Sarah Barber, a new member of Team World Bicycle Relief who is racing the Leadville 100 for the Power of Bicycles had quite the training experience! But her both physical and mental toughness got her through it, and taught her new lessons of the road. Read on to hear her first hand account of a harrowing snowstorm in the middle of summer.
It seemed like a simple and appropriate strategy for the Leadville Trail 100 Mountain Bike Race: Just keep pedaling. Three words that translated into an effective and easy-to-execute approach could guide my training, as well. Or so I thought.
It was with enthusiasm and a lust for adventure that my husband and I plotted what would be my last over-six-hours mountain bike ride, just under three weeks from race day. Pouring over Rand McNally’s pages and searching backroads in Idaho, we happened upon forest service road 172. It departed from forest service road 008 several miles from Highway 21 on the north side of Banner Summit. It traversed north-northeast around Cape Horn Mountain before hooking south past the remote Diamond D Ranch and Yankee Fork, finally dropping into Sunbeam, which is east of Stanley. With three passes over 9000 feet in elevation, the route appeared to cover approximately 70 miles of single-lane dirt road.
I’ve never participated in the LT100, but I had read and heard enough to conclude that this was clearly the perfect training ride. As a bonus, it would take me into the Frank Church River-of-No-Return Wilderness Area. This part of the country has a reputation for rugged beauty that is unmatched in the continental U.S. And I was going to get to see it from my human-powered, two-wheeled vehicle!
My husband, Brian, and I had spent Sunday night at Marsh Creek Campground, which was vacant, quiet, and a convenient 5 miles from where I would begin my ride the next day. A little overnight rain quelled the dust and gave me confidence that July’s normally scorching heat would not be an issue during the ride. While I spent the day pedaling, Brian would drive Highway 21 into Stanley, take our dogs for a hike, refuel the van, and then drive my route in the opposite direction to check on me midway through the ride. It would be a long day, and he wanted to make sure I was okay before selecting and settling into a campground for the night.
He dropped me off at 9:30 on Monday morning. Forest service road 008 was lovely–flat to rolling for the first 6 miles, passing a deserted campground with an outhouse for a timely potty-break. Then it split, and I took the fork to the right, noting the small brown-and-white sign indicating forest service road 172. The road started to climb, and I noticed I hadn’t seen the sun in awhile. However, I was thankful I wasn’t hot. I was very comfortable in shorts, jersey, and arm warmers. I had a vest and knee warmers (along with several thousand calories of Cliff Bars) in my Camelback.
Fifty-one minutes into the ride, I felt the first few raindrops. “Ah, just a sprinkle,” I thought, and I kept pedaling. The drops got bigger and closer together, but I still figured it was just a passing mountain rain shower. The mountains and trees around me were too tall for me to see if there was a break in the cloud cover in any direction, but I assumed there probably was a sunny blue hole in the darkness. I kept pedaling because that was my plan: just keep pedaling.
It rained harder. Two rivulets of water now coursed down the double-track behind me. I was completely soaked. I stopped to put on my vest, which seemed a silly exercise in futility since nothing was dry anymore. Soon, my hands and feet were numb from the cold. I kept pedaling. And I watched the rain, heard some thunder, and thought, “Those rain drops look…thick?” Sure enough, the rain was turning into snow, and it was accumulating on the ground. At that point, I couldn’t shift gears or brake because my hands had ceased to function. In fact, I could barely grip the handlebar.
Mild panic set in. I couldn’t ride downhill in the direction from where I had come because I couldn’t work the brakes or hold the handlebars. I couldn’t continue riding uphill because the blocks of wood that had once been my feet were too cold to pedal. This was quickly turning into a survival situation, so conserving energy and attempting to stay warm seemed like the highest priorities.
On the plus side, it wasn’t as if I thought I might die out there in the wilderness. It was more a question of how long and how badly I might have to suffer before I was rescued. I knew that Brian would eventually be coming for me. Although he might not yet be experiencing the same weather system from his end of the route, he soon would, and then he would know that my circumstances were growing more dire by the minute. I was less than 15 miles into the ride, which meant that he would have to cover over 50 miles of four-wheel drive forest service road in order to get to me. Which meant that I could expect him inÛ_four hours? Five? And of course, that was assuming the road was intact and passable.
It was time to let go of my just keep pedaling strategy. Bike dropped at the side of the road, I hunkered under a small tree, knees hugged to my chest, hands stuffed in armpits, and helmet still on (because I couldn’t move my fingers to unbuckle the chin strap). For the next three-and-a-half hours, I sat shivering more violently than I ever have in my life. I cried. Then I cried for help. Then I screamed for help. And then I just screamed. The only answer was silence, as the snow pelted down around me.
I was as scared as I had ever been, but simultaneously confident that I’d make it out alive.
“Sometimes it’s not as simple as just pedaling; it’s about knowing when to stop pedaling.”
After what seemed like an eternity but in retrospect was really pretty manageable, I heard the comforting sound of a diesel engine. The rest was easy. I staggered to my feet. My knight in shining armor carried me into the van and cranked up the heat so high that the dogs were panting. He wrapped me in a blanket and loaded up my bike on the rack. We shared our harrowing stories–his wasn’t fun either. He was terrified for my safety when he encountered rain and snow, and he had to put the Sportsmobile through its paces, as there were two sections of washed-out road, and other spots where the road was just wide enough for the van to pass, with sheer drop-offs on either side.
Twelve days and many sobering realizations later, my constant reminder of my brush with danger is persistent numbness and tingling in the fingers of my right hand. Other than that, I’m thankful to have come away with a new level of mental toughness rather than some sort of permanent physical damage. I’ve also had to amend my training strategy for the Leadville Trail 100. Sometimes it’s not as simple as just pedaling; it’s about knowing when to stop pedaling. This week, as I taper into the big event, I’m pedaling less than ever, allowing my body to recover and absorb the training load so that on race day it will take more than a little snowstorm to stop me!
Wow, Sarah! We are amazed and inspired by your toughness and thankful for your endurance. Good luck in Leadville!