Race Across the Sky
By Tracy Dangott | Aug 16, 2015
Race name: Leadville Trail 100 MTB
Race date: Sunday, Aug 16, 2015
From: Norm DePlume
The mountain air was just above freezing in the spooky pre-dawn darkness. Main Street was teeming with activity. An announcer rattled on over a PA, but no one paid attention to what he is saying. Athletes were decked out in the latest tech wear, some however layered with low-tech blankets or sweatshirts to keep warm before the start of the race. They scurry to find their corrals at a starting line two thousand riders deep.
There are many races. In fact there are many mountain bike races, but the Leadville trail 100 is special. It was started, as a shot in the dark, by an old shift boss when the Climax Mine in Leadville shut down in 1982. Ken Chlouber dreamed up the race as a chance to draw some money into a town that would whither without the mining jobs. Now, he is a part of the fabric, character and spirit of this ultra endurance event. He’s got his special sayings that are part of the branding of the race:
“To finish the Leadville Trail 100, you’ve got to make like the miners out here. You gotta dig deep.”
“Within each of us is an inexhaustible well of grit, guts and determination.”
“You’re better than you think you are. You can do more than you think you can.”
“I commit, I won’t quit.”
With his cowboy swagger and a face seasoned by decades of hard living, he coughs out those lines like an IPod on shuffle repeat. However, the repetition doesn’t annoy like a pop song. The lines are more like your school’s fight song. They let you know it’s game time.
Ken’s economic infusion plan hung on a leap of faith, that somewhere out in the world is a voluntary suffering class. People would want to travel to a largely unknown town in Colorado for the chance to toil in misery. The race takes mountain bikers from the center of town, a little over 50 miles up and over three mountain ranges, loose dirt, water ruts and boulders to the high point atop the Columbine mine. Then it tracks back over the same mountains to Main Street. Over the 104.2-mile course, riders climb just under 13,000 feet. Leadville is highest altitude race of its kind. The starting line is at 10,200 feet above sea level. That earns the title “The race across the sky,” and removes oxygen from the available resources.
The plan worked.
People come from all over the states and all over the world. The biggest names in cycling and the Tour De France have lined up here. Lance Armstrong raced here before his fall from grace, Floyd Patterson as well. Names known to Mountain Bikers: Todd Wells, Rebecca Rusch, Dave Weins are all connected to the Leadville race. Leadville has become as big a name with ultra endurance events as Kona is to triathlons and Boston is to Marathons. The coveted belt buckle is a badge of honor, which says you finished the race in under 12 hours and joined this odd fraternity that Chlouber now calls “the Leadville family.”
So, as the Sun starts to tilt shadows down and expose the Colorado Rockies, just under two thousand are crowded in the center of this otherwise dead mining town. I am in their ranks. Leadville has become a special place to me, because of the race and because of the team on which I compete.
I’m wearing the uniform of Ride 2 Recovery, a non-profit that outfits veterans with bikes and gets them out riding. The beauty of cycling is that there is a mechanical element that can be adjusted to accommodate for missing limbs or other injuries. Cycling levels the playing field. However, I think the most significant impact for veterans is on unseen battle scars. A guy out for a training ride is the opposite of the depressed combat vet shut in his apartment with the blinds drawn. A competitor who just put 100 miles behind him stands in sharp contrast to someone who feels so helpless that suicide seems like a reasonable option.
One of my teammates is here to support. Nathan Dewalt, a US Navy veteran who lost the use of his legs when he was hit by a car. He is an active para-triathalete. However, although hand bikes, even off-road hand bikes have been developed, we have yet to design a bike that could get a guy over the severe and treacherous terrain of Leadville without his legs. But Nate is a determined guy and he is here to scout the course and come up with a plan to get the buckle. Despite his injuries, I‘ve only known Nate to be cheerful and ambitious. It’s hard to have anything but respect for that. A couple of nights before the race Nate approached me and asked, “During the later miles, is there anything I could shout that could give you the inspiration to keep going?”
“Oh, Man,” I responded. “Just having you here is enough.”
“No really,” He pushed. “There’s gotta be something.”
There are no magic words to pull you out of the hurt locker. So, I said, “Just shout,
I am a woman trapped in a man’s body.”
And we had a good laugh.
On race day, I am crowded in my starting corral. Jeff Wise a submariner and White House liaison for the Navy is off my right shoulder. Mt. Massive is off in the distance, flecked with patches of snow and illuminated with an orange morning alpenglow.
At this point, I think I’m going to throw up.
I lecture the veterans to eat a stout breakfast before a big endurance event like this, but it’s not sitting well. Maybe it’s nerves. The first time I did this race, the pressure was just to make the 12-hour cutoff. I made it. The second time I did the race, I had my sights set on a nine-hour deadline. To finish sub-nine earns you something race organizers call “the gold buckle.” The ratio of gold to silver is just the same as the 12-hour buckle, it’s just bigger. To the outside world, it’s meaningless and gaudy. To the Leadville family, the big buckle means you are in the big boy club. I got my big buckle in 2013 with a time of 8:41. Now, I’m feeling the pressure to beat that time and I feel like I’ll let the guys down if I can’t repeat. The heart rate monitor on my bike computer showed 110. I’m usually 60 at rest.
Oh, man. I thought, don’t barf in front of all the other riders.
The national anthem tugs at the heartstrings a bit more when you are on a team of veterans. The emotion was a nice distraction from the nervousness. Soon, race director Josh Colley fired an old H&R single barrel shotgun with the word Leadville and a mountain scape crudely burned into the stock. The 2015 Leadville 100 was on.
The start is slightly downhill on the paved road out of town. So, the first time I looked at my bike computer, the pack was moving at 38 mph. At second glance 40 and the racers were mere mere inches from each other. If two guys bump into each other, dozens will wreck. Guys are pointlessly jockeying for position and flirting with disaster in an ever -thickening cloud of dust as we leave the paved road. Jeff passed me and I let him go. I opt for caution in the early stages. I hate this part of any race. I can’t wait to get to the first climb.
The climb up St. Kevin’s comes in about 4 miles. This is the part I like. I wait for gaps to open and I fill them. Progress is slow, over the rocky, loose fire road but you can put a lot of competitors behind you on the uphill. My technique is just to ride in the wheel track and cut in line. If I’m on the right and a gap opens on the left, I jump across. Sometimes, I make my own path up the middle to find an opening. I’m not really feeling my best, but I’m advancing. I passed Jeff and kept gaining ground uphill.
The first climb ends on a paved section. It gives riders a chance to spread out and hot-dog descenders get their first chance to try to show what daredevils they are. The riders spread out pretty well on this section of road. So, the show offs don’t really threaten to cause may wrecks. However, the speedy downhill really does not do them much good. I kept it conservative on the downhill (about 40 mph) then caught everyone who passed me as soon as the road flattened out. Then I passed them as we began the next climb.
The start up the Sugarloaf climb begins with a relatively smooth dirt road and it felt like it had recently been grated. Riders were forming up packs. I jumped on the draft of a small pack and worked my way up to the front. I felt some guy’s handlebar jab me in the kidney and I ignored it. He then reached out a hand and gave me a shove saying, “Hey asshole, you’re crowding me.” I turned my head said, “You’re responsible for your front wheel, and you’re behind me.”
The beauty of athletics is the ability to mete out instant justice. No mediator, no judge, no jury. If a guy bugs you, you can just beat him. In boxing you can slug him. In wrestling, you stick him to the mat. In mountain biking, you leave him in your dust. So, I left that pack and buried him.
As the climb got steeper and we got to the first switchback, I was able to get a look at that jerk. He was at least 400 meters behind. I still felt like hell, but I was passing guys on the uphill. As the climb flattened out, the route got rockier. This is the prelude to the infamous powerline descent. It is loose, water rutted and rocky. If you have ever seen a you-tube clip of a wreck in Leadville it was most likely on the powerline descent. No one has ever won the race by bombing powerline, but many races have ended there with broken bike or broken rider. Still, the guys who can’t make time uphill and fancy themselves badass mountain bikers can’t resist screaming down the descent and shouting for others to get out of their way. I wouldn’t mind, but they threaten to cause me to wreck and end my race as well.
One guy in a pink jersey came screaming past me – literally – as he shouted at other riders. About 2 minutes later, I saw him off to the side of the racecourse trying to fix his bike. When we got to the steep section, some guy came riding up my ass talking shit. I didn’t let him fluster me. I handled my descent at my speed and made a mental note of him when he passed. A couple more did the same thing; I imprinted their jerseys in my memory.
When powerline flattened out, I told myself all the race-ending treachery is behind you now. One way or another, you’ll finish. I had lectured the veterans that this is the first chance to get a big pull of water and something to eat. However, I could barely force myself to drink and I could only handle one bite of an energy bar. My stomach was still in a bad way. I stuck a shot block in my cheek like it was a wad of chewing tobacco and set off to go after the guys who passed me on the descent.
I got them all. I was gobbling up riders like Pac Man. I felt like hell, but I was getting results. I came upon a pack of riders in the flats. One was marshaling an effort to form a pace line. I thought this could work and we could make some time across the flats working together. However, only half of the mountain bikers knew how to ride a pace line. So, in execution, I would ride the draft until I came to the front, then I ended up pulling a bunch of riders and no one would take the front to give me a break. Screw this, I thought. I dumped that pack and blazed off across the flats on my own in search of another wheel to draft. I found a few guys to draft, but kept jumping to the next wheel.
To my surprise, when I arrived at the first feed station I was 10 minutes off the split time I needed to finish in 8:30. I got a new water bottle and another bar, even though I hadn’t eaten the first one. Nate was working the feed zone from his wheel chair. He said, “You are doing awesome, Man.” “No,” I responded. “I’m slow. I need to make up some time.” I got out of there quickly.
Within 20 minutes, I was at the only section of single track on the Leadville racecourse. It’s got a moderate downhill. I took it fast enough. Still another downhiller came riding up from behind, screaming something like “on your left.” He cut off a section of the course to pass me on a downhill switch back and almost took out my front wheel. I hollered at him, “Don’t cause a wreck. You’re not making that much time.”
“Learn how to go downhill,” was his response. Then I watched him do the same thing to another rider in the distance.
I buried him about two minutes after the course flattened out.
I was pissed off and it was good. I probably put another 30 riders behind me screaming across the relatively flat section. I found some guys to work with and that helped. However, when I arrived at the second feed station, I had not done much damage to my lag time. I was still off my split. It was hot, hotter than races in years past. I downed some electrolyte tabs, chugged the little bit of water my stomach could handle, took a bite of a bar and stuffed another shot block in my cheek.
Now, I was beginning the grueling climb to the top of the Columbine mine, but I love this crap. I don’t have many gifts. I can’t dunk a basketball, do complex math or dance the lambada but I can push things up a hill. I was in my element, stomping my way up and leaving riders behind me. One of the most exiting parts of the Leadville 100 occurs on the way up Columbine. The biggest of the big boys come screaming back down. First the moto, then riders Alban Lakatam, Kristian Hynek and Christoph Sauser in a breakaway en route to set a course record. They all pass just about a foot away at around 45 mph.
On the big climbs, I make an effort to get out of the saddle, do some of the race standing, some of it sitting just to use muscle groups differently and change up the blood flow. I stood up and something felt wrong. It’s hard to explain, but my quads just didn’t feel right. Soon, when I was back in the saddle, my groin muscles started sending out those little electric twinges signaling they were about to cramp. No way, I told myself. I’m not even half way. I’m not cramping. I’m just going to will it not to be so.
My left groin muscle was the first to seize up. I rubbed it with my right hand and told myself I could ride through it. Then the right leg went. I managed to unclip without wrecking and hopped on one foot yelping like a scalded dog. There was no choice but to stop and stretch. When I tried to stretch my groin, something in my hip would seize up. When I tried to stretch my quads, my hamstrings would lock up. I reached my hand to the back of my thigh and it felt like someone had inserted an unripe apple underneath my skin.
So, I walked the bike up the hill. All those riders I passed on the way up or even in the flats, they were passing me now. I don’t know what hurt worse, my legs or my ego. When the climb flattened, I got back on and rode, but even a moderate climb caused more spasms.
Then I did the math. I was shooting for 8:30. I was 10 minutes slow on the way out. So, that’s 20 minutes on the way back if I could maintain the same speed. I was only getting slower. The day was only getting hotter. I was going to cramp more. If I slowed as much as 11 seconds per mile, I would not make the 9 hour cutoff to get another big buckle, which my fragile, little ego needs to tell me I am somehow worthy.
My ambitions for this year’s Leadville were gone. I am unworthy.
I first thought was to quit. Just finish Columbine, ride back down to the Ride 2 Recovery tent at the feed station and say it wasn’t my year. However, I’m on the Ride 2 Recovery team. The essence of what we do is resilience and tenacity. There are guys on this racecourse, in some part because of me, who survived IED attacks. Matt DeWitt lost both hands to an RPG in Baghdad and he is still on his way up the mountain. Guys in this operation go to places so dark that giving up means taking their own lives. I’m supposed to be here encouraging them to fight on. Nate is still down there without the use of his legs waiting to give me a fresh water bottle and something to eat. Your legs hurt? At least you can feel your legs! At least you have a leg…pus boy!
This race was no longer about hitting my PR. The race was no longer about the big buckle. Now, it was about salvaging dignity. I hear you Ken Chlouber: I commit, I won’t quit.
As you leave the tree line, the route gets steeper and looser. Any attempt to ride the steep stuff again just led to more yelping and stretching. I pushed as far as I could to the right, so I would not force any other riders into the path of the bikes coming back down. I recognized a voice coming up behind me. It was a combat soldier who suffered such severe depression he didn’t leave the house for weeks at a time. He announced my name in that good to see ya bro kind of way, “How ya doing?”
“I’m having a bad race pal.”
“Isn’t this awesome?”
I remembered feeling that way at the top of Columbine once. It was good to see him happy. It made me feel like the whole thing was working, like being here was doing some good and it wasn’t about my race. That soldier ended up getting the sub-9 buckle.
Eventually, the mountain flattens out at the top. I was able to ride again. I didn’t take in the view. This time, I just wanted off the mountain. For the first time, I got a look at the faces coming up, faces of racers I knew. I saw people that could not have looked more miserable if they were doing time in a Turkish prison. The heat was getting to a lot of riders. I think cramps were running through this race like the black plague ran through Europe.
I was even more cautious descending from Columbine. Now, I was giving up ground that I would not make up again. I was just letting riders go.
Juan Carlos Hernandez lost his lower leg to an RPG in Afghanistan and has become an elite rider. When the ride flattened out, he rode up behind and asked, “How are you doing?”
“Me too,” He said. Then he passed me.
Juan Carlos also went sub-9…with one leg.
I limped back re-tracing the route to town. When the hill got steep, I soft pedaled until my legs locked up again then walked the bike. The heat was oppressive and despite the forecast for rain, the Sun gave no mercy. Every chance I had to drink water, I did. R2R President John Wordin once told me that the big sugar and caffeine dump from a can of Coke will bring you back from the dead. I tried it, but it didn’t go down easy and I think what I needed was water and salt. My stomach wasn’t working right and whatever I could stuff down the pipe, wasn’t making it to my leg muscles.
As I was returning to the first feed station, I head someone bellow from the side of the racecourse:
“I AM A WOMAN TRAPPED IN A MAN’S BODY!”
I looked off to the side and saw Nate in his wheelchair laughing himself silly. Who knew, there really are words that could bring you out of the hurt locker? If Nate can be in his chair having a hoot, I can enjoy this race with a few cramps. I loaded up my bottle cages, took a hit of water and I was out of the feed station. Not really stomping, but I was re-energized.
Whatever inspiration a rider acquires, it is gone by the time he returns to go back up powerline. Everyone suffers and few make the climb without getting off to hiking the bike up the mountain. I gave up that quest early and started walking as soon as it got steep. Powerline has several false summits on the way back up. It’s a notorious spirit breaker, but I was already broken. All I needed to do was endure until I was on a long descent. Then I would know it was over. After that, one more climb up a paved section.
To my surprise, some strength was returning to my legs. I was able to do the last climb in the big ring and keep a somewhat respectable pace sans yelping. The heat was only getting worse. I was given a bottle of cold water, which I dumped over my head. All I could taste was salt cause all of the sweat crusted on my face washed into my mouth.
At the top of the last climb, I spotted the neon yellow on the shoulders of one of the jerseys R2R was wearing this year. It was Jayme Brown, who manages one of Ride 2 Recovery training chapters. He had passed me as I was crawling through the moderate hilly sections after Columbine. When I caught up to him he asked, “Do you want to finish together?”
“Well, we’re not getting on the podium,” I responded.
Jayme still had some mojo on the descents. I was a bit of a rattled mess. My clumsiness caused me to ride the brakes harder than I normally do. He was about a quarter mile ahead by the time I arrived at the bottom of St. Kevin’s, but given all the soft-pedaling and hiking, I still had some gas in the tank. I caught him, told him to get on my wheel and we ripped along at about 24 miles per hour in the final 8 miles of the race. You do a little uphill, one loose rocky section then come back to the paved road.
It seems surreal when you crest the final hill coming back to town. Leadville looks like a teeming ant farm with a red carpet in the center. A wall of sound hits you. The announcer is still there, music is blasting and the crowd of spectators seems as exited for us mediocre finishers as they were for the race leaders. When you get close to town the crowd mimics Tour spectators on Alpe DuHuez barely giving enough space for the bikes to get through and you can hear they have gone hoarse from shouting for each rider, as if he was just as exiting as the first.
I felt a hand on my shoulder. It was Jayme. We were going to finish precisely together. I locked my arm in his and advanced through the surging crowd. This is what it is all about isn’t it? Clearly I’d like the visual to communicate to the vets that they are not alone. But maybe there is a metaphor for life. That, for the good days and the bad days, you have to do the race alone. If you have a team, you’ll get support along the way. If you are lucky, you’ll find a teammate and finish together.
My finish time ended up about an hour off my goal: 9:33. No big buckle this time. However, I think the little buckle from this race was harder earned and may shine a bit brighter than the other two. My girlfriend was at the finish. I had to fight off signs that I was getting misty. Don’t ask me why, but Leadville is an emotional place, an emotional experience. It’s trendy for men to cry in public now, but I still think they look like wusses.
I don’t know what I did wrong. Cramping is usually an indication that you screwed up your hydration or nutrition. As much as I pride myself in my ability to zip up to altitude without difficulty, I suspect my problem was acclimation. I had been tied down with work and unable to get to the mountains until a few days before the race. When oxygen is unavailable or your blood is unable to deliver enough of it and you create a big 02 draw with your legs, your body will pick which systems it needs. Digestion is not an immediate crisis. So, digestion shuts down. I think, feeling like my gut was going to burst the whole race, that my digestion just was not moving things along and all the water and electrolytes were not getting to my legs.
Possibly, sidetracked by work and a never-ending stream of race riots, I missed too much training and I was just not as fit as I was two years ago. Possibly, living in Chicago, it was a fool’s effort to substitute intervals for real hill climbs. Maybe I went too hard, too early, trying to hit my split times and beat guys who pissed me off; maybe all of the above.