I have an annual tradition surrounding the Leadville 100 Mountain Bike Race. Specifically, I go and do the race, and then I write a race report describing all the things I did wrong and plan to do better the following year.
This year’s report, finally, is going to be a little bit different.
This year, for the first time ever, instead of talking about lessons learned via “don’t do what I did” preaching, I think I can describe a number of things I did right.
Setting the Stage
First, I want to describe how I trained, partly because it worked, but mostly because I think an enormous amount of credit for how the day went goes to The Hammer.
We both trained by riding together. It was as easy as that. By riding with her, I stopped treating every ride like it was a race. By riding with me, she discovered that if she tried to keep up, she could.
And dates and weekend getaways were generally in the form of long rides together.
I’d get my intensity in by going out on a solo ride about once a week, and riding all-out for ninety minutes or so.
Plus – and I hate to admit this – I think that adding variety in the form of running has made me stronger.
Finally, being light helped. The egg white and avocado diet worked, and continues to work, for both The Hammer and me. I’m not saying it’s perfect for everyone, but honestly, I just don’t get sick of it. And I’m stronger than (and about as light as) I’ve ever been. And I’m 45 years old.
So there are the first couple of things I did right: I had fun training, and I got rid of some blubber.
There was just one problem with the whole trip. The day we drove out, The IT Guy had his collarbone plated. It was not easy at all for The Hammer to be away from him. She did her best to stay in touch by calling The IT Guy several times per day. And texting. And having her co-workers take pictures of the surgery.
The IT Guy’s surgery went well, and he’s recovering nicely. Which is not to say that it doesn’t still hurt. Because it does.
Also, The Hammer and I had to scramble to find new people to crew for us, since we discovered that the people we thought were our crew were actually coming to Leadville to see The IT Guy race. In his absence, they suddenly had conflicting appointments and let us know that, alas, they could not come to Leadville after all.
What, watching Fatty and The Hammer isn’t entertaining enough? Humph.
My Goiter Is Acting Up
As the race neared – just a few days to go — I began to experience mysterious aches and pains. For example, my throat became a little bit sore.
And during one short ride, my left hip bothered me.
And I was pretty sure something was wrong with my right elbow.
What I was suffering from, of course, was pre-race hypochondria. Essentially, I was so worried about not getting sick that I was running self-diagnostics constantly (Is my throat sore? No? A little? Why yes, I believe it is a little sore!) and fixating on the tiniest aches that I would normally not even notice were there, and give ridiculous amounts of attention to these imagined maladies.
Why do I tell you this? In hopes that you will say, “Don’t worry Fatty, I do the exact same thing,” because if we all do it, then I’m no crazier than anyone else, which is a lot like not being crazy at all.
The morning of the race, I was nervous. In fact, I was more nervous than usual, if that’s possible. After all, in addition to the normal self-imposed pressure, this time there was a bike on the line. If I finished this race in under nine hours, I’d get to keep this bike I’ve fallen in love with: the Specialized S-Works Stumpjumper 29er.
Plus, there was a little problem: I honestly didn’t know whether I could do it. I mean, I could tell that The Hammer had been riding increasingly strong this season; I knew she’d do great (and probably finish in under ten hours). And a few friends I’d ridden with told me that I was riding strong.
But I didn’t really have evidence that I was fast. I just felt like, well, me. And traditionally, being me isn’t the best way to have a fast race.
So I kept wondering to myself: am I fast without realizing it? Or all these people thinking I’m fast because they believe all the boasting I’ve been doing on my blog?
I made a note to myself to be more self-deprecating, more often.
There was one really good change at the starting line: a corral system. Instead of everyone just jamming themselves up front, racers’ race plates were color-coded according to their best finish time during the past three years. Since last year I finished with a 9:17, I was put a couple groups back, with the other people who had finished between nine and ten hours.
I expect the only people who weren’t happy with this system were racers who had high hopes for a fast race, but were there for the first time…and were therefore required to start in the very back corral.
I thought back to my first Leadville, where there were about 400 of us lining up. There were four times as many of us at the starting line now. Amazing.
Anyway, I got myself into about the fourth row in my corral about half an hour before the race started, then stood around with my fellow sub-10ers. Out loud, I posited the question: “Is there any one of us in this area who is not shooting for a sub-9 today?
Everyone shook their heads “no.” I was with the right group.
With fifteen minutes to go, I pulled a Cocoa Pistachio PRO Bar out of my jersey pocket and ate it. I planned to eat around 300 calories per hour, and I knew I wouldn’t have much of a chance to eat during the first (very crowded) hour on my bike.
The gun went off and I clipped in, punching the Start button on my bike computer as I crossed the starting line.
Photo courtesy of Zazoosh
I managed to not get passed by too many people during the paved descent at the beginning; I knew that practically every person who went by me in this section would be a person I’d have to spend energy passing in the St. Kevin’s climb.
To my amazement, by working a little to stay further forward, my descent on this section was a lot less frightening than it had ever been before. It was less crowded, with many fewer people juking for position and making risky, meaningless passes.
We hit the dirt, and it got dusty. Amazingly dusty. As in, hard-to-breathe dusty. I could see where the trail went, just by looking ahead into the narrow cloud of dust rising twenty feet into the air.
“We are all going to have very gritty teeth by the end of this day,” I remarked, to anyone who happened to be listening.
Which probably was nobody.
Climbing St. Kevins
While corrals helped get racers into some semblance of where they belonged at the beginning of the race, the first real sorting of the day happened on St. Kevins. This is about a three-mile climb (I’ve never checked the mileage), and — depending on my fitness — is either a middle- or small-ring climb.
Also, thanks to lots of erosion and ruts, St. Kevins is normally a real bottleneck. This year, though, the jeep road has been graded, making it possible for many more people to ride — and pass — alongside each other.
I climbed this mostly in my big ring this year.
Now, since the Stumpy is set up 2 x 10, saying “big ring” isn’t quite as meaningful as if it were a really big ring, like on a traditional 3 x 8 setup. Still, all the way up I was wondering if I were pushing too hard, too soon. But I didn’t feel like I was going too hard. I was breathing relatively easy, and my legs weren’t burning.
Then, about two-thirds of the way up, I caught Kenny.
Yes, that’s right, you read right. I caught Kenny.
The thing is, Kenny was riding a monster single speed gear: 34 x 18. Yeah, those of you who ride SS know exactly how outrageous that is.
Kenny was working hard, trying to keep momentum with all the people around and the pitch of the climb.
“Tall gear, Mr. Jones,” I commented, and kept going. Feeling just a little bit perkier than a moment before.
As I climbed, I kept looking around at the race plates around me, all of which had been color-coded for their start corrals. Bronze plates were reserved for the elite racers, who started up near the front. Red plates were for the second group — the racers who could claim a sub-9 time in the past year. Blue was for my group: the folks who had finished faster than ten hours at least once during the past three years.
At first, I mostly saw blue plates. As I got higher, I saw an increasing number of red plates.
And then, by the time I dropped down the paved St. Kevins section, I was starting to see bronze plates here and there.
“It doesn’t mean anything,” I told myself. I knew my pattern: go fast at the beginning, blow up toward the middle, limp to the finish line at the end.
But an hour into the race, I did the next important right thing: I started a pattern of eating throughout the race, whether I was hungry or not. Whether I wanted to or not. Whether it was convenient or not.
I got out a Honey Stinger Waffle — one of three I had pre-opened for eating during the first forty miles of the race — and wolfed it down.
Then, half an hour later, I had another.
You know what? It’s a lot easier to eat energy food when you like the way it tastes.
Powerline to Twin Lakes
I got to the bottom of the St. Kevins descent safe and sound, sitting upright and not worrying about the people passing me (Kenny being among them). I knew the crowding issue was behind me, and I wasn’t racing these people anyway. I was racing a clock.
I went up Sugarloaf feeling good, not even really feeling like it was much of a climb, in spite of the fact that it’s more than 1000 feet of climbing (from 9383 feet to 10,476 feet) in about four miles.
I was feeling good. And liking the fact that more and more, there were red and bronze number plates surrounding me.
I just had to remember not to do something dumb. Like go too hard. Or crash.
Remembering the lesson I learned (and that the IT Guy probably wishes he would have learned) last week at the Alpine Days Race, I took it easy down what is the most technical descent of the whole race: the Powerline.
Photo courtesy of Zazoosh
Some people passed me, but the truth is, fewer people passed me than usual. Part of it is probably the fact that last year a guy got crashed to within an inch of his life on this section. And part of it is the fact that I just feel good riding the S-Works Stumpjumper 29er. I forget that I’m even on a bike sometimes. Like it knows what I want to do – where I want to go and how – and it just does it for me.
Still, I always get a sense of relief when I get to the bottom of the Powerline — once again, I made it without crashing or flatting.
Now for the flat section leading up to and beyond the first aid station.
Everyone knows you should catch a group on this flat section; it’s a great way to get some fast miles without burning a lot of energy.
My problem was, there was no group close ahead of me, and no group close behind me. So I went out on my own.
I caught Kenny, and laughingly told him to grab on. We both knew there was no way to do that when he was on a singlespeed.
I hit the first aid station. 1:56. Four minutes faster than my hoped-for time. I couldn’t help but wonder: is this the year I’m going to finally do it? Then I reminded myself: a lot of things could go wrong between now and then. And in fact, I thought, maybe something had already gone wrong: perhaps I was running too hot. Maybe I was about to self-destruct.
But I didn’t feel like I was overdoing it. I was constantly running self-diagnostics (“How do my legs feel? Fine. How do my lungs feel? Fine. Am I hungry? No. Have I eaten recently? Yes. Am I thirsty? No.“), and I felt good.
I opened a pack of Honey Stinger Energy Chews and kept going. No reason to stop at the first aid station.
The fifteen miles between the Pipeline aid station and the Twin Lakes aid station is what most people think of as “the flat section.” The thing is, though, the flat section isn’t flat. It’s just not.
Photo courtesy of Zazoosh
But at least the climbs aren’t monumental, and the descents are gradual enough that you can really open it up.
And with gears, I was able to really open it up. Fifteen miles in forty-five minutes.
By the way, this section contains the only singletrack in the whole course.
Photo courtesy of Zazoosh
Oh, and here’s an awesome shot of my friend Jilene, who accidentally rode through a gift-wrapping factory earlier in the day.
Photo courtesy of Zazoosh
I pulled into the Twin Lakes aid station at 2:35 (not the official one, but where my crew was), ten minutes ahead of schedule.
Did I just say I had a crew? Why yes, yes I did.
You see, unbeknownst to everyone in the whole world, my brother-in-law Rocky had signed up for Leadville for the fifth time, and had brought — in addition to my sister Kellene, who was crewing for Rocky — two of his daughters, one of which I commandeered as my crew.
My crew is the one on the right. By the time I arrived, by the way, she was awake and totally ready for me.
My niece took great care of me, swapping out my bottles and food, pulling off my arm warmers, and cleaning my glasses in the time it took me to slug down a single-serving container of Chicken and Stars Soup.
The “easy” part of the race was over. Time for the Columbine Mine Climb.