Racing the Leadville Trail 100 MTB
by Gordo Byrn
One of the challenges for an athletic parent is maintaining excellence in the face of the realities presented by a growing family. Some quit competition, others get squirrelly, a few get divorced... I tried a year of cycling only.
Being in my 40s, even when I have the time, I often can’t recover from what my mind tells me is “proper” training. In preparing for Leadville I dropped my running for the summer (close to zero) and was able to train (on the bike) like my 30s.
Many of us delay the realities of age by changing sports -- pro cyclists coming to ironman, triathletes learning to nordic ski for the Birkie or regular folks trying to qualify for the Boston Marathon.
When I think back on the race, I’m more proud of my preparation than my performance. In April, I crashed because I was unable to get my full suspension mountain bike over a curb! I was, and remain, skills-challenged. While we joke that some people “run like a cyclist” -- I certainly “descend like a triathlete.”
Across the summer, I only missed one key session and was able to manage my weight safely within one pound of my race goal. In case you’re interested, my tactics for achieving race weight are: lighter first breakfast, no beer, and no frozen yogurt. Beyond that, I keep myself at a strong training weight year-round and maintain a focus on personal health.
The Leadville race experience kicks off with the athlete briefing. There were 1,000 endurance junkies packed into Leadville’s high school gym and Ken Chlouber led us through a program that reminded me of a Christian revival. Ken has a big heart and is an example of the huge impact one person can have when they refuse to quit.
Everything that I’ve written on triathlon racing is magnified at Leadville. There is a mass, downhill start, at altitude, that leads into a 10-minute climb that steepens as you ascend. Bombing downhill at over 30 mph, I was content to slide back in the group and was outside the top 200 (!) at the start of the first climb. In the first 10 minutes of climbing, I passed 100 riders, nearly all of whom were deep in the red.
Many of my fellow competitors were quick to discover that lactate clearance is a little different at 9,000 to 12,500 feet! Absent elite fitness, if you load up then you are toast. To keep myself out of the red, I decided to walk the five steepest pitches on the course. Quite by accident, I discovered that the walk breaks opened up my hips and released muscles that started to twitch from fatigue.
I raced blind (no power, no HR) and would like to have power for next year. Being an absolute beginner, my strategy was to “pace” for five hours and, hopefully, drill it for the final 25 miles. With a smile plastered across my face, I was rocking along at a pace that would, historically, get me into the top 10. At that stage, I realized that my nutrition had ejected from my down tube! Note for next year -- everything important in my pockets!
I begged some calories from athletes around me and ended up with about 300 kcal per hour across the day. That’s far less than the 600 kcal per hour that I used to eat (on the bike) as an elite IMer. However, the altitude and my slow descending means that my average output is lower than triathlon. To prepare for Leadville, I raced two roughly 4-hour bike races and was able to get by on less than 200 kcal per hour. One thing IMers understand is race nutrition.
Things went great for four hours, then got tough for an hour, then kinda sucked for a couple of hours!
I gave away a good chunk of time in the last 25 miles, as I had zero interest in suffering. I’ll need to tweak my race strategy to save mojo for the finish. Now that I’m not racing for the win, I don’t care enough to hurt.
To combat my declining capacity to suffer, I’ve been “racing” elite women for the last few years. My stretch goal was to break the women’s course record (7:31:46, 2011, Rebecca Rusch). I managed to get myself home under the record (7:29) but Rebecca broke her own record, while dropping me in the process. Respect!
Providing you don’t crash, recovery is fast from bike racing. Five days out from the race I set a five minute personal best on a local 30-minute climb. That’s a long, long way from being unable to walk properly for a week after my first ironman.
Leadville was better, tougher and bigger than I expected. Don’t wait too long to give it a shot. I suspect it will get tougher and tougher to gain entry. If you don’t get in via the lottery then your best bet would be to spend a week in the Rockies, race the Silver Rush 50 qualifier and check out the course (split across a few days).
I’ll be back in 2013 for another shot at chasing Rebecca’s record...
Gordo is the founder of Endurance Corner. You can find his personal blog here.