August 17, 2013

Hallucinations at Altitude: Nick Frey Races the Leadville 100

by Douglas Ansel

Lining up immediately behind former Leadville 100 winner Todd Wells was a good start to the day.

Lining up behind prior Leadville 100 winner Todd Wells was a good start to the day.

There, in front of Nick Frey’s eyes halfway up the infamous Powerline climb, was a six foot tall slice of pizza. Dancing, almost, taunting him with the prospect of food and a stop to the cramps that took hold and barely faded away with every labored step up the steepest part of the climb. Hallucinations had occurred at the same point last year, so was it even real? But as the taunts gave way to a gloriously sugary coke proffered by the costumed figure it became clear – this, at least, was not one of the hallucinations that would haunt Nick today.

It all started some 80 miles and over five hours prior as more than 1,500 racers straddled their bikes in the start corrals in downtown Leadville, Colorado. The temperature hovered at freezing as puffs of breath floated in the air, illuminated by the 6:30am sunlight just beginning to creep over the roofs of the buildings in town. At once the stillness broke with the starter pistol and the careening of a horde of racers down the opening five miles of the race, a long gradual downhill ending at the base of the first climb of St. Kevin’s.

Nick was in Leadville for his second Leadville Trail 100, racing for the Herbalife team alongside multiple time national champion on the road Alison Powers and others who would go on to stack the top 30 at the end of the day. Between his legs was a new Boo RS-M29, one of the fleet of demo bikes which Boo has built up to bring to trade shows, races, and other events in the cycling community.This year, Nick was determined to rectify some of the mistakes of last year and, though he hit the climb less than 20 riders from the lead, he climbed within himself. With the top fifty riders racing the first climb like a 90 minute cross country race rather than a seven hour ordeal, it was far too easy to go hard, a lesson learned the hard way the year prior when the front group sat up at the top of the first climb and a regrouping occcured. This year, things were different, restraint prevailed, and matches were not burnt unnecessarily.

Over the top of the climb, Nick attacked his group, wanting to hit the descent first. From there, the race couldn’t be better. The hallucinations – for they did occur, even if the pizza was merely a costume – were hours away and at the bottom of the descent, he was in fifth position, only Todd Wells, Alban Lakata, and Christoph Sauser in the lead group and Cesar Grajales in no-man’s land between. Fifth, behind two former winners and the reigning World Champion in Cross Country Marathon mountain bike races. But, because there were some 80 miles to go, he wisely slowed at the bottom and slotted into a chase group of 6-8 riders who worked together until the base of the biggest climb of the day, the ascent to the midpoint of the race at the Columbine mine that gains 3,000 feet in a mere seven miles.

Nick helped drive the pace in the first chase group early in the race.

Nick helped drive the pace in the first chase group early in the race.

Eating on such a climb is near impossible, the effort required to merely turn the pedals over making such menial tasks as chewing and swallowing arduous. In other words, one must be fully fueled before the climb starts, or the wheels will come off the bus, strong muscles reduced to quivering contractions at half the force they could normally sustain. But, the hectic first hours of racing paired with the difficulty of forcing oneself to eat in the wee hours of the morning had led to under fueling and after the climb began, Nick could tell he had a one-way ticket to bonk city. With one third of the climb behind him and sitting in about 20th position on the road, he faltered and lost close to ten spots, if not more, by the turnaround point at the top. But every climb has a descent, and once again Nick let the bike run wild, “completely ripping” the descent with a combination of half skill and half forgiving bamboo frame and passing his way back into 23rd.

Nick Frey makes his way down one of the day's rocky descents.

Nick and his Boo RS-M29 truly shone on the rough descents on the course.

Elation filled Nick as the Twin Lakes aid station came into view after the Columbine descent. Shortly afterwards, calories did the same as he gorged on four Honey Stinger waffles, four Honey Stinger gel chews, and three bottles of fluid in a desperate attempt to compel his muscles into working properly again. Momentarily satiated, he threw his leg back over the saddle and pedaled the 15 rolling miles to the Powerline climb, not knowing what hallucinations, real and imagined, lie before him.

Powerline is the stuff of Leadville legend, a climb so steep that only the top ten or so professional riders can make it up without walking. Even then, the pace former national and world champions hold up the steepest part of the climb is barely distinguishable from walking. Make one mistake, one errant slip of the front wheel or momentary loss of traction, and you come to a standstill impossible to recover from. Last year, Nick hallucinated on the climb, the five hours of brutal effort playing tricks on his glycogen starved brain. In fairness, it is hard to find someone who has not hallucinated at this stage of the race. As the climb reared its ugly head in front of him, Nick experienced a familiar doubt – how would he ever make it up, legs never completely recovered from the bonk some twenty five miles before? Thanks to a smart equipment choice, running the new SRAM XX1 groupset and its glorious 40t cog, he made it further up the climb than last year before the inevitable dismount happened and his rendezvous with pizzas both real and imagined occurred. But the walking? It still hurt, badly.

The rest of the race was one of those paradoxes familiar to endurance athletes, a never ending state of acute suffering that after the race is finished simply remains in the mind as a blur. At the top of the climb, now passed by the leading woman and others, thoughts drifted towards merely preserving a top-30 finish. A jolt of motivation hit as the 31st rider on the road came into view behind him, propelling Nick forward in an inspired descent. Here, Nick says, is where the bike truly shone, not punishing him for getting off a line and letting him float over obstacles without jarring him when his mind and skills were significantly dulled. On the final major climb over the backside of St. Elvin’s he was passed by teammate and second woman on the road Alison Powers. As he caught her on the following descent, the two immediately went to work together, hammering the final ten miles in a desperate attempt to catch Sally Bigham and give Alison the women’s victory. When a time check to Bigham finally came with only two miles left to race, it was clear the catch was not going to happen and the duo rolled across the line together in 26th place overall. Seven hours, twenty one minutes, and fifty two seconds after the starter’s pistol fired, life could start to resume normalcy… even if walking in the following four hours was nigh on impossible!

Nick Frey and Alison Powers cross the line together after over seven hours of suffering at the Leadville Trail 100.

Nick Frey and Alison Powers cross the line together after over seven hours of suffering at the Leadville Trail 100.