I have tried, over and over, to understand why Leadville has such a grip on me. Part of it is the place. Part of it is the tradition. Part of it is the incredible drama in three acts it seems to naturally create.
But a big part of it — a part I had never really thought about until just now when I needed an introduction to this chapter of my story — is the finish lines.
Yes, finish lines. Plural.
Every year when I race the Leadville 100, the phrase, “If I can just make it to…” runs through my brain.
…If I can just make it to the bottom of Powerline…
…If I can just make it to the top of Columbine…
…If I can just make it to the bottom of Columbine…
…If I can just make it to the top of Powerline…
…If I can just make it to the top of Carter’s…
Every single one of these is a significant finish line for me. And every time I cross one of those thresholds, I feel a huge surge of accomplishment. And relief.
Which is instantly replaced by the next iteration of my “if I can just make it to…” mantra.
Of all the times I mutter “If I can just make it to…” in the race, it’s while I’m climbing Powerline that I mean it the most. That’s the finish line I’m most grateful to cross.
Ask anyone who’s raced The Leadville 100, and if they’re honest, they’ll agree: everything else in the race — including the Columbine climb — is just buildup for the Powerline. The Powerline is the real test of this race, and once you’ve reached the top, you know that — barring terrible luck (my brother-in-law once broke his handle bars after this climb) — you’ve got this race in the bag.
And now, by riding whenever I could and walking whenever I had to, I was at the top of Powerline. Finish line crossed.
And somewhere — not very far — behind me, The Hammer was on her way up.
The Next Pass
Just two more finish lines. If I can just make it to the top of Carter’s, the rest is easy.
But first, there’s the matter of getting down to the pavement: the descent down SugarLoaf. And that hasn’t always been easy. Once, in fact, I crashed while descending this section. Dislocated my shoulder. I’m pretty sure I screamed loud and long when that happened. My riding buddy Ricky would have found that hilarious.
No crashes this time, though. There’s something about this new Ibis I’m riding. I’m descending better, more confidently. I’m hopping over stuff I’d usually tiptoe around. Riding fast over stuff I’d usually pick my way through. Having fun 85 miles into a race.
I make it to the bottom of SugarLoaf and onto the downhill dirt road. I pedal pedal pedal, and then I stop pedaling. I’m spun out, going fast enough that pedaling doesn’t make a difference.
Out of nowhere, a tandem flies by me. Flies by me. I could put it down to gears and weight and power, but that’s only part of it. The truth is, I wouldn’t dare go as fast as they are going. Certainly not on a bike, probably not on a motorcycle. Maybe in a car. Maybe.
I remember: I had passed that tandem as I climbed Powerline, about the same time I passed The Hammer and The Queen of Pain.
Which means I’m going to be passed again soon. By my wife.
I am pleased to report that I feel no envy or competitive angst at this prospect. I feel nothing but joy. Pride. My wife kicks all kinds of ass; shouldn’t I feel some pride that she can now kick mine?
I get to the bottom of the dirt road, slow way down for the hairpin turn that puts me on pavement. I’ll be going downhill on this pavement now for 1.5 miles, then uphill for three. I’ve been stung too many times by false hope made by false flats on this climb; I verified the distance before the race.
“Fatty!” Someone calls out behind me. I know who it is. Who they are.
“Are you still cramping?” The Queen of Pain asks.
“No, those pills helped,” I reply. “Thanks.”
The Queen of Pain looks over her shoulder and shouts to The Hammer, “This is where we earn some time! Pedal! Pedal! Pedal! Pedal!”
I look at The Hammer as she goes by. She has the most determined look on her face I have ever seen. The look of someone who has gone well past what she thought she could do and is now in uncharted territory.
She doesn’t say a word.
The Hammer had just grabbed a bottle, was about to take a drink, but she pedals. They get up to a crazy-fast speed almost immediately, and I watch, alarmed, while The Hammer holds the bottle and the handlebar with one of her hands.
I drop back, silently willing her to just drop the bottle on the side of the road. She needs both hands on the bars when she’s going this fast.
She doesn’t drop the bottle. She doesn’t wreck. She pulls away and around a bend. She’s out of sight now. In the course of three minutes, the two of them have put a minute on me. Wow.
I’m relieved. And also spun out again.
I know that this will change shortly.
The Pass After That
I love the climb to Carter’s Summit. I may, in fact, be the only person who regularly does this race who can say this. But I do.
I love standing up, letting my head droop down, and getting into the rhythm of the climb.
I love watching the sweat drip down off the tip of my nose onto the pavement.
I love passing all those people who just passed me on the descent a few minutes ago.
I see one guy, and I know it’s only a matter of time: the fact that I couldn’t see him before and can see him now means I’m catching him.
“Hi,” I say as I go by. Nothing more. I’d be more friendly if I could be, but what I’m doing takes pretty much everything I’ve got to give.
“Hi,” I say to the next guy. And the next.
I love this climb.
I see The Hammer. The Queen of Pain.
I don’t tell The Hammer that she’s got it in the bag, I don’t tell her to keep it up, I don’t tell her anything about riding. This is not my kitchen. I am not the cook. The Queen of Pain is drawing something new and powerful out of The Hammer, and I do not want to interfere.
“Hi Baby, I love you,” I say to The Hammer.
“I love you too,” she whispers back on the exhale.
Considering what she’s going through, that is a lot for her to say.
I hit the neutral aid station at the turnoff back onto the dirt at Carter’s Summit. I don’t need anything, and I don’t stop.
The Last Pass
The “Carter’s Summit” aid station leads you to think you’re at…well…a summit. But you’re not. You’ve got another mile or so of climbing to do. Remember that if you ever do this race.
I’m still passing people, because we’re climbing. I know that this is just temporary; the people I’m passing right now will likely pass me again, either on the descent down St. Kevens, or on the flats leading to The Boulevard.
That’s OK. I’m not racing these people. These people have gears.
Then someone says to me, “There’s a guy about 45 seconds ahead of you, also on a singlespeed.”
Huh. Well, I guess I am racing that guy. Are we racing for second and third? Fifth and sixth? I don’t know. But it seems like it might be worth it to burn whatever matches I have left.
Except all my matches are already burning.
If he’s ahead of me, either I’ll catch him or I won’t. But as hard as I’m going is as hard as I can go. And it feels incredibly satisfying to know that this is true.
I take risks going down St Kevens, going down faster than I usually would. I’ve seen so many people fixing flats on this section of the trail over the years, and know that this aggressive approach I’m taking may well cost me time.
But I get down to the bottom of St Kevens just fine. I exhale and laugh. A mini-finish line behind me.
It’s nothing but flat ’til I get to The Boulevard, and then about two miles of climbing to the finish.
I pedal as fast as I can, trying to delay — not prevent — what I know is inevitable: The Hammer and The Queen of Pain are going to catch me again, and they are going to fly right by.
My wife is going to be waiting for me at the finish line, I realize.
It’s an awesome thought.
But she won’t have to wait for me for long.
I look for another match to burn. Nope. Already burning ‘em. Furthermore, I’m pretty sure the one I’m currently burning is the last one in the box.
I get back on the pavement, cross the railroad tracks. More flat pavement. There is never not someone passing me. My kingdom for a taller gear.
And then, pulling alongside me: The Hammer. And The Queen of Pain. And Selene Yeager.
“I love you, Honey!” The Hammer calls out. She can talk again!
“You too,” I huff back. I am currently Cap’n Crazy Legs, and long talks aren’t easy. But I do want to tell her this: “You’ve done it! You’re going to finish in under nine hours!”
“Really? Do you think so?”
“Honey, at this point you could get to the finish line with a sub-nine-hour time on foot.”
It was true. I had actually just done the math. We could, right now, set down our bikes and run ten-minute miles from where we are, and we’d get to the finish line with — barely — a sub-nine-hour time.
The Queen of Pain flashes me a look, and I understand. It is not yet time for congratulations. The race is not over.
They drop me. I start doing mental story problems to figure out how long they’ll have to wait for me at the finish line.
Elden and Lisa have four miles left in a race. Lisa is 3mph faster than Elden on flats; Elden is 2mph faster than Lisa on climbs. The distance between the two racers and the finish line is divided equally between flats and climbs. Who will get to the finish line first, and by how much time?
My answer, for the record, was, “Lisa, by as little as Elden can manage.”
I turn onto the final climb of the day: The Boulevard. It’s a wide dirt road that starts with a steepish grade, then flattens out to one or two percent.
I stand and go as hard as I can. Every year, I do the same thing: ask myself if I have anything left to give in this race, and then give it here.
Every year, I see photos people riding a wheelie across the finish line here. Every year, I wonder why they didn’t use that effort to go faster on the course.
Different priorities, I guess. Or maybe I’m just jealous that I can’t ride a wheelie.
Hey, wait a second. I see them. The Hammer. The Queen of Pain. The Fit Chick. And if I can see them, that means I have a chance at catching them.
Well, what do you know: I have one last match I can burn after all.
But they don’t make it easy. No. Far from it. In fact, it’s not until the very end — the last hundred feet or so — of the boulevard that I pull alongside them.
“Hey.” It’s pretty much all I can say.
It’s a surreal moment. We’re down to the last quarter mile of the race. We’ve crossed paths nine times during the race, but haven’t ridden at all together.
But here we are. The Hammer, The Queen of Pain, and me. The only reason we can’t see the finish line right now is because first we have to get over this little rise.
“Do you want to finish together?” The Hammer asks.
I start laughing. “Of course I want to finish together! We’re a quarter mile from the finish line! How could we not finish together?”
And then The Hammer imploded. Right there in front of me. She had just turned in the performance of her life, and now we were together again. That was her mental finish line, I think.
All of a sudden — truly, all of a sudden — she could barely turn the cranks.
Which, really, was just fine. We could have crawled from that point and made it to the finish line in under nine hours. We had plenty of time.
But here’s the thing: I had taken a good hard look at my GPS and knew that if we didn’t push, we’d finish in 8:40 or 8:41. Which is a good finishing time. A dream finishing time, for a lot of people
If, on the other hand, we did push, we just might finish in 8:39.
Do you see the difference? It’s the difference between being able to say “I finished in the eight-forties” versus being able to say “I finished in the eight-thirties.”
And that difference is huge.
I told The Hammer, “If you go hard for just a minute longer, we can have a finish time printed on our sweatshirts that say 8:38 or 8:39. That would be even cooler than 8:40.”
The Hammer understood. The Hammer rallied.
And here’s how it ended:
8:39:22 for her; 8:39:33 for me.
So yes, even though we crossed the finish line together, The Hammer beat me by eleven seconds, thanks to the the fact that I started in a corral further forward than she did.
I am OK with that.
Photo taken by Linda Guerrette. Used with permission.
In fact, I am perfectly OK with that.
Photo taken by Linda Guerrette. Used with permission.
I didn’t get on the Singlespeed podium. In fact, I missed it by about 3.5 minutes. Huge congrats go out to David Yacobelli for an incredible second half of his race. He took a ten minute lead I had built up by the halfway mark of the race, erased it, and pulled ahead with a three-and-change minute win.
Part of me looks at how narrow the gap was between us, and how close I was to getting on the podium. And then the sane part of me reminds myself that even when that gap was less than a minute I couldn’t close it. David was fast and getting faster. I was going as fast as I could, and couldn’t catch him.
It feels good to not be plagued by “What ifs.”
The Hammer got both her big belt buckle for finishing in under nine hours, and a ten year belt buckle. As far as I know, she was the fastest non-pro on the course. And faster than many of the pros.
Here she is with The Queen of Pain, each of them with their trophies. All of which were hard-earned.
Along the way — during the week before the race and during the race itself — both The Hammer and I developed an even greater respect and liking of Rebecca Rusch. You want a sports hero to look up to? I honestly do not know of anyone who could fill that bill better.
And me? Well, I got my fourth consecutive sub-nine finish. And I got to finish with my wife.
Photo taken by Linda Guerrette. Used with permission.
And finally: of my seventeen finishes at Leadville, this one has been far and away my favorite.
PS: Next year for me: gears and sub-8.