Leadville, Leadville, Leadville!

Posted on Aug 19, 2017 | 0 comments

 

20841106_10155864536964396_9136287806166128382_n

It happened and I survived to tell the tale. Here is that tale.

About Leadville

Leadville was a silver mining town in the 19th century. At its height, there were 40,000 residents. The silver ran out, but some dude discovered molybdenum, a mouthful of a metal used in steel hardening. That has propped the town up numerous times over the past hundred years, but only marginally, and the population is now below 3,000.

The last time the mine closed due to lack of demand. unemployment in town hit a nationwide high so a dude named Ken Chlouber and his wife, Merilee (pictured above), decided to do something about it. Looking around, they recognized they had something unique – they were surrounded by beautiful mountains, great trails, and less air than any other city in the US… So they created the Leadville Trail 100 in 1983, a 100 mile run starting at 10,000 feet. Nuts. I would never do something so insane.

In 1994, seeing what the race was doing for the town, they added a weekend to August’s festivities (they also have a festival at the start of the month) with a mountain bike race. 104 miles and 11,000 feet of climbing, again starting at 10,000 feet. That’s more my jam.

Why?

Why not? It’s not something I’m going to be wanting to do when I’m old (the oldest rider was 84 and that is awesome, but I think I just want to read books at that age). I’m able-bodied now (I do still read books, though) so I’m gonna do all the things.

Getting In

I only recently (two years ago) learned about the race through a friend. He explained there was a lottery and it was really hard to win it. If we signed up together we’d have twice as good a shot; if one gets in, you both get in. We didn’t get in. He had been trying solo for years. I’ve heard stories of folks trying for over a decade with no luck. Fast forward a year to this past December and he was a month out from having a kid; I’d be going at this one alone. My life was beginning to have a lot more free time, and besides, the chances of winning the lottery are SUPER slim so I entered… And got in. When I received that e-mail my heart skipped at least a single beat. I didn’t even remember entering (the drawing is months afterward). This was a big commitment and I’ve only ever dabbled in mountain biking.

Prep

Step one was to get a bike. I did a light amount of research and being loyal to Norco, chose a Revolver 9.2 FS as my weapon of choice. It’s a full suspension cross-county race bike. It can’t downhill or trail ride with the best of them, but when the stuff is non-technical (like Leadville and all the riding I like to do), it goes like a rocket ship and comfortably so (the low travel rear end is great for the old back).

Step two was to learn how to ride it. Immediately, I signed up for Sisters Stampede, learned I had a lot to learn, and planned out the rest of the summer – regular rides and a pair races that would be similar to Leadville and in increasing length. I would go on to compete in a full season of Short Track, the Mount Hood Endurance Classic, and Tahoe Trail 100, the latter of which was a great simulation for the big day. It also provided me a spot in a much faster corral at Leadville, taught me about nutrition/hydration over really long events, and gave me an indication of what I would be capable of by comparing my time there with those of folks who did it and had previously done Leadville.

Getting There

20645509_10155848605239396_753065102808086392_o

Like a glove

I had planned to drive the 18 hours each way, but about a month before it was time to do so a friend mentioned that Alaska Airlines treated bikes as regular bags. Having their credit card, I get a free checked bag, which means FREE CHECKED BIKE. Life and travel will never be the same. Flight options weren’t great, but they were cheap. I’d end up spending an afternoon at SFO (took advantage of the time to walk to a pancake house I knew of), but total cost with everything was going to be around $315. I couldn’t come close to that cost with driving beside the whole four days spent on the road bit.

Being There

20690187_10155856211254396_4486017246504327575_o

Peekaboo

I didn’t alter my work plans so I ended up arriving to town Wednesday (race on Saturday) as opposed to late on Thursday as I would have via the driving plan. At first I thought it might be a bit too early as your body goes into a transition phase as it acclimates, which puts you in worse shape than either being acclimated or arriving hours ahead of time, but I ended up liking the extra time.

I learned the town, relaxed, had ample time to get the bike together and tuned, and ultimately I didn’t even notice the altitude effect during the race. Yes, walking down the street at that elevation puts you out of breath, but on the bike for such an event your only goal is to keep yourself below redline, which I did. Sure, that redline may have been geared down a mile per hour, but the feeling was the same at no elevation – simply an exercise of keeping the body going.

20800015_10155865143809396_5593506061052945980_n

Afternoon cruise

Leadville is a cool little place. Without these events who knows if it’d even exist? Most locals recognize that fact and the events make it fairly clearly by dumping huge amount of money into the local economy and granting every high school graduate money towards higher ed. It’s an expensive weekend of bike racing, but it feels good to know it’s going to a good place.

Over my one week stay I did and ate all there was in town. City on a HillTennessee Pass Cafe, the Mineral Belt Trail, and my AirBnB get many thumbs up.

The Goal

Finishing under 12 hours is the thing everyone strives for. I knew I’d have no problem with that. Finishing under 9 hours gets you “elite” status and a more significant reward. Some number crunching on very little data (a single elite rider’s performances) told me I might be able to finish in 8:45 so I set my sight on that sub-9 finish.

The Race

2,000 sign up, 1,400 start, 1,200 finish. Start is 6:30am, which at that elevation means it’s cold. I believe it was 39 when our tires began rolling? Minutes later, the sun has peeked through and you instantly feel 10 degrees warmer. Far too much thought and effort went into keeping warm and then not being too hot, but it is what it is. It doesn’t make sense to start any earlier or later.

40 seconds after the shotgun went off, I was through the starting gate. At this point I was out for a morning ride with friends. My adrenaline was not pumping knowing I had a full day of riding ahead of me, and I honestly hadn’t done any sort of course recon other than having watched the video about the race on Youtube, which had been months ago and was completely gone from my memory aside from remembering that Lance is a cheater asshole. I was flying blind and I think that was beneficial. Looking back, it was kind of ridiculous, but at the time not knowing the challenges ahead kept me cool headed and focused on a single pedal stroke at a time.

The first handful of miles were paved roads. We were absolutely flying at 20+mph. I noted this for the finish – if time was tight, I had some road miles to power through, where I’d be able to pick up minutes over trail speed.

Once we hit the trails, it became apparent that I should have put more effort into the road sections. For the next five miles of trails I’d be help up by traffic at a speed far below what I would have gone on my own. There was nothing I could do about it at this point and with 90 miles still ahead, I figured the energy saved here would eventually work itself into time saved elsewhere so it’d all be a wash.

Being a huge, hard, and expensive ($425) race, it is very well supported with aid stations and neutral support (a mechanic who will fix your bike) every hour or so. Around mile 24 (that’s how they list it, but I swear my GPS said 26 or 29 or something far beyond that and confirmed it on the way back, but I digress) we hit the first aid station that crews can be at. I did have a crew. I’d go on to see them an hour later at mile 40, a few hours later at mile 60, an hour after that at 74, and again at the finish. It was amazing and I am forever grateful, but more on them later as they deserve to not be lost among the sea of text here.

At mile 40 the going gets tough. We’d been up two good hills past 11,000 feet already, but they were nothing compared to Columbine Mine, which tops out over 12,200. Not only is the air stupid thin up there, but halfway into the climb the trail turns into loose rock and becomes just a bit too much for most to handle… so we walked. Well, more of a death march… For about two miles. I would reach the summit and halfway point of the race at 4:50, 20 minutes slower than the arbitrary goal I had set for myself, but the harder stuff was behind us and rather than walk back down that 2-hour segment, I had a 35 minute descent ahead. I was hopeful. I grabbed a good amount of food and beverage at the top and cruised my way down, skipping the next aid station (mile 60) for anything more than a quick hello.

Around mile 62 I felt my energy wane. This was a flat road section and my legs just didn’t have the go left in them. Of note, I ran out of gas in Tahoe about an hour earlier so things had improved, but on this day I still had a long way to go. Coincidentally, right as my crew passed by in the car, my left leg cramped just above the knee. Ugh. I’ve never cramped before and at the summit I had even taken this expensive “no-cramp” product (I didn’t and wouldn’t pay for it) that almost made me puke (it has capsaicin in it). They saw the look on my face and had to be worried – it was excruciating pain and literally the moment they passed. Luckily, I was able to work it away and it didn’t return.

Note: two weeks before Leadville I did the final Short Track race of the year and went down hard in the team relay. I took some seriously large chunks of meat out of my hip on arm, and had massive bruising on my hip, which to this day still has not subsided  much and the gash in my hip could still pass for a fresh wound. I honestly didn’t know if I’d get through or even start the race due to the injuries. I’d been limping severely for two weeks and had done some long walks in that time because I needed to stay active and wasn’t able to bike in comfort. I’m sure this created some fatigue imbalances in certain muscles, which I think was the cause of the cramp. Long story short – cutting off racing even a couple of weeks before a big event isn’t enough. Be smart. While I don’t think this all cost me too much time, the two weeks of worrying about healing, sleeping poorly due to pain, and the energy my body had to put into rebuilding couldn’t have been beneficial.

At mile 74 I did some quick math and it told me I had a shot of meeting my goal. I had found someone’s splits online and while I was a little bit behind them, I felt they had 20-30 minutes buffer built in because the math didn’t add up. By my best guess, I had a mile of buffer to work with at this point. I made a quick pass through the aid station full of hope and was off.

At mile 90, just about at the 10,000 total ascent advertised, and after another lengthy bike walk, I calculated I had 10 flat or downhill miles ahead and 45’ish minutes in which to do it. Not a cakewalk, but well within my means. I chatted up some riders around hoping to build up their motivation and then it all came crashing down. An experienced rider told me the race was actually 104 miles and 11,000 feet of ascent, we didn’t finish on the road section I had counted on, and even the fastest guys barely do what laid ahead of us in under an hour. It was over.

Honestly, I was kind of relieved by the news. It turns out the math of the guy’s splits I had copied were not wrong and I am in fact a mere mortal (I would not win the big prize at the biggest mountain bike race anywhere in my first year of riding mountain bikes). I was now able to pedal comfortably into the finish knowing I gave it my best, it wasn’t enough, I didn’t break anything, and didn’t even draw a drop of blood! On my best days I have trouble walking down the street and accomplishing those things!

I crossed the finish line in 9:27 flat for an 11mph average. It was a pretty emotional thing.

GPS | Results

The Rewards

20768156_10155865160449396_4750875899453133795_n

Bling

SWAG! Lots of it. Too much. A tee shirt (note to events people: I never want a tee shirt unless it’s really awesome, which they never are), a jacket sweatshirt thing with my name and time printed on it (kind of cool), a finishers medal (why?), and A SOLID SILVER HAND-ETCHED BELT BUCKLE. The buckle is what it’s all about. It’s my first belt buckle and it’s freaking sweet. It was the smallest of all those awarded (sub-9 is probably 50% more material, 10 year finisher is likely 100% larger, and 20 year finisher 100% larger than even that [chest sized]), but it’s mine and I freaking love it.

The Crew

20728124_10155859736889396_2972636134331176080_n

Those smiles… every hour

I was lucky enough to have a crew of three. I don’t know how many other racers had crew at all, but it was a huge thing that I don’t know I could have done without. Something I’ll be forever grateful for, and not just for the obvious reasons of them saving me time by having what I needed at the ready, which they did, but when the going gets tough knowing there are people ahead rooting for you and soon to be greeting you with smiling faces, hugs, and maybe even kisses was an enormous help… Probably even more than the help that handing me bars, drinks, and other necessities was, and I’m talking in terms of race time.

Dad, Karen, and Rebecca, I thank you from the bottom of my heart.

Dad, we’re even for Mount St. Helens. Actually, no, no we’re not. That was way bigger.
Karen, I owe you beyond what I can put into words not only for this event, but for putting up with him.
Rebecca, I’ll return the favor when you do the 100-mile run next year.

What’s Next

I will happily do the race again, but without getting WAY faster and “winning” (placing in the 10%) a qualifying event that all require significant travel (Tahoe is the closest) or dumping a few $k into a charity spot or mountain bike camp, I’m faced with the lottery.

The chances of getting in again next year are slim, but I’m going to rally the troops for a large group entry (I think that increases our odds greatly?) and hope for the best. It turns out that volunteering at the running race the following weekend is a pretty much assured entry into next year’s mountain bike race. Perhaps I stay in town a week and a half next year (if I get in) or head down for that weekend alone to make that happen and cement my spot for 2019?

I’m currently enjoying a week of not riding seriously and eating anything and everything (I burned 7000 calories so I’m pretty sure I can never catch up). Cyclocross begins in another couple of weeks so come Monday I’ll get back to pouring in miles and caring about my diet. Fun, fun.

Parting Thoughts

  • The men’s podium didn’t show up for awards. Totally classless. Sure, one of them might have had a great excuse, but all three? Give me a break.
  • A beer after such a race is disgusting. I took one sip and threw the free one out. It wasn’t bad beer, but it was the last thing I wanted to put in me.
  • I need to pay attention to the notes I take after races. There were a couple of things I had told myself to do to my bike after Tahoe that I was kicking myself for having not done when I realized the mistakes a few miles into the race.
  • The pre-race rider meeting is not one to be missed. I wish my crew had attended, but we assumed it wasn’t important. They call it mandatory, which is funny, because last year’s race winner who is also a local wasn’t in attendance when they called his name. Somehow he was still allowed the race the next morning!
  • The camaraderie amongst “competitors” was great. They make it a point to call us family all weekend and it really does feel that way. Unless you’re a world-class athlete you’re only racing yourself. There was lots of chatter, working together, and courteous riding out there. I would get to know a couple on a tandem and One-Armed Willie throughout the day.
  • I would have been really well served by doing more long rides. I’m talking the 5+ hour type. I knew this, but they’re not an easy thing to comfortably fit into life, whereas my daily 1-2 hours are.
  • I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that Rebecca did the 10k the morning after my race. She ran well, but was definitely not a fan of the altitude. While it didn’t affect me much, running a 10k is a much more anaerobic ordeal than what I did. As soon as you’re out of breath, you’re screwed, and you’d damned well better run out of breath in a 10k. I was not jealous, but I am proud.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *