After the roller humps to get to the start of Columbine, you settle in for a one-and-a-half-hour grind. At first I tend to get passed as my legs start to re-adjust to climbing, but after about mile a transition happens and I started to pass folks slowly on the road, just one here and there. My friend from Specialized, Paul Connelly, passed me close to the top of the road, offering his wheel as pace. I was on my limit and my pace felt good as I started the steep goat trail section of the ride. I pedaled until the rough quarry segment that is probably 40% of the way up, knowing that walking a bit won’t really hurt my time now. This short walk gave me time for thought as I pushed and dragged my bike over lumpy rocks- “what is this about again, this is so darned hard.” Paul was back behind me at this point struggling with some heavy duty cramping. I had offered the salt blocks in my jersey as I passed Paul, but I didn’t exactly offer to stop, he would have to dig for them himself from my pockets the way I was grinding past him; Paul would later pass me finishing sub nine hours on his first ever Leadville 100. On a pedal worthy section I saw Bobby Murphy heading downward and heard Bobby’s name called by the familiar voice from behind of my friend Jeff Klem, who seemed to be in great spirits compared to me-to be candid here I actually resent those descending as I climb (lucky bastards). Jeff soon clawed his way past me on this brutal altitude test, as I approached the peak point I had an altitude woozy moment that only 12,400 feet delivers when you have pushed into the heart rate red zone just a little too much. It feels like my lungs are being compressed as I try to get enough air. I slow down and it gradually passes and soon I have hit the midway circle and am heading back toward the descent, encouraged as I see Jeff to catch up to him on the downhill.
Strava now tells me that I was twelve seconds faster to Columbine than 2015, which is really remarkable that my pace would match year to year so closely. Ironically I am now one of the bastards heading down past the poor devils still climbing; I yell some encouragement where I can. The descent again got super stacked-up with slow and careful travelers and I needed to blast. It seems like fire road downhill is all I am still really good at now and the top was feeling too slow. Luckily I passed the slower guys on the road and the two segments balanced out on time as I headed to my crew for food.
At Twin Lakes return we had agreed on a much faster turn than prior year, new Camelback, food musette and away, but I had to drop my heavy undershirt which felt stifling in the sun. I made the quick change and was off and digging through my food bag: a hardboiled egg, a banana, and a peach was what I needed to settle that pitted feeling in my stomach that seems to come from lots of liquid and Shot Bloks. I ate as I rode up the paved road back to dirt and threw the bag to a nice guy offering beer - I wish!
The plan on the return was all about groups. Julie had insisted that I look for latching opportunities and don’t let go-thirty second power bursts if they start to drop me to stay attached. It was disconcerting to again find myself sans group as I hit dirt. In fact all the way to Pipeline all I had to work with were a couple of one-on-one trade-off sessions. As I passed Pipeline I could see three guys ahead and I made a Julie push to tag onto them. There we three grabbed another couple of guys and now we had a group for the windy pavement and the speed went up as the line started to move as one. Paco Lindsay had told me to avoid taking turns and I had mostly achieved that target until this point when I appeared at the front of this group to do my pull. As I dropped to the back after 45 seconds the elastic of the group stretched up a slight hill and I was off by two bike lengths, then three, and four, and it was done. Paco would be so disappointed! At the left turn to the fish hatchery the wind pushed me toward two new guys and we worked together until the base of Powerline, where I grabbed a bottle from Scott and Olly. (is this legal?) And behold there was Jeff right in front of me as we started to climb Powerline.
I actually don’t mind the Powerline climb; I have almost demystified it over the years by finding patience in its steady grinding path as it threads its way uphill over the false crests a number of times, though I remember that first time in 2011 when those humps brutalized my mind. I hear those similar grumblings from the first time folks asking “when is the top coming”. It is just a 45 minute climb that for me is the end of the leash that is the beginning of the end of the race. Midway I crept past Jeff and he offered a metaphoric verbal slap on the butt of encouragement as I headed slowly upward, Jeff would finish just behind me by fifteen minutes.
I rode Powerline a minute faster this year than last, setting me up perfectly for the last miles home to Leadville. The top was the tipping point for me- mentally I was prepared to go all out from there or at least with what I had in the tank. My full gas descent (three years ago I went just seconds slower than Mr. Todd Wells) was somewhat interrupted by another rider for several hundred yards, but my pavement ride back to Carter was a personal best and both were faster than 2015. The light was at the end of the tunnel and it seemed almost possible to hit my goal.
It is worth noting here that every time I have ridden this part of the finish, the pavement climb after May Queen, I have been convinced that I have given it my all, even back in 2011 when I was cracking. But what I continue to prove to myself is there is ‘no limit’. I have been able to tap into what I thought was the bottom of the tank each time, finding a deeper well each time. What does this teach us? As Merilee and Ken say, “You’re better than you think you are, you can do more than you think you can”. Though I am clearly at the outer boundaries of achievement for my genetic talent, for a guy who can ride 2500 miles in a season, and for a middle-aged man, I recognize that most of the limits have been set for me in my mind. As I extrapolate this argument, I feel I should be able to apply this learning to any emotional chalice; empathy, understanding, love as well as drive and determination. There are no limits.
At Carter I saw Scott and Olly for the drop of my Camelback and last bottle. Olly reassured me that “you got this, give it all you got now” and I was off toward the summit of St. Kevins. I really wasn’t sure I had it, but as soon as I hit the rolling uphill terrain I was passing folks, just like 2015, as I made the last grindy climb I passed two walkers. Now it was down, turning right, and flying like the wind with another best time.
As I got to the final lowlands of St. Kevins I could see dust in the air and knew that meant a rider that needed a buddy. I pushed to get to him and hitched on almost immediately saying “wanna work together?” He told me he had nothing left, but I swear he made two good pulls with me, bridging us to the next guy, so he had more than he thought.
Now I was on the next guy, “Bucky I love you”, his saddle bag tag said! And I asked the same question of him: “want to work together?” Bucky said a similar thing- “I don’t know how much I have left, but I’ll try”. Sure enough, Bucky had far more and we took turns pedaling and pushing the wind until we bridged up to three more riders just before we hit pavement. The five of us would ride together to the bottom of the Boulevard at a great pace and before we splintered Bucky leaned over to say –“thanks for that, you got me going again”. This year I was able to do for Bucky what Julie did for me in 2015!
The bottom rocky section of the Boulevard was loose and I knew it from Friday, it is just a short pitch, but it feels so steep when you have been spinning along at 24 mph. A few hundred yards of that and you are on the Boulevard true. I looked at my clock and I had twenty minutes to the nine hour mark and based on Friday I thought I needed about eighteen to get to the line. In that moment I knew I could make it, I had to pedal as hard as I could, but I could make it. Being “expert” is an annoying trait that I possess I guess (well it doesn’t really annoy me), but I was about to be an expert. When my new friend Tracy Paradise asked “can we make it”, I confidently replied “yes we can, we just need to pedal together”. I would tell her three times as we made our way to town, “we’re going to make it” and she finally believed me once we crested the top pavement. Before on the dirt to pavement transition, Olly was waiting to yell at me and one quick push, then as I hit pavement there was Scott yelling my name too. It was all kind of slow motion as I saw his emotional joy on full display. I can’t remember exactly what he said to me, but it was heartfelt and prideful I know. See you at the finish Scott.
Scott has tolerated or supported, depending on the day, my early morning to late evening training, dietary constraints and eating patterns, traveling race schedules and opting not to ask “how much did that bike cost”. He has been a trooper through my bike obsessed summers and to have seen him so prideful fills my heart with joy!