Monday, August 23, 2010

Leadville Trail 100 Mtn Bike Race

aka Crewing for John
August 14, 2010

Here's the thing about Leadville: it's never not cold in the morning. So this morning in mid-August at 5:30, as John gets ready to ride down to the start line, the question is how to stay warm until the race starts. He decides to wear his green down parka, and I'll pick it up from him when I get there. Frank - the Leadville friend we're staying with - and I take off by truck a few minutes later.

But the start area is a zoo. Incredible. Bikes and cyclists everywhere. People have claimed spots in the start chute, and left bikes strewn across the road. I've never seen anything like this, even after seven Ride the Rockies and three trips to the Tour de France. We split up (Frank and I are joined by three more friends in this search). It's impossible to find him. Who knew there would be so many people wearing green down parkas in mid-summer? Finally, in desperation, I climb up on top of a garbage can, and scan the crowds. I shout "JOHN!" No luck. So I try again. "ARMSTRONG!!!" Well, that gets a few more looks, and it yields what I'm looking for. There he is, smiling and looking ready to ride. He points behind him to indicate that he's ditched the jacket. I will pick it up after the race starts, before heading out for my first assignment as his crew.

The race starts. It's exhilarating. It's a thing of beauty, actually. The bikes start to roll down the hill, and it's like watching synchronized swimming, or birds in flight - large flocks of birds in flight. I'm awed. Who knew?

I find Frank and friends after the start and we go look for the parka, but it's just not there. I'm bummed. I feel like I've failed at my first crewing task. But no time to worry about that - I have to get to the first aid station.

Pipeline Aid Station

Here's the direction that Frank gives me, before he goes off to watch the race at other vantage points: don't get boxed in parking at the aid stations. So when I see the cars assembling, I find a place to park and make sure I have plenty of room and am facing the right direction for an escape. Then I gather up all the supplies for the first aid and start hiking.

The basket I'm using is my grocery shopping basket; I love this thing. It does not collapse, and it holds just enough. But I've loaded it up, and it's a tad heavy. Here's what I carry: pb&j sandwich halves in baggies, chocolate chip cookies (ditto the baggies), a fresh bottle of cytomax, a fresh bottle of water, my own bottle of water, a bike tool thingy, some clif shots, some packets of powdered FRS, sunscreen, chain lube, a rag or two, a can of Big Air, some Advil and my own breakfast muffin. On top of this all is a camelbak that John will pick up at this station. On one shoulder is my camp chair, on the other my camera. I'm also carrying my cup of lousy convenience store coffee. It seems like a long hike with all this stuff.

But once I see the tents, it's all worth the effort. This is like the coolest block party ever - and at 7 a.m. There's a buzz of anticipation. Tents set up, aid stations set up, people just looking down the dirt road, waiting for the action to start.

The helicopter signals the arrival of the front riders. This is deja vu Tour de France. I'm expecting something less than Tour de France competitiveness, but I'm wrong. The front runners come through at warp speed, pedaling by so fast that you can't really see faces, numbers. Good thing to have a camera so that later you can say, oh yeah, I saw so-and-so go by. The third or fourth group of riders to go by grab their food from people standing right next to me, in musettes just like the ones you see at the Tour. Only this time, one of the guys spins a bit and goes down in the middle of the trail, right in front of me. It's all adrenaline, all panic, all let's-get-him-up-and-sorted-out. He's gone in an instant but it makes me nervous all the same.

The trail is flat here, so the riders are coming in at a pretty good clip. At this point in the day, they all look the same - helmets, sunglasses, long sleeves, leg warmers. Thank God for the numbers that are attached to the front of all the bicycles. I start focusing on looking for John's number: 125. Numbers fly by, so close but not quite. Number 1125 goes by. No dice. More numbers, a couple of tandems (whoa! talk about strong relationships!), and just a few women.

I see John and step onto the trail and yell his name over and over until I'm sure he sees me. I've got this huge basket full of stuff and start shoving stuff at him, but he just wants the cookies and the fresh bottle of cytomax. He says no to the camelbak. He takes off his leg warmers and hands them to me while a woman standing next to me holds his bike (that's what kind of crowd this is). I'm so nervous about getting him what he wants that I don't ask, but then he volunteers, "I'm feeling pretty good". Well, good then. And he's off again.

Twin Lakes Aid Station

I've heard from the folks at Pipeline that I'll only have an hour or maybe an hour and 15 minutes before he arrives at Twin Lakes, so I know I have to beat it. I have the camp chair packed, so as soon as John pedals off, I pick up my stuff and high-tail it back to the truck. It's a hike. I am kicking myself for not trying to park up closer.

Just as I start to pull out of the parking place, two women knock on my window and ask for a ride to Twin Lakes. "Of course! Jump in!" Their husbands have both just been by here, too, and the person they rode with is waiting for her man, and they are - as I am - worried about getting to the next aid on time. We drive as fast as we can.

But here's the thing about the distance between the first and second aid stations: by trail, it's only 13 or so miles, and by road, it's many more. Not only that, but that parking at Twin Lakes is far worse than at Pipeline. The parking lot is full, so we have to park on the road and then we start the hike up to the dam.

We're almost to the road side of the dam, and Frank calls me. "Where are you?" he barks, and "has John come by yet?" While we're trying to figure out where we are in relation to one another, he shouts, "Go John Go!" and then back into the phone, "He just went by - did you give him his aid here?!" Noooooooo! I can't believe that I missed him. It's only been 48 minutes since he left Pipeline! I feel lousy because it feels like I've failed in my job crewing, but more than that I'm worried about him making the climb up to 12,600' and back down again on the little nutrition he took at Pipeline. There's nothing I can do now, though, but just wait.

What a zoo this place is! It makes Pipeline look like a ladies luncheon. Frank and his group of cohorts are here, but preparing to take off, so I settle in with my hitch-hiking friends. Everyone here is from somewhere else: Texas, Virginia, Philadelphia, Tennessee, wherever. I'm wearing this year's Boston Marathon t-shirt, and it gets lots of comments. The woman from Philadelphia strikes up a conversation, and soon we're exchanging marathon stories. I tell her about running Delaware earlier this year, and about the guy we saw carted off at the finish line. "Oh yeah", she says, "that was the guy who died." I tell her that I had read that he survived. "Yeah, but only for a few days", she replies, and then fills in the rest of the story - how the guy's kidneys had shut down and that they kept him alive several days after the marathon but his kidneys never started working again.

What a weird thing to learn here, but not that out of place. This is, after all, a mountain bike race, and as we're standing here waiting for our riders, the Search and Rescue folks go up the trail to retrieve someone who crashed. I don't really worry that much about John - he's a very strong and safe rider - but I also know that it's a risky sport.

This Aid Station is both mile 40 and mile 60. The riders are all outbound when I get here, but soon there's a flurry, and two homebound cyclists tear by on their trip back into town. They go by so fast and so unexpectedly that they are not even a blur, more like a thought. A race official is near me, and I hear him tell somebody who it was: Levi and Jeremy. Oh boy. This is a race! My mental math tells me that they are on a record pace, but I wonder if I'm missing something. Lance set an insane course record here last year, so it can't be that likely to fall again this year.

A few more front runners go by on the return trip, and then the action all goes back to the people just getting to mile 40. A buzz goes through the crowd, and I look at my watch: the cutoff is close. There are intermediate cutoff times along the course, and pretty soon a few guys come walking by, pushing their bikes, day done because they couldn't get here fast enough. There's a woman (a rider forced out of the race here due to missing the cutoff) who is crying and making quite a scene; I wonder what the rest of her story is. Most of the guys seem to take it in stride. And then it's back to waiting - just waiting for the riders to go by in the opposite direction.

The hitch-hiking women have both also missed their husbands on their outbound journey, and are as anxious as I am to see their guys on the return trip. I go up on a hill to survey the scene, and talk to a family who asks about my Boston shirt while I snap a few photos. They tell me that they live in Hopkinton, and the son - probably in his late teens or early twenties - tells me that he ran the marathon for his first time this year. We have a nice chat, then I climb back down the berm and get busy fretting over John's arrival.

I've added some stuff to the basket for this stop: a no-longer-cold Coke, as well as some potato chips, and, of course, another fresh bottle of cytomax. The cantaloupe that I brought as a surprise is still back in the truck, in the cooler, but I just don't have the energy to go back there. I'm tempted, because I'm still wearing the jeans that I appreciated earlier in the day, and I'd love to change into my shorts, but it's a long hike. I can survive in jeans.

The day could not be more glorious. Bright sun, and not much wind out here. Virtually no clouds in the sky. I start to recognize numbers coming down the trail. The guy standing next to me asks who I'm watching for, so now I have a second set of eyes searching for "125". There's a woman who goes by with some frilly stuff on her helmet; I remember seeing here way back at Pipeline, and she was right in front of John. There goes number 1125 again. Finally, he's here!

I shove a Coke at him, and start babbling apologies for missing him outbound. He takes some potato chips and another bottle of cytomax, but little else. When I take a break from my babbling, he says it wasn't a big deal. But then he adds, "my legs are toast". I realize just before he rides off that I haven't even asked how the last 30 miles have gone!

Pipeline Aid Station

The hitchhikers do not join me for the return to Pipeline, so I make a beeline for the truck. Well, actually, it's not even close to a beeline, but rather a long and dusty race-walk. I'm determined to get back to Pipeline before John gets there.

Traffic at Pipeline is minimal, and I'm able to park much closer than earlier this morning, so I throw a new ice-cold Coke and a new bottle of cytomax into my basket, and I'm back at the trail quickly. In fact, so quickly that I actually have ten or fifteen minutes to wait before John arrives. The mood at Pipeline is much subdued from earlier today. The cyclists are pedaling by much more slowly, and starting to look just a little ragged. By now, I'm able to recognize most of the numbers coming in before him. Just after the woman with the frilly stuff on her helmet, number 125 rolls up to me.

I've learned, finally, to ask "what do you need" before shoving stuff in John's face. So now, he answers "To be done". I think "ouch" - there are nearly 30 hard miles left in front of him. But I can't ride it for him, I can just offer up sustenance. So I shove the drinks at him, and he takes some food and a couple of Advil. He lubes his chain - he and his bike are both covered in dust - and then he takes off. And I take off, too: back to Leadville.

Finish in Leadville

Given that the last part of this race contains a lot of climbing over 29 miles, I know I have at least a couple of hours before I can expect John at the finish line. So, for once today, I have a leisurely time getting to my next vantage spot. I park several blocks away from the finish, and spend some time organizing the disaster zone in the back of the truck. Finally, I change into shorts. It's a glorious day, have I mentioned this? Bright sun and not a cloud in the sky. This is Leadville at its finest.

But here's the thing about Leadville: it's never not windy. So when I eventually get my act together and tote my camp chair up to the race course and park myself in a nice shady spot to cheer on the finishers, I find myself getting chilled quickly. This is Leadville, 10,000 feet. So I move into the sun, and I clang my cowbell, and I yell, over and over, "Nice job!" or "Great finish!" I mean it every time. I'm awed by the power and the charge and the strength of these folks as they push it in to the finish.

Now, all day long I've been trying to gauge when John will arrive at any given point, and by now my time-math is getting fuzzy, but one thing is clear: the expected time that he gave me this morning - ten hours and thirty minutes - is bogus. Sandbagging. Because I'm here, and I'm figuring miles from the last aid station, and I know he's going to blow that time.

All day, folks rolled through the aid stations in a certain order, but here at the finish, they are way out of sequence. It seems that Powerline - the last big nasty climb of the race - has taken a severe toll on the field. I recognize the number of one of the guys I've seen multiple times, so I figure that I'll see John in about 15 minutes. I watch for the woman with the frilly stuff on her helmet, but she doesn't go by. So I'm almost caught without my camera ready when he rolls into my viewfinder just a couple of minutes later. Done!

I make my way to the finish area just as John walks out of the chute, and he's all smiles. He's finished in 9:45, which turns out to be good for second place in his age group. It was, he says, a perfect day. The trail was perfect (there was rain earlier in the week, so the trail was packed but not muddy), the weather was perfect (sunny, but cool for the riders, not too hot). In fact, the insane course record set by Lance last year (30 minutes faster than the old course record) was broken again today by both Levi and Jeremy.

The only thing I'm feeling bad about is that lost green parka. But John says, follow me, and we walk partway up the block to a little coffee shop. He walks in while I hold his bike, and he walks back out with the parka. He had, wisely, stashed it inside, in the back, early in the morning. All that's left now is to head back to Frank's. John chooses to ride the mile or so back to the other side of town. I walk back to the truck, and then drive cross town. And here's the thing about Leadville today: the bike rocks. John is comfortably back at Frank's, lounging in a recliner by the time I even get to the truck. It's a great day to be on a bike.