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.
What follows is the personal account of regular RKP reader Rob Discher, recently back from his first tilt at the Leadville 100. He was kind enough to share it with us, and now with you.
Going into Leadville, I was a complete mess. Barely slept for 3 days. I played out every worst-case scenario in the week before the race, every barrier that would separate me from clearing the course in under 9 hours, which is the cutoff point for getting the Big Belt Buckle. Hissing tires, broken rims, fractured seat posts, flattened nutrition, flatter legs. I told Kate that I’d never thought about one thing … one event … and trained planned and obsessed over it for an entire year like this. As the race got closer I started to think back on everything that went into the preparation, how these legs carried a story that spanned 5 AM wake-up calls, long hours out on nameless county roads in West Central Texas, social engagements turned down and smaller races, little ones, that built up into what happened on the course.
As context, roughly 2,000 riders line up for this race every year. About 10% of them finish under 9 hours. A few hundred never make it back and tap out. Twelve hours is considered “finishing” the race, and you get a belt buckle for that, but it’s not as big as the Big Buckle, and its size and lore is a huge motivator. Everyone shows up for this race in outrageous shape, and most guys (and a few really tough chicks) think they have a nine-hour ride in them. I knew going into this that it was just barely achievable.
There are five major climbs on the Leadville course. You do everything out and back, and in order. The killers are St. Kevin’s on the way out, Columbine outbound, Powerline inbound, St. Kevin’s inbound and then “The Boulevard”—the nasty last 3 miles of hell that wrings out any remaining resistance. Of all these climbs, Columbine gets the most cred because it takes you over 12,000 feet. My biggest concern was Powerline, which arrives at mile 75. More on that later.
The start scene is amazing; 2,000 riders lined up in a small mountain town listening to the Star Spangled Banner at 6:15 am, with all the spectators, is a hell of a sight. I was reminded this week that in the starting corrals everyone looks fast. They certainly did to me. Shiny bikes, kits emblazoned with everyone’s home team, odd facial hair commemorating the occasion and making some odd statement of commitment to the cause. I wasn’t any different. I proudly took of my warm-up jacket, revealing my Austinbikes jersey and matching bibs, proud to represent the first shop to offer me a ride. I had the mutton chops in full flight, the result of months of grooming an awful beard in hopes I could pull off something extravagant for race day.
As we rode out St Kevin’s, the first climb of the day, there was this mix of excitement and nerves. The pace was slower than anyone would have wanted, but the smart ones, the guys who’d listened to the vets, knew that this was part of it. Take advantage of the slower pace, let your legs loosen up, don’t worry about losing time. I only looked up to notice my surroundings three times the entire race, but two of them were on the way out. I caught Turquoise Lake, with the steam coming off it and the sun streaming through, and then again around Sugarloaf, where I took one brief glance around. Stunning stuff.
There was an amazing spirit of collaboration on the way out, and for good reason. Leadville is funny like that. With the exception of about 10 riders who are actually trying to win it, everyone else is racing against the clock, not each other. You feel an awesome sense of connection with the other riders and whenever possible, you work together. Everyone wins; 40 miles of the course are flat or at least close to it, and road tactics play a major role in keeping speed and saving legs for the long, brutal climbs. At the start of the first road section following St. Kevin’s, a group of about 15 riders all got together and worked the flats, pushing a huge pace. It was organized and focused, right up until the big climb on Columbine, the second real climb of the day and the first true test, where things started to fracture.
In the two miles leading from Twin Lakes, the aid station just before Columbine, and the actual Columbine climb, you could feel the sense of dread in our group. We all knew what we were in for. Most of us would take between 90 minutes and 2 hours on the ascent. We knew there would be walking. We knew there would be suffering. We all marveled at the pros who came hauling down, full tuck, legs churning on an 8 percent downhill over ruts and rocks. It sounded like a jet engine taking off. Aspirational. It’s one of the coolest parts about Leadville’s out-and-back format. You get to see the leaders roaring back in the other direction as you’re still on the outbound portion of the course.
I knew at the top of Columbine, around mile 50, that my 9 hour goal was in trouble. My boss and biking sensei for the past year, Morris, and I hit the midway point of the race, up above 12,400 feet, about 15 minutes over target. I tried not to panic, but I had that moment, that point I’ll never forget where I doubted myself, where I started doing the math, realized I had another 50+ miles to go, and I wondered if I shouldn’t just ease up and enjoy the back half of the race, ceding the almighty goal of 9 hours and that coveted Big Belt Buckle that I’d been fixated on since April.
Right around this time, roughly 5 hours in, as I made the mid-point turn, I stopped doing the math on how realistic it was to clear the rest of the course in 4 hours. This light went on, and I just said to myself, “I’ve trained too hard to give up and not pour everything I have into this race … nine hours or not.” I committed to leaving it all out there, even if sub-nine was a total pipe dream. If I got off my ass and hammered the course, I thought I had a chance, so I let off the brakes and started drilling the long 7 mile downhill. Morris passed me about halfway down and paced me the rest of the way. He’s an amazing downhiller, and I knew if I was catching his wheel, I must be crushing it.
We were. 1:45 up and 30 down. That’s moving.
After that big decent, I came back into the Twin Lakes aid station (outbound mile 40 and inbound mile 60) feeling amazing. I’d been gritting my teeth the whole way down, listening to the endless loop of “For Those About to Rock” in my head as I blurred past the still-suffering climbers, some of whom had over an hour to go to the summit. My pit crew, my family, was amazing. They were all day. I came in NASCAR style, red-hot, slammed on the brakes, and they went to work. Dead water bottles flying out of the back of my kit and cage, new ones replacing them. Gels stuffed into the back pocket. 30 seconds max and then I was off, almost. Kate noticed I’d dropped a chain coming in, which someone, I have no idea who, helped me get back on. All I remember was leaning over the bike and seeing this fully tattooed arm reach over, spin the pedal and get the chain working again.
It took five minutes to get out of the massive Twin Lakes aid station, passing hundreds of people all out supporting friends and family. It felt like a jam band concert parking lot. People were partying, getting loose, having fun, ringing bells and shouting encouragement. After a quick road section, I started in on the singletrack, where I got caught behind a few slowpokes, and then it was on to the rollers, which really sapped the legs. Pipeline aid station, the second-to-last stop of the day and about an hour after Twin Lakes, was a welcome sight. With 35 miles left, I didn’t think it would ever come into view. Your mind does some odd things out there. I legitimately wondered if they’d moved the aid station or if everyone had just decided to pack up and leave, done for the day.
Pulling out of Pipeline, I dropped one water bottle off my cage and just left it. I tried to eat a rice bar and got down 3 bites before I just couldn’t stomach any more and threw it to the side of the trail. The road section following Pipeline was miserable. Full-blast mountain headwinds were about the most unwelcome thing I felt all day, but I picked up a few buddies and tried to work that section together. It wasn’t nearly as successful as the first lap through when we had that large, fast, fresh group. These guys were slow and tired, and I ended up pulling the entire way. With about 3 miles left of flats and rollers, I looked back and realized I was towing about 20 people. No idea where they came from. They just materialized out of nowhere.
My legs felt heavy and tired in the lead-up to that godforsaken crippler Powerline. A sense of dread came over me when I turned off the road, rolled around the dirt corner, and faced up to The Truth. Everyone was walking. I pedaled as long as I could, then climbed off the bike and started pushing. Ten minutes, one foot in front of the other. Everyone struggled to find footing, to keep moving. After that first false summit, the course became “rideable,” but just barely. It’s a sick thing to string together a series of climbs, one right after another, that are just barely doable in the lowest gear. Any easier and you could create some actual pace. Any harder and you’d give up and walk. As it was, I kept turning the cranks, averaging about 2-3 MPH, keeping the head down and trying to push out that thing in the back of my head that made me want to cash it in.
After Powerline I got off the climb with about 80 miles in my legs, ripped a gel and bombed the descent. It felt amazing to be moving again. It was like the sensation you get when you’ve been in bumper-to-bumper traffic on the interstate for an hour, finally get past the wreck and can get out of first gear. One of the volunteers told me I was still in the hunt for 9 hours. I kept that in the back of my mind as I did my best Pua Mata impression and stroked it on the loose downhills leading into St. Kevin’s.
The climb up St. Kevin’s, somewhat predictably, was longer than I remembered in the pre-rides. From the pre-rides I genuinely remembered St. Kevin’s being all road, followed by a short punchy trail section that led into more blessed downhills. The road analysis was right. It was a long slow grinder, about 7-8 mph all the way up that feels like it’s never going to end. With about 100 yards left, I saw my friends Kate and Johnny yelling at the riders and cheering them up the hill. I knew I was close, and the emotional lift was enough to get me to pass through the aid station and keep hammering into the finish.
The part I didn’t account for was the 15 minutes of climbing that happens after you get off the road section, which includes a fair bit of uphill, all on dirt road, with a few sections I didn’t remember at all. I way over-shot one corner, ran off the course and had to carry the bike back onto the trail to get going again.
Up, up, up … until the downhill, that sweet downhill, onto the road, where I grabbed a guy, told him we could make sub-9, and demanded that we work together through the flats. I was yelling at people for the entire last 3 hours of the race, trying to assemble groups so we could work together, trying to lift guys out of some miserable looking states. “Get on the train!” I’d yell as we rode by, hoping they’d pick up the pace, join the group and help pull, so I could get off the front and draft. I got lucky with around 10 miles left when I found a guy who had a bit of spark.
He didn’t think we could make 9, but I barked something nonsensical, and he got inspired to make the push with me. I knew the math was tight, but I wasn’t ready to give in. We pushed hard through the road section, motored through the dirt roads and then struggled up the Boulevard, where he pulled away for a bit.
That aptly named “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” is, without question, truth in advertising. It was 1,000 feet of elevation gain over the last 3-5 miles of the course at a time when I was pressing with everything I could to maintain speed and cadence. I was dying to push into the finish, and it seemed like it would never end. At that point I had already reached down into myself 100 times to find that extra gear, but I managed do it again, and then again as I cleared the short, punchy section and then ride out the false flats. I could almost hear guys crying at this point. The dreams were dying left and right, and I passed my friend from the flats who couldn’t find anything else in the tank.
It was a short push to the final road section and then a quick right onto 6th street, the last turn of the course. As I climbed up 6th, past Lake County High School, I looked down at my Garmin and saw it roll 9 hours. It was a heavy moment. A week ago I would have thought this would have killed me, that it would have represented this massive shortcoming when I was so close, literally within sight of the finish, to making my target time. I realized that the Big Belt Buckle dream was done. The marker I’d set, the one I’d talked about with friends and family, the one all of the guys I’d trained with were shooting for were chasing, was just barely … out of reach.
But somehow it wasn’t a sad moment. It was uplifting. Relieving. I could have never predicted this reaction, but I pedaled in the last two-plus minutes with this amazing sense of satisfaction that I’d done what I came to do. I’d left everything on the course. I found something in myself, this reserve, this fire, this energy, that I never knew was there, and I kept reaching down into that well throughout the race and finding more.
There are no regrets. No regrets about the training that took this stocky 195-lb. meathead and turned him into a lean, slick cyclist in the course of a year. No regrets about the nutrition plan, the in-race strategy, or most importantly, the effort I laid down. I was a 9:02 racer and I’m damn proud of that. There was no more in me at the finish line, and as I crossed the red carpet, got my medal, took a hug from one of the volunteers and began searching for my family, I was completely expended. I was, as Harry Chapin said, “good tired.”
Rob Discher normally writes about hockey, the Red Wings specifically, for The Production Line. He plans another attempt at Leadville next year.