Selene finally races the 100-mile, high-altitude mountain bike race.
“Have you ever done Leadville?”
If I’ve been asked that once, I’ve been asked 100 times. Tell someone that you race mountain bikes and that’s one of the first questions that leaves their lips. I’ll be honest; I’ve often been a little annoyed by it. You can tell them you’ve raced on the moon, and they’re just not all that impressed, maybe even a little disappointed, that you’ve never done the big Race Across the Sky.
While I’m being honest, I’ll confess that I’ve never really had any interest in doing Leadville. I just didn’t really believe the hype. It also has a bit of a reputation as a “roadie course,” so I didn’t think it would be interesting. Plus it’s an out and back, which never really appeals to me. So yeah. Leadville. Whatever.
I was wrong. Really wrong. Leadville is actually all that it’s hyped to be and maybe then some—brutally hard, amazingly beautiful, very humbling, a bit of a road race, more of a mountain bike race than you think, and the kind of experience that seeps under your skin and becomes a little (or for some folks a big) part of you.
I found myself heading to Leadville this year because that’s where Rebecca Rusch (the Queen of Leadville as well as pain) and I were launching her new book I co-authored, Rusch to Glory. Specialized had offered me a media slot to race their brand new Era (a sweet full-suspension women’s-specific 29er). How could I not go?
So, I’ve been preparing physically since, oh, February. But mentally? Not so much. I’ve never been there and didn’t really know what to expect. At the last moment my housing fell through, I had zero support, and I wasn’t 100% sure what bike I was going to have at my disposal. Hell, just a few weeks out, Reba and I were starting to freak out that we might not have our books done in time.
Then in a blink of an eye it was here. I was actually going. The books were in. I had a bike and a place to stay and a race entry. And I was scared to death. There’s so much hype around Leadville that it’s hard to not get tangled up in it. Columbine climb at 12,424 feet of elevation. Powerline (Dear God. That one deserves the hype…especially on the way back). It could snow. It could sleet. It could freezing rain. It could be a 100 degrees. Maybe all in the same day. I packed like I was going off to battle and I had nearly as much trepidation.
After much car and plane travel (and delays), I rolled into town very late Tuesday night thoroughly exhausted and feeling utterly alone. I awoke a bit more positive, but still overwhelmed. I needed to get my bike and hopefully see at least some of the course. I ventured downtown to the Specialized pop-up store to find that my bike would be ready in about an hour. So I moseyed up the block and into an old Westerny looking restaurant for some huevos rancheros. As I dug into my eggs, my ears were filled with anxious race talk from patrons at the other tables.
“Yeah, I didn’t make the cut off last year. Came undone on Powerline.” “I’m volunteering this year. Gonna try again next year.” “We’re from Atlanta, the elevation is crushing us.” I drained my coffee mug and slipped away from the nervous din. Back at the pop up store my Era was ready to roll. Now I just needed to figure out where to roll with it. My first stop was Reba’s place up on 9th street.
I rolled up to find her on the massage table, a couple of her friends hanging out on the sofa chitchatting while she got her knots worked out. She wouldn’t have time to ride today. My heart sunk a little. I’m a big girl and can and often do ride alone. But today I really wanted some company to get away from my own head. “Brian and Dan are riding some of the course at noon today,” Lauren said, looking up from her phone. “I’ll text them and let them know you’re coming.”
My heart should’ve lifted but it sank a little more into my belly. I was feeling insecure and overwhelmed. I knew Brian, who is Mr. GU and very nice, but not Dan. I’ve never ridden with either and I really didn’t want to slow them down on their shake out ride. I nearly said forget it but I was desperate for company, so I decided to suck up my insecurities and show up. It’s probably the best decision I made all week.
They say in Leadville that once you toe the line you’re part of the Leadville family. It would be easy to roll your eyes at that, since it’s an Ironman-level enterprise at this point. But honestly, I couldn’t have ended up better taken care of had my own mother been in town. You quickly realize while you’re out there that it’s not you against all these other people in town, but it’s all of you against the Leadville 100. The sense of mutual respect and camaraderie is palpable.
To that end, I not only had a really wonderful ride with Brian (who was gunning to break 9 hours) and Dan (who was nursing some cracked ribs and would be supporting) that gave me a glimpse of the start and the finish (four miles false flat and incline…sadistic really), but the guys at the GU house, Dan and Yuri in particular, took me under their wing for the duration. They served up amazing breakfasts and dinners and offered me a home away from home where I could be in the happy company of others and out of my own head. They also offered to support me on course.
Which was awesome…and mind-boggling. See Brian, being the CEO of GU and all, is let’s say a bit analytical. After the ride, he showed me the course profile he had printed out complete with predicted times he would hit key points on the course along with every single bit of fuel/hydration he would put in his maw along the way. I was dumbfounded. I’m screwed was all I could think. “What do you want me to have for you at those points?” Dan asked looking over my shoulder. I stared back at him blankly. I consciously lowered my voice to sound casual and confident. “I’m still sorting that out.”
I left with my head spinning. It was like Ironman all over again…walking around desperately trying to wrap my slippery monkey brain around what I would need on all these points along a course I had never even seen let alone ridden. After hours of mental gymnastics, I lost my mind and bought six Honey Stinger waffles (to complement eight PowerBar Blast packs and seven bars—seriously), a super light rain jacket, and four more water bottles. Finally, late into the afternoon I’d had enough of myself. Selene, it’s a big bike ride. Carry 1000 calories and two bottles. Have another 1000 calories and 8 bottles on course. Look at the weather and carry a rain jacket if it looks iffy and be done with it already. And with that it was like I was Sisyphus and had finally gotten that damn boulder up the hill. Relief.
The next morning I woke up at 6:30 am and kitted up just as I would for race day, filling my pockets with exactly what I would carry and went out to do my shake out ride. Summer mornings resemble early winter in these high mountain towns. I wanted to be sure I wouldn’t be cripplingly cold off the start, yet still comfortable as the day warmed. I felt just right in a light base layer, jersey, arm warmers, vest, shorts and high socks. I went home and laid out everything just as I would put it on the next morning.
After waking up every hour on the hour, my eyes popped open for good 4:15 race day morning. I was nervous, but not insanely so. I had prepped all I could. I was confident in my clothing selection. I had support. And I felt good. I cooked up some waffles, slathered them in almond butter and Greek yogurt, nuked a side of veggie sausages and washed it down with some Maxwell House left for me by the landlord. Then I rolled down to the GU house, conveniently located right on the start, and stayed warm until it was close to go time. At just a few minutes before 6, I warmed up by going up and down a side street three times for luck and lined up among a sea of buzzing racers.
It’s the only race I’ve ever done that has a downhill start, which is as sketchy as it sounds, and always leads to a crash or two that can take you out before you even start. Survive that and before you know it, you’re onto the first climb and the day is on in earnest.
I had made one single promise to myself: Don’t go into the red. You can’t recover at 10,000 feet. I learned that the hard way the opening stage at Breck Epic two years ago. I would ride my ride and not worry about anyone else. I very much wanted a sub-9 hour belt buckle and I knew the only way I would get one was if I didn’t blow myself up.
I’d love to give a blow by blow of the day. But it felt otherworldly…surreal. And honestly I’m still processing it as it buzzes around my head like a dream. The climbs were endless. The descents even longer. And since it’s an out and back, I was acutely aware that every long descent was going to come back in spades later that afternoon.
I was never alone, but very often a bit lonely, surrounded by fellow racers who were friendly, but not friends. I was riding hard, but my motivation to push myself wasn’t particularly high. So I was happy midway through the day when I heard a female cough that I recognized. It was Rebecca, who was pacing her friend Lisa for her first (hopefully) sub-9 finish. “Hey!” I called out as she rolled next to me. Just being around a friend was the emotional lift I needed.
We spent the rest of the race jockeying back and forth. One of us would go off or drop back only to find each other again a few miles down the road, each of us staying our course, riding our rides. We lost each other in the final aid station before the climb back over Powerline, which in retrospect, is the worst place to find yourself without a friend.
It’s endless. Actually it’s worse than endless. It seemingly ends about 10 times before it actually for real ends. And this is where the wheels started coming off. The odometer was pushing into the nineties and I could no longer do math. I was convinced I had blown my sub-9 goal and as everything started to hurt and shut down, I wasn’t sure I cared.
I’m firmly convinced this must be where people lose hours…and their will…and those precious buckles…in those final 10 to 15 miles when you’re drained beyond comprehension but there’s still an hour or more left to go and your belly wants no more food and your mind wants to get the hell out of the dust and wind and just be done but your legs won’t cooperate.
And this is where I found Rebecca again. She rolled up and I was transported back to Brazil where we’d pushed so far beyond our limits day after day that suddenly 7 or 8 more miles seemed easy. She smiled and pressed on, calling for Lisa to dig deep. I joined her. We hit the pavement and I could see it…the red carpet and the finish line. I wanted nothing more than to hit that red carpet and be done.
Somewhere, somehow, I found that magical race day gear and stood up on my pedals and went. The red carpet seemed to get further and further away. I pushed harder, everything aching and threatening to shut down for good. And then I hit it. The finish, eight hours and thirty nine minutes. I stopped dead and slumped over my bars as depleted as I’ve ever felt…and as satisfied too. I did it. I finished the race and got the big buckle. (For the record, Lisa did too…smashing her previous PR).
Leadville, you’re for real. And it was real. I can’t say I’ll ever be back but I also know you’ll be with me, deep inside, for the rest of my days wherever I go.