It’s difficult to describe the Leadville 100 mountain bike race to anyone who hasn’t experienced it first hand. There is something about it that is hard to put a finger on; I guess it has a similar allure for mountain bikers that the Kona Ironman does for triathletes. Yes, it’s a long mountain bike race at high altitude, but a bit like Burning Man (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Burning_Man, no I’ve never been) I don’t think you really get it until you have raced it yourself. Some will do it once and that’s enough, never again, while others will not be able to wait to go back and give it another go. I had no idea which camp I would be in, and at the finish line on saturday I was erring towards never wanting to set wheel on that course again, but, just 3 days later, I’m already thinking about next year.
My preparation for this race was as good as it could have been - more consistent and more specific than any race I had ever approached before; every training session had served a purpose. I had sacrificed many ‘fun’ and ‘social’ rides to make sure I was following the training plan set out for me by Julie (http://nordicmoose.com/o2bu/), and had even raced a road race and a crit (!!). All of this added up into me being a stronger and more skilled rider and I got to Leadville feeling like I was ready. Regardless of how the race turned out, I had come to realise how much I had enjoyed the training and how much I had improved as a cyclist. It took a while until the work I had done earlier in the year started to show in my riding and some of my race results leading into Leadville, but I trusted the plan and had been patient. I raced a 4hr race at the end of June which I led for 2 laps before my legs ran out of juice, but 3 weeks later at a local XC race my legs and technical skills showed up and I was the first woman across the line. This 20 mile XC race was preceded with a warm up ride to the race, then a longer ride home making for a 5hour day, backed up by another 5hour day the day after, capping off my biggest training week ever.
The real test of where my fitness was, was the Tahoe Trail 100 Leadville qualifier where I had qualified for Leadville last year. I had a small taper so had a good chance of riding well, I knew the course better than most people there and I was ready to race a few hours in the heat wave we had been having for the few weeks before. I had a good day, taking 40minutes off my time from the previous year and finishing 6th female overall behind several world class mountain bikers, despite staving off cramps for some of the second lap. This gave me a huge confidence boost just 3 weeks out from Leadville – my training was done; time for a smart taper and to get to Leadville healthy and rested.
We drove out to Leadville the weekend before the race with a car packed full of bikes, dogs and cold/wet weather biking gear (the forecast was looking ominous) so I had a few days to acclimate to both the cooler temperatures and altitude (neither of which I seemed to struggle with). I had ridden most of the course a year ago when I had the opportunity to head out with coach Julie to meet a friend of hers for a personal tour of the course (thanks Jeff!) so I wasn’t concerned about pre-riding anything specific, just enough to keep the legs awake.
I had two friends also racing who had hatched a plan to form a small pace group to all try and crack the 9 hour mark and clinch the Big belt buckle prizes; these guys are both far stronger riders than I, but they wanted company on the course and also to help me. 9 hours was within the realm of possibility for me for sure, but I’d need near perfect race execution, which on a first try of this course, and over such a long period of time was a tough proposition. I had not seriously thought about or targeted the 9 hour mark the whole year of training; only after my good result in Tahoe had it become an outside thought. There was no harm giving it a go, but I also knew the dangers of pushing beyond your limits too early in this race; so if my abilities on the day coupled with the help of a small pack to work with on the flatter sections were such that I could push a pace that got me there under 9hours then great, but still my number 1 goal was to ride the best race I could with what I had on the day.
We drove up columbine before the race so Dennis could have some fun with the Jeep!
Of all the high mountain scenery of this race course, my favourite view of the day was from the start line. Being in the Red starting corral, I did not have too many people in front of me, so over the rows of fidgeting racers, all staring straight ahead down 6th street, I focused my eyes to the 14000ft sunrise-pink mountain peaks. It was quite spectacular, and a fitting setting for this great race.
The start was a little crazy – there are a few miles of downhill paved road before hitting the dirt and what transpired was the most unorganised peloton I have ever seen – there were people zipping everywhere (unnecessarily for the most part), making fairly questionable maneuvers. I went from my focus being staying on Theo’s wheel, to just making sure I got through the first few miles unscathed! The dirt slowed the craziness down a bit, but immediately started highlighting some people’s lack of bike handling ability while they were trying to move far faster than they were capable of. The only crash of the day I witnessed was within 5 miles of the start line with a testosterone-filled clipping of a wheel from behind resulting in a near fist-fight. I don’t think anyone was badly injured. We hit St Kevin’s climb and I immediately realised why some people had risked life and limb and ridden in the red-zone for the first 20 minutes – the slow crawl of people up this first climb was never-ending, and near impossible to do any passing. I definitely was planning to not ride anything other than conservative for the first couple of hours, but the pace up this climb was far slower than I really wanted. But I stayed patient, settled in and focused on riding a good efficient line to not waste an ounce of energy. The highlight of this climb was definitely the tandem with some pretty good tunes playing; most of the riders were so serious, but you found the occasional gem who was more than happy to say hi and wish each other good fortune for the day ahead. Towards the top of the climb, Theo and I finally found some breathing room to open things up a bit on the rolling section along to the blazing fast paved downhill road section before the next climb. My road riding has definitely improved my ‘fear of speed’ problem I have suffered from in the past and I descended fast and confidently, wishing I temporarily had a few more pounds of weight to help me down the hill! Starting the next climb up sugarloaf I realised my legs were just in ‘ok’ mode, nothing spectacular so Theo was having to wait for me; maybe I could have afforded to push a bit harder but I wasn’t sure so I played it safe so early in the day. I wasn’t concerned about the descent of powerline, but I could tell by surrounding chatter, ‘you’d better go ahead of me for the descent’, that plenty of people were. I tried to get ahead of as many people as I could for a clear descent but it wasn’t happening – there are very few places on the steep rubble-strewn descent that are good for passing without taking unnecessary risk, so we were in a close knit snake of riders hoping no one in front of us crashed, when Theo got a flat tire. He yelled at me to keep riding which seemed to me to be a sensible idea as he would have no problem fixing the flat quickly then catching me back up.
I got to the bottom of powerline with no further incident, albeit slower than I would have liked, but I was still feeling calm and patient and knew there was still a lot of hours of riding left so a few minutes here and there would really not matter. I knew that a flat section of road was coming up so I started scouting around me for good candidates for wheels to hang onto – there were plenty of options and I managed to find a group of riders to hide behind for a while – we soon joined with a faster moving group and got some good speed for a few miles before the dirt leading into the pipeline aid station. One guy in this group was on a singlespeed, he was doing fine for a while until the road tilted downwards every so slightly, at which point even his 120rpm was not going to keep him hanging on. Having done some singlespeeding now, I think this could quite possibly be the worst course ever for a singlespeed, with extremes in gradient including plenty of frustrating ‘flat’ miles where one gear requires spinning a ridiculous cadence as well as long steep climbs with questionable traction which on a singlespeed would require just super-human strength and control.
Pipeline aid station came and went – I was still not feeling that wonderful, but at the same time not terrible either. By this point I had realised my plan for eating solid food was not going to be sustainable. I’d managed to get one bar down me but it was quite an effort – my stomach was fine, I just couldn’t really chew and swallow that easily – it required too much energy I think! So, I was resorting to gels and that was fine – quick and easy and my iron stomach was going to have no problem at all if all I put into it was gel. Dennis was waiting at the twin lakes aid station and my only instructions to him were to empty my pockets of my bars and replace with gels ‘as many as you have!’ – a quick camelbak switch and I was on my way across the field to the base of columbine. I actually began to feel decent and settled into a good climbing pace for the 8 vertical miles ahead. The first few miles of the columbine climb are nicely graded and not too steep. I was making good progress and riding past people constantly. A few miles up, the leaders of the men’s race started thundering down in the opposite direction. I could not believe the speed they were descending at and it started making overtaking opportunities few and far between. The top two miles of columbine are steep, loose, between 11000ft and 12500ft and crowded with people, mostly walking at this point. I wanted to ride, and managed the first steep section maneuvering around people with a constant stream of others descending towards me, but it soon became harder and harder to ride; walking was almost as fast and possibly less energy at this point. It was a little frustrating as I was feeling fairly good and not having issues with the high altitude, but again, patience (english conservatism?) won out, and I walked with everyone else until it flattened out a little and I could get back on and ride. I hit the turnaround point and wanted to just get back down quickly so didn’t stop and tried to find some clear trail to descend on. I got stuck behind some tentative descenders for a little while but eventually found a way past and could open things up.
I was back at twin lakes, the 60mile mark before I knew it; Theo had not re-caught me – I’d spied him trudging up columbine in a long line of people as I was descending. I switched camelbaks again with Dennis, grabbed more gels which seemed to be working, mumbled something about ‘I could still break 9′ and off I went. The chances of 9 hours were slim but still possible, and at this point I felt confident risking pushing a little harder than I had on the way out. On the paved climb out of twin lakes I spied a friend I had not seen since he moved back east – he’s a strong rider and I was happy to be pacing with him for a bit. We had a short conversation then formed a small train with a couple of other riders for the flat fast section back to the one piece of singletrack on the whole course. I was hoping I wouldn’t feel obliged to take my turn pulling but I did my part and was feeling pretty good. I couldn’t quite hang with the guys for the climb up the singletrack but I was glad of their company for the road. I was on my own again, but pedaling well. I passed a couple of people I didn’t expect to just before the pipline aid station, indicating I was indeed riding quite strong at this point – a quick stop to grab a cup of coke to top of my sugar and caffeine levels and I hit the dirt downhill to the road, all the time scouting for wheels – I did not want to be left alone into a headwind. I successfully found a good wheel and we were joined by a couple of others. We took our turns into the stiff headwind and made good time to the short paved hill before powerline. I left the guys on the hill (Dennis was around at this point and apparently they were not too pleased that I rode away from them!) and got my head into what was to come with the powerline climb at mile 80.
Powerline is a beast, no question. Very few ride the bottom pitches but I was game to try – walking was nearly as much energy as riding at this point. I rode the first pitch but something in my head forced me off the bike to hike up the rest of the 25% or so grade – I just wasn’t willing to hurt enough to try and carry on riding. No one was moving any better than anyone else at this point so we trudged on; slow progress but the top was getting closer. Cresting the top you get a brief respite to spin the legs out before embarking on the rest of the powerline climb – still granny gear steep but ride-able, and I could ride it…just. The real top (lots of false summits on this) was a welcome sight and I was looking forward to letting loose on the downhill – this felt like the home stretch now, and while I was far from miserable I was definitely looking forward to the finish! The last climb up the paved hill was my toughest patch all day – it’s over 4 miles up and I was one gel short of energy. Dennis had managed to get to the small aid station at the top of the climb and had gels for me and a bottle I filled with coke at the aid station to get me home. A bit more (steep!) climbing, a fun blast down the hill and you’re almost back to town. I’d started feeling stronger again so the climb up the boulevard was nowhere near as bad as I feared and I rode past a few more people, smiling all the way to the finish.
9:18 – a strong time and ride for my first time out on this course, 14th overall female, up from about 25th at the halfway point. Immediately after crossing the line I was pretty convinced I was in the ‘one and done’ camp, but before I’d even got back to take a shower I was ready to commit to tackling it again next year.
The actual race is only part of the experience; the people really made the week for me. I rode with the Ride 2 Recovery team on the Wednesday before the race; getting to know them a bit and then seeing a lot of them out there on the race course brought a smile to my face every time and was hugely inspiring and motivating. Some of the times they put down were quite incredible and I hope to ride with them more in the future.
Sitting with a friend drinking coffee discussing the upcoming race turned into a chance meeting with Jeff who had been our tour guide round the course the previous year. I hadn’t realised until then quite how valuable that scouting trip was and how at ease it now had me during race week in terms of what to expect on the course. I knew that each individual part of the course was ride-able and had some stored-up tips and advice from Jeff which had a huge impact on how calmly and methodically I was able to approach the day. I thanked Jeff and wished him a good ride – he was going for his 10th consecutive Leadville finish, which he got, with an impressive time somewhere around 8:30.
Seeing a friend I had forgotten was racing and who I hadn’t seen in years was another highlight of my race day and being able to ride along and have a conversation for just a few minutes of the day before getting back to racing was really cool. Then, going back and forth with a local Truckee friend who has encouraged and supported me all year in my Leadville quest was fun for me as well, although he had no idea I had passed him on the way back through pipeline only for him to then blow past me again on the last descent without realising it. I guess I’m quite observant on the race course, or maybe I should be focusing more on what I’m doing?!
Rebecca Rusch took a different approach to her Leadville week this year, combining her book launch (I devoured the entire book on our drive home and am tempted to read it a second time!) with several rides and clinics to provide support and advice for us regular folk. Her race day was dedicated to pacing a friend of hers to break 9 hours (they smashed it!). I was lucky enough to speak with Rebecca a couple of times leading up to the race and her two pieces of advice, ‘don’t go too hard on adrenalin for the first 2 hours’ and most of all ‘enjoy the journey’ stuck with me for a lot of race day and beyond. I hope she knows how many other people I am sure she had an impact on during the week by being so accessible and open with professional advice, support and encouragement.
I thought after Leadville was over, it would feel like the end of something, but actually it feels like the start. I have a couple more big races this season back in the Xterra arena, so for now I am re-focusing on trying to remember how to swim and run. However, I can feel the draw of more long mountain bike races in my future and feel like I have just started on the endurance mountain biking path. I have a lot still to learn but know I am capable and motivated to continue to improve, so I think you will find me on the Leadville start line again next year to continue my journey.