The Leadville Trail 100 MTB is an epic in every sense of the overused mountain bike term. The brut of a course starts 10,176 feet (3,101 m), climbs 12,266 vertical feet (3,739 m) reaching an elevation of 12,530 feet (3,819 m), and covers ~104 miles (167 km) of fire roads, single track, and some tarmac. It’s long, it’s grueling, and it’s a true test of endurance and grit.
I started in the Red Corral, which was the third of seven. In total, 1,283 people finished, but a couple hundred more started. Simply put, if you’re not right in front, it’s a slow, chaotic start. The first few miles are downhill and are quite quick, but upon finding dirt and the slightest of inclines, the pace grinds to a near full stop.
In a triathlon sense, it’s like 1,400+ people finishing the swim and getting onto the bike within a minute of one another. Then being funneled onto a narrow road scattered with cones (i.e. trees, rocks, and roots).
What corral you start in has some effect upon what time you’ll finish, in my opinion.
I set the goal of finishing sub-9 hours, which would earn the big belt buckle. Therefore, the plan was to hit or better the 9 hour splits (2:00 to Pipeline, 2:50 to Twin Lakes Dam, 4:35 to Columbine Mine, 5:15 back to Twin Lakes Dam, 6:20 back to Pipeline, and 9:00 at the line). The task seemed simple enough, but with the first climb feeling like a crowded escalator, where people didn’t recognize the “Stand Right, Walk Left” rule, I was off pace quickly.
At the Pipeline checkpoint, I was ~10 minutes off pace. Knowing I still had a lot of climbing ahead, I questioned if I could claw back enough time pending no major setbacks (i.e crashes, flat tires, bonking, etcetera). En route to Twin Lakes, I pressed on a bit harder and gained back ~5 minutes. However, the long, steep climb of Columbine Mine lay ahead.
Columbine Mine Climb:
- 7.4 miles (12 km)
- 3,126 vertical feet (953 m)
- 8% average gradient
Fortunately I like climbing. I also like time trialing. Therefore, I ride best when I’m able to find my own rhythm. The lower slopes of Columbine Mine are wide and gradual and offer plenty of room to pass. Further up, sections of the climb became very difficult to ride, mostly because of the long queue of riders en route to the summit. We also had to contend with riders descending from the summit – we shared the narrow trail – and the rocky, rutted terrain.
There was really little choice but to Hike-a-Bike.
I felt reasonably good climbing/hiking to the turnaround point and after filling up a water bottle, I checked my Garmin to see I was ~4 minutes under the 9:00 splits. Clawing back ~15 minutes from Pipeline to Columbine Mine gave me a boost of confidence and I was ready to go all in heading home. First though, I had to safely navigate my way down Columbine Mine, as it was more crowded and the trail is far from smooth.
I missed my crew at Twin Lakes Dam outbound, but fortunately saw them inbound and took in much needed calories.
Heading back in, something inside me snapped, because I rode furiously. Especially after a stranger looked up and said, “Go, Erich, go!” with an German accent.
We faced a stiff headwind all the way back towards Turquoise Lake, but I felt stronger than the wind and flew by packs of riders.
In fact, I never rode with a group for more than a few seconds inbound, as I felt I had it in me to go on alone.
The beauty of Leadville is that it never gets any easier. The Powerline descent is deeply rutted and rather sketchy. The ascent is harder, as it’s steep, rutted, and just plain difficult to ride. Again, the climb was a mix of riding and Hike-a-Biking. However, that’s not the end of the climbing. Being that it’s such a long day, I forgot the approximate profile of the course and was never sure when climbs were coming to an end. Climbing wasn’t the worst part though. One particular gradual descent was excruciating. My hands were fatiguing beyond belief, as the downhill resembled a rocky river bed more than a hiking trail.
Thankfully we were back to smooth fire roads after that, followed by a long climb on tarmac around mile 88. It was around there that I reached a point where eating solids became a tedious task and I was completely out of fluids. Of any point during the race, I felt the worst then and there. I continued to pass small groups of riders and as I rolled by, I’d ask if anyone could spare a sip. One rider was kind enough to let me take a swig and I am ever so grateful for that!
A few more miles up the road was an aid station, where I went to town drinking anything within reach.
The course climbed for a few more minutes and was basically a downhill from there.
Despite knowing I would safely finish under 9:00 hours, I kept a furious pace and rode by anyone and everyone.
While the course is an out-and-back, the last 4.8 miles (7.7 km) come in a different way. The best way I can describe those closing miles, is by saying that they’re a bitch. All they do is climb ever so slightly. Worst of all, they’re straight, so you can see exactly how far you have to go.
Then you reach the Middle School and tarmac for the final time. It climbs, it descends, and it climbs again.
Leadville isn’t easy. You really have to earn that buckle.
I crossed the line in 8:35:50 (chip time, not gun time).
Overall, the Leadville Trail 100 MTB isn’t the hardest ride I’ve ever been on. I don’t mean to discredit the event, because it’s truly a grueling race! Instead, I feel that my training preparations and acclimatization were spot on. Regardless, I suffered. A lot.
Fortunately, I consider the things that are most terrible in the moment to be the most rewarding in retrospect.
Leadville is exactly that.
Lastly, everything surrounding Leadville could not have been possible with the support of several individuals. Namely, my coach, Muddy Waters, my mother, and my girlfriend, Christen. The way I see it, we earned that belt buckle.
Leadville Trail 100 Run in less than a week…