Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Leadville 100 race report!

Last week was the Leadville Trail 100. It was my first time at this race, in fact the first time I had raced any distance at high altitude, and I didn’t know how it would go. It ended up being both a great race, and a great experience. I got to Leadville a couple days ahead of time to relax and ride a couple bits of the course. I was staying with some other racers I knew at a place very close to the starting line. On Thursday I went out with my friend Nate to pre-ride the first climb of the course and I felt pretty strong and pretty well acclimated to the thin air up at 10,500 feet. I started getting excited to finally race this thing, after all the training, the travel and the preparation.

Sponsors’ guests and the top 100 finishers from the previous year get primacy but behind that everyone is on their own to seed themselves an hour before the race start. I was aiming for about 9h 40 for a finish time and laid my bike out fairly close to the front with my friends John and Andre. It was still pitch dark, cold, and raining a bit at this point. I got out my road bike to spin around and warm up for about 15 minutes, since my mountain bike was busy holding my place in the starting grid. All over the tiny town of Leadville, people were getting ready to race. The atmosphere was electric. I was glad for a couple minutes to soak it in, calm down, and get ready to go.

Despite the crowds I wasn’t really feeling intimidated. This was a focus race for me, and I had prepared as well as I could. Pretty much everything on my bike was working well. My nutrition and pacing were figured out. I had friends meeting me at the aid stations. I could see most of the course in my head from pre-rides. I was as dialed in as I was going to get this year.

When I got back over to the start the crowd of racers had grown tremendously. Even when Ken Chlouber got on the megaphone and the timer was counting down towards the start I still felt pretty calm. Everyone had been anticipating a sketchy start with so many racers funneling through such a small area, but when the race started the rollout was pretty uneventful. The motorpacing on the paved roads out of town was fast and soon enough we hit the first dirt. As we rolled out of town we could see a rainbow off to the left, though the rain for the day was far from over.

photo from here
Riding the first dirt road was a taste of the unique race that was to come. A herd of cattle were running and mooing in the field near the road, spooked by the immense number of racers and by the helicopter following the race leaders. The weather had turned back to rain but I was fine in the cold weather gear neglected all summer in South Carolina: rain jacket, fleece arm and leg warmers, full-finger gloves, even neoprene toe covers. The first climb, called St. Kevins, is not very long, but it is pretty eroded and rocky and sorts out a lot of the racers. The course is still very crowded at this point, and there is a chance of getting held up by slower riders. Luckily I had been fast enough in the rollout that most of those around me were strong and could climb well. I was feeling great, going pretty fast, and having a lot of fun too. Hmmmm I thought,… no one else around me is whooping and hollering… but why? Is this not awesome?

I had been keeping an eye out for other women during the crowded race start, but it had been more important to avoid a crash than watch my competition. By the time the St. Kevin’s climb levels out into rolling ups and downs I was pretty sure I was near the bottom of the top ten. As we spit out of the woods onto a paved road, someone yelled to me that I was in sixth place. For the rest of the day I was trading back and forth with some very strong women in the lower half of the top ten.

I rocked the clearance-rack PI rain jacket almost all day.

The rain continued, and seemed to get colder. A long, fast road descent followed by an increasingly rocky climb left my hands completely numb from cold on reaching the top of Sugarloaf. The steepest part of the course is a deeply rutted dirtbike trail weaving back and forth under some power lines from Sugarloaf to the valley floor. Riders were still bunched up pretty close together, but we all kept a good rhythm and there were no crashes. Luckily the sandy mud of Colorado is nothing like the peanut butter mud of the southeast and the trail was draining well. This downhill was fast, lots of fun, and completely rideable; probably the highlight of the course for me.

The Powerline descent dumps out onto a few miles of flat and rolling roads, mostly dirt. I jumped on the wheel of a strong rider who pulled for a while, which let me pass two women who had passed me earlier. I couldn’t keep his pace, though, and eventually fell off the back. I rolled into the first aid station in sixth place. At one point in the rolling, rocky doubletrack after this I misjudged a line and hit a rock pretty hard with my front wheel. Hard enough that not only did I hear the metallic sound of rock on rim, but even the people riding near me heard it. I held my breath, waiting to see if the Stan’s would hold or the tire would start to deflate. And amazingly… it held solid. Tubeless kicks ass. ALL PRAISE STAN!

Eventually the doubletrack and singletrack leads into another fast gravel road. Faster than expected I arrived at the next aid station, which was near the base of the longest climb. The course goes over the Twin Lakes dam, and the aid station is spread out along the park on both sides of the dam. My friends were on the near side of the dam, right near the beginning of the aid station area, with chain lube, Coca-cola, and full bottles. I was psyched to dig in and get going, and was at or ahead of my intended pace. This climb is about ten miles long and climbs from an elevation of about 9,200 feet to 12,100 feet above sea level. As I started riding towards the dam, I realized how many spectators there were scattered around in this area. Even if they had mainly come out to see Lance Armstrong, Dave Wiens, or their own friends and family members race, they were still giving it up for other racers as well. As the sixth woman to roll through the aid station I was getting some extra cheers as well, especially from female spectators. As I rode across the dam, I could see there were actual crowds of people lining both sides of the trail, watching me come towards them. As I rode up to them I yelled “YEAH!” and they all yelled “WOOO!” Since the crowd was big enough that I was still riding past the spectators, I yelled “YEAH!” again, and the next batch yelled “WOOO!” too. I did this about two or three more times, until I realized I was actually making myself out of breath from cheering with the spectators. So I shut up and tried to calm down a bit.

Crowds at the Twin Lakes dam area. Photo by my brother.

As the crowds thinned out the climb started to get serious. It also started to rain again, very cold and a little sleety. The course comes up above treeline, and as it does the surface changes from decent gravel road to rocky, rutted doubletrack. Since by this point faster riders are coming down there is only one line to ride, or to walk. People were working hard, every once in a while cheering if one of us saw someone we knew passing on the downhill side. The rain had stopped but up above treeline the gusts of wind were tremendous, almost knocking people off their bikes in a couple exposed sections. At one point I looked behind me and realized we had a great view of the mountains behind us—exhilarated, I yelled “we don’t have views like this in South Carolina!” and a guy up above me yelled back, “we don’t have them in Iowa either!” Everyone else just ignored us, I guess they were all from places with plenty of mountain scenery. I was probably being annoying, but I really couldn’t help it. I was having a great time.

The turnaround at the top of the Columbine climb is a neutral-support aid station with a vast number of volunteers at it. It was surreal to see so many people all congregated together out in such a remote and bare landscape. I was turned around fast and back out for the descent. The descent was fun, fast and rocky. John and Andre both yelled hi to me when I passed them, the first time I saw them since the start. It was really something to see everyone strung out down the many switchbacks.

I went back through the flat sections quickly and got to the 80-mile aid station. Someone said that the next closest woman was only about ten minutes in front of me and that I was in seventh place. I didn’t think I would be able to catch her, though, because even though I was killing it on the flats and rollers the other women were climbing much stronger than I was. There were still two major climbs to go in the race, including the steepest climb back up under the power line. That power line climb was definitely the hardest part of the course. About two-thirds of the way up it I looked at my heart rate monitor and was perplexed—I felt like I was about to die, but my heart rate was about ten to fifteen bpm lower than I thought it would be. The altitude was really getting to me physiologically and I just had no top end. Two women, who I’d been trading places with over the entire race, passed me during this climb but I was too spent to chase them. I knew I’d feel better when I topped out, so I just kept the bike moving forward.

After this last difficult climb, the rest of the course was not bad. My front derailleur wasn’t working well due to all the mud, and I threw the chain a couple times trying to shift. I decided that I would try to stay in the middle ring for the last ten miles of the race to avoid any further delays or worse problems. According to the timer I was pretty close to ten hours for a finish time, but mentally I was racing the other women rather than the clock. If another woman caught me from behind I planned to speed up to hold onto my ninth place, but if no one was going to catch me I was going to play it safe to the end. I kept looking behind me for another woman, but no one was there. I was feeling great, and happy to be having such a strong race. I rolled in at 10 hours, 03 minutes with a smile on my face-- ninth place women overall, and sixth place among women in the 30-39 age class. [Extremely late edit: a woman who finished in front of me got disqualified afterward, so my official finish is 8th place overall, 6th place age group... she still beat me fair and square, though, so I'm keeping this listed as a ninth place finish.] This was the largest women's field I have ever raced in, with 115 starters (a good number DNFed or were swept, I think 75 or so finished).

Finish line red carpet-- swanky!
I had a truly fantastic time at Leadville. Even though I was racing hard all day, I also really felt like it was a party on bikes. I know that if I had been a little more focused, had less fun along the way, and saved my breath, I might have been a little bit faster, but this was my first time at Leadville and I wanted to enjoy it. The town of Leadville is a great host, the masses of spectators on the course were like nothing I’ve seen before, the volunteers were great, and the whole atmosphere of the race weekend was wonderful. I trained hard for this one, and I am very satisfied with the result. I hope I get a chance to come back and race at Leadville again, because I would love to see how well I could do armed with some experience and a little more strategy (and maybe a new bike!). Thanks to my friends, family, coach, my surgeon and the rest of the team at the Emory Spine Treatment Center, and Faster Mustache Race Team sponsors for helping me get to this race and race strong. What a joy it was to race bikes all day in such beautiful surroundings with such fast people.

Me and my brother in downtown Leadville the morning after. It was great to have family watch me race.


  1. Enjoyed reading. Spectacular job. Almost makes me want to race it one day. But racing at altitude is not fun for me ... well, maybe if I had the chance to acclimate.

  2. This is so cool. Great write up and so inspiring!

  3. Great job Emily! I agree with Carey. Your post almost makes me want to race Leadville too...thank goodness I have my Breckenridge report to reread anytime I get the "race at altitude urge" :-)

    See you at Shenandoah!!!