Dug Anderson’s Story: "Leadville 98: It’s Just Not My Race"
This story ends badly. I just thought I should warn you up front. I don’t make my goal, I don’t kick ass, and I’m not as good as I think I am. By the end of this story, my nipples will be bleeding. People don’t, in fact, want to be like me.
So here’s what I thought: Leadville’s not that hard. After all, I’m a tough guy. I ride my bike a lot. I do five, six hour rides all the time in the mountains behind my house in Utah. I’ve done 24 Hours of Moab 3 times. Not only that, but I had done Leadville before. Last year (1997). I tried for nine hours, and after fighting through one of the worst bonks of my life, I managed to eke out a 9:45 finish. To get the all-important Nine Hour Belt Buckle, all I’d have to do was fix the mistakes. Like eating, for example. Last year I didn’t eat breakfast, and during the race, I think I managed to choke down some M&Ms and a couple of rice crispie treats. Why did I fail to eat? I was delirious. Leadville’s way up there.
So I made a plan. It consisted of two things: preparation and execution. To prepare, I formed a meticulous training regimen: ride my bike as often as I could for as long as I could. For example, I would regularly blow off work and go for 5 and 6 hour rides. I rode White Rim in a day in April. That sort of thing. My Execution Plan was almost as complicated: Eat breakfast, eat power gels every half hour, and eat peanut butter and honey sandwiches during the race. In short, eat. Unfortunately, I didn’t think much about drink. Because I’m stupid.
We all wanted to get into the Leadville thing, but because most of the Western World also wants to, only three of us got in: Me, Bob, and Elden. Elden did it with me last year, and Bob and I have been riding bikes together since before most of you were born. Assuming, of course, that most of you are less then 6 years old. But Brad didn’t get in, Rocky didn’t get in, Rick didn’t get in, nobody else got in. And that sucks, because it meant fewer people in the race that I could beat.
Elden and I live about 40 minutes South of Salt Lake City. Bob used to, but he just moved to Seattle, where apparently he’s been pining to live ever since he found that travel and tourism site on the Web. Bob is in fine shape, and normally finishing Leadville would pose little obstacle to him. But Bob doesn’t handle change well, and in the last month or two, Bob broke up with his live-in of 4 years, found a new, better woman, moved to Seattle to take a new, better job, and took out a new, bigger mortgage on his new, better condo. All this conspired to place Bob in a precarious mental, emotional, and physical state. He flew down to roadtrip over to Leadville with us, but there was no guarantee he would race at all.
So Thursday morning Bob showed up at my lovely tract home, I kissed the little dove and my 3 kids goodbye, we picked up Elden from his much nicer tract home, and away we went in my almost-new, cranberry-colored minivan. A little aside here. Snicker all you want, a minivan is the ultimate roadtrip vehicle. We took out the back bench and one of the two middle captain seats. We could easily throw in all our bags and 3 bikes, room to spare. Independently controlled rear air, cassettecd. We were livin’, I’m tellin’ ‘ya.
Around 2:00 pm, soon after a homey, very ordinary BLT sandwich we picked up in Crescent Junction, we crossed the Colorado River, phoned Elden’s brother-in-law Rocky (the same one who got into the race last year only to be yanked from competition at the 75 mile mark by the paramedics for dangerous dehydration) in Grand Junction, and met him (Rocky) at the trailhead for Troy-Built just outside Fruita. You’ve heard about the great riding in Moab? Imagine all the great trails in Moab. Now imagine them as singletrack. That’s the riding in Fruita. We had a blast for two hours, then jumped back in the van and moved on to Leadville.
Elden made reservations for us in Leadville several days following last year’s race. We liked our palatial suite in the Delaware hotel so much last year that we wanted to make sure we got it again. We did. The only downside to our room was it’s location on the 3rd floor. And the random hot and cold nature of the shower. And the lousy Tvs. And the Ritz-like price tag. But breakfast was included and the Delaware is right downtown, a half-block from race headquarters and the start line.
Friday morning was the all-important medical check-in, which consisted of a long line, and random Leadville residents behind folding tables. The volunteers (I’m assuming) look up whatever name you give them on a list, mark it, and ask you, very intently, "how ya feelin?" Any answer other than "If I move from this spot I will surely keel over and die from this, my latest bout with the Ebola Virus" results in your getting a nice, new wristband and a great bag of swag. Following the "medical check" is the traditional motivational race meeting. Ken, the age-of-aquarius race organizer, sweetly terms the meeting as mandatory in the race packet. Having heard his new-age rhetoric last year, we opted instead to go ride the Columbine Mine, bottom to top (and, of course, back down again). The free dinner Friday night was better than prison food, and was, after all, free. But carbo-loading for a 100 mile race seems a little silly. Shouldn’t we be protein-loading?
Anyway, if you’ve read this far, you must be an endurance-event junkie like myself, so I’ll reward you by finally getting to the race itself. It starts at 6:30 am, and it’s cold. Around 38 degrees F at the start. I wore Fox baggy shorts and a Swobo wool jersey. I used some cloth long-fingered gloves for the start, and bagged them later for my regular gloves. Last year I used a camelback and a bottle, refilling only when necessary. This year I opted away from the backpack, ‘cuz I hate using them, and decided to go with two bottles, refilling every aid station. I think, in retrospect, that this decision was disastrous (imagine some of that Friday the 13th music in the background while I make this decision. You know, che che che, sh sh sh, ha ha ha). With a camelback, you drink all the time whether you want to or not. That valve just stares you in the face until you drink. With bottles, you drink only when you think about it, and it’s easy to forget.
I started close to the front, since I was convinced this was my year to get 9 hours. Elden, who was shooting for 10 hours, and Bob, who was shooting for ducks, started about mid-pack. I rode hard, but not too hard over the first two passes, St. Kevin’s and Sugarloaf. I felt good but not too good. I was about 5 minutes slower into the first aid station at the Fish Hatchery than last year, which was part of my plan. So far so good. I latched up with a pretty good group for the trek across the middle part of the course over to Twin Lakes Dam, and made that portion in exactly one hour, the same as last year. Everything was going perfectly. Dare I say it, too perfectly. I’d been eating a delicious power gel every 30 minutes, and I sucked down a Red Bull at the dam, just before the 10 mile stretch up to the Columbine Mine. What could go wrong?
The hump over the hump to the base of the real climb was quick, and a rode the first 4 miles of the Mine in the middle ring. The only portent of danger was that I couldn’t alternate between standing and sitting as had been my plan. It just hurt too much to stand in a big gear and rock back and forth. But I had a mantra: Stay on the bike. So I did. Mostly. I walked the super-steep stuff that was really only ridable under the best of circumstances, but I pretty much rode all the way to the top. I stopped only for a bottle refill, thinking it best to get the hell off the top of the mountain and out of the thin air. And I felt great on the downhill. I ran into a little bottleneck when I got stuck behind a woman riding close to the uphill riders. She was apologizing to all of them, saying she didn’t want to get stuck in the "yucky" rocks over on the right. So I passed her by flying through the "yucky" stuff. Sorry about that. But I really was flying. I saw Bob about 3 miles from the top, and wanted to get off my bike and hug him I was so glad to see him out climbing the mountain. But that would have been lame.
I don’t know what my total time was as I rolled into the Twin Lakes Dam station for the second time, but I felt decent. Not great, but I figured I had 15 miles of flat recovery in front of me. Last year, this next stretch back to the Fish Hatchery was easy. So I pocketed a peanut butter and honey sandwich and headed out. Trouble. Just out from the aid station, there is a short (less than a mile) paved climb. I couldn’t get any rythym. I couldn’t grab and hold a wheel. I wasn’t wheezing, I was simply weak. For the next 15 miles, I was weak and empty. As I dragged my sorry ass up a short, steep hill, the woman I had so smugly passed in the "yucky" stuff passed me back. Thankfully, she didn’t say anything. I plopped myself down on the ground and tried to eat my sandwich. I managed a couple of bites, no more. Setting out again, I found myself in no-man’s land. I went 10 minutes at a time without catching sight of another rider. And when a few did come by, I couldn’t even manage to hold a wheel. The wind had picked up, and I started soft-pedaling 10 miles into a vicious headwind, all alone. My new mantra went something like this: "I will never do Leadville again. I will never enter another endurance event again. I will never ride my bike again." Repeat.
As I approached the short paved section that leads to the last aid station, the choices presented themselves: turn left, get aid, and finish. Or turn right, pedal the 5 miles to the hotel, and sleep. As I was working through the consequences, some very old man (with enormous wings, ha) rode up behind me and started sucking my wheel. Despite my admonitions to take a turn at the front, he steadfastly refused. As the fateful fork in the trail neared, God himself reached down and gave me a sign, telling me which way to go. That is, a large train of about 6 riders overtook us, and went left. I reached deep down, grabbed the last wheel, and we rode that wheel-sucking grandfather off the back. Small victories are important out there.
So now that I had reached the final aid station, I had another choice: press on and try to finish under 10 hours, or hang out, wait for Elden and Bob, and just finish. Well, I had the under 10 hour thing under my belt already, from last year’s race. And let’s face it, if you’re not under 9 hours, you’re just another schlep, no matter how long it takes you. 9:05, 10:15, 11:55, it’s all pretty much the same. So, I found a chair, a cold Diet Coke, and some soup, and made myself comfortable. Elden rolled in about 30 minutes later, a little pissed because he’d been feeling really good about his 10 hour thing until some niggling mechanicals had done him in, killing his chances for 10 hours. I convinced Elden to wait for Bob, since I figured that Bob wouldn’t finish if we left him alone. I mean, you’ve just done 75 hard miles, you roll into the Fish Hatchery, and you can either ride 5 easy miles into town, or cross two mountain passes. But with us waiting for him, no way would Bob quit. When Bob rolled in, he didn’t seem too happy to see us. Because, of course it meant he had to choose the two-mountain-passes option. It was about 3:00 pm, which meant we had 3 12 hours to finish the race. Oodles of time.
We made a pact to ride and finish together. So up we went, slogging our way up Sugarloaf and down the other side. We rode side-by-side up the paved portion of St. Kevin’s, and across the rollers at the top. While we rode, I told Elden my nipples hurt. He said, yes, he wore a wool jersey the year before, and his nipples bled. Sure enough, I had shiny red blood stains on my jersey where my nipples would be. As an extra bonus, every time I’d stretch, sweat would run down my chest into my bleeding nipples. I am a stupid man. As I write this, I pick at the scabs on my nipples. I never thought in a millions years I’d ever write that last sentence.
With about 10 miles to go, I had gapped Bob and Elden a bit on the downhill, and was waiting at the top of the next rise around a corner. Another rider crested and told me my friends would be a minute because they had stacked it up hard in the trees. I sat down to wait, and after only 5 minutes or so, Elden and Bob came into view. Turns out only Elden stacked it up; Bob had ventured into the trees only to retrieve him. Elden looked like hell. He had a big pile of blood and mud over his right eye, a large cut under his eye, and his right cheek had a nice rash. His right shoulder, arm, leg, well, you get the picture. He looked bitchin. And since his bike was unscathed, we forged ahead, with Elden showing a touch more caution on the downhills.
If you’re familiar with Leadville, you know the last 3 miles are interminable. You climb a lousy dirt road forever, then climb another mile into town on pavement. You get a small downhill into town, then a short, block-long uphill to the finish. Since we had almost an hour to finish when we hit the "boulevard," Bob and I stopped to pee twice while Elden sprinted ahead like a puppy on a walk. He waited for us where the trail hit pavement, and we all promenaded together down the street into town, three abreast.
If you’re familiar with Leadville, you also know that no matter how hip you are, no matter how jaded or cynical, crossing the finish line in Leadville is like no other venue. They have a massive red carpet and a finishing tape for every rider. Someone radios ahead the numbers of oncoming riders to the announcer, who trumpets the name, hometown, and finishing time of every rider to the huge crowd, which wildly cheers every finisher. It’s enough to make you cry. Or, in our case, it was enough to send Bob into the medical tent for oxygen, Elden in for possible stitches, and me in for cookies, M&Ms, soup, and more Diet Coke.
So now that I’ve failed again, I’ve made a list of things I did wrong:
1. I bleached my hair, thinking I needed some sort of physical difference to get me over the top. Turns out, training harder or smarter might have worked better.
2. I skipped the motivational meeting in order to ride Columbine. Turns out, snoozing through a silly meeting makes more sense the day before a 100 mile race than riding a 10 mile, 3,400 vertical feet climb.
3. I wore a wool jersey. While this may not have especially hindered me, you’ve got to admit, bleeding nipples suck.
What will I do next year to succeed? I think I’ll try a different race. I hear that Creampuff 100 in Oregon is cool.
Bob’s Story: How the Leadville 100 Almost Kicked My Corn
Nike has a new commercial that shows a football player throwing himself off a cliff, falling off ledges, crashing through trees, and landing with a thud. After the player dusts himself off and starts running back up the mountain, a voice-over asks, “What are you training for?” For the last year, the answer for me was the Leadville 100. When work got a little boring, I would sit back in my computer chair and think about the hundred miles of Leadville. I rode this imaginary race in my mind’s eye countless times. I thought about the first 25 miles of climbing over St. Kevin’s and Sugarloaf mountains; I thought about how I would cruise across the next 15 miles of relatively flat roads; I thought about climbing the 8-mile, 3,600-ft ascent up Columbine Mine that tops out at almost 13,000 feet. I trained hard for the race, lifting weights during the winter and riding several hours every day during the spring and summer. I rode the 90-mile White Rim Trail in one day, the 142-mile Kokopelli Trail in two days, and I went on several 6-hour rides in the local Utah mountains with Dug and Elden, the two guys who were going with me to Leadville.
I had lost almost all the weight I had gained from my bout with chronic fatigue syndrome, which had kept me off my bike for a couple years, and I was feeling good. I loved the idea of racing against the clock—racers get a gold belt buckle for breaking nine hours and a silver one for breaking twelve hours—and I imagined myself coming in under nine hours. Not very realistic, but I was lean, fit, and excited.
My dream fell apart before the race began.
About a week before the race, I suffered from a strange nervous condition that kept me from sleeping or eating well. I tossed and turned during the nights in my temporary housing, and after falling asleep for a few minutes, a panic attack would repeatedly wake me up. You see, I had broken up with my live-in girlfriend, quit my job, moved from Utah to Washington, and bought an overpriced condo here in Seattle. My whole life had been turned up side down, and I felt horribly alone. My anxiety mainly dealt with paying too much for the condo, but there was a deeper anxiety involved, the kind that mid-life crises are made of. I was a single, childless, 36-year-old man living in Provo, Utah, the family values capitol of the world, and I had moved away from my home in Utah hoping for Something Better. But I had this nagging feeling that I had simply run away from everything I cared about. The result of this anxiety was that I could barely eat, sleep or exercise the week before the race.
Some of my friends told me not to go down to Leadville because if I decided to race, I might really hurt myself and get chronic fatigue again. I’ve told people that I would rather die than have that sickness again, but I wanted to at least go down to Leadville and do a road trip—anything to take my mind off the anxiety and self-torment.
After waking up on Friday feeling horrible, I spent the entire day thinking about everything but the race—the only thing I felt about Leadville was remorse that I didn’t care about it anymore. While Elden and Dug bustled around the room Friday night, making sure they had everything they needed for the race, packing, unpacking, and repacking, I lay stunned watching a blurry image of SportsCenter on television. “Can you believe Leadville is starting in less than 9 hours!” Elden asked. I was too depressed to answer. My plan was to wake up—maybe—and start the race with those guys, and then drop out when I got to the first checkpoint at 25 miles. That way I wouldn’t endanger myself physically, and I could come back to the hotel room and maybe get some sleep.
At 5:00 on Saturday morning, after not sleeping much of the night, I was feeling restless, so I decided that doing the race was better than lying around the hotel room with my demons. I filled my Camelbak with water, grabbed some fig newtons, and headed out to the starting line, where 500 nervous riders stretched out and fidgeted. “Can you believe Leadville is starting in less than 8 minutes!” Elden asked. My heart began pounding.
As the big clock ticked down, the racers and the crowd counted down from ten, the shotgun blasted, and then the mass of riders started the race down the hill. Over 500 riders left town going over 25 miles an hour. Two riders to my left bumped into each other and went down hard with a thud and horrible scrape of metal. I stayed in the middle of the pack, trying not to pass people or get caught up in the frenzy. I didn’t felt strong, but I didn’t feel weak either, all things considered. After we climbed to the top of St. Kevin’s and began the descent, I noticed my rear tire was flat. “It’s just not your day, kid,” I said to myself. I took my time changing the flat, so when I was riding again, I was near the back, riding with people like me who probably should not be doing the race, people with clips and straps and hockey helmets. The good news is that I got that rush of adrenaline you get when you pass large bunches of riders, but I kept things in perspective—I was well behind pace for breaking 12 hours if I decided to do the whole race.
The first 25 miles of Leadville is the best part of the ride. It has a couple of long descents down technical double track and a fun mile of steep uphill single track. Even though I wasn’t really racing, I was having a good time. As I approached the first aid station, I was delighted to see lines of people applauding me. Of course, they had no idea that I had planned on quitting the race early, but I still found their enthusiasm moving. “Why not keep going?” I said to myself. I grabbed a spare tube and some food at the well-stocked aid station, and then I continued the ride across the rolling 15-mile stretch before Columbine Mine.
At this point, I began to doubt my reasons for quitting the race. If I dropped out of the race, I would be safe physically, but I wondered if I could take the mental anguish, the awful regret of quitting a race I had previously cared so much about. If I continued the race and finished, that would be one less regret that would keep me awake at night, one less demon to prick my conscience. By the time I crossed the open valley and rode into the second aid station, I made up my mind to finish the race. I became so convinced of the importance of finishing the race that the day took on a momentous quality. I could not fail. In a bizarre turn of perspective, this race suddenly meant more to me than any other race, more than anything I could remember.
As I began the long ascent up Columbine Mine with my new-found drive, I passed dozens of riders, many of whom were walking. The surge of confidence that comes with passing so many people should be tempered by the fact that I had been at the very back of the pack an hour or so earlier, but I chose to think that I was simply a fast rider with newborn confidence. After about six miles of climbing moderately steep jeep road, the trail became much steeper, forcing even the strongest riders to get off their bikes and push up the hill. A couple miles from the top, I saw Dug roaring down the trail shouting, “I am an ocean!” I had no idea what he was talking about, but I was glad he was feeling well and seemingly headed towards his target of reaching the 9-hour mark. As I approached the top, I began feeling weak and dizzy, but I told myself not to panic, it was just the altitude making me feel sick. About 50 yards before the aid station at the top of the mine, I saw Elden passing me on the way down. “You’re not that far behind!” he shouted. After eating as much food as I could cram into my churning stomach and wandering stunned for a bit, I started the long, rocky descent down Columbine Mine.
The surge of confidence that came from flying down the hill at dangerous speeds was quickly quashed by the first uphill. My legs were sore and my stomach felt empty, even though I had been eating during the whole race. As I struggled over the small hills between the bottom of Columbine Mine and the next aid station, I got passed by many riders. Once again, I thought about quitting the race, fearing that continuing would have serious long-term consequences. The head wind was fierce. Two large hike-a-bike hills made me want to fall over and cry. During one long stretch of road, I bowed my head and closed my eyes, opening them every few seconds to make sure I was still on the road. Once or twice, I think I actually fell asleep for a split second.
When I closed in on the final aid station at the Fish Hatchery, I had decided to eat big, take my time, and sleep for awhile. If I could somehow recharge my batteries and make the nauseous feeling go away, I would try to finish the race. Otherwise, I would stop right there, get a ride back into town, and try to convince myself that 75 miles was a solid effort, and that I wasn’t pathetic.
As I got to the aid station, I was surprised to hear Dug shout my name. “Bob! You made it!” I was confused. I thought maybe Dug had finished in under 9 hours and come back to support us, but that didn’t seem likely. It turned out that Dug had a monster bonk in the head wind that left him in no man’s land, and that he too almost quit the race. Elden was waiting there too—Dug had convinced him that we should finish the ride together. I was genuinely moved by the fact that they waited for me—for a brief second I didn’t feel quite so alone in the world—but I was exhausted and wanted to stop. When you’re that tired and sleepy, it’s easy to be melodramatic.
After I took my time eating and resting, we started the long climb back up Sugarloaf. I was tired, but it felt so good to talk with my friends that my mood changed completely. I knew I could finish the race. We climbed a long time up Sugarloaf, and besides feeling nauseous, I was fine. While we descended, Elden hit a bump, got unintentional air that turned his front wheel to the right, and did a nasty endo into the rocks, trees and bushes down below. It was the kind of wreck that you give a name to so that later when you say, “It was almost as bad as Elden’s Leadville endo,” people stare at you in disbelief. He was lying against a tree bleeding. I checked his bike to make sure it worked, and I kept asking him if he was okay. Five or ten minutes later, he was able to start riding again, albeit gingerly. We dropped down the fun stretch of single-track, headed up the four miles of paved road to the top of St. Kevin’s, and dropped down to the edge of town. Three more miles of uphill riding and we were done.
Elden, Dug, and I rode into town together. As we rode toward the cheering crowd and red carpet and officials waiting with medals to crown us with, I felt exhilarated, alive. The time of 11 hours and 27 minutes that would have been a dismal failure a week before sounded too good to be true. I knew that Dug and Elden had mixed feelings about finishing so slowly, but as I lay in the tent snorting pure oxygen, I knew that I had finished the best race of my life, and that maybe I would sleep well knowing it.
Elden’s Story: "Pain and Pleasure"
By the time I crossed the finish line for the ‘98 Leadville 100, I would be the sorriest-looking, slowest-riding sad sack to ever straddle a bike. Strangely, I’ve got a hunch that this ride will stick in my head as my favorite race ever.
Dug, Bob and I had spent the last eight months talking about the race: what we’d carry, what our strategy would be, where we could shave time. By the time August rolled around, we were pretty much in a frenzy. I may have wet myself with excitement once or twice, but that’s none of your business.
We got out to the starting line with about twenty minutes to spare. Dug forged ahead, setting himself up with a couple of riders more his speed. Bob and I were more toward the middle of the pack. We stood around, not talking much, feeling anxious. A few chatty types introduced themselves to us, including an older guy who, upon discovering we shared the same religion, gave me a big hug. I feigned delight and waited for him to go away. As I said, I was feeling a little nervous.
The gun (it’s Leadville, so it was a shotgun, natch) went off at 6:30am. Within 200 yards, I witnessed the first crash of the day: one rider, apparently still sound asleep, drifted right into the rider on his right. They went down hard and fast, at about 20 mph. It didn’t look like they even had a chance to clip out. I dodged to the right and kept going, glad it was them and not me—which may be the most convincing proof of karma ever.
I had set a goal (or perhaps it was just a wish, since I had never written it down) to finish the race in ten hours—half an hour faster than last year. This meant getting to the Fish Hatchery Aid Station (25 miles) in exactly two hours. I’ve become a better downhiller since last year and expected to pick up some time coming down Sugar Loaf.
Things were going well—I was halfway down Sugar Loaf and on track for my goal—when I found I could no longer shift my rear derailleur. This had happened before, so I hopped off my bike and looked at the Rollamajig; sure enough, the cable had hopped off the pulley. I slid it back on and got going, with no more than a couple minutes lost. I rolled through the Fish Hatchery Aid Station without stopping—I had brought along enough food and water to last me to the second station. I was a little behind schedule, but figured I could make up time on the next section of the course, which was relatively flat.
Five (or so) miles later, I found I couldn’t shift again. This seemed strange because the cable had never come off the Rollamajig except on very bouncy downhill—and this was a very smooth dirt road. I slowed to a stop and sure enough, the cable had come off the Rollamajig again. This time, though, I couldn’t budge the cable. It was wedged tight between the pulley itself and its casing. I sat down and started to try to jiggle the cable loose, all the while noticing rider after rider passing me. I didn’t have a tool that I could pry the cable out of the casing with. For fifteen minutes I sat there, wiggling and prying, becoming more and more frustrated. I couldn’t believe it, but it seemed as if I was going to have to bail out of the race because of a damned Rollamajig! I really felt like I was about to cry.
Finally, I just put the bike down and sat beside it, trying to calm down and think. Then it occurred to me: I had my hotel key. I dug it out of my CamelBak, hoping it would fit between the pulley and its casing. It did. Using the key as a lever, I got the cable back onto the pulley, then, finally got riding again.
I had not moved for about 20 minutes, and figured that my chances of finishing in ten hours were becoming pretty slim. I decided that I would continue to ride hard anyway and come as close as I possibly could. Then, inside of two miles, the cable came off the Rollamajig again. I fixed it inside of five minutes. Then it came off again. There went another five minutes. By the time I pulled into the Twin Lakes Dam aid station, I had lost around 40 minutes to that stupid pulley (or perhaps more accurately, to my mechanical ineptitude, but I choose to place blame elsewhere and I’ll thank you for not bringing that up again).
As always, the volunteers at the aid station were great. What they had to offer, though, was a bit of a problem. See, I had counted on free PowerGels—about one every half-hour or so—to get me through the race. By the time we back-of-the-pack (yeah, that’s where I was) folks got to the aid stations, though, there were no PowerGels left; the fast guys had got them all. I made a mental note to smack Dug (who surely had stuffed his pockets full with PowerGels) around for this. I grabbed a couple of Clif bars out of my drop bag and continued on, knowing that I’d have to ration out the three PowerGels I had brought with me for the final hour of the race.
My Rollamajig woes continued clear up to the base of the longest climb of the race: Columbine Mine. I couldn’t shift more than a few times before the cable would hop off the pulley again. With that in mind, I shifted to the lowest gear in the middle ring when I got to the beginning of the ascent, and vowed to leave it there for the entire five miles. Amazingly, that worked pretty well for me. Knowing that shifting would probably mean getting off my bike, I just gritted my teeth and churned away. I once again passed all the folks I had now passed four times earlier in the race (and then had been passed again when my Rollamajig broke again), then kept going, passing people I hadn’t seen in quite some time. For the first time in twenty miles, I was having fun. It didn’t seem like it took long at all for me to get to the final—and much steeper and more technical—three miles of the Columbine Mine.
For the past several months, I had been thinking about this three-mile stretch more than any other part of the course. I had thought that if I could ride this—not walk it—I could save a huge amount of time. The day before, Dug, Bob and I had all ridden this section fairly easily. Someone must have used huge hydraulic jacks to make the course steeper in the intervening 24 hours, however, because while I was able to ride some of this three miles, I also had to push big sections of it.
It felt like I made decent time to the Columbine Mine aid station, though I really don’t know how long it took—with all the mechanical troubles I’d had, I’d pretty much given up on ten hours and just wanted to cross the finish line. I just refilled my CamelBak, ate a whole bunch of cantaloupe and made a quick, futile search for PowerGels and started back down the trail.
In just a few minutes I saw Bob, which meant that he was no more than ten minutes behind me. Considering how Bob had been saying that he was unsure of whether he would try to do the whole race, I was incredibly happy to see him practically at the halfway point, and riding strong. I shouted out, "We’re not so far apart, you and I!" Bob looked at me like I was speaking Dutch.
Since Bob’s a much faster downhiller than I, I expected him to catch up with me fairly soon, letting us work together for the 15-mile flat section between Twin Lakes Dam and the Fish Hatchery. Sadly, Bob didn’t catch up to me by the time I got to the Twin Lakes Dam, and I was still sort of in "race" mode, so I couldn’t force myself to wait up for him.
I rode through the aid station…and into hell.
Yeah, that comes off as melodramatic, but you’d understand if you could have experienced that bike-stopping headwind. For fifteen miles I worked like never before, but just barely moved. Everybody I came across was moving much slower or faster than I, so I couldn’t get in on a paceline. Finally, as I got within a mile of the Fish Hatchery aid station, a big guy came by me, not moving a whole lot faster than I. I hunkered down behind him and let him pull me in. I tried to take my turn at pulling him, but didn’t punch a big enough hole in the wind to make much difference to him. He’d lose patience quickly and ride ahead again. I was okay with that.
I pulled into the Fish Hatchery aid station completely whipped. I no longer had a prayer of hitting my goal time, I was exhausted, and hadn’t had anyone to share my misery with for the entire race.
Then I saw Dug. My mind did a couple of flip-flops while I tried to figure out how he could possibly be at the 75-mile mark. He should be way ahead of me. Had he had a colossal crash?
No, just a colossal bonk. He had had as hard a time as I with the Twin Lakes Dam to Fish Hatchery section, was completely out of the running for his goal time, and thought that he and I could finish the race together.
I have never been so grateful for a riding partner in my life. Dug helped me get my CamelBak filled, loaned me a couple PowerGels (thereby forcing me to reverse my decision to slap him around) and we got ready to ride. Then Dug suggested we wait up for Bob, too. My initial reaction was to get riding now—the retarded remnants of my race mode, I guess. Then I thought about how beat Dug and I both were at the 75 mile mark and how glad I was to have someone to ride with. We decided to wait for Bob.
Bob showed up within about fifteen minutes. He rested up for a little while and we got ready to go, none of us any longer having any goal other than to cross the line before the twelve-hour cutoff. And with three-and-a-half hours at our disposal, we knew we could do that easily.
I had been dreading climbing the Sugar Loaf section of the trail. It’s steep, long and sandy. With my friends along, though, I started actually having fun. We were chatting with each other and with those around us, and the miles went by pretty quickly. Also, I expect the long rest I got at the Fish Hatchery had helped; I no longer felt particularly exhausted.
After Sugar Loaf, there’s a quick descent through the only singletrack section in the whole race: a rocky, rooty little slice of heaven. I had a blast and completely forgot my exhaustion for a few minutes. "Isn’t this part great?" I howled to a rider as I passed. "I hate this stuff," he replied. "I’m from Florida." "Sorry!" I yelled, unconvincingly. Then, under my breath, "Man, it must suck to be you."
After the singletrack, I took a few minutes to catch up with Bob and Dug and we began the four mile ride up the paved section of St. Kevins. Last year, this was one of the worst parts of the race for me; it just seemed to go forever. This time, riding with Bob and Dug, I actually enjoyed it. No deadline to meet, no reason to push. We just spun along, chatting in an oxygen-deprived, addle-brained, ultra-exhausted kind of way. It may have been the only time we have ever had a conversation sans sarcasm, arguments and insults. We just didn’t have the energy for it.
After the pavement, we rolled along for a couple of miles, then began the descent down St. Kevins. We were whooping it up, doing little launches, enjoying being able to open it up a little bit.
That’s when I had my wreck.
I went off a launch—no more difficult than several we had done—and I could tell in the air that I had done it all wrong. I came down hard on my front wheel, which I think immediately turned sideways. I rocketed off the right side of the trail, terrified and completely out of control. I was flung off my bike (I have no idea how I got out of my pedals) and either into or over a log, then down a short stretch of hill and into a tree. I came to a stop in a sitting position, screaming for Bob to stop.
Bob climbed down the hill, and told me not to get up. So I sat there for about five minutes, checking my injuries, while Bob checked my bike. I could tell the right side of my face was banged up and bloody. My right arm was scraped up, but not bad, as was my left leg. My left wrist and hand hurt too. My glasses were demolished. But not much else. Considering the mess of logs, trees and rocks I had just flown through, I had done pretty well. I got up, feeling surprisingly steady, and got ready to finish the final ten miles of the race.
From that point on, I rode downhill very gingerly. Dug and Bob rode ahead for the rest of the St. Kevins descent, then waited for me for the ride along the railroad tracks and up the Boulevard—the three-mile-long uphill dirt road that signals you’re at the very end of the race.
When we got to the Boulevard, I rode on ahead, suddenly feeling much stronger. Whenever I passed someone or someone passed me, I got a doubletake and a look of concern. I feel stupid for saying so, but I was really enjoying the attention: check me out, I can do a face plant and still finish a big ol’ nasty race.
Dug and Bob caught up at the top of the Boulevard. Here, with a mile to go, we made a pact to cross the finish line at the exact same time—no sudden sprints. So, after 11:27 of riding, we rode up the red carpet together and crossed the line together. I doubt that any of us would admit it in casual conversation, but I think all three of us were moved.
After the race, Dug wandered around the medical tent, shlepping cookies and Coke while Bob got some oxygen and I got a medic to wash off my face. After the mud and blood came off, all that was left were some fairly minor scrapes, a good black eye (my first ever) and one gash above my right eye.
The medic recommended I go to the hospital and get stitches for the gash, to avoid a scar. I declined. I want this scar. For a guy who loves epic rides and telling stories, you can’t buy a souvenir this cool.