What happens on the mountain cannot stay on the mountain.
Truth is that the Race Across the Sky has more than one “mountain” to ascend. The biggest challenge of the Leadville 100 mountain bike race isn’t the distance of 104 miles or the climbing of 11,000 plus feet…it’s that all of this takes place between 10,200 and 12,500 feet of elevation. To even show up at the start line and finish, your body must be acclimated to the altitude.
So, how did I end up racing Leadville 100 at the ripe old age of 44? More on that in a minute, but first, a little history on the race itself:
Leadville, CO it is the highest city in the U.S. at 10,200 feet above sea level. At one point, it was a mining town that was home to over 30,000 people. In the 1980’s, the Climax mine shut down and it was a huge blow to the town’s economy. Since then, the town has made efforts to improve its economy by encouraging tourism and emphasizing its history and opportunities for outdoor recreation. Ken Chlouber, a former miner, is a man who wanted to give back to his community. He started the Leadville 100 race by taking a step of faith….and the rest is history.
(More about the history here… http://www.leadvilleraceseries.com/visitleadville/history/)
Leadville has been on my vision board for over 15 years. It has been a race that I believe every endurance cyclist should experience. What I learned is that is not all about the race – when all is said and done, it is really all about the JOURNEY.
The bike represents FREEDOM in life for me. It is the one place I can go and not limit where I end up. Ride as far as I want, wherever I want and push my body as hard or easy as I choose.
My earlier years of bicycle racing were shorter races that ranged from 12-24 miles. These were fast, all-out efforts and they fed my desire through my 20’s. As time went on, Sarah and I had our boys and the racing started to go away. Around age 37 the desire came back in a much different way – endurance racing. The years leading up to racing the Leadville 100 involved endurance races like Bearscat 50, Stewart Six Pack, Battenkill, Wildcat 100 and Wilderness 101. For the record, the Wilderness 101 is my favorite race outside of the Leadville 100. It has 11,000 plus feet of climbing in the Pennsylvania mountains and always has a lesson to teach.
All these races have their own challenges and lessons. Anyone who wants to learn what they can truly accomplish in life should find an endurance event that makes sense for them. You may not be where you want to be today, but you must start somewhere.
When I started with endurance racing, my weight was at 190 and while I was a fit cyclist, I had a lot of work to do to become the cyclist I desired to be. Thankfully I was presented with an opportunity on 8/20/15 that made the transformation I needed possible….in more ways than one. On that day, I made a life decision that not only changed my cycling, but also changed my life and my family’s future forever. Since this decision, I have 30 pounds less of fat on my body, a fueling strategy that keeps me with sustained energy and fast, muscle-sparing recovery, and I was finally able to leave Corporate America for good right before we started our epic road trip from New York to Colorado for the race
There are 3 ways to get into Leadville
- Go to a qualifier race and enter lottery at that race
- Go to Leadville Camp and then pay upgrade for entry
In November of 2016 I entered the lottery with a group of friends. Our team was lucky enough to be chosen in January of 2017. Then it got real! Training and travel plans needed to be made. Sarah and I immediately decided that driving made more sense than flying. We could visit friends in Chicago on the way, have more flexibility in CO and build our business along the journey. I booked an Airbnb in Frisco, CO for 12 days and our travels were set.
Next up was the training plan. I had tons of training plans that I had used for racing the Wilderness 101, but I wanted to focus specifically on Leadville. I decided to sign up for Leadville Camp and used the training plan they offered.
Once you are in Leadville there are 8 starting corrals. Qualifying for them is based on:
- Attending one of the qualifier races
- Finishing time from Leadville 100 year prior
With 1,000 plus racers, it is advantageous to be in the highest corral possible at the start. I decided on a 2-prong approach to ensure a Green Corral start. First was to race Austin Rattler in April and if I didn’t obtain the corral I wanted there, race Wilmington 100K here in NY.
Austin is a story of its own but to sum it up, I came to the finish line with ONE MINUTE off the Green corral. ONE MINUTE. (I was eventually able to laugh about it.) This put me in the Purple corral which is 5 back in the lineup. I even got to “race” Lance Armstrong here, and he only beat me by 42 minutes over the 100K. Not often you can say you started at the line with Lance!
June came and I took the family up to Lake Placid, NY to race Wilmington 100K. What a blast of a weekend! This race was my kind of race with lots of steady climbing and steady tempo pacing. I will say it is as close to the Leadville 100 as possible without the altitude. Had to laugh again because I did get my Green corral start here, but crossed the line within ONE MINUTE of the Red corral.
At the end of each qualifying race there are 30-40 entries for Leadville randomly selected. My son, Justin, was asked to pull the numbers from the hat and ironically pulled an entry for me for the 2018 Leadville 100…. hmmm. 😉
Now that a solid starting corral is locked in for Leadville 100 it is time to head to Leadville 100 Camp. If you are racing Leadville for the first time this Camp is key. You get to ride with riders like: Dave Wiens, Todd Wells, Amy Beisel and many more. You also get to ride the course and get insider knowledge, tips and hacks the entire way. This experience was awesome and I found that my body adapts to altitude extremely well. (I am a fat adapted athlete and utilize ketones to ensure I use fat as fuel, which I believe is to credit for the easy transition.) I also got an idea of where I would likely finish the big race. 10 hours or less was a sure thing and sub nine-hour finish (gold buckle) was not out of reach with a perfect day.
After leaving Camp I finished up the training plan for the season and came into Leadville with:
3,500 miles in the legs (an East coast to West coast ride)
225,000 feet of climbing (up Mt Everest almost 8 times)
245 hours of training (six 40-hour work weeks)
7/28/17. The body is ready and we began our road trip out west 15 days prior to race day. After a 3-day stop in Chicago, we arrived in Estes Park, CO, on Thursday morning, August 3rd. We spent 3 days as a family there before heading over to Frisco, CO, where the rest of our trip would be spent.
Fast forward to Friday, 8/11/17 and the pre-race Athlete Meeting. This is where it gets REALLY real! Ken Chlouber shares the stories and history of Leadville. He also gives an inspirational speech and tells us all that, “When it hurts, dig deeper and commit to finish at all costs.” His key point made was that you want to FINISH. If you don’t, it is going to be a long year back home until you can come try again. His speech got the crowd inspired and ready to pedal the next morning bright and early.
After the Athlete Meeting I did a short ride in Leadville while Sarah and the kids went to the local skateboard park. The kids were happy to have a few hours to play and do what they wanted. That is one great thing about Leadville – it is very family friendly. After the ride, we ate dinner at Tennessee Pass Café (highly recommend). Then I took the family to Twin Lakes so they could get familiar with the area where they would see me before and after the Columbine Climb.
From there I met up with my friend, Ken Wiley, who had a place to stay right in the town of Leadville. Crashed there for the night so that the 5:30am lineup in the morning was not so painful. Ken and I had the plan of sleeping at least 7 hours. It was apparent after 5 hours of in-and-out sleep that neither one of us was going to sleep well. Did get some good reading done when I woke up at 3:30am and enjoyed my normal Keto Egg Muffins and Fat Coffee before the race.
5:25am. Race day. Quite warm for Leadville at a whopping 38 degrees. We got on our bikes and headed down to the corral line-ups. Ken was to line up in Purple and I had Green. Will say that Green is an ideal start corral for sure. You are lined up closer to the front of the race and with 1,000 plus racers, that is a good thing.
Sat at the start for 45 minutes and was dressed in a cheap throw away sweatshirt. It gets chilly standing at the start line for 45 minutes and recommend to anyone racing to bring something warm until launch time. My planned dress for the race was my bike kit, arm warmers, vest and long fingered gloves. Unfortunately, I found that I had an arm warmer/leg warmer combo instead of 2 arm warmers and that I had left my heart monitor in the car from Friday’s easy spin. Classic!!!! So, I started the race with my bike kit, vest and long fingered gloves. I never planned on looking at my heart rate during the race and was just going to record it, but I’m grateful I forgot it as it had me ride based on feel over what I often find to be self-limiting numbers from the monitor. While waiting for the start I fueled up on VESPA, which helps metabolize fat and continue the fat-as-fuel strategy I always race in.
Sitting at the start becomes surreal. This is where I realized how massive an event Leadville is. I looked in front of me in the lineup and there were about 200 riders lined up, then looked behind me and there were another 1,000 plus. My largest bike race prior to this was 300 at the start line, to put the magnitude in perspective. Was very grateful to start where I did as I knew I could just get into a nice flow and rhythm early without burning too many matches. While it was cold at the start I took the sweatshirt off about 5 minutes before launch time and right before the National Anthem. We had the pleasure of hearing the National Anthem played by Thad Beaty of Sugarland. He ripped it and then lined up with us to start what turned out to be a successful Leadville 100 finish for him.
6:30am. BOOM. The gun goes off and here we go. The start of Leadville is downhill for a few miles to some flats then onto some fire roads before reaching the first climb, St. Kevin’s. I was in a great starting position and except for one pile-up about 200 yards into the race, all went smoothly. Was grateful to avoid it and sat in the pack as we entered St. Kevin’s.
Kevin’s hits about 6 miles in and by the time you roll up it and hit the top peak it is about 3-ish miles with 1,000 feet of climbing. Nothing crazy and just a nice fire road of steady climbing. The challenge is that there are 1,000 plus riders rolling into it to gain their spot. Very grateful that I came into it in the top 200 and had an issue-free spin up it. I got into my pace and sat on the wheel in front of me and passed a few dozen riders along the way. It is challenging to pass so I took clean lines when possible. On the climb is when I started to introduce the Ketones into my system. I always wait about an hour after the VESPA to begin introducing Ketones into the body.
At the top of Kevin’s and roll along a variety of double track and single track to the Carter’s Summit descent. What a blast of a descent and just pure fun on a windy road to Sugarloaf Mountain climb. This climb is one of my favorites. It 4-ish miles with about 1,100 feet of climbing and the first half is a wide-open road with some amazing views. This is where riders start to get into their groove and pick who they will pace with. The final quarter of this gets narrow and more technical but is not steep at all and the views of the mountains and turquoise lake are amazing. Glad I went to Leadville Camp because this where I stopped and took some great photos. No stopping now! Going through this area felt amazing and I knew my body was kicked into fat burning mode. When you fuel on fat you literally can feel the switch kick in. I popped another VESPA here and continued to drink Ketones and water. All systems were a GO and pacing at this point was around an 8hr 30min race.
As you crest Sugarloaf climb you begin the descent down the infamous Powerline. Long ago I got the nickname “Skirt” because I hit my brakes on a descent and took a few riders out. A lot has changed since then but at the end of the day I am still not your risky descender. Turns out coming into Powerline I was pacing with 2 guys who were descending machines. I don’t really remember much of this descent except that I stayed committed on the 2 wheels in front of me and enjoyed the smell of disc brakes burning the entire way. Despite our speed there was a rider who passed us, somehow. Had to laugh because he decided to jump over a rock to get by us and pull a trick in the air. Well, that cost him! He blew his tire out and I never saw him again. We were moving so fast, I just didn’t understand why he needed to pass.
We got down Powerline and off into the flats to the Pipeline aid station which is at mile 26. Got into a good group of riders and we flew through the flats and into the aid station. This aid station was packed with people and I felt like a pro riding through there. There was no need to stop as my fueling was going just fine and I could wait until Twin Lakes area. Was getting really excited knowing that I was going to see the family within the next hour and half.
The ride from Powerline Aid station to Twin Lakes was a blast. Fun open roads and single track that is smooth and windy. I am from the northeast so the single track we have is 100% different than what is in Colorado. Stayed attached to a great group who was keeping our pace sub 9 hours and riding issue free. It was really cool to have a helicopter fly over us a few times to take photos and film us. That is when you know you are racing in a top tier event. Also along this area were the photographers who were uploading awesome photos to Facebook immediately. Between that and the AthLinks updates to Facebook it really had those watching me feel part of the process. Some of the photos taken were excellent and I was grateful I signed up for the program they offered.
So here we come down a nice little descent into the mad house of Twin Lakes rest area. The biggest party and most insane place I ever rode a bike through! People screaming everywhere and I heard my name being yelled out once in awhile. I was homed in on where the family would be and our friend Kim Welk. Sarah and the kids were there but due to minimal cell reception they were still trying to find Kim. So, on this ride-through I was able to find Kim who had all my replacement fuel and my water bottles filled. Pulled over tossed all my stuff at her (per her instructions), grabbed what I had in my bags for the Columbine climb and off I went. I decided to not bring any warm gear for the ride up and down. It was in the 60’s by now and the weather was looking beautiful. Thankfully that decision was a wise one and I never needed anything for the descent.
I spent under a minute and half getting everything together for the climb up Columbine and looked around and still did not see the family. So, off I went and little did I know they saw me as I rode out. If you are ever helping a rider out in Twin Lakes just be prepared to get there earlier than you think. The family had to park far away and walk with little ones so that impacted them finding Kim in time for the first pass. It is plain out CRAZY at Twin Lakes.
The climb up Columbine is a blast and it is 7-ish miles with 3,100 feet of vertical to the top. I rode Columbine 2 times while out at camp so I knew what was coming. As the climb began I popped more VESPA and this is where I introduced some carbs into my body for the first time. When you are fat adapted, your body reacts much differently to strategic carbs. There is no crash and there is a nice boost of level energy. (I will explain the science behind this in a future Biohacking blog.)
Climbing Columbine provides a non-stop view of riders in front and behind. I popped in my earbuds for this and just began steadily pedaling. It really is a nice climb for the first 80% as it is windy and nothing technical. You just can’t stop pedaling and I already knew that once I crossed tree line it got steeper and more technical. I kept a steady pace up the climb and had numerous people I knew come by calling out, “The KetoColts from NY!” It was so cool to hear how many recognized me and to also realize as a New Yorker I was currently up in the top 30% of the race. So, I just kept pedaling up as that was the only option.
The race leaders are led by 2 dirt bikes to help clear the way and as I was getting closer to tree line I started watching for the lead motorcycle to come ripping down the mountain. There are a ton of riders going up Columbine and these guys are moving down FAST. The top of Columbine is the halfway point of this race. You reach it and then begin the return on the same course. As I was about a mile away from tree line going up the lead racer at the time, Todd Wells, was descending like a rocket. It was cool to see and humbling to know he was tracking to finish 3 hours ahead of me. Gives you an idea of the level those guys race at.
After Todd went by a few others trickled down and then began the barrage of riders coming down. It is amazing when you cross tree line and look up and see all the riders walking up and the other riders ripping down. I knew from Leadville Camp that there would be 2 sections I would walk unless there was nobody in front of me. I pedaled up about 90% of Columbine and walked up the two steeper sections that are out in the open. They are short sections but when you have a lineup of riders in front of you walking there is no option but to walk. And I won’t deny that it felt good to get off the bike for a few minutes. I walked the first section, got back on the bike, pedaled to next section and walked that one. After that it is a short steep climb that is rideable and a rolling top section to the 52-mile turn around.
BOOM!! Reached the top of Columbine!! Body felt great and breathing was nothing crazy but I surely knew I was not in NY anymore. Took a look at the average pace on my Garmin and realized that after Columbine I was closer to a 9-hour finish. This is the point I started looking for my buddy, Ken Wiley. He had been determined to catch up to me so we could work together for a potential sub 9-hour finish. Having him with me would make the 9-hour finish a bit “easier”.
I started my descent and happened to see that he was cresting the final walking section. I knew if he attached to the right group he could catch me by Powerline. My descent down was a complete blur due to the speed. Once again got on a wheel that knew how to descend fast. I stayed committed and just followed his line and all I recall is ripping by hundreds of other riders going up and the smell of brake pads. Had a few friends who saw me descending later tell me that I was bombing down the mountain. I give full credit to the guy who led me down – he knew the descent and knew how to ride it fast. It is funny to look back and realize it was an hour and 20-ish minutes up and a mere 20-ish minutes down.
The descent was exciting because I knew that the family was waiting and ready to fuel me up. Still felt great but needed to see the smiles of the family. Thankfully, this time I knew exactly where they were as I rode into Twin Lakes. On the return the energy at the rest stop is just as insane as the way up. Raced through all the craziness and BOOM – there was Sarah, the kids and Kim Welk waiting for me. The kids were playing on a rock and looked like they were very well occupied. Everyone ran over to give me what I needed and I tossed out all that I had used to them. One of my favorite photos of all was taken at this spot – me with the family. It took an extra minute to get them all together, but I am so glad we took the time to make sure we had this memory documented in a photo.
Now, the true work begins. I am 60 miles in and must go work my way back to the Powerline climb at mile 80. Between those points are a lot of little windy, punchy climbs and lots of wind… LOTS!!! And that is where this story changes. I left the family holding a pace of anywhere between an 8:55 and 9:05 finish. The Gold buckle is sub 9-hours, so I knew this would have to be a very steady, focused mission if I wanted to pull it off. My story of this past season, and many other races, had been finishing extremely close to the next level up. I was chuckling internally knowing my history of finishing races SO CLOSE to the next level and having a feeling that God had a lesson for me with this one as well.
As I began the journey back, the group I descended with fell apart coming into Twin Lakes. I pedaled away solo into a massive head wind. Tried every technique possible to lower energy output but I was putting out a solo effort for about 10 of the 14 miles to the Pipeline aid station. For the entire way the group in front of me was too far ahead to push and attempt to catch them. Whenever I looked back there were other solo riders spread out – groups. I kept a steady pace and just waited for an organized group to pick me up. Looking back, this cost me big time and I will never forget that somewhere around the 70-mile mark Ken Wiley caught me in a group of riders.
I was feeling exhausted and spent from the solo effort by this point and did all I could to stay attached to his group on the very back. Thankfully I could hang on coming into the Pipeline aid station but I needed to stop this time and grab supplies from my drop bag. This is where the short stop cost me staying with Ken and I knew the 9-hour goal pace was over.
Regrouped myself leaving the aid station and got onto a group of 12 riders for the 6-mile journey to the base of Powerline. This was one WINDY stretch but thankfully I was now attached to other riders and we worked together. When we got to the base of Powerline there were only 4 of us left. It is amazing how this happens when riding in a pack but I was feeling better again and knew I had to pace Powerline.
Here we go – HELLO, POWERLINE!!! Let me tell you, 80 miles into a ride at elevation and still having to climb for 3.3 miles and cover 1,300 feet of vertical makes you know you are ALIVE. Normally this would be nothing for me, but at this point I already have 8K feet of climbing in the legs so it is daunting. I have raced Wilderness 100 in Pennsylvania numerous times and that is about 11K feet of climbing, but for some reason Powerline, with its 5 false summits and its grueling start, is just different. It did not help that the sun was blazing and I felt hot going into it. Heat is not my friend when I am racing.
Going into Powerline the pace was tracking for close to 9 hours if I picked it up a bit. That was a big “IF”!! Climbing up I watched many riders fall apart and the very occasional rider crush it. About quarter mile into the climb is where I decided that this would be my pace all the way up. I said to myself, “I am going to get over, but I’m not going any harder.” Right after that decision who do I see waiting for me but my buddy, Ken! I had to laugh – he was literally RIGHT THERE. This was his second time doing Leadville and at first, we both decided that we would go for Gold together. But after we chatted for a minute we both realized that we would have to go ALL OUT for the rest of race to come in under 9 hours, and even then, it was not a guarantee. Or, we could make the rest of this race pure fun. The decision was a no-brainer. He had a buckle already and I didn’t and a guaranteed sub 10-hour finish had me pleased. Not too shabby for an east coaster, so the new plan was in place. When we got to the top of Powerline we sat down for 5 minutes to regroup. Texted our families to let them know that we were tracking for a 9:30-ish finish. It was meant to be because that was the only place cell worked out there.
Let me tell you, the descent down Sugarloaf Mountain was a blast. The body got to recover from Powerline and Ken dropped me like a fly. I could not stay on his wheel on the downhill for the life of me. For future races, I know whose wheel to be on for descents! We got down Sugarloaf at a good pace and then began the climb up Carter’s Pass. This is a paved road and is 2-ish miles with 1K feet of climbing. After climbing Powerline, it felt “easy”. Got to see a few friends up this climb and have some ice dumped down our backs. I knew this was the true, final, last climb and at the top we were within 45 minutes of finishing. When the finish is that close there is a massive boost of energy that hits!
At the top of Carter’s, we needed to refuel with some water. I thought I grabbed water to drink but turned out to be Sprite. That was a surprise! 2 years ago, I gave up using soda or sugar in races, but I must say – it was a nice little kick and lasted perfectly for the final 45 minutes of the race.
The rest of the race, minus the final 2.3 mile boulevard, is downhill or flat. Ken, once again, blasted away on every descent. This time I kept him in sight but still could not stay on his wheel. We got down to the base of St. Kevin’s and reality hit – we were coming home to Leadville. What a feeling of energy knowing that we were within 30 minutes of finishing the Leadville 100! We rode into town with a massive tailwind that had us holding nearly 30 MPH for about 15 minutes. It was epic, and what a way to coming into the final boulevard.
I should leave this section out for those who haven’t raced and let you experience for yourself what the final boulevard is all about. However, this is where all the race thoughts and what it will be like to cross that finish line is all about. This boulevard is 2-ish miles with about 400 feet of climbing coming into town. It starts on a short steeper rocky climb, then converts into a nice fire road that is smooth into the final pavement going into the finish line.
Ken and I just chatted and texted the family letting them know we would be done in 15 minutes. Caught up to a few others and because we weren’t under a time pressure we just enjoyed the ride back in together. The moment it really kicks is when you come out by the school, cross over the final climb up and see a nice descent to a smooth climb up to the finish. You feel the energy of the crowd waiting and see the red carpet all set out. Not going to deny – this moment was emotional because I knew the family was waiting, a journey was being completed and a dream was being accomplished.
It is here that Ken said to me, “Dude, go ahead of me and get those kids to cross the finish line with you,” So that we did and it had been all was set up as Sarah knew the plan. The entire way in you are guided by screaming fans and then as you enter the final 30 yards you see the red carpet. I slowed up and looked around and there was Sarah and the kids. The boys hopped out of the sidelines to run and cross the finish line with me and Sarah recorded the entire event. There was no better feeling knowing that my family was there to experience this. Nothing can ever take that moment away from any of us.
I crossed that line with tears. They weren’t tears of pain but tears of JOY. Tears of knowing one of the biggest things I ever sought out to accomplish was completed successfully. Tears of knowing it went smoothly. Tears of knowing the hard work, the years of preparing for this moment were done. Tears of knowing that our next journey is even bigger and will impact lives globally. But where these tears really came from was realizing that my family and friends hold our family in high esteem. That they look up to us and support us. That they want us to succeed and that what I did today will be something that will impact others.
And as for my boys: They heard all the hard stories in the racer’s meeting, they saw what it took for me to just get to the starting line, saw what it took to get to the finish line and they know that to achieve anything in life takes adversity, testing, failure but most importantly, NEVER, EVER GIVING UP.
Make your family part of this journey.
You are completely capable of anything. Don’t let others define you as they will define you too small.
Your journey is your journey, go all in on it and those you are meant to impact will be impacted
When it hurts, when you think you can’t go any further. That is the moment that will define who you truly are and who you will truly become.
These mountains are obstacles in your way for a reason. Take the lessons you learn to conquer them back to the mountains you face in life. You will know you are strong enough to face any mountain that gets in your way.
To me this town is special and even though our plates say NY our family will always say Leadville is our hometown. Until you experience the race and the journey of completing the race that statement will not make sense. It is a small, quant town with lots of character and tons of places to play for those adventure seekers. I sought my own life adventure and it lead me onto my next journey.
That journey is Project 5000 and for those out there who want to impact others in a positive way. Please connect with me so you can learn more about what we are doing.
I hope this helped those looking to do Leadville or pursue some other adventure in life. Do not hesitate to ask for tips. I learned a lot during this process and am more than willing to share to make your adventure that more fun.
Now go get on your way and chase down your personal adventure.