Friday, August 26, 2011

Leadville 100: Judgement of the Stars and Moon

A Pacer's Report:

“Alex left Winfield at 4:45.”  Finally, some communication from the mAy Team!  It is 6:00 pm, and I am standing on a quiet street in Leadville, Colorado.  It’s raining ever-so-slightly.  My friend Alex May is running the Leadville100 trail race today.  My wife Celeste is his crew chief, and his family including his wife Ean and our friends are also here helping him out and pacing, including Mindy, Cat, and Kyle.  In fact dozens of my trail running friends are up here this weekend, racing, pacing and crewing, including my friend Lindsey, who was pacing her friend Danny.  And that’s what I’m doing here as well; I’m standing in front of Mike Hinterberg HQ in Leadville, preparing to pace Mike for the final 24 miles of his attempt at the Leadville 100.  Mike has been out on course now for 14 hours and over 60 miles.  At this moment my friend Dan is pacing him from twin Lakes to Fish Hatchery and I’m keeping my fingers crossed that they are keeping dry.  30 minutes ago I left Dan and Mike at the Twin Lakes aid station at mile 60 of the course, and soon I will meet the two of them and take over pacing duties from Dan at the Fish Hatchery aid station at mile 76 of the course, and hopefully bring Mike the rest of the way to the finish line.  But I have a couple of hours to wait, so right now it is time for dinner, a nap, and most importantly a good hot shower.

I needed a shower because although I was getting ready to pace Mike these last 24 miles, Dan and I had already ran a race of our own that very morning; the Pike Peak Ascent.  So we had 13 miles and 7,300 feet of climbing and a lot of accumulated dirt and sweat and drool in the books already.  Dan and I woke up in Colorado Springs that morning at 5:00 am, one hour after Mike and Alex and Danny and more than 600 other participants began their “Leadvillian” quests to run 100 miles in less than 30 hours.  When the gun sounded for our race in Manitou Springs at 7:00 am, they were all ripping through the first aid station at May Queen and making their way up the north shoulder of Sugarloaf Mountain in the cool misty morning air.  At 10:00 am I was climbing the famous “16 golden stairs” at 14,000 feet with less than a mile from the finish of my race, which incidentally featured exploding electrolyte tablets, vomiting, general wooziness, and a nip of lukewarm PBR just below the summit.  It was fun, I assure you.  More on that later.  But while I soaked up the always inspirational view from the summit of Pikes Peak at 10:07 am, Mike, Danny, Alex, et al, were making their way from Fish Hatchery to the village of Twin Lakes, running along the east flanks of two other 14ers, Mount Massive and Mount Elbert.  And while Dan and I drove from Manitou to Leadville Saturday afternoon to meet up with Mike, they were all hoisting themselves 3,000 feet up and over Hope Pass to the turnaround at Winfield, in order to turn right around and come back over that same ironically named pass to Twin Lakes, and back to Leadville.

Quite honestly Dan and I thought we had no business trying to pace an ultra-runner after racing to the top of Pikes Peak, but we wanted to be part of the excitement.  I would have been up at Leadville anyway, just to cheer on Alex and hang out with Celeste, so when Mike asked if I wanted to pace him about a month prior to the actual event, I agreed.  And then I drug Dan into the fray as well, although he didn’t really require much convincing, suffering as he does from the same sort of mental illness as I.

That’s how we found ourselves in Twin Lakes at 3:00 pm that day, waiting for Mike to come back over hope pass so Dan could start running with him.  Dan was getting much less rest than I, having to pace Mike first, but I had to run farther.  I couldn't decide which of us drew the shorter straw, but I wanted to run the later sections to get more experience with night running, in the event I ever decide to do one of these myself someday (that wasn’t a yes, but it wasn’t a no either).

It was hot at twin lakes, hot for 9,000 feet anyway, and I speculated that our runners and indeed all the runners would be having a tough time in the heat.  Some clouds were building in the west, and the shade would be welcome so long as it didn’t develop into anything more serious.  The previous night Leadville got raked by a nasty thunderstorm that lasted several hours.  No one would benefit from a repeat of that tonight, so I kept my fingers crossed and wandered around Twin Lakes in search of a cup of coffee.  I was going to be up late tonight.

Mike arrived at the twin lakes aid station, 60 miles into his race, at about 5:00 pm.  His shoes and socks were soaked from several stream crossings so he decided to sit down and change his socks, which was a wise move.  Barring any deluges from above the rest of the course would be dry, and keeping one’s feet dry is an under-appreciated and important part of long-distance running.  Blisters can ruin your day.  Mike looked really good, particularly considering he’d already ran farther than I have ever run in a single day, and Dan and he trudged up the short sharp slope leading out of Twin Lakes in fine form.

I was really hoping to see Celeste and the mAy team arrive in Twin Lakes before I left, but as it turns out they were still in Winfield at the time, having paced Alex to the turnaround at 4:45 pm.  Although dozens of friends of mine were out on the course, racing, pacing and crewing, I was not able to see them for the most part.  I considered waiting around Twin Lakes until they showed up, but I had to make sure I would be ready to run with Mike later, so I left Twin Lakes on my own and headed back to Team Hinterberg HQ in Leadville for a shower, a burrito, another burrito, and a quick stretch and nap on the floor.  We thought Mike would make it to Fish Hatchery by 9:00 pm so I left Leadville a little before 8:00 pm just to make sure I would be there on time.  Mike’s crew skipped this aid station so I would fulfill crewing duties as well as begin my pacing duties at this point.

Mike was ahead of the teeming masses at this point, probably running in about 30th place overall, so the Fish Hatchery aid station was pretty quiet and un-crowded when I arrived.  I got to see a pretty impressive duel between two of the top female runners, both of whom came in within a minute of each other, and some of the other top male runners came through while I laid out all of the clothing and lights I thought Mike and I would need for our journey.  While I waited, dusk settled into the hatchery.  The trees began to whisper and the crews got quiet and started putting on their jackets in nervous anticipation of the arrival of their runners.  The little rainbow trout and cutthroat trout in the hatchery pens turned from silver and pink into little blurs of grey, their energy, if not their colors, undiminished.

I felt more like a trout and less like a tree, walking back and forth along the aid station in anticipation as well.  Finally I’d had enough and started jogging down the road to where Mike and Dan would be arriving from Twin Lakes.  I brought along a couple of headlamps because I knew that Dan did not have one, and Mike may have forgotten his as well.  That was a mistake on our part, since those two did have to travel about 30 minutes in the dark on the paved road leading up to the aid station.  I jogged only about one quarter of a mile before I saw them coming up the road, as silent dark shadows cast against the forest gloom.  Arrival at last, and now it was time to get to work.  Dan and I got Mike all geared up for the evening and he drank some fluids and had a couple of snacks, and we were off.

Now it was me and Mike, and the night, and 24 miles of road and trail separating us from Leadville and the successful conclusion of his 100 mile adventure.  My job was to keep him moving and motivated, distracted and entertained.  I love a stage!  Right way I started with the exciting and improbable tale of my Pike Peak Ascent race from earlier that same morning.  I now present it to you as I presented it to Mike, so please enjoy,

The Tale of the Exploding Salt Tablet, as told to Mike by Slush:

     “So I'm running well, probably in 25th place, heading into the Barr camp aid station [roughly half way up Pikes Peak], when all of a sudden I feel like I'm having an asthma attack on the trail.  I'm having trouble breathing, my heart rate shoots way up, and I'm beginning to see stars and get dizzy.  I've never had asthma or had anything like this happen to me before so I'm kind of freaking out!  I know my effort having just ran this at the Barr trail race in July, so I know I wasn't pushing it too hard, but I don't know what the problem is.  I make it to Barr camp, walk a bit, take some Gatorade and eat some grapes and slow down for a minute to see if it gets better.  I feel a little better so I start up again, and as soon as I do I start hacking and coughing, and lo and behold I heave a mighty hack, and forcibly expunge a mostly-intact salt tablet that I had ingested a little before Barr camp!  And hey, now I can breathe again!  Aaah.  I ate a salt tablet a little before Barr, but instead of swallowing it as recommended by most runners I must have lodged it in my windpipe!

     “Well, I thought, that could have been a lot worse, as in not being able to breathe at all and what not.  So I was happy to breathe again but the salt tablet had mostly exploded on the way out of my mouth, so my throat, mouth and even my sinuses and nasal cavities were now coated with salts, which really stung!  Also as you know one way to make people vomit is to force-feed them a tablespoon of salt.  So I now quite involuntarily proceeded to go to the side of the trail and puke; the first time I've ever puked while running!  Isn’t it nice to get that rite of passage over with?  All the while I'm losing time, and position, of course, and now quite frankly I'm freaked out and off my game.  But at least I can breathe again!

     “So I start back up again but the fire just wasn't there anymore, sadly.  But I made a decent show of it until about one mile to go, and then I started getting dizzy from the altitude and couldn't run without feeling like I was going to fall over, so I power-hiked to the end, and came in at 3:07.  I don't think I had 2:45 in me Saturday but I think 2:55 would have been possible without the choking, wheezing and vomiting.  But for all that I'm happy with my time and it's something to build on for next year or whenever I do it again.  Also I had a nasty headache after I summited, but I think that was due to the fact that I did not get my normal cup of coffee this morning; as soon as I got back to Manitou and got a cup the headache went away.  Yes, it could have been the altitude as well but I know the lack of caffeine didn’t help any.”

Well that took up a cozy 5 minutes.  All I had to do now is keep Mike entertained for another 5 hours and 55 minutes or so, depending on how long it took us to scale the heights of sugarloaf, wind around the north shore of Turquoise Lake, and trudge back to Leadville.

I quickly learned that at this point, 76 miles into his race, the Mike-machine was equipped with two useful gears; “slow jog” and “purposeful hike”.  I idly wondered what sort of shape I might be in after traveling 76 miles.  I knew that “stumble about” and “crawl” were also in the gearbox, but I hoped we wouldn’t have to shift into those.  We were quietly moving along the flat road towards the steeps of sugarloaf when through the forest I heard the unmistakable sounds of Enya.  “Is that Enya?” I somewhat stupidly asked Mike, completely blowing my man-cred.  “Yup,” came the reply (utterly blowing his man-cred).  Now that headphones are mostly frowned upon during races, some runners like to carry little speakers with them while they run.  But this sound was clearly too loud and all-consuming to be coming from portable speakers.  Up ahead we saw bands of soft yellow light coming from the source of the music, highlighting the tree trunks at the edge of the road.  It was as if the music was actually flowing to us on these bands of light, it was a very eerie and otherworldly scene.  And it was so loud!  Enya’s music always sounds louder than it actually is, because she overdubs her voice so many times on her songs and creates a huge wall of sound.  The juxtaposition of this ethereal music and strange light in an otherwise pin-drop quiet forest was distracting and disorienting.  This was a good thing, incidentally.  As we approached the source of light and sound, I discovered that we were passing a cabin in the woods, and the music was coming from two very large amplified monitors on stilts, situated in front of a house.  The speakers and stands reminded me of little Baba Yaga huts.  I could see Enya as a witch.  The Enya song ended as we passed by the house, and a familiar guitar melody started up.  “I know this, what is this?” I asked Mike.  He answered right away; it was David Gray, Babylon.  I was encouraged that Mike was still coherent enough to recognize the song that quickly.  More than 75 miles into his race and he was still totally in the game.

“If you want it, come and get it, crying out loud.
-David Gray, Babylon

Soon after that we left the road and turned up towards the climb to sugarloaf.  The road was deeply rutted at the beginning, and fairly steep.  We made slow but steady progress and picked our way up the road in good spirits.  I assumed the role of “pacemaker” and route-finder for Mike, staying a few paces ahead of him on the long climb up.

Lindsey, who paced Cat on this section the previous year, had told me to be wary of false summits on Sugarloaf, so every time the trail began to flatten out I guarded against celebrating and particularly against telling Mike that we had “made it”.  But as we reached yet another flat bit I could just sense that we had arrived at the rounded summit of sugarloaf.  Even in mid-summer, on these windswept heights I already felt the chill of winter here.  I thought that winter probably never really leaves this place, and thought that it was smart that I brought gloves along for the run.

At the summit I briefly turned off my headlamp and my hand-held light, and tilted my head up to the sky.  The sky was clear, and since the moon was not yet up I was greeted by panoply of brilliant stars.  I looked north to find Polaris, to get my bearings.  Above and to the south I could even see the Milky Way, awesome in its mystery.  Just then my eyes were drawn to a shooting star, knifing through the Swan of Cygnus, which was making its slow summer nightly flight from east to west above our heads.  I realized that while I was pacing Mike, the stars had been pacing me.  It was a comfort to know that a graceful Swan had been my faithful guide up the south face of sugarloaf.  But we were heading away from Cygnus now.  Perhaps the shooting star indicated that Cygnus was handing over pacing duties to the Wolf of Polaris.  This seemed less comforting but was maybe necessary, for we had a long and potentially grim journey still ahead of us.  The moment was brief but altogether wondrous.  I considered that moments like this, moments that maybe last only five seconds, are why I seek out silly adventures such as pacing Mike 24 miles through the night.  There are few things more fulfilling than cresting a mountain pass under your own power in the middle of the night and finding yourself bathed in silence and starlight.

The world is a funny place.  At my exact moment of bliss, under the same stars, rebel fighters were pouring into Tripoli to unseat Muammar Gaddafi, ready to lay down their lives for freedom. Starving refugees were clambering into Kenya to escape Somalia, in a desperate bid to save their own lives.  And closer to me, hundreds of tired and increasingly desperate competitors were scaling the heights of sugarloaf behind us, in pairs of runner and pacer.  Danny and Lindsey were back there somewhere, and Alex and Cat, too, perhaps, or maybe Alex and Kyle yet.

It was a nice moment of contemplation, but I did have work to do, so I turned my lights back on, blabbered on about the beautiful stars to Mike for a spell, and led him down the north side of sugarloaf in wide switchbacks to the valley below.

Mike was able to jog a bit on this stretch so we made good time towards the next aid station at May Queen, on the far western corner of Turquoise Lake.  As we descended, the waning moon ascended as if we were actually pushing up the moon with each step down towards the valley floor.  I briefly marveled at its orange hue before it hid itself behind a band of clouds.  I couldn’t decide if the newly noticed clouds were a portent of good or ill.  Benign cloud cover helps keep the temperatures warmer, but they can also turn malevolent and rude, like they did the previous night.

At midnight we arrived at the May Queen aid station.  After a quick stop, where Mike and I filled up on hot noodle soup and coffee, and stashed some cookies and mini chocolate bars in my pockets, we turned our attention to the final lonely stretch of the Leadville 100.  May Queen is the final aid station on the course, and there are still 13 miles of trail separating participants from their goal at this point, with no assistance in the intervening miles.  It’s a long dark road ahead, and best not to tarry at May Queen any longer than necessary.
The bulk of the final section winds its way around the north shore of Turquoise Lake, which was relatively flat, but the tail was faint.  I had been warned that the trail was difficult to navigate through this section.  Now that the moon was up, and the clouds were beginning to build, I had lost my guide, the dog star Polaris.  And my swan star Cygnus was long gone, having descended over the mountains to the west for the night.  It was up to me to navigate Mike through the old forest on the edge of the lake.  A long trudge ensued.  We were both quieter now, and colder.  I slipped on my gloves, and pulled my hat down tight.  On we marched, in “purposeful hike” mode, and periodically I offered Mike cookies and chocolate.  Mike was impressive in his quiet resolve and determination.

We finally began to round the eastern shore of the lake, from which vantage point I could look in brief intervals over my right shoulder and spy dozens of lights behind us spread out along the shoreline.  The lights, in pairs of two, faded softly into the long dark north shore of the lake, from where we had come. And higher, and across the lake, the lights of racers and pacers descending sugarloaf cascaded down in a serpentine pattern as if someone had set a pinprick to the stars themselves, and let loose a thin stream of lights from the heavens into the lake.  It was difficult to tell where the lights ended and the stars began.  I knew that somewhere back there one of those lights, probably on the shoreline, belonged to my friend and fellow pacer Lindsey, who was running her friend Danny to the finish. And farther back, winding down the mountain, a twin pair of lights surely represented my friends Cat and Alex, one pacing the other patiently down to the lake.

As I picked my way through the slumbering campgrounds and led Mike on the faintest of trails towards the dam, I thought about Lindsey, and Cat, my fellow pacers, and Danny and Alex, their runners.  I thought about Lindsey and Cat in particular though, since the three of us were comrades in arms this night.  We were together alone, each going through the exact same experience on the same night, but with different runners to pace, and separated from each other by time and distance, but not by heart.  I hoped they were doing well, and I cast one last glance into the gloom over the now-moonlit surface of the lake and sent them all best wishes from the shore.  I hoped that their runners were doing well, that they were dressed warmly enough in the rapidly chilling air, and wondered if they were thinking of me too, as Mike and I quite unexpectedly arrived at the dam, and therefore now at the end of our seemingly endless lake excursion.  A Crowded House song came to mind, which is not unusual for me:

“Together alone, shallow and deep
holding our breath, paying death no heed
I'm still your friend, when you are in need
as is once, will always be

earth and sky, moon and sea”
-          Crowded House, Together Alone

As we approached the road over the dam, a solitary race volunteer, a vigil of the night, sitting in a folding chair by the side of the road and dressed in multiple jackets to fend off the chill, and an orange safety vest to fend off inattentive drivers, motioned Mike and I across to the continuation of the trail on the other side of the road.  I knew that we were now close to the finish.  I asked her how much farther, and she replied “5 more miles”.  Wow.  Deep in the night, and all that separates Mike from completing the Leadville 100 is “5 more miles”.  I congratulated Mike on this milestone and exhorted him to push the pace and get this race over and done with.  I may have used several swear-words in the process of giving my pep talk.

We descended a tricky bit of “trail” that mimicked the length and pitch of the dam to which it was adjacent, and found ourselves on a flat, even runnable stretch of dirt county road.  With renewed vigor and a sense that the barn door was ajar and waiting, Mike and I picked up the pace.  The finish line is wonderful, but this is probably the moment I savor most of all; when the realization sets in that your runner is really going to make it.  I have paced several friends to successful races, Lindsey, Kerry, Dan, and Nick come to mind, and now Mike, and each time my favorite moment comes before the finish.  Maybe because in that moment it is still just the two of us, sharing in the struggle for accomplishment.  The finish line always fades into soft white, almost out of time and place.  The pacer’s work is done, and the runner is wrapped in glory. Whereas the miles right before, when success is all-but-guaranteed but for now nothing else exists but the determined footfalls and the bond between runner and pacer, those moments seem to stand out for me in sharp detailed relief.

But don’t get me wrong, I was elated to watch Mike cross the finish line in Leadville, at 4:11 am, in the dead of the night just over 24 hours after he started.  His cheering fans consisted of his family, his pacers, the race organizers, and a couple of foul-mouthed and drunk spectators.  I had the distinct pleasure of spending 7 hours with Mike on the trail, and his spirit never flagged.  He provided me an example of how to comport myself with both the determination of Polaris, and the grace of Cygnus, should I ever gird up enough courage to try this race or this distance myself.  The moon and stars judged in our favor tonight.

“Show them you won't expire
Not till you burn up every passion
Not even when you die
Come on now
You've got to try”
-Joni Mitchell, Judgment of the Moon and Stars

We took pictures, and then Mike wandered off into the medical tent to get warm, and immediately my attention turned back to Lindsey and Danny, Cat and Alex.  They were out there somewhere and more than anything now I wanted to bring them home as well.  Tired as I was, it was all I could do not to run back down the course to meet them!  But runners are really only allowed one pacer at a time, so I would have to leave them to their own judgments, and bide my time at the finish line in the cold and dark.  I started to get really cold myself, standing in the 40 degree chill at 10,000 feet in naught but running shorts and a thin jacket, so I decided to trudge the two blocks up to Hinterberg HQ to put on some clothes.

But when I checked the voice mail on my phone from HQ, elation and satisfaction and nervous anticipation gave way to sadness. The call was my wife; the time of the call was 3:18 am.  She was calling to tell me that Alex had dropped out of the race at Fish Hatchery at 3:00 am.  Leadville, like most all ultra-races, imposes cut off times at various points along the course. Alex had made it to Fish Hatchery just under the cut off at a couple minutes before 3:00, so he was eligible to continue on to May Queen and hopefully to the finish, but Alex made a tough and courageous choice at Fish Hatchery, and decided to end his race there. My wife was his crew chief, and the emotion in her voice on the phone belied just how much she was invested in Alex and his journey.  Runners who do these races really rely on their crew and pacers to keep them going, and they are always very appreciative of the efforts other people give to help them to their goals.  But less noted is the emotional investment that crew and pacers place in the success of their runner.  They are all in, so to speak.  And since the finish rate at Leadville usually hovers around 50%, there were a lot of broken hearts out there in the dead of the night.  Even runners who achieve their goals and finish, with arms in the air and all that, will do so with a touch of sadness for their friends who invested just as much into the race as they, but were not able to finish that day.  And this emotional intensity lies at the core of what draws me to the sport.  Witnessing this first-hand I came away with an enormous respect for everyone who was courageous enough to line up at the start, and put everything on the line.

Deflated, I went back to the finish line to wait for Lindsey and Danny, who I thought were about two hours behind Mike, but the cold and dark seemed colder and darker now, and the disappointed tone of my wife’s voice kept echoing in my head as I paced up and down the final stretch.  I made the decision to head to Alex May HQ and go to sleep and be with my wife, whom I had not seen all day.  But I wished I had stuck it out at the finish line a bit longer.  I missed Danny finishing by about 20 minutes is all, ironically adding just a bit more disappointment to my evening.  Not because Danny finished of course, I was really impressed with his performance and happy for both him and Lindsey.  It’s just that I could have used another good memory in store as I crawled into bed next to my wife, fully clothed and ice cold, and slept for the first time in over 24 hours.  Almost at the exact moment my head hit the pillow, Danny crossed the finish line with his pacer and my friend Lindsey in tow.

No one at May HQ had heard Dan and me come in at 5:30 am, so they were a little surprised when they woke up and we were there.  After a huge breakfast and balloon animal festival featuring hearty pancakes and a really impressive balloon monkey with a working prehensile tail, it was time to bid adieu to Leadville and head back home, until next year.  I will be back for certain, probably to pace, maybe to run, you never know.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Courage Classic

Once again, thank you all for your kind and generous support for our Children’s Hospital fund-raising efforts. We had a goal to raise $2,000 for the Hospital, and as of yesterday we were at $1,943! I never thought we would get even that close; you all have far outstripped my expectations and I am honored and humbled to have such fine and generous friends. Thanks. And apparently you can still contribute until the end of August (I thought we were done after the ride) so, if you are interested in helping us get that last $57, then feel free to click either of the links below and make a tax-deductible donation on our behalf. Thanks again.


But at any rate, the big ride is actually over; it’s been over for over a week now, I’ve been remiss in writing a follow-up, so I’m here to right all wrongs and write about all the thrills, spills, and chills of the Courage Classic Weekend.

And I sort of wish there were more spills to write about. If you know my style, you know that I prefer to write about misadventures and things gone wrong, more than writing about when things go well. You know, happy bike rides are all alike; every unhappy bike ride is unhappy in its own way. Thank you, Tolstoy. Anna Karenina as an allegory about cycling. Of course Tolstoy’s implication is that one really only needs to write one story, if that, about a successful Courage Classic venture, and be done with it. And sadly for my blog, but happily for me, on the whole the bike trip was a grand success. But I’ll see if I can’t tart it up a bit nonetheless. We rode 200 miles over three days, over several classic Colorado mountain passes, in beautiful weather and with great friends. But I think I can cherry-pick some of the unexpected mishaps and make this narrative at least somewhat entertaining for both myself and you all. But alas, no one threw themselves under a train, so right away I’m playing from behind.

As mentioned, the “Classic” took place over three days. Although we stayed in Copper Mountain for the duration, the first day’s ride started in Leadville on Saturday. This necessitated us driving over Fremont pass early in the morning, with bikes in tow, to get to the official start of the ride. We would leave our truck in Leadville all weekend, and ride back from Copper to get it on Monday. So basically this meant that we had to ride back to Copper from Leadville on the first day. These two towns are only about 25 miles apart from one another, but the Classic elects to take a longer route betwixt the two, summiting Tennessee pass between Leadville and Minturn, and Vail pass between Vail and Copper. It was a ride of 58 miles and 4,000 feet of climbing, half of which would be on the Vail pass climb at the hot, sticky end of the day. Vail pass. This could be the chance for disaster I’d been craving. I did ride it just a few weeks prior after competing in the Vail hill climb, but I had a delightful tailwind that day, and was, even after running a 7 mile race, fresher than I would be on this day so I anticipated glorious struggle ahead.

There are probably 2,000 riders in this event, but they don’t all start at the same time – too bad, actually, another missed opportunity for mayhem and chaos. Our little team started the ride at the tail end of the recommended “start window”, which ended at 9:00 am. I think we started at 8:45 am. As the weather was beautiful with very little chance for rain, we figured there was no point in starting early when it was cold. Biking seems to turn me into an instant wuss, particularly in such matters relating to cold temperatures, so I was more than happy to start as late as possible on this day.

No one can accuse the Courage Classic of saving the best for last; the first 20 miles of the ride are arguably the best of the entire course. Any rider who has been will tell you that Tennessee pass is an absolute treasure. Gorgeous scenery, smooth pavement, steady grades, light traffic, great weather; to steal from baseball, it’s a 5-tool road. I was enjoying my day and riding nice and easy when I came up behind two girls who were singing “Don’t stop believing, hold on to that feeling…”, just as I passed them. Without missing a beat, I sang back “Street-light, people-whoah-oh-oooooh!” and just kept going. Celeste and I sing that song all the time, it was pretty surprising and rather awesome to hear some other girls singing the same song and having fun.

Aaah, but that’s too nice. Couldn’t something have gone wrong here? Oh yes, now I remember. As mentioned, the route climbed to the top of Tennessee Pass, and then revealed a long descent to Redcliff, before a short climb up Red Mountain and a steep descent into Minturn. Our team hung together to the top of the pass, and then we all took the descent at our own pace. My teammates Tim and Tony quickly got ahead of me on the way down, as they are much better riders than am I. But I can climb faster than they can. By the time I got to the base of Red Mountain climb I could no longer see them but I thought I would get out of the saddle and see if I couldn’t reel them in nonetheless. Tony I was able to catch part way up the hill, which gave me hope that I could catch Tim as well. Alas, as soon as I put in a really hard effort, or perhaps because, I slipped my chain as I tried to shift into a higher gear. Tim was out of reach as a result. Actually I think he was out of reach regardless, but I can blame the chain. Quite embarrassing, really.

Red Mountain successfully navigated, we all descended into Minturn, hit the eagle river at the lowest point of the weekend at about 8,000 feet of elevation, and started heading back up the Vail valley to the pass. The Classic provides a lunch stop here so we all stopped and took a long and leisurely break. Last year we ate too much at this lavishly appointed lunch stop, so I tried to reign in my deep-seated instinct to eat everything in sight, and opted for a PB&J sandwich, some chips, and some fruit, and a coke. And a cookie. And potato soup. Oh I give up. As we were wrapping up we ran into our friends The Cycling Amers. The Amers are family friends of Tim and Brian from Santa Fe, and they are crazy-good cyclists. Daughter Tess is a competitive triathlete for the University of Colorado, but all of them are amazing riders. The Amers pulled out of the lunch stop just ahead of Tim and I, and I asked Tim if he’d be interested in riding with them through Vail, at least. He was up for the challenge so we put in a little effort and caught up, and rode through Vail in a little pack up the valley, which was delightful. Delightfully boring, you might add. Not to worry; I’m setting something up here.

Vail pass proper is a funny sort of climb. Because, you know, all flat rides are exactly alike, but every hill climb is hilly in its own way. It starts out with a ridiculous pitch, then levels out a bit, then even has a slight downhill section as it crosses under the interstate about 2/3 of the way up the climb. Then the route becomes insanely steep again, before mellowing out ever-so-slightly at the finish.

The initial pitch completely blew up our group, and I found myself chasing Tess’ dad, her brother, and her boyfriend up the hill all on my own. Those three animals ate up vertical like a bear ransacking a cooler full of cheese, and it was all I could do to keep up. Somewhere along the way my little brain blew a fuse, and I decided that I would do everything in my power to keep up with these dudes who were clearly out of my league. Aaah, the competitive spirit comes out at last! I was able to stick to them through that little under-the-interstate downhill bit, but on the near-vertical pitch directly following that bit they started to pull away, ever so slowly. I was broken! But not completely. I kept them in sight and kept pushing. And I had the advantage of knowing that the course does, in fact, mellow out a bit towards the top. I don’t think they knew exactly where the top was, so I perceived that they were starting to ease up a bit as they neared the final pitch. I put in a stupid, drooling, bug-eyed effort and got pretty close to them at the top. Holy crap that was difficult and pointless! I realized then that this is how I would spend the rest of the weekend. Totally sandbagging it on the flats and downhills, and hitting the hills as hard as possible. Why? I seriously have no idea. I like hills? Do what you like.

At the top of the pass the Amers gathered together and then all took off while I waited for my team, and got a free bike tune at the summit (see chain, falling off all the freaking time, above), which was pretty sweet, and actually quite necessary. Team Ziggy thusly congregated, we all started down the East side of the pass to Copper, but were quickly stopped before we could enter the bike path that winds its way down to the resort between the twin strands of interstate. Apparently there had been a collision on the path, and that had snarled up traffic, much less busted up one or more riders, so they were only letting us down the path in small groups. This situation took a little wind out of our sails as we cruised on back to Copper, but I didn’t see any carnage on the trail so hopefully it wasn’t that bad and everyone involved was ok.

That evening we all enjoyed beers and pasta and hot tubbing, and I cut a striking figure in my newly-acquired bike “tan”. More like a bike burn, really. I swear I put on sun screen, it must have sweated off during the day. Ouch. So day one carnage consisted of bike chain slip-age, Vail pass drool-age, and bike tan burn-age. Not Tolstoy-esque, but not bad with a little embellishment.

Sunday was the big day. Tim and I got out of the condo early, as we were the only two who had aspirations on taking on the big 100-mile ride that day. The others, sensibly, slept in and opted for the 50 mile (I think?) option. Tim and I were in the saddle at 7:04 am Sunday, nearly two hours earlier than the day before. The “century” (actually only about 94 miles I think? Whatev, close enough) starts out with a mellow ride down the bike path from Copper to Frisco. Just mellow enough where you don’t really need to pedal. A situation that did me no favors as I was freezing in the shade of the canyon on that initial drop. We started to warm up when we made it to relatively sunny and therefore relatively balmy Frisco, and then Silverthorne. But I didn’t remove my jacket until about 25 miles into the ride as we stopped at the base of Ute Pass.

Ute Pass is another funny sort of climb, isn’t it? Aren’t they all, Tolstoy? Funny in what way, you ask? Well for starters unless you are a miner of molybdenum, Ute pass really doesn’t take you anywhere. A real road to nowhere, Mr. Byrne. Secondly, the road is in such good shape as to seem unreal. The grade is steep, but consistent, and the pavement is pristine, black, smooth, banked in the corners and gleaming without traffic, a delightful side-effect of the not so delightful gigantic mine hidden away on the other side of the pass. As Tim and I climbed towards the pass we salivated at the thought of returning down this beautiful road. Well, I may have been drooling, not salivating exactly, but we were excited nonetheless.

And the descent did not disappoint. Neither did the views form the pass at the snow-capped and spear-tipped legion of the Gore range to our west, the same mountains I spied from the other side with furtive glances from the Vail valley floor the previous day. It was fun to think I had come so far, all under my own pedal power. But this view was not spied, furtively or otherwise, as we sped back down to the valley floor on this most perfect of mountain roads. I’m such a tentative downhill rider but on this stretch of asphalt I was able to release the brakes more than usual, and enjoy a (for me) screaming, barreling, tear-inducing descent back to the blue river valley. Quite frankly it was altogether too fun for this narrative, as I’m trying so hard to wring out the tension and drama from this weekend. But it was pretty awesome at the time, I won’t lie.

Speaking of time, Tim and I felt like we were under the gun a bit on Sunday, as the weather forecast called for a 40% chance of rain that day. I have always wondered if “40% chance of rain” means that the entire area of weather prediction has a 40% chance of getting rained upon during the day, or if instead 40% of the area of prediction has 100% chance of getting rained upon, or if 40% of the area has a 40% chance of being rained upon for 40% of the day? I know it logically means the first clarification, but I amused myself by thinking that since Tim and I were essentially covering the entire area of prediction that day, that being the length and breadth of Summit County, then my chances of hitting some of the “40% area”, however interpreted, were pretty high indeed.

The previous year when Celeste and I rode this same route we did get drenched on the final 15 miles of the ride, and I was not eager to repeat that experience, so Tim and I tried to keep up our pace and out run the predicted afternoon storms. We had what we thought were two more climbs left in our day; a soul-sucking climb from the “mountain shopping experience” of Silverthorne-Dillon to Keystone on a busy highway (where have you gone, Tennessee Pass, a courage classic turns its lonely eyes to you-ou-ou-ou), and the much more pleasant – scenery-wise, at any rate – climb up sawn mountain between Keystone and Breckenridge. As was my mode this year, I kicked it into big-jerk competitive mode on the climbs, and rested on the flatter bits. Our route included an out-and-back to Breckenridge where we finally, 80 miles into our ride, had a sponsored lunch stop. We were both getting pretty tired by then but had avoided getting wet, at least, so although my neck, knees and back were starting to complain about so much time on the bike, we were feeling rather chuffed as we coasted into the parking lot where lunch was served.

Happily for you all, my long-suffering readers, I would soon have something to complain about. This is because I now proceeded to make the near fatal mistake of gorging myself at the lunch stop on room-temperature Asian stir fry, chips, coke, and cookies. Here we go again. The chips, cookies and coke actually were not so bad, but a simple PB&J would have been far and away the superior choice, and that staple was an option. But I was so impressed that the Courage Classic would even attempt to roll out such an exotic spread that I just had to reward their culinary verve with a Gore-range monument of almost-warm vegetable fried rice and young vegetables stewing in cool brown sauce. Yes it was quite nearly as delicious as described. I had a much easier time circumnavigating that mountain of food than I did the actual mountain range that somehow inspired this tacky monument of gluttony. Objectively speaking the food was not good, well, the cookie was good, but after riding 80 miles I laid waste to that quivering plate like a Barbarian horde of One. After pillaging my tender and defenseless Chinese vegetables, my victory was completely satisfying initially, but ultimately pyrrhic in nature. Alas my careless aggression at the buffet table would haunt me for the next, oh, 16 hours or so, and make me persona non grata of the team during that span, not to put too fine a point on it. Now that’s how we wring out the drama!

So lunch was in Breckenridge, but dinner was in Copper, so Tim and I had to saddle up and finish the ride before we could call the day a complete success. Judging from the course profile the span between Breckenridge and Copper looked to be flat, which was encouraging. It was not flat. At least 90 miles into the day what normally might have felt flat felt like another mountain climb. Tim led out and I tried to hang on to his wheel on the pretty and scenic bike path between Frisco and Copper on the final 7 miles of the day. Back, knees and neck were now joined by stomach in a chorus of complaint, led by my legs, which were conducting a symphony which seemed less like an ode to joy, and more like a dirge, if not a full requiem of fatigue. And somehow I had to get up and do this again tomorrow? I marveled at the endurance and stamina of Tour de France riders as the pitch began to finally truly flatten out as we entered the vale of Copper Mountain to finally conclude day number two. 150 miles in the bag, and another 50 to go. And my bike tan was looking even more dramatic, thus proving that not all suffering is in vain.

As Monday morning dawned, I enjoyed a sensible and bland breakfast of toast and vanilla yogurt, and the team, once again together after splitting up on our separate quests of day 2, started en masse on the route back to Leadville from Copper. It was at this point that teammate Chryss became the lucky recipient of our one and only flat tire of the weekend, not even out of Copper Mountain resort proper.

Happy to have that bit of tradition out of the way, we then made the turn towards Leadville, passing by the “A” lift ski runs at Copper along the way. I gave “Far East” a salute as we rode by its grassy green summer ribbon. Far East is one of my all-time favorite ski runs with its broken fall lines and enormous moguls. Of course this being summer the moguls were absent, but I mused to myself about when I was maybe 7 years old, and thought that the ski areas created moguls by piling up dirt into malicious mounds in the summer months, for the snow to collect upon in perfect piles during the winter. I had no idea that they were created by the action of skiers themselves until I was older. But as we rode by I reminisced about all the times, 30+ years’ worth of times, I suppose, that I’d set off down that particular ski run that has always been there to give me a challenge.
far east on the far left of the photo

Riding by that ski slope made me appreciate that I have been fortunate enough to have been able to ski that particular run for so many years. And appreciate, in a more abstract sense, that there are places out there that I can come back to, year after year. I’m all for novelty, and trying new things, but there is something also rewarding in being able to mark the span of years by coming back to a place more or less physically unchanged over time. It’s not home, it’s even better in some ways. After a certain point you really can’t go home again, (to paraphrase Thomas Wolfe, or was it Tolstoy? I’m giving it to Tolstoy. To heck with Wolfe.), because home really does change on you. But you can always go to the Far East.

And I began to consider that this event, the Courage Classic, might start to become one of those events for me. This was the second year of our participation in this event, and we all talked about doing it again in 2012. Of course this was before we hit the main pitch of Fremont pass. Fremont pass separated us from Leadville, and us from our truck, so there really was nothing to do but climb to its mine-scarred 11,000 feet summit. Thank you, molybdenum. Last year Celeste and I rode this together and we sang Journey all the way up. This year I was all business and dispensed with the singing, I think Celeste was singing though. I should have been singing, I think, and I was reprimanded by the Courage Classic spirits in the form of having my chain fall off again, just before attaining the summit. Note to self; next year less grunting, more singing.

Now once again the towns of Copper Mountain and Leadville are only something like 25 miles apart from one another (albeit separated by Fremont pass), but the bike route elected to take us on a scenic circumnavigation of Turquoise lake to pad our ride to something along the lines of 45 miles for the day. Well it’s a lake, how much climbing can there be? Quite a bit, as it turned out. My legs were pretty fatigued from the previous two days’ worth of riding, much less from good old Fremont pass, so I thought I would just take it easy on the final climbs of the weekend and enjoy the rest of my ride at a sedate pace. That attitude lasted for about 5 minutes, and then I was back to my old drooling self as I bested the numerous false-summits towards the high point of the road at the back of the lake. Young habits die hard.

We ran into the Cycling Amers again on the back side of Turquoise lake, they had started their ride from Breckenridge that day and actually had no ride home from Leadville, but didn’t seem too concerned about taking Fremont pass back to Copper and Summit county. Animals. As for us, after a long slog back to Leadville after the lake, we concluded our ride in good form at the Leadville High School. We laid waste to yet another lunch buffet – portabella mushroom burgers this time, no stir fry, thank goodness – and swapped stories and made promises to do it again next year.

So there you have it, our second courage classic successfully navigated, with an eye towards doing it again next year. If you’re interested in joining our team, let me know! My only requirement is that you like to sing. And don’t mind a little drool.