Tuesday, August 18, 2015

A 2015 Leadville Trail 100 MTB Experience

As promised, Sam has written up his thoughts on the recently finished 2015 Leadville Trail 100 MTB. It's always an interesting place to be - on the other side of an event like this - as a spectator, having opinions and experiences of my own. But, I've definitely given my side as an observer on events like this in the past, so this will mostly focus on Sam's experience as a racer in the event (though I'm sure I'll put in my two cents occasionally).

I will share though that this is now my second year of silently and (honestly) unintentionally stalking the Hammer (aka Fatty's wife, Lisa) in Leadville. It happens so innocently in such a small community -- really. I just find myself standing at a tent behind her and then I just happen to be standing in front of another display where she is also present. I'll admit, it does sound stalker-ish.
There is slight fear in me that there will be a restraining order filed at some point, which does cause some concern - especially because my quick snaps seem to be getting closer, but maybe one of these days I'll actually try speaking to her instead of just silently observing. Truly, I am harmless though.
This was a three-for: Purple Arrow (hard to make out, so you'll just have to take my word for it): the Queen of Pain herself, Rebecca Rusch; Blue Arrow (even more challenging to identify as he's behind someone): Fatty; Red Arrow: the Hammer
There's just that part of me that doesn't know what to say to someone I admire or look up to; so instead, I just look like some goofball, quietly taking photos (how does one have the reserves to stay calm when a crazy person standing five feet away is giggling and snapping pictures??). I've just never been that person to walk up to someone and disturb what they're doing, and so, instead, I watch and figure maybe somehow being near her will cause her amazingness to rub off on me? Maybe?

But, anyway, it wasn't all Hammer sightings for this trip (I was actually very close to Rebecca Rusch at one point too - so close I could've taken a moment to say something, but I didn't). In fact, we were there for a purpose. Sam was trying to crush his finish time from last year and complete the race for the first time on a single speed. It wasn't going to be easy, but it was worth a shot.

So, without further delay, here is Sam's replay of the happenings on race day in Leadville this year.
In 2014, who knew where I was headed. It was a dramatic year, quite busy with moving, renovating, and changing jobs - and then coming back to the previously left employment position. I'd also completed the early qualifier for Leadville by racing the Barn Burner in Flagstaff. Which, brings us to the present: the Leadville Trail 100 MTB.

Very early in the year I had decided to do this race on a single speed - 104 miles, one speed, and no suspension. It didn't sound like a bad idea, so I figured, why not?

The weeks leading up to the race itself were highly dramatic and stressful. I swear I had the flu 4 times, then a cold. I had also started a new job the week before the race and had a family member fly in who was supposed to be coming to watch our dogs while we were gone, which ended up blowing up in our faces just hours before we left. [G.E. note: Yes, it was a bit stressful trying to figure out what to do with our pups, but thankfully we have awesome friends who volunteered to help us out.]

August 15: Oddly enough, on the big day I felt pretty damn good.  I had trained like crazy since winter, riding fast, fast, fast road rides, chasing faster riders, lots of single speed, but per usual not much actual mountain biking. [G.E. note: True story. I will attest that Sam did lots of riding this year, but oddly didn't seem to be on the mountain bike much.]

This being my second year riding Leadville, I did not have the same nerves I did last year, so the morning rolled around, and I was pretty calm. The bike was setup well, and I even tarped it the night before so moisture would not collect on the metal bits. [G.E. note: And, because it tends to rain in spurts in the mountains without much notice.]

I had an oddly unbalanced breakfast of half a bagel, some fruit, and a small blueberry muffin. Meh, I wasn't overly concerned because I'd be pounding a GU pack every 30 mins for the next 10+ hours, so who cares?
By 6 am, I was nicely settled next to the containment rail in the orange corral [G.E. note: riders are separated into corrals based on prior series finish times], already needing to pee, but not wanting to break the seal (I would wait at least 30 miles to do that).  G.E. was there, camera in hand, having eaten half a banana, and ready to go. It was oddly warm this year, already in the 40's near start time, so it was looking good (seriously, why was I not nervous?).

Around 6:15, Dave Wiens kid sings the national anthem [G.E. note: Ben Wiens], some rhetoric bellows out of the speakers, then some music, and at 6:30 we are off!  Slowly.
It was highly uneventful at the beginning, as it's a rolling start out of town and it was impossible for me to be too frantic with only one gear. It's probably the most demoralizing thing when everyone initially blows past because you spin out at about 16mph/25kph.  Needless to say, we made it to the base of Saint Kevins (pronounced: key-vins).

The march had begun and I was feeling good with my 33x17 gearing, my carbon, rigid fork, and custom G.E. painted frame. [G.E. note: The paint job was not great considering the time/tools used, but it was colorful.]  About 100 yards into an early climb, I spotted a fellow rider, frantic on the side with his chain in hand and yelling for help.

Ugh. I stop. I don't want to stop because I know that I need to keep moving, but how could I ignore someone asking for help?

This guy is shaking as he tells me that he "chain sucked," and then proceeded to break a solid link in the chain with his tool instead of using the king link that is there for this exact reason. He is now attempting to re-insert the pin he took out, which is NOT intended for re-insertion.

Sadly, I have done exactly what he was attempting to do in the past myself [G.E. note: Yes, and I was the "benefactor" of that mistake - but that is all in the distant past and a tale for another time and place.], and here I was riding this huge event and knowing that I had to try to help him.

As I started to hold the chain for him, a couple of nice women near the end of the passing riders offered an extra king link they had with them. I was grateful that one of the riders had a link because neither he nor I were prepared for this sort of fix.

It took about 10-15 minutes, but we got him back riding again, despite his concerns that he was now not going to be able to finish the race. He continued to talk about how much training he had done and was quite upset, but I told him he just didn't have the luxury of stopping or screwing around. He would have to ride hard to finish. I wished him luck, and pushed him on his way.
This crew members shirt said it all.
This was a dark moment. A moment of realization. I was now in last place - literally. The sweep crew were on their 4-wheelers, sitting behind me in silence.  I knew the chase was on - just me and my one gear!

I proceeded to hammer up Kevins, and for about one mile I did not see anyone. Then, pay dirt. I started swallowing up riders - one, two, ten, 100 - until we peaked Kevins.  I knew at this point that I would not stop much at all. I no longer had that right to stop, just as I had preached to my broken-chain friend.

After Kevins, I rolled down hill, which for a single speed really is a roll because once in the 20 mph/32 kph range, there's no point in even trying to pedal.  This would also roll me up the Sugarloaf climb a bit.

At this point, I had realized my sweet spot on a single speed seems to be in the range of a 2-4% grade, at which point it's easy to feel like superman compared to other riders. It's just the reality of being on a single speed though - when there's only one gear, I have no choice but to push, so I would pass riders as though they were still.  I hammered up the climb, then carefully flew down the Powerline as best I could without suspension or a reasonable gear to get some speed.

After descending Powerline, the path leads into Pipeline and then Twin Lakes. I saw G.E. at the Pipeline aid station, snapping pics. We had already agreed that I would not stop here unless it was absolutely necessary. She yelled out, asking if I was okay, I nodded and proceeded on through. [G.E. note: Sam was smiling here as he rolled through, but it's always a little interesting as someone waiting. You wait and you look and you hope for your rider to be coming around the bend or over the hill, and then suddenly it's over in a flash.]
Pipeline is its own challenge as it is totally different from other areas of the race.  It's nearly all flat pavement, and jeep road all the way to the dam. Then at the base of the Columbine climb we've hit about mile 40.  Last year I was able to hook up with some other riders and make a small peloton so we could break each other. This time was different because of my gearing. I tried to latch onto a couple of riders, but they were maintaining more in the mid 20mph range, and I could not force myself above 19-20mph, so it was tough all the way to the base of the big climb.

At the bottom of Columbine, I did not stop. I had kept going through the Twin lakes aid station, knowing I had enough food to hit the 52 mile crest on top of Columbine at about 12,500 feet.  To this point, I was physically feeling great compared to last year, and the bike was doing great.

[G.E. note: We had discussed me being at the base of Columbine before Sam went up in case he needed anything. Last year, I'd thought it had taken me so long to get here because I'd been waiting for other crew for another rider; but this year, even after rushing to get there, I still missed him. I've determined that the ride for racers between these two spots is too short and the travel for crew members too long to be able to connect here it seems - at least on the way out. I kept waiting to see Sam coming around the corner, only to soon find that there were no more racers coming - as time had been called at the check point.]

My upcoming struggle became sitting behind people who had the ability to spin at about 2.5 mph. My gear ratio would not allow this, so instead I stood and pedaled in slow motion. There was a lot of this happening the entire Columbine climb, as it isn't always easy to pass.

I was doing better though than last year. I was faster and passed when I needed to and was able. I also didn't get the sick altitude feeling until about three quarters of the way up (which was an improvement from last year).

There are a couple of sections during which, for regular folk like me, we walk. I walked them just like the rest of the riders around me. When I rolled into the turn around at the top of the climb, I spent one minute getting water refilled, and grabbed all the GU that people were handing out.  I was on my way home!
I love seeing all the different types of bikes and riders during races. These "chicken helmet" tandem riders seemed to be smiling a lot during the race.
The descent was pretty fast for me, but I'm a really, really bad descender. Compounded with that is my rigid front fork, which began to destroy my hands as the day was wearing on and I continued to drop down the mountain.  It went as smooth and as fast as I could have imagined, and I had caught and passed two other single speeders that I had briefly spoke to on the way up.  My goal at that point was to keep them behind me, by continually moving.

[G.E. note: At this point, Sam's mom had been emailing me nearly constantly, asking if I'd seen him. Then, she said that she saw he had just crossed Pipeline via a Twitter update. I was so confused because I hadn't seen Sam come off of Columbine yet and I knew he didn't have any GU left. Eventually, we figured out that she was receiving late notifications and that it had been from his first pass through on the outbound trip. Argh.]

At the end of the Columbine descent, I met up with G.E., who was standing across from a Specialized tent. The guys were there, offering quick fixes for anyone in need. G.E. hooked me up with my second half of the GU ration, more water, and some very quick photos. [G.E. note: It is not easy to be single-person crew and single-person photographer for the same rider, I have to say. Thank goodness for the help of the Specialized guy across the way!]

The Specialized guy pulled trash from my back pocket and tried to help G.E. who was a bit flustered in the moment. I told G.E. that I had lost one of my water bottles going up Columbine.  I'm so damn short that my frame won't allow two water bottles inside the diamond, but I do have a lower mount beneath my down tube which allows me to carry two. When I had pulled the bottom bottle at one point, I skimmed my hand on the front tire, and  dropped it, so I was now down to only one bottle.
Sam's send off from Columbine. I thanked this guy again and again as he was super helpful in my moment of trying to figure out what I was supposed to be doing for Sam.
A quick push off from the Specialized tent guy and I was moving again. [G.E. note: I feel badly that I didn't get his name. All three of the guys here were fantastic though!]  I had all the food I would need for the rest of the miles, so I was back on my way quickly.

I continued my travel back toward "home." All those road miles - something some wouldn't expect for a mountain bike race. This time it was different. Once again, I was doing a bit better and I came up on the back side of a large 30 person peloton and took refuge. About three minutes in, I could see the front guy trying to signal someone to come up and lead, but nobody would take it.  I lurched to the front with my one gear rolling at about 15mph, and decided I would lead.

Sadly, I was pulling away from this group, but I couldn't slow for them and many seemed to be dropping back. Another guy hooked up with me who was a self-professed terrible climber.  We worked together until we reached the single track area.

The single track became a track of frustration.  Once I reached this point, I got stuck behind some more Sunday pedalers, drifting along at their own fantastically slow pace, and I was nearly riding up them the whole way.  Somehow I still PR'ed this whole section, so I must have been really slow last year.
At the inbound/return to Pipeline. I could see Sam was getting tired, but he looked much better than last year at this same spot in the race.
Even though they aren't far apart from each other, G.E. managed to meet me back at Pipeline before I would head back up to Powerline. This would be our last meet up at about mile 72. She hooked me up with a water refill, and I had picked up a new water bottle from one of the aid people handing out GU/Roctane liquid about 100 ft. before I saw her. She is my "crew." One person crews don't get any credit. There is actually quite a bit of hiking in some spots and carrying lots of stuff around, sometimes worrying, and other times some photography. Sometimes I think it might be as challenging as the ride. [G.E. note: Um, I don't think crewing is anywhere near as challenging as the ride, but there's a decent amount of hauling stuff and walking for sure - especially when moving around to different locations.]

At this point, I'm now headed to Powerline.  I walked it last year, and I surely knew I would this year with no spinning gear to power me up it. It's a long, hot, frigging walk up to mile 80.

There wasn't much eventful to tell here. It's hard, hot walking, super dusty, and a few brave folks trying to ride very slowly up it, but it was generally failure.  I continued to walk, and walk some more.  Finally we crest and can get the hell out of there. With somewhere around 24 miles left to ride, I'm beat. When I hit the mid-70 mile marker, all the good feeling had gone out of me. The cramping had begun in my quads from the extreme single speed mashing effort, I was tired, full of GU, and all I wanted was water and to finish the race.

Finally, I reach the Sugarloaf downhill before climbing up the back side of Kevins. There's still some hike-a-bike here and there, but we are moving well, and I'm seeing a ton of my group that I had seen most of this half of the day. The climb was not too terrible, and we were finally starting to get out of there.

The last twelve miles includes the decent of Kevins. It is rocky, but as a rider, you simply don't care anymore. I went as fast as I could and got clear out into the plains, which lead me to the 100 mile mark (will this ever end?), then to a road crossing, where the route puts racers through one more single mile climb in the dirt.

This last dirt climb puts riders out onto the pavement for a couple of miles, after which we turn a few times and make that final right turn onto the boulevard. It's such a great feeling to be here, but it also inflicts one last CLIMB to the finish for a half mile. [G.E. note: Why does every race do this? It's as though you haven't been punished enough during the ride, so the organizers put that last climb right at the end, just for good measure.]
Sam approaches the finish line, after passing a couple of other racers.
I was determined to pass everyone in that last section on my pathetic single speed, and I did. [G.E. note: Waiting at the finish line is the most painful part of this race to me. Not only are crew tired themselves from the length of the day, but Sam had wanted to finish the race in sub-10 hours this year (last year, he finished just under 11 hours). It seemed a lofty goal, especially given that he was geared last year and went single this year, but I had high hopes too. As time kept ticking and we closed in on that 10 hour mark at the finish line, I still hadn't spotted him. It was almost as though I could feel the disappointment for him. However, I also realized that he may well have given up his sub:10 hour finish by stopping to help a racer in need. Honestly, I couldn't have been more proud that he chose to help a stranded rider and give up his own goal, rather than achieving his own objective and knowing he'd left someone who needed assistance.]
With a finishing time of 10:29 and some change, I was about 24 minutes faster than last year, and feeling a bit better all around. It leaves room for improvement too, so I suppose I can't be too disappointed in that.
Some additional notes that have no specific place within the tale of the ride itself:
- The bike was flawless, which is fantastic.
- Every other comment was about the frame paint job (kudos to G.E.!) [G.E. note: You asked for late 80s-early 90s inspired paint, and you got it. :O)]
- Most other comments were, "Single speed - Go single speed!"
- There were several mutterings of "Look at that little guy."
- I never saw my confused, broken chain friend again, but I hope he finished.
- No possible way that I could have done this without G.E.'s support, both throughout the year and during this event. [G.E. note: I'm not sure I actually did all that much this year. It's amazing how inept and entirely un-useful I started to feel toward the end.]

An aside:
We were discussing the let down in the aftermath of such a big event like this.  After coming home, we both felt as though everything is more dull. I think the reality is that we haven't really gone anywhere in a long while, and this was an exciting, stressful and fun 2 days of pseudo vacation for us. I honestly plan on going to this race forever if I can, and convincing G.E. to compete in the women's single speed (there was only 1 this year). [G.E. note: Good luck with that plan. I have to get over my terror of rocks first, then we can talk.] Will I do single speed again? I'm not sure.

Thank god I took Monday off!
Many thanks to Sam for sharing his experience again this year. It was easy to see as an observer both years that he was far better off physically this year than last. Even at the finish he was still smiling, when last year I knew he couldn't wait to just get over the finish line. I was aware that he was tired, but it was nice to see that he wasn't completely dead at the end.
One of my personal goals after this race is to try to figure out a way to get photos of riders I end up with on my camera to those who would appreciate them. I take so many as tests and to make sure I have a decent spot (usually this fails me anyway and I end up with horrible photos at the end), but I'd love to be able to share extra shots with the people who were racing and with their friends/family. I'm not entirely sure how I plan to do this, but the idea wheels are turning.

I think it's also important that crew members take care of themselves during the race. This is something I have not yet been successful doing. I get entirely focused on the rider and then realize toward the end of the day that I've not had water or food myself. Somehow, my half of a banana did not sustain me well through the late afternoon hours, and being at higher altitude, water is an important component too. One of these years, I'll have it all down. At least this year I remembered both sunblock and mosquito repellent.

As always, we enjoyed our time in Leadville and it was entirely too short, but we look forward to the possibility of going again to future races.


  1. Wow - what a terrific effort! I'm so impressed that you stopped to help that guy. Congratulations!

    1. I don't want to speak for Sam (yet, here I go anyway), but I think it would be hard to ignore someone who was asking for help, especially if, as a passerby, you were pretty sure you could assist the person. But, it sounds like most people were able to go on past without a problem. I think it would eat at my conscience though. On one hand, I realize it's a race and everyone needs to be prepared; on the other, I think part of being human is helping others when we can, even if it means a bit of inconvenience (or in this case, loss of time) for ourselves.

    2. Well, as much as I would like to just pass by, literally no one was even trying to help the guy. I get it, you came all this way "trained" whatever, and you want to do well, that 10 mins could really mess you up, it's his problem, right? I figure I'm strong enough, that I could spare the 10 mins, or make it up somewhere, and I'm a pretty adept mechanic. Surprisingly, most people who ride or race bikes, have no Idea how to fix them, no clue. So I guess given all the factors, I had no choice but to stop, who else?

  2. 10+ hours on a bike, on what seems like a gruelling route ... Wow. You must be very fit, Sam. You are also very kind ... But we knew that already, from everything GE says about you. You are an amazing guy. Respect!

    1. He is a great guy, Stephanie.

      I cannot imagine completing all the climbing over some of the terrain that the racers do during this event. It's pretty amazing.

  3. Go Team! A great ride, and a great ride report.

    FWIW, if I should ever happen to see either of you at some event someday, I would be probably be too shy to introduce myself also. You guyz is awesome!

    1. {giggling} I'm glad I'm not alone in my sheepishness with approaching people. I suppose it isn't that I would never do it, but I think the circumstances would have to be just right.

      I will say, I'm probably one of the least intimidating (at least I think so - maybe someone who knows me can comment) people on the planet. In fact, when I got my arm tattoos many years ago, I thought maybe that would help with my exterior looking toughness, but apparently most people know I'm just a big softy (Of course, the "tough" factor may have been nullified when I chose butterflies, flowers and an om sign). :O)

  4. It's been 1 week now, and I have had time to reflect, and read tons of online chatter about the event. So many people are complaining about the size, the commercialization that has taken over, the speed of the pro riders, etc. I personally do not care, as it's probably the largest event I will ever participate in, and this is my 2nd run at it. It's fun, hard, hot, cold. You can't take your bike out there if you don't "know" it. I learned this lesson at the SR50 last year, when I had a mechanical issue. You can't take your body out there if it's not read for the effort. Yes, some are doing it very easily, but more are struggling, it's HARD. Everything must line up right, your fitness, toughness, mechanicals, an a bit of luck sometimes. Sure it's commercial now, but that brings more money to the city, and that was the point. I'm saying this here, because I don't want to join the Facebook flame wars, or anything like that. Hey, now where's my "EVL" kit?

    1. The Leadville race is simply growing, and I think all of this is part of those growing pains. They want to bring money to the city, but they also want to keep it feeling like "family." It's tough for it to feel close and family-like when there are 1600+ participants. It's just reality. I still think, at least on the whole, people are friendly and want to chat before and after the race (I won't comment on during, since I have no idea). It will be interesting to see where it all goes.

      As for the E.V.L kit... time will tell. I have to get a decent design working first, then we'll get you your kit. :O)

  5. I LOVE the paint job on the bike!

    Congrats on the solid finish, Sam! Kudos to you, G.E. for being such a great crew! I've watched my family crew and there is just no way to express how grateful you are having someone run around all day and NOT ride their bike or do anything expressly for themselves so you can participate. The great thing is that just being there is a lot of fun (we've volunteered so I do know how it feels).

    1. The painting was a fun experiment! I don't know how well it will hold up, but I suppose time will tell. We figured if it didn't go well, we'd just have the frame stripped and repainted professionally. I think it definitely stood out (for better or worse) in the crowds. :O)

      Hopefully, Sam will get to ride again next year... and hopefully we'll see you out there in 2016? That would be fantastic.

  6. I love the paint job, and it's been very durable thus far (more so than the original), I think it's worth the slight 5-10g weight disadvantage!


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