As soon as I saw, “Race Across the Sky,” I needed to do the Leadville Trail 100. I knew finishing it would make me stronger mentally and kind of give me a new beginning, so to speak. And I really needed it.
I had been struggling with chronic testicular pain from an inguinal hernia that damaged some nerves. I was unable to work and sometimes unable to ride because the pain was so unbearable. Most days, I’d try to get on the bike anyway – to help my mental state I had gone through numerous surgeries to try to rectify the problem, but nothing had worked. Regardless, I was determined not to let the pain get the better of me. I put my name in the lottery for the 2011 race, and then I had to withdraw my name because I needed another surgery and would not have enough time to train properly. Needless to say, I was devastated. My dream seemed to be going up in flames before my eyes. I begged my wife to let me fly to Colorado to ride the course – just for “fun” (and theoretically as a pre-ride) – and fortunately she agreed. I rode each section of the course and tracked my time, to try to give myself a feel for what was hopefully to come.
I could not have been more anxious for November to arrive, so I could register for the 2012 race; I had started training as if I was already accepted. During a training ride in October, as I descended a fire road I’ve ridden more times than I can count, an off-leash dog ran out of the bushes where he’d been hiding and directly in front of my front wheel. Despite my best effort to redirect, I hit the dog and flew over the bars, landing on my right shoulder and head. Right after I hit the ground, I knew something was wrong. I had never experienced that much pain before (and I was already pretty accustomed to dealing with pain). Ends up I had a right clavicle fracture and 4 broken ribs from the back. The new team bike was only 2 weeks old and had only 4 rides on her and now she was totaled; the fork was bent, and the frame was compromised because of the impact. I needed surgery to reconstruct my collarbone, and ended up having to stay in the hospital for four days.
Now I was at an all time low, wondering whether my bad luck was ever going to end and when I’d be able to get my normal life back. But there was a bright side of this debacle: I now had a new pain specialist, who was able to reduce the testicular pain from a constant 7 (on a scale of 1 to 10) to a 1.
Fast forward to February, when I got the good news that I got into Leadville! After a few days in shock that I actually got in, the nervousness kicked in. “Oh crap! Now I have to do all this hard work to train.” But I knew I was up for the challenge! In my mind, the only way to do well was to train hard 6 days a week, and I was fortunate to be able to do just that. I have my wife Michelle to thank for that, as well as the support of my team, Giant Factory- Off-Road Team. She understood how important this was for me, and my ability to close the book on this 4-year chapter of our lives. She sacrificed her needs so I could accomplish this goal, and for that I am eternally grateful.
My training schedule would consist of three 50 milers: the Catalina Gran Fondo 50, and both Big Bear 50’s. I had never done a 50 mile MTB race before, so this was definitely going to be a change. But after doing the Catalina 50, I knew this type of racing was what I was meant to be doing. I felt good, and strong, and ready to tackle whatever came next. (Too bad I did not do this earlier. All those years of racing Cat 1 MTB races and struggling to be in the top 5, turns out I’m a diesel). Three weeks before the race, I packed my car with my hard tail and full suspension 29ers, and basically my whole shop. I arrived in Leadville on July 28th withthunderstorms overhead. So I took advantage by puting both bikes together and unpacked everything. The next morning I went out and pre-rode St. Kevin’s and Powerline. The next few days I stayed on the northwest side of the course, did my homework and got use to the altitude. I chose to leave the southern parts of the course for later in the week. I felt great so far, and the altitude really had not affected me all that much besides a few light nose bleeds.
Thursday was the day to see what my legs could do up Columbine at 12,650 ft. in altitude. The weather was perfect that day with no threat of thunderstorms, so I drove out to twin lakes dam and started the course there. I climbed the whole climb and did not even have to dab. The breathing was easy, no burn or anything; it kind of felt like I was at around 8,000ft. After a fast descent – oh how I like those! – I went back to the hotel and downloaded my garmin to my strava and training peaks. I had cut my time by 25 minutes! Guess all that training paid off!
The night before the race, it started to rain pretty hard and continued through out the night. This was going to make the course a little slower. That morning it was blue skies everywhere! The 40% chance of thunderstorms was looking good for the whole day. I warmed up at 5:30 am on the dark streets of Leadville, with all the other racers getting ready . The temp was not too bad – I put heating oil on my legs and wore knee warmers, a light under layer, arm warmers and a vest as well as cold weather gloves. I’d gotten up early a couple of mornings to get used to the temperature conditions, so I knew exactly what to wear to warm up and what to ditch once I was ready. We had to be in our corrals by 6:15 for a 6:30 start. I finished my warm-up around 6:15 and headed toward the green corral. I was surprised to see that there was still plenty of room in my corral; I found my spot on the left side and middle of the group. Leadville Race Series system for corrals was Gold, Silver, Red, Green, Purple,Orange, Blue and finally White.
I was ready for this thing to start. The sun was coming up behind us over the mountains. We got the motivational speech, “You are better than you think you are. You can do more than you think you can.” Then the gun went off and 1,880 racers were off. It took about 3 minutes for each rider to cross the start line. We had some what of a neutral start, but some people, including me, were moving their way up toward the front. As we hit the dirt, there was an unexpected mud hole with a big rock hiding in the middle, the first of many mud holes that we had to avoid. About the 5th guy in front of me was the victim of hitting that big rock and landing in the mud hole. Luckily I was on the far left so I was able to go right around with out any problem. Then as we made the left turn up St. Kevin’s, man was it jammed, so I settled in and accepted that there was no way any one was going to move up quickly. One guy was hell-bent on getting up to the front, yelling at everyone as he tried to pass I eventually decided to let him by because I knew I’d be passing him at mile 40 or so. The race continued more-or-less as planned, and I just kept putting one foot in front of the other. An hour in, just after the right turn on to the long road descent toward May Queen campground and Hagerman’s pass, I decided it was time to get a bonk bar down; I replenished the fuel tank while descending at 45 miles an hour. Man that was so fun. It was amazing how many spectators were all spread out throughout the course; it really helped. It started to get warmer as we climbed up to Hagerman’s pass, so it was time to shed some clothing. The knee warmers came off, but I left on the arm warmers and the vest (I dumped the vest and the cold weather gloves at the Pipeline aid station). Hagerman’s Pass spread out the field, separating the men from the boys. That meant less traffic on the Powerline descent – something I’d been worried about before the race – which also meant I could really let loose and I cleaned it, which felt amazing. We encountered a strong head wind as we turned on to the pavement toward the fish hatchery, so it was not going to be an easy task to conserve energy. Luckily I found myself in a small group of three with a bigger group a bit further up the road. It took a while, but the three of us worked together to get up to that group, then continued to pull through the pace line until we hit the right turn into the jeep track leading to Pipeline. I made sure that I stayed between 140 and 155 heart rate through out most of the race. It took awhile to catch the group that was ahead of us . Then it was a single file line all the way to the beginning of Pipeline and the first aid station. Michelle was my one woman support crew, and I’d outfitted her with everything I’d need at each pit. I stopped and threw down my knee warmers, vest and gloves, as well as my two empty bottles. At that first pit, I was nearly 20 minutes ahead of my expected time! Michelle put two replenished bottles on the bike, and I grabbed two gels and a bonk bar and took off.
The next section heading to Twin lakes seemed to go on forever even though it only took just 45 minutes. The only exciting part was the only single track on the whole course. Then it was just dirt access roads to twin lakes, and of course we had a headwind all the way to twin lakes. As we were heading down the hill the twin lake aid station appeared, with pits before and after the dam I ended up passing the Herbalife pit where I was supposed to meet Michelle so I had to double back, which was pretty frustrating. I managed to find it only to discover that I’d beat Michelle to the pit; guess I was flying. So one of the Herbalife guys filled my one water bottle and off I went again. We rode across the ranches, and then made the right turn on the road that heads up Columbine Mine. We were starting the section that I loved, and I knew I could handle better than a lot of other people. While we were heading out of the tree line, the first several pros were bombing down, which presented an ongoing challenge because I was trying to pass slower racers but there wasn’t a lot of room. As we were climbing, I got into a good rhythm and felt right at home. I felt confident that I would make the whole climb without having to get off and hike a bike. A few sections were difficult, but in the end it all went smoothly. I was cresting the top of columbine when I saw a good friend heading down the hill. He had started two corrals ahead of me and I was probably 10 minutes or so behind him. So I kicked in gear and headed down to the turn around. I didn’t want to get a chill going down, so I stopped to grab my wind jacket, pulled up my arm warmers and got a move on.
If there’s one place I really excel, it’s descending. And although I know you don’t win a race on the downhills, I knew I could use Columbine to pass a bunch of people. As I was flying by people and trying not to piss them off, I was amazed by the number of people still climbing. My heart went out to the racers that were already walking the lower sections, but I was also proud that they were not giving up. I got into the pits, found Michelle, reloaded what I needed, and got out of there faster than any other pit. I hooked up with another guy – turns out we were in the same category and age group – and we shared doing 2 minute pulls until right before we hit the single track, when 3 other guys joined our party. More the merrier. We motored up the single track thinking we were on pace to be under the 9 hours. This group worked well for about 45 minutes, but unfortunately split up at the next aid station as some of us stopped and others didn’t. I got into pit and got new bottles, and Michelle cleaned my glasses. I grabbed some more gels and was out of there.
Now I was inbound to powerline and facing yet another strong headwind. Not exactly ideal conditions with a brutal climb yet to face at mile 80. But I had prepared myself to hike-a-bike part of powerline, which I did for a few hundred feet before hopping back on the bike. I didn’t get off the bike again. I ended up passing quite a few racers including my good friend, Brain Perkins! I was really surprised, I knew he was stronger than I. It was obvious that he had gone out a little too hard. I hit sugarloaf with force, and made the right turn on Hagerman’s Pass, which felt great. This was a section where I could put the pedal down and stretch out my back a little since it was getting a little tight. I caught up to few people and hung on their wheel. We traded work for the rest of the race except for one of the last big hills. We were approaching the turn off to the trail that leads to St. Kevin’s and there were so many spectators! It was so cool that so many people cheered us on, and at every point of the race. My game plan at this point was to speed it up a bit but leave some gas in the tank for the last 2 miles. I crested St. Kevin’s and attacked the group I was with and never looked back. This was my time to get away. There was no one on the descent so it was perfect – I could fly without slowing down at all. At the bottom I caught a group of 10 racers, but they weren’t going all that fast so I passed them, blown away by the amount of power I still had left in me. Turned left on to the asphalt and then a quick right over the tracks then it was straight for a while until we hit the dirt again. There were quite a few obstacles to avoid, and the last climb had a lot of round stones, kind of like riding on a river bottom. At the end of that section I caught, and then passed, a few more people. I kept saying to myself, “I can do this. You got this Colin!” I put my head down and went 110% percent. I left it all out there in the last mile or so. My heart rate was so high and previous experience with this last little climb told me it would be hard. But for some reason it was not as hard now. The crowds were yelling go, go, go!! Up in the distance I saw it, the finish line and man it looked far away. There was a stop sign probably 400 meters from the red carpet, and that is where I started my sprint. No, I was not sprinting for the win. I was sprinting because I conquered the challenge, and way ahead of the time in which I thought I would finish. I crossed the line with my arms up and the timer read 8:48:59. I did it, I got the plateau grande! The big buckle!!
A volunteer put the finisher’s medal around my neck as I slowed to a stop. I could not believe it. I did it! All that work and sacrifice paid off, finally the gods were on my side. I could not move and did not want to move; I was so spent. Michelle ran up and as soon as I saw her, I started balling like a baby. You watch the movies of this race and you see how emotional the finishers are, and you think that won’t be me, but you are wrong! There’s something about this race that brings out so many powerful emotions – it’s totally amazing. And yes, you put yourself through hell that day and your exhausted and don’t even want to think about getting on a mountain bike, but I can guarantee in 2 months you will be filling out that registration for next year’s Leadville 100 mountain bike race. This experience has helped me become a stronger person, and a better husband and father. Now I am a part of the Leadville 100 family! Yes, I am better than I thought I was. Yes, I can do more than I thought I could. Thank you Ken Chlouber.