I have a confession. I’m as surprised as you are that I’ve written so much about this particular edition of the Leadville 100. At least until I started writing it, in my mind there wasn’t all that much noteworthy about the race until I got to the part I’m about to describe:
The part where I shatter into ten thousand tiny shards.
It started off well enough. I waved pleasantly to all the people passing me on the flat road section that leads to the Powerline climb. (Hey, I knew it would be like this, no point in acting like it wouldn’t.)
As one guy went by, he said, “So are you the first or the second singlespeeder?”
“I doubt I’m either,” I replied.
Then, maybe half a mile before we hit the dirt, Strava won my heart forever. They had a booth on the side of the road where they were handing out little cans of Coke. I grabbed one and glugged it down, knowing that the sugar and caffeine would come in very handy shortly.
Yes, Strava won my heart forever by giving me a little can of Coke. Which just goes to show that it’s not the cost of the present, it’s the timing and the subjective value. Or something like that.
(Note: As an aside, Strava had a Leadville 100 Columbine Mine Climbing Challenge, where the three fastest non-pro men and non-pro women up the lower part of the Columbine Mine climb would get prizes. And guess who won second in the Women’s division? I don’t want to give anything away, but don’t be too surprised when you see photos of The Hammer wearing a Strava jersey in the near future.)
I passed by the gate that I use to signal the beginning of the Powerline climb, then added 3.3 miles to the number I saw on my GPS, arriving at 80.7. That was the number I needed to keep in mind. The number that would mean I had summited the hardest climb of the day.
“Eighty point seven. Eighty point seven,” I said to myself, over and over, making it my mantra as I pushed my bike up the incredibly steep, unrideable (except for a very select few) section of the Powerline climb:
image courtesy of Zazoosh
I love this photo, partly because I seem to have managed to suck my stomach in as it was taken. Even more than that, however, is how perfectly the way I feel is captured. My mouth is wide open; I’m gasping for air. My feet are planted between each step. And my head has been bowed forward so long that my glasses have slipped to the tip of my nose.
You wouldn’t think it from the photo, but that’s the best I was going to feel for the rest of the race.
The hike-a-bike section of the Powerline doesn’t last that long, in terms of distance. The toll you pay is mostly in mental strength. It looks so daunting. So long. So freaking endless.
“I wish I had another Coke right now,” I thought to myself.
A guy called me out by name. “Fatty! Want a Coke?”
“Yes,” I replied, in spite of the fact that I had just had one fifteen minutes before. “Yes I do.”
Which just goes to prove: The Secret works.
At the end of the hike-a-bike section (meaning, “the place where I thought I at least had a prayer of turning the cranks over more than twice if I got back on”), I started pedaling.
And that’s when the cramps started.
First, my calves seized up. That hurt enough to make me to cry for my mom, but not enough to get me off my bike. You can ride with your calves cramped — just stretch them out at the bottom of each stroke.
Besides, having your calves cramp up has the silver lining of looking really interesting: you get to look down and see the whimsical shapes your calves are capable of twisting themselves into.
“If I could do this on demand, I could join the circus,” I said to myself. Just kidding, I totally made that up right now.
What I didn’t make up was what happened next: my quads started cramping. Both at the same time.
I stood up on the pedals, hoping the change would stop the cramps.
Instead, my hamstrings seized. All major muscle groups, both legs. All cramped.
I stopped and got off my bike. I tried walking. I couldn’t. Hurt too much.
So I stood there for a minute, panicked and in pain, watching other racers and — much more importantly — time go by.
I had an idea: crouch.
Using the bike to help with my balance, I squatted down, and the cramps everywhere eased off. I was OK again.
I got back on my bike and started pedaling.
Then, within half a minute, I was off the bike again and back in my crouching position.
So I stood up and pushed the bike. It was all I was good for. Once I found a place that looked easy to pedal, I got back on, and — again — pedaled until my legs forced me back off the bike.
Soon, I had my new routine:
- Pedal until I can’t
- Get off the bike
- Crouch for five seconds
- March the bike for a minute
- Go back to step 1
As I rotated through this Circle of Agony, rider after rider passed me, and I was acutely aware that my sub-nine-hour finish was slipping through my fingers. Like sand through the hourglass, so was the ride of my Leadville.
It was that painfully poetic. It really was. Honest.
How much longer would this horrible, brutally painful climb last? I didn’t know in terms of time, but at least I knew the distance, thanks to the calculation I had done at the bottom of Powerline: eighty point seven miles.
I looked down at my bike computer. 80.9.
I was already past 80.7? I knew from experience that I was nowhere near the summit of the Powerline climb.
It dawned on me: I had done the addition wrong. And I couldn’t remember what the number was that I had incorrectly added 3.3 to.
So in addition (Ha! Get it?) to being on a never-ending merry-go-round of agony, I also had no idea when this hellish carousel was going to slow down and stop.
Well, that’s just super.
I struggled on. Ride. Stop. Crouch. Walk. Ride, stop, crouch, walk. Ride stop crouch walk. Ridestopcrouchwalk.
I’m still doing it now, probably.
Time Is Running Out
As I marched, from time to time people would remark that it was awesome I was racing a singlespeed.
“Doesn’t matter what kind of bike you have if you’re just walking it,” I answered.
Then, finally — no, really, I really really mean f-i-n-a-l-l-y here — I got to the top of the Powerline climb. I looked down at my bike computer: 82.7. Which means that, at some point, I had added 79.4 and 3.3 and had gotten 80.7 instead of 82.7.
Which means you probably shouldn’t hire me to do your taxes.
I rode down the Sugarloaf descent to the pavement, doing more math. I knew that once I got to the mini-aid station at the top of the St. Kevins road climb, it takes about an hour to get to the finish line, and a singlespeed wouldn’t be a lot — if any — slower than a geared bike on that part of the race.
I knew I had been in a pretty safe place, timewise, when I went through the Pipeline aid station. But I also knew I had given up lots (and lots and lots) of time on Powerline.
I needed to get up to that 90-mile mini-aid station fast. And I had no idea whether my legs would work on a climb at all.
Only one way to find out, though.
I stood up and pedaled, giving it everything I had. Not worrying about the likelihood that I would cramp up. Not worrying about whether I would have anything in the tank once I got to this 90 mile mark — I could recover on the downhill before the final climb to the finish line, I reasoned.
I began passing people.
And — amazingly — my legs didn’t cramp up.
My nose was running, mixing with the sweat dripping off my head, creating a snotulum that swung side to side off the tip of my nose.
I didn’t wipe it off. I didn’t have time to. I needed to be fast.
I passed more people.
I was close. So close. So close. I could feel it. But I didn’t dare look at my computer, because I feared what it would tell me.
I turned off the pavement onto the dirt and finally dared to look at my computer.
I had an hour and three minutes to get to the finish line if I wanted to finish under nine hours. Last year, according to my recollection, it had taken me an hour and eight minutes.
Five minutes too slow. I was close, but not close enough.
“But,” I thought, “What if I make it so I am close enough? What if, instead of being a slow and cautious descender, I were a fast descender?”
What if, just this once, I was the guy who passed people on the downhill, instead of being the guy getting passed?
What if, just on this one section, I were five minutes faster this year than i was last year?
So I went hard. All out. Really and truly all out. Before, I had thought I was going all out, but this time I was further out.
And in short, I was going all-out. Am I making myself understood here?
I had a couple miles of climbing left to do before the St. Kevins descent began, and I just gave it everything I could. For the one section I knew would be steep enough that I might cramp or at least struggle up to the stop, I didn’t even try to ride it; I just rolled to the base, dismounted and ran up it.
Or at least, I intended to run up it. In reality, I probably ran three steps, and then walked the rest. But I was thinking fast thoughts while I marched.
And then, when the St. Kevins descent began, I flew down. Usually, I get passed left and right here. On this day, nobody passed me. OK, maybe one or two. But nowhere near as many passed me as usual.
I wanted sub-nine. I wanted it bad. So bad.
I made it to the bottom of St. Kevins. Much faster than usual. How much time did I have? I didn’t know, and didn’t want to look. Knowing the numbers could only hurt me right now.
As I spun along the flat section after descending St. Kevins — going as fast as I could, but spun out — riders began passing me. For the first time in this race, I was frustrated by my singlespeed. I needed to go faster! Faster! Why couldn’t I spin my legs faster?
As I rode along the railroad tracks just before the last left turn and the climb up onto the Boulevard, I wished for a bigger gear. This time, The Secret was no help.
Was I going to make it? I didn’t know. I was beginning to think it was possible. Not probable, but possible. If I gave the Boulevard everything I had and didn’t cramp, it was possible.
I stood and attacked. Not a person, mind you; I didn’t care at all about the people around me. I was attacking time.
My calves cramped again, but I didn’t care. I know how to ride with cramped calves. My quads and hamstrings didn’t cramp; that was all that mattered.
I got to the point where I figured I had one mile to go. I chanced a look at my computer. 8:45 had gone by. I had fifteen minutes to do the next mile.
One mile, fifteen minutes? That’s four miles per hour. That’s fast walking pace. That’s easy. I’ve got it.
I said it out loud: “I’m going to finish in under nine hours on a singlespeed.”
The guy riding alongside me asked, “We’ve been riding for 103 miles. Shouldn’t this race be over by now?”
“Less than a mile,” I said. “To the top of this hill, then a quick left and a quick right, a short hill, and then you can see the finish line. We’re almost there. We’re going to finish under nine hours.”
Being able to say that out loud, confidently, and knowing it was true, was wonderful.
I made those turns, crested the hill that reveals the finish line, and sat up, waving to the audience, asking for applause.
More. More. I felt like I had earned the applause. They had no idea how, over the past 25 miles or so, how much I had earned it.
Then I crossed. Eight hours and fifty minutes. Or, if you go by chip time — which we absolutely should — eight hours and forty-nine minutes. (And forty-eight seconds, but let’s just round that down, OK?)
Photo courtesy of Zazoosh
I had done it. Sub-nine, on a singlespeed. Me. At Leadville. on a singlespeed. In fewer than nine hours.
And somehow, I had done it with ten minutes to spare. Not a lot to spare, but considering the terror I had ridden in for the past hour or so, it was plenty.
Nobody greeted me at the finish line, so I stumbled around on my own ’til I found a place to rest my bike, and then got a couple bottles of water (and, yes, another Coke). I felt OK. Not great, but at least the cramps weren’t hitting me.
Did I have enough time to go to my hotel and shower? No. Kenny couldn’t be far behind me, and then The Hammer would be coming in soon after him.
I found a place where I could lean against something, and I watched the finish line.
Kenny came across in about 9:13. “I just wasn’t having a good day,” he said of what — up until last year — was the same time as my fastest Leadville ever.
Then The Hammer came across in 9:28, crushing her previous best time by eleven minutes, and putting her in third place on the Women 40 – 49 podium.
That woman just keeps getting stronger and faster every year.
I figured we had some time ’til The IT Guy and Heather finished, so we went and showered, changed, and packed.
Yep, we were still completely blown from the race, but we got all our stuff packed and loaded into the truck. We had to get out of town and on to the next race — The Breck Epic — as soon as we had seen our friends and family cross the line.
I . . . Won?
Once we finished, we went back to the finish line. While we waited for The IT Guy to finish I went and checked the results so far, to see what my actual finishing time was.
I looked and saw that, out of the 34 singlespeeders, I had placed . . . first.
I checked again. Yes, it certainly looked like I had just won the singlespeed division at the Leadville 100.
Chris of Performance Bike ran into me as I stepped away from the finishers’ postings and asked me how I had done in the race.
“I think I just won the singlespeed division,” I said. “But I don’t think that can be right.”
Chris’s wife caught the exchange:
Believing that I must have somehow misread the listings, I tweeted (in the photo above, you can see I’ve got my phone out and am actually composing the tweet below):
Several people replied. It wasn’t a mistake. I had done it.
I ran to find The Hammer to tell her the surprising truth. I had won something. Of the 34 singlespeeders who had raced Leadville this year, I was the fastest.
And then, as I found her — but before I could tell her the news — The IT Guy crossed the finish line 11:15 into the race, faster than either The Hammer or I had dared hope for. She ran to congratulate her son.
I swear, any time I have ever won anything, The IT Guy manages to upstage me.
Fifteen minutes later, Heather crossed the finish line, her 11:30 time being almost exactly the same as the last time she raced the Leadville 100, and once again getting her on the Women’s singlespeed podium.
We had all done it. Not a single DNF from my group of friends and family. “Awesome” didn’t even begin to cover it.
We all went to get something to eat and share stories about how the day had gone. But as we talked, something kept bothering me. “I should be really happy,” I thought. “I just hit my goal of finishing under nine hours on a singlespeed. It’s what I came here to do.”
But I wasn’t as relaxed and relieved as I usually am after a race. Strange. What was the problem?
And then I’d remember, again, and my stomach would flop: In just under twelve hours, The Hammer and I would be racing again. As a Coed Duo team in the Breck Epic.
I stood up and said to the group, “Sorry, we can’t talk anymore,” I said.
“We’ve got to get driving.”