The Leadville 100 is an annual bike race of 100 miles (a there-and-back trail) on jeep roads around the tiny town of Leadville, Colo. The altitude ranges from 9,000 to 12,600 feet, with a total vertical climb of around 11,000 feet. If you finish in less than nine hours, you get a gold rodeo-style belt buckle. If you finish in less than 12 hours, you get a silver belt buckle. If you don't finish within 12 hours, you don't get squat.
In 1999, I came within 13 minutes of getting that coveted gold belt buckle. So, for 12 months, I planned and plotted, thinking about how I would shave 13 minutes off my time and finally finish under nine hours. So, standing at the starting line on Aug. 12, 2000, it was hard for me to believe that the moment was finally here.
The gun went off at 6:30 a.m. It had rained the day before, so as soon as we hit dirt I felt like there was a little more resistance to the trail better that than dry sand, though. I felt good and started trying to pass people on the wide flat dirt road, knowing that everyone I passed here was one less person I'd have to work around on the climb up St. Kevins.
St. Kevins went off beautifully for me. The rain from the day before meant no loose sand and plenty of traction. I've been climbing well this year and felt faster than ever before.
A quick descent on pavement and a short ride up a singletrack brought me to Sugarloaf. I passed a number of people, and was passed by very few. There were a lot of puddles to dodge, but that was no big deal. I figured it was worth it to ride around them and keep my drivetrain clean. I felt great, I was on track to eclipse the nine-hour mark.
That gold belt buckle will hold my pants up nicely
Back on the pavement that connects Sugarloaf to the Fish Hatchery Twin Lakes Dam section, I caught up with a paceline and we motored along at a good fast clip, much faster than if I would've tried it on my own. I pulled into the first aid station where my family was crewing for me. As they swapped Camelbaks, I checked my time: 2:07.
That's one minute slower than my previous year, when I had dealt with chainsuck on that section. I figured that as long as I didn't lose any more time, I'd be OK and would finish under nine hours.
I pulled into the aid station at the Fish Hatchery-Twin Lakes Dam section in 40 minutes, exactly as I had planned I hadn't lost any more time, though I hadn't gained any, either. I felt more tired than I had hoped to be at that stage. I swapped Camelbaks again, grabbed a sandwich (turkey, heavy on the mayo), got a hug from my kids (having your family crew for you is cool) and took off.
Nelson meets the mountain
Now I was at the most dreaded section of the Leadville 100: the Columbine Mine climb. In about eight miles, you climb more than 3,400 feet, to an elevation of 12,600. Yikes. That said, though, the first five miles of this climb is surprisingly easy. It's a well-groomed, wide dirt road, and not particularly steep (unless youve already ridden 40 miles that day, in which case everything feels steep).
For the final three miles of the climb, though, you're hiking as often as not. And I felt terrible. It hurt like hell to walk, because my right calf just wouldn't loosen up. I couldn't put that foot flat on the ground; every right step had to be on my toes. People I had passed long ago walked right by me. By the time I got to the top, I had lost another 20 minutes from my target time. Nine hours was no longer looking like a sure thing.
Back at the Twin Lakes Aid station, my wife told me I wasn't eating enough. I never do; it's just not easy to eat when youre up that high its hard to chew when youre busy gasping for breath. I stuffed down a Nutri-Grain bar to appease her, told her I'd eat a sandwich at the next stop and rode off, no longer very happy to be in the race.
Well, maybe the silver will do
The Twin Lakes-Fish Hatchery section was a real crisis for me. I kept doing the math, trying to see a way I could still make this under nine hours, but just couldn't see it. Assuming I did this section in an hour, I'd have to do the last section in less than 2.5 hours. I've never even come close to doing it that fast before. I thought to my self, "I wish my family weren't here, so I could bail out of this damn race." At least 15 people passed me on this section.
Somehow I managed to get to the final aid station in the hour I had targeted for myself. Susan asked, "Do you think you can still make it in under nine hours?" "Not without a miracle," I replied, trying to think of a way to gracefully ask for a ride back to Leadville. I couldn't think of one.
"You can make it," Susan said. "Ha," I replied. "Take your jacket," Susan said. "It looks like rain is coming."
"Weighs too much," I said, and rode away.
Forget the belt buckles
Soon it stopped sprinkling and started raining hard. Then the lightning started. It was close, too; the flash and boom were essentially simultaneous, and the powerline above made an audible "zzzztttzzz" after each flash. I weighed my options.
One: Take cover under a tree to at least try to avoid the downpour, as some riders were doing. Nah, that improves my chances of getting hit by lightning.
Two: Turn around and head back down Sugarloaf. Nah, I had already done the brutal hike-a-bike. I didn't want to bail out anymore.
Three: Ride like hell and try to get off the mountain as fast as I could. That sounded good. I must've got an adrenaline rush from the fear (oh yeah, I was big-time scared), because I started passing racers again. Some I passed as they were riding, but most I passed as they were donning their rain gear. Since I didn't have rain gear to concern myself with, I continued on in my shorts and short-sleeved jersey.
Released from any prayer of finishing under nine hours, and having a damn fine excuse thanks to mother nature, I started having a blast. I stopped worrying about time and started enjoying the ride. I rode through puddles intentionally. I sang "Rain Drops Keep Falling on My Head" and "Here Comes the Rain Again" as I passed riders. I squinted and blinked as I downhilled, mud flying into my eyes. I laughed out loud at the volunteers who shouted, "Looking good!" as I rode by. I had a pretty good idea how I mustve looked and it was not good.
The singletrack section was a running river when I got to it. I aced it except in one place where I slid out and gashed my left knee. The water, mud and blood combined for great dramatic effect and left the bottom of half of my leg looking grisly. I admired it greatly, and appreciated the fact that my leg was cold enough that I couldn't feel the cut at all.
As I started my climb up the 3.5-mile paved St. Kevins road, another rider passed me. I stood up and caught his wheel, catching my breath for half a minute or so. I then told him I'd take a turn pulling. It turns out that this guy knew how to work together; we took 30-second turns pulling each other up the hill. We passed 12 people in that stretch
Feeling amazingly good, completely fresh, and probably hypothermic, I noticed my hands were now so cold that I couldn't feel them at all and kept checking to see if they were really on the handlebars. When I needed to push the shift lever for my front derailleur, I found my thumb didn't have the control to push that hard; I had to reach under the handlebar and push with my palm. All this, I thought, was hilarious. Maybe I was delirious.
I pooled enough energy as I crested the boulevard for a sprint and passed one more guy, finishing with a 9:30. I felt wiped out when I crossed the finish line, but warmed up quickly with a shower and went back to the finish line to watch for people I know.
I missed my target time by half an hour, but felt like I had the best race of my life, especially toward the end. Maybe I'll get sub-nine next year, but I'm no longer going to obsess about it. I'm just going to be as fast as I possibly can be. Heres the lesson I learned: Have fun and then well see what happens.
About the author: Elden Nelson, an avid mountain biker from Utah, always seems to get beat up on some of the country's mightiest trails, however always lives to tell about it. Reach him at email@example.com