Thursday, August 20, 2009

Dave Grant wins 12 hr, O2S soft rock, and leaves Leadville 100 with a gold belt buckle

Race reports from Dave:

O2S (28 miler)
One week prior to the Leadville 100, Nicole and I both raced the shorter Ore to Shores. She'd only raced one other MTB race, the O2S, last year, and didn't like it (she crashed and is admittedly technically weak). I didn't want to extend my recovery by racing the long version.
Long story short, we both won. In her case it was pure fitness (5 min over 2nd place) and improved technique. Mine was a combination of luck and a successful gamble.
I rode hard but didn't feel particularly well and certainly not better than the competition. I was only barely hanging-on up 510, HR maxed-out and drifting off the back of the front group. I had Tom Mahaney to thank for that (riding his cross bike up the road). The group (maybe 10) slowed way down by the top so I probably wasn't the only one with dead legs. Tyler Jenema was the only one who didn't slow and he moved off the front into the trees. There was a duo chasing him, then Tom, Steve Kuhl and I. I broke-free of those two (though Steve continued to chase me for miles, catching glimpses through the trees when the trail straightened). I pursued Chris Cook and Ross (Hagerty Insurance) similarly. Finally caught them, figured I was stronger so attacked. Wrong! Ross brought me back like it was nothing. Then he and Chris worked me on a few rises. Tyler was long gone.
There aren't alot of spectators in the woods, so we didn't get any splits until after Forestville. At that point we were only 30 sec off Tyler (seemed strange), and there he was! (fixing a flat). Too bad. Tubeless aren't without problems and their resealing ability leaves alot to be desired. Tyler couldn't hang with the flat. Ross tortured us on Kirby's Hill, it seemed grim for me. It took almost a mile to catch back on. Then the pace slackened in anticipation of what I thought would be an explosion from Ross. I've seen enough professional bike racing to believe the weaker guy can still win, so I gambled on an attack WAAY out (over a mile) and it worked! I got 100 yards and started time-trialing. I slowly stretched it out and they appeared to be looking at each other. Once I believed it was won I cruised in, but nearly got zapped by a late-charging Ross (came within one second of beating me!). Ross is about 17 years old, damn.
I got a drink and was heading-out to the final corner to see Nicole's finish when they announced she'd won! Unlike last year, no crashes, and she had the endurance and hill-climbing to ride-away from her field. She still doesn't count herself a mountainbiker, but it shouldn't take much more convincing.
This is a group email about the Leadville 100 Mountainbike Race, before I forget details, and while sitting in O’Haire due to a storm layover, I’m writing notes on the race. A lot of you have a lot of questions so I thought I’d write something exhaustive. Apologies if parts are boring to you or self-serving.

Leadville Colorado sits at 10,140 feet and is the “highest incorporated city in the US.” It was almost the capital in the 1860s(?) but like Calumet (vs Lansing MI) mining wealth wasn’t enough. It’s now pretty dead. The races that made it famous, first the 100 mile run (1984 to present) and 100-mile mountainbike (MTB, 1994 to present) were the brainchild of a state congressman and unemployed miner, Ken Choulder. He still runs the races with his wife and it’s a big part of the small town’s economy (Leadville’s last mine closed in the 80s and it’s not a ski town and Colorado has plenty of mountains to look at; IMO the most interesting physical feature is the headwaters of the Arkansas river and fantastic-looking stretches of trout water, but this isn’t about fishing).

The race is actually 104 miles, it’s an “out and back” and 1400 entrants (of over 10,000 applicants selected mostly at random) try to finish in under 9 hours for a big gold and belt buckle (, or under 12 for a silver buckle. There is about 14,000 total feet of climbing. If you pass all the required aid stations under the specified times, but after the 12 hour cutoff you’re not considered a finisher, though your name is listed in the results. Seems mean-spirited, but they need to get people off the mountains with night falling.

This is a bike cult experience, on par for some with a Hajj. 2000 people (racers and supporters) cram into a small high school gymnasium the day before (after mandatory medical check in; “do you have any conditions that might cause you to collapse?”) for a pep talk and introductions. Ken operates like a preacher, calling-up his bike faithful to the stage (sweltering, and I was literally woozy and sweating with day 3 of a cold), Dave Wiens (6 time winner), his wife, the mayor, the medical director (who informed us all there’s a decent chance we’ll wind-up on dialysis if we pretreat with ibuprofen). Then Ken, in his 70s, shouted the mob to it’s feet, commanding us to chant “I WILL NOT QUIT!…I WILL NOT QUIT!” Pretty goofy. Then he followed it up with the old “when you finish it only hurts for 12 hours, if you quit it will hurt for a lifetime.” I leaned-up against Nicole and said, “I will quit if it gets too bad.” Easier said than done.

James Selman, Andy Reed and I rented a house in Leadville. James has completed this race 7 times (all under 9 hours, and once under 8, taking 8th overall, he knows Ken well enough to get us into the race, too bad his favor didn’t extend far enough for Tom Asmus and Jeff Juntti, but we tried). Andy and I are buddies from Durango-days (early 90s), neither of us had done anything this drastic before. I did complete a 12 hour solo MTB race in Marquette this summer, but it was a easy by comparison (no elevation, support every 30 minutes/lap, no illness). James’ family (Lisa and their 2 kids, Ryler (3) and Makala (sp?, 4), his friend Graham from North Carolina and friend Slate from Portland arrived to help crew. You live or die by your crew. It would not be possible to stop and refuel and remain competitive at every aid stop without support. Also, the commitment you feel not to disappoint your crew members (who spend 6-10 hours outside in the mountains too) is potent. Nicole and Jack (10 months) rounded out the team.

“Normal” mountain weather in August is clear with a chance of afternoon T-storms. We awoke at 4 AM (I slept 2 hours only, too excited and sick blowing my nose), shuttled our bikes to the start for a 5 AM lineup (first behind the preferred 100 finishers from last year), in a light rain, 38 degrees, and overnight snow on the 13-14,000 peaks 15 miles to the West of Leadville. Brrr. Then we went back to the house to stew.

The town has one stoplight and all of Main is shut-down for thousands of racers and fans. They had us standing in the cold for a long time listening to Ken shout on and on about how “YOU’RE TOUGHER THAN YOU THINK YOU ARE!” and “YOU CAN ACCOMPLISH MORE THAN YOU THINK YOU CAN!” Lance arrived to some fanfare, along with Trek teammate Travis Brown, but crowd sentiment was clearly with Dave Wiens, and no sooner had Ken announced Lance’s arrival then a booming “DAVE DAVE DAVE DAVE” broke-out. Combination of nervousness, hydration and cold just made me want to pee.

The race starts with a shotgun and we followed a patrol car downhill 4 miles before it peeled-off and we hit a dirt (almost all of the race is on dirt 2 track, some good, some you wouldn’t want to drive in a Jeep). Two miles into the race several cows, and a bull close behind, burst out of the trees and ran across the course. We slammed on brakes and had to wait, pretty dangerous actually. I was caught behind. Andy and James were in front. While I’m thinking of it, I never witnessed a crash in the entire race. Totally bizarre, generally people crash a lot. I’m sure it’s because everyone has so much riding on it that they’re more conservative, and the pace really isn’t that fast, except downhill.

There are 5 mountains to climb (2 small, 1 giant at the turn-around). The first is St Kevins (pronounced Saint Keevans), narrow, rocky, but only 30 minutes or so. We stuck together as a looong line (nowhere to pass) and I should have stuck to my pacing plan (pulse monitor 135, instead I was sitting on 140; I have a very low absolute max, 160, and in training/racing I can hold up to 130 for at least 6 hours, beyond that, no). We descended a paved road 3 miles, then turned upwards for another 5 miles, and a cold rain started.

Andy had flatted on the climb (we run tubeless tires sealed with liquid latex and though lightweight and give improved traction at lower tire pressure, the ultralight race versions are prone to sidewall cuts that don’t seal). I passed him and figured he’d grab-onto the group I was leading (pulse enforced at 133; I figured if anyone wanted to go faster he could pass me). Also worth mentioning that this isn’t a race in the normal sense, at least not back in the pack where I was. It’s about time, not place. Normally I wouldn’t “work” and pull someone up a hill, but it’s not about beating anyone else and the camaraderie was amazing. The rain continued to fall, hard, and it was cold. We crested over 11,000 feet and dropped down “Powerline,” a nasty rutted 4-mile washout. So cold, yet like most I only had summer riding gear and arm warmers and a light nylon vest.

At the bottom there’s a big creek crossing and in “normal” years there’s a great debate as to whether it’s better to slow-down and take the plank bridge or plow-through. Most recommend the bridge because you wouldn’t want to get wet socks and a squeaky chain. Yeah right, we were soaked and probably hypothermic. I couldn’t see, but didn’t have the dexterity to take my glasses off to stick them in my jersey pocket, and it took all my hand/wrist strength to push the gear shifter. I remember thinking “what if this doesn’t stop? There’s no way the organizers could let us go on.” It ain’t that kind of party.

The first aid station was staffed by Nicole. I had written my goal split times to break 9 hours for all aid stations in Blue Sharpie permanent marker on my forearm. They were smeared into a giant purple bruise and worthless. All racers receive a book with every finisher’s splits at outbound aid stations 1, 2, turnaround, 3, 4 and finish time. Like everyone else I didn’t actually need to write it down since we study it so thoroughly beforehand. I came-through at 1:59, goal 2:05. I dropped one empty bottle and took none (that worried Nicole). I need to drink at least 25 ounces/hour of carb-rich fluid not to bonk (one bottle is 24 ounces). Hard to drink enough when you’re freezing to death. James told me he never stops to pee so I tried his trick and coasted down a long hill and drained my bladder. My leg and foot felt nice and warm.

Then the sun came out and 12 miles of rolling gravel and some singletrack dried us out. I felt good, just a mild headache and runny nose. Crossed the dam at the base of a monster, 3700 foot, climb up to Columbine Mine (12,600 feet) in 2:49, goal was 2:55. I had ridden the climb 4 days previously in 1:39 and if I could repeat that I’d be golden. Or so I thought. In the back of my brain a little voice kept reminding me that the race isn’t half over at the halfway point.

The climb went well, pulse a little high at 134 (if this sounds very dull for racing you’re right, it is). The hard climb is 8 miles and there are no breaks. At 11,400 feet we hit treeline. Lance FLEW down the left side of the two-track about 8 minutes ahead of Wiens. He was probably hitting 40 mph on a twisty dirt track, terrifying. I’m not a big Lance fan, but it was awesome. His body is not my body. Two miles from the summit and the entire Western mountain ridge was framed in ominous black clouds. When the trail turned to steep rock scree we hiked our bikes. The clouds raced overhead, blocked-out the sun and we stopped to throw every stitch of clothing back on. The temp plummeted and it hailed with a 30 mph wind in our faces. It hurt. The ground was white with melting pellets. Riders were swooping, skipping over the rocks down the left side and we walked/pedaled the right. It was dramatic and again I wondered how they could let this go on. They did, there isn’t any shelter to stop it if they wanted too.

In the midst of all this misery there are the spectators. There are many hundreds, spread-out for miles. They are the best ever, period. They shout their heads off and tell you you’re killing it. That never gets old. It’s not for ego, but it connected me to something outside of my physical suffering. One guy in particular comes to mind. Just before it started hailing, and with my vest off, I heard “you from Upper Michigan”? Yeah, how’d you know? “Your jersey! Yooper you betcha!!” Sweet. My favorite part of the climb was stopping to pee, pure Heaven to pull-over and stop moving for one minute.

James bounced down the hill in the hailstorm maybe 15 min ahead of me. I got to the top (4:29 actual, 4:35 goal), the sun came out, and descended on the right side. It was sketchy. Andy was maybe 5 min behind, said he’d flatted again. There was a steady stream of maybe a thousand riders in a line on the left and every 30 seconds or so someone would go for an uphill pass, or ride out into my line with his/her head down. I kept shouting “RIDER UP…RIDER UP” as I cruised down. By the bottom a few were walking; I just felt bad for them, ugg.

Hit the third aid station (Graham and Lisa) and argued with Graham about not eating enough. I had a 50 cc flask of carbohydrate gel he didn’t know about and knew I’d reach Nicole in another hour-plus. I had picked-up one Balance energy bar from Graham at the base of Columbine ascent, but was only able to eat half of it on the early gentler slopes, before sticking the remainder under the cuff of my shorts to eat later. It felt about 40 degrees warmer in the valley, I took a water bottle handoff from a random spectator and dumped it over my head and back, remembered the energy bar and removed a residual cookie wafer from a soup of melted chocolate inside my shorts, then I peed on myself again, more of a dribble.

Five hours into the race I bonked. Hard to describe what it feels like. It’s not painful but you’re aware the lights are going out. I couldn’t get my pulse above 135. I got intestinal cramps, I suspect from gas production due to all the carb drinks. That killed me, I couldn’t keep drinking and food was completely out of the question. A guy from Texas rode with me. Regarding the hail, I told him I was from the U.P. and glad we finally had some good weather. Your mind turns to dark humor and then philosophical themes. I wondered how I remembered to keep pedaling. I thought about how nice it would be to get a flat and stop. I thought of the U.P, I looked for animals and studied the plants. I got passed and passed. I thought about not letting down the Yoopers and Nicole. Andy caught me and I thought he said “grab my wheel” but he told me after the race that he’d said “look at my wheel” (it was wobbly and damaged from hitting rocks). I tried to hold his wheel, and eat and drink, but it was murder so I let him go. I passed James, who broke his chain and had suffered flats. I finally reached Nicole, 6:09 actual, 6:16 goal. She wanted me to eat too, but I couldn’t, just demanded COKE! and felt worse about myself for not making it fun for her, it just wasn’t fun. The fact 9 hours was still within reach was only an agonizing carrot.

The worst part of the race is the climb up from the final aid station. The Powerline. Nothing I can say, it’s just over an hour of solid Hell. Either ultimate low gear pedaling or pushing the bike. I loved pushing. It got me off the bike. Andy apparently can’t walk and I easily caught him walking. When he could ride he easily dropped me. A woman rode by. I asked her if she was first woman, she said no, smiled and explained she was in second (the winner did an 8:14). I got to the top and there was one mountain and a 3-mile uphill grade into town to go. Lance and Wiens, and James behind, rode the entire Powerline, amazing.

That descent was surreal. The bike and I were “one” by that point and it hadn’t shown any imperfections. I’d look between the rocks and there I’d go. I went faster and faster and the danger feeling was gone. I was floating. Halfway down it turned to pavement and I relaxed. Too much, I caught myself leaning over the handlebars and felt the warm pull of going to sleep at 35 mph down a mountain. Seductively dangerous.

The last mountain is relatively small, only a 3 mile pavement climb, then 5 miles of big rollers on a ridgetop. I pushed and pushed the fluids on the previous descent and that got me to the top. Along the way the Texan, named Wusha (sp?), rode alongside and used his GPS to predict an 8:55 finish. He wasn’t sure we’d make it. I felt bitter at this arbitrary goal, then silly for caring about a metal belt buckle, then finally, mad enough to want to fight for it. I told him we WERE going to make it, stay on my wheel. We hit the top, I grabbed another bottle of Coke (the only thing that roused me from my torpor), and I commanded he stay on my wheel. He wasn’t in good shape and telling someone who’s bonking to ride harder doesn’t work, and he fell off.

At 8 hours I knew I would make it. Those intrepid fans, lining the descents, filming the jumps and corners, just kept shouting “you’re gonna make it!” I kept shouting “THANK YOU!” I gave the bottle of Coke to a child. I pedaled easy. I passed the cattle crossing, back onto the pavement. Wusha caught me, we rode together and mused that the closer we got to 9 hours the more suspenseful it would become for our spouses. We were right, at 8:45 Nicole later confided she almost cried for disappointment for me (I later reassured her I would have been ok). Andy finished in 8:32, felt great and fought it out til the end despite lots of stops to refill the air in his tires. Impressive. James fixed his chain and stopped to reinflate his leaky rear tire lots of times, but finished in 8:58. Lance set a course record, about 6:30, Wiens about 20 min back, took second. Unreal.

I saw Andy and Nicole 200 yards from the end, then over the red carpet to finish in 8:49. Exactly the 100th finisher (guaranteed preferred start 2010?). Got off the bike, pushed through the crowd to a food tent, grabbed 2 ham sandwiches and a water bottle and laid-down under a tree to eat. I couldn’t. I was nauseated and worse, I couldn’t drink or get-up. I tried twice and felt my head swim; I was going to pass out, never happened before. So I laid under the tree. A woman came-up and asked me if I was ok and I said no. She asked if I needed medical attention, I said yes. I was starting to shiver. Some medics helped me to the (warm) tent. An old guy blew on some soup to cool it and spoon-fed me until Nicole got there to take his job. I listened to the ER doc explain to another patient that his asthma attack wasn’t that bad because his pulse oximetry was reading 91% and that was “normal” at Leadville’s elevation. Not sure about that. It took a long time and several cups of soup and energy drinks to sit up. Then we walked home.

In the end I didn’t get a buckle. The award ceremony was Sunday and we needed to fly home; I'll have to send for one. I couldn’t eat dinner with the group, too sick. I couldn’t sleep either; just laid on the floor and sipped a water bottle, the end of six hard months of specific training. I’m not sure what it proved, maybe that I can hurt myself. I should have stopped but wasn’t thinking right, and with something rare like Leadville (or “Boston”) your mind gnaws at you, insisting it may be the only shot you have and that you deserve to prove the buckle belongs to you. I won’t say that’s entirely crap, but it is, mostly. My cold is worse. I didn’t need the buckle, and it really took a lot of 18-hour training weeks away from Nicole and Jack.

So, it’s over and I’m glad, it’s been stressful. I've felt selfish. No plans to repeat the experience but if I did I will not ride as fast early, eat and drink on schedule, and pay attention when the body is telling you to stop. Thanks again for all the support.



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