Going into the race I felt pretty good both mentally and physically. I felt as though the training I had been doing would be more than enough to get me through to the finish line in under 12 hours. Not by much, but to the finish line in under 12 hours none the less. However, once we got to Breckenridge where we stayed before the race things began to change a little bit. I found myself suffering from altitude sickness that left me tired, with a major headache, a lack of appetite, a slight fever and nausea. This continued for about 36 hours and only broke after I found myself on the floor of the bathroom throwing up. Believe it or not, after a few gallons of water, Tylenol and clearing out the contents of my stomach…. I felt much better. I was starting to feel back to normal and ready again.
Warm Up Ride
On Thursday we packed up and moved to a house in Leadville where the race is held. It’s a pretty small town and our house was less than two miles from the start line. I was getting a little anxious since I hadn’t had the time or felt well enough to ride yet and it was already Thursday. I had been off the bike since Saturday and wasn’t feeling too hot, especially after having been sick. I heard about a paved trail nearby that was worth checking out. It was about 12 miles, paved and had a number of historical landmarks that were remnants of the mining days of Leadville.
I made my way over to the trail and soon spotted a nice off road trail and hopped on that. I didn’t expect this but it started to descend further and further down the side of a mountain and I followed it down for awhile until it flattened out and led to a Jeep trail. I rode that for a while knowing that I would soon turn around and climb back up. This was going to be my first exposure to riding uphill at 10,000 feet. Here we go. I didn’t expect it but I flew up that hill like I had a tailwind and it felt really easy even with the rocks and gravel. This was the little boost of confidence I needed to know I was physically ready and was over the altitude sickness.
But that’s not the end of my pre-race ride. A few minutes later after I got back on the trail, I began to notice a stabbing pain in my right glut and it grew to the point where I couldn’t put any power onto the pedals. I was for sure something was torn, ripped or bruised based on how severe the pain was. I had strained a hamstring before and that’s similar to what this feeling was. However, after a few minutes of easy pedaling and keeping the pressure off of my right side, it started to loosen up and feel better. Hopefully, it was just a strain and nothing to be too concerned about.
Starting out there is a lot of downhill and with the temperature being 38 at the start my hands were freezing (only worn short fingered gloves) and it took awhile to get warmed up. I expected to be cold at first but this was a little beyond my comfort level. Going up the first climb, St Kevins, I noticed the same pain that I felt during my warm up ride coming back. And this time, it was even more severe and painful. I was starting to think that I wouldn’t even make it to the top of the first climb based on the level of pain I was feeling. I thought back to the warm-up ride and how I got the pain to resolve and hamstring to loosen up and just like in the warm up ride I backed off the pressure on the pedals and it seemed to resolve. Moving up the climb I felt really good… I was easily climbing with the pack and wasn’t breathing very hard or even laboring. This was a great sign of both my fitness and my ability to deal with the hills and the altitude.
Descending the first climb I knew that I didn’t need to push the downhills and was better off eating rather than attacking and was just biding my time till I got safely down the Powerline descent. This was the most dangerous part of the course and I made it safely down the descent and was feeling great and ready for what lay ahead.
After I got past the first aid station at Twin Lakes, I was heading up a short, steep climb and was shifting to my easiest gear and my chain popped into my rear spokes. I knew what this sound was as soon as I heard / felt it and immediately stopped pedaling so I didn’t rip off my real derailleur. It was stuck REALLY bad and I couldn’t get the chain out of the spoke and had to turn the bike upside down and figure out how to get the chain out. It probably took me 5 to 7 minutes to get the chain back on and in the process, I sliced my left index finger pretty good and it started bleeding a little bit. By this time I lost all my momentum going up the hill and had to walk the remainder of it while getting passed by people that I could easily ride with on that climb.
A few minutes later I rolled into the Twin Lakes Aid Station and couldn’t find my support crew but did see a few friends that helped me get my camelback refilled and ready for the Columbine climb. Just after I got through that aid station I started the Columbine climb which is about 8 miles and 3,000 feet of climbing. Just as I hit the first part of the climb, I dropped my chain again and a spectator helped me get it back on in just a minute or two. Just as I did earlier, he cut his finger on the rear cassette and let out a few choice words aimed at the bike. I thanked him for helping, said that I was sorry he cut himself and started making my way up the climb. I made it up the first two miles feeling pretty good when the chain went into the spokes again. This time, I was almost an expert at getting it out of my spokes and back on and got it on in just a minute or two. However, the climb was pretty steep and had to walk a little but until I got to a flatter section where I could start riding again. I was about to get back on the bike when I heard a hissing sound… at first, I thought it was an insect buzzing around my head but then I realized that I had a flat on my front wheel. Well, I got to the point where I could get back on and ride so I figured I would ride it until it was totally flat. I made it about a mile on the slowly flattening tire and then it went completely flat and I couldn’t ride it anymore. So I hopped off and started walking again and started to think about was it best to stop and change it or to get to a neutral Mavic support tent. I figured I would find one soon as I was getting further towards the top of the mountain. After walking and thinking about it for awhile I decided to change it and started unpacking the tire etc… but then I changed my mind and got ready to go again. I couldn’t get the tube all the way back in my pack so just left it partially hanging out thinking I would have them use that tube when changing. After another mile of walking, I got to the Mavic tent and he started to change my tire while I drank and got some food. After a minute or two of working on the new tube, he began to pump it up and getting me closer to getting back on the road. It was at this point I saw my teammates riding by and I yelled out some encouragement to them. Then I looked up the mountain to see that the point that I had made it to was one of the steepest and rockiest sections and everyone was walking there. So even if I hadn’t flatted I would be off my bike and walking. So far, I had probably walked up 3 of the 4 miles out of the 8-mile climb.
As the Mavic support crew was pumping up the tire, I looked down and noticed that the tire hadn’t been beaded correctly and the tube poked it’s way out under the tire and exploded. Damn… I thought this would be a quick, professional tire change like you see in the Tour de France. Not a tire change that cost me twice as long as a single tire change. After he got the tire fixed, he adjusted my rear derailleur and I was back on the bike. But this was the steep part that everyone walked. And it is extremely hard to push a mountain bike up 10% + grades on a rocky hill while breathing air that isn’t that rich in oxygen at 9,000+ feet.
I had no energy to ride and as most people did I continued to walk the rest of the way up to the top of Columbine only riding once or twice for short periods of time. I knew the race was getting out of my control which was disappointing considering how good I felt before the climb. I really needed to get to the top and get some food and water at the top and get ready for the ride down and the rest of the day. Once I got to the top, I got some great support and had someone fill my camel back and get me some chicken noodle soup and coke. A few cookies, crackers and some M&Ms and I was feeling pretty good. I got myself together and started the walk to the top of the hill about a quarter mile before the downhill started and I could ride again. At this point I saw my teammate Neil Tomba going down the hill into the aid station and I shouted some encouragement to him. He was doing great…. and didn’t stop at the aid station and started making his way up the hill. It was at this point I noticed something. My camelback wasn’t on my back. I had set it on a chair next to the food table and forget to get it. Damn… do I leave it? Ride with one bottle to the bottom and the few miles to the checkpoint? Or do I go back and get it? Well, considering it was brand new and I really needed the water… I rode the quarter mile down the hill, got the camel back and put it on my back only to have to walk back up the quarter mile to the top of the hill. By this time, Neil was nowhere in site.
After getting to the top I hopped on and was making some good progress, even passing a few people. Then something seemed to be making a noise behind me near my seat and rear wheel. I looked down and saw that my tube that I had in my saddle bag that I was going to use for changing my flat had fallen into my rear wheel. Damn… I came to a fast stop, hopped off and took the tube out of the wheel and then started to get it back in the bag. Now I realized why I didn’t shut the bag totally earlier… it was a pain in the ass to shut that bag with that big tire in it and it took me at least a minute or two of fiddling around with it to get it back in.
I hopped on the bike again and began the downhill journey, this time at a much faster and determined pace. No one ever mentioned to me how tough coming down Columbine was. It was basically a goat trail with rocks everywhere and it bounced you around all over the place. In one section I had picked up too much speed and got pushed into a rut and started to go off the side of the trail. Rather than falling off the side of the trail I applied my rear brake harder and slid sideways and went down onto the dirt. While this only took me down on my side and didn’t cause much damage it at least saved me from sliding off the side of the trail which I am not sure I could have gotten back up from. I wasn’t hurt, just mentally shaken a little bit.
The person behind me said “way to save it” as they rode around me on the ground.
Okay… that had to be the worst of it. I was riding again and hitting some pretty good speeds and got off the rocky and steep part. I was now on the fast decent and could really get going and make up some time. Then it happened… another flat. I could hear the whizzing of the air coming out as I was flying down the mountain at 30+ mile per hour. Again I had to decide should I stop and change it or just ride it as far as I could or until the next Mavic support station. I was already passed the Mavic station that I used on the way up the mountain and since it didn’t seem to be a full blowout, I kept riding it but had to really slow down going into the corners. I was making up some good time, passing a few people here and there and looking at my watch it was about 1:50pm and I was pretty sure that I would make the 2:30pm, 8-hour cut off, at Twin Lakes. After all, it was just a few miles off the decent of Columbine.
As I came down around the last curve I saw Adrian and a few members of the T4 support crew and they started yelling to me that I only had 10 minutes left to the cut-off. How was this? How could I be so close to the cut off when in my estimation I had about 30 – 40 minutes and was going to be fine. Adrian looked really concerned and stuffed a Pepsi in my jersey. I had planned to drink that coming off the mountain to get some energy and calories back with the caffeine but there wouldn’t be time to stop to savor that. I had to push it to make that cut-off.
It’s at this point I went into time trial mode and was making great progress and passing riders two by two. I got onto the straightaway where the aid station and cut off was and was cruising at 20+ miles per hour as everyone was cheering. It was at this point that I saw in front of me someone looking at their watch and holding up their hands indicating for me to stop. WHAT???? I had about 13 more minutes until 2:30pm and the 8-hour cut off. Why were they stopping me? They said I didn’t make the cut-off and couldn’t continue. The proceeded to cut off my wristband, give me a hug and said it was over. I was pretty dazed from the effort of the race and the day so didn’t think to protest. I thought that I somehow misread the time or something. Later, I would find out that they moved the cut off time up 15 minutes meaning I missed it by 2 minutes. I was the first person cut off for the day at that aid station and it was over. My first thought was shock, that it was over. My second emotion was disappointment. And my third a sense of finality and knowing that my day and suffering was done for the day. Now to find a ride home. I borrowed a phone, texted Adrian where I was and she said she would pick me up.
I really wasn’t sure how I felt about race until I started talking to a lady next to me who had just been stopped as well. She was crying and saying to her support crew that she couldn’t believe she didn’t make it and that there was nothing she could done to go harder. I felt the same way to some degree. Because of the mechanicals, flats and having 15 minutes taken away from me, I couldn’t have gone any harder necessarily. I looked over to her and said, “it’s just a race”. “No one died, you are healthy and you can now move past this”. She agreed and smiled at me. I smiled back and we shared a moment of relief and accomplishment together knowing that we tried our hardest but it wasn’t our day. No, we wouldn’t get a finisher medal, finisher jacket or even a belt buckle this year. But we know in our hearts that we trained hard, raced hard but didn’t have it that day to make it to the finish.
After thinking about the race and my preparation over the past few days there are a few takeaways I have regarding what I could have done better on race day and how I could have been more prepared physically and equipment-wise.
1) Know the Course
2) Have the Right Equipment
3) Be Better Prepared Physically
Know the Course
Seeing a course profile, elevation and map is not enough when you are dealing with a course like this. I thought my basic knowledge of the course would give me some guidance on how to train for it and what to do. Similar to what Lance Armstrong used to do with the Tour de France each year, I think it’s crucial to ride each part of the course several weeks or possibly months prior to the race. A group from T4 went and did that but I opted for the easier route and riding hills a few hours away in Mena, AR. I still think the hills in Mena are well suited to training for Leadville but I don’t think you can get an “appreciation” for the course, especially the Columbine climb until you do it.
Have the Right Equipment
I know there are people that finished the race that did it on bikes that are older and heavier than mine. However, after talking with a few people that rode bikes like that, I found out that they had made modifications that made them work better for that course. The number one thing was using tubeless tires. The concept of tubeless tires is rather new to me as I am not a highly technical person and just rode the mountain bike that I got about 5 or 6 years ago. I knew that most people were riding carbon fiber bikes with tubeless tires but I didn’t think it was essential to get a new wheelset or doing anything different. Now I know better. I was being a little bit stubborn and cheap and didn’t want to buy anything new. I was happy going into it that I had only bought a new Camel Back to get ready for this race.
Another area of equipment that I need to better focus on next time is ensuring the working condition of my bike. The derailleur jumped into my spokes one time while training in Mena, AR on a steep climb but I thought it was just a one off and wouldn’t happen again. Next time, I need to treat these small issues as something big the first time they happen and get them squared away. I probably should have spent some money on new tires a few weeks before the race as well. I don’t think that the flats I got were caused by well-worn tires but I don’t think it would hurt.
Be Better Prepared Physically
I didn’t ride enough and I didn’t ride frequently enough. Yes, I did a few quality rides like the XXX 100k, the 100-mile gravel grinder and the trip to Mena, AR. But that was it as far as really tough rides. The majority of the rides were too short, not often enough and not challenging enough. I also need to focus more on the little things: stretching, massage, nutrition and dropping another 10 – 15 lbs.
I couldn’t have made this journey without my family and especially the encouragement of Adrian. William was more devastated by me not finishing then I was. That’s a telling sign of how much our support crews have vested in their riders. Also, the support of everyone that asked about my training or made a contribution to my fundraising efforts means the world to me. I don’t feel as though I let anyone down because I gave it my best. Now I know that my best can be even better with more preparation and planning. Two things I should have focused on more leading up the race.
So, next year… this is what I will be focusing on. Journey to Leadville Part Deux. Now to get into Leadville 2017. I’m going to work on getting in good enough shape to qualify but will also enter the lottery and possibly race again for T4 Global.