I am, standing among 2000 other bundled up riders in the chilly darkness waiting to start pedaling thru this epic journey. Here I am, with my husband (Kevin) and my Dad standing just over the fence, giving words of encouragement and smiles, taking photos while I wait with excitement, anxiety and edgy nerves..feeling Here inspired to do something great today..if I can. Here I am, about to start the hardest single piece of physical and mental effort I have ever put my mind to try. And yes, this includes that 250 mile road race thru a heated desert with 25 mph headwinds for the last 80 miles. That was a group effort. This..will be a lonely climb to the top. This is what I have been training for. With lots of XC racing and a National Championship under my belt, I have a good base. But am I ready for this? Have I done enough for this? My coach thinks 9 hours is completely within my reach, as long as my head stays as strong as my body. This is what I’ve come to do. This is… The Leadville 100 Trail MTB Race.
At over 10,000ft of elevation for 98% of the ride, with a maximum elevation topping out at 12,600ft on Columbine; with almost 12,000ft of elevation gain and 100 (actually 104) miles of dirt, singletrack and pavement…The Leadville 100 is the ride of all rides. It is a true test of what you are really made of. Do I have the grit to complete this race and still maintain a bit of sanity? Are any of us sane for doing this in the first place?! Afterall, this is what we do for fun!
My day starts at 3:30AM; but even with the early hour, I pop outta bed immediately as the alarm goes off and proceed to spill the entire glass of water sitting next to the bed. This is not how my day is going to go. Kevin is up and cleaning the mess I made so I can ready myself for this big day on my bike. Dad manages to get up easily and with great teamwork; the car is loaded, breakfast eaten and vital cup of coffee drank, we are on the road from Buena Vista to Leadville at 4:35. Immediately I am stoked to see my Arizona racing buddy, Tonya Pitcher. Its wonderful to see friendly, familiar faces in times like these. We get to talk for a few minutes before heading to our assigned corrals and Kevin and Eric Pitcher lock in last minute crewing details.
The gun goes off. It takes maybe 30 seconds before I can get on my bike and begin to move. I will later see the video Kevin shot of the start and the over 3 minutes it took for all the riders behind me to cross that start line. I really have snagged a good start position. The dusty, hot qualifying Barn Burner in Flagstaff was well worth it.
We start out fast, picking up speed until the bottleneck happens within less than a mile of the start. Around some strangely parked work truck, luckily no downed riders and we’re back up to a fast pace again. Pavement, downhill and rather chilly. It felt fast! I try to move up in rank and pass as many riders before the climb as possible. Finally we make the right hand turn onto dirt and the second bottleneck happens. Almost a complete stop, I’m sure those some 1600 riders behind me did stop. I manage to stay in pedals and move around some of the slower guys. And then the first climb begins.
St Kevin’s. The average grade of 4% is deceiving. With upwards of 9% in places, the initial climb is steep and weeds out some of the slower climbers. I have gotten myself into a group that is quite capable of staying on their bikes thru this, which is all I can ask for. We are lined up, slowly climbing and it is difficult to pass people; but I do manage to move up a bit. There are a few loose spots..this is where riding in the Arizona desert comes in handy. Once I make the switchback to the left, the hill levels off some and the pace picks up. The group separates some more. I feel great! Altho I may have utilized that 21 granny gear a bit already, I feel like I’m climbing well. (And I thought, what a ridiculous gear to run! I don’t think that now!) There are a couple more steep, rocky; but short efforts and then we hit a small water aide station, around the muddy waters and onto pavement for a fast descent.
Man am I flying! Get on, hold on and let go!
Back onto dirt, this was the SugarLoaf climb. It’s a nice 4.5% average (with a few bigger efforts), 4.5 mile ascent. A little loose in spots, but mostly just a steady climb. This is what I’m made for. This takes me to the descent down the Powerline. A first taste of what it’s going to be like climbing back up the thing, although in hindsight, it coulda been two totally different routes and looks nothing the same when you climb back up (more on that later..). This is a lot of fun! I have learned to love descending! There are some sketchy spots, but overall it is pretty fast and I manage to stay ahead of any behind me until close to the bottom. This is what I’ve heard about. The steep, deeply rutted and hitting a -20% decline…I think I smell brake dust! HA! I hit the bottom, again around muddy waters and the makeshift 2×4 bridge and back onto pavement. Got into a good group here and drafted thru to the first aide station at Pipeline. I was not stopping here; but it is pretty awesome hearing everyone cheer for you. Very motivating! I made it here with a split around 2:04, which was right about on my goal..great! So far, there is one other female around me and we keep leaping back and forth. I find out later that her and I vie for 1st place in our age until the Powerline climb.
Back into another group coming out of Pipeline, and back onto dirt. It was fairly fast and even in some of the steeper climbs the pace was good. (Apparently somewhere in here, I will learn that the lead riders were steered off course by some ‘mis-placed’ signage and had to double back over a couple a miles…sabotage?) We hit singletrack and it was a nicely cut, smooth trail. Downhill and shoulda been fast; but with no options to pass, I got caught up behind a guy, who had a fairly good engine on the roads; but couldn’t ride the slightly off-camber singletrack. There was a line up then thru most of this trail behind him. Once back out onto double track dirt, a bit of pavement and then the dip down into Twin Lakes feed zone. There was my first site of Kevin and Dad! So happy to see them under the ladybug flag! I was making great time and hit this mark at 2:48…right on schedule. I got a camelback change, a GU bottle change and some more Stinger waffle. Thanked my Boys for being there and off I went. All those people out there cheering…it really is exhilarating!
I’m now on my way to the Columbine climb, I realize that this new camelback is just a wee too tight; something I struggle with for most of this climb, but what are ya gonna do? By the time I get to the top, I the amount of effort I was using way out-weighed the camelback discomfort. I will say that this climb was not the hardest part of the race for me today…we’ll get to that in a bit. There is a little bit of rough rocky trail just before you start climbing the dirt road to the top. It starts out innocent enough, with a few rutty spots; but mostly smoother gravel. The rain the night before has really made the course a bit tacky making it better to climb on. As I got into my rhythm on the 8% averaged climb (with some double digit %’s thrown in there), I began to pass people. This is the kind of climbing I love, long and consistent. Finally, the leaders started appearing. My odometer reads 46 miles. They were flying down and so close I could feel the wind from their speed! That was some scary shiznit! This is also about when the serious stuff started. Rocky, steep and not quite a double track with two-way traffic. Climbing over 12,000ft the trees start to disappear until there is nothing in site except for rock, dirt and the long line of what appear as ants….the riders ahead either slowly turning over pedals or walking their bikes up to the turn-around on the top of Columbine. You can see this mid-way aide station for what seems like miles before actually getting to it! Here I started to get just a bit lightheaded. I was right on my calorie count so I attribute it to the altitude and push on thru. There is only one line to ascend on and as much as I was able to ride at first, at some point I was forced to get off my bike and hike it. First of all, the act of pushing your bike is actually harder than riding it up hill; but with the line of people coming down at break neck speeds and the line of people going up already walking, I had no other choice. In the end, I actually rode most of the Columbine climb and only hiked two short segments of it. Finally there is a bit of relief as you roll into the turn-around and start to head back down the way you came. I turn around at a time of 4:35, still in good standing. Now, lets recall the speed at which it seemed the leaders were doing down this rocky hill…I tell you, once I started to descend I found myself flying down it pretty darn fast and yelling out in excitement on occasion. The fear of a rider jumping out in front of you or getting off line from a rock, didn’t matter…I wanted to go fast!
Down, down I go, doing pretty well to stay ahead of and not hold up anybody behind me. It seems like forever descending and I see the line of people riding and walking their bikes up. I just keep thinking how much further they all still have to go…if they only knew. Getting down towards the bottom, I can see less and less riders until there are none and you can just let go of the brakes…until the couple of sharp switchbacks at the end. I’m descending with a couple a guys, its pretty awesome! Then my chain comes off. As many times as I try, I cannot get it back on and have to stop. After tugging on it to get it unstuck from between my cassette and frame, I’m back on and speeding up again. Just before the Twin Peaks aide station on the inbound, we go back thru that short rocky singletrack with a couple of ups and I cramp. Holy cow! Not now! Not this early! I’m barely 60 miles in. I drink and drink and spin my legs until slowly my right leg starts to release and feel normal again. I roll into the aide station still feeling pretty good with the exception of that cramp. My time is 5:17. A few minutes off my goal, but not unreasonable so I’m feeling confident about that. I get some sodium to ward off future cramps and a new camelback. Kevin gives me a coke, which is warm and I spat most of it on the ground. He makes me eat a banana, which I just stuff in my mouth trying not to throw it back up, sucking water to get it down. I get some more GU, waffles and blocks and am on my way again. This is where the wind begins to blow.
I start off still feeling ok, then the winds start to chip away at me. As I’m trying to make my way back across the valley, the 15-20 mph headwind is brutal. I manage to get in a draft briefly, but can’t hang on. This is when I start to feel the ebb and flow of emotions building inside me. I am feeling drained, although I think more mentally then physically. I am only about 65 miles in. Finally I get onto the back of a group for a bit before the singletrack and feel like I’m back in the game. Just before the dirt, the chain drops again and I have to stop to yank it back out. What is up with this?! This is when I lose the girl I’ve been bouncing around with and she pulls away behind that group. Onto the singletrack, now uphill, I am expending way too much energy trying not to hold up the guys behind me. I come up on someone who is going considerably slower and for a brief second breathe a sigh of relief so as not to have to work quite so hard. But the line behind us is growing and I too am ready to get around the slower climber. There comes only one spot and I nail it around him, along with about 3 other guys behind me. Once we get off the singletrack, you hit “the wall”…a very rocky wall of dirt. I try to climb it. I get part way up and the only line is being walked by everyone else ahead of me. I don’t know that I coulda made it up there, but I’m off my bike just the same. Not long after, I come into the last aide station before the beast that is Powerline. I wasn’t sure if Dad and Kevin were going to make it here on time, but I was estatic to see them waving me down. I feel down and tired and just plain wiped out. I have entered the Pipeline aide station at least 20 minutes slower than I had projected, I still have 30 miles to go with some of the hardest climbing still ahead. At this point, I’m not sure what I need. I take sodium and an ibuprofen because my back is just killing me. I wash down some waffle, trying to keep it all down as my stomach feels twisted ill at the taste of any more bike food. After some much needed encouraging and motivating words from my Boys, I head off back out into the wind.
I again try to draft a little, but have a hard time getting on and staying in thru the wind. I pass a couple of men that were going just too slow for me to get in and draft with. Another group comes along with that last guy I passed hanging on the back. I latch on and feel a bit of relief. Then that guy gets gapped. As much as I try, I cannot bridge back up to the group in this wind; so I just sit back and push thru. Kevin and Dad drive past shouting more morale boosting words and uping my optimism; I feel a bit uplifted, put my head down and keep pedaling. Stay positive, I keep telling myself. A guy, who I’m sorry to say I can’t remember his name because I was so inside out with emotion at the time, came along and helped tow me toward the dreaded Powerline climb. We worked together a bit, although he did most of the work at this point. Just before hitting dirt, the Strava people were handing out baby cokes, cold ones! We sipped quick, tossed ‘em to the side and pedaled onto the dirt.
I started to feel a bit better here, but I’m sorry to say this wouldn’t last long. As we started the climb, I quickly moved passed my new found partner and kept pedaling. I was able to hold onto it thru some of the steepest part, even passing a few others walking and then it happened…I popped off unable to remount my steed. I was now walking, pushing my bike in front of me in line with everyone else. My calves felt as if they may sieze at any moment from the severe incline; but I kept at it and felt strong pushing as I was. Finally a brief leveling off and I was able to get back on and pedal, but not for long. Again, we were all hiking upwards until the next break in the incline. This seemed to be it, where we could all ride our bikes again just as we are meant to do. I began granny-gearing it up and up and up until my mind said ‘you need a break’. No I don’t, just keep spinning. ‘Yes you do’. And off I came, again reduced to pushing my bicycle. Argh! What are you doing? I climb back on and attempt to continue. I and my bike seem no longer friends. There is another poor soul who must be having same inner struggle as I because together we walk then ride, walk then ride. This here is a very lonely time. Even among 1500 others suffering the same, you are all alone on this climb. Inside your own distressed head, no one else can help you but you. As I look down at my Garmin, I see I’ve made it a whole mile since I started this constant battle with walking. Oh my god, this hill is 5 miles long! Moving at a 1.9mph pace will take forever! Get back on! And off I am again. As I am getting passed by numerous men and now a few more women, I just cannot understand why my head seems to be getting in the way of my racing this. I am better than this. While I’m stopped briefly, taking note of other riders and my emotional condition; I eat and find a tree for some relief and then force myself to get back on my bike and stay there. I can’t recall this looking anything like what it did when I descended it. Finally the top comes! There are so many spectators cheering me on, cheering everyone on. I needed this 2 miles ago! But thrilled to have it now! The man dressed as pizza gave me a shove and off I went. (no, not a hallucination) A bit of rocky ups and downs until I make it to the descent down Sugarloaf. At first, I feel all JRA…what the heck?! Speed up, this is a fast and easy descent! Onward and at the last sharp corner, I see them. Kevin and Dad are there! Oh thank heavens! Just enough to see their faces and hear that I’m still alright, it was what I needed to push on like I know I’m capable of.
Spitting me back onto the pavement, where I climb back up to St. Kevin’s, my bike and I are best friends again. There will be no more pushing you, you are meant to be ridden, my lovely Specialized steed! Pedaling steady upwards again, I feel good. A second wind? Or maybe a third! I slowly pick off other riders, each try to grab on my wheel or speed up as they hear me pedal closer..I just keep going. Hitting the dirt to finish in a very steep-are my legs going to keep turning over-hill to reach the St. Kevin’s descent. And finally I begin my final descent!
I look around, recognizing pieces of scenery I had ridden past what seems like eons ago, and I start to pick up speed. I start by coasting, enjoying the relief and then realize I have the energy to push forward much faster. Skirting off the dirt and back onto pavement, I team up with another to work towards the finish. We seem to be flying now! Wonderful! And then we hit the Boulevard. This last piece of dirt. This last seemingly mild 2% climb. This effort into a massive headwind that at some point must come to an end. Where is this downhill finish I have been told about? Finally, the dirt climbs steeply back onto pavement and after just a little more uphill, I push hard into the finish line.
I cross the red carpet! I hear my name announced and coast across the tape with people yelling and congratulating. Oh what a feeling! As tears start falling down my smiling face, I’m being hugged by Merilee and cannot believe the race is over. I see Jane, a friendly local Phoenix racer at the finish. She had passed me just in the last 2 miles, and I thought I had her this time! She is just as worked over as I am. Thankful to see Kevin and Dad running over to kudos me! My body spent. My mind blown.
In the end, I managed to finish up 4th in my age class (of around 50 finishers) and 21st overall (including the pros and of around 150 finishers). 1989 people started today at the town center of Leadville hoping to fulfill this epic challenge they entered into, 1473 of them finished. I came in 431st. I came here with a goal of completing this race under 9 hours, my official time was 9:37:09. Later I would find out only one non-pro woman finished under 9. Maybe I was a little naïve. Maybe I need to work on my mental toughness. I ate enough. I drank enough. But nothing could prepare me for the Powerline. Am I disappointed? Maybe just a little; but I am overjoyed to have had the strength to finish such an epic adventure in the time that I did and to know that I accomplished what I started. I have learned some things about my inner self today. Next time I….