Years ago, I can’t remember when exactly, but it’s been a good long while, I got this bug to get me a belt buckle. Not just any old buckle but a finishers buckle from either the Western States 100 mile trail run or the Leadville 100 Trail mountain bike race. Chronic leg injuries put the Western States out of reach, so I set my sights on Leadville.
Though it’s possible to qualify for the Leadville Trail 100 MTB the vast majority of entrants arrive at the starting line via an open lottery. Based on what I read on the internets I figured that it would take me at least three tries at the lottery until my number came up, so the email that arrived last February notifying me that I had been accepted into the race came as a bit of a surprise. Beginner’s luck I guess. My buddy Jason, who had also applied to the lottery, received a “sorry try again next year” email. I was in. Be careful what you wish for…
|35 degrees at the start|
I’ve spent the last three years bike racing, but I come from an endurance background, so I knew how to train for a long event, and, more importantly, I knew how to develop a race day nutrition and hydration plan. I’ll put more on this in another post.
My son, Sam, and I arrived in Leadville on Thursday afternoon after driving ten hours from Park City where we’d spent three days acclimatizing to the higher altitude. During a training ride on my first day in Park City my heart rate had skyrocketed 30 BPM over my normal maximum to 200 BPM. Three days later I was back down to fairly normal numbers – an indication that my body was indeed acclimatizing to the lower air pressure. Leadville is four thousand feet above Park City, but every little bit counts; we sea level folks can only do what we can do.
My wife Melony flew into Denver on Friday and shuttled up to Copper Mountain where Sam and I had already gear exploded all over our condo.
On Saturday – race day – morning I was up at three and had eaten my breakfast of oatmeal and two poached eggs by three thirty. The drive from Copper to Leadville takes about twenty five minutes and as we climbed through the darkness the thermometer in the car kept dropping; the little green lights in the Subaru read thirty five when we parked. I opted for a long sleeve jersey over a synthetic t-shirt, two pairs of padded shorts, knee warmers and dual socks (one wool, the other a thin racing sock).
The race is seeded: pros up front, qualifiers next, multiple finishers after them, VIP types next, and finally, all the way in the back, is the White Corral, which is reserved for first time lottery winners. I was a whitey.
Unlike in years past, when you could arrive early and simply throw down your bike to reserve your place in the lineup, this year all riders had to stay with their bikes and no non-riders were allowed in the corral. I arrived at five forty five – forty five minutes before the start – and ended up about twelve hundred riders back from the front line pros.
Somewhere in the neighborhood of seventeen hundred people lined up for the race. The morning dawned cold and clear, somewhere in the high thirties. At six thirty Ken blew off the shotgun – which surprisingly I didn’t hear – and we were off. The first three miles are downhill and many folks took off like absolute maniacs. Riding in a pack of mountain bikers is a bit disconcerting as many lack the predictability of road racers, and so I was extremely conservative, keeping a good space cushion and letting the wingnuts fly by. The last thing I wanted was to go down and be out of the race before even reaching the Leadville city limits.
I had been warned regarding what was about to happen, but still I wasn’t prepared. After making the right hand turn onto gravel the pack immediately slowed down to a little bit slower than walking pace. It was a traffic jam and the pace was now determined by the slowest forward rider. On the one hand this was a good thing as it kept my pace in check and allowed me to ease into a long day in the saddle. On the other hand, starting in the back probably adds thirty to sixty minutes to your finish time – unless you are able to really blast to the front during the initial three mile sprint.
Mountaineering has taught me that at high altitude it’s crucial to maintain an even keel, both mentally and physically, and since I wasn’t trying to win the race or go sub nine hours I simply geared down and went with the flow.
There were very few gapers. With the exception of two guys who seemed to have no clue as to what they were getting themselves into, everyone that I saw at the race was fit, trim and properly equipped, in short the vast vast majority of racers that I saw were serious and seriously ready.
After a steady, albeit slow, climb over St. Kievens, we hit a wild and fast paved descent to Turquoise Lake. It was hard to enjoy the downhill as I knew that later in the day I’d be climbing back up this thing. Next it was up to Sugarloaf Pass – I found this portion fairly quick and easy, just a steady effort. At the Pass we hit the rutty, rough and sweet two and a half mile Powerline descent. We were now more than two hours into the race and the pack was spreading out. I got in with some good riders and I followed their line through the ruts and over the bumps. It was a good fast descent ideally suited for my Santa Cruz Tallboy.
Once down the Powerline we hit pavement, and after a couple of failed attempts I got in with a nice smooth pace line. A big dude with an Ironman tat on his calf was pulling half a dozen riders and I figured if he wanted to pull I wanted to draft. Some folks say that there is a lot of pavement in Leadville; well I don’t know about that, it didn’t seem like all that much to me.
|Sam getting ready for a long day at Aid 1/4|
There was a really sweet twisting single track descent just prior to the first aid station. I was now able to start riding at my own pace and I began to speed up as I was eager to see Sam who was crewing Aid 1/Aid 4. As I approached the commotion and color of Aid 1 I saw that Sam had taken up residence in the first position. It’s so nice to have support out there on the course, it would have been an entirely different race had I gone unsupported. Different in a bad way.
Sam was Johnny on the Spot and filled my water bottle with Skratch, topped off my Camelback with water and handed me food for the Bento Box. I pulled off my knee warmers and Hidy ho I was off.
The route between Aid 1 and Aid 2 outbound is mostly flat or downhill on fairly well-groomed terrain, and I tried to balance throwing the hammer down with holding back in prep for the Columbine Mine climb. I was paranoid about the four hour cutoff – always worried about that possible mechanical – so I rode maybe a little harder than I should have.
I came through the forty mile checkpoint (you have to be there in four hours) with plenty of time to spare. Aid 2 (Twin Lakes) was jammed with crews and spectators, it looked like the Alp d’Huez, and I scanned the crowd for Melony. She spotted me first – my all red helmet was fairly distinctive – and jumped out to stop me. As it was cool I wasn’t taking on too much liquid and so all she had to do was top off my Skratch bottle while I popped a few Salt Stick capsules. Okay here comes the big Kahuna – the ten mile ascent to the Columbine Mine.
I pulled out of Aid 2 and was nearly run down by the dude on the big KTM who was leading out the three race leaders. Talk about flying – the lead rider, I think it was Todd Wells, popped a big rock and caught about six feet of air as he passed by.
|At Aid 2 - 40 miles in|
Right out of Aid 2 the climb is steep, and so I geared down and got ready for the big push. Much to my surprise the grade went to horizontal for about a mile and then it was up up up. The lower two thirds of the climb is on a moderate grade drivable road, and it was just a matter of finding that right gear and turning the pedals. I wasn’t too obsessed about my heart rate but I did try to keep it under 140 BPM as I didn’t want to gas out up high.
Now the downhill guys – and a few gals – were really coming by. This is the only place on the course where there is two way traffic. I wonder if there were any face to face crashes as some of the downhill people were really taking risks and swinging way wide into the uphill zone. It really didn’t make a lot of sense to be a mad bomber on the downhills: Melony did a cool data reduction on the past year’s results and the difference between the fastest riders and the middle of the road guys on the Columbine descent was only about seven or eight minutes.
The Columbine climb certainly lived up to its reputation as a soul crusher. I’m sure it made many of those with a religious bent question the existence of a merciful God. The real killer was the final two miles, which is above treeline. The road ends about three miles shy of the summit where the route becomes a rocky jeep trail barely wide enough for the now nearly constant two way traffic. After about a mile of pedaling I hit the long line of walkers. You simply have to walk at this point as there isn’t room to get around the tire to tire line of folks pushing their bikes. Walking here was actually a good thing as it kept me from blowing up in the high altitude. Finally the trail eased up a bit and I was able to get on the bike and ride into the fifty mile aid station, where I stopped long enough to eat a piece of watermelon and inhale a bit of ramen. All of my fretting about getting caught up high in an afternoon thunderstorm turned out to be wasted energy as the sky was nearly clear and the temperatures cool but not cold.
The descent was awesome. I had vowed to take it easy but the Tallboy was eating up the bumps and I opened it up a little more than planned. Soon I was back into the Twin Lakes Aid Station (Aid 3) where I replenished my Skratch supply, took a few salt tablets, two Alieve (for a moderate altitude-induced headache) a couple drinks of cold coke and was off to see Sam at Aid 4. Just as I was getting up to speed and riding one-handed as I shoved a rice ball into my mouth a three-year old girl wandered into my path; I threw on the front brake and nearly went over the handlebars. No harm no foul but that sent my heart rate through the roof.
Now I realized why I’d made such good time from Aid 1 to Aid 2 as it was mostly downhill. Now I was making the reverse trip up the gradual, but continual, slope. I was feeling good and was starting to pass riders who were showing signs of bonking. I wasn’t eating or drinking as much as planned, but I seemed to have plenty of energy and no cramps; basically I was happy to be where I was doing what I was doing. That Tallboy is a great bike, I had the suspension locked out for most of the ride between Aid 3 and Aid 4 and it just ate up the trail.
A long, straight, rutted, ancient road lead into Aid 4 where Sam was patiently waiting for me. I still had plenty of food and water so I just filled my Skratch bottle, drank a bit of Coke, ate half a Snickers and took off. Once again I have to say how wonderful it is to see a friendly face, even better a family face, out there on the course. Sam is fifteen and certainly I hope that he remembers his old man beating the shit out of himself out there in the Colorado mountains in search of a silver belt buckle.
Melony had parked at the start of the road section and snapped a few photos as I came by. Out on the road the cross winds were vicious and I joined up with two other guys in an effort to put together a paceline. Nothing doing. We’d reel guys in, I’d say “get on the back” but invariably they’d just drop off. We three worked the best that we could, but had we gotten together a functioning paceline we could have all knocked five to ten minutes off of our times. Many of the riders were now visibly hurting, thankfully I was feeling all right.
The lower portion of the Powerline – the first quarter mile or so – is just too steep and rutted to ride. I guess Lance Armstrong rode it – EPO does wonders I guess – but not me. Even pushing a bike up that hill is exhausting, but by putting one foot in front of the other I managed to crest the steep stuff and jump back on the Tallboy. I still had another two and a half miles of steep rutted climbing in front of me. I started out with a group of four and we wove our way through the walkers grinding low gears and keeping weight on the back tire. I figured I’d go until my legs gave out, but every time I asked for more my legs just kept pushing the pedals. Up up we went. Two of the original four dropped off and finally it was just me and a tall guy with a mustache, that dude could spin and I just kept on his wheel. Honestly we weren’t going a whole lot faster than the walkers, but I’d come to ride so that’s what I did. After three false summits I hit Sugarloaf Pass and started a long descent into a valley. It was hard to enjoy the descent as I knew that I still had to climb back out.
The final climb follows a steep paved road, and is maybe four or five miles long. My stomach was feeling a bit queasy and I figured that I’d go only with water from here on out – finish on fumes. Once again I figured I’d simply push my legs as far as they would go and then deal with the misery when they popped, but there was no popping, I simply rode up the hill at a steady pace picking of riders one by one.
Finally I made it to the Carter’s Summit mini aid station, a lot of riders were gathered around the goodie table, but I just rode on past, my Garmin was reading 90 miles and knew that a nice descent took me back into Leadville.
Now here I have to say that I’d been warned that the Leadville 100 is really the Leadville 104, but I couldn’t help counting down those final ten miles to one hundred. When the odometer clicked into triple digits I was feeling fine, but unfortunately Leadville was nowhere in sight. Worse yet the trail was starting up a steep incline. The mind is a powerful thing and I had set my mind to one hundred miles, not one hundred and one not one hundred and four, but one hundred. I was starting to fade.
|At the finish line|
Now a lot of people would say “one hundred, one hundred and four what’s the difference,” well I’m here to say that there is a big difference, especially when those last four are uphill and you’re down to five or six miles an hour. At one hundred and three there was still no sign of town. I turned to a rider next to me and said “this is just plain cruel.” He nodded. Finally we hit the middle school which marks the beginning of the final climb to the finish. At the crest of the hill I claimed my position with the nearby riders: I wasn’t going to go zooming past the guys in front, but neither was I going to allow someone to do some kind of finish line sprint on me either. When we hit the red carpet I backed off the tatted up guy in front of me so that he could get a solo finish line photo – I wish that the guy behind me would have done the same.
I finished in under eleven hours, which was my goal. Those final four miles were tough, but I’d never really cramped or pooped out, I simply kept turning those pedals until I hit the red carpet. Leadville reminds me of that old adage of how do you eat an elephant - one bite at a time. This is how I approached the race; I took care of the challenge that was in front of me, I didn’t think about the miles and the climbs ahead, I simply turned the pedals until I reached the top.
Leadville was a well-organized race that took me through some awesome landscapes, but the best thing about the experience was the other riders. Everyone I encountered was cool, supportive and encouraging. Don’t get me wrong everyone was out there racing, they were fit, well-prepared and ready to go, but they also seemed to recognize that they were part of something big, something bigger than a mere mountain bike race, and even though oftentimes I was riding by myself I never felt alone.