Leadville 100 MTB (August 12, 2023)

I don’t really remember the exact moment when I learned about Leadville. And even though it wasn’t a long time ago, at this point, it sure seems like I’ve been dreaming about doing this race my entire life. However, I vividly recall my last days in Northern California before we said goodbye to old and new friends alike, and moved to a wonderful state of Colorado (my dear California, wherever I am, you’re in my heart until I die). And in those last few days, I was going through a virtual list of climbs and routes in my head, that I wanted to do, but never felt ready enough. And what I thought was not the best time to do them, actually was the one and only moment I had, and I lost it. And that did change my perception of things quite a lot.

With that kind of mindset, I entered December 2022, when the lottery for next year Leadville opened. Was I ready for Leadville? Hell no (spoiler alert – I wasn’t ready on a race day either). Did I have full confidence that I’m gonna be ready for it when/if the time comes? Nope (because I’m smart, not pessimistic). I put my name into the hat anyways. And at 10 o’clock in the morning of January 9th, 2023 I was jumping to the ceiling, running around the house, and texting my best friends to share the excitement that I’ve got a chance to do the race of all races, the hunt for a coveted buckle, the infamous suffer-fest up in the Rockies. One email (along with a $500 transaction on my credit card) flipped my life upside down for the next 8 months. From now on I was asking myself the exact same question a couple of times a day: how that (whatever I was about to do) fits into my Leadville prep plan. Like a certain part of my brain became fully devoted to that until it's over.

Training

That day I opened TrainerRoad plan builder, played with it for a while, and decided to go with a mid-volume plan for this season. This means 5 workouts a week: 3 hard ones and 2 easy/moderate. I knew (for the reasons explained below) that a low-volume plan would be a better choice if I strive to complete every single workout prescribed with no excuses and exceptions. But I went with a mid-volume anyways, and not because I thought it will prepare me better for the race physically. But rather as a mind trick: I wanted to come into the race knowing that every single day has been used to get in the best shape possible for the 12th of August. Did I stick to the plan throughout the season? I can’t say I did, I wouldn’t say I didn’t. In winter I’ve been also skiing quite a lot, so I often had to squeeze all five training sessions into five work days in a row, and then top it off with a day or two on the slopes. Did I say I’m smart? Well, I am, at least smart enough to understand how dumb some of my life choices are. And in summer there are long weekend rides, group rides, KOM hunting (alright, top 10 on a segment less traveled, at best), you name it. I believe these are usually called rest days, but I ain’t no coach, what do I know. Here's how my February looked like as an example (indoor rides in orange, skiing in grey-blue):

But anyways, no matter how messed up my schedule was, my mantra has always been: as long as you don’t skip your key workouts, you may have as much fun as you want. Did that approach work out well for me? Not sure, but I have a feeling that it didn’t. I felt absolutely fantastic in two races I did at the beginning of July, but on day X – I wasn’t my 100%. I do think that it was due to the accumulated fatigue, but it could also be something else, even mental. I simply do not have enough experience yet to tell. But I’m willing to keep experimenting with my regime and keep learning what works best for me.

Silver Rush 50 (B-race)

Living at the Front Range definitely has its perks. One of them is that you can make a good old one-day trip to Leadville, ride/race there, and make it back home to catch a sunset enjoying dinner on your own patio. That gives you a sneak peek of how do you feel about climbing at the altitude, improves your corral position for the main race, recon good places to eat, and all that is on top of just having a nice day riding your bike. That’s what my Silver Rush 50 was all about. I will write a full report on that one later, but overall – it was a right thing to do for all the reasons above and then some. I even feel guilty calling it a B-race, given how great of a weekend it was.

Friday, the day before the race

The Abbey

First things first, in the morning I checked into the place where I was staying for the night. What a wonderful place it turned out to be! Small dorm-like hotel, run by a family who lives right there and shares the same kitchen and a living room with their guests. Needless to say all the people were there that night for the exact same reason as myself – for the race. A few newcomers, some who’ve already done it in the past, and those who came to support their friends and family members at the aid-stations. Thanks to some light afternoon rain, many of us spontaneously gathered to share their experiences, and expectations, and whatnot. When you come all alone you cherish small experiences like that a lot more. Perhaps, it makes you feel almost like you are on the same team with all these people.

Expo

But before the afternoon gatherings there was time to spend at the expo. Chatting here, shopping there. My biggest gratitude goes towards the Canyon mechanics, who were doing free bike checkups, both for their factory racers hanging around and recording bike checks for their youtube channels, and for us mere mortals alike. And they found a loose bolt in my shock pivot. That thing could easily ruin my day if left unattended. Guys took the whole pivot apart, cleaned, and tightened it back. So much appreciated!

Had some fun and insightful conversations with folks from Berd Spokes, Rudy Project, and Silca. Can’t wait for the promised video on “Silca sealant with/vs Cush Core tire inserts” to come out!

Race day

Fast-forward to Saturday, 5 am. That’s what the alarm has been set to. Other folks woke up earlier and effectively ended the sleep time once and for everyone in the house (I really can’t call the place a “hotel”). But who sleeps well and long on a race night anyways, right? Might just as well pull an all-nighter, won’t be that much of a difference. IKEA cinnamon rolls with hot tea for breakfast, tire pressure check, and off we go.

Got to my purple corral early, the temperature was around 6°C (42°F) in the early morning, but somehow it didn’t feel cold. I took the jacket off seconds before the start and didn’t use it for the rest of the day.

1/3 (Start to Twin Lakes)

The race starts with a long fast paved downhill, and on that first segment, I already felt like I do not belong to the corral that I started with. Everyone was passing me, but here comes my first excuse: it’s a long day and the first couple of miles do not matter much (yes they do). Ant by the time we’ve reached the bottom of the first big climb of the day (St. Kevin’s), I’m pretty sure I began seeing folks from orange and maybe even white corrals around me. Not a good start.

Steady climb. Felt okay. Then down and up again to Sugarloaf pass. And down again to Pipeline. That descent is a hell of fun. Somewhat technical at the top, and then you get to the infamous Powerline, where you’re smashing your breaks, and you’re still flying down. Wooohooo!

By the way, here's the elevation profile of the course with key spots marked on it, that should help to follow what I'm talking about:

And yeah, Pipeline. That was the pivotal moment of the day. Because my pacing strategy coming into the race was pretty simple:

  1. Get to Pipeline at a comfortable pace.
  2. See if you’re anywhere close to the time splits of a sub 9 hour finish.
  3. If you are – push it until your legs fall off.
  4. If you’re not – focus on a strong finish (aka chillax, enjoy the day, have fun).

Unfortunately, I was way behind. For a sub 9 hours finish, one is supposed to reach Pipeline at 2 hours mark. I was there at 2:25ish if I remember correctly. Catching up would’ve been a suicide attempt by the law of Leadville. And it was a mix of disappointment and relief. On one hand – the coveted big buckle wasn’t in the cards. On the other hand – there’s no pressure anymore. Time cut-offs are not a threat, so the small buckle is just a matter of not doing something stupid in the next 8 hours. That doesn’t sound like a racing mindset, does it? Exactly, but later with the reflection.

The next hour, from Pipeline to Twin Lakes, was as uneventful as it gets. If I were doing this as a video and not an essay, I would probably feel this time talking about something else, like my nutrition strategy or equipment choices. I don’t have to do it in this format, but I will. Because there’s a little story to tell here. I personally hate having anything on my back. Not just while cycling, but even in daily life. And I’ve been always striving to stick to my bottles and nothing else (and there were a few occasions when I regretted that). But when I was preparing for Leadville, my bottles-exclusive fueling strategy wasn’t coming together. Well, now when I look back I see that I could totally get away with two bottles on a frame and one in the jersey pocket, but back then I had some doubts. Given that it was 3 or 4 days before the race, I went for some old-school local shopping. And I thought I’d found a holy grail, something I’ve never seen before in any reviews. It was a Fox Lumbar 5L Hip Pack. I had experience riding with Rapha hip pack (meh) and Dakine Hot Laps (meh either). This one immediately hit home for me. It literally hugs(!) your hips and doesn’t bounce on them, while being soft and comfy. As a test, I used it on my last indoor ride, dialed the belt length/tension, and was good to go. Or so I thought.

Only during the race, I realized something. The hose was too short for me! This means I had to put my head way down in order to take a sip (and that’s where the indoor ride wasn’t a good enough test, because obviously who cares then). Basically, you can forget about drinking from it on a descent. No big deal for one ride, especially the one like this where the intensity factor has been eliminated at the very beginning. But you would expect more from a gear that costs over a hundred USD. After the race, I was hoping that there would be a poor man’s solution to the problem (simply a longer hose), but surprisingly enough Hydrapak doesn’t make those. It’s standard size only. Bummer, because if not for the hose length – I really loved it while it lasted.

2/3 (Columbine up & down)

Honestly, Columbine climb isn’t as hard as people talk about it. I mean, if you push it beyond your endurance abilities, it will kick your ass, but so will any other climb, whether it’s at elevation or around sea level. Find your gear and grind it out. Nothing new.

The very top of it (the part called Goat trail) is a lot harder than the majority of the climb is, no doubt, but I had a feeling that I could ride if not all then at least a bigger part of it. Here comes the excuse number two: I had no chance of proving myself right or wrong because everyone around was walking it. But who is to blame for that (see the sentiment above, whether the first few miles matter or not)? Get there faster and show off if you can, otherwise, it’s all coulda-shoulda-woulda.

And here the racing began. No, I didn’t change my perception of the day or anything, but if we look at the numbers – from the top of Columbine and all the way to the finish I was passing people, one after another, a little over a hundred of them in total. And I don’t remember many people passing me (there were two dudes coming around me at the very bottom of Boulevard, but that’s it). Does that mean my pacing for the first half of the race actually was right? Nah, I still don’t think so. I think I could go harder. But we’ll never know.

3/3 (Back to town)

Another refill at Twin Lakes, and a final 40-mile-long stretch to the red carpet. With a few climbs on the way. I did try to convince a course marshal that we were supposed to take a detour around Powerline, but the guy was a tough nut to crack. I only mention this to illustrate how I felt at mile 80 of the race approaching what’s considered the hardest part of the course. I wasn’t beaten and exhausted, but quite the opposite – I had enough energy to mess with people along the course for funzies. That is not how you’re supposed to feel and look like at this point if you take it seriously. Or are you?

Hey, if you ask me what was the hardest part of the course – it’s the last steady climb, St. Kevin’s inbound. It’s paved. It’s shallow. It's not hard at all, we all eat these kinds of climbs for breakfast. But it’s SO FREAKING BORING! And once again, if you’re pushing for a certain time – the perception might be very different. But if you’re like me going somewhere in the middle of the pack, too far from any decent achievement, and also never close to a threat of DNFing, it’s just so dull. While taking in nothing but a drink-mix throughout the entire race, here I sucked two gels instead, for the sole purpose of switching things up and keeping myself “entertained”. Pathetic.

And here finally comes the Boulevard, which I fortunately pre-rode the day before. And it is something I should do every time I have a chance. Being familiar with the last few miles of the course is such a tremendous boost towards a stronger finish. Every time I do or do not possess that little piece of knowledge – it makes a ton of a difference to me. This time I knew exactly where it’s safe to start pushing (and maybe catch those two dudes who passed me right before). And I went for it because hey, let’s do at least some “racing” today, right? I passed a few more folks and caught those two guys at the pinnacle of the 6th Street, but then they rode away again. No excuses this time, they looked and were stronger that day.

Post-race blues

So, how was my ride? 105 miles (169.9km) long, 11,500 feet (3,515m) elevation gain, 10 hours 20 minutes (thank god I don’t have to convert this one too). But did I like it? Um, that’s a tricky question. As I said in the beginning, I was crazily thrilled about the fact that I could simply participate in this race. And I didn’t feel anything like that after I’ve actually done it. My main theory is that I want to be more competitive than I was that day. I want those big shiny things, physical or virtual, to feed my soul. And in an iconic event like Leadville that amplifies to the extreme. I guess for those who don’t know, it makes sense to clarify that in Leadville an average Joe can basically get one of three results:

  1. DNF
  2. Finish under 12 hours and get a small buckle.
  3. Finish under 9 hours and get a bigger buckle.

It’s not your backyard race which you can do year after year after year fighting for a personal best. It’s hard to get in, it’s expensive. You get a chance – you better use it. Realistically, DNF could only happen if I crash or have a serious mechanical problem. Sub 12 seemed to be a low-hanging fruit, and it was. Sub 9 remains a goal for future attempts.

On the other hand, I have my small buckle on a bookshelf, proudly on display for everyone who comes into my office space in the basement (i.e. no one). And if I go all the way back in time to the day when I learned about the town of Leadville, its history, and the races… Tell me I could get a small buckle – I would say “That’s all I can ever dream about”. And now I sit here all grumpy and depreciating myself. Isn’t that silly.

Anyways, there’s a silver lining. Now I have a reason (again) to train hard and come back for more. We’ll see about that later, because right now I have Lake City Alpine 50 coming in 2 weeks.