The descent off Columbine is stressful, especially at the top where the trail is only about 6 feet wide, deeply rutted and loose on the right side. On the left are ascending riders so you have to stick to your line, but occasionally they are 2 or 3 wide as they try to pass slower riders and you pass within inches of each other. Committing to the rut, trusting your suspension to do its job and not over-braking on the front are paramount to staying upright.
By the time I was 5 minutes into the descent, there was a steady line of people walking up the trail, and I was again thankful for my earlier efforts to gain position. As the road smoothed out, the speeds increased, and I topped 40 mph a few times, braking hard for the 5 or 6 switchbacks. I was amazed at the never ending, steady stream of riders that stretched out for over 10 miles. I’d never seen that many riders on one climb before, and it was a spectacle to behold. I was so glad to have the climb behind me and really began to enjoy myself for the first time as my legs got some much needed respite.
I saw Amy 20 minutes later, standing on the side of the dirt road right before the turn for Twin Lakes. I skidded to a stop and gave myself the luxury of a 15 second break to grab my feed, steal a quick kiss and tell her I would see her in an hour at the final feed. I took off and began to hammer, finally feeling good and needing to make up some time.
Riding solo the next 10 miles I blew through Twin Lakes, back across the highway and into the neighborhood. I picked up a few riders, a couple more jumped on, and we had a very strong group of give that worked in a rotating pace line to cheat the wind. We left the pavement and hit a smooth dirt road and continued to work well together. As we neared an approaching singletrack section, I saw group of about 15 ahead. I went to the front and drove the pace to close the gap and make contact.
As passing wasn’t possible on this section I relaxed, took a forced rest, and ate and drank as much as could. I also gulped down a Hot Shot, an anti cramping drink I'd been using with some success this year. 15 minutes later the singletrack ended, and we dropped into small ravine and were faced with a short sharp climb known as "Little Stinker." It’s a loose 25% climb about 100 meters long. At the top was a group of people yelling encouragement and giving cheers to the few who were able to climb it. Since I was feeling good I hammered up it, going over my self imposed redline of 168 HR. I was rewarded with cheers and a push at the top to get me back up to speed. It took abut give minutes to get my HR back down, but the effort had been worth it as I dropped the group I was with. I eventually picked up another group whom I would work hard with over the next 10 miles.
Our group blew though the Pipeline aid station (mile 73), only losing one to the siren song of a drink and a rest. We continued down the sandy double track and onto the five miles of pavement that would take us to the Powerline climb. The wind really picked up up here and was a head cross that forced us into an eschelon. Fortunately we all had road racing experience and rotated well together to share the work.
Pretty soon I approached Amy for my final feed. She was positioned on a hill and planned to give me my mussette with one bottle and food and run along me to put my other bottle in the cage. Our pack was moving too fast, and I was only able to grab the musette which meant I only had one bottle and a small coke to last the final 23 miles. It was getting hot and wouldn’t be enough.
As we reached the base of the climb, our group broke up. I drank my coke, took a gel and ate my delicious rice crispy treat. It was 1 PM, and I had 2 1/2 hours to get over the last 2 climbs and final 23 miles.
Surprisingly, the Powerline climb went very well for me, and I passed many people. It’s a mental climb featuring 5 false summits which for some reason I had forgotten about. As I reached each crest, I was subsequently disappointed. I had to refocus and continue grinding away to the top which came after about 45 minutes. At the top my quads and inner thighs tightened and sent signals that they might cramp, so I drank another Hot Shot and downed all the fluid I had.
I hammered the descent off Sugarloaf Pass and down Hagerman Pass road and continued to descend towards Turquoise Lake. I adopted my TT position, blowing past riders along the way. I rounded the far end of the lake and was aware that I was very thirsty and out of fluids. Less than a minute later, as the road steepened and I rounded a bend, I saw Jill’s husband Bob standing on the side of the road ready to feed her when she came by. He saw me and asked if I needed anything. I croaked out "Water!!" He held out the bottle he was drinking from, and I grabbed it as I flew by. I chugged the entire bottle and dropped it off for him to grab.
I settled in for the final climb to Carter summit where I knew there was another small aid station where I could get some more fluids. Just a few minutes later I came upon a group who had set up an impromptu aid station and were handing out cokes and waters, I grabbed a coke. Immediately energized, I upped my pace on the climb, slowly reeling in and passing riders in front of me. At the summit, I turned onto the jeep road and grabbed another water at the aid station. It was now 2:25 PM. I was almost 8 hours into the race, and I had 13 miles to go.
I thought I would start descending, but discovered I still had some climbing on the dirt before the fast drop down St. Kevins. My legs began to protest when the trail kicked up, and I began to sense cramps were imminent. As I came around a corner, Hot Shot had set up a tent and was handing out shots. I grabbed one and quickly downed it, depositing the empty in the box they had placed down the trail. The many empty’s in the box proved I was not the only one trying to keep cramps at bay.
One more sharp up, and I was at the top of Kevins and flying down the other side. St. Kevins is steep, fast, and relatively smooth. It has runoff ramps that go across the trail and launch you into the air to land about 10 feet below. Just before the bottom of the descent, three guys on the same team caught me, and I jumped into their group. As the course flattened onto dirt road we shared pulls into the increasing headwind. We reached the pavement together at mile 97, and I dropped into my TT positon again. They were unable to keep my pace so I pushed on solo.
Around mile 99 you are back on a dirt road running next to railroad tracks with deep mud puddles you have to avoid by balancing on the crown between them. I had three miles to go and was about 8:30 into the race. With 500 feet of climbing and the threat of cramping, I was still not completely confident I would make it under nine hours.
Leadville’s final kick in the pants comes at mile 100 when you make a hard left off of the railroad track road onto what the locals call the Boulevard. The only thing it has in common with any boulevard is that is wide, but it is steep and full of loose sand and large rocks. The recent rains had washed it out and added a bunch of ruts. There is no discernable line at first, and you just have to pedal as hard and fast as you can to stay upright until a line begins to form. My inner thighs began to cramp here, and I just gritted my teeth and pushed through. A quarter mile later you through it and on a wide, gently climbing dirt road that seems to take forever as the seconds and minutes tick away.
Finally, I reached the pavement and the final mile that would take me to the red carpet on the finish line. I was at 8:40 and realized I was going to make it in "Big Buckle" time. It was an emotional moment for me, and I had to fight back tears.
As I made my way up the final climb, I saw Amy cheering me on. Then I saw my daughter Breanne, a UCI pro, who had just won the silver medal that morning in USA Cycling’s National Hill Climb Championship on Pikes Peak. They jumped into the road along side of me, running and cheering me on as I crossed the line in 8:44.
The first person I saw after crossing was Jonny who had come in about 8 minutes before me. Five minutes later he would drop to his knees in the finishing corral and propose to his girlfriend, also named Amy. I left the finish corral and found Amy and gave her a huge hug thanking her for her amazing support. Without her I would never have reached my goals. Breanne’s boyfriend Dave handed me a cold beer, my first in over a month, and we toasted. Jill came in a couple minutes later, finishing just 3 minutes over “Big Buckle” time, 4th in her age group and 9th overall. Lorenza (nicknamed Muffs after wearing ear muffs for most of the race) finished in 8:05 and took second overall. Jason set a PR by over 20 minutes, and Violeta finished in 10:17 to earn a buckle.
There were 1564 racers who started; 1349 finished. The winner Todd Wells finished in 6:19. I crossed in 8:44 with an 11.43 mph average. I rode the first half in 4:32 and the second half in 4:12. I placed 200th overall and 20th in my age group. I burned 5600 cal, drank 12 bottles, 4 cokes and 3 Hot Shots. My Garmin showed the course to be 103.8 miles with 12,200 feet of climbing. My HR averaged 150 with a peak of 170. I spent 1:50 riding endurance pace, 5:49 at tempo and 1:05 at threshold.
So what’s next? I don’t know. Right now I’m looking forward to Cyclocross season and a bunch of sub-1 hour races followed by adult beverages with my KÜHL team while we ring cowbells.
Thanks to all who encouraged and supported me!