If you read parts one and two of this story, you are no doubt wondering the following things:
- How many more installments is this story going to have, anyway? I don’t know the answer to this question. I’m really not trying to be a tease; I’m just writing as much as I have time for each evening. I click publish when I’ve taken close to as much time as I have and have reached a reasonable break point.
- Is it actually possible for a story describing a race to be longer than the race itself? Almost certainly. So far, for example, I’ve described 2:40 of the race, but it’s taken me longer than that to describe it.
- Up until this point, Fatty’s race seems to have gone accordingly to plan. So when did things start going wrong? Pretty much from this point forward.
Everyone who signs up for the Leadville 100 knows that it’s really all about two things: climbing to Columbine Mine, and climbing the Powerline. And Powerline is only important because you’re so tired from having climbed Columbine.
There are three reasons why the Columbine Mine climb is the centerpiece of this event:
- It is actually at the midpoint of the race.
- You climb from the lowest point of the course — 9000 feet — to the highest point of the course — 12,600 feet — in ten miles.
- The last three miles of this climb are so steep and rocky that you wind up walking a lot of them.
There’s a two mile stretch of rolling dirt road before the base of the Columbine Mine dirt road turns sharply upward. Brad, Rick, and I started on this section together, but it didn’t last long. Brad shot on ahead and Rick — who is completely unable under any circumstance to resist the urge to give chase – gave chase.
Well, I’ve said it before: everyone climbs alone.
But first, I had to pee.
Or I thought I did.
Hm. Nothing seemed to be happening.
After standing, futilely, for a minute, I climbed back onto my bike and continued. For the rest of the day, I would regard the urge to pee with suspicion. And a little bit of discomfort.
I resolved myself to the likelihood that I would never catch Brad or Rick again, shut my brain off, and pedaled.
When I climb the Columbine Mine each year, I always play the same three games:
- This is the Last Switchback: At each switchback, I tell myself it’s the last one. I even tell myself this at the first switchback, just to jerk myself around a bit.
- Catch the Next Guy. Except for on the Columbine Mine road, I don’t care at all about when I pass someone or get passed. I’m racing the clock, not people. On the Columbine Mine road, though, I constantly find myself pushing a little bit to see if I can catch the guy ahead of me. Somewhere along the way, Rick Sunderlage became that guy. He said, “You’re riding strong, Nelson.” I didn’t reply, because my higher brain functions had shut down for the duration.
- Guess Who’s First. One of the things that’s fun about the Leadville 100 is that it’s an out-and-back course, which means you get to see the race leaders tear down the course long before you get anywhere near the turnaround point. I like to guess what time I’ll see the race leaders, and who will be out front. In this case I was about five minutes off on my guess of when, but guessed the top two racers — though I got them in the incorrect order (Floyd Landis led Dave Wiens at the time, by about five seconds).
Note: I don’t know why I seem to be telling this installment of my race recap in lists of three. I just write what the voices tell me.
A Farewell to Margarita Shot Bloks
It was during the climb up this road that, for the first time since the beginning of the race, I ignored my bike computer when it told me it was time to eat again. Food just didn’t sound good.
By the time the chime went off again, though, I knew I had better eat, even though I was pushing my bike up the hill at the time.
I stuffed a packet of Margarita Shot Bloks into my mouth and started to chew.
My throat constricted. My stomach convulsed.
I was gonna hurl.
Quickly, I reached into my mouth, grabbed the Shot Bloks, and threw them as far away as I could (I would’ve spat them out, but simply didn’t have the wind for that kind of thing).
I knew at that moment that I would not / could not eat another Margarita Shot Blok for the rest of the race.
I regretted the fact that this was the only kind of food I was carrying with me at the time.
So I just kept going, figuring I’d grab something to eat when I got to the Columbine Mine Aid Station at the top.
Ode to Cantaloupe
I made it to the top of the Columbine Mine climb, just barely holding on to the outside limit of my sub-9 split times: 4:35.
And then I saw the cantaloupe.
A giant, silver bowl full of slices of ripe cantaloupe.
I swear, I heard angels.
I dropped my bike, went over to the table, and began grabbing handsful. I ate between six and sixteen slices of cantaloupe. It was, somehow, exactly what I needed.
I then jumped back on my bike, feeling much better, and started down the mountain I had just spent so much effort climbing.
How to Lose Time
I have said before that I have become comfortable riding a fully rigid mountain bike. But I’ve never said that I’ve become fast at it. So before I got down the rockiest part of the downhill, my good friend Bry — who I was two minutes ahead of at the turn around point — caught and passed me (Bry was riding a bike virtually identical to mine, so it’s a matter of skill, not equipment, that allowed him to distance me).
By the time he got back to the Twin Lakes Dam aid station, 10 miles away, Bry would be four minutes ahead of me.
I am not kidding when I say this: If I were as good a downhiller as my friends, I would have finished this race in under nine hours. Curse my timid constitution! Curse my pantywaisted timidity! And above all, curse my right hand, which — due to accumulated injuries — falls completely asleep whenever I downhill for more than five minutes.
Seriously, after a few minutes I can no longer feel the brake lever at all. It’s not a helpful attribute to have.
Hi to All My Friends
If you’re having a good, fast year, the descent down Columbine Mine road is a lot of fun. You get to zoom down, briefly seeing your friends as they continue to climb up. There’s Bry. Rick. Riley. Jolene. Nick. Lisa. Mo. Scott. Dean (Hey, what’s Dean doing so far back? He was supposed to be working toward a sub-9 with me). Dug (sitting on the side of the road — I thought he must be resting, but now know that he was, for the umpteenth time, repairing his cranks). Bob. A guy I’ve never met but who’s wearing a Fat Cyclist Jersey. Awesome.
I have a lot of friends who do this ride. I’m a very lucky guy.
Doubt Creeps In
As I pulled into the Twin Lakes Dam aid station for the second time, Susan was right there, and got to work.
She wasn’t happy with what she discovered in my jersey — lots of uneaten Margarita Shot Blok packets. “I can’t eat those anymore,” I said. “Maybe I’ll never eat them again.”
Susan looked down at the Shot Bloks she had prepared for my next leg of the race. Just as I had earlier requested, they were all Margarita flavor. “Give me all the Raspberry ones I have left,” I said.
“There are only four packets of that kind,” Susan said.
“That’s plenty. I need to get moving, and you need to hurry to meet me at the next aid station.”
“Drink some soup,” Susan urged.
“No. No salty food. I hate salty food. I will never eat salty food again,” I said. It’s weird how fully irrational you can become when racing.
“At least take some extra Shot Blok packets with you,” said Susan, “in case I don’t make it to the next aid station in time to meet you.”
“No. Don’t miss me. I’m going.”
It occurs to me that I was a jerk to my wife, who was crewing for me all day in the hot sun between weekly chemo sessions.
I took off, riding as hard as I figured I could sustain. Even as I did, though, I couldn’t help but think: I was now outside my projected splits times to finish under nine hours. Things were not looking good for me.
To my credit, though, I did not back off. Instead, I thought to myself, “No, the race isn’t over. I’ve lost time, but I can also pick time up. I need to go faster, not give up.”
Forty miles to go.
I should be able to tell forty miles of story tomorrow, I think. And maybe a little bit more.
Oh, and pictures. Lots of pictures tomorrow. Including one that I think is pretty darn cool.
A Note From Fatty: I am happy to announce that today is Susan’s and my 19th wedding anniversary. Yep, nineteen. Pretty darn cool, if you ask me. Those of you who think about this kind of thing (i.e., women) will most likely note that this means I have been away from my wife for nine of our most recent eleven anniversaries, either racing in or coming home from the Leadville 100.
And yet, Susan and I remain married. This must be because I am such a wonderful husband.
You know what’s cool? Riding with your friends during an epic race is cool. I had almost forgotten how cool this is, because I haven’t done it in years and years. All my friends are either much faster or a little slower than I am.
This year, that changed, at least for a while.
After — as I mentioned yesterday — I passed Kenny, it occurred to me: Of all my riding buddies, only Brad was ahead of me. And I could see him no more than ten yards ahead of me (Brad’s sleeveless Fat Cyclist jersey made him easy to pick out of the crowd).
By the time I descended the pavement of St. Kevins and rode along the brief paved flat section, I had caught Brad, too.
Yes, that’s right: for an all-too-short moment, I led all of my friends, including the crazy-fast ones.
Two minutes later, Brad passed me. And then Kenny passed me, politely saying, “On yer left, Fatty,” as he went by.
Frequently looking at my bike computer, I could tell: I was doing great. I had climbed so well that even with a conservative descent down the treacherous Powerline section of the trail (where, unbeknownst to me, Floyd Landis had turfed it earlier in the day), I’d hit my target first split time of two hours at the Pipeline aid station.
I felt good on the downhill. Loose and comfortable. Didn’t mind the rigid at all. And in fact, when I got to the bottom, a rider came around and thanked me for riding a clean line for him to follow. “I don’t know if you noticed,” he said, “But the guy right between us was trying to do an aggressive pass around you, caught air, nose-wheelied, and totally wrecked,” he continued.
Yikes. I hate to think that I ended someone else’s race, especially unintentionally. All you had to do was ask for my line, whoever you are. I would have pulled to the side.
Riding With Sunderlage
As soon as I reached the bottom of the Powerline Descent and started motoring along the flat section leading up to the Pipeline aid station, Rick Sunderlage (not his real name) caught up to me and joined the paceline that was rapidly forming. “That is one sexy jersey,” Sunderlage said, as he took his place in line.
I should mention here that the paceline I was in was — very briefly — a perfect machine. Though few of us had ever ridden together, most of us knew how to pull and then drop back. And since we were all pushing it, everyone pulled strongly — without surging — on the way to the front of the line, then pulled smoothly over to the right to drop back.
It was a perfect clockwise rotating paceline. Which lasted only maybe two rotations before it disintigrated. Oh well, nice while it lasted.
I’ve been using a very effective eating strategy on the bike, lately. I’ve set my Forerunner 305 to beep every half hour, which I use as a signal to eat a pack of Shot Bloks. I started with the Cran-Razberry flavor, which are nice and soft, though they do require you to hock up one monster loogey after finishing off a packet.
After the first couple hours, though, I switched to Margarita flavor, figuring all the extra sodium would do me good.
There was a little problem with this, though: I hadn’t considered how difficult it would be to eat something that salty in very high altitude, in very low humidity. As in, it took ten minutes to chew and swallow a pack of Shot Bloks. By which time, the inside of my mouth was completely mummified. Pickled, if you will.
That was foreshadowing, by the way.
Work the Crowd
Rick and I continued riding and working together as we flew through the Pipeline aid station. Two hours even. Perfect.
It was here, as we flew through the crowd, that I exercised a trick Jolene had told me about:
I yelled at them.
Specifically, I yelled, “Huzzah!” and pumped my left arm into the air (I’d have pumped my right arm, but my shoulder probably would have popped out of its socket).
The crowd, to my delight, went wild.
For the rest of the race, any time I went through an aid station, I’d either shout, do a trill-shout, or otherwise make euphoric, loud noises. All worked equally well. It turns out, the crowd — who cheers everyone on — really loves a racer that cheers back at them.
The next time you’re racing, try it out. You’ll see what I mean.
Rick and I continued working together, and the one relatively flat section in the race just flew by. Before long, we caught up with Brad, who was incredibly happy to see us. “Dude, we get to ride together! How cool is that?” wondered Brad.
Too cool for words, that’s how cool.
Rick, Brad, and I rode together as we neared the Twin Lakes Dam aid station — the spot where Susan was supposed to be meeting me — so we arrived within just a few seconds of each other.
Meanwhile, Bry was catching up, so he dropped in at the same time too. The net result being that four guys in Fat Cyclist jerseys hit the 40 mile aid station within a minute of each other.
That, my friends, rules.
I Freak Out
We hit the second aid station (40 miles into the race) in perfect time with my target splits: right at 2:45.
There was just one problem: I couldn’t find Susan.
I could see the area where Susan was supposed to be. I could see all of my friends’ crews — many of them wearing the Pink Fat Cyclist jersey. I could see everything but Susan or my truck.
Was something wrong with Susan? Was I on my own for the race? Was she too sick to come out? What was going on?
“Where’s Susan? Where’s Susan?! Where is Susan?!” I started shouting at everyone.
Looking alarmed at the foaming, screaming maniac I had become, several people pointed. “There she is. Calm down.”
It turns out Susan was right where she had said she’d be, and had my stuff all set to go. In my adrenaline-fueled rush to keep moving, I had simply just not seen her.
As I slugged down a can of Chicken soup, Susan emptied the debris out of my jersey pockets — noting, approvingly, that I had eaten everything I was supposed to — and swapped out my water bottles in record time.
No seconds lost. I was back on my bike in no time.
Brad, Rick, Bry and I all left our crew at about the same time.
At which point, I suddenly realized: I was still wearing my arm warmers.
Crap. The day was getting hot; I didn’t want to wear those for even one more second. So I tore them off with my teeth, bunched them up, and then — the next time I passed a random crew’s tent, I tossed my very nice Castelli arm warmers to a surprised, confused person. “Free arm warmers!” I shouted, and kept going.
It was time for the Columbine Mine section: 10 miles that would take me to 12,600 feet. I was feeling strong, climbing well, and hitting my conservative split times. How could I not get that sub-9 time I had been focusing on so obsessively?
Well, that’s where I’ll pick up the story tomorrow.
PS: Bob gives an incredibly engaging telling of his race over at his blog. It’s so good, I read it twice.
PPS: Give it up for Dug. He was every bit as excited for this race as I was, but got crashed out of it by a nervous rider who exactly misinterpreted what “On your right” means. I’ll post his story soon, but meanwhile, I think he’ll be glad to know that of every picture taken at the Twin Lakes Dam aid station, I’m certain that the one Susan got of him was the very best:
This is going to be a tricky story for me to write, for a number of reasons:
- I’m pretty sure that anyone who is interested already knows: I finished the 2007 Leadville 100 with a time of 9:14:13 — 14 minutes and 14 seconds too slow to hit the goal I have been so publicly striving for. It’s not easy to write a suspenseful story everyone already knows the ending to.
- I’m dealing with some pretty intense, conflictingÂ emotions right now: disappointment in myself, pride in my wife, happiness for some of my friends, empathy for others (and for one friend, both happiness and empathy — I’ll get to that).Â And battling all these emotions is this really overwhelming urge to make excuses and rationalize for myself. Which — whenever I catch myself doing it — I will try to erase and rewrite.
- Unlike most years, I haven’t got a good conclusion set in my head, the part where I say, “Next year, I’m going to do better by . . . .”
- I am not certain I am a good enough writer to do justice to the incredible bratwurst / Italian sausage feast Fish put on after the race.
So you know the ending, you know I’m pretty worked up, you know I don’t know what the hell I’m going to do next year, and you know I like a well-cooked brat.
But I think there’s a pretty good story in between. Some of it’s about me, some of it’s about Susan, and a lot of it’s about my friends.
It might take a couple days for me to tell it.
I look forward to the Leadville 100 every year, and the reasons why become a little more clear each year. It’s four days away from my computer. It’s a tiny town — so small that you can’t get lost and you feel like a local within twenty minutes. It’s where all my biking buddies — many of which I only see at this one annual race — catch up with each other. And it’s a great tradition, something that you can rely on to be the same, more or less, fromÂ year to year. Like Christmas or Thanksgiving, but it lasts four days. I like that.
What made it even better this year was that my wife felt well enough — or at least said she felt well enough to come along for the trip. So we dropped the kids off with Grandma on Wednesday night and then took off to Leadville Thursday morning, where we proceeded to do nothing but relax.
It’s weird — you have kids long enough and having a full day toÂ relax feels downright weird. And good.
ByÂ ThursdayÂ evening, lots of my close friends — more than a dozen — had arrived.Â And thanks to this blog, I got stopped several times on the streets by people wishingÂ Susan well.Â At theÂ hotel, the manager rushed out upon seeing me and gave me a big hug, welcomingÂ me back.
Seriously, she did.
The Leadville 100: It’s like Cheers, but bigger.
At the Starting Line
With 1000 registered riders this year, the field of starting racers stretched out more than a city block, with areas set up for everyone to place themselves — by honor system — where they thought they would finish: under nine hours, between nine and ten hours, and so forth.
You’ve got to be early to get yourself a good spot in the starting area. I got there about 5:30 — an hour before the race began. By muscling other bikes aside, I was able to plant myself by Rick Sunderlage (not his real name) and Brad. We hadÂ boldly set ourselves in the “under nine hours” area. Racer had set himself in the same area, but further up the field.
Kenny was in the special area reservedÂ for the elite first 100 finishers the previous year.Â Jolene, too.
Dug, Bob, Lisa, Nick, Linde and Bry had set themselves further back in the field. Everyone had a time or objective in mind, and everyone was serious about it — at least I believe they were, because I just can’t imagine doing this race as a lark.
All of us were wearing Fat Cyclist jerseys of one color or another. It made me so happy I thought my heart would burst. Or maybe it was the altitude that gave me that heart-about-to-burst feeling. Either way, I thought it was pretty cool.
I looked around, trying to find one particular face: Dean. Dean’s easy to recognize because he has the most outrageous lambchop sideburns you’ve ever seen. These are not sideburns one grows on a whim, these are the product of years of hard work and dedication.
Dean and I have done the Leadville 100 the same number of times, and usually with eerily similar results: out of ten tries each, neither of us had ever managed to break the nine-hour barrier. So we’ve been exchanging email this last year, encouraging each other, telling each other this is the year. And I think we each believed it was.
So when I found Dean and shouted his name, he waded toward me, shook my hand, said, “Let’s get this done,” and handed me one of those rubber bracelets that are so popular — you know, the kind the yellow LiveStrong bands made famous. Except the one Dean handed me was black and said, “Harden the F— Up.”
Very early in the race, threeÂ things I would never have expected occurred. First, I felt invincible in the first climb — St. Kevins. My gearing felt a little tall, but not too bad, and I rocketed by dozens of people. Then I looked down.
I was climbing St. Kevins in my big ring.
I shifted down to my middle ring and continued to pass people all over the place. And here’s the first unexpected thing: I was feeling no pain whatsoever.
Bry was way behind me (I assumed). Rick S. was nowhere close (as far as I was concerned). And there, not too far off ahead of me, was someone I would never have expected to see: Kenny Jones.
And then — here’ s the second thing I would never have expected — I passed Kenny. He had had to get off his bike and push (because he was on a singlespeed with a tall gear) and I whipped by him without so much as a how-do-you-do.
It was an exquisite moment.
And then, after finishing the hardest part of the St. Kevins’ climb, the third unexpected thing happened: I caught Chris Carmichael — yes, the honcho of Carmichael Training Systems. Chris was redfaced and at his absolute limit, while I was feeling fresh and somewhat chatty. He was, essentially, a captive audience.Â It was a glorious opportunity.
Briefly, I considered saying, “Hey, you’re doing all right, Chris, but what you need is a really good coach. I highly recommend Lofgran Coaching.”
But I didn’t. Because when it comes down to it, making people feel angry or bad isn’t really my thing. Usually, anyway.
What I did say was this: “Hi Chris. I know you’re hypoxic right now, but I’m hoping you can tell Lance Armstrong something the next time you see him. Tell him that at the Leadville 100, you rode with a guy who said that the Lance Armstrong Foundation has done his family a lot of good. OK?”
Chris nodded yes, and I rode on.
Eventually, I would be glad I did not tweak Mr. Carmichael as originally planned, because he and I passed each other probably half a dozen times and rode together for probably an hour of the race — in fact, he and I were probably more closely matched than I was with anyone else on the course. It would have been kind of embarrassing if the whole race I rode with a guy who I had made a snarky comment to before I had had a chance to see how strong he really was.
And besides, in the final fifteen miles of the race Chris would eventually pull away from me and beat me by nine minutes.
Tomorrow I’ll continue this story. I’m not too sure how far I’ll get. There’s still a lot to tell. I mean, I haven’t even gotten us to the first aid station yet.
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