Leadville Trail 100 (or 73.4 for me)

I managed to wake up feeling much better, albeit a little tired….it was before 4am after all.  But for the most part, my altitude sickness had subsided.  I knew it was going to be a good day.

The energy that is abuzz around downtown Leadville prior to the race start is amazing.  People are everywhere, including non-racers.  We were put into the last starting corral since we were first-timers, which meant we had perhaps 1200 or more racers in front of us.  After dropping our bikes down in the corral prior to 6am, we basically hung out at the truck getting our gear together, talked to Travis’s dad Tony, or made our way towards the Porta Potties.  Little did I know at the time, but four critical factors would happen this day that would keep me from getting a finisher’s buckle.

Travis, Eddie, and Michael prior to the race start

With a shotgun blast at promptly 6:30, it was on like Donkey Kong.  Personally, I did not care too much for the overcrowded start.  A typical big race in the southeast would consist of a mass start of maybe 400 people….this was closer to 1700 or so (1900 were signed up, but I doubt everyone showed up to the race).  Plus, the first few miles was downhill, meaning that you and your fellow racers are elbow to elbow going over 30mph through town on your way to the dirt.  Travis actually had a pretty good crash that left him skinned up and without a reliable right hand grip.  A better format could have included wave starts or an uphill circuit through town to help spread out the field.

Hitting the dirt road was sketchy at best thanks to a crowd of riders funneling into a narrower jeep trail, with many of the riders lacking true mountain bike skills and therefore hitting the brakes way too much.  Climbing St. Kevin’s was not difficult on its own.  It would have been a climb that I could have cleared without much effort on any typical day.  On this day, slow riders in the front made it difficult for the rest of us to maintain momentum and keep our lines.  One particular jerk decided to pass me from behind, weaving between me and another close rider.  In his haste he clipped my front wheel and I went down, taking out several others behind me.  A quick remount and it was back up St. Kevins.

At the crest of St. Kevins, the race turns to pavement for a few miles of screaming fun downhills.  Then it is uphill on the Sugarloaf climb.  Sugarloaf eventually turns to dirt and then switchbacks up the mountain to the top of Powerline.

Upper Powerline descent is actually a lot of fun.  It winds its way through the woods along relatively smooth dirt trails with numerous jumps.  I was trying my best not to go too fast in an effort to not get any flat tires.  Hitting lower Powerline, I got stuck behind a really slow, timid descender (female, not that it should matter) that I could not pass due to lack of good lines to get around.  This would prove to be Critical Factor #1 in my demise, as a large gap quickly surfaced between the rider in front of me and the rest of the field in front of her.  Upon finally hitting pavement, I had nobody with whom to form a paceline for the next few miles of what is best described as a road race.  I actually was able to cruise at around 22mph for most of the stretch, but it could have been much better (Eddie found himself in a 28mph paceline).  This cost me several minutes of time.

Next stop would be the Pipeline Aid Station at mile 27.  A quick pee stop, some chips, bananas, and more fluids and I was off.  I really enjoyed the stretch from Pipeline to the Twin Lakes Aid Station.  It is full of some long smooth dirt roads, flowing downhills, and the only real singletrack on the course.  The singletrack section would prove to be Critical Factor #2, as once again I got stuck behind an extremely slow rider who either lacked total skill or total confidence in descending.  And I’m not talking about treacherous downhills….this was smooth dirt ribbons that just snaked and switchbacked down an open hillside.  This likely cost me a good three minutes or more, as the rider (another female by chance) would come to such slow crawls at every turn that all I could do was just sit back and relax.  You know it’s bad when I can sit on my bike taking swigs from a water bottle when I am chasing someone down a hillside.  Exiting the singletrack, another long pavement stretch picks up.  Once again, I had no paceline I could grab onto, as the riders that were clogged up on the singletrack turned out to be slower than me on the road.

Coming across Twin Lakes Dam and into the aid station/crew area, the crowd energy was amazing.  Crew tents were lined up on both sides for a hundred or so yards, with everyone cheering on all the riders.  This was were I first caught a glimpse of the race leaders as they came through on their way back from Columbine.  My only thought was: “Are you freaking kidding me?  These guys are already 20 miles in front of me, which includes the massive Columbine Mine climb?”

The base of the 10-mile Columbine climb is really nothing difficult.  It works its way up and down a few smaller hills, hits an open flat road, and even involves pavement for maybe half a mile.  Then it begins to make its way up the mountain on a dirt road that snakes back and forth along the mountainside.  It is quite a while before it really gets too steep and loose to ride, which mostly occurs above the treeline.  This entire climb in general can be classified as Critical Factor #3 in my breakdown.  Instead of trusting my intuition, and my legs (which were still quite fresh), I simply became a lemming and would hop off of my bike to walk whenever I saw my neighboring riders doing the same.  In reality, I could have been pedaling in my granny gear and making up some precious time.  Let’s call that Critical Factor 3.1.  Even Travis was able to notice this as he screamed down the hill saying “you should be riding that!”

Once the Columbine climb gets above the treeline, which is probably around 11,000 feet, it becomes really steep and loose.  This is when I absolutely had to walk, whether I wanted to or not.  There is a point on this stretch where you gain your first unobstructed view towards the turnaround point.  I’ve got to say, I should have never looked, as it was totally deflating and demoralizing to see such a ridiculously long train of  riders stretched out for probably two miles, all pushing their bikes.  Though I never felt sick (Eddie would end up vomiting near this section), the thin air was definitely starting to get to me.  It got to where I could only walk for maybe 50 yards at a time before I would have to stop and take some deep breaths.  This part of the climb can be considered Critical Factor 3.2.  All told, it would take me around 3 hours to cover the 10-mile climb.  Absolutely ridiculous, and looking back this really leaves a bitter taste in my mouth since I know I could have done much better.

top of the Columbine climb - amazing views in every direction

I arrived back at the Twin Lakes feed zone (mile 60-ish) and desperately needed to replenish my water supplies and take on some food.  After spending much time scarfing down chips, bananas, and watermelon, I began to make my way towards the Pipeline feed zone at just past mile 73.  After not managing my time well all day, I only had slightly more than an hour to cover the distance before the 9-hour cutoff.  While I had a few good sections to gain time, I once again got stuck behind some slow riders on the singletrack (uphill this time) and ended up missing the cutoff by around 12 minutes.  Not wanting my day to end, and still actually feeling untired and fresh, in decided to ride my bike back to Leadville rather than wait for a shuttle vehicle.  The 8-mile ride helped clear my head and gave me some perspective on my day.

Critical Factor #4 was my poor tactical planning.  I began the race with the goal of going out slow and steady in order to save energy for the last half of the race.  I thought that at long as I made the first few checkpoints under the time cutoffs that I would be fine.  It turns out that I didn’t plan my time well, and ended up cutting my checkpoint times too close.  Eventually, and in most part due to the Columbine climb, I simply ran out of time.  I was still very fresh after 9 hours, which made it clear to me that I could have pushed myself much, much harder and still had enough energy in reserve.  I simply did not know that my legs would have the endurance that they ended up having.  Another fallback was that I did not come close to consuming enough calories.  While this did not seem to affect the riding that I completed, it likely would have caught up to me on the long Powerline ascent or on the following road ascents between Sugarloaf and St. Kevins.  I am thoroughly convinced that I need to start training my body how to eat during long rides, and not simply focusing on my legs lasting.  Not having done any rides longer than around 3 hours since April, that is a critical part of training that I never got to tackle.   The other tactical mistake I made was that I took way too much time basically just hanging out on the course.  I took too much time at the Pipeline aid station, both Twin Lakes aid stations, and the Columbine aid station.  Heck, I even took a few photos from the top of Columbine.  Basically just dumb 100-mile rookie mistakes.

Some thoughts:  the volunteer staff at the Leadville Trail 100 is nothing short of awesome.  Not only was there an abundance of volunteers, but they were just plain good at what they did.  It was obvious that they had been well trained for the task.  Also, I have no doubt that I could get a finisher’s buckle if I were to do this race again.  Knowing the course like I now do, I would know when to push hard and when to relax.  I would also try harder to pass a few more riders during the opening mass start.  Lastly, it is really great to watch riders come in to the red carpet as they finish their rides.  Some guys and gals break down in tears of joy, while others are crying hard in pain and suffering.  Either way it’s a very emotional experience for many, and with good reason.  I got to witness Eddie come up the boulevard on his way to a buckle, which was awesome to watch.  We also got to watch as Travis’s dad Tony made his way up the finisher’s hill.  Both moments were very inspiring to me, and I could not have been happier for them.  I only wish I could have been there as Travis came through, which was not long after 9 hours.  Those guys did great, and I can’t wait to experience what they did.

I’ll be back for sure, though probably not in 2012.  The planning, thinking, obsessing, and traveling to make it to Leadville took a lot of my brain power and for now I’m just not sure if I want to put myself through it right away again.  Not to mention the fact that the costs just sort of crept on me, from travel arrangements, to bike shipping, to bike upgrades and repairs prior to the race, to the race fee itself.  But I definitely owe it to myself to give it another shot so that I can come home with a big old belt buckle.


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