the saddest sight in the world

August 17, 2009

Okay, all of you who have seen the French Lieutenant’s Woman, raise your hand. What’s the enduring image from that movie? (Yes, I know it was a book first, but seriously, who’s read that? Oh, and you can put your hands down now.)

The enduring image, of course, is of the woman on the rocky sea shore, waiting for her man. That image is timeless, right? And heartbreaking. Waiting for the sailor who never returns. Is there a more forlorn, gut-wrenching sight?

Well, it’s the same at Leadville. This very cool video of the race is all about the leaders, the top ten, all about LANCE.

But Leadville, at least for me, is very much NOT about Lance. It’s about the rest of us.

As you may know, there are a couple of important time cut-offs at Leadville. First, it’s for the win. And who cares. I’m almost completely serious. Really, who cares?

Second, the nine hour cut-off. Those who finish in under nine hours join an elite club, and are rewarded with a gigantic silver belt buckle (those who finish in under 12 hours also get a silver belt buckle, but it’s considerably smaller. Not “you’d actually wear it” smaller, but smaller).

Like 10% of the field gets in under 9 hours. It’s a big deal. Big enough that men (and a few women) devote their year to getting fit enough to cross the line in under 9 hours. And, upon failure, they return year after year, hoping that this will be their year.

This year I went to crew for Elden and Kenny, and while Ricky and Gbrown, who were crewing with me, wanted to hurry and leave the Pipeline aid station (25-30 miles and two mountain passes to go) and try to see the winner cross the line, I was uninterested. Leadville isn’t about those guys.

But I wouldn’t miss the 9 hour mark. Rachelle, Holly, and I got back in time for that. The crowd is deep and rowdy, and lines the road for almost a mile along the finishing stretch. A large digital clock ticks off the hours, minutes, and seconds. A rider who appears on the horizon with one minute to go has a 50/50 chance of getting to the line in time. The crowd acts like a big shot of adrenaline, willing riders to the line before the clock strikes nine.

Except when they don’t. This year I watched a guy cross the line a few seconds too late, and collapse on the pavement, crying uncontrollably, while his wife knelt next to him trying, unsuccessfully, to console him.

Harsh. But not nearly as harsh as what happens three hours later.

At around eleven and a half hours (6pm), with 30 minutes to go before crossing the line no longer makes you a “finisher,” the crowd starts to grow. In fact, this year, the last mile straightaway looked more like a mountain top finish at the Tour de France, crushing in to form a single file channel finishing riders would pass through. Course marshals tried vainly to push the crowd back, but we would not be restrained.

The crowd moaned and swayed like a congregation in a big religious revival tent. Any rider appearing on the horizon was greeted to a loud roar, and spectators ran alongside them, some even trying to push riders along. Amazing. Did you have to be there? Maybe you had to be there.

But this next part, well, let’s just say, after the last week, I thought I was cried out. But tears are like Doritos–they keep making more.

We (me and the hundreds of other spectators at the finish line) had just (emotionally, vicariously) crossed the red carpet with what Leadville calls the “last ass over the pass” in about 11 hours, 59 minutes, and about 55 seconds.  The joy was palpable. And then Race Director Ken pulled the trigger and the shotgun blast officially ended the race. Wow.

And then Holly and I turned around and saw her. The French Lieutenant’s Woman. The Sailor’s Wife. Standing just over the finish line, holding a hand-scripted sign of pride for her man. And her two small children standing next to her, their hero-dad’s race number painted on their foreheads. All of them openly weeping, standing stock still.

I am tempted to blame this on manopause, but if any of you tough guys had been there, you would have been bawling like a colicky baby. I looked at Holly, she looked at me, and both of us tried our best to fight back the tears. And failed. Hell, I’m crying right now as I write this.

We watched the woman and her kids for about 10 minutes, debating whether we should go over and hug her, before we couldn’t stand it any longer and we left.

She was gone when we passed by the finish line later, on our way back to the hotel.

But I am haunted by her and her kids and her delayed husband. I wish I hadn’t seen her. But at the same time, I am very glad I saw her. I can’t figure it out. It’s just a bike race, right? And yet, here I am, crying.

48 Responses to “the saddest sight in the world”

  1. Grizzly Adam Says:

    If there is one thing I have never understood about Leadville, it’s the “official finisher” business. I mean, if a guy rides the entire route, under his own power, he finishes right? Why the cut-off and why at 12 hours, which is not all THAT slow?

    I can understand having a cut-off for a sweatshirt or belt buckle or some other trinket, but the other business is cruel, and dare I say, elitist?

    Do any of us think that guy is going to go home and when others say “how’d it go” he will respond, “oh, I DNF’d”. “Really, how far in? “At the finish line.”

    I have an idea. Instead of holding an arbitrary lottery to get into the race, why not hold one to determine who finishes. It would be like one of those pen and paper roll playing games:

    “You roll a 9:04, better luck next year”

  2. Carrie Says:

    I’m so bummed you didn’t stay to find out how it ended!!

  3. Aaron Says:

    After all of the talk and blog posts I’ve endured about this “Leadville” race, I’ve never really wanted to do it. 100 miles of dirt roads doesn’t sound fun to me. But this post actually makes me want to give it a try.

    • mark Says:

      Aaron, there is nothing fun about the course. But the best race courses are rarely the trails that are most fun to ride. The Leadville experience is a lot more than just the path you ride.

  4. VH1 Says:

    Knock that off, that story kills me! I won’t let Holly read this post for fear of an emotional meltdown. You need to add a part 2 to the story detailing the saga of DT aka 12:01:00 finisher

  5. KanyonKris Says:

    I’ve never been to Leadville, yet I believe you’ve portrayed the soul of it. Well done.

    I’ve been down on competition for the last few years because of the negative side effects I noticed. But I always knew there is good there too, I just couldn’t put my finger on it, but you have.

    When it’s a person striving to reach a personal goal, or a team working together, or a crowd cheering for a noble end (as the crowd at Leadville) – that’s the beauty sport can create. And as you noted, the moving valiant dramas are often not for 1st place.

    However, I contend competition shouldn’t dominate. Go for a ride just for fun now and then. Back off from race pace once in a while to give the quieter things a chance to be heard. Try new things. Seek for balance.

    • mark Says:

      Kris, one of the really cool things about Leadville is that it’s more like entering a marathon than a XC race. Which is to say, people come with their own goals that are typically not about where they finish relative to one another. Consequently, there is much encouragement, pep-talking, and cooperation along the course.

      I would argue that the cutoffs are what make it great because it becomes a race against the clock rather than a race against other riders. Sure, they’re arbitrary and based more on round numbers than anything else, but they’re a benchmark and become the carrot rather than the rider in front of you.

      I hear what you say about enjoying the ride, but there’s also an inexplicable joy that comes from pushing the limits and seeing what you can accomplish. There’s a time and a place for both.

  6. rabidrunner Says:

    That 12 hour cut-off might forever keep me from entering. As of late I’ve felt pressure to do it next year from various friends. Watched the boom-boom from the race director then viewed the results. That’s harsh, I tell you. Harsh.

  7. bikemike Says:

    August, 2009, the month of tears.

  8. Annie Says:

    You made me weep. I am 9 months pregnant, but still…

  9. Beautiful story beautifully told. Thanks Dug.

  10. 100poundsago Says:

    Great story. Thanks for framing it the way you did.

  11. mtb w Says:

    My wife and I have been to the Leadville 100 for the last 3 years to watch (I hope to make the lottery this year). To me (like you), the best part is watching the race clock for the 9 hour cutoff and, even more so, the 12 hour and 13 hour cutoff (they still allow riders to come in up to the 13 hour mark and those finishers still get a medal, but no belt buckle and, I think, their times don’t officially count). I have always stayed to watch until the 13 hour cutoff b/c it is so emotional – the crowd cheering on the riders making the 12 or 13 hour cutoff is so cool.

    I also saw the mother/wife and her two kids dutifully standing there for such a long time. (I think I saw you, Rick and two women standing next to us but I was so involved in the race I didn’t introduce myself – sorry!) It was so heartbreaking, particularly since as each rider came in, the wife cheered them on even though it wasn’t her husband. But I am happy to report that her husband finally did make it in before the 13 hour cutoff!! It was really emotional (my wife was crying too – uh, I guess I’ll admit I was too) and the crowd really got into it. Man, you must be contagious with this manopause thing since you are making me cry at the memory of it.

    • KanyonKris Says:

      Thanks for telling us “the rest of the story”. THIS is what the internet is good for.

      • mtb w Says:

        Oops. Didn’t think that I might ruin Dug’s story. Sorry, should’ve had a warning/disclaimer that my post would reveal the ending.

        There were lots of happy and sad moments at the 12 hour mark. One woman’s family from Mass brought champagne to shower her when she came in under 12 hours but as the clock passed the 12 hour mark, the champagne bottle was put on the ground while her family sat down on the curb. When she finally came in, she was very upset that she didn’t make 12 hours and that she disappointed her family. However, her mother cheered her up and her family uncorked the champagne anyway, leaving her with a big smile.

        • mtb w Says:

          I meant to say “she was very upset that she didn’t make 12 hours and that she thought she disappointed her family. However, her family was just glad she rode the whole thing and”

  12. mary Says:

    Excellent story telling, Dug. And thanks for the epilogue, KanyonKris. May be the best blog post you’ve written!

  13. Mathias Says:

    I love how Lance is the river bottom nightmare band to your emmet otter jug band.

    • dug Says:

      mathias, i really like what you’re saying here. i just don’t understand what you’re saying here.

      • Mathias Says:


        You have never seen Emmet Otter’s Jug Band Christmas?

        • dug Says:

          well, no, no i haven’t, i haven’t read the book or seen the jim hensen adaptation.

          but now that i’ve done my research, okay, i’m picking up what you’re laying down.

          you have bested me in a round of “use an obscure pop reference.” props.

  14. El Animal Says:

    How did Kenny do?

    • dug Says:

      8:47 on his spot single (32/19). not bad on a day the course was generally thought 15 minutes slower than last year.

  15. Rick S. Says:

    Good stuff. That was the first time I hung out and watched the 12 hour cut off. There are a lot of cool stories at Leadville. Some happy and others not so much.

  16. tp Says:

    That was great Dug. Thanks for your advice during the race and putting this whole damn race in perspective.

  17. VH1 Says:

    This is Holly. I was hoping you would post about this. I try to explain to people why I enjoy going to Leadville. The whole experience of it along with good company in a weird town is what it’s about.
    mtb w: Thanks for the update – I feel much better now.

  18. Doug Says:

    I am so sure this is the best blog post I’ve read anywhere in the oh-9 that I’m tempted to insert some profanity after ‘so’ and before ‘sure’. Well done, dug.

  19. tohellandback1st Says:

    um, not to ruin the beautiful moment, and it is a beautiful moment, but since we now know the ending, does that change it from a ‘The French Lieutenant’s Woman’ to more of a ‘Sleepless in Seattle’ type image?

    unless, of course, ‘The French Lieutenant’s Woman’ is one of those movies that adds to the story at the end of the credits; you know, like in ‘Zack and Miri Make a Porno’; after most of us have left the theatre the sailor shows up…

    not quite full disclosure: of the above-named movies, i’ve only seen one.

    • dug Says:

      i’m gonna say no, no it doesn’t, because it was the 12 hour mark this guy was going for, and while the 13 hour mark is cool too, everybody considers the 12 hour mark the true end of the race.

      11:59 and you’ve done leadville. 12:01 and you’ve gotta come back next year.

  20. Flyin' Ute Says:


    The 9 hour mark (my best is 9:12) continues to be as elusive for me as the gold was in the mountains of Leadville for most of the miners. I will indeed be back for more and see if I can find the GOLD (and silver belt buckle).

  21. Bob B. Says:

    Well done. To paraphrase the movie, it was as if their torture had become their delight.

  22. Anon Says:

    Thanks Dug, I didn’t think anyone else noticed that lady. I was up at St. Kevins at the same time she was and had about the same experience at the finish, maybe not just as obvious. Anyone who finishes Leadville has done something amazing. There are as many “stories” as riders.

    • dug Says:

      you must be mike birch’s wife (or family). i had the pleasure of climbing american fork canyon with mike a couple times this summer. he’s had some really bad luck out there. i wish i had known who you were, i would have sat in on your vigil.

  23. Ty Says:

    So well written Dug. I get it. I had a hard time watching the kids running along side as their dad finished sub 12…even that was too emotional for me. I couldn’t of handled seeing the family you wrote about. It was almost 2 hours after I finished before I had the composure to call my wife, and the following day before I could talk to my kids without breaking down. I love Leadville the way it is.

    • dug Says:

      ty, i couldn’t even look you in the eye at the finish, i was already on the edge of crying. nice ride man. you killed it out there.

  24. Jonnie J Says:

    Duggy – Nicely chronicled as usual. There is something certainly strange in them there hills that brings the emotion right to the surface. I don’t usually get emotional about riding bikes but I just about lost it afterwards while we were hanging out. I had to get out of there before I melted down. Mine were more selfish reasons….total dissappointment with my implosion and utter relief that is was over! Maybe its the altitude?

  25. gbrown Says:

    Very well told. I was there standing in the bleachers at the same time and saw the very same mom and two kids from another angle. But the impact was the same. I thought of the dad who I never saw, but I imagined how bad he wanted to finish well and maintain hero status for another year in the eyes of his growing kids. It’s tough for all of us when our kids discover we are human. That’s what I think of when I read this.

  26. David Says:

    I was a last minute guy at my first time this year, with my wife waiting at the line, she was going through those emotions as well as I was trying to get there. I left it all on that last climb towards the finish and squeeked it with a 11:56….. so happy!

  27. Jeremy Says:

    Doug…wow. What a brilliant (without even trying to be brilliant) piece. That is what makes it brilliant!

    Yes, it sounds much like a marathon. I try to go to our local (St. George,UT) marathon every year to watch the finish and can’t hold back the tears! Running it myself was LESS emotional that watching the triumphs from the sideline.

    Our group of buddies all want to ride next year but we are duely “afraid” of the feat. This post may push us over the edge!

  28. Phil Says:

    Hi Dug,

    Great post! I agree with you, Leadville is not about
    who wins it is about each person’s personal challenge.
    It made me very emotional reading it.

    I stayed at Pipeline 2 (inbound) for the 9 hour
    cut off. I was crewing for my wife and she had
    passed a long time ago and the rest of her crew
    were impatient and wanted to head to the finish

    I knew a guy who was doing it this year and had
    DNF’d the year before and I had not seen him yet.
    I just couldn’t leave until I saw Mike.

    So, I stayed and waited and like the 12 hour mark
    at the finish line, every minute passing made me
    that more up tight. I was screaming inside
    “Come on Mike, you can do it!”

    9 hours came and the cut off queen shut off the
    course. I felt like crying and then Mike came in.

    I held it togethor and talked to him a little,
    gave him a big hug. I told him that Leadville
    would not be a challenge if there wasn’t a
    chance of failure, and that it takes real
    courage to face failure.

    Mike understands facing failure, he is a cancer survivor.
    He cried a little, and then he gave a smile and
    said “Well, at least I am in shape for ski

    I took off for the finish line to see if my
    wife would make it and cried in the car on the
    way over where Mike would not see me.

    Leadville is a race of personal bests, a challenge
    for all, a race with possible failure. Like life.

    Thanks for writing your blog!

  29. WhitP Says:

    Dug-I think I found an image of the woman you speak of. Heartbreaking!
    great usual!! whit

    • dug Says:

      oh thank god. now i can finally get some sleep. seriously.

      • The vast difference in emotion from picture one to picture two is what got to me. The mother goes from utter despair to pure elation….either that or she is completely overcome with emotion from finally seeing her rider.

        It’s hard to explain what is so magical about leadville unless you’ve been there. I’m still trying to find the words.

        Great post…incredible pics.

  30. […] and Holly had a similar experience at Leadville…only they didn’t see the ending.  After the final gun went off, signaling the official […]

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