Saturday, August 10, 2013

Leadville 100: Mountain Bike Race Report

Starting up the Powerline climb on the return trip

“I commit. I will not quit”
- Ken Chlouber, founder and spiritual leader of the Leadville 100

At the pre-race meeting on Friday Ken had 2000 cyclists on their feet chanting. “I commit! I will not quit! I commit! I will not quit! He tells everyone that “you’re better than you think you are. You can do more than you think you can.” He gives the same sermon before the Leadville 100 Trail Run and it touched me deeply. It inspired me. I had never run 100 miles and I knew that less than 40% of the entrants don’t even finish. I knew there was a real chance that I wouldn’t finish and these words meant something. But hearing the words for the cycling race was different. I wouldn’t quit. I felt that this would be a pretty casual event for me. I’d be wrong.

Ken Chlouber

Casual? How can that be? 100 miles, 12,500 vertical feet, mostly above 10,000 feet? That’s because I wasn’t really racing. I was in this race because of my brother, Chris. My younger brother Chris is my idol. He has all the qualities anyone would want. He’s brilliant, he’s hard working, he’s a risk taker. He’s a great educator and speaker and salesman. He’s founded, led, grown and sold companies with over 100 employees. He loves his family and his friends. He’s amazingly generous, always sharing his tremendous financial success with his entire extended family. He’s a huge contributor to the Northern Lights Oakland inner-city school and had just hosted the entire 8th grade class at his house in Montana as a reward for graduating and moving on to high school. He works tirelessly to make the world a better place. He only deals ethically and will turn down anything that isn’t right. He recently addressed the House of Lords in London. He’s written countless technical articles; won numerous awards. If you’re looking for a role model, he’ll do.

Chris’ middle-school friend was Dave Weins. They had kept in touch and Chris was happily surprised to hear that Dave was a pro mountain biker and a Leadville legend. This got Chris very interested in doing Leadville. I'd known about the race for a long time and it was definitely on my bucket list.

When Chris trains, we are about equal on the bike, but this year his hectic business schedule (he’s the CEO of two companies) and a hip issue limited his training. He’s lean though, at least ten pounds lighter than I am and a bit taller. He’s very tough, too. He’s ridden the White Rim Trail in Canyonlands in a day and he’s done the Markleeville Death Ride in the Sierra. Despite this, I think he was a bit concerned about the race. I told him the keys to our race were pacing and fueling. He added, “And there is one more key factor for me: you.”

That’s true. I was there to take care of my brother and to have a great adventure with him. Through him I’d had some great adventures with incredible people. I’ve ridden the White Rim and Kokopelli Trails with Greg LeMond. I’ve started on the very front row, next to Greg LeMond, in the 8000-rider L’etape d’Tour in France. Chris flew me up to Montana to climb a remote frozen waterfall with Conrad Anker. I’ve done a track workout with multiple-Olympic-gold-medalist and 400-meter world-record-holder Michael Johnson. I’ve skied with Olympic silver medalist Hank Kashiwa.

So, I wasn’t there to race. I was there to bond with my brother and, if possible, if necessary, to give back just a tiny bit of what he’s given me. There is no shortage of people who could have filled this role for Chris, stronger, better riders, but he wanted his brother. The truth is that he didn’t want to just ride the Leadville 100. That was mildly interesting at best for him. He wanted to ride the Leadville 100 with me.

Chris is a type-I diabetic and that has serious implications for events like this. When I don’t manage my fuel intake, I bonk. That sucks, I slow to a crawl and enter a world of pain. If Chris gets his fuel intake too far wrong, he’ll die. So, when he says we need to stop and eat and wait for his blood sugar level to come up, we stop and eat and wait.

Race Day:
On race morning we were up at 4:30 a.m. as we were staying at our condo in Breckenridge. We realized that Liz did not have the bike rack on her car and Chris’ disc brakes prevented it from attaching to my roof rack. My car was too small to get his giant 29er inside, so we had to draft Liz into driving over as well, with Chris’ bike inside their SUV. She didn’t complain and was ready to go before Chris and I.

On the drive over, Chris dressed for the race. The previous day I had spotted some chamonix cream specifically for cold weather riding - it supposedly produced some heat. I told Chris, “Won’t that feel great on a cold morning? I figure it will feel just like your car’s seat heater.” Well, that was mostly right. If sitting in your car was like sitting on an electric stove burner, that is. Chris slathered on this evil substance and was almost immediately incapacitated as the fire on his junk had him squirming in excrutiating pain . He doused himself with water in a frantic attempt to ease the suffering, but the next thirty minutes were torture. Sitting in the car, well before the race started, Chris experienced his most painful moments of the day. This is saying quite a lot, as you’ll come to realize. Remember this when you get to the end of this report.

Due to a mix-up with my entry, we got moved up to the purple corral for the start. Leadville does not have a wave start, everyone starts at the same time, but they do use corrals to order people by speed. Us first-timers that got in via the lottery (in theory), should be starting in the back, the last corral, of eight. Instead we were in the fifth corral.

After an inspiring National Anthem they counted us down from ten and then...we stood there. It was about a minute before we started to move and a total of 90 seconds before we crossed the start line. The race is chip timed and this delay would turn out to be significant...

The starting temperature of 35 degrees had most riders wearing leggings and capes, including ourselves. The 4-mile downhill start didn’t help and my hands and feet were quite cold. My hands warmed up on our first climb, St. Kevins, but my feet remained cold until getting down off the second climb, Sugarloaf. We stuck to our game plan of relaxing, taking things easy. This start was forced on us, as things clogged up nearly to a stop on the St. Kevins climb. Many got frustrated with this and under different circumstances I would have been as well. This is a double-track trail and we climbed it three across, but at a speed of about 3-4 mph. In a race, this is tough to handle, as the climb isn’t that steep. But since there are 1600 of us jammed onto this trail we have to climb at the rate of the slowest section of the trail, since that is where the riders are ahead of us. We never had to unclip on this climb, but we came really close.

At the top of the climb, we rolled for a bit and descended some steep dirt hills that I would completely forget about on the return trip. We hit the first aid station, Carter Summit, after 10.7 miles. We stopped here to fill our bottles and eat a couple of gels. I mistakenly started with just a single bottle. I wasn’t too worried about this except for one section - the huge Columbine Mine climb - but I just picked up one of the bottles that littered the course. In fact, I did this a number of times, finishing with two bottles I didn’t have at the start.

We exited onto pavement and cruised down 700 vertical feet and immediately started climbing up Sugarloaf Pass, first on pavement, then on a smooth dirt road, and finally on a rougher 4WD road. Chris and I rode together for all this, with me usually leading the way. At the start of the 4WD road, I stopped to pee and Chris went by. I quickly caught up, as it was now pretty easy to move up. There were still tons of riders all around us, and you couldn’t move at will, but you could steadily move up, if you wanted. In general, we didn’t want to and just stayed put.

By the time we got to the summit we were a bit separated. As soon as I knew we were starting the descent, I pulled over and waited for Chris. This was the infamous Powerline descent and it was fast, rocky and, at the bottom, deeply rutted and dangerous at speed. We had talked before the race about taking this particular descent very conservatively, as a crash this early in the race could end it for us. Plus, neither of us are very good descenders. The good news was that our conservative pace put us among riders who, in general, weren’t any faster than us on the descent and I easily kept up with the rider in front of me, lowering any pressure to go too fast. This was in great contrast to my descending experience at the Firecracker 50.

At the bottom, we rode about a half mile of dirt before hitting the paved road that goes by the Fish Hatchery. Here we got into a paceline, which was frustrating, since mountain bikers, at least the ones back at our speed, have no clue how to ride in a paceline. This wasn’t surprising as most Cat. 4 road riders have no clue about this either. This type of riding is my specialty and I wanted to go hard here, but Chris wisely kept me in check and we stuck to the plan.

Mostly road riding got us to the next aid station, called Pipeline, not to be confused with the Powerline climb. Liz was waiting for us there and while Chris checked his blood sugar, I dashed to the vehicle to ditch my helmet cam since the battery was already dead and to pull off my skull cap and armies. We were soon cruising out of there, headed for the only section of singletrack on the race course.

We rolled up and down a bit on doubletrack before getting to a nicely-graded, switchbacked, singletrack descent. Racers clogged up a bit here, but it was no cause for concern. This descent probably drops 400 feet and then we were back on roads, paved and dirt, into the aid station at Twin Lakes, at the base of the giant, 3500-foot Columbine Mine climb. Once again Liz met us and while Chris fueled and checked his blood, I visited the porta-potty. This was the first point where I became aware of the cut-off times. We had to get to this aid station in four hours and we arrived at 3h47m. We didn’t leave here until we were at 3h55m. We had to get back here by 7h45m.

We rolled out and up, starting the long grind to the top. Dave Weins had told us about this climb and that we should break it up into two climbs in our minds. The first part, up to about 11,000 feet, was up a relatively smooth dirt road. Above there the climbing gets much steeper and much rockier, and with all the riders descending we’d be forced to a singletrack on the right side. Dave told us that all these factors would make this section mostly pushing for us.
Drinking chocolate milk at the Pipeline aid station with an enthusiastic Derek in support

I was feeling good on the climb and would just go at my pace, mostly, and then stop to regroup with Chris. I’d ride with him for a bit and then creep up in the field. I’d pass and then get re-passed by the same people over and over. One of them was a really big, muscular guy - a former college football player. He was nice and we chatted quite a bit throughout the race. Another memorable rider was a chick with “All Things” written on her left calf and “Through Christ” on her right calf. In my mind I referred to her as the “Church Lady.”

As promised the upper section was very steep and rocky. I cleaned the first hard hill and it was cool how people would give me track. The call would go up, “Rider!” and people would try to give me some room to keep riding. It reminded me of the call out at the Pikes Peak Marathon where the uphill hikers call out, “Runner!” for the descenders and then move to the side. Alas, it soon got too steep for me and the line of people walking made it impossible.

Eventually I couldn’t ride any more. It was just too steep, rocky, and sustained. I walked for a bit and then stopped, laying my bike down. I walked back down the hill to find Chris and walk with him. Once back together and back at my bike the terrain was rideable again and we pedaled up the last steep sections and into the aid station at the Columbine Mine turn-around. We didn’t stay here long, just enough to refill our bottles, eat a touch of food and put a gel or two in our pockets. Just as we were leaving, a couple dressed as a bride and groom arrived. They were getting married here, halfway through the race. That was cool. Unfortunately, they didn’t make the 12-hour cut-off and I was concerned about us making it. I told Chris we had only an hour and 15 minutes to get back down and that we should get going. Chris didn’t argue about moving on, but he said, “We’ll do the descent in 45 minutes.” I was skeptical because of the top rocky section and some small climbs at the bottom of the descent, but Chris was dead-on.
Leaving Pipeline Aid Station with about three hours to go. Still blissfully ignorant of our desperate situation.
The descent went smoothly, with us staying close together almost the entire time. I lost a bottle on one of the rocky sections and didn’t bother to stop - I knew I’d find someone else’s lower down and I did. When we re-entered the aid station at Twin Lakes a volunteer said to us, “Welcome back.” Such a simple line, but it resonated with me. Welcome back, indeed. The Columbine Mine climb is an absolute bear and the obvious crux of the ride. Getting to the top and back without being slammed with weather or bonking is a feat in itself. It was a still a long way to the finish, but this beast was now behind us.

Liz was there waiting to take care of us, as were all the great volunteers that man all the aid stations. These people are so helpful and so positive and work so hard for every rider. It’s a very cool experience. We ate a bunch here and left just before Sheri and Derek arrived. They’d catch up with us at the next aid station, which was Powerline.

The section over to Powerline was a lot of smooth roads and then the singletrack, switchbacked climb. Here we passed a couple of riders who graciously pulled over, but then got stuck behind a slow rider who would not yield the track. I was frustrated but behind me Chris was thankful for the more relaxed pace and would have stopped me if I had tried to pass. At the top the trail goes to doubletrack and we went by. I rode a ridiculously steep hill a bit further on and went anaerobic. At the top I was breathing heavily and stopped to wait for Chris, who was pushing up the hill like everyone else. I should have done the same, but at this point I wasn’t worried at all about making the 12-hour mark. I should have been...

As we cruised the last couple of miles to Pipeline, Chris had me back off a bit. This was the first indication that Chris was fading, but I quickly forgot about it as we hit the aid station and the joyous support of Liz, Sheri, and Derek. Sheri and Derek had just nailed La Plata Peak and Derek in particular was very excited about supporting the race. We fueled with a variety of treats, the best one being a bottle of chocolate milk. We left only 7 minutes under the cut-off time, but I still wasn’t worried for some reason. It just wasn’t sinking in.

The next section was again on roads, some of it paved. Unfortunately, it was into a very strong headwind. Chris rode my wheel and I pulled hard into the wind. Chris had me back off a bit as I was gapping him. He told me then that his legs were gone and this was the start of a desperate struggle to make it in under 12 hours. A few other riders tacked onto our train and rode the draft. One guy came around to do his share of the work, but he rode too fast and I had to let him go or Chris would get gapped. He was off the front by about fifty feet, helping no one, and eventually dropped back into the line behind me.

It was painful riding the little paved rise around the Fish Hatchery and then we turned onto the dirt and headed up the crux of the return trip: the Pipeline climb. We were happily surprised to see Sheri and Derek, walking up the hill in front of us. I called out to them and they cheered us on. As we rode by, Derek pushed Chris for about 50 blissful yards. Shortly after this the terrain was too steep and we walked the hill like everyone else, including, in previous races, Dave Weins.
Derek giving Chris a much appreciated push at the start of the Powerline climb
The really nasty part at the bottom didn’t last that long. We pushed for probably 10-15 minutes before I could get back on. Most people around us walked the remainder of the long upper section, but I rode some of the steepest sections just to see if I could. I still had plenty of power left. This was stupid pride and conceit, made all the more silly and petty because I’m a bad mountain biker. That isn’t false modesty. Compared to my buddy Stefan I’m an atrocious mountain biker and, as nice of a guy as Stefan is, he’d back me up. The only reason I was cleaning these climbs over my fellow riders was because I had more in the tank than they did. I wouldn’t doubt that they were all better riders than me over a short distance.

What’s more, I wasn’t with Chris. My reason for being there was to ride and be with my brother and I was showing off for riders struggling to make the cut-off time. Chris was thankful for the help I gave, but I could have done more and I didn’t. I’m not proud of that. I’ve got a bit more work to do to become the person I want to be...

The next day Chris told our sister Kim about the only moment where he almost had a blood-sugar problem. On the long climb up to Columbine Mine, he felt himself fading. He ended up asking the rider in front of him for a GU. The rider immediately whipped out a GU and said there was plenty more where that came from. This is just one example of the great camaraderie in this race. Maybe it’s more blood thirsty up front, but from where we rode, everyone wants everyone else to do well. I was up ahead squatting in the woods. I had gone ahead to get a gap so that I could take care of that. I’ve had some G-I issues since my trip to Switzerland. It must have been the water. Chris didn’t view it as any big deal, but I sure wish it was me that handed him that gel.

So, I’d ride each steep section, until it rolled over to a flat section. Here I’d stop, lay down my bike, and wait for Chris. While I was waiting, I’d give pushes to anyone riding their bike. I’d always ask first, but no one turned down a push. Everyone thanked me and then someone said, “Thanks so much for being out here.” I realized that they didn’t think I was in the race at all. The only number we had was attached to our bikes, so I just looked like a spectator that had ridden out to some location on the course to watch. It made sense. Why would anyone in the bike race stop and push other riders up the hill?

When Chris caught up, I’d hop on my bike and ride up the next steep section and repeat the procedure. After one of these stops the trail headed down just a bit. When Chris went by, I got on my bike and followed. An older guy just in front of Chris, obviously tired, hit a big rock and flew over his handlebars, crashing in a bloody mess. Chris and I both stopped to help the guy and soon a woman who was a ski patroller stopped as well. She took charge of the situation and I assisted. I told Chris to keep riding and I’d catch up when this guy was in good shape. I stayed for 5-7 minutes, though it felt like a lot longer, until an EMT rider came by. I convinced him to take over the situation and told the patroller that I needed to catch up to my brother, as he was extremely tired himself and might need my help. With that, I was on my way and caught Chris at the top of the next climb.

I rode by and up to the top of the last climb before the big descent to Turquoise Lake, where I stopped again. Chris came by and he led the way down the 4WD road to the smooth dirt road below. I went by here and rolled much quicker down this road to the pavement, where we regrouped again and descended around Turquoise Lake and then started the 700-foot paved climb to the final aid station.

Here, for the first time, I started to physically help Chris. I knew time was getting tight and figured this would ease his effort and get us a little breathing room on the 12-hour deadline. I put my hand on Chris’ back and pushed him. And I worked hard. The climb was littered with other racers all desperately doing what they could to make the cut-off and all fearful that they wouldn’t get there. In fact, none of these riders would make it. I bent to the task and pushed my heartrate up over 160. We flew by the other riders and Chris said to me, “Billy, we are going twice as fast I would be on my own.” This motivated me further and I went deeper, wishing I had more to give. The race went from something that had been casual to now giving everything I had.

I thought back to my cleaning of the Powerline climb and how I had foolishly wasted energy there that I desperately needed now. I pushed the past from my mind and tried to endure more pain in my burning quads. As we passed more riders I wondered what the other riders thought about me pushing Chris. Was this legal? People got pushes on the big climbs. I had pushed a bunch of people that day. Back here where everyone is doing all they can to break 12 hours, they didn’t care. I didn’t. We were a team and the fact that there is no such thing as a team in this race didn’t mean anything to me. We would finish together. Period. The only unknown was the time and we were both determined to push to our absolute limits. I commit. I will not quit!

I’d push for as long as I could and then give Chris a big shove. I’d recover for a few seconds, catch up and start over again. To start with I pushed for at least a mile continuously. Then it was progressively shorter bursts. I buried myself. Deeper than I’ve gone in a long time. This wasn’t just for me, this was for us. I’ve always found I can dig deeper when the cause is more than me, which is why as a kid on my summer swim teams, above all else, I loved the relays. I’m not alone there.

In the 2008 Olympics Michael Phelps was trying to win eight gold medals in one Olympics - trying to surpass the legendary feat of seven golds, seven world records by Mark Spitz in the 1976 Olympics. As everyone knows, he did it, but by the slimmest of margins. In the 100-meter butterfly he won by a hundredth of a second. But his second final was the race he should have lost. It was the 4x100-meter freestyle relay. The favorite was the French team, anchored by the 100-meter world-record holder and newly crowned gold medalist Alain Bernard. Before the race Bernard told the media, “The Americans? We are going to smash them! That’s what we came here for.”

Phelps was the lead-off swimmer and finished his leg in second place, slightly behind the Aussies who led off with the world-record holder in the 50-meter freestyle. Swimming the anchor for the US team was Jason Lezak. He didn’t start until after Bernard, who then pulled away in the first 50-meters. Now to the billion people watching these Olympics, that is game over. Lezak is a second behind the world-record holder. To everyone in the stands, that is game over. It would take a literal miracle to overcome that deficit. To everyone, that is game over...except to Lezak. To him it was game on!

Lezak closed all the way back and out-touched Bernard for the gold medal! He swam 46.06 - the fastest 100-meter split by nearly six tenths of a second! Swimming just for himself, Lezak did not do that, could not do that. But for his country, for his teammates, he went beyond what he could do. He never swam remotely that fast again. The current world record for a non-relay 100-meters is still just 46.91.

I don’t mean to imply any comparison of myself with the miraculous Lezak, and only use this story to illustrate how hard you can push with more on the line than individual glory.

We thought the summit was at 10,600, but that came and went. I’d try to push for 50 vertical feet, maybe a 100 vertical feet, then shove, rest, catch up and repeat. At the same time, Chris was working harder and longer than he had ever done before. We were a team, bonded together in our fate and equally committed to doing absolutely everything we had until the twelve-hour mark expired.

Chris was very concerned about not making it and talked to other riders. Near the top of Sugarloaf a guy told him and another rider, “There is no way we’ll make 12 hours, but breaking 13 is important too.” This demoralized Chris a bit. I didn’t know about this until after the race. I kept telling him we were going to make it and I believed this, which was somewhat strange, since I hadn’t done any calculations; I hadn’t done the race before. I didn’t really know where we were timewise. I think, at that point, I just couldn’t even conceive of not making the deadline. Someone else told him it was at least hour from the Carter Summit aid to the finish. We left there with 61 minutes to go. The aid station volunteers told us, “You can do it, if you have the legs.” I’ve got the legs, dammit!, I thought.

As I said earlier, I had forgotten how much climbing on dirt there was beyond this aid station, despite having been here just 9 hours ago. I had hoped it was all downhill. It was not. For the first time, doubt crept into my mind. I had counted on sixty minutes to the finish starting from the descent, but now we wouldn’t reach the start of the descent for fifteen more minutes. Worrying didn’t help though. I switched my watch to only display the elapsed time and concentrated on the minutes we had left and on what we could give during those minutes.

Chris couldn’t really pedal uphill anymore, at least at this grade, and he had to walk some sections. As he approached the crest of the steepest section he said, “I need a GU and some water.” I had it waiting for him. He downed the GU and took a pull on the bottle and was then breathing deeply. I said, “We have to go. Drink or ride, but don’t just breathe.” He got on, and off we went.

Chris’ cape was falling out of his jersey pocket. I yanked it out and stopped to stow it my already overfilled pockets. When I caught him, he was doing a great job on the steep, fast descent. I couldn’t ask him to go faster, as he was already going fast. He even passed a couple of riders. At the bottom, still on dirt, the terrain rolled. I compelled him to get on my wheel. “Come on, Chris! Get on my goddamn wheel!” I slowed up, but any turning of my pedals would create a gap. I told him to grab my jersey pocket and I’d pull him. This was easier for me than pushing him as I could grab both handlebars and really bear down. I went hard.

On rolling dirt, double-track, hanging onto a jersey pocket and controlling your bike with one hand is a trick. Chris was physically almost completely gone and losing coordination, yet he had to ride one-handed. He hung on to my pocket with a vengeance. When he lost balance, I’d be jerked sideways and he pulled hard on me to keep upright. Occasionally his handlebars would bash me in the thighs. We barreled on with everything we had and that is no euphenism. He teetered side to side, on the edge of crashing.

On the short downhills, Chris would let go and coast down the hill, then latch on again. We hit the pavement and Chris asked, “You have the energy to keep pulling?” “Fuck, yes!” I responded. We were raw now. Stripped of any nicities. I switched into my big ring and pounded my pedals. At each junction volunteers would yell at us, “You can make it! Go! Go! Go! Everything you have!”

We left the pavement and rode the half-mile, dirt section leading to the Boulevard. This rolling section was technical enough where we disconnected. A yelp from Chris had me look back, but he was still upright. We turned onto the Boulevard, a two-mile dirt road climbing back to town. The start was heartbreaking. It was very steep and rocky. Chris couldn’t ride it hanging onto my jersey. He had to walk it. That was it then, I thought. Game over. I can’t help him if he is walking. “Walk with me,” Chris said and I dismounted, walking a bit ahead of him. He worked hard up the hill, passing a couple of other walkers. While I was demoralized, he continued to give all he had. Thankfully the angle eased and there was one singletrack path that wasn’t very rocky. I laid my bike down as Chris approached and told him, “You have to get on your bike. I can’t help you on foot.” He nodded. He knew the score. It was get on or give up. I commit. I will not quit. He mounted and I pushed him to get him started. I returned to my bike, got on, and sped up on the rocky side to pass other riders. I pulled even with Chris and he grabbed my jersey pocket. I called out, “Twelve minutes.” Twelve minutes of pain. It didn’t matter where the finish line was, as that was irrelevant to our pain. We had to suffer for twelve more minutes and then it would be over. We’d still finish, of course, but we could sit up. We could even stop to rest. But not before we suffered for twelve minutes longer.

The pain in my quads was now intense. I had gone from a casual ride at a heartrate of 130 bpm to working at my absolute limit for the last 90 minutes. Eleven hours and fifty minutes into this race everything in my body said “STOP!” But it was still possible. I willed myself to be stronger, to endure more pain, but I was fading. I was bent far over my bars, leaning into the hill and away from the tug on my jersey. I commit. I will not quit.

“Ten minutes.”
“Nine minutes”
“Eight minutes”
“Seven minutes”

I stared at my watch and called out the remaining time. We were still on the dirt road climb. I figured we needed five minutes by the time we hit the pavement, where it still climbs the last mile to the finish. I called out the times so that Chris, who was barely able to stay upright, would know how much longer he had to stay in the game. If he could just push, just concentrate for a few more minutes, then it would be over.

We hit the pavement and turned into the last mile with five minutes and two seconds to go. The road was lined with people who are screaming and yelling encouragement with such conviction that I’m utterly convinced they wanted us to make it as badly as we did. One person yelled, “You need to go with everything you’ve got! Go!” I was toiling up a steep roller, at my absolute limit, towing Chris. I wasn’t moving fast, but it was all I had. Two rollers later and we saw the finish, crowded with people. There was a final descent down the roller and then a 500-meter climb to the finish.

At the finish, Sheri, Derek, and Liz all spotted us. Moments before, Liz had texted our sister Kim, “They aren’t going to make it.” And then we came over the rise. They started to run down the hill to give us further encouragement. They knew we were dealing with seconds now. We were inside of three minutes to go.

Just past the bottom of the hill, at our highest speed, I heard Chris cry out. Out of the side of my eye I saw him lose his grip on my jersey, finally too tired to hang on any longer. He crashed onto his right side. Hard. Immediately I knew he wasn’t getting up. It was horrific. People rushed to him in seconds. I stopped, wheeled around back to him and laid down my bike. What followed was one of the strangest minutes in my athletic life. Chris was conscious and knew exactly where he was. Despite having a cracked helmet, he seemed ready to negotiate a business deal. If it wasn’t for his elbow being flayed open to the bone, you might think he was okay. That is, if you hadn’t seem him strike the pavement.

With Chris seemingly out of any emergency danger, everyone started telling me to “Go, go, go! You can still make it.” They didn’t understand. This wasn’t just another rider that I was finishing with. This wasn’t just my buddy. This was my brother. Breaking 12 hours wasn’t important to me. It was important to us, sure, deeply so, but to me individually, it held no meaning for me. I was there to finish with Chris, one way or the other. I was confused now, though, since it was obvious Chris wasn’t finishing at all, already it was assumed his collarbone was broken. Still, how could I ride away...
Chris in the Leadville hospital, yet very pleased with the day...overall.
I saw Sheri running hard at me, Derek by her side. I looked down at my crumpled brother, then up as Sheri, tears forming in her eyes, embraced me. She said, “We all knew you were doing all you could for him...” On the ground Chris was supposedly telling me to finish as well, though I couldn’t hear him. I bent over and put my hands on him, but I was in the way. Liz came tearing up and once she checked on Chris she ordered me, “Billy, go!” It was a command and it jolted me into action. I grabbed my bike and hopped on. Ambivalent before, once on the bike, I sprinted with everything I had. I flew by two other riders and entered the corridor of fans, crowded so close that I almost hit them, all screaming at me to “Go, go, go!” I dug and dug and dug and the lactic acid burned so deeply and so hard. I saw the clock tick past 12:00:00...

Still, I drove on and finished in 12:00:09. My chip time would give me a time of 11:59:05. I immediately turned around, barely clearing the timing mat, not getting a finisher’s medal, and rode back to Chris. As I got to Chris I heard the cannon blast signifying the end of the belt buckles. Two out of three criteria indicated that I’d made it, but I wouldn’t know for sure until the next morning.

We all converged on a very overloaded Leadville hospital. Chris was on a gurney in the emergency room and not even in a room, but in the center, since they didn’t have any space. I walked back to check on him and he was clutching his finisher’s medal and belt buckle. He was visibly excited about the day, so positive about the overall experience. This stunned me. I wondered if he realized where he was or the extent of his injuries, but it was apparent he knew exactly his state. He looked up at me and said, “I love you so much, Billy...” It is a day I’ll never forget and I’m sure I’ll be telling these stories for decades.

The Day After:

The next morning I was up early to head back over to Leadville. I checked my email and found that Chris had been transported by ambulance to Swedish Hospital’s Trauma Center that night. A broken rib had collapsed Chris’ lung and he’d spend three nights at Swedish before he was given clearance to safely return home. The final tally on his injuries was a collarbone broken in four places, a broken scapula, broken rib, collapsed lung, severely lacerated elbow requiring stitches, and various bruises and road rash. Ouch.

This was the 20th anniversary of the race and at the awards ceremony Ken said it was the first year that not a single rider quit. Obviously not everyone finished, but they were either pulled from the race, crashed out, or had unrecoverable mechanical problems. We saw one of these rides at the top of the singletrack climb, around mile 70. He had torn the derailleur off his bike and was walking back to the nearest road. No one just said “No mas.” There were 1549 starters (only 163 of which were female, 10.5%, of which 131 finished) and 1375 finishers (under 14 hours). 89% finished - the highest ever percentage. There was an 80 year-old finisher who came in at 13:10:26 hours. That is flat-out amazing and he received a standing ovation at the awards - more than even the outright winners of the race. Accomplishments like this don’t get much attention outside of this single applause, but this is probably equivalent to a 6:00 time for a 25-year-old.

The female winner, Sally Bigham, a Brit, I think, won by five minutes in a time of 7:17:01. Alban Lacata, an Austrian who won last year as well, won by just over a minute in also a course record of 6:04:01. The fact that he was in a group of three riders, where they presumably shared the work on the flat sections, probably contributed to this fast time. The full results are here.

Though not racing this year, prominently featured Dave Weins gave some pre-race comments and presented the winner with his trophy. Dave is the favorite son of this race. Not just because he’s such an incredibly nice guy, as there are lots of great people associated with this race, but because he’s a 7-time (in a row) winner of this race and yet the most humble champion.
Dave Weins

Ken Chlouber introduces Dave as the 6-time winner and Dave would tell you the same, but his loss to a massively-doped Lance Armstrong in 2009 wasn’t a loss in my book. Lance tried to race clean in 2008 and found out he isn’t the equal of Dave Weins. No shame there, but if you are a psychopath and the greatest cheat in the history of cycling, you have to come back. Lance returned to road racing and his needles, pills, and blood bags. If you think Lance beat Dave clean, then you are one of two things: an idiot or an ignoramus.

With over 1200 finishers, it takes a very long time to pick up your medals and jackets, as they call out every person’s name. I sat in the gym, typing this up, for a couple of hours. Dave was still there two hours after things started and I went up to him. He smiled warmly, shook my hand, and asked, “How did it go?” I said it was epic and Chris was pushed beyond his limits. Dave joked, “Is he in the ICU?” Well, sort of.


Buzz said...

Good job - on the day and the report!

Jeff Valliere said...

Way to go Bill, you and your brother out there giving it your all. I love the grit and determination you have to help in those situations, I am not sure I could be so patient.

Loved the Lance stab at the end as well, totally agree.