Yes to the Leadville Jitters: Aspire to Do Epic Stuff

Today I find out if I have to dig deep in August. 

Thousands of nut jobs enter the lottery to get in to the Leadville Trail 100 MTB each year, and this year, against my better judgement,  I threw my name in, too.  I’m both excited and worried that I might “win” the lottery. If I do get in, i’m sure I’ll have to go pretty far into my suitcase of courage to get through it.  If I don’t get in, I’ll chalk it up to bad luck and commit to being the best crew member/driver/helper I can  be for my friends who do get in. 

The lottery results are announced today and the time for being ambivalent will be over.  I’ll have to get off the fence and commit one way or another. 

The Leadville 100 Mountain Bike Race is one of intimidating monuments of endurance cycling: 103 miles on an out-and-back course covering 10,000 feet of climbing at altitude in the Rockies.  It is 10-12 hours of pain for most racers, a steady mix of grinding trails, harder climbing, and a battle with the dark-side voices in your head. 

I’ve done the race before. After wondering about it for years I finally got in via lottery in 2018. I went with a group of 4 other guys and we all got the portfolio of experiences we were seeking, good and bad. In a lot of ways, the 2018 ride was a peak life experience. I can’t believe I really did it. It seemed almost out of reach before I got to the line. So, completing it created a sense of pride and satisfaction, relief that the plan came together.

But, did I need to do it again?  I wasn’t convinced, yet I said “yes” to adventure and challenge. So, here I am, the day of  the lottery, wondering and waiting and worrying. 

In my heart of hears, I know I really want to take it on one last time. 

I know it’s going to hurt a lot. The ride is just really hard on a middle aged body. 12 hours on the bike is never easy at any rate or on any surface. I remember seeing people crossing the finish line all hunched over from the pain, their backs and arms seizing up with cramps. I’ll have blisters and raw skin in places you wouldn’t expect and I’ll be sore for a week afterwards.  In 2018, coming over the finish line, I was sure I’d be a “one and done” rider. Despite all that, I’m still hoping to get in. 

One one hand, it’s just a bike ride. A stupid long one that is expensive and irrationally hard. With all the craziness in the world right now, it could be seen as a gross indulgence to spend that kind of time and energy on a group ride to the top of the hill and back. On, the other hand,  what better way for  a middle aged laptop jockey like me to remind himself what his body is capable of? Epically stupid bike rides can still be epic challenges. 

Here’s the thing about the epic challenges: They force you to strip away all the bullshit and niceties and civilization. What might have started as a lark – a decision made after the third beer – gets serious really quick. Between now and August 15th, I will need to be committed to a hard plan, and gut my way through a lot of “practice” challenges to make sure I’m ready for the real one. 

To get through ordeals like Leadville, you just have to cut through your rationalizations to the truly primal stuff, you have to go deep down into the basement of your soul and see what’s in there when it’s as hard – physically – as it’s ever been for you. When you take your body to the extreme, your mind and heart have to go along and it becomes a spirit challenge: Do you have it in you or don’t you?  

For me, Leadville was one of those “before & after” experiences. Life “after” my ride in 2018 was more meaningful in ways I’m still trying to understand. I found out some things about myself that I didn’t expect to find and I was surprised at what was revealed (in a good and bad way). 

I’m pretty sure the odds will be in my favor today and I’ll be heading to Leadville to Race on the 15th of August. These things get harder as I get further up the road, but they also become more meaningful. Wish me “luck”!

Recap: 2018 Leadville 100 Mountain Bike

It’s been a week since I completed my first Leadville Race Series Trail 100 Mountain Bike Race. I completed the whole ride (and then some) in 11:43:07 and got a cool belt buckle. At 7 PM on 8/11 i was 100% sure I would be in the “1 and done” group, that the box had been checked on my bucket list. Sunday morning when i got my buckle and warmup jacket, I was at 97%. Now, with a week to forget the cramps, the pain, and the exhaustion, I’m probably 94% sure it was my last ride.

I had been told that I would start forgetting the hard stuff almost immediately, and that’s true. When I think of the ride I focus on the camaraderie, the warm welcome from the town, the joy of completing a massively difficult task and, honestly, pride. Going in, I had legitimate concern that I wouldn’t be able to get it done. Now, i know there’s something in me that can get me through very difficult physical efforts. I’m a different guy than I was on 8/10/18.

Here are some thoughts on what worked for me to get me through the ride. It’s important to note that my goals were, relatively speaking, modest:

  1. Enjoy the experience – There’s a thick mystique around the event. Regardless of what happened, I wanted to be part of it, at least once, and I wasn’t sure i’d ever do it again. So, I wanted to focus on the joy of doing it, of being part of it and bank strong memories before, during, and after the ride.
  2. Complete the ride – I wanted to get through the whole 103 miles, manage any mechanicals or crashes, and get my ass across the line
  3. Finish in 12 hours – Get that buckle!
  4. Secret goal: 11:00 – Try to do it in 11 hours. You gotta try to push for something, right?

Now, remember, those are pretty modest goals.  My strategy was to pretty much just to manage the whole thing and not try to push too hard or get stressed out. Not only did I not want to “blow up”, but I was more focused on the experience than I was on a certain time.

Training Plan

I’ll skip the details of 2018 training plan and the pre-season, but I can keep it simple:

  1. Structured training – I started TrainerRoad hard in January. I did the Sweet Spot Base– Mid-Volume program through the end of April. Can’t recommend this enough. It was hard (but not too hard), the structure really helped me a ton, and I could feel progress every week.
  2. Get a group – Find others that are training for long bike rides. It was easier for me because I live in a big city, but just about every town has got someone training for a century, an Ironman, or some long bike race. Find those folks. I have a pretty regular group of buddies that I can call, and they were my savior for this ride.
  3. Volume – A key component of the plan was to get as much volume as I could on the weekends, given my work and family situation. In the spring and summer leading up to Leadville, I had completed 5 centuries and another couple rides at 80-90 miles.  I had somewhere between 3500 and 4000 2018 miles in my legs by the time I got to the line.
  4. “Practice” Races – Three of the 5 centuries I did were either races or fondos, so they gave me a chance to practice ahead of Leadville. I worked through the nutrition, equipment, pre-race prep, etc. I also used a couple long solo rides to practice the mental aspect of the ride: How to manage those voices in your head telling you to stop or slow down or give up (that’s probably a whole other post).

Pre-Race

I was fortunate enough to get the time to go out to Colorado a week ahead of time. I knew altitude was going to be a huge obstacle, so I wanted to get ahead of that. Due to some flexibility with my work schedule, I could work remotely.

  • Altitude / acclimatization – We stayed at Breckinridge and Frisco for the week leading up the race. I slept at 9,500 feet for week to get used to the altitude, and focused on easy, recovery pace rides to get the blood flowing. (note: A couple guys in our group couldn’t travel as early and they didn’t seem to have that much trouble with altitude). I believe the early arrival was a big help. By the time I got to race day, I wasn’t even thinking about the altitude and I could worry about other stuff.
  • Pre-Ride – This really helped to reduce stress. We pre-rode a couple portions of the ride. We focused on pre-riding the start, St. Kevins, and Powerline. We only rode Powerline “down”. By the start of the race, we had experienced the first (and last) 25 miles and i knew what was ahead, or at least at the start (and finish). I highly recommend other newbies ride Powerline (instead of Columbine) down and ride the last 5 miles of the course. Had I not known about the “the Boulevard” and that shitty 300 yards of rocks at the very beginning, I probably would have had a meltdown in the race when I saw it.
  • Bike choiceMoots MootoX YBB. It’s a a softail/rear suspension. Not a modern full suspension, not a true hard tail. I was really confident going in that this was the right balance. But, while i love my bike,  I can definitely see the advantages of having a modern, carbon full suspension bike. Going down Powerline, Columbine, Sugarloaf and St. Kevins, I’m positive I lost at least a lot of minutes because I couldn’t just open it up like the full suspension guys. I’m a tentative descender at best, but I wish I would have had the confidence that comes with a full suspension. That said, if I do it again, I’ll probably just ride the same bike.
  • Gear choice – I pretty much rebuilt the bike over the last 3 months leading into the race. I’m not a huge gear nerd, but here’s what I chose.
    • Bars – Enve carbon bars. Not sure which ones. Switched from Moots/Ti bars, wanted to go a little more soft on the bars
    • Brakes – Shimano XT
    • Wheels – Stans No Tube Arch in the front, Crest on the back
    • Gears – SRAM GX Eagle. 32 upfront, 10-50 on the back. This saved my ass. Couldn’t have done it without this. Wish I would have gone 30 up front.
    • Tires – Maxxis Ikons. 2.35 front and rear. 25 PSI (I’m hefty). I could have easily gone with Schwalbe Racing Ralphs (rear) and Rocket Rons (front).
    • Grips – I have some standard, rubber grips, but I wish I would have gone with something like the WolfTooth Fat Paw grips for softness. My hands were in full on cramp mode by hour 10.
  • Other gear – Beyond the bike, my only other real gear choice was between a camelback or no camelback. I went with the Camelback Chase 1.5L pack and it was a clear winner. While there were times I wished I had 2 liters on the back, I love the design of the Chase overall. Can’t recommend this one enough.
  • Computer – I used my Wahoo Elemnt. Loved it. No problem with batteries.
  • Leadville Podcast – the podcast by 22 time starter Eldon “Fatty” Nelson was indispensable for me and my crew. It had a ton of incredibly valuable info about pacing, gear, nutrition and the course. I think i listened to every episode at least twice. By the time i got on the course, i felt like i knew where i was all the time because of the podcast. Reduced my fear of the unknown significantly.

Race Day

My plan for the day was to start slow and manage it from there. The tortoise vs. the hare, approach, I guess. I started about 10 rows from the very, very back in the white corral. I knew i wasn’t going to win, and that my race was going to come  down to nutrition and patience and managing the effort. So, my real plan was:

  1. Eat and drink regularly – I heard countless times that Leadville is an eating/drinking challenge on bikes instead of a bike race.
  2. Don’t blow up by going into the “red zone”  – At altitude, it’s super hard to recover if you go too deep.
  3. “Race” the walking parts – There are about 4 miles where most of us need to push our bikes. It’s super easy to get lulled into trudging and just basically slow down too much, so I wanted to try to keep the pace up and keep racing. This was mental more than physical.

Nutrition

Over 11.5 hours, riders obviously need a ton of calories to keep moving. I knew from experience how  bad hours 5, 6, and 7 can be if i didn’t get hours 1,2, 3 right. My plan was to try to get at least 350 calories an hour via:

  • GU Roctane – I had water bottles with GU Roctane in theme for most of the ride. A few times I just went with water. In hindsight, I wish that I would have gone with Skratch in the bottles.
  • Maurten – I found this due to the Leadville podcast (i.e. Fatty/Hotty). It works like magic. I love it, and won’t go back. I had a full camelback of the 320 throughout the ride (except when I ran out) and it worked really well to help me get the calories in.
  •  GU Gels – I had a pocket full of gels. I kept jamming these down, trying to focus on every 30 minutes. I got behind on these early in the ride, and it kind of caught up with me at about mile 66 (as i got into the singletrack inbound). Also, if I were to do it again,  would mix in “real food” gels like Huma (love those!).
  • Skratch Bars – I had two of these over the course of the race to try to get real food into by belly. I had originally planned to do the Allen Lim Rice bars, but I eventually chose not to in order to keep things simple. Should have worked those into the plan.
  • Endurolytes – Hammer’s solution for electrolytes have been great for me in my rides. I tried to get 4 down every two hours. By the end of the ride, these were my go-to whenever i felt a cramp coming on. I was trying to get 3 down every hour in the last 4 hours of the ride. Until i thought I ran out with about 2 hours of the ride to finish.
  • Coke – I had three cups of cold coke at mile 74. I don’t think there’s anything better on a hot race day than cold coke. Seriously.

What i’d do differently

If i were to do it again, here’s where i wish i had a do-over:

  • More discipline on nutrition during the ride – I lost track of my eating schedule in the middle of the Columbine ascent.
  • More regular endurolytes – I should have been on a schedule where i was jamming these down every hour, like clockwork
  • More real food – By hour 10, i was having a hard time eating and drinking due to the accumulated effect of pure sugar over 10 hours. My mouth was gummy, my stomach was cramping, etc. No appetite. GI issues. you get the idea. I wish i had relied on Larabars, Kakookies, rice bars or other “real food” I knew worked for me in endurance events. And, i wish i had more Skratch fluids to wash it down (Skratch works great; not too sweet, not too heavy, and all the electrolytes i need).
  • More water – I had plenty of fluids, but i should have tried to maximize water intake at the rest stops if for no other reason than to balance out the high sugar/fructose in the system.

I can’t stop thinking about the ride, the adventure and what a test it was. Two years ago,  i was focused on a different accomplishment: recovering from a total knee replacement. I wasn’t sure i’d ride mountain bikes again. My doctors actively recommended against it. Now,  It feels like forever ago and i’m thinking ahead to the next ride.
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