Pre-Race. The morning of Saturday, August 14 came early. We got up around 4 am to eat breakfast, get dressed and drive the 45 minutes from Vail to Leadville. We got there a bit later than ideal and accidentally found a super wonderful secret place to park right next to a couple of empty public bathrooms. The group of porta-potties a couple of blocks away had a long, long line, so this was a nice find.
We made final adjustments, picked the clothes to get us through the 45 degree cool morning start and rolled up to the back of the 1400+ riders. We worked our way through the crowd but were still a block and half behind the start line.
Start. The shotgun blast went off exactly at 6.30 am and the leaders raced off immediately. It took us a few minutes to reach the actual start line but at the time it was hard to see how 3-4 minutes would really have an impact on 12 hours of riding.
After crossing the start line there is a block or two descent, followed by a few block rise as you head out of town. There are lots of pictures taken of this roll-out so you may have seen it. From this point, you roll down hill for about 3 miles of paved road, giving you plenty of chance to get cold and stiff, and then about 3 miles of gently inclined smooth dirt roads. At this point, you are at the bottom of St. Kevins (pronounced Keevins). St. Kevins is the the smallest climb in the first 100 miles of the race. Unfortunately, it hits you upside the head when you are cold, stiff and adrenaline soaked. Also unfortunately, there isn't anything that has separated the crowds of riders and everyone hits the bottom of the climb feeling as good as they are going to feel all day. This doesn't mean that everyone is strong, just as good as it is going to be all day and there hasn't been any sorting out, so this is where the sorting takes place.
St. Kevins. St. Kevins would be a good way to start the race if there were a bit more separation of riders and there was a bit of warm-up prior to the climb. The climb itself is a total of 4.2 miles, averages 5.4% with pitches of 18%. The toughest mile of the climb averages 8.7%, so don't think it is a cream puff, but it isn’t a bad climb and on a ride with a few guys on a random afternoon it would be one of those climbs where you huff and puff your way through, re-group at the top and say something snarky like, “wow, I thought we were going to be climbing today, why did we start out with that bump?” On race day if you have enough oxygen in your brain, you might formulate a thought more like, “wow, I didn’t know mountain bikers could replicate the boarding of a Japanese commuter train by cramming 1,400 people onto a few yards of nearly vertical soil . . . I thought that was supposed to be the easy climb of the day, why am I coughing up a portion of lung with every pedal stroke and is it bad form to just ride OVER someone when they stop in front of me?” One way or the other, however, Imade it up St. Kevins and I was very happy to feel good all the way up. I was also glad to be able to clearly recall how different I felt on this trip up than I did three years earlier. I took it as a good sign. You start descending from this climb almost right at the 10 mile mark.
After St. Kevins there is a long asphalt descent. Actually, I would not have described it as “long” on the way out. It only seemed to take a couple of minutes, literally. I hit the highest speed of the day on this descent, 42.4 mph, and it was over almost as soon as it began. My educated guess would have been that it was about a mile long. On the way back, it turns out that it was 14 or 15 miles long. Not really, but it was a brutal four miles on the way back up. More on that later.
Sugarloaf. As you hit the bottom of the descent the pavement heads back up for a short bit before you catch the dirt road that is the lower portion of the next climb. On the way out the climb is known as Sugarloaf. The backside of this climb has a different name - PURE EVIL! No, actually it is called Powerline on the way down, but first, here is the story of the trip up. This climb is approximately 4.8 miles long, has an average grade of 4.7% and pitches of 25%. The lower portion is a wide decent dirt road, but it becomes narrower and rockier as the climb goes on. It is reasonably climbable, even for a big guy like me, almost all of the way to the top, and it is only the last bit that has some stiffer pitches or semi-technical stuff. This climb does top 11,000 and it about 300 feet higher than St. Kevins, which gives you the first bit over the tree-line. Still odd to me to think about riding my bike ABOVE the level where the air will sustain the life of a tree. Does that make sense?
In 2007 when I did this climb, I was riding with a smaller and smaller group of people which definitely was spelling trouble for me. I did manage to pass a guy with one leg, however. No, really. In 2007 there was a Jamican dude who had one leg that borrowed a mountain bike to do Leadville. He was a minor celebrity at the event and got a starting position with the first 100. It took me until Sugarloaf to catch and pass him. Yes, another sign of trouble from 2007. In 2010, however, I made my way up this climb in reasonable order; passing a few people along the way, not being passed by too many people and not feeling too bad. At this point, I was 19 miles into the race and just shy of 2 hours as I crested this climb. While I was not feeling sparky, I was gratified that I felt okay and had two major climbs out of the way so soon in the day. This is, by the way, a bit deceptive. Kind of like saying that you have already been punched in the head twice and only have eight more punches to go. It might be that I was discounting the cumulative effect of the punches.
Powerline Descent. Coming down the other side of this pass or mountain, as I alluded to above, is the “Powerline” descent which is a vicious and horrible climb on the way back. On the way down, it is a reasonably technical and gullied descent. Many more than one person got on an unsustainable line and had a problem negotiating the rut onto another ride-able line, resulting in a crash or at least coming to a halt. I passed one person near the top who was clearly quite injured and there were multiple people around the downed rider. I would find out later that this person suffered head and neck injuries and was still hospitalized a week after the event, but hopefully looking at a full recovery. My mother is sure that I am facing likely death or severe injury every time I do a ride like this, so I didn’t tell her about this. Thankfully she doesn’t read this blog. For some reason my absurdly detailed navel-gazing biking blog doesn’t appeal to a person who has been quoted as saying “sweat kills.” Anyway, I was glad to make my way down this steep descent in good shape. There is a water crossing at the bottom of this descent that always engenders lots of discussion about the wisdom of riding through it versus waiting in line for the 1” x 10” “bridge” to the side of the main path. In 2007 I rode through the shallower water that year, but later heard about a number of people who slipped on the rocks and crashed. I decided caution was in order this year and waited my turn for the bridge.
Unremarkable Part of the Course. The next part of the course is not generally remarked upon, as it is somewhat unremarkable. It is up and down and includes the only single track of the course. This single track was added a couple of years ago to eliminate what was called Clavicle Hill or Ambulance Hill. I remember in 2007 making a sharp right hand turn and riding down the side of a cliff, at the bottom of which was a helicopter picking up a person who I later learned had broken a femur. It didn't bother me to trade in that experience for the meandering single track. At about the 26 mile mark you pass through the first rest area/aid station. In 2007 this is where I was spent and uttered the "I am completely f____ed" line. I am pleased to report that this year, I simply rode through this area and not feeling bad at all. I had been riding conservatively and was saving my "matches" for later in the day. The official timing says that I was in 915th place at this point and at 2 hours, 39 minutes. I was, interestingly, 1 hour and 5 minutes behind the leaders. Okay, I am not fast, but part of that had to be waiting to cross the start line and congestion at St. Kevins. I'm just sayin'.
Twin Lakes Outbound Aid Station. The next section is similar to the last and really just gets you to the base of the Columbine Mine Climb. There is another aid station at the 40 mile mark which is the literal low point of the course at about 9,200 feet. I reached this point at the end of the range I told my wife that I could and still be on track to finish in 12 hours, pulling in 3 hour, 45 minutes into the day. The official timing also say that I moved backwards to 984th place, although I don't know how I could have lost 70 places in this time. In any case, that was the farthest back in the field I would be all day. I stopped for about 5 minutes to refill my camelbak, shed arm and knee warmers and smile at my family. That all went according to plan and I was off shortly thereafter. Just as I was getting on my bike, the two leaders, JHK and Levi, went by, which meant that I was 40 miles in and they were 60 miles in. Hmm. That means they were faster than I was, doesn't it?
Columbine Mine Climb. From this aid station, the next 1.5 miles climbs over some lumpy rocks up a few hundred feet and then gives you about a mile respite that is level or downhill. From there, it is 8.5 miles UP. It climbs about 3,300 feet over the total distance for an average of around 7%, but with pitches of 23%. By the way, you can find many different measurements of how long these climbs are depending on where people measure them. I have seen distances ranging from 8.45 miles to 11 miles, obviously dependent on where you start. In any case, it is a long way to go up almost without any respite.
From 2007 I had the idea that the lower portion of Columbine was not too bad and that it really was the part out of the treeline that was tough. I was wrong. This was the only part of the day where my memory worked against me as I kept thinking that it would level out a bit and get easier. It did not. It just kept climbing and climbing and climbing up at a steep and relentless grade. I'm sure it was fatigue and fuel, but for most of an hour the only two words that went through my head were "f__ing relentless". Oh, once in a while I added, "this hill is . . .", but it became a mantra of suffering. I said it over and over and over in my head, even while I was telling myself that it wasn't very helpful, useful or necessary.
I climbed and climbed and climbed. In all, I was going uphill from the aid station at the base for about 2 hours and 20 minutes until the aid station at the turn-around. Just by way of comparison, climbing Mt. Spokane from Bear Creek Lodge to the very top is about 7 1/2 miles at 7.1%. I did this in training on my road bike in just a touch over an hour. So Columbine Mine added 1 mile and about an hour and 15-20 minutes. The other thing that Columbine Mine adds is the feeling you get from exertion at over 12,000 feet elevation. For me, that is a bit of light-headedness or dizziness, along with an unsettled stomach. It is also very much worth noting that after you get out of the tree-line (Remember? Too high to sustain the life of a tree?! What I am doing riding my bike there?), there is a steep pitch that I have not witnessed anyone riding. I'm sure the top guys ride it, but at my spot everyone is walking for a major part of the last couple of miles. This is exhausting, a bit demoralizing although also a needed break, and it slows your ascent from a slow riding pace to a pushing-a-bike pace. That certainly adds some time. It is also worth noting that two people set up a free hot-dog and PBR station on this first steep pitch. I was not tempted, but they did apparently give away hot dogs and beer to some riders on the way up and the way down. Maybe every bike race needs a hot-dog and beer station; something to consider.
When I finally got to the turn-around spot (Note: Rather than the "top" it is the turn-around, because the aid station is a quick drop from the high point, which means, yes, the first thing you do after leaving the aid station is to climb your way back out. It is only a few minutes of climbing, but still . . .), I got some water in the empty bottle I had and stuffed some food in my mouth to digest on the long trip mostly downhill trip back to the 60-mile aid station. It is worth noting that my 12-hour plan suggest that I needed to hit the turn-around at 6 hours. I stopped at 6 hours and 5 minutes. I knew that I had passed a lot of people on the way up to Columbine Mine, but it is very note-worthy that I moved up from 984th place all the way to 830th place. Maybe that isn't accurate for some reason, but I like the idea of passing 154 people on a 10 mile climb. I told people afterward that I thought I had passed at least 50 people, which brought looks of incredulity, but it turns out the numbers say it was three times that. Maybe training is a good idea? It may have worked for me.
Tomorrow, the final installment of this saga.