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.