Two decades of involvement with professional hockey never tested Dallas Eakins quite like this.
Caked in salt, his body overheating and his legs throbbing, Eakins had to dig awfully deep to continue pedalling his bike up one Colorado mountain pass after another.
Several hundred well-trained athletes were unable to finish Saturday's famous Leadville 100 race, but the coach of the AHL's Toronto Marlies made sure he wasn't one of them. Eakins spent 11 hours 15 minutes traversing the punishing 160-kilometre course—having to dismount and push his bike during "multiple" steep, rocky climbs—before eventually reaching the finish line.
It was harder than anything he could have imagined.
"I trained very hard and long and did it the right way going into this race," Eakins said Monday. "But when you've never raced it before, or when the only kind of background you have on the race is what you've seen on YouTube, I think it's easy to underestimate the race.
"And I did."
The 43-year-old stopped playing pro hockey in 2004, but has maintained his commitment to personal fitness. He worked with high-performance coach Dean Golich (from trainright.com) during eight intense months of training for Leadville and found himself doing seven-hour bike rides in the leadup to the event.
The training schedule also had Eakins arriving at the arena as early as 5 a.m. during the season. It was one of the best times to get in a workout before overseeing a Marlies practice.
All of the work paid off in the most challenging moments of Saturday's race, which Eakins described as a "roller-coaster" that pushed him harder than anything ever had.
"It's the first time in my life that I literally had nothing left in me when I got off the bike," he said. "My coach and my wife Ingrid were there (at the finish) and I just had to go sit in the grass and then basically just lay back. I had nothing left, I was totally spent.
"There was nothing physically left for me to give."
Eakins was one of just 1,022 people to finish the race, which featured climbs of 4,267 metres at elevations ranging from over 2,700 to 3,810 metres.
American cyclist Levi Leipheimer won with a record time of 6:16:37. He completed the Tour de France in July and labelled the race in Leadville as one of his toughest days ever on a bike.
"It's hard to describe the pain and torture that you go through on a ride like that," said Leipheimer. "It's not what I'm used to. It's like a six-hour time trial. There's no sitting in. There's no draft. ... I just couldn't wait for it to be over."
Eakins could certainly identify. He says there were several moments where he was "dying for someone to just take me off that bike."
His race experience was captured by a TSN camera and will air as a feature at some point during the upcoming NHL season.
The most memorable part of the weekend for Eakins was spending time with people in Leadville, a small mining town that relies heavily on various endurance races to keep the local economy going. Many of the locals embrace fitness and the outdoors—creating an infectious, positive atmosphere.
"There is so much love in this community for the athletes that come in, whether you're Levi Leipheimer or Joe Blow who's come in to see if they can finish the race," said Eakins. "Everyone is equal. The great thing in this race was nobody was racing against each other, everybody was racing with each other.
"It was an awesome experience—more of a life experience than anything."
Eakins hopes to inspire others to participate in the event, even if it's just as a volunteer. He and wife Ingrid have already discussed returning next summer to help out with a 100-mile endurance run.
In the exhausted moments that came after he crossed the finish line on Saturday night, Eakins never dreamed he'd want to enter the Leadville 100 again. But only 48 hours later he was starting to change his mind on that subject.
Now he's looking forward to the next challenge.
"I think you always need to be testing yourself in some way or another—just to constantly be finding out who you are and where you can go," said Eakins. "The whole mantra for this race is very simple and it's so true: `You're better than you think you are and you can do more than you think you can.' It's so simple and it mighteven sound corny to some people, but it is truly the truth.
"I just think we all put such limitations on ourselves. ... We just limit ourselves all the time and I think it's great to go fully test yourself and push yourself."