I got an e-mail…we had just solidified Northstar’s position as a Leadville Qualifier venue for July 10 (which was later moved to the end of July due to the heavy snowfall over the winter). I had watched and been enthralled by Fanthom’s “Race Across the Sky II,” when Andrew Messick sent me the e-mail. He had a place for me at the start line of this year’s Race Across the Sky! Oh my!
The cool thing was I already knew the deal…go to the 6th Street gym, get the briefing and get lifted up by Ken Chlouber(Leadville 100 MTB founder). The gym was overflowing when I arrived, but luckily a shady tent with a jumbotron provided an alternate retreat for the “service.”
I hadn’t been to church for quite some time, but this was definitely church, and willing participants waited on preacher Ken to lead us as the chosen few. We all “committed not to quit,” and I think I meant it?! Earlier that day, I had bumped into Carl Decker of the Giant Factory Team and he asked when I had arrived. I replied, “Monday… wanted to get used to the altitude,” to which he responded, “aren’t you supposed to do that either two weeks or just the day before?” WHAT!?
August 13th, 2011-6:30am
I was almost late…me of all people…I barely made it into my slot within the first 1000 of 1950 starters. I loaded Strava, warm ups off, and we were off on a chilly 39 degree morning with a “neutral” police escort that seemed mighty speedy to me. Only one mile into the ride, I recognized my first problem. Apparently, it is really important to wear your timing chip when you race Leadville… well, if you want to get an official time, that is. I’m still thankful to the guy who noticed I didn’t have mine on me and asked where it was. I knew where it was… on the floor of my room at my friends’ house. Thank goodness for my crew (and my pocket two way), who picked up the chip and delivered it to the first aid station on the course at Pipeline.
In a panic, I rode on toward St. Kevins, the first climb. As we hit the dirt, the wafting fine dust coated anything and everything, making me think I was back in Tahoe. The pace was steady, and as we started to climb I was amazed by how slow we could all go. The congestion was L.A.-esque, with other riders yelling “slowing,” “passing”, “stopping.” My heart stayed calm and I wanted to go faster. Only 900+ of vertical and as the road flattened, I did go faster, middle ring and with the flow. Soon I was on the flowing dirt descent toward the shallow end of Turquoise Lake and then onto the asphalt, hurtling as fast as I dare.
I got to the low point, crossing the creek that feeds the lake and started the climb to Sugarloaf (or the top of Powerline). I felt strong and paced up the early part in my big ring. The road all too soon got much rockier and steeper and I had to notch it down, but it seemed like I was always passing people. Cresting the top was a relief, and I still felt great. Now I just had to be conservative on the descent. No need to wreck or be wrecked by all the road style riding. Matt Chappell passed me, yelling “hey Buckley,” and I thought I should start riding faster. The Powerline descent is not hard; it’s just that you share the experience with hundreds of your brethren, each with varying skill.
Now I was on to the flats, the first aid station, timing chip and 28 miles done. Two new bottles, a chance to refuel and I was on my way again. Passing through the aid station is amazing. Everyone is there to support someone – and everyone – cheering, clapping, thumbs up. For that matter, pretty much everywhere else on the course the spirit of support was unparalleled.
The flats would have been easy, were it not for one loose bolt on my front derailleur, allowing the whole clamp to slide up the tube and rotate to 45 degrees. It took me awhile to figure out what was going on, but I soon realized I had to stop to fix whatever was wrong. With my heart racing, I just stared for awhile not really knowing how to diagnose what was wrong or how to fix it. My “universal” tool didn’t universally solve the problem, and luckily a passing racer offered his to me (who does this kind of thing in a race?!). I agreed to get his tool back to him and within another five minutes I had the bike running again and was back on the road.
At the Twin Lakes aid station, 3h15mins in, I was averaging 12.3mph and still felt OK. I grabbed three bottles, Gu, shot blocks with sodium and rolled out again. Someone told me this is where the race really starts…that was an understatement. Jut 10 miles up to the top of Columbine Mine, this was where it was about to get tough. The first couple of miles were rolling, and soon the dirt road climb started. It wasn’t steep, but it seemed like forever before we would penetrate tree line to at least glimpse the destination. The pace of the group was SLOW, but I matched it so I didn’t burn out before what I was told was the “real climb” further up. When we got to the real climb, a steep rocky jeep track with one path that was ride-able (the same path that fitter folk were now descending) it was time to get off the bike and start hiking.
At first, hiking felt like a pleasant change. It was a much slower pace and offered an opportunity to stretch the legs – all was good. However, after the first half mile, the view opened up to the upper mountain. What a site! There were hiking bikers as far as the eye could see… and the eye still couldn’t see the top. After half an hour of hiking, I realized that this wasn’t just hard. It was the hardest thing I have ever done. If on a normal day, someone asked me to hike my bike three miles up a hill between 11,000 and 12,500 ft, I would have said NO THANKS. Sharing the pain with hundreds of others seemed to make it more…acceptable? I got to the top, wheezing, bleary eyed and more than ready for a PBJ sandwich. I washed it down with coke and water (literally), re-filled my bottles and stared to head down. Halfway done!
The descent was sweet. Not nearly as sketchy as it had looked when I was hiking up. Two hours up turned into 45 minutes back down to Twin Lakes. I ate and drank most of what I had on board on the way down, and was ready for fuel from my trusty crew. At Twin Lakes I had another half ham sandwich (which was really hard to eat, but I needed something real in my stomach), more bottles, Gu, blocks, and with a quick lube I was on my way again.
The flats to the Pipeline Aid station developed hills (or so it seemed). Every micro climb sapped more energy from my weakening legs. Mellow ascents I was able to hold the middle ring – all others got the baby ring and sometimes granny gear too. I was running out of juice.
When I pulled into the Pipeline aid station, I felt totally tanked. This time it was more food, fruit, yogurt, more Gu, bottles and a shoulder rub. I didn’t exactly explode out of the aid station, I kind of trickled out. My friend, Zander, rode alongside me for a mile and told me I was going to make it – which was true – but at the time, I was asking myself, “why does that matter?” Everything was hurting. My thoracic spine, left foot, my right hand was numb, and I had a well developed saddle sore on my bum. I jumped on a train to save energy and didn’t lose it till I hit a hill (I used to be good at hills). Powerline was in sight.
The thing with Powerline is that it’s steep (very much so at the bottom), loose and has about four false cresting points that put micro cracks in your spirit. Did I mention that my legs were done?! A mixture of hike/push and ride, with dizzy spells, made a normally tough climb unbelievably painful and now officially the “hardest thing I’ve ever done.” Eventually, after I wrote a book in my head, it was over and the three-mile descent back to that low point on Turquoise Lake began.
At the low point, I hit the low point. I just needed a cold drink. An angel on the side of the road offered a cold bottle of water and asked the fateful question, “are you ok?” Why that question hit an emotional chord I don’t know, but all of a sudden I was sort of crying. Just a few sobs feeling sorry for myself. The angel hugged me. Being English, I apologized and set off again.
The low gradient asphalt climb to the last aid station seemed to take forever, but at last I was there and I am convinced that the salt laden watermelon they gave me saved me from cramps. The last drops of my perpetuem and I moved to water, coke and Gu brew. My low point and near crack were behind me. Refueled, I found some new energy with just 10 miles to go.
St. Kevins came and went, and the fast descent brought me so close to the finish… only five to go and “I never need do this again”. With three to go, I paced with Trev from Austin, Texas and he described the final mile to me as he wished me well. I moved up and left him behind with my finish wings. I passed my last racer with 100 yards to go and was done in 10h27m32s, finisher 621 from my start of position 940. In the arms of race organization and Marilee, then my crew had me homeward bound.
August 14th, 2011-7:30am
Just over twelve hours later, we were back at “church” in the gym. They read every competitor’s name and time, and for a second we each held the limelight. From Todd Wells with his 6h23m to finisher 1168, Dirk Sorensen in 12h00m.
It’s funny how pain is so quickly forgotten and replaced with stories, racing romance and talk of “next time!”
What did I learn?
- I didn’t go as fast as I thought I would, but I think I can go faster
- The altitude kicked my ass
- I’m tougher than I thought I was, but not as tough as some
- I like Giant
- I owe my crew (Scott, Justin and Zander, my hosts Erin and Pete)
- There’s a “church” for everyone
Thanks to Jon Stierwalt, who helped an amateur sculpt a training program within my work schedule. One big ride per week (85-100) with three shorter ones (15-35) of varying intensity, got me almost ready, though I never did do the recommended 115 mile road ride two weeks out.
Eat a lot!!! I lost 9lbs and I don’t think this was a good thing. Good food, nutrient rich fruit and veggies, lots of protein and less carbohydrate than I usually eat.