Leadville, Colorado, sits at 10,152’ as the highest city in the country. Though a small community, they can throw a helluva race event!
My trip to the 2009 Leadville 100 mountain bike race started Tuesday night. Timbo and Brooke arrived at my casa at 10 p.m. and we tossed my bike and gear in the Subaru and headed west. After a long night of driving and a brief stop in Denver for breakfast and some last minute shopping at REI, we made the final few hour jaunt to arrive in our destination town of Leadville around the lunch hour. The plan in general was to meet our friends Dave, Eric, Mark and Gerald at Lance’s house for the week. Lance and Michelle had opened up there home to us and were selfless in their host abilities. We’d all be camping in the back yard with views of Mt. Massive and Mt. Elbert (highest point in Colorado at 14,433), a beautiful place to be. Once we had all arrived we started planning a few pre-rides of the course and general single track rides around town. Michelle would be taking care of our meals for the week while those of us racing were treated like kings.
Day one (Wednesday) we set-up camp and headed out to one of the local single track trails near town. I have no clue of the trails name, but we had a good 1.5-2 hour ride to wake our legs up from the long drive we had just made from KC. The trail was super fun and gave us a small taste of what climbing in the thin air of 10,000 feet plus would feel like. We knew we would be in for a hard race on Saturday, but we were all happy to be there and sure that things would go well for us all.
Day two (Thursday) Lance took us on a tour of the infamous Sugarloaf climb and the Powerline Descent. Lance, Timbo, Dave, Eric and I all made the climb and were feeling like champs. We then did the Powerline descent, which was a rutted nightmare covered in loose gravel and deep ruts that would send you flying at any sign of rider weakness. It was a long and fast descent that we knew would have to also be climbed during the race, a tall order to say the least. This climb/descent would be one of three done during the race, with Sugarloaf being considered the easiest climb and Powerline being the steepest. After our pre-ride we headed back to Lance’s place for a feast and movie night.
Day three (Friday) was our rest day. We lounged around town, did some shopping, drank some good coffee and prepped our bikes and gear for the race. We also met for the medical check-in and pre-race meeting in the a.m. Dinner consisted of a huge feast including but not limited to; Grilled Chicken Breast, Pasta, Salad, Bread, Cookies, Cake and whatever left-overs there were from the previous days. We were all anxious and headed to bed by 9 p.m.
Day four (Race Day). We awoke at 4:30 a.m. to a starless sky and temps in the 30’s. Start time was 6:30 so we all ate a good breakfast, geared-up and headed to the starting line with 1,400ish other riders to begin the long awaited race. 3-2-1 and the shotgun fired. We were off and the road was crowded. One wrong move and there would be a domino effect that could be devastating.
The first few miles of the race were downhill, fast and on the road. Everyone was flying and riding in a huge pack. Scary. Rain had started falling by now and everyone was cold and wet. I would guess the temperature was in the upper 30’s, lower 40’s. I think that the temps and rain really knocked a few riders out of the race. Some did not choose to bring rain gear and others just could not deal with the pain of numb fingers and toes. I felt fortunate to have experienced being 'warm and wet' from climbing and mountaineering and can say that I was actually psyched that the conditions 'sucked'. I typically fair well in this scenario. We finally arrived at the first climb, Mt. Kevin’s. Out of 1,400ish riders, there were only about 50 of us on single speeds. When we hit the Mt. Kevin’s climb, all the geared folk went right into granny. Talk about going from 35 to 4 in a split second, man, this really sucked for the SS guys. A group of three of us lined up and started picking off folks left and right. You can’t climb slow when you have only one gear, you have to stay on top of your gear and crank. If not, you just can’t move and with the granny’s spinning up the steep and long climb, we just had to charge through. It was cool how much support there was amongst the riders. We’d yell “single-speeder on the left” and everyone would move out of the way and cheer us on. This was a really uplifting part of the whole event for me; everyone was cheering for everyone.
After St. Kevins I recall a long downhillish section of gravel roads and maybe even some pavement, leading us to the second climb; Sugarloaf. We had done Sugarlaof earlier in the week so I knew what to expect, however is was made more difficult by the train of riders going up, and the trail being in worse shape than St. Kevins, it was harder to pass, but was a much easier climb.
At the top of Sugarloaf starts the Powerline descent. Powerline is infamous for tossing riders, being steep, fast and scary. We had ridden this section of trail two days earlier so we knew the line and what to expect. With the rain coming down the descent was actually in much better condition than before, allowing me to go for broke, passing a handful of riders as I reached ludacris speed and finally the bottom, where the race course turned into rolling hills and flats to the 40 mile mark at Twin Lakes. Twin Lakes is the second aid station as well as the 4 hour time cut-off. If you were not here at 10:30, you were cut from the race. I was feeling great, riding well and having a good time. I had passed many riders and felt as though I could be riding at a 9 hour pace. To my dismay, I arrived at the checkpoint at 3:45…just 15 minutes before the cut. I then realized that this was going to be a battle of a race to finish and make the next few time-cuts. I also thought of all those riders behind me and hoped they would all make it in time, including Timbo and Jamie, who I had passed and not seen for over an hour.
When I arrived at Twin Lakes it was a spectacular sight. As you ride across the damn, people are lined-up on either side, cheering, clapping, ringing cowbells and giving high-fives. It was an exhilarating feeling. I passed the timing tent and stopped for a brief re-fueling with my pit-crew. Brooke and Eric had things covered. They switched out my bottles, gave me food and sent me on my way just like pros. As I started off once again, Lance Armstrong came through the crowd, on his return trip (that would be my mile 40 to his mile 60). Impressive I thought. I was now on my way up the ten mile climb to 12,400 feet on Columbine. I would soon also see Dave Weins on his return, just minutes behind Lance. The difference between these two men was defining; Lance with a grim dark stare and in contrast, Dave shouting to everyone he passed, “Keep pushing! You’re doing great! Go for it!”
Columbine is the grand master of climbs during the race. The summit is the turn-around point and the 50 mile mark. I was psyched, hydrated, had tons of energy and knew I’d be on top of my game for the 10 mile climb. Just as before, I would find myself climbing faster than the geared bikes. Even though the climbing was different that what I had trained for, I was feeling good. Usually a single speed rider climbs out-of-the-saddle, or standing. With long climbs like these, you have to mix-it-up and sit for a majority of the climbing. Imagine doing one legged squats until failure, then keep going until your legs feel like they might explode, then keep going like your life depends on it. This is how my knees felt as I reached the 46 mile mark. It was a fast onset and total change of events for me at this point. I could no longer push. My knees blew-up. I sat on the side of the trail and massaged them, rested and got back on my bike. I would make it 200 yards only to find myself in so much pain that I could no longer go. I did not expect this to happen, not at all, I thought I could force it and keep going. I told myself to go, that I could do this, that I was better than I think. I did this routine four times. I could feel my joints just shredding and finally had to make the call; game over.
I sat on the side of the trail for maybe an hour, watching and cheering on those still able to ride. Some still making the push up and the leaders going down. I was bummed; the totally heartbroken kind of bummed were you feel like burying your head in the dirt. I looked at the photo of my wife and son that I had taped to my top-tube and apologized to them. I wanted to make them proud. They were the ones making the sacrifice staying home so I could race, and a veil of shame came over me.
I was 4 miles from the summit, 6 miles from the aid station, a broken man. I mounted my faithful steed and made the descent back to Twin Lakes. Any up-hill areas I’d walk, using my bike as a crutch. I rolled into Twin Lakes and got the cheers a finisher would get, undeserved. They did not know I had thrown in the towel. I arrived at my pit and the crew started switching my bottles and offering food. I had to tell them at least 3-4 times “I’m Done” before it finally sank-in. Jamie was there, he had not made the first time-cut. Everyone patted me on the back and tried to make me feel like a winner anyway, just like good friends should.
I stuck around to see Mark and Dave make it through Twin Lakes and continue the race. Timbo had passed me while I was sitting on Columbine and I knew that he’d be back down at some point. Gerald too had passed through and was looking strong. Now all of my energy would go into my friends, hoping they would have what it takes to ride across the red carpet finish.
So that’s’ it in a nut shell, failure. I have not had to look her in the face for some time, but today I was humbled. I was also enlightened with answers to many questions I had prior to the race, and I will, at some point in the future, conquer the Leadville 100.
I’d like to take this time to thank all of my loyal friends and sponsors, who have had my back and supported me this race season. Without you, none of these races would have been possible!
Kelly and Seamus Burns
And to Lance, Michelle and Nina Schamberger – Thanks so much for the ‘home sweet home’ feel you gave us; the stinky group of KC mountain bike freaks.
Photos and official race results to come… Happy Trails!