Monday, October 10, 2011

24 Hour National Championships

Since racing my first 24 hour race, well actually my first real mountain bike race ever, in February, where my teammate Jill and I finished in 3rd place amid some exchange and mechanical issues, a podium finish at Nationals seemed to be within our reach.  With numerous notable accomplishments in my very first season of racing, such as multiple 24 hour podium finishes, a 3rd place finish in the Arizona Trail 300, and a 10:30 finish in my first ever Leadville 100, I was convinced that my training had been paying off and that I would be ready to throw down hard at 24 Hours of Colorado Springs.

When the announcement was made that the race was going to be moved from the Falcon Trail on the Air Force Academy to the small urban Palmer Park, I was instantly convinced that the difficulty of the trail would reward riders who had knowledge of the course.  Granted the fastest of the fast riders would be able to put their head down and charge hard through whatever they faced, but for me after half a dozen laps in the middle of the night I knew that having put time in on the course would be hugely advantageous.

The course on the chaotic network of trails at Palmer Park

In the month prior to the race I spent hours mapping the course with a GPS and then riding laps, to the point that I had every turn, rock, drop, climb, and descent committed to memory.  I knew the fastest lines.  I knew when to go hard and when to recover.  I knew that getting ahead on the first lap would be critical, as the technical course could easily cause congestion as other riders were unprepared for surprise trail obstacles.

My first attempt to ride it was a failure...3 hours of riding circles.

The day before the race, I opted to take the day off the bike entirely.  I packed up the car with all of the usual 24 hour race gear and headed out to pick up some things that after a couple of previous races we had decided were going to be especially helpful in this race.

First was a small generator.  With more of the race taking place at night than during the day I was certain that the battery power that we had would not be sufficient to get through the night without a charge.  The generator would be crucial in making sure that nobody ran dark as I did in my first 24 hour race.  On this course that could be catastrophic.

Second was an RV.  Even though the weather forecast was to be the best of any of the 24 hour races I had attended, and nearly perfect for racing, after weathering a crazy Arizona winter storm in February and an endless onslaught of wind in New Mexico, having an RV would allow us to retreat from any weather involuntarily imposed on us.

After picking up the generator & RV and meeting up with Jeremy Young, a friend and fellow rider who, with his partner Michael Scott, was going to share the RV with us for the race, we picked up my wife Jen and my cousin Kristen, who were going to be our support crew for the weekend.

One of the best parts of 24 hour races is the village that comes to life in the days prior to the race filled with racers, support crew, volunteers, and spectators who all settle into their campsites filled with campers, tents, and even couches.  Unfortunately for us the town of Colorado Springs wouldn’t permit camping the night before so instead of setting up camp and hanging out with other racers and crews we were forced to spend the night away from the venue.

Fortunately for us Jeremy’s dad lives minutes away from where the race was taking place and in addition to offering to put us up for the night, his wife Tracy cooked up a wonderful pre race feast.  Consisting of shrimp and bread to start, grilled salmon, pesto pasta, and salad for the main course, and cake for desert, we all went to sleep well fed and well fueled for 24 hours of riding.
After some serious debating about what time we should get up in the morning, with me over emphasizing the importance of arriving early and getting a prime pit, and everybody else wanting to sleep in we finally settled on leaving the house at 6am. 

By 5:45 Saturday morning we were gathered in the kitchen downing piles of pancakes and eggs.  Minutes later we boarded the RV and were on our way to Palmer Park.

As we arrived to the race venue we were able to locate the area secured by Trek Bicycle Store solo racer Jonathan Davis, where the team mechanic Erick Erickson would be located, and parked the RV about 30 feet from his.  We began building out our campsite, which would serve continuously as a rest & recovery area for 4 separate riders as the race went on.   Soon after our arrival, Michael Scott and his wife Lacy as well as Jill Heuckman, my partner in the race, rolled in rounding out our crew for the race.

Start/Finish & pit area

The time passed quickly as we picked up our race packets and attended the pre-race briefing, and before I knew it we were lining up for the Le Mans start.  Opting to have me take the first lap because Jill and I both felt I would be able to turn a slightly faster time, I found myself lined up among a group of jittery riders all ready to get the race started.

My bike awaiting me after the run.

After a quick final briefing, and few moments of chatter among the pack, I was surprised when the gun fired, as I couldn’t see the starter and never heard a countdown.  Nonetheless, I furiously put one foot in front of the other moving up through the pack, surprised that the pace of the 100 yard sprint to our bikes wasn’t a little faster.  

The run!

A message was waiting for me when I hopped on my bike.  Thanks Jill!

After grabbing my bike I settled into a position just off the back of a group of top riders that formed at the front.  We made our way around the parking lot and then uphill on a road for about a mile.  Instantly the race started breaking up and gaps started forming.  After making the right turn on to the familiar single track, as I suspected the very first obstacle in the trail caused the rider in front of me to come to a complete stop in the only viable line forcing me off my bike to get around her.

Starting up the road

Making my way around some riders and getting passed by others, I pushed on noticing that at times as far ahead and behind as I could see, there was nobody.  I felt as if my initial feeling had validated and that hitting the single track as far ahead of the main field as possible kept me ahead of the masses and on my bike turning the pedals instead of behind a string of riders struggling up the difficult trail.

One hour and three minutes after leaving the start I rolled into the exchange area with the 16th fastest time.  Jill was waiting for me as planned, and with a quick exchange of the ankle banded timing chip, she was on her way to complete her first lap.  I was off to chill at camp for an hour relaxing and recovering for what was to become a cycle we would complete 8 times over.

Finishing up the first lap.

Jill rocked the first lap, finishing exactly the same amount of time behind her counterpart on our primary competition as I had mine on the first lap. 

Knowing that they were a couple of pros paired exclusively for this race, it was highly unlikely we were ever going to be in a position to challenge them for the lead, but we were poised to take the advantage if they were faced with a race altering injury or mechanical.  

Recovering after the first lap.

Nevertheless, I mounted my bike and pulled my second lap in a respectable time that trailed the leaders pace by 8 minutes, upon my return Jill charged out of the transition and returned 1 hour and 17 minutes later with a deficit on the leaders’ lap equaling mine.  

The final short climb before dropping into the finish.

On my second lap, I was able to power the pedals, but was feeling totally out of it.  I wasn’t thinking clearly at camp felt slow and sluggish, and was just all mixed up in a weird way.  As I left the start area on my third lap, I seemed to have renewed clarity.  My mind was focused, my legs felt strong and I was charging the trail with renewed vigor.

Now 5 hours into the race, I was hammering at what felt to be a blistering pace.  I was tearing up the trail, and passing everybody that fell into my sights.  About two thirds of the way through the course lies the toughest climb, I pushed hard up it and as I reached the first summit, aware that the next section of the trail was difficult as is, but made even more challenging as it follows the long climb, I grabbed my water bottle to take a quick swig.

I knew I had seconds to pull off the drink as once you crest the summit, you plunge down a stepped rock face, and immediately into a hard left turn.  I fumbled with the bottle and instead of ditching it and grabbing the bars, I launched into the rock face descent gripping my handlebars with only my left hand. 

Instantly I flew over the front of the bike, came crashing to the ground on my back hearing a overly audible pinging sound as my bike came down behind me.  I jumped up, scraped and bruised, but otherwise in good shape, grabbed my bike and as I lifted it off the ground my beloved Ergon grip slid right off the end of the bar.  I picked it up to find that the ping I had heard was the metal bar end, which clamped the grips to the bars, snapped into two pieces.

Realizing that I would be riding the final 4ish miles without a grip, I shoved it in my back pocket, jumped on my bike, and took off down the trail.

A few pedal strokes in I really started to crank the pedals, leveraging the handlebars for more power.  As I did so, I noticed the left end of my bars were mushy, and loose.  Once I reached a smoother section of the trail, I slowed enough to investigate on the move to find that the bars had snapped off at the brake lever clamp, and were simply being held on by the clamp itself.  The end of my bars were completely unusable.

I rode the final 4 miles of twisty, rocky, rough, and technical trail holding the bars with my left hand inside the brake lever clamp, and feathering the front brake with my pinky and ring finger, which on more than one occasion caused some near mishaps of catastrophic proportion.

Uh huh...

I limped into the exchange area to find Jill with lights ready to tackle the evening twilight lap.  I let her know about my less than fortunate fall and encouraged her to be careful as she ripped out of the exchange on her way onto the soon to be dark course.

My first stop upon returning to camp was our team mechanic.  Having a mechanic was a first for Jill and I.  In previous races we had done all of the mechanical work ourselves taking away from valuable recovery time between laps, and putting us in jeopardy if we encountered a problem beyond our ability to fix.

In the weeks leading up to the race, knowing the venue and knowing what was on the line, I made a proposition to Trek Store Colorado, to race under their name and in their team wear, if they would provide mechanical support for the team.  They graciously accepted my offer; little did I know how important that would be.

As I rolled into Erick’s course-side repair shop, I was greeted with, “How’s the bike?”

I don’t remember my exact response, but it wasn’t exactly positive, and after going through what had happened, the next question was, “Are you OK?”  I hadn’t exactly been thinking about me, but more my bike, so I think the question caught me by surprise.

I responded with, “Yeah, I’m fine,” chatted a little bit more about the bike and then left it in Erick’s hands to work his magic.  Maybe 15 minutes later, he rolled my bike back over complete with new bars and grips and brakes that weren’t rubbing.

The reality was that I was not prepared with an extra set of bars to replace the ones I had broken and would have been in a desperate situation had Trek Store Colorado not provided us with support.  In the end Erick actually cannibalized his personal bike taking his handlebars off and giving them to me to keep me going, an unexpected gesture I’m still trying to figure out how to repay.

As I waited for Jill to emerge from the complete darkness, our RV mates Jeremy & Michael made an exchange sending Jeremy out on his first night lap.  Minutes later I see Jeremy come flying through the transition area again heading back out on course a 2nd time in 10 imintes.  Apparently his lights had gone out almost immediately and he had to return to camp to diagnose the problem.

Moments later Jill emerged from darkness into the well lit transition area and after a quick exchange I was off on my first night lap. 

Unlike others, night laps are my favorite.  I get an increased focus, I race through time, and I can truly work the trail 30 feet at a time.   In general this is where I have the first chance to open up gaps on the other competitors.  Unfortunately, by this time we were already an entire lap down on the team in front of us and they were continuing to make time on us with every lap.   Unbeknownst to us however we were already 2 laps up on the next closest competitors.

My first night lap flew by, as did all three other night laps I did.  On each consecutive night lap I averaged less than 2 minutes slower than the previous lap ridden, indicating that I had sunk into my autopilot mode where my body knows exactly what to do without much thought going into it.  Jill maintained a strong pace through her first 3 night laps, losing only 2 minutes per lap on her previous lap time.  On her 4th and 5th night laps, the technical course and power climbs had caught up to her, really taking a toll on her super lean pure-climberesque body. 

The course was unequivocally hard.  There was very little time for recovery, the steep rocky descents required full concentration at all times, the endless step ups just drained your upper body, and the longer sandy & rooted climbs sucked power out of your legs with every pedal stroke.  This course was easy for no one. 

As Jill rolled in from the morning twilight lap, I set out on course once again in daylight.  Major timing issues throughout the night left me less than sure of our actual position in regards to our nearest competitors, so I rode as if we were still defending 2nd place.  Relatively sure we were 2+ laps back from first, and very likely at least 2 laps ahead of third, we seemed to be secure in second, however I had my doubts.  As I made good time around the course, I did the math in my head and figured there was time for Jill and I to both do another lap, and so I began the mental preparation to give it one more push before the end.

When I rolled back into the transition, Jill updated me on the most recent timing, informed me that we were solidly in 2nd place with no possible way of either gaining first or losing second.  She saw no reason to go back out on course, and had I been 100% sure the results were accurate I would have been in complete agreement with her.  Unfortunately, since the timing was off the entire night I wasn’t yet convinced.

After some discussion, and getting a USA Cycling timing official involved to pull the most recent results, it became evident that we indeed were going to finish the race in 2nd place regardless of what happened in the next three and a half hours.  Jill opted not to go back on course and I returned to camp to relax and recover.

After some time resting and reflecting, I came to the decision to head back out on course for a final lap.  One reason was that it was my last race of the season, and it simply felt unfinished.  Another was that I had mentally prepared myself for another lap, and for one reason or another, my mind wasn’t ready to stop just yet.  But I think most of all, I absolutely knew I had more laps left in my legs, and I wanted to keep pressing them to prove to myself that I could keep going.

I set out without any intent to ride hard, but after all it was a race so before long I was pressing just as hard as I had every other lap.  This time was different though.  I was calm, relaxed, and really just enjoying the ride.  The lap hurt, as much or more than any of the previous laps, but I didn’t care.  I just kept on pedaling with a big smile on my face reflecting on my season and how far I had come.  I knew when I crossed the line Jill and I would be standing on the podium, and the thought of having accomplished that in my very first season of racing kept me smiling all the way to the finish line.

Crossing the finish line on my final lap.

I rolled across the line, returned to camp, and relaxed for the next hour or so as the race wrapped up.  After results were posted and protests were addressed, the awards ceremony commenced.  In the end the Trek Bicycle Store team had a great showing with Jonathan Davis taking third place in the solo division, Jeremy Young & Michael Scott taking second place in the male duo division, and Jill & I taking second place in the coed duo division.

podium presentation
Taking the second tier on the podium and getting silver medals draped over our necks was an awesome experience and certainly one of the highlights of my racing career to date.  I walk away with a sky’s the limit feeling and a burning desire to really step up my game for 2012!

Had an awesome year with Jill going 3 for 3 on the podium as a 24 hour duo.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

My 2011 Leadville 100 Odyssey

My first attempt at mountain biking in Colorado came in the summer of 2007, nearly a year and a half after arriving in the state.  My legs, being conditioned by Indiana flatlands, were shocked by the length of climbs and imploded beneath me after only a few minutes on the trail.  Suffering to simply maintain forward progress, I got caught in a sand pit, tried to power out of it, and ended up falling over into a tangled heap, where my right handlebar skewered the inside of my left thigh.   A brief attempt to pedal ended with an enormous amount of pain.  My ride was over.

For the next two years my mountain bike hung idly in the garage, unridden and virtually unnoticed as I found other activities to occupy my time. 

A wellness competition at work in the winter of 2008 had me on track to be in the best shape of my life.    I was running daily and putting up 50 minute 10Ks.  I had been climbing 14,000 foot peaks regularly, and felt less fatigued than ever on endless powder days on my snowboard.  I had dropped 20 lbs since arriving in Colorado and was at the top of my game.

In June of 2009 I got married, and it wasn’t coincidental that our honeymoon to Europe happened to coincide with the Tour de France.  It was the first major bike race I saw live, and the experience of seeing teams training on a rest day, sitting on the side of a mountain in Italy during a mountain stage, and being on the finish to witness firsthand a 45mph sprint on cobble stones sparked a desire to be on a bike once more.

After returning to the US and realizing that Lance Armstrong was going to be riding a 100 mile mountain bike race in the little town of Leadville, Colorado, we thought it would be fun to catch more than a glimpse of him as he flew by.  Little did I know that when we arrived at the start line at 6am the day of the race, my life would be forever changed.

Lined up on the start line were some pretty famous faces, but what struck me was not the 10 or so at the front of the pack but the 1200 or so that followed them on the rollout.  Every demographic imaginable was represented including several who appeared to be embarking on a challenge that they were dramatically underprepared for.  I could tell that deep in the pack were some stories yet to be told, and almost instantly I felt a desire to want to have a similar story to tell. 

The remainder of the day was spent bouncing from point to point along the course seeing the leaders knock off miles at warp speed.  At the finish we watched the leaders cross the line, hung around for a hundred or so more to finish then bolted to see some friends a few towns over in Breckenridge.

Upon arriving home, I promptly, updated my Facebook status to say “Training for the 2011 Leadville 100 starts today.”  I figured I wouldn’t be in shape for the next year, but by 2011 I could conquer the wicked climbs that had crushed me 2 years prior.

Two weeks later I was back on the bike.  Invited out by a group of girls who ride regularly, I rode away from them right from the start.  I felt vindicated, and was ready to take on the challenge of the race.
In the fall of 2009 a movie was released that chronicled the 2009 race.  I watched it with some friends, and along with 10,000 or so other folks, got inspired to step up my plans and try my hand at the race a year ahead of schedule.  Unfortunately, with only 1500 spots available, 8,500 people, me included, received a notice that they had not been accepted into the race.  I was back on my original schedule for 2011.

I stepped up my riding during the summer of 2010, though didn’t specifically train for the race.  I attended the 2010 Leadville 100, but instead of bouncing around on course following the race as I did in 2009, I volunteered at the finish line.

At first I was a little disappointed to have been placed at the finish line, as I figured all the fun and excitement would be at the aid stations along the course.  But as I got there and riders began coming in my feelings quickly changed.  I had the opportunity to assist some of the best mountain bikers in the country as they crossed the line and needed escorted to the press tent.  Helping Tinker Juarez, Jeremiah Bishop, and Rebecca Rusch, only made a small impact on the day.  Again I found the real life of the race to be in the rest of the field.

Me walking Jeremiah Bishop to the press room.

I witnessed a range of emotion, from absolute elation from making the finish, to utter devastation from missing the cutoff by only 2 minutes.  I saw people jump off their bike cheering.   I helped people who were struggling to get off their bike, and even helped carry a guy who collapsed at the finish.  Everybody I spoke to said the race was the hardest thing they have ever done.  I even spoke to two separate people who both said the race was harder than a full Ironman. 

As the day wound down, I couldn’t help but feel this was the single most rewarding mountain biking experience I had ever had, and the funny thing was I wasn’t even on a bike.  I saw what this race actually took, what it did to your mind and body, what people had done to get through it and what strategies they had used to go faster.  I felt is should have been mandatory for every racer wanting to ride, as it presented a reality check that could only be matched by riding the race itself.

In the process of volunteering, being the first one there, the last one to leave, the first person to step up when help was needed, and the example setter for the other volunteers, left an impression on the volunteer coordinator who hand wrote a personal note to the race director saying that I deserved a spot in the 2011 race.  I prayed this was my ticket to 2011.

I began my training in November, 9 months ahead of next year’s race.  Unsure of whether or not I was going to be racing I was sure I was going to be prepared. 

3 months later, after submitting my application and torturously waiting nearly a month for a response, I received an email stating that I had indeed been accepted into the 2011 edition of the Leadville 100.  I was stoked to know I was in, but struck by the reality that I would now have to actually do the race.  It’s one thing to watch from the sideline, but to actually ride it…I mean truly it is the definition of epic.

As my training progressed through the year, I took on some other mighty challenges.  A couple 24 hour races, a 300 mile race though the Arizona desert, a 50 mile race at altitude, and 2 cross country races helped to prepare me for this, but I still knew that Leadville was an entirely different beast.

In the final weeks leading up to the race I felt confident in my progress.  In recon rides, I was pulling sub 9 hour splits at a training pace, and had made some modifications to my race nutrition to help eliminate some issues I had been having.  While I was feeling good and hopeful for a fast race, I was still aware that even on a good day this race could be agonizingly painful.

The goal I had in mind after volunteering in 2010 was to finish the race in under 10 hours, but as I was training I felt that there was a possibility that I could possibly shave some additional time finishing closer to 9:30, though it would have required a perfect day on the bike in every aspect, a rare occurrence in endurance racing.   Either way, the 10 hour goal remained my focus as I rolled into town the Thursday before the race.

The two nights before the race were spent prepping bottles, organizing things for the aid stations, and assigning the crew of folks that had come to help with their responsibilities for the race.  Thursday night we decided to watch Race Across the Sky, the movie about the 2009 race.

The entire crew at our house in Leadville.

Up until this point, my nerves had been at ease and I was calm and my confidence in my abilities had prevailed.  But after watching the movie, which was intended to create additional motivation and get me amped for the race, my nerves went into overdrive.

Of course the movie was designed to elevate the dramatic effect, and as such up played all of the difficulties and emphasized all of the challenges that were faced by the riders.  It chronicled riders who failed to make the cutoffs and provided expanded coverage of the most difficult stretches of the course.  From the standpoint of Hollywood, it was cinematic thriller, but from my standpoint 2 nights before the race, it was a horror film leaving me squirming from seemingly prophetic race nightmares.

 Lacking the sleep I had hoped for, I rolled out of bed Saturday morning after snoozing a ringing 4am alarm.  I took a quick shower to help wake me up, grabbed breakfast, then loaded into the car to make the short drive to town to line up for the start.

As we rolled up Harrison Ave, Leadville’s main street, you could see empty corrals near the start line.  The corrals, new for 2011, were a way to help organize the start of the race by giving previous finishers a corral based on their time, yet all 1300 or so rookies were given a single corral at the back of the line.  As I moved by empty corals, 20 minutes before they opened,  I found that 50 or so people had already lined up to get into the back corral, the  one where I would  be starting from. 

The last corral at 5am.

I filed into the back, waited for the corral to open, then settled into my starting spot leaving my bike there to duck out and hang with my friends for the next hour or so.  As I made my way back to my bike the massive crowd of rookies had formed and extended farther than I could see.  I struggled to get back through the crowd to my bike, and with the help of another rider jumped the fence to get back into the line.

As I comfortably stood there in my Goodwill  acquired throw away fleece jacket and breakaway pants, I noticed that so many of the people around me were shivering in the 36 degree temps wearing only their racing clothes. As they shivered away, I waited until the corral gates had been pulled and the 2 minute warning had been announced.  I stripped, tossed the clothes over the railing, and mounted my bike, ready for what the next 10 hours had to bring.

The shotgun went off signaling the start of the race, and 30 seconds passed before there was any movement in front of me.  After about 45 seconds I rolled over the start line surrounded by jittery racers and hundreds of onlookers lining the streets.  Less than a minute later the massive train of riders came to a screeching halt as a result of a pileup in the first ¼ mile of the race. 

For the vast majority of mountain bikers, who venture out on trails single file a safe distance back from any other rider, being placed in a pack, where bars, elbows, and tires are rubbing with every turn of the crank, some switch gets flipped and their nervousness goes through the roof.  They become break happy, unpredictable riders who’s overly defensive actions leave wave of chaos in their wake.  I was surrounded by this nervous twitchery and it was driving me crazy.

My pink striped helmet and white vest tucked in the middle of hundreds of jittery riders.
Having never really been bothered by riding in close quarters, I settled in, grabbed a wheel and made forward progress through the pack every chance I could. As we made our way down the wide paved road and take a right onto a single lane dirt road the accordion started to sound.  A rider would hit their brakes causing the pack to bunch up, then a minute later the pack would string out again only to come together as the group tried to split a puddle. 

Finally the road made its dramatic, near instant rise as it turned into the trees.  Supposedly better than previous years, the St. Kevins climb was steep and relentless for 2 miles, and in most spots wide enough for 3 riders to ride side by side.  Passing was difficult, and required bursts of energy to execute the pass in the limited space available.

After making a handful of passes, and bouncing from one lane to the other, I quickly realized that each time I would expend the energy to pass, the lane I was in would slow and the person I passed would roll up beside me.  My efforts here were futile.  My hope of using this climb to make up some time was pretty much hopeless.

I settled in and went with the flow for the remainder of the climb, topping out then descending on a paved road.  As the road crossed a creek and started climbing back up again, I was able to start picking people off one at a time, happily making my way back on to the steeper portion of the next climb.

By this point the majority of the riders had settled into a single file line, giving me the opportunity to make real progress on the field.  Taking the less optimal line I found myself easily passing lines of 10 people at a time, and by taking the inside line on the turns, I would pass a couple more.  I flew up the climb and was feeling astonishingly well.

Amped that I had just got the jump on nearly 100 riders on the Sugarloaf climb, the leveling off and turn into the trees signaled the notorious Powerlines descent, to which my descending specialty would hopefully help me make up more valuable time.

Within seconds of the start of the descent a rattling sound at the back of my bike caused me to look down to see two feet of chain dragging behind my bike.  Having broken 3 chains the previous year, my 2011 lucky streak had come to an end, in of all places the biggest race of my season.  Fortunately I was prepared. 

Jumping off the trail, I pulled out my chain tool and my quick link and began what should have been a 2 minute fix to get things back up and running.  I first removed the broken link with my chain tool and then placed the tool back in my seat bag to then bridge the break in the chain with the  quick link.  Unfortunately I dropped the quick link and struggled to find it.  Once found, I realized that while dragging the chain I had lost a small spacer that bridges the linkage of the chain, so was required to remove 2 more links.  I had to get my chain tool back out and start the process over.  All said and done I watched all 100 or so riders that I had passed on the way up the climb and then some, go flying by me on the descent. 

I had lost 8 minutes on the side of the trail fixing my chain, and as jumped back on the trail I attacked the descent with a ravenous fury.  I knew the descent.  I knew my capabilities.  I knew I was going to fly.  While everyone else was taking the smooth climbing line, I took the more direct line at every chance I had, shouting, “On your right!” near constantly as I scorched passed lines of cautious riders. 

Descending Powerlines.

As I made the turn back on to pavement, my only thought was to find somebody to draft off for the next 5 miles of wide open road.  Within the first mile I had settled into somebody’s wheel.  He said he didn’t mind as long as he could grab mine on the return trip.  It was a deal.  He slowly reeled in a small group of riders and by the second mile and going into the 3rd mile our little group had turned into quite the freight train.

The guys taking pulls at front kept the pace insanely high, registering 30 plus miles per hour for the next relatively flat 3 miles.  I sat in at the back of the group, doing everything I could to just hang on, but on several occasions found myself inches away from getting dropped.  Our group gobbled up lone riders and smaller groups, and as we made the turnoff to the Pipeline aid station, we had grown to nearly 30 strong, and I was still the caboose, hanging on by a little thread.

Some apparent confusion at the bottom of the Powerline descent, where I had shouted to my wife Jen to tell Troy, who was stationed at the Twin Lakes aid station to have the spare quick link ready for me, caused her to tell my support crew at Pipeline  to scramble to find tools and help for me to fix my chain.

In preparation for the race I had made bright pink 8 foot tall arrows to mark my support crew.  We had rehearsed hand-ups and reviewed my plan over and over, and had even pre-determined where they would be at the aid station.   So I was surprised when, entering the Pipeline station I see my cousin standing next to a mystery man waiving her harms shouting my name, with no pink sign or the rest of my crew, and no hand-up waiting for me.

I stopped to be told that the guy has a chain tool and can help me fix my chain.  Unfortunately for me that was not what I needed, and without any additional conversation or explanation, I jumped back on the bike in search of my hand up, leaving the man and my cousin looking at each other with utter confusion.

About a hundred yards further down I saw my sign and my best friend with a bottle waiting to be grabbed on the fly.  I said thanks as I took the handup, and then started looking for another wheel to suck for the relatively flat next 13 miles.

I bounced from group to group, some faster than me, some slower. Then I found a bigger guy who seems to have the engine of a Mac truck, slow to get up to speed, but as powerful as several hundred horses.  I dropped in behind him as he motored along the flats.  Following some short descents were some quick ascents, on which every time I rode away from him, and every time he would come chugging back once the trail leveled out.   

It wasn’t until maybe half an hour of following him did I realize his number was 777.  Not sure how lucky it was for him, but it certainly was lucky for me, as my face barely felt the wind for 10 or so miles.  I pulled ahead as we approached the last little climb before dropping into the twin lakes aid station, and never saw him again.   

With the quick transition combined with number 777’s ability to charge relentlessly into the wind with me on his wheel, I managed to move up 119 places from the time I crossed the timing mat at the Pipeline aid to the timing mat at the Twin lakes aid station, and only 5 minutes behind my target time.

As I rolled into the Twin Lakes aid station, I slowed my pace to look for my sign in all the madness.  Sure enough, right where we had planned I see the giant pink arrow waving back and forth.  Here I had planned to stop and ditch bottles, take on some new ones, swig some water and get more food.  I had also needed to grab the spare quicklink in case my chain decided to break again.  Unfortunately Troy wasn’t sure what I needed, but had the box ready for me to dig through. Thanks to the help of my awesome support crew, I got everything I needed and headed out in just over one minute.  

Stocking up at the Twin Lakes aid station.

The next hurdle in the race was far and away the biggest.  The 3000 foot, 10 mile climb to the top of Columbine Mine had been lingering in my had since the start.  On fresh legs I was able to ride the entire thing, bottom to top, with the vast majority of the climbing being in the middle chainring.  On race day, after having already ridden 40 miles, it was a bit of an unknown for me.

As I settled into a pace on the lower section of the climb I found myself definitely slower than I had been two weeks prior, when I had ridden it in training, but I was remarkably stronger than when I had ridden it exactly one year earlier, where I had to stop every couple of miles and catch my breath.  I definitely didn’t feel as good as I had hoped I would, but nonetheless I could have felt much worse.

Starting up the Columbine Mine climb.
The first two thirds of the road to the top are wide and graded, with ample passing opportunity.  I had hoped I would be able to use this climb to make up some time and get past people early, that wasn’t the case.  For every person I passed, I was passed by two.  It was maddening, though I just kept turning the pedals.  With around one third of the climb left to go, the road turns into a less than ideal 4WD road with two way traffic that forces the climbers into a single file line.

The quality of the road was only a small element of the issue the greater issue is that everybody is walking their bike.  Even if you could ride, the endless line of people pushing up the hill in front of you keeps you from riding yourself, So I settled in and pushed my bike on and off for the final 2 miles of the climb.

The final mile to the summit.

It was while pushing my bike that I felt the first wave of nausea crash down on me, and when I reached the summit, I dumped a bottle of protein based energy drink and took on a bottle of water.  It was here that I also grabbed a handful of watermelon, something that I’d never trained with before, but something that seemed remarkably palatable to me at the time.

All said and done I had lost exactly 111 places on the Columbine Mine climb.

I had high hopes of smashing the descent and reeling in some time that I had lost on the climb, but the single file descent alongside the uphill traffic, left me riding the brakes behind a line of other racers for 3 miles back to the graded road. 

With time to sit back and look around, I couldn’t help but notice how miserable the back of the pack looked.  The racers who were looking at around an 11-12 hour finish were crowded on the trail sometimes two wide stacked deep for hundreds of yards.  I felt fortunate that even though I had to push my bike behind a string of people, we at least weren’t wheel to wheel, shoulder to shoulder.

The first chance I got, I leapfrogged around the line and opened it up, blazing a path down the road, dropping all but one rider in the process.  Together we flew by folks swapping leads and charging fearlessly down the mountain.  After making up 31 places from the summit of the climb back to the aid station I rolled back in with my friend Troy eagerly awaiting his chance to execute a hand up, but to his dismay I opted to stop

Troy waiting for me to take the handup.
Feeling nauseous and unable to choke down any of the solid food I had carried, I was looking forward to the bottle of Cherry Coke that awaited me, but more immediately I needed cold water.  I sucked down some cold water, grabbed the bottle of Cherry Coke and headed out.  Trying to limit my losses on time in the transition, I bolted with a message to have more watermelon waiting for me at the Pipeline aid station.

I rolled out of the transition and looked around to see that I had been left out in no man’s land.  A group of riders was a ways ahead of me, but however hard I tried I couldn’t bridge the gap.  I looked behind to see if I could slow up to join a group, but there was nothing but a couple of riders desperately trying to keep up with me.

I settled into the reality that I would be driving into the wind solo, and just kept pushing with my head down.  I passed a couple of people, and was joined by another who kept my pace.  After a few miles the trail leaves the road and climbs a trail up the side of the hill.  As I approached I could see the group ahead of me top out  on the hill, and as I made my way up after them I could see a string of riders approaching the climb behind me.  There I was stuck in the middle.

The group behind slowly reeled me in as I continued to push, but as they caught up with me I was able to finally duck in behind them and pickup my pace.  Unlike the trip out, this time I was forced to take turns on the front to keep the pace of the group up.  I couldn’t complain as the 2 minutes here and there fighting the wind sure beat spending another 30 minutes alone.

We rolled fast into the aid station and I skidded to a stop in front of a waiting crew.  They had the planned bottles, but what was planned was not what I wanted.  I had sucked down the bottle of Cherry Coke with ease and wanted another, while the on the fly decision to call ahead for some watermelon worked like a charm.  The thought of another bottle of my thick chalky energy drink made me cringe so I stuffed my face full of watermelon, grabbed a bottle of Coke and a bottle of water, and was on my way.

Once again I found myself stuck in no man’s land with huge gaps forward and back.  I pulled up to allow a racer to catch me in an effort to split pulls into the wind but he picked up the pace during the pulls to a tempo that I couldn’t sustain without a longer break.  Unfortunately it was just the two of us so after a couple cycles of pulls I fell off the back of his wheel.

The next few miles I eased up a bit, stretched my back and got mentally prepared for what was coming.  I took a gel shot out of my flask, only to have it nearly come back up on me.  At one point I rolled passed a group of guys offering the widest variety of beer you could imagine.  They were handing up cans of Miler Lite, Budweiser, Tecate and even bottles of Corona. 

I couldn’t think of drinking beer then, but that didn’t stop the guy in front of me from grabbing a Tecate on the fly from the guys saying “Have a beer!  Just toss it when you are done, we’ll pick up the trash”, hammering half of it, and tossing the can off the side of the road.  I think that anybody who finishes Leadville 100 is pretty much a badass, but this dude took it to a whole new level.

As we closed out the final mile of pavement before a turn onto dirt that shot instantly skyward, I started making my way by riders in an effort to get in a better position for the Powerline climb.  We dove down off the road then started up the lower slopes, which happened to be the steepest of the entire 4 mile climb.

My wife and friends were cheering for me alongside the climb, but at that moment all I could think about was telling them that I didn’t think I would make my 10 hour goal.  The nausea had been wearing on me and as I slowly climbed up the Powerlines climb, I was just struggling to simply keep making forward progress.

Starting the Powerlines climb

As the grade of the climb increased to an impossibly steep 30%, I dismounted my bike and started pushing.   I suffered as I put one foot in front of the other in an attempt to make continuous progress, and silently cheered as I topped out on the steep part and was able to remount my bike for a bit as the grade mellowed.

As people around me were able to continue pedaling I for some reason wasn’t.  Feeling overly nauseous I jumped off the bike and began slowly pushing again.  Within a minute I wasn’t even able to continue pushing and simply stopped at the side of the trail.

Seconds later, a mixture of water, watermelon, energy bars, and just about everything else I had consumed that day came pouring out of my mouth in a stream of liquidy vomit.  I stood hunched over my bike as it continued, then finally sat down with my head between my knees trying to get it all out. 

While leaning over my bike and sitting with my head between my legs, I watched dozens of riders go by.  People who I had passed hours earlier flew by pedaling their bikes where I had just been forced to walk.  Many looked at me and asked, “Are you alright?”

Obviously I wasn’t alright; I was standing on the side of the trail puking my guts out 22 miles from the finish.  Unsure of what the proper response is in this scenario, I managed to muster, “I hope so.” between heaves.  On the bike this was an all time low, and reality was I felt like absolute hell.

I’m not a puker.  Short of a couple of alcohol induced vomiting sessions following my 21st birthday, the last time I had puked in a sober state was in 6th grade when I had pneumonia.  So suffice it to say, not only am I not a puker, but I’m not too skilled in the art of puking and rallying.  So following the realization that my 10 hour goal would not be met, for the rest of the ride I resigned to simply surviving.

I began to make forward progress again, though off my bike as I tried to walk off what just happened.  Slowly I made my way up the climb and as I hit a point where a short downhill allowed me to remount and roll I stayed on the bike as the trail started to climb. 

Half an hour after I started moving again I topped out on the climb, and came across a medic on the trail. I stopped and told him what happened and asked his thoughts.  He said it could have been from a number of causes and said that I should be fine, but if I kept puking that I should stop and get help.  I continued on.

The 5 mile descent provided the reprieve that I needed and allowed my body to return to a semi normal state.  After all the drama on the Powerlines climb, when I rolled across the timing mat at the bottom of the descent I had lost 112 places, and more time than I cared to think about.
At the timing mat, the paved descent ends and the road begins climbing once again.  I settled into the climb and just started pedaling.  To my surprise my power output seemed to increase with every pedal stroke.  I began making fast work of the pavement, passing people every minute or two.  With each person I passed I offered words of encouragement such as, “Looking good, keep it up,” or “Almost home, you can do it!”

Usually I got stares of bewilderment.  It was easy to read the thoughts in their eyes, and more often than not, they said, “How the hell can you look so fresh?”  The truth was I didn’t have an answer.  But I believed it had something to do with relinquishing my stomach contents on the side of the Powerlines climb.  Whatever it was, I felt as if I had new legs, and I was sure as hell going to use them for everything they were worth.

As I topped out on the paved climb I turned off into the Carter Summit aid station.  My plan was to blow by this without thinking twice, but I was in need of the kind of refreshment only ice cold water could bring.  Not some energy drink or warm coke, but pure water with ice cubes in it.  It had been in my mind for the last hour or so and fortunately for me a nice girl at the aid station went out of her way to dig into a cooler to find me some ice for my bottle.  It was glorious.

Finally refreshed, all that stood between me and the finish line was a short but steep climb up a loose gravel road, a 7 mile ripping descent, and a 3 mile run up the famed Boulevard to main street.  I rolled out of the aid station feeling better than I had felt at any point in the race and was ready to crank it to the finish.

An easy descent leads to the short climb, which situated immediately after a left turn would surprise anybody not prepared for it.  I was, and I attacked the climb hard.  I powered past people on the lower parts, and as I approached the top everybody was pushing their bikes.  I weaved around people pushing their bikes, flying up it as if I hadn’t just ridden 90 miles and climbed over 9000 feet like everyone else there had.

As I neared the crest a shout of, “Go get it man!” gave me the extra incentive to stay on the gas all the way to the finish.

Topping out on the climb, the loose, bumpy, and washed out gravel road tilts forward along long straights begging for 30mph speeds to which I didn’t fail to deliver.  I smoked by a couple of people slowly making their way down and focused on driving the speed higher and keeping on the gas for the remainder of the race.   As the grade mellowed and the road dropped out of the trees, I found myself hammering along a nearly flat dirt road reeling in two vehicles ahead of me.

Normally I get giddy over out-pacing cars on my bike, but at this point these two cars, which were kicking up a storm of dust and gravel, made it nearly impossible to get nearer than 100 feet of them.  I was waving, and shouting for them to pull over so I could pass, but they just kept on driving, leaving me sufficiently covered, head to toe, in dust from their wake.

Finally they pulled over and allowed me to pass, and I pressed forward passing another rider as we turned onto pavement.  The short pavement stretch leads to the Boulevard, a rough gravel road that starts steeply then mellows out a bit, yet maintains a heinously difficult grade even though it appears relatively flat and easy to the eye.

In training I had ridden this at the end of a 50 mile ride.  I remembered how it just sucked the energy right out of my legs and I suffered. I certainly wasn’t looking forward to it, but I know exactly what to expect and I wasn’t going to back down from the challenge that it was going to throw at me.

I turned off the pavement, and caught another rider as I made my way across the two track road that runs to the base of the Boulevard.  A sharp left turn put me immediately in the middle of the roughest section of the Boulevard and looking up at other riders struggling to make it though.  I powered past them almost immediately and kept pushing until the grade eased up.

Here I could see a string of riders some in small groups, some driving solo up the road.  Happy to have targets to pick off one by one, opened up and just used the next person in front of me as a dangling carrot.  I chased them down and immediately looked for the next rider.  Occasionally a rider would jump on my wheel and try to hang, but a minute later I would look back and they had fallen off.

I was blazing my own trail up the Boulevard and felt incredibly good.   With less than a mile to go, I made the turn back on to pavement.  I rode in amazement, past hordes of onlookers lining the streets cheering for every rider that passed. As I approached the finish structure Leadville’s mayor, announced my name and seconds later I crossed the finish line to personal elation and disappointment with the 10:31 finish time.

Crossing the finish line.

Of course I was happy to have completed my 2 year project, but definitely disappointed that the day’s fortune turned on me and I didn’t accomplish the goal I had set out to. When it was all said and done, the final time split of the race was far and away my best.  Out of 1600 riders I had the 409th fastest time, and managed to pull back 53 places.  When I got off the bike I felt like I could have easily ridden another couple of hours if I had to, and wondered why I couldn’t have felt this way a few hours earlier.

As I exited the finish area I was greeted by my wife, who being the first one I saw, was the recipient of not a hug or kiss, but my bike as I kept on walking, looking for the showers  on the side of the fire truck to cool and clean off in.  The rest of my crew and friends found me a minute later and I recapped the last 3 hours, including my first ever puke and rally session on the side of the Powerline climb. 

After the finish.
I found a place to sit, grabbed a drink and some food, and just chatted for awhile taking it all in.  Not really tired or sore, but shaking from low blood sugar, I reminisced on the previous year thinking that I fared much better than many of the souls that embarked on this journey.  And as I thought about it, I wondered what I was really chasing, was it a fast time with the correlating belt buckle or was it a story of my own.

I was drawn to the race in the first place by the stories that people at the back of the race had to tell. Before long, my disappointment in my time eased and the reality of what I had just accomplished, how well I had done considering the day’s events, and that I now had a story of my own to tell made me realize that I had done exactly what I set out to do.  Two years prior I couldn’t ride up a short climb in Colorado and there I was, having ridden 103 miles in 10 1/2 hours, finishing in the top 40% of the field, and still feeling like I could ride more.  And I got my buckle!  Truly what more could I have asked for? 

Besides there is always next year!

I'd like to give a special thanks to my wife and the entire crew that came up to support me in my endeavor.  Jen, Wendy, Troy, Andrea, both Kevins, Muna, Kristen, & Jill, you guys were awesome and I couldn't have done it without you!