Now, for those of you who read last year's entry about my experience in the 2007 Leadville Trail 100 Mountain Bike Race, you know how devastated I was to miss the 12 hour cut-off and lose a finisher's silver buckle and sweatshirt with your name and time imprinted on it. For the 364 days leading up to the 2008 race, I had Leadville on the brain, scheming, strategizing, and planning how to avoid last year's fiasco and cross the finish line in time.
The first step towards this year's Leadville 100 preparations was getting out of bed last year on August 12, 2007, the day after the race. Sore, both mentally and physically, and disappointed with my result, I yearned for redemption. My 2007 teammates, Brent Goldstein (11:15 last year, 10:35 this year with about :35 minutes of flat tire issues) and Gary Morris (10:56 last year and 9:45 this year - Get up, G-MO!) graciously feigned apathy towards last year's awards ceremony so as not to rub my disappointing finish in my face. I will not soon forget that selfless act. Beginning in September 2007, Brent, our fearless leader, First Descents champion, and organizing guru, engaged Carmichael Training Systems (CTS) to coach us towards better fitness and results in the 2008 race. My coach, Adam Pulford, was a very knowledgeable and energetic ally in my quest for the buckle. Adam set out a training regimen that would make me a 10:30 finisher...if only I had adhered to the plan. But that's another story.
Skip ahead to February 2008 and the release of the Preliminary Entrant's List for the 2008 Leadville Trail 100 Mountain Bike Race. Brent noted an unknown Bethesda, Maryland resident who had made the cut. With little to go on besides the "Bethesda, Maryland" clue from the entrant's list, I cold called a couple of men named "Dave Gonzales," sheepishly asking if they were the same person that had the brain fart in January that caused them to sign-up for the 2008 Leadville 100. That's how we came to meet Dave "Gonzo" Gonzales, our new brother in the craziness that is the Leadville Experience.
Dave was an executive at EMC in Rockville. He is a very strong rider on both the road and mountain trails. He was also the most senior member of our crew, tipping the age scale at 47. I should ask to see his driver's license because he climbs and looks like he's thirty-something. Dave's wife Robin probably deserves credit for both. Dave seamlessly adapted to our strange training practice of riding nights in Frederick, Maryland. We were very fortunate to have met Dave and we were all very psyched to have new blood in the group.
Also new to this year's race were fellow Luxmoron, Dave Flyer, and his business partner at BOWA Builders, Larry Weinberg. Both Dave and Larry are veterans of Ironman Triathlons and other ultra-endurance events. They were VERY strong additions to the group and great training partners. As an added bonus, their families were all known to us and they would make for a bigger, better party once we arrived in Colorado.
Finally, also new to the team was Neil (Nile, Schnizzle, Gazoo) Markus. Neil is a veteran of several marathons, the Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon, and other triathlons. Unlike me, he actually likes to train. Neil and his wife, Jolie, ("LRPH" to those who know her well, a topic which we'll talk about later in private) are a blast to hang with. They too were great assets to the revised Maryland Leadville Crew.
Having recruited several great additions to team First Descents 2008, all that was left to do was train and raise money for our worthy cause. On the training side, our CTS coaches set out a menu of punishing intervals, sustained high tempo efforts, and climbing drills to prepare our legs and lungs for the race. Our training schedule required us to ride five days a week, starting in November 2007. Now "required" is a very relative word. Brent reads "required" and follows the regiment to the letter. Kevin reads "required" and thinks of the meaning behind it, discounts it appropriately, and trains when the feelings of guilt and fear creep into his head. Therein lies the difference between a 10:35 finish and an 11:50 finish, but I digress...
Training was routine through the Winter - i.e. I didn't do much - but came into focus starting in March. I starting shedding my Winter paunch by jumping on my trainer in the basement and riding for around an hour a day, pushing through the sequence of drills set out by my CTS coach. It is amazing how quickly your body responds to training. After two weeks of intervals, you notice the difference in energy and endurance. Just get on the damn bike and ride! Easier said than done for me.
Through the Spring, we did several Frederick night missions, long weekend rides, and the occasional weekday trip to Adamstown or the Shennandoah for long, punishing hill rides. The group was focused and had geled very well. Suffering with friends makes for better suffering. In June, however, I felt a sharp pain in my right knee at the end of an epic 75 mile hillfest in northern Maryland. The pain was very intense and specific to one area in my knee. It was something that I had never felt before. I struggled to get back to my car, pedaling with one leg while keeping the painful knee unbent, dangling to the side. Uh oh.
When I arrived back home, I hobbled inside and was greeted by Jill who instantly diagnosed the problem: IT Band Syndrome. Jill, unfortunately, was an expert on this topic. ITBS scuttled her efforts at competing in the Marine Corp Marathon in 2007. I witnessed her frustration trying to cope with and remedy this ailment. Her efforts were for naught last year. I couldn't believe that I was about to meet the same fate. I read all that I could find on the Net about ITBS. Two central themes emerged from the literature on the subject: in order to heal, you need to stretch and you need to rest. I was an expert on the latter and would work on the former. ITBS was about to become my bitch!
For the next three and a half weeks, I battled ITBS with all my might, meaning I rested like no one had ever rested. I put myself through intense sofa therapy, plopping down on the cushions and not getting up for hours. It was exhausting but I pushed through it. I battled Woody for space on the sofa, explaining to him (as best as an owner can explain to a dog) that I needed the space on the sofa to rest. In typical fashion, Woody would look at me, lick his pecker and put his head down. Apathy at its best. Man's best friend. That's my boy! I did not so much as look at my bike for most of June.
At the end of June, my therapy mostly complete, I ventured out on my bike one day for a short ride - 45 minutes - to test my knee. No pain. I rode a little farther. No pain. I rode even farther. Again no pain. I pushed it up some hills. No pain. I did a set of power intervals - 1 min max effort followed by 1 min of rest, repeated 10 times - again, no pain. I was back.
For the next three weeks, I rode as often as possible, trying desperately to make up for a month of lost training. My CTS coach revised my training regimen to restore my fitness in short order. That meant a ton of power intervals and long steady state efforts to get my legs back. I had to get ready for the Silver Rush 50 mile mountain bike race in Leadville on July 19, 2008. The Silver Rush would be my bell weather on many fronts: it would gauge my fitness and be a very hard, final test to determine if my knee would hold up to the rigors of Leadville.
The Silver Rush begins on the outskirts of the town of Leadville. The race starts with a 100 yard sprint up what is probably the favorite sledding hill in Leadville. It's an instant affront to all riders. At the top, everyone bottlenecks into the woods and makes their way over level terrain for about a mile and a half. The trail then turns left and the first 10 mile ascent begins. The first eight miles of the ascent are relatively mellow. You trudge over rocks and ruts in what is left of a jeep trail. At mile eight, the spot where I decided to release some Kane water into a bush, it gets steep and significantly more rocky. This was the spot that I first walked my bike and began silently singing my new favorite song, "Me -no - like-ey - hike- ey bike-ey." It was like an old railroad workers song, allowing me to step to the beat of the chant and think about something other than the slog up a steep rocky hill. Oy vay, what did I get myself into...again.
At the top of the ten mile climb, you make a sharp left hand turn and shoot 3.5 miles down a fire road to the first aid station at mile 13.5. The descent was blissful and very fast. I entered the first aid station and a gracious and very helpful volunteer filled my Camelback and off I went. The rest of the race is a blur with the exception of the final ten miles. That descent will go down in history as one of my favorite bombing missions ever. It was incredibly fast, bouncy, rutted and a blast. The other part that I will never forget is crossing the finish line in under 8 hours - the Silver Rush cut-off time - and being awarded a silver bracelet and a medal. I had finished a Leadville race on time. I felt great. More importantly, my knee never bothered me. Next stop, 6th and Harrision for the start of the Leadville 100.
Riding the Silver Rush was either dumbest thing to do or the smartest. I got lucky and it ended up being the latter. The mental boost that I received from finishing Silver Rush on time and without pain was immeasurable. I knew at the starting line of the Leadville 100 that I was underprepared physically, but my mental game was strong. If my legs and lungs would follow my brain and heart, it would be a great day.
On the day before The Race, we headed to Leadville for the obligatory pre-race meeting and medical check-up. The check-up was routine and we found good seats towards the front of the old gymnasium so that we could get a good look at the stars of the show, Dave Wiens and Lance Armstrong. Chants of, "Go Dave!" and "Go Lance!" echoed through the building as Ken Chlouber took the microphone and began his instructional speech which alternates between scaring the hell out of you and making you feel invincible. One part of Ken's speech that resonated with me was his statement that, "within each and everyone of us is a inexhaustible well of strength, grit, courage and determination." He warned, however, that, "you must have the courage to DIG DEEP to find it within you." I was never one for inspirational speeches, except for those given by Coach Jim Hanker when I was at Landon ("OVER THE WALL, LANDON! OVER THE WALL!), but, much to my surprise, I would hear Ken's words during the race and they would serve me well.
For this year's race, I lined up at the start in the 10-11 hours finisher's area. My goal heading into 2008 was a 10:30 finish, but I knew this goal was virtually unattainable due to my training issues. The reasons for plopping down where I did was to try and avoid the huge log jam that inevitably develops on the day's first climb at St. Kevin's. With Fly by my side, we mounted up and listened to the count down to the start. The shotgun fired and we were off.
If you have ever been to a professional sporting event where the house was packed and the fans were boisterous, you can appreciate what it is like to ride out of Leadville down 6th Street. The difference, of course, is that you are the target of the applause, cheers, and cow bells. It is a feeling like none other. It is an instant boost to your confidence and gives you a warm fuzzy for the cool, downhill 3.5 mile ride out of town. Flyer and I rode the first 3.5 miles side-by-side until we crossed the train tracks, left the pavement behind, and began the assault on the real course heading towards the bottom of St. Kevins. We rode the next three or so miles over the relatively flat, sandy trail to St. Kevins. The trail had several large puddles from rains the day before. This meant that the horde was weaving back and forth on the trail, making for a precarious ride with several hundred of your closest friends.
While weaving in and around puddles, strange, random thoughts entered my brain. I was thinking, in no particular order, "Cycles cycle," Ovie, and "flat leaver": my 2008 Leadville mantra, my daughter, and a ridiculous race day non-sequitor, respectively. If you have read this far, you deserve an explanation.
First, "cycles cycle" refers to the phenomenon that good follows bad and vice versa. In other words, when riding Leadville, count on the fact that when you feel invincible, you will soon be humbled by feelings of fatigue, despair, and even boredom. The converse, of course, is that when you feel your worst, you can bank on the fact that a spurt of energy, a happy thought or even a ray of Colorado sunshine will grace your body in due time, making the hike up Columbine, St. Kevin's or Sugarloaf, etc., a palatable, rather than repugnant, experience. Thank you, Dave Flyer, for imparting these words of wisdom upon me the day before this year's race.
Olivia ("Ovie"), my eldest daughter, was an incredible crew member during last year's trying race. She and Jill were a great inspiration to me, knowing that as poorly as I felt during last year's race, I had two loving faces to greet me at Twin Lakes. Ovie could not attend this year's race because she was away at camp. Olivia possesses incredible fortitude but even she could not avoid the homesickness that inevitably torments first time campers. At visiting day three weeks before the race, I promised Ovie that if she finished camp, I would finish Leadville...on time. I was not about to disappoint my kid. Leadville is difficult but what she was doing - staying away from her family for 7 1/2 weeks for the first time - was most likely terrifying. Burning lungs and legs paled in comparison to the potential pain of disappointing my daughter. Besides, cycles cycle and I wanted that buckle and sweatshirt!
Finally, "flat leaver." I honestly had no clue, none, what that term meant or how it crept into my head on August 9, 2008. I do know, however, that I was silently repeating it over and over in my head as I churned up St. Kevin's, Sugarloaf, and Columbine. I checked out the definition in "Urban Dictionary" Sunday morning - August 10, 2008 - and learned that it means to leave one set of friends - upgrading - for another. Hmmm, perhaps I was being a flat leaver, upgrading from a 12-13 hour finisher into the elite fraternity of men and women who earn the silver buckle by finishing sub-12. I'll take the moniker but I sill cannot explain how on Earth that phrase popped into my head. Must have been hypoxia. Back to the race...
At the bottom of St. Kevins, you take a sharp left turn off the flat path and head up a skinny, double track trail, no more than eight feet wide. Two people can ride side-by-side but that's it. Last year, I was able to ride through this part of St. Kevins without delay. This year, the traffic jam began the instant I turned off of the flats. Churning along in granny gear - the upshot of the traffic, not the grade of the trail or fatigue - I made my way to the start of the steep part of St. Kevins and the ruts and rocks that you must navigate at this point. The traffic was a mess and the pace was really slow. So slow, in fact, that not only was I not tired, I was annoyed that so many slower people had started up front in projected finishing times well beyond their capabilities. I made the slow climb up St. Kevins fueled by my nervous energy and the aforementioned ill humor that, ala Brent, I turned into a positive by using it as a means of motivation to pass people. I got off my bike once when someone stepped off their bike immediately in front of me but, other than that episode, I pedaled steadily up St. Kevins until the sharp left turn at the top, signaling the end of the first very difficult climb. My legs felt great, the temperature was rising, and my butt didn't hurt: all positive harbingers.
Once I completed the short climb up the asphalt, I turned 180 degrees onto the lower, flat portion of Sugarloaf known as Haggerman Pass. The surface is loamy and covered with small pebbles. Although you are ascending, the grade seems so insignificant that you hardly notice it. This is a great place to hammer the pedals and make-up time, especially time lost at the bottom of St. Kevins. Fearful of my fitness, I plodded along conservatively, trying to stay in 2-4 or higher to keep good speed. Plus, I knew that the relatively flat portion of Haggerman Pass would soon end at the left hand turn onto the upper portion of Sugarloaf, a rocky, rutted, and steep ascent for about 3 miles. While climbing the upper section of Sugarloaf, I noticed my elapsed time and determined that I was somewhat behind my target. I wanted to cross the Pipeline checkpoint at no later than 2:20 in, but I was still about 6 miles away and my Garmin showed my riding time as 1:55. I needed to move it! I made my way up Sugarloaf and traversed the ridge over to the top of Powerline, ready for the first real fun of the day. Fortunately, Powerline did not disappoint.
Although traffic on Powerline was heavier than what I had experienced last year, the riders were mostly very responsible and pulled to the side to allow idiots like me to scream past. The best part were the REAL idiots that then screamed past me. I aspire for that level of stupidity! Powerline was its typical gnarly self, replete with big rocks, dips, ruts, roots, and several other plagues. Nonetheless, it was a blast to descend and put your handling skills and gumption to the test. Once again, I passed and cruised down the final lower section to the creek crossing. There, Darwin appeared and smote the foolish rider in front of me who dared to ride across the thin wooden plank to the left of the creek bed. The rider in the matching green and white kit went down with a thud and a splash. I thought for a second about helping but then thought again about the 12 hour cut-off and kept riding. His stupidity should not equal another fail for me. So, off went this cutthroat rider from Bethesda, Maryland in search of Leadvile glory.
Having successfully crossed the creek at the bottom of Powerline, I ascended the short hill to the paved road that takes you past the Fish Hatchery and towards Pipeline. Unlike last year, I was not near other riders so I could not get into a paceline to help minimize the impact of the wind. I made my way along the road and onto the dirt and gravel that precedes the Pipeline check point. I was still feeling well but my time at Pipeline - 2:41 elapsed - was a cause for concern. You see, I made it to Pipeline in 2:30 the year before, the year that I missed the 12 hour cut-off by 20 minutes. The first set of doubts entered my mind as I sped through Pipeline. Fortunately, the doubts quickly gave way to thoughts of "not again" and "keep moving forward." The mental game was there!
Besides my mental fitness, I had a very good nutritional plan for this year's race. Following Brent's suggestion, I started using Powerbar Endurance powder as my liquid fuel, supplemented by banana Hammer Gel. At the start of the race, I set my Garmin to buzz every 20 minutes to remind me to sip the Powerbar liquid out of my Camelback and take a shot of Hammer Gel from one of the two gel flasks that I had with me. Far from the horrific experience that I had with Sustained Energy the year before, I loved the Powerbar Endurance mix and enjoyed both its taste and hydrating powers. In addition, the Hammer Gel acted as a "turbo boost" a few minutes after I ingested it. Based upon my training experience with these two products, I was certain that nutrition would not fail me this year like it did last year. As I cruised through Pipeline, I felt great, had no cramping issues, and was ready to move on. I sped through the checkpoint without stopping, mashing the pedals to get me to Twin Lakes and Jill as fast as possible. The spectators and crew members lining the course after the Pipeline checkpoint had words of encouragement for every rider. You have to love the spirit of Leadville!
The relatively flat Pipeline section went by without incident. The only hairy portion was the Cobra (AT&T Hill, OMG Hill etc...) which had been tilled, leaving a very soft top layer of dirt that made for some precarious handling. In addition, they put what acted like speed bumps in two or three places on the steep portion of the hill, causing me to pucker up a few times when an endo seemed inevitable. After crossing the last of the speed bumps, I took a sharp left at the bottom of the off camber hill and went off into a ditch. I was psyched to have made it down with minimal problems and the fact that no one was at the bottom with a broken femur (unlike last year) was also a positive sign. I hit the dirt road and started the relatively short ascent to the neighborhood leading down to the Twin Lakes dam and Jill.
Riding down into the Twin Lakes dam was a thrill last year and felt even better this year. Once again, a police officer stopped traffic for us riders, signaling the importance of the Leadville 100 participants, or so it seemed. I crossed the road and dipped down the tiny embankment and into the Team First Descents aid station, enthusiastically manned by Jill Kane, Lisa Goldstein, Jolie Markus, Robin Gonzales, Laurel McHargue, Sharone Morris, Laurie Flyer, Kim Weinberg, Rikki Postal and assorted offspring. We had marked this spot the day before and had a tent and a car parked there to reserve our place. It turned out to be a great choice. Jill had my second Camelback bladder with its mix of Powerbar Endurance liquid and Enduralyte powder ready to go. I quickly switched out the bladders, filled my water bottle with plain water (f-u water bottle demon of 2007!), took a shot of Hammer Gel, smootched the Runt and took off for the summit of Columbine. I left our well (wo)manned aid station and headed down the 1/2 mile flat road towards the actual Twin Lakes Dam, passing the checkpoint at 3:34. Like last year, the cheers and support from other crews and random onlookers was quite simply awesome. It's a feeling everyone should experience. I powered through the dam, passed the checkpoint and started the ascent up the hill towards the ranch that we cross before heading up Columbine.
I remembered the small hill after Twin Lakes quite vividly from last year. When I hit this hill in 2007, I was fatigued, hot, and realized that I had no plain water. The feeling of dismay at that time was a crushing blow to my ascent of Columbine. But not this year. This year I felt great and knew what to expect. I knew that the hill was short and I was stocked with water, PowerBar liquid and Hammer Gels. I was ready for the assault on Columbine. I made my way up the small hill and crossed the ranch at a good clip. Pretty soon, I was turning off of the ranch and onto the second crew area for Twin Lakes at the bottom of Columbine. Once again, the support crews were enthusiastic in their support of every rider that passed. "Looking good 613!" someone shouted. Thanks. Keep it coming. I loved it.
Past the second crew area, I made the left hand turn onto the very bottom of the road up Columbine. The first 1/2 mile is flat and quick, a deceptive start to an otherwise brutal climb. Soon enough, the pitch grew steeper and the grind began. I dropped into 1-3 and tried to maintain a constant pace up this first steep section. I was surprised at how long this initial steep section was. I had not ridden Columbine since the race last year and forgot that this section was the first good test of legs on Columbine. Fortunately, the road was in great shape with little to no ruts or rocks to deal with. It was simply a matter of churning and churning, watching the ground pass as you grind to the top. I recalled how poorly I felt at this same juncture last year and took great pride in knowing that I was properly hydrated, fueled, and mentally ready for Columbine this year. My legs burned but I never once thought of letting up or stopping. "Keep moving forward" I muttered to myself. Every second counts. After this initial steep segment, I hit a few switchbacks, two to be exact, when all of a sudden I heard warnings ahead of, "Riders up!!" You've got to be shitting me? And then a few seconds later, Lance Armstrong and Dave Weins flew past me, racing down Columbine inches apart. I was at once awed by their presence and totally bummed that they were down so quickly. The previous year, I made it through six switchbacks before Dave and Floyd Landis screamed passed me. Good for them I thought. Back to climbing.
In 2007, I stopped several times on the lower portion of Columbine, collecting my wits, whining about how poorly I felt, and generally screwing my chances of finishing on time. This year, I did not stop once. The summit was my target and I wasn't stopping until I reached it. I finally reached the last two miles of the Columbine ascent where the trail turns into a rocky, rutted jeep trail. I jumped off my bike and speed walked up the first part of this upper section of Columbine, whispering a fast version of "Me-No-Li-Key, Hik-Ey Bi-Key." Once past this section, I was able to ride the next 300 yards or so until I arrived at the split in the trail where the riders go to the right and the trial to the left goes to the mine entrance. I looked in disdain at the patch of rocks to my right where I had thrown down my bike the year before and had all but given up. I walked right past the brush and rocks and continued moving forward. I was getting closer. I even dared to look up at the trail much higher up to see the lucky riders who had already climbed this portion and were moments from the turn around. When I saw them the year before, I was utterly floored by the task in front of me and could not believe that I still had that far to go to the top. When I looked up this year, I did so as a test. I looked at the riders up ahead and thought, "I'll be there soon. Just keep moving forward." Far from distraught, I was empowered. I felt great physically and had passed a pop mental quiz. The next twenty to thirty minutes on the way to the top passed without much fanfare. I kept a watchful eye on my Garmin and noted that I was still behind my targeted pace. When I rolled into the Columbine summit checkpoint, I was right at 6:10 hrs elapsed. Time to move it. One of the excellent volunteers grabbed my water bottle and filled it for the descent. I was in the aid station for all of thirty (30) seconds, imploring Flyer to get the lead out and join me for the best descent he would ever enjoy. I rode out of the aid station and climbed the annoying road up to the top of the beginning of the descent of Columbine. I gave all the encouragement that I could to the riders still climbing. They needed it and I had been there last year. Time to give back a little. I flew down the upper portion of Columbine and hit the road for the final 6 mile descent. I crushed the pedals on the straightaways and jammed on the brakes in the corners. I tried to pass as many people as possible, knowing that they had tooled me on the climb and it was only fair that I reciprocate on the descent. Yes, I know, their job was tougher but I didn't allow that reality to cloud my hero-descent. Plus, I was having fun and making up time.
At the bottom of Columbine, I looked at my Garmin and determined that a 11 hr finish was fantasy and that I had better maintain a good pace lest I suffer another failure like 2007. I hit the bottom with 6:52 elapsed, meaning I had 5:08 to ride the final 40 miles. Coming through Twin Lakes Dam was rejuvenating once again. All of you volunteers are incredible. Thank you so so much! I crossed the dam and eventually made it to the First Descents' aid station, apprised Jill of my status (good!), did another Camelback bladder exchange, got a smootch, and off I went.
As I pulled out of Twin Lakes inbound, I started what would be an exhausting exercise in mental gymnastics for the next five hours. I was continually checking my elapsed time, the mileage left to the red carpet, and then calculating the speed that I had to maintain over those miles in order to buckle. I knew that Pipeline inbound would take me no less than 1:20; that Powerline could eat up another 1:30; that the backside of St. Kevin's would take :30, and the sprint back from Carter Aid Station to 6th & Harrison would probably take me 1:00. These figures, of course, did not include the time it takes to get from Pipeline to the bottom of Powerline or to descend Sugarloaf or to cross Haggerman Pass. I'm not a worrier by nature, but I was beginning to worry. Adding to my tulmult was my erroneous belief that the course was actually 104+ miles, not "just" 102.7. Believe it or not, that extra mile and a half would make a difference.
I climbed the pavement hill out of Twin Lakes feeling well physically but my gut was churning thinking about time/speed/distance. I pushed hard when and where I could while plodding through Pipeline Inbound but was still pretty slow (though faster than 2007). The Cobra and it's smaller twin - let's call it the Lil Kick-In-The-Balls - sapped more energy from my legs on Pipeline but I was able to recover and continue forward. This was a good cycle. I was still on a high from making it to the top of Columbine without any drama. Before I knew it, I was passing through Pipeline Aid Station and the horde of crew and volunteers there. I did not stop as I was still okay with Hammer gel and fluids. In fact, I was planning to drain at least half of my Camelback before I hit Powerline to feel less weight on my back during that ascent. The road from Pipeline to Powerline was windy and not of the tailwind variety. Also, since I was a slower rider, there were no others around me to latch onto and paceline. So I put my head down and churned the pedals. The sky started to grow grey and gloomy on this 2.5 mile trek. Just past the Fish Hatchery, the rain started in large, Leadville drops. I scurried over to the tree line and grabbed my trusty blue Gore riding jacket from my Camelback and slipped it on. The rain was cool (temperature, not hip) but a welcome change at the time. After I slipped into my jacket, I hopped back on my bike and made a charge for Powerline and the crackling high tension wires overhead.
The bottom part of Powerline in-bound is a nice little climb that gets the legs ready for the all out assault that is to come. You can see the first long steep section while riding the bottom which has the affect of making you ride slower both to conserve energy and to avoid arriving at the steep section with any haste. I powered up and around the half circle climb to the first steep where I was met by two guys offering Coke, Sprite or beer. Against my better judgment, I eschewed the beer for a Coke, thinking that, for this climb, a jolt of sugar and caffeine would serve me better than a little buzz. Damn logic! I really wanted a beer! I slammed the Coke and began the trudge up the first steep. One foot in front of the other. Keep moving forward. Then some old French dude in a track suit started running up the hill behind me, barking orders at me and other riders, imploring us to keep going, to push ourselves, never surrender! From a French dude? Really? I finally made it up the first of the three evil false peaks, descended down to the bottom of the next dastardly section of Powerline and began a climb anew. I was shocked that I had residual power in my legs to power over rocks and through ruts that I was certain were going to cause me to hop off the bike and hike. Not this year. I eventually made it up and over Powerline. The weather had broken and the sun was out once again. I was still VERY nervous about my chances of breaking 12 hours. I had calculated that I must maintain a 10.5 mph average over the final 20 miles to finish on time. I had the backside of St. Kevin's to climb and the Boulevard to navigate, neither of which I could do at anything approaching 10.5 mph.
I cruised down the backside of Sugarloaf without incident and made the turn onto Haggerman. Inbound, you truly appreciate the slight decline on Haggerman. I flew through this protion of the course, took the hard left onto the pavement and shot down the 1.1 mile road to the bottom of the St. Kevin's pavement climb. Once there, I settled into 2-2 and just tried to turn the pedals as quickly and efficiently as possible. The climb seems like it takes forever but it "only" took about 30 minutes. Once I saw the Carter Aid Station and noted that I had 1:07 to get to the red carpet, I felt a surge of energy. This is MY year! I grabbed a Coke or two at Carter and sped off down the trail. I was anticipating the two short, steep climbs on St. Kevins inbound and so I was prepared for them unlike last year. Once past the green gate and that last stinker of a climb, I knew I was home free, ready to bomb the rest of St. Kevins, hit the road at the bottom and trudge up the Boulevard.
When I hit the bottom of St. Kevins, I saw the familiar image of a First Descents rider's kit. I was immediately psyched, thinking it was Flyer. As I drew closer, the long blonde hair and hips made me question my initial guess. I caught up to the rider and realized it was Anna Hansen, a First Descents counselor/organizer/enthusiast extraordinaire. I tapped Anna on the Camelback and told her to get on my wheel and take it home. We reached the bottom of the Boulevard and made the left turn up to the short rocky section. There was a clearly defined path and it was very rideable. Once I crested that section, it was simply a matter of putting my head down and stamping out a cadence to get through the Boulevard to the pavement at 6th Street. The Boulevard ride lasted too long and I kept looking for the end that never seemed to appear. But fueled by doubts about my time, I just kept hammering, kept moving.
As I crested the final portion of the Boulevard, I noted the time on my Garmin: 11:44. I had 16 minutes to ride the final .6 miles. I'm home. Just then, I passed a volunteer who cemented it for me when he said, "Congratulations on buckling. Enjoy the ride to the finish." At that instant, butterflies swarmed throughout my stomach. I cracked a smile and prepared for the turn onto 6th street. Gone was the gloom and ill thoughts from last year, replaced by incredible feelings of accomplishment and pride. The first .2 miles of 6th street is on pavement but the grade is steep. No matter. I was riding on clouds. I knew that once I pushed through that .2 mile climb, I would be riding downhill into a sea of spectators. I crested the hill and began the descent into town towards the finish. I kept my eyes peeled for Jill, Meredith, and Dani. The first familiar face I saw was that of Mike Postal. I gave Mike a very enthusiastic thumbs-up and pedaled onward. Little did I know, Mike was on his cell phone, acting as the early warning system for Jill and the girls, and my dear friends Brent and Lisa who were worried that I would miss my buckle. I continued to scan the crowd for my girls all the while hearing whistles, clapping, cow bells, and shouts of congratulations. What a change from the dejected, hollow man that rode this same portion of the race last year. I didn't have goosebumps. I had moosebumps! Finally, about 75 yards from the finish, I spotted my family. I'm not sure who was more excited and relieved, me or Jill. I couldn't look her in the eye for fear of losing it. They ran next to me towards the finish. As I hit the red carpet, all I could think about was Al Michaels and his famous call of the final seconds of the 1980 Olympic hockey game between USA and Russia. "Five seconds to the [belt buckle]. Do you believe in miracles...YES!!!!!!!!!!!!!!" And with that, I crossed the finish line at 11:50, hoisted my bike above my head nearly decapitating poor Anna who finished two seconds behind me, and started the countdown to the start of next year's race.