“Did you know that we haven’t had a death yet?” Dr. John Hill said, and the crowd erupted in amused cheers. It was the day before the Leadville Trail 100 MTB, a 104-mile out-and-back course in the Colorado Rockies, accumulating more than 12,000 feet of elevation gain, all of it between 9,200 and 12,424 feet above sea level. Hill, a professor of sports medicine at the University of Colorado, was giving the mandatory doom-and-gloom speech to Leadville participants. “Please, please do not mess up our record tomorrow”, he said, listing a litany of ways you might do so: crashing into any of the 1,499 other racers on the white-knuckle Powerline descent; over-hydrating (“exertion-associated hypernatremia”); overexerting yourself and hitting the wall; acute mountain sickness or, worse, high-altitude pulmonary edema; succumbing to drastic temperature changes; getting hit by lightning; and, should you take ibuprofen during the race, possible kidney failure.
As the race’s Medical Director, it’s Hill’s obligation to give everyone fair warning. And though he tried to keep it lighthearted, his gallows humor speech cast more than a little doubt over my own prospects in the race. I haven’t raced a bike since college and, in fact, haven’t even owned a mountain bike since my bottom-of-the-line Trek 4900 was stolen from a Brooklyn bike rack four years ago (I’d be riding an amazing loaner, the Specialized Epic Marathon Carbon 29). Also, my wife and I had a baby girl this winter; while learning how to care for her has been its own brand of endurance event, it also triggered a precipitous decline in real-life endurance training. I’d put in more than 500 miles of riding and 200 miles of running since the start of June, but felt like my base still wasn’t fully there. And then there was the elevation, which ranges from just north of 9,100 feet up to Columbine Mine. At that level, my resting heart rate increased by nearly 30 percent, which meant I’d be sucking a lot more wind than usual.
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“How’re ya holding up, Portland?” I said, passing a cyclist decked out in the navy blue kit of Oregon’s River City Bicycles. It was the morning of the race and things were getting harder as it progressed; still, I was in good spirits. “This is a fucking death march”, she said, eyes unsmiling. We were both walking — trudging, really — pushing our bikes into the upper reaches of the relentless, 8-mile-long climb to Columbine Mine, the 12,424-foot-high halfway point of the race.
In front of and behind us, hundreds more cyclists were strung out in Everest-style single file, pushing their own bikes higher and higher into the thin air of the 3,200-foot slope. Here and there along the route, racers simply sat down next to the trail, dazed. One woman, crying, nursed a severe leg cramp. “It’ll pass”, someone offered apathetically, but nobody stopped to help.
Every race involves a turning point; when the pre-race jitters have died down, the initial adrenaline boost has run its course, and maintaining pace becomes a conscious effort. That’s when all of the unknowns — Did I train enough? Is this pace right for me? Heck, can I do it? — start to crystallize, and you know that either you’ll be okay or, on the flip side, that a serious reckoning is in order. In Leadville, I turned that corner up on Columbine. Even as I realized I’d underestimated the race — weeks before, I scoffed at the idea of walking up this very same incline and made plans to complete the 104-mile course in under nine hours — I also knew I’d be OK.
Every race involves a turning point; when the pre-race jitters have died down, the initial adrenaline boost has run its course, and maintaining pace becomes a conscious effort.
After all, the first 40 or so miles had been fun. The humming of thousands of knobby tires on pavement through downtown Leadville; the accordion-style surging and slowing while fresh-legged racers jockeyed for position on the St. Kevin’s climb; the 40+ mph glide down the other side; the temporary alliances as pace lines formed on speedy, wind-blown flats; the fawning over the endless Rocky Mountain views; the genial patter of individuals swept up in the fervor of something bigger than themselves…it was all glorious, and all evidence that the reality of the race hadn’t yet set in.
But on that grim hike-a-bike section — the first of nearly a dozen times I’d push my bike — it was clear that the sufferfest was just beginning. And, more importantly, it was time to buckle down and start riding my own race: avoid unnecessary surges for the sake of keeping pace with every stranger who passed me and, yes, push the bike when it’s easier than riding. Race smarter, not harder. That’s how I would survive this thing.
Trudging up Columbine, I resolved to stop watching my speed and instead focus on heart rate. If I could keep it around 150 beats per minute, I should be able to keep the slow burn going for another 50 miles, no problem. Also, I’d stop blowing through aid stations; the two or three minutes it took to top off water bottles and take in much-needed nutrition would be worth 20-30 minutes of dragging ass out on the trail if I bonked. I seriously tested that theory at the Columbine aid station, eating and drinking everything I could get my hands on, including but not limited to: M&Ms, bananas, watermelon, Coke, GU Roctane, water, peanut butter sandwich and more M&Ms. It was with some regret that I left that feast, mounting my bike for the long ride back to Leadville.
I’d like to tell you that the race got easier from there, but it didn’t. It was dig deep time. It was hotter now on the flats, and the wind had really kicked up. Pace lines formed up again, but it felt like work now, even in the back. I literally cursed at the two big remaining climbs, particularly the near-vertical Powerline, which seemed to have doubled in length since the morning. My ass ached in the lightly padded saddle, and my feet were sore. Hands and forearms screamed from the effort of controlling the bike on runaway bumpy descents. Sometimes I’d ride long stretches alone, and the race became one of willpower.
Sometimes I’d ride long stretches alone, and the race became one of willpower.
It continued in that way, me being miserly with my energy and muscle power until, with less than 10 miles to go, I could sense the finish line around every bend in the course. The promise of being done with it — legs up and ice-cold beer in hand — brought on a surprise second wind. I surged to 20 mph, letting my heart gallop as fast as it wanted and blowing by a group of six or seven riders I’d been trailing for a while. Forty minutes later, after a total of 10 hours, 43 minutes and 43 seconds, I rode through Leadville to the finish, where hundreds of cheering spectators flanked a red carpet covered in the dust of hundreds of bikes before me.
I’d missed my intended mark by nearly two hours and, despite my pride, walked the steepest loose-stone hills. But somehow I didn’t feel at all bad about it. Instead, I was filled with an overwhelming sense of accomplishment. 831 people had finished ahead of me, sure, but I’d beaten nearly 700 myself. And, numbers aside, I’d stubbornly kept on going when my body screamed for me to stop. Unless you’re an elite endurance athlete — which I’m not — the real race is always going to be an internal one, and the winners are those determined to grind it out through all of the self-doubt and suffering. Leadville’s wild and challenging Race Across the Sky is, in a sense, all about painful, pointless suffering. But it’s also about finding your limits and overcoming odds, which is life-affirming and completely worth it. Maybe next year I’ll crack nine hours. On second thought, make it 10.