The Leadville Trail 100 has established itself as the king of endurance mountain bike events. The 2012 version attracted almost two thousand athletes – who earned a qualification entry or got in off the lottery – representing 50 States and 35 countries. The pre-race scene is absolutely bizarre: a mixture of pro mountain bikers, gaunt-looking ultra-runners, triathletes wearing compression socks and sleeves, road-bikers, scary looking tatoo’d guys who look like motorcycle mechanics, cowboys with big belt buckles, and even elderly looking people. It is definitely an event like none-other.
I’ve been having fun trying different race formats lately, and decided for 2012 to focus on endurance MTB racing after not entering a dirt race over three hours in over a decade. Fortunately my heart and body adapted well to diesel long-haul truck mode: I did the Tahoe Trail 100k like a 4 hour time trial in July and managed to win it handily, had ridden the Leadville course on two days at 7 hr finish pacing, and had done a number of very long training rides at high average power. I was feeling ready, with a race-day stretch goal of going under 7 hours and top 20 or so.
What I failed to prepare for is how much the race has changed tactically from a mountain bike race to a road race.
I rode up to the start after about two hours of quality shut-eye (sleeping at 10k ft is not so good) and made my way to the Gold start corral, which was on the front with less than 100 riders. To my surprise the announcer gave me a front row call up , but I stayed put on the third row not wanting to push through the group for a race where the hole shot doesn’t matter. That was a mistake as the gun went off and pandemonium ensued. People were skidding tires, taking redneck lines off the road, bumping bars, and yelling. I was part amused and part scared that my race would end before it started.
The first climb up St. Kevin’s is the critical selection, and it is brutal. The pace felt like the searing hole shot in a 40k to me, not the beginning of 7 hrs in the saddle. I felt flat and could not stay with the first 20 riders or so, but established in a small chase group and tried to settle in. By Sugarloaf which is a gradual road climb there was nobody in sight behind us. I felt a sense of relief knowing I had made the selection, had a big gap on those behind, and had a descent up ahead.
On one of the short rises on the steep Powerline descent I went to shift and got no response. Uh oh! I hopped off the bike and realized the cable had come off the guide cam on my derailleur. Got it back on and was back underway, but was just off the back now by perhaps 10 seconds.
After Powerline is a long flat section to Twin Lakes where being with a group is absolutely essential. I had to either sit up or give 100 percent effort and regain contact with the group ahead. I dug deep (too deep), and made contact. I was relieved but worried that I had just blown myself up 90 minutes into a seven hour event. At least I could now hitch a ride with some heavy hitters and try to recover.
After a few minutes I hear someone yell, “What the F*ck is going on?” and notice that the group ahead of us has stopped and is coming back to us. Most are turning around, others seem to be running down a hill. I see Sauser’s World Champion jersey and Jeremiah Bishop at the front of a small group and decide to go with them rather than continue on.
I learn that we have all gone off course. Everyone is confused, disgruntled, and riding slow, backtracking down the road. After a 2.5 mile diversion in my case we return to the course just as a large group that had been 7-10 minutes back goes straight through the intersection where we’d made the wrong turn. Guys like Lakata and Sauser gunning for the record were bummed. Guys like me that had burned a pack of matches to make the lead group were devastated to have such a hard effort neutralized.
I went through a very rough spot after Pipeline, but was happy to have the comfort of the group. The pace was full gas and people were getting jettisoned off the back. To my dismay I hit a bump and again my shift cable came off the guide. I pulled over, got it on again, and chased like crazy to get back on, something I would need to do again many times. My legs were starting to feel junky from all the surging and frenzied chasing.
The climb up Columbine is an hour affair for even the strongest riders, and I was delighted to finally be at a point in the race where the attacking had stopped and where my derailleur problem wasn’t an issue. On the climb however I experienced a strange sensation: I didn’t feel like I was working that hard, but couldn’t go harder. It was like a block of wood was stuck under the accelerator pedal. I reached the top and was dismayed to see that I had climbed it in 1:11, seven minutes slower than a training day just after Tahoe where I was shattered – and not trying to climb hard.
On the descent I was coming to grips with the fact that I was having a bad day and would not come near my goals for the race. Mentally I was at a new low, but seeing all the suffering in the faces of those coming up the climb gave me a new resolve. I was still better off than these poor souls. “Quit yer bitchin’” I told myself and tried to bring the pace up. This was the most dangerous part of the course as people are quite literally falling over into the downhill line. (A friend of mine apparently had to bunny hop over a person who had flopped down on the trail.)
I reached the Twinlakes aid station and grabbed a musette from my wife Kasey, who shouted “I LOVE YOU” really loudly. She had never done that before, shouted something like that in a crowd, and it really energized me again.
I was riding with Gordo Byrn at this point and started to gap him on the climb out of Twin Lakes. “World Ultra-man Champ will be good to you on the flats, lets work together.” I agreed and backed off, then realized that my left cleat was coming loose. Not wanting to lose the bolt I stopped and tried to tighten it. Unfortunately, my hamstring would cramp painfully every time I positioned my foot where I could reach the cleat, making it almost impossible to tighten. I tried again, agony. This was the low point in the race for me. I got back on the bike, ate a PB&J, and rode on in my own private misery. Garth Prosser caught me from behind. The two of us chatted for a bit, commiserating on our bad days. “Let’s just ride this in mellow-like.” OK. Unfortunately Leadville and mellow are not good companions, as the section before Powerline had what felt like a 25 mph headwind. I felt like I was making no forward progress.
The rest of the race was an uneventful slow grind to get home. Coming up the steeps of Powerline reminded me of scenes I’d seen on Everest, climbers laboring just to put one front in front of the other. Trapper Steinle commended to me “I don’t want to say we are near the top… but we are near the top.” I knew I could handle everything after Powerline so that comment refocused me and helped me dig just a bit deeper to get over that nasty climb.
I finished the race in 7:36, roughly 40th overall (placings moving due to time adjustments) and 12th or so among all amateurs. http://app.strava.com/rides/17949429 I was disappointed with the result itself but in strange way very fulfilled by the process of dealing with the setbacks.
Reflecting now, a week after the race, I realize the early intense efforts and repeated chasing had an accumulative effect that kept me from going hard later, perhaps exacerbated by the altitude. In training I had avoided high intensity efforts which was appropriate for most endurance MTB races but not Leadville, at least not anymore. Jeremiah Bishop wrote a great article that I’d encourage anyone gearing up for next year to read. The race is not technical and should be thought of as an unbelievably hard road race where there is no time – over the full distance – to really relax or rest.