had summited my last hill. On training rides I always looked for it – even saw the owner once who assured me it would be there on race day. I figured at Mile At the top, you get your first view of the finish line. I picked up speed and pedaled as fast as I could down the hill toward it.
And now, because I was one of those riders on the bubble, there was an amazing sight as I neared the finish line. There was a gauntlet of people for about a half-block before the red carpet, cheering on any of us who were trying to beat the 12-hour deadline. There was a “center aisle” through the crowd maybe five feet wide and I headed for it, the cheering, clapping, cowbells growing louder by the second. I smiled for I think the first time all day as people reached out and clapped my shoulders and arms. Maybe it was a kind of teeth-clenched, grim kind of “damn-it-I-DID-it” smile, but it was the best I could muster. And then the crowd dissipated and the last twenty feet before the red carpet it was just me, alone, smiling.

Mile 104 – The Red Carpet
I took a quick look around – nobody right behind me. Did I have the energy to do it?
I found the last reserve of energy and picked up the necessary speed to hit the red carpet with both hands in the air. The clock read 11:48 as I crossed the finish line. I had ridden from Carter Summit to the finish line in 1 hour, 3 minutes. Same as my training time.

finish

The Finish Line (that’s Mike running up from behind)

Merilee put the finisher medal around my neck and I collapsed over my handlebars.
Mike came up from behind me and Ruth got there moments later. Hugs all around. Frank and Tim showed up, and then Rebecca Rusch, who gave me a big hug and high five.
Done. Somewhere, somehow, I’m still not sure, I had made up my lost time. My official chip time was 11:48:37. I got the buckle.

Post-Mortem

So why was this race so much more difficult than 2011? Race day conditions were perfect. After three weeks of rainy, cold, crappy weather, race day was perfect, if not a tad chilly. Sunny, the course was that perfect, tacky, slightly damp granulated granite, many of the rough spots either graded by machine, like Hagerman, or beaten down by all the bike traffic in the two weeks prior to race day. Powerline being a perfect example: it was SO much better than it was in mid-July. Here’s some variables, any one of which could have made the difference, but probably more like the combination of them all:
1. Family vacation in June. I knew I might be sacrificing my race by essentially taking the month of June off from training. I was on my bike a total of three times in three-plus weeks, and those three rides combined totaled less than six hours. This had to be a factor. In 2011 I remember riding much of the course, especially the flats and the smaller hills “effortlessly”, meaning no leg discomfort. FUN. This year my legs hurt all day.
2. Pre-race hydration. I had been noticing for a couple of weeks that when I urinated it was a darker yellow than usual. In fact, I usually run almost clear. In hindsight, I think perhaps I wasn’t drinking enough good liquid (too much diet Coke) in the weeks prior to race day, and perhaps that had a cumulative effect. It could explain almost all the race-day symptoms I experienced: quad cramps, hamstring, stomach, headache, stinging urination – am I forgetting something?
3. Race day hydration. I THINK I was drinking regularly, but unlike 2011 I don’t think I completely drained any of my three 70-oz. camelbak bladders. The cooler weather may have had something to do with this, but fact is, you’ve GOT to drain those things even if it IS cold. An indicator that I may not have been hydrating properly would be the fact that I peed significantly fewer times this year than in 2011. And this also may have had something to do with the pain – don’t know. (The painful urination ended after the first discharge the next morning. Never returned.)
4. Age? I just felt mentally fuzzy all day; not the laser sharp focus of 2011. On the other hand I was sharp “in the moment” this year: no falls, accidents, mental errors. I ran a really clean race, so I’m not as sure about this one. Overall, fuzzy, but sharp “per second”.
5. Lack of excitement. I never was quite AS excited about this race as I was the first one. Then again, I’ve never had a more sustained excitement about any athletic event in my life as that first race. There could be several reasons: 1. “Second race” syndrome. I don’t even know if this exists, but I know I thought often along the lines of “how could this race possibly top my “perfect day” in 2011?” How do you get better than perfect? 2. Lois not on board. It’s hard to say this, but it’s difficult to mentally gear up for a race your spouse doesn’t want you to be gearing up for, especially when you love that spouse as much as I love Lois. Hand in hand with this is 3. The feeling that by going to Colorado for a month I was abandoning not only Lois, but also Anna.
6. Bad taper. Not in riding as much as in fatigue-inducing activity. Volunteering to course mark and do registration so early on the two days prior to race day at 7:00 a.m. – just too much for my ankles. I was in real pain leading into this race, and I think that may have had something to do with the pain I experience on the hike-a-bike sections.
7. Serious lack of sleep not just on Friday night, but for most of the week prior. Somewhat hand-in-hand with #6. I slept poorly for several nights prior to the race, and then got a maximum of four hours of definitely-not-deep sleep the night before. I remember seeing the clock say “11:30”, with a 3:30 alarm set. Way different than 2011 when I slept like a baby the night before, a good 6-plus hours.
8. Lack of cross-training. Because of the ankles, I can’t run or do most gym machines, so I’m limited to bike riding. But unlike two years ago where I alternated road and mountain bike training, this year I trained exclusively on my mountain bike. I wonder if I so overused those specific muscle groups (and gave no other muscle groups a chance to work) that by race day I was worn out before the race started. My journal indicates all spring and summer long how much my quads and hams were hurting on training rides.
9. Hosting – From Wednesday night through race day I was host, first to Tim, Frank, and Alex, then on Thursday to Roger and Sandy, then Friday evening Ruth and Mike came in at about the time I should have been in bed. Just a lot going on mentally in terms of having the right amount of food, cooking, and determining where everyone was going to sleep. Would have been much better to be isolated those last few days. Lois would have been a big help here.

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About robertwallacegraham

Retired high school teacher, curmudgeon, soccer coach, bicyclist, etc. etc.
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