The shotgun went off about a half second early. The blast surprised me as I counted down the last 10 seconds to the start of this year’s Leadville Trail 100 MTB race along with 1,232 other riders. I half-expected to start moving at the sound of the gun, but with about 800 riders in front of me, I was going nowhere until they did.
The pause gave me time for a little joke – I exclaimed, “There goes Lance and Dave!” as we all stood there, waiting for the gaggle of riders ahead to get moving. No one laughed, but I did imagine that Dave Wiens and Lance Armstrong were rolling down 6th Avenue in downtown Leadville, even though I couldn’t see them.
The first few miles of the race are neutralized and we sped downhill and out of Leadville proper. I was amazed at how composed and fluid the peloton was with so many riders. Only a few people bothered trying to move up – with so many riders, how far could you get? The race would be decided on the climbs anyway, not here.
As we descended from town, the most magnificent rainbow I’ve ever seen appeared over the mountains ahead. I’ve honestly never seen a rainbow that was as colorful and distinct. I took it as a good racing omen. “Wow, I’m actually racing the Leadville 100!” I thought to myself.
We made the right turn onto a dirt road and the racing began. You could feel the energy of the group double as we began to string out, approaching the first big climb of the day, St. Kevin (pronounced “Saint Key-vin”).
The brakes came on at the base of the climb as riders slowed and engaged hill. We bunched up with two clear lines forming and an occasional walker to the right or left. The trail was a lot smoother than when I previewed it in July, probably because of the recent rain and the 700 riders ahead of me. I settled into an easy rhythm. My legs felt great and wanted to go faster, but my HR monitor said I was doing exactly right so I didn’t bother trying to pass anybody.
Significant climbs of the Leadville Trail 100 MTB
St. Kevin: 1,191 feet in 4.2 miles
Sugarloaf: 1,017 feet in 5.2 miles
Columbine Mine: 3,179 feet in 10 miles
Powerline: 1,378 feet in 3.9 miles
St. Kevin (backside): 715 feet in 3.3 miles
I was expecting carnage on this first hill with so many amped up riders trying to get up a narrow, steep climb. A few riders were frustrated by the slow pace and I remembered some advice to tell jokes or sing a song to get the group to settle down, avoiding hot tempers and crashes. I said loudly, “So a guy walks into a bar naked with an iguana under his arm…” and received several chuckles. The shouting up front seemed to stop too. I don’t really know the end of the joke; I made it up on the fly.
As we continued climbing as it began to rain gently. The rain made me nervous. Every day for the last 10,000 years, the same pattern has repeated itself in the Rocky Mountains – mornings are cold and clear, leading to much sunshine and at sometime between noon and 4pm a thunderstorm rolls through bringing anything from light rain to hail and snow. All my wet weather gear was with Dave, my crew chief, at the Twin Lakes aid station, 35 miles ahead of me. All I had with me was my vest and arm warmers to ward off the morning chill. Cold rain slowly soaked me head-to-toe.
We made the left turn where St. Kevin’s grade lets up and the speed increased as we motored on smoother trails towards the summit. The trail was getting really wet and I removed my sunglasses because of mud and fogging issues. Now I had to blink every couple of minutes to keep the mud out of my eyes. We descended the bit past the first aid station (I didn’t stop), made the sharp right hand turn onto the road and immediately kicked up the speed to 35mph. This is when being soaking wet in 30-something degree air becomes a problem. Down and down we sped as I lost all feeling in both feet and both hands. I could tell I was braking only when the bike slowed down. I began to shiver uncontrollably.
At the rider briefing the day before, Ken Chlouber, Leadville Trail organizer made the point that Leadville was about digging deep and not giving up. He rallied everyone to stand and declare to not quit – no matter what. I looked down at my odometer – a paltry 14 miles in, 89 miles to go. Shivering, numb and soaking wet, I was surprised to have gotten so quickly to wondering whether I could finish or not. If I was digging this deep at mile 14, what would it be like at 67 or at 83? I resolved keep pedaling and worry about all this later.
The road finally flattened out, we made a right turn onto a nice smooth fire road and began the Sugarloaf climb. I couldn’t climb fast enough to keep warm and other riders streamed past me. I shivered and ticked the pedals over, but without much result. I told myself I was racing my race and to just let everyone go. Up and up I went. I knew the top was around 11,000 feet and my altimeter only begrudgingly recorded my elevation gain.
It’s times like this where you just have to settle into yourself and ignore all the warning signs. Get in your head, go to your “happy place”, whatever works. Just keep pedaling and everything will work itself out. In a bit of a stupor, I looked up and recognized I had summited Sugarloaf. Nice.
Every Leadville race finisher receives a medal from Merilee at the finish line. Those who finish under 12 hours receive a small silver belt buckle. Hard men (and women) who finish under 9 hours receive a much larger gold belt buckle.
Only 128 riders finished under 9 hours this year out of 1,232 at the starting line.
The overhead power lines crackled sharply in the rain as the trail tipped down. It sounded like man-made lightning and I wondered if this was normal – one more thing to not think about. The Powerline descent is fast and technical down a rutted and now very muddy trail. It’s the kind of descent where it’s impossible to stop; you just have to focus on nailing the line and not going over the bars.
As I sped downhill, picking up speed, I began to smell hundreds of hot brake pads – apparently I wasn’t the only one taking it easy down Powerline. As they say, you can only lose Leadville on the downhills. I picked my way down the line as fast as it felt comfortable amid a giant cloud of asbestos pad fumes. Do they use asbestos for MTB brakes?
I made it down and crossed the creek on the 2-plank bridge, ignoring calls from the mass of spectators to ride through the 18-inches of water. The last thing I needed was to crash in the creek. Re-mounting my bike after the bridge I heard a gasp from the crowd and a big splash as another rider confirmed my fear of falling in. I never even looked back; I had a race to run.
The Leadville 100 is an out-and-back course, so every rider sees each other at least once. You have to be careful near the turnaround point to not have a head-on collision with other riders.
We had a couple of miles of mostly flat roads ahead of us before the Pipeline aid station so I tried to find someone to draft with and cut down my workload. I found one guy and we had a good thing going, but we needed more riders. Most other riders were unable to hold our pace and I didn’t feel like going much slower. The rain had stopped and the sky was threatening sunshine as we traded pulls to the Pipeline Aid Station.
I heard rather than saw the aid station – the cumulative cheers and cowbells let me know we were closing in. We broke out of the trees into complete pandemonia. One of the best things about the Leadville 100 is the love it gets from the locals. The entire town had turned out to support the race, cheering and waving cowbells at us – giving encouragement and support. The aid stations are also full of family, friends and crew, giving the place a decidedly circus appeal.
I rolled through the mass of people, suddenly feeling fantastic. Even though I had no crew at this first aid station, the collective energy really filled me up. I got a bit emotional realizing how stoked everyone was about us racing. It hit me for the first time that in a way, we were racing for them. As I rolled out of the aid station, I looked down and saw my shadow, realizing the sun was coming out. I resolved to finish – I could do it. I would not quit.
The sun brightened and brought wonderfully low humidity with it, I was quickly dry and my hands and feet became very painful as the numbness wore off – that was a good sign. I flexed my hands to help the circulation and soon they felt nice and warm.
The trail to Twin Lakes went quickly. The “new” single-track section was easy enough but the guy behind me wanted to go much faster. It was a race so I didn’t stop to let him pass. If I finished in 12:00:36, I’d feel like quite the bonehead, no? He came around me when we hit the road without so much as a comment or looking back. I think he understood.
The last mile into the Twin Lakes Aid Station is fast and downhill. You zoom down this fire road, get waved across the highway by a state trooper and then drop into the parking lot which was twice the circus that Pipeline was. There had to be a thousand people lining the parking lot and aid station, stretching almost a mile. I felt electric as I made my way through the crazyness. Someone shouted, “Way to go 1399!” at me and I got a bit emotional again. All I wanted was to make these people proud of my race.
Finally, I saw Dave in his bright orange Team Climb On jersey waiting at the CTS tent for me. I could tell he was 100% “game on” and handed me a fresh bottle of Perpetuem as I skidded to a halt. The weather had me nervous and I asked for all my rain gear. Dave talked me out of it saying everyone else was ditching theirs. He checked my water and GU’s as I lubed my chain and then I was off again. I can’t tell you how great it was to have Dave crewing for me. It makes a huge difference knowing I had someone in my corner. I was really looking forward to seeing him again in 3 or 4 hours after climbing to Columbine mine.
Heading out of Twin Lakes, I calculated my time and realized I was moving slower than I thought. I kicked it up a little, hoping to make up some time up Columbine.
Making my way to the base of the climb, I heard a siren approaching. Knowing what it must be, I moved as far right as possible, looking up just in time to see Lance Armstrong fly past me in the opposite direction going near light speed. He was followed closely by a motorcycle with lights and a loud siren. I’ll never forget the look on his face – he was fully pissed off and hammering. I yelled, “Go Lance!” as loud as I could and he was gone. Seeing him in full racing anger, I felt sorry for anyone who’s ever looked back and seen that coming. The man was on fire.
I was hoping that Dave Weins would be in hot-pursuit, but the gap was already very big – like 15 minutes big. Lance was going for the record. When Dave finally passed me he looked a lot more tired than Lance. I gave him a “Go Dave!” at the top of my lungs and kept climbing towards Columbine.
We all know Lance Armstrong – but you should know who Dave Wiens is. Dave has won the Leadville Trail 100 MTB 6 years in a row, until this year. He beat Lance last year, of course. Ken Chlouber joked that this is the first time a rider has used the Tour de France to train for Leadville.
I just think that is what it takes to beat Dave Wiens.
In July, I previewed the Columbine climb at the CTS Leadville camp. I thought it was very straightforward and set a strong time for myself. Today was totally different. I don’t know if it was the weather, nutrition or just having 40 miles already in my legs, I found it difficult to settle into a rhythm. My back began to hurt and again the altimeter on my Garmin seemed to refuse to count my upwards progress. Slowly, slowly I climbed in a group of people. Someone would pass me and then stop for a rest so I’d pass them back. Then I’d have to stop and we’d yo-yo like that for a couple hours. I passed the guy I shared a table with in the packed coffee shop the day before. He was hurting and would finish at 12hr30m, outside the cutoff. I passed the girl who was standing next to me at the start. She’s a Leadville resident who just did great at the Silver Rush 50 a few weeks ago. She was hurting and we yo-yoed awhile until I stopped seeing her. I don’t usually stop to rest on long climbs; I can generally pace myself and keep going. It was harder today, I had to stop. I increased my calories, thinking it might be nutrition related. Up and up we went, just ever so slowly.
This was the 16th edition of the Leadville Trail 100 MTB race. There were lots of riders going for their 13th, 14th and 15th finish. One guy was going for number 16, having raced every edition.
It rained a little bit about mid-way up the climb and I seriously worried that I’d made a terrible mistake by leaving all my rain gear at the bottom of the mountain. Everyone warns not to ascend Columbine without adequate weather protection – what was my problem? Then the rain subsided a little and I forgot all about it.
I finally made it to the unrideable sections near the top. Ok, Lance probably rides these sections, and when I previewed in July, I certainly rode a much higher percentage of them, but today, it was a long line of riders, pushing their bikes. I got in line. Because of the out-and-back nature of the race course, it’s difficult to pass anyone here without risking a head-on collision on the narrow trail. Sometimes you can do it, and sometimes you just have to suffer the traffic. At one point, I sprinted past three or four riders and then immediately bonked. I felt dizzy and shaky, the whole world started to spin a little. Well, I couldn’t stop and let them pass me again so I choked down two GU’s and just kept pushing until I felt better again.
Next thing I knew, I was back on my bike, riding the final half mile to the aid station. It was hailing gently at the top. I knew that I’d freeze if I stopped so I sucked down my last GU and pointed the bike downhill.
Now, I ride with a few guys locally and am always the last one to the bottom of any descent. I’m just chicken and don’t want to risk crashing. I don’t mind very much and joke about my “mad descending skills”. So, as I prepared for the descent off Columbine and another racer suggested I go ahead of him, I said, “No, no, I’m chicken and slow. You go first.” Except that I caught him almost immediately. Then I passed him over the ruts, between him and the line of uphill traffic. Then I passed another guy and then another. Then I passed a whole knot of riders by going way outside close to the drop off. When I previewed the course in July, this section was very dry and a lot rockier. The 700 riders ahead and recent rains had made the trail very rideable so I just flew. Down I went, like rocket and I have to say it felt damn good. I guess I really do have “mad descending skills”…
The 3,300 foot descent back to Twin Lakes went very quickly. Realizing I had 3 of 5 major climbs done including the longest, I got really excited. I could see myself finishing on 6th avenue.
Pedaling the final bits into the aid station my legs began to feel funny – my quads and hamstrings were getting tight on each pedal upstroke. I have NEVER cramped up on a bike before – today would be the first. It got worse and I wondered what to do about it. I decided to just ignore it and get to the aid station. I smiled to myself thinking back to all the chatter online about how to “expect the unexpected” at Leadville.
I dropped into the Twin Lakes aid station and came skidding to a halt in front of my faithful crew chief Dave. He handed me a new bottle of Perpetuem and I asked him to fill my Camelbak with the GU Brew mix instead of plain water. I hoped the additional salts would fix the cramping. I took onboard my remaining GU and ALL my rain gear. “For when it goes to shit later” was my reason. I re-lubed my chain and was off. I told Dave, “See you on 6th avenue!”, and I heard someone else say, “right on!” in appreciation. I was at mile 60 after 7 hours on the bike with only 43.5 miles to go.
I was back into “The Flats” as I was calling it, on my way back to the Pipeline aid station. Again, I tried to form a group to share the work, but no one was interested or fast enough. I was feeling pretty good at this point and pushed up the pace a little. When I got to the single track I saw my friends Barry and Daphne taking pictures. Barry’s really into photography and came all the way to Leadville just for the chance to shoot the race. He’s responsible for most of the photos in this post in fact. He’s also a big fan of a certain pink-helmeted photog (just in case she reads this!). It really lifted my spirits to see them both. Daphne called out that my wife had called her and sends her love. Man, how to make a guy cry at mile 70.
I started up the narrow trail just behind a girl who was obviously at her limit. Unable (and unwilling) to pass on the narrow, rocky trail, I encouraged her with, “nice pace, nice and smooth” and “you’re doing great number 571 (race number)”. Thinking this was karma for not letting someone pass from before I just played it cool. We got to the top and I passed, thanking her for the pace.
I was feeling great and tried to start calculating where I was in relation to the 12-hour cutoff. I hammered it into the Pipeline aid station, stopping only to pee and check how dehydrated I was. I got a bottle of GU Brew from the CTS staff and downed the whole thing right there. Handing the empty bottle back, I took off. I pointed at my race number as I passed the official timing table – I didn’t want them to miss me. I was coming back in and felt great.
Back at the creek at the base of the Powerline climb, I hopped over the bridge and sped towards the climb. The lower sections of the Powerline climb aren’t really rideable uphill but my plan was to go strong until it became impossible. I saw Daphne again and she shouted something. I passed a guy and exclaimed, “We’ve got this fucking thing in the bag!” I was feeling really good.
When the trail got unrideable, I hopped off and started pushing. I was pushing faster than some others and passed many riders. Without oncoming traffic to worry about, this was much easier than on Columbine. Up and up I went. I got past the steepest section and coasted through the short rolling section. Then the hill bit up and I was walking again.
And that’s when The Bonk began. It always starts with my attitude. I start wondering where the top is, why am I racing today or why can’t that guy push any faster – why does she have to push like that? Then my stomach started to roll over so I stopped eating – ouch, big mistake. All at once I got shivery and felt like puking so I just plopped my bike down and sat there on a log, trying to figure out who I was and what was happening exactly. I forced myself to eat a GU very slowly and take short sips of Brew. Then I ate another GU and took a big slug of Perpetuem. I started walking a bit and riding as we approached the top of the Powerline climb.
In just under 12 hours, I managed to burn 8,118 calories (about four pounds of fat). I consumed 4,460 calories during the race in the form of 11 hours of Hammer Perpetuem and 16 GU gels.
When I previewed the course in July, I predicted that this would be where the race really happened. The wheat gets separated at mile 80, on super-steep Powerline with another climb up to St. Kevin still ahead. Here I was, in that moment. There was no way I was going to quit so I just gritted my teeth and kept going.
After a long time, I finally made it to the top. I pedaled the rolling sections and began calculating how much time I had to make the 12-hour cutoff. I figured that I could make it if I averaged 9 mph all the way in. Then I realized that with Powerline done, the only remaining climb was paved and rather moderate. I was totally going to buckle!
Gulping Perpetuem and GU, I hammered the descent off Sugarloaf, passing several riders. When it got to the wider fire road, I got in an aero position and notched my speed up to 35+mph. Every minute at this speed was reducing the 9 mph requirement to buckle. I was making great time and passed loads of other riders just coasting downhill at 20mph or less. I couldn’t understand why they didn’t just pedal a little and drastically increase their speed. I wondered how many of them would miss the cutoff.
Back on the highway, the road tilted up gently so I locked out my suspension and settled in for a climb. I heard a spectator yell out we only had 3 miles to go to the top and I made a mental note of my odometer. Achingly slow, the hundredths of miles ticked by. At first I was feeling a bit poorly from my bonk on Powerline, but because of all the food I took on board, I began to slowly feel better and better. By the time we reached the left-hand turn into the woods and the final aid station, I was feeling really good again.
The left turn into the woods is steep and tricky. There was a race official yelling at all racers to watch the sharp turn. I preemptively shifted into a small gear just as I engaged the hill, but my chain crunched and ground at first, angry from all the mud it had endured that day. I yelled out, “Come on you bitch, let’s go!” and got several gasps from the big crowd at the turn. I guess Coloradans are more polite than San Diegans. Sorry…
The bike shifted finally and made it into the aid station. They were offering Powerade and water. I wanted the calories from Powerade, but had never tried it before. Thinking back to stories of people puking up newly tried products on race day, I opted for water. A volunteer helped me balance my Camelbak as I poured two bottles in. I was washing down a GU with a big gulp of Perpetuem when I saw James, the guy who rented us his house in Leadville. He and his wife were sleeping in the attic above his shop while we lounged in his historic house, just 5 blocks from the start line. That’s how stoked Leadville is to host the race.
James was really excited, saying he’d been looking for me all day and was happy to see that I was going to buckle. Even though I barely know him, it felt like running into a long-lost friend in the woods. It’s hard to explain how cool it is to see people you know after racing for 10 hours.
I got my crap together and took off, determined to make as good a time as I could. All I had left was the descent down St. Kevin, a few miles of flats to town and the infamous “Boulevard” section. I went as fast as I could down St. Kevin. I used every bit of my newly found “mad descending skills” and only almost went over the bars once. With 700 or so riders ahead of me, the line was clearly stamped on the trail and I had a blast hammering downhill as fast as I could. I kept passing people and shouted at one pair of guys I recognized from somewhere, “Let’s hammer! We’re almost done!” They later caught me again – nice.
I hit the flats into town and kept the tempo going. I just felt great – I knew I was going to make it and my heart was soaring. I had dedicated my life to training for this race over the last eight months. Being on the precipice of achieving that goal really choked me up, which made it hard to breathe – I resolved to cry at the finish line and pushed on.
Zooming through an intersection on my way back to town, I was cheered by a crowd as the state patrol officer flagged traffic to let me through at top speed. Someone shouted, “Finish strong 1399!” and my heart almost burst. I wanted the best time possible to honor this race and the people who support it.
I made the left turn onto the “Boulevard” and resolved to not walk it. The Boulevard is only about a kilometer long, but it’s steep, rocky and most importantly, at mile 100 of the most grueling mountain bike race you may ever experience. It’s the final challenge before victory on 6th avenue. I had ridden it in July and it looked even smoother today. It was also covered with a dozen riders pushing their bikes. I hammered past them, my HR spiking. I backed off a bit and pedaled past the remaining riders onto the long fire roads to town.
I spied a guy not far in front of me so I set up for intercept speed. It’s always more fun to chase than be chased. I caught him with about 2 miles to go and immediately started to feel bonky from the effort. I slugged down my final GU of the day and slurped in some water. He passed me just before we made the final turn onto 6th avenue in Leadville. With just ¾ of a mile to go, I resolved to catch him again. I dug deep and gave it everything I had, making the catch just a few hundred feet before the red carpet and the finish line. I saw him later after the race and thanked him for making me work so hard. He laughed saying that was pretty good for a 65-year-old. Wow, I hope I’m that strong when I’m 65.
I rolled down the red carpet and punched the air as I crossed the line at 11 hours, 24 minutes, 24 seconds. There was a big crowd at the line and I rolled into its middle. Not sure what to do, I just looked around. Someone took the timing chip off my leg and told me to get some food and water at a tent. Merilee, the other Leadville race organizer, put a medal around my neck and congratulated me on finishing. I heard my name read from the announcer podium. Still in a daze, I wandered towards the tent when I heard Daphne calling for me. She and Barry were at the finish waiting for me. I gave her a big hug and just like that, my Leadville 100 was over.