Monday, May 16, 2011

A new standard for brutal: LeadmanTri Life Time Epic 250

I’m sitting at about 28,000 feet, still climbing, and when I look out the port side of our MD-80 I can see the battleground of yesterday’s truly epic LeadmanTri Life Time Epic 250, the 50 miles toward the Valley of Fire, the old historic train trestle leading to Hoover Dam. What an event this ultra-distance triathlon turned out to be, on so many fronts!
Racers spread out on the road to the Valley of Fire

Back in February I had received an e-mail from Nick L., who now works for Life Time Fitness after leaving WTC sometime last year. Life Time is the billion-dollar-plus company that owns more than 90 state-of-the-art fitness centers around the country, and Las Vegas was going to be the company’s latest target to receive a 150,000 square foot Diamond-level fitness club. Nick asked me whether I would be available as Head Referee for the inaugural Leadman ultra-triathlon in May, and luckily I was. Nick had seen me officiate various 70.3 events around the country, and I was honored and humbled that he would pick me as his go-to guy to kick off what may become a new player in the world of triathlon.
The leader in Lake Mead
Initially, Life Time envisioned a field of 200 to maybe 250 racers who would have to meet certain qualification standards such as having finished, for example, an Ironman-distance event in 12:30 hrs (men). With a 5K swim (3.2 miles) in Lake Mead, an extraordinarily challenging 223K (138 miles) over the hilly terrain toward the Valley of Fire and back, and the final, mostly uphill 22K (almost 14 miles) run to Boulder City via Hoover Dam the number of takers never reached those lofty goals: All told, 40 racers were at the start on Saturday morning, with four of them representing relay teams, and another 8 or so having signed up for “only” the half-distance Sprint. Yeah, right, whatever—sprint! It’s just not easy to prepare for such a gruel-fest with only three months or so to go since its original announcement.

It would have been easy for Life Time to cancel the event or simply scale the entire production back a notch or three—not so. These guys put on a class act second to none, all for the benefit for those who had signed up for a race with no prize money, no qualification slots, no finisher t-shirts—all you were going to get was bragging rights (if you finished), classy trophies as a podium finisher, and the knowledge to have been the first to participate in a Leadman event. (I should have mentioned that Life Time bought the fabled  Leadville 100 last year and, thanks to the lack of a swim option at this 10,000+ ft.-elevation town in the Rockies, could not produce a triathlon there—so now the idea is to produce epic tris around the country.)
Race HQ at the rather tony Green Valley Ranch Resort
Life Time chose to put its entire plan into action, regardless of the number of participants. Those who showed up were treated to VIP treatment: Race HQ in the Green Valley Ranch Resort, an intimate VIP reception with the attending Pros, a catered bus tour of the entire bike course, a pre-race dinner at Lucille’s, full race-day support resembling that of an event for 2,500 participants, an awards breakfast this morning with a chamber quartet playing Mozart…. Boy, these guys know how to treat people right. Did I mention that they hired Jerry McNeil—triathlon’s most experienced announcer—to add commentary to the deeds?
Pre-race dinner at Lucille's, with good blues in the bar
My job as HR obviously took on a different nature than for one of the races that I usually work. Because of the overall intimacy and the daunting nature of this race I was part of the crew in an unprecedented way, at least for triathlons. Since the race was what USAT calls “self-officiated” (the refs are not assigned by USAT but are hired by the race organizer) I had a certain amount of leeway in regard to interacting with the participants. The bus tour was an excellent example: During those almost five hour in the desert, Jordan Rapp (Pro, and eventual winner) and I offered our opinion about the course—Jordan from the athlete’s point of view, I from the official’s perspective. The result: An intimacy and respect between all stakeholders that could result in only a heightened awareness of the rules and the requirements to survive the day. What a fantastic concept. Is it possible to do this for 2,500 athletes? Of course not, but I do not believe that the Leadman is going to grow into a mega-series like the 70.3 events, for example—only a select few are physically able to embark on such an epic event, and by design there will be a certain exclusivity to this series.
16% and 95 degrees Fahrenheit—entering the Valley of Fire
To the race: It was a gorgeous start when 40 athletes entered Lake Mead with the sun just coming up. Two 2.5K loops had to be completed, with a mandatory exit at the half-way point, a quick medical check, the option of warm broth, and then the continuation in 69-degree, dead-calm water. It was truly beautiful. Transition was top-notch, with changing tents and individual chairs for each participant!
Getting ready for a looong day at the office
And then hell started: The 138-mile out-and-back course to the Valley of Fire, the most spectacular backdrop for any race I have ever seen. Long climbs, long descents, wide vistas, and the largest skies you will ever encounter! Think of the Big Bend for scenery, the Hill Country for hills, El Paso in the summer for heat, and Lubbock at any time for the wind—and you’re starting to get an idea of it.

I could have had 10 officials (I had only two volunteers) and there would not have been any observable drafting penalties: After the swim, the gaps were already in the two-to-six minute range, and by mile 50 we’re talking about racer #2 being down by 15 minutes on #1, #3 being behind by another 7 minutes, #4 trailing by an additional 12 minutes, etc. My role out there was not assessing penalties for something that was physically impossible to do unless we extended the drafting zone to three or more miles, but rather making sure those racers were OK. On the way out, they all looked fine, even cheerful. On the way back, when the ferocious 25-mph headwind that swirled through the valleys in unexpected ways, they either battled on, grim-faced, or finally got off the bike at one of the many aid stations before worse could happen. I’ve ridden 300 miles in 19 hours, I’ve crossed 120 miles of Mojave Desert on a tandem in the middle of the night, I’ve spent 50+ hours on busses and trains going from A to B without a place to sit—but I’ve never seen the kind of courage and determination that these athletes displayed out there yesterday.
It's a lonely road out there
To  think that the second-placed individual was a young woman, Angela Naeth, who probably weighs less than 105 pounds, is absolutely insane. I don’t have any idea how she managed to keep her bike upright in those sudden crosswinds that made our BMW RS-1200 swerve three, four feet to the side. How Jordan Rapp, the overall winner, managed to put more than a 30-minute gap on a heckuva talented relay team, anchored by mountain bike Pro Bryson Perry and Life Time VP Ken Cooper, is simply beyond me.
Eventual women's winner Angela Naeth early on the bike
I talked to every athlete out there—a quick check, an encouraging word or two, a thumbs up. And then I had to leave them to their loneliness, the despair that comes with going 9mph uphill into a headwind and knowing that it is still another 35 miles to transition and the dreaded run. (Angela almost wept when she spoke at the awards this morning, recalling doing the math in her head and doubting whether she could even finish, let alone beat almost the entire men’s field.) And all this after climbing 16% grades in the furnace that’s the Valley of Fire, where temperatures were close to the century mark. Craig, my moto driver, kept repeating that it was 95F on the road.
Craig and his BMW RS1200—what a sweet ride!
The run wasn’t any easier. It may not have been a marathon, but with nothing but either flat or elevation-gain terrain, it was hard, hard, hard. I had been given  a Cannondale road bike (ill-shifting but light), and I had a tough time riding the run course! No kidding! Wind, heat, more wind, climbing. Scenery or not (and there was lots), at this point everybody was probably cursing Life Time and the entire race.
The run led through these tunnels on the way to Hoover Dam
The fact that we didn’t have any ambulance transports, nobody on drips, and nobody hurt speaks volumes for not only the organization but also the selection criteria for this race. Don’t try this just because it is another triathlon. You’re going to get your ass spanked, and, judging from the fact that only 14 male and female athletes finished the full-distance event (plus the relays and some Sprints), your chance of finishing are right about 50%. Look at the top three female finishers: None weighs more than 115 pounds. They’re trained, but there is more to them: They have an indomitable will, as I could sense when chatting with them at the party. These are not normal athletes—they are truly Leadmen. As one racer commented: "Thanks, Life Time, for almost killing me!"
Close to the finish line looking back to the start on Lake Mead
I am glad and thankful for having been part of this amazing race as it showed me yet another side of what is truly possible (and sometimes impossible). I can’t wait to see what next year’s schedule for the full series might be, which right now is pegged at maybe four races. From all indications, I may be part of it again. I better train my butt for more 130+ mile motorbike rides!
Tara  Norton, Katya Meyers, Shanna Armstrong, Angela Naeth, and Hillary Biscay (seated) after the race
The fact that my old friend Shanna showed up for the race at the last minute (she didn’t finish the ride because of a mechanical problem—see, Shanna, what moving away from Lubbock and your best mechanic ever will do?) and that Jenny came down from Reno to volunteer at the event (and get so hooked on the entire scene that she now wants to take a USAT officiating class) only highlighted the fact that this was one of the coolest races that I have worked in a long, long time. Just thinking about it all makes me feel worn out—damn good thing I got that First Class ticket on BA to go to Germany in less than 36 hours. Or is that considered a Leadman endeavor, too?

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