What is the inherent value of an athletic endeavor? This is the question I find myself asking after participating in the 2013 edition of the Leadville 100 mountain bike race.
To many cyclists Leadville needs no introduction. It has been the stuff of legend to many since it was first run twenty years ago. A few years back a certain famous Texan won the race and his very presence at the starting line boosted the profile of the race even further. Not long after, and perhaps because of this, Lifetime Fitness bought the race from it’s founder and poured even more resources into boosting the profile of the event. I don’t expect that it’s popularity’s ascent will slow any time soon. With a field limit of around 2000 people and more than 5000 people that try to get in each year, demand outpaces supply. If Lifetime doesn’t goof up running or promoting the race it could take a seat next to Ironman in the ranks of the bucket list athletic achievements many people aspire to.
Leadville has never been on my bucket list though. I never got past the statistics: 103 miles. 12,000+ feet of climbing. All at over 10,000 feet of elevation. Those are impressive numbers for sure, but to me they added up to one thing: Arbitrary pain and suffering.
Every athlete out there participates in sport for their own reasons. Some do it for fitness, some do it for thrill, some do it for a sense of self (worth), some do it for camaraderie, some do it to prove it to themselves and others that they simply can. There are an infinite number of reasons, really. When I try to stop and consider my own reason I find that there is no single stand-out. Instead I participate (in cycling) for an ever changing mix of reasons. One of the first reasons I originally picked up the sport was because I found at a young age that it was one of the few physical pursuits that I was good at. I’ve never been good at any traditional “American” sport. I flunked out of tee-ball at an early age, I was never coordinated enough to be good at basketball, soccer wasn’t interesting, and to this day I cannot properly throw a football.
Bikes were different though. On a bike you really just have to know how to pedal and balance in order to get started and have fun. I started getting really interested in bikes in my early teens and at the time mountain bikes were fairly new on the scene. A few buddies and myself discovered them at about the same time and soon started spending long hours on them riding all over Washington and Oregon in the pursuit of dirt. In the beginning we all sucked – and in that context none of us sucked. Over time we honed our skills together. We eventually took up mountain bike racing together. Because we were pretty lazy kids and hated hills we took up downhill mountain bike racing. Downhill mountain bike racing was brand new at the time and the fields weren’t exactly stacked with talent so each member of my MTB posse got to experience the glow of winning a race more than once. It is these moments that I can identify with the most when I think of why I cycle: It felt great to be good at something. It felt great to have a positive sense of myself. That feeling and motivation continues to stay with me today. I ride because I feel like I’m good at it and it still feels great to be good at something. I’ve added more reasons to my motivational pot since then. I also ride now for the sake of overall health. I ride to escape from stress. I ride for camaraderie. I ride to explore. I ride to compete. I ride because at some point along the way the term “cyclist” was grafted to my identity. At some point it became more than just something I did, it became a part of who I am.
When I’ve looked at Leadville through my various filters and motivations it has never captured my imagination. It wouldn’t make me healthier, it wouldn’t lessen my stress, none of my friends were doing it, it wasn’t particularly wild and unexplored, I could never win it, and it would probably include many many hours of “not fun”. So why do it? I couldn’t think of a reason, actually, and I never did.
All of that changed earlier this year when I won an entry to the Leadville 50 from Strava. Having that entry in-hand served as a dare of sorts to see if I could survive the 50. I did survive the 50, and in doing so I earned an entry slot into the 100. Having the entry into the 100 became an even bigger dare. Many people out there have tried get into the 100 either through the lottery or through qualifiers and many have failed. Year after year they try and even though they don’t gain access they come back, undaunted, and try again. What did they see in the 100 that I didn’t? Why was the event worth doing? Did they know something that I didn’t? I felt compelled to find out and I also felt that passing up on the opportunity to participate would be in a strange way disrespectful to those who kept trying.
Even though I did throw my hat in the ring and pony up the nearly $400 for the race, I still had doubts in my mind about what I was doing, why I was doing it, and if it was something that I needed to do. Outside of my internal motivations for doing a race like this there exist many external factors that contribute to the decision. Chief among these factors is my family. I started cycling as a 14 year old kid with nobody in the world to please but myself. Now I am a 34 year old husband and father of two and there is no such simplicity in my life anymore as did exist when I was 14. Life is complicated now. Cycling is complicated now. In order to compete in cycling events huge amounts of time must be invested in preparation. I would be in denial if I thought that the only time I was investing in cycling, in competing, in the Leadville 100 was my own. The truth of the matter is that I’m investing my wife’s time, I’m investing my son’s time, and I’m investing my daughter’s time. Some of that time I request from them and am granted, some of that time I simply take from them, never having asked. I have a very supportive family when it comes to cycling. Ever since the day I met my wife she has been my biggest supporter and has understood on a profound level what it means to me to get out on a bike. Ever since the kids were born they’ve watched countless times as I’ve come and gone, disappearing for hours doing something they didn’t understand at all. I work quite hard to lessen the impact of cycling on my family. I search for the moments of time that aren’t spoken for, often early in the morning, I agree not to ride during evening family hours, I agree with few exceptions to leave one weekend day completely free of bikes, etc etc. Still after all that I am sometimes greeted with innocent statements from the kids like “I wish dad weren’t gone so much in the mornings” or from my wife: “I wish we got the sense that we were your number one priority, not the bikes.” Ouch. Those statements sting.
This isn’t meant to be a wet blanket blog entry. I am happy to report that most of the time, when I get things right, I am able to cycle to my heart’s content and my family doesn’t seem worse for the wear. They come to almost all of my races, they demand kisses each and every time I leave the house and are usually thrilled to see me when I get home. On a good day I can train and race pretty competitively without throwing life into a tailspin.
Leadville was different though. Leadville would be by far the biggest and longest competitive event I’ve ever participated in and it would require me to throw even more of myself into the mix in order to go off successfully. If it required more of me it required more of the family. I knew I could always dig deep and put more of myself into it but could I reasonably ask more of them or would even a single extra mile on the bike be the straw that broke the camel’s back?
At 6:25 AM on August 10th, 2013 I found myself straddling my YETI at the starting line of the Leadville 100. The final announcements and encouragements were being shoulted over the PA system by Ken Chlouber, the races’ founder. Among his encouragments was this line (paraphrased from memory):
“Thank you for coming, thank you for the blood sweat and tears you have put in to get here, thank you for the sacrifices you’ve made and the things you’ve overcome in order to line up here this morning.”
I was very struck by this. I looked around at the 2000+ racers surrounding me. They were not just 2000 racers, they represented many more thousands of people that had made countless and equal, or greater sacrifices to the racers themselves. The combined effort, time, and resource investment represented at that very starting line were staggering and most likely innumerable. It all felt very overwhelming to me; difficult to process or absorb. Each and every person was at that line for a different reason. Some were there for their first time, some for their 20th time. Some were there to win, some just to finish. Some were there to find for themselves how good they were, some were there to prove to others how good they were. Some were men and women in their prime, some were recovering veterans who’s bodies had been all but broken in far flung lands and had refused to be told that their lives were over. Everyone at the starting line for the Leadville 100 for better or worse had made huge sacrifices to be there and each person there would give a different reason for being there if asked.
I myself had settled on reasons and motivations: I was there because I had been both given and earned an opportunity to participate in an event beyond anything I had previously attempted. I was there because of the support of my family. I was there because I wanted to understand why it was worth doing at all. I was there to find out if this course was within or outside of my limits.
Was Leadville the simply the sum of it’s statistics or was it something that transcended them? Was 103 miles over those mountains an arbitrary goal or did those miles and mountains contain within themselves the potential to be something more? Did completing Leadville have intrinsic value or were the sacrifices myself and my family had made in order for me to be at the starting line wasted in the insatiable furnace of my own pursuits of adventure and personal validation? At the starting line I didn’t know the answer to those questions, but for Leadville to be a success for me I needed to know the answers when I arrived at the finish.
The shotgun sounded and the race descended into to cold morning fog. A very long day began. It is difficult to relate what it feels like to start the race. It is almost an out of body experience to be descending the initial roads, rolling along the initial doubletrack, and climbing the initial St. Kevin’s climb. So much time was spent imagining what it would be like on race day that when race day finally came I felt like I was simply a spectator watching myself preform per-rehearsed motions, except of course it hurt more.
St. Kevins is not a terribly difficult climb, but because of the congestion of the start of the race it can be quite technical. There are only a two good lines up it but traffic is often three to four riders wide so by simple math at least half of the people riding it are going to have a rough go. The bulk of the climb is only about 2.5 miles long and gains about a thousand vertical feet. Small potatoes in the context of the overall race.
It is interesting to observe the riders around you in the L100. Their body language alone betrays their intentions. Some riders are relaxed and methodical and they probably have the overall goal in mind. Some riders are frantic and sloppy, expending huge physical resources in order to gain a few seconds here and there – a dubious investment of energy. I tried to keep to the methodical approach. It takes an experienced rider to know when to sit up on a climb and suck a wheel versus accelerating around a rider who might be impeding you from riding your best race. I can’t say that I nailed the balance, but I tried. After descending the back side of St. Kevins on a paved road we resumed the day’s menu of climbing up Sugarloaf mountain. Sugarloaf is also not an overly difficult challenge. The first three miles of it are mellow pavement and graded gravel road. The second two and a half miles become much more technical and a bit steeper. During this section of the race I found myself still basking in the early alpenglow and excitement of the day. It was hard work staying on pace, but looking back on the day I think these moments of the race were among my favorites.
The top of Sugarloaf gave way to the famed Powerline descent. I fell into a single file line of riders happily picking their way down the mountain, relieved to have covered the first two climbs of the day. As I descended I realized that the riders directly ahead of me were picking some tedious lines and I made some passes in order to gain the advantage of an unimpeded descent. Powerline is a hoot to bomb down! I am not the best descender out there but I’m a better descender than I am a climber and by the bottom of the hill I’d re gained the wheels of many riders who had dropped me on the previous climbs. Emotionally this was probably the peak of the race for me. Up until this point some 23 miles into the race I had experienced nothing but fun.
The steep descents of Powerline gave way to flat and rolling roads and trails that passed uneventfully en route to the base of the Columbine climb. The trick to these sections of the course is absolutely to find other riders to work with and form a pace line. The course is very fast here and although you do somehow climb about a thousand feet in these 20 miles, your net altitude actually loses about three hundred feet. During this part of the course I hitched up with a number of riders who were probably a bit faster than me and I used their energy and fitness to pace myself along at an excellent clip. The temperature was still in the low 40s so hydration wasn’t much of an issue. I skipped all of the extremely well stocked aid stations in favor of banking time towards the overall clock. I did see many riders pulling over and coming to complete stops to refuel and greet their support crews. I hadn’t brought a support crew to the race, instead deciding to rely on the plentiful neutral support. Whenever I needed a bottle in a feed zone I had only to put my hand out and ask. Whenever I needed a gel not one but ten seemed to be outstretched in my direction. If you are doing Leadville you do not need to pack a bunch of food and water. Instead considering traveling light and refueling quickly and efficiently along the way. I would estimate that by doing this I was able to shave about ten minutes off of my time by the time I got to the base of Columbine at mile 43.
The base of the Columbine climb is for me truly where the Leadville 100 starts. Everything before Columbine is a warmup. Everything before Columbine is friendly. Everything before Columbine is reasonable. Columbine itself is none of those things. Columbine starts with about five and a half miles of perfectly graded fire road ascending. At the base of the climb you might feel pretty good. I came into it a bit breathless but in good spirits. I knew the climb would be long and tough so I put my mind and body into low gears and pushed all thoughts of the summit from my mind. For the first hour of the climb not much transpired. I experienced alternating waves of fatigue and feeling good. Sometimes I went too fast and sometimes I slowed down to recover. The climb was generous in that it allowed me to set my pace and desired level of suffering. At the end of that first hour things got much more difficult. The trees gave way to exposed mountains, the road surface deteriorated, the pitch increased, the traction decreased. It is then that I realized that Columbine had up until that point only been softening me up for this final push to the summit. I realized that I was quite depleted of energy and hydration and things were going to get worse, not better. Although trees were no longer obscuring the view the top of the climb was still not visible. The only thing I could see were endless grades heading ever higher and tiny strands of fatigued riders strung out along the high alpine tundra.
The final 2.5 miles to the top of Columbine were a pretty dark period of the race for me. Dehydration increased and the air thinned. My energy levels were extremely low and I voluntarily dismounted to walk sections of the trail in a desperate attempt to get my heart rate under control. The turnaround point and the top of the climb came into view, but instead of being a comfort they were torture. I didn’t seem to be closing the distance between them and myself no matter how many steps or pedals I took. Forward progress seemed infinitesimal. For the first time in the day the thought crossed my mind that the L100 may just be impossibly hard.
Once at the top I finally succumbed to the need to stop. I drank untold dixie cups full of coke, scarfed some gels, and even at an entire teaspoon of raw salt in an attempt to keep the cramps at bay. I couldn’t keep any solid food down, I didn’t even try. Feeling a bit better now and with 50 miles in the bag I set off on the eleven mile descent.
The Columbine descent was brutal and fun. The upper slopes were tricky with the rocky terrain, tight lines, and uphill riders sharing the course but the lower slopes were pretty much flat out cruising with their smooth and tacky dirt surface. I was still quite tired and definitely more cautious than I had been on the Powerline descent, but I felt life returning to my body as I rested and let gravity do the work. A huge bummer soon arrived in the form of a flat tire. The cause was undetermined because the leak wasn’t catastrophic and my tires were filled with Stan’s, but I felt the telltale fishtail feeling that comes from an expired rear tube. Yes, I still run tubes. Yes, I know I should switch to tubeless. I thought that the repair would be a quick fix because I had a 20oz cartridge of compressed air, but to my dismay I found that the valve I had on the cartridge didn’t have a needle long enough to actually puncture the cartridge. It took me many minutes to realize that there was no solve for this. I was forced to use a few CO2 cartridges I had stashed in my saddle bag as a last ditch effort to get air in the tire. The two cartridges combined gave me about 20psi. I had no pump. I was forced to make due with what I had and I limped down the remainder of Columbine at a much slower pace for fear of puncturing again. This was another of the low points in the race for me. Upon review at the finish I gathered that I had been in about 150th place at the top of Columbine but after the flat fiasco I rolled into the aid station at the bottom having lost over fifty positions and fifteen minutes.
With the frustration and setback of the flat Leadville became a different race than the one I had started. No longer was it about trying to make close to eight hours. Now it was a mental battle to recover from a large setback and get my head back into the race. I had to fight the urge just to soft pedal to the finish and collect a finisher’s medal. All of my trail companions were long gone in front of me and I found myself almost completely alone with nobody in sight behind me and only a few riders on the edge of my sight in front of me.
Once again back on flat-ish part of the course, what had been 20 miles in a paceline with a tailwind on the way out because 20 miles solo into a headwind on the way back. These miles were the most solitary of the day. The internal tug of war between the man who wanted to accept defeat and the man who wanted to find a way to fight was strong. In order to pass the miles I set my sight on the nearest rider in front of me. It didn’t make sense for either of us to be riding alone into a head wind so I worked to gain his wheel. When I did catch it we began cooperating and used our combined energy to catch the next wheel in front of us. This game of catching riders kept me focused and gave me a goal to work towards. I was no longer going to have a flawless race but that didn’t mean that I had to mope along and have a pity party. As our group covered the 20 miles new riders joined us and other riders popped off the back if they were off pace. I felt very week from the aftermath of Columbine but occasionally got a mental boost when I realized that everyone else was suffering, and many were suffering more than myself.
Soon a group of myself and about ten other riders reached the base of the Powerline climb. I had anticipated this moment and attempted to steady myself for the challenge ahead. The four mile climb back up Powerline is second to Columbine in difficulty. It’s grade averages in the 7.5% range but ramps into the 20% range a few times. It isn’t so much the length and steepness that make Powerline so horrible though, it’s the fact that it starts at mile 80 in the race and most riders have long since burned all of their matches in previous efforts. At mile 80 you feel a sense of being close to the end of the race and you’ve probably even caught glances downtown Leadville in the distance a few times. But the truth is that the finish of the race is still far far away and Leadville itself may as well be a mirage.
Some riders consider it a point of pride to clean the entire Powerline ascent, but I had long since run out of pride and was happy to dismount with most everyone else and hike that initial brutally steep grade. While doing so I thought I heard the faint shout of my name. I looked around but was unable to locate the source. As I trudged on the sound got louder and was unmistakable: My wife and kids had made the last minute drive up from Denver to cheer me on! Soon they came into view. I was overwhelmed, I teared up a little bit. Running so long on empty and having two large climbs remaining were a huge weight to race under but the simple shouts of my family along the trail revived me and boosted my morale infinitely. I even managed to crack a smile! I had to stop and dish out some kisses and thank yous before continuing on my way. My legs were still heavy but my spirits were much higher.
It didn’t take long for reality to set back in. I still had about 40 minutes of climbing left before I could say that I’d conquered Powerline. Those 40 minutes were absolutely the most miserable of the race. In my head I tried to recall the descent in order to figure out how much climbing I had in front of me but my estimates were repeatedly off. When I would reach what I thought was the summit I would dsicover that the trail simply switched back on itself and continued ever upward. Once again the thought that this whole race was just too impossibly difficult entered my head. In my delirium I even managed to get mad at the race organizers for making me suffer so much. Of course, they hadn’t actually made me do anything. I had only done this to myself. I returned to the question of why I was doing this race and if it was worth doing. While climbing up Powerline I crossed a physical line that I don’t think I’ve ever crossed before. The line represented what I thought was possible and what I could endure. I had somehow gone past that. This was new territory to me. I looked down at my legs as if they belonged to someone else. What was causing them to turn the cranks? Surely it wasn’t me. My brain knew it was unreasonable to ask any more from them so it had stopped asking. For some reason my legs seemed to have a mind of their own at this point and hadn’t given up the ghost. This really sums up the Powerline experience for me. In a lot of ways I had nothing left and no desire to continue but my body continued on without me or despite me. Not only did it continue on, it actually put in a pretty decent effort. I continued solid pace and I continued reeling in a rider every few minutes along the way. During these moments Leadville showed me some of it’s true value as an endeavor. Yes it is a somewhat arbitrary and sometimes unremarkable course over a handfull of mountains, but somewhere along the way the unremarkable becomes quite remarkable because it starts teaching you things about yourself that you may have never discovered: Your mind is not always telling you the truth about what you can accomplish. Your body pretends to have limits but you have the option of paying them no attention. In the face of adversity your body may be capable of throwing a tantrum to rival that of any two year old, but similar to a two year old the best option may be to not dignify the outburst.
Powerline eventually relented and I found myself briefly riding along the Sugarloaf summit. The trail then turned downward again and treated racers to a 5.5 mile descent. On a fresh day with fresh arms and legs I would have tried to hammer the descent and make up more time but I didn’t have any venom left for that sort of riding and I was incredibly nervous about the possibility of pinch flatting again on the considerable rocks that were strewn about the trail. Other riders felt much better and I was passed by quite a few guys.
The final significant climb of the day was the return trip up Hageman Pass. I expected this to be a really difficult climb but the combination of paved roads and mild grades was merciful and the climb passed without drama. I was grateful for the lockout on my front fork which allowed me to climb out of the saddle without wasting energy bobbing up and down. It was interesting to watch riders pass me in big efforts only to see them fade a few minutes later and re-catch them. I did the same thing, briefly speeding when feeling good then fading and getting passed by other riders as I overcooked the effort. The whole effect turned into a little game in my head to guess who would be in the lead at the top of the climb. Near the top of Hageman I pulled off at the last rest area. It may have been an unnecessary stop but I wasn’t sure how much climb was left and I couldn’t resist the allure of some ice cold Coca Cola, which at that point in the race may as well have been the elixir of the gods.
Refreshed from the stop I put in a final few digs and rolled over the top of Hagemen into the final descent of St. Kevins. For me this is the first point on the course where a rider can begin to accept that they will probably succeed in completing Leadville. At this point I had been racing for just over eight hours and barring a catastrophe (such as another flat) I had large sub nine hour belt buckle all but locked up. The beginnings of euphoria crept in on the descent. I tried to hold them off a bit linger because St. Kevins descent is fairly rocky and I was trying to hedge my optimism… just to be safe.
At the bottom of St. Kevins a fantastic stretch of flat and rolling dirt roads usher you towards the final small uphill grind towards the finish line. I was passed here by a guy I’d seen a bunch out on the course named Steve Anderson. He was laying down a vicious pace and I took the opportunity to hop on his wheel and enjoy the draft for a few miles. After I could handle wheel sucker’s guilt no longer I took some turns on the front and we made short work of those final flat miles. The course took a final left up the Leadville Boulevard climb. All that stood between us and the finish were about three miles and 500 feet of climbing. I spotted some riders just up the road and made it a goal to try to reel in as many of them as possible. Having little goals or personal games along the way is a great way to pass otherwise mind numbing miles. After fifteen minutes the climbing ended and the finish line appeared in my view. It was right there, close enough to touch. I had often wondered what this moment might be like. I wondered if I would be overcome with some sort of joy or relief. The only real sensation I could pick out though was peace. It felt incredibly peaceful to be done. All of the stress and anxiety that had built up in the months before and in the hours during the race finally melted away. They no longer had any claim on me.
Fifty feet from the finish line my wife and kids popped out from the sidelines. I slowed and told them to run alongside me. We rode those final feet together. Out of my right side one of the riders I had passed on the uphill sprinted past me. I increased my pace, not wanting to give up positions. To my left my family fell behind. I heard yelling and slowed up. I circled back around to see my son running alone about fifteen feet back. He was crying for me to slow down. I waited, we regrouped, we crossed the line in 8:28:37:30
To me those final fifty feet of the race represent the good and the bad of doing something like the Leadville 100. I worked very very hard to achieve a goal, and that is good. I made new friends on and off the trail, and that is very good. My family encouraged and supported me as I did, and that is wonderful. But along the way both during preparation and during the race I sometimes lost sight of balance and priorities. Doing that meant leaving my biggest supporters behind, and that was not good.
Was Leadville good? Yes. Was Leadville worth doing? Absolutely. Did doing Leadville require sacrifices both good and bad? Of course. I’m proud to have participated in the legendary event. I’m proud to have suffered a setback in the race and pushed through it. I’m glad I salvaged the big belt buckle in the process. I learned a lot about my physical and mental limits somewhere out there in those 103 miles that I’d never known before. I saw the beauty and mercilessness of nature first hand and that made me feel very alive.
For me thought he biggest value in doing Leadville was that it has started me thinking more about what it means for me to strive to achieve things for myself and at what cost those achievements come to others. I joked to a friend once that first you do Leadville, then you do it on a single speed, then you do it on a unicycle because athletes are never satisfied and are hoars of achievement. I told him that our lives aren’t hard enough so we find artificial sources of adversity to keep things interesting. I told him all of that in jest and indeed, the statement is an unfair generalization. Many racers out there were racing for very important personal reasons both known and unknown to me. I cannot question their motivations or judge the validity of them. I can only speak for myself. Leadville has made me more aware that athletics can reward me immensely with a sense of achievement, but using athletics to fill out my sense of identity is an appetite that can never be satisfied. The costs to push the challenges ever higher will be ever more costly to myself and those that I love. I must find a balance. I must find a line where I’ve reasonably answered the question of what I am capable of without losing myself in selfish pursuit. For me completing a one hundred mile mountain bike race has no value in itself, it is either a conduit for something that does have value or an empty exercise in physicality.
People have asked me if I will go back and do Leadville again. “See you next year?” They say. For now the answer to that question is “no”. I will absolutely relish the Leadville experience for the rest of my life, but I’m at peace with my effort out there on Saturday and I’m at peace with my result. If I go back again and try to do better what could I hope to achieve? Would I want to have a flawless race? Would I want to break 8 hours? Could I do either of those things? I don’t know. Even if I could do those things what value would they have? I know that for now the cost of answering those questions is beyond what I think the price would be to myself and my supporters. Maybe years down the road I will be a different person, my circumstances will have changed, and I might want to again answer the question of what I’m made of and what it is that I can achieve. I am living in the present though, not the future. Presently I’m content and I’m looking forward to a good deal of rest at the end of a long road.