THE RACE, THE MYTH, THE LEGEND
Oh, the Leadville 100. The Race Across the Sky. The Race of All Races. The Ironman of Mountain Biking, If Ironman Was at 10,000ft. The Race Even Lance Armstrong Lost Once…All of the monikers for this race that emphasize its difficulty, the awe-inspiring terrain, and its exclusivity are not hyperbole, they’re facts. They provide accurate descriptions of a race that actually lives up to its hype. Because of this, Leadville sits firmly at the top of Bucket Lists of nearly all the elite and amateur racers across the world. I know it did for me.
I had tried to get in via the lottery for the past three years and was unsuccessful. So when my team, Team Ninja, was picked this year, I was ecstatic. Yet the sense excitement was tempered with something I didn’t normally feel before race: nervousness.
Yes, the race is 104 miles on and off road. Yes, the total elevation gain is about 12,800ft. Yes, even some of the most seasoned riders have DNF’d. All of that kind of stuff doesn’t make me nervous, it actually exhilarates me. I’m an endorphin junkie and some might even say, a masochist. I love to push myself to the limit.
What did make me nervous was the fact that my training had been lackluster due to residual pain from a knee injury sustained when I got “doored” by a car in December 2012. I tried to avoid surgery by doing the whole PT thing throughout most of the 2013 race season, and even managed some descent results in the typical 20-25 mile XC races. But the pain never went away and prohibited me from doing any kind of endurance riding. At my Doctor’s urging I finally opted for surgery in October 2013. The result of the surgery was “inconclusive”, the recovery was long, and I was impatient. I had a full 2014 race calendar, skills clinics to teach, and athletes to train! I had to ride my bike! So, essentially I tried to balance the intensity and length of my training rides with the amount of pain I could tolerate and the amount of time I had available to recover.
Normally, I would have gotten off the bike completely and just not raced. But I felt that there was too much riding on this particular event (pun intended). So, I set myself a goal time of 8.5 hrs, something I thought would be attainable even with my knee injury, and set out to make it happen.
RIDE OR BUST
Knowing that my sub-optimal fitness alone would not be enough to get me through Leadville by my goal time, I decided to do everything else in my power to better my odds: altitude acclimation, course pre-rides, nutrition and hydration strategizing, analyzing data of riders that finished around my goal time….
To acclimate for the high altitude of Leadville, I spent nearly all summer at 7,800’ at our Team Ninja cabin in Big Bear. I knew good things were happening when I would spend time down at sea level in San Diego and feel like Superman. Yay red blood cells! To give myself time to adjust to the extra 3,000+ feet of Leadville, I arrived there about 2 weeks before the race and was joined by my teammate Aaron Hauck and good friend Rhae Shaw.
Together, in between obsessively going over race data from prior years, the three of us broke the course down into several parts and tackled 25-35 miles per day. We got to know the climbs and technical sections pretty well. The funny thing about this course is that no one part on it’s own it particularly challenging. Even the dreaded ‘Powerline Climb’ was ride-able during our pre-rides. What makes this race so difficult is doing it all in one day, the order the sections come up – for example; Powerline climb at mile 80 and doing it all with 1600 other racers… at race pace.
Surprisingly, my knee seemed to be mostly ok on these pre-rides. And when it did begin to act up, Rhae suggested a mantra to say “if I don’t mind, it don’t matter”. The good old trick of putting mind over matter worked in practice, and I hoped it would work on race-day.
A few days before the race, my teammate, Michael Whitehurst got to town. He was fresh off riding the Maah Daah Hey 100 MTB race in the Badlands of North Dakota. Knowing full well how difficult a 100miler is without a support crew, he agreed to be my crew chief. We planned out every aid station exchange, talked about what would be in the musettes, and made contingency plans in case he couldn’t get from one stop to another in time.
By the night before the race I had calmed that unusual nervousness a bit because I may not have had control over my fitness level and knee pain, but I felt very confident in my acclimation, course knowledge, and nutrition/hydration plan.
The start of this race is a mass start meaning that all 1600 racers leave the start line at the same time. I was starting in the Gold corral, lined up next to mountain bike greats including Todd Wells, Christoph Sauser, Kristian Hynek, Alban Lakata and Max Jenkins.
At 6:30am Ken Chlouber fired the gun and then we were off! I made it to the dirt road fairly quickly with no issues and drafted as much as I could. We were riding at 30+ mph on the paved descent down to the beginning of dirt road and I was hanging on easily near the front of the pack.
I continued to hold on up front for a good portion of the beginning of the race, even once we hit the dirt. Being towards the front proved to be quite important because I was able to avoid the congestion that typically happens on the first climb, St. Kevins, and the climb up to Hagerman’s Pass. Furthermore, it allowed me to take full advantage of my technical descending skills and fly down Powerline, passing several riders on the way down.
As I approached the Pipeline aid station, I checked my time splits and saw I was about 7 minutes behind schedule. I wasn’t stressed at this point because I thought that as long as I finished in sub-9 hours I’d get my gold buckle and consider the race a success. Plus, the flattest section of the course was right in front of me and I could easily make up that time before I got to the Columbine climb by working with the right group. As I powered up to latch on to a fast paceline, my knee pain, present after only the first 10 miles of the course, became more pronounced. I began to repeat my mantra at more frequent intervals.
I worked with the group until we got to the singletrack, where, once again in my element, I passed a bunch of riders. I was able to make up a minute, which left me just 6 minutes behind my 8.5 hour pace. I kept leapfrogging on to different groups, saying my mantra faster and faster as my knee pain intensified. I started to worry that it was way too early to be in this much pain because I hadn’t even hit Columbine yet! I began to back off a bit, thinking that would let the pain subside.
ENTERING THE PAIN CAVE
At Twin Lakes, my crew chief and teammate, Michael Whitehurst, was nowhere to be found. He had gotten stuck somewhere enroute. Fortunately, he had arranged to have Brigid Waterhouse (friend of the team) be there with backup bottles and food for me. Brigid and some of my teammates families quickly made sure I had every thing I needed – phenomenal support! The crowd and excitement at Twin Lakes somehow made me forget about my knee pain for a bit, and I started up the infamous Columbine climb.
The grind up Columbine is just that, a grind. It’s about 7.5 – 8 miles in length, reaches an altitude of roughly 12,400′, and has a total elevation of about 3600′. I settled into my climbing pace for a while but was eventually forced to walk a bit. It felt good to stretch out my legs, give my knee a little break, and mentally regroup. At the top, I did a quick turn round and started back down. I was fast, but careful, heading back down through the Goat trail and empathized with the hundreds of riders I saw still working their way up the climb.
Once clear of the technical section on the decent and back out on the fireroad, I knew I had to get focused and throw the hammer down. I stood up, attempting to start my powerstroke and BAM! My knee gave out. I lost control of the bike for a split second and the front of it almost washed out. Explatives flowed out of my mouth as I regained control and started to soft-peddle while trying to figure out what just happened and what to do now.
This is the moment I knew for sure I wasn’t going to make in back in sub-9 hours. I was hurt and despite saying my mantra over and over, I couldn’t put any power down at all. My mind had been battling my body all day, and my body finally won. I slowly rolled into the Twin Lakes aid station where Michael quickly changed my bottles and gave me my feed. He knew I was hurting and said some encouraging words as I rolled out again.
From this point on, other than a few brief miles of company from my teammate James Vo and friend Dan McCormack (also Leadville racers), I rode on my own, with rider after rider passing me. In any other race, I would have quit for fear of making the injury worse. But this was the Leadville 100, and I’d made it that far. I thought, “If I just maintain this pace – I’ll finish in sub-11 hours and still get a buckle (just not the gold one I had planned to get).”
So, I slowly made my way through a light rain, up Powerline, by alternating between walking and riding. I again took advantage of my descending skills and bombed down Sugarloaf and Hagerman’s Pass, only to come to a grinding almost-halt on the road up to the Carter Aid Station.
At the Carter aid station my time split indicated a sub 11 hour finish. Welp, I figured that all I had to do is keep it together for another 13 miles. I finished the climb, smoked down the descent down to the bottom and onto the flat section of the gravel roads.
I picked up the pace for the last few miles of the race, determined to finish with my head held high. It was the first time in the race where I allowed myself to really power-up. As I made the final right turn up 6th, I backed off a bit and got over the final bump of a climb and then powered the final stretch to the finish. My official time was 11:01:26.
I had a bunch of mixed feelings after I crossed the finish line and again the next day at the awards ceremony. Yes, I was thrilled to finish the race and get a coveted Leadville Belt Buckle (silver) and I was proud of myself for pushing through the pain as much as I could, but I was also a bit embarrassed. Here I was, a trained athlete–a trained Professional athlete even—and I couldn’t make my goal time. I felt like I had let my crew chief, Michael, down because he had driven all the way from North Dakota to help me. I felt like I had let my teammates down because instead of being the rider they could rely on when in need, I, in turn, needed to rely on them. And I felt like I had let my sponsors down by not meeting the expectations I had set for myself and for them. I was so sick of being in pain and having it affect my riding, which is not just my hobby, it’s my career.
It’s taken some time away from the bike (and a lot of kind words from friends, teammates, and sponsors) for me to come to terms with my race and write this blog post. Doing so, has actually been cathartic, and has me totally amped for next year. I’ve even already started preparing for it… The biggest step I’ve taken is to get back to physical therapy, this time with an office that comes recommended as “the best.” Bryan Hill at Rehab United has me on an awesome PT and strengthening program. After only a few weeks I already feel better and can’t wait to see what happens over the coming months.
Watch out Leadville 2015! I’m coming for ya. I’ve even already got my ticket stamped—I earned a 2015 spot at the FireRoad 100 this year.
Thank you so much to my teammates and extended family Michael Whitehurst, Niccolo & Janet Salvador, Aaron Hauck, Darryl Sykes, Scott Holland, Dan McCormack, James Vo, Rhonda Patterson-Geiszler, Rhea Shaw, Brigid Waterhouse – you guys are awesome, I really appreciate all your support.
And a GI-NOR-MOUS THANK YOU to my sponsors, Norco Bicycles, Reynolds Cycling, ESI Grips, Zumwalt’s Bicycle Center, Gaerne USA, Rudy Project, Champion System, Red Ace Organics, PowerBar, Basiclink, True North Communications, ISFitt Labs Training Systems, Sock Guy and Ninja Mountain Bike Skills — It’s a pleasure riding with you all. Let’s kick some butt and get that gold buckle in 2015!
Most importantly, thank you to my amazing girlfriend Heidi Amundson for all her encouragement, inspiration and support on this race and everything else in our lives. I am the luckiest guy on the planet to have Heidi in my life.