Saturday, May 25, 2019

Racing the Iron Horse

My best friend in high school, Magoo, went to Fort Lewis College in Durango. That was probably the first time I ever really acknowledged Durango. I went there a couple of times to visit Magoo, but that was it. I next visited it when Sheri and I were working on climbing all the Colorado 14ers. I learned that the best way to access the three (or four, depending upon how you count them) Chicago Basin 14ers was by taking the train (a train!) from Durango to Needleton. Needleton itself was just a stop on the line. There isn’t a town there, at least anymore. The only way to get there is the train or by hiking an additional twenty miles (roundtrip). I thought that was so cool that you had to take the train. Most Americans, at least outside of big cities, don’t ride trains and hence this was a mini-adventure in itself. This train is an old coal-burning locomotive and is quite nostalgic. It’s a big tourist attraction now and many people ride it all the way to Silverton to experience the spectacular scenery.

At some point I learned about the Iron Horse Bike Race. This takes place the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend and is the longest continuously run bike race in the United States. They’ve been doing it for 48 years. The premise is super cool. Cyclists start at the train station in Durango at the same time that the trail pulls out. The goal is to beat the train to Silverton. There are no roads that go along the tracks, of course, so cyclists take a different route - highway 550. The distance is 49 miles and has about 6000 feet of climbing (my GPS registered 5600, others got 5800+, and the medal that you get says it has 6800). The ride starts at around 6000 feet of elevation and ends at 9000 feet, so you do 3000 more feet of climbing than you get to descend.

That’s a non-trivial bike ride. And to do that two days before the Bolder Boulder wouldn’t be recommended if you cared about your race time. Hence, despite having this bike race on my list of things to do, I hadn’t done it yet. The motivation to finally do it was my brother-in-law Carl, married to Sheri’s sister Tara. They live in Durango and he’d signed up for the race too. My performance at the Bolder Boulder has been on a steady decline for 17 years (I peaked at age 40), and I am in danger of not breaking 50 minutes or 8 minutes/mile. At this point I realized that I couldn’t really be taking the Bolder Boulder too seriously. I don’t do much training for it and I don’t run fast. So, how much could one bike ride hurt me? At the worst, the bike race would give me an excuse for any subpar performance at the Bolder Boulder. Plus, Sheri wanted to go to Durango as well to see her sister’s house and would serve as my support crew and personal driver. Sweet. I signed up.

Months later I got a package in the mail. It has a race number in it. I wondered, what the heck is this? Oh yeah, the Iron Horse Race. It had been five months since I had been on a bike. I promptly went out for a ride. That was my one and only training ride. My bike wasn’t in good shape and I needed to replace my chain rings, rear cassette, chain, etc. I decided to upgrade my entire bike. By the time I selected the parts, ordered them, and installed them on my bike, time was short. I finished building the bike on Sunday. Monday it snowed and remained snowy and rainy all week until the Friday before the race. I hopped on the bike that morning and did an easy hour on it, making sure everything worked well. Then I put it in the car and Sheri and I drove 7 hours to Tara and Carl’s house.

The Iron Horse Race has grown to include waves for professional riders, lots of age-group categories and a Citizens Tour, with more than 2000 riders in total. I signed up too late to get into the age-group categories, so I entered the Citizens Tour, which isn’t timed. So, technically it wasn’t a bike race, but I treated it as one. The real racing categories go off in waves at 7:30 a.m. The Citizen Tour is the only group that actually races the train, starting at 8 a.m. with the train whistle acting as the starting gun. This Tour should have had 1500 riders in it, but as I staged in the corral it seemed like no more than a few hundred. Five hundred tops. I could have easily worked my way to very front. Where was everybody?

Carl wasn’t in the corral with me because he had elected to start an hour early. I think he did so to give him a better chance to beat the train. The train takes around 3.5 hours to get to Silverton, so beating it over this course is non-trivial. Carl wanted some extra time. I’d find out soon that this is extremely common. In fact, I’d estimate that 75% of the Citizens Tour start before the official start. Since it isn’t timed, it doesn’t really matter. Carl certainly wasn’t the first to start at 7 a.m. He’d be caught and passed by all the racers (the winning pro time was 2h28m), and many of the Citizen Tour as well. He wasn’t racing anyone, besides maybe the train. He was here to just finish the ride — a big challenge for him at 63 years old and carrying at least fifteen extra pounds.
In Durango at the start of the "race".
The whistle blew and we took off, riding behind a police escort through town. The first twelve miles of the course is relatively flat and I stayed towards the front, but well out of the wind, relaxing as much as possible and just following wheels. I was very attentive though, as I figured most of these riders were not bike racers and even though they may be quite fit, they might not be experienced pack riders. I figured the most dangerous part of the race was riding in this pack for this flat stretch. Things went well though and I had no close calls and everyone rode quite nicely. Almost immediately we started passing riders that had started early and were much slower than the head of our peloton. These riders were the biggest hazards as they frequently didn’t ride to the far right side of the road. We passed these riders within the first half-mile and would continually pass them for the next 50 miles, all the way into Silverton. I’d found the missing riders.

For the first thirty miles, up to the Purgatory Ski Area, the race had the entire use of the right line. With the shoulder, that gave us tons of riding room and moving around was easy for the entire race. Once passed Purgatory the entire highway was closed to cars. That was really nice. The weather was great too, though that was in doubt right up until the morning of the race. The mountains around Silverton have a snowpack that is 375% of average for this time of year. You read that right: 375%. They got snow two days before the race. I was worried about the cold before this race and dressed in leggings, armies, shoe covers, and even heaters in my shoes. I brought and expected to wear my windshell at the start and on the two steep downhills. It was 45 degrees at the start. The high in Silverton that day was supposed to be 52 degrees and the high on Molas Pass was supposed to be 39. Yet, we had very little wind and bright sunshine the entire way. I never put on my shell and conditions turned out to be nearly ideal.

Due to all the snow the Purgatory Ski area was open! A couple of riders rode with skis and boots on their backs and took one run at Purgatory before continuing all the way to Silverton. That’s cool. I saw one guy on a giant unicycle. I saw a few tandems and one of them had a kid trail bike on it. I joked to the couple as I passed them that they had put the big engine in the back. On the first climb I could hear a bike coming up on me fast. I wondered how a rider that much faster than me could still be behind me. Maybe a racer had missed the start and still wanted to get in a hard workout. Then he went by and I understood. He was riding an electric bike and was flying by all of us. He’d end up passing me three more times, all on the hills. I never remember passing him, though. Maybe he was taking extended breaks at the aid stations. Maybe he was getting in a quick charge. He’d surely have to do a lot of the work himself as the battery couldn’t power the entire ride. The last time he passed me, on the final climb, the rider next to me muttered, “F-ing electric bikes.” I could understand the sentiment, but it didn’t bother me in the least. It wasn’t like we were racing him. Electric bikes are cool. One might be in my future. Though I think they are technically illegal in this Tour, but maybe only in the timed race. All of these riders started well before 8 a.m. One rider that was particularly notable did not, though, because I didn’t see him until he finished in Silverton. I wouldn’t have missed him, though, because what he did is one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen.
In Silverton at the end of the race.
This guy finished with a very respectable time of four hours and change. He did it with one leg! Why only one leg? That’s all he had. His leg was amputated at his groin. When I saw him go by my jaw dropped. Literally. I was speechless. I couldn’t even imagine how he stayed on his seat without anything on the other side of it. I looked across the finishing chute to another rider who saw the same thing. His mind was clearly boggled as well. He said, “Did you see how big that leg was?” Indeed, this was a big guy, well over six feet tall, maybe 6’5” or more. Fit, too. And his left thigh was about as big around as my waist. And I’m not particularly thin. I once did a couple of training exercises of riding with just one leg. It’s incredibly difficult and extremely tiring. Now imagine doing 6000 vertical feet of that over 50 miles with a central climb that is roughly equivalent to SuperFlag. I have many friends who are outrageous athletes, professional athletes who special in endurance. I don’t think any one of them could ride SuperFlag with one leg. That’s saying a lot, I know, and I might be wrong, but that’s what I thought when this guy came by. It just didn’t seem possible. I couldn’t shake my amazement, so inspired by the toughness and resilience of this guy. I went to search for him. I wanted to tell him how amazing he was. I wanted to get a photo with him. Yet, I couldn’t find him. I searched and searched and asked a number of people for the one-legged man, but no one had seen him. I guess he rode so normally that unless you really looked at him, you wouldn’t notice. Off the bike he was probably laying down, as he’d need crutches to walk. It was biggest disappointment of my day. I want to find this guy.

After the opening flat stretch the route climbs steadily for ten miles or so to Purgatory. One of the steepest stretches is on this section, though it is short. Near the top of this section, I rode past a couple of young, thin girls, probably thirteen years old. The one in the lead says, “Great job” to me as I moved by. I returned the encouragement, not expecting to see her again. After this long section the ride consists of two hard climbs. The first is Coal Bank, which gains 2000 feet in five miles — roughly equivalent to SuperFlag, though no sections as steep as the upper part. Then there is a fast 3-mile descent before the last climb up to Molas Pass, a climb of about 900 feet. From the top of Molas Pass it is a screaming fast descent down into Silverton.

I felt really slow grinding my way up Coal Bank. Whereas before I was passing earlier riders at a much higher pace, I now slowly crept by them. Near the bottom of this climb I went by Carl. He was stopped, taking a short rest to eat something. I called out his name and put out my hand for a high five, but he didn’t register it was me until I was by. We had previously thought that I might catch him, but I was surprised to catch him so early. I think it was a combination of how fast the pack got me through the first 12 miles and Carl having a tough day. We found out later that it would get much worse for him.
Carl and Tara in Silverton -- all smiles despite the difficulties.
A mile or two up this climb the thirteen-year-old girl, her name was Maggie, came by me. She was just as friendly and just as positive passing me as she was when I passed her. This was a new, very humbling experience for me. To be passed by a girl so young on a bike. Girls that young have been running by me for years, but on a bike? That’s a first. I sure hope she goes on to be an Olympic champion, if not for her, for my ego!

At the top of Coal Bank I made my only stop and it was for less than 60 seconds. I didn’t even get off the bike, but waited while a volunteer filled up one of my bottles. Just before the start of the last climb, at the last bit of downhill, I caught up to and passed Maggie. She was so light the wind resistance limited how fast she could descend. I told her that I wanted to give her another chance to drop me on the hill. She did. Twice. After passing me the first time, she stopped to strip off a layer. Then she passed me again.

The start of the Molas Pass climbed was a bit disheartening because we went straight into a considerable headwind. I slowed to a crawl and labored up this last climb. I was starting to calculate my chances of beating the train. I wasn’t sure how far it was to the finish from the pass, but it might have been 9 miles. To be sure I wanted to be atop the pass by 11 a.m., three hours into the ride and giving me 30 minutes to get to the finish. I didn’t top out until 11:07 and felt some pressure. I wanted to give it all I had.

I punched it over the top and slid my hands down into the drops. I laid across my top tube in the most aerodynamic position I could muster without straddling the bar. I’ve done that before but with the wind and hitting speeds of 48 mph, I felt that was too risky. Still I blasted by every rider ahead of me, including the soon-to-be-pro, whippet-thin Maggie. Incidently, I did asked her if she was a racer and she confirmed it, saying, "Yes, but mostly a mountain biker."

Once in town, it’s at least a mile of a slight uphill grade to the finish. The coned chute is nearly half-a-mile long and I started to fade before the line. I finished in 3h19m and well ahead of the train, which didn’t make it to town until 11:44.

As I raced down the chute I searched for Sheri and Tara, sure to be there cheering me on and maybe snapping a finish photo. But I didn’t see them. After finishing, I pulled out my phone and sent Sheri a text message: I’m here. She sent back: “Ack! We’re getting coffee! Coming to the finish now.” Ten minutes later we met up at the finish. Obviously they didn’t expect me that early. I was pretty sure I’d break 4 hours and told Sheri that sub 3:30 was possible, but that was before I realized that I didn’t get 6000 feet of descending on this course. No biggie.
The coveted participation medal...
After recovering a bit I changed out of my kit at the car and we lined the chute looking for Carl and cheering on all the riders. When I finished I took a rough guess and figured Carl would be an hour behind me. But that hour came and went. We knew the cut-off time at Molas Pass was 1:15 p.m. and when 1:20 came and went we figured he must be over the top and on his way down. I’d come down from the summit to the finish in 12 minutes (35 mph average?!). We gave Carl 20 minutes before we’d start thinking about other possibilities (like a crash). At 1:28 p.m. he surprised us by going nearly by us before Sheri recognized him. We had thought he was in a white jersey. It was blue. We had thought he had a white helmet on. It was red. Two finishes, two misses.

At the finish Carl related his story of GI distress. He figured he spent maybe 90 minutes not moving. He contemplated turning around and dropping out at one point mainly because he could reach a bathroom quicker by descending than climbing up to the porta-potty on the summit. But he persevered and finished. He was in remarkably good spirits. It was very unfortunate to have those troubles, especially on race day when you’ve trained for six months. But these things happen and he didn’t mope about it one bit. You might think such a tough experience would lead one to say, “I’m done with that event.” Yet, not two hours after finishing he was vowing to go again next year. And I signed on as well. I can see that Iron Horse engineer already plotting his strategy on how to beat me. He’s going to stoke that fire even hotter. He's going to grease that axle. Maybe he’ll look into a fairing for the front. I’ll be ready. Bring it on, Iron Horse. My carbon steed will be ready.