Ordinary Madness: deep in the pack at Leadville



My father fell over dead at his desk when he was forty-two, continuing a depressing tradition among the men of his lineage. Women on both sides of the family live indefinitely. These facts were the givens in the first meaningful story problem I ever solved. By sixteen I was painfully aware, not only of my chromosomal disadvantage, but also of a laundry list of other defects. I had bad eyes, indifferent physical coordination, no athletic talent, jug ears, and the sort of social skills you can imagine went with that package. In college, when long hair finally became an option, mine began to fall out. On the positive side of the ledger were a good mind, a strong competitive drive, and straightened teeth. I surprised myself by living to thirty. Lots of people say that, but with me it was serious.

At forty I had my own desk, no kids, a fresh divorce, and time on my hands. My friend Ron saw his chance to make an exercise buddy of me. He well knew that exercise is something I had avoided on principle my entire adult life. It wasn’t that I disliked physical work. I split firewood the old-fashioned way and continued spading my garden after most others in our rural community switched to rototillers. Manual labor produced something; exercise was a tedious form of masturbation for bored people. On this occasion he caught me defenseless. We went to the sports club. I became a gym rat out of embarrassment at the weights I couldn’t lift.

While I was at it I thought that I may as well kick my tobacco habit. The prospect of purple-faced coughing fits helped Ron talk me into trying his other exercise hobby, mountain biking. It might reinforce abstinence. He took me on a fire trail through some wet woods and down a rocky crease made to look passable by a blanket of dead leaves. I was going so slowly that when I went over the handlebars I landed on my feet, but my new gym shoes were soaked in muddy water. He enticed me to go a second time with the promise that we’d have a long downhill section of abandoned highway, and the rest would be gravel roads. That trip was fun.

So I found a used bike in the newspaper and began pedaling on weekends. I learned to ride trails because they often led to spectacular Blue Ridge Mountain scenery. I measured my improving condition by how far I could climb on the most demanding of these before having to get off and push. Downhill I was cautious. (See item twelve on the list of defects, poor depth perception.) But death-grip braking is hard on the equipment. It wasn’t long before the aluminum sidewalls of my vintage rear wheel caved in.

While waiting to pick up the rebuilt wheel I thumbed through a magazine at the repair shop and was captivated by the insanity of a story in bike magazine called "High Lonesome Pain." It was about a new hundred-mile mountain bike race in the Colorado Rockies, the Leadville Trail 100. The author, Mike Ferrentino, had ridden in it and described his experience with the sort of gallows humor that meant he’d had a blast. Without any allowance for acclimating to the altitude, he’d driven from his sea level home to join 165 other twisted souls for a 6:30 am start at 10,200 feet. Then he’d spent the day careening through the high country at elevations up to 12,640 feet, getting muddy and delirious and spewing bits of lung. He finished in a little over nine hours, narrowly missing the cutoff time for earning a silver belt buckle the size of a serving tray. He’d had to settle for a regular Western-sized one denoting a time of less than twelve hours. He didn’t seem disappointed; he’d really enjoyed stopping for spaghetti and chats at the rest stops along the course.

I bought that issue of bike and reread the article several times, shaking my head at the wonder of it.  Just for one day wouldn't it be amazing to be fit enough to do something like that?  Somewhere in my head nerve cells that had no business even knowing each other fused. Here was Monty Hall pointing out Door Number 3. The Magic Theater. Entrance not for everyone. For madmen only.

Fifteen months later, buzzing with hypoxia and hyperventilation I was staggering, pushing my bike up a jeep road of loose rock and sand, knee deep in curses. This was not good at all. The day before I had pre-ridden the Trail 100’s marquee climb, the thirty-five-hundred-foot effort to the Columbine mine fifty miles into the race. It was long and above timberline but not horrendous. Now I was out of gas on the measly thousand-footer that would open the big day. "Up and over the St. Kevin mining district", the course description read offhandedly. After St. Kevin came the Busk Creek single track.
The sound I heard in its boulder-strewn channel wasn’t water music. It was the derision of the gods. I finally rattled into the Leadville National Fish Hatchery after two and a half hours. I'd counted on two hours or less for this section of the race. A sub-twelve hour belt buckle depended on it. With only nine days left to prepare I wasn't able to stay on my bike. It started to rain. Welcome to the real Leadville Trail 100.

The other day I’d been this desperate was months earlier when the postcard from Leadville arrived congratulating me on being selected to participate in the third annual race. I’d had a vision of a poodle launching himself at a passing dump truck and actually getting a lock on the mud flap. All it had to do then was bring the sucker down. Once again I placed the blame for my misery squarely on the shoulders of Mike Ferrentino.

He may have sensed it when our paths finally crossed ten days later after the race. "Ah, Mr. Ferrentino, I'd been hoping to meet you. About that article. . ."

"Oh that," he groaned, warily eying the blue plastic ID bracelet still on my wrist. Like his, it had been rendered illegible by sweat. I had the impression I wasn’t going to be the first to accuse him of under-reporting the truth about Leadville. He parried, "And who do I have the pleasure of addressing?"

Just a regular guy. A couch potato whose life you turned upside down with your story in bike last year. A moderate man who lied to himself for months afterward. It meant nothing when I left my friend to do harder rides and bought a road bike for endurance training. It wasn’t until I’d finished a local hundred-mile road event that I had the sick realization I was going to be here one day. But hey, you finished the race with three hours to spare and took half hour food breaks at the aid stations. You said you’d hardly been on your bike that summer. You weren’t acclimated. You got me thinking that it might just be possible.

*          *          *

When I’d called Leadville to request information, Merilee O'Neal cheerily assured me that the only race qualifier was how fast I could lick a stamp. I was relieved to have cause to doubt that when the application came. It requested a racing resume. Reason counseled that weightless paperwork like mine would find a way to blow out the window on a mountain zephyr. I licked quick, confident I'd never hear from them again.

I grossly misunderstood my situation. Leadville isn’t like other towns, not even other boom-bust towns. After a century of lurching to the demonic beat of heavy metal prices, Leadville crashed again in the early 1980s when the Climax molybdenum mine closed. Unemployed miner Ken Chlouber decided a hundred-mile foot race through the mountains was what the town needed. So what if no one knew whether anyone could complete a course with 11,000 feet of climbing at that altitude? (This was not the first time oxygen deprivation had figured in a Leadville decision. During one nineteenth century bust the town built a full-sized palace of ice, complete with turrets, statuary, and electric lights embedded in the walls. It actually did some business.) Ten runners crossed the finish line of the Leadville Trail 100 in 1983, although Ken himself didn’t make it. In later years he not only finished the foot race, he got himself elected to the Colorado State House. The first mountain bike edition, the one Ferrentino covered for bike, was held in 1994. Thanks in part to Chlouber’s crack-brained idea, the town had once again regained its feet.

But Leadville is still Leadville. America's highest main street counts hundred-year-old slag heaps from the silver days among its landmarks. Real miners still live there. On the night before each race Chlouber addresses the year’s crop of runners or riders. In Leadville’s hardscrabble eyes, he tells them, there are no second-class racers. Anybody who’s chosen to make the attempt has already earned all the help the town and organizers can offer. When I heard that speech myself I realized where I’d made my mistake. The Trail 100 is a celebration of the two attributes that have sustained Leadville from its beginnings, dreams and sheer balls.

My Leadville aspirations had been greeted with more reserve in other quarters. Some, like the friend who loaned his Colorado cabin for training purposes, held their tongues. My brothers pronounced me crazy but agreed to lead the support team. They had to see this. Other friends and neighbors hoped whatever I had wasn’t contagious. I’d dropped twenty pounds and grown hollow of cheek.
By the time I pointed the car at Colorado I had convinced myself I had a chance. I’d climbed the highest mountain in the East several times, once starting in South Carolina. The fact that the summit of Mt. Mitchell is a half-mile below the lowest point in the Trail 100 didn’t faze me. A certain sea level Californian named Ferrentino had done it. And I would have three weeks to sleep and train at altitude. With actuality finally staring me in the face, reason could be of no further use. I left it at home. In its place I carried mojos and regarded portents. Inanimate objects became friends to the extent allowed by Saxon blood. I burned herb sage over my bike because a girlfriend thought it would help and a bundle of sagebrush because it wouldn't hurt. My mental poodle became a wolf whose picture I scotch taped to the handlebar stem. Maybe I could just lope for a hundred miles.
Race day dawned clear and deceptively cold. The pace car led us out fast, avoiding carnage among our 402-member pack. We were still three abreast on the nastiness up St. Kevin's. This time I rode it. Most of us did. I don't know how. My fingers were freezing; my glasses fogged. The world shrank to a smudgy tire in front and the crunch of shifting rocks as our breathless herd grunted its way up and over. My vision cleared as we whizzed down Turquoise Lake Road in excess of forty miles per hour. Then we in the proletarian half of the pack pushed our rides up Busk Creek Trail in single file. There was no opportunity to ride more than a few hundred feet of it.

"On your left."
"Gotcha; go ahead."
Maybe it was the misery we had just endured together. We were remarkably well mannered when the next climb over Sugarloaf Mountain let us ride again. I gained places that I promptly lost in the gullies of the long steep power line descent to the Fish Hatchery. About 2:20 gone.
The next fifty miles were rarely technical, more my style. I turned on my heart monitor. I wanted to keep my rate down to seventy-five percent of maximum. You’d blow up if you didn’t take it easy, the veterans had said. Keep turning the cranks. I passed people and even enjoyed a roller coaster drop thirty-five miles out. It had me so far back on the bike I was nose to nose with the saddle.
Our next checkpoint was Twin Lakes. 3:30 elapsed, back on schedule. Drink more. Then the climb to Columbine. Hello, granny gear. A tandem bike passed me. It didn’t seem possible that any had survived the torturous early miles. The pilot was whining about something when I caught them again at timberline. Afterwards I learned he’d been pleading with the Fairies to quit stepping out in front of him because a crash had damaged his ability to steer. Those guys nursed their machine another forty miles before the front fork and their hearts broke completely. There were no reports of unusual road kill.
Celestial lights were clearly visible from the Columbine Aid Station. Its army tent marked our fifty-mile turnaround at the elevation where tundra plants gave way to lichen and scree. A saintly man offered to take my bike so I could rest behind the rope with the others. 5:45. Did I look as rough as they did? I prayed not and asked if I could keep going. He smiled, waving me on. Seven miles of downhill can cure a lot.
A suspicion tried to overtake me. The wolf and I had to talk. "I'm going to make it. I'll finish!"
"I don't see any finish line around here. Check your monitor. Slow down. Just keep pedaling."
"Sorry, I forgot."
A volunteer beating on a pan in the middle of the road announced a left turn and the brutal twelve-hundred-foot hike back up the power line. Interminable staring at my feet as they fought to gain another few inches, and again, and once more. The soles begin to peel away from my shoes and caught in the dirt between steps. I noticed increasing numbers of bonked riders sitting beside the trail in a daze of dehydration and cramped muscles. Once they’d stopped they’d lost the ability to move.
"We've got to be near the top now," I said to a woman fighting that same vacant look in her eyes. "Sugarloaf is ours."
"Yeah, we’re showing it," she rasped and kept trudging.
After the passage of geological time it really was the top. Down, down, down! At least I was getting to ride Busk Creek on the way in. No wrecks. Climbing to St. Kevin's on the paved Lake Road was heavenly. Down again on the dirt trace.
"Not yet. Not yet. Just spin,” the wolf advised as one last pesky climb sapped all but the resolve out of a few more of us with less than two miles to go.  Then the road fell away, the finish line in sight.
I went to Leadville to see if I could marshal what it took to handle something too big for the me I knew. On the way down that last hill toward the banner and cheering crowd I blinked disbelief out of my eyes and blessed Leadville every way I could think of, from the race staff who'd been as good as Chlouber's word to the rocks and thorns that had spared my tires. In all, the 1996 Trail 100 granted 236 mountain bikers that vision of the finish line.  The last, Lois DeMartini at 11:59:30, left the post-race awards ceremony on a stretcher with an IV running, but she had gotten there. Mike Ferrentino finally broke nine hours in his third attempt. Mike Volk bested John Stamstad, the legendary king of endurance biking, and set a new record at 7:22:02. I was ecstatic with 11:07:13.
*          *          *

What you left out of your article, Mr. Ferrentino, is that there are no roads to the Leadville Trail 100 from California or any other location known to maps. It’s a travail that can only be reached in certain peculiar states of mind. May it remain open to all who need it, even the accidental fools who try an obscure door just because some joker says it exists.

And Mike, thanks. Congratulations on your big buckle.

—Michael Hopping
copyright © 1996 all rights reserved



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