Thursday, August 14, 2014

Race Across the Sky: A Leadville Trail 100 First-Timer Story

On Tuesday, I shared my personal hunt for the Fat Cyclist duo, but what is vastly more important was the real reason we were in Leadville over the weekend (which, sad as I am to admit it, wasn't to get a photo of Fatty or the Hammer). I did ask Sam if he'd be willing to share his LT100 experience from over the weekend. I know that sometimes race reports can be long, but I think it's interesting to get the perspective of a first-timer at a race. This one was pretty intense and I now clearly understand why people wear their belt buckles as a badge of honor - even if I didn't participate in the ride itself (but, of course, that won't stop me from throwing out my random thoughts). If you have ever wondered what it might be like to participate in the LT100 MTB, perhaps this will provide a bit of insight... or, maybe you'll wonder why people sign up for this race at all. So, without further ado...

The first thing that comes to mind is, "Why am I doing this?"

During the 10 days prior to the Leadville Trail 100 MTB race my back was hurting. It had been months since it had been this way, so of course it would pick this moment to start the pain again.  I had been riding/training like crazy.  Well, crazy for me.  I was doing over 150 Miles per week between my mountain bike and my road bike.  I had gone single speed for the Silver Rush 50 a few weeks prior, so I decided to swap some things and go back to a geared version.  I was worried that keeping it a single speed might handicap me, since this was my first attempt at the LT100, and I had concerns that I wouldn’t finish in the 12 hour time frame.

It begins.  We rolled out very early on Friday the 8th, so that I could make the 7-10am packet pickup in Leadville. It was a mostly uneventful morning. Practically everything was ready, and we made it to Leadville around 9am, where I picked up my packet, got my medical bracelet, and we proceeded to get an early meal before the 11am "mandatory" briefing at the gymnasium. [G.E.'s note: I swear, I think higher altitude makes me more hungry... of course, it didn't help that I hadn't had breakfast at home because I woke up late.]
Friday's expo before the race.
Sometimes when out-of-state family/friends see photos of Colorado they ask if the sky is really that blue. The answer is, yes, it really is that blue - unless it's storming. :O)
We decided to park the car, and ride our bikes to the meeting. There was a small group of expo vendors, but I just wasn't in the mood to mess with them, or attempt to get some free stuff (I never seem to be in the mood on those days). We strolled up, picked up my t-shirt, and we found a seat on the floor of the gym.  We had decided that G.E. should just join me for this, since it was the last thing I needed to do, and why not experience it since she was already there? [G.E.'s note: I had grand plans to go on a nice, long, leisurely bike ride through the mountains during Sam's meeting. I had brought along the Hillborne with a big front bag attached thinking that I'd take some photos, but after riding Sam over to the gym, I sincerely thought I might die on a road somewhere.]
Picking up race t-shirts before the medical meeting
It was insanely crowded, hot, and noisy.  I already felt like I was coming down with the flu, and the right side of my back was totally killing me.  Bad omen number one.  I think the whole deal took about 2 hours. Various local biking celebrities spoke, an F1 driver, Jason Seahorn, Ken and Marilee, lots of talking, clapping, etc. [G.E.'s note: There were actually several touching things said in this meeting. I actually teared up more than once listening to the founders and others' experiences. It was a good reminder to always work hard, dig deep, and go after the things we want in life. That said, I can definitely have the patience/attention span of a toddler, so I was ready to be let loose again.]
Everyone waits for the meeting to begin... this is one packed gym!
We were free!  We rode back up the hill into town from the gym [G.E.’s note: It was actually uphill both ways, if we’re totally honest - and yes, I know that seems weird, but it's true - but it seemed worse coming back into town for some reason], at great expense to our lungs (omen #2?) [G.E.'s note: Um, I literally couldn't breathe. Sam was asking me questions as we were climbing and I had no ability whatsoever to respond, making me acutely aware that I am not in any shape for the sort of riding the folks were getting ready to do when I can't even climb the hill back into town.], hung in the room for a while, then walked over to one of the best little hole in the wall Mexican restaurants in a small mountain town I think we have been to. Good stuff and cheap (this may be prime motivation for us to move to Leadville). [G.E.'s note: I think we were just really hungry. The food was good, but I don't think it's quite reason enough to make a giant move to Leadville. :O) ]
It was still dark out... definitely earlier than G.E. likes to be up. Even Sam was looking tired here.
Really, that was about it for day one.  I wanted to get to sleep early, so I could get up early.  I really felt sick, and my back was killing me, and I probably slept about 4-5 hours, 20 mins at a time for the entire night.  I got up at around 3:45, showered, then went over to the 4am continental breakfast to "carb up", came back to the room, woke G.E. up, and drug us out to the car where I pulled the bike off the car, checked the tires, myself, etc.  I was actually feeling good, the flu symptoms had subsided, and my back was merely achy (yay!). 

G.E. released me to my corral, while she went back to the hotel to get some food that would be insufficient to fuel her for the day : ). [G.E.’s note: I am not very smart and somehow believed that 5 pieces of honeydew melon was going to get me through about 12 hours. For the record, it wasn’t, and delirium definitely set in by mid-afternoon.] 
Waiting to go
The line up and the corral was surprisingly easy to deal with compared to descriptions I had read prior to the race.  I think I was there about 40 mins early, and there were only a few people with me.  I recognized some of them.  A woman who works at a local bike shop back home, a pair of tandem riders I had gone back and forth with during the SR50, and a guy from MA that I had a short conversation with in regard to Leadville (his 4th trip).

Time moved quickly.  Local champ, Dave Wiens’ son sang the national anthem, and then we were ready to go! Oddly enough, I was not nervous at all at this point; I was very relaxed.  I think something has changed in me as I’ve aged.  I could not say the same for some DB's up in front of me, as they immediately chose to ignore the warning about going slow off the start and endo-ed into each other (and then spastic-ally tried to get righted). All I could think was just calm the hell down. 
And... they are off!
We rode downhill out of town for a few miles, and at a pretty brisk 25mph pace all the way to the dirt road where we would meet the first climb, St. Kevins, which is a 5.1 mile climb.  It was pretty narrow and everyone was moving pretty quickly (no walkers yet). It was almost impossible to pass from the position I was in.  Once peaked, we had a short downhill and then proceeded to climb the back side of "Powerline" for approximately 5 more miles.  

Unfortunately, there was a small bit of walking on this one already, as we were backed up at least 40-50 deep.  After the peak, we had spread out a bit and were able to actually ride "free" down Powerline and start to break into the more "roadie" open part of the course from about mile 20-40.  To this point, I had seen about 1/2 dozen flat tires, a few dropped chains, and a guy whose crank sounded like a wooden lazy susan spinning around and around.  All in all, I was feeling pretty good.   
Sam rolls through the first aid station
Then, the left side of my back locked up, without warning.  My answer to that was, “screw you.” I would save my anger for later.  

Back in the "flat area", at approximately mile 20, there were a ton of paved flat areas where I managed to latch on to a peloton that was rolling at about 30mph like a road group.  This brought us most of the way to the first aid station "Pipeline", where I saw G.E. cheering for me and my fellow riders. I briefly stopped (30 seconds), to grab more GU packs to satiate my 45min GU consumption habit. Miles 26-ish to 40 were more up and down, just not super dramatic, with some single track riding thrown in.  I was beginning to fatigue from the effort and the pain in my back, but then at mile 40 and Twin Lakes, the aid station finally arrived.  I did not stop this time. I went through and continued to the base of Columbine, where pure pain and suffering awaited me, and the slowest, longest part of my day would happen (Did I mention how great the weather was?  It didn't rain!). [G.E.'s note: It didn't rain, but it looked awfully stormy, and some intense wind set in for the second half of the race.]
The red arrow marks where racers were headed up Columbine
At Columbine I would discover the stuff of legend, movies, articles, and word of mouth.  It's 7.4 miles up, all the way to approximately 12,400 feet, and the turn around point of this 104 mile trek.  Long, long fire access roads up Columbine, I was using the local bike shop woman mentioned earlier as my carrot, and trying to stay with her up the mountain. This lasted about 2 turns, at which point she totally lost me.  Shortly after this, I started to see the leaders come down the hill, followed by "Fat Cyclist" himself, then the "Hammer" with Rebecca Rusch in tow, who was shouting encouragement to her, almost willing her to complete what would be the Hammer’s best finish ever.  

A short way up Columbine, I started to feel dizzy and nauseous, probably from the extreme altitude.  This caused me to go pretty slow (4mph), and I had to focus to keep from losing it.  Near the top, we all had to dismount due to a log jam of riders. Then we mounted again, and rolled into the turn-around.

At 50 miles in, it was probably about 35 degrees, but sunny at 12,400 feet.  I felt sick, dizzy, and my left leg was not working well.  I decided this would be my longest stop, but still under 10 minutes.  I had my water refilled, and my go-juice bottle [G.E.’s note: We call our energy drink “go juice”], then I picked up a few more GU packs, ate 2 chocloate chip cookies, half of a bananna, and some random flavored GU (Did I tell you that I actually don't care what flavor it is out on the trail?  Weird, I don't have a favorite.)  I had a short conversation with a volunteer, while I was attempting to pull my left leg over the bike.  His words, “The next 30 miles are ‘recovery.’” Somehow, I was highly doubtful.  I smiled, and gingerly headed back down. 
Sam didn't even notice me (and I almost missed him entirely) coming down Columbine -- of course, I hadn't helped matters by wearing all gray. Lesson learned.
What took me 2 hours and 12 mins to climb, took 30 minutes to descend, and I'm pretty slow on the decent, as my front tire (bad choice), really wanted to wash out on the corners.  It was still pretty fast, and I could feel the nausea going away as I headed back to 10k feet of elevation.  My god, get me the hell out of there, and on to the 30 miles of recovery!

Back to Twin Lakes, again.  I rolled through there and did not stop, I just wanted to get to the Pipeline aid station. We were back at around mile 60, and some flat areas, where once again, I was able to find some others to work with on the way, which made it a bit easier to get to the Pipeline aid station. 
Sam rolls into Pipeline
Pipeline, again, at about 73ish miles.  And now I was dead, but oddly, my back felt better - and I'm not dizzy. Perhaps a second wind?  I saw G.E. in the middle section of the pipeline crew area, where we very briefly spoke, she hooked me up with an estrogen bar [G.E.’s note: Sam likes Luna bars, and someone once told him that they couldn’t believe he would eat them because they have estrogen in them. For the record, Luna protein bars do not have estrogen in them, but the nickname kind of stuck.], and took a filthy picture, which you may have already seen [G.E.’s note: Maybe. But it's up here again.].  I can't tell you how good it was to see her at this point. I was really drained mentally, and I was about 30 miles out, and some nasty climbs away from the finish. [G.E.'s note: I was glad to see Sam, too. I had been on a several-mile hunt for him with no results, so to see him roll up was fantastic!] Seriously, thank god she was there because I think I would have just rolled through, and not rested at all.   
Sam wasn't really this cranky, but he was chewing when I took the shot... sorry Sam!
Next was the return to Powerline, but this time it was the bad side.  At about mile 80, it was time to climb Powerline. Prior to this, I had worked with a few people to make the 7 miles in between a bit easier, but it hadn't helped much. Everyone was getting slow.  When we all reached Powerline, it was once again backed up.  What sucked is that I had the energy to actually climb it this time, but we all had to dismount.  Including the super tandem duo, riding on a beach cruiser, shirtless, and ringing a bell.  Two guys can walk up a hill with a tandem way faster than I can! God, it took forever to walk up Powerline, I can't tell you how bad my feet hurt in biking shoes, walking with my bike!  Then, we got to go downhill for a while. 
Two guys on a tandem beach cruiser... they looked to be having fun. Definite props to these guys, who killed it - in cut-offs even!
The backside of Kevins?  My god, more climbing!  Then, Peak Kevins and we were at mile 90-ish. This is it; I'm on the way home. No more climbing, and about 14 miles left.  Back at about mile 80, my back did a turn around, and I felt 100% better, but the last 14-15 miles of the ride was probably the worst time besides Columbine.  It seemed like that last bit was a false summit, then another false summit, then one more, and then finally a 2 mile climb to the finish. [G.E.'s note: Yeah, this was the same climb we made coming back into town after the medical meeting the day before. I didn't enjoy it and I hadn't been riding 100 miles before completing it.] Who thinks of these things? [G.E.’s note: Crazy people… like the people who actually do this ride. :O)]
I think Sam's face pretty much sums things up in this photo right after the finish line
I finished strong, even with the hill at the end: 10:52:38. Sub-11 hours, and probably as good as I could have imagined doing it for my first time.  All I wanted to do was sit down and weep. I was filthy and tired, but it was worth it.  G.E. walked me back to our car so I could get rid of the bike.  Just like the SR50, I would not and could not have done it without her. [G.E.’s note: Ahh, that’s sweet. Honestly, I think he would’ve been just fine without me, but I was happy to tag along.]
Some aside thoughts.  I keep thinking I may have been faster on my single speed.  I think I ate nearly enough, or at least close, especially considering how bad my program has sucked in the past.  I don't think I want to wear my Camelback again. It only provided me water and the rest was just 10lbs of storage on my back.  I have certainly not done anything this difficult before.  True "high altitude" is something to be reckoned with. We live at around 5k feet, but it's nothing compared to 10-12k. My lungs still hurt.  Maybe I will be back next year. It’s hard to make that decision so close to having finished.  The Barn Burner in Flagstaff is coming up in a few weeks. Maybe I’ll get an early start on next year??


  1. I failed to mention, this was really, really awesome, and the hardest thing I have ever done. The altitude makes you want to be sick, and there's just no way around it, I think the only way to actually "train" for it, is to be there at some point, so you know how it's going to feel. Also, I need to find a better kit combo, as I was a doppelganger for every man under 5 foot 10.

    1. I can still honestly say it was the hardest thing I had ever done. I don't know how I kept going for as long as I did and I don't know how I didn't die afterward. And yeah, it was the awesomest too!


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