In a rented house a few hundred feet from the starting line, among friends and fellow racers, I slept well the night before. As I drifted into sleep, exhausted from a season of racing and training in preparation for the 2014 Leadville Trail 100 (LT100) that was now so imminent, I reflected on my experiences at the 2013 LT100:
... I remembered my legs burning on the St. Kevin's climb, the first big climb of the day, just a few miles from the starting line;
... I remembered catching and holding pelotons coming and going from Pipeline Aid Station and all the effort that this required;
... I remembered settling-in and climbing Columbine in a long 1 hr 24 minutes to nearly 12,560 feet and descending in 14 1/2 very exciting short minutes back to ca. 10,000 feet;
... I remembered the relentless, cruel, ascent of Powerline inbound, an ascent with a 1/2 dozen false summits;
... and of course, I remembered the awful sound of my rear tire quickly deflating and subsequently being passed by close to 50 riders at about mile 87.
But that's not all, I also remembered a strong sense of accomplishment at many points in the race and finishing well inside of the coveted sub-9 hours that's awarded with a "big" LT100 belt buckle by the Leadville Race Series. As I drifted off into sleep, I was anxious of course, but I was also anticipating, with excitement, the opportunity to repeat the LT100.
Everyone wants to do "better" when they repeat a race, this is a sensible, foreseeable expectation. But how much better? And what is a sensible goal? A few hours before the start of the Laramie Enduro (see previous blog entry for the full story), a bartender asked me about my race goal. I quickly responded with "under 5-and-a-half hours". I had a lot more time to think about my goal for the 2014 LT100, a whole winter and spring. As with previous goals, including my spontaneous response to the bartender in Laramie, I wanted the goal to push my limits. Training, nutrition, and other choices will make you faster, but I've also learned that mental preparation, including a challenging goal, is a critical part of the formula for improving. Like all 100 mile mountain bike races, the LT100 is a BIG, CHALLENGING, CRUSHING day on a bicycle. For this day, I set my goals consistent with the magnitude of the event: I would attempt to finish the 2014 LT100 in under 7.5 hours, nearly an hour faster than my 8:28:29 finish the previous year.
When I first mentioned this goal to my coach (Alex Hagman), sometime in the winter of 2013-14, he paused. Alex has always been a source of inspiration, of can-do, the good stuff that you expect from an excellent coach. To accomplish such a feat after just two seasons of training and four years on a mountain bike (on any bike) would take not only every ounce of "guts, grits, and determination" (Ken Chlouber, Leadville Race Series) that I had on race day, it would also require a very cooperative universe (weather, flats, decisions of other riders, etc).
At 6:30 am, on 9 August 2014, close to 2000 mountain bikers were lined-up behind the "gold" corral, which included about 100 elite and pro riders. All of us were anticipating the shotgun blast that signals race-start in the Leadville Race Series. We were not disappointed, and soon we were rushing down 6th avenue at over 30 mph heading towards (for some of us) familiar turns before the hard-right onto dirt that leads to the St. Kevin's climb. Among my goal of finishing in under 7.5 hours, I was hoping to get a better placement approaching this climb.
This early in the race, I'm always under-powered as it seems my engine requires about 20-40 minutes to hit peak efficiency. So my expectations were softened somewhat. Nonetheless, I managed to set my first personal records for the day, based on Strava segments, before I reached Carter Summit at the end of the St. Kevin's climb. On the decent from Harrison Avenue to the dirt flying, my average pace was 30.9 mph compared to 29.3 in 2013. And to the base of St. Kevin's from town, my pace increased from 22.5 mph in 2013 to 24.2 mph. Translated into minutes, I shaved just over a minute in the first 5.7 miles of the race despite my waking engine.
By the time I rolled back onto the pavement at Carter Summit (top of St. Kevin's), I was 2 1/2 minutes ahead of my time from 2013 and ten-and-a-half miles into the race. I had been looking forward to the fast descent from Carter to the base of the road adjacent to Turquoise Lake. In 2013, my average pace and max speed had been 35.7 and 42.5 mph. In 2014, maybe because I took a moment (at slow speed) to eat a gel, my times in 2014 were slightly less than 2013, 34.4 and 41.6 mph. Alternatively, conditions may have slowed me down, perhaps a head-wind that I don't recall. My descent from Carter Summit was one of the few sections that I did not ride faster in 2014 relative to 2013.
In the next series of challenges, I was faster climbing from Turquoise Lake to Sugarloaf (top of Powerline) by 1 min 25 seconds. And on my descent down Powerline, one of the only technical sections of the course, I shaved 1 minute and 11 seconds. But despite these consistently faster times, by the time I reached Pipeline Aid Station my total improvement was only 5 minutes relative to 2013. Pipeline is 28-and-a-half miles into the race, so roughly one third of the journey: that put me at roughly 15-20 minutes ahead of my 2013 finish, far shy of my 7.5 hour goal. As I passed Pipeline (and other aid stations), I checked-in with my Garmin Edge 500. I knew I was moving too slow, but I also knew that many significant obstacles, and the opportunity to make-up time, lay ahead.
Not far from Pipeline, inbound to Twin Lakes, I chose a poor line at full speed and nearly had a serious crash. Nonetheless, I managed to regain my confidence, catch most of the riders that zipped past me as I was heading into the woods, and shaved off another minute plus a few seconds going into Twin Lakes. At Twin Lakes, I quickly glanced down at my Garmin Edge 500 between bottle hand-ups with my race crew (Bill Lutes and Joe Bulow at this station). Despite climbing the next section (outbound from Twin Lakes), Columbine, faster than ever before, I managed to shave only 4.5 minutes off of my 2013 ascent time. At the top of Columbine, I was just 12 minutes ahead of my 2013 pace.
Without stopping I began my descent from Columbine. This is a heart racing, fun, descent. However, this year my race nearly concluded near the bottom of the descending jeep trail where it transitions to dirt road: I crashed in a pile-up with four other riders. The first rider went down at high speed, each of us managed to miss the rider but came off our bikes. I landed in a bush on trail right, the bike went down on the drive-train side, yet I was able to ride-on after resetting my chain The crash meant I descended Columbine in less time than last year, an unfortunate set-back. After a year of training, I was hoping to shave at least 1 minute off my descent. Nonetheless, I was lucky to be back on the bike and ripping down the mountain on the epic Niner Air-9 RDO.
Bill and Joe greeted me at Twin Lakes inbound with shouts of encouragement and pre-mixed Camelbak 28 oz bottles containing water and Hammer Perpetuem to refresh my depleted stock. Without stopping, I rode-on to Pipeline in a head-wind most of the way and without any riders to form a peloton. After the race, I was surprised to see, despite these problems, that I still managed to shave additional time in this section and arrive 18 minutes ahead of 2013 to Pipeline Aid Station. At that pace, a sub-8 hour finish was still well within reach, but 7.5 was starting to drift beyond what was possible. I continued to push.
Now lay ahead the dreaded ascent of Powerline inbound. Between Pipeline and the base of Powerline, But before I arrived there, I was again alone, without any riders to form a peloton on the extensive pavement section that leads to the base of the climb. The wind was blowing hard in my face. Missing pelotons at critical inbound stages definitely hurt my finish time.
The effort by this point, over 70 miles and close to 10,000 feet of climbing, left me in a semi-hypnotic state when I arrived at the base of the Powerline climb. I recall not caring if anyone passed me, my goal at that moment was only to prepare myself, to settle-in, to survive, the climb ahead. I negotiated the lower sections of Powerline at a pace that allowed me to pass many riders. Then I arrived at the first pitch, a bitch, especially the last punch. Unanticipated, I was able to clean all of it. That really spiked my confidence and I shouted in celebration as I topped the hill and started the descent into the trees ahead and the climb that seems to go on forever that they conceal.
Among the lodgepole pines my confidence remained but had to make room for suffering. Everyone suffers in this section, but for me it was somewhat less of a sufferfest in 2014 than it was in 2013 and I managed to shave just under 3 minutes as I ground my way up to Sugarloaf Summit. Reaching that high point, I let the Niner descend, but was careful, even to the point of losing some time, not to smash a tire in this section as I had last year. At a pace that respected the terrain, I rolled-over the rocks where I flatted in 2013, heard no sound, made the right turn onto Hagerman's Road and continued my descent while being careful not to smile too wide and alert the universe of my arrogance! Otherwise concealed, hope ran deep that I had avoided a flat in 2014 ...
Descend to Turquoise Lake, take-in the generous encouragement of strangers as the trail turns left onto pavement, and a moment later begin the last serious ascent that finishes at Carter Summit. Last year I climbed this section filled with concern that my partially inflated rear tire wasn't going to hold, the end of my race. This year I climbed with confidence and picked off riders along the way including my coach!
Off the couch in 2014 (he finished in under 7 hours in 2011, 6th overall), Alex may even have been waiting for me, and he was for sure helping a downed rider on Columbine. Details aside, it was a thrill for me to see him on a race course, and especially the LT100 because this was the race that brought us together. I shouted-up to him as I approached and he turned and smiled ... a moment later he was encouraging me as he shoved me up hill! It was a special moment between a coach and a student that I'll always remember.
Over the top of Carter Summit and then on the descent on St. Kevin's all along thinking, maintain air in your tires!!! That was my mantra as I descended as fast as I dared and then made my way to 'the boulevard'. On the boulevard, I already knew the score, sub-8 if I was very lucky, but for sure no where close to sub-7.5. That goal would have to wait, perhaps in 2015, or beyond. In the meantime, out of about 105 Strava segments along the LT100 course, I was faster in 2014 on 100 of them. That's certainly a legit improvement. And faster includes the boulevard, a 2.4 mile dirt section leading to within 1 mile of the finish line. I put at least another 5-8 riders behind me on this dirt section as I pedaled-hard, often standing-up, trying to cross the finish line in under 8 hours.
It's remarkable that we ever arrive, so many hours later, to a finish line in an endurance race that tests the human mind & body as much as the LT100. The course, despite it's simplicity (not technical with few exceptions) is brutal; most of it above 10,000 feet, a high point at nearly 12,560 feet, the Powerline Climb at about mile 75, etc. A quick comparison of my two attempts and training in 2014 provide additional evidence of the challenge:
Two Attempts: Without a flat tire, I suspect that I might have finished the 2013 LT100 in 8 hrs 19 minutes (or less). In 2014, I finished in 8:01:54. A modest improvement over an 8 hour effort, just 17 minutes;
Preparation: Going into the 2014 LT100 I had two full seasons of racing, rather than just one, behind me. In addition, training in 2014 was two months longer than 2013. In 2014 I started training on 1 February; in 2013, 1 April. Leading up to the LT100 in 2014, I completed 6000 miles of training on two bikes (road, mtn) and climbed over 350,000 feet along the way.
Given all of this effort, how is it possible that I fell so short? Maybe I didn't push hard enough, a legit concern and consistent with my personal record on the boulevard which demonstrated that I may have finished with gas in the tank. But there are other reasons, poor luck catching pelotons when I needed them and a crash brought on by another rider. Conditions may also have played a role, everyone seemed to think that the race course was 10-15 minutes slower than 2013 and the top finisher times seemed to support this speculation (Team Topeak-Ergon Sally Bigham's thoughts about the 2014 LT100, she finished 1st among women for the second consecutive year). Making accommodation for all of these possibilities, I roll into Leadville at about 7:45, still in 75th position but much closer to my race goal.
Speculation aside, I have plenty to celebrate! In particular, I finished in the top 100, fast enough to qualify for a position in the gold corral in 2015 where I'll line-up among pros and other elite racers. Based on Sally Bigham's race report, pro contenders will likely include 'the Albanator' (Alban Lakata) among other World Champions ...
I want to thank my crew, friends and family, that waited patiently all day to hand-up, in a moment, hydration and food: Bill Lutes; Joe Bulow; Chris and Rodney Breton; and my crew chief, Andrew Mackie. It was a very exciting day of racing, and we finished well, 75th overall among a very experienced pack of determined racers. I'm thrilled that I was able to share my top 100 finish with all of you. I also want to thank Northern Colorado Grassroots Racing (NCGR) sponsors for their support including the biggest donors, Peloton Cycles and Equinox Brewing. One of my own sponsors, Integrative Physiotherapy, once again (same in 2013) wrote me a check to cover my entry fee to the LT100 ... absolutely grateful to Kira and John for their donation! My friends on NCGR have encouraged me for months, many thanks to all of them as well!