Never one to shy away from a cycling challenge, Frontier Elementary School physical education teacher Wayne Gorry has long itched to participate in the Leadville Trail 100-Mile Mountain Bike Race.
His goal of being a part of what is known as "the highest and toughest mountain bike race in the world" came true in Colorado last Saturday when Gorry -- a former Arizona State mountain bike champion and Payson Mayor's Cup winner -- pedaled his way to a second-place finish in his 40-49 years age group. Overall, he finished 13th among the 663 racers.
It was a stellar showing for the veteran cyclist, but the race didn't turn out to be a ride in the park. "It was the hardest thing I've ever done," he said.
For his efforts, Gorry was awarded a commemorative belt buckle and an inscribed gold pan representative of the mining area where the race was held.
The pan acknowledged Gorry's runner-up age group finish and the buckle his elapsed race time of 8 hours, 5 minutes and 23 seconds.
All the competitors who finished in less than nine hours, of which there were only about 50, were given the buckles.
Both awards are special, Gorry said, but the real reward of participating in the legendary race was the challenge of taking on the rigors of the high altitude course that began at 10,200 feet and ascended to 12,600 before returning to the original starting line.
The toughest portion of the course lay in a 3,200-foot climb just prior to the turnaround point. By the time Gorry reached there, he was already beginning to question the wisdom of entering the race.
"I went through all kinds of moods," he said. "The night before, my stomach was upset and I was kind of nervous. At the start I took a wrong turn for a couple of miles, which hurt me psychologically."
But as he pedaled over the mid-course climb that left most riders gasping for air and some pushing their bikes, Gorry experienced a new-found euphoria.
"It was the best I have ever felt in my life. I passed about 30 (other racers)," he said.
He attributes a portion of the surge of energy to a pre-race conditioning program in which he spent three weeks in the high altitude of Colorado training for just such climbs.
"During that time, I did six rides of 100-plus miles, and I'd ride to Mt. Ord and back twice in one day," he said.
Gorry also says his state-of-the-art Cannondale bike played a role in his success.
"It's a very light bike, with an aluminum frame, and I didn't have any mechanical problems to slow me down," he said.
After surging up the midpoint mountain past the tree-line, Gorry found himself among the front-runners. Almost instantly, the mistake of the earlier wrong turn was erased from his mind.
"I was still kind of euphoric," he said.
But as the finish line grew closer, the exhaustion of cycling through some of the most rugged terrain in Colorado began to take its toll on him.
"I was suffering. The biggest demands on me were in the last 20 miles," he said.
Earlier on the course, Gorry's only subsistence came from his wife Gail and 5-year-old son, Cypress, who were serving as his support crew.
"We had three spots where we could get water and food. They were there waiting for me," he said.
The fact he was even participating in the grueling race was a tribute to Gail, who drove to Phoenix Jan. 2 to overnight-express the entry form almost the very hour it arrived at the family home in Payson.
Gorry explained the urgency. "It's a very difficult race to get into. It's on a first-come, first-served basis, and a lot of (racers) don't make it."
As he rode the final agonizing miles, Gorry said, he wasn't sure he ever wanted to take on the Leadville race again.
"I kept thinking, 'Once is enough for this'," he said.
But after a warm family greeting at the finish line and a few days of recovery time, the Rim country cyclist is rethinking his decision. "I think now I'll go back next year."