by Elden NelsonNothing–nothing– has ever got into my head like the Leadville 100. From the moment I signed on in January ‘97 until the day of the race (August 9), I thought about that race every day. Now that it’s over, I still think about it.
As early as April, I had written an exhaustive checklist of everything I needed to bring to the race, along with what would go in each drop bag. I bought a new pair of extra-nice biking shorts–the nicer the chamois, the fewer the saddle sores. I bought a wool jersey, figuring that race day would be cold. I experimented with every exercise drink and bar known to humankind.
My most extravagant race purchase, however, was probably my bike: right after signing up for the race, I ordered an Ibis Bow Ti. Though I didn’t tell anybody (until now), the main reason I wanted an ultra-expensive, radically-designed, hardtail-light, titanium full-suspension bike was that I thought it would be a way cool ride on the Leadville 100.
I wasn’t the only one obsessing about this race, though. The other guys I knew who had signed up for the race also couldn’t get the thing out of their minds. We’d call each other and discuss every possible aspect of the race, from what we planned to wear to what we were going to eat and drink to how many tubes we were going to carry to what air pressure we were going to run to whether we’d ride together for moral support, and under what conditions it was acceptable to peel away. We all had the race map and elevation chart pinned up where we could see them often. When we rode our bikes, we all imagined ourselves on the Leadville 100.
Basically, for me, waiting for the Leadville 100 was like when I was a kid, unable to sleep on Christmas Eve. Except in this case, Christmas Eve lasts eight months. And when Santa comes down the chimney, instead of giving you presents he makes you ride your bike 100 miles (a there-and-back trail) on jeep roads around the tiny town of Leadville, Colorado in twelve hours or less, at an altitude ranging from 9000-12,600 feet, with a total vertical climb of around 11,000 feet. If you finish in less than nine hours, Santa gives you a gold rodeo-style belt buckle. If you finish in less than twelve hours, you get a silver belt buckle. If you don’t finish within twelve hours, you don’t get squat. And, of course, Santa charges you $160.00 for the privilege of riding at all.
On August 7, Doug, Brad and I piled all our gear and ourselves into my Honda Civic, met my Brother-in-Law Rocky at Grand Junction, and drove over to Leadville, Colorado. We did a quick preview ride of what is regarded as the toughest climb in the course (more on that later), then went to bed. I was so excited/nervous, I couldn’t sleep.
The next day–the day before the race–we went to what seems like a dozen pre-race meetings, where they gave us our race numbers and slapped medical wrist tags on us. We spent the balance of the day wandering around town, looking for other people with medical wrist tags strapped on, knowing that everyone with one of those bracelets on was thinking about one thing only.
Knowing the race started at 6:00 a.m. the next morning, we laid out all our stuff before we went to bed. I couldn’t sleep.
We got up early–4:30 a.m., so we’d have time to eat and digest a little bit. The good folks at the Delaware Hotel had been thoughtful enough to set out a breakfast for the racers. It took a force of will to choke down a bowl of corn flakes. I was that nervous.
We got our bikes and walked over to the starting line. Gathering around were 400 bikes and riders crammed together in the darkness. We were all stamping, jumping, shivering, stammering. Both from the cold and from nerves. Doug and Brad moved up toward the front of the line; Rocky and I–considerably slower riders–purposely went to the very back, so we wouldn’t hold up real contenders. At 6:00 sharp, the gun went off. Probably a minute later, the back of the line–where I was–started to move.
The first six miles of the race go by fast–they’re on a smooth paved downhill. I was going as fast as 30 mph, those in front probably were going more like 40-45. As packed as we were, those of us in back didn’t need to pedal at all; we were riding our brakes. We were all cold. Then we peeled off onto the dirt and pedaled along for a short way before the first climb: St. Kevins.
Climbing St. Kevins
St. Kevins is a steep, sandy, five-mile uphill, but not at all technical (there’s very little technical riding on this course). Within a couple hundred yards I got into a good pedaling rhythm, was warmed up and all my nervousness disappeared.
Vanity alert: I am about to brag.Â A quarter of a mile into St. Kevins, I started regretting starting so far back in the pack. The narrow road was jammed with slower riders, slowing me down. I passed dozens of people with perfect, ripped bodies–they looked like they belong in beer commercials. But there they were, suffering, some of them were pushing their bikes already. In my mind, I pictured vultures circling over them. And I–I with my little spare tire–am passing them easily. I guess it was a good idea to spend the summer concentrating on climbing long distances.
Somewhere on the climb I lost Rocky–I didn’t know whether he was ahead of or behind me. And I didn’t care. I felt great.
Dropping Down St. Kevins
After that grunt up St. Kevins, we were rewarded with the descent down the other side–on hyper-smooth pavement (at least, it seemed hyper-smooth at the time). Those of us who didn’t know the trail–and that therefore we’d have such an easy descent–nearly cried tears of gratitude. I buzzed down, hitting 45 mph. I could have easily gone faster, but didn’t see the point. With around 90 miles left to go, why risk the Road Rash from Hell? Besides, it was nice to just coast for a few minutes.
At the bottom of St. Kevins, the course takes an abrupt right back onto dirt–and the only singletrack in the entire race. It was beautiful singletrack, too: packed soft earth, wooded, rooty, interesting technically. Challenging, but not impossible. And I didn’t get to ride even an inch of it.
See, when you’ve got 400 people trying to thread a short stretch of singletrack 15 miles into a 100-mile race, you’ve got a serious bottleneck situation. As soon as one guy dabs, everything stops. So, with someone a foot ahead of me and someone else a foot behind me, I marched. Since there was nothing we could do about it, most everyone was very cool about the slowdown and took the time to talk and get to know their “neighbor.” While we’re talking, someone says, “Wasn’t that huge paved downhill great?” I’m about to agree when it hits me: That huge paved downhill we just enjoyed ten miles into the race meant we were going to have to endure a huge paved uphill eighty-something miles into the race. I said as much out loud, and everything got real quiet. Maybe a couple of us started to cry. In any case, I wished I had taken a look at my computer at the beginning and end of the downhill–I had a feeling knowing that distance would be important to me later.
Half a mile later, we came out of the singletrack onto fire road. Time to do Sugarloaf.
I don’t much remember climbing Sugarloaf on the way in–it’s just a sort-of-steep grunt, mostly notable because traffic had thinned out enough that you could pass without problem. The drop down the other side, though, was a blast. It’s super steep, sandy and rutted, with rocks and turns all over the place. I had had my Bow Ti for exactly a week (Ibis had taken eight months to deliver the bike) and this was the first time I had a chance to really see what full suspension is like.
Now, downhill has never been my strong suit, so this bike made a huge difference. I bombed down, passing people left and right (oops, forgot to warn you of the bragging this time). On the way down, I noticed four or five people working on pinch flats, and I was glad I had pumped my tires all the way up to 50 psi.
Fish Hatchery to Twin Lakes Dam
Sugarloaf dumps you out at the Fish Hatchery–the 25 mile mark and the first support station. It was 8:05 (meaning I had taken 2:05 to get there)–I was a little ahead of my goal to finish in ten and a half hours. I still had plenty of food and my CamelBak (filled with half-strength Cytomax) wasn’t even close to empty. No need to stop. I rode through the station, a huge crowd of people cheering me on. Okay, the fact is that this crowd of people cheered every rider on, but that didn’t matter to me. Throughout the race, any time I came across volunteers or onlookers at this race, their encouragement gave me a huge morale boost. And when you’re riding 100 miles on the dirt, that boost makes a difference.
It’s only fifteen miles from the Fish Hatchery to Twin Lakes Dam, the next support station. This section is as close to flat as the course ever gets. Although you’re neverÂ (well, rarely) on level ground, none of the hills are very steep, nor very long. A few miles into this section, though, my right knee started to hurt. I figured my seatpost was too low (remember, this bike was new to me) and adjusted it up about 1/8 inch. It didn’t help.
What did help, though, was talking to other riders. You would think that during a 100-mile race people would get pretty spread out. I think, though, that there only a couple of short stretches along the entire race when I couldn’t see another rider, either in front of or behind me. As I–or they–would pass, we’d often make a point of matching speed for a minute or two and talking. It was chatter, by and large–most of us were too out-of-breath to have involved conversations. Mostly, we’d just congratulate each other on having made it this far, tell each other how good we were looking, and encourage each other to stick it out. Still, during the monotony of this stretch of trail (and the increasing pain of my right knee), any distraction was welcome.
Twin Lakes Dam to Columbine Mine
My stats show that I pulled into the Twin Lakes Dam aid station at 9:15–I had done the first 40 miles of the race in 3:15. I was on track with my goals (which I had written on a piece of tape and stuck to my handlebar), in fact I was a little ahead. I felt unstoppable. I refilled my CamelBak to about halfway, knowing that the one of the toughest climbs of the race–of my life–was about to begin, and I didn’t want to have any more weight than was necessary. Thanks to the incredibly helpful and supportive volunteers (I can’t say enough nice things about them), I was back on my bike in about three minutes.
A quick, rolling two mile section brought me to the base of Columbine Mine. I had alternately fantasized about and dreaded this stretch of the race for months. Take a quick look at the race elevation chart and I think you’ll see why. In about eight miles, you climb more than 3400 feet, to an elevation of 12,600. Oh, hell.
With that said, though, the first five miles of this climb is surprisingly easy. It’s a well-groomed, wide dirt road. I shifted into my middle ring-granny and started to churn.
I, like everybody else, hugged the right side of the road, knowing that it wouldn’t be too long before the real contenders would come blasting down the other side of the road. Sure enough, about 9:50 (by which time I had shifted to something considerably easier than my middle-granny) I saw Mike Volk–who would eventually win–come bombing down. Soon, others poured down, and I started hating them. “It’s just not fair,” I thought. “They get to ride down this damn hill while I have to ride up. The least they could do is show a little sympathy, maybe get off and walk their bikes down.” I may not have been completely rational at the time.
After five miles, the nice groomed road suddenly ends and I had the remaining three (or so) miles to look forward to. Except I didn’t look forward to them at all. As far as I could see, people were lined up, slowly walking their bikes up a steep, rocky, rutted, sandy doubletrack (that often turned into singletrack) in rarefied air. The only thing we needed to make the agony complete was pit bulls nipping at our ankles.
“Pansies,” I thought. You see, earlier in the year, Rocky and I had ridden up this stretch of the climb, just to see what it was like, and we hadn’t had to walk much at all. So, staying on my bike, I spun right by dozens of people, climbing like a mountain goat on crack.
At least, that’s what I had planned on doing. The reality is, as soon as I hit a steep section I realized I didn’t have any juice in my legs. I guess there’s a difference in riding a section by itself and riding it after you’ve already turned in 40+ miles that morning. I got off my bike and joined the march.
In my head, this became the longest, most agonizing stretch of the race. Although there were lots of people both ahead and behind me, none of us had energy or breath for conversation. We were all just concentrating on climbing this mountain, our bikes sometimes rolling, sometimes on our shoulders, our stupid biking shoes slipping on the rocks. As riders who had reached the summit came rocketing down, we’d step aside and they’d shout words of encouragement: “Looking good!” “You’re almost there!” Damn them all.
One of those guys coming down the trail was my friend Brad. I don’t think he saw me until I called out his name–he looked pretty beat. A minute or two later, my friend Doug came by. Now, ordinarily Doug is the guy who just doesn’t bonk. At this moment, though, Elvis himself was riding on Doug’s handlebars. Doug croaked out, as best as he could, “Looking good, Nelson!” I gasped, “You too, Doug.” Elvis mumbled, “Thank you very much” and had another doughnut.
Finally, the track leveled off enough that I could climb back onto my bike, and I rode the final mile to the aid station. I had hit the halfway point. It was 11:22. I was about five minutes slower than my goal. At this point, though, I was just happy to stop.
I rested for a few minutes, during which I stuffed a bunch of cookies and M&Ms into my mouth, a fistful of (free) PowerGels into my jersey pocket, and snarfed a couple of Hardbody bars. More than anything else, though, I relished the thought of the exquisite, eight-mile-long downhill in front of me.
Columbine Mine to Fish Hatchery
Riding down the Columbine mine was just the break I needed. I coasted down, relaxing, drinking lots of watered-down Cytomax, good-naturedly hollering “Looking good!” and “You’re almost there!” at the poor folks limping up the hill.
If you’re doing the math, you might have noticed that it took me 2:07 to make it from the Twin Lakes Dam aid station to the Columbine Mine turnaround point. The return trip took 31 minutes. Having had a huge on-bike rest, I didn’t stop at the Twin Lakes Dam. Right about at the dam, however, I hooked up with a couple of other guys and we paced each other for the next ten miles or so. One of these guys had clearly taken a bad spill–his shorts were torn up and one of his thighs was a bloody rash. He said that as he rode through the Fish Hatchery aid station (25 miles into the race), a child had bolted out in front of him; he had dropped his bike and slid on the pavement to miss the kid. This guy (I wish I could remember his name) picked up his bike and kept going, knowing he’d have to do the remaining 75 miles with a nasty road rash. He gets my nomination for the “Never Say Die” award.
I, on the other hand, was giving myself the nomination for the “I wish I were dead” award. Somewhere between the Twin Lakes Dam and the Fish Hatchery, my knee started hurting much worse. My nipples were bleeding (the wool jersey was apparently not such a great idea). It was also during this section that my calves started taking turns cramping. I discovered, however, that by stretching each calf at the end of each downstroke I could avoid going into a full-on debilitating cramp. I would ride for the rest of the race–about 35 miles–with my right knee hurting like hell and both calves on the cusp of a cramp.
To add to this, I found I could no longer eat normal food. I was breathing too hard (and the air was too thin) to breathe through my nose, so chewing food meant holding my breath. Plus, my mouth was so dry. Hardbody bars tasted like particle board–chocolate-coated particle board, but particle board nonetheless. I knew that without some kind of food, I was headed for a serious bonk. So I decided, as I approached the Fish Hatchery, that from that aid station forward, I would suck down a PowerGel every thirty minutes (toward the end of the race, I would change that to twenty minutes). That did the job. For the rest of the race I didn’t feel like I was about to bonk, though since then I haven’t been able to think about vanilla PowerGels (the only kind left at the aid station) without triggering my gag reflex.
Fish Hatchery to Finish Line
I rolled into the Fish Hatchery aid station at 1:36–seven and a half hours into the race. Though I didn’t know it at the time, Mike Volk had won the race more than half an hour ago. I, on the other hand, was about to start what is widely known as the hardest 25 miles of the course. Imagine: you’ve just ridden a very hard 75 miles, and now have to climb Sugarloaf mountain–an extremely sandy, steep five mile hill. Then you have to climb St. Kevins–the long, steep paved section we had all liked coasting down forever ago. Or, you can quit and pedal along a flat, short, paved road back into town. No wonder so many people bail out of the race at the Fish Hatchery.
Apart from my knee and calves, though, I felt good. Climbing up the Sugarloaf mountain, I even started feeling giddy, elated. I had an addle-brained epiphany and blurted out to another rider struggling up the hill, “Hey, man! We’re going to make it! You and I are going to finish this race! Even if we sat down and took a nap right now, we’d still have enough time to finish this race before the cut off time! We are unstoppable!” At the time, I meant each and every one of those exclamation points. I rode on in my granny gear, feeling a strange mixture of incredible pain and excitement. Kinky.
The top of Sugarloaf mountain led to a bumpy, fast downhill–once again, I was in love with my Bow Ti. Then a quick jaunt through the short single track–this time there wasn’t the bottleneck, and I was able to ride it. Sweet.
The singletrack dumped me onto what I thought was the final big climb of the course–the paved St. Kevins section. Because I hadn’t checked my computer on the way down, I couldn’t remember how long this stretch was, and it seemed to go on forever.
Finally, though, I got to turn back onto dirt. A quick drop down the other side of St. Kevins brought me to the light at the end of the tunnel–just six more miles to go!
I didn’t understand, though, that the final six miles don’t go along the same road as the first six miles. Instead, we were rerouted onto an uphill dirt road known as “the Boulevard.” This road has false summit after false summit–very demoralizing. Then the wind started to blow. Then it started to rain. Another racer hunkered down behind me, using me as a wind block. When we got to the top of the hill, he pulled ahead and rode away. Somehow, I knew, I had to find a way to catch this guy. But I didn’t have anything left.
Or at least, I thought I didn’t. During the final mile, I recuperated a little, so that I was able to regain a little ground on the guy. And for the last 100 yards (mostly downhill, thankfully), I managed to stand up and sprint. Giving it everything I had, I passed this guy at the finish line, beating him by one second. A race official put a medal around my neck (everyone who finishes gets one) and Doug and Brad helped me off my bike.
I had finished the race in 10:36–just six minutes off my goal. I felt like jumping up and down, but had to settle for proudly collapsing in a heap.
Brad and Doug finished the race in 9:44 and 9:45, respectively. Rocky got seriously dehydrated and they pulled him off the course–against his will–at the 75-mile mark. They toted him off in an ambulance, filled him up with glucose and released him later that afternoon. Meanwhile, Doug, Brad and I kept up our vigil for him at the finish line, totally clueless as to what was happening to Rocky). That night my right knee swelled up, and I kept waking up hungry. We all still talk about the race.
The 1998 Leadville 100 registration filled up in less than two days. I managed to register in time, so August 15, I’m doing it all again. And, again, I can’t stop thinking about it.