My Blog by Stephen Venters

Sunday, August 10, 2014

To the Limit at the Leadville 100 - 2014

What's the hardest thing you've ever done? Physically, I mean, not emotionally. I'm sure watching your family get swept away and then eaten by Sharknado scarred you for life, but I digress.

Leadville, Colorado

Was it hiking a fourteener? Maybe running a half or full marathon? A particularly long bike ride? Or en epic climb such as El Cap? Maybe it was just completing a Physical Challenge on Double Dare. For me, the hardest thing I've ever done was the Leadville Trail 100 Mountain Bike Race, a.k.a. The Race Across the Sky.

Background

Beginning in the 1860s, the area surrounding Leadville, Colorado was heavily focused on mining gold, silver and lead. Over the years, however, the mining diminished until in the early 1980s the town was near economic ruin. To save his town, local Ken Chlouber organized a running race in 1983 which snaked 100 miles through the nearby mountains along the "Leadville Trail." It soon became a popular challenge for ultra-endurance runners. Later, with the growing popularity of mountain biking in the early 1990s, he added a 100 mile mountain bike race along much of the same trails.

Leadville sits at a lofty 10,152 feet above sea level. Due to the lower atmospheric pressure, a chest full of air only contains 70% of oxygen than it would at sea level. From the middle of town, you ride 50 miles out on a mixture of pavement, gravel, Jeep roads, and single track to the turn-around checkpoint which sits well above the tree line at an even more lofty 12,600 feet. There the oxygen level of a chest full of air is a mere 64% of that at sea level. Then you turn around and ride it all back to where you started for a total of 103 miles and 11,500 feet of ascent (see the elevation profile below).

Elevation profile

You can't just sign up for the LT100 MTB, instead you enter into a lottery and have to be one of the lucky few that get a spot. Those people know in February, when the results of the lottery are announced, that they are riding in the LT100 MTB the following August. I, however, did not get a spot via the lottery. Instead, I had to qualify for my spot by racing in one of the half-dozen sanctioned races held in various locations around the US and earning a gold qualifier coin.

LT100 Qualifier

On June 22 (a mere 7 weeks before the big event), Rebecca (my loving soigneur) and I drove up to Whiteface Mountain, New York, so I could race the 68 mile qualifier. There I got a taste of what the LT100 MTB would be like (long climbs) and earned one of the coveted gold qualifier coins.

LT100 Qualifier Coin

The next 7 weeks were a flurry of travel planning, last minute training, packing, and preparing to be gone for nearly a month. To help with acclimation, I opted to head out to Denver three weeks early. That would allow me to ride at altitude as well as check out Leadville and the course. Conveniently, I was able to work remotely so I didn't have to take time off work. Even more conveniently, two good friends most graciously allowed me to live in their spare bedroom my entire time in Colorado.

Race organizer Ken Chlouber often states this will be the "toughest race you'll ever do" followed by "you're going to have to dig deep." Event promoters say things like that all the time, to the point it's become cliché, thus I didn't give it much credence. Sure, it wasn't going to be easy, but the toughest thing I've ever done? I mean, it's 90% roads without even a single log to ride over. How tough could it be?

Besides, I had trained for 8 months specifically for this race. Starting in January, Rebecca and I were doing hour and half long spin classes. Every Saturday during the Spring I had been riding in the NYCC SIG rides which had ranged in length from 50 to 110 road miles. When the Summer came, I began racing my mountain bikes again for practice there. It wasn't like I had simply gone from my couch to the start line.

All the while, however, a feeling of being overwhelmed nagged at me. I remembered how tough the Whiteface qualifier had been, but I had finished it without any real issues. For some reason, though, the LT100 MTB seemed so much higher, longer, BIGGER. Nevertheless, I kept to my plan confident I would be as ready as I could be.

One of the biggest confidence boosters was Rebecca, who had decided that, despite the cost, she would fly out and support me for the race. It was a huge relief knowing she would be there to help me along the route and, more importantly, to cheer me on. During the Whiteface qualifier, due to a miscalculation (and lack of knowledge of the course), I had run out of water at the start of a 6 mile climb. But Rebecca was on the other side waiting for me with water and food and that thought alone kept me focused and in control so I wouldn't cramp or blow up. Rebecca being in Leadville meant everything was going to be alright.

The Race

Race day came and I had my normal race-morning nerves. They don't bother me much anymore because they always blip away the moment the race gun fires. Still, I never have learned how to make them go away earlier. Standing in the starting corrals with 1500 other riders all ready to embark on this epic was exciting. The 33 degree air was chilly, but I hardly noticed. It wasn't until all 1500 of us were screaming down the first roads did our hands and noses freeze. My only thought was no sudden movements in this mob of riders.

6:30am start

The first climb came soon enough: a mere 2 miles and 1,000 feet up St. Kevin. The dirt road was ditch to ditch bikes as far as I could see. The accordion had started and it was time to be diligently careful of other riders. Due to some sage advice I had been given at Whiteface, I stayed to the outside which meant there was one less direction to worry about a rider weaving into me. I tried to focus on riding a straight line, keeping my heart rate low(ish), and managing the washed-out ruts efficiently.

About half way up, the grade eased and I started to accelerate. People were passing me. I was passing others. All of the advice I had read about riding the LT100 MTB said the same thing: don't go out too hard or your burn out too soon. The order in which people perceived that advice was starting to sort itself out. Having pre-ridden this section, I was feeling pretty good. The sun had risen above the eastern peaks and the golden light caused the orange dirt to glow beneath my tires. Plus I had warmed up significantly from the climbing and the morning sun.

I crested the top and began the long decent down to Turquoise Lake, passing the St. Kevin checkpoint (mile 10.5) along the way. With the second half being on pavement, I was really able to get some speed topping out at 40 mph.

Next was the climb up Sugarloaf Mountain, which I had also pre-ridden 2 weeks prior. It is a long, low grade climb started on pavement, then switched to a gravel road and finally finished with a rocky Jeep road. I fell into my pace near a guy from Texas. We chatted a bit as we climbed together. Again, we were passed by a few and we passed a few, but by now the initial stampede had thinned out significantly. About half way up, I began pulling away from him. Again, I wasn't pushing it; my legs and heart rate were under control, but I was feeling strong.

After the crest of Sugarloaf (mile 19), there is a long decent called Powerline, which goes straight down the mountain side in the clearing cut for huge power lines. It is steep, rutted and, with dozens of other bikers of various skill levels nearby, is the most dangerous part of the entire 100 miles. Years of descending in the Ozark Mountains got me down it very fast, passing many along the way. I was relaxed, focused, and in control and hit the bottom surging with adrenalin.

Per the second most common piece of advice given, I grouped up with about 6 others to pace line for the next 5 miles of flat pavement to the Pipeline checkpoint (at mile 28). My skills from group riding all spring really paid off here. We were averaging a solid 17 mph (fast for a mountain bike on flat) and were passing loads of single riders.

Me

At the Pipeline checkpoint, I refilled my bottle with GatorNuun (my Gatorade and Nuun mix) and took off to ride the remaining 13 miles between me and where Rebecca waited at the Twin Lakes Checkpoint (mile 40). Again, I was feeling good and confident; I had been eating on schedule, drinking plenty, and not pushing too hard.

The next 13 miles, however, seemed like they took forever. This was the only section I hadn't seen at all and knew very little about. In retrospect, I probably held back a little too much due to the unknown factor. I learned this with about 2 miles left when a woman struck up a conversation with me about my BT Epic jersey and then casually said, "We're cutting it close."

"What do you mean?" I asked.

"We have to be there by [10:30 AM]," she responded.

"Shit?!?! Really?" That was in 15 minutes! Stupidly, I had not been paying attention to the time cutoffs; a beginner mistake I should not have been making.

She said, "If you have it, you'd better go." So I went! I shifted and began to hustle. I had it in my legs. I wasn't even tired. Actually, I had been going sort of slow as I took in the amazing views. This was the first time I realized my time was at jeopardy.

Conveniently the remaining 2 miles were downhill then flat, so I hammered through them and reached the checkpoint with 9 minutes to spare. Whew!

The crew area beyond the inflatable arch was a zoo. I knew it would be busy, but I didn't expect this. There were literally thousands of people and hundreds of tents. Wisely, Rebecca and I had scouted out a spot the day before so I had an idea of where to look... and there she was! Standing there in her white linen shirt and floppy sun hat was my wonderful Rebecca… and the food box.

I was fatigued from the last 2 miles and stressed at barely making the checkpoint, but wasn't overly concerned about my time. I would make it up. We refilled my CamelBak, bottle, and pockets. I chocked down half of a banana in one mouthful, a bite of PB&J and a sip of Mountain Dew. I took a Red Bull for a top-of-main-climb treat. I kissed my love and took off. I wouldn't see here at this spot when I passed back through it; instead she was to meet me at the Pipeline checkpoint (mile 72).

The next 10 miles was up to Columbine Mine at 12,500 feet; a solid 3,500 feet of non-stop climbing. I had ridden the lower half already and was mentally prepared for it. The road was wide and the grade was manageable. I got in my grove and settled in. Riders having reached the turnaround at the top were now passing me regularly heading back towards Leadville. I soon began overtaking people walking their bikes up the mountain. It struck me as odd that they were already walking with so far to go and the hard part still to come, but I was too focused to care. I did care about the fact that my chamois had begun chafing me. To get momentarily relief, I would have to peddle hard a few strokes so I could stand on the peddles and up off the saddle as I coasted uphill for two seconds. The whole thing was very distracting and annoying, but I made due and kept climbing.

Despite my sore saddle, I was feeling good when I reached the tree line where the gravel road switches to a rough Jeep road. The first quarter mile is steep and filled will loose, baby-head-sized rocks. There's a line, sort of, but at 11,500 feet it is much more easily (and safely) walked. So, I began trudging up what was to become the first of many steep, rocky sections. It wasn't that they were super technical. I mean, on a normal day of riding I'd make it up any of them, but after 48 miles and at 12,000 feet of elevation, my legs were having none of it. I probably hiked half of last two miles to the top which greatly added to the time the entire climb took.

Above the treeline, you can look far, far up the valley ahead and see little bikers way off in the distance. And once you get to that spot, you can again, look far, far up the valley and see small bikers. And once you get there, you can finally see the checkpoint, but it, too, is small and farther away still. The last mile seems to take a very long time since you can see your goal, but it moves closer ever so slowly.

For a brief moment when walking, I stopped to take in the view. My oxygen starved brain registered its serene magnificence. Surrounding me was an alpine meadow of light green grass heavily peppered with a half a dozen types of small mountain flowers. Nothing over the height of two inches grew there: no bushes, no trees, no shrubs. I wanted to lie down and relax in the soft grass, but alas, it was not the day for relaxing. So up I continued, passing racers who had succumbed to the scene and were sitting on the side of the trail next to their bikes.

The temperature had dropped significantly. Not just due to the elevation, but the afternoon storms were now forming overhead. Wind and clouds whipped around fiercely. As I finally arrived at the Columbine Mine checkpoint (mile 50), sideways sleet and thunder had started. The brave volunteers, tough as they were, struggled to help the riders as well as keep their supplies from blowing away. I knew this stop wasn't going to be long.

Rumor had it that they had chicken noodle soup there, and sure enough, a cup of it was put in my hand. I pulled out my light jacket and drank the broth with trepidation. By now, I had lost my feeding schedule due to my lack of awareness of time it took to get up the mountain (a full 2.5 hours) and my stomach was starting to complain. I made another bottle of GatorNuun, gulped half of the Red Bull, and swallowed another half of a banana.

With the weather turning bad fast and I knew I had to get off the top of the mountain or risk get delayed due to lightning. Without fanfare, not even a made-it-to-the-top selfie, I began the 10 mile decent. The rocky sections I had walked an hour ago flew under my wheels; no walking to be had this direction. As I passed tired faces still heading up into the weather, I called to them as had been called to me, "Keep going! You're almost there! You can see the end!" knowing "That's easy for you to say," was in their heads.

971

Back at Twin Lakes (mile 60), I was a full 25 minutes ahead of the cutoff time. That gave me some confidence and erased my close call a few hours ago. Rebecca was 13 miles away at the Pipeline checkpoint, but they were the 13 miles I hadn't seen prior to that morning thus I didn't know that riding back to Pipeline was going to be more taxing than riding out. The climbs where steeper and longer this way and I had 60 miles in my legs.

Plus, my eating schedule was really out of whack at that point. Having forgotten about eating during the Columbine Mine climb and not being able to on the decent, I had woefully under eaten during the last 3 hours. Further, my stomach was not thrilled about the arrival of additional sugary or salty material. I was able to keep drinking, but still wasn't eating enough.

During that stretch, I began feeling very despondent. It was dawning on me how much further I had to go and I could feel my energy levels fading. All of this, combined with the short, steep climbs, caused me to slow down my pace significantly. Which was very unfortunate because about a mile out from the checkpoint a spotter called out to me, "You have 5 minutes to get there."

"Oh, shit!" I thought, "I've lost time again; I'm barely going to make this!"

I dug in to my very tired and hungry legs and pushed forward. It was a hard, flat dirt road between here and there, easy to be sure, but my bike felt like a 1000 pounds. It just wouldn't go; I couldn't build up any momentum. I began believing my brakes were somehow dragging on the rotors creating friction (which I later found was not the case). Still I pressed on. I had to make this cut off. With 300 yards to go, I received a 2 minute warning. It was going to be close, but I knew I'd make it. Then another thought struck me like lightning.

I had a big problem: Rebecca was going to be stationed right where we had agreed, which was 100 yards on THIS side of the actual checkpoint (where I had to arrive at with my timing chip). We hadn't considered this cutoff situation when we were scouting spots for her; what an oversight that had been. I would simply have to ride back to her after checking in. At full speed, I blew passed her confused look and yelling, "I have to get to the checkpoint now!"

In a panic, she grabbed the first things she could think of and began running down the crewing area behind me. Upon reaching the timer's station, I stopped and looked back. Rebecca was dutifully running full gate down the crew line with a bottle in her hand and her big sun hat flopping up and down. I loved her so much right then. When she arrived, she was heaving (remember, she had just flown in from sea level!). I felt like the biggest jerk in the world having to tell her I needed more than the bottle she had just run to me, but was too exhausted to express it. I rode back up the crew line to her set up. Disappointed, she trotted back, too, as I was reloading. It was a lesson learned.

I was feeling my chance of earning the sub-12 hour buckle slipping away. I knew what I had left: 28 miles and two major climbs, one of which was going back up the stupidly steep Powerline cut. I had heavy doubts in myself now, too. I had no thoughts of quitting, but I didn't believe I could finish all that in the next 4 hours. Those two climbs seemed impossible to my tired legs.

"I don't think I can do this," I said, choking back tears, "I don't think I'm going to make it [under 12 hours]."

Rebecca rubbed my shoulders and comforted me, "Of course you can."

"I haven't been eating and those climbs," I nearly sobbed.

Rebecca coaxed me to eat. "What can I get for you?" We refilled my liquids and I ate would I could. I refilled my pockets knowing I had to catch up on my nutrition soon or I'd totally bonk out.

"I'll be waiting at the finish line," she encouraged as I rolled away.

I rode through to checkpoint again and then across the 5 miles of pavement towards Powerline, this time alone and at a much slower speed all the while trying to ignore the dread of what was coming.

I looked up at it. I could see people scattered along it all pushing their bikes. From here to the horizon, no one was riding. It had been a long, tiring (albeit fun) downhill, which meant it was an even longer uphill, especially on foot. I rode up a pitiful 50 yards then stopped and resigned to walking up the hard packed dirt. Oddly, even with my tired legs and bad ankle, I was still passing other racers. As slowly I as walked, they were slower, yet. I knew how they felt.

I walked and I walked. On the few stretches where it leveled out for a hundred yards, I'd ride it, but soon would be walking again. It was slow and exhausting; pushing your bike uphill saves no energy. I took baby steps on the steepest parts while pushing my 1000 pound bike. I imaged if I was a zombie, this is how I'd walk.

After an hour and a half, I finally reached the top. I hopped on and began the long, relatively easy decent back down to Turquoise Lake. I had one more climb and about 15 miles to go. I checked the time. I was at 11:30. It was certain now that I wouldn't be earning a buckle. If I hadn't been so drained, emotionally and physically, I'd have cried. My goal for all these months was to get that buckle. I was going to wear it with pride. I was going to show it off to my friends. I was going to boast about how it really wasn't that hard to earn. Now I wouldn't get one.

I wanted to quit. I wanted to call Rebecca (I had my phone with me because service was surprising good there despite being a rural area) and have her pick me up at the St. Kevin checkpoint a few miles away (mile 90). I was so tempted. I hated that I had failed. But I also I hated that I wanted to quit. I couldn't decide what to do, so in my indecision I just kept doing what I was already doing: peddling. In the back of my mind, I hoped there was a time cutoff at the St. Kevin checkpoint that I had missed so I wouldn't have to decide. To add to the mood, it had begun to rain lightly so I put on my light jacket. It was getting chilly, rainy, and dark. Slowly I made my way up the mountain along the empty road eventually catching up with a man who had stopped to put on his jacket, too.

As we peddled together in the drizzle we chatted lightly. It felt good to talk to someone; it eased my mind. I commented on our time and he acknowledged that neither of us were getting a buckle. "I don't need a buckle," he said, "I just want to finish; that's the real feat." I kept my disagreement to myself, but, at the same time, was struck at his casual dismissal of not receiving a buckle. The buckle did not symbolize his success as it did mine. It sparked in me the thought that just finishing this damned thing was a success itself. It was a perspective I hadn't considered. In his resolve to finish despite not receiving a buckle I began find the desire to finish myself.

We pulled into the checkpoint 5 minutes before the 12 hour mark. They had already begun breaking down their operation, but they were still very attentive to us and even had hot ramen. I drank the broth and a bite or two of the noodles.

As casually as I could I asked, "Is there a cutoff time here?"

A young volunteer cheerfully responded, "Nope, not at this one." He must have sensed my lack of enthusiasm with his answer and continued, "You can't be thinking about quitting?!? You don't want to go home and tell your friends you did 90 miles then quit! You only have 10 miles left; you can do it. It's just some rollers, up a few climbs, and then it's downhill and flat back to town."

He was right. There was NO WAY I was going to return to New York City without a buckle AND some lame excuse for why I bailed at 90 miles. I had to see this through! I had to finish! With renewed resolve a little extra adrenalin from my pep talk I started up the second half of St. Kevin. I was going to finish all 103 miles no matter what!

With no fanfare, I crested the final mountain climb and started the descent. I caught up with my partner halfway down. We shot out onto the valley floor together and cruised along the final miles side by side as kindred spirits. The hardest was behind us with only the finish line ahead.

That being said, the final 2 miles to the finish line, called the "Boulevard," is a grueling uphill dirt road. I call it grueling not because it's steep or even remotely difficult, but because it is miles 102 and 103. My partner and I started together, but soon began to separate. I was happy for him that he had it in him to go faster, but my legs had no power and I resigned to spinning slowly up the very low grade. I didn't care; I knew nothing could keep me from finishing now. Even if I had to start walking, nothing could stop me!

As I rolled through the streets of Leadville, a lone group of spectators yelled encouragements to me. "Go 971!" "You've got this!" "Finish strong!" I smiled and, as one of them ran along beside me cheering, pretended I was surging for the win. Mountain bikers are awesome!

I crossed the nearly abandoned finish line at 13:06. Dutifully waiting there was Rebecca. I rolled right up to her and hugged her. I don't know if I was more happy to see her or more relieved to be done. Regardless, it caught by surprise when a Finisher Medal was hung around my neck. I had forgotten I'd get one. I thought, "At no time would I ever feel as proud of the buckle as I am of this medal right now."

Finished at 13:06 LT100 MTB Finisher medal

Ken Chlouber himself happened to be one of the few people at the finish line. Standing there with half a dozen Finisher Medals in his hand and a dinner plate of a buckle on his belt, I felt inclined to say something to him.

"That was the hardest thing I've ever done. And I've done a lot of hard fucking things!"

He smiled and said, "And you finished."

Epilogue

Someone once said of me, "Stephen is the type of guy who can pick up any [physical] activity and just do it." I was lucky to get athletic genes and have done many incredible things with them. Whether it was climbing, skating, team sports, biking, dancing, or surfing, I've always been able to pick them up fairly easily and maintain a relatively good aptitude despite long breaks. Simply put, unless it's been injured, my body has never held me back.

However, for the first time in my life I believe I have felt my age. I had prepared heavily for the LT100 MTB. I had spent months riding 1000s of miles. I had lived at altitude for weeks to acclimate. I had scoped out much of the course. I had done a lot of reading and planning. I was prepared. Yet, this ride nearly destroyed me; it was so hard I felt I just physically couldn't go on. I almost quit and I never give up like that. My body was taxed to the point where 2 hours after finishing I was sweating and shivering in bed while fading in and out of consciousness. Perhaps I will get old after all; perhaps I really am mortal.

Love

Truly, I wouldn't have finished without Rebecca's help and encouragement. More than once you've been the only thought keeping me going.

I'd also like to thank a few others who helped me prepare and complete this epic event:

  • Aarrun Marcus and Christopher Grano for letting me live in their home for 3 weeks prior to the race.
  • NYCC & A-SIG Classic for getting many miles in my legs that spring as well as solid group riding skills.
  • Chris Hadgis and JackRabbit Sports for getting me a solid base to my training with tough spin classes.
  • Rob Ballou for giving me the tour of Denver's local single track.
  • Marcus Skala for letting me borrow his handy bike travel bag. (again!)
  • Jay Tender for riding many laps around Central Park with me.
  • Andree Sanders and Trips for Kids for giving me emotional support! (and a sweet jersey)
  • The guy whose ambivalence towards the buckle helped me realize that missing my sub-12 hour goal wasn't a failure.
  • The guy at the St. Kevin checkpoint who so eloquently enlightened me to the lameness of quitting after 90 miles.
  • The woman who informed me there were time cutoffs.
  • The group who cheered me to the finish line 13 hours after the start.

I haven't decided if I'm going to try the LT100 MTB again. Though I more or less followed my plan that day, seeing riders who looked downright unfit finish with better times than me, it is obvious I can do better. In hindsight, things I would do differently include riding harder early on, being more aware of the cutoff times, not getting behind on feeding, and chatting less with other riders. Working with a coach would help, too, I'm sure. I just need to decide if the time commitment is worth the satisfaction that I can, indeed, do better.

Plus, I still want that buckle.


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