June 01, 2012

Advice on how to do well (or survive) at the Leadville 100

I can't say that I'm an expert, but a bunch of people have asked me for advice on how to do well or just survive the LT100. I raced in Leadville for three years, but as a flatlander (coming from zero elevation in Washington, DC), I had to think carefully about how to race at altitude. Here's the advice I've passed on to a few other flatlanders. Maybe it will come in handy for you too:

Pointers for Leadville - a few thoughts about the things I've learned the past few years on how to do well:

1) You can't get to the start early enough.

If you're not granted a special slot in the front corral (something I was lucky to get from finishing near the top in prior editions of the race), you're going to have to fight your way to the front of the 1,300 person group to get a starting point in front of hundreds of people who haven't ever raced a road or mountain bike before. The chaos is unimaginable. If you think you're getting to the start too early, you're not. People start lining up hours before the start just to get a good start position.

2) You need to be top 50 or so going into the first dirt road section.

The first dirt road section comes at the bottom of a long, neutral road downhill that is paved. I'd recommend riding the first 4 or 5 miles of the course to see what you're getting into. The past two years, I was 15th or so going into the first climb and it served me incredibly well.

3) You need to be toward the front going into St. Kevin's Pass.

St. Kevin's is the first climb and it turns into a single-file line of 1,000+ riders. Once someone makes a dab, everyone else is screwed. Three years ago I hopped onto the Lance Armstrong train and two years ago I followed Levi Leipheimer into the climb and that got me ahead of the major cluster f- that is the first climb. I backed off when I was going into the red too early, but it set me up to be in the chase group.

It's easy to go too far over the redline and it takes a while to recover from that kind of effort at altitude. You want to go sufficiently hard to get up the first steep 1/2 mile section (until you make a significant left turn on a switchback and enter into open fireroad where you can pass people), but not so hard that you can't recover. You'll have plenty of time to chase people down who blow up on the return trip.

4) See if you can connect with some other riders just past the Powerline descent.

After Powerline (the only fun descending in the race), there's a very long section of paved and dirt road. It's usually windy and it's a good idea to get into a fast paceline rather than going it on your own.

5) Have a pit crew waiting for you at Twin Lakes with spare clothes, etc.

Twin Lakes comes at mile 42 or so and is at the base of the major halfway climb that goes up to 12,600 feet. It's a good place to refuel and pick up some cold weather gear. It could be hot as hell down at the base and snowing at the top - a good idea to grab a vest and armwarmers and fill up your bottles.

5) Watch out for the descent coming off the halfway climb.

The descent is lots of fun, but you'll pass 1,000+ other riders in all states of trying to get to the summit. Some of them are going to be zig-zagging all over the road and in rocky sections. You're not going to make up a huge amount of time on the descent (luckily, I drafted Ned Overend down the mountain two years ago and he led me through everything really well).

6) Eat a hell of a lot of sugar.

My favorite are gummi worms and Swedish Fish.

7) Drink a hell of a lot of Coke or other things with caffeine.

I usually go through 5 bottles of the stuff to get in more sugar and caffeine (though nuun Kona Cola is my new favorite - lots of caffeine and electrolytes instead of sugar).

8) Force food in you on the return trip.

Around 5 hours into the race, I stop wanting food. Last year I didn't want to eat or drink for the past 2.5 hours and it cost me a top 20 placing. Keep forcing GU or other type of energy food in you for the return trip when you'll probably be riding on your own. Mentally, that's the hardest part of the race, but the place you can make up the most time on others who have cracked. GU's Jet Blackberry is very tasty and sits well in my stomach. I can eat them every 30-45 minutes and not have a problem.

9) The last climb to the finish is a bitch.

If you're out pre-riding the first few miles of the course, make sure to ride the finish climb too. It's not the same one that you descend on the way out. I cracked hard on the return climb my first year becuase I didn't preride it and thought it went forever. I should have looked at the elevation profile better and memorized the climbs.

10) Tires.

I ride pretty low knob tires and in years past have used Specialized S-Works SLKs or or Bontrager XR1s. You can get away with Stan's Raven tires or other low knob tires with tons of Stan's sealant. There are lots of road sections and lower rolling resistance helps. If I were to go to Leadville this year, I'd run the Conti Race King ProTection RTR tires. Very fast rolling, but with lots of sidewall protection. I got lucky in past years with limited tire issues, but the Race Kings would have given me more confidence that my tires were not going to let me down. If you think you might need more traction, the X-King would be a good alternative (I know that the Ergon Pro team raced on the Race King tires last year - http://singletrack.competitor.com/2011/08/photo-gallery/leadville-pro-bike-alban-lakata%E2%80%99s-grand-canyon-cf_19851)

11) FS versus hardtail.

If you have the choice between two bikes, I'd take the full suspension bike. I don't really pay a weight penalty on my FS bike, so it's an easy choice for me. And, my lower back is definitely happier with the FS.

12) Altitude.

The best advice I've gotten re altitude (it comes from my friend who manages a World Cup mtb race team) is to try and push a slightly bigger gear than normal. I've taken his advice and usually ride one or two gears harder than I'd normally run while climbing. That keeps me from going into the redline, but I have to balance the higher muscular effort with plenty of electrolytes to prevent cramping. One thing I've noticed is that my heart rate is usually 10-30 beats lower than usual for the same exertion level. I just have to ignore my HR and ride by feel.

I've got an odd approach to altitude that seems to work (for me) when I arrive a week before a race in Colorado. I've usually headed to Golden, CO for a few days and gradually worked my way up into the mountains, higher and higher. The past three years, I rode in Golden at 6--7,000 for two days, then moved up to the Breck/Vail area for two days at 9-10,000 feet and took an easy two days just before the race.

Leadville is an awesome experience. The atmosphere is incredible. Bring lots of warm clothes to hang out in before and after the race - it's cold there! I'm not sure how the pre-race meeting will be this year as Ken is no longer the director. It was worth going to hear him give his well-worn speech about how you're better than you think you are and you can do more than you think you can.

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