Don’t ask me how I ended up holding this bib on the Friday before the Leadville 100 Mountain Bike Race, but here I was. Checking in downtown Leadville for a 100 mile race. Not just any 100 miler. Leadville. The Race Across The Sky. At 6 am tomorrow, I would be staring at 100 miles and 12,162 feet of climbing.
Rewind to 2 weeks prior. I’m preparing to climb Mt. Columbia, a 14,078 foot 14er to finish out the Sawatch Range (with the exception of Elbert which I’m saving for my finisher). My wife Christine calls me the night before the climb and asks if I’m willing to accept a free entry on behalf of Transamerica to the Leadville 100. It was an offer I couldn’t say no to.
The Leadville 100 was on my bucket list and I had planned to do it next year. I had down the Silver Rush 50 twice and had thoroughly enjoyed the challenge. However, training had been spotty since the Silver Rush because of our honeymoon in Alaska so I was a bit nervous about attacking this challenge. I couldn’t turn the opportunity down though.
Fast forward 2 weeks of getting my legs ready to roll again and here I has in the middle of downtown Leadville at 6 AM.
**Also, big thanks to Jeremey Brouwer for crewing and taking the majority of pictures you see here!
Wrong corral but ready to make it work.
Christine’s co-worker Cisco had also received an entry and he was along for the race as well. He had gone this far before, so I was looking forward to racing with him and had drawn on his knowledge prior to the race.
For me, I had mentally broken the race into 8 parts:
1. The start/climb to Carter Summit
2. Carter Summit-Pipeline Aid Station
3. Pipeline-Twin Lakes
4. Twin Lakes – Columbine Summit
5. Columbine Summit-Twin Lakes
6. Twin Lakes-Base of Powerline
7. Base of Powerline- Carter Summit
8. Carter Summit-Finish
The start is a rude awakening. No way around it. It’s early and it’s cold. Oh and it’s aggressive. The first couple miles are downhill on pavement with 2,000 people jonesing to ride fast. We we’re cruising. Before long, we were on dirt road as we approached the base of the climb to Carter Summit. The climb begins in earnest at 6 miles. It’s challenging only in that you are surrounded by riders, many who lack technical biking skills needed to deal with the tight surroundings and uneven terrain. I reached the summit of the climb at 1:03:26, right on schedule (target 60-70 minutes). I had been unsure of how the start would go down, so to be on pace was comforting at the time. 94 miles left.
Carter Summit – Pipe Line Aid Station
Leaving Carter Summit, you quickly descend down pavement. It’s an opportunity to gain some separation from the pack if you’re willing to attack the descent. It’s also the first chance to eat. As we began the descent, I crammed a Lara Bar down. Another racer ate as well, but both of us wondered why no one else was taking advantage of the opportunity.
4 miles later you find yourself at the bottom of the next climb. The backside of Powerline. It’s a relatively straightforward 5 mile climb, but the rock does get progressively looser towards the top. As you top out, you start to become aware of the nastiness of the Powerline descent.
The Powerline descent. Keep those arms loose! (Photo not mine)
The 1400 foot descent drops you onto pavement at 23 miles. I wasn’t running GPS and my sense of mileage was off (future note: ride with GPS less) so it felt like I should be coming into the Pipeline Aid station relative quickly after bottoming out on Powerline. Wrong.
Once you hit the pavement, its more than 4 miles to the aid station. Not unreasonable or overwhelming by any means. But when you’re not mentally prepared for it in a 100 mile race, it takes its toll.
We left the protection of the trees and found our way onto the open plains east of the Sawatch range. We also made friends with the wind here. It was challenging enough and I didn’t want to end up alone so I forced myself into a pack that was riding a bit faster than I was comfortable with. I latched onto the back and told myself that even though they were faster than I wanted them to be, it was less effort to be in a pack than solo.
It got to the point where I thought that I missed the Pipeline aid station but eventually I came upon it. Cisco’s wife had set up camp and I quickly grabbed a little bit of banana bread for breakfast and replaced my waters. 77 miles to go.
Pipeline Aid Station – Twin Lakes
The terrain from the first aid station to Twin Lakes was one of the most challenging parts of the race for me. Mentally at least. I knew that it was rolling, but it required constant focus as it switch from double track to single track and then road. There was no protection from the wind and you had to work to stay in a pack.
I’d also recommend being aware of when the course goes to single track. It seems a lot of riders are uncomfortable with aggressive descents on single track. I was stuck behind someone who struggled with that and lost several minutes here.
Eventually you bottom out and you start a gentle climb around 36 miles that brings you into the Twin Lakes aid station. The climb is smooth and leads to a short descent to the dam. If you’ve got a support crew, I highly recommend them setting out their tent at the station the night before.
The cutoff at Twin Lakes outbound is 4 hours. For some reason, this cutoff worried me. I felt like I could be well below the cutoff on Twin Lakes inbound and at Pipeline inbound, but 4 hours was an aggressive start. Thankfully I came in at 3:34.
I had been a bit behind at Pipeline but had pulled back all but 4 minutes coming into Twin Lakes.
Twin Lakes is a unique position. You’re 40 miles into the race. 40% done with the day. However, the 3,000+ foot climb up Columbine is staring you in the face. All that climbing in less than 10 miles.
Twin Lakes – Columbine Summit
Talk about a climb that is outrageous. As you ride out of Twin Lakes you have a quick small climb, but then a couple miles of rolling hills as you approach the base of Columbine. After 2.5 miles, the climb begins in earnest.
As you work your way through the initial ascents, the climb is steep but smooth. You quickly make friends on the climb and work together to reach the top. Depending on where you are in the race, you also must deal with descending riders. Some of them just don’t give a damn about anyone else on the course. Keep that in mind riders!
As you approach tree-line, the course become more challenging and works it’s way towards single track. Eventually you hit the Goat Trail at 49 miles. Talk about a long last mile or two.
Once you break treeline you can see the turnaround. For those of you that have spent time above treeline, you’ll understand just how far away it can feel.
I arrived at the turnaround (slightly over 50 miles) at 5:58, just under 6 hours. Although it is somewhat counterintuitive, the course is faster on the way back. Let’s put it this way: on top of Columbine you’re looking at a 10 mile descent instead of a climb.
Helicopter shot from Columbine
One of the main pieces of advice given to me before the race was to get food as quickly as possible and get off the summit of Columbine. Any time above tree line takes its toll in a cumulative manner. Not to mention the risk for storms up that high. I grabbed a sandwich and a little bit of Coke and worked my way up the quick climb out of the aid station.
Columbine Summit – Twin Lakes
Not much to address here other than be aggressive on the downhill. It’s tough initially above tree line as the trail is a bit narrower and you are dealing with 2 way traffic, but once you get back in the trees you can let loose on the smooth road.
My 2h41m climb took a little more than 42 minutes to descend. Now we were talking.
I rolled into Twin Lakes Inbound at 6:49, almost an hour in front of the cutoff time of 7h45m.
Coming back through Twin lakes inbound. Let’s go home!
Twin Lake – Base of Powerline
This was the slog of the race. I had rolled into Twin Lakes with a lot of gusto and excitement from completing Columbine and getting back a lot of time on the cutoff. That quickly came to an end though as I worked my way onto the wind swept pavement.
I was able to prepare myself mentally for the single track climb, but the endless up and down took its toll. I worked my way into a group and we just put our heads down and worked our way through piece by piece.
The Pipeline Inbound station seemed to never arrive. I kept looking for it around the next corner, but it never seemed to be there. I was mentally in a dark place, considering quitting the race, wondering I was even out here. It’s not like I was racing for a team or anything. No one was depending on me.
I went through Pipeline expecting to see my crew, but they were no where to be found. I made a huge mistake and rolled right through, not stopping for water, even though I was down to 3/4 a bottle. I was tremendously underestimating the Powerline climb at this point in time.
Race time was 8 hours as a I crossed underneath the Leadville banner at Pipeline. 4 hours to ride a little over 30 miles. Did I have it?
I was frustrated and down as a I left the station. I came back out onto pavement and once again worked my way into a group.
Just short of 80 miles into the race, I was greeted with the most welcome sight of the day: Jeremy, Christine, Mom Benetti…and some guy with a megaphone chanting for me. They quickly re-stocked my water and Jeremy advised me to put my head down, accept that this little climb on the road in front of me sucks and get my ass up Powerline.
Rejuvenated, I headed out towards the Fish Hatchery and the base of Powerline.
Base of Powerline – Carter Summit
I was in the home stretch now. 20-25 miles to go…depending on who you ask. (Side note…take everyone’s computer readings with a grain of salt…they vary). I was mentally prepared to hike a bike up much of Powerline. The descent was gnarly…and that was 6 hours ago. The terrain is steep and rutted out. Rideable if I was fresh and not surrounded by other riders. I was neither at the time.
I rode the initial mile or so, and then settled into a strong hiking pace. I looked forward to the final climb up to Carter. It was all road. I knew if I could hold my pace up Powerline, I had a good shot to Buckle. There was still a lot of work left though.
Powerline is nothing but a slog. There are false summits galore (5 I think) and plenty of slippery slope. Each time you summit, you hop on to ride and get 30 seconds back, but you are off the bike as quickly as you hopped on.
Finally I was on the 11,000 foot summit and ready to get down. The descent from Powerline is loose but manageable…unless somehow your front shock got turned off somewhere on the last climb…and it takes you a mile or two to realize it. Then, in that case, your shoulders and arms are super tired!
It’s a quick descent from the top, with the bottom half being pavement and soon you find yourself at 10,000 feet, staring at your final 1,000 foot climb of the day. And you say thank you…because it is paved.
The climb is a bit more than 2 miles, straight road. Get on someone’s wheel and climb. Enjoy it. It’s the end of the suffering.
Carter Summit – Finish
I rolled over the top of Carter Summit, grabbed some water and headed down. I needed the hydration, but was also ready to be done. I talked with an aid station volunteer (Thank You!) who told me that there was about 10 miles left…the majority of which are downhill.
I attacked the descent, which took a mile or so to get going. I don’t remember the top being rolling hills, but it was. A little over 2 miles later, I was in full free fall. I passed quite a few people on this descent and continue to be amazed at the lack of downhill ability in this race.
With about 6 miles to go in the race, the course flattens out and you dig deep across the final flats until the finish line climb. You may remember that at the top of Carter Summit, I asked how much was left and was told 10 miles. I asked this question again at the flats and was greeted with the answer: 10. Upon further clarification, this meant 10 kilometers. Moral of the story, clarify before you ask or be prepared to flip out!
After attacking the flats, around 100 miles, you turn let and head up the final climb. Yes, you may be asking why start a climb at 100 miles when you only have a 100 mile race? Me too. But Leadville does Leadville wants.
The last climb hurts, but it’s a hurts so good type pain. It’s not steep and it’s not long. I spent much of it coming to terms that I was going to finish in under 12 hours and Buckle. And not just under 12 hours, but probably in the lower 11s.
Eventually you ride past Leadville High School and you can hear the cheers of the crowd. You cross through the neighborhoods of Leadville where fans offer any help they can give you, including quick turbo boost pushes and then you see that finish line. It’s downhill with a quick up, but you don’t notice. The red carpet rolls out. My name is called.