Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Leadville 2009 – A Regular Joe’s Perspective

I won!  Now I know you’re thinking the altitude has truly gotten to me this time.  You’ve probably read in the post race reports, that in the re-match of Armstrong vs. Weins, Lance won and did so by a large margin. 

But I am here to tell you I won.  That’s right, a regular ol’ Joe, a flatlander, in fact won at Leadville.  Now before you chalk this up as the ramblings of a delusional and probably still hypoxic participant, let me give you a short disclaimer.   This recap is full of delusions, surreal experiences, and romanticized accomplishments.  It is with this basic understanding, that you can begin to understand the attraction, no, rather the addiction, of the Leadville 100. 

So how did I win you ask?   Well, you see, for most of us, racing the Leadville 100 is a personal battle, one that is fought between the rider, the course, and our goals.  For some the goal is to finish, for others to finish within a certain time.  For Lance, it was to beat a certain rider like Dave.  For me, I set a goal to beat myself…….. and I won.

 I had what I felt was a very good ride the year prior, breaking 8hrs and finishing 18th.  I decided that I would measure my goal by improving my time.  By doing that, I was not sure I would finish with a higher placing, but at least I would know that I had improved.  The level of top riders was rumored to be deeper this year so a higher placing was not guaranteed.  However, I knew I would have beaten the only rider I had a debt to settle with, and that rider was me.  To win, I would have to turn myself inside out and back in again.  I chuckled when I filled out the survey at registration: Average hours per week trained = 6   Altitude trained at = 800ft….clearly I was prepared. (-:   Without going into detail, this year has been one of the toughest years of my life personally.  For me, Leadville was to be a release of much of that.  No training needed.

At 4am the alarm sounded.   I hadn’t been able to sleep much due to the excitement and anticipation of what the day might bring.  I opened my balcony door to get a feel for the temperature and much to my dismay it was raining and I could see my breath, the worst possible combination of elements.  I began to have flash backs of one of the most miserable races I have ever done racing up and over the Tourmalet 2yrs ago in the Etape du Tour.  I don’t mind cold, but adding in rain and starting a 100+ mile day off with that type of weather is about the worst way you can start a day.  I knew this was going to be a difficult year.  I began to doubt that I was going to be able to beat my time from the previous year.   I had heard the day before that the course had been lengthened by a couple of miles due to a necessary trail re-route.   Add in wet muddy conditions and things did not look too promising.

As we drove into town for the start, I was staring up into the sky, watching lightning flash across the mountain peaks above the tree line.  “That is where we are headed.   This is going to be more difficult than I thought” I said to myself.  Just then a shooting star shot across the sky and I began to get excited about the challenge. 

As I sat in the start gates, the rain had stopped and I was hopeful we might have a dry day after all.  In the distance, a double rainbow developed through the clouds as the sun rose up over the mountains.  As I was standing there, a camera man waiting on Lance to show up, asked if I would be willing to do an interview.  I set my bike down and answered a few questions about what it was like for an average joe like myself to be in a race with Lance Armstrong.   I was then asked if I had changed my strategy as a result.  Clearly this gentleman didn’t know who I was.   Apparently he thought I might actually contend against Lance Armstrong.  Only he and one other person were that confused.  The other was my 7yr old son who came up to watch me race and work the Twin Lake sag crew for me. 

I call it the “Forrest Gump” effect.  If you look at the start line photo, you will see one of the world’s greatest cyclists.  And then, conversely, off to the left, you see me.  In the old sesame street way of presenting the oddity, I offer up:  “One of these things is not like the other”.  However, in my mind, at that moment, I allowed myself to slip into the delusion that I did.  In my mind I was on the start line of a race with over 5 million worldwide watching.   As the helicopters hovered over the start line, I was interviewed by a camera crew, flash photography was everywhere, Lance was there.  I smiled.  I felt like I was getting away with a masterful heist.  Just like Forrest Gump, I was there, somehow, even though I didn’t belong.  My ipod was playing Eminem’s song “Lose Yourself” and that is just what I did.  I was lost in the moment and couldn’t help but smile like a kid at Christmas time.

You can see me (Forrest Gump) just to the left of Dave who is
pointing out the rain clouds ahead to Lance. 

As the sun lifted and the clock counted down the crowds began to fill the start area and you could feel the excitement in the air.  To top off my excitement I was feeling good.  My legs felt good and I knew I was going to have a solid ride if all mechanical things held up well.  The helicopters hovered over the start area. The television crews were all across the start line.   Lance and Dave had made their entrance.  A friend, Travis Brown, had lined up just to the left of them, but it was too loud for me to get his attention and say hi.  He was a last minute entry that I had not expected to see. 

The countdown from 10 began and the race started at the sound of a shotgun blast. As we headed out of town you could see rain clouds beginning to reform and a double rainbow appeared through the clouds.

 I surged forward and found myself right on Lance’s wheel.  After rolling for a while there, I decided I had something to say to him and I might not ever have the chance again, so I pulled up beside him. 

“My Dad called me last year from his chemo treatment room at the hospital and asked me ‘What’s it like to race against the “Big Number One”? I said.  Lance turned, looked at me and smiled and chuckled at the comment.  “I lost him this past April to small cell liver cancer” I said.    His smile quickly turned to a grimace; he sighed and said “I’m sorry to hear that, that’s tough!”   “It is” I said, “And the reason I tell you this, is that despite what you do on the bike, please don’t ever retire from the fight against cancer.  We need more survivors like you and I.”   More than his accomplishments on the bike, I admire his work and passion fighting cancer through his Livestrong organization and felt compelled to tell him so.   “You’re a survivor?” he said.   “Yes, and I just wanted to thank you for all you do to fight it.  Don’t ever retire from that.”  He smiled.  “Well, good luck today”   “Thanks, and good luck to you on setting the new course record.” I said.  We then continued to talk about the onset of the looming weather, the difficulty in setting a course record in such conditions, the chances of hail, lightning or even snow at the top of Columbine Mine.  As we neared the gravel road turn off, we wished each other luck one last time, and the race was on. 

At this point Travis Brown had gone to the front of the pack and was pulling us down the dirt road at a solid pace.  I then hear over my shoulder “I see you everywhere” as I turn to see Jason Tullous, a friend of mine from Tucson that I had ran across in a pace line while racing in France in July.  Jason is a Masters World Champion mountain bike racer from Tucson, AZ.   As we were chatting, all of the sudden there were riders shouting out and I looked up to see a small herd of cattle stampeding beside us and diving across the road in front of us.  We all had to brake to miss colliding with them as they moved across the road.  I turned to Jason “I thought we only had that type of thing happen in Nebraska”.   He laughed.  

Travis Brown leading us out..
Yes those are drop bars!

The pace stayed steady to the base of the climb.  As we took the left hand turn to start up St. Kevins, the first major climb of the day, I noticed I was sitting in 5th place right on Lance’s wheel.  I smiled once again and let my delusion continue.  Up the climb we went, the helicopters filming overhead, in my mind I could see Versus showing me, on Lance’s wheel, climbing and holding pace.  There were fans along the climb cheering.  I was having the experience of a lifetime.  Oh boy, I thought.  This is not going to help my son’s delusion if he sees this coverage. 

My son Dillon has always had the idea that I race in the Tour De France every year WITH Lance Armstrong, even though I am always doing the Etape Du Tour on the day the real guys rest.  Self confession, I have let him have that delusion, and I suppose him seeing me on the start line in Leadville with Lance only strengthened it.  But hey, your kids are only young once and I’m sure at some point I will go from Daddy “Hero” to “Zero” and I am just not ready for that transition yet.  I’m going to milk this Hero status as long as I can.

About two thirds of the way up the climb, it takes a 180 degree turn and continues to climb in a rolling fashion.   At this point I had slipped back to 10th and the top 8 riders had gradually pulled away from us.  Delusion over : Time to race.   I knew how important it was to try and not get stranded in between groups.  We had 6 of us that were coming back together towards the top and I would start the descent solo as the 5 riders caught up with me.  By this time the cold rain had started and my core temp was falling.  I decided to just ride hard and let the group come up to me as I wanted to say warm. 

As we headed toward the 2nd climb our group came together, but drafting was bitter sweet.  You could get a break from the wind, but the cold wheel spray from the rider in front of you was a high price to pay.  We all rotated through and made it to the top of the sugar loaf climb together and began the descent down pipeline.  By this time the rain was coming down hard and my glasses got so filled up with dirt I had to shed them. Not seeing the lines on the descent was more risk than I wanted to take.  However, I soon found out the trade off was sanding my eyeballs with grit.   It was a no win situation and to add to the misery the numbness of feet and hands were settling in despite the hard efforts.  It appeared to be getting colder as my breath was even more evident.  I assume it was if for nothing else, due to the gain in altitude.  I was miserable!

Our group was whittled down to around 4 riders by the time we got to the base and started making our way to twin lakes.  As we went through the feed zone I got separated from the group.  I managed to get a feed from my son Dillon who was hanging out with his cousin Connor and my aunt and uncle in the feed zone.   It was great seeing him in the feed zone, jumping up and down cheering me on.  I could see the sense of pride and excitement in his eyes and a big smile came across my face as I rode away to start the climb up to the top of Columbine Mine.   The rain had stopped and I knew I could warm up from my effort on the climb.

Yes, that is my boy in the Husker hoodie, throwing up his best Leadville Posse gang sign.  (-:
My aunt Lois and cousin Connor beside him

At this point I could tell by my splits I was ahead of my previous year’s pace despite the wet, cold and miserable conditions.  I settled into a comfortable pace and headed up the mountain.   About half way up Jason Tullous passed me back.  “Keep it up, your climbing awesome” I said.   I continued on, knowing the hardest part of the climb is above the tree line.  Just as I broke through the trees, I could feel the wind and cold air picking up.   The dark clouds were rolling in and the sleet started to pelt me.   The wind was gusting in the 20-30 mph range and I could again see my breath.   Misery loves company, and I had none.  The gaps at the front of the field were opening.

As I approached the top, down came Lance and he was focused and intent on his way by.  I offered up a word of encouragement and away he flew.   I looked at my watch, waiting to see the gap before Dave Wiens would roll by.   It was 8 or so minutes and then came Dave.   As he rode by me we exchanged words of encouragement.  If you don’t know Dave or have never met him, he is a consummate sportsman.   He probably would have shaved 15 minutes off his time if he didn’t feel he had to personally encourage all 900+ riders on his way back to the finish. 

I finally saw the turn around and was feeling good.  I had counted the riders coming down and I was sitting well inside the top 15.   All I needed to do was not come apart in the next 50 miles.  How hard could that be?  I already knew.  I turned to charge down the mountain in search of warmth and oxygen at lower altitudes.  On the way down I started to see our team guys and friends riding the race.  Words of encouragement were exchanged and I charged on.   One of the unique things you notice on the descent of Columbine is the variety of folks participating in the event.  From male to female, young to old, big and small, all types of folks take on the Leadville challenge. 

As I hit twin lake feed zone, there was my crew again, the boys jumping up and down in the road and handing me my feed. 

I was frozen coming off the descent in the sleet but didn’t want to stop and take time to put on dry clothes.  I pushed on.  The weather began to let up and I started to regain feeling in my hands and feet.  The way back was a lonely one.  I rode solo for the last 60 miles of the race.   As I went up and over the steep base of the powerline climb I was sitting in 10-12th depending on which spectator I talked to.  I ended up getting passed by two guys towards the top of Powerline.  I was bonking and knew I had gotten a bit behind on nutrition.   I started drinking and eating jelly beans for a quick sugar rush.   It took me about 20-30 minutes before I felt ok again.   I pressed on.   I could not see any riders ahead or behind so there was no ability to draft or work with other riders in the open sections between climbs.  As I neared the top of St. Kevins, I could see one rider up in the distance.   I decided to make catching him my goal before the finish, in hopes we could work together on the stretch into town.  

As we came off the final descent and headed into town I was able to catch Ethan.  He had finished 4th the year before and I offered to rotate with him.  He was not feeling well and told me to charge ahead.   I did.  I could tell by my watch that it was going to be close if I was going to finish under 7:45 which was my goal.   I had to win. 

The last 5 miles were an all out prologue and I was hurting.  I used my father as motivation, thinking about how much he suffered in his final stages with Cancer, how he pushed through it to be with us as long as he could.  I thought, I could, at the very least, suffer for a few hours to achieve my goals and win in Leadville.  Besides, Leadville was something he got excited about.  He wanted to see me race and couldn’t due to his cancer, but managed to call me last year several times wanting to know what it was like.

As I turned the final corner and looked at my watch, I needed to dig deep to win.  I gave it everything I had left and rolled in just under 7:45 finishing 13th  overall.  

I collapsed over my bike as they hung a medal around my neck.   I looked up to see my son Dillon and my Dad’s twin brother standing there with my friends with big smiles on their faces.  A sense of euphoria set in.  I had done it.  I won!  Despite the weather conditions, despite the couple mile course extension, I had set my own course record. 

My uncle behind me, Dillon to my right and good buddy Steve to my left

I turned the corner and embraced my family and friends as we headed to the recovery tent for some warm ramen noodles, coke, and some cookies.  As I sat there in recovery I thought about how special this year was.  Having my son Dillon take part in the experience, and to see the excitement and pride in his eyes was worth it all.  And even though my dad could not be there, my uncle (his twin brother) was, and I knew he would have wanted it that way. 

Well Dad, you asked “What is it like to race with the Big #1”   Well, it is an amazing surreal experience for a regular joe like me.  Especially when I win! (-:

The Rest of The Story

Ok, so that is my experience.  One of the other great things about Leadville is experiencing it with friends and family.   This year we were able to add David Renvoise to our 6 man team.  If you have read my yearly Etape du Tour recaps, you know David as our French guide who is a very talented climber and great friend to Steve Jarrett, Jim Maaske, my cousin Jon and me from our last 7 years of racing in France.  We were excited to have him on our team and he had a tremendous race finishing 26th.  I have put some photos below of friends and fellow flatlanders that did this event.  Captions tell the story.  Enjoy.

That’s right folks.  10,200 is where we started from. We live at 800.  Oh Yippy!

So, here is where I suggest we hide some motorcycles.

Our Pipeline feed zone crew.  They were not there for a good time, they were there for a LONG time.

Some of our trusty feed zone crew from Kansas and Colorado

The crew upon arrival.  We didn’t look this good leaving!

We gave Lowell a hard time about his trash bag photos from last year, so he stepped it up a notch.  He had a great finish coming in
an hour faster than last year.  Sponsorship helps of course (-;

If we only knew what we were in for!

David awaiting the start

Kevin on pace for an awesome finish coming in 52nd. 

No trash bag here and riding strong is Lowell Peterson, one of our three cancer survivors on the team.

Chris Peterson on pace to “Win” and beat his time from last year, despite two flats.  One of three cancer survivors on the team.

Steve rolling through the first feed on the way out.  He suffered from Hypothermia on Columbine and had to pull out.

If your suspension seat post is gonna break, it best be at the end!

Cousin Jon Winning! 

David Winning!

What Leadville can do to a man….Turn him into Greg Lemond!

Cousin Connor, Dillon, Me, Cousin Jon, and David

David post race with Steve. 

Scott Bigelow from Lincoln Winning!

Winners circle

What the winners got

What we got

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