Nine times. I have raced the Leadville 100 Mountain Bike Race nine times. Why do I keep going back?
Well, this time the main reason was to have fun and show that I can do better than my 2004 time (10:57, I think). Here’s what my day was like.
Look Down, Stupid.
I love seeing how bundled up some racers get for the start of this race. Shorts, tights, shoe covers, jersey, second long sleeve jersey, jacket, ear warmers. I, on the other hand, wore shorts, my Racers Cycle Service short sleeve jersey (which, alas, fits about fifteen pounds too snugly. Nothing says, "I won’t be killing anyone in the climbs today" like a red, white, and orange bullseye stretched across your belly, showing exactly what you’ve got, spare-tire-wise), and arm warmers. I was plenty warm. Fat has its uses, I guess.
From what I hear, there were at least two nasty crashes within the first two miles of the race – on downhill pavement, yet. One of those crashes was from a pair of riders tangling handlebars, another was from someone dropping his glasses and stopping to retrieve them, unaware that this might pose a problem to the 200 racers immediately behind him.
The first climb is up St. Kevins, a moderate hill compared to what we had in front of us. Initially I felt good, and was easily staying with the group around me. Then my legs started hurting. I tried shifting to my granny gear. No good, I was already there. I was suffering on the first climb. How could that be?
By the time I was two-thirds of the way I was up the hill, I knew I was in big trouble for the race: redlined in my granny on the first climb. How could I possibly finish this race if I was already blown?
Then I looked down. I was in my middle ring.
A shift to my little ring up front and about halfway down the cassette in back brought immediate relief – as much mental as physical. I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: the Fat Cyclist has plenty of fat on his body and in his head.
I Do Not Interview Everyone
While riding, I was talking with people for a Cyclingnews article. I’m not going to talk much about these chats – that’s a different story. I will say, though, that people were very cool about talking to me, slowing down a bit with me so we’d have enough breath to talk for a minute. There were a few people, however, I intentionally did not interview, for various reasons.
- "Cowbell Guy:" Riding up St. Kevins, I started talking with a guy on a bike when I heard an obnoxious cowbell close by. It turns out he had a cowbell hanging from his saddle. That’s when I remembered him – he and I rode within hearing distance more often than not last year. I promise you, "More cowbell" holds up as a comedy concept for a short time only. I turned off the recorder (the only time I intentionally cut off an interview), shifted up a gear, stood up and rode away. I am happy to announce that I was not troubled by the persistent clanking of cowbell again.
- "Impressive Stunt Guy:" As I was riding down Sugarloaf – a rutted, sandy descent about 3.5 miles long, I heard a guy yell "On your right!" I yelled back acknowledgment. He passed, immediately hit a woop-de-doo, and got a good amount of air. I could see even before he landed though that it wasn’t going to work out well. He was way forward, and his front wheel landed first. It twisted sideways and he flipped over the front. I grabbed brake with both hands, swerved, and managed to miss him. "You OK?" I asked. "Yeah," he replied," and I continued. Ten seconds later it occurred to me I should stop and talk to him about his crash. Then I thought about how much I would like it if someone stuck a recorder in my face after one of my numerous crashes and decided to leave him alone. Besides, I would have had to walk uphill to get back to him, and that was not going to happen.
- Guy who was changing a tube: Actually, I came across 5 or 6 people during the day who were changing tubes, and I thought each time I should stop and talk to them about the frustration of having a mechanical during a race. But since I know that frustration firsthand and didn’t really want to be sworn at or smacked with a pump, I just kept on going. I’m a pansy.
I Make an Empty Offer of Assistance
A couple of years ago, I got nasty chainsuck on this race, when I shifted under torque because I had come across an unexpected, steep uphill. It took me five minutes to get the chain worked free, and the whole time I was wishing somebody who was better with fixing bikes than I am (practically anybody) would help me.
In last Saturday’s race, I came across a guy in the exact same spot, with the exact same problem. So I asked if he needed help, fully knowing that I was setting myself up to demonstrate how inept I am with fixing bikes. He said "No, I’ve just got to work it free," and thus saved me from embarrassment. Thanks, anonymous "I can fix it myself" guy.
I am Strong in the Flats, Weak in Forecasting
As I rode the relatively flat 15 mile stretch between the first and second aid station, I noticed something: I was passing people. This has never happened to me. I guess all the road bike riding on the rolling roads of King County was good for something.
As I rode by people, looking for a group to form a train with, people would engage in the standard Leadville conversation:
Them: "You done this race before?"
Me: "Yup. Ninth time."
Them: "Are we on track for a 9:30?"
Me: "No way. Try 10:30."
The thing is, they very well may have been on track for a 9:30. Maybe even better. I just wasn’t equipped to tell them, because I tend to race hot at the beginning, then blow up into smithereens for the second half of the race. Yes, I’m aware it’s not a winning strategy, and I was actually trying to correct it this time. Still, I wonder how many people I completely demoralized that day. Sorry, demoralized people!
I Vow to Make Bob Wrong
Bob, a riding buddy, posted a comment in my blog late last week, predicting I would finish in 10:12. So when I crossed the turnaround point at Columbine Mine — famous for being a halfway point not just in distance but in actual time — at 5:06, I was thunderstruck. It looked like Bob might be right, down to the minute. I simply couldn’t allow this. I shifted my plan from being "finish whenever" to "finish in under ten hours."
It was time to see if playing it cool for the first half of the race had left me with some power I could use in the second half.
Serena and I Have an Argument
Mark and Serena are the proud holders of what I call "The Warner Dynasty" – they have won (including Saturday) the Tandem division of the Leadville 100 four times straight. And coming down the rocky, nasty part of Columbine mine, I was apparently putting the dynasty in jeapordy. They were right on my tail, and I was downhilling too slow; the second-place tandem was hot on their tail. Serena started yelling at me: "Ease up on the brakes, Fatty!" (My friends call me Fatty. No, just kidding. Please don’t call me Fatty.) And then: "You’re losing the race for us, Fatty!"
But there was no way I could yield – we were on doubletrack, and the other track was chockablock with cyclists hiking up to the top. And, strictly speaking, it wasn’t me holding them up. I was behind four other cyclists. Still, I yelled, "Shaddup, Serena!"
Mark, Serena’s domestique – I mean husband – sounded dumbfounded. "Did you just tell Serena to shut up?"
Amazingly, that ended the discussion. As soon as they found an opening, Mark and Serena flew by, protecting their dynasty for another year, and finishing five minutes ahead of me. On a tandem…a fully rigid tandem, that is. On technical downhill. Clearly, downhilling is not my strength.
Telling Serena to shut up, however, may have been the bravest thing I have ever done (she could easily take me in a fight).
When is Encouragement Just Mean?
One of the things I love about the Leadville 100 is the encouragement riders shout to each other on Columbine Mine. The people plodding up shout encouragement to those flying down. Racers on their way down cheer to those struggling on their way up: "You’re almost there! Looking strong! Looking good!"
So here’s an interesting hypothetical question: You’ve just about completed the descent from Columbine Mine when you see someone just starting to push his bike up the eight miles to the turnaround — walking, ashen-faced, in what should be a middle-ring part of the climb, at a rate that will surely see him swept from the field before day’s end. Do you cheer him on, or do you explain the reality of the situation?
I yelled, "You can make it! Get to the top!" I figured he’s done the math. If he’s decided to keep going anyway, that’s worth cheering for. I know I sure don’t want everyone telling me the reality of my racing situation ("Uh, dude? You’re fat and middle-aged. Shouldn’t you be at home watching Larry King or something?").
Best. Breeze. Ever.
On paper, miles 60-75 of the Leadville 100 look pretty tame. It’s a rolling section, a nice little break between the massive Columbine Mine climb and the brutally steep Powerline climb. But it’s this flat section that I dread every year. There’s always a mean headwind. And I’m always out of juice.
Except this year.
This year, there was a healthy tailwind instead of the rain and headwind I had anticipated (although I’m told it did in fact rain and hail on Columbine Mine about a half hour after I got down, soaking and freezing the hundreds of people still up there). And it turns out that by reining myself in for the first half of the race, I felt great for the second half. I met up with a guy named Chris and we talked and worked together almost the entire 15 miles. It went by in what felt like a flash.
Bugaboo vanquished. At least for now.
One of the things that really defines the Leadville 100 is that two of its nastiest climbs are saved for the final 25 miles. The Powerline climb is so steep and loose that you’ve got to march almost a mile of its 3.3 mile distance (I had measured on the way in, to help ward off the false hope the many false summits bring). And then there’s St. Kevins, which is on pavement, but it just feels like the race organizers were being mean-spirited to put such a grind just 12 miles from the finish. And of course, there’s the boulevard, a short but evil climb just 2.5 miles from the finish.
I say all this because it serves my vanity. I believe not a single person passed me in that final 25 miles, at least not without me passing them back. I, on the other hand, passed lots. I rode sections people walked. I middle-ringed where people grannied. I, in short, ruled. I thought of the much leaner people looking in consternation at the fat guy passing them in the climbs, and my heart sang.
In fact, for the second half of the race, I did pretty close to a nine-hour pace. I did all this simply to defy Bob. Meanwhile, hundreds of miles away, Bob entirely failed to care.
At the finish line, I raised both hands in triumph, as if I had won, instead of placing 162nd of 471 finishers (not sure how many starters there were, but 750 were registered to race; I’d guess 600 actually made it to the starting line). This was a bad idea, because I was addle-brained and barely able to balance with my hands on the handlebars. I swerved dangerously, causing an audible gasp from the finish line crowd. I – barely — managed to grab my handlebars, straighten my bike and cross the finish line – my dignity nearly intact. 9:41. Four minutes faster than my goal. Huzzah.
If I had been in good shape (spent time working on climbing), and if I weighed less, this could have been the year I got that sub-9. The course and weather were perfect for it. Next year, I tell you. Next year the sub-9 is mine. For now, I’ll kick myself. Just a little bit.
My Stomach Defies Physics
When the race is over, the hunger begins. In the 24 hours following the race, I ate the following:
- Cream cheese-stuffed pretzel
- Lasagna, with two salads
- Half a burrito (a person with a normal appetite could eat only half; I was able to eat half in addition to the lasagna)
- A pint of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream
- Four more Kudos bars.
- Two omelets
- Two blueberry muffins
- Yogurt and granola
- Untold glasses of orange juice
- Giant cookie
- Chicken burrito with sour cream and guacamole…and a Diet Coke (I’m watching my weight, after all)
And the hunger hasn’t subsided yet. Maybe it never will.
Today’s Weight: I dare not step on a scale. I will begin the daily weigh-in again tomorrow.
Bonus Fat Cyclist Food Plan for Endurance Athletes
I’ve genuinely lost count of how many epic rides and endurance races I’ve done in the eleven or so years I’ve been riding. Throughout all that time, I’ve experimented with different sports drinks, energy bars, powders and pills. All with two simple aims:
- I want to have energy
- I don’t want to be sick
This year, I’ve finally done it. And – ironically, I suppose – the answer is a very simple mix of foods:
- 1 Gu for every 20 minutes of riding (I’ve settled on Gu brand because I like the way it tastes and my energy level doesn’t spike with it quite as badly as it does with PowerGel, and it doesn’t give me gas, the way Clif Shot does), excepting the first two hours, when I’m still powered by the morning meal. For a 10-hour ride, that means 24 Gus. I squeeze them all into a water bottle(which means I have $24 worth of gel in one water bottle), then dilute with water, so I can squirt them into my mouth and swallow easily.
- Water – no sports drink. I know, I know, the sports drinks have minerals and calories and all that. But when I drink sports drink for a couple hours, I get sick to my stomach, and I get sick of so much sweet stuff, after which I stop drinking, after which I get dehydrated, after which I bonk. I can drink water happily all day, and get my salt and calories elsewhere (like from a whole lot of Gu).
- Chicken and Stars soup. This now comes in single-serving, pop-top containers. I drank one each time I stopped at an aid station. It’s got lots of salt, it’s not sweet, and you can slurp it down in a matter of moments. I have not had a single leg cramp since I’ve started drinking soup on my big rides.
- Kudos "granola" bars. I put "granola" in quotes because I don’t think there’s any granola in them. Truth in packaging should require the makers of these to admit these are just little candy bars. My favorite flavor is the chocolate and peanut butter ones. I eat these because they taste great (like Reeses Peanut Butter Cups, essentially), have lots of calories, and they’re small enough that I can stuff one in my mouth in two bites. And it’s easy to rip the package open, even when you’re on the bike.
So, would I encourage you to adopt my eating strategy on endurance rides? No way. Almost certainly, there’s something in my plan that wouldn’t work for you. But maybe there’s something here that will work for you, too. And in any case, now you know how to eat like a Fat Cyclist. Lucky you.