It took me 12 hours and 30 minutes to finish the race.
Before I go into the awful blow-by-blow account of this disappointing day, I wanted to report a conversation I had with my psychologist, whom I called in a state of panic shortly after the race.
Me: I blew it, Doc. 12:30. I wasn't even close.
Shrink: It's not your fault.
Me: What do you mean?
Shrink: Blame the disease, not the patient. You suffer from what we in the medical community refer to as the, um, Speed Slowness Syndrome, or SSS.
Me: But I used to be fast enough to finish in under 12 hours. I did it twice, both times comfortably under 12.
Shrink: You have Adult Onset SSS. Listen to me. It's not your fault.
Me: I know.
Shrink: No you don't. It's not your fault.
Me: I know.
Shrink: It's not your fault.
Me: OK, now I'm depressed.
But where are my manners? Let's start from the beginning.
A bunch of us caravanned down to Leadville on Thursday. Dug, Brad, and I stayed in a tent that we pitched on a little patch of grass in an RV park, while the guys who came down with their wives stayed at an old hotel a few blocks away. After we did the mandatory Friday morning check-in, we had nothing to do all day but sit around the camp picnic table and talk about the upcoming race. This was a fantastic day. No work to do, no responsibilities, justing talking and resting and jittery chit-chat. We did a quick warm-up ride along Turquoise Lake, ate a huge spaghetti dinner, and turned in early. I slept well, only waking up about 17 times.
The alarms went off at 5:00am. While still in my sleeping bag, I ate a bran muffin, a banana, and some of Elden's Oatmeal Surprise. I packed up, took care of some personal business (dropped the boys off at the pool?), and rode over to the start, where riders were setting themselves up according to their projected finish. I had thought about putting myself in the 9-10 hour group with Nick, who passed me a dozen times or so at the STP, but I decided to ride in the 11-12 hour group where I really thought I belonged. To my surprise and delight, Dug was suddenly standing next to me with his trusty steed, a singlespeed with a handlebar basket and purple tassels. I noticed a guy a few feet away from us who looked comically intense. His jaws were clenched, he was wearing a Breathe Right strip on the bridge of his nose, and he was staring at a fixed point in space, as if he were expecting the Huns to charge over the hill any second. Before I knew it, the shotgun went off, and a thousand riders of varying expertise wound their way through the city streets.
I knew I didn't want to take it out too fast. It was going to be a long day, and I certainly didn't want to blow out my legs during the first few miles. My plan was to ride my own pace, stay on my bike, eat and drink well, and fight to a glorious finish.
The first 40 miles
The two climbs up up St. Kevin's and Powerline (see the course profile above) were actually pleasant, or at least they would have been if my stomach hadn't been gurgling. My legs felt strong while the rest of me felt weak, as if I hadn't eaten enough. The descent down Powerline seemed endless as I picked my way semi-cautiously through loose rocks and gulleys and slower descenders. At one point I saw a guy fixing a flat tire. As I skidded past him, I heard him say something like "heygottaxtratube?" As I continued to drop, I tried to figure out what he was saying. Tube. Extra tube. Do I got an extra tube? Why, yes I did, but now I was a hundred yards down from the guy by the time I figured it out. Too late. Still, I felt guilty, because that's how I'm wired. I finished the descent, joined a paceline, and felt good for the first time that day. I even took a long pull myself. At the first aid station, I stopped only to have my Camelbak refilled.
The next 15 miles down the valley went smoothly, but there was one nasty descent known as Clavicle Hill where a whole bunch of people were cautioning us to slow down. I noticed an ambulance at the bottom of the hill. One volunteer said that someone had broken his femur. As I rode past the guy, I was going to shout an encouraging word, but he was giving instructions to the EMTs. I heard him say, "You don't understand..." That seemed odd to me until I learned later that he was an orthopedic surgeon. I arrived at the 40-mile aid station feeling a little too worn out for the amount of effort I was putting in. I shouldn't have been that tired.
At the start of the climb up Columbine, I was on pace for an 11-hour finish. Perfect. I dropped into the valley and saw the turn to the road of the mountain. While I was choking down an energy bar, I noticed two riders flying down the hill. It was Floyd Landis followed by Dave Wiens, who'd won the last four times. This rattled me a bit. I've never seen the lead riders in previous years until I was halfway up the mountain, so either they were flying or I was dragging ass, or maybe a combination of both. I started to climb. I climbed and climbed and climbed up over the switchbacks, just as I'd drawn up on the shower door.
Then I bonked.
It happened all of the sudden. I just felt terrible. I was mentally prepared for working through a bonk, but not until well after Columbine. I dialed back to granny gear to try to recover, but that didn't work. I got off my bike and started pushing up a section that I should have been climbing easily in the middle ring. After a few minutes of this nonsense, I got back on my bike and tried to grind it out as rider after rider passed me. I'm not sure what the best way is to describe going up a long climb in a bonked state. The experienced is reduced too easily, kind of like saying, "Major Trapman was tortured for 36 straight hours." That doesn't sound too bad, does it?
As I pushed my bike up the climb, I noticed all my friends coming down. Chuckie was in about sixth place. Kenny was on a singlespeed in about 30th place. Brad was close behind him. Then I saw Elden and Bry and Rick S. By the time I got up to the 2-mile section above timberline where most cyclists push their bikes, I'd seen all my friends except for Dug. At long last, when I got to the top of the mountain, Dug was waiting for me. He too had crashed on Clavicle Hill. He'd injured his shoulder and elbow and messed up his crank so that it kept loosening ever mile or so. I don't remember the conversation we had at the top of Columbine because I was dizzy from the altitude, but we agreed to ride down the mountain together and then we'd see what would happen. If we both recovered and rode strong, we still had a chance to break 12 hours.
The unending bonk
I thought my bonk would go away if I ate and drank and dropped back down to a more reasonable elevation at 10,000 feet, but it didn't. Dug and I got crossed up somehow at the 60-mile aid station. I had to double-back because we'd passed the kiosk with all the water. When I returned to where I'd left Dug, I didn't see him, so I thought he kept riding without me. I took off. It turns out that Dug, for some crazy reason, didn't want to do the rest of the ride on a singlespeed with an injured elbow and shoulder, not to mention the fact that he would have to stop every mile or so to tighten his crank arm. At this point, I was jealous of Dug. He had a good excuse to drop out.
I rode way too slowly up the valley into the next aid station just before the dreaded Powerline. The volunteers, as usual, were fantastic. One person grabbed my Camelback, and another person grabbed my bike. I asked to sit down in a chair, even though it was out in the hot sun. Someone asked me if I'd rather sit in the shade, but I said no because I was too tired to move. I asked another person what time it was, I repeated the time she said to me, and then I couldn't remember what time we'd agreed upon. I cleverly decided to go sit in the shade, and I somehow forced down a banana chunk and a PBJ without puking. One volunteer told me I looked awful and asked if I wanted to drop out. I told him I'd be fine once the dizziness and tiredness wore away. Another volunteer assumed I was dropping out because I'd been sitting in the shade for fifteen minutes, and she told me and the guy sitting next to me that a car was waiting for us.
I was really hoping I could recover. I asked someone else what time it was, tried to do math, and failed again. I pulled out my iPod, got back on my bike, and hoped for a magic recovery. When I rode up the first little hill after the final aid station, my legs had no power. I'm not sure whether to write about what happened next because it's embarrassing. I realized at this point that I had no chance of making it in 12 hours. I needed a full recovery to ride up Powerline, but there was no way I could make it while feeling weak and dizzy. So I burst into tears.
I kept riding until I got to the section of trail that goes up the powerlines. I didn't have any leg strength to ride up the steep hill, so I got off and started pushing. Part of me kept saying that I was being stupid. I should have taken the ride into town. Another part of me was saying to shut up and push. I battled the bike in front of me and the demons behind me. The thought of my friends waiting for me at the finish line when 12 hours went by caused my eyes to well up again.
When I'd ridden down Powerline earlier in the day, I counted the number of sections that would appear to be false summits on the way back up. I counted five. Well, dear reader, it turns out that the Powerline section has one hundred and forty-three false summits. The sun was beating on me so hard that I stopped at one point to slap some sun block on my face, arms, and left leg. Then I decided to take some ibuprofen and Tums. I'd heard that it's dangerous to take ibuprofen in high altitudes or I would have taken it earlier, but I was desperate. I didn't want to be out on the course when the sun was setting.
I pushed my bike up pitch after pitch for a couple of hours until finally, mercifully, there was no more climbing to do. I rode recklessly down the long descent, part of me hoping that I'd crash hard enough to end this nightmare.
The trail turned into the paved road that goes up St. Kevin's. Maybe it was the ibuprofen, or maybe it was the pavement, or maybe it was the fact that the worst part of the ride was over, but for whatever reason my bonk went away and I started to feel good again. I was able to ride hard. I felt tired but normal. I passed a dozen or so weary cyclists on the way to the top of the climb when the aid station appeared after what seemed like a few short minutes. I ate some food and drank some water, and then a volunteer told me I could still make it. What? Maybe my calculations were off! He said I had 38 minutes to ride 11 miles. I told him I'd give it a shot, so I hopped on my bike and sped off. When I thought about it, I knew there was no way I could do 11 miles in 38 minutes, not even on a road bike. Still, I wanted to try.
That thrilling 11-mile ride back into town made the whole ride seem worthwhile. I loved the feeling of being on a bike as I dodged downhill obstacles and powered up climbs. It was exhilarating. The only thing that brought me back down to earth was the fear that I would collapse in tears at the finish line. As I rode into town and heard the clapping and cowbells and shouts of encouragement, I thought tears were going to stream down my face. But when I got to the finish line, I was all smiles. I finished. It was a terrible day, but I finished.
A bunch of my friends were waiting for me at the finish line. I asked Elden how he'd done, and he said 9:14. Ouch. All that training, all that sacrifice for what may have been his last realistic shot at breaking 9 hours, and it just wasn't his day. Kenny and Brad finished second and third in the singlespeed category. Chuckie had two flat tires and still finished in the top 25. Dave Wiens pulled ahead of Floyd down the stretch and won his fifth title in a row. Dug was dealing with the remorse of having dropped out of the race. If I had been in his situation, I would have dropped out out of the race when he did, if not sooner, and I would have felt even more regret for having done so.
We all sat in chairs around our camp swapping stories and eating delicious bratwursts that Fish grilled. I felt drunk and delirious, happy and sad, ashamed and proud. Good times.
I'll be back next year, lighter and faster.