Saturday, August 29, 2015

Tragedy on the Leadville 100 - Mick's Story: Compassionate Competition

My friend Mick
Seems like I only ever hear about people being dumb and mean to each other.  It makes me tired.  Makes me sad.
That’s why I love to hear stories of people being brave.  Those stories chase out all the mean, dumb people from my head, like a dog scatters geese.  While the assholes are loud, the kind among us far outnumber them.
This is my friend Mick's story.  It’s a story about kindness.  He told it to me because I asked him to.  I think it's a story worth telling.
But before the story, a foreword is necessary.  My heart breaks for the family of the racer who died.  I didn't know him.  And, although he's at the center of this story, I can't tell his story and I wouldn't attempt to anyway. 
Nor is this the story of what went wrong at the Leadville.  I'll leave that to others.
This is Mick’s story, as close as I can tell it.
Mick and I met on a vacation.  He was one of the seven of us who went on the hut-to-hut bike trip from Telluride to Moab.  He almost didn’t make it, because his VW van broke down several times along the way (of course it did, it’s a VW van).

I didn’t know Mick before the trip started.  But I got to know him over the course of the trip.  I could tell right away that we would get along.  He was quick to laugh, and pulled his weight.  He let others speak first and was slow to answer, slow to judge.

I could also tell that he had a lot of outdoors experience.  This experience made him one of the leaders on our journey, but he fell back to being just one of the guys when it was time to relax.  When I crashed on our trip, he was the first to respond, check my pupils, and make sure I was okay.
Mick and Andy try to fix my bike
I liked Mick so much that I even came to forgive him for his taste for hard cider.  (Sure, blame the gluten).  His dietary restrictions made for some interesting meals at the huts – like fried spam and cheese for breakfast.
Along our trip, Mick told me that he was training for the Leadville 100.  The Leadville is a pretty famous mountain bike race.  It’s 100 miles, at elevation, in the Colorado Rockies.  This year, some 1,900 racers signed up. 
Mick’s previous attempt had been marred by nutrition issues.  Starting around mile 25 or so, Mick started cramping and couldn’t recover.  When he reached the 74-mile cutoff at 8 hours and 48 minutes, he was disqualified, because the cutoff was 8:45.  His race was over.
This year, he vowed to do better.  And he did.  He was in better shape, but trained less.  He knew more about the race.  And he had changed up his diet, so cramps weren’t an issue.
Mick did webinars and training rides with Rebecca Rusch and Elden “Fat Cyclist” Nelson.  One thing he learned from them: the race is an eating competition – the amount of calories required to finish means that you are doing your best cookie-monster imitation while riding.
Photo from here.
Mick found that after 6 hours, he couldn’t handle solid foods anymore, and switched to gels.
Mick wanted to finish in a good time.  At the Leadville, if you finish in under 12 hours, you get the coveted “belt buckle.”  Mick had trained hard and was on his way. 
This year, when the 74-mile cutoff came, Mick easily made it at the 7:10 mark.  After the cutoff checkpoint is a gnarly climb, known as “Powerline.”  At mile 80 or so, riders uhit this 3.4 mile section of trail that has an average grade of 7.3%.  The fastest finishers will take 30 minutes on this climb.  It’s a beast.
Mick conquered Poweline and was on-track for a finish time of 11 hours 30 minutes or maybe 11:45.  This meant he would make the 12-hour cutoff for winning a coveted Silver Buckle from the Leadville race.
As Mick crested the Powerline climb, he was feeling good.  His adrenaline was surging for the upcoming downhill segment, and he was busy re-calibrating his brain and senses from climbing mode to fast downhill mode.
Then he saw it – a rider down.  Four other racers circled the downed rider, and were beginning to perform CPR. 
Mick thought he recognized the rider.  They had started in the same corral and were running at pretty similar speeds, so Mick had seen him on the trail several times.  Mick was in disbelief that this same rider would now be in a life-threatening situation.
Stopping now would surely mean that Mick would lose his shot at a silver buckle and a sub-12 hour finish.  But the thought of continuing the race never crossed his mind. 
Mick had done search and rescue for years in Alamosa Valley.  In his time there, he had been called out to fatal accidents with climbers, an airplane crash, and had even been on a rescue helicopter that crashed. 
So, when Mick saw the rider on the ground, his training kicked in and Mick jumped off the bike without a second thought.  Mick said that everyone who rode by was willing to help, but eventually, some were waived on, as no more people were needed.  “It was just a matter of timing for me.”
The downed rider couldn’t maintain a pulse - advanced medics were needed.  But no cellular service existed at the spot where She fell.  So, Mick rode down the trail, while another rider rode up, searching for a signal.  Ultimately, Mick found a spot with a weak signal, and made seven calls to 911 before he got a good connection. While he was riding back to the scene, he heard ambulance sirens – not sure whether his call or the other rider’s went through.
While waiting for the EMS, the riders took turns performing CPR.  They had all ridden 80+ grueling miles, and were exhausted, so chest compressions shifts were brief – not more than a minute or two each for the eight to twelve people who had stopped to help.  Others took turns taking notes.  His eyes opened occasionally, but his heart still wouldn’t beat on its own.  Soon, race officials arrived with radios and signaled to the EMS.  Riders carried out CPR for 40 minutes to an hour. 
EMS arrived with oxygen and an EKG – no shock was called for.  The medics continued chest compressions.  As they wheeled him away, he seemed to be breathing and even squeezed an EMT’s fingers.  He was still alive. 
The riders watched him roll away on the ambulance.  They were drained, but still thought he would make it.  He passed away unbeknownst to them. 
Mick rolled away from the scene at 11 hours and 7 minutes, according to his Garmin.  In all, he had stopped for about an hour with the emergency.  No chance of finishing the last 20 or so miles in under an hour.  He finished the race at 12:36.  No buckle, but a finish.
Mick is understated about his decision to stop and help.  He thinks others would have done the same.  Would you?  If you were on pace to finish the race that beat you last year and win a buckle?  If you saw that others had stopped already? 
Mick calls it “compassionate competition.”  His philosophy is that “we’re all in this together” and recognition of this fact should be more predominant in society.  It’s surely true in remote mountain bike races, where there is a camaraderie among the racers.  But what if you saw a man crumpled in the bus stop, would you check?

Anyway, Mick is my hero.  I think Leadville ought to award him, and everyone else who stopped, with a special buckle.  Maybe a heart of gold.  The race organizers did award him  silver buckle, a sweatshirt, and an entry into next year's race though.  Well done. 
I always close this blog with an exhortation to “be brave.”  The notion of being brave, for me, is a challenge to persist in doing what is right, even in the face of adversity.  Do good, especially when it is scary or uncomfortable.
Be brave, be like Mick.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Spiritual Enlightenment and Fart Jokes – Telluride to Moab on Bikes Part 2

Andy and I were recently talking about the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA).  I know, it’s not mountain bikes, but I’ll connect the dots.  Follow me for a minute.

A version of the RFRA law was passed by the US Congress in the 1990s.  And it has been making the rounds more recently as a state law.  (After the US Supreme Court said that the federal law didn’t apply to states’ laws).
From here:
The RFRA prohibits states from passing laws that “substantially burden” a person’s exercise of religion unless the government can demonstrate that the law is the “least restrictive means” of furthering a “compelling governmental interest.” 

What does that mean?  It means that if the exercise of your religious beliefs involves, for example, fornicating with trees, the government can’t pass laws that stop you from “getting wood” unless it can show a really, really good reason why you shouldn’t. 

photo from
Like, for example, that your “wood pecker” would further the spread of Dutch Elm Disease (it’s the tree version of scabies). 

"Hey, easy . . . What are you doing with that chainsaw?"
But it’s not enough just to show a good reason.  Under the RFRA, the government must also show that there are no easier ways to prevent the spread of Dutch Elm Disease than forbidding your religious practice outright.  Like, if it would prevent the spread of Dutch Elm, requiring the use of prophylactics would be “less restrictive.”  Although you wouldn’t have that “natural feel.”  (I’m told that it’s a similar sensations to the mouth feel that you get from eating those tiny tubs of ice cream off the little wooden paddles that come with them).

Always made my skin crawl
The latest state to pass such legislation is Indiana.  It caused some controversy, because the law was passed after federal courts ruled that gay marriage was legal in Indiana.  The law was seen, by some, as a move to allow businesses to discriminate against gay couples without consequences.  Pundits, however, observed that it was already legal to discriminate against gay couples in Indiana. 

In any event, some folks in Indiana immediately invoked the RFRA to prevent government from passing laws that would burden the exercise of their religious beliefs in ways that the lawmakers probably didn’t anticipate. 

The most famous example is the “Church of Cannabis.”  This church was founded shortly after passage of the RFRA in Indiana, and its practitioners assert that the use of cannabis is central to their beliefs and is a necessary religious practice.  The church has recently sued the state of Indiana under the RFRA, alleging that state laws criminalizing marijuana use illegally infringe on their religious practices.  It will be interesting to see what happens – the most obvious defense is that the religion is not real, but the government doesn’t often question the sincerity of a person’s religious beliefs.

This brings me back to my conversation with Andy.  No, were weren’t practicing at the Cannabis Church.  We had found a different way to reach nirvana.
I would totally ride my bike there.  And then turn around for some downhill.

You may recall my previous post on the Dirt Church.  We wondered whether mountain biking might qualify as a religious practice, that the government cannot restrict. 

The chapel

Of course, I didn’t come up with the concept - the Dirt Church has many practitioners.  It has been around for a while.  It lives inside every mountain biker who knows the spiritual cleansing that happens on a good ride.  The workaday worries of daily life wash away, and the spirit is exalted to a state that can only be considered bliss.  You can’t worry about the electric bill when immersed in the pursuit of flow. 
Andy and I could be missionaries in this new faith.  Hell, Andy’s whole job is to spread the good word, as IMBA’s Great Lakes Director.  Sam and Mick have been employed to guide pilgrims in collegiate outdoor programs.  And I work to keep the temples open at Alum Creek and Chestnut Ridge. 

And days two and three our tour from Telluride to Moab could be classified as a religious experience. 

On Day 2, we left the scenic Last Dollar Hut, and headed to Spring Creek Hut. This would be a 27 mile ride, with the promise of extra singletrack at the end, for the hearty.

All along the way, I saw the Columbine, Colorado’s state flower.  As we descended through the course of the day, we were treated to the sight of yellow cornflowers around Hoffman Ranch and groves of aspens in the Uncompahgre National Forest.  I started picking wildflowers to share with my daughter when I got home.  So many flowers! 

We also passed the old San Juan Ranch, where John Wayne filmed parts of the film True Grit.

We arrived relatively early, at 12:30 at Spring Creek Hut, and a few of us headed out for some extra miles of singletrack.  Why not?  We may never get a chance to ride those trails again.

We chose the Forest Fence and East Spring Creek trails.  At a creek crossing, we met a dirt biker who stopped to chat.  He was one of the guys who maintained these trails. 

We thanked him and went on our way.  Thing about riding on shared trails is that each user group has its own impact.  Horses, for instance, can make a soft trail into oatmeal that dries bumpy and cratered.  (Horses!)

Dirt bike trails, like these, tend to have loose rocks and soil on the surface and can become deeply rutted if ridden wet. 

Back at the hut, we ate like kings.  Andy had made some chicken curry with potatoes. 

With no cellular service, we were forced to converse with one another for entertainment.  We swapped stories, each more braggadocios than the last.  Ultimately, John’s “stinky fingernail” story was declared the winner. 

The night was rounded out with card games with someone’s naked-lady deck.  (More than one hand was won with “the Ace of Vajayjays.”)  Never fails.  When a group of men get together without any women present, they quickly turn into 13-year-olds.  Or maybe we never quit being 13-year-olds, we have just learned how to act grown up.

The next morning, between the snoring, farting, and expectorating, I’m pretty sure we woke the wildlife.  We made some coffee and ate spam fried in bacon fat and eggs with green chilies. 

The hut kinda smelled funny.  Also, it was a little early for fart jokes, but see above. 

 Despite the boorish start, the day unfolded like a hymn book.  We filled our bags with trail snacks from the hut’s copious cupboards and rolled out.

Some members of the group were already feeling saddle sore.  At the first stop, grundle cream was passed around, and I pondered the use of embrocation, wondering how that would work with the guys who only brought one pair of bike shorts. 

Just don't sit downwind
In the cool morning air, we ticked off miles to our first singletrack section at the Dry Creek Trail.  Andy, Sam, Mick and I broke from the rest of the group, who would continue on the gravel road while we rode trail.

This trail was sandy and loose.  Within 100 yards, my front wheel washed out and I crashed.  I let out a death rattle that had Andy, Mick, and Sam certain that they would have to carry me out of the trail.  They stopped and hurried back to me.  Fortunately, I only received a couple scrapes and scratches.

My bike had it worse though – I broke about four inches off my handlebars!  What to do?  We jammed a stick in the broken end, which gave me about an inch back.  And we moved the other side brake and shifter levers in a little for symmetry. 

"Adventure By Bike," indeed.

As the guys started to tease me about my “hipster bars,” I explained that it was really just a new MTB trend – “offset narrows.”

Anyway, I didn’t feel super confident in my new setup, so I left the singletrack and rode back to the road to catch up with the other group.  Andy, Mick, and Sam continued on the singletrack.

Now I was alone.  And I’m a terrible navigator, but there wasn’t much to worry about.  The map showed that I just had to keep riding straight until a left turn on Highway 90. 

Then came the rain.  At this altitude, some rain is unavoidable.  It often comes in short and strong bursts.  Today was no exception.  Still, I kept riding, my only concession being to change my helmet for my ball cap, to keep the rain out of my eyes.  When it really started pouring, I waited under a tree for a while.

The whole time, I was looking for Highway 90.  Diverge Road had ended, and I turned left on another gravel road.  I knew that was the right direction, but where was the highway?  Eventually, a truck drove past.  I flagged the driver down.  He eyed me suspiciously; what idiot would be out here in the mountains riding a bike in a rainstorm anyway? 

Highway 90, he explained, was a couple miles in the opposite direction.  He pointed to the way I came from.   The man drove away, happy to be rid of me.  I was confused, but I kept going.  Now I was alone, lost, and riding on a bike with broken handlebars.  Yeesh.  And it was only day three.  But a couple miles later, the storm broke and the sun returned. 

Shortly after, I found the “road group,” who were patiently waiting at the assigned meeting point.  Turns out, as they explained to me, Highway 90 was just another gravel road and I had unwittingly gone the right way. 

Andy, Mick, and Sam rolled in shortly after.  We had some Fritos and a beer as we made our gameplan.

For the next 20 miles or so, we planned to travel offroad, on a strip of singletrack that paralleled the road.  I had regained confidence in my handlebars over the last 15 miles, so I was game.

Except that the first couple of miles of this trail SUCKED! Nothing but gnarly, narrow, rooty and overgrown trail, at hike-a-bike uphill grade.  When we passed near the road, most of the guys bailed.  They didn’t want any more of that.

Andy, Mick, Sam and I pressed on.  And were we ever rewarded!  The trail turned into easy, flowy single and doubletrack through wildflowers and forest.

I felt particularly lifted by the miles of smooth doubletrack through the aspens.  I had paid my dues all day.  Lost, broken, rained on.  But now – reborn in sweet spiritual bliss.  We arrived at the hut exhausted, but happy. 


Worship service

Back with the group, we stuffed ourselves on chicken tostadas, beans, and rice. 

I had only 30% left on the batteries of my phone and Garmin.  No cellular service.  No convenience stores in sight.  Just the camaraderie of the adventure past, and the promise of another adventure ahead.  And fart jokes. 




Be brave, just do it at Church!