Saturday, August 15th 2015 at 6:30am a gunshot blast into the gloaming Colorado sky marking the start of my first Leadville Trail 100 race, along with 1648 other riders who had lined up to suffer for up to 12 hours on their mountain bikes. 339 would not complete their adventure that day and very sadly one of them, Scott Ellis of Johnstown, Colorado died on the course. I was not surprised to learn the timing and location of the incident later the next day following the awards ceremony. My sincere condolences go out to Scott’s family and friends.
What follows is the detailed account of my experience leading up to, during and following the race. The story is for those who know me, are interested in learning about the race, those who may be considering their first entry into this torturous event and generally anyone with a fair amount of time on their hands. For anyone else I also have a photo gallery at the end of this post and the following video:
13 Days Before the Race
The description of my experience requires a little background so let’s roll the clock back a couple weeks to quickly cover the final stretch of preparation before getting back to the start of the race.
The final journey to the race for me began on Sunday August 2nd. Given my altitude experience at Leadville Camp I knew I didn’t want to risk showing up anywhere near the somewhat agreed upon “worst” timing of 3-5 days prior. Instead I had decided to spend about a week in Wilson, Wyoming (just outside Jackson Hole) with family before heading to Colorado.
The trip from Marin county, CA to Wilson took 13.5 hours and by the time I had parked and made my way to the tent they had set up for me it was close to 3am mountain time.
This would be my home away from home for the next 7 days and to my surprise I slept incredibly well, despite the early wake up calls from the local wildlife – most frequently squirrels calling to each other but sometimes a bull elk who chose the pre-dawn hours to begin the de-felting of his antlers against nearby trees.
During my stay in Wyoming I was able to ride the Grand Targhee Loop near Alta, WY and frequented the trails above Wilson off the Teton pass and some of the first fire roads I ever mountain biked long long ago on my Aunt’s original Specialized Rockhopper. My final big training ride came on Friday, August 7th – a 6 hour excursion that included a climb up Black Canyon a single track trail that typically is ridden downward only but I avoided all those riders by starting my ride that day well before dawn.
It was one tough climb – especially following an incredible hike which we had done just the day before from Phillips Canyon on the pass to the top of Teton Village along the ridge line of peaks between. All told that hike was 7 hrs, 10 miles – much of which above 9k, totaling over 5k feet of climbing across the shifting rock the locals call “scree”. More significantly, the day of the hike – day 4 at elevation – was my worst day of the trip in terms of altitude acclimatization.
After breakfast with my family Sunday morning, packing up and stopping at my Aunt & Uncle’s to pick raspberries and chat for a couple hours it was time to make the journey to Beaver Creek, Colorado which would be our base for race week.
Arriving around 11pm from a 7.5 hour drive and after nearly running out of gas before reaching Craig, CO with a detour for a bridge under construction I immediately crashed in the bed, sleeping quite well at 8400 ft.
The final week leading up to the race was a sort of taper, I had low-medium volume rides planned for Monday and Tuesday with a fair amount of intensity. After the Tuesday ride I was very fatigued and started to get worried – had I overdone it? Wednesday’s ride was set to be more intense than Tuesday so I connected with my coach and we agreed it would be wise to change that ride to an easy recovery ride of about 45 minutes. Listen to your body for sure, don’t blindly execute your training plan and think your body will magically recover in time for the race. Race prep is also very psychological and I know if I’d done the scheduled ride that I would have been extremely mentally stressed about the condition of my legs.
Following the short ride I took off for the Denver airport to pick up my crew. I was excited to see them standing curbside outside of baggage claim in their orange shirts waving their orange signs in support of me and the cause for which I was riding. That was a special moment. That night we enjoyed a wonderful italian dinner at the resort followed by the kids ice skating in the center of the village, yes ice skating in August.
Thursday was completely off as a rest day outside of a family hike down from the chairlift at Beaver Creek.
That night we enjoyed the final Beaver Creek rodeo of the season. Super fun. I loaded up on salty potatoes spun on a stick. Delicious.
Later in the evening Mandy, my crew chief, and I went through every step of the two aid station stops that they would support. We made the call early on for them to be at the Twin Lakes Aid station which I would hit at 40 and 60 miles and ideally at about 9:15am (2h 45m split) and 11:25am (4h 55m split) respectively. The main tasks, delegated between the 3 crew members were:
- Change water bottles (2 inbound, 3 outbound)
- Remove trash from back pocket
- Exchange nutrition in back pocket (each stop prepped with food in labeled ziplock bags)
- Ask if I need a flat kit (tube + 2 CO2 cartridges)
- Ask if I want any gear changed (vest, jacket, gloves, headsweat, etc)
- Ask if I need my glasses cleaned
- Shove food in my mouth I can eat while stopped
- Apply sunscreen to everything uncovered
Friday was jam packed. I knew it was going to fly by but didn’t quite realize how fast. We headed to Leadville at around 7:30am and arrived at 6th & Harrison at the center of town just before my scheduled 8:30am pre-ride with the crew I met at Camp in July. We rode out the start, climbed St. Kevin’s and returned via the finish, the boulevard.
Mid ride we ran into another group which included Todd Murray, one of the now last two riders that have completed all 22 Leadville 100 MTB events. He bestowed some interesting history regarding the first race which big buckle and finish times were actually 8 and 11 hrs respectively! That was changed the following year because only like the top 10 finishers had been in the sub-8 block. Just think about the mountain bike technology in 1994 for a second.
After the ride I went to check in only to find that I missed the designated checkin time by about 90 seconds. Fortunately I remembered my bib # (599) and they allowed me to pick it up a tad late, otherwise I’d be sticking around Leadville until 7pm for late checkin and packet pickup. Whew! Following checkin the next agenda item was the athlete meeting. We spent a little time in the Expo, picked up my shirt and then headed to the Lake County high school.
The packed and warm mandatory athlete meeting went long – nearly 2 hours.
Given this meeting started around 11 and how warm it was should have gotten me thinking about the possibility of a warm weather ride the following day but with all the things running through my head and predetermined biases that thought eluded me, unfortunately. More on this later.
Proudly surprised to see my friends from Colorado that I’d met at camp stepping onto the stage to receive recognition for their efforts to raise funds for the Leadville Legacy foundation which, thanks in large part to contributors that participate in the race or sponsor it, provided scholarship funds to every single Lake County high school senior graduating last year. Pretty cool. These 7 riders raised over $15k which was spontaneously bumped over $20k by the CEO of Lifetime Fitness in reaction to their achievement. Very cool moment!
After long last Ken and Merilee were given the stage. Ken, as always, showed his genuine desire for everyone in the room to finish the race – personally obligating everyone to “Commit, I will not quit”. He also corrected prior presenters’ guidance, specifically Rebecca saying to remember to have fun and enjoy it. His correction, “go out on Sunday and enjoy it if you want Saturday you have job to do” My favorite statement of his which is so true and would be for me on race day regarding race plans and split goals, “As my good friend the philosopher Mike Tyson once said, everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth”.
After the meeting we called in a pizza order to Mountain high pizza pies and between the call and sitting down for pizza I took my steed to the LRS HQ for a wash down, chain clean up, and basic check of the bolts, brake pads, shifting, pedals, etc. All was good, I scarfed about half of the pizza and we then set out for the Twin Lakes Aid station to setup my crew’s home for the majority of Saturday morning.
On the way there I realized in our haste in the morning that I’d forgotten my Columbine drop bag. There was time to go all the way back to Beaver Creek, get it and come back, but we decided that I’d just give it to my crew and have to resort to carrying items up if I thought I needed them. My drop bag contained my warm riding gloves, a warm skull cap and a warmer jacket.
It was pretty eery how long we were driving from town to get to Twin Lakes. Of course I’d ridden the course in July but the day before the race for it to take 25 minutes by car driving at highway speeds to get just to the Twin Lakes aid station hit me just how long this ride would be. We arrived and immediately saw a couple of my Colorado friends who helped us pick a great location and setup our tent .
The orange tent would have been visible enough but having the aid of two distinguishable markers before I’d reach it on the way in really helped – the end of the dam and the intersection of the access road.
The skies were threatening for a bit but never opened on us. We did stay until we were confident no extreme weather would blow in and take our tent for a ride which would have likely ended up with it splashing into the lake. With our chairs, the tent, the table my spare parts bin and tool box in place we headed back to town. From there it was decision time, stay in Leadville for the organized carb-loading dinner or head back to Beaver Creek. Ultimately, the goal was to get to bed around 8pm so it seemed wise to head back earlier and get something to eat closer to BC. We found a nice little place that had received good reviews for their lasagna. And it was good!
By the time we’d gotten back to the room, laid everything out for the following morning, tinkering with my Garmin and started soaking the oats for breakfast bedtime was actually just before 9pm with alarms set for 3am.
Alarms started buzzing at 3am. Surprisingly I was actually asleep when it went off. The plan we’d discussed had our goal for leaving the hotel by 4:15 so we’d be at the corral opening or close to it at 5am. At the athlete meeting, however, Josh (race director) made some statements that led me to think this might not be super critical – corral segmentation and the general speed of the beginning of the race would accommodate position balancing.
By the time I rose from the bed at about 3:10 both kids were completely dressed and ready to go! Apparently the crew chief had a talk with them about the importance and taking their jobs seriously. It worked!
After finally getting my breakfast ready and consumed, dressed, first perpetuem bottle prepared and all skratch bottles ready to go it was nearly 4:45. By the time we were on the road it was nearly 5am. So much for the original plan.
A final, critical check of the weather showed about the same as we’d been seeing all week – high in Leadville of 73 and a low of 41 with now only a 40% chance of afternoon thunderstorms. 40% was down from 90% just a couple days before so at this point I was feeling good about the possibility of staying dry throughout the day. Also know that 41 low in Leadville translates to sub-40 out in the hills and certainly at the higher elevations.
There was a thick, low fog that morning once we’d reached the meadow just before the Tennessee pass which continued all the way into town. As I prepared my bag and gear for the exit from the car I realized I’d forgotten my sweat cap that goes under my helmet! Thankfully there was one in the extra stuff bag they would have at Twin Lakes so at least I had one but now my back up was the warm one that was supposed to be on top of columbine.
Mandy pulled over in front of the bagel shop on Harrison in downtown Leadville to let me out to find my corral. Thinking I had everything I needed – I’d packed my morning bag the night before which had my warm gloves, food for the wait and for the first leg of the ride, water for the wait, garmin, gopro + remote and velcro straps, headphones (planned to ride with one ear bud out). Mandy asked “do you have everything” I said with confidence, “Yes, ready to race!”. Unfortunately that was wrong. She remembered I had none of my water bottles. Oops. And as I’d figure out once in my corral I didn’t have my saddle bag with my flat/chain repair tools/supplies either. Not so ready I guess.
Race brain, as in no brain, in full effect.
I was in my starting corral by 6:00am, and with only about 4 rows of riders between me and the front of the corral, the time flew by as I assembled the last bits of my outfit and gear. In fact I didn’t eat anything but I did drink some water while I sat there. Speaking of that I’d planned to consume a Skratch hyper hydration packet in my water while I was in my corral but I wasn’t there early enough and I’d forgotten to pack the packet in my pre-race bag!! Can’t say enough about having written checklists for EVERYTHING! Seriously!
Eventually Mandy and my daughter found me in the corral and delivered my saddle bag with about 10 minutes to spare.
Probably spent the most time in line trying to figure out where to mount my gopro remote. Finally settled on using 3 joined velcro straps and mounting on the top tube with the straps circumventing both the top and down tubes. It held very well and allowed me to take video of nearly all the spots I had hoped to capture, except of course the finish because I ran out of battery sadly.
The countdown came and the gun fired but we didn’t start moving in the red corral for about a minute or so. I ticked the start button on my Garmin and all energy, thought and focus immediately centered on the goal at hand: get a good start and don’t crash! As you can see from the initial starva segment we were flying out of the start down 6th street and out toward the tunnel creek fire road. Though a neutral start there was certainly passing going on and all in all I’d say between the start and the turn up St. Kevin’s I was passed by more people than I passed in that section. This is no surprise as the same occurred at my first race in Tahoe. Being in the 3rd corral I wasn’t too worried about it and didn’t want to press too hard here. We did go as high as 42.9mph, faster than I’d ever done at camp or other pre-rides of this section but felt I wasn’t hurting my day with the speed this early.
I can’t say enough about how incredible it was being moved up from corral 7 to 3. One thing I’d heard from prior riders that started toward the back was to get ahead of as many people as possible by St. Kevin’s because otherwise you’ll be walking. No such issue for me. We were 2-3 wide going up the fire road and multiple times I lucked out and wasn’t on the side that was walking so I was able to clean the whole section and maintain a solid pace.
The top of this climb is at altitude 10,714 where you cross the first checkpoint, Carter aid station. I hit my Garmin lap button as I passed through it and realized I was nearly 2 minutes ahead of my split goal! This drove both my confidence and excitement up as I thought if I could make my next checkpoint with that much or even more lead time I’d be in fantastic shape for my overall goal – sub 9hrs!
We hit the pavement descent on Turquoise Lake Rd and I was flying. Despite the limited range of my 1×11 gearing on the high end with a 32×10 ratio I used my dropper post to lower my position and crouch as low as I could to get as aerodynamic as possible and effortlessly cruised at speeds as high as 49.7mph down this section simply flying by others who weren’t as aero, heavy or just didn’t get enough speed up earlier. I don’t recall being passed once in this section and keep in mind I’m up with a lot of fast riders at this point.
The downhill ended and we turned onto Hagerman Pass rd (dirt) for the sugarloaf climb. During camp, my only experience with this section, I felt the effects of my first trip above 11k more than any other time on the course. Today neither that thought nor feeling affected me in any way. I’d simply decided to focus on good breathing and maintainable pace. I came over the peak ready for the powerline descent still in great shape.
Punched in the Mouth
My entire focus at this moment was getting by as many people as possible before the bottle necking portion of the power line descent. Descending is by far my strength on this course. While I pride myself on climbing it’s not my strength relative to this crowd of riders who can just generate so much power. Knowing this I decided to push and push hard on the descents.
As I passed rider after rider coming down toward that bottle neck I was feeling really confident about my pace and my goal. My thoughts were focused on not crashing but taking any opportunity to pass that I could execute safely. I should have been just as concerned about risking flats because it was this point when I was figuratively punched in the mouth. I screamed “no, no, no, no, no” as I felt the stan’s no tubes sealant spray my legs from the back tire. When you hear the hissing but don’t feel the stan’s there a chance it will still do its job and you’ll be left under-inflated and not completely flat. No such luck.
I pulled over and flipped my bike upside down to get the rear wheel off. As I was going through this I was reassuring myself that I’d planned for this. My split times put me at 8h 43m so 10 minutes or so to fix a flat wasn’t going to break my spirit or the possibility of making my ultimate goal. Once I’d gotten my tube filled, wheel back on the bike, flipped over and remounted I was back on the trail and heading toward the final power line section having burned just about six minutes.
Less than ONE minute later I got punched in the mouth again and this time it was bloody. My tube punctured. I don’t recall if I was on a rough line at that point or not but either way now I was in trouble. I had not packed a second tube and I was out of CO2 cartridges. In my panic and shock I stopped to check if I’d left the valve open or if there was something I could do to fix the tire with no resources. Perhaps I’d hoped that someone would see me in trouble and offer assistance. No joy.
Assistance didn’t seem to be coming so rather than throw in the towel I decided to just start running with my bike down the hill. After about three minutes and covering about 1/3 of a mile on foot I finally received an offer of help, “what do you need??” the fellow rider asked. “I need a tube and a CO2 cartridge” After providing them he took off as I thanked him for the gracious assistance. The tube was 26” but I stretched it on my 27.5” rim, filled it with the cartridge and set off tentatively down the trail. Extremely tentatively.
Riding as though every inch of trail could flat me again I descended the power line with many of the riders I’d worked hard to be in front of. Having had only one CO2 cartridge I didn’t feel like the pressure was high enough given the tube and with nothing I could do about it I maintained my paranoid approach until I could at least get some air in that thing which wouldn’t happen for a while.
Making up for Lost Time
At this point my mind was focused on math. How much time had I lost? Could I still make it up? By the time I got out on the road section I figured I was 25 minutes off of my original pace goal so I was about 10 minutes behind the 9hr goal. Still attainable in my mind so I set back to focusing on a good strong pace and short term goals. My goal now was to get to the Twin Lakes aid station at 3h 5m instead of the original 2h 45m goal. This would get me back 5 minutes and only leave me 5 mins behind 9hrs.
The added pressure made pacing incredibly important given my previous experiences when out on the road flats. Fortunately I got into a nice large group and there wasn’t a lot of wind. I never had to take the lead, just settled into a nice spin and resisted the urge to take the lead or try to close the gap with the next group. Along the way passed by what looked like a minor but painful accident with a couple riders stopped on the left side of the road with paramedics assisting them. Good reminder to avoid crashing.
Turning back onto the dirt I approached the pipeline aid station which I just rode right through as was my plan. I had plenty of liquids and food so I just pressed on to try to get to my crew by 9:35am. Somewhere just after the pipeline aid station my music was interrupted with a barrage of text message notifications. I quickly called on Siri to read them to me and did get my wife’s “We’re all setup and ready for you” message but all my attempts throughout the approach to twin lakes to notify them of my timing delay and need for a flat kit were met with failure. Internet connectivity on the course was really bad. Notably I recall it being ok in spots during camp but it would elude me all race day.
One of the biggest issues with falling behind my original pace was the riders I’d be behind that I might not otherwise have been and no place cost me as much time as the single track section where there was no chance of passing anyone. Once you get in your line that’s pretty much it for the next 1.5 miles. Once I got through that it was back on fire roads for a bit and onto a quick downhill where I again dropped my seat and cruised by a few more riders before crossing Colorado HWY 82 and hitting the beginning of the chaos of the Twin Lakes aid station.
Crossing the dam and looking for my crew I came through at 3h 6m – less than 2 minutes behind my new goal – so I was still optimistic that I could get back on track. My crew executed an extremely efficient pit stop. I was stopped for only 1m 27s. Given I needed a flat kit and it was our first crew stop ever I think it went extremely well. Weather was good – sun was out, not too windy so I passed on taking or changing any gear.
Time to Elevate
After I was all packed up and ready I took off for the biggest section of the day – the Columbine climb and descent, 20 miles round trip before I’d be back with my crew. Cruising up the hill I felt like my pacing was good, much better than it actually was as it turned out. This time around I was well aware of exactly how long it would be before I reached the top and how much climbing was ahead of me. The thought of 12.5k ft never entered my mind – just my goal of getting to the top by 4h45m which would basically be just my original timing goal for this segment and while requiring me to negative split I was still optimistic.
Not long into the lower portion of the climb the motorcycle leading the front runners passed by and seemingly faster than the motorcycle Alban, Christian and Christoph who were wheel to wheel in a line came flying by us.
In retrospect it would have been helpful to have a goal for the lower section before the goat trail because somehow rather than maintaining my original pace goal I lost 12 minutes on the climb. I didn’t feel spent or that I’d had a slow pace so sitting here thinking back on the race I think I could have and should have pushed harder on the lower portion of the climb and had I realized my pace at the start of the goat trail there was certainly an opportunity to push a little harder and maybe I’d only have been 8 minutes behind vs 12. In hindsight, even if I had burned myself on the lower section I very much doubt it would have cost me much time in the hiking that would be inevitable on the goat trail.
One other thing I’ll say about the columbine climb that I now realize was that it was easy to just settle in behind the rider in front of me, turn my brain off and stop thinking about my pace. Definitely maintain your pace regardless of riders in front of you – even if that means passing a bunch of people which may make you feel like you’re being too aggressive. It certainly did get more dangerous the more I climbed as more and more riders were coming at us going 35+mph.
Garmin Plan B
Pacing on long sections like this can be hard. My overall race strategy for maintaining the right pace was to use my Garmin and the virtual partner or segment features so I could look down at any point in the race and know exactly where I was ahead or behind my goal. This would have been awesome and I had tested it prior to the race in Leadville and while I feared the eventual outcome and planned for it to a degree I didn’t have a full backup plan in place.
The ideal situation is to just utilize the segment feature since there is a segment for the entire race course and while it has been stable over the years as is very commonly the case in my experience trying to use this feature the second your GPS position deviates too much from the segment position the Garmin will think you are off course and kill it with no way to recover – in my experience the failure rate is about 80% and never does Strava fail to recognize the effort. Especially now with the new Garmin 520 (post forthcoming on my experience with this new device) being marketed with it’s “Live Segment” feature based on Strava data they absolutely need to fix this. If Strava accepts your route as completing the segment the Garmin shouldn’t kick you off or it should at least allow you to override or rejoin.
My incomplete backup strategy was to have a course ready because these can be started any time and automatically restarted if you go “off course”. This allowed me to follow what I really wanted to follow during the race: my position on the elevation profile. Knowing how much further to the top and if that peak you see in front of you is worth charging or not is incredibly valuable to me. Unfortunately what I needed in addition to that was a speed goal for each section as courses only allow an average speed for the entire course with the virtual partner feature. I had timing data for the entire race broken down into 21 segments and mapped out before hand but didn’t have it in front of me. Reviewing that I needed to average 6.5 instead of the 5.5 mph on the lower ridable section of Columbine.
Without this visibility on the timing/pace by the time I got to the goat trail everyone in front of me was walking and I knew from prior experience that while riding would be faster, at the elevation it wasn’t going to be worth the spend. At this point I’m not sure how I could have ridden anyway given the hikers on the right and the downhillers on the left.
I settled with my hike pace and tried to pass slower hikers whenever it was safe to pass them. Not a lot of opportunities but I was able to hike with a good purposed pace and never did I feel like I was losing that much time relative to trying to ride. Another cost of falling back with the slower riders was felt here as I was stuck behind a line of slower paced hikers on multiple occasions.
Final Ascent to 12,424 Feet
It was great to see Ken on the side of the goat trail of Columbine rooting on the hikers/riders and alerting the up hill riders of the downhillers who were behind a crest that made them hard to see. As I approached Ken I picked up my pace and he recognized my effort with a call out which felt great and motivated me even more.
At 4h 38m and still a fair amount of distance to cover before the top and turning around my friend from the Colorado group Doug passed me descending. I cheered for him and looking at where I was I realized that maintaining my pace would require me to be at the top in 7m which wasn’t anywhere near possible. I figured I’d be topping out around 5hrs which would all but eliminate a 9hr overall time.
It was at this point I decided to just shoot for 9hr moving time so I pressed on for the top trying to not let disappointment enter my mind so soon. With this new goal in mind it wouldn’t cost me to to stop and help others. Nearing the top I saw a rider on the left side of the road and asked if he had what he needed to get back in the race and he indicated that he could use a valve nut which holds the valve stem in place on your rim. More important for tubeless setups since you need a tight seal to get the tire to maintain inflation. I didn’t bother to inquire further – talking is expensive at this altitude! I remembered I had to take my stem out when I flatted and I’d kept the stem and screw so I stopped to give him what I had. The stop wasn’t long, only about a minute according to Strava and I presume got him back in the race though I didn’t hang out to see if it did or not.
Sure enough I reached the top just at the 5hr mark but I needed to stop because way back when I fixed my 2nd flat I knew I didn’t have enough tire pressure. Without being able to communicate to my crew before the twin lakes outbound stop I wasn’t able to fill up with air there – maybe this also contributed to a slower ascent come to think of it. I knew I didn’t want an under inflated rear tire with a tube on the Columbine descent. That would be a recipe for flatting. Fairly quickly I was able to find the repair station with a floor pump but the volunteer didn’t know how to work the pump. He fumbled with it for a minute and then I took over and made it work. Overall this stop cost me just over two minutes.
With confidence of a full tube I set off on the downhill. My original goal time for the descent was 30m. This was based on the assumptions that I’d be downhilling with fast riders and with the benefit of a tubeless setup in both tires. Having to adjust my speed for both a tubed rear and being behind a bunch of descenders with many many many uphill riders it took me 37m to reach the twin lakes aid station. Losing 7m on a section which should have been my strength – despite compensating for uphill hikers/bikers – really hurt. At least I didn’t need to worry about crashing too much given the pace was easily handled.
The 4 hr cutoff at Twin Lakes outbound meant that eventually as I approached the bottom of Columbine that would be it for the two-way traffic on the course. Sure enough as I tore down the fire road bottom of Columbine I was coming across fewer and fewer riders until I passed what must have been the last one. A little way down from that spot I encountered another wrecked rider. This time just before the paramedics had reached him though I did see them shortly after coming up the road and he had one other rider tending to him. He seemed to be stable but laying on the ground, I can only presume that he just lost control of his bike, as it wasn’t in a turn but speeds at this point were upwards of 30mph so it was good to see more help arriving.
Coconut Peanut Butter with Bananas
On our Spring break trip to Hawaii earlier this year we encountered an amazing coconut peanut butter and being very fond of peanut butter & banana sandwiches I’d decided that at the second aid station stop I wanted one as a solid, salty food with potassium heavy bananas and most importantly a carrot to look forward to. Sure enough my crew had this delicious dish prepared for me but I was so focused on the race and thinking about all the variables I had to consider going into the second half of the race that I completely forgot about this until my son shoved it in my mouth the moment I reached the aid station. It was delicious of course but more of a surprise delicious than the kind where you’ve been thinking about it for hours.
I also spent time pondering the decision whether to take a vest or jacket with me for the rest of the journey. Recall the weather forecast was calling for a chance of thunderstorms at about 1pm which it was getting very close to and I’d want that jacket if the weather did come in and it rained on me for any length of time. Finishing cold and soggy is not how anyone wants to spend their final miles of Leadville – any miles of Leadville for that matter. After conferring with my crew and studying the sky for a bit I decided to just leave my arm warmers on and forgo the jacket and vest.
The second stop took a little longer than expected as I was interrogated by the paramedics near by regarding the downed rider I’d come across. Didn’t need a flat kit this time but before departing my crew for what I thought would be the last time I saw them before the finish line I had to take a moment to thank them and hug them. Emotions were starting to get out of control at this point as my pride and appreciation rose and I could see the same in their eyes.
Back on the bike and ready to go they gave me a great push out of the stop and I was back on the course ready for the last 40 miles. My nutrition would last me the rest of the way and 3 bottles of hydration were to last me to the Carter aid station a little less than 30 miles away. As I peeled out of the end of the long line of crew tents, free beer and other encouragement signs I had a bit of a climb and some pavement before the single track section where things would again bottle neck a bit.
My legs were feeling pretty good at this point and I shouted to the last set of people in the Twin Lakes Aid station, “bring on power line!” and received the response which I was seeking. The crowds here are very easily riled up if you give them something to get them started! Try it, it’s fun for everyone!
I caught up to a few riders doing the climb up and out of twin lakes which starts as pavement but turns quickly back into a dirt road. Sensing they weren’t pushing as hard I decided to leave their company and press on. It didn’t take long before I caught up to a couple of guys who were making good time so I hung with them for a bit. One of them was a tank and it was some of the best drafting I’d had all day. Coincidentally the same section outbound produced the best drafting – behind a strong tandem that just cut the wind like a semi truck. Love those tandem riders!
We crested over the top of the climb and I jumped into the front of the pack to take a turn pushing the line, recall downhill being the stronger element of my racing. I checked on my group a couple of times and they were right there behind me until one of the last turns where upon glancing back I saw the tank go down. He couldn’t hold the line I’d set – which I had to drift to hold myself – and slipped on the loose gravel. Standard slide out fall and I was trusting that he could recover quickly – which he did and I would see him again later.
Looking back at all these events I wish I could have remembered more riders’ bib numbers so I could check their times and look them up to congratulate and thank them for their assistance or riding with me or whatever.
As we neared the single track section I’d caught back up to the woman from Jackson Hole, Wyoming who I’d spent some time with on the lower section of Columbine. She was very strong and I was happy to follow her into the single track section. It didn’t take long for us to catch the line of people in front of us and like the outbound experience just settled in and had to accept our pace until it would open back up.
As usual there were winds here, not as bad as camp but still not helpful when you’ve ridden over 65 miles and you’re just trying to hold the tiny line you have available to you. I do love single track and am thankful they had it as part of the race but it would be better without wind and if I’d stayed with the sub-9 pace riders who had been here probably 30-45 minutes before.
Coming out of the single track we jumped ahead of the line we’d been behind and raced to the bottom of the short but oh so steep section where pretty much everyone has to walk. It’s too loose and steep to mess with. Once back on top of the hill and our bikes it was time for the rollers into pipeline aid station. We stayed together through this section too, solid pace and we had picked up a number of draftees. I’m sure every little bit of drafting helps but this wasn’t the fastest nor the windiest section of the day by any means.
Back on Track?
I was still feeling really good at this point, so much so that I began to do some math in optimism. What time would I have to be passing through pipeline to have a chance, if I could crush powerline to rekindle my sub-9hr goal? I’d left the singletrack at 6hrs which is about when I had wanted to be at pipeline aid station originally. Recall my pace times had me at 8h 43m so that meant 6h 17m at pipeline was the real goal and if I could somehow pick up 10 minutes on the tail end of the course then I needed only to get to pipeline at 6h 30m or so to have a chance. This seemed plausible at the time and helped fuel me even more.
One thing all this thinking did do was distract me from the fact that the temperature was rising and it was rising quickly. According to my bike computer it was 70 when I left my crew at Twin Lakes and just 30 minutes later it was 84. Pipeline aid station is about an hour from Twin Lakes and two hours from Carter, the final aid station which is about an hour from the finish. Given I carried three full bottles away from Twin Lakes and I was expecting to go through 1 bottle per hour of riding my plan was to stop at Carter to fill one of my then empty bottles for the final assault.
Remember what Mike Tyson said about having a plan? Well, maybe I wasn’t exactly punched in the mouth but the heat did hit me and for whatever reason I didn’t put things together – even when I rolled my arm warmers down and unzipped my jersey for ventilation! And when I did that I recall thinking to myself just how hot would I have been if I had a hydration pack strapped to my back! You might think that the notion that I’d run out of water before reaching Carter would cross my mind, perhaps in time do to something about it before reaching pipeline. Nope, I was more focused on rekindling my original goal.
We reached pipeline and a time check showed 1:08pm, my original split goal had me here at just before 12:30pm so I hadn’t lost any more time from Twin Lakes and in fact did beat my original split segment time for this section despite being slowed up in the single track. Really needed to be here at 1pm to have a legit chance though considering my math so it was pretty much back to the reset goal of sub-9 moving time. The temperature at this point was 81 and I did check my water supply and had close to if not a bit more than two bottles so I pressed onward.
As I learned at camp pipeline aid is where you want to start sizing up potential group members for the fully exposed road riding that is about to hit a mile or so out of the station. Of course my first thought is to look ahead – can I catch the people in front of me? Well there was only one person in front of me that I could see so a brief look behind revealed three riders but they were further back than the rider was ahead so I pressed on this last section of dirt to catch him. By the time we reached the pavement we were together and I was behind him. Another large rider his leads would be more beneficial to me than mine to him. I did have enough of my wits left at this point to recall my lesson from camp – save energy for powerline and don’t blow yourself up leading your group.
Thanks to the wind and his draft effect I could stay with him if I was behind him but the two times I briefly took the lead showed me I didn’t have as much left in the tank as I’d once thought. Had I reached the bottom of the so called “inexhaustible well” that Ken referred to in the athlete briefing the day before? Sure as hell felt close to it if I hadn’t reached it. I felt bad that over the course of the next 12 minutes which seemed to last way longer than that I led for maybe 3 and it was just the two of us until the end of that time when the larger group behind us had caught up.
Surprise Road Side Fans!
Just before that point came the best surprise of the day by far. After leaving Twin Lakes My crew had packed up the tent, chairs, table and the rest of the support gear found my location using the Find Friends app and plotted a course to intercept me. Sure enough at about mile 77 into the race on the side of Colorado State highway 300 was my crew, in their bright orange shirts waving their signs and ringing their cowbells in support. That gave me adrenaline and perhaps more importantly a giant smile on my face.
The smile persisted even through the point of thinking about the forthcoming pain of the powerline ascent. This climb occurs at about mile 80, is extremely steep at the start and tops off at over 11,000 ft of elevation after starting at around 9,600. All told the net climb is closer to 1,500 ft by the time you get relief. As soon as I reached the base of the steep section looking up it was yet another line of hikers. With the recent feeling of being close to the bottom of my well I decided it was better to hike than ride at this point so off I went.
The hiking pace seemed good but I was able to go faster so I took the harder line and pushed my bike with purpose. This seemed like a fair compromise between hiking and riding or attempting to ride up it. Not long after the steep incline started did I see a rider coming up my line. I moved out of the way and realized it was Roxanne Hall. If you have seen either of the Race Across the Sky movies you will know her as the local who was hit while training for the 2008 race that came back to finish in 2009 and I believe every time since. She’s also in the 50-59 age group and put us all to shame as she rode up powerline while we watched. She made it about 85% of the way before giving in and hiking but I was inspired and impressed, doubt I was the only one.
After cresting the steep section I mounted my bike and would stay on it well past the apex of this beast. Advice to those who are going to do the race for the first time: do not fear or take shame in hiking. When I reached the top of that steep section I had recovered enough reserves that enabled me to blow past Roxanne and many people who had ascended the steep section well before me because I didn’t burn myself trying to stay in the saddle. Ideally I would have ridden up about half of it, maybe a little less but there was no way with the line of hikers at this point in my race and you move very nearly as fast hiking if you do so with purpose and don’t just settle in behind whoever is in front of you.
A quick comparison between my pre-ride time riding up the steep section versus a complete hike on race day reveals just under a three minute benefit to riding it. Three minutes is a lot but it is expensive which is why I think for me the ideal case is to ride up about half and walk the rest with purpose which may cost 90 seconds but that second half walk will restore or at least not further deplete your reserves.
Along with me the other thing that was climbing was the temperature. One rider who I traded positions with multiple times on the upper section of Powerline commented that he wished there were some cloud cover or at least some shade. You could see all the riders taking not the smoothest line at this point but the one that encountered the most shade from the bordering trees. I was certainly with them in this strategy. Here is where my water intake accelerated and accelerated.
The one thing about the weather I didn’t remotely consider and I doubt many of my fellow riders did either was the heat. Recall the forecast for Leadville was a high of 73. Yeah 73 in the mountains can feel warmer but not this much warmer. Indeed my ride data shows the temp topped out for the day at 90 at about this point in the race: 82 miles and 7h 30m into the race for me pushing and riding up powerline. This is also where Scott Ellis suffered his cardiac event which would eventually prove fatal and I have little doubt the unexpected heat was a significant stress factor.
Had I considered the possibility of the extreme heat into my plan I would have stopped at pipeline aid station to fill the one bottle I’d consumed at that point and would have guzzled a couple cups for good measure. Never did the thought of sweltering heat enter my mind in my planning or the last conversation with my crew at Twin lakes.
Cresting the top at close to 8hrs I knew with absolute certainty that my original goal was finished. My mind had already been moved to this place and I pressed on with my modified goal of sub 9h moving time. The beauty of this goal is that I had no way of knowing during the ride where I was against it so I just acted like I was still on pace for it and kept pressing as I could. Also, with this in mind I decided to have some fun on the downhills again. Looking for opportunities to get some air here and there (jumps, not oxygen by the way), take turns fast and drift a little bit the smile on my face grew.
Attitude is Everything
Thanks to this attitude adjustment I didn’t lose my mind when I flatted for the 3rd time of the day after one too many jumps pinched my rear tube too hard against my rim. By this time I was getting to be pretty fast with the flat changes. Based on my ride data that change took a mere six minutes. And it would be deja vu all over again as three minutes later I’d lose that tube in another pinch flat and again I’d find myself running down the trail waiting for a kind soul to offer me assistance!
Fortunately I didn’t have to run long, about three more minutes of running down the course I was passed by one of those riders I’d passed on the final stretch of power line who graciously stopped and offered me his tube and a CO2 cartridge. This time it was a 29” tube but again I didn’t care as it would get me going despite a little lumpiness. I don’t know and feared to ask both riders if this was their last tube or cartridge but it very well may have been and it says so much about the spirit of this race that there are those willing to sacrifice their security to see another rider moving again.
Somewhat randomly during the repair of this last flat I recalled someone, maybe it was another racer in Tahoe, that said you need to look like a pro when you cross the finish line and to that person it meant having your jersey fully zipped mostly but I thought about what I didn’t want on me as I crossed the finish line so off went my arm warmers that had been pushed down to my wrists and it was off with the headphones that had failed on me anyway – I could neither summon Siri nor control any music and when music did play it was way too loud so without any volume control I just shut it off when I could and times I couldn’t I just removed my earbuds so I said to hell with them and shoved them in my jersey for the rest of the day.
Best Coke Ever
Back in business but again without the security of a flat repair kit I proceeded to take the descent cautiously. There was still one more ascent before the Carter aid station and all told about seven more miles to go. It was about this point when I reached down for a drink that I realized I was going to run out of water quickly. Very quickly. Sure enough once I’d reached the pavement turn onto Turquoise Lake road I was out. Completely out of fluids. I had taken the last of my fluids to choke down more of my perpeteum nutrition mix. That was it. I had about 5 miles and an 800 ft climb to go without any water. My focus now was on breathing in and out of my nose as much as possible to keep my throat from drying out completely. No problem on the remaining descent but once I started climbing it got tough.
Two miles later the second best surprise of the day occurred. Along the side of the road were three 20-something kids, locals I presume, sitting there with about three cases of water bottles and two cases of coke. They were each holding one or both options out for riders to just take. What prompted them to do this I have no idea but it was a god send for certain. Something about the caffeine and sugar made me opt for the coke and man was that the best coke I’ve ever had in my life? Yes, without a doubt. I guzzled that cool carbonated twelve ounces and now felt I had in me what I needed to finish this climb and hit the Carter Aid station.
There were a ton of volunteers at Carter. I had three people attending to me once I pulled in – one filled two of my bottles (water in one, gu roctane in the other) another just stood next to me with a plate of fruit and I just kept shoveling in the watermelon and mixed in an orange or two while another volunteer gave me a water cup which I then opted to have her refill with another coke until her can was empty.
The Home Stretch
Armed with plenty of fluid, and a good start on fuel I took off from Carter at just before 3:25pm. This was 5 minutes before the 9 hour mark but that didn’t yet occur to me as I was still pursing the moving time target and just trying to enjoy myself at this point – and avoiding another flat would be good too I thought.
From Carter aid station there is about twelve miles to go and really only one material climb – the boulevard which I knew extremely well at this point having ridden it at least 4 if not 5 times. The first part is the descent of St. Kevins which if you recall was the first climb of the day. I didn’t take this as fast as I have in the past or close to what I’m capable of as the only reward for doing so was a slightly faster time and the risk was walking until someone stopped to give me a spare. No thanks. I may not be the quickest learner but I get there eventually.
I did pass a few people on this section and wasn’t passed by anyone but I did ride restrained none the less which allowed me to turn around at about mile 95 to pick up a pair of Oakley riding glasses someone had dropped that were dangerously in the middle of the road. They looked expensive and would have been crushed had they been left in that precarious position I was certain.
After finishing the descent my legs were again recovered and I got a good pace going on Tennessee creek road, a pretty flat but slightly descending section with nice views. The temperature had dropped a bit and was back closer to the originally forecasted high which also felt very good. The temperature drop made it possible to go ahead now and zip my jersey back up all the way for the “pro” finish.
A New Goal
Another opportunity to return the favors and generosity of my fellow riders came shortly. Again seeing a rider with his bike upside down on the side of the road I asked if he needed anything and he said he could use help breaking his chain. His derailleur was bent badly and there was no riding it so he was hoping to remove it and turn his bike into a single speed for the final 6.5 miles rather than walk it. He didn’t have a chain breaking tool nor any experience doing it so I stopped and pulled mine out of my saddle bag and proceeded to break his chain for him. As I was stopped one of my Colorado crew buddies passed by and shouted my name. Recognizing his voice I shouted his back “Woooody”.
Now I had a new goal, once I’d finished helping this rider with his request I’d try to catch up to my friend to finish with him. I wasn’t stopped for too long but Woody was with a group and there was a little wind so working together they could move. I figured if I could get to within a few hundred feet of them by the time I reached the turn up to the boulevard climb I had a chance to catch up. Having this objective gave me a new focus that kept me from thinking too much about that remaining 500 feet of climb back into town and just targeted his black kit with white lettering for their fund raising challenge. About the time we had left the final dirt behind us and turned onto the pavement I had caught up to him. He had thought I was stopped for an issue with my bike but told him otherwise and that I’d been trying like hell to catch him. He said he had the benefit of a strong group to bring him through that stretch and I said we should come in together and he could just ride my wheel if he wanted as I was feeling the adrenaline of the finish.
As we made it over the crest of the hill and could see the finish there was one rider fairly close in front of us. When I looked back for Woody he’d fallen behind a bit and I tried to encourage him to catch up but he said he had nothing left. Looking forward I decided it was probably best to come in with a little space in front and behind me as I anticipated being accompanied by my orange shirted crew running with me.
So many people were lining the street as the red carpet was directly in front of me. It was incredible. I didn’t know if I could fit through them safely at one point.
I then saw two bright orange shirts just below two giant grins and just like that everything hit me – the pride in their faces, the 104 miles, the altitude, the magnitude, all the training, all the early mornings, all the preparation, my purpose out there that day, the people who donated to my cause, thoughts of my friend, her family – literally everything hit me like 50 foot wave of emotion as my wheel hit the red carpet and my kids came along side of me for that last few feet before we crossed the line together.
What an amazing ride.
This experience would not have happened without the support, time and generosity of many, many people. To all of them I am forever grateful for making these moments possible and the impact we’ve made on lung cancer research.
Thank you to my amazing crew, aka my family, that took on the enormous challenge and sacrifices to make this possible for me. And to my coach Dana thank you for keeping me focused on the things I could control and not preventing the possible by accepting them as impossible – I did sleep the night before the race! 🙂
To the overworked (thanks in large part to me) mechanics at the Village Peddler thank you for keeping me going through all the mechanical mishaps I’ve suffered during my training.
To the selfless fellow racers who took time out of their race to give me what I needed to get back in the saddle you represent the best of the spirit of mountain biking.
To the people of Leadville, the Leadville Race Series staff and especially the countless volunteers you are amazing hosts that welcomed us as family and were genuinely focused on making every rider’s experience truly special and unforgettable. We look forward to seeing you again.