Tuesday, August 12, 2008

2008 Leadville Race Report

Disclaimer: My flight was delayed, so I have time to write. I'm going to ramble and babble.

The Leadville 100 is an out-and-back race that starts at 10,200 feet, tops out at 12,600 feet at Columbine Mine, and returns to Leadville. It includes 14,000 feet of climbing, most of which takes place in five big climbs -- St. Kevin's in, Powerline in, Columbine Mine, Powerline out, and st. Kevin's out.

After finishing last year's race in 12:26, I signed up for Leadville, started training hard during the summer, stressed and obsessed, and reduced my pastry intake by 12%.

The Start

Organizers line up everyone according to projected finish. At the front of the pack were a dozen or so of the pro racers, including Lance Armstrong and Dave Wiens. Behind them were the top 100 returners from last year's race. They were given special wrist bands. You'll have to trust me when I tell you that Elden was thrilled to be in this special group, cordoned off from the rest of us chattel.

Behind them, riders were grouped in Sub-9, 9-10, 10-11, 11-12, and 12+ sections. I knew I belonged in the 11-12 group, but these categories are flawed. Some of the riders -- many of them roadies -- are fast cyclists with mediocre technical skills. When they get to the first climb at St. Kevin's, a lot of these strong endurance athletes flail and have to get off their bikes, jamming up traffic with their antics. Knowing I'd do fine on the first climb, I jumped in the back of the 9-10 group next to "Gary," who dressed just like Dug, complete with plaid shorts, knee socks, and a handlebar basket containing a stuffed monkey. In fact, I'll go ahead and just call him "Dug."

I thought I'd be more nervous. After last year's race, when I got down on myself, I wanted to avoid emotional highs and lows and just ride hard and steady. I didn't bring a watch and I wasn't going to ask anyone how I was doing.

Bang!

When the gun goes off at Leadville, most riders have to wait anywhere between a few seconds and a few minutes to start riding. A police car and television crew (LANCE ARMSTRONG IS RACING!!!) set the pace going downhill out of town. During these few miles, riders aren't supposed to pass. Unfortunately, some goober refused to respect Elden's top 100 wristband and knocked him over while passing him.

Elden scrambled back on his bike undamaged and was noticeably upset when I went by him. I was too busy yelling to talk to him. Most of the riders have the sense to hold their lines and avoid overreacting, but it's the few spastics I want to frighten away. So I yelled things like "TURNING" or "SLOWING" or "CORNISH GAME HENS" -- whatever came to mind. Once we turned off on the dirt road, I clammed up and settled into a rhythm.

Over St. Kevin's and Sugarloaf

The ride up St. Kevin's is always interesting. There are the agro dudes who burn energy to pass in crazy places, gaining precious seconds. And there are people who just ride weird. One guy threw it in granny gear on a gradual climb and spun his legs three times as fast as anyone around him.

I borrowed a Superfly from Racer's wife, and I want to say right now that it's far and away the best racing bike I've ever ridden. At this same place the previous year, my legs felt dead and any serious effort made me dizzy. This year I felt solid. Dug and Elden passed me at some point, but I wasn't going to try to hang with anyone, especially singlespeed riders.

The descent down the paved road on St. Kevin's was a blast. No cars are allowed, so I put my belly on my seat and flew down in a tuck, yelling, "ON YOUR LEFT!!!"

The second climb of the day is up Haberman's pass to the top of Sugarloaf. You climb up a mile or so of paved road, and then you go up a long, gradual dirt road that wraps around Turquoise Lake. I was still feeling strong, but my legs were twitching now and then, as if they were going to start cramping. I tried to put it out of my mind.

The four-mile descent down Powerline on the other side of Sugarloaf is nerve-wracking. There are slow riders and fast riders and crazy riders. About every quarter mile, someone is changing a flat tire. My plan was to ride this stretch cautiously because I didn't want to wreck or flat. It turned out I didn't need to be cautious. The Superfly was steady. In biking terms, it "tracks well." It's the opposite of squirrelly.

I jumped behind a guy who was going fast and followed his line until he screwed up, and then I passed him. When I was near the bottom, where the course was lined with spectators to watch the carnage, I slowed down to ride behind a guy who was going a little too fast to pass easily. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a guy on the other side of the trail taking a random line. He made no effort to dodge rocks or trenches. In fact, it almost looked like he was going out of his way to hit obstacles.

He took a terrible line to pass the guy in front of me, and then he paid for it, tumbling over his handlebars right in front of the other guy. That guy slammed on his brakes and then tumbled exactly the same way. It was like an act out of circ de soleil. Synchronized endos.

As I scooted around them, asked if they were OK. One of the guys said, "It's too early to tell." Take your time! I think he ended up breaking his collarbone. That's what the nurse in the emergency room told me.

At the bottom of the downhill, there's a fun little stream crossing where you can go left to ride over a 12-foot plank to keep from getting your feet wet. After riding a few miles in pace lines on paved and dirt roads, the tents from the first aid station appear. I didn't know how fast I was going, but I looked it up later:

2007 Bob - 2:41
2008 Bob - 2:32

To Twin Lakes Dam

I stopped at the 26-mile aid station to grab something quick to eat and fill up my bottle with a sports drink. I knew I was going to feel lousy later in the race, but I had a plan. I was going to take a cocktail of ibuprofen and Tums. The race organizers warned everyone about the dangers (KIDNEY FAILURE!!!) of taking ibuprofen at altitude when you're dehydrated, so my plan was to stay good and hydrated. I drank constantly from my Camelbak.

We had a nice tailwind that carried us down the flattish road. After a few dips into a little valley, we headed over a ridge and dropped down the road that crosses the dam. That road is lined for miles with cars and support tents.

Because I was slow guy in the group, I didn't ask anyone to crew for me. Instead, I left drop bags and depended on the volunteers. The volunteers were fantastic as usual. One person grabbed my Camelback while another person brought me my drop bag. I ate a couple of banana slices to stave off cramps, restocked my jersey pockets with sugary food, drank a pop-top can of soup, and took off for the big climb.

2007 Bob - 3:37
2008 Bob - 3:26

Columbine

Before you get to Columbine, there's a ridge with a sketchy uphill portion. I rode up it while others walked it. I got to thinking -- would a no-dab Leadville be possible? Up to this point, I'd taken my foot out of the pedals twice, each time at aid stations. If I were in better shape, I think I'd try it.

We rode through a valley before taking a sharp right turn that marks the beginning of the 9-mile climb. I remembered this turn well because it was there where Floyd Landis and Dave Wiens passed me the year before. So this year, assuming that the leaders were going roughly the same speed, I figured that each minute I climbed from there put me a minute ahead of last year's pace. I climbed for a good ten or fifteen minutes before I felt the buzz up ahead.

RIDERS!

Lance Armstrong was flashing down the mountain with Dave Wiens ridely calmly off his back wheel. I know Lance retired from the sport years ago and is a shell of his former cycling self, but it was thrilling to see him coming down the mountain like that. Those guys were pedaling fast down a section where I would have been feathering my brakes.

The climb up Columbine consists of two parts -- the long road climb and the steep, rocky double-track where most riders walk. Last year, the altitude got to me on the road climb, and I had to shift down to granny gear and eventually walk my bike where I should have been riding. This year, I rode up the whole way in the middle ring, eating a Powergel every twenty minutes or so.

The only drawback was that my legs were twitching and cramping, which worried me more than anything. When we got to the hike-a-bike section, I jumped in line and hiked with everyone else.

One misleading thing about a race report like this is that it's difficult to convey a sense of time. I suppose I could say I pushed my bike up the mountain for 45 minutes, feeling weak and sick from the altitude, but that doesn't get at the feeling of hopelessness as you see a line of hike-a-bikers way up the mountain, tiny ant figures all the way up, and each step is painful. Whenever I got on or off my bike, various legs muscles cramped up. I figured it was only a matter of time before they locked up and I wouldn't be able to use my legs.

Eventually, I made it to the top of the climb and rode down into a knoll where the aid station was. I stopped, jammed a whole banana in my mouth, and hurried to drop out of that altitude as fast as I could.

2007 Bob - 6:10
2008 Bob - 5:42

Down, Down, Down

Have I mentioned that the Superfly tracks well? It does. I rode down the mountain and back into the Twin Lakes aid station, where the volunteers once again swarmed to my aid as if I were the John Belushi character in 1941.

I downed a can of soup, jammed another banana in my mouth, and set off again. By the way, I'm enjoying this comparison of my current self to my former self, also known as The Bad Guy. Failure can be a beautiful thing when there's hope of redemption.

2007 Bob - 6:59
2008 Bob - 6:25

Across the Flats

Next, the 14-mile "flat" section to the next aid station. All four times I've done Leadville, this section is where I started to fall apart. There are two nasty hike-a-bikes up small but steep hills, and the miles have gotten to me at this point. It's also signifantly more uphill going back than coming out. My legs were wobbly, my stomach was churning, I wanted to quit the race.

I tried not to think about anything. Just stay on the bike and take the pain. In the back of my mind, I hoped that the magic cocktail would work when it was time to take it. Otherwise, I'd be in serious trouble. The aid station appeared more quickly than I expected.

2007 Bob - 8:33
2008 Bob - 7:46

The Final Climbs

I didn't know how well I was doing and I didn't want to ask. As I said, I wanted to turn my brain off to avoid emotion, which is always excessive when you're worn down like that. The volunteers grabbed my drop bag. I drank another can of soup, ate more banana pieces, and then braced myself. I took a Red Bull out of the drop bag and used it to gulp down my cocktail. I wanted to rest longer in the aid station, but I forced myself back on the bike. If the cocktail didn't work, I wanted to still have a chance at a sub-12.

The cocktail worked. And how.

Along the few miles of road before the nastiest climb, I started feeling better. No headaches, no leg cramps, no nausea. After crossing the stream and starting the climb, I toyed with the idea of riding of the first steep pitch. Instead, I pushed up it quickly, passing several people along the way.

The Powerline is infamous for its false summits. After hiking about a mile up to what appears to be the top, you're really only about a third of the way up. After the first pitch, there's a little flat section, and then it goes up again. Unlike last year, when I walked up the whole thing and sat down to rest several times, I rode.

And I kept riding. After the initial pitch, I didn't get off my bike once. Emboldened by ibuprofen and taurine, I chatted with a few people who wanted to talk about the Fat Cyclist and zipped up Powerline as if it were a training ride. The rain sizzled on the wires above us.

When I got to the rolling section at the top, I allowed myself to think for the first time that I might actually make it. Naturally, my reaction to this thought was to get all choked up. I didn't want to cry, so I ended up making strange noises that probably sounded like "guh" or "gollem."

During the descent, I kept trying to get power gels or shot blocks or anything from my pocket, but I kept dropping my food because my hands were shaky. So I just gave up and waited for the St. Kevin's climb to eat.

St. Kevin's is a fairly steep 4-mile climb, but it's on pavement. That means it actually feels good after getting bounced around all day. The only problem was that I ran out of water right at the start of the climb. A guy who works in Racer's shop (Arthur?) was kind enough to give me a sip of water about halfway up.

I pulled into the last aid station, refilled my Camelbak, and drank more soup. Someone mentioned that we were not only on track for sub-12, but we had 15 minutes to spare. I thought I was further ahead than that (I was). I hopped on my bike and pedaled hard.

The Final Stretch

My legs were strong but I felt dizzy. Then I started having blurred vision. I'm not sure what was going on. Part of me felt strong enough to sprint while another part of me was sick and exhausted.

I was more careful than usual during the downhill stretches because I didn't think I had the mental agility to change a flat in my condition. When we came out of the woods into the outskirts of Leadville, I started making my guh and gollem sounds again.

As I crossed the dirt road where I'd taken the Superfly on its maiden voyage two days before, people were ringing cowbells and shouting encouragement. One guy looked just like Lance Armstrong, but I figured my blurred vision was playing tricks on me.

After I turned up what's known as the Boulevard, which is the final climb into town, another rider asked me if I'd seen Lance. Lance who? "Yeah," the guy said. "Lance Armstrong was back there drinking beer and telling us to keep going."

Then the final right turn onto 6th street.

Guh. Gollem.

As I rode toward the finish line, people were cheering and clapping and ringing cowbells, and I wasn't in any kind of condition to reject their endorsement of my magnificence.

Thank you. Thank you.

2007 Bob - 12:26:12
2008 Bob - 11:22:44

At the finish line, someone put a medal around my neck, and I looked around for my friends. No one was there. Even though 11:22:44 is a great number that's nearly Fibonacciesque, my friends were all finishing their showers and expecting me to arrive a little before (or after) 12 hours.

Finally, Nick and Sarah came over and helped me find a place to sit in dizzy stupor. I would write about feeling so nauseous and dizzy that I asked Elden to take me to the emergency room, but I don't want to.

I finished Leadville. I am now a triathlete.