Tales from the Peloton, August 20, 2005
In Part I of his epic account of the epic Leadville 100, Elden Nelson got the show going by enjoying leisurely conversations with the interesting folk riding this gruelling race. In Part II he does more of the same, with more great stories from people finding pleasure and pain on a bike. We pick up the race about halfway through, when exhaustion and the threat of bonking become just another of the obstacles to bring down the unsuspecting rider.
John (Cedar Falls, IA): Why do you keep following me?
Somehow, John looked familiar. I was pretty sure I recognised him from previous years' races. I called out to him, he dropped back, and we rode together.
Fat cyclist: 119's a good number. You had a good race last year.
John: I know you. We race together every damn year, whether it's a good or bad one.
Fat cyclist: Not last year. My number's nowhere near that low (Due to a mixup, I was racing with raceplate 511. I should have been number 272).What's your time going to be like this year, John?
John: Under 10 hours.
Fat cyclist: Think you've got a good shot at it? (I have to admit I didn't think we were going to make it even close to 10 at that point)
John: Oh yeah.
Fat cyclist: What's your best time?
John: 9:09 (John's is seriously fast when he feels like it).
Fat cyclist: How many times have you done this race?
Fat cyclist: What brings you back?
John: I don't know.
Fat cyclist: Do you have anyone supporting you today?
John: I've got an army of support! Nine people.
John, 59, finished in 9:55 - under ten hours, just like he said he would. He noted that he thinks he has a good chance of winning his age group next year, since he'll be moving up a group. When I grow up, I want to be John.
Greg (Davenport, IA): Base of the Big Climb
I desperately wanted to talk with someone about the Columbine Mine climb just before the climb began, because I wanted to get the sense of dread this road inspires. If at all possible, I wanted to talk with someone who hadn't done the race before, hoping that their fear would be either way out of proportion to how difficult the climb really is, or that he'd be too cocky and would think it's not going to be that big of a deal. Unfortunately for my sense of drama, I ran into Greg, who was very level-headed about the whole thing:
Fat cyclist: Have you ever done this race before?
Greg: This is my first time.
Fat cyclist: What have you heard about Columbine?
Greg: I've heard it's long. I need to go nice and slow and don't stay at the top. Eight miles, 3000 feet - that's a lot.
Fat cyclist: Have you ever done other endurance races?
Greg: No, this will be by far my longest race. Certainly it's the highest elevation I've ever been at in my life.
Fat cyclist: You're riding at about 10,000 feet right now.
Greg: Yeah, I can feel it. I live at 700 feet.
Fat cyclist: When do you hope to finish?
Greg: Under ten, but I don't have any real expectations. I haven't even checked the clock to see how I'm doing. I'm just trying to take it easy.
Greg finished his first endurance race with an extremely respectable 11:05.
Lyn (Denver, CO): Queen of Cadence
If you've ever done endurance races, you've probably noticed that as the race goes on there are certain people you keep running across - people who are almost exactly your race level. That's Lyn, who was especially easy to recognize because she spun a Lance Armstrong-esque cadence constantly. I talked with Lyn right as we started the climb to Columbine.
Fat cyclist: We're at the base of the Columbine Mine climb right now. Are you excited to climb 3000 feet in eight miles?
Lyn: Are you f***ing kidding me? I had no idea I had that ahead of me!
Fat cyclist: How are you hoping to do today?
Lyn: I just want to beat twelve hours.
Fat cyclist: You're easily on pace for sub-twelve.
Lyn: Yeah, I feel pretty good. I should slow down a little. (Looks at the climb just a few hundred feet ahead of us) In fact, in a minute, I'll have no choice but to slow down a little.
Fat cyclist: What keeps bringing you back?
Lyn: I dunno. They keep accepting my application.
Lyn finished with a 9:50, fifth in her age group. By the end of the race, I would privately have the nickname "Queen of Cadence" for Lyn, because she turned an extremely fast, smooth cadence - a fact I had ample time to observe...since she was almost always riding ahead of me.
David Belden (Palo Alto, CA): King of Pain
If I were David [check out: http://www.davidbelden.org/] I wouldn't have been out on the course. I would have been in bed, whimpering very quietly. Why? David's recently dealt with (or is dealing with) not one, but two major illnesses. First off, in 2001 he was diagnosed with and received treatment for late-stage colon cancer. Kicked its butt.
Now he's working through Crohn's disease, which gives him crippling pain when he's under stress, and sometimes for no reason at all.
At the time David and I talked - we were climbing up the Columbine Mine road - I was certain I had the recorder on. The fact that I have no recording of our conversation tells you either that I was punchy because of the lack of oxygen, or just punchy in the first place. I remember, though, David interrupting the conversation over and over to say, "Isn't this great!" Or sometimes, "I am having so much fun!" Or, once, "This is way better than the Ironman."
David wouldn't be having quite so much fun the whole ride, though. His ten-hour pace was interrupted by a Crohn's disease flare-up. He e-mailed me with what happened: "At about mile 55 I had to pull over, due to the abdominal pain. Ugh. Sucks to have Crohn's. Fortunately I carry my drugs when I ride, just in case. The pain wasn't subsiding, so I took some prednisone (hardcore anti-inflammatory) and decided to pull out at the next aid station. I got to mile 60, laid down my bike and sat in a chair at the aid station and ate gummy bears and drank soup for 10 minutes. One of the aid station guys came by to ask how I was doing. I said my big fear was getting trapped in the middle of nowhere in freezing rain. He looked at the clouds, listened to the thunder, and said "those aren't real rain clouds. It may rain, but it will be brief and it won't be bad at all. That made my day! With that, the Crohn's pain went away."
David would finish in 11:10 minutes, with plenty of time to spare before the 12-hour cutoff.
Rick McDonald (Denver, CO): Mellow Legend
Rick McDonald is probably the most-recognised person at the Leadville 100. He's done the race since its inception, and usually on the same tires. At his best, he has raced well under nine hours. Today, he was just cruising it, enjoying the scenery.
Fat cyclist: What keeps bringing you back?
Rick: Leadville. I have family here dating back to the 1800's; doing this race is kind of like coming home. And the race is a challenge - especially if you only train for a couple weeks before the race. I'm just out here seeing if I can still do it.
Fat cyclist: What kind of time are you hoping for?
Rick: I don't really care.
Fat cyclist: What's one of your best memories of this race?
Rick: Ten years ago, I led the race for the first 40 miles. I was chasing the guy ahead of me, riding like hell, trying to catch him. I came into the aid station and people are screaming like crazy for me. I thought, "Cool, you're cheering like this for number two?" So when a guy passed me going up Columbine, I said, "The guy ahead of us is so fast, I haven't even seen him." Turns out he had crashed out earlier. I came in seventh that year."
Rick finished with a 9:48 - his 12th finish in this race. I should point out that well after I turned off the voice recorder, Rick's good-natured, mellow conversation style helped me keep my mind off the brutal climb. More than once I wondered at his ability to talk while I was maxed out simply trying to keep air in my lungs.
Kris (Fremont, NE): Good Guy, Big Pull
I spent more time riding with Kris than anyone else on the course, so feel doubly bad that - like with David Belden - I bungled my recording. I think I can legitimately plead exhaustion, though, since Kris and I ran into each other about 65 miles into the race, while we were each off our bikes, pushing up a ridiculously steep hill. I recall asking him if he had bonked yet; he said no. How did he avoid the bonk, I asked. You don't avoid it, he replied - you just delay it, hopefully, 'til the end of the race. As I type this, I realise it's total nonsense, but it sure sounded deep at the time.
Kris and I rode together for about ten miles, along the relatively flat stretch from the hike-a-bike hill to the final aid station. We talked the whole time, without my realising that in fact we had already met - Kris goes by the handle KJ, one of the most frequent commenters on my blog (10,000 brownie points to Kris). If my memory serves me - that section is a big blur - Kris pulled a lot more than he was pulled. Luckily, we had a nice strong tailwind that bought us each 5 or 10 minutes.
Kris and I parted at the final aid station, me hunting for my crew (my Dad), Kris hunting for his crew (his wife). Kris finished in 9:54:39. I owe him a massive pull at a key juncture on a big race someday.
No More Chatting
After the final aid station, I went a little primal. I realised, to my amazement, that I had a little gas left in the tank; I had 25 miles to burn it up. So while I talked with people on the final hike-a-bike on the most-feared climb in the race, I put my head down and gave it everything I had for the rest of the climb, as well as for the mountain pass that followed. I even gave up an opportunity to talk with the second-place tandem racers as they did a pavement climb. That's for the best: they were in hot pursuit of the first place tandem racers, and I was in pursuit of finishing under ten hours.
I crossed the finish line feeling good about my race. 9:41 isn't my best time for the Leadville 100, but it's not my worst, either. And I've definitely gained a huge appreciation for the variety of racers out there in the middle of the pack.
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