The Leadville 100 is unlike any other mountain bike race. Months of training – by amateurs and pros alike – lead to the culmination of this epic race in Leadville, Colorado. The race starts and finishes in downtown Leadville at 10,400 feet. It’s a grueling out-and-back course totaling 104 miles including 5 major climbs with up to 25% grades, the final climb reaching over 12,400 feet in elevation. The course spans graded dirt forest roads, rocky jeep double-track, and paved street, with a short stint of single-track. Those who finish under 13 hours receive a Finisher’s medal; those under 12 hours get a Small Buckle. Sub-9 hour finishers get the coveted Big Buckle. According to Josh Colley, the race director, most finishers come in around the 11-hour mark. The pro racers shoot for under 6 ½ hours.
The race itself is a very special event, bringing together riders from around the world – pro mountain bikers to Tour de France stage winners to amateur racers – into the “Leadville family.” The event is the brainchild of Ken Chlouber, former mine worker, to support the local economy after the Climax mine closed in the early ’80s, leaving 25% of the town unemployed. You’ll find Ken along the course, encouraging riders with a hearty “Giddy-up!” or a “Go get ’em” in his good-natured drawl. “You are better than you think you are!” he shouts to all in the pre-race meeting, “You can do more than you think you can!” His partner Marilee gives each and every sub-12-hour finisher a hug at the finish line – an emotional and personal touch. Lifetime Fitness has done an excellent job keeping the race’s spirit alive, true to its humble grassroots beginning and tied to its commitment to helping the town of Leadville. Each year, the Leadville Race Series provides a $1000 scholarship to every Leadville High School graduate. (Denver Post article: How the Leadville 100 Saved a Town and Created a Community)
Entry is by lottery with thousands of submissions (other entry options include qualifier races, Camp of Champions, and the stage race). With the participation capped at ~1600 entrants, simply securing an entry is a reason for celebration and is the starting ticket to the adventure of a lifetime.
While it’s possible to complete the race relying solely on aid stations and the designated drop-bag location (the aid stations are well-equipped and the volunteers are amazing!), having your own race crew provides familiar faces and extra motivation at a time when you need it most. Your race crew ensures your personal race-specific nutrition will be ready. They will have your spare parts or extra clothing, will take extra clothing no longer needed, and will give you the encouragement to keep riding.
My friend Brenda immediately volunteered to crew, as soon as I learned I’d gotten in the lottery. Brenda had supported at Leadville a few times – she was a pro at it. My brother-in-law Jeff had never crewed before, but was happy to help. Brenda’s husband Scott was a 2-time Leadville Finisher. He seemed eager to be sitting on the sidelines supporting us, instead of suffering on the course.
We selected Lost Canyon as the site for our aid station. At the base of Columbine, it’s less crowded than Twin Lakes and is a good breakpoint before tackling the long, steep climb. We met Brenda and Scott for a planning dinner. Brenda arrived with a notepad and pen. What type of mixes did I want in my bottles? Would they be pre-mixed or would she need to mix them? Did I want to swap out my hydration pack for a new one? What food should be ready? How long did I plan to stop? I stammered, and admitted that I hadn’t thought of any of this yet! I said that I liked Lay’s potato chips, and she promised to have a big bowl ready for me. I was confident we would be well cared for in our race!
I began training the day I entered the lottery. David helped me break down my training into 2 sets of 16 weeks, with long weeks (15 hrs), shorter weeks (10-12 hrs), and recovery weeks (8 hrs), with races baked in. Setting my weekly goal in Strava was instrumental in tracking my hours to my goal. A typical week was: 2 days on the trainer (3-4 hrs total) and 4-5 days of riding (2-3 mtn rides, 2 road rides), with a lot of solo and pre-dawn rides requiring night lights. Long mountain rides (4-6 hrs) were essential to learn how my body reacted to longer durations on the bike, and to get a feel for pacing and nutrition.
I did a lot of climbing (South Mountain towers, Mt. Elden, Mt. Ord) to get used to suffering through endless climbs. Learning how to suffer is key. You learn to push through the burning in your legs, when they are whining that they are tired and sore and want to stop. You think ahead to the rest days, and use those days wisely to focus on recovery. At times, I would take an unscheduled recovery day – but tried to do so only when I truly needed the rest, not just because my legs were complaining.
Training is a sacrifice. I went to bed early and got up early. I rode in the dark. Alone. A lot. I used many vacation days and weekends for training rides. I declined outings with friends and family. I missed kids’ soccer games. To balance, I joined friends’ activities when I could, and tried to focus on quality family time vs quantity. The results of my training showed as Strava reflected more and more PRs. My endurance continued to build. I felt stronger than ever!
The focus on climbing, endurance, and suffering was good. In hindsight, I would also have practiced starting out faster and maintaining a faster pace, as well as improving technical descents. These skills are critical at Leadville for both the mass start, as well as the long Powerline and Columbine downhills.
At the Leadville “Camp of Champions” in July, I pre-rode the entire course, 60 miles on each day. Some of us struggled to complete the 60 miles on the 2nd day. “How are we going to do 100 miles?” we asked. We could barely do 60. Dave Wiens, world champion and 6-time Leadville winner, told us it was a mindset. “Today, you told yourself you were going to do 60, and you did it. On race day, your mind will be set for 100, and you’ll do it then too. You’ll see. It’ll be different. It’s all in the mindset.”
Before the Race
We arrived in Colorado ten days before the race, to allow time to acclimate to the elevation and to pre-ride key parts of the course. David did similar preparation last year, and helped map out my pre-rides and taper plan: 3 ride days with a recovery day in between each, and 3 full rest days before the race.
There were a few parts of the course that I was most nervous about:
- The start: It would be crowded. With over 1600 anxious and ambitious racers, it could be a dangerous part of the race. I planned to stay on the outside, to be able to swerve if needed.
- Kevin’s: I’d heard it would be packed, with three lanes of riders – left, middle, right – all the way up. Same as the start, I planned to grab an outside line.
- Powerline: I was not confident in my descending skills, especially around ruts. And Powerline was a long downhill, lined with ruts. My palms would literally start sweating watching Go-Pro videos of the Powerline descent!
I soaked in as much descending advice as I could. Weight back. Head up. Elbows loose. Look where you want to go. I read articles and watched You-Tube videos. I attended a downhill clinic hosted by Dave Wiens. “Heavy on the handlebars; light on the pedals”, he told us, “Look ahead. If you find yourself in a tricky situation, let off the brakes and roll through it. Your tires will eat that stuff up!” In the days before the race, I practiced Powerline descent, repeating the same mantra aloud (“Heavy on the pedals. Light on the handlebars. Weight back. Head up! Look ahead!”), learning where I could ride along the ruts, and where I would need to cross over them.
There are 3 cut-off times in the race: Twin Lakes Outbound (10:30am), Twin Lakes Inbound (2:15pm) and Pipeline Inbound (3:15pm). David helped me map out my splits to make all the cutoff times comfortably and finish in 12 hours. I wrote out my splits and the downhill tips, and taped them to my handlebars. I was as ready as I was going to be.
David and I took our bikes to the start and quickly split up to pick a prime position in our respective corrals. David came to my corral so we could have a quick good-luck kiss and picture before the race. The race organizers removed the gates between the corrals and moved us all up closer to the start. I took off my sweatshirt and jacket, handed them to Brenda, and waited for the start. This is always the part of a race that makes me the most nervous!
The starting gun went off and it wasn’t long before my corral was moving. The start is neutral – no one is allowed to pass the leading motorcycle – so the pace is reasonable to avoid crashes. Still, I stayed as far right as possible. We rode up 6th Street and onto the road that started the course. The pace began to pick up and gaps opened up for passing. I continued to stay as far right as possible to dissuade anyone from sneaking up to pass on my right, which I hoped would reduce my crash risks. I darted where I could through openings to pass others, and hugged the outside as much as possible. I tried to keep what seemed felt like a decent pace but also didn’t want to start out too hard, knowing I would need the energy later. We followed the paved road to another road (still paved), then crossed the railroad tracks onto the dirt jeep road, following that to St. Kevin’s climb.
Outbound to Twin Lakes
As promised, the St. Kevin’s climb broke into 3 lanes – left, middle, right. I stuck with the right-hand lane, so I’d have less risk of being impacted by a falling or stopping rider. The pace was moderate at first, then became slower and slower. At least everyone was still riding. I pedaled as slowly as I could without falling over. This was requiring some real balancing skills! It wasn’t long before I realized I couldn’t pedal any more slowly. I was down to four options: clip the wheel of the rider in front of me, roll off the side of the mountain, fall over, or put a foot down. I put a foot down, got off the bike, and started walking. By now, the riders in front of me were walking, and it was a big Walk Fest. As we got past the switchback, the pack of riders started to thin out and I was able to ride for short time before having to stop and walk again for same reason as before. I got back on at the earliest convenience and was able to ride the rest of the way up to Carter Summit aid station, on target with my splits.
It had only been about ten miles to this point, so I wasn’t in need of any aid or support. Also, I knew there was a nice, fairly long descent to Hagerman’s Pass and Sugarloaf. I passed the Carter Summit aid station without stopping and followed the nice, long, gradual decent on paved road. The road hairpins into a dirt road to begin Sugarloaf climb. Sugarloaf is a nice, gradual gravel climb with some easy switchbacks and beautiful views. I used this time to focus on my breathing… in through the nose, out through the mouth. I climbed Sugarloaf without issue to the top of Powerline, still hitting my splits.
At the top of Powerline, I exhaled fully to relax, and went into attack position to begin the descent. The descent turned out to be easier than I expected – and it was actually fun. I was even able to pass a few riders on the way down, and roll across the ruts as I’d practiced. Of course, I got passed as well – but I certainly wasn’t expecting to pass anyone myself, so that boosted my confidence. I talked aloud to myself the entire way: “Head up! Look ahead! Roll, roll… and cross…here…” The most dreaded segment over, I rolled the rest of the way down, and yelled “Yeah!! I did it!” to the photographer at the bottom.
From here, there is a stretch of paved road ideal for pace lines. I looked around for others to partner with. I rode some wheels but when I tried to pull, I dropped them. When other riders came along, I tried to catch their wheels, but they were too fast for me. Finally, I was able to catch a wheel for a bit.
I was worried about the time. Twenty minutes until the first cutoff, and no sign of Twin Lakes. We merged to the single track, which began with a short, steep downhill. I rolled through the single track as quickly as I could. I had the entire trail to myself – pretty crazy after the intensely crowded start!
The single track leads to a road through a rural neighborhood. With only 5 minutes before the cutoff, I saw the lakes. I sprinted across the road to them, over the dam, and past the aid tents of the various support crews. I got a lot of cheers and “Go, girl!” shouts. I sprinted down the road, dodging others who’d stopped for their crews. I would be at my own aid station at Lost Canyon in about ten minutes.
Lost Canyon Aid Station and Columbine Climb
I knew roughly where my crew would be set up at Lost Canyon, and quickly spotted the large yellow umbrella. Jeff was grinning and ringing the cowbell wildly. He grabbed the bottles off my bike, and replaced them with refilled bottles. Brenda pulled the bladder from my hydration pack – I didn’t want the extra weight while climbing Columbine, but I wanted to keep my pack since it was filled with essentials such as a tube, a pump, a multi-tool, a rain jacket… just in case. She brought the bowl of salty Lays chips, as promised. I scooped up a pile with both hands and stuffed them into my mouth. After the few minutes of replenishment, I was on my way up Columbine.
The first 5 ½ miles of Columbine are a relatively gradual climb. The crowds where thinning out. There were no longer multiple lanes of riders. We were single file on the double track and everyone was still riding. I felt strong.
“Leaders!” I heard someone yell, and three riders zoomed downhill on the left. For the remainder of the way up, it was a slow slog of climbing on the right side of the road, with racers coming downhill fast on the left. With riders coming down, it was difficult to pass, so I’d go around people on the right when I could, sneaking a quick pass on the left if the coast looked clear. I settled into a pace, and set my mind for two more hours of climbing. I imagined I was doing my usual training ride up Elden Lookout Road. It was very slow going. After a while, I began hating life. At 45 miles in, this was the first point in the race where I truly started to suffer.
Eventually I reached the treeline. Here the road becomes much steeper and rockier, the ‘goat trail’. I rode what I could – only a few pedal strokes – then got off to walk. Same as the person in front of me, and the person in front of him, and so on. It was a long line of people walking their bikes up the steep hill. I watched the minutes tick away, as I fell further behind on my splits. The road was rocky, steep, and narrow, with more people coming down at a pretty fast clip. Eventually the grade started to ease up and I was able to ride for a bit. I saw David coming down and yelled his name – I was glad to be on my bike and not walking when he went by me!
The rest of the climb was a mix of riding and hiking. In my pre-rides, I’d been able to climb this part of Columbine, but after nearly 50 miles, my legs were not willing to oblige. I climbed what I could and walked what I couldn’t. I was getting further and further behind my splits. I saw Ken to the side of the road, next to a Jeep. A big grin on his face, he gave us a hearty “Go get ’em!” and “Dig deep!” Eventually the top flattens out a bit, and you can see the trail leading to the aid station – which still seemed like a long way away. I buckled down, and continued to climb. By now, I was close to 45 minutes behind my split. I knew I wouldn’t have time to stop at the top. I reached the Columbine aid station, but instead of rolling up to it, I followed the turn-around loop and immediately started back down the mountain. I shook my remaining water bottle, and estimated I had about 6 oz left – enough to get me to Lost Canyon, where my crew would give me a refilled bladder and new bottles.
Columbine Descent back to Twin Lakes
I passed what seemed like many riders on the Columbine descent, still climbing and looking most miserable. “You’re almost there!” I told them. I let off the brakes as much as I dared, but didn’t have the confidence to go as fast as I should have. As much time as I’d lost in the Columbine climb, I lost quite a bit in the descent as well.
At Lost Canyon, I didn’t see the yellow umbrella anywhere. I blasted down the road and when I hit the left turn to the gate, I realized I’d missed my crew. I quickly recalculated: I should be at Twin Lakes in 10 minutes and could refill my bottles there. I checked my splits charts. Maybe I didn’t even need my hydration pack bladder to get to the end of the race. Maybe I could make it to the end of the race simply on the bottle refills from the aid stations. It would be tough. Not to mention it was probably not the best of ideas. I had to trust my crew was planning to find me on the course and get me my water.
They were. Jeff told me later that I looked straight at him and blew by. I don’t remember that at all; I was just looking for the yellow umbrella. Brenda realized my mistake immediately, and grabbed Scott: “Get in the truck! Now. You can’t make Twin Lakes, but you can catch her at Pipeline. GO!” And he did. Best crew ever.
I made it to Twin Lakes, desperate to refill my water bottles. A support crew pointed to a tent with several people in light blue shirts. “That’s the Life Time aid station. They’ll give you everything you need!” And they did. Water. Roctane. Bananas. PB & J sandwiches. They refilled my bottles. Offered to lube my chain. I was so grateful. I thanked them and went on my way.
Inbound to Pipeline
The single-track – which seemed to take forever coming down – was very short going up. I made an effort on the short steep climb at the end of the single track, but it was much too loose. I jumped off the bike and hiked as quickly as I could to the top.
From here, I rode as fast as I could. Unfortunately, it was hard to find anyone to partner with on the paved road by the fish hatchery, so I put my head down and pedaled through the wind to Pipeline.
I had lost so much time! I was nearly an hour behind my splits. I knew the cutoff at Pipeline was 3:15pm. I could see the aid station up ahead as I watched my Garmin. 3:13…3:14…3:15… I wasn’t going to make it. I stood out of the saddle and sprinted as hard as I could. I figured if I was making a valiant effort, they simply wouldn’t have the heart to pull me from the race. I could hear cheers as I passed through the aid station. I looked at my Garmin. 3:16. I sprinted harder. Suddenly I heard, “Lisa!! STOP!!!” Scott ran up to me, holding a full bladder for my hydration pack. “Geez! I’ve chased you this far! I can’t chase you anymore!” It was like seeing an angel. He unzipped my Osprey and wiggled the bladder inside. “They didn’t stop you. You need to go. NOW!”
Scott would later tell me that the cutoff was based on chip-time, not clock time. With all the corrals of racers in front of me at the start, my group had rolled past the ‘start’ sensor a full 2 minutes after the gun. I had officially made the last cut-off, by the skin of my teeth.
The Powerline climb was absolutely miserable. I was hurting, and quite honestly, hating life. I could barely push my bike up the first steep incline. The top – which I knew was a false summit – looked so, so far away. I must have looked pretty bad, because an onlooker told me to hang onto the seat and proceeded to drag the bike (and me) up the hill. I tried to tell him “No” and “I can take it from here” but he kept going. He was hiking at a rapid pace and I was barely hanging on. At top of the climb, I stood in the shade with a couple of other guys, taking an exhausted break. “I didn’t ask him to pull me…” I told them. They didn’t seem to care at all. “Good…job…” one guy moaned, and I think he meant it.
Video of me suffering on Powerline climb. (red jersey, dark tights)
I kept my stop as short as possible. As I started pedaling again, the onlooker gave me such a hearty push that I nearly lost control of the bike. I went on to tackle the remaining four (4!) false summits.
During my pre-rides of Powerline climb, I was able to make all the false summits, except that initial steep climb. Now, at 80 miles in, I couldn’t at all, and had to walk to the tops. I looked down at my Garmin – 1 mph! In an entire hour, the mileage had literally ticked from 80 to 81. I was truly hating life. The worst part? By calculating the time and the remaining miles, I knew there was no way I could make it back to the finish in under 12 hours. I wasn’t even to the top of Powerline yet. I had to quickly reset my goal and mindset to finishing as close to 12 hours as possible, and definitely under 13.
I climbed as much as I could on Powerline and passed others whenever I could. It was a mess of suffering all around. On one climb, the guy walking next to me said, “Look…I think we’re almost there…” I told him, “Actually, I think that’s the third of five false summits.” “You’re kidding…” he responded. No. I never kid about false summits.
I lost track of the false summits myself. Eventually, I made it to the 4th or 5th one, and rode the rest of the way to Carter Summit aid station at the top of the final summit.
Inbound to the Finish
The hydration pack was heavy. It felt like 3 full liters of water. I ended up needing the entire amount, so I was grateful for it. I headed toward Sugarloaf, looking forward to the downhill.
The air was chilly, and getting colder as the skies seemed to be getting darker. At the bottom of Sugarloaf, I stopped for several minutes to put on my jacket. This was a really bad idea. Not only did I lose momentum from the Sugarloaf descent, but with the Hagerman Pass climb ahead, I heated up quickly and spent more precious minutes removing my jacket and stuffing it back in the Osprey. Idiot.
The Hagerman climb was long and slow. Eventually I reached the top, after what seemed like another hour. Only St Kevin’s left.
There are a few punchy climbs on St. Kevin’s inbound, and I set my mind to making them all, as I had done in the pre-rides. My legs were cramping badly though, and I just couldn’t make the end of the climbs… even though I could see the top! I pedaled through the cramps as much as I could, but simply couldn’t climb anymore, and had to jump of the bike to walk the last bit of each hill. Again, the long descent was welcome, but surely not fast enough. I was just hoping I could make it back to the finish before 13 hours. Only Boardwalk left, including one short steep climb called “Bitch Hill.” Then the final 6th Street climb that rolls down into the red carpet finish line. I checked the mileage on the Garmin – 100 miles. Only 4 left. Almost there.
The remaining few miles on Boardwalk were a blur. I remember trying Bitch Hill, and having to walk to the top. I remember seeing the cars moving up ahead – that’s when you know you are almost back to Leadville. Take a left at the fairgrounds onto the pavement, then up a bit, then take a right on 6th…and follow the climb up to the medical center. The… last…climb. I stood out of the saddle at the top of the climb, and tried my best to pedal with effort onto the red carpet. I saw David and Jeff and Scott to the right of the finish area, cheering me on. I think the announcer read my number, and people cheered. I’m not really sure. All I remember is seeing Brenda at the end of the red carpet, holding up a Finishers medal. She put it around my neck and said, “Well, you won’t get a hug from Marilee, but you’re getting a hug from me, and that’s just as good.” She gave me a giant hug and I was done. 12 hours and 50 minutes later…I was done.
Immediately after the race, people start asking, “So, are you gonna do it again next year??” It is some sort of sick humor. At the time, your response is, “No way! Never again.” I’d even texted a colleague & fellow cyclist who’d been tracking my race progress: “If I ever say I’m going to do this again, shoot me.”
A friend met her goal of finishing under 12 hours, after a previous attempt in 2013. I was proud of her! “Great work…unfinished business,” she posted to my Facebook page, “I would come and crew for you any day.” I looked up her 2013 finishing time – it was identical to mine: 12 hours and 52 minutes. That solidified my resolve to return. Look for me in 2018 – I’ll be there!
Tips from Others
- Find a gear you can sustain. Then pick one gear lower.
- Find others to pace with on the paved road by the Fish Hatchery (between Powerline and Pipeline). Wait if you have to. Don’t go at it alone in the wind.
- Powerline has five false summits (this one was invaluable for mental preparedness!)
Nutrition – a gel every ~45 minutes (PowerGel, HoneyStinger, Gu). Sleeve of Cliff Shot Bloks up Columbine. ½ banana, chips at Lost Canyon inbound. ½ banana, ½ PB&J, chips at Twin Lakes inbound.
Fluids – started with 1.5L water in pack, 24oz bottle water, 20oz bottle Roctane. New 24oz water and 20oz Roctane at Lost Canyon outbound. Refilled 24 oz water, 20oz Roctane at Twin Lakes inbound (+ paper cups of Roctane). Bladder refilled w/ 3L water at Pipeline inbound aid station.
Nature breaks – one pit stop to visit the trees between Twin Lakes and Lost Canyon
- The Best Crew Ever – Brenda, Scott, Jeff – for the amazing support, and especially to Scott for chasing me down on the course to bring me much-needed water!
- David & Lovina Pivin – for taking care of the kids, so we could spend the 1 ½ weeks in Colorado
- Emily Pivin – for holding down the fort while Jeff spent the week in Colorado to crew for us
- Emma & Dana Pivin – for being understanding and supportive, as I missed games, events, and other fun activities during my training
- David Pivin – for being a supportive coach and husband. Thanks for supporting me!
- All my friends, family, and fellow cyclists who supported me in my training, tracked me during my race, and sent me notes of support and encouragement. You all rock! I’m a lucky girl. 😀