Racing the Leadville 100 with The Queen of Pain: Day 1 of The Leadville Experience

08.25.2014 | 9:26 am

A Note from Fatty: I expect that training and racing with a pro is something most cyclists think about at some point: what do they know the rest of us don’t? How do they prepare for a race? And most importantly: what’s it like to actually race with a pro?

Lisa — aka The Hammer — got the opportunity to find all of these things out at the Leadville Trail 100 this year; she was mentored through the race by four-time LT100 winner Rebecca Rusch, aka The Queen of Pain.

I’ve asked The Hammer to tell not just her story of the race day, but of the events leading up to it. 

Along the way, we took video (just using my phone) during some of the clinics. Honestly, this is some of the most useful stuff you will ever find on my blog. 

This will take several parts. Settle in and enjoy. 

How it Began

How would Lisa like to have a riding partner at Leadville?

That was the text message Elden received from Rebecca Rusch about 2 weeks before the Leadville Trail 100. When Elden approached me with the question, I didn’t think Rebecca could possibly be serious about following through,  so I answered, rather nonchalantly, “Sure, whatever.”

Why in the world would a pro, who had won Leadville four times, want to ride with me?

So when Elden said he had given Rebecca my number so we could talk race strategy I was freaked out! Wow, This could really happen! I might just be able to beat the magical nine hour mark and win the coveted big gold buckle! It was a thought  I had never seriously entertained before. What an opportunity and great experience this would be.

And then I went to bed…and the negative self-talk started. Why do you think you would ever have a prayer at going sub-nine? You haven’t been riding fast this season. You haven’t even entered a bike race since April!

You see, every running race I have done this season, I had felt good and fast…but ended up posting a slower time than last year! My Strava QOM page hasn’t grown at all this year, and in fact is shrinking by the minute; As far as I know, I am no longer reigning Queen of Anything! (I actually have Elden delete all my notifications before I ever see them because all those “uh-oh” notifications was making my self-worth plummet straight  into the toilet!)

So the next morning, I told Elden, “No way.” No way was I going to ride with Rebecca. I would only embarrass myself. I would disappoint her, I would disappoint myself!

Elden told me to think about it. He had faith in me.

The Bargain

A few days later my phone rang. The caller ID said — you guessed it — Ketchum Idaho.

Crap! It was Rebecca. What was I gonna do?

I took a deep breath and decided I’d talk to her, see what way the conversation flowed.

I was amazed to find that Rebecca is a very nice person — not arrogant or condescending. Her goal was to help me have my best Leadville race ever. If we broke the nine hour mark that would be the cherry on top, but she just wanted me to perform my best and hopefully take some time off my previous best race time (9:28).

She only had one request of me…….That I wouldn’t give up. That I would give it my all.

I said “Deal!” The word “quit” is not even in my vocabulary.

Changing Plans

Two weeks is not a long time to decide that you need to be fast. Speed training/intervals had not even been part of what passes for our training plan. Strava had burned me out last year; this years rides had been focused on long, fun rides with lots of climbing. And it hadn’t been particularly fast mileage.

Rebecca mentioned it would be a great idea for us to come to Leadville a week early and participate in her free training camp. I immediately told Elden there would be no way I would be able to get off work. We had been short-staffed (running a nurse short) and I had been working an extra shift a week since May.

But it didn’t hurt to ask!

At first my co-workers were wary, and said we couldn’t make a decision until Thursday (the day before I needed to leave), so we could check the surgery schedule and patient census. Then, looking at the schedule, my awesome co workers said they would be willing to work an extra shift, if needed, to cover me.

I could go!

The First Ride: Columbine Climb

After working Friday, we packed up the truck and headed for Grand Junction–the halfway mark on the trip. Then, Saturday Morning, we got up at 4:00 AM and headed for Leadville. We needed to get there before Rebecca’s first ride and clinic: The Columbine Climb!

When we arrived at the base of Columbine, it was cloudy and looked like it might start raining. I made a decision to where some really cool socks that my friend Jilene had given me. They were bright and happy and would keep me warm.

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I didn’t really realize how bright until I saw the pictures!

Rebecca had offered me her Specialized Fate to ride. It’s the same Fate that she had raced Leadville on and obviously had good Karma! Still, I had brought my S-Works Stumpy…just in case.

Elden put my saddle and pedals on the Fate, while Rebecca handed out a bunch of free goodies — Gu, sunscreen, and chain lube — and then she gave us a quick overview of the Columbine Climb.

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Then she turned us loose.

The Fate was a pretty good fit. The handlebars were lower than what I’m used to; Rebecca definitely rides in a more aggressive position than I’m used to. The bar was also not as wide as the handlebars on my Stumpy.

[A Note from Fatty: I set The Hammer’s geared bike up with very wide bars because she moves from geared to singlespeed bikes often, and I don’t want the change to be jarring to her.]

The climb starts out pretty hard, so without even thinking about it, I went into my singlespeed climbing technique: standing. I stayed up with the fast guys, and started to chat with them. I think all were first timers and most were shooting for a sub-nine finish. Elden had been riding with us, but decided to drop back and ride with Rebecca who was taking the time to chat with everyone!

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As we climbed, my back started to hurt. My back always aches when I ride, but this time the pain was escalating. I felt like my positioning on the Fate was off, I was too far forward and felt like the cockpit was cramped. By the time we hit the turn off from the wide road to the 4 wheel track (I think its called the Goat Trail), all I could think about was how much my back hurt. That’s when you know it’s bad.

An Interesting Question

As we approached the Goat Trail — the last couple of miles before the turnaround point of the Leadville 100, and the part where most people have to do quite a bit of walking — I wondered if I had it in me to ride the whole thing. I put it in my granny gear and started to spin up the trail.

As I progressed in the sitting position I noticed my back pain easing off. Phew! I also noted that I love gears! Riding singlespeed is fun, but it’s also fun sitting and spinning up a climb. Before I knew it, I was rounding the last bend and the trail was flattening out.

I had done it! I had ridden Columbine!

Granted, the trail was in perfect condition because of the recent rain, I hadn’t just ridden 40 miles, and there weren’t a thousand people on the trail with me, but still: I had ridden it and I was proud of myself.

I let out a loud whoop of joy, which was answered by a whoop farther down the trail from Elden. What a sweetheart. He had been watching my progress up the mountain…made much easier, I’m sure, by my awesome socks.

Clinic

We took a few minutes to get some gorgeous pictures at the top.

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Screen Shot 2014 08 03 at 6 30 34 AM

Jump

I had never in the 9 years doing Leadville looked over the edge at the top of Columbine-What a view!

Then we gathered together for a crash (or hopefully, a no-crash!) course on descending from Rebecca. I pretty much have the climbing segments of Leadville dialed in, but descending is a different story! Rebecca is a great teacher and a great descender; the video Elden took is definitely worth watching if you’d like to get better at going downhill on your mountain bike:

The four main points I took from her lecture were:

  1. Stay loose. Don’t be so tense when you descend, take a deep breath, let it out. Keep the arms and legs loose, so the body doesn’t take some much abuse. Stiff arms and legs transfer all the bumps right up and into your body-jostling you. 
  2. Keep your arms wide on the handle bars. The wider your base, the more stable you are and the harder it is to knock you off balance. 
  3. Turn with your “third eye” or your belly button/pelvis. As you enter a turn, turn your body (lead with your belly button) and the bike follows! Way cool and it works! 
  4. Keep up speed/ let off the brake and roll over all the obstacles!

Down We Go

Then Rebecca called me out — calling me her “teammate” (wow) — and asked if I wanted to lead out and have her follow or have her lead out and I follow her!

Ummm…I don’t know, I felt like I was being asked to jump off a cliff. I guess….. I’ll lead.

When no one is coming up, the descent down the Goat Trail isn’t too bad. Rebecca suggested we try and stay on the right side of the trail and simulate what it would be like on race day. Rebecca would occasionally yell out reminders to “stay loose” or “roll through it!”

We stopped at the bottom of the Goat Trail and Rebecca gave me words of encouragement. She reminded me how good disc brakes are and how they can stop quickly. That on downhill straightways, there is no need to use the brake. If you need to stop, your brake will stop you!

Then we headed down the Columbine road. This time Rebecca led. I tried to stay on her wheel…pretty much unsuccessfully, but it was great to watch her form and try and mimic her body movements.

I felt like we were flying. Elden actually said he had a hard time keeping up with us. I was surprised to actually pass a few people on the way down; that never happens when I descend! I was super nervous, but I tried to keep myself calm by reminding my self to relax and breath deeply.

When we rolled up to our truck, Rebecca was full of compliments and encouragement. What a great teammate! I was so excited for the upcoming week of training camp.

A big question that Rebecca had was about the Fate . How did I like it, how did it handle on the descent? For me, the jury was still out. I certainly did not like the way my back hurt on the climb, but I did like the way the Fate handled on the descent. But was it the Fate or the new techniques I had just implemented? I decided I would use my Stumpy on the next ride and see how my back felt and how I felt on the descent.

Recovery Burrito

After the Clinic, Rebecca, Elden and I went into town. Leadville was celebrating Boom Days, so there were a lot of festivities going on. We got burritos and the most expensive lemonade in the world for lunch. Elden and I paid for the burritos; Rebecca bought the lemonade…which wound up costing more. That’s what you get for buying a drink from a street vendor, I guess!

As we sat there in the sunshine and ate our lunch, I couldn’t believe I was actually in Leadville on a day that wasn’t raining. It was sunny and beautiful outside. Better yet, I had just cleaned the Columbine climb, and now was eating a burrito with Rebecca Rusch!

What a crazy life I lead!

Advice from My “Mom”

After lunch, we headed to Rebecca’s rental house. Both Rebecca and Elden had work to do. Nurses, on the other hand, don’t bring their work home with them (fortunately!), so I had nothing to do.

I read my book for awhile and then Blake called. Blake is my 24-year-old son / mother. He has a tendancy to want to take care of me and give me the benefit of his vast experience. I think he thinks of me as his child.

Our roles have always been a little messed up.  

Our conversation centered around my bike choice. He was pretty adamant that I stick to my Stumpy. Why change things up when they have worked all summer?

He was also very concerned about my well-being. He was concerned that I would injure myself while pushing myself to descend fast. I guess he doesn’t believe you can teach an old dog new tricks!

I think he was projecting his own nerves upon me as he thought about his overly-aggressive downhill effort that resulted in a wreck and a broken collarbone a week before his Leadvlle in 2011.

I did my best to assure my little mother that I was fine and was being coached by the very best!

Positive Scripts

While Elden and Rebecca continued to work, Rebecca had me listen to a podcast by Chris Kalous, a rock climbing friend of hers. In it, Chris interviews Don McGrath about his book, Vertical Mind. It talked about climbing and what McGrath calls “negative scripts” — the boundries that we place on ourselves that hold us back from reaching our true potential.

Although the podcast centered around climbing, I could easily apply the lessons to my biking, especially my descending. For so many years I have told myself that I am a terrible descender….which I in turn reinforce by being nervous and descending slowly.

This podcast was really helpful; I definitely recommend it! As I thought about my life, I could come up with MANY negative scripts that have come to define certain aspects of my personality. By recognizing these negative scripts, I can redefine them and turn them into positive ones. I haven’t wrecked going downhill in years. I am not a terrible descender. I may be a cautious descender, but I can redefine this script — or better yet, eliminate it by recognizing it and then turning it into a positive script.

“I haven’t had a downhill accident in years. My descending and bike handling skills have improved over the past few years and I am a better descender that can go faster, safely!”

This was an excellent week to put my new life philosophy into effect!

 

2014 Leadville 100 Race Report, Part 6: Finish Lines

08.21.2014 | 11:17 am

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.

Weird.

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.”

The Boulevard

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.

The Finish

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:

Screenshot 2014 08 21 04 25 41

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.

Group finishphoto
Photo taken by Linda Guerrette. Used with permission.

In fact, I am perfectly OK with that.

Elden lisa finish
Photo taken by Linda Guerrette. Used with permission.

Screenshot 2014 08 21 04 32 58

Afterward

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.

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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.  

Eldenbling2
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.

2014 Leadville 100 Race Report, Part 5: Cornball at 10,000 Feet

08.20.2014 | 11:49 am

The Hammer is stopped on one side of the trail. I am stopped at another. We are both within ten feet of crossing the Pipeline aid station timing pad, 75 miles into a 103.5-mile race.

Maybe I’ve had a more surreal moment in my life, but none come to mind.

Why is she stopped here? When did she pass me? Where is Rebecca? Is something wrong? 

I wanted to ask all of those questions. But expressing complex thoughts is a genuine problem for me when I’m racing. And yes, “What are you stopped here?” qualifies as a complex thought.

So, for the second time that day, I went with this:

“Hey!”

The Hammer, however, was better-prepared to say what was on her mind:

“WHERE IS OUR CREW?!”

“Behind you, about fifty feet, on this side of the trail!” I said, relieved to find I  both knew the answer and was able to express it. Also, I was relieved that the problem was simple and solvable: she had ridden past the crew.

She took off, backtracking toward the crew.

Should I Stay or Should I Go?

I stood there, a new dilemma on my hands. We were now 75 miles into a race, with about 28 miles to go. Wouldn’t it make sense for us to ride together now?

Yes, the nice husband part of my brain said. It was meant to be.

No, my voice of reason told me. That is the dumbest thing you have ever said.

Why? my nice husband brain-part asked, a little taken aback that the voice of reason part was so impolite.

Because you’re going to be riding on the flats for the next five miles, and you have no chance whatsoever of hanging with her. If you wait for her for one minute now, she’ll feel obligated to wait for you for the next big chunk of road, and she’ll lose boatloads of time she’s going to need if she wants to finish in under nine hours.

So I did the nice thing. I took off without my wife.

Good Timing

As I rode along, I considered how many times The Hammer’s and my path had crossed so far.

  1. When she passed me on the pavement at the very beginning of the race
  2. When I passed her going up St. Kevens
  3. When we crossed paths at the top of Columbine
  4. Just now, stopped at the Pipeline aid station.

I knew that very shortly, we’d run into each other again, as she and Reba, working together, would sail by my singlespeeding self before we got to the base of the Powerline climb.

And after that, what? Would I catch and pass them again? Or would they stay ahead of me for the rest of the race? 

Either way, I knew we’d be looking at a difference of a minute or two either way.

And — unless something went horribly wrong — we’d all be finishing in under nine hours. I know the course and split times well enough that I was sure of it.

She is going to do it, I thought. Lisa is going to finish The Leadville 100 in under nine hours on her tenth year of doing this race. She may well even beat me when she does it.

And right then, rolling along on the pavement by myself, that thought just overwhelmed me and I started crying a little, I was so happy. 

Your emotions tend to run a little bit hot when when you’re at the edge of doing what you’re capable of for so many hours.

But then I stopped thinking about any of that, because my right quad seized up. The cramps were back, brought on by — I’m speculating of course — the unfamiliar and very strenuous high cadence I was turning.

I was suffering. Bad. 

And I was worrying, too. If I’m hurting this badly on the flats, what’s going to happen to me in a few minutes, when I start the hardest climb of the day?

And it was while I was wrapped up in my misery that — as I knew they would — The Queen and the Hammer pulled up alongside me, pulling a long train of riders, all of them men, and all of them larger than the two women pulling this train.

“How are you doing?” The Queen of Pain asked me.

“I’m riding through a pretty bad cramp right now,” I said. 

“Have you been taking electrolyte capsules?” Reba asked. 

“I’ve never used them. I worry about trying new stuff during races,” I said.

“Take some now,” Reba said, reached into her jersey pocket, and handed me a cylinder with a flip-top lid. 

“They really work,” The Hammer affirmed.

That was good enough for me. “How many should I take?”

“As many as you can fit in your mouth. Half a dozen or so,” Reba said.

I kind of doubted that was what the good folks at Gu would recommend, but  you know, I figured The Queen of Pain knew her stuff. So I shook a mouthful of pills into my mouth, chased them down with Carborocket, and hoped they’d do the trick.

Soon.

“OK, we’ve got to go,” said The Queen of Pain, and ramped the pace up again.

I watched The Hammer sail past, her face grim, her eyes down. I have never seen a person so obviously in the pain cave. Deep, deep in the pain cave.

I was so proud of her I almost started crying again.

A Coke and a Smile, Courtesy of Strava

I was still in pain, now compounded with the disappointment of being on my own again; it had been nice to have company for a minute. But within a few minutes, the cramp faded. So that’s a piece of good news.

And I knew I was heading toward another piece of good news: the Strava tent, a mile or so before the beginning of the Powerline climb.

Why is that good news? Because at the Strava tent are Strava-ites, standing on the side of the road, handing out little cans of ice-cold Coke to anyone who wants one. 

And I wanted one. Oh, how I wanted one.

“You want a Coke?” a girl shouted.

“Yes!” I called back, and she popped the top open. I slowed down enough to get the handup without fumbling it and said “Thanks” with more sincerity than you can possibly imagine.

Cornball at 10,000 Feet

I got to the end of the pavement and took the left turn onto the beginning of the Powerline climb.

I always feel a little dread when I take that turn. It’s a “deep breath” moment. You know, sort of like the deep breath you take before diving into a swimming pool full of battery acid.

The thing is, though, it’s only four miles long, from when you turn off the pavement, to when you get to the summit. And it takes less than an hour, if you push hard. And the first mile isn’t even very hard. 

So it’s really not a big deal, right?

Right?

Yeah, it’s kind of a big deal. Because in that 3.2 miles of hard climbing, you go up about 1500 feet. And that’s not easy to do, when you’ve already got 81 miles of hard racing in your legs. 

For one part in particular, the smartest thing you can do — the only thing you can do, for all but the most elite of the elite — is get off and push.

Which I did. Early. Before I had to. Because I did not want to visit the Land o’ Cramps again if I could help it.

And then I could see The Hammer. And the Queen of Pain. They weren’t very far ahead of me. 

So I hiked a little faster. 

I got within a few feet of them. But there was a guy between The Hammer and me.

“Excuse me,” I called out. “That’s my wife right in front of you. Can you let me by?”

Of course he let me by. (You would too. You know you would.) 

Finally, we were together! Not actually riding together, because we were hiking our bikes at the moment, but still:

Eldenpowerlineup1
Reba in front, The Hammer (hidden behind my elbow) and me behind. Photo taken by Linda Guerrette. Used with permission.

“We’re together!” I said, taking the opportunity to verbalize the obvious.

I continued, “We’re eighty miles into this race and we’re together! Isn’t that incredible? I am so proud of you!” 

The Hammer did not answer. I looked over at her. Pain cave. Deep.

The Queen of Pain, however, did answer. “I can’t believe you’re being mushy here, on the Powerline,” she said.

Come to think of it, I couldn’t either. 

Elden ibis1
Photo taken by Linda Guerrette. Used with permission.

I felt like I could go faster, so I did. I didn’t say goodbye, though, because I knew we’d see each other soon.

Real soon.

The only question, really, was whether we’d see each other before the finish line.

Which you’ll find out in tomorrow’s installment of my part of the story.

PS: For those of you who are wondering whether The Hammer is going to write up her experience, let’s just say that as of yesterday evening, she has written eleven pages, and has a lot more to write. And it’s a compelling story.

2014 Leadville 100 Race Report, Part 4: I Wait for No Man. Nor Woman, Neither

08.19.2014 | 1:04 pm

I had just crossed the turnaround point of the Leadville 100 and — just a few minutes later, before the course turned downhill in earnest — I had come across The Hammer, riding with Rebecca Rusch immediately behind her and with a big smile on her face.

She knew how well she was doing. She had to know. 

Maybe I should wait, I thought. I could just wait here for like five minutes, tops, and then we could do the rest of the race together.

It was tempting. So tempting. I’ve never ridden The Leadville 100 with anyone. Sure, I’ll occasionally meet up with another rider and we’ll work together for a while, but it happens a lot less often than you might think, considering there are close to 2000 racers on the course.

But I have never raced with people I know (OK, I have once, but that was so long ago it’s like I was a totally different person).

I kept riding. In fact, I redoubled my efforts and took some risks, trying to get down off the mountain as fast as I possibly could.

I had my reasons.

Why I Didn’t Want The Hammer to Catch Me

The worst thing I could have done to The Hammer this year is ride with her. She had a shot at getting in under nine hours, and all I would have done is ruined those chances.

And in the process, she would have ruined mine, too.

You see, on the flats, there’s no way I could have kept up with her — using her fast SRAM XX1 1×11 drivetrain — as I pedaled all spun-out on my singlespeed. Even if I tried to draft the whole time. It’s just not possible.

Similarly, while The Hammer is a fast climber, I’m…well, I’m a little bit faster.

So if we’d have ridden together, we would have eliminated each others’ advantages.

And that would have made Reba mad.

You don’t want to see The Queen of Pain when she’s mad. (Actually, I’ve never seen Reba when she’s mad. I have seen her when she’s focused, though, and that’s close enough.)

Besides, it wasn’t my job to help or work with The Hammer. And if I’d tried, I’d simply have gotten in the way, given The Hammer a comfortable, reassuring person to tell her, “It’s OK to back off; you’ve done enough.”

For this race, The Hammer and The Queen were a team. This was going to be their victory or their defeat. 

My job would be to cheer them on. From afar. 

Oh, and also it was my job to get myself across the finish line, ASAP.

I Do Some Math

So with that dilemma mentally resolved, I now had a new puzzle to consider: 

When was I going to next see The Hammer?

Of course, it was possible I wouldn’t see her until the finish line, if I stayed in front for the rest of the race. But that seemed unlikely. There was a 20-mile flat section coming up after this descent, and then another few flat miles toward the end of the race.

That seemed like easily enough flat for The Hammer and The Queen of Pain to catch and pass me. 

But it wasn’t all flat between Columbine and the finish line. Far from it. The question was, would they put enough distance between us on the flats that I’d be unable to catch them on the climbs?

My expectation was that I’d see them at least twice: once as they passed me between Twin Lakes and Pipeline, and again as I passed them climbing toward Carter Summit. After that, I figured I’d stay ahead for the rest of the race.

And in the end, I pictured that we’d finish so close together that when I finished, I’d just wait right in the finish line area for three or four minutes ’til they crossed together.

Of course, that is not how it worked out in the end. I sometimes wonder why I even bother making predictions; I don’t think I have ever once been right.

Ode to Root Beer IMG 9467

I am always so relieved when I get to the bottom of the Columbine Mine descent. The hairpin turns wig me out. The racers zipping by me wig me out. The racers weaving their way up in the opposite direction — some of them not clearheaded due to exhaustion and altitude — wig me out. 

But I got to the bottom. Intact. Happy. With forty-two miles left in the course, there was nothing left for me to fear in the race. The climbs ahead were hard, and the descents were fast, but there wasn’t anything left that scared me.

Plus, there were a few things that were distinctly going my way. 

First, my biggest concern of the whole race — that my feet would hurt so badly that I’d be forced to quit — had turned out to be a non-issue. The Giro Codes I was wearing, in spite of this being my first ride of any real distance with them, fit comfortably. The shoe repair place had done a good job of stretching out the spot where my bunion is.

It felt so good to ride without my feet protesting.

The second thing I was loving is the new Gu flavor: Root Beer

You know those little barrel-shaped root beer-flavored candies you used to eat when you were a kid? That’s exactly what this new Gu flavor is like

During the race, I was grabbing Gus randomly — whichever one happened to be tucked under my shorts — but I was always excited when I happened to get a Root Beer Gu. 

Yes, you read that right. I was sixty miles into a race, and was happy to be eating a gel. 

Seriously, these are that good. 

Honestly, I don’t know what has happened at Gu recently, but they have stepped up their gel game, both in terms of effectiveness (Gu Roctane works better than anything else) and flavor (Salted Caramel, Salted Watermelon, Root Beer, Cherry-Lime, Island Nectar, Pineapple, Vanilla-Orange).

Between Gu and Carborocket 333, My energy level never crashed during this race, and I never dealt with any stomach issues. Not once. Going hard the entire race.

Simple. Tasty. Convenient. Effective. I’ve hit my endurance cycling nutrition happy place. 

Before the Big Climb

I get to the Twin Lakes Dam, and within moments — less than a minute — I have had my bottles swapped, my wrappers exchanged for new Gu packets, and I’ve slammed down some chicken and stars soup.

My sister Kellene tells me, “Lisa and Reba were only three minutes behind you the first time through.”

“Yeah, that’s about how far back they were at the top of Columbine,” I replied. “They’ll be here in just a couple minutes, I’m sure!”

And I am gone again. The days when I spent several minutes at the aid station are gone forever, I think. 

Or at least until the next time I come to Leadville 30 pounds overweight. Which could be next year, the way I’ve been eating this past week.

But anyway.

I ride up the short paved climb that comes right after the aid station. I stand and can feel the cramps lurking somewhere close. Somewhere real close.

But they aren’t here quite yet.

I step up my effort, thinking two things. 

  1. The Hammer and Reba are bound to catch me somewhere on this 20-mile stretch before the Powerline climb. But I’d like it to be later, rather than sooner. 
  2. I used to have such a hard time with this little road climb. For years and years, I took a good long rest the second time through the Twin Lakes Dam aid station, eating some sandwich, drinking some water. Just long enough to let my legs stiffen up and my heart rate to drop. Then I’d get out of the aid station and hit this climb and it would flatten me. Now I get to this climb still warmed up and without a sandwich sitting like a rock in my gut…and this little climb is so much easier to ride.

I go hard, working to be as fast as I can be, in spite of my singlespeededness. People pass me anyway — the same people I passed as I went up Columbine. I don’t hold this against them, but I do start thinking. I think, “Next year, I don’t want to be passed here. Next year, I’m racing with gears.”

Then I realize: this is the first time I have ever started planning my next racing of the Leadville 100…during the racing of the current Leadville 100.

I need help.

I find a rare tree off the side of the road — I am a private man — and take care of things which need taking care of.

As I swing my leg back over my bike, it occurs to me: i no longer know where I stand vis-à-vis The Hammer and The Queen of Pain. They could have passed me whilst I was having my moment of privacy. In fact, I think, it would be very surprising if they didn’t. 

Furthermore, that guy with the singlespeed I passed on Columbine. If he’s faster on downhills (and let’s face it: who isn’t?), he could have just passed me.

I ride harder, considering the fact that this race is so tight that my pee break may well have put me permanently behind The Hammer and knocked me off the singlespeed podium.

Confusion and Terror

When you’re racing, it’s amazing how fast your attention changes. How quickly you forget things.

One moment, my entire mind was occupied with the question of whether my wife was now racing ahead of me, or behind me.

The next moment I came tearing into the Pipeline aid station:

Elden0ffcolumbine1
Photo taken by Linda Guerrette. Used with permission.

Among all the excitement and noise and people, I completely forgot all about that question; the only important thing now was to find my crew.

Which I did, without difficulty. They were standing off the the left side of the trail, about fifty feet before the official aid station tables and timing mat, waving frantically at me.

I pulled over and we began the ritual of trading out food and drink one last time. They took care of everything while I drank the entirety of a chicken and stars soup. I figured that with a big climb coming up and the problems I’d been having with cramps, the extra sodium I was taking on board was well worth the time it took to drink.

This would have been a perfect time to ask a simple question. A simple question that had been the central focus of my existence five minutes ago. A question along the lines of, “Has Lisa come through yet?”

I did not ask that question. Nope. Didn’t even occur to me. 

Instead I finished up, thanked my crew for being so awesome, and told them that I’d see them in the finish line in just under three hours. 

I clipped in, stood up, and got up to speed.

And then my head spun around at what I saw.

The Hammer. Stopped. At the aid station. Talking with one of the race officials. Without Reba anywhere in sight. 

Baffled, scared of what this must mean, and utterly out of my head from the storm of conflicting messages going through my brain, I pulled off the trail and locked up my brakes so I could stop and talk to The Hammer. So I could find out what she was doing there, and figure out what was going on.

I shouted out the first thing that came to mind:

“Hey!”

PS: This seems like a good place to pick up tomorrow.

2014 Leadville 100 Race Report, Part 3: I am the Fast Guy, I am the Slow Guy

08.18.2014 | 10:57 am

NewImage

A note from Fatty: The Hammer and I are PlentyPlus™ excited to be coming to Rebecca’s Private Idaho this Labor Day weekend (the ride is 8/31) — a 90-mile (with a shorter 56-mile option) dirt road ride in the mountains outside Ketchum Idaho, hosted by The Queen of Pain herself.

The atmosphere is friendly and low-key, the ride is challenging, the place is beautiful. We’re excited to be going.

If there’s a chance you’re going — and there should be a very good chance indeed that you’re going — too, we should totally meet up. Like maybe meet somewhere for dinner on Saturday night, the evening before the race. 

I’ll figure out the “where” part once I know how many of us are going. Let me know if you’ll be around and how many are going to be in your party in the comments, OK?  

Finally, on the day of the ride itself, The Hammer and I are going to be going to be trying for the new-for-this-year RPI Bolo Tie. The only way to get one of these is to finish the ride in less than 6:30. We wouldn’t have made that time cutoff last year. This year I think we’ve got the incentive to get it done.

2014 Leadville 100 Race Report, Part 3: I am the Fast Guy, I am the Slow Guy

Now it’s my turn. Those are the exact words that ran through my head, over and over and over. Like it was payback time. My opportunity to get revenge for an injustice done to me.

Except, of course, the slight was purely imaginary. All these people who had been passing, passing, passing me on the flattish 20 or so miles we had just completed were just riding their bikes. Racing. Going hard, like I was. It wasn’t their fault I had made the singlespeed equipment decision.

But hey. I needed something to get worked up about. Some reason to get angry, so I could stand up and climb from 9600 feet to 12,600 feet in eight miles.

(And yes, I would be standing for all but short moments of that climb.)

Revenge is is as good a fake-anger motivation as any. 

I began climbing. And I began passing people. Even though I was turning the cranks over slowly, slowly. It’s hard work, and requires some serious power, as well as a willingness to embrace pain.

Both of which I have.

To get a sense of what the The first five or so miles look like in the Leadville 100 Columbine climb, take a look at this photo, which I took while riding the Columbine climb a week before the actual race

IMG 9397

Okay, that’s what it looks like. For five miles. Except there are a bunch of people ahead of you. Some you are passing, and some are passing you.

And then, at some point, race leaders begin tearing down the other side of the road, inconsiderately leaving you to deal with the sonic boom in their wake.

So it’s extremely important to stay on your side of the road at all times. I don’t even want to think what the collision of a a racer going slowly uphill with a racer going 40mph downhill would look like. 

Inklings of Trouble

I keep riding, and — to my vast pride — I keep eating. Every thirty minutes or so, whether I feel like it or not, I suck down a Gu Roctane gel. I don’t even check what flavor I’m putting in my mouth, because I made sure when packing my stuff the night before that only my favorite flavors (Island Nectars, Cherry Lime, Vanilla Orange, Pineapple) are with me for this leg.

I don’t want to give myself any excuse to not keep eating.

And — whenever I get a moment of climbing reprieve — I sit and take a quick tug of water.

I hit 11,000 feet and noticed that — unlike most years — I still felt pretty good. It seems that coming out to Leadville a week early to make some red blood cells has helped.

But no matter how acclimated you are or well you fuel, when you’re doing this much climbing, at this high an effort (I’m pushing a 46:26 — reducing down to 1.8:1 —  gear ratio), your muscles will get fatigued.

And then they might cramp.

But they weren’t cramping yet. Not yet. But I could start to feel them twinge. My hamstrings. My quads. My calves. Both legs. Just the bare inklings that my legs aren’t a bottomless well of power.

If I wasn’t smart about this climb, I’d pay the price at some point.

Heckled

So I tried to be smart. At about five miles into the Columbine climb, suddenly you turn a corner and all the trees disappear. 

Now you’re on the final three miles to the summit. And this is the hard part.

The trail, most of the time, looks about like this: 

IMG 9408

Except with a lot more people, and a lot of them are walking, and there are people flying down one side of the road, and there are sections that are terrifyingly loose and rocky.

But otherwise, a lot like that picture above.

As you climb that last three miles, you have to make decisions pretty frequently. But really, it’s the same decision, over and over, at different places on the trail:

Is it smarter for me to ride this section, or hike it?

As The Hammer had demonstrated a week ago, the whole Columbine mine climb — all eight miles of it — is rideable. But there’s a price to pay. You only have a certain number of matches in your box for the day: do you burn one now?

It’s a hard question, because you really don’t know how many matches you have until you’ve burned your last one. 

With twinges of oncoming cramps in my legs, I opt to walk pretty early, and pretty often. Hey, I’ve got nothing to prove to anyone.

Except

Except there’s a guy there. Wearing a cowboy hat. Sitting on an ATV. And he’s yelling at me.

“Get back on that bike! Get back on that bike and pedal!

It’s Ken Chlouber, one of the founders of The Leadville 100. He’s every bit as much an icon of this race as the climbs. As much of an icon as the red carpet finish, or the big belt buckles. 

And right now he’s laughing at me and telling me to get back on my bike and ride it.

I try reasoning with him.

“I’m on a singlespeed! Walking this part of the climb is a sound race strategy!”

He laughs at me again. 

“Around here, we just call that being a sissy!” (Except he doesn’t exactly use the word “sissy.”)

I’ve just been called out by Ken Chlouber, as I climb the Columbine mine. It’s like being called out by Elvis as you’re passing through the doors of Graceland.

So what am I going to do? 

I get back on my bike and climb. Obviously. Until I’m out of site of the man, anyway.

At which point I have to get off the bike, because my quads and hamstrings, on both legs, have just gone into full-blown cramp mode, and there’s nothing in the world I could do right now to keep pedaling my bike.

Full Stop

The pain of your two biggest muscles, on both legs, going into a monster cramp, is incredible. Exquisite even.

There was nothing I could do to ride. I couldn’t even walk. I just held on to my handlebars for balance and crouched on the side of the trail, grabbing my brake levers to keep my bike in place.

Hoping, hoping the pain would pass soon so I could continue on. 

Hoping, hoping the cramp would subside before The Hammer caught me. I don’t want her to find me here, immobile. If she caught me here, she’d want to stop, check on me. Help me.

Then I’d ruin both our chances at finishing this race under nine hours.

Oh great. Here comes a rider and he’s on his bike. I’m directly in his way.

I scuttle — crouching — to the other side of the trail.

Oh, even better. Here comes a racer, bombing downhill. I’m directly in his way. He’s yelling at me and rightly so. 

I scuttlecrouch back to the correct side of the trail.

I wait, and I suffer.

The pain backs off a little bit. I can stand again. I try walking, leaning forward to stretch my hamstrings. 

Yes. Yes, I can do this. 

I begin walking again. And if Ken Chlouber himself would have walked up to me and started yelling in my ear to get back on my bike and beating me about the head and shoulders with an enormous Leadville belt buckle to drive home his point, I would have kept right on walking.

Probably.

50%

The last three miles to the turnaround point in the race isn’t all hiking and misery. Some of it is very mild climbing, and a lot of it is beautiful.

I ride when I can, and walk when I need to. And during one of these marching sections, I see something important: a guy on a singlespeed. Or more to the point, another guy walking his singlespeed. 

I commence marching with purpose. I catch him, say “hi,” and push by. 

I do not know whether I have just marched myself into fourth or fifth place, or onto the podium, or maybe into second place. This is the first singlespeed I’ve seen the whole race.

I start thinking about how nice it would be to have a spot on the podium. And that thought gives me purpose as, little by little, conservatively, I get to the turnaround point. 

4:18 on my Garmin. Which, using my simple-but-reliable calculus of “finish time for Leadville is double your turnaround time,” I was still in good shape for a sub-nine finish. 8:36 was my probable finish time.

My heart leaps for joy.

I dreamed of a Columbine split time of less than 4:30 for so many years. For more than a decade I dreamed and worked toward this. I don’t think it will ever feel ordinary for me to have this kind of power, this kind of speed. 

I stop, put a leg down. This is the view from the Columbine mine, if you care to take a look:

IMG 9414

I don’t look. Not today. Today is not about sightseeing (but I’m glad I had the chance to sightsee a week ago).

I take a drink of Coke a volunteer offers me. Ask for another. I drink it, toss the paper cup in the trash, and clip in. Half a minute is all the time I want to spend up here at 12,600 feet.

Crossing  Paths

I wonder about The Hammer. Was she on track for a sub-nine-hour finish? If so, she’d need to hit this turnaround point soon. Really soon. Like, within ten minutes at the very most.

Then I begin climbing, so I can’t wonder about The Hammer anymore.

Yes, the first thing you do after climbing for eight miles and get to the turnaround point at the top of Columbine mine is climb some more. Just for a minute, though, and then it’s time to descend for eight solid miles, trying to choose a balance between going as fast as you can and not wrecking into one of the hundreds of people marching up the mountain, while also trying not to hit one of the loose or embedded rocks that will give you a flat.

It’s been maybe four minutes since I left the turnaround point. I’m picking my way down through rocks and around a mud puddle.

“Hey Baby!” 

It’s The Hammer. She’s right there. I had hoped to see her soon, but I hadn’t expected to see her this soon. 

She’s on track for a sub-nine-hour finish. Right at that moment, I become absolutely, completely certain: She is going to do it. 

I want to shout. I want to yell. I am so incredibly happy I cannot even come close to describing it. 

But also I’m surprised and my brain is not functioning and I don’t have words ready to say what I want to say.

So I just yelled, “Hey!” And hoped that conveyed everything I wanted it to. But I kind of suspect it didn’t.

Close maybe, but not quite.

PS: I think you’ll agree that once in a while, it’s kind of nice to have an installment end in a happy place. So let’s pick up here in the next installment of this story.

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