Leadville 100 MTB race is 105 miles, 12,000' elevation gain all over 10,000 feet. It might be one of the hardest single day bike events out there, maybe not, but that doesn't really matter because if you've ever had the privilege of participating in this event you know how hard it is. There is so much I could go into about this event, what it means to even toe the line, how it feels to race it, to finish, to want to win it. It's just as much a mental game as it is a physical one, but you could've guessed that. All I can speak to is my experience, what I do to prepare myself, why this event is meaningful for me and what the joys and disappointments feel like.
This was one of the first times I had ever put so much focus into one event. I never liked to admit to myself that I cared about a single race more than others, mainly as a way to avoid extra nerves and anxiety. If I told myself I didn't care then if I failed I wouldn't let myself down. But this year I leaned in. I knew I had a shot at winning Leadville (even writing that down now feels uncomfortable) and I was excited to do the prep. My favorite thing ever is riding in the high country outside of Durango, where I live. I love being home. I love riding with my friends. I love riding alone. I love forgetting that it's prep for Leadville. I'm not one of those people who focuses on numbers, my 6th grade math teacher can attest to that (hi Mrs. Maxmin). I like to do long days with lots of snacks and too many photo stops. I leave all of the counting up to my coach, Chris McGovern.
I admit, I have a hard time making those small sacrifices that probably add up. I have a hard time opting out of a fun ride with friends to focus on my training, passing up social events with the people who make me feel like a normal human and make me laugh because I'm scared of getting sick before my race, passing up a hike with my sister, a ride with my dog, two missed weddings, and other events and races that I know would be fun. I hate missing out. It's always a mini battle in my head, "is this actually worth it, does this even matter, will this choice better my athletic performance?". I don't know the answer to this, I don't think there is one. I believe it's different for every person, we each have our limits of focus, we each have a slew of differences that add or remove stress. I found my limit this year, with a week to go until race day I felt completely isolated, anxious and really bored. I had plenty to do every day but I was totally sick of thinking about a damn bike race.
Everyone does some sort of prep for hard things. You work hard, dedicate your time, prepare yourself for some extreme discomfort and you know that in some way shape or form you'll learn some stuff along the way. There is no way of knowing how any day will play out in front of us, it's the angst of the human experience, especially for us folk who like to know things. That, perhaps, is the beauty of sport. You try your best but ultimately, you don't get to know. Even the person, if there is that person, who has all of the potential to win...they might not have the luck. It always (always) comes down to the strongest and luckiest person out there on that given day.
I'll fast forward a bit, as the days that lead up to this event were full of things that we all get served. Those uncontrollable, highly stressful things that we try to swerve around but alas, we are but mere mortals and life doesn't give a shit that you have a big day coming up.
As I rode to the start with Ellen and Howard, on my absolutely perfect bicycle thank you to Fiona and Dylan, I was completely overwhelmed. All of the work I'd done, all of the stress of the week, knowing the start was finally here, dreading the first chilly descent, knowing that there were so many people who came there to support me, to cheer and help. It was all so much that I had to just cry. It was sort of a laugh cry. Anytime I cry in bike gear it also makes me laugh, because there is nothing funnier than crying in an aero helmet and a chamois.
Once you begin you have no choice but to try to finish. All of those microscopic worries seem to evaporate as quickly as the nerves. Once you begin your body takes over, you're just along for the ride.
The first 40 miles were as zen as it gets during a race. I found myself with Hannah Otto (who would go on to win the day!) and we kept a steady pace. We knew not to go out too hard. We'd been here before, those matches you burn you'll never get back. That, my friends, is altitude. We would eventually catch Sophia at the bottom of the first big climb, Columbine. At mile 50 something felt off. My stomach wouldn't let food or liquid in anymore. Nausea overtook my sensations and by the time I got to the top of the climb my legs had enough and fully cramped. I was in for it now. I knew I was falling behind in my caloric intake and that was less than ideal for a 7+ hr race.
"Hangry" is the term we've coined for someone who is grouchy and needs to eat. What is the word for 'not hungry but needs food to make it back to the place that you started'? That's where I found myself. Riding alone for hours, knowing the race was no longer a race for a result but just to finish. When that notion hits you, when you're dehydrated and bonked and nauseous, it's one of the worst feelings. But then it's there, just hanging out and you can decide how you want to proceed. Sometimes your body truly shuts down and there really isn't a choice. I decided that I wasn't quite there, the pedals were still turning, albeit a pace I've seldom experienced.
I truly don't know why I kept going. I knew what lay ahead, I knew how the climb up Powerline felt on a good day and I was in no shape to conquer that literal mountain in my state. I went through a feed zone, stopped, told Fiona I didn't know if I could finish, took a bottle of old fashioned water and a sip of orange Gatorade and just kept going. Somehow the water stayed down, and when I hit the steep-ass climb I found some legs. They were slow, but they were some leggies and I used them to ooch my way to the top, and then down, and then up again. And then I saw Alexis. She'd been in the lead for 1/2 of the race and her day too looked different from how she'd hoped. I spun past with eyes set on finishing this silly thing. I'd finally found myself with a small group of racers, one of whom a friend who I'd given a magical 'Hot Shot' to for his race in case he cramped. When the lightening bolts of leg cramps struck again on another steep section of trail I yelled to Brian to toss me the Hot Shot if he still had it. I was so glad that thing came back around and by the time I got it down I'd lost contact with their group.
Here is the part of the story that everyone has been waiting for. This is the part where I try to convince you that I, in fact, know how to ride near cattle without having an enCOWnter. I knew the last bit of the course was open range as we'd camped there a few nights earlier, almost exactly where the incident took place. So here is cow it went down....
I'm finally feeling like I can pedal a bike again and I know the finish is coming up so I start pushing my pace. I am at mile 95. I hit the medium fast, sorta flat, sorta not dirt road and see a herd of cattle strewn across the road. I have enough time to yell and see if that clears them off. They scoot to the side as if to say, "oh hey there, come on through, way to push it to the finish!" So I do just that, I keep pedaling, only adjusting my speed a little bit just in case one changes it's mind. As I make it through the cow slalom I see, or maybe I sense it, a blur of light brown out of the corner of my eye. I'm going to pause here, because I'm about to write something I've always wondered if people really experience. I never saw it coming. Before I knew what was happening I was crashing. My face was literally smushed up against the side of a cow, my bike sliding under it as I crashed onto my hip and back. I remember thinking this is both super unlucky but also very lucky. I was in too much shock to feel the pain of hitting a furry, stinky wall of cow. I would love to know what the cow was thinking. Why did she decide to do a cow's version of a u-turn and sprint across a road? Was she also surprised to collide with another being in motion? Did she even feel me squish into her side? Did she find the t-bone situation ironic as well? All things to ponder after I collected my bottles, computer and glasses that had all exploded off of my bike in the crash. I twisted my bars back to a strait-ish position, did a quick system check and hopped back on.
My bike was fine, my body a little scraped and bruised, but my derailleur hanger had seen better times. I wasn't able to shift so I fulfilled my dream of single speeding through Leadville. I had just a few miles left and I'd be damned, after the day I'd had, if I let a HUGE cow get in my way of that finish. I crossed the line with relief, pride and disappointment. Mostly though, in the moment, I couldn't wait to tell Dylan and my Dad that a freaking cow took me out!
I later found out I'd missed 3rd place by 1 minute. Haley Hunter Smith finished right in front of me and I had no idea I was so close. Those are the details that are the hardest to swallow. The "if I had just..." game is a tricky one to play. There are thousands of moments during a race that could go thousands of different ways. You can always be better but you could've been worse too, for every small gain there is a small loss. Endurance sports force you to examine all of the ways you can improve, there are an overwhelming number of opportunities, but sometimes you have to chalk it up to luck both good and bad. Sometimes it's your day and sometimes it's not. Sometimes you surprise yourself and accomplish the impossible, other times you've done everything right and you're reminded that there is no magic formula to success. You really DO have to define what that is for yourself, it's far too easy to say you've failed. I'm not saying it feels good to fall short, it's more painful than all of the physical suffering you endured during the race x 100. However, if you fail and all you take away is that you've failed, well, then you've actually failed.
You have to try hard things. You have to admit that you want to accomplish big things. You have to fail, like, really (really) fail. You get to define what failure means, what success means. You have to try it all because you never know when the outlier cow may just bolt and knock you into oblivion!
Here is my virtual hug to Hannah Otto, Rose Grant and Haley Hunter Smith for 1st, 2nd, 3rd! I look up to all of these women, I consider them my co-workers more than competition. I had words of encouragement from each of them during the race, they push me to be my best and support me in that endeavor!
Another virtual hug (and a real life one too) to my teammate, Ellen Campbell. She rode to an impressive 7th place in her very first Leadville 100. Ellen has put so much work in this season, she's shown up and it's so cool to see her absolutely crush it!