The Leadville experience

[This is a long post with my experience in riding the Leadville 100 mountain bike race. If you want to just look at pretty pictures instead, go here.]

“You are better than you think you are, and you can do more than you think you can.” – Ken Chlouber, creator of the Leadville race series

I finished the Leadville 100 mountain bike race last Saturday in 11 hours and 23 minutes (Strava track), beating the 12 hour cutoff time and earning myself a sweet belt buckle. It was hard. It was really hard. But I pushed through the pain and exhaustion to finish, and it was incredibly satisfying.

It was also great to be part of the World Bicycle Relief team, raising money for a great cause. Thanks to all of you who donated – between your donations, my matching, and the eventual corporate matching from Google, we will have supplied nearly 80 bikes to those in need in Africa, including students, doctors and entrepreneurs.

But let’s reset – what is the Leadville 100? I first heard about Leadville from Fat Cyclist, a bike blogger, who has raced it every year since nearly the beginning (this was his 19th start of the 22 times it has been run). But he just described what it was like to ride Leadville – I didn’t learn about the race’s origins until this past week.

Ken Chlouber was a shift leader at the Climax Mine in Leadville when it was shut down in the early 80s. Looking for a way to keep Leadville from economic collapse (basically the entire town was employed by the mine), and as an avid marathoner, he wondered about starting a race as a way to bring in tourism dollars. While talking to a consultant about his idea, the consultant said that to make money from tourism, the tourists had to stay overnight. So Ken thought to himself, “If it’s a 100 mile race, they’ll have to stay overnight!” and thus the Leadville Trail 100 Run was born. Yes, I said run. The 100 mile foot race came first, in 1983 – the mountain bike race wasn’t added until ten years later in 1993. The Leadville races were little known until two things brought them into the public eye: the Born to Run book which talked about the Leadville 100 trail run, and the Race Across the Sky documentary, filming the attempt of Lance Armstrong to win the 2009 mountain bike race. Now, thousands of people descend on Leadville each year for these events, and it is what Leadville is known for.

When I first read Fatty’s stories of riding the Leadville 100, it sounded mythically hard, but I also had this itch to find out if I could do it (similar to doing the Death Ride this year) after my year of biking last year. I applied for the lottery, but didn’t get in. And I was somewhat relieved because I wasn’t sure I could finish the race. But then Fatty announced that he was looking for people to raise money for World Bicycle Relief, and if they agreed to raise $5,000, they’d get an entry into Leadville. So I applied for his WBR team, and was accepted. And so it began…

If I thought I was all into biking last year, it was nothing compared to the training I did this year for the Death Ride/Leadville 100 combo. As I mentioned in my Death Ride post, I had ridden more miles and climbed more hills in the first 6 months of 2015 than I did in all of 2014. Training for the Death Ride had gotten me the legs and lungs I needed to finish Leadville, but riding on pavement is easier than riding on dirt and trails. And I had only 5 weeks to adapt.

The first step was riding the Tahoe Trail 100k, a Leadville qualifier, a week after the Death Ride. Run by the Leadville team, it was conveniently located, and gave me an idea of what to expect, but was shorter and easier than Leadville (only 62 miles, lower altitude, less climbing). I pushed hard in that race, and was able to finish in just less than 7 hours, which was a solid qualifying time for Leadville, even if it put me in the bottom 20% of finishers.

Then I had exactly 4 weeks to get ready for Leadville itself – in addition to the course, I had to get ready for the altitude – Leadville is at 10,200 feet, and the course goes up to 12,500. I rode my mountain bike when I could get to the trails, and also climbed hills on my trusty Surly Long Haul Trucker loaded with baggage to simulate the extra effort it would take to climb at altitude, including doing a steep 5 mile, 2000 foot climb while biking back from a camping weekend, loaded with all of my gear.

Finally, the week of the race arrived – I flew out to Leadville on Sunday, since it takes me a few days to adapt to high altitude. I also wanted to be there to do the pre-ride clinics with Fatty and four-time-winner Rebecca Rusch – each day they were riding different sections of the course, and getting to know the course and what to expect was super helpful. It also gave me confidence that I could do these climbs I’d only read about (Columbine, Powerline, etc).

So let’s talk about the race itself. It’s a 103 mile out and back course as you can see from my Strava track. There are 5 major climbs – outbound, it is St. Kevins, Sugarloaf and Columbine, and inbound it is Powerline and Carter. The rest of the course isn’t flat, but not nearly as much effort as those 5. We’ll take the course (and my race experience) in order:

  • St. Kevin’s is about 1,000 feet of climbing up a bumpy dirt road. The hardest part of this climb is that it was at the beginning, so we were all crowded together, 3 across on this dirt road, and you had to hold your line or risk crashing into other riders. Every now and then, somebody would lose their momentum and have to dismount their bike, and this would cause a chain reaction of people swerving and trying to get around.
  • I unfortunately got a flat just over the top of the St. Kevins climb. I’m not sure what happened, but I think I hit a rock wrong and got a pinch flat. And so I had the frustrating experience of changing a tube on the side of the trail while hundreds of people rode past me – I had what I needed to fix the flat, but it took me a while since I hadn’t changed a tube on this bike in a while, and by the time I got everything back together, I was basically in last place. For those of you that use Strava, you can check out the flyby – click “Select All”, and watch as I start out in the middle of the pack, end up in last place after my flat, and then spend the rest of the race slowly working my way into the back part of the pack.
  • Sugarloaf was the most pleasant climb – it’s another 1,000 foot climb, but it’s up a wide gravel road that’s not too steep, so it just involved pedaling along and enjoying the beautiful scenery, looking out over Turquoise Lake and the mountains. Admittedly, it was pleasant in part because I was all alone after losing so much time because of the flat tire.

  • After the Sugarloaf climb is the Powerline descent. Steep and technical, I just wanted to survive this – I knew I wasn’t going to gain time on the descents, so I just took them slow to avoid crashes.
  • Then there’s the long “flat” section called the Pipeline. There are still hills here, and the only single track on the course (a one mile descent outbound), but this was my chance to gain time as my road biking experience means I’m good at pushing myself on the flats.
  • After the Pipeline section (and the Twin Lakes aid station), we get to the biggest climb, Columbine – it is a 7.5 mile climb that ascends from 9,500 to 12,500 feet. The top of that climb is the halfway point and turnaround. The fun part of that is that you get to see everybody in the race, either flying down while you’re climbing, or climbing slowly while you’re descending. The annoying part is that because of my early flat, I was stuck back among slower people on this climb, and there was no safe way to pass, because there were racers descending at 30mph a few feet away. I passed when there were opportunities but I definitely lost time here, especially towards the top when most people were walking their bikes and there was no way around (although I did run with my bike to pass people a few times when there was a break in the line of descenders).
  • Heading back after Columbine on the “flat” Pipeline section, we had headwinds, which is common. Fatty and Reba had recommended working together with others to form a paceline in this section. It’s a little tricky because you need to find somebody who wants to go the same speed as you, but I found one guy, and we took turns trading pulls for several miles to the Pipeline aid station, which helped a great deal. And after Pipeline onto the pavement, I worked with another guy to catch up to a bigger group, but when I pulled past them, they latched on to me. After a minute or two, I tried to drop off the front and gestured for one of them to take the lead, and they said they couldn’t because they were too tired, so I was stuck pulling on my own. And then, of course, they blew by me a few minutes later when we hit an incline since they’d gotten a few minutes of rest by drafting off me. That was annoying.
  • You might think that Columbine is the hardest climb, since it’s the longest and hits the highest altitude. But it’s the Powerline climb (4 miles, 1500 feet of climbing). Fatty says that the Leadville course is 80 miles of riding to soften you up to get smacked by the Powerline. It starts with 0.6 miles of a very steep (20+% grade) rutted dirt road climb. Even after that, it stays pretty steep and technical. In the pre-ride, I rode most of it after the first half mile and did the full climb in 50 minutes; on race day, I walked most of it and it took me 65 minutes (even while walking, I was pushing hard). Also, it was in the blazing sun (this was around 3:30pm).
  • There’s the long easy Sugarloaf descent after Powerline, which was great to drink water and eat and rest a bit. And the final Carter Summit climb is actually all on a paved road, which made it a little easier, but I was really struggling by that point. I was coughing a lot from all of the dust I’d inhaled, my stomach wasn’t feeling well after eating only gels and sports drink for many hours, and it was sprinkling rain by that point. But I pushed through, even though tears were literally coming down my face at one point because I was hurting bad.
  • The final descent down St. Kevins wasn’t too bad, and then back out onto the flats for the final 8 miles to Leadville. But there’s one more climb to go – the last 3 miles into Leadville are on a dirt road nicknamed the Boulevard. On the pre-ride on Thursday, I flew through that section and thought it was super easy. After 100 miles on the bike, it was a little harder. But I pushed through and finished strong!

  • Merilee, Ken’s wife and the race director, puts a medal around your neck immediately as you cross the finish line on the red carpet. It’s pretty satisfying!

After the race, I was completely exhausted. I just lay on my bed staring at the ceiling, unable to form coherent thoughts or focus on anything. I had gone all out for over 11 hours, with no easing up. Even at the Death Ride, I had taken breaks at the aid stations, and I could kind of zone out on the climbing and on the flats because they were on pavement. At Leadville, I was going all out the whole race because I had to push hard on the flats to get my average speed up, had to pay attention on the descents to not crash, and had to work hard on the climbs because of the altitude. I even had super-efficient aid stops, thanks to my friend Jess crewing for me (I spent about 5 minutes in the aid stops the entire day – of my total stoppage time of 40 minutes, 20 was because of the flat, and the rest was when I needed breaks during or after climbs).

It was quite an experience. I’m glad I did it. I’m also glad it’s done. It was by far the hardest physical feat I have ever done. To put it in perspective, I did a week-long mountain bike tour from Durango to Moab last year that covered 220 miles and 23,000 feet of climbing over 7 days. And I thought that was really hard at the time. Leadville is half of that week’s riding in one day. One of the Leadville mottos that Ken repeats is “You can do more than you think you can!” A year ago, I didn’t think I could ever finish Leadville in 12 hours. And now I have.

But even after all my training, I just barely beat the 12 hour cut-off for finishing. I have no chance at a sub-9 hour finish to earn the big gold belt buckle, so there’s no temptation to come back for that so I don’t think I’ll be back next year. I’ll find something else to do. Maybe even return to blogging! 🙂

4 thoughts on “The Leadville experience

  1. Hey Eric! I too suffered a flat tire at the same place on my first Leadville race! I was the last person in the race and even have the picture of me climbing Sugarloaf totally alone! (the photographer must have been packing up-I’m surprised they were still there!) I spent the first 6 hours of the race belittling myself for my ineptness in changing a tire. I think it took me more than 45minutes. There was some joy found in catching and passing so many cyclists. Don’t think the sub nine race result is unobtainable–it just might take 10 years of trying!
    You did something amazing last Saturday! Finishing that race at all is an awesome feat! I loved in your post your comment about teasr of pain-I too have felt them! Congrats and keep riding!
    Lisa/The Hammer (Elden’s wife)

  2. Thanks for the kind words and encouragement, Lisa! It’s definitely good to hear that your first Leadville had similar issues, as you make it look so easy now! But I forget that it took you ten years (and the coaching of Rebecca Rusch) to get you to that sub-9.

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