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Stories from Leadville

Leigh Easter | Published on 10/1/2022

Episode 1

This Leadville experience has been a journey from the start. I don’t remember when I first heard about this race, but it had been in the back of my mind for years. If you are not familiar with the Leadville 100, it is probably THE most iconic MTB race there is. If 105 miles and 13,000’ of climbing isn’t enough, the race starts at 10,200’ and tops out above 12’000’. I think it must’ve been in 2019 that I brought it up to my husband as a desire. I have had a lot of knee surgeries, starting with complete reconstruction in 2008, and I was feeling like ‘now is the time, because I knew it was only going to get harder with time. We ended up entering the lottery as a group with a two other friends who had expressed interest (one in means all in). On January 19th, 2020, we watched the lottery live, and as they rolled through the ‘winners’ there was Leigh Easter on the screen!

Stories from Leadville - Game On

We dug into our training right away! Consistent mileage was the plan. I rode every single day while the kids were at school. We had just purchased a Kickr smart trainer, so we could train any time we wanted to, no matter the weather. Hardly the most fun, but it is efficient. January ticked by, February and March too, and then April came. I had been looking into a new 29er (more specifically a lighter bike than my current one), and my sweet husband (unknown to me) had ordered a brand new bike for me. It was amazing and I was so excited that I couldn’t wait to ride it. So the very next weekend (without getting any sort of bike fitting) I tackled the Southern Cross route on it. I should have known better with my joint history, but I was blinded by my excitement and quickly paid the price. The very next day I awoke to a knee that refused to function, it took several months to be able to ride again, and it still bothers me to this day.

Additionally, Covid had just come into the picture as well. Originally predicted to last “only a few weeks”, it ultimately caused the 2020 race to be cancelled (I believe it’s the only time in history the race has been cancelled) and we took a deferral for 2022. For me though, this was a bit of a silver lining because there is no way I would have been able to ride that year. With the promise of a fresh start, I relaunched my training (this time with a bike fitting and a more cautious approach to mileage and ruggedness).

Stories from Leadville – Preparation

All aspects of our preparation for this event were as well thought out as we could make them. Training plan, travel plan, nutrition, everything was done with intention. There really was a lot to consider for this marathon distance, high elevation, single-day race. On top of that, we had the extra tactical challenges and stresses of managing our family of four (our daughters are 7 & 9). Also, school started that week, so add that stress too. Reinforcements were on deck and both sets of grandparents traveled from out of state to help and care for the girls while we were gone. It wasn’t easy, but there was a will and everyone was on board to make it happen. There was a lot of juggling and sacrifice, but ultimately I feel like we really nailed the preparation and plan-of-attack portion of the race.

Stories from Leadville – The Lead In Week

Our week started early on Saturday with a long drive, but got us to elevation in Leadville (10,200’ of elevation to be specific) by Monday. This gave us 5 days of living at race elevation before race day on the following Saturday. That’s about as much time as we could justify as a working family with 2 small children and family coming in from out of town to care for them. We got settled in, bought the town out of groceries, and started talking about pre-rides. One friend with us had done the event before and so we followed his lead.

On Tuesday we got up and did a 30 mile pre-ride of the 1st and last part of the course. Since Leadville is basically an out and back race (with a couple small segment exceptions), we did the first 15 miles out and the last 15 miles back. It was tough! Largely because we were freshly at elevation and our bodies were simply not ready for that transition. The legs burn a little hotter at altitude. We rolled out of town and experienced the fast decent that kick-starts the race, climbed St. Kevins (one of the more well-known climbs in the race), down to the base of Hagerman’s, then back over and up what is known as The Boulevard on the way back into town. We had taken in a lot of information about the course over the duration of our training and planning, but having now pedaled this section, I could see the brilliance of experiencing both of these particular segments before race day.

On Wednesday, we simply did some sight-seeing (notably at elevation to help us continue to acclimate) and enjoyed some gorgeous scenery. First, we drove up the infamous Columbine Climb portion of the race. It was incredible! The climber in me was really looking forward to pedaling up this beautiful mountain that starts as a road through the aspens and turns into a rugged above tree line goat trail. Then we drove over Independence Pass and into Aspen, did a few VERY gentle short hikes in the area and called it a day. We were taking it easy at this point, the ‘hay was in the barn’ as they say.

On Thursday, there was a group ride from town to St. Kevins sponsored by the LT100 Mountain Bike Race Podcast. This was a casual roll with about 200 racers led by Fatty and Hottie (the podcast hosts) out to St. Kevins and back. A great opportunity to meet new people, talk shop, and learn all you could from previous racers. I spent a good deal of time talking to a 70 year old who was racing for the 13th time. He was a local and started doing this race in its early days. Our talk was enlightening, fun, and very encouraging. I also got to meet and chat with Hottie for a bit. We talked about how there should be some race qualifiers for those of us living in the southeast. He was impressed with the huge turnout of Georgia cyclists.

Friday we really took it easy. We went to the pre-race meeting then the race expo and got to meet and chat with some cycling giants including Jeremiah Bishop, Lachlan Morton, and Hannah Otto (see picture!). Super cool! Hannah went on to win Women’s overall with the incredible time of 7 hours 24 minutes. We prepped everything; made bottles, filled packs, decided exactly what foods and liquids would be needed for each segment, separated and labeled ‘refills’, etc. We each communicated our needs and wants with our support crew, put our SAG tent out on the course at Twin Lake Alternate, cleaned and lubed our bikes, cooked a great dinner, and finally did our best to get a good night of sleep. Alas, our 4 am wake up alarm and nerves had a bit of sway on that final goal.

Stories from Leadville – RACE DAY

At 4 am in the cold morning darkness of Leadville we began our day. Those of us without special placement from a qualification ride were automatically placed in the last (or white) corral. This year there were 3 white corrals, and they were first come first serve. So if you wanted a decent spot, you needed to be there when the corrals opened (at 5:15 am!). It’s typically in the 30s/40s at the start of this race and you stand around for over an hour. When the race begins, it starts with a few fast miles of downhill making it that much colder. This means that most people wear layers over their kits (often purchased from the local thrift store so they aren’t too worried about getting them back), and shed them just before their wave starts. We had puffy jackets, hats, and sweatpants on. Just before the gun, we shed them and tossed them to a waiting friend.

Nerves were high. The start is fast and crowded. It is downhill and everyone is rushing forward, so there is not a lot of room for error. There were crashes before we even left the pavement. Six miles downhill then you turn onto a dirt road with some potholes and puddles and prepare to face the first climb of the day. St. Kevins climb starts at 9,700’ and tops out at 10,800’. It is approximately 7.5 miles long and averages about 4% (though the first 1.5 miles is 18% and really warm you up). It is VERY crowded here with some rocky sections. The main advice for this climb is to remember it’s a LONG race, don’t go burning matches here. As I began this climb I am very aware that I underdressed for the start of this race. I cannot feel my feet or hands and I’m shivering uncontrollably. This I now know was a mistake. I won’t actually begin to be comfortable until over 20 miles into my day.

Next up is the fantastically fun May Queen descent on pavement. It’s a screamer and with few exceptions, a smooth descent. This brings you to the Sugar Loaf climb. This is not considered one of the major climbs in the course (I guess it’s considered the lead in to the Powerline descent), but it is absolutely a climb. It starts out smooth and low grade then turns rocky and a bit steeper, topping out around 11,100’.

Once you top out on Sugar Loaf, it’s time for the well-known Powerline descent. For me, this was the part of the ride I was the most nervous about. This section has two distinct parts, the top half is a mix of rocks, ruts, and packed dirt, the bottom is smooth and steep with loose granite pebbles on top and hard-pack, making it very slippery when braking. The descent can be quite technical in places as you try to avoid and navigate rugged erosion spots and other riders. Starting at about 11,100’ and descending to 9,600’ in about four steep miles, this is a fast and potentially dangerous segment of the course. There is in fact an extremely sharp right hand, off camber, turn near the bottom that if you are not smart about will end your day abruptly and unpleasantly. According to MTB Project App, there are some sections as steep as 46%! We pre-walked a portion of this prior to the race and honestly there were parts it was hard to stand on because your shoes wanted to slide. Unfortunately we did see a handful of reasonably serious accidents on this section.

Next up was a long rolling section in the valley that leads you to the Twin Lakes Dam area and through the singletrack section of the course. This section was fast and fun and involved many types of terrain. Segments of this >20 mile portion were paved, gravel road bed, dirt road, singletrack, etc. During this time, I ran across people going through various struggles and joys of their own. Some were encouraging, one particular guy was in a dark place and tried to bring me down with him. So I dropped him and kept moving. I reached the festive atmosphere at the main Twin Lakes support area, passed through the time checkpoint, and pedaled on to our personal SAG stop to refuel.

Resupplied, now it was time for the Columbine climb. Over the next 9 miles, we would climb some 3,000’ to the highest peak of the day at about 12,600 ft. This is also the turnaround point for the race at mile 52. For me, this was the highlight of the day. I was looking forward to this beautiful and challenging climb. I was feeling great! To this point, I had stuck to my fueling plan and ridden at a pace that allowed me to hit this climb feeling strong and like I had plenty of energy left in my body. I think at this point I started to realize that I could actually do this. I was enjoying going up and though I was far from the front of the race, I was passing many people who were around me and trying to encourage everyone as I went. This joy unfortunately would soon turn.

At about 1.5-2 miles from the top, the trail becomes narrow and quite rugged, this is “The Goat Trail”. There is 2-way traffic and you are essentially forced off of your bike and have to walk the remainder of the way up. The steep, rocky, off camber trail became too large of a request for my damaged knee joints. By the time I reached the top, I could barely walk. When I got back on my bike and tried to clip in for the descent, it was simply too painful. I tried walking down on some of the more rugged areas and then clipping back in, but I just couldn’t. It was at this point I realized that my day was over. The damage I would likely do trying to continue and the price I would pay with my joints simply was not the right choice for me. I ended up dropping my saddle and simply rolling down the mountain without even clipping in. When I arrived back at my support tent, I withdrew myself from the remainder of the race. It was a hard, hard moment. I truly felt strong enough and fit enough to finish, but I had to listen to my body.

As disappointed as I was, I was very happy to be able to be standing at the finish line when my husband and our other friends crossed. This race was an amazing experience and I’m ready to look for the next epic adventure.