A Note from Fatty: Click here for Part 1 of this story, click here for Part 2, and click here for part 3.
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.”
A Note from Fatty: Click here for Part 1 of this story, and click here for Part 2.
It’s entirely possible I am mentally impaired. I don’t feel mentally impaired, but I learn so slowly and poorly that mental impairment is the Occam’s Razor explanation.
I offer, by way of example, three things I — on my fifteenth racing of mile 60 – 75 of the Leadville 100 (because, remember, I didn’t make it this far once, so I don’t get to say “sixteenth” on this part of the course) — finally learned:
- If you stop for a while during a race, it hurts to get re-started.
- If you stop and eat for a while during a race, it hurts even more to get re-started.
- If you stop for a while and eat during a race, and the re-start is uphill, it hurts even more than that.
Which is to say, instead of having a sandwich and catching my breath and gathering my strength and hardening my resolve for the next section of the race, I switched bottles, got a Honey Stinger Organic Energy Gel and packet of Honey Stinger Organic Energy Chews (I’m so glad they’re not inorganic, because that would make them very difficult to eat), and I left.
(Note: I apologize for that last sentence being such a mess. I’d edit it, but I have a strict policy in my blog that requires me to be very lazy about what I publish.)
Having taken advantage of the excellent services of Zac and Erin, I started up the steep-but-short climb that leads to the rolling fifteen mile section before the real test of the Leadville 100 — the Powerline climb — begins.
And to my delight, it wasn’t that bad. So add that to the list of important lessons learned, all you aspiring Leadville 100 do-ers: don’t take a long break at the Twin Lakes aid station, or the little climb right after it will feel much worse than it actually is.
I am so wise.
For so long, mile 60 – 75 in the Leadville 100 has been my undoing. That’s where people start passing me. That’s where I lose time. That’s where I usually discover — or convince myself — that, once again, I’m going to be slower than I had hoped I’d be.
But a couple of things have changed.
First, there’s the whole “don’t take too long of a break or eat too much” thing I just spent way too long explaining. Second, instead of there being two hike-a-bike sections where you’ve got to put your head down and struggle uphill, there’s just one of those sections now.
The other one has been circumvented with a really nice, easy section of singletrack. And even though that increased the Leadville 100 from 103.5 miles to 103.9 miles, it’s a welcome change. Riding is always better than pushing.
And it makes for a really good photo opp:
photo courtesy of Zazoosh
And hey, while I’m showing off photos here, I’d like to note a few things. First, yes, I can see that my paunch is pretty obvious. Thanks. Second, this photo shows off something I wanted to note about the weather this year: it was perfect. Warm enough that I didn’t need arm warmers after about 9:30am, but cool enough that I left my jersey zipped up the whole day without ever even thinking about it.
And third, I wanted to point out that Zazoosh does an awesome job with event photography. I’m always happy when I find that they’re doing a race, because they bring enough photographers to canvas the course, find the best spots to get great shots, get those photos up online pronto, and have fantastic photos of every single racer, to boot. Event photography is a demanding biz, and Zazoosh kicks butt at it. Kudos to them.
OK, now back to the story. What was the section heading for this part? Headwind? Oh yeah. Headwind.
Mile 60 – 75 from Twin Lakes Dam to Pipeline can be your best friend — a place to recover, get your legs back, and get ready for the big Powerline climb — or your worst enemy.
It all depends on which way the wind blows.
Last year, there was either no wind or a tailwind (like most riders, I can’t tell the difference between no wind and a tailwind).
This year, there was a headwind. A nasty headwind. And that headwind can add minutes to your time while simultaneously leaving you cracked (or outright broken) for the Powerline climb.
So what can you do? Find a group and work with them. Unless you’re on a singlespeed, in which case you won’t be able to hang with a group.
In which case, you — or in this case, I — just pedal along, as best you can.
I intentionally didn’t look at my computer; I didn’t want to know what was happening to my time. I just pedaled along, reminding myself constantly that I was still racing, not just “surviving.” That any suffering I was doing was in service to my objective. That everyone else out on the course was putting up with the exact same thing I was putting up with.
That the sun was out and looked like it was going to stay out — no freezing downpour today. That the race was supposed to be challenging. That, more than anything else, I didn’t have anything to complain about.
I kept going. Hard, even though I was pushing against the wind. Sometimes passing people, sometimes getting passed, but still treating this like a race.
I pulled into the Pipeline aid station — mile 75 — 6:03 into the race. Which is pretty much the target time for anyone who wants to squeak by into the sub-nine finish.
Scott waved me down, loaded me up with two fresh bottles and four more gels — I was way past the point where I could chew actual food. “Give me a swig of Coke,” I said.
“Why would you want a coat?” Scott asked, but obediently rummaging through my contingency bag for a jacket.
“No, Coke! COKE!” I yelled.
“Ah,” he said, understanding. He, handed me a bottle, I took a few swallows, and I was off again.
Now all I had to do was climb a couple of mountain passes in the final 29 miles of the race, and I was home free.
What I didn’t realize was that I’d shortly be visiting the eighth, ninth, and eleventh circles of hell.
Which is what I’ll talk about when I continue (and conclude, I promise!) in the final installment of this race report (click here to read it).
Note from Fatty: Part 1 of this Race Report is here.
I’ll let you in on a little secret right now. One of the most important reasons I rode a singlespeed at the Leadville 100 race this year is because I really saw no way I was going to match up to the time I posted last year. Hey, I’m a little pudgier than I was, and when you’re doing a climby race at altitude a little pudge counts for a lot.
And so I had made a beautiful plan: I would ride a singlespeed, and then I wouldn’t have to compare my now-self against my year-ago-self.
And so far it was working; I had made it to the Twin Lakes aid station in 2:50 or so — maybe fifteen minutes off my time from the previous year, when I had gears (and — ahem — when I was lighter, but you see how easy it would be for me to not mention that part, and act as if the distinction was about nothing but gearing?).
But now I was at the centerpiece of the race: The Columbine Mine Climb. A two mile roll up to the base of a mountain road, which then climbs about 3600 feet in the next eight miles.
As I went through the official Twin Lakes aid station (I always set up my crew about a quarter-mile before the official aid station, so my results are a little slow), a few people shouted, “Fatty!”
A few more shouted, “Singlespeeder!”
A rider looked over at me and asked, “Are you the lead singlespeeder?”
“No, I’m sure I’m not,” I replied, knowing for certain about the guy who had passed me on the pavement just before the Pipeline aid station, but also assuming several other singlespeeders were ahead of me too. “I have no idea where I stand vis-a-vis other SS racers. I’m just working on a sub-nine finish.”
I’m just kidding about saying “vis-a-vis,” by the way. I don’t even know what that means.
And then I started wondering about how I was constantly wondering about my time and splits, and the fact that it didn’t really matter how much information I had on-hand for this race. I was doing what I could do, at the speed I could do it. Knowing that I was a little slower than last year, but still well in the hunt for my sub-nine target finish didn’t make me go any faster or slower. It just made me more anxious. It was a Kenny had taught me (and which I still haven’t learned as well as I should).
Speaking of Kenny, how come he hadn’t caught me yet?
One advantage of having done this race several times is that I now understand the tricks its most famous section — the Columbine Mine Climb — tries to play on you.
For those of you who are going to do this race someday, listen up. I’ve got some actual useful advice, learned the hard way over more than a decade, to share. If you pay attention, it can and will actually help as you do this part of the race.
- Once you make the left turn onto the actual Columbine Mine climb, the road is brutally steep, but for only about a half mile or so. Then it evens off. Don’t blow yourself up during this section, and don’t let it get in your head. It’s not all like this.
- Once you are at 11,500 feet or so (varies by person), the altitude becomes a bigger problem than before. You’ll likely feel weaker, more tired, maybe even whipped. You might feel like giving up. When this happens, remember: this is not you. This is the air. Keep going.
- When you’re at this altitude, eating sucks so bad. Your stomach rebels. You’re breathing so fast you can’t close your mouth for long. And you’re not thinking straight. Eat 100 calories every half hour anyway. Set your bike computer to chime every half hour and make it an absolute: No matter how unappetizing it sounds, whenever the chime goes off, you’re going to suck down a gel, and wash it down with water.
- Go read number 3 above again. It’s more important and useful than you gave it credit for.
- When you can ride, do. But don’t go into your red zone to stay on your bike. It’s not worth it here.
I’m pleased to say that, after figuring out these rules last year, I adhered to them this year.
I’m also pleased to say that since my bike weighed four pounds less than last year, it made up some of the difference in how much more I weighed this year.
I’m also still even more pleased to say that at least until the final three miles, the Columbine Mine climb favors singlespeeders over geared bikes. At least I think they do, and here’s my foolproof reasoning, which takes the form of a thought experiment.
Suppose you were riding a bike, when the path turned uphill. Thanks to gravity, turning the cranks over becomes much more difficult. However, thanks to a magical device very close at hand, you can suddenly make it considerably easier to pedal! The only trade-off is that you will go a little slower.
What do you do?
Now, consider the same situation, but you no longer have the magical device that makes it easier to pedal. Instead, you simply have the knowledge that if you want to remain upright, you’re going to have to stand up and mash on those pedals. Which, incidentally, makes you go faster.
What do you do?
I am such an awesome philosopher / teller of truth.
So, taking advantage of all these facts and thought experiments and stuff, I stood up on my bike and rowed. And I passed a lot of people.
And as far as I know, during this section of the ride, not a single person passed me. I don’t know why that’s important to me, but it is.
But then I got to the hard part. Where the air gets thin and the road gets steep and loose. And I ignored rule number 5. I kept pedaling.
And my legs cramped up. Just like they had when I was riding The Rockwell Relay, but worse. Much much worse.
When I could ride, my calves would seize, followed by a near-seize of my quads or hamstrings. I’d veer all over the place, moaning out loud, and wishing I could find someone I could beg to make this pain stop.
But since I couldn’t find the person with the “Make Fatty’s Cramps Magically End” switch, I settled for getting off my bike and pushing, which was something I was going to have to do anyway for big chunks of this section of the race.
The “Nobody to blame but yourself” voice came on, saying, “Well, you wanted a story. Here’s your story. You’re cramping on the Columbine Mine climb.”
I smiled. Yeah, it was true. Like everyone else here, I had come to this race looking for pain, and had been given just what I asked for. I had nothing to complain about.
Mr. Cheerful Meets Mr. Grumpy
Sometimes on bike and sometimes on foot, I made it to the top of the Columbine Mine climb. 4:23 had elapsed. I had actually reduced my deficit to my previous year’s time. As long as the time-honored truth of the turnaround point being a good indicator of your finish time (just multiply it by two), I was looking good for my sub-nine finish.
I pulled up to the aid station and saw Doug and his son Noah. I had told Doug the night before that when he saw me, I’d be incoherent — it’s just how I am when I’m racing (and possibly at other times as well). Noah brought me three orange wedges — just the right number — which I slurped on and then headed back up the short steep pitch that precedes the eight miles of descending.
At which point I began to keep a promise I had made. I yelled and hollered encouragement to all the people who were riding and marching their bikes up toward the turnaround point.
“Good job! Keep it up! Riding strong! Almost there!” I shouted, along with anything else that came to mind as I descended.
I yelled myself hoarse and had the most fun I’d had that day. Racers love — need — encouragement, and I was having a great time being the one giving it.
Of course, I yelled extra-loud for the people I know. First, Kenny. Then — surprisingly close to Kenny — The Hammer. A little further down the line but still riding strong, Jilene, then Bry. Then The IT Guy, and close behind him, Heather.
And then, a voice, yelling at me. From behind me. “You’re too f—ing slow!” he shouted.
I moved over a little to give him the good line, and he shot by, looking angry. It was a strange moment, and ordinarily it would have made me feel bad. But — maybe because I was enjoying the shouting and encouraging and riding, this guy just made me laugh. I continued on down the mountain, still yelling encouragement to the riders who were working their way up the mountain.
The Columbine Mine road bottomed out, I cruised on to the Twin Lakes aid station, and got everything I needed from them again: one bottle (because I was going to be going only 15 miles ’til the next aid station), one packet of Honey Stinger Energy Chews, and and one gel.
Zac and Erin handed everything to me in no time flat (Scott was already on his way to the Pipeline aid station so he would get there before I did) and I was on my way again, on this fifteen-mile, rolling section of road that shouldn’t really take very long to do.
I had been out 4:59, so I was still on track. I now had four hours to go the remaining forty miles, which sounds totally do-able.
Unless, of course, there’s a nasty headwind.
Click here for the next installment of this story.
Here’s a paradox to get your week started off: It’s easier to pack for seven days of racing than it is for one. You don’t have to ponder which shorts to bring — bring ‘em all. You don’t have to consider which of your three favorite jerseys you should bring, because you know you’ll wear all of them. Should you pack for warm weather, cold weather, rain, or snow? Yes! Which Camelbak? All of them!
And that’s how we wound up with enough luggage to completely fill up a truck:
Bear in mind that all this doesn’t include the four bikes we brought (My Specialized Stumpjumper S-Works, Stumpjumper Single Speed [now geared at 34 x 20, in a last minute decision], and Trek Superfly 100, and The Hammer’s Gary Fisher Superfly), nor the ice chests we brought, nor the two plastic bins full of bike tools and dry goods.
Oh, and then about fifteen miles down the road we remembered: the canopy tent for our crew to use at Leadville.
Strangely, neither The Hammer nor I were particularly bothered that we had to turn around and go get this crucial item. Hey, we’d only lost half an hour, and now we knew what it was we had forgotten (because you have to forget something, right?).
Pre-Race Jitters x 7
The Hammer and I first drove to Breckenridge, scoping out where we’d be driving to as soon as the Leadville race ended, locating the starting line was for the first stage of the Breck Epic, and pre-registering at the condo where we’d be staying.
This was all very sensible and smart and so forth, but it also had the effect of giving us the “What Have We Gotten Ourselves Into?” terrors that much sooner.
Seven days of high-altitude endurance mountain bike racing? Really? What could make anyone think that’s a good idea?
The bad news is, that was pretty much the main thought that went through my mind up until the Leadville race began. The good news is, this new obsession kept me from getting as wound up about the Leadville race as I usually do (although Zac and Erin — our awesome crew for the LT100 — will attest that we were nevertheless plenty wound up).
The Race Begins
The morning of the race, I discovered something new: the time-honored tradition of going to the starting line early and laying down your bike to hold your place while you went and got breakfast, got dressed, etc., was over. The only way for you to hold your place in your corral was to get in there with your bike.
And — thanks to my traditional pre-race need to poop about twenty times — I was late to the “Silver” corral, which I got to be in thanks to my 8:18 finishing time last year. There was no room in that corral. It was jam-packed.
But there was Kenny in there. I could see him through the sea of people. I gave him a “Whatcha gonna do?” shrug.
“Surf your bike over to me!” he shouted.
“Cool,” I thought. “Like a MTB mosh pit.”
I hoisted all seventeen pounds of my bike over my head and passed it to the crowd. To my delight and astonishment, everyone was very cool about this technique and gladly sent the bike on its way toward Kenny. I wormed my way into the crowd, weaving among the tight mesh of wheels, cranks and people.
I was in place. Only about thirty feet back from the start. Primo spot. Fifteen minutes to start time. Kenny and I agree that if we can, we’ll work together. I love this idea, but — as many times as I’ve wanted to do it — it’s never worked out at Leadville. People tend to have to work with strangers; you just don’t know who will feel strong, or when.
Ten minutes. Then five. And then the gun.
Kenny was gone off my front immediately. I had no idea how he could go so fast on pavement on a singlespeed. His new training regimen — the first time he’s ever used a coach and a formal training plan, as far as I know — must’ve really worked.
Good for him. All I wanted was to get under nine hours on a singlespeed.
But while I felt as strong as last year, and had trained almost identically — lots of riding with The Hammer, essentially — I was also about seven pounds heavier than last year. And extra blubber is not your friend when you’re hauling it up the mountain.
Too Hard? Too Soon?
The first few miles of the Leadville 100 is downhill, on pavement. Which means I was disadvantaged in a comical number of ways. I shall enumerate:
- I was on a fat-tired singlespeed, which is about the slowest thing you can ride on downhill pavement and still be on wheels
- I was spooked, having been crashed on this section once before (I’m not even going to link to that event, due to superstition)
- I am not a fast downhiller, no matter what. (This truth will come into play a couple more times in this story)
And in short, I was passed — quite literally — hundreds of times before I got to the dirt. I didn’t care, though. I was staying upright. I was conserving my energy. And I was kind of wishing I had ridden a bike with just a few more parts — the parts that shift.
Then we took a right onto the dirt road and the “neutral start” was over. The race had begun for reals.
So why, all of a sudden, were all these people who had gone to such lengths to get ahead of me a few minutes ago on downhill pavement, now lollygagging?
I made an impromptu motivational speech.
“OK, all you people who shouted “on your left” at me a few minutes ago, get moving!” I shouted.
Which had no effect whatsoever.
So I got to work: sometimes finding the good passing line. Sometimes asking for the good line, just for a moment (astonishingly, racers almost always complied). Sometimes, when there was no other way, taking the bad line.
We were on St. Kevins now. The first climb of the day. And a great place to pass some folks in the race.
There’s a lot of mystique about climbing St. Kevins in The Leadville 100. They say it’s going to hurt. They say it goes on forever. They say that if you take it too hard, you can burn all your matches on it, leaving you with nothing for the remaining 90+ miles of the race.
But the truth is, St. Kevins is a singlespeeder’s delight. It has a moderate grade with only the occasional steep pitch. If you can keep your momentum up and your eyes forward, plotting the next pass, you can get up to the hard left that signals a break from hard climbing in an amazingly short period of time.
Which is what I did.
And in fact, about two-thirds of the way up this climb, I caught up with Kenny. Which caused the little “angel and devil sitting on your shoulder” guys to appear.
“Hey, you’ve caught Kenny!” the little devil said.
“Which means you’re going too hard, too soon!” the little angel warned.
“Or that maybe Kenny’s going too slow,” the little devil countered.
“Pffff,” scoffed the little angel.
“Hey Mister Jones, ride with me,” I shouted.
“Sorry Fatty, gotta stay in zone 3″ Kenny replied.
At which point my head spun around and I looked around wildly for other signs that I had been, in fact, transported to Bizarro World, where Fatty rides fast on a singlespeed, ignoring numbers and listening to his legs, while Kenny wears an HR monitor and stays in zone 3.
The sharp left turn on St Kevins (you know what I’m talking about if you’ve ridden the LT100) arrived much more quickly than I expected it — not that I had a time goal for it; I didn’t. It just felt like the climb was a little . . . shorter than most years.
I figured that was a good sign.
I rode as fast as I could for the next couple miles, letting my legs burn a little, because I knew I had a 4.7-mile, mostly-downhill pavement rest coming up.
At her traditional spot, signaling an upcoming sharp turn, was Merilee, one of the founders of the race. As is my tradition, I shouted, “I love you, Merilee!”
As is her tradition, she laughs, self-consciously.
The Best Part of The Race Nobody Ever Even Thinks About
The three-or-so miles of pavement descending — which is where I crashed out in 2009 and have wondered ever since how I possibly crashed out on such a mild road — leads to a one-point-something mile climb on pavement, a hairpin turn, and then a couple miles of mild climbing on a washboarded road.
And then the Sugar Loaf climb.
Sugar Loaf is — for no good reason at all — hardly ever talked about in the Leadville 100 race. Maybe that’s because what comes after it (the Powerline Descent) is such a hairy experience that people forget Sugar Loaf.
Poor Sugar Loaf.
Here’s the thing, though. The climb up Sugar Loaf may in fact be the single best part of the Leadville 100 race. You’re not really tired yet; you’ve ridden less than twenty miles. It’s a challenging — but not really challenging — and beautiful stretch of trail. And it’s plenty wide enough to either pass riders or let riders pass you, depending on how things are going.
It’s also just about perfect for a singlespeed. At least, it felt perfect at the moment. I felt good, the sun was out, the air was cool — but no longer cold — and I was doing this stretch for the fifteenth time in my life.
That’s a lot of times.
The March of Progress
The top of Sugar Loaf leads to one of the two parts of Leadville 100 I always think to myself, “OK, just get through this.” It’s the Powerline descent.
This is the section where, if you’re going to crash out, you’ll probably crash out. This is the section where, if you’re going to get a flat, you’ll probably get that flat. Every year as I descend I count the people on the side of the trail, fixing their tires or dusting themselves off (or waiting for help).
This year, there were none — no crashes, no flats. At least when I went by.
Later, after the race, I told The Hammer about this surprising lack of carnage and we agreed: at least part of it is because wheel and tire technology has improved so much over the past few years. When I first started racing the Leadville 100, it was common to inflate tires to 50psi, to keep them from going flat (which also made them very hard and skittish). Now we use tubeless tires and low pressure (I run my tires at 22psi at Leadville, and run The Hammer’s at 20psi), giving us better control and fewer flats.
As for the fewer crashes, I think the lower tire pressure combined with the bigger wheels makes a huge difference.
Of course, the bigger wheels look bigger, too:
Image courtesy of Zazoosh
Wow. Those are some nice quads. Although I’m afraid it’s also pretty clear that I didnt exactly hit my weight goal before the race.
In any case, I got down the Powerline descent without having any problems — or seeing anyone having any problems — and noted the distance of the climb for when I had to come back up this monster of a climb later in the day.
Watching the Trains Go By
Once down from the Powerline, the Leadville 100 gives you a few minutes and miles to spin your legs on a combination of flat pavement and flat dirt road. This is a great place to form a group of riders and put some fast miles away.
Unless you’re on a singlespeed.
If you’re on a singlespeed, this section of the road is a great place to watch all the people you’d passed in the climbs ride by you as if you were standing still. I don’t even know how many people helpfully called out “jump on the train!” as they went by. I’d just laugh and wave. A singlespeed is just geared too low to stay with a geared bike on flats. It was time for me to patiently spin a sensible cadence and wait for the road to turn into anything but flat again.
I kept looking over my shoulder, expecting to see Kenny, so we could work together. But he was nowhere to be found.
However, another singlespeeder did come by me during this part — the first other singlespeeder I’d seen since I’d passed Kenny early in the race. “Sucks not to have gears on this part,” he said, as he went by.
Mentally agreeing, I tried to accelerate enough to catch him; maybe he and I could work together on this part. But he was too fast; after a minute I had to admit that I’d have to let him go.
I hit the first aid station — which I never stop at, because I’ve only been going 25 miles or so and don’t yet need a rest — in 2:02. Not at all bad — that sub-nine-hour race was looking possible.
But far from inevitable.
The fifteen mile dirt road between the first and second aid stations is over before you know it. Fifteen miles or so. Quick climb, quick descent.
Thanks to the fact that I was on a singlespeed, though, I kept getting passed by people on those quick descents.
And then I’d pass them on the next little climb.
“See you in a minute,” became the little joke I’d tell people, either way.
OK, so it’s a very little joke.
I pulled into the second aid station about 2:50 into the race. I was slipping off the pace I wanted just a little, but nothing to get panicked about.
Scott (The Hammer’s brother), Zac (The Hammer’s eldest son), and Erin (Zac’s wife) were crewing for The Hammer, The IT Guy, Kenny, Heather, and me (although we all knew that they were all there mostly to see how The IT Guy fared in his first LT100). And they were awesome.
I pulled up at the canopy tent we had set up (definitely worth turning around for) and within twenty seconds they had done all of the following:
- Switched my bottles
- Pulled off my arm warmers
- Given me a cup of water to drink
- Given me a cup of soup (chicken and stars, as always) to drink
- Given me my food for the next stage of the race: four Honey Stinger Organic Energy Gels
The centerpiece of the race — the climb up and descent down the Columbine Mine road — was up next.
I had high hopes it would go well for me, and had no idea how much pain was in store.
Click here to continue on to part 2.
I have so much story to tell, and so little energy to tell it.
Luckily, the good folks at CyclingDirt are taking the time to talk with me after some of the stages of the Breck Epic, and letting me just ramble on, stream-of-conciousness style. Watch:
Watch more video of 2012 Breck Epic Stage Race on cyclingdirt.org
Five days of racing down, two to go!
Time for me to see if I can force down some breakfast, and then get the bikes ready while The Hammer puts together our aid station drop bags for the day.
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