This blog series follows me, an extremely average cyclist, as I go all in to complete the legendary Leadville 100 race on a singlespeed mountain bike.
After hours upon hours of battling dust, winds from all direction, and angry leg muscles just begging me to stop, my lower back and my backside had enough. I had enough. I was alone and dejected from my slow progress and from my iPod Shuffle announcing its low battery. Me too, little buddy, me too. Shortly after the music quit, I knew that I didn’t have the luxury of doing the same, but I was not sure how my body was going to handle even a few more miles. I tried to focus on how beautiful the green, rolling landscape was around me, and decided if I were to collapse and die, at least it would be in a pretty place, like Leonardo DiCaprio in Blood Diamond (not in Titanic). And then, two riders caught up to me and graciously allowed me to ride their draft, easing the headwind and the loneliness. I apologized numerous times for being unable to take a turn pulling, I had so little left, I would not have done them any good, and they were really kind about letting me stay on. Eventually one of them broke away to join a faster group, but before long, several more riders showed up behind us, and we ended up in a pace line that seemed to be going somewhere. By then, the dusk turned to complete dark, and the glow of our headlamps and tail lights against the warm, damp summer night was cathartic and restful. We heard a train whistle in the distance, and voiced our concern about whether or not the train will delay us, but we pushed on. As we approached the railroad crossing, the gate arms had just lifted, the red warning lights had just stopped flashing, and we blasted over the tracks, barely having to slow down. 10 miles left to go. As we approached the next major intersection with a highway, we saw another train, this time of 15 or so riders barreling down the road perpendicular to us. This is one of the groups that added mileage to their race rather than wait at the railroad crossing for up to 45 minutes. I got my 18th and final wind, and two of us said goodbye to our little group and took off to chase the Train group. Their size and speed gave us the slingshot we needed for the final push, as we split off yet again into Emporia, up the final punchy hill, through the University, and onward down Commercial Street to the finish line.
Upon finishing the 2018 Dirty Kanza 200, I was buzzing with all the emotions that I could not express because of the overwhelming fatigue. Commercial Street was lit up with a full-blown block party; there was music blasting, the announcer was calling out the finishers, the crowd of spectators, support crew, and cyclists who already finished, were cheering wildly for those just coming in. I don’t remember how, but eventually, I found Lee, who was done a little before I was. The gap between us would have been bigger, but he got delayed by the train. I also spotted my in-laws, Meg and Lowell, along with Dex. The three of them ran amazing, diligent support for Lee and me before, during, and after the race. I couldn’t thank them enough. One of them took my bike, and led me to the truck so that I could get changed. Eventually we sat down for some food truck tacos that I could barely eat because my body did not know what to do with itself. My off-the-cuff training during the winter paid off. I wasn’t sure how I was going to prepare myself for such a long day in the saddle while living in a snowy wonderland, but I spent hours at the gym, put miles on my fatbike, and the season had been blessedly mild, so we typically didn’t have to drive that far to get on dirt. After getting beat up at the 12 Hours of Mesa Verde three weeks before, riding the whole of the White Rim trail in a day (with my ass still broken and sore from 12HOMV) two weeks before, I managed to recover and put it together to finish Kanza, two hours ahead of my own calculated ETA. I would not trade that experience for the world, but little did I know, it was the beginning of the end of my 2018 racing season.
The short story is that I never recovered. The long story is that I made some poor choices that did not really allow for me to recover and then train properly to even have a shot at getting what I wanted out of Leadville. At that point at work, we were doing four 10-hour days. I thought I would get plenty of riding in on my three days off, but I found that it took me one of those days just to rest up from the week. I was not getting home until six o’clock, and after baking in the sun and pulling weeds, and digging holes, I just wanted to drink a beer, eat some dinner and reset for the following shift. It was well over a week after Kanza that I even attempted to get back on my bike, and that attempt left me feeling weak and deflated. Another week, and I forced myself to go on two longish rides. I was still flat, and those rides set me back even further. A few days later, I was DFL at one of our local races, by a lot! And then I decided that racing the Silver Rush 50 in July was for me.
I don’t know why I thought that race owed me anything. Perhaps it’s because I was doing it on a lighter bike than previous years. Or maybe it’s because I thought my fitness from Kanza would magically carry me through to a significantly faster time. Instead, I was physically and mentally crushed before I even got to the turnaround at Stumptown, knowing that I was already behind schedule. I was damn near in tears when I was walking what should have been rideable over the other side of Ball Mountain, then full on cried about it when I finished only a minute faster than the previous year. Expectations are an entitled bitch. After some beer and self-flagellation, my mind turned towards the LT100. At this point in time, I was planning on doing the 100 on my geared bike. I had every intention of doing that race on a Singlespeed the following year, but 2018 was about solidifying my strategy and fitness. I thought maybe I could even break the 10-hour mark. Then a week or so later, after setting a personal best climbing Columbine on my lightweight hardtail, I thought I got my mojo back. At least for that day, because that was the day Lee convinced to me to do a Singlespeed attempt for 2018 instead.
Those who know my husband know that he is the ultimate instigator. He has convinced many people in our circle, and even a few outliers to that circle to drop thousands of dollars on bicycles, skis, and motorcycles. He has goaded multiple people into trying bike racing, motorcycle camping, skiing lines that they may or may not have any business skiing, and always having one more beer. I too, have fallen victim to his persuasions, and that is why I now think that ultra-endurance events are perfectly normal, and I should be able to just do them. Lee has a way getting you to think that what you are about to do is the best idea ever, the only idea. I was allowing both him and Strava to inflate my ego, as he made a few compelling points, mostly centered around the fact that I was possibly as fit as I would ever be due to the Kanza afterglow, and that the fatigue wasn’t too much of a problem. He also pointed out that we knew that I could complete the 100 on a geared bike, having done so twice before, but we did not know if I could do it on a Single, and it therefore made the challenge more interesting. In spite of all my doubts, which I maintain even under the best circumstances, I was bursting with excitement on our drive home from that ride with the prospect of completing the race on Hans, my old trusty Singlespeed steed, that very same year. In spite of this new, more ambitious plan, however, I did not turn anything around.
While Lee was out riding almost every day, my weeknights still involved post-work beer and junk-laden dinners. My weekends were full of “shoulds” and excuses for why I wasn’t doing what I should be doing, which was primarily riding my bike long distances, or at all. I was too tired, it was too hot, recovery day, and work is my workout. There were more, but it’s hard to remember them all. One weekend in mid-July, we got our Singlespeeds out on course. We parked at the Turquoise Lake trailhead, where the course first turns to dirt, and rode St. Kevins, Carter, Sugarloaf and Powerline, down to just past the Fish Hatchery and back the same way. It was a really hot, dry day, and I was just suffering. There was likely a mild hangover involved. I kept looking at my times for each section of course, and apparently, my natural talent and post-Kanza fitness were not kicking in, because they were not adding up to a successful finish. Lee reminded me that it was damn near impossible to go race pace outside of race day, and that when the time came, the energy and the crowd would pull me along. This has been true in the past, but my times were way off.
My disappointing training ride still did not convince me to change anything. At this point, I decided, it was too late, and I was supposed to be tapering, which I know now, does not mean doing nothing. At the end of July, I spent five days in Philadelphia for my grandma’s 90th birthday and family reunion, re-acclimating to sea level, eating everything in sight, and drinking too much wine and vodka, the elixir of my people. Now just because I was doing nothing about my training, does not mean I was not spending all my mental and emotional resources worrying about the race. I wanted to finish, I told anyone who would listen all my concerns about not finishing, and more importantly I really hoped that I would finish, which is almost like training, right?
Race day started just like the last two. Dark as hell, cold as hell, my nerves were shot to hell. In the past, I was able to find a bit of calm in the moments leading up to the start gun, knowing I had done everything I can to prepare. This time was different. The gun went off, and I expected to be passed during the first few paved, downhill miles. But not like this. By the time we hit dirt, I was towards the very back of the pack. Into the first pitch of St. Kevins I was walking, but perhaps I would have been walking anyway. The climb let up a bit, but my heart wasn’t quite in it. I coasted down from Carter Summit, stopped to squat in the trees on Hagerman Pass road since everyone else in this group did so, and grunted my way up Sugarloaf. I gingerly picked my way down Powerline, and helplessly spun my pedals on the flat section to Pipeline Aid, appalled at how slow I was moving and how much time already elapsed. Our friends Gene and Fred, and my sister-in-law, Lori with her family were crewing there. I wanted to be positive, but all I could think to tell them, other than “thank you” was that I was going to miss the first cut-off at Twin Lakes, and I was tempted to give up right there. I ate some food, and puttered on. When I got back on pavement, I rode with a guy who told me he’s not usually this far back in pack, and that it wasn’t his year due to back issues. I told him it wasn’t my year due to stupidity. We stayed together for the rest of the climb, commiserating at the very real prospect of not making it to Twin Lakes on time, and since misery loves company, for the first time that day, I started to enjoy myself. When the road pointed downhill, he, and his many gears took off, while once again, I coasted.
I made it through the timing arch with just one minute to spare, with my legs furiously spinning, and the crowds cheering me on to go faster. I couldn’t go any faster. I slogged through the sandy, rolling climb to the Lost Canyon support area, where Meg and Lowell were waiting for me. They changed out my food and water, which I barely touched. Lowell checked over my bike, as a random lady parked next to them shouted some encouraging but empty platitudes about how I can do it. I set off to start the Columbine climb. I knew this climb well, but not having practiced it on my Singlespeed, I had no idea how much I would be off the bike. At this point, scores of riders were already making their way down, reminding me how far behind I was. After what felt like forever (because it was forever), I finally got to the Goat Path, the looser, steeper section of the climb that sits above tree line. This was the first time I noticed the ungodly heat that slowed so many people down that day. I was walking more than riding, as were most in the conga line going up, and saw several friends coming down, some giving me a shout, some concentrating too hard on their descent to notice me. And then I saw Lee. I had barely enough time to yell “I’m not going to make it”, and he yelled back “I know, that’s ok.” And then the pressure was off. This was the one opinion I was most concerned about, other than my own. This was the one approval I was afraid to lose. He didn’t try and push me harder, or pretend that I was still magically going to make up the needed time. The weight was lifted off my shoulders, and I trudged my way to the top, rode where I could ride again, and after a few minutes at the turnaround, headed back, knowing I could be done at any time. Back at Lost Canyon, Meg and Lowell gave me more food and water, again, I barely touched what I had, as I stood around deciding whether to quit or continue back to Twin Lakes, where I was positive I would miss the second cutoff. They pushed me to keep going, promising to rendezvous on the other side of dam, so that I wouldn’t be stranded if that were the case.
I made it through the timing arch with just one minute to spare, with my legs furiously spinning, and the crowds cheering me on to go faster. I couldn’t go any faster. I saw their red Jeep. I had one hour to make it to the Pipeline cutoff now. There was no way in hell I would make it, but with Meg and Lowell’s urging, I decided to keep going anyway, since I had nothing else to do at this point. Fred and Gene would still be there, and I could get a ride back to town with them. Those last 15 miles ended up being the most fun. The course suddenly felt just right for my gearing, and I felt light and playful for the first time in the race, maybe because I knew I wouldn’t have to go up Powerline. I teared up over the kindness and support that our family and friends were showing me. I embraced the cheering from strangers. I missed that cutoff by 15 minutes, and I was out of the race, a DNF at mile 73. The Frank brothers greeted me with kind words and some water. They loaded my bike, and I got back into Leadville with enough time to change and watch Lee come in on his Singlespeed. As far as the rest of the day went, I handled it well. The following morning, not so much.
I still went to the awards ceremony with Lee to support him, but I had no idea how painful it would be for me. It felt like waking up after a big fight that wasn’t resolved the night before. As racers with the fastest (and the slowest) times were publicly celebrated, and everyone in between lined up to get their finisher’s jackets and buckles, I felt unworthy to even be there. I was suddenly no longer part of the tribe, I was just an impostor. In the undercurrent of all those feelings was guilt. Guilt for wasting our support crew’s time, guilt for not training more, guilt for not just being naturally fit and fast enough, and guilt for quitting. Although I didn’t quit officially, I just missed the cutoff, I checked out pretty early on in the race. I may or may not have had more to give physically, but I gave up minutes at aid stations complaining about my pace and standing around in indecision on whether or not to keep pushing forward, minutes that could have gotten me through the Pipeline cutoff (maybe). In between aid stations, I was going through the motions of riding a bike, but there was no power or momentum to it. I was literally and metaphorically spun out.
I have been listening to a lot of podcasts since then, including to performance psychologist Michael Gervais. As a guest on another podcast, he said something that stuck and made sense of my dramatic emotions over a bike race. He said, using different words, that the human brain does not have a separate processing center or mechanism for the experience of losing at something versus the experience of actually losing something (or someone). They are both processed as grief. We can all logically understand that a bike race is just a bike race, one that comes around every year at that. But on the emotional level, I was grieving the squandered opportunity to prove to myself that I am the athlete I want to be, to fit in with the people I look up to, and to be more than just talk.
There are a lot of great things that came out of that season and that race as well. Lee and I completed two iconic rides (White Rim and DK200), which we have wanted to do for long time, within two weeks of each other. There are worse things to burn out from. And while I may have been disillusioned to think I could finish a race like Leadville on a Single with only some half-assed training, I did see pretty clearly going into it that I would learn a lot. That DNF lit a fire under my ass, and it got me moving. When asked that evening if I would try to race Leadville on a Single again, without hesitation, I said I will. A month later, I raced the Barn Burner on my geared bike and earned an awesome starting position for the 2019 attempt. I let the rest of the summer and fall be what it is. I ate more burgers, drank more beer, and rode some bikes among the golden-leafed aspens. In December, I got to work.