Regular RKP readers will remember Rob Discher who shared the story of his first tilt at Leadville in 2012. For those who’d like the refresher, you can read it here.
18 hours before the race, written in the parking lot at Colorado Mountain College just outside Leadville…
[Friday. August 10, 2013]
I’m not even supposed to be here, in Leadville.
I was just getting over my pity party about not coming up this year when the call came from First Descents that they needed a guy….someone who could ride this race on a week’s notice. Last year I wrapped my whole season around Leadville. This year I chased other goals, but that big belt buckle stayed in the back of my mind.
I have no idea how tomorrow will go. I don’t feel great. I have this lingering headache from two days ago that won’t go away, but I’ve got a decent nutrition plan and race strategy that I hope works.
There is the potential for something awesome though. Something big. Everyone says the course is riding fast. They graded a bunch of the roads and it’s been wet lately, which tamps down this high desert earth. I’ve been riding like a monster back in Austin all summer, winning crits, mixing it up on hard group rides, maintaining a steady diet of riding and recovery for months.
Maybe this is the payout for all that due diligence. Maybe the reward for enjoying the bike so much…a reward in and of itself….and for riding as much as I have…is that I get to come up here at the last minute and tie up some loose ends from last year.
It was easy in 2012. I’d never seriously raced before and my first big goal was the Leadville 100, a grueling 104 mile race above 10,500 feet of altitude that has become wildly popular over the past decade. My primary objective last year was to beat 9 hours there, the marker under which you get the coveted “big” gold belt buckle.
I killed myself trying to clear that time, coming up just short at 9:02, and while I was proud of my effort and all that I’d done in year one on the bike, it ate at me. I knew that with a slightly different race strategy I could have beaten nine hours. A piss break here. A slower pace there. An extra stop for food and drink I didn’t need.
I thought about it all fall and came into this season focused on getting back into Leadville. I trained like hell all winter. Cold rides on lonely roads in the Texas Hill Country. Long hilly days with my buddy Justin, pushing 29 inch wheels on the Austin chip seal. Spin sessions. Core work.
That plan fell on its face in two separate acts – the first when I didn’t get in through the Leadville lottery and the second when I missed the cut at the Austin Rattler qualifying race by less than a minute. There would be no Leadville this year.
What do you do with a whole off-season of training when that happens? Somewhat out of spite, I turned to road racing. I started watching the grand tours and hanging out with guys who didn’t know a berm from a rock garden. I shaved my legs. I came out for the weekly crits. I set new goals after the old goals fell through.
I’d trained on the road bike the previous year, but never seriously considered racing. Missing Leadville changed that. My first races on the road showed I was strong but dumb. So I raced more, and got smarter. Road racing was fun.
I moved from a CAT 5 to CAT 3 roadie in about three months, and the more time I spent racing in the drops, the more I thought THAT was my home. On the road.
All of this made it that much more complicated when I learned, completely out of the blue, that I had a last-second shot to go back to Leadville. For the previous six months I hadn’t spent more than six hours on my mountain bike.
On Monday, August 5th, I took two strangers out to lunch who had read my post here on RKP last year and wanted to learn more about the race. They were putting the finishing touches on their Leadville training and were eager to hear about course conditions, nutrition plans, pacing and expectations.
That Wednesday, one of them emailed me to say the nonprofit he was riding with, First Descents, needed someone who could fill a last-minute race slot.
I came home that night, took my fiancée out for dinner and talked it over. The same woman who told me to make a run at Leadville last year gave me another firm kick in the ass and urged me to jump on the opportunity.
From there, things moved quickly. A local nutrition company, Thunderbird Energetica, offered to haul my bike to Colorado with their race team. Work was nice enough to let me divert the return trip from my meetings in New York through Vail. My old boss, Morris, a Leadville veteran, found me a bed at Colorado Mountain College for the weekend, two miles from the starting line.
My 2012 race prep included specific training, arriving early in Colorado to acclimate and pre-ride the course, and working with my support crew, all family, to understand my detailed race plan.
This year, there would be no acclimation period. There would be no pre-rides. There wouldn’t even be much mountain biking at all. My plan was to get off the plane from New York, pick up my bike, make sure the wheels were still round and the brakes weren’t rubbing, and let it rip on race day.
It was Saturday morning before I knew it.
I rested against my top tube, kitted up and shivering at 6th and Harrison in downtown Leadville. Sun coming up. Thin mountain air. Pre-recorded National Anthem streaming out the PA. Five minutes until the corrals close, then three, then none. Two minutes until the gun goes off. Everyone looking around. Faces betraying that sense of confidence racers try to put on, attempting to look calm when they’d spent months getting ready for what was about to happen.
In 2012, I started the race slowly, built my tempo through the end and spent most of the last four hours passing people. It was an awesome feeling, but that easy, early pace made it incredibly tough to clear 9 hours. This year, instead of going out easy, I planned to push it from the gun, gain time through the first two checkpoints, and hold on through the end.
On-plan, I came out fast and moved my way up in the mass of 1,500 riders. We hit the first climb, St. Kevin’s, and I tapped out a strong pace…passing a number of people and eventually realizing that I was going way too hard. When you overextend at 11,000 feet and get short of breath, there’s this small moment of panic where you catch yourself, back off the pace, and pray your heart rate will come down.
Mine did, thankfully.
I held position through the climb up Sugarloaf and tried to stay loose through the Powerline decent. It’s the most technical part of a non-technical course, but one you have to respect. I pushed hard in a group through the rolling hills into Twin Lakes aid station around hour three and hit my first scheduled pit stop of the day. Three bottles, rice cake, gels, a proverbial slap on the ass and I was off.
Twin Lakes sits at the bottom of the Columbine climb, the most famous of the course because it takes you over the tree line at 12,500 feet. The climb up Columbine was nasty, as predicted, but instead of pressing I made the calculated move to sit up, take in fluids and eat. It’s around an hour and a half to two hours to get to the top, and I reasoned I’d be better off finishing the climb in 1:45 with a full stomach and hydrated than wringing myself out clearing it in 1:30. This ended up paying off…big time…about three hours later. At 4 hours and 36 minutes, I hit the turnaround. I was roughly 20 minutes ahead of last year.
The next two hours were painful but relatively uneventful. I could feel my mental state starting to deteriorate, which I rationalized as standard issue protocol for endurance racing at elevation. At the Pipeline aid station, about 75 miles into the race, things started to get interesting.
The first sign of wheels detaching from the proverbial wagon was that I completely missed my Pipeline aid crew. Just flat-out didn’t see them as I was going through the crowded line of support staff. I only planned to stop twice this race (compared to five times the previous year) and I was already crashing, so missing half my on-course nutrition was a massive fail.
In a perfect world, five-plus hours in, with on-schedule nutrition, I’d be in some mindless, thoughtless, sugar induced rage…kind of like the Berserker tribesmen back in the Viking days when they’d feed those monsters crazy juice and have them destroy entire villages. Instead, I had to go into full-on MacGyver mode in my search of calories, snagging gels, oranges and drinks from random people on the side of the road. Most of the time I had no idea what they were handing me. One time I grabbed a clean’ish looking half-done bottle off a stack of trash and drank it.
Results were mixed. Cramping got worse. Bike started moving slower.
The next bit of “fun” came on the decent down Sugarloaf Pass, just after I’d suffered up Powerline climb for an hour. I hammered the downhill in full cowboy mode, letting off the brakes and bouncing through rocks the whole descent. When I got to the bottom, I saw something that made my heart sink – my rear derailleur had come off the bike. It was just dangling there by the cabling.
Over the next 10 minutes, I figured out how to hold tension on the cable and push the gears around, but I could only do that on sections I could ride one-handed, and sometimes it just flat-out didn’t work. That meant walking hills I couldn’t see coming, head on the handlebars, calves cramping from the uphill slog.
With two hours to go I didn’t see any way I was clearing 9 hours. I started doing the math, trying to figure out how many miles were left, what pace I was holding, and how much time I needed to get to specific checkpoints. The dream was slipping away. My nutrition was in shambles, my bike in pieces. I was suffering badly.
I got passed constantly. Everything hurt. I thought a lot about quitting, but I recalled race founder Ken Chlouber’s words at the previous day’s meeting. He drew a picture of what it would be like telling people you quit after all the effort to get there. That image stuck with me.
I pushed ahead.
With about 45 minutes remaining, the lights started coming back on. It was a complete blur – scrambling for the shifter, which was flying all around the bike and “ghost shifting” on its own, grabbing whatever hydration I could from strangers, trying to force down a rainbow of gels I’d collected since my second aid station fail. It was the first time all day I didn’t feel horrendous. I battled a monster headwind into the finish, elbows on the handlebars, head down, getting as “small” as possible. It worked. I was getting stronger, picking up speed, crunching the numbers in a feverish attempt to see if sub-9 was within reach.
With five miles left, for the first time, it dawned on me that I might make it. At two miles left I was pretty sure. In the last mile, as I came up 6th Street past the high school…the same place I saw the clock turn 9 hours last year…I knew I had it in the bag. I laid it on, crossing the line at 8:51 and letting out what Whitman would have called a “barbaric yawp” of total catharsis and supreme relief, completely drained.
The medical staff gave me one look, grabbed my bike, pulled me over to the tent and nursed me back to health for the next hour, checking my vitals and feeding me salt. That cot was the most amazing bed I’ve ever laid on and the medical staff couldn’t have been nicer. I finally got up, got out of my kit, and walked around the town center barefoot, soaking it all in.
This wasn’t supposed to happen, but that just seems to be how it goes with cycling. You dream dreams. You make plans. Fate and circumstance collide. I have been so fortunate to have been given all these experiences just in the last two years.
Just from throwing my leg over the top tube.
Just from doing something I love.