Matt Takes on the Leadville 100: Video #4
By Matt Gough, SB Staffer, Ultimate Badass and Leadville 100 Finisher
And just like that it’s done. The Leadville Race Series Leadville 100 MTB race is a ridiculously hard undertaking that attracts only the most moonstruck and feral mountain bikers. Thanks to the good folks Kuat, Sports Basement (hey, that's us!), and From the Ground Up, I was able to count myself among the (un)fortunate 1,400 or so who found themselves lining up at the start gate this year.
"105 miles of riding, 12k feet of climbing, taking place at an elevation of 10,000+ feet above sea."
The day was a doozy, but before I talk about my experience, let's ground ourselves in the facts of this undertaking: 105 miles of riding, 12k feet of climbing, taking place at an elevation of 10,000+ feet above sea. Any one of these elements would make for a hard day on their own, and when you combine them into a single event you can’t help but come to the conclusion that this race is going to be miserable. And yet, even with an acute awareness of the pain you’re about to subjugate yourself to, you still don’t have any idea of how much it’s going to hurt, how much will be demanded of you, and how strong the desire to quit will be.
Things went well for me during the first 40 miles. My pace felt good, the nutrition plan I’d implemented seemed to be working, and my spirits were high. I figured the hype and difficulty of the race had been overblown for marketing purposes; I was going to saunter across the finish line with plenty of time and energy to spare. Alas, as life goes so does bike racing. The good times are inevitably followed by the bad times, and these bad times were Pompeii-esque.
"I came down the mountain a different mammal with a set of new and terrible attributes: 1) My legs weren’t working 2) My lungs were toast 3) My stomach was in a knot 4) My morale was shattered."
Things came apart when I got to the Columbine mine climb. Columbine takes you from an elevation of 9.5k feet to 12.5k feet over 7 miles of what starts out as fire roads and ends as rocky, narrow, STEEP single track. Pedaling up terrain like this is hard in any circumstance, but at 12,000 feet above sea level, a whole new set of challenges are introduced. Your brain goes funny and confusion strikes, you can’t catch your breath even when you stop moving, and your skin tingles and burns. Your body is telling you that something is desperately wrong, and yet you still have 500 feet of elevation to trudge up. On top of what was probably the early stages of altitude sickness, I’d crashed near the base of Columbine while making a turn, and lost a decent amount of skin on my left knee. Everyone knows that the best way to climb is while bleeding, so at least I had that going for me. I was a mess, but I climbed and I trudged and I made it to the summit of Columbine where I was greeted by food, drink, and a moment of respite. But it wasn’t enough, I came down the mountain a different mammal with a set of new and terrible attributes: 1) My legs weren’t working 2) My lungs were toast 3) My stomach was in a knot 4) My morale was shattered. Columbine had shelled me.
"I came to the conclusion that not finishing the race would feel almost as bad as actually racing, and would likely last much longer."
The jolly man at mile 40 had disappeared and his replacement looked and felt like a gas station bathroom at 2am. I rolled into the next aid station around mile 61 and didn’t think I would finish the race. I figured my crash would be a good enough excuse to quit the race - after all, no one would fault me for dropping out due to an injury. I pedaled along slowly and played over different scenarios of quitting, how various people in my life who’ve been with me on this journey would react, and how I would feel. After much pondering, muttering, and swearing, I came to the conclusion that not finishing the race would feel almost as bad as actually racing, and would likely last much longer. I resolved to try and finish the stupid thing, and as fortune would have it, all my musings about quitting had distracted me enough that another 10 miles had passed.
With my course of action decided, I settled in to finish my suffering. Aside from a few more terrible climbs - powerline fire road around mile 80 and that 3.5 mile cement road can get fuc*** bulldozed, things progressed without much fanfare. I reached the aid station at mile 90 with about an hour and 45 minutes left before the 12 hour cut off and found my second (or third, or fifth, or maybe 8th) wind of the day and finished the race strong-ish.
"On my right sat a man who looked like he’d just crawled out of one of Utah’s salt lakes. On my left, a small puddle of what was probably vomit cooled in the late afternoon breeze."
I wheelied across the finish line as a rebuke to the race and all those who finished before me. Sure, their fitness, pacing plan, gear choice, and nutrition strategy may have been better than mine, but at least the spectating pre-teens would know who the real cool guy was. In the finishers corral I was greeted by a crowd of race volunteers who were tasked with putting medals around necks, applying wet towels to hot backs, and offering words of praise and celebration to the crowd of dehydrated masochists. After collecting my praise, photo, and medal from a friendly volunteer, I shuffled over to the sidewalk to sit down and soak in the moment. On my right sat a man who looked like he’d just crawled out of one of Utah’s salt lakes. On my left, a small puddle of what was probably vomit cooled in the late afternoon breeze. As I marinated in sweat and waves of shock rolling through my body, I vowed never to do this race again. “There’s no point in hurting myself like this”, I thought. “Why does anyone put themselves through this?” I also thought, “how will I get back to my hostel? It’s 3 blocks away and these legs are past their warranty” and “sleeping on this sidewalk wouldn’t be so bad”.
"Now that it’s been a couple of days and I’ve had some time to reflect, I think I might break my short lived vow and actually do this bat sh*t crazy race again."
Somehow I made it back to my hostel. I don’t recall much from the rest of the day, aside from moments where I emerged from my fugue state to eat pizza, drink liters of water, and scrub dirt out of my open wound.
Now that it’s been a couple of days and I’ve had some time to reflect, I think I might break my short lived vow and actually do this bat sh*t crazy race again. The town of Leadville, CO is a lovely place, the people who do this race are friendly and welcoming, and the race itself presents a fascinating challenge. There are so many possible combinations to optimize for performance, time, or fun. I could be fitter, run a different bike set up, eat different food, pace differently, and on and on and on. For a goal oriented nerd who rides bikes and likes a challenge, it doesn’t get much better than that. I completed the 2021 Leadville 100 mtb race in 11 hours, 23 minutes, and 16 seconds and finished 811/1416. With some moderate tweaks, I think I could go faster, make it hurt less, and have more fun throughout the day. Unfortunately there’s only one way to test these theories, so I suppose this means I’ll see you soon Leadville.
That’s awesome! I really enjoyed your race summary, and congratulations on finishing. That event is a monster!On September 03, 2021