What is the Leadville 100 Mountain Bike race? The main website for the race describes it as follows…
”This is it. The race of all races. One hundred miles across the high-altitude, extreme terrain of the Colorado Rockies. Created for only the most determined athletes. Starting at 10,152 feet and climbing to 12,424 feet, you’ll be challenged to catch your breath — while the views try to take it away. The 100-mile out-and-back course is in the midst of the Colorado Rockies. Low point, 9,200 feet; high point is Columbine Mine, 12,424 feet. Majority is on forest trails with some mountain roads.” One little thing that they don’t market, is that the race is actually 104 miles and the last four were such a blast!
Why would anyone want to do something like the Leadville 100? Good question. Read on and maybe you can help me figure out why!!
What motivates people? Many people will say cash and yes, committing to the $275 entry fee certainly put this race on a different level. You can’t just bag out of it! Others might say the reward is in the work itself and in the process – the challenge and I would certainly agree with this. For me it was a combination of things. The camaraderie of training with friends and meeting new ones was all part of it.
Where to begin? How much? How frequent? All great questions. I had never been in a 104 mile mountain bike race before, so needed some guidance. I was very familiar with the American College of Sports Medicine’s general exercise recommendations, but to tailor a training plan for an epic event like this was new to me. I searched the internet, read blogs and consulted friends and professional colleagues. My good friend from high school was the third place finisher in the M4 category from 2010, so he was a wealth of knowledge. I also consulted with another friend and colleague whom I consider to be a world renowned exercise physiologist. He was an elite cyclist in his day and now is a coach to elite athletes and cyclists, including a Tour de France champion. He suggested I get my VO2 max and lactate threshold tested. Having been a baseball catcher in college, I did not quite have the physiology of the cyclists he was used to working with, but he said there was hope – though the time before the race was not on our side. I believe that lactate threshold testing is key for any type of endurance training. It provides a barometer to go by and a heart rate number to stay under so as to avoid going “into the red”. As I comment below, going into the red for too long is a recipe for disaster and almost a guarantee to “bonk”.
This is really an area you have to experiment with – and not the day of the race! I tried various products and really liked Gatorade or G2 as my electrolyte drink during exercise as well as Powerbars . I needed to consume about 400-500 calories per hour and this combination in general worked well for me. I did a lot of training with Ensure nutritional shakes, but found on race day that due to the hot conditions, it did not sit well with me. What I also found very helpful under these arid conditions was fresh fruit e.g. blueberries and watermelon. I am a ‘salty sweater’ so without doing formal salt loss testing, I knew that I needed to consume additional salt. This came in the form of healthy snacks like pretzels or gorp. I also consumed Endurolytes every hour during long rides and the race. For me, this really helped with cramping. I typically think about the causes of cramping in three ways – dehydration, muscle fatigue or sodium losses and during my training I learned about all of these ways to cramp! Often it is a combination of the three.
Hitting the wall, Going deep into the red zone, Bonking
I think you have to do this at some point in your training prior to an endurance event such as the Leadville 100. I did and so did many of the friends I trained with. If you don’t know your limits, how can you push beyond them? One caveat and I am biased here – obtain a formal medical evaluation before embarking on any new exercise regime or endurance activity. The Wrangle the Ridge ride in Castle Rock in June was the turning point for me. I signed up for the marathon ride which was 60 miles. You could see the heat radiating off the dirt and the wind seemed to stand still – at least around me! 30 miles in and I was done. The nausea, quad cramping and overall fatigue made me really second guess this whole Leadville thing. I was about to throw in the towel and allow myself more time to spend with my family. My thinking at the time was why should I train so hard and spend so much time away from family when I was just going to hit the wall. After a bit of soul searching, I made the commitment to see this through.
Last minute preparations before the race
The pre-race briefing for new racers was very helpful. One suggestion that benefited me the most was to bring a moist bandana and wear it to avoid the extreme dust on the course.
Wow – what a spectacle! I got up around 4 am and did some last minute checks but was ready having completed a more extensive check list the day before. We (my crew – wife and brother!) arrived around 5 am and I was able to place my bike in a decent position about mid-way in the pack. I then went back to the warmth of our car until a little before 6 am. Then the pre-race nerves kicked in and had to make a few trips to the bathroom. The opening and closing of port o potty doors was some of the only sounds in those pre-race minutes. By 615am everyone had to be by their bike and at 630am the shotgun blast signified the start of the race. With somewhere around 2,000 people racing out of Leadville the fun began. At around the 4 mile mark, the pavement turned to dirt and due to the dry conditions – it was a dust bowl and thankfully I was wearing that moist bandana to avoid the inhalation.
The course was tight with cyclists and the speed would fluctuate frequently due to the terrain and the sheer number of cyclists vying for position. My heart rate was supposed to be below 150 bpm to avoid exceeding my lactate threshold, but unfortunately to keep pace and to make the first time cut off at 4 hours – I had to push pretty hard and exceeded this rate most of the time. I knew I would likely pay for this, but I really had no choice if I wanted to keep racing (Mistake #1 – but no way to fix this other than getting a better base earlier in the season). I made the first cut off by about 10 minutes and pushed on towards Columbine Mine at 12,600 feet. I refueled (sort of) at Twin Lakes and was off. About 4 miles into this next stretch, I began to feel a bit nauseous and my Gatorade and GU were not sitting well with me. Unfortunately, I did not bring any plain water (had plenty of Gatorade and Ensure) – Mistake #2. I had to get off my bike and walk at least 3-4 miles until I felt better. Nearly 2 hours later (no food or water during this time – ouch! – not a recipe for success), I was near the top and was able to ride to the Columbine Mine Aid Station – where unfortunately they had run out of water. They did have watermelon and I was able to stomach this and then made my way back down to Twin Lakes.
I made it back to Twin Lakes under the time cut off – now at the 8 hour mark and had to get to the Pipeline Aid Station before the 9 hour mark. To do this, I had to dig deep and make it in just over 1 hour. Still not feeling great, I pushed on and was able to get down some blueberries and a peanut butter and banana sandwich.
As I approached the Pipeline Aid Station, fans were yelling “2 minutes” – so I basically sprinted and made it just under the time cut off for the third time. Mistake # 3 – not really! What this allowed me to do was to suffer for another 4 hours and 25 minutes.
Climbing Powerline at around 4 pm in the heat of the day was pure joy (Oh, did I mention this was one of the hottest and driest races in recent history – with temperatures over 80 degrees and no wind!). This is where I saw grown men crying with their head in their laps and riders standing and vomiting over the seats of their bikes. No, not me – I just suffered quietly. I had already done my vomiting and crying earlier in the race! As I raced down Hagerman pass, I knew there was no belt buckle for me. Sadness was certainly one of my many emotions at the time, but I thought I might have a chance to finish under 13 hours – so I pressed on. Well, the nausea and cramps resurfaced on the way back up to the last Aid station, but there was no way I could stop now. Pushing hard over the last 10 miles only to miss the 13 hour cut off by about 25 minutes. The worst gut wrenching cramp came with just over a mile to go and I had to get off my bike one last time. After walking for about a quarter mile, I got back on the saddle and pushed onto the home stretch where I saw my family cheering me on and realized that this is what it is all about. Their support and cheering brought tears to my eyes and the volunteers at the finish line were so kind to put a Finisher medal around my neck to validate the entire event.
No way, no how! Could not have finished this event without my supportive crew including my wife brother, mom and kids.
What would I do differently, were I to do it again?
- Start training 3-6 months earlier i.e. 9-12 months out
- Train more in extreme conditions – i.e. heat and cold – especially heat for me – long rides
- More training at altitude – over 10,000 feet
- Always bring enough plain water on your rides – you can always bring electrolyte powder to mix, but you can’t go the other way!
- Experiment more with natural foods during training e.g. fruits