August 17, 2010

Leadville Trail 100

Leadville Trail 100
Leadville, Colorado
August 14, 2010

Conditions: 35 degrees at the start, mid-70s by the finish
Course: 100 miles starting at 10,000 feet and topping out at 12,600 feet
In Attendance: Jeff Dickey
Result: 36th out of ~1600 registered

In early August, I headed out West for my third Leadville Trail 100 mile race in the high Colorado Rockies. Living at nearly zero altitude in Arlington, Virginia, I entered the LT100 at a significant disadvantage - the race starts in downtown Leadville at 10,200 feet and and mostly goes up from there (to a high point of 12,600 feet). So, I was going from flat, hot, humid and low to mountainous, cool, dry and high. Luckily, I was able to get some vacation time between the end of a two work trip to the Gulf Coast and the start of the LT100 and I stayed in Golden, CO with my brother and his wife for three days and in Breckenridge, CO for another five days. In the two years past, the LT100 has been more of a vehicle to ride on awesome Colorado trails, culminating in a huge bike race. This year was no different.

The first few days, I rode in and around Golden at Chimney Gulch and Apex. The third day in CO, I rode with some fast single speeders (one who runs/works for Spot Brand bikes in Golden) from Kenosha Pass to the top of Georgia Pass (almost all above 10,000 feet). I was climbing well, and the SRAM XX gearing was perfect. I rode the entire ride in my big chainring and used the wide range of gears in on the cassette to roll to the top of the pass. On the way back down the mountain, we got in nearly an hour long singletrack descent. Those CO guys and girls can ride! I relearned my descending skills by following them back down the mountain.

It's odd that despite going pretty fast up the mountain, my heart rate never really got above 130 beats per minute. That's a recovery ride pace for me!

My brother and his wife were packing up to move to Half Moon Bay, CA, so I headed to Breckenridge to stay in a rental condo with Colby Waller (a rider for Gripped Racing from D.C. who also raced Leadville with me in 2009), his wife Laura, and Ryan Douglas (a rider for Route 1 Velo, also from D.C. and racing his first Leadville). If you've never ridden in Breckenridge, I'd highly recommend it. My buddy Colby and I went out and rode the Peaks Trail on the first day there. We were laughing like schoolgirls on that ride. The singletrack trail is all fun and little effort as it follows the contours of the mountains and has little climbing, plenty of hero sections (things that look like you shouldn't be able to ride through, but invariably you are able to ride, making you feel like a hero) and swooping, fast singletrack through pine forests.

On day 2 in Breck, we rode a section of the Colorado trail (an even better ride than the day before) and on day 3, we went to Vail to ride to the summit of the ski area through fields of wildflowers and down the Cougar Ridge trail (a hour long singletrack downhill though aspens and with great views).

On day 4, we rode to the top of Georgia Pass for an 18-mile long singletrack descent back into town. Wow. Each day was better than the last.

Finally, I was feeling good about altitude and on the climb up Georgia Pass, I was able to go fairly hard and recover well. I had two days of recovery before the race.

On Friday, we drove to Leadville to sit in a packed gymnasium hear race director Ken Chlober's pre-race admonishments to "Dig Deep!" and "You're better than you think you are, you can do more than you think you can!" followed by a crowd rousing "I commit, I won't quit!"

Due to the "Race Across the Sky" movie that was shown in theaters across the US in 2009 (featuring Lance Armstrong, but also including some little cameo spots by my brother, sister and me), the 2010 LT100 race was packed with riders. Nearly 1650 racers were granted entry spots through the lottery (or otherwise), which would make for some dicey conditions on the course. In 2009, it was freezing cold at the start of the race and started to rain shortly thereafter (with hail on the summit climb), making for some extremely tough conditions. Luckily, in 2010, the weather forecast was for bright sunshine and 70 degrees.

The LT100 starts and finishes in downtown Leadville. It has an initial 3-4 mile paved road section, which leads to dirt and the first pass up the St. Kevin's climb. My first year at LT100, I started towards the back of the pack and was forced to expend a huge amount of effort to get past people on this climb.

After the St. Kevin's climb, the course continues over a longer ascent, the one fun descent (the Powerline section), a long flat road section, a little bit of singletrack and into the half-way Columbine ascent. This last climb starts at a feed zone at about 9,200 feet and goes uphill steadily for 7 miles to the high point in the race at 12,600 feet. The Scott Spark is the perfect bike for this course. It is extremely light, the full suspension softens out the rough spots in the trail, and with the shock at the 1/2 lock-out position, it climbs like a scared cat. I recall seeing at least 30 Sparks in the 2009 race - a very popular bike!

The LT100 starts at 6:30am. It was just 35 degrees and pitch black when I got to town after sleeping out under the stars at a friend's house. Due to my top-100 placing in 2009, I was given a special pass to the front starting area which meant I didn't have to arrive at 4:30am to get a starting position and didn't have to deal with as much traffic on the first climb as those behind me. I lined up right in front of a guy with an awesome looking Scott Spark Limited in black and gold. A very sweet bike.
To my horror, I had a slightly soft front tire at the start, despite having pumped it up to pressure just 30 minutes earlier. I couldn't find a pump in the tangle of riders and used my CO2 cartridge to get it inflated and hoped that the Stan's in the tire would keep me rolling.

Tire issue behind me, I had a great start to the race and was perhaps 15th going over the first climb. The leaders (Levi Leipheimer, Todd Wells, Jeremiah Bishop, Dave Weins, Ned Overend, JHK, etc.) set a pace up the first climb that was smoking fast. My low-altitude lungs couldn't hang with them and I dropped back to the chasing group so I wouldn't smoke myself for the rest of the day. Unfortunately, I think someone had stepped on my bike when I left it in the starting area to use the facilities and my shifting and disc rotors were out of whack. Some quick adjustments on the trail got me riding again smoothly, but I lost the chase pack of riders I was with and got in with a smaller group about 20 seconds back of the chasers.

Up and over the second climb and down the fast and hairy Powerline descent, I passed Ned Overend (distinctive in his World Champion sleeves). He said he had a front wheel issue (I later found out that Overend had given his wheel to Todd Wells after Levi Leipheimer crashed into Wells at the top of the descent). I was really flying on the more technical sections of the course, much faster than most of the riders around me. The Spark let me descend much more confidently and quicker than the guys around me on their hardtail bikes.

I got into a little group of riders and we pushed through the open road sections to the Twin Lakes feed zone. This area was an absolute zoo. For about 1/4 of a mile, it was like riding through a Tour de France climb. People were on both sides of the road, cheering, and so close they could touch you (I almost ran over some lady who didn't seem to realize there was a bike race going on). I pulled into my awesome pit crew area (distinctive by my sister's lobster hat, my girlfriend's Roman Princess dress, and my sister's boyfriend's mu-mu and pink wig), got topped up with energy food and headed back out on the trail for the long slog to the top of the Columbine climb. By this point, I was almost 10 minutes faster than last year's time and was on pace to go under 8 hours for the day.
In both 2008 and 2009, I lost a huge amount of time to the leaders on the Columbine climb. I was determined not to do so again. I kept a steady tempo and was able to push a good gear. I kept thinking back to the advice Tom Coleman of WobbleNaught had given me when he was helping with bike fits for the team earlier in the season - to keep the proper posture on the bike and the correct saddle position to use the right leverage and muscles. Every time I got back into the saddle position Tom had showed me, I instantly relaxed and moved faster up the mountain. (By the way, Tom also fit Levi Leipheimer and Jeremiah Bishop, if that says anything about how good he is at bike fitting for the top riders and who trusts him to help them go faster!)

About 3/4 of the way up the climb, my lungs couldn't handle any more of the rarified air. I started getting black spots in my vision, I was dizzy and I was having some trouble breathing. I talked with one guy who had a video camera, but I was pretty loopy at that point and I don't think I said anything coherent at all - I couldn't even form sentences. Luckily, after a little rest through hike-a-bike, I got back to riding and pushed up and over the summit to the half-way point (despite this trouble, I still cut nearly 12 minutes off the time it took me to climb the mountain in 2009).

Ned Overend had caught back up to me by this point and I followed him down the descent and back to Twin Lakes to the feed zone. I stopped for a little bit to fill up with more drink and food and started the remaining 45 miles back to Leadville. I shadowed Overend for almost 15 miles. Very cool to be riding the same terrain with the guy who was my hero when I first started mountain biking in 1992.

At the next feed zone, I caught up to another rider and the two of us worked together to get across a windy paved road section of the course and to the feared Powerline climb. I started to feel pretty bad by this point. I wasn't able to breathe fully by this point and I was having trouble putting anything into my stomach - it felt like I had too much water in my stomach and it wasn't going anywhere. Not a good combination. I tried a little energy gel and could barely eat the whole thing. I still had about 2 hours left to get back to Leadville before my 8:00 hour cutoff, and I hoped I could make it.

The Powerline climb was tough. The first year I'd done the LT100, I walked nearly the entire climb. Last year, I rode the climb and went about 15 minutes faster. This year, I forced myself to keep riding, despite feeling awful. Eventually, I made it to the summit, but it took a long, painful time.

On the descent, I tried to eat some more, but my body refused to take in any more food or liquids. I felt like I was riding in quicksand. The paved road ascent to the top of St. Kevins was seemingly endless. I had no riders around me at all - one person passed me, but I couldn't see anyone ahead or behind me. The lack of any shade on the course was taking its toll on me too - I could feel my arms and head turning an angry red color. Finally, I got to the top and drank some Coke at a feed zone, hoping the sugar and caffeine would get me to the finish.

I caught up to two riders at the feed zone and rode with them over the top of the climb and across the rolling fire-road to the cow-fields at the base. I had nothing left to push to the finish, knowing that my 8 hour goal had slipped. On the final 2 mile climb back to Leadville, it was all I could do to keep moving. Luckily, some of my friends were out to watch for me and started yelling for me to pick up the pace. On the last section of pavement, I dug deep and out sprinted three guys who were just ahead of me. I don't think they saw it coming...
It took me almost 2 hours of laying on the grass after the finish until I could stop coughing up stuff from my lungs and talk coherently again.
I'd cut 18 minutes off my 2009 time and finished in 8:11 in 36th place overall out of about 1400 who actually started the race. Results are here.
Five days later, and my lungs and body still hurt.

It was a very tough day, but the crowds of spectators and the awesome experience of riding at such high altitudes with phenomenal scenery was well worth it. I'm just happy to be back on my bike and riding again after having to take nearly 6 weeks off earlier this year for recovery of my knee injury. Maybe I'll be back to the LT100 next year to try and get that elusive sub-8 hour time...
- Jeff

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