Around mile 41 or so of the Leadville 100 (for those of you who don’t know: Leadville, Colorado is a tiny town, above Vail, at an altitude of about 10,000 feet) this year, something occurred to me: I had not yet checked for a single trail marker. I was riding the course from memory.
That, I suppose, is a good indicator I’ve been doing this race for a while.
Why have I done the Leadville 100 ten times? Why will I do it an eleventh? Well, the reasons keep changing, but anymore most of the reasons revolve around people, traditions, and memories.
Here are a few photos and standout memories from this year’s race.
The Ride Before the Ride
Every year, the day before the race, a group of us go out and ride some flat, fun singletrack along the shore of Turquoise Lake for about an hour. It’s a chance to talk with people about the race, get a sense for what they really hope to accomplish, and–usually–to see at least one person screw up his bike because he thought he could climb a flight of stairs on his bike, but really couldn’t.
This year, we had a lot of people in the group. Some of us were there looking for a personal best: Racer, Bry and I all wanted sub-nine buckles; Lisa Rollins wanted to best her previous time of 11:55. Some of us were trying to win: Kenny wanted to win the singlespeed class, Mark and Serena were protecting their four-year winning streak on the tandem, Jilene wanted to win the women’s category, Chuck wanted to win the whole enchilada). And some people wanted to get across the line: Nick Abbott (the guy I rode with more than anyone else back in Washington), Rocky, and Rich Rollins, my former neighbor all fit into this category.
During this ride, I ran into Mike, a Fat Cyclist reader and first-time Leadville 100 rider. I guess he recognized the Reeses Peanut Butter Cup jersey. Or maybe it was the George Hincapie glasses. Or maybe it was the Weapon of Choice. Regardless, he snapped and emailed me this photo:
This would not be the only time I was recognized as "Fatty" during the event. I also met JSun, his wife, and their three-week old infant. JSun would be racing the Leadville 100, but being a new dad doesn’t mix really well with racing. And I met lots of other people who I have never met who would embarassedly call me "Fatty," then let me know that I’m not really all that fat. To those people, I promise that when Winter comes, I will once again be plenty fat. It’s my way.
Strangely, my mom (who was crewing for me) started introducing herself as "Fatty’s Mom." I’m not sure I’m entirely comfortable with that.
I was nervous for the start of this year’s Leadville 100, and for more than the usual reasons. As always, I was nervous about the effort, but I was also worried about my bike setup. I had broken a rule I’ve always been pretty firm on: no monkeying around with equipment just before a race. But practically everything on my bike was new, and the rigid fork was only three rides old.
More than that, though, I was nervous about whether I had lost enough weight to fit back into my old "Racers Cycle Service" Jersey, so I could ride in the same colors as my friends. It was a close call, but I went with it.
Here I am, nervous and serious, lined up about three rows from the front, as if I were a fast guy or something. Mark (of the Mark/Serena Warner Tandem Dynasty) is on the far left in the same jersey. Also, I would like to call attention to my rather awesome quads and my almost-trivial paunch.
Just for fun while at the starting line (and because I’m a fidgety person and needed something to do), I set my handlebar-mounted Forerunner 301 GPS to count backwards from 8:55 minutes, and from 105 miles. I wanted to think in terms of how far I had to go, and how long I had to get there.
More importantly, I also set it to chime every half hour, as a signal for me to eat. And I made a hard and fast rule: when the chime went off on the hour, I would eat a packet of Shot Bloks. When it went off on the half hour, I would have a Gu. The only allowable exceptions would be when I was in the middle of a technical climb or descent and needed both hands on the handlebars (in which case I would eat as soon as possible), or was in an aid station and was eating something else. I told myself that my opinion on whether I felt like eating was irrelevant. The chime was the law.
The gun went off at 6:30 am. Most years, the escort vehicle heads out at 25-30mph, letting the field of 700 (or so) riders string out. This year, though, the escort vehicle stayed under 20 the whole way, keeping us bunched up and nervous until we hit the dirt five downhill miles later.
I started the race planning on finishing in under nine hours. By the time I finished the race, ten hours had elapsed. So at what point did I begin to understand that my sub-9 finish was in jeapordy?
Before I had even completed the first big climb — seven miles into the race.
Yes, that soon.
Here’s how I could tell: In years when I have come close to finishing in under nine hours, I have had to restrain myself on that first climb; I had to force myself to drop out of the middle ring and not blow by everyone, because I had so much power.
This year, in contrast, the small ring felt just right. Oh, sure, I could’ve gone to the middle ring, but it wasn’t a big temptation.
In short, I had power, but I was not a powerhouse.
At least the weather was good, though.
Before long, the St. Kevins climb ended, I dropped down the paved road for four miles, and then climbed up Hagerman’s pass. I caught up with Mark and Serena during this climb, and was feeling good about myself for doing so, when Serena said, "Man, we’re just not having a good day. I guess we’re just gonna ride it, cuz we sure ain’t racing it." I’d explain the implications of what this meant, but I don’t think that’s really necessary.
After the Hagerman’s Pass climb, I began rocketing down the Powerline descent — five miles of technical downhill. I was passing people all over the place, setting the course on fire.
No, I’m just kidding. I didn’t pass anyone. In fact, I noticed that there was almost always the sound of breathing and braking behind me, and when there was a good opening, half a dozen people lined up behind me would shoot around.
You know what’s cooler than being the slowest downhiller around? Pretty much everything, that’s what.
But I didn’t flat, like a bunch of people (I’d guess I saw five people on the side of the trail coming down Powerline), and I didn’t completely taco my front wheel like one guy I saw with his bike shouldered as he jogged down the course. I wonder if he was hoping to salvage his race by bumming a new wheel off someone? Hat tip to him if so, because he had about seven miles to jog before he got to the next aid station.
When the Powerline bottoms out, it intersects pavement, and groups form to motor along in a paceline. Here, as I have probably three times in ten years, I ran into my LT100 friend Dean Cahow. I’m not sure why we always intersect on this pavement, but we do. We hopped onto a paceline, which was way too fast, let it go, and then worked together until we got to the first aid station, 27 miles into the race.
I looked at my computer — 2:11 had elapsed. I was already eleven minutes too slow. I wasn’t out of contention yet, but this wasn’t a promising sign; I’m generally much stronger in the first half of a race than in the second, and need to give myself some cushion for the likelihood that I would fade.
I powered through the first aid station; I had plenty of food and water. The next aid station would be in only thirteen miles.
Hanging Out With Friends
As I went through the first aid station, a couple of strange things happened.
- At least two groups yelled, "Go Fatty!" or something like that. Neither of these groups were with me (I had sent my crew on ahead to the second aid station). This gave me a huge morale boost.
- I thought a huge crowd was cheering for me, but it turned out that they were actually yelling for Jilene Mecham, who was overtaking me. I had recently taught Jilene the Ze Frank song, "How Do You Spank a Giant Baby?" and she sang it as she passed me. Then I grabbed her wheel and asked how she got the crowd so riled up. "You work ‘em," she said, and then showed me. Pumping a fist into the air, she yelled, "Yeah!" The crowd on both sides of us immediately responded by cheering for her. Jilene then rode away from me, but I promised myself I’d catch her as soon as the course turned up. I knew I was a stronger climber than she.
The thirteen miles between the first and second aid stations are the flattest of the day, and probably the least painful of the course. It was here that I met Joe Jensen, a local Utah rider. He introduced himseelf by saying, "I don’t care what Dug says, you’re an OK guy." I replied with, "Well I’m here racing, and you’re here racing, and Dug’s in Chicago going to fancy restaraunts. So out of the three of us, who do you think is a pansy?" Joe (who would eventually finish with a 10:40) and I agreed we should ride together sometime under less painful conditions. I look forward to it.
Next, I caught up with Ricky, one of the guys who’s done the Leadville 100 since the first edition. He and I had ridden up the Columbine Climb together the previous year, and he had been great company. Hoping that he’d have a sense of whether we were making good time or not, I asked, "Do you feel fast this year?"
"Nah," said Ricky. "I’m just cruising along."
That’s not the answer I was hoping for.
I kicked it up a notch, trying to not lose sight of Jilene.
I pulled into the second aid station–meaning I had gone 40 miles–after 3:03 of racing. My Mom was there, with all the stuff I needed.
Just look at us. We’re the very model of efficiency. Here, I"m tossing off my Camelbak, to be replaced by another one, already filled and ready to go.
Okay, now it looks like I’m doing the hokey pokey, but I’m actually swapping out the empty wrappers from the Shot Bloks (I keep them tucked under the elastic at the bottom of my shorts) for new ones, which my Mom has already torn open and folded to spec (kudos to Al Maviva, by the way, for the practical advice on the right way to open and fold a packet of Shot Bloks.).
After sucking on a camelbak tube to drink all day, it’s nice to get a couple of big gulps of water just by tipping the jug back. Note that my Mom’s ready with the soup. Please note that I no longer have much of a gut (at least, not when I’m wearing bib shorts). Also, please note the ominous dark clouds. Those will factor into the story soonish.
And two minutes later, I’m on my way again. Note that Mark and Serena’s tandem is laying on the ground here; they were only a minute behind me at the time I pulled into the aid station. Also, please note that I wisely kept on my arm warmers.
Even as I pulled away, I knew that I was no longer racing for a sub-9 time. I was already 18 minutes off the pace, and the hard work hadn’t even begun yet.
Time to Climb
When I think about the Leadville 100 race course, I think about two things: The Columbine Mine climb and the Powerline climb. I was now at the Columbine Mine climb: eight miles of climbing, with 3600 feet of vertical gain. You start at 9000 feet and reach the turnaround point at 12,600.
People suffer here.
I knew, though, that this was where my main strength is: grinding away on long climbs. I put my head down, turned off my brain to whatever degree I could, and spun.
Before long I saw Jilene. She was leading a paceline of about three guys. Of course, at 5mph, there’s no aero advantage to a paceline, but there’s still a psychological one, and these guys were hanging on as best as they could.
I rode by, and loudly said to the guy directly behind Jilene, "Dude, are you staring at her butt?" (He was.) He was very embarassed. It was a good moment.
The first five miles of the Columbine climb are not at all technical. I found another Fat Cyclist reader on this climb; he told me he blogs too. I told him there’s no way I’d remember his name because I had turned off all higher brain functions for the day, but if he’d email me, I’d link to him. Once you’ve ridden Columbine with someone, you’re no longer strangers. You’re family. I rode away, feeling strong and hoping that this feeling wouldn’t suddenly disappear (it’s happened before).
Somewhere along this road, I saw Racer riding down. His knee had been re-injured; his race was over. Next year, Racer.
The 29" wheels and rigid fork were working great for me; I was climbing lots of stuff others were walking. One of the great things about Leadville is how considerate other racers are. When someone behind sees that you’re riding a part others are having to push, they’ll yell out, "Make way for the rider!" so others ahead of you will move aside, letting you conserve your breath for the climb. By riding a lot of what I’ve always walked before, this gnarly section of the course seemed much shorter to me than it ever had before.
About a mile and a half from the top, I came across my friend Bry, who I thought for sure would be going sub-9.
He was standing still.
"What are you doing waiting for me?" I asked, irritated. "I don’t want you to wait for me."
"I’m not waiting for you," Bry said, morosely. "I’m dying."
"Oh. Sorry." Not much else to say, really. If he really couldn’t go on, he’d turn around. If he could go on, he would.
I kept going.
I hit the turnaround point at 4:53. It was now as good as official: my sub-9 dreams were gone. The Leadville rule of thumb is that your best-case finish time is double your turnaround time.
Which meant I was in serious danger of finishing in ten hours, not nine.
The most common thing I heard as I descended back down Columbine Mine was, "On your right." The second most common thing was, "On your left."
The cool thing was, though, I got to see that my friends who were still working on the climb. Nick was riding strong and looking happy. Lisa was up much further than I expected her. Rocky was smiling. All good news.
And then Jilene passed me, singing, "How Do You Spank a Giant Baby?"
I wished I had never taught her that song.
Jilene would eventually finish with a 9:47. Not what she wanted, but 20 minutes faster than me. I’m pretty sure that 20 minutes is exactly how much time I lost on downhills during the race.
Pulling into the second aid station for the second time, I was no longer in quite as much of a hurry as before. Let me illustrate:
I’ll tell you what: after riding for 5:37, sitting for three minutes (or was it five?) in a camp chair is a little slice of heaven. My Mom clearly thinks this is funny.
Next, my Mom gave me a little grief over not drinking enough water, as she notes that the camelbak I had just handed her was not yet empty.
What can I say? It was a cold day and I wasn’t sweating that much. Note that the piece of foam rubber (with adhesive) that Nick had stuck to the top of my helmet the day prior is still in place.
Interesting Observation, Embarassing Moment
As I rode along the rolling thirteen miles that connects the second aid station to the very hardest part of the Leadville 100–the Powerline Climb–the guy who I passed on the Columbine Mine caught me. "I didn’t think I’d see you again," he said. I pretended to be glad that we had hooked up again, which meant ignoring the obvious likelihood that he was about to drop me. He stuck around for a moment, though, telling me that the previous year he had DNF’d and was hoping that wouldn’t happen again this year.
"Oh, you’re in no danger of that," I let him know. He was riding a sub-10 pace, for sure. One of those strong-second-half guys I envy so much.
And then he was gone.
I had a moment to think while riding along, and I had two epiphanies in rapid succession:
- I felt fine. By this time of the day in a big ride, I usually have all kinds of stomach pain and gas. Today, using my rigorous eat-every-half-hour rule and sticking with Wonderful, Magical Shot Bloks, I had no stomach pain or gas at all.
- I definitely would not do the E-100 in two weeks. It was a stupid idea to even consider it. In fact, mountain biking is a stupid idea in general.
And then it was time to do two quick hike-a-bikes up some steep hills. I felt good, though, and rode up a big chunk of the first one. I was very pleased with myself.
For the second one, though, I got off and started marching almost from the bottom. Someone called out to me, "Make way for the rider!" I couldn’t believe it. I figured whoever it was deserved an extra little push. So I moved aside and started my push.
Except it didn’t work out that way. The rider stopped riding right as I began my push.
You know what? It’s a little bit awkward to find yourself standing on a hill with your hand on a stranger’s butt. Probably even more awkward if you’re a 40-year-old man, and the stranger is a 20-something (I’m guessing) woman.
"Um, sorry about that," I said, then put my head down and pushed on, avoiding eye contact at all costs.
Up We Go
I always have mixed feelings coming into the final aid station. I’m glad to be done with the section between the Twin Lakes Dam and the Fish Hatchery, but am dreading the final 27 miles of the race, because it’s made up of two big climbs (including the Powerline Climb, which is the toughest climb of the race), two rough descents, and a final grunt of a climb.
And chances are you won’t be at your best right then.
Still, I felt OK–still no stomach issues, and my legs were still responding. And, once again, in the same place I had seen him 50 miles earlier, was Dean Cahow. So we rode together again, but this time in the other direction. Before long, Dean would ride away from me, finishing ten minutes before I did. Nice work, Dean!
The worst part of the Powerline Climb comes right at the beginning. You’ve got to slowly march your bike up the sandy, steep hill. Riding isn’t even an option for most of us.
Near the top, though, there was the nicest guy in the world. He was pouring Coke into paper cups and handing it to riders, telling us to just toss the cup when we were done; he’d pick them up.
That was the best drink I have ever had.
I had managed to catch up with Mark and Serena again, and we were trudging along together when it started sprinkling.
"This is a nice change of pace," said Mark.
Then the water started coming down in bucketfuls.
"This is a less-nice change of pace," said Mark.
Before long, the rain and mud had completely obscured my glasses. I had uncontrollable shakes, and no jacket. My own stupid fault.
And then the descending began, through running water, with my blurry vision, my blurry glasses, my shaky arms, and my rigid fork.
I was not exactly a speed demon.
In fact, in spite of my tiredness, I was glad when the course turned uphill again, just so I could warm up.
Meanwhile, the Warners, in spite of the fact that they were riding a fully rigid tandem, rode away from me, finishing in 9:57 and winning the Tandem category for the fifth year in a row. According to the Rules of Armstrong, aren’t they required to keep going until they’ve won seven straight years?
After the paved climb, I descended St. Kevins–the last climb of the day–gingerly and slowly, getting passed by everyone who was not blind. I started churning along the dirt road, looking forward to the finish line that was now only about five miles away.
And that’s when Bry caught up with me. I was surprised, having figured that from the way he had looked on Columbine, he would have abandoned long ago.
But here he was, and he agreed with me that we should finish the race together.
As we rode the final three mile dirt road stretch, an idea occurred to me: since we weren’t going to finish with a good time, why don’t we finish with a little panache? I brought the idea up to Bry, and he agreed completely.
So we spent the rest of the climb planning and plotting. What would we do at the finish line? It had to be easy (we were tired) and there had to be little chance that we would crash (we were really, really tired).
So, as we approached the finish line–me on the right, Bry on the left–Bry yelled "Break!"
Then, in perfect (?) synchronization, we pulled U-turns in opposite directions, crossed paths, and came back to the finish line holding each others’ arms aloft. Here I am, halfway through our maneuver:
The crowd went wild. Natch. And here’s Bry and me, looking spry as can be after crossing the line with a race time of 10:06:
OK, so we weren’t that spry.
Lisa Rollins demolished her previous time of 11:55 with an 11:10. More to the point, she finished happy, lucid, and strong:
Rich (whose back of the head is showing above) wouldn’t admit it to himself, but he had a good day too, doing the first 60 miles of the race. That’s a lot more than he could have done a year ago. Plus, now that he’s seen the whole course, he’ll be ready to finish the race next year.
Kenny took second in Single Speed class, which is just astounding. I mean, it’s astounding anyone is faster on a single speed than he is. Still, he got a nice trophy and the required shot of him standing with the race organizers, Ken and Merilee:
If you ask me, with that shiner, Merilee maybe should have avoided being photographed with the bottle of booze.