Trouble is I had never mentioned this to my husband or anyone else for that matter, because let’s remember, there was NO WAY I was getting in on my first try. Also my credit card (which they took in December and charge automatically in February if you get in) had expired. I got in, but they didn’t even have my money. I could get out of this scot-free. I almost didn’t even tell Erik (I had told him after last year’s Ironman, “No long stuff next year. Promise.”) I truly thought I was being honest, so I don’t consider it a lie-again let’s remember I wasn’t going to get in this year.
I decided to tell Erik and leave it up to him. After two days of going through all the pros and cons and reservations and issues and this and that, my husband told me, “Do it. I don’t want to put out your fire.” So I started training that day.
Wednesday, 3 days OUT
Then there is the question of endurance: my longest rides this year were an early season May MTB race of 52 miles which took 6:50 in the mud (and relative flat) of Stewart State Forest, and the Whiteface Leadville qualifier which was 57 miles with as much elevation gain as Leadville (sans altitude) which took 5:58. I have many shorter, more intense rides under my belt and have tried to climb as many hills as I can find in the Bergen County vicinity, but I have not been in the saddle for more than 6:50 at a stretch (and that was almost 3 months ago). One day a few weeks ago I climbed the local “Boat Basin” hill, a 1.3 mile climb which averages a moderate 7%, TEN TIMES to try to simulate climbing Mt. Columbine, an 10 mile climb in the LT100 which takes riders like me 2 ½ hours to ascend. I did these repeats on dead legs after a 4:30 day of riding which included Bear Mountain. Is it enough? Am I fast enough to cover the 103.5 miles at that kind of altitude in under 12 hours? Can I even ride 12 hours, almost doubling my longest ride? I have no idea. I think so. I tell myself I know so, but how can I know-I don’t know anyone personally who has done this race-so I have no personal stories or direct comparisons of my fitness compared to theirs. Can I ride just about half as fast as Lance Armstrong who finished in 6:30 in 2010? Lance averaged 15+ mph. I have to average 8.7. Sounds doable on paper. I have never seen the course other then the DVD and some video that’s out there-I will not be able to pre-ride the course since I will get into town only 48 hours prior. Will I get altitude sickness? Even if I don’t get sick, how much slower will I be at that elevation than at sea level? Will I acclimate even a little in 2 days? Everyone is different when it comes to this so there is no way to tell what my body will do.
This entire thing is the unknown. On one hand-it’s terribly exciting, on another-a frightful prospect to embark on this epic ride with so little knowledge of what it’s going to take and if I possess it. I always knew I would finish each Ironman I have done, even the first one. This is the first race I have ever done where finishing is NOT a given.
The only thing I have to possibly rely on is my experience with Ironman and other endurance races. I am a tortoise, the Energizer bunny-I always have been-I can keep going and going-but I am not naturally fast (fast I have to work for). I have to believe that my natural endurance will serve me in the second half of the race when I will be out there longer than I have ever been on a bicycle (8.5 hours is my record, on the road, last Spring). I have to believe that my training, which lacked any truly epic rides, but included a tremendous focus on becoming strong enough to climb these mountains well without blowing up-will have me making the cut-offs and coming down that finish line prior to 6:30 PM. I am a stronger rider than I have been in years. I am a better mountain biker than I have ever been. I have to believe that I deserve to be out there on one of the toughest courses in the sport and that I will arrive home with a cool silver belt buckle to award my mettle. If I earn that buckle, it’s in huge part creditable to my unbelievably supportive husband, who puts up with the craziness of my quest to do things that most people can’t. I love you, Erik. And if I don’t finish, Ryder says, “It’s okay, Mommy.” But Ryder tells me he really really wants me to finish. So I guess I have no choice.
Thursday 48 hours to go
We arrived at Denver International Airport at 11PM and I drove with virtual toothpicks holding my eyes open until 3AM eastern time to arrive at the condo in Copper Mountain. Erik said it was good training for the race, I have to agree.
RACE CHECK-IN in Leadville. Wait in line. Talk to competitors. General consensus was:
1. Everyone had been there acclimating for a week- some 10 days to two weeks. I had been there 8 hours.
2. Everyone had pre-ridden the key parts of the course including Columbine (10 mile climb up to 12,600 ft) and St. Kevin’s. Some rode up Columbine twice. I had not nor would see any part of the course prior to Saturday.
With my persistent congestion, travel fatigue, dead legs, lack of acclimation and course knowledge, I actually pondered whether starting the race was a smart idea. A short ride around Leadville had me gasping for air on any small incline at a snail’s pace. What was I thinking???? I tried to keep negative thoughts from my head but it was almost impossible. On a positive, I was staying very hydrated with lots of water with electrolytes added. I was trying to control what I could control, and that was one thing I could certainly do. There was no excuse to be dehydrated.
Back to the condo. NAP. Dinner prepared by my unbelievable husband. Back to bed shortly after. Woke the next morning. Heart rate 58 BPM, about 8 beats higher than my sea level norm. Felt more rested but after breakfast could have gone back to sleep.. Walking around my breath felt less labored (until I walked uphill or stairs) and my legs felt a little stronger than the day before. Back to Leadville for the race meeting we went.
RACE MEETING <24 hours to go
What a meeting! Having seen both documentaries, seeing the people from the films milling around the room was surreal. Rebecca Rusch, Dave Weins, Ken (the race founder) and his wife, and all the “regular” people profiled in the films-I was there in that famous gym about to be a part of history it felt. The speeches were inspiring and my confidence grew. Among some great quotes were, “When the Navy Seals quit, YOU can quit.” (a team of Seals raced this year). And the classic Ken quote which we all had to repeat, “I commit, I won’t quit,” and “You are better than you think you are.” One thing that struck me about this race meeting was the camaraderie among the racers, both seasoned and first timers. As a long time triathlete this was something I haven’t experienced since the mid to late 90’s when I first entered the fledgling sport. It has since been tainted by money, marketing, branding, mounds of unnecessary gear, and “me monster” over-competitive age-groupers who take it all and themselves way too seriously. Here in Leadville, it was different. People were friendly, open, and helpful. Even the fast people. I felt welcome here. Today I felt a sense of hope, I was going to show up in the morning and do my best, I can do this thing!
Got to bed pretty well considering. Up at 4AM to eat. Yogurt, ½ banana, small amount of coffee. Then I almost threw up and got horrific stomach cramps. Nerves? I dunno, but I took two Pepto pills to get rid of it and it worked by the time I left Copper in the dark to venture to the start. Started in the back of the pack-first timers were corralled last and, trying not to start too aggressively, I even lined up close to the back of my corral. This was my first mistake of the day. It was chilly, low 40’s, but I thought it would be stupid to overdress for a few miles of cold before the first climb so I wore only arm warmers in addition to my normal bike shorts and jersey.
The shot gun fired and we didn’t move an inch for over a minute. I joked, “This is easy!” and my corral buddies laughed. We slowly rolled passed the start line, which evidently took me 2 min 15 seconds according to the timing results. Downhill on the roads for three miles, with several almost dead stops due to the congestion had my teeth chattering and hands and toes completely numb. I didn’t worry about the slow start-everyone says this can’t ruin your race-but perhaps these pundits who said this don’t count on every minute to make the cut-off.
Finally we hit some dirt and again, soft pedaling for miles with the masses all the way to the first climb, St. Kevin’s. It was easy. The only hard part was being behind hundreds of people for whom it was not easy. I am lucky I have been getting better at my track stand because I was able to clean the climb without putting my foot down hovering behind people walking their bikes ALREADY! I told myself this was fine, I had a long day ahead and going extra slow on this climb would keep me honest. Well maybe it did, but maybe this was the second place (after starting so far back in my corral) that I could have gained a minute or two which, in the end, would have made the difference. Good thing is that I could feel my hands and toes again by the time I got to the top.
The next major climb is Sugar Loaf-also nothing major—it’s early in the race—it’s just a long gradual 4 miles or so. Here I could enjoy the scenery as we climbed higher and could see all the beauty below. I was with many riders and was not worried about the pace, but here lies mistake #3-I should have been. I had no idea that my goal time was already in danger, so I just kept spinning up the hill trying to enjoy the ride and the view.
Next up, Powerline descent. The infamous downhill where there are always crashes and mechanicals. This was by far the most fun part of the race-almost 4 miles down hill on what I consider “real” mountain biking terrain-not wimpy fire road. I passed a few hundred people taking the hard lines to get by. I couldn’t believe how slow people were going, maxing out their breaks, hesitating on every bump and rock. These were not mountain bikers I thought to myself. Whiz whiz down the hill, smiling all the way down (and trying not to think of having to come back up 6 hours from now).
You hit the road and get in a paceline for a few miles until the 28 mile Pipeline aid station-my goal was to get there in 2:35 or so. I arrived at 2:55, twenty minutes behind the goal. “Wow,” I thought, “I really took it too easy at the beginning.” I had trusted that since I was still in a mass of riders I was fine. I was still optimistic that 12 hours was in the realm of possibilities but it was already looking like a long shot. I didn’t even stop for food even though I was running low because I didn’t want to lose any more time and I figured it was only an hour until the next aid station, where Erik would be waiting.
Onward to the first official cutoff: 40 miles at Twin Lakes where I would see Erik before climbing Mt. Columbine. Get there in 4 hours or your day is over. Onward and somewhat upward I went out of Pipeline aid station. The last few miles before Twin Lakes is a nice stretch of single track-non-technical switchbacks on California-like sandy dirt. I ended up in a conga-line of 12 less-than-able mountain bikers taking their time down a mile or two of the little singletrack in the whole course. Problem is none of them would allow any of the faster riders to pass. At this point I got MAD. We were very close to not making the four hour cut and if getting caught behind people who are STR (“scared to ride”) was going to cause me to not make Twin Lakes on time, I was going to blow my top. Well, even behind the roadies, I made it with 6 ½ minutes to spare and there was my knight in shining armor with my full bladder and more food!
At this point I was pretty certain I was not going to buckle. I have looked at the splits. No one who doesn’t make it to Twin Lakes in 3:40 or less does. But there was no point on dwelling on this, I actually wanted to see this Columbine monster and get up it, however long it took. At this point, I saw the leaders coming down-flying down-they are 20 miles in front of me already—must be nice I thought! So up and up I go, trying to conserve knowing it would take me 2:35 to get to the top if I was going to get back on pace to buckle. Many people were walking, some were stopped with their heads down on the handlebars. I felt strong enough to keep riding. My goal was to make it to the tree line where I knew all but the best riders had to hike-a-bike most of the rest of the way. I did it…I rode up to where the trees were thinning and the road ramped up and got very rocky and got off—that’s almost 8 miles-I have never gone uphill for 8 miles, ever, and that was cool. I walked almost the last 2 miles while the air got thinner and thinner and the sun got hotter and hotter. I got a headache during that time and had a hard time pushing the bike more than 1.5 mph or I would gasp for air. That two miles took me an hour but seemed like three. I felt a great deal of despair to be so close to the top for so long and to see so many descending before me. I got to the top of Columbine in 6 hours and 48 minutes, a 30-40 minutes slower than my goal. I rested a brief spell while they rationed the few ounces of liquid they had left for us-yes-they ran out of WATER! I drank some chicken soup, ate a few pieces of watermelon, thought about peeing but opted to wait (no time to spare and no cover or port-o-potty in sight), and started my descent.
It took 40 minutes to go down what it took almost three hours to ascend. Believe it or not, this is TIRING! I have old school rim brakes and my hands were completely numb from the constant breaking but somehow still functioning. I took the chance to shake them out on flatter sections and hoped my triceps and back would hold up under the constant contraction. I couldn’t believe my legs took me all the way up what I was now seeing on the way down. Was feeling pretty good about myself even though my goals were out the window, and I knew I would make the 8 hour Twin Lakes cut off without difficulty. At 7:37 I rolled through Twin Lakes and saw Erik again. I said, “I can’t believe I climbed that [expletive] mountain.” He lubed my dusty chain and gave me what was left of my gels and clif shot blocks, gave me a full bladder of water and sent me on my way. I was feeling positive about now, the race was more than half way over I made up a little time on the Columbine descent and it was still possible to finish in mid 12’s which at that point I would have to live with. Back the way I came onward to the Pipeline Aid station, where I told Erik to meet me since it was not 100% I would make it there before the 9 hour mark if I couldn’t keep riding strong.
This stretch is not hard but does involve a decent gain in elevation over a 12 mile stretch. It took me 1:15 minutes to get to Pipeline and I cruised through at 8:53:56—6 minutes shy of the cut off. I will be honest that I didn’t want to make that cut off-I wanted it to be over. Even small climbs were starting to be taxing and require huge effort. Making it all the way back to Leadville seemed like it was not in the realm of possibility that day. All I had to do was slow down and I wouldn’t make it under 9 and I could stop. “Just slow down,” the devil on my shoulder said, “just a little, and you’ll be in a nice truck home in a few minutes.” My defiant legs wouldn’t listen to the voice and kept pedaling as fast as they could go. I told Erik at the aid station that I wanted to stop. He told me, “No, you can’t stop. Now get going.” I got going.
Out of Pipeline is that nice flat stretch of road-I was looking forward to that except that I now had company-a lovely headwind. I was practically alone-no one to draft behind-I was on my own with this wind. I tried to laugh at the situation but it was a machinated effort and I really didn’t find it funny. In the distance I can see this mountain off the left side of the road with powerline towers sticking up out of the trees going up all the way to the top. That’s it. That’s the POWERLINE, all..the..way..up…there. That’s where I am headed. Hmmm. As they say about this climb, “You just gotta get it done”.
So off the road and onto the Powerline I went. 78 miles and 9 ½ hours into my ride I had to go up almost 4 miles of mostly unrideable trail. It was 1 hour and 20 minutes of hell. I was not sure where it ended—remember I don’t know the course and even descending it earlier had become a blur in my mind. I tried to ride when I could-but mostly it was pointless-not worth the time and energy to get back on only to ride a few feet and have to get back off. When I walked I tried to walk “with purpose” but here there were spots I had to pause-for the first time in the race-I had to stop for seconds-had to pull it together mentally and give my legs a chance to be still. I won’t call it a “rest” because it didn’t help them feel better-they just had to stop moving-just be still for a few moments before I called on them again. I am not much of a cry-baby, but I did feel the urge to cry at a few points. The hardest part was almost at the top, I saw not one-but two-ATV race vehicles assisting other riders. All I had to do was get on and get a ride home. “It could be over right now,” the devil on my shoulder said. “Just get on.” I trudged by, trying to feel triumphant that the other riders quit and I had not. I made it to the top and was rewarded with another triceps, hand and back numbing descent down Sugar Loaf which threatened to end my race if I couldn’t stay focused enough to ride it safely, pick the right lines and keep my eyes in focus.
I made it safely onto the last major climb-it was road so it should be easy enough, right? A four mile climb, 11:15 and 87 miles into the race (for those who know it-this climb was very comparable to Bear Mountain-1/2 mile shorter, similar grade). It almost broke me. I can’t believe a road almost broke me, but it did. I didn’t remember it being a 4 mile descent outbound, I had no idea. It just never ended, just kept going and going and the few riders who were left out there didn’t know where it ended either. I was miserable and barely pedaling, but what choice did I have at that point? I can ride Bear Mtn. easily in under 30 minutes (on a road bike), this shorter climb took me 43 minutes, I was toast. My eyes kept closing and I would almost nod off only to jerk my head up and squint my eyes back into focus (my drive from the Denver airport had served me well!). By the time I crested it and started descending my GPS read 12 hours, I imagined the last finisher crossing the line, and felt sad it wasn’t me. I had failed. I was 11 miles from the finish (the last part of the course is different and extends the race distance to 103.5 miles). I had to average 11 mph to get home in 13 hours. I knew the last 3.5 miles was uphill, yay.
I was back almost where I started at 6:30 this morning-St. Kevin’s which seemed like days ago! Down down down trying to enjoy the last descent of the day without having a sloppy crash. Trying to keep my chin up that 13 hours was in reach, I could still get a medal and a time. A few riders would pass or ride with me, we tried to keep up the morale and push each other to the finish. I was honestly riding as hard as I could, as slow as I seemed to be going. At one point about 3 miles from home I actually had an “out of body” experience of sorts. For a moment I was not on my bike, rather I was with Erik at the finish..it was so REAL. A blink of an eye later I was staring at my handlebars, at the picture of the boys smiling at me, right where I had been all along. I was freaked out and a bit scared at what might happen in those last few miles but I kept riding still thinking that 13 hours was possible if I kept going. As I turned on the last stretch of road to the finish I knew it was not going to happen. Unlike last year in Idaho at the Ironman, where I somehow eked out what it took to come in under 13 while having a terrible race, this year it was not going to happen. I rode up that hill with the red carpet in sight-happy to see that the clock was still ticking and there were still people there-and Erik was whistling his loudest which I could hear over all of it. I crossed the line in 13:05:13, which means my official chip time would have been 13:02:28, less than three minutes shy of a time. 62:58 off the buckle.
How did I feel? Not quite coherent, but pissed at the same time, beyond exhausted and at that point I was pretty complacent about my time. I didn’t care, I was finally finished. As I crossed the line, the guy handed me a medal. I knew technically I shouldn’t have gotten one. I almost didn’t take it, but then I did. I did do the entire distance and cross the finish line, against incredible mental and physical cues not to, and I figured I deserved a medal to commemorate it. The first thing I said to Erik was, “Get this thing away from me,” trying to uncouple myself with the bike that I had been grafted to for 13+ hours. The bike that never failed me by the way-not a flat tire or broken spoke. Only once dropped my chain and it was likely my fault for being in the wrong gear at the wrong time. To that I owe my husband and brother-in-law much gratitude-for building new wheels, replacing both derailleurs, stem, cables, saddle, seat post, brake pads, chain and putting so much effort into making sure it was me, not the bike that would be the cause of missing my mark.
I would also like to thank my gastrointestinal system, for stomaching a gel or clif shot block each half hour, and multiple electrolyte pills without complaint, even if the caffeine combined with the race had me up past midnight with a heart rate of 80 BPM unable to sleep. I fell off my nutrition schedule at the end but otherwise, I don’t feel like nutrition or hydration played a major role in my failure to keep up the pace.
What’s next? Will I go back? Nothing is ever 100%, but I would have to say yes. This race is extremely hard-this was absolutely the hardest thing I have ever attempted-perhaps trumping natural childbirth (although I think that is getting longer and longer ago that my memory may be fading). BUT, it is so utterly doable. Looking back to my preparation: I started from practically ZERO 5.5 months ago, lost valuable training time along the way-especially in the key month of July, my training lacked any long rides, I had no idea of how to gauge if I was actually ready or what to do to GET ready, and of course did not arrive early to acclimate. I was congested (and I think now I have bronchitis) and my legs were not 100%. And in terms of the race itself: I started in the back and was overly casual the first stretch of the race. None of these are meant to be "excuses", just things I will do better next time (at least the ones I can control).
All endurance events are raced better by experienced competitors-having done this race once I am quite sure I could complete the race in 12 hours knowing what I know now. I think 2013 sounds like a good year...
|If a picture is worth a thousand words, you probably could have skipped the blog. This pretty much tells the story.|