In August of 2011 I raced my first Leadville Trail 100 mountain bike event. I was lucky enough to get past the lottery system in February, and spent most of the rest of the spring and summer preparing for the event. This is the story of my training leading up to the actual event and the details of the event itself.
In December of 2010 I left the startup company I had worked at for several years in order to take a long over-due sabbatical. One of my goals for the time off was to focus on some of the sporting events I had in mind for the year, such as the Ironman 70.3 triathlon in April, and one of the week-long bicycle tours in Colorado during the summer. On a whim, I signed up for the Leadville Trial 100 MTB race about that time and was quite surprised when I made it passed the lottery in February.
For a while, I wasn’t really sure I was going to be able to do the race at all. I am primarily a road cyclist, and I hadn’t ridden a mountain bike in almost two years when I signed up. I knew Leadville wasn’t considered a very technical course, but in reality my technical skills were at the neophyte level and there just wasn’t the opportunity to do challenging climbing where in live in Texas. There are plenty of technical, twisty courses to ride in, but nothing with sustained, hard climbs. Even in the Texas hill country where the terrain changes to be rocky with lots of short, steep hills, the experience would not be anything like the Leadville course.
So from January through April I focused primarily on the 70.3 race. Cycling was my strongest sport, that received only basic attention while the swim and run occupied the rest of my training time. I wasn’t worry about having enough endurance or strength to train and finish the Leadville race after the 70.3, at least not at that time.
The 70.3 event did not go great. I have reoccurring issues with under-fueling for big events, and I ran smack into that early in the 70.3. After my swim wave had finished and I got on the bike, I felt sluggish and low on energy. I almost dropped out of the race then, but I stopped, ate a ton of fuel, and got back out there. It took 2 hours longer than I had planned to finish the course, but I did, although that did not give me great confidence on my ability to fuel myself through an 8-12 hour long event at race pace like Leadville.
After the 70.3 I focused primarily on road cycling training with power, building a stronger base for the Leadville specific training. I kept an eye out for mountain bikes, but at that point I still hadn’t even decided to buy one or that I was really going to do the race. In fact, after the 70.3 I spoke with the Leadville race organizers about dropping out, but they strongly encouraged me to go and give it a try.
About this time, I bought the movie Race Across the Sky about the 2010 Leadville 100 trace where Levi Leipheimer set a new course record. The movie was incredibly motivational - at first. When I started watching the movie, I had expectations that I would be able to finish the race near the 9 hour mark where you get the big gold belt buckle. After all, why not? My road biking that year had put me in great condition and I felt I could do it. After about 15 minutes of the movie I quickly changed my mind and decided the 12 hour mark would be a reasonable goal. By halfway through the movie I decided I would be happy just to finish, and by the end of it, I would be happy not to be carted away by ambulance.
As part of my time-off, I wanted to spend most of the summer in Colorado training and exploring. In mid-May, I left home for a road-rip out to Colorado. I meandered a bit and met some friends in Durango over the Memorial Day weekend for a great camping experience in the mountains. I also got plenty of chances to bike the US 550 “Million Dollar Highway” between Durango and Silverton for some intense training at altitude.
After the Durango trip, I made my way up to Grand Junction in order to bike the Colorado National Monument and then up and over Grand Mesa. I’ve biked these routes before and loved the scenery and the challenge they offered. Biking up Grand Mesa solo was a first for me. I was really happy that I was able to make it up there by myself without issue - it gave me confidence that my acclimation to the altitude and my climbing strength were improving nicely.
After Grand Junction I made my way to the Fraser Valley to visit with some friends there. My original plan for the summer was to rent a condo in the valley for a couple of months and do most of my training in the area.
One of the first things I did after arriving there was to take a mountain bike ride with my friend that lived there. I rented a cheap 26” bike from one of the local shops and we went out for our first adventure. It was already a beautiful, early summer there, but the heavy snows of the season meant early June was still very much a muddy mess on the trails. A muddy mess can be fun, but it isn’t the best training material.
To make matters worse, my friend assumed my mountain biking skills were way beyond where they were at the time. This was my first time on a mountain bike in over 2 years and I had never once ridden one on a true Colorado mountain trail. So, of course, he took me on a technically difficult trail. I wound up spending a great deal of the ride getting off the bike to climb over rock gardens and to avoid the treacherous descents. At some point, I knew I could handle these trails, but as a first ride in a long time, it was extremely discouraging and didn’t help my desire to actually do the Leadville race.
After spending another week in the valley I realized my vacation budget had been blown for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was an unexpected and expensive repair on my truck I was using for the trip. It was enough to help me decide that riding Leadville wasn’t a great idea and that I should go ahead and head towards home and start looking for another job in time for the fall. No doubt, I was looking for excuses…
It wasn’t a great feeling making that decision, and leaving beautiful Colorado for a scorched and parched Texas felt even worse. Once I made it home, my enthusiasm for my workouts waned and I had a bad attitude about looking for jobs to begin with, but I knew I needed to start it.
About that time another friend in the Fraser Valley emailed me out of the blue to encourage me to do the Leadville race regardless of the cost. It was quite a surprise to get that email from her, as it was a bit out of character for her to email me on that kind of topic. But, she made some great points in that email, not the least of which that this was a great opportunity and the few thousand dollars one way or the other would not make a big difference in my life, but the experience of the race certainly would.
I made a deal with myself right then. If I could find a great job that either let me work remotely or that let me start after the race I would head back to Colorado and focus intensely on Leadville and enjoy the experience. At this point, it was mid-June and with only 2 months before race day I knew it would be a huge challenge getting the training and mountain bike time in that I needed.
By early July, I had found a job that would let me start after the race so I made my decision and bought the mountain bike I decided I would need for the race - a Specialized Epic Comp 29er. I at least was reasonable about the purchase and did not splurge on the carbon fiber versions of the bike.
Disaster struck in one of my first training rides, however. I was riding in Houston’s Memorial Park, in some of the moderately technical trails they have there. These trails have tons of short, steep 5’ to 10’ high hills with large roots and stumps to maneuver around. After about 90 minutes into one of my workouts, and about the point where I was getting tired and sloppy, I hit a root without enough speed so the bike stopped. To keep from falling over I clipped out and put my foot down, but I landed wrong and it immediately twisted on me as I fell. I heard a horrible sounding double-crunch and thought that I had broken my foot. It didn’t hurt very much, though, so I gingerly got back on the bike and cruised out of the park, only to have the pain intensify over the next several hours.
After a day it was clear I needed to head to the doctor, who got me in a few days later. At this point the pain was rather intense so I assumed my race chances were over. But he had good news for me - it was just a sprain and it was already healing well. He encouraged me to wear an ankle brace and keep riding immediately as the physical effort would help the healing.
Time was running out, so I knew if I was going to do this race I had to get my act together and get back out to Colorado with as much time as I could spare. In the end, I didn’t make it there until the first of August, leaving just under two weeks of training before the race. That would be enough time for a reasonable acclimation process to begin, and enough time to ride some of the Leadville course, but not enough time to really improve my mountain biking skills. I was hedging on the hope that the Leadville course was not all that technical and that it wouldn’t prove a challenge to me from that perspective.
I had some fantastic training rides once I got back to Colorado. I rented a condo in Winter Park and used that as my base of operations. One of my favorite rides during this time was the ride up to the top of Rollins Pass from the Winter Park side. This is an old unimproved road that lead to a railway station at the top of the pass. It’s passable with any 4x4 and a passenger car with enough clearance and driven properly, so it makes an easy mountain bike trail, other than the altitude. But a road like that lets you push the effort strongly as the grade is shallow enough that you can push the speed up without getting into the red zone too quickly.
I did this training route twice, and enjoyed it immensely both times. On the second attempt I went with my friend who lived in the valley and we had a blast getting to the top. On the way down we both bombed down the road, especially me as the full-suspension bike I had gave me a lot more capability going downhill. But, it doesn’t make the bike invincible, as I found out when I smacked into an old drainage pipe, dented my rear wheel, and flatted.
Early in the week before the actual race, my friend and I drove over to Leadville itself for a scouting ride on the race course. We started where the course transfers from pavement to the dirt just outside of town, and did the St. Kevin’s climb, Sugarloaf Pass, and then the Powerline descent. The descent down Powerline is considered the most dangerous part of the race, so it seemed a very smart idea to get some experience on that technical section of the course.
The ride went fantastic. The St. Kevin’s climb was steep, hot, dusty, but relatively short. The gradient was such I could get a good strong cadence going without redlining too frequently. I didn’t know what to expect from the crowd on race day, but I felt like that climb wouldn’t do me in.
The climb up Sugarloaf Pass was a different experience. It was much more like the climb up Rollins Pass road that I had done the previous week, but grew more technical towards the top. It was rocky, with a gentle grade, and a lot of opportunity to go relatively fast.
At the top, things got more interesting. The dips and climbs leading up to the actual Powerline descent began to get more technical and were a new experience for me. We were going fast and it was very easy to get air and lose control without realizing it. I had to back off quite a bit and control my speed more diligently so I could take the technical turns and twists without careening into a tree or off a ledge.
The actual Powerline descent was an amazing experience. It was both easy and hard. The actual obstacles were minor, and bike handling wasn’t a huge problem, other than making sure your speed was controlled so you didn’t go flying off the line; the hard part was picking the line. With all the ruts in the road it was very easy to get trapped and one and either crash or get stuck. I went down a lot slower than my friend but felt it was something I could handle on race day, as long as people weren’t going too crazy around me.
It was now Tuesday and I had the rest of the week to taper, eat constantly, and get mentally ready for the big event. I felt I was ready, I felt I could do it, and I was really looking forward to the experience. If nothing else, the land around Leadville is amazingly beautiful Colorado high country, and worth the experience just to see more of it.
The day before the race all the racers are required to gather in Leadville for a pre-race briefing and packet pickup. The briefing was covered quickly in the movie I watched, so I had an idea of what to expect, but it was a great experience seeing Ken, the race founder, speak to the crowd and get everyone motivated.
After the end of the pre-race briefing there was a follow-up briefing for first-timers. Here’s where I learned just how little I had actually prepared. The presenter talked about several parts of the course I hadn’t experienced. The Columbine Mine climb I knew about, of course, and knew it would be the hardest part of the race given the long climb and altitude involved, but what I didn’t know about was a section called “Little Stinker.” The presenter asked how many of has hadn’t ridden that part of the course, and the few dozen of us that raised our hands gave him pause to how unprepared we might be. As he described, and I later found out, “Little Stinker” is an extremely steep hill that requires quite a leap of faith to get down, even though it is not a very technical descent.
That night I did everything I could to eat well and get tired and ready for the race the next day. I had difficulty sleeping most of that year, and being nervous for a big sporting event always killed my ability to relax and get to bed. That night wasn’t much of an exception, but I did get about 5 hours total before waking up at 4am to have breakfast and head over to Leadville from Frisco, where I was staying.
I got to Leadville before dawn and made my way to the starting line with the rest of the racers. It was an expectedly cold morning, about 40ºF, but nothing unexpected. I really wanted to avoid any nutrition issues on this race, given its length, so I made sure to drink sports drink for the hour or so before the race start.
My nutrition plan on the day seemed solid. I had made a couple of multi-hour bottles of Hammer Nutrition’s Perpetuem fuel, and would use that as my constant, primary fuel source. I had additional bottles prepped with my support crew at the various aid stations. I also had solid food with me, such as energy bars, sports gummies, and a few other things. I would eat as much as I could stand early on during the race, as I’d never reached the point of puking during a race, but I have bonked many times.
As the sun started to rise and the number of races in line continued to grow, the excitement and nervousness of the crowd was palatable. I didn’t feel that nervous; I felt well-trained, well-prepared and I had ridden some of the course. What could go wrong?
We started right on time, but it took about 3 to 5 minutes after the starting gun for my group to get to the starting line. I started about two-thirds of the way back in the field, thinking that would be the best place for me to be given my goal finishing time.
The ride through town was downhill, fast, and quite cold. A spectator had dropped a large American flag in the middle of the road and the entire field had to slow down and maneuver around it. This entire section of the race was great fun, but crowded enough there wasn’t much opportunity to gain a lot of position. I pushed my self a bit hard here just to warm up; by the time we reached the edge of town and went off road, the temperature had dropped to below freezing and I was shivering with the lack of body heat and the fast ride downhill.
Once we hit the dirt, things got a lot more interesting. There is a bit of a bottleneck as we turn off the main road, but everyone expected that and were polite about making room for each other. What did make this section challenging was the huge dust crowd that was being thrown up by the riders in front of us. They warned us about this during the pre-race briefing, but I neglected to bring a bandana to breath through. It was a complete mess. It was hard to see more than a dozen yards ahead of you and you could feel the dirt sticking to your nose and mouth, and no doubt your lungs were filling up with dust.
Luckily that section is short and we began the climb of St. Kevin’s quickly. I was surprised to find that the group of riders I was with took this hill much slower than I did on my scouting ride. In fact, it was impossible to push it and gain any position here as the crowd was too thick. I decided to lay back a bit, go as fast as conditions would allow without panicking, and save my energy for further in the race.
Once we reached the top of the climb, I was able to push the pace quite a bit more as I found a gap through a large group of riders. The trail that lead from the top of St. Kevin’s over to road around Turquoise Lake was fast, relatively easy, and had plenty of room to pass slower riders if needed. What I did find, however, is that I was busy enough that I didn’t have time to take in solid food in this section, or on the climb up St. Kevin’s. I kept drinking my Perpetuem fuel bottle and hoped that was enough energy for me later in the race.
Once we reached the road around Turquoise Lake, I was able to fly and gain a few minutes on the group around me by taking some risks on the descent down the road. I love descending fast on a road bike, but the mountain bike proves quite a bit more challenging, but the same principals apply. But, of course, what goes down must go back up, and about halfway through the road section of this course we had a long, steady climb to make. I got into a steady climbing cadence and kept the pace moderate, so I didn’t go red before the dirt climb up Sugarloaf Pass which was just around the corner.
Once we reached the dirt, I found it a bit easier to bring the pace up a bit. The grade may have been slightly less steep than the paved section, actually. But, I also started to feel a bit low energy so I took the time to eat an energy bar and a gel in this section. At this point in the race, the sun started to warm the sky, and the long, steady climb up the mountain started to make me feel a bit uncomfortable with wearing my jacket, but I didn’t want to take the time to strip it off then.
Towards the upper section of the Sugarloaf Climb, I really started to feel the race taking its toll on me, and so early! I slowed down a bit and ate some more, hoping it would kick in and knowing the climb wasn’t all that much longer, and the fun Powerline descent was just ahead.
Finally reaching the Powerline descent and heading down was a great milestone in the race. I knew now that the race would be mostly flat and relatively easy until the climb up to Columbine Mine. But what surprised me was just how much the crowd ahead of me kept me from going down Powerline at the pace I wanted. It was practically impossible to pass with the group I was in - although I did see one guy pass us in one of the large ruts that he expertly managed to fly out of at the end without crashing. The descent was a lot slower than I wanted, but I knew it was only going to be a couple of minutes delay, tops, so there was nothing to do but hang on and ride a clean descent, rather than taking crazy risks passing several people at once.
After the end of Powerline I was in unchartered territory. I hadn’t pre-ridden this section of the course and I had only a general idea of what to expect based upon the movie and reading the race materials. The road section out of Powerline was fast but surprisingly hard given the winds of the day. I stayed with a couple of pace-lines for as long as I could, but I quickly discovered I had pushed it too hard solo trying to catch up to one of the groups and I couldn’t hold the pace any longer. Instead of a good, solid 20 mph pace-line into the wind, I fell back to about 15 mph solo.
Soon we reached the dirt again, and with that the Pipeline aid station. My race plan had me skipping this aid station and heading onto the Twin Lakes aid station, so I went through here without stopping for any good or water - I still had plenty on me.
The race course after Pipeline was quite a surprise to me. I expected more road, but instead there was a lot of gravel road and plenty of single track to contend with. Some of single track was great fun, but I quickly found myself behind another large group of riders with no real way to pass. It’s hard to know how much this section cost me in time - probably no more than 5 minutes - but it was frustrating as I saw the clocking ticking for the first time in the race.
When I finally reached the Twin Lakes aid station I was exhausted and ready for a break, and ready for a whole lot of food. But, I knew I didn’t have time, and I was already pushing the 12-hour race plan right to the edge. I reached the aid station right at the 3hr 30min mark. The CTS staff at the aid station was stellar - they had all of my gear organized and brought me exactly what I needed with no delay. I think I was out of the aid station within a couple of minutes, tops, and I took that long just to grab and eat some extra food.
Now, it was finally time for the Columbine Mine climb. I knew this was a brutal climb, but I had no idea what to expect. I didn’t expect it to be too hard until above the tree-line. My training had taken me that high before already in the state, and it wasn’t much a problem for me, despite being from sea-level. What I encountered though, was a much harder climb, much earlier than I expected.
Interestingly, right about the time I started the climb is when the lead group was heading down the mountain, wow! That’s both an amazing, motivating feeling, and also a hint and just how slow you are compared to that level of rider.
The lower section of the Columbine Mine climb is a relatively well-groomed gravel road without many large boulders in the way, but the grade was rather steep. After about an hour of climbing, I was exhausted. I started to feel bonk-ish, even though I never really went all the way there. The steepness of the grade and the length of the race so far had taken their toll on me and I was finding it hard to push the pace. For the first time, riders started to pass me en masse.
About the 5hr 30min mark in the race, and around 10,500 ft of elevation, I couldn’t handle riding anymore and I jumped off the bike to walk for a while. I knew a lot of people walked up the Columbine Mine climb - but I didn’t expect that to happen so far down the climb. It was rather demoralizing to be getting off the bike at this point, and for a few minutes I thought of throwing in the towel. Luckily, I knew better, and Ken’s great pep-talk the day before at the race briefing made it clear giving up wasn’t an option.
Up and up I climbed. Around the point we reached the tree-line, there was Ken on an ATV giving the riders pep talks and help. One woman ahead of me needed water and Ken gave her some. He cheered on a few riders and when it was my turn, he said something to me that made me laugh out loud and motivated me a bit, at least for a few minutes. He said: ‘“you built all those muscles, now its time to haul them up this mountain!” A great, positive thing to say given I’m sure at the time I looked rather disheartened and exhausted.
After the tree-line the climb got serious. It was a true unmaintained jeep trail, with plenty of large, loose boulders to get in the way and maneuver around. And, of course, the most challenging part being that you now had two-way traffic on the road, so the uphill riders to really watch themselves and not get in the way of anyone speeding down the mountain.
On and on the climb continued. As far as the eye could see there were riders walking up the road. Every time I’d see a ridge thinking that was the peak of the climb, I’d see over it and find that the road was a whole lot longer than I’d imagine. The section above tree line was simply long, brutal and difficult. I was out of energy, I couldn’t eat and drink enough to make a difference, and the thin air made it neigh impossible to sustain any effort for any length of time. I tried several times to climb back up on the bike only to get back off after a couple of minutes.
Towards the top of the Columbine Mine climb the road flattened out and then began a short descent before peaking up at the aid station. I got on the bike here and made sure I rode all the way to the aid station on pedal power instead of walking. Once I got there, I immediately downed some hot noodle soup they had waiting for us - that was absolutely the most perfect thing I could have had after being so drained. It warmed me, the salt was desperately needed and it just tasted wonderful after a full 7 hours on the bike.
I sat there for 15 or 20 minutes, pondering my fate. I was really happy having reached the top of Columbine Mine, but the race was only half over. It took me 7 hours to reach the top, and unless I could pick up the pace for the remainder of the race I wouldn’t make the 12 hour cutoff time for a belt buckle. I could still make the race cutoff time, so I pulled my sore body up off the chair and decided to head down as fast as I could.
The descent down Columbine was fast and easy. I knew I wasn’t 100% in the best mental state at the time, so I didn’t go too crazy above the tree-line, and there were still plenty of riders still climbing up the mountain. But, once I reached the tree-line I found myself alone. No one else was climbing up and no one was around me descending, either. I had the entire ride down the mountain to myself, except for a couple of people I passed in the middle sections. That also gave me a clue on just how far back in the field I was - the riders that would have still been climbing hadn’t made the previous time cutoff.
When I reached the Twin Lakes aid station again the CTS crew was again super helpful, but when I asked them if there was any chance of hitting 12 hours they gave me the bad news. At that point, my heart wasn’t in the race anymore, but I still wanted to try and finish. But, I was exhausted, sore, dehydrated, hot, and felt a bit ill. I did get back on the bike after just a minute delay and began the ride back to the Pipeline aid station. Here, I had supplies waiting for me and if I could make that cutoff, I could probably finish the race.
This section of the race course was hot and I was by myself for a lot of it. I found a few riders here and there, but not many. I found myself not able to push the pace for very long at all. At the relaxed pace I could hold, I knew I’d never make the time cut-off at Pipeline. But, I kept pushing myself despite the sense of impending doom.
There’s not much to say about this section of the race - I went slow, and it was familar terrain after having ridden it earlier in the day. The one section that was amusing was the “Little Stinker” hill - seeing it from the downhill side made me wonder how on earth anyone could actually bike up it, even though I know people do. I hopped off the bike and even found the hike back up brutally hard. After though, I knew I was close to Pipeline and I looked at the time and realized I still might have a chance of making the cut off. I pushed the pace as hard as I could handle without going into the red, and made sure I kept taking in fluids and fuel so I could try and keep ahead of myself.
In the end, though, I didn’t make the time cut off; I missed it by only 15 minutes. I realized then how many opportunities I really did have to make up that time earlier in the race. If I had lined up in a faster group at the start, if I had been able to fly down Powerline, if I had been able to stick with the pace lines on the road sections, if I had been able to stay on the bike longer on the Columbine Mine climb, and if I hadn’t rested so long at the time - any of that may have made the difference.
When the race folks stopped me at the cut-off they expected the riders to be distraught. And, indeed, the riders around me were quite upset. I can understand why, that’s a lot of effort and time to put into the race only to have it end at the 70 mile mark. I had made my peace with that a long time ago, and frankly I was ready to be off the bike. I asked if they had any beer for me and that brought some laughter out of everyone.
At the aid station I took in what little food and drink they had left - they were busy shutting it down at that point and waited for my ride to pick me up. Several other riders asked me if I just wanted to ride to town with them, but by then I had no interest in getting back on the bike. Cooked does not describe the feeling.
In the end, I rode 70 miles in 9 hours 15 minutes, with about 8 hours and 50 minutes being actual riding time.
Not finishing the race was of course disappointing, but the race was so much more epic than I expected that really I was just happy to be there. I enjoyed the experience immensely. There was so much I learned from the race and how I performed. Most importantly, I found I enjoyed a mountain bike race more than even most of the road races I have been in before. Mountain bikers seem just a whole lot more laid back than roadies.
I hope to race Leadville again. I’ve already signed up for the 2012 race lottery, and I’m really hoping I’ll get a chance again so soon. I’m moving to Colorado in 2012, so I’ll have more time in the mountains to train, and with more focus on training for that race I’m confident I can finish and likely finish under the 12 hour mark. I think the 9 hour mark is still beyond my skill level, but maybe after a few more years of training I can improve enough to do so. Finishing this race under 9 hours is just very difficult.
One big obstacle for me remains, though, and that is my nutrition. I consistently have problems with not fueling properly on longer races. It’s worse for runs, but it shows up on the bike too. I’ve tried for years to get past this issue with only a little bit of success. Despite lots of expert help, there’s still a lot I’m not doing right. I suspect until I figure this out, doing well at big races will always be just beyond my grasp.