WARNING: THIS IS A RACE REPORT AND MAY DETRACT AT LEAST 10 MINUTES FROM YOUR DAY. READ AT YOUR OWN RISK AND IF YOU ARE TYPE A, SIT BACK, RELAX AND ENJOY!
This past weekend brought races #2 and #3 in my quest for accomplishing the Leadman series. I drove up to Leadville late Friday night with a 9am start to the 50 mile mountain bike race on Saturday morning. I have realized that I do much better if I can drop into that high of altitude as close to race start as possible as I am not able to spend 10 days up there beforehand (although, I would love to!).
After tossing and turning most of the night, my body finally decided to be in the awaken state around 6:00am. I normally do not listen to music much but do enjoy to when I am prepping for a race. I popped the earphones in and began to get all of my nutrition ready. My training partner and good friend was also doing this race and it was his first ever mountain bike race. Needless to say, his nerves were a bit on edge but he was handling it fairly well. For me, this was just another training ride. I had done the Leadville 100 mile mountain bike race in 2004 and knew the mentality and the way things work in this type of racing. But, as I would soon learn, this course was a bit different than the 100!
During the first race of the Leadman series, the marathon, a couple of weeks ago, I was running with a guy who was giving me a bit of info on the 50 mile mountain bike course. He said it was much more difficult than the 100 and it was not a course for the weary or mildly seasoned mountain bikers. Now, I know the terrain around the Leadville area from previous competitions but one thing keep learning is that there is always a more rugged, technical, mentally demanding and lung busting trail somewhere in the Leadville area. That certainly held true for this course!
Upon exiting the hotel room to drive to the start, I noticed that our hotel had a tremendous view of Turquoise Lake. Located in the valley of stunning mountain landscape, this pristine body of water is an icon in the Leadville area. An icon that in 4 weeks will be a key part of the last race in the Leadman series. After embellishing the painting that Mother Nature had created in front of me, it was time to head out.
We arrived at the start with plenty of time to check in and get the bikes ready for action. After putting my number on my bike and Camelbak, I did my neuromuscular and dynamic warm-up exercises and did a quick 10 minute spin with a short climb to get my legs ready for the start.
Most mountain bike races follow the pattern of being anaerobic as riders are vying for position before getting to singletrack. Leadville is, let's just say, a little different. You see, the harder and more physically and mentally challenging, the better when it comes to racing in Leadville. The start was a hike up a ski slope...no kidding! About 450 riders lined up at the bottom and when the race director fired his shotgun in the air (this is how he starts all of the races), the anaerobic battle began!
My training partner and I had visited Leadville the weekend before to do some course recon which included the start so we knew what the hill felt like and how much we should push. I don't know the exact grade of this hill but combine the rocks, loose footing and pushing a mountain bike up and you can imagine how high your heart rate gets. And did I mention that the start was at 10,200 feet? Okay, you the picture. Interestingly, even under my controlled pace of getting up the hill, I was still about 30 seconds faster than I had done it the week prior. My main goal was to avoid sending my body into too much oxygen debt and I played that card well. Felt great at the top and was ready to tackle the course. What I didn't expect was the intense feeling of frustration. There was the biggest bottleneck I had ever seen in a race as everyone mounted their bikes and this lasted for the next few miles. To boot, I felt like I was in the Beijing dust storms. The amount of dirt being kicked up from the riders was ridiculous. In fact, I couldn't even pick a good line because I couldn't see the trail in front of me.
Fast forward to mile 8-10 where we climbed to about 12,000 feet. Now, what I have been learning fast is that an altitude of about 11,000 feet is when my body begins to give me a little feedback about my lack of acclimitization. The first signs are around 10,500 but it is not until around 11,000 where the head feels like it is going to explode. Although, I should mention that on the Wednesday before the race, I had a "nice" visit from the sinus infection fairy. Yeah, not the best timing but what can a guy do? I had to finish the races. Needless to say, I wouldn't recommend competing at over 10,000 feet with a sinus infection. It's doable as I have proved but there are some very, very gloomy times.
Most of the climb to 12,000 feet was okay to ride and I progressed nicely for the most of it. However, since there was still quite a large pack, when one person unclipped and couldn't move off the trail, it caused a chain reaction and everyone behind that person was forced to walk. The very fast descent was soon to follow. I was as cautious as I could have been on the dirt road, having passed many people with flat tires. There were a ton of jagged rocks that took some serious bites out of tires. In fact, I felt quite a few rocks compress my tires so much that I felt it on the rims!
From here on out, there was no real excitement until the top of Ball Mountain. Luckily, we had ridden this part of the course the week before which proved to be a very smart move. The descent coming off of Ball Mountain to the base of Mosquito Pass was extremely technical. The kind of technical where you wonder how you actually made it down without being launched off the bike. I made it down without incident since I knew what lines to pick but the interesting part about it was as I was descending, there were riders coming up. Reminded me of the 100 mountain bike again-pretty gnarly singletrack with two-way traffic. Not only did I have to concentrate on the trail but also on not taking anyone out! Made it interesting to say the least.
Phew! Made it down to the turnaround and headed back on the out and back course. I knew climbing up to Ball Mountain would be a hike a bike and boy was it ever! Hiking in cycling shoes isn't the most efficient or comfortable but this part was simply not rideable, not even by the top finishers. So, I focused my mind on the task at hand and began. It took just under an hour to get from the aid station to the top of Ball Mountain and while it was a slow process, it was well worth it, at least for about 5 minutes, for the descent to follow. Leadville is notorious for great climbs and descents and not a lot of flats and this proved true on this day also. Go up or go down but no breaks for the legs with any opportunities for soft pedaling.
Once I made it to the final aid station, I knew I had 14 miles left to go. But I also knew that I had the very long climb on the dirt road that I had traveled down a few hours ago. Descending always takes shorter than ascending but I had no idea how long this road really was until my tires hit it for a second time. I could see the base of the mountain (Mount Sherman) where the descent began but it appeared that the road just kept turning and turning and turning. No straight shot here. Nope, this is Leadville and Leadville doesn't know what easy means.
So I finally make it to the top of this road, rejoice a bit by consuming a bit of caffeine because I knew exactly what was in store in the next section-exhilarating downhills. Ones that required a great amount of mental concentration (hence the intake of caffeine beforehand!).
I am normally not aggressive on the downhills but am confident. However, I knew that I needed to play the safe card since I was going to do the run the next morning and still had 3 more races to go in the series. I had fun going down but stayed within my comfort zone. I had a few guys pass me but didn't decide to ride outside of my boundaries. Not on this ride. The goal was to finish and feel good. There were some surreal moments going down. It was a complete out of body experience with the feeling of my tires "floating" over the trail from my downhill speed. This was the highlight of my bike race and one that will always stay with me.
After wrapping my head around the adrenaline rush from the downhill, I had two additional climbs until I could claim the second finish in the series. Of course, true to the Leadville reputation, the last climb, about 1/2 mile to the finish, demanded respect and forced myself and the riders around me to navigate it by foot. No worries, I knew I was close so I hopped off my bike and with a smile began the last trek uphill.
Upon crossing the finish line, I noticed a big party in front of me. Bikes thrown across the grass, athletes with beers and brats in hand, everyone was enjoying some nice post-race celebration. My unofficial time was 6 hours and 25 minutes. I was happy but my focus immediately shifted to the 50 mile run the next day. I immediately began my post-race nutrition and walked around a bit waiting for my training partner to finish. As he crossed the line, I could see the feeling of accomplishment in his eyes. This was one of the biggest things he had ever done and I was extremely proud of him. Especially since I was the one who coerced him into signing up for the Leadman with me!
All in all, a great day. No falls, had a great feeling in my legs still and was ready to tackle the run the next day. A little rain fell briefly but it was a nice cooling rain that did not last long.
Oh, and as far as my nutrition experiment this year, it is still showing (with me) that improved metabolic efficiency works, even in race situations (at extreme altitude). Here are my HOURLY totals:
Carbohydrate: 31 grams
Sodium: 354 milligrams
Fluid: 16 ounces
Stay tuned for my next post about the 50 mile run!