The Leadville MTB 100, The Race Across The Sky, a mountain bike race so prestigious that they make whole entire movies about it. What follows is a recounting of my experiences participating in the 2011 version of this event.
Participating in the Leadville MTB 100 means making a commitment well ahead of time and potentially making the same tentative commitment over and over again for several years. There is a lottery process where you pay $15 (not refunded or applied to your entry, given instead to charity) to indicate that you wish to participate in the race. You must decide you are willing to make this commitment in the dead of winter and if selected you are not given a chance to change your mind, at least as far as the $275 race fee is concerned, your first indication that you have been accepted is the charge on your credit card. Potential racers are told that they are selected based on an impartial lottery process, but you are also told that your chances of being selected are based in part on whether or not you have volunteered a previous year. Your odds of being selected are also improved by registering as part of a team, in the event that one team member is chosen everyone on the team is chosen. So the lottery process isn’t exactly a fair one, except from the standpoint that everyone knows the rules, so you can swing the odds in your favor just like the next guy. Once you are in, you are in, no refunds and no transferring your slot to your buddy if you decide you can’t make it, they will fulfill their end of the bargain by keeping a slot open for you and only you.
We had talked about doing Leadville for about a year, but my friend Marcus was the first to put his name in for the lottery, without listing a team. That same week another friend, Mike, and myself both entered ourselves into the lottery under the same team, the thought being that we all wanted to go do this together, we wanted to be all in or none of us would make the pilgrimage. Marcus emailed the race coordinators after Mike and I had put our names in and asked to be added to the same team that we were on and was told this had been done. We all knew that the odds of getting into the race were not great and nobody made any definitive plans or really even discussed any race plans for several months, we just waited. To be honest, I am not sure any of us really aspired to do the race in 2011, we just wanted to do it some time and decided to start putting our names into the lottery, figuring that we would get in some time in the next 2-3 years. Finally the day came, Mike and I received notifications that we were officially in but Marcus did not. After emails to inquire about this mix-up he was told, basically “too bad”.
At the time that I received notice, February 28, 2011 I knew I was in nowhere near the condition required to complete a race such as the Leadville MTB 100. I formed a basic training plan, not being one who is readily able to stick to a real training plan I made it an easy one: Ride a good (meaning riding, not standing around) 10 hours per week (or more) until August 13 (the date of the Leadville event) and do a couple of other long races in the interim to make sure I was adequately fueling and hydrating in a race situation. I found that this plan worked for me, but were I to go back in time I would include a bit more strict periodization.
A month or so prior I reserved a tent site at the Baby Doe Campground on the shore of Turquoise Lake, just outside of Leadville. This proved to be an excellent decision, the campground was well maintained and had fresh water and flush toilets. The tent sites were flat enough, each site had a fire ring and many sites had a great view of the lake. I was only able to reserve this site from Monday through Thursday nights, as everything was booked up already for the weekend. The campground hosts were very gracious and helped us find a site to get into for Friday and Saturday nights, however, and gave us a number of suggestions for places to camp otherwise had a site not become available.
My first two days in Leadville, CO the various things I had read prior about becoming acclimatized to the altitude all seemed to be true. My sinuses were dry, resulting in a bit of bloody snot on a piece of tissue every morning. I had a persistent minor headache and seemed to urinate extremely excessively (even considering that I was attempting to keep well hydrated). My breathing was labored and would remain so for the entire time but seemed to lessen each day. The time this was most apparent was when attempting to walk while breathing through the nose, such as when chewing some food or brushing my teeth. I simply could not get enough air through my dry, stuffy nose.
Mike and I both arrived Monday and our first pre-ride was a shuttle on Tuesday from the Pipeline aid station, up the Powerline, down Sugarloaf and then up and down St. Kevins and back to the campground (which was near enough to be along the race route, which proved quite convenient). Powerline as a climb is a terror, there are sections in the lower part (the part of the climb focused on in the movie) where the grade exceeds 25% in addition to being loose and rutted. Short on breath but having extremely fresh legs neither of us was able to ride all of this lowest bit of the climb. The steep part is quickly behind you however and after that there are a series of short downhills followed by longer uphills hiding false summits. Your first ride up this you will wonder if it ever ends, and it surely does, at around 11,200 feet or so. After descending Sugarloaf and swinging around the western end of the lake on pavement we climbed up to the top of St. Kevins on pavement following the race route. Both of us middle-ringed this climb and kept a good pace up to the top at nearly 11k, but it surely makes you realize how arduous it will be to pedal the several miles up it on race day after 80 some odd miles.
There was a race guide in PDF form on the website with various information about the event, including the locations of the aid stations and a somewhat terse course description. We used these two pieces of information from the guide in conjunction to park at the aid station locations for our pre-rides. These descriptions and directions could have been more thorough and clear, but with a little help from other cyclists we met along the way who had done the event previously they got the job done.
On Wednesday we decided to tackle the real hurdle of the race, the climb up to the Columbine mine. Although still short of breath I felt much better already on Wednesday while on the bike, at least up to around 11k feet. The movie did not truly reveal what to expect on this leg of the race, from the Twin Lakes aid station up to the top and back. Leaving the aid station the course gains and loses elevation in a rolling fashion and then crosses some flats before turning upward, so the meat of the climb is actually about 8 miles in length. The first 6.5-7 miles of the climb is a relatively well maintained gravel road that seemed to vary anywhere from 5-12% grade but was typically in the range of 8-10%. While climbing this you can tell you are gaining elevation rapidly, the aspen trees near the bottom are absolutely massive and get progressively smaller as you switchback your way toward the summit. Once you break the treeline at a bit above 11k the road is less improved, rockier, looser and much more steep. A couple of sections of the mile or so above the treeline were 25-30% grade and we were unable to ride this even on fresh legs. Even during the pre-ride we already knew that we would be walking basically everything above the treeline during race-day due to the elevation and grade. Thankfully the road flattens out a bit toward the top. On the way back down, this bit above the treeline had to be taken with care, given the combination of steepness, looseness and rockiness. Once back below the treeline you can make very, very good time on the descent. During our pre-ride we made this 10 mile descent easily in 45 minutes, during the race I made it in about 30 minutes flat.
I believe it was also Wednesday that we decided to do a little laundry (I had only brought 2 pair of bibs with me) at the laundromat in town. Prior to this we had not really confronted the cleanliness situation and much to our surprise there were hot showers available at the laundromat. The stalls were quite cramped but a 15 minute hot shower with a towel provided for $5 sure seemed like a bargain to us.
Thursday we decided to hit the St. Kevins climb, we already had a pretty fair idea what the rest of the course looked like and at least I felt like if Kevins was difficult that we were definitely in over our heads. We rode the St. Kevins climb from the campground and returned on pavement in an hour and a half, as realization set in that the first climb of the race was pretty easy, all of a sudden making the 4 hour Twin Lakes outbound cutoff seem pretty achievable, this seemed like it was possibly the biggest obstacle of the race.
Each day that I spent at this elevation I felt better, had fewer side effects and rode faster. Where on Tuesday and Wednesday our climbs to a bit over 11k and about 12.5k respectively had taken everything I had, our ride on Thursday to nearly 11k had me breathing relatively easily. Knowing how big a difference an extra day makes now, if I were to do this event again and be unsure of my ability to finish within a healthy margin of error I would probably arrive in town (or at least spend my time at a similar elevation) a full 10 days to two weeks in advance. While possibly impractical this would give you your best shot at finishing the event if you were on the cusp.
Friday was mostly a preparation and rest day, we each prepared a sag bag for my girlfriend Alyssa to have with her at the aid stations when we came through. We put our race numbers on our bikes and gave them a good once-over, making any last minute mechanical tweaks and debated our clothing options for the start of the race. In the midst of this preparation we took a leisurely and fun ride on the nature trail that encircles Turquoise Lake, this was decent single-track and probably some of the best riding we got in all week.
While we were in town on Thursday checking out the local bike shop and etc., we noticed that packet pick-up for the race was going on, we had been under the impression that this was to happen early Friday morning. Since we were there anyway we decided to take our places at the back of the line and get checked in and pick up our good bits. There was a lot of crap in the race bag (mostly advertisements), but there wasn’t any detail on the rider meeting or the times/places of anything else. Nor was there any information on any times or places in the race packet that we had printed out previously. Finally on Friday about noon we found some internet access and checked the website, the “mandatory” racer meeting had been an hour earlier, we missed it. It seemed to us a fairly gross oversight not to have included this detail in the race guide we had been using as our primary information source up to this point and to put it elsewhere on the website.
Saturday… Race day… We had been informed and the race guide had indicated that we had a designated corral and that we had to be there and signed into our corral by a race official by 6:15AM. We were there well prior to this and there were no race officials to be found anywhere. In talking to some other riders we found that many others had been under this impression, but they had been informed through the grapevine that first-time riders didn’t have to check in, simply roll across the start (electronic timing) line. Misinformation causes confusion and confusion is very irritating and wasteful of time and energy.
The race started pretty much like any other I have been in, it took a bit (about 2.5 minutes in our case) for the wave of starters to reach back to us and allow us to finally begin moving, but once that happened everyone started rolling out quite uniformly and generally politely. The mass of riders proceeded out of town on pavement, mostly downhill for several miles before hitting gravel. I began the race in bibs and a light jersey, light wool socks, insulated arm warmers and an insulated vest. I was absolutely freezing by the time we hit the gravel, tingly knees, numb toes, numb fingers, it definitely wasn’t pleasant but I definitely could have gotten away with less if I had wanted/needed too. The first climb passes by a creek and is largely shaded from the rising sun, so even though I was burning calories the process of warming up on the climb did take some time, but once I neared the top (10-12 miles into the race) I was feeling pretty good. Since we were both first-timers we were placed in the last corral and were some of the last riders to leave the starting area, so virtually all of the 1500 or so other riders were in front of us on the climb up St. Kevins. Even though in many cases people were doing this climb 3 or 4 or even 5 riders wide, it was still a gross logjam and riders in my position who exercised patience as the race guide suggested easily lost 15-20 minutes or more on this climb.
The race guide was quite clear that all riders were responsible for checking into and out of each aid station along the route. Well, I slowed greatly and was frantically looking for where I check in at the Carter Summit mini aid station, but all of the other riders were simply rolling on through. So, I just rolled on through as well, again with the misinformation being useless and irritating.
The subsequent descent and climb on pavement around the western end of Turquoise Lake was good, the pack had significantly spread out by then and you could really cover a lot of ground in a hurry rolling on pavement. After climbing pavement easily for a couple of miles toward the east on the road bordering the southwest corner of Turquoise Lake the race makes an extremely hard right onto maintained gravel and then shortly a hard left onto a less maintained road. This is known as the Sugarloaf climb and is really no harder that Kevins, it just picks up a few hundred more vertical feet and is not all crushed gravel, there are numerous rough patches and rocks to be navigated through. Just keep looking for the cleanest line and spinning and before you know it you are at the top and heading down Powerline.
Powerline is probably the most well known section of this race after Columbine, but most of the focus is on the lowest and steepest of five or so sections of the descent/climb. Outbound you will lose a few hundred feet, then pick up fifty or so, lose a few hundred more, pick up a few in a cycle about five times before reaching the bottom. The upper of these are generally pretty tame and in quite a few places there are two good ride-able lines. Even as you get further down and the slope gets steeper and a bit more rugged passing is quite possible, although on the lowest and steepest section there is really only a single good line and any other line is fairly marginal. I found myself passing many, many people on this descent.
After Powerline you quickly find yourself on pavement for a couple of miles and then gravel for a couple more into the Pipeline aid station. I found a fit Clyde who was rolling at a good and consistent pace through this section and did everything I could to hang onto his rear wheel, probably much to his irritation.
At this aid station (mile 25) I said heck with dealing with any kind of checking in, I just rolled over the timing line and up to the aid station and ordered some bananas. The way these aid stations worked wasn’t typical, at least as far as what I have seen before. The tables were fenced off and you rode up to the fence and effectively put in an order which one of the prompt and courteous volunteers would fulfill for you. I was a bit miffed about the bananas, they seemed to have been quartered and halves are much easier to eat while riding. After grabbing a few banana chunks I rolled a couple hundred feet further up the road to find Alyssa waiting to clean my glasses and top off my Camelbak. I spent a couple of minutes sorting out my business here and then rolled on down the Pipeline. I had lost Mike on the climb up Kevins but Alyssa informed me here that I was only 6 minutes behind him.
Much fuss seems to be made about pacelining on the Pipeline, so I tried. I kept sprinting to a pack of riders, then I would find their pace much too slow for my taste so I would sprint past them to the next pack of riders, repeat and repeat again. Then on the downhill sections of the Pipeline I would blow past several groups of riders I was having trouble catching, only to have them pass me back on the next uphill. In short, attempting to conserve here was wasted on me, I should have instead just hunkered down and worked on holding a target heart rate, and only worried about latching onto some wheels if it worked out.
Near the end of the Pipeline near the Twin Lakes aid station the race is filtered into single-track. This is the worst concept ever: giving 1500 riders 10-12 miles to pack themselves into groups and then filing them onto single-track. This predominately downhill section had its pace set by the slowest guy in the long line of riders in front of you. It also happens that this bit of single-track coming into Twin Lakes is two-way. If you should happen to see a returning pro rider bearing down on you with a closing rate of 40mph you are supposed to get the hell out of the way. So, what happens when you don’t see each other?
I made the 4 hour / 40 mile cutoff at Twin Lakes with about 5 minutes to spare (15 really, because apparently they extended it 10 minutes?). My water situation was still very good having just zipped down the relatively short/easy stretch called the pipeline and there would be water waiting on top of Columbine, so I quickly grabbed a few more bananas and rolled on through munching. After this aid station the course gains and loses elevation for a couple of miles as you zip over a couple of small hills and traverse a field or two.
The climb up Columbine was described earlier, but during the race it proved to be more difficult than anticipated. At or before 10.5k my bike started developing some mild chain-suck (I would recommend some kind of dry lube for these conditions, which was similar to the dry and dusty high desert conditions found around the continental divide) and by 11k I was walking on and off, both because of my growing mechanical issue and to help preserve my now aching shoulders and rump. After breaking the tree line there was simply no recovery from even the smallest of efforts, every few hundred feet of staggering and stumbling up the mountain I had to stop for a brief rest. With my grueling pace I kept expecting to see Mike come barreling back down the hill past me, but he kept failing to materialize. We finally passed each other as I neared the flat section of the course near the top, I was only 15 or maybe 20 minutes behind him, he must have been suffering too. I used the last of my water shortly after this, just minutes from the aid station, well played.
After the Columbine climb you actually descend about 50 vertical feet into the aid station, you do this with a great deal of trepidation because you know that you must regain that elevation on the way back, but also with great relief because you know fresh water and food is just a few hundred feet ahead of you. Arriving at the aid station, feeling a bit like death I was informed that there was no water, they had run out. I kind of entered disbelieving zombie-land at this point and just gave up mentally. One of the aid station volunteers took pity and found me a can of cold Diet Mountain Dew, apparently the volunteers were digging into their personal coolers to make sure the racers had a little something to keep them going. It wasn’t what I needed, didn’t taste good and I couldn’t get much down, but it was cold and greatly appreciated. I just stood around on top for about ten minutes in a bit of a daze, not entirely sure what to think about the situation. I checked out the food options while I was there and it seemed to have dwindled to a few banana chunks smeared with peanut butter and jelly by countless dirty fingers.
Finally my mind cleared a bit and I decided all I could do was go back down, looking at my elapsed time and doing a little mental calculating I was 100% sure that I wasn’t going to make the 8 hour cutoff through Twin Lakes return at mile 60. This knowledge made me feel a little better somehow, I could hydrate to my hearts content at the bottom and I didn’t have to keep riding, but it made me feel a bit sick at the same time. As I neared the treeline on the way down and continued sucking down thicker air I kept feeling better and better. About the time I broke the treeline I decided that I couldn’t hit that 8 hour cutoff, but I could see how close I could come, and so I sailed back down to Twin Lakes as fast as my legs would carry me, passing a dozen or two riders along the way.
I rolled somewhat casually into the Twin Lakes aid station crew area and immediately realized that I was being screamed at to “GO! GO! GO!”, apparently I had arrived before the cutoff (apparently because the cutoff had been extended 10 minutes?) and was actually feeling pretty spry so I sprinted across the line, but I stopped just on the other side to regroup and assess the situation. I topped off my Camelbak and was ready to depart and try to beat the 9 hour cutoff at Pipeline around mile 74, but decided that even if I could make it there in under an hour I definitely couldn’t manage to do the next 26+ miles in 3 hours to finish under 12. So I turned in my timing chip and called it a day.
Mike had made it through the Twin Lakes return several minutes ahead of me but fell just short of the 9 hour cutoff at Pipeline. I think that both of us were perfectly satisfied with our own performance if not with our results. Either of us might have done better, but we didn’t and that’s how things work out sometimes.
Since I have done this event quite a few people have asked me about it. My take is basically this, there can be no prestige left in your mind after witnessing the lack of organization, this event is nothing special at all. It is a grossly overpriced commercial venture where riders (even finishers) definitely do not get their moneys worth as compared to other mountain bike races. If you are looking to do a race that is hard, this might be the race for you, but there are much harder races to be found on much more fun courses for much less money. If you are looking for a fun event, this definitely isn’t the one for you… It’s all on road, really, it is NOT a fun ride (although I certainly did have fun buzzing past people coming down Powerline). If you are looking to score yourself a sweet belt buckle… Well, I guess that’s the justification most of us probably used to cut the check for this…
During and immediately after this event I wasn’t really angry that they had run out of water at the aid station on top of Columbine, but in the intervening days I have thought on it more deeply and realized that it really was an unforgivable set of circumstances. Those putting on this race justify their end of the $275 bargain by giving you a slot and keeping it open for you, assuming you are one of the lucky few, without leniency — whether you show up or not, race or not, finish or not. But here, by running out of a basic requirement of any aid station, much less a “well stocked” aid station as the website indicates, they have clearly not held up their end of the bargain and have created a potentially very dangerous situation for hundreds of participants. I sent the race director and aid station coordinators an email in this vein on Tuesday, 8/16/2011, but have yet to receive any response as of Friday, 8/19. The email is inline below.
Dear Scott Giffin, Shanon Giffin, Josh Colley and Marvin Sandoval, I recently participated in the Leadville Trail 100 mountain bike race and unfortunately am forced to write to you with regards to a very serious issue during the race. Many of at least the last several hundred riders to reach the Columbine aid station were rationed but a cup or two of water, and many of the final riders to reach the aid station, those that needed water and food the very most, arrived to find that there was simply no water or food to be had. I was among these stragglers to the top and simply cannot fathom how such an unforgivable and dangerous oversight in preparation could have occurred. You utterly failed to live up to your end of the bargain, how do you intend to set this right? Best, Samuel J. Greear
It probably comes as no surprise after reading the above to hear me say that I definitely had a fun trip, but I really didn’t have a fun race, it was simply “OK”. And while I bear no ill-will toward the race organizers and I do not think that their aid station preparedness was a factor in how well I did (or didn’t do, rather), I still think that they need to take responsibility and answer for this. So, I probably won’t be doing Leadville again, nor will I be able to recommend it to anyone in good conscience. But, looking forward to next year, perhaps the Breck Epic?
Mike’s writeup of our Leadville trip.
Race Log: http://connect.garmin.com/activity/106289536
Mileage (car): 1000mi
Mileage (bike): 125mi
St Kevins: http://connect.garmin.com/activity/106289567
Fun zip around Turquoise Lake from the Campground: http://connect.garmin.com/activity/106289551