Monday, August 13

To Have the Apprentice Dig Deep

Let me preface this whole post by saying I'm content with my effort. I had a great day and a great support team. It was one of the best experiences of my life. The Leadville Chronicles are not over yet.

"Dig deep" is an apt mantra for the Leadville Trail 100 MTB race. If you dig deep enough you'll find the bottom...the bottom of your soul. You'll learn things about yourself. You'll forge tools you can use to get through lesser trials in your life. You'll strip yourself bare to the bones and see who you really are. If you finish...I can't say, but if you dig so deep and push so hard, but fall short of the finish...then you know where the bottom is.

I kept digging. I kept digging for 87 miles, 9 hours and  40  minutes, and thousands and thousands of feet of climbing and descending. And that's when I hit the rock bottom. There was nowhere else to go.

As I lay by the side of Turquoise Lake Road sobbing in my wife's arms and she asked me if I was okay I held her hand, said yes, that I just needed to climb back out and I'd be fine.

I didn't get a buckle, but I got so much more.

I've ridden St Kevin's. I've descended Powerline without flatting. I've screamed across Pipeline, passing dozens and dozens of riders. I made the long slog up Columbine Mine, riding some and walking some. And then I made the insane 3,000' and 7 mile descent back to Twin Lakes. I made the cutoffs: Twin Lakes outbound by more than half an hour, Twin Lakes inbound by just under half an hour, and inbound Pipeline by 14 minutes...and I kept going strong. Looking back up Powerline hurt. Physically, mentally and emotionally it beat me down, but yet, my body wasn't broken. The fuel was gone. The electrolytes were gone. After three miles of mostly walking, as my overall average speed slowed, I noticed my fellow racers were quiet and somber. We were all in some lonely place, some place confronting some private demon, some solitary hurt. I think we all knew we were beginning to lose the clock. Powerline was as quiet as a funeral procession.

That long, long, long climb up gives you a lot of time to consider what lies ahead. After Powerline there is a fast, but rough, descent to Hagerman Pass Road, and then just a short cruise out to the paved Turquoise Lake Road. From there it's less than 20 miles with only about 1,200' of climbing. Only.

I didn't hurt. Oh, I ached here and there.  I was tired. But my body hadn't reached its limit. Except my energy was gone. My muscles were cramping, being depleted of vital nutrients. I knew from my last aid station stop there was no food left with my crew that could boost me to the finish line.

My first fatal mistake was a lapse in my eating in the week leading up to Leadville. I did so well carb loading the week before Corona Pass. So well. I did half as well prior to Leadville. And...and I didn't lay off my activity levels. I wasn't truly carb loading. I rode to work. I rode a 20 mile scouting trip over and DOWN Powerline on Thursday. I'd planned on riding St Kevin's on Friday and I'm glad I didn't. Friday was so hectic I didn't eat enough. I ate less than I would've on a normal day in the life. That was partly nerves and partly because of the chaos.

My second fatal mistake was choosing to camp instead of sleep in a bed the night before. The yayhoos camping next to us kept me awake until 11:30 on Friday night, and then after I had it out with them, almost coming to blows, I was too keyed up to sleep. I managed about an hour and a half of restless sleep. It had rained earlier in the night as well. This mistake was really the lesser of the three, but I think the most avoidable in terms of decision making on my part.

My final fatal mistake I take full credit for. At Pipeline inbound I made the decision with my crew to ditch my hydration pack for two waterbottles and some food in my jersey pockets. They took my pack and I scrubbed the brief tears away and growled as I powered away toward Powerline. I felt strong.

Then I remembered my bib number was attached to my pack. We'd even talked about that the night before. As I was deciding where to put the number I told them if I were to ditch the pack we'd need to put my number on my jersey. I forgot at Pipeline and remembered too late. Then I was paranoid someone would see me or they'd catch it at the finish and I'd be disqualified. It was an honest mistake, but I'd broken a rule.

When I got off the bike as Powerline steepened I texted them and said I needed them to meet me just past Hagerman Pass Road so I could get the bib number before Carter Summit Aid Station. They were on their way.

I still had to get over Powerline. And I knew they'd be waiting for me there. Dangerous knowledge...

As I suffered up Powerline and considered the hard, soul-crushing climb back up the north side of Turquoise Lake Road I found my out. I wrestled hard with that demon, but in the end the physical fight took precedent over the mental fight and Leadville was lost. Coming down Sugarloaf, the backside of Powerline, I knew I was beaten. I hurt then. Sugarloaf beat me flesh and bone. Every rock hit me like a steel-toed boot in the face, the rear, the back, the neck. When the thought would enter my mind: I can't do it! I'd counter with "Dig deep!" "Don't quit!" and all the other mantras I could think of. I thought of the buckle. I thought of Ken's speech on Friday night. I thought of Lance Armstrong's talk about how in 2008 as he rounded Turquoise Lake after Powerline that he told Dave Weins to go on without him. I thought of my family and all they gave and went through to get me there, and when I considered giving up I had to fight nausea and sobs. I had to quit. I couldn't quit. Never quit. I'd already quit.

I turned on the pavement and I was in a truly rocky, and dark, and lonely place. And then I saw Forester Gump on the side of the road and Mandy, her mom and Bean were cheering me on. I was a hundred yards away coasting on the bike and I broke down. It was over.

I've given up in my life before, but never had it been so hard. Never had I given up something I'd won through such monumental effort. I had kept a strong pace to that point despite miles of walking at 2-3 mph up Columbine and Powerline.

My mistake was having them meet me where the hurt was deepest. I should have had them meet me at the bottom of St Kevin's. I'd have suffered more, I'd have slowed more, and I'd have been been beaten worse. But after St Kevin's there's only one more short climb to the finish. Less than five miles, so much less to fight against. I made a bad call. And I paid for it bad.

I dug myself so deep and was buried by the weight of it all. But there is light, and I've climbed out to find a gleaming ray of golden light. I swore to my wife I'd not put her through all this again, that I'd get my buckle and be satisfied. But there was no buckle to take home.

She told me on Sunday: "I've decided you're finishing next year."

Having not volunteered this year I'll be at the mercy of the lottery. So I looked into the qualifiers. On September 15 the Alpine Odyssey 100K will take place in Crested Butte. I'm signing up.

If I don't make it that way I'll go into the lottery. If I don't make the lottery I'll try to find a way to get into another qualifier. If I can't do that I'll volunteer next summer and ride in 2014. I want that buckle. I want to know what it feels like to cross that finish line, to have Merilee put that medal around my neck, and then to wear that monster buckle around my skinny middle. I'll cry like a baby, but I won't care.

And when I cross the finish it will be so much sweeter because I had to go so much deeper to get there. bittersweet. Lesson learned, but consequences suffered.

I have to thank my SAG crew, Mandy, her mom and dad Tom and Laurie and my wonderful children Boone and Lily. I only accomplished what I did with their help. I rode at about an 11 hour pace right up to the bitter end. They pushed me there and gave me strength I could never have mustered alone. Mandy supported me the last two years in this pursuit, and I think only she knows what this means to me. And now it means a lot to me to succeed for her.

I have to thank my fellow riders. It's worth it because you become a part of the great Leadville family. I had such a great day meeting new people and sharing such a mind-boggling experience with them. Ricky MacDonald, you're inspirational. I hope you never break yourself or your bike. Dave and Rebecca, you're the true champions no matter who comes in first place. Never give up on Leadville. To Lance, you inspire on such a huge magnitude its indescribable. Im going to read It's Not About the Bike again this year. To Gracie Ragland, you just keep going out there and kicking butt and showing us all how to have fun, you truly do inspire me. I'm thankful I got to chat with you going up Columbine Mine. To Dave from Springfield, IL, I hope you finished, and of you didn't I hope to see you again next year. To the dad from Rexburg, Idaho, I'm going to try your drop bar setup in my training rides. To the singlespeed drafter, and all those who liked drafting behind my stress-related weight are welcome. Fatboy can block the wind.

To the volunteers...thank you so much for your hard work. I did it last year, so I know what it's like. If you did it to boost your chances, I wish you the best. If you did it just because, you're my heros. To the lady at Carter Summit where I turned in my chip, you're an angel and I love you. Quitting never felt so good.

Mandy and I talked a lot on the drive home. I kept reassuring her I was fine. I'd made peace with the failure. I'd done so much and so well. 87 miles above 10,000' and climbing so freakin' much in less than 10 hours is no small effort. I had no corporate sponsor, not a shred of carbon fiber, I had the twenty pounds I'd sworn to lose, and all of the hurdles an average guy with average problems can face. To those who don't think you could do something like this: if I can do it, you can do it. Or, as Ken says: you're better than you think you are and you can do more than you think you can.

I learned so much. I had an incredible experience. I'm a better, tougher, faster and more resilient person now. I know how to dig deep. I know how to suffer and keep going. By next August I will be the master of pain. I'll be ready to go back and finish this truly beautiful leg of my journey.

Thank you, Dear Readers, for indulging my obsession, for following along, for rooting for me, the tweets and comments of encouragement, the silent support, and hopefully, in all this, with my words and my willingness to suffer for your sake, hopefully I can inspire you to tackle the big things in your life you don't think you can do. That's how this all started for me, with the simple though: I could never do that.

I don't think that anymore.

Feeling absolutely amazing at Pipeline outbound

For those who prefer the album: 
Leadville Trail 100 MTB 2012


  1. Chris, I just want you to know that I'm sitting here crying while reading your post. While I do cry a lot, it is always for good reason. I'm not crying because you didn't finish the Leadville, but because this is truly inspirational and motivational. We're not all born or built as athletes, and to see someone who is striving so hard to complete something, not get to the finish line, know all the suffering that goes along with it, and then commit to doing it until you finish - well, that is what makes me smile (and cry at the same time). Congratulations on a valiant effort and I look forward to reading how the qualifier goes, and ultimately reading about you finishing Leadville.

  2. G.E., thank you so much. Y'know, I worried I'd not be able to convey anything about the experience. And when I didn't finish, that was one thing I really worried would I write this up? How would I come back, sit down in front of the keyboard and tell the faceless people who read this that, despite all my braggadocio that I'd failed?

    I appreciate your comment so much. I don't feel like I failed on Saturday. I didn't cross the finish but I did so many things right. So many things went so well. I rode so fast, so strong and I was having the time of my life. Knowing that my post moved you in some way makes me feel like I succeeded even more.

    I maintain that there is no way to truly convey the experience to anyone. The only way to know what's its like is to do it yourself. Period. I can't make you feel how I felt on Powerline, or even at mile 40 when it seemed like it was so much farther to go and I was feeling it, with Columbine still ahead, and the return trip up Powerline. I can describe it, but you'll never feel it like I felt it. As hard as it was, I wish everyone could do it though.

    Thank you, for reading, for the support, G.E. and everyone, and hopefully for understanding. This journey is far from over.

    1. It definitely comes across that you've already achieved much, and now, you just want that moment of finishing. You have the determination to get there... and you will achieve your goal, I'm certain. Fortunately, it seems like you have a wonderful support system at home to keep you going. It's difficult to describe a physical challenge to others who haven't experienced it, but you did a wonderful job of conveying a lot of what you must've experienced. As stated prior, I look forward to reading about the next stages and you ultimately getting to the end.

      On a side note, I think you're ongoing adventure has encouraged my husband to try for Leadville next year. He's looking at doing a qualifying ride next month to see if he can make it in.

  3. If he's thinking of doing the Alpine Odyssey in Crested Butte that would be pretty cool! I'm gonna try to sign up this afternoon.

    1. I'll have to ask and find out for sure... I just know he's very worked up about it because it's soon, so that could be the same one.