My journey to Leadville started two weeks before race day, my girlfriend and I drove from Marin County CA to Colorado via Highway 50 and 70, which is an awesome drive on it's own, made even better by passing through Ely Nevada, home to some amazing singletrack, and Moab Utah. It also made for a good opportunity to acclimate a bit more gradually than going straight from sea level to Leadville's 10,000 feet. We arrived in Leadville 10 days before the race, set up camp, and I headed out for my first preride, curious to see how my lungs and legs felt and to check out the course, which in reading other race reports and forum posts I had found a lot of mixed opinions on. I'll get to the specifics of the course as the race unfolds, but I'll say in my preriding I had found it to be not at all what I expected.
Just being in the area the week before the race it's easy to see both what makes this race so legendary and what keeps people coming back, the town is transformed by the race, everywhere you go you find racers, and the nerves and excitement of the race can be felt in the thin air. We camped in several different spots around the area, the camping in Leadville and Twin Lakes is great, and our Flippac rig makes it easy to change sites. The first few days riding I felt pretty strong, but as expected I hit a rut about 5 days in, my first ride up Columbine was terrible, I couldn't exceed 150bpm, just couldn't get enough oxygen in to support a harder effort. Fortunately I bounced back a bit, I was able to pedal up all of Powerline a few days before the race without much trouble. My fears about acclimation had subsided, but the 10 days spent there led me to worry about something else - the weather. It had rained nearly every day we were there, typically in the form of afternoon thunderstorms, but sometimes in the morning. One ride I went out when it was sunny and an hour later was riding back through freezing hail. The weather reports would vary so much that it was impossible to tell what the weather even the next day would do, the projected race day weather ranged from 0% to 90% chance of rain. If you do this race bring gear for any conditions from hot to snowing.
Camped near Turquoise Lake
Race morning I was happy to see it wasn't raining, at least not yet. The 6:30 start is early, and it was quite cold, in the 30s or low 40s at best. The corral system they've implemented is nice as you don't have to worry too much about getting set up in a good spot. I was in the Red corral, the 3rd one back, so fortunately only behind 200 people or so out of well over 1000 starters. Even so, the start is pretty sketchy, it starts on a paved downhill, with a sharp upkick for a nice accordion effect, then a long, fast paved downhill as you head for the dirt. To make things even more exciting, a portion of the road had been coned off for an apparently dangerous overhanging branch, adding another chokepoint on the initial downhill. The gun went off and immediately you are... still not moving. My group would have made it out faster but someone had fallen over within 10 feet of the start line. Once I was over the small kicker fortunately it opened up a bit and we got moving, fast, over 30mph most of the way to the dirt turnoff. It's immediately apparent many people, even in the fast corrals, have little experience riding in a group, and many people ride nervously. You really need to pay attention for these few minutes and pick the right wheels to be behind.
Before leaving Marin I switched my 1x (34t front, 11-36 rear) I run to a double, mostly because I was afraid of spinning out on this fast course, and I am really glad I did it. A lot of people were running 1x with 32t or smaller front rings, my ability to pedal down the starting hill helped a lot, I had passed at least 20 people by the time we hit the dirt. There's a few miles of flat dirt road where the pace is still fast, then you hit the first climb, St. Kevins. It's a steady climb with a few kicks, steepest in the first half then slowly levels out, and it's also quite rocky and loose in places. It's very difficult to pass here with the amount of riders on the course, so most of the climb I was stuck at a pretty slow pace. At this high altitude I was having a hard time recovering from short spint efforts, so I opted to go as steady as possible rather than aggressively attempt passes.
My bike setup for the race, though I switched to less aggressive tires on race day. The course has everything from perfect pavement to -20% loose descents, so bike setup is tough, and preriding the course to find out what you are comfortable with is important.
As the climb crests there's a few dirt road rollers, then a short mostly downhill section which at parts is loose, rocky, and narrow. On this section the mountain bikers who were scary to be near in the pack were able to navigate more predictably, while the road racers and triathletes started to meander wildly, and some crashes and flats started happening. Much like the climb best bet here is to ride defensively, and keep an eye out on the people in front of you if you plan to pass. This section leads to a fast pavement descent, short paved climb, then you hang a right onto a slight uphill smooth dirt road. After a few miles of the dirt road you take a turn onto the second significant climb, Sugarloaf. This climb is very rocky but fairly wide, and like Kevins a steady, not too steep grade, the crowd was also thinning so at this point I finally got the chance to start riding my own race. Being able to open it up a bit also gave me the first indication on how I was feeling, which was OK, but seemed to be stuck at under 160bpm, while I had planned on climbing at minimum 165bpm for the 5 big climbs. Even with acclimation I felt the top end just wasn't there.
Top of Sugarloaf /Powerline
As you crest Sugarloaf the infamous Powerline descent begins, and it's wild. Leadville gets a lot of flack for being an easy, nontechnical course, but I found Powerline stands up to any XC race I've done in technicality, though it's wide for most of the way there's really only one line to take most of the time, so it may as well be singletrack. It's steep, loose, and has some off camber sections that require some commitment. A lot of people were taking it easy on the way down, which adds to the difficulty if you plan on going fast. In my 12 minute descent I passed 20-30 people and it was scary every time, you have to take risks to move around someone by going off the established line. Powerline flattens and spits you out on the pavement, then a long but fast grind heads towards the Columbine climb. I was fortunate to get in a big, fast group on the paved section. The size of the field and out and back course makes what I think is the ideal strategy a lot different than most other XC races, going faster at the beginning allows you to draft in a larger group and descend faster as you have less course congestion on the Columbine descent, this isn't a race I would plan on negatively splitting effort wise.
As the pavement ends you pass through the pipeline aid station and on to pipeline, a relatively flat dirt road, a short singletrack section, a smooth dirt road, then a short paved descent leading to the Twin Lakes aid station. This is the time to settle into your pace and regroup, it's the easiest part of the course but drafting here and there is still possible so it's best to hang with a pack and keep the pace up. You have a few options for crewing, either at the Twin Lakes dam or at the base of the Columbine climb on Lost Canyon road. I opted for the latter as I heard it was less congested, and it worked out well, I arrived at the base of the climb at 2:55 into the race, swapped out my bottles, and grabbed some more nutrition. I followed the same nutrition as I had done for half and full Ironmans, as well as the Tahoe qualifier, gel every 30 minutes and drink when thirsty, and in my bottles I had a 350cal mix of Malto and electrolytes. I also grabbed half of a Clif bar heading up the big climb to get some solid food in, the combination of 9 hours on rocky, fast terrain and liquid nutrition only can get pretty sloshy, when making your nutrition plan for this race you may want to consider some solid food even if you normally don't use it for long road or running races.
As I started heading up Columbine I felt decent, but much like on Sugarloaf I was unable to reach the pace and heart rate I wanted. The first half of the climb, about 1500ft of gain, is a steady and smooth road. As you exit the treeline the difficult part starts, first a still road width section that's rockier and steeper. As speeds slow to a crawl the course becomes congested again, and makes it pretty tough to pedal this section, if one person spins out, or cramps, a chain reaction can stop a few riders behind them. Since the fastest riders were descending at this point you couldn't get out of the conga line, it's difficult to pass here. Fortunately I was able to pedal this first section along with the people around me, but as I headed back down I saw that even the mid pack riders were all walking. After that section it kicks again and the trail narrows to double track, while becoming even rockier and looser. Here most people started to walk, even if you could pedal it wouldn't be any faster. Fortunately it's not too long to the top, where you drop down to the aid station and turnaround, climb a short way back to the peak, and start your long descent.
Descending a loose, rocky doubletrack and dirt road with over 1000 people going the opposite direction is an interesting experience to say the least. Compounding the issue is these people have already traveleld 50 miles on a mountain bike at high altitude, thus leaving them prone to weaving. Fortunately I didn't have any problems, I held a 21.5mph average down, 24.5 for just the road width section and felt in control the whole time. I swapped my bottles out again at Lost Canyon at 4:55, not quite where I wanted to be pacewise but still on pace to break 9 hours with a decent buffer. The little hill between Lost Canyon and Twin Lakes is where my pace started to fade. To make things worse the entire flat section between Twin Lakes and Powerline had a stiff headwind, what had taken my 1:03 on the way out took 1:24 on the way back. This was the hardest part of the race for me, at one point on a short section between the Pipeline aid station and the road I saw a group of 8 or so about 30 seconds ahead of me, I made a hard effort to catch them just as we hit pavement, but only had enough left to hold on for about half of the way to Powerline, and after that I was alone in the wind.
The bottom section of Powerline is one of the most well known parts of the course, and for good reason. When I climbed it earlier in the week I didn't think it was bad at all, the hard section is 350ft of gain at 17%, the kind of climb I do back home all the time with a 34t front ring. After riding 70 miles the 17% feels more like 71%, I and everyone around me were forced off the pedals within seconds of the climb starting. Up until this point the weather had been clear, it had even began to get a bit warm, I took off my arm warmers as I trudged up the bottom of the hill. However, minutes later we started to get the first few raindrops, which I didn't mind at that point, but made me a bit more anxious to get to the finish, as I had seen light rain turn to hail in minutes the week before. After the steep section subsides the climb remains difficult, but I and most of the people around me were able to ride the whole thing. Descending Sugarloaf is fast and extremely rocky, very easy to flat here if you aren't careful. I made it down safely but quickly, on to the flat dirt road section and road descent to Mayqueen, then headed up the last big climb of the day, Hagerman. It's not too steep and all road, so even if you feel awful here, which I did, it's not the worst climb. It took me 20 minutes while it had taken my 15 minutes in a medium effort preride, and I could barely put out an effort above 150bpm, I didn't have much left.
There are a few kicker hills on the section between the top of Hagerman and St. Kevins, but at this point so deep into the race it's not too hard to gut them out knowing you are almost done. The Kevins descent like Sugarloaf is flat tire central, and again I was lucky to get down it smoothly yet quickly. 5 of us reached the bottom at around the same time and we stuck together through the flats to the base of the Boulevard. The last stretch is the only part of the race that isn't an out and back, you go back into town on a dirt road rather than the paved one you headed out on. The road is uphill but barely so, only a 3% grade, but after 100 hard miles it's a grinder. I was on pace to break 9 hours by at least 10 minutes, but the thought of a catastrophic failure like a multiflat or derailleur explosion still motivated me to leave everything I had on this road, I pushed a harder pace here than I had on Powerline or Hagerman.
I mustered all the strength I had left for a bunnyhop across the finish line in 8:49, I had expected to go in the low 8:xxs, but I was still happy to finish and grab the big buckle. Now weeks later looking back at the experience I can see both sides of people's thoughts about this race. Many people love it and come back every year, while others have a negative view on the race. It really comes down to the type of rider you are. The course, while having great views, is boring. Unlike most MTB races there are no rewarding descents, which make the climbs much more difficult mentally. A lot of the technical difficulty is in navigating around other people, not the course, which is another strange dynamic. The draw of this race is the community and the spectacle. The camaraderie on the course and the crowds are unlike any other mountain bike race I've done, and will shape your race experience to a further degree than the elevation profile or your splits. Now that I've had some time to reflect on this race I have mixed feelings about it. After the race I was sure I would never do it again, I've learned I don't do well at elevation and the race itself just wasn't how I like to spend time on a mountain bike. However, the whole experience of qualifying, preriding, acclimating, and most importantly meeting other races from all around the world in your time leading up to and during the race is awesome, and not something you can find in many races. As time passes I find myself entertaining the idea of racing again more and more, maybe like the miners that made the town of Leadville I will eventually find the draw of shiny objects irresistible.