Suppose, if you will, that I were going to, for some reason or other, start a circus. I would not call that circus a zoo, because it’s not a zoo. If I were to call my circus a zoo, well…that would be misleading and would probably really disappoint the people who were hoping to see a real live woolly mammoth at a zoo.
Sure, they’d be disappointed even if I had started a zoo and called it a zoo, because my zoo wouldn’t have the woolly mammoth they were hoping for. I don’t think you could reasonably call their disappointment my fault, though. Unless I happened to name my Zoo the “Actual Live Woolly Mammoth on Premises Zoo.” Which is something I probably would be prone to do, if I’m being honest with myself. So I guess it’s a good thing I have no plans to open a zoo. Nor a circus.
Also, I no longer have any idea what my original point was when I started this argument.
No, wait. Now I remember. You shouldn’t give something a name that leads people to believe it’s something it’s not.
Which is a real shaggy dog approach (within this shaggy dog of a race report) to me saying that The Hammer and I reached the Carter’s Summit mini-aid station, and then kept on climbing.
Which means Carter’s Summit is no summit at all. So it should be called Carter’s “Hey You’re Pretty Close to the Summit” aid station. Or something like that, but maybe a little more concise and catchy.
Just a thought.
Big Pitch, Last Descent
I think both The Hammer and I were feeling elated at this point. Energized and excited about the fact that somehow, she had turned it around. Somehow, she had gone from maybe not even finishing as fast as her previous SS best to likely being twenty minutes faster.
The Hammer rides a strong second half.
A little more climbing, a quick descent, a sharp turn, and one grunt of a steep pitch — one that most people, exhausted by what this race has done to them — walk.
We both rode it. Cleaned it. Crushed it.
We took our time descending St. Kevins. Not lollygagging. No. But not pushing it, either. In the nineteen times I’ve done this race, I’ve seen well over a dozen people flatted or crashed out on this “easy” descent.
I got to the bottom a little before The Hammer, made the right turn onto the dirt road that leads to the pavement connecting to the last climb of the day, The Boulevard.
Everyone Knows It’s…
I coasted, waiting for The Hammer to catch me. Then I stopped and put a foot down, wondering why she hadn’t caught me yet.
The Hammer flew by, yelling, “Can you feel this incredible tailwind?”
I hadn’t thought about it. But she was right. When we had turned onto the dirt road, this ordinarily flat part of the trail had felt distinctly…downhill.
Now that I thought about it, this wasn’t just a tailwind, it was a strong tailwind. A perfect tailwind. At the perfect place in the race.
I sat up straight and flung my arms out, making myself into as big of a sail as possible. No need to pedal, this wind was more powerful than we could spin a singlespeed gear.
“What if,” The Hammer said, “we had a wind like this, but in our faces?”
It was a sobering thought.
“I think,” I replied, “that we’d have to say goodbye to that record you’ve been chasing.”
We had been so lucky during this race. It had never really gotten hot during the day, and wind hadn’t been a real factor — until now, when it was suddenly going to be a huge factor in our favor.
I thought another moment, then said, “The way things are, though, I think it might be time for us to start thinking about a new best-case finish time.”
Somehow, the tailwind stayed a tailwind, even as we made the final few turns. Like it was intent on fiercely blowing us into town. Along the dirt, up the pavement, and even up the Boulevard.
Side by side. up the road, cresting it…and there it was: the red carpet.
My nineteenth finish, but the first time I’d ridden this race with someone. My best finish. My most meaningful finish.
“I am so incredibly proud of you,” I said. “I love you so much.”
Out of the crowd, Couch and Car joined us, running behind us as The Hammer and I crossed the line, hands clasped.
We each kept a hand on a grip, because neither of us are dared ride no-handed that close to another rider.
My only regret for the entirety of this race is that the twins jumped in after we had ridden by them; we never knew they were with us ’til we had crossed the line. Honest, girls, we would have slowed up for you.
9:26:19. A new women’s singlespeed record (by almost exactly twenty-five minutes)…which had been, of course, also set by the current women’s singlespeed record holder.
Hugs and photos and laughing. Usually This had been the best finish in the best race I had ever done. Having my twins and wife with me here: incredible.
But there was one family member missing from this group: The Monster.
Now our wait for her would begin.
Return of The Monster
As The Hammer and I cooled down, David Houston came up to us. I was happy to see him — David is one of those genuinely nice people who loves to do things for others — but also sad: the last time we had seen him, he was riding up Columbine. This meant he hadn’t finished. Next time.
Meanwhile, in spite of the fact that he had ridden sixty miles with around 6000 feet of climbing and therefore had the right to feel plenty tired himself, David bustled around, taking our bikes from us so we didn’t have to worry about them. Taking photos. Giving me the hat off his head I wouldn’t burn.
Then The Hammer and I went back into the finishers’ area and began staring down the finishing stretch. Watching for The Monster’s blue bike, blue kit and blue shoes, and her very distinctive riding style.
Twenty minutes goes by — the amount of time we had heard The Monster was behind us at Twin Lakes.
Thirty minutes goes by. The Hammer begins to get nervous. “I hope she’s OK.”
Thirty five minutes goes by. I’m also beginning to get nervous. People I know are crossing the finish line, and I’m giving them only perfunctory congratulations. I hope they understand.
Christina Ross — The Hammer’s competition on the singlespeed — comes in with a finish time of 10:00:01. How awesome, to have a palindrome for a finish time. (Better than a palindrome, really, because you could turn it upside down or look at it in a mirror and it would still be the same.)
“I should go congratulate Christina,” The Hammer says. But she can’t tear her eyes away from the finish line. And to be honest, I can’t either. (And for what it’s worth, Christina has about thirty people crowd around her when she finishes anyway.)
Forty minutes goes by. I’m worried now. I know that The Monster tends to just let the downhills fly, and that she crashes a lot. And there are a couple of big descents in the final twenty miles of the race.
Without saying anything to The Hammer — saying the opposite, in fact — I am becoming certain that The Monster has crashed, or at least flatted and was at that moment learning how to change a flat tire.
Then, at 10:12 — fourteen minutes less than an hour after The Hammer finished, for those of you keeping track of their contest — The Monster rolled in (alongside DB, another great Friend of Fatty).
The Hammer grabbed her in a great big hug, and The Monster began to cry.
And cry and cry and cry and cry. Big huge sobs. Not because of pain, but just because. This race does that to a lot of people.
“I can’t lift my legs over my bike,” The Monster said.
Which was a stupid thing to think, because the race was far from over. We still had a big semi-technical descent to get to Hagermans, the big, wide, fast Hagermans dirt road descent, the three-mile paved climb up to the Carter’s Summit mini aid station, a little more dirt climbing, the descent down St. Kevins, the flattish dirt and paved couple miles to the Boulevard, the climb up the Boulevard and then — finally! — the finish.
That’s a lot of stuff in sixteen (or so) miles, and a lot of it is very memorable.
But for me, getting to the summit of the Powerline always feels like a finish line, of sorts. Because it’s the last really difficult challenge in this race of iconic challenges. After you’ve climbed the Powerline, you’re almost certainly going to finish the race.
The big question is, when?
With my cramps subsiding (thanks, HotShot!), I rode the short flat section at top speed, managing to catch up with The Hammer near the beginning of the Sugarloaf descent.
I thought The Hammer was following my line, but looked back after a few minutes to discover she wasn’t in sight. “I’ll just hold up at the turn on to Hagerman’s,” I thought.
A minute later I caught up with a woman wearing a “25 Hours of Frog Hollow” kit. “I love that race!” I yelled at her as I went by.
She looked back at me blankly, not replying.
“How rude,” I thought.
Then, a moment later, it occurred to me. We were both in a race, and I had just yelled at her about how much I loved “that” race…without explaining I was talking about the race referenced on the jersey she was wearing.
“I’m such a dork,” I thought, laughing. It always cracks me up when I realize — once again — what a dork I am.
A Farewell to The Hammer
I got down to the bottom of Sugarloaf, turned onto Hagerman’s Pass — a wide dirt road we’d be descending. I pulled over and waited for The Hammer for a moment, taking the opportunity to eat a gel and drink some CR333. “Only a couple more, tops,” I thought to myself.
I count my endurance races in gels, and as I get close to the end, I count down to my last one. How weird, I thought to myself.
The Hammer came zipping down, turned onto Hagerman’s and zoomed on ahead. I put my bottle back in its cage, clipped back in, and took off, sure I’d catch her in a moment.
But I was wrong.
She was gapping me.
I ramped up my effort, going harder. Then, as hard as I could, completely spun out on the fast downhill.
She kept increasing her lead.
I laughed out loud — My wife was flying. I just hope she remembers to slow down for that sharp left turn onto the pavement, I thought to myself. It’d be really easy to slide out or even high-side there.
I hadn’t needed to worry. As I got to the turn onto the pavement, I could see The Hammer down the road; she had made the turn safely.
But someone else hadn’t.
There was a racer — I don’t know who — laying in the dirt at the turn, bloody and hurt. Race officials were attending to him. I don’t know if he eventually got up and finished, or if he was too hurt to go on. I sure hope he finished.
A good reminder to be safe, I thought. You can crash out as easily at mile 95 as you can at mile 15.
That said, I got into a tuck and bombed as fast as I could, on a mission to catch up to The Hammer.
The New New Math
In spite of my best efforts, though, I didn’t catch up to The Hammer ’til the road turned up for the three-mile paved climb up to Carter’s Summit.
“You are just crushing it, I said, very impressed.
“You know,” she replied, “I think we’re going to hit that 9:30 finish time after all.”
“Seriously?” I said, surprised. While I had been tracking our distance very carefully, I hadn’t been looking at our time.
“Yeah,” she said. “I have never felt so strong coming out of the Pipeline aid station. And I still feel great.”
Somehow — in fifteen miles or so — we had gone from her wondering whether we’d even match her previous best on a singlespeed (9:50) to feeling like there was a good chance we were going to hit her best-case-scenario finish time.
“Well, Beautiful, if you’ve got matches to burn, this is a good place to burn them,” I said. And as it turns out, she did have matches to burn, and did in fact burn them.
Which is to say, there are a lot of people who raced that day who should have a vague recollection of a husband-wife pair of riders — wearing matching kits and riding singlespeeds — riding past them up the paved uphill road.
We got to the aid station. About 8:40 had gone by. “One hour to go, worst case scenario,” The Hammer said.
“We are not riding in a worst-case-scenario way,” I said. “We are going to break your old record. For sure.”
What I didn’t realize, though — what I could never have expected — was that we had one more surprise ahead of us. One that would drastically affect our finishing time.
And we’ll talk about that surprise in the next installment of this story.
We were eighty miles into this 104-mile race. I had truly, absolutely been giving it my all, working harder for The Hammer than I have ever worked for myself.
But I had paid a price. I had been riding into a headwind since we exited the Pipeline aid station, and I was cooked. I flicked my elbow, pro peloton-style. Nothing.
This is most likely because that’s not how The Hammer and I generally signal to each other that it’s time to come around and take a turn. Generally, in fact, we just have a pre-arranged agreement: we swap at the mile marker signs on the road.
It had been more than a mile, and I was tired.
No, “tired” doesn’t really get to the heart of what I felt. I wasn’t just tired. I was smoked. Cooked. Destroyed. Done. Over. Finished. Beaten. Demolished. Fried. Bonked.
“Bonked?” Was that the word I was looking for? Yeah, maybe it was. But I hoped it wasn’t.
I waved my left hand in an exaggerated motion, like I was bowling. Sweeping The Hammer forward.
The Hammer rode forward, easily. “Oh, are you finally going to let me have a turn?” she joked.
“Please,” I replied. “I am toast. And I can feel that my legs are on the verge of cramping.”
Which they were. It seems to happen at this point of the race every year. On the one truly flat section of the course.
I had just taken four electrolyte capsules — as I had done at each aid station in the race, washing them down with a small can of Coke — but I could tell: the cramps were coming anyway.
The thing is, I had two HotShots (formerly #ItsTheNerve) in my jersey pockets…but I couldn’t get to them very easily, because they were buried, quite literally, under around twenty gels.
Such is the racer’s brain that I would rather put up with the discomfort of pre-cramps than unload or dig around in my jersey pockets.
In any case, the pain subsided almost instantly as The Hammer began pulling. My level of effort dropped just enough that my legs recovered, my lungs caught up, and the threat of cramps receded.
For five minutes or so, The Hammer was my domestique. And that was just what I needed. I ate a couple of gels, drank a third of a bottle of CR333. I wasn’t bonked; I had just needed a respite.
I was ready to push it again. Which was a good thing, because we were at the hardest part of the Leadville 100: The Powerline Climb.
Up We Go
The Powerline Climb is the actual crux of the Leadville 100: four miles of incredibly hard climbing, eighty miles into what has already been a high-altitude climbfest.
If you don’t know how to work this climb, it can break you. I’ve seen people stopped — just standing there, hands on knees — on this trail. People who have been racing hard and with purpose the whole day. Stopped. Beaten (usually temporarily) by this blindside of a climb.
But The Hammer and I had raced the Leadville a combined thirty times. There would be no blindsiding us.
“Check your GPS,” I said as we turned off the pavement onto the beginning of the Powerline. “The summit is exactly four miles from here.”
When we got to the part of the climb that most everyone has to walk, we didn’t crush ourselves, trying to ride up as far as we could. No, we just got off at the base and began marching. No point in burning matches here. We’d need those later.
No Coke for You
One of my very favorite things about this part of the race is that there are always people on the hike-a-bike section, handing up paper cups full of Coke. I love getting a little hit of sugar and caffeine right there.
But this year — at least when we were there — nobody was handing out Coke. We did get some water (which was almost as good), but nobody had a Coke to hand out.
I pouted, but just for a moment, because really there was no time for pouting. I needed to put all my energy into just trying to keep up with The Hammer.
Because, my friends, The Hammer was on fire. Just flying. Once we were past the obligatory marching section, she just sat on her single speed — yes, she was riding her SS seated, which left me gobsmacked every time I thought about it — and churned her way up pitches that many people were hiking.
And let me be clear: I include myself in this “many people.”
“I have never felt this good riding the Powerline!” The Hammer exclaimed. “Never!”
And it showed. She was just killing it. It was all I could do to hold on to her wheel.
And the cramps were catching up to me. I could feel them closing in.
The question was, could I outrun them?
Thank You Ma’am, May I Have Another?
As I felt both my left and right calves tightening up, I knew it was only a matter of time before they locked up and shut me down.
So I stretched my calves at the bottom of each pedal stroke, willing them to not cramp up until I reached the summit of The Powerline. If I could make it that far, I knew, I could get some help.
Because I remembered from earlier in the day: Hotshot had set up a “Cramp Aid Station” at the Powerline summit, handing out Hotshots. And I know from experience that these work for me, stopping cramps — at least for a while — in their tracks.
And sure enough, there it was. A woman at a card table, with a whole raft of the little black Hotshot bottles.
Clouds parted. Angels sang.
I told The Hammer to continue on without me — I would catch her during the semi-technical Sugarloaf descent. Then I put a foot down and the woman ran up to me, handing me a Hotshot.
I slugged it down and my mouth caught fire. In a good way. I like spicy.
“Can I have another one?” I asked.
“Really, you want another one?” the woman asked. “I don’t get that question often,”
“I really like these,” I said. “They work for me, and the flavor’s a nice change. I really like the way these taste.”
So she handed me another one, which I also slugged down. For the rest of the race, I would be burping a weird Christmas candle flavor (The Hammer correctly says Hotshots taste like Christmas candles smell), but that’s a small price to pay for having your cramps disappear.
Which mine had.
We had one more big climb, one small climb, and two descents ahead of us.
The race was almost over. Only sixteen miles to go. Even so, I still had two big surprises ahead of me.
Which is what I’ll get to in the next installment of this story.
Sixty-five-ish miles. Two-thirds of the Leadville 100 was behind us, and I hadn’t looked at my bike computer in about fifteen miles — since when we had hit the turnaround point at the top of Columbine and I had discovered we weren’t on track to finish the race in the time The Hammer had projected.
It wasn’t a conscious decision to not look at how we were doing; the Garmin 520 was right there for me to look at, if I felt like it. It’s just that it didn’t really matter to me. All that mattered was helping The Hammer.
And I was being just a little too aggressive about it.
How Fatty Transmogrified Into a Complete Jerk
If you read the end of part 6 of my race report, you’ll see that I was being loud and obnoxious. And if you read the other parts of my race report, you’ll see that this was not the first time.
You’re just going to have to trust me when I say that this is not in character. When I race, I am generally the friendly guy. The helpful guy. The positive and supporting to everyone guy.
How did I turn into a competitive neanderthal? Well, I don’t know for certain.
But I do have a theory.
In normal circumstances, I think of myself as just another racer. A guy whose race goals are no different — or any more important — than anyone else’s race goals.
But on this day, my race goals weren’t for me. They were for someone who I think of as much more important than me. Her goals are much more important than mine. Hence, my sense of purpose was much higher than usual. And my commitment to helping The Hammer achieve her goal was way higher than it ever is to achieving goals of my own.
Anyone who was in our way was an obstacle, pure and simple.
So my aggression came from a place of love; my trash-talking came from a place of high purpose.
But that doesn’t excuse me for being a jerk. Sorry, everyone I was a jerk to.
So, back to the story.
“I feel like giving up,” The Hammer had just said.
My heart rate shot up twenty beats per minute. I clenched my grips. I clenched my teeth. I thought of several things I wanted to say in reply, mostly along the lines of, “Don’t you dare say that. Don’t you dare think that. I am dedicating my whole day to your success, and you are not allowed to do anything but win.”
Wisely (because I do have moments of lucidity, from time to time), I did not say this. I bit back my anger and said, “What’s up?”
“Our pace. We aren’t on track to finish this race in 9:30.”
The relief I felt was incredible; the rage I briefly felt disappeared instantly. This wasn’t a Crash-and-Burn problem. This was just The Hammer experiencing unrealistic expectations.
“Oh, 9:30 was never even on my radar, Sugar Plum,” I said. “Just put that out of your head. The only objective we care about is beating your previous single speed record. All I want is a 9:49. Or maybe a 9:45, just to be safe. Do you think that’s still possible?”
“Yeah, we’re on track for that,” The Hammer replied.
“Then we’re awesome.”
We finished the single track, riding behind that group of five for the whole thing, just recovering. Approached intelligently, a bottleneck is an opportunity to eat, drink, and rest your legs.
Then, the moment we hit doubletrack, we dropped them hard and shot forward. “Let’s fly,” The Hammer said. I got in front of her, told her to yell if I started losing her, yell if I was going too slow, and to otherwise just hold on.
OK, this is the part I’ve been looking forward to writing about since before I even started this race report. Now that I’m here, though, I am simply unsure I can do it justice.
I’ll do what I can, though.
The Hammer and I just railed the next ten miles of the race. Just crushed it. The only time we slowed was to hand off come GU Endurolyte Capsules to Dave Thompson, who had been ahead of us the whole day and on track for a sub-nine-hour finish, ’til he had been brought low by cramps.
“Swallow as many as you can. They’ll help,” I said, and we ramped up our speed again.
Then, a mile or so before the Pipeline aid station, where our crew should be waiting for us, I had a two-birds-with-one-stone epiphany. “I gotta pee, so am going to peel off here for a second,” I told The Hammer. “You go ahead, so the crew can take care of us one at a time.”
The Hammer understood and shot on ahead.
I took care of my business, got back on my bike, and a few minutes later saw — right at the very beginning of the long alley of pit crews — our crew (Couch, Car, Scott, Kara).
Weird, I thought. We had expected them at the other end of the pit crew area. By the timing mat.
The Hammer wasn’t there, which meant — I assumed — that they had already taken care of her and she had gone on ahead. Awesome; I’d catch her when I could.
I pulled up and stopped. Put a foot down.
Nothing happened. In fact, nobody noticed that I was there. They were all busy putting up the banner that would make them easy to find.
“We didn’t expect you for another ten minutes!” Scott said. Which was a fair point. The Hammer and I had, in fact, just beaten our projected time for this part of the race by at least ten minutes.
See, that bit about flying wasn’t hyperbole. OK, it was hyperbole, but not as hyperbole-ish as you might have thought.
“Hasn’t Lisa come through?” I asked, connecting the dots.
“No!” Everyone replying together.
I said some words I would have to apologize for later. Then, “She’s come through. She expected you at the other end, and you didn’t see her because you were putting up the sign.”
For a moment, I was at a loss. Then: “Quick, stuff her gels into my jersey. And give me her Camelbak.”
They sprang into chaotic action, loading me up. All my gels, plus all The Hammer’s gels: two jersey pockets, stuffed full of gels. All my bottles. And The Hammer’s Camelbak.
Which, I would like to point out, did not even remotely fit. To wit, it was so tight it acted as a tourniquet and both my arms started tingling and falling asleep within a minute.
“Now I’m a real domestique,” I thought to myself as they saddled me up with all this stuff, “Carrying food and water up to my GC rider.”
Meanwhile, something snapped in Scott, The Hammer’s brother. He had had too many accidents while crewing for The Hammer, and felt an overwhelming urgency to do something — anything! — to get food and water to The Hammer…wherever she happened to be.
He grabbed a bottle and some gels and bolted, running in a dead sprint down the road, wildly looking left and right for The Hammer.
I found myself laughing at the bizarreness of the moment.
Let’s back up a minute and switch to The Hammer’s perspective for a moment. She came into the Pipeline Pit Crew Alley riding hot — thinking our crew would be at the end of the alley, near the timing mat. As such, she had blown right by the crew: not seeing them, and them not seeing her, because they were facing away and setting up a big banner…to make them easier to find.
That, my friends, is the story you can use when someone asks you to give an example of “irony.”
As she got to the end of Pit Crew Alley, now looking hard for her brother, she saw him! She pulled over, put a foot down, and waited for him to begin swapping out bottles, camelbak, and so forth.
“May I help you?” the man asked.
Recognition — or recognition that she did not recognize this person after all — The Hammer exclaimed, “You are not my crew!”
“No, but I could be if you need me to be,” The stranger replied.
“I’ll just keep going,” The Hammer said, and began riding again, once again starting a section of the race with a mostly-empty Camelbak, and without much in the way of gels.
And then she saw it: The neutral aid station. A light went on, she pulled over, and they sprang into action.
Now let’s go back to me. A few seconds after Scott began running down the trail, desperately looking for his sister, I finished getting all The Hammer’s food and struggling into The Hammer’s camelbak and began riding down the Pit Crew Alley, conducting my own hunt for The Hammer.
Within a few seconds, I had caught Scott, stopped, and had had him stuff the bottle and (still more!) gels he was carrying into my center jersey pocket.
My jersey — already a little tight due to my failure to lose any meaningful amount of weight this year — now felt incredibly tight, with a full bottle and around twenty-five gels (I’m guessing here, but am not far off because I counted around 15 unused gels in my jersey at the end of the race).
I took off again — more loaded down than I have ever been — looking side-to-side as I rode, sometimes calling out, “LISA!”
Scott walked back to their crewing area, fully intending to avoid The Hammer after the race.
As I got to the end of the aid station area, I saw her: The Hammer, with a couple of volunteers helping her out.
“Our crew didn’t make it in time!” she said.
“No, they’re here. You just missed each other. I got you a full camelbak,” I said, fighting to get the thing off.
“I don’t need it, these volunteers have refilled the one I have.”
“Well, I am NOT going to wear this thing for the rest of the race,” I said.
“We can take it,” said a volunteer. “We’ll put it in lost and found, you can get it after the race.”
“Perfect,” I said.
Alas, we would never find that camelbak in lost and found. Which, considering the fallout that could have resulted from this Benny Hill moment, is a not-bad result.
We were back together again. Racing again. As weirdly and hilariously wrong as things had gone, we still hadn’t really lost more than a minute.
“Hey,” I said, “I got your gels too,”
“I don’t need those either, the volunteers got me plenty.”
“Well I have enough to do pretty much another lap of the course.”
“You could hand them off to a course marshal,” The Hammer said.
“Are you serious?” I asked, astounded. “Do you know how much these things are each worth?” I considered for a moment and said, “I’m not giving away $40-worth of gels. But will you at least take this bottle I’ve got stuffed in my jersey?”
Yes, she would take that. And the strain against my midriff became a little easier. Yay.
We were on a paved part of the road now, once again pushing the pace as hard as we could. Me taking my role as domestique as seriously as I could. Keeping The Hammer right behind me, but pushing the pace. Blocking the wind. Encouraging her.
I was doing a pretty darned good job, if I do say so myself.
Until, all of a sudden, I wasn’t.
In the space of a moment, I went from strong workhorse to completely smoked and bonked out husk of a human being.
I’m not really sure what an implosion sounds like, but let’s go with “Kaboom.” In which case that’s the sound I made. Or maybe a better metaphor would be me hitting a wall, in which case I made a “splat” sound.
Either way, I was toast. And this seems like a pretty good place for us to leave off ’til the next installment of this story.