Ask yourself this question: what would it take for you to call a race your best ever? Would you need to win? Set a personal record? Move up in your category’s standings?
Those are the things I’ve always wanted from a race. But last Saturday at the Leadville 100, none of those things happened. I’m overweight. I’m unfocused. I was considerably slower than last year. I dropped in the standings from 135 to 268 — almost exactly twice as far down the leader board.
But I’ve never had a better race.
The Dawn of Understanding
The thing about having done a race eleven times in the past eleven years is that the sense of deja vu is practically overwhelming as you start the twelfth time. The hum of thousands — literally! — of knobby tires on pavement. The surging and slowing. The relief of being off the pavement and on dirt. The jockeying for a better spot as you re-pass all the people who evidently are paved downhill MTB specialists, but are confounded by doubletrack. The ominous “it’s finally begun” sensation, where you know you’re at the very beginning of the adventure, but have no idea how it’s going to turn out.
This deja vu feeling ended as soon as I began the first climb. Dug had already caught me, so we were climbing together, taking turns following each other’s lines. It was great. We were talking, passing folks, and enjoying the fact that our plan — to ride this race together — had come together so quickly.
The first climb is so crowded, though — there are 1000 cyclists, all feeling fresh and strong, all trying to pass each other, on a narrow and steep jeep road — that riding the single speed became really difficult. See, riding a single speed requires you keep your momentum, and it is actually much harder to climb slowly than to climb at your own pace. Turning the cranks slowly becomes painful, and you have to work hard to keep your balance.
On a geared bike, I would have compensated by dropping to a low gear and spinning. On a single speed, I tried to just stay on my bike and pedal.
Then I had an epiphany. An obvious, pure-genius epiphany: If it was harder to ride than walk, I should walk.
That would become my guiding philosophy for the whole day.
I got off my bike and pushed it up the hill, losing ground to Dug — who was still riding – and thinking that there was a great chance he would clean my clock that day.
To my surprise, I found I was OK with that idea.
Riding With Dug
After the first few miles of the St. Kevins (pronounced “kee’vins” for some reason) climb, there’s a hairpin turn that signals good news: the steep, crowded part of the climb is over, and crowding will not be a problem again for the rest of the day.
With Dug out of sight ahead of me, I should have felt pressure to catch up. But I didn’t. I — for the first time ever in a race — didn’t feel any pressure. My only responsibility for this race was to have fun. That was Dug’s mandate, too. If he was having fun going faster than me, that’s cool.
Which made me wonder: where the hell did this attitude come from? Seriously. It’s like I suddenly turned into a buddhist monk or something.
Maybe it’s the extra weight.
Before too long, though, I saw Dug — he hadn’t gotten too far ahead of me after all. So we started riding together again, trading lines and trash talk. I’m pretty sure Dug had more wind and adrenaline than I did, because he was handily winning the trash talk banter battle.
Of course, I was making it easy for him. In particular, I remember bringing too much speed into a corner and having to brake hard before I could turn, almost bringing my bike to a stop. I’m pretty sure I looked like I was just learning to ride a bike for the first time.
“What kind of turn was that?” asked Dug, as he easily and expertly carved the corner I had just bungled.
“Um. A really badly executed one?” I asked, no clever comeback prepared.
Dug just should his head, disappointed in my lack of wit, and put some distance between us.
A Farewell to Nick, and Dug
Every year, there’s a certain spot on the St. Kevins climb I always look for. You’re riding along on a relatively flat part of the trail, when — wham! — there’s a right turn, followed by a previously unseen steep climb.
I always remember it because several years ago when I came upon it I, like most riders, hastily dumped my gears, trying to get from middle-middle to granny, even as I started the unanticipated climb, and gave myself a colossal case of chainsuck. It probably took ten minutes to work the chain loose, but it felt like an hour.
“At least I don’t have to worry about that this year,” I thought as I rounded the corner. No gears to change. I’d either climb it or walk it.
And then I saw, right in the spot where I got chainsuck years ago, I saw my friend Nick — resplendent in his pink Fat Cyclist jersey — just getting back on his bike. He explained had been struggling with chainsuck for the past 15 minutes. Which made me think three things:
- If Nick and I have both had chainsuck at that spot, I bet hundreds of other racers have, too.
- Nick had already put fifteen minutes on me?
- Singlespeeds are awesome. I had no trouble cleaning that climb.
“Get out of my way, you crazy Australian!” I yelled. Pure comedic genius. You know, because Nick’s an Australian. And, um, “crazy” is an adjective that occurred to me at the moment.
Dug, Nick and I rode together for a while, taking turns leading on the rolling climb. But, I noticed, each time there was a climb, I pulled a little further ahead of them.
I wasn’t trying to. Honest. On a single speed, though, you pretty much just climb at the rate you can. It’s as difficult to ride below your pace as it is to ride above it.
By the time I got to the top of St. Kevins and began the four-mile paved downhill, I had left them behind.
“They’ll catch me soon enough,” I thought.
I Am Annoyingly Chatty
I don’t believe I have ever mentioned this before, but I am kind of a goofball.
I know, I know. That’s very startling news.
I wanted to bring this up, though, because it helps explain my next two interactions with riders. After coasting down the St. Kevins paved descent, I wound up behind a couple of cyclists — a man piloting, a woman stoking — on a tandem.
“Hey tandem,” I called out, in a singsong voice. I don’t know why I chose the singsong voice. Oxygen deprivation, maybe?
“Hey…um…bicycle,” the man called back, using a similar singsong voice. An excellent reply, I must say.
I passed them, during which my favorite conversation of the race occurred. Right at the moment I drew up alongside, the man farted, loudly. A Monty Python-esque fart. You know: BrrrrAAAPuhpuhpuh.
“Ew,” I said, once again failing to do my part in contributing wit to the conversation.
“How do you think I feel?” the woman asked.
I’m sorry. That still cracks me up. I love good situational fart comedy.
I turned onto the next climb, a wide dirt road, and just barely uphill. And that is when I had my second epiphany. “I should eat whenever I’m riding on parts of the course where it’s easy to eat,” I thought.
I’m not saying my epiphanies are brilliant, but they are useful. I ripped open a bag of caffeinated Watermelon Jelly Belly Sport Beans and ate them. Delicious.
Plus they make you spit in bright green.
Before too long, I caught up with a rider on a yellow Fisher Paragon, which some of you may remember was the bike I had used as my Leadville Weapon of Choice last year.
I got all nostalgic, so I made up a song on the spot, which I sang aloud, right behind this guy. It went like this (sung to the tune of the song “Particle Man“):
Paragon man, Paragon man
riding his bike like a Paragon can
Unfortunately (or not), I couldn’t think of another line. So I passed him. However, we would pass each other again several times during the next hour or so, and each time I would sing the two lines I had of “Paragon Man.”
I have to assume that he was enormously grateful when we eventually lost sight of each other.
Smart Judgment Calls
The Powerline descent is really the only technical descent in the entire Leadville race. If there’s a spot on this course where it pays to be cautious, this is it. So I cruised down at a mellow pace, figuring that it’s better to take it easy than to pinch flat.
Judging from the 18 people I saw on the side of the trail fixing flats (yes, I counted), not everyone made the same choice.
I tried to not feel smug as I passed all these folks. Really, I did. And yet, I couldn’t help myself.
When I got to the bottom of the Powerline descent, I was immediately passed by Nick. Then Bill. Then Linde. All of them were turning big gears on the short, flat, paved section that connects the Powerline trail to the dirt road leading to Twin Lakes Dam.
I had no chance whatsoever of hanging with them. Not on the single speed. So I didn’t worry about it. We’d either see each other again, or not.
So, riding along on the road — no chance of catching a paceline — i caught up with Cole Chlouber, another single speed rider, whom I had spent a big chunk of the race last year riding with. This year, he hadn’t trained at all, and was just there for the fun of it.
That sounded good to me.
So instead of taking turns pulling each other, we just rode side by side, talking about how he’s just got engaged, has been traveling a lot, and has got in a lot of rock climbing this year. While, meanwhile, dozens of cyclists in pacelines passed us
And I kept looking back, wondering when Dug was going to catch me. He and I were supposed to be riding together.
Cole and I cruised into the first aid station (Pipeline) together, at which point he must have pulled off to get some food and water, because I emerged from the station alone.
I resolved to take it nice and easy on the rolling 15-mile stretch leading to Twin Lakes Dam. That way, Dug would catch me and we could ride the Big Climb — Columbine Mine — together.
So I cruised, not pedaling soft, but also not killing myself.
And then I saw the most peculiar crash aftermath I have ever seen.
The dirt road was wide and straight. It was well-graded. It was perhaps the least crash-conducive trail I have ever been on. But there was a guy laying on the ground, his face practically ground off. Several people had already stopped, taking care of him, so I kept going. But I still think back to that crash, wondering how it possibly could have happened.
Maybe he crashed while reaching back into a pocket to grab some food. Or maybe he crashed while taking off his vest or jacket. Maybe he tangled up with another rider.
One thing I know for sure: if I ever had a crash on an open, wide, straight road, I’d at least make up a good story for why.
The fifteen miles went fast — at least in my mind they went fast — and then I was at the Twin Lakes Dam Aid station. Dug’s wife was there, mostly to crew for him, but also crewing for me. She expertly swapped out my bottles and food, which I will list here for your edification:
- 1 bottle of water
- 1 bottle of Coke
- 2 packets of Clif Shot Bloks
- 2 packets of PowerGel
- 2 packets of Sport Beans
That’s about 800 calories, all easily consumable while riding the bike. As she swapped my food out, I looked up the trail, expecting Dug, while I drank a can of chicken and stars soup.
On to Columbine
And now we’re at my favorite part of the race, and my favorite part of the story. The problem is, it’s not a part of the story that reads especially well. See, the whole thing can be summed up as follows:
- Columbine is an eight mile climb
- I felt great the whole climb, and I passed lots of people
But that doesn’t really capture it. I had been dreading doing this climb on my single speed, figuring it would finish me. But it didn’t. Instead, I got into a climbing groove, standing most of the time, rocking the bike side to side with each pedal stroke.
I stopped being chatty. I just felt good. Strong and calm. I passed scores of people — Nick. Bill. Linde. Bry. Mark and Serena. I didn’t talk long with anyone, my interest now was in climbing.
Very few people passed me during this section.
All the while, I kept looking up ahead, wondering when we’d see the race leaders come blazing by in the other direction. I couldn’t help but be excited.
And then, 3:38 into the race (I’m not sure of that time), they zoomed by. Lance Armstrong leading, Wiens immediately behind. I only saw them for a second, but was astounded at how fast they were going. I also took note of Armstrong’s expression.
That guy is focused when he’s on the bike. He doesn’t look angry or fierce, just determined. I believe that when the complete history of cycling is written, it will be generally acknowledged that Lance Armstrong had the best game face of all time.
That, anyway, is my contention based on approximately 0.75 seconds of observation.
Once I’d climbed the first five miles of Columbine, I got to the hard part, where the trail gets steep, rocky, and loose. When riding gears, I’ve always tried to ride as much as possible of this section, as a point of pride. Only when forced would I get off.
This year was different. Whenever I got to a section where it would be harder to ride than walk, I just got off. Easy. And as a result, I think I arrived at the top of Columbine only marginally slower than in my fastest years, and I felt much, much stronger. And that’s with me being twenty pounds heavier than usual.
I think there may be some merit to this whole “work smarter, not harder” thing.
The Cantaloupe Paradox
I got to the Columbine Aid Station in 5:10. Since most people — including myself — generally finish the race in almost exactly double their turnaround time, this put me way ahead of the 11:11:11 time I was originally shooting for.
So maybe I should adjust my time goal, I thought. How about 10:10:10? That would be equally cool.
As soon as I rolled in, I got treated to the famous Leadville Aid Station hospitality. Seriously, Nordstrom has nothing on these guys. One guy took my bike and asked what I wanted in my bottles. “Just top off one of them with Coke,” I said.
Another asked what I wanted to eat. “Got any cantaloupe?” I asked.
Yes they did. And how. Big platters of cantaloupe, cut into perfect bite-sized pieces.
I stood in front of one of the platters, and ate my fill. I would guess, conservatively, that I spent between seven minutes eating cantaloupe, with the occasional half-banana thrown in.
And now, just for a moment, I’d like to flash forward. If you read my blog, you already know that I finished the race in 10:06. And a little later in this story, you’ll find that toward the final quarter of the race, I started taking the idea of finishing in under ten hours very seriously.
Of course, if I hadn’t spent all that time eating all that cantaloupe, I would have finished in 9:58.
Or would I?
Did spending time standing, resting and eating buy more time than it cost? It’s a question every endurance racer has to consider every time we stop. And, having made one choice or the other, we never know how things would have worked out the other way.
And I hereby dub this quandary “The Cantaloupe Paradox.”
I Have a New Skill
I have never enjoyed the first part of the Columbine descent. Mostly, this is because you’re riding down a rocky, loose trail, while other people are hiking their bikes up that selfsame trail. Crashing would be all of the following:
This year, I felt good. I didn’t get passed as often on the downhill, and I didn’t feel on the verge of panic during the descent.
Apart from its technical nature, the Columbine descent is like a very short rolling party, where you only have half a second to mingle with each guest. I yelled the following at various riders as I descended:
- Catch me, Dug! You’re two minutes behind!
- Go Warners!
- Nice work, Bill!
- Keep it up, Nick!
- Yeeehaa! Go Bobby!
I would like to point out that I yelled the appropriate things at the appropriate people. for example, I did not yell “Liiiisa!” at anyone but Lisa Rollins, who was kicking serious butt, by the way.
Anyway, I got to the bottom of Columbine, then rolled through the Twin Lakes Dam Aid Station doing a trilling yell to get the people on the sidelines worked up.
This technique works great. The people on the side love to get excited for a rider who’s excited, too. This, in turn, gives you a giant morale boost and a shot of adrenaline. Highly recommended.
Kim swapped out my food in record time while I drank another soup and looked up the road for Dug, who would surely be catching me as I sat there.
But he didn’t, so I got back on the bike and headed out — feeling as cheerful and happy to be riding as I was at the beginning of the day.
And I am not exaggerating about that.
Time is an Illusion
I pedaled along the rolling dirt road between Twin Lakes and the final major aid station: Pipeline. After that, you’re at the hardest part of the race.
Again, not pushing myself, just riding at my good single speed intensity. Expecting Dug to catch up shortly.
I took a look down at my Garmin Forerunner 305. It showed I was making really good time.
Several minutes later, I looked down again. Wow, I was making really good time.
Hey, waitasecond. That’s the same time! And apparently I hadn’t gone anywhere in the past little while.
Oh, that’s because I evidently — and accidentally — pressed the “Stop” button. So I started the timer again and found out from another rider how long we had really been out, then did the math. My bike computer had been stopped for about half an hour. For the rest of the race, I would just add half an hour to the time my stopwatch showed.
And that effectively ended my quest for a specific finishing time like 10:10:10. But it did open the door for me to try for something less precise but equally cool: a sub-10-hour finish on my single speed.
I started riding harder, and stopped waiting for Dug to catch me.
Passed, Passed Back
I rolled into the final aid station, reloaded with food, and headed back out. Within a few minutes, Bry and Mark and Serena caught me. They invited me to draft, but I knew that wouldn’t happen, not on my single speed. “Go on,” I said, bravely. “I’m no good to you.”
So they went on. For the first time that day, I was bothered by being passed. For once, I wanted to finish in front of the Warner Dynasty. Oh well. Nothing I could do about it now.
Except once we turned onto the dirt and started climbing, I passed them back. And I wasn’t killing myself to do it.
Then we got to the hike-a-bike section. This is just a nasty, evil climb, and my mind boggles that Wiens and Armstrong rode it (watch the video of their race recap here).
As I pushed my bike, I caught up with a woman rider, also pushing. “This is the hardest part of the race,” I said, conversationally.
“No s—, Sherlock,” she replied.
“Yeah, I guess that was kind of obvious,” I concluded.
And that was the end of that conversation.
Once the hike-a-bike ended, I started passing people again. While I was riding my single speed — and they were walking their geared bikes.
Yes, I suppose you could say I felt pretty good. And, frankly, it made me suspicious. I have never felt this good, for this long. Shouldn’t I be falling apart right now? Bonking? Or otherwise discombobulating?
But it never happened. I never felt bad, the whole day. I expect I’ll be trying to replicate this effect in every race for the rest of my life. And I doubt it will ever happen again.
I should just be glad it happened even once, really.
As I reached the top of the Powerline climb, it started to rain.
And then it started to rain hard. Having foregone getting a jacket at the last aid station, I just pulled my armwarmers up (I left my armwarmers on the whole day — it never really got very warm) and did my best to do the descent.
The problem was, I couldn’t see. The muddy water from my tires quickly coated my glasses and I was let to interpret the blurry colors into the best line to ride as best as I could.
I have never been so happy to reach the bottom of a descent.
Now it was time to do the St. Kevins climb: four miles of pavement, in cold heavy rain, and a little bit of hail, just for fun.
I stood up and started pedaling. Just rocking the bike left and right, head down. I didn’t have to choose a good gear for climbing; that choice had been made long ago.
As I pedaled, I remembered something Bob, Kenny, and I had talked about during the drive to Leadville. It would be a good idea to have a “Sad Climbing Songs” playlist for your iPod: a bunch of songs to listen to when you’re on a hard climb and are in the mood for some self pity.
I didn’t have an iPod with me, but I could sing. And I did, the whole way: “All by mysellllllf. All by myseeeeeellllf.”
You know, it’s too bad I don’t know any more lyrics to that song; they would have come in handy.
By the time I got to the top of the St. Kevins climb, the rain had mostly stopped. I was starting to see that it was possible — although very, very close — for me to finish in under ten hours. So I pushed it. I took the St. Kevins descent fast (although I still got passed by more people than I passed), and then — for the first time that day — did crazy-legs cadence, trying to ride fast on the last little flat section before the climb up the “Boulevard,” a dirt road climb that dumps you out a few blocks in front of the finish line.
And here, I gave it everything I had. I pushed as hard as I could, passing eight people on that final climb, then another three once I got to the pavement. For some reason, finishing under ten hours was now important to me.
Even as I crossed the finish line, I didn’t know if I had done it.
I looked back at the official race clock: 10:06. Nope, I hadn’t done it. Still, I had finished about an hour faster than I had originally hoped to, and that’s not bad.
Oh, who am I kidding? I feel like I totally kicked butt.
And how did the core team do?
Dug finished about 45 minutes after I did. The magic fairy dust that somehow let me feel great all day did not reach him, and he suffered — as I always have before — on that final quarter of the race. I feel, though, that I owe him for my finish time. Because I was waiting for him, I rode conservatively on the flats, getting plenty of rest so I felt great when it was time to do the climbs.
Bob crossed the finish line well under 12 hours. In fact, he was an hour faster than last year, and had effectively redeemed himself. Then the nausea hit him, and wouldn’t go away. So I took him to the emergency room, where he got some oxygen and saline solution.
Kenny finished in 8:30, on his single speed. Kenny desperately wants to win the single speed division. The rest of us would kill to have his second place finish and nine sub-9 finishes.
Brad almost didn’t make it to the race, but he did, and he finished in 9:20. In fact, he finished with Rick Sunderlage (not his real name), who wanted to finish sub-9 as badly as I usually do. Don’t tell Rick, but I’m glad he didn’t get that sub-9, because now I have a chance at getting it with him next year. On my SS.
Nick finished in 10:59. He summarizes his day as “Sometimes you eat the bear, and sometimes, well, he eats you.” Is that an Australian saying or something? Because I have never eaten a bear.