Montage of Photographs

Leadville Trail 100 Mountain Bike Race - 2005

"The Race Across the Sky"

Like many cyclists, I have felt compelled to measure myself against this race since it first was run back in the 90's. 2005 was the year that it came together for me. On August 13, 2005, I ran the race, and I finished the darned thing.

My time: 11:15:04

Effort level: Big

Top of Columbine Climb, 3rd Aid Station Site

It wasn't the first time I'd tried something like this, I've raced the 24 Hours of Moab twice on 4-man teams and have completed "The Big Lap" on the 4th of July out of Salida 3 times. I've done quite a bit of normal X/C racing, road centuries, long epic offroad rides, etc. I was perhaps a bit cocky about my chances for finishing Leadville in time for a buckle. I trained hard, I showed up well prepared and supported. And in the end, I got my buckle. But not by much. I overcame barriers I have never known. I learned much, and I have much to learn.

The course is difficult, especially if you aren't a strong climber. I'm a pretty capable technical rider. I can climb for a long time, but I'm not a fast climber. When talking about the course with people who had done the race and who ride the technical terrain around Salida that I ride, I heard that the LT100 MTB course "is not technical" and "really just dirt roads". There is some truth to those statements, but they gloss over the reality: that elevation changes (climbs), climbing grades, AND surface quality greatly add to the difficulty of the course. Throw in the distance and the base elevation (all above 9,000 feet) and you have a really tough course. Even for a CO mountain inhabitant.

I carried my GPS receiver on my handlebar through the race this year. If you have National Geographic TOPO! version 4, you are free to review the .tpo file from my race day on the bike. This is what TOPO! generates in terms of elevation profile:

Note: my GPS seemed to be wandering a bit during my descent from Columbine, which is understandable. You can see the effects if you open the TOPO! file, and if you look at the backside of the big peak in the middle of this profile, you can see some sawtooth that came from inaccurate GPS readings during those few miles. The rest of the time I think I was going slow enough to keep the GPS from working so hard to register position. I'm fairly confident that this route and subsequent elevation profile is quite accurate. Certainly it's more accurate than an altimeter's reading, which is based on barometric pressure (and therefore affected by weather). Looks like 12,232 feet of cumulative climbing on this course according to my GPS.

The humps on the profile: five big peaks. First is St Kevin's outbound, second is Sugarloaf Mountain outbound, 3rd is Columbine Mine (turnaround), 4th is Powerline/Sugarloaf, 5th is St Kevin's.

What's hard? The first two peaks, St Kevin's and Sugarloaf Mountain; given the fresh legs, cool morning air, and the feeling of relief that the race I'd been obsessing about for months was finally happening, they were fine. Non-trivial efforts to be sure, but not very different nor more difficult than a normal bike ride. A fresh, interesting start to a long day.

Everybody talks about how difficult Columbine is; that climb is what many riders say they dread about the course. No question, it's a big hill. I spent nearly 2.5 hours getting from Twin Lakes aid to the top of Columbine. That bit between Twin Lakes Aid and Columbine was what I dreaded coming into the race. It was long, and it was pretty tough, but I was mentally prepared for it and I had ridden it before. I knew it would take a long time. It did. I was racing a hail storm to get up there, turn around, and get down. I won that race. It was painful. But I had a wind jacket to wear down off Columbine, I was able to make good time getting down, and I had aid waiting back at Twin Lakes.

So there I was, mile 60--belly full of ham sandwich, jersey pockets full of hammergel, dates, nuts, camelback full of H.E.E.D. water, and a feeling of accomplishment ("I'm more than half way through!"). And according to the split times I had taped to my bike's stem, I was still in good shape to break 11 hours, maybe even make 10:30. I made my way back toward the Pipeline Aid Station feeling like I just had to stick to business, and I'd make all my goals. The next 15 or 20 miles went by un-eventfully. I wasn't very frisky, but I didn't feel that there was much danger of bonk. Just keep turning the cranks...

Then I got to Powerline. The 4th hump. I remembered slipping and sliding down off that thing on the way out in the morning, and for quite a while. But it hadn't really soaked in what it was going to mean to climb it until I was about 30 minutes into the climb. It hurt, it took lots of energy. And the second threat of thunderstorm that day rumbled ominously during the whole time I staggered and crawled past the false summits to the real top of Sugarloaf Mountain. But most importantly, it was the first time that day that I felt un-prepared. I had encountered an obstacle whose difficulty I had not anticipated. And it pushed me into a mental state that became the biggest obstacle I would face that day. I summitted the danged thing, sweating profusely, then transitioned directly to chilled just as I had at the top of Columbine.

I put on my wind jacket at the bottom of the first, technical descent from Sugarloaf. A woman rider who I had been annoyingly passing then being leapfrogged by (since she climbed faster, but I descended faster) finally got clear of me while I was stopped. I was looking at where the time was going, I was cold, I felt totally shelled, and the effect was depressing. I descended to the bottom of the last climb with a look of addled stress on my face. What wasn't obvious to me at the time was that my brain was starved of glucose. Eating seemed like a bother, and nothing I was carrying sounded appealing. And I was losing so much time, I just needed to go.

Oops. This is one of the things I have figured out. At the time in the race when I should have been eating the most often, I was not eating. When I think about that time now, I recognize that what I was doing was wallowing in despair. Endurance racers know, this game is 50% half mental (with respect to Yogi Berra). As I started climbing the paved section that is the 5th hump, I was beaten. I wimpered. I muttered. I was only in granny gear, on pavement! I was doing like 2.8 mph. As I look at the elevation profile now, I think "Well, yeah. It's pretty durned steep. What gear did I expect to be pushing after 85 miles of racing?".

One of the things I've learned about riding mountain bikes all day long is that wallowing happens. And it's analogous to wallowing that happens in Real Life™. One day near the end of a long ride, I came into a sandy patch of singletrack. I lost all float and momentum and slowed down, which caused my cadence to slow, the gear I was in was suddenly a little to high, and then I started loosing my front tire into the soft sand. Huffing, struggling, expending lots of energy and getting little forward progress--this was wallowing. I realized that I should either gear down and accept the slow speed but expend less energy, or I should stand up and feel a little pain in the short term, but then break out of the momentum drag I was in. Mentally, it might have been easier to simply wallow along and wait it out. But in the long run, it's always better to recognize that you're wallowing and FIX IT. But what if you don't recognize it?

The problem I faced during Leadville was not that I was wallowing, but that I was so far gone that I couldn't understand that I was wallowing. I should have stopped, eaten the last of the cashews I had with me, taken a strong slug of hammergel, and maybe put the wind jacket back onto my pack (since I was sweating again). But the last thing I wanted was to stop. I would lose more time! Bad judgement...

Eventually I wallowed my way to the top of that fifth hump. There was an aid station, where I should have stopped, even if only for 30 seconds worth of encouragement. But I was time-driven, and dumb with low blood sugar. I did eventually eat, and then my tires found dirt. Then downhill dirt. As wind finally whistled past my ears again, I found a little energy for finishing this thing. I wouldn't say I snapped myself out of my despair so much as I lived through it. I started eating regularly after I left the fast downhill parts of St Kevins.

Purgatory Boulevard. From the crossroads locally known as Leadville Junction, I was told to expect another half an hour. It's a downhill start, so I knew not to expect a downhill finish. And I had heard mutterings about "the Boulevard", which is a dirt road climb back into the town of Leadville, but I had not seen this scenic route. I was in better shape as I rolled down the overgrown doubletrack along the railroad and the river than I had been climbing to St Kevins, simply because I knew I was on the outskirts of town. But I had nothing left in terms of sprint or spark. I new that I was a shell of the rider who left town at 6:30.

When I popped onto the bottom of the Boulevard, the upward-sloping field of round rocks the size of cantelopes made me nauseous. Lots of folks were pushing their bikes around me, but I was SO TIRED of hike-a-bike from earlier climbs that day, I just settled in to granny gear to slog my way through it. With a resigned grunt, I turned uphill and started looking for a path through the rubble. The steep, rocky, nasty part of the Boulevard was really very short. Somehow I pedalled through the rocks without having to stop. But then I started riding up a graded gravel false flat. It was just a little too steep for me to get any feeling of momentum. My time on the Boulevard seemed to go on and on. While there, I pulled the last bit of fluid from my camelback. I knew the end was just up there, but it seemed like it was out of reach.

Saints and Citizens. Then, at the end of the Boulevard, there was a volunteer who was capering and cavorting with his traffic control sign. He was keeping up a string of over-the-top encouragement. "YOU ARE INCREDIBLE, I BOW DOWN TO YOUR EFFORT!" (low bow), "ONLY SIX TENTHS OF A MILE TO FINISH!" and so on. I got a lump in my throat, and thanked him. I felt some kind of power come from somewhere. There were two more climbs, but the streets and front yards were lined with supporters. My tongue was swelling a bit, so I drank from my backup water bottle.

And then it was over. And I had finished in time to get my buckle. And there was my wife, and my friends. And I could STOP RIDING THAT INFERNAL BICYCLE!

What did I learn? I was feeling like a semi-veteran of endurance riding, now I know I'm a newbie. My eyes were opened. Here are some of the things that I learned:

Training: I trained for a long, paced effort. I spent many 6 or more hour days on the bike, often times at very high elevation. My base endurance was really good, I think. What I missed preparing for was being able to recover from the huge, abusive effort. I don't find Columbine abusive. It's just long. Powerline is abusive, especially after 80 miles of other big efforts. It's no secret to me that I hate doing interval training. But I think it was an error of wishful thinking to assume that I'd be fine doing Leadville with only endurance training.

Eating: A good endurance athelete has to have rules about conduct. This is what gets us through the difficult times when we are likely to get addled. It should have been absurd to me to think that it was OK to stop eating because "nothing sounded good". Just stuff it into your mouth. It isn't about cuisine, it's about survival.

Individual Effort-Team Spirit: The support of my wife and friends, of strangers on the course, of the LT100 Volunteers--these things made the difference between having the will to finish and thinking quitting might be a good idea. I think I assumed that I was pretty much a self-contained motivation pod, but the encouragement and enthusiasm of those people out there was really important. Vital.

Knowledge is Power: This was something I knew from experience. I wanted to know more about the course, but just didn't get a chance to see all of it before race day. I assumed that the information I'd gotten from other people and the few bits of the course I'd seen was going to be enough. No way to go back and un-do that, but I'm quite sure that I can do better at Leadville just having seen the whole course on race day.

Keep a Positive Attitude: Seems obvious now, but it must be kept in the front of one's mind on race day. Don't wallow. Don't despair. Fight the urge to succomb to failure. As the LT100 slogan says: Dig Deep. What I'd recommend to new racers at Leadville, think about what it's going to actually mean to dig deep, not just physically, but mentally.

©Tom Purvis, 2007-2012