You’re racing. You’re half way in, the fatigue is building and the burn in your lungs is weighing on your mind. It’s ok though, the Aid station is just around the corner. You roll in at top speed, looking for your bag or bottle being held up, and grab it smoothly, transitioning food into your pockets and the bottle into your cage. Within 30 seconds, you’re out of sight, mind already focused on the next section of trail to overcome.
This process happens in almost every race, every weekend throughout the year. You lay down your money on the line, start the race, and rely on someone else to give you the support you need to get to the finish. The feed zones are packed with parents and partners, children and friends who have foregone their own adventures to support you in yours. It takes commitment. This routine act of helping others in their pursuit of glory is something that I never want to take for granted. Ever since I started racing three years ago, I’ve tried to stand on the other side of the course tape, too.
After Christa had decided that heading to LA to race Track Nationals was not a good idea, we chose to head up to Leadville where her Dad, Brad, was planning on racing the 100. I’ve always been intrigued by the Leadville 100; after moving to Colorado, I’d heard stories of the fabled races, and read up on the news reports of ex-roadies crushing the people I normally race against. I’d heard of the unending dirt roads, lack of singletrack, and the below freezing 6:30am start. I’d been told of people missing feeds and riding another 25 miles on nothing but perseverance. Basically, I’d formulated in my mind an image of suffering for little reward. When I’d spoken to Christa’s Dad, though, I started to get an idea of why this race meant so much to so many people. The 2000 competitors who have gathered from 25 different countries, the unchanging course that provides a year on year measure of how fast you are. The satisfaction of crossing the finishing line to a huge crowd of people gathered, rather than a chalk line painted on the ground, and the distant sound of an inquisitive passer-by clapping. I understand now what I didn’t before; Leadville is a big race on a big stage – a chance to compare fitness with riders from all disciplines. It’s not a test of a true mountain biker, but then it’s not pretending to be.
We drove up from Edwards to Leadville on Friday morning, and followed the lines of people in getting Brad set up and checked in. With a camper van and two cars, we had a precise support plan in place, and setting up everything was smooth. After a long day of driving around, we had time in the afternoon for a quick ride around Turquoise Lake.
Race day came about pretty quickly, with the required 5am wake up call. Since we’d tried our best to plan everything in advance, the morning routine was simply a matter of getting some coffee and driving to our designated spots. Christa and I set up at the first and last aid station on the out-and-back course. We’d thought about what might keep us entertained until the racers showed up, so set about cooking our bacon and egg sandwiches as soon as we arrived. With another couple of hours until the action started, we sat back in our chairs and embraced the heat of the sun as it rose above the Sawatch mountains to our west. As the aid station got busier, it wasn’t long until the call went out that racers had been spotted close by. The three leaders looked like they were on cruise control as they grabbed their musette bags, took on their food and were out of sight in no time. The resulting kerfuffle was worth watching; all kinds of parents and helpers scrambled to get the bottles needed for their racers, apparently devoid of the knowledge that it would be quite sometime until the average racer turned up. We’d planned far enough ahead to know when our riders were coming through, and we were relieved when everyone arrived within a couple of minutes of schedule. It’s an interesting experience to see how different people treat the racing; you can play it as cool as you like before the start, but there’s no time for false appearances during the ride. Brad was super calm when he came through, happy in the knowledge he was on schedule, and relaxed that the food stops were going as planned. Both our other charges, Brian and Eric, also seemed so cool and collected that I really started to wonder why I wasn’t out there racing.
The wait for the riders on the way home was filled with a bike ride of our own, and we were settled back in to see the return journey: three riders out ahead, then a trickle of weary bodies moving ever more slowly through the race. Whilst the support crews were a bundle of energy at 8am, the 12 noon shift was a more orderly affair, with bottles organised and placed on bikes for the riders, and big pushes given to gain all the momentum lost by stopping. Our show was a return of the way out: smooth and successful. I know the exact feeling of relief after getting a successful feed in such a long race.
With Aid Station duties finished, we drove back to the finish and watched as triumphant riders crossed the line; the un-erring red clock measuring the line between goals achieved and missed. As the top of each hour approached, a surge in riders headed towards the line; the pace needed to get under the hour being a big goal for a lot of people. As hour nine approached, we got ever more nervous for the arrival of Christa’s dad. In the mêlée of bodies everywhere, we almost missed him, but the smile was visible from across the finishing corral: 8:46:17.43.