Here it is boys and girls... Grab a drink, and enjoy the thoughts of our boy Davey Wilson as he recounts his Leadville experience. Dave is an endurance he-man who's shown me how to do it long on more than one occasion. Very good insight into this beast of a race...
The third time’s a charm, or so they say, but for me it was the fourth. This requires a bit of history for the full effect. I took my first shot at the Leadville 100 MTB back in 1996 and at that time, it was a ridiculously stupid idea. I had no idea what the race was really about. And this is also when the nine-hour monkey jumped on and didn’t leave until August 14th, 2010. For those who do not know, Leadville has two finishing prizes: a small belt buckle for finishing under twelve hours, and then a big one for those who finish under nine hours. The nine-hour is not easy to achieve. I don’t care how fit one thinks he or she is, this is Leadville and it’s different up there.
I returned to Leadville in 2008 looking “to buckle.” I didn’t care about a big one that day, but I knew that was the real goal. I’m either blessed or cursed that I race single speed; it depends who you talk to. That year I managed to have a decent race and squeak out a 9:49—a respectable time for anyone, let alone a flatlander on a SS. In 2009 and against my better judgment, I thought I would “cheat” to my goal a bit by throwing gears on my trusty do-everything SIR 9 and try to sneak in a sub nine. This was a bad idea, at least for me. The weather was cold and rainy, which is no small deal at 10,000+ ft. I felt “off” prior to the race, nearly went hypothermic on Columbine, blah, blah, blah, and I was lucky to finish at 11:10 that day. That was a race I would rather forget, and for the most part, I have. However, with two small buckles in my hands, the monkey was keeping score.
The 2010 Season
This brings me to the 2010 race. I knew it was going to be hard. Leadville is an unrelenting race that requires endurance style fitness, but mental fitness just as well. For most people (with the exception of the pros, and even they fail to get it at times), this race does not cut you loose until you roll off the red carpet at the end of the uphill finish, and not a mile sooner. There is no “last big climb and now your home free” to this thing. And don’t forget, this all happens at or above 10,000 feet.
This year I started racing for Ethos Racing, a scrappy fast bunch that balances fun with performance, and most often results. Travis and Garret are frequent podium visitors on the XC circuit, while I have been focusing on key endurance races leading to Leadville. My family commitments and over-forty attitude mean that I have to be very diligent about using my ride time for purpose. “No junk miles” as my friend Lance, a Leadville local, told me earlier this summer prior to the Dirty Kanza. I started the season slow with The Bone Bender at Smithville and then bounced back to third place SS at Syllamo’s Revenge even though I had a frustrating race. Next up between training was The Dirty Kanza. I didn’t have much of a plan for this day except to ride all day just to see what happens. It was a big gravel grind training day. Lance came in from Leadville for the Kanza with several others and ended up riding with me SS after munching his rear derailleur at about mile 30. I managed to the 101-mile mark before feeling the onset of heat issues; he went on to the 145-mile mark. Lance had been honest to advise that day that hardly anyone from low elevation goes sub 9 SS at Leadville; in fact, very few go sub 9 SS at all.
Next entered Tom Bondurant and his “plan”. I work with Tom and many know him from his strong road performances. Last year I talked Tom into doing Leadville, and once we both made the lottery cut, he instantly started taking it seriously. He let me know last spring that he had a training plan designed for him, just for racing Leadville, so we split the cost and I gave it a try. Because of other commitments and my weak desire to ride frequent long, ugly rides, I typically don’t follow such plans. I did the best that I could by focusing on strong interval training and managing to get several 7+ hour gravel grinders in with Tom leading up to the taper for Leadville in mid-August. Once in the taper and with the dirty work behind me, I started to reflect on my training and attitude. I felt pretty good, and I was aware that this was not always the case before I race. I managed a few Wednesday Spin rides with Travis and Garret, which seemed to turn into serious climbing-hammerfests, and I still felt pretty good. I was ready for this.
I was only able to arrive in Leadville Thursday prior to the race due to a number of variables. Plus, I don’t believe in acclimatization unless I can arrive three months before, so I was fine with arriving just a day or two before the big day. I recruited my friend, Marcos, and his girlfriend, Dana, to run my race support since my wife was starting her ninth month of pregnancy while attending to our 22-month-old daughter. Plus, I also knew that this race was an outstanding spectator event, and that Marcos and Dana would have a blast, and I think they did. We arrived and set up camp (literally) in Lance & Michelle’s backyard, and settled in for the five-star hospitality they always provide. Friday was the race check-in, and then Tom and I took an easy ride out to St. Kevens and back, which was a big test to see if I felt like a bike racer, or if the altitude would kick in and hold me back. After that ride, I had never felt better.
The start of the Leadville 100 is something to behold. It’s usually about 37 degrees and dark with a gun time at 6:30 AM and with racers who show up as early as 3 AM to claim a spot in the mass start. At this time, spectators are usually starting to line the streets, too. Some racers think starting position affects their finish time prospects, but I have never been one of them. As I see it, any endurance race of this stature will not be won in the first two hours of riding, let alone at the very start. After waking at 4 AM and then having coffee and breakfast, Tom and I headed to the start at about 5:30. Lance had the luxury of leaving later because he makes the top 100 field cordoned off at the front. Despite this, I have always managed to line up with little trouble at about Harrison and 6th Street on the uphill corner. Tom seemed noticeably nervous as anyone should be and as I usually am, but for some uncanny reason this year I was dead calm while waiting for the shotgun. As the clock ticked closer, the energy escalated appropriately. The extra layers started shedding off of the edgy crowd of riders, the helicopters arrived as the pros made their last minute arrivals up to the front, and then the “BAM!” of the shotgun created a brief pause, then a slow roll out began as everyone surged forward. Leadville, with all of its uphill reputation, ironically has a downhill start. Anyone who races bikes knows that this undoubtedly means that racers will speed fast for the front, and Leadville is no exception.
While riding single speed, there was not much for me to do except try to avoid contact, tuck, and coast the downhill pavement until I hit dirt. When the double track arrived, the course has flattened out and I was able to move up through the crowd. I worked my way through traffic by making sure not to get my heart rate too high early, and kept my eye out for riders who were possible trouble. At this point, I had lost Tom. I had heard him while on my wheel back on the pavement saying, “This is the coldest start I have ever done.” I just figured he went by me in a group, or was still there. As the course made a left turn up to St. Kevens, the first climb of the race, I noticed all the geared guys around me shifting down to their little rings still several hundred yards from the climb’s start. Wow! A bit early guys? - this caused a drop in speed and control with the entire pack, so I quickly started picking my way through to keep up momentum along with some other SS guys in the same situation. There was no way to get away from the pack, but I was able to ride through it on the climb if I paid attention. As usual, there was a bunch of bickering, wheezing, and general chaos, which I always find entertaining. Finally I hit the first dog-leg left where things open up and started to flow. The next sections were standard fare for me. I ran with the fast line, but watched my heart rate and avoided bad traffic. My race plan was to go all the way to Twin Lakes (40 miles) before refueling, so I pretty much relaxed and kept things moving all the way there. I expected to see Tom overtake me on the Fish Hatchery road, but when that didn’t happen I figured he might already be ahead of me.
Twin Lakes came up fast. I spotted my top-notch crew flying the custom “old goat” flag representing my age, and I came in for fuel. I told Marcos before the race what to expect and to not let me piddle around at the stop like I tend to do sometimes. He listened. Dana took the empties, Marcos restocked the cages and told me to roll. I caught his eye for a brief moment and he said it again, “Get rolling, the race is on.” I took off for Columbine. The crowd at Twin Lakes was incredible. I feel like I know what it’s like to race in the Tour de France because it was a packed, tunnel of people for a mile. I tried to slap hands with as many kids as I could as I flew through, and I headed for the big eight-mile climb. As I started the approach to Columbine, the first hints that this was a big day crept in. Once on the grade I felt slightly sluggish as others passed, including other SS guys. I started to think this might be the beginning of trouble for me. It was time to watch the heart rate again. The switchbacks came and went, and soon I was approaching the steep top section. This was the last grueling steep 2-mile section and it required a fair amount of hike-a-bike. Some blog chatter mid-July mentioned that this had been graded and could be ridden, but to me it looked the same as the ¬years prior. About half way through this, Lance went screaming down chasing the leaders. I made the turn around and rolled through the check not needing anything. I checked the clock for the first time: 4:47—mmm….not good. I was behind my target split of 4:36. I chose not to watch the clock on my Garmin this year and just watch my heart rate and average speed; I knew I needed to maintain roughly 11.3 mph to hit nine hours.
I passed Tom climbing up shortly after starting the decent. He was looking strong and we exchanged “dig deeps!” as we passed. As I further bombed down what is one of the great downhills of all time, I noticed a four-wheeler on the road up ahead with a bike on it. As I got closer I thought, “GF Superfly--like Lance’s,” and then it I realized, “Oh crap, that’s Lance on the four-wheeler.” As I rolled up along side I noticed he was holding his shoulders tightly. He winced with pain as the ATV hit bumps and I asked, “Collarbone?” and he said, “Yeahowww!” I responded, “That sucks. Should I tell Michelle?” That was a dumb question.
The rest of the decent went uneventful except for watching some guy completely over-cook a corner near the bottom, go off-road through the trees and back on the road. I yelled “nice save” as I passed. He looked a bit shooken up. Twin Lakes inbound came quickly as I rolled up to my stop for more fuel. Again, Marcos and Dana were NASCAR quick. I told Marcos to hunt down Lance’s support and give them the bad news. I relayed Tom’s position to his crew and then heard the “get moving” from my crew chief, Marcos, and off I went. Inbound from Twin Lakes is rather benign as riding goes at Leadville. There were some big rollers that came and went, and soon Pipeline Aid was there. Marcos and Dana were ready with the goat flag flying proudly. I was 13 minutes behind schedule and was starting to feel it. Since I was thinking I was out of nine hour territory, I wanted to hang out a bit. Marcos wisely said, “No way. Get rolling. This party’s not over.” He’s a good listener. I told him weeks before to NOT let me mess around and lose focus at the stops no matter what, and he came through for me. Off I went.
The finish push
As I mentioned before, Leadville doesn’t cut one loose until the end. The last 20 miles are the hardest of the race. As expected, the climbs were ridiculously tough; they were loaded with false summits and mid-climb drops that robbed elevation from me when every gain was counted by the foot. And this all happened after 80 miles of solid effort. The Fish Hatchery road came with a stiff headwind and I traded pulls with several other riders as we headed for Power Line. I backed off the pace as we rolled past the Hatchery and let those riders go, knowing I didn’t want to start climbing even slightly gassed. I watched my heart rate. My average speed was still right on the bubble at 11.2-4 mph, but some serious climbing loomed ahead. It was not looking good for a sub-nine. But I stayed in it. Power Line came up slowly with a crawl, and then the grade increased to stupid and everyone dismounts and walks--unless your named Weins, JHK or Leipheimer. While walking this stretch, I tried to keep a decent stride. I walked with purpose, watched the heart rate, and kept moving strong because I knew it would be easy to give up when dismounted and just slough along, losing serious time. I noticed I was passing riders and not getting passed. This was a good sign. As I progressed from hike to bike and back again, I noticed that with each dismount to remount I anticipated the dreaded feeling that I was not going to be able to ride the next section, yet I actually still had power and my average speed didn’t drop that fast. I thought to myself, “Hmm….this was going to get interesting.”
While topping out on Sugarloaf, I relaxed briefly and then let it rip. I needed to bank some time. I popped out on Hagerman Pass pumping the bike up to speed and tucking in for every fraction of speed I could get--there was still plenty of climbing left. As I rolled out on the lake road, I checked the clock and it said something like 7:44ish. “Crap,” I thought, and said aloud, I imagine. I knew I needed to be at Carter Summit at about 8:00 to make a nine-hour finish. I was pretty confident that wasn’t going to happen. I was thinking it was over, yet my average was still telling me it was possible, I stayed in it.
As the climb up the lake road started (which is truly my only hated climb in this race), I passed a guy having a “moment” and said, “Stay in it. We’re right on the bubble for nine!” when he blurted out something about being twenty minutes off. That’s what clock watching will get you. I gave him a, “Dig deep!” and I started just that myself on this crap pavement climb. It was fourish miles long, loaded with false summits and sucks. I think I hated it most because I have bad memories of this climb from previous LV100’s. Plus, it is paved, which made me think it should be easy when it was not. It usually feels like it takes forever, but this time it did not. I hammered it steady with power, caught several riders, watched the ol’ heart rate, and then Carter Summit came up quickly for once.
I rolled in, knocked back the traditional cup of Coke, dumped a couple waters over my head, took a time check…8:12. “Holy shit. I’m still in this thing…barely,” I thought to myself. It was time to start drilling it. I was not going to watch the heart rate any longer. I took off into the woods on a mission. Normally it would be told that from Carter to the finish it takes about an hour. I was in the hole, but I knew from my ‘08 run it could be done in less. The climb up St. Kevens was good. There was one small slide crash on the off camber road by the fence, but I ran the rest and recovered on the downhill to the valley. I rolled out on the flats behind a geared guy and spun up to catch his wheel. This worked for a while, but he was rolling slightly out of my single top-end range and I let him go. Out onto the pavement a line of guys went by yelling, “Jump on!” I tried, but again they were rolling too fast. I kept them in sight, thinking I could use them on the blvd. Then a motorcycle crew with this huge camera rolled up along side and yelled, “You’re 20 minutes from the cut-off. Think you can make it?” I don’t remember exactly, but I said something like, “It’s not looking good, but we’re going for it.” Then I asked if I could draft off of them. They threw out a, “Good luck,” and sped away. Dang it. 20 minutes left. Are you kidding me?! I tried to do the time equation and came up short. I was guessing a 9:10 finish. But my Garmin still said 11.3mph. Hmm…again.
As I came up on the rocky approach to the famous blvd, the pace line group was starting up it and falling apart. Uphill was not in their tool box anymore and they would do me no good on the blvd. I topped out the rocky ramp at the bottom among the group, and then started hammering it out on the blvd. For most, the blvd is the big demon--a long relentless dirt road incline back into town. I have seen more people cry on this section than any other and I passed several this trip. My heart rate was up, but I was still making power. As I turned onto the pavement I went for a time check fully expecting to see something like 9:04 but I was staring at 8:58. This was a cruel joke. Out of the saddle (for the first time all day; remember, I was watching the heart rate) I did my best climbing sprint up the sucker hill at the west end of Sixth Street noticing a slow moving police car up ahead and thinking, “I bet he represents the cut.” The sprint pinned me for the first time all day and I had to recover on the bench before the decent and then final climb to the finish.
Somewhere in this section 9:00 hours rolled by. I was determined to finish strong, so I spun like mad down Sixth and then hammered it to the line. Everyone was screaming like crazy and my dedicated crew was yelling “Wilsoooooon” as I rolled in at 9:01:53. I didn’t care about the buckle anymore. I just had the best race of my life. Historically, I screw up endurance races by leaving the gate like a burnt cat, going hard in the middle, and then I limp it in. In case you missed the “I watched the heart rate” thread throughout this, it is that act that saved me. I had the second fastest finish split in my class and ended up top ten SS with eighth place. I would claim the flatlander crown but XXXXXX from Des Moines blazed in for third, so he gets it.
Now about that buckle I said I didn’t care about. Traditionally at Leadville, the audience votes several riders that just missed nine and twelve hours. I didn’t think I would be one of them, but five were called up and I was the fifth. That monkey is gone. It was a perfect finish to a great weekend. I can’t thank my wife, Katy, and daughter, Claudia, enough for putting up with my stupid training, but all three of us are done with the Leadville100 for a while--at least as a racer. Will I be back? Yes. I’m thinking a finish time starting with an eight would be nice. Did anyone else just see that monkey?
Oh, yeah about Lance. Broken Scapula and a bunch of ribs, he should heal. I said I would come back when he enters SS. He said “deal” And the most impressive feat of all Michelle finished the 100 run this past weekend in 26:50. How cool is that.