The day was punctuated by gunfire.
I sprang from my sleep to the sound of multiple gunshot blasts at roughly three in the morning. A few seconds later, four more unmistakable pistol shots pierced the night's calm. The blasts were close by, not far outside the window of my room at the Silver King Inn. My heart was racing. I considered calling the police, but then imagined the likely ordeal with the sheriff, constable, or whatever local Chuck Norris type took my call and decided my time was better spent sleeping. I hope nobody got killed.
The next gunshot I heard came at 6:30 am, to start the so-called "Race Across the Sky." I knew this blast was coming -- and aimed harmlessly skyward -- yet I was far more frightened of it than I was the unexpected blam-blam-blam of the handgun in the hotel parking lot. I straddled my bike near the rear of the queue, among the other anxiety-stricken racers hoping to finish between eleven and twelve hours. I was in Leadville, at the start of one of the country's epic 100 mile mountain bike races.
The race needs little introduction. The word alone, Leadville, is legendary in endurance racing. It commands respect. It has a mystical quality that few other races, towns, or events can match. At an elevation of 10,200 feet Leadville is the highest incorporated town in the country and at 100 miles long and having nearly 14,000 feet of total elevation gain, the Leadville Trail 100 mountain bike race is nothing to take lightly. Yet here I was, a sea level neophyte with minimal conditioning who hasn't done a training ride over 4 hours long in months. I ducked the rope and vomited in the bushes: I had never been so nervous.
The first few miles rolled by uneventfully as we headed out of town and onto the dirt roads leading towards Turquoise Lake. A police escort led the way for five-time repeat champion Dave Wiens, cycling legend Lance Armstrong, and nearly one thousand other racers you and I have likely never heard of. I was but a face in the back of the crowd. The first climb, up St. Kevin, was rocky, loose, and rough yet I calmly pedaled my machine and smiled inwardly at all the hike-a-bikers I was passing. I studied the heart rate monitor on my handlebar, steadied my breathing, and kept my ticker below 155 bpm. Two other guys near me on shiny titanium Moots fell in line by my side. We smiled and nodded to one another, a gesture of understanding. It was a gesture not unlike that which owners of Harley-Davidsons give one another on the highway. A lift of the fingers off the handlebar, a smile, a nod, an acceptance of shared enjoyment and appreciation for a fine handmade bicycle.
A long asphalt mountain road carried us down from St. Kevin to the lowly, surprisingly oxygen-rich elevation of 9,400 before commanding a long gradual climb back up to 11,200 feet. I inflated my tires to 50 psi in the front and 46 in the rear and was thankful for every last pump, as I descended the road at 44 mph and climbed efficiently, albeit far more slowly, to the top of the Powerline descent. We were just 18 miles into the race and I had already stopped to pee twice. At this rate I would single-bladderly solve Colorado's drought by midday, yet would run the risk of spending too much time standing beside trees to finish in under twelve hours. I had to make up time somewhere: I chose the descents. After all, they're more fun.
Powerline was a crowned, heavily gullied, hardscrabble road with but one clean line atop the crown, flanked by hell on either side for three miles. The road had several small jumps that I used to take my mandatory eight inches of cross-country geek air and I hooted and hollered as others around me simply shook their head at my wasted energy. The racing I had done in Squamish this year, not to mention my comfort in riding the big wheels, buffeted my confidence and I quickly pulled out of the single-file line into the debris-filled gully and blasted past dozens of racers. If TransRockies had taught me anything last year, it was that there are a lot of folks who can outclimb me, but that I have the technical ability to catch a lot of them on the descents. And I was fearless this day. I was on the edge of control, yet I stood firmly on the precipice and never teetered over. Nearby racers made audible gasps and comments of bewilderment when I passed on the far rockier, more treacherous path and at this I smiled and pedaled harder.
Kristin waited for me at the crew access point at mile 28 and then again at mile 42, just before the main climb up to Columbine Mine. She gave me fresh bottles of my calorie-drink of choice, refilled my Camelback with Nuun, and had an assortment of salty and sugary snacks for me to engulf. I had studied the results from last year's race and gave Kristin a list of range of times that I was hoping to hit at each checkpoint to have a shot at finishing in 11:30. I was 5 minutes off the pace at the first aid station and about 10 minutes slow at the second. And then came the climb.
The climb up to Columbine Mine was 8 miles long and ascended 3,200 feet in elevation. This may not sound that intimidating, but climbing to an elevation of 12,600 feet after already being in the saddle for nearly four hours isn't easy. Especially when the final 1,300 feet of gain comes on a rock-strewn path in the final two miles. Lance and Dave roared past like a pair of runaway mine carts as I was but just one mile into the climb. Together the other nearby racers and I uttered a simultaneous, awe-inspired, "Holy shit!" I'll never forget the look of concentration carved onto both their faces as they raced wheel to wheel. It was quite some time before another racer buzzed by, then before long, it was a steady stream of downhilling mountain bikers zipping by, sometimes just inches from my upwardly-pointed handlebars. Oh, how I wanted to be them.
The road eventually deteriorated and everyone around me began pushing their bikes. The scenery was incredible, we were high above treeline, and I stopped to snap a few photos (an excuse to pause and do something that didn't hurt), but my body was in revolt. I gasped for air, my feet were growing blisters, and my stomach was in disarray. I couldn't eat or drink without feeling nauseous and every bump and jostle on the bike was like a dagger to the gut.
The volunteers at the turnaround point atop Columbine Mine -- at the summit of the world as far as I was concerned -- urged us on with oranges, cups of chicken broth, pretzels, cantaloupe, and coca-cola. I plucked my camera from its holster and took a few more photos. The mindful volunteers told me to hurry, that I was going to be cutting it close to finishing in under 12 hours, that I didn't have time for photos.
I looked her square in the face and said, "There is no way I'm ever dragging my ass back up this mountain and I want a memory that will last longer than the saddle sores."
The volunteer laughed, then smiled and told me that I was in great shape. That I still had my sense of humor so I had nothing to fear. That I would finish in under 12 hours and earn my silver belt buckle. And with that I began the descent. Again, like a man possessed. I urged on the other racers still suffering the indignity of this hellacious climb as I flew past them in the opposite direction, then I grew angry. I grew angry at how much this climb had hurt, how my stomach roiled and ached, and at how my lungs were burned and my lips chapped. I left the turnaround point six hours and twenty-three minutes after that fateful gunshot that started The Race Across the Sky and I was furious. It wasn't supposed to be this hard. Or so I thought. I accelerated, leaped over the rocks, danced through the gullies, and dug deeper. I let go of any fear I had left, and mashed the pedals. The bud tucked into my right ear began emitting the electrifying vibrations from Tool's song Schism and again I descended on edge. I maintained an average speed of nearly 30 mph on the switchbacking descent, ever hopeful that my new tires would maintain their grip on the newly dampened-dirt. I again passed dozens of other racers on the descent. I held my grip tight, pedaled hard, and felt the hair on the back of my neck stand on end. I had never descended like this. I was scaring myself.
I rolled up to Kristin just 18 minutes after beginning the descent. Eight miles. The climb had taken two hours and twelve minutes. The eight mile descent just 18 minutes. Kristin admonished me for still carrying a full Camelback and tried to force-feed me fluids and a PB&J burrito. "You're not drinking! You need to be drinking," she exclaimed. I told her I was still peeing and I wasn't hungry. I downed a 5oz can of V-8, my second of the day, then slammed a couple mini Slim-Jims into my mouth. The salt burned my tongue. I kissed her goodbye and pedaled onward.
I was beyond the turnaround point, but I wasn't halfway done. Veterans of the race said you weren't truly halfway done until you reached the 70th mile. Only then did you have half the suffering behind you. I was at mile 58. The next fourteen miles brought with them two very steep hike-a-bikes. I knew they were coming. One in particular. Earlier that day I locked the brakes and surfed the bike down a mountain of flour-like silt some six inches deep. I arched my back and put my weight as far back as I could on the descent and, again, cruised on past those with lesser technical chops. But now it was time to climb and the ascent was an equal-opportunity punisher. There was no riding this hill. An impossibility. Everyone around me carried their bikes on their backs like the metaphorical cross to bear these contraptions had become. The blister on my heel tore loose.
Kristin had relocated to the final support crew access point at mile 78. I reached this point in the race roughly 25 minutes later than I had hoped. I took on some more food and drink and said little other than I needed to hurry. I left the aid station at 2:56 pm. I had just three hours and thirty four minutes to reach the finish, else I'd miss the coveted belt buckle. I dug deep into whatever reserves I had and pedaled away into a stiff headwind. It was afternoon in the high country of the Rocky Mountains and an afternoon squall was blowing in. I stopped at mile 84 to relieve myself a fifth and final time and to don the emergency rain jacket I had carried all day. The rain pelted my skin with chunky, frigid, explosions and the cold was sapping what little strength I had left. And then came the ascent up Powerline.
Dave Wiens, who would ultimately ride away from Lance Amrstrong in the final ten miles and win this epic race for the sixth consecutive time, said to a reporter that this was the first year he had ridden the Powerline ascent, and thanks only to Lance's urging. He said he never even considered pedaling it in year's past.
I, however, did not ride the Powerline ascent.
The three-mile section of trail I scorched so many hours earlier was now a Master Lock on the pearly gates to belt buckle heaven. I picked at it. I shot it. I tried to cut it. It wouldn't budge. I rode what I could, mainly because the blister made it more painful to walk, but I know I didn't pedal more than half of this climb. And thanks to all of that walking alongside my bike, this notorious climb back up to 11,200 feet chewed up an hour and ten minutes of what precious little time I had left.
It was at this point that I again let go of my fears and, despite the rain, descended without restraint. I was reckless, perhaps, but I was also a man obsessed with the math going through his head. I spent the final hours of the race updating an ever-flowing stream of time versus distance versus speed calculations in my head. I need to average 8 miles per hour I would tell myself. Then, I'd slog my way up the road climb to St. Kevin and update the math to require a 9 mile per hour average. I'd adjust the speed requirement to reflect distance covered, then counter-adjust the time I had left for unexpected, brutally cruel hike-a-bikes that I had forgotten to account for.
I stared through my mud-splattered sunglasses at the bicycle computer on my handlebar and cried out as I pedaled harder and again dug deeper. I was on fumes, both physically and, even more so, emotionally. A couple on a tandem bike rolled past me just as I reached the 96th mile. I tried to grab their wheel for a draft, but they were too fast. Instead, I updated the math. I was cruising at over 20 mph and knew I had to only average 9 mph to finish in under 12 hours. I was going to do it. It would be close, but I would do it after all! I began to sob aloud with joy and relief. This day had hurt so much, I had to push myself so hard to get through this pain, but it was going to be worth it. I continued to pedal amidst outbursts of joyful laughing and relief-filled sobbing. I was an emotional wreck. I sped past another racer and shouted, "We're going to do it! Keep pushing, we got this! We're going to do it!"
He didn't reply.
I looked again at the computer and saw that I was now 99.2 miles into the race. I looked up and saw nothing but windswept fields and countryside. Town was most certainly not eight-tenths of a mile away. I looked again at the computer and saw I was 9,815 feet above sea level. The finish line was at the much-ballyhooed 10,200 feet.
It couldn't be.
Common knowledge to seemingly everyone except me, the race was actually 102.3 miles long. A photographer on a long dirt road ascent back into town told me I was 3 miles and 20 minutes from the finish. He said if I really tried I just might do it. He squatted down with his expensive professional photography rig and took my photo. I wiped the snot and tears from my face and feigned a smile. He again told me try to make it.
And tried hard is what I did. A quick calculation told me I needed to average 9 mph through to the finish. I cried out in pain and pushed harder and propelled myself up the first mile of the final climb known as the Boulevard at a speed of 10 mph. I might do it! I might do it! It's going to be so close!
I rounded a corner and saw the road angle upwards and I knew it was over. I was out of the saddle, pounding the pedals with all my worth. Tears glistened in my eyes and my heart felt like it was going to explode. I was finally back on asphalt. I could see the town.
And from half a mile away, above the distant roar of the crowd, I heard the gunshot. Somewhere in the crowd at the finishing line, Kristin began to cry for me.
I crossed the finish line just three minutes later.
The couple on the tandem bicycle that passed me six miles before the finish crossed the line just 37 seconds after the gun had fired. They burst into tears at the finish line and held onto each other as if the planet itself would shake them free if they let go. The race director, as a concilliatory gesture, handed them the empty shotgun shell from the gun amidst a crowd chanting to count them as official finishers. The official list of results, updated the next morning, included them. They got their belt buckles.
Dave Weins finished in a time of 6:45, just beating out Lance Armstrong by less than two minutes. Dave finished on a flat tire.
I finished the race in a time of 12:03, but had only 35 minutes of down time. That is time spent at aid stations, digging my rain coat out of the backpack, taking food from Kristin, and, yes, peeing. I attribute no more than 1-2 minutes of time to taking photos.
I spent 57 minutes of every hour pedaling, pushing, and carrying my bike forward over the 102 mile course and I am unable to look back during the race and point to any one time in which I could have saved those three precious minutes. I have no regrets.
As for me, I'm one of the people in the odd position of being able to say that he finished the Leadville Trail 100, but outside of the 12-hour cutoff time. Those who meet all of the checkpoints throughout the race are given a thirteenth hour "as a compliment to the rider's tenacity, but does not earn official finish placing." I received a finisher's medal at the finish line and feel no obligation to burn the hat and t-shirt I had purchased at the pre-race pasta dinner. I was not a DNF, yet I received no belt buckle. And I think this is perfect. Sure, it hurts to know I missed the cutoff by just three minutes, but I think this is karmic perfection. I didn't train for this race the way I needed to. Not even close. I've done no true mountain rides in preparation of this event and aside from the previous week's RAMROD debacle, I hadn't spent more than 4 hours on the bike in months. I didn't deserve to finish in under twelve hours and, to be perfectly honest, I love the fact that there are still events out there that don't celebrate everyone "who has the courage to start." If not for truly challenging events with high demands, what is there to shoot for? The Leadville Trail 100 will hold a special place in my heart precisely because of the cruel and unusual way in which my day ended.
And I will be back... Not next year. Maybe not the year after. But I will be back one day.
Count on it.