A Note from Fatty: By now it should be pretty obvious that The Hammer and I are both pretty big fans of The Queen of Pain. As such, we are going to be heading out to the second annual Rebecca’s Private Idaho this weekend to hang out and ride with her.
If you can make it happen, you should too. It’ll be a great chance to have a great ride, and to meet — and I don’t just mean “meet” in the “meet and greet” kind of way, but actually talk and hang out with — Reba.
So. Register here. And we’ll see you there.
Of Course It Starts With Egg Whites
Early Sunday morning, we woke up and made Rebecca our famous scrambled egg whites and avocados…with some mushrooms and onions and chicken and cheese thrown in; this wasn’t really the time to be focusing on weight loss! Reba was a good sport and ate them without complaint. It was refreshing to see a real pro athlete eating a normal diet. I guess I assumed she would drink green smoothies in the morning and have weird dietary restrictions at every meal.
We also cranked up “Rage Against the Machine” while we ate, because Tim Commerford was going to be riding up the Powerline along with Reba’s “Leadville Experience” group ride this morning! Tim is the bassist/back up vocalist for the band Rage Against the Machine–which happens to be one of my kid’s favorite bands. And I have to admit: I really like them too. I’m quit the hard rocker. I’ve been trying to convert Elden from Grunge to Rocker. We have come to a happy medium ……and now listen to Todays Top Hits!
[A Note from Fatty: First, grunge is rock. Second, I believe I have pointed out in this very blog — way back in 2011, even, so this isn’t me saying it just because it’s convenient -- that of all the songs in the world, a Rage Against the Machine song is my absolute #1 go-to song for climbing.]
We then headed to the middle school where a large group of riders had gathered. I recognized some from the day before, but more had joined our team!
Rebecca explained what we were in for on the Powerline climb-the false summits, benefits of walking vs riding, total mileage and elevation. Elden got video of these tips and more here:
Rebecca also added tips for the riders who wanted to break the nine hour mark, like:
- Pedal hard whenever you can-even on the downhill sections, and watch your average miles per hour on your garmin.
- Calculate what your average mph is to reach your goal and then make sure you maintain that speed (obviously you need to bank time on the flats/descents to make up for the slower climbs). Rebecca noted that her average speed is the most important thing she looks at on her Garmin when she races.
She then turned us loose, telling us we would reconvene at the top.
No Matter How Hard You Try, You Can’t Stop Us Now
And we were off. We stayed together as a group as we rolled along the pavement to the base of the climb. As soon as we hit dirt, we all took off at our climbing pace.
I shifted down and found my all day climbing pace — that’s one thing I’m really good at: finding a level of effort that isn’t easy, but won’t blow me up.
The first half mile of the climb is super steep. Rebecca reminded us that walking up this part of the climb is not a bad thing. It gives your ‘biking’ legs a break. She did suggest we “walk with purpose:” big long steps that propel you forward. She told us she has only rode this pitch once during a race, the other times she walked, but moved as quickly as the ones riding it.
I chanted my mantra silently to myself…”slow and steady, slow and steady” I looked up and realized I was almost to the top of the climb — just a few more turns of the pedals and I was there! I had cleaned the Powerline climb (lower section)!
At the top of the climb there is a false flat and short descent. At this point Rebecca was again right behind me. She encouraged me to pedal hard on the descents to build up speed to have the momentum to carry me up the bottom part of the next climb. This, she said, will shave off just a few seconds, but a few seconds here and there add up to a few minutes at the end of a big race — which can get you to a new best time.
I took her words to heart and zipped down the steep pitch -trying to rewrite my negative script and hit the climb with speed. I repeated this three more times as i hit each false flat/descent.
At some point during the climb, Elden passed me like I was standing still. If you can turn the crank on a SS on a climb you are hauling.
Elden was singing as he went by. “Say jam sucker, jam! Say jam sucker, jam!” he belted out. Later, he told me he was singing “Renegades of Funk. Unfortunately, he’s a bad enough singer that I couldn’t even tell.
A minute later, I caught up with a guy with a cool tattoo on his calf — Tim Commerford. He was climbing really well, and I yelled some encouragement as I zipped on by.
Our group had grown in number substantially as we climbed to the top. At the top we all gathered for a group jump shot!
Honestly, it’s pretty darned amazing how well we coordinated that shot. I wonder if Elden’s sister Kellene has ever got that many people to be clear of the ground in a photo like this before!
And of course I got a photo of me with Tim Commerford.
And so did Rebecca:
That is one patient rocker.
Later, I’d actually be really happy (for the first time in a long time!) to see my Strava for the segment:
Second-fastest woman overall! Considering who’s first, I’m more than happy to be second!
A Good Line to Follow
When we were done posing, Rebecca educated us on the upcoming descent (This time Elden forgot to get out his phone and video it, which he kicked himself for the rest of the day).
Rebecca called her teammate — me — up and we started down the descent. I followed her this time, watching her as she descended. I was truly amazed that she was able to drop down a technical descent like this, at a wicked-fast pace…and still turn around and make sure I’m following her! I never turn around on descents because my front wheel naturally goes the direction of my head: not a good sceneraio.
Halfway down the descent, Rebecca called out that she had a flat. So our little group got a quick lesson fixing a tire.
Rebecca decided to refill the tire with some additional “Stans” and hope it would fix the leak. The tire held air and we quickly progressed down the rest of Powerline (The tire ended up holding air for the duration of the ride, but we later found out that Rebecca’s rim on her wheel had actually cracked! I’m so happy she noticed that and had time to get a new wheel before the race.) I felt pretty good on the descent, but Powerline is scary—it may take some time to rewrite this negative script…it feels like I have written “Powerline is dangerous in stone!
Reading Rusch to Glory
After our ride, we headed back to Rebecca’s house. Elden and Rebecca worked. I started reading Rebecca’s book, Rusch to Glory. I was immediately sucked in. I was mesmorized as I learned of all of Rebecca’s adventures and achievements. I was impressed by the way she took leaps of faith in her career path-she didn’t take the easy, comfortable route.
I have to admit, I am a little envious of Rebecca’s life. I was pretty much raised to believe that a woman’s role was to be a wife and mother. I don’t’ regret my life’s decision, but it’s sure fun to read about someone who took a different path, and to live a little of her life through her words!
Watching …Burro Races?
I’m the type of person who has a hard time sitting for an extended period of time, so later in the afternoon I decided to take a walk downtown. Boom Days was still going strong and this afternoon the Burro Races would be arriving.
Burro racing has a little different vibe than a mountain bike race. The racers can only go as fast as their burro wants to go. It was fun to see the tired racers pulling the burro across the finish line.
The burro doesn’t care if there is another burro/racer 50 feet ahead of them!
As I headed back up to the house, the sky opened up and the rain began to fall. Pretty soon it was hailing, so I stopped under a tree and watched. The funny thing was, it was sunny. The weather is truly weird at 10,000ft!
For dinner, we headed to Tennessee Pass Café. It was fun to listen to Elden and Rebecca talk. Rebecca is a great motivator even off the bike. She had some great suggestions for Elden concerning his future. She has taken many risks in her life and it has paid off-not always in the way that she thought, but she made the most of the situation.
I think Elden came away motivated and optimistic about the future.
As for me, I was just in awe that I was eating dinner with Rebecca Rusch…in Leadville.
I was still a little starstruck.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
We took a few minutes to get some gorgeous pictures at the top.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!
- 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.
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!
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!
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.
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:
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.
As I rode along, I considered how many times The Hammer’s and my path had crossed so far.
- When she passed me on the pavement at the very beginning of the race
- When I passed her going up St. Kevens
- When we crossed paths at the top of Columbine
- 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.
“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?
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:
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
- 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.
- 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:
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:
PS: This seems like a good place to pick up tomorrow.
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