Thursday afternoon Rachel and I picked up Steve from his house to make the seven plus hour drive to Leadville. I may have mentioned before that I like listening to audiobooks during my commute, so Rachel decided to get some for us to listen to on the way to Colorado.
One of her selections, based on our mutual appreciation of David Sedaris from having heard him several times on This American Life, was Barrel Fever and Other Stories. What we didn't realize was that while Sedaris's humor is pretty well sanitized for NPR, when not constrained by the FCC, his vocabulary ranges a bit further afield.
The autobiographical essay You Can't Kill the Rooster, about his younger brother Paul, was greeted with histerical laughter by Steve and me and a few vain requests to skip to the next track by Rachel. She was in the backseat and away from the controls and therefore forced to endure more F-bombs than she's heard since she worked in a restaurant kitchen.
This story and some of the words in it would prove a recurring theme throughout the weekend. If you don't care to listen to the whole thing, and I certainly wouldn't fault you for that, allow me to summarize by providing the origin of the appelation "the Rooster." David's brother Paul explains how he gave himself the name as follows: "Certain [individuals] think they can [mess] with my [crap], but you can't kill the Rooster. You might can [mess] him up some of the time but...nobody kills the...Rooster, you know what I'm sayin'?" I'll get back to this later.
We arrived a little after midnight, slept until 7:30 or so, then went downtown for packet pickup, which was, er, amusing. We then sat through the mandatory pre-race meeting before grabbing lunch at Subway. The guys in front of us in line were adamant that no lettuce be put on their sandwiches. They talked amongst themselves about the danger of having that "roughage" the day before a race. Nevermind that they put cucumbers, green peppers, onions, and tomatoes on their sandwiches, which were on whole wheat bread, I might add. It was that roughage in the lettuce that was bound to "plug them up" the next day. Between the lettuce incident and the pre-race meeting, I came away convinced that 85% of the population has below average intelligence.
Friday afternoon, we rode around Turquoise Lake with Elden, Dug, Kenny, and some other friends, as well as a small handful of folks who accepted Elden's invitation to meet up for a ride. It was the calm before the storm. The singletrack was buff and fun. There was no real climbing, and the pace was leisurely, with frequent stops to regroup. In short, it was nothing like what was in store for Saturday.
After tossing and turning most of the night and sleeping only in 40 minute increments, Saturday morning we arrived at 5:00 a.m. for the 6:30 start. This seemed excessive, but Rick assured us it was the right move. It was. After the shotgun start, it took us 15 seconds to actually cross the start line. It took the people in the back over two minutes.
The real issue, though, was the mass of riders all trying to get close to the front before the first climb up St. Kevins. This is where crit racing came in real handy, as we were able to navigate our way about as far forward as we wanted to be before the climb began in earnest. I felt good all the way up to the top, and was able to get around a number of people on the first climb.
I assumed Steve was on my wheel the whole time, but when I got to the top, I turned to look, and he wasn't there. Kenny quickly caught up to me, and I asked if he'd seen Steve. He hadn't. I didn't expect us to get separated this early, but I was racing the clock and had to go.
I still felt good up Powerline but got a glimpse of what was to come on the way back. Powerline gets its name because it's the trail underneath the power lines. And as you would expect, there are no switchbacks, zigs, zags, or bends. It just goes straight up the hill. Or in this direction, straight down. It's rocky, rutted, and nasty. Nothing you would ever ride for fun in either direction.
As I rolled through the first feed zone, I checked my watch. I had written down a range for splits for where I needed to be to finish under nine hours. I was two minutes ahead of my early estimate. Things were going well.
Then I hit a bump while descending and felt my saddle slip. The nose was pointing up. Not so much that I couldn't keep riding, but I would definitely have to fix it. I decided to wait until the Twin Lakes feed zone, the first place I planned to stop for more food.
The gang at the feed zone worked like an Indy pit crew. Rachel emptied and refilled my pockets and bottle cages. Dug said "you're flying. You're the first one in." While scrambling to find a tool, I noticed that the bump hadn't just tilted my saddle, but it also knocked my CO2 cannister off my seatpost. There were spare cartridges at the tent, but no nozzle. I could no longer afford a flat.
I left the Carbo Rocket tent feeling good. Really good, in fact. The lower section of the Columbine climb felt fine. I was doing well on time, me legs felt good, and I was still feeling the buzz from the hundreds of people who were shouting, clapping, and ringing cowbells for me as I crossed the Twin Lakes dam. It wouldn't last.
Maybe 1/3 of the way up the climb, I asked one of the spectators how far ahead the leaders were. He said we'd see them any time, and that we'd see Lance well before we saw anyone else. Just a couple minutes after that, a guy in Mellow Johnny's kit came screaming around the corner and saw a half dozen of us making our way up the climb. He must hang out with the Rooster a lot, because instead of yelling "rider up" or something polite to let us know he was coming, he yelled one word--it starts with "F" and rhymes with truck. I thought it was kind of funny that I'd only ever seen Lance Armstrong in person one time, and I'd only ever heard him say one word, and that was the word.
About 2/3 of the way up the climb, I became the Rooster. Specifically, I told myself over and over "you can't kill the Rooster." The climb was definitely messing with me, but it wasn't going to kill me. Even if I had to walk my bike, which I did. I actually walked more than I needed to, not wanting to burn too many matches. Kenny passed me, looking strong. I wondered if I'd see him again but was pleased that we were this close so near the turnaround.
Then the wind started to blow, like 60 mph kind of blow. And then it started to hail. It was pricking my skin, and I was cold. Between the altitude and my asthma, I could barely breathe. I kept pushing. I finally made it to the top. Clock showed 4:35, five minutes before my outer limit for target split times. I turned around, and began my descent. I saw Brandon right behind me, looking strong.
Suddenly I felt good again. And shocked. Because there were so many people still coming up the climb behind me. I had lost some time on the climb but was still in good shape. I shouted encouragement to the friends I saw but mostly just focused on staying upright through the rough, rocky, and crowded two track.
As I descended I felt something bump my leg before falling to the ground. I figured it was one of my bottles. No big deal, as I was on my way to the feed zone. Then I looked down and saw both bottles. I didn't need to look to know I'd lost my tool bag with multitool, spare links, and tube in it. Not only couldn't I flat, I couldn't have any mechanicals at all.
I pounded a soup and as much of a coke as I could get down at the feed zone, filled my pockets, and kept pedaling. After about ten minutes, though, my stomach hurt, and I couldn't eat or drink. I was going to need to stop and couldn't clear my head of the thoughts of Jan Ullrich's teammate holding open his cycling cap while Big Jan dropped a deuce in it. Jan went on to win not only the stage but the tour. Unfortunately I didn't have a willing teammate and was already out of contention for the win. But I did have a cap if I needed it. I was trying to decide between the cap and an arm warmer when the feed zone and its blessed blue boxes came into view.
Time lost at the honey pot = about four minutes. Weight lost = about two pounds. Time saved over the rest of the race for having stopped = about an hour, maybe two. The clock said 6:20 when I left the feed zone. This was my last split, and I was right at my outer limit. I couldn't make any mistakes.
Powerline was worse than I imagined. It has so many false summits that it gets into your head. "You can't kill the Rooster," I told myself and just kept grinding. I remembered that most of the descent from St. Kevins was on the road, which meant we'd climb up the road on the way back. I hoped my memory was correct.
It mostly was, for which I was grateful. My watch said 7:23 when I passed the 20 miles to go sign. I had a short dirt climb remaining, followed by a long descent and about ten mostly flat miles. I did the math in my head. I could make it, but it would be close.
Shortly after the summit, I saw a rider in the trail, just laying in the dirt and breathing laboriously. There was blood on the ground coming from his face. I stopped and asked if he was OK. No response. What do I do? I can't move him. He's not answering questions. If I leave him here will he die? Is it worth ruining my race to stay until help arrives? I decided the best thing for both of us was if I kept descending and notified the course marshalls to send help. And I was racked with guilt thereafter thinking how stupid and meaningless a sub nine was if this guy was really hurt and I was the difference between him being OK and not.
At this point in the race, my lungs were shot. I would cough violently if I took full breaths, so I was taking quick, short, half breaths knowing it wasn't getting near the oxygen to my muscles that they needed. My heart rate was at 145 and wouldn't go higher. My legs still felt OK, though, and I wasn't cramping, so I figured I'd just give it what I could.
I pushed across the flats and was surprised at the pace I was able to maintain. I picked up another rider on the way, who thanked me for the draft because he'd been cramping and didn't have much left. I dropped him at the boulevard, a short, rocky climb just before getting back into town, and he shouted words of encouragement.
Once up the boulevard, I asked everyone I saw how much further. "Just a couple of miles." "You're almost there." "Just over a mile."
Then I saw the football field and knew I was close. I turned onto sixth street, and the spectators offered encouragement. I just kept turning the cranks, scared to look at my watch. When the finish line was in view, I finally did and knew I had made it. I rolled down the red carpet and crossed the line at 8:55. I got off my bike, someone hung a medal around my neck, and then I collapsed in Rachel's arms.
I sat in the grass and felt something cold against my arm. I turned and saw Dug holding a Diet Coke, straight out of the cooler. It was the only thing I could get down for the next hour. I heard the cheers as KC Holley crossed the finish line, sub nine and on the women's podium (KC and I have the exact same VO2 max, so it stands to reason our times would be similar). Then I saw Elden, and my heart sank. He had crashed out--his first ever DNF in any race. I wanted to cry.
After sitting in the grass for a while, still not breathing right and with the coughing fits coming more frequently and severely, Elden and Rachel walked me over to the medical tent where I sat sucking on some rare and blessed oxygen for the next half hour. I got out in time to see Steve and most of the rest of the gang finish.
Steve had some mechanical problems but still finished a very respectable 10:12. Pretty good for a roadie on his second mountain bike ride of the season (his first was RAWROD--we joked he can't be bothered with knobby tires unless it's going to be a 100 mile ride). At the end, we were all smiles and all VERY happy to be finished. Without question the toughest race I've ever done.
Saturday night I could barely sleep, I was still so excited. For the first time ever, I had a race where I would not have done anything differently. Sure, losing my tools and air and having to cast off ballast were less than ideal, but in terms of the decisions I made on course, I have no regrets.
Oh, and Sunday morning I went and picked up this:
That's right, it's the BIG one. I joined the club, along with Sam, of Leadville rookies with big buckles. A club which, by the way, does not include former Olympian and Tour de France veteran Chris Carmichael. Just thought I'd throw that in there. Not that it matters or anything.
Time to go shopping for a belt to put it on. Because you're absolutely correct I'm going to wear that thing. You can't kill the Rooster.