Our team has recovered from the altitude and exertion of the fabled Leadville Trail 100 MTB Race, and has finally had time to get some coherent thoughts down on paper (or on the computer, in this case). This year Performance Bicycle sent a crew to Leadville to find out what the race is really like, and we found that our friends at Lifetime Fitness have built upon the tradition that race founder Ken Chlouber started 30 years ago – this is a race where you have to “dig deep” just to cross the finish line. In addition to our 3 racers (Chris, Tom and David), Performance Bicycle also supplied the only official neutral support mechanics for the race – our expert team of Spin Doctor mechanics, Kyle and Jeff. Check out our video below to see a few of the sights and sounds from the race, and read on below for Tom’s take on the Leadville experience.
I’ve always had a thing for endurance sports. As a kid I idolized Rocky movies; I loved the idea of pushing the human body beyond what was considered possible. I used to dream not of the first several rounds, but of the last – what it would feel like to be on the verge of collapse, yet still be able to push on and persevere. It’s the punching in the face part I can do without. Fast forward several years and instead of slugging it out in a ring I gravitated toward long course triathlons and marathons. I made up silly long endurance events for my birthday each year and invited friends to complete them just for fun. So when I first heard of the Leadville Trail 100 MTB Race, I knew it would end up on my bucket list.
I’m a cycling fanatic and for years I cheered on Lance, Floyd, Jan, and others with great joy. When Floyd, then Lance, then Levi targeted the Leadville Trail 100 I had just re-discovered my love of mountain biking and I was instantly captivated. I bought and watched the Race Across the Sky films as if they were homework. Names like Ken Chlouber, Ricky McDonald, Rebecca Rusch and Dave Wiens became mythic. I read everything I could find about the race, the area, and the event. So when I learned that my colleagues and I had finally received invites to Leadville, I was thrilled!
Preparing for the LT100:
Once I learned I would really be going to Leadville, I became very serious about seeing the dream through to the finish. Right away I acquired a bike more suited for the race, as opposed to my typical trail-riding style. I bought a GT Zaskar Carbon 29er Pro hardtail mountain bike and rode it exclusively every day. I decided that every ride I would do would be on this bike; I wanted it to become a part of me. My rides became all about Leadville. I now had a mission and that was, above all else, not to crash and hurt myself. I knew that getting to the start line healthy was half the battle, and did not want anything to interfere with my goal. Training became more about long endurance rides than about speeding through single track. I took to riding alone more than I was accustomed. My focus was singular – build fitness and endurance while working on my nutrition plans (and NOT CRASHING). I won’t lie… I was a bit obsessive with my preparation. I read everything I could about the race each evening. I visualized the racecourse while going to sleep. I watched Youtube videos showing the course, and must have watched the two “Race Across the Sky” videos 6 times each. I obsessed about minor details with my riding buddies Chris and David constantly (and frankly was perhaps a wee bit annoying).
Our home in North Carolina is very hot in the summer, and we live and train barely over sea level. Leadville, Colorado, sits at 10,200 feet and the out-and-back Leadville course reaches a high point of around 12,600 feet. There is more than 13K feet of elevation gain and loss during the race, which we had little chance of emulating in our home environment. The best we could do was long rides in intense heat followed by short intense bursts of single track. I would typically ride 4 or 5 hours (often in temps over 100 degrees) on the road and finish up with an hour or two of single track riding with a buddy who would meet me along the way. Generally I rode up to 180 miles a week (including my daily round trip of 18 miles of commuting) preparing for the race.
The Race itself:
After the traditional shotgun start at 6:30 AM, there is a neutral roll-out that lasts a few miles before you actually hit dirt roads. But once you do hit the dirt, the pace slows immediately – an 1,800 rider bottleneck on a narrow dirt road. Since your starting position is based on previous finishing times, first time riders like us start at the back of the pack. If you complete Leadville in 9 hours you’ll earn a large silver and gold belt buckle, and for under 12 hours a smaller but still significant buckle. While we all wanted to do well, knowing that since we were queued in the back of the pack, we had to have more realistic goals – simply to complete the race in 12 hours. I highly recommend taking it easy and not setting too ambitious of a goal for your first LT100. The difference between stressing out and pushing too hard at the beginning and relaxing into the race will be minor in terms of finishing times, yet major in terms of energy wasted. Energy becomes a very valuable commodity after 10+ hours in the saddle!
After around 10 nervous minutes watching the wheels around me, we finally hit dirt. We came to a halt immediately, and the climbing started shortly after. The St. Kevin’s (pronounced “Keevins”) climb is around 3 miles, but at this point it was so crowded that it was difficult to pass, let alone go the pace I wanted to. Your best bet is to simply gear low, try to not touch wheels, and maintain your position. The next 2 hours are more or less like that – after climbing Sugarloaf Pass the pack thins out a bit, yet it is still very crowded and you are generally having your pace dictated to you until the first major descent of the day, which is by far the most dangerous (mainly because of the actions of others). The Powerline descent is around 4 miles of rutted steep drop offs with a lot of people trying to make up for 2 hours of bottleneck. By taking huge risks, you might make up 3 minutes during the whole descent, or you might crash out of the race you’ve spent 6 months obsessing over (or, even worse, cause others to crash).
Following the Powerline, the course is relatively uneventful until you reach the Twin Lakes aid station at mile 40. This was the first aid station I planned to use. Our whole support team was there, and I was delighted to see them, take on supplies, and drop off some clothing. As I had read, this was where the real race began. Up until that point, everything I had done was simply to set myself up to finish on time. The cut-off to arrive at Twin Lakes was 4 hours – I did not push the pace, and in hindsight I wish I had. I arrived in 3 1/2 hours, which was about 30 minutes longer than I had hoped! I planned to make up time now that the bottle neck was behind me, yet this was not a risk-free plan. I planned on the next 20 miles taking only 3 hours, but it was way harder than I had imagined.
The Leadville course is an “out and back” course, with a terminus at nearly the 50 mile mark on the top of the Columbine Mine Climb. The Twin Lakes aid station sits at miles 40 and mile 60 – meaning it is 10 miles to the top of the Combine climb, and 10 miles back. The climb itself is about 8 miles long and the elevation gain is approximately 3,500 feet – my time for this section ended up being another 3 ½ hours. Not long after starting the climb I saw the leaders come streaming down in the other direction. They were flying on the descent – because of the 2 way traffic, if you wanted to pass on the way up, you took the chance of a collision with someone on the way down. After 5 or so miles you make it above the tree line. After this point, riding was futile. There was a long line of people walking up little more than a goat path at high altitude. My walking pace was 2 miles an hour, riding was 3. Either way your heart rate is above the anaerobic threshold – above 11K feet your body does not process oxygen at anything like its normal rate. Amazingly, race founder Ken Chlouber was there by the trail, encouraging everyone on the way up. I finally reached the top, where I found a completely stocked aid station and enthusiastic volunteers ready to do anything it took to help you get back down the mountain strong. They had warm soup, fruit, energy drinks and food.
But the idea is to not spend much time at 12,600 feet, and get down as quickly as possible. Getting down meant at least a ½ hour descent with your brakes smoking, arms rattling, and your fingers numb from the cold and braking. At last you arrive back once again at Twin Lakes. With your water and nutrition re-stocked, you are now on your own to complete the race within the 12 hour cut-off. There are more aid stations, but you’d better not plan on staying too long. The hard part of the race is just now beginning. The Columbine climb was by far the most difficult thing I had ever encountered, but the Powerline climb, at mile 80, would prove to be even more difficult.
I took some solace in the fact that all along the course the views are amazing. I kept looking around at the mountains and getting emotional about how lucky I was to be here, in this amazing place, doing what I loved with the support of people I cared about. At last, the Powerline climb began. Right away the pitches are steep and everyone, top pros included, got off to walk. By now I had a little over 3 hours to cover the last 20 miles to the finish. Basically it became a never-ending mind game. Every time you think you are done with the hard stuff, a climb you did not anticipate presents itself. Even with 3 miles to go in the race, you are faced with “the Boulevard” – a seemingly benign pitch on your normal riding days that becomes a formidable climb after 10+ hours in the saddle.
In the end you simply want to finish. But it’s not until you turn back on to 6th St that you can sense that the end is near. You can hear the announcer and feel the energy. I had thought about this very moment more times than I care to admit… almost every day for months, yet the reality was far greater than I had imagined. By now my wife, who was extremely worried as she expected a much quicker finish, was waiting for the first glimpse of me down the road. There were only 30 minutes left to officially finish the race within the cut-off and she never imagined I would be so close to that cut-off time. Finally I came into view of the finish and there were my people, the finish line, and everything I had imagined for the last several years. They literally roll out the red carpet for the finishers, and Merilee, the race director for the past 30 years, was there to hang medals the neck of each finisher. It was finally time to soak it all in (although all I really wanted to do was go to bed).
Stuff I am glad I used:
- GT Carbon Zaskar Pro 29er hard tail mountain bike. It was an awesome bike, and has replaced my other bikes as my go-to ride. I love this bike.
- Performance Ultra Max Bib shorts. I never thought once about my shorts. They were that comfortable, all day. Just what you want in a pair of shorts.
- Osprey Viper 7 hydration pack. Just the right size to carry the stuff I needed, not too big and super comfortable.
- Bento box. I know… it’s left over from my triathlon days, but it was awesome to have.
- Stan’s No Tubes tubeless system… enough said.
Some lessons learned that may be useful to anyone considering the Leadville Trail 100 MTB race:
- Do this race. It is a special place and an incredible event – but be prepared to suffer. You definitely get what you paid for.
- Try to meet, and take a picture, with Ken Chlouber. He is a legend, and I believe it when he says you are a part of his family. He has a way of making you want to be a part of his family. Make sure you thank him for creating such an amazing race series. You might just see his eyes water and this is one tough hombre.
- If you recognize some of the race celebrities, say hello. They are all incredible people, and very gracious. We had the privilege of meeting Rebecca Rusch, Ricky McDonald, Jamie Whitmore, Ken Chlouber, Elden “Fatty” Nelson of FatCyclist.com, and several others.
- Read everything you can from Fatcyclist.com about Leadville. Search for Leadville on his blog, read up, and believe everything he says (including the part about chicken and stars soup). He knows what he’s talking about.
- Do not think that because his nickname is Fatty that you can gauge your time off of his. He is most likely faster than you. His wife is most likely faster than you. There is no shame in that.
- Watch the “Race Across the Sky” videos, and get to know the characters. It will keep you motivated.
- Try to meet Ricky McDonald. He’s done the race 19 times on the same bike, with the same front tire, same helmet, and his father’s old blue service shirt (with the name “Fred” written on it). You can’t miss him. He’s larger than life. Meet him before the race because during the race he will be faster than you too… I don’t care that his bike is old, or that he says “I’m not fast”. He is fast, he is tough, and very humble. This guy is a legend.
- Eat or have a drink in the old Saloon on Harrison Avenue. The place is unbelievable.
- Speaking of eating, take in at least 300 calories every hour. Too many and your body won’t be able to absorb and use the calories. Don’t be surprised if everything tastes horrible to you during the race. You might want to resort to “real” food, which was the case for me. My nutrition I used in training tasted a lot different during a race and at altitude… this is where I failed. I should have listened to Fatty and had more of that soup!
- Go tubeless. I saw so many people with flat tires. Even at the very end, when people were pushing the cut-off times I saw poor people with flats. Go tubeless, but bring an extra tube plus the stuff you need to fix a flat, a broken chain or other minor repairs. The peace of mind is worth the added weight.
- Don’t bring a belt for your buckle. Buy it after you earn your buckle… just to be sure.
- Speaking of don’ts… on a personal level I plead with you to please leave the compression socks for after the race, and under your pants. I mean it.
- Try to do one of the Leadville Race Series qualifying events from Lifetime Fitness. It might be your best bet to get in to the race. My prediction is that this race series will continue to grow. It is to mountain biking what the Hawaii Ironman is to triathlon, so your best chance to get in will be from one of the qualifying events. That or move to a foreign country.
- Look around while you’re racing. It’s easy to get caught up in the other racers, or in your own suffering. Pick up your head now and then, look around and be thankful.