“Everyone will reach a summit today. Maybe not the mountain’s summit, but their personal one. Enjoy the view wherever that is.”
-Brett Okida, 2005, my mountaineering guide
It is cold and clear at the 6:30am start of the Leadville 100 mountain bike race. At 10,200 feet above sea level, I roll up to the start line with unwavering confidence that I will cross the finish line. Afterall, I enjoy suffer-fests and have completed numerous endurance events even longer in duration. There’s a chance I will earn the coveted sub-nine-hour finisher’s buckle, I think. Leadville, however, is renowned for breaking bodies, spirits, and equipment. With a shotgun blast from the race’s enigmatic founder, the pack begins the fast and cold sprint out of town.
Road transitions to trail and the pace grinds to a halt as riders squeeze through choke points. The energy is palpable whenever the pack can disperse as riders mash their pedals, only to run into the next traffic jam proceeding the next climb or trail narrowing. The dust is relentless and it feels like riding through a nightclub complete with smoke machine and strobe light as the rising sun pierces the thin pine forest from my left. I alternate between sun blindness and glimpses of upcoming obstacles. Fellow riders are six inches off my front and rear tires an I’m rubbing elbows with the guy next to me. I’m loving it!
Rolling into the first aid station, I check my pace against the timetable taped to my handlebar: 9:30 hour pace. Awesome! Considering the traffic I contended with earlier, sub-9hr is within reach!
Several hours of smooth riding at a good pace and a quick stop at the Twin Lakes Aid Station staffed with my family and friends, the course begins the steep and relentless Columbine Climb: 3,000 ft of elevation gain over the next 10 miles, topping out at 12,600ft above sea level.
I’m normally a strong, determined, consistent climber. However, today, in the Tortoise and the Hare saga it seems I became a hare, albeit a very slow one. I stop multiple times to dismount, stretch my back, and catch my breath. Numerous riders pass, but I reel a few back in once remounting. I’ve never played this rookie-ish role before. I can’t figure out what my body needs. I leave the aid station refreshed and on schedule with my planned food and drink consumption. I focus on smoothly turning my pedals over. Again. And again. And again…
Following the arduous ascent and a terrifying fast descent I roll back into the aid station several hours later. I feel tired, but good considering I’ve mountain biked 60 miles over the last 6 ½ hours and I am confident I’ll finish, though sub-9 hours is off the table.
Several hours of relentless grinding and I arrive at the last significant climb of the race. Not long after I downshift to my granny gears and steady myself for the climb ahead, a minor knee discomfort that arose during the last few training rides returns with a vengeance. I simply cannot apply sufficient pressure with my left leg to ascend without gasping in pain. Nine out of ten riders are still pedaling but the climb is steep enough that I don’t mind walking. I remount with every flattening of the road. With each pedal stroke, the amount of force I can apply decreases until I am struggling on the mildest of hills. So, I walk. For miles I walk uphill in bike shoes to the click clacking of my cleats. I closely watch the time and compare it to my course profile. It hits me: I am not going to make the official 12-hour finisher’s cutoff.
At no point prior to today did I consider not making the 12-hour cutoff. It was a given that no matter how bad my day went I would still finish in time. I accept the situation surprisingly quickly but am still certain that I will cross the finish line, even if the race staff have gone home and I cross the line in the dark. I text my wife who is waiting anxiously at the finish, “Knee hurts bad. Am walking. No buckle.” Typing those words brings tears to my eyes.
I reach the top of the road climb and push my bike into St. Kevin’s aid station. This would be an acceptable place to stop. I’ve already pushed my bike for miles. I’ve been on my bike for 12 hours. But, I also know that with another thirty minutes of pushing my bike uphill I will reach the rolling descent back into town. I ask the staff for Ibuprofen. They respond, “No, it will cause your liver to fail.” Much appreciated advice in my delirious state.
I remount and peddle 100 feet before having to dismount and push. And push. Ride a little, dismount at the slightest incline, push the bike uphill, ride and repeat. Fortunately, I reach the summit, accelerate with the descent and avoid pedaling unless absolutely necessary. Twelve hours earlier on this same section of trail I never imagined my day would go like this.
I reach the valley floor and the rolling road followed by what I heard was a deceivingly tough climb back into town. My knee is getting worse with each pedal stroke. The bare minimum pressure, just enough to maintain forward momentum on flat ground is too much. I try unclipping my left leg and letting it hang while my right leg keeps spinning. That hurts worse. I am only miles from the finish, but the elevation profile won’t let me forget the remaining climb. Less than 10 miles to go, if I walk that’ll take 2.5 hrs in bike cleats? Ouch. I literally can’t pedal. Is this worth it? What am I doing to my knee?
At mile 96, with just 7ish miles to go (yes, it’s 103 miles total), with tears swelling in my eyes and my voice cracking, I call my wife and tell her I’m done. Other racers and course marshals encourage me to continue. I am so f*cking close. I just can’t. I have walked so far already, in bike shoes, nonetheless.
As I wait on the side of the road for my friend’s truck, I recall the advice from my veteran mountaineering guide many years ago, “Everyone will reach a summit today. Maybe not the mountain’s summit, but their personal one. Enjoy the view wherever that is.” With that thought, I unclip my helmet, enjoy the last few sips of water, sit down to enjoy the setting sun and relish in what I accomplished.
My first DNF (did not finish). The finisher medal and the belt buckle would be gratifying. But the point of these events isn’t a piece of hardware, it’s to test one’s body, mind and spirit through the doubts and pain that accumulate over 13 hours of exertion. I don’t feel like I failed. Rather, this DNF feels more special than the races I did complete or the mountains I did summit. Those “victories” were amazing but getting slapped down and coming up short despite giving everything I had is unforgettable.
The Leadville 100 got the best of me that day, but I will return. And next time crossing that finish line will be that much sweeter.