This blog series follows me, an extremely average cyclist, as I go all in to complete the legendary Leadville 100 race on a singlespeed mountain bike.
It was long and grueling, taxing us both physically and mentally. The weather was not at all what we expected and the crosswinds were nothing short of brutal and persistent, kicking up dust storms that reduced visibility to almost nothing, browning out scenery that was boring at best. Passing others was sketchy at times, and it took all the skill we had to keep it out of the cabbage and stay on course. There was nowhere to get food, and we were unprepared, having already eaten our peanut butter sandwiches a long time ago. After 15 hours in the truck, we had finally arrived in Marble Falls, Texas.
To be fair, it wasn’t all awful. Once off the Interstate, somewhere to the South and East of Lubbock, the short black scrub brush dotting the hills contrasted nicely with giant white windmills, as sporadically placed as natural growth. Some were spinning in synchrony with each other and I wished I could think of a less cliché metaphor for them, other than dancing giants. The reddish, stratified mesas were interesting to me as a mountain biker, and presumably interesting to some geologists as well. A few more hours and dust storms later, the wind finally backed off and we found ourselves driving through rolling farmland that soon turned into proper Texas Hill Country, complete with random Moab-like rocks, yucca fronds, Prickly Pear cactus groves (or do cacti run in a herd), extravagantly manicured entrances to giant ranches, leafed out shrubs, lush green grass, and an abundance of wildflowers. So many wildflowers! Mostly bluebonnets (lupine for the mountain folk), and some bright pinks, reds, and yellows I couldn’t pick out at 80 miles per hour.
Our hotel was a little seedier than expected, but the customer service was impeccable. They held a room for us that night after I called them because we were arriving a day earlier than our booking, and they really had no reason to, since everything else in town was full. They topped it off by rearranging something in the computer so that we could stay in the same room all three nights. They also fixed the pancake machine when Lee ran it out of pancake mix.
The Austin Rattler 100K is the first of the Leadville 100 Qualifiers of the year, meaning this was the first chance to earn a better starting position for the Leadville 100, and a first chance to get in, if your lottery attempt was unsuccessful. Since Lee and I are both already in for this year, and have a very desirable starting position earned from another qualifier race, for us, it’s a great way to get some bigger miles on dirt while our trails are still covered in snow until June. This was our third year for the Rattler, but after last year’s mud fest, the race changed venue to a rockier, drier location, Reveille Peak Ranch. The ranch is host to many different sporting events, including Spartan races and shooting tournaments, as well as day-to-day hiking and biking, so it already had plenty of established trails. To meet the needs of this race, however, they built portions of the course just earlier this year. Although people have been out pre-riding the course for months, and Josh, the race director has been running laps on it on his KTM990 for the past week, my first impression was not optimistic. I thought it was fun riding, but not good racing. There were lots of downhills going into loose corners that turned right into punchy uphills (and left too). Some of the course was still mostly grass, and was hard to follow. I managed to get lost for a while when my GPS directions didn’t match the course markings. The whole thing didn’t seem to flow or make sense, and I was not riding it well. Since there was little left to do but show up to the start anyway, here is how I did, based on my usual system:
Overall objective: This was my first race on dirt for the year, the first race on the new bike, and at 60 miles, the longest distance and estimated ride time so far this season. While the standing objective is to have fun and finish in one piece, there were additional things that I wanted to accomplish. One was to test the bike in full race setup at race speed. The other was to race the bike with intent, rather than just ride the distance. Both were successful and get and A. Lee has put in so much thought, research, and time building my bike into what it is, and it ran and handled like a dream. I got to reap the benefits and really feel what it can do. There is room for improvement on my end to better learn how to troubleshoot and handle potential mechanical issues, none of which happened. As for the racing aspect, I managed to stay focused and purposeful for most of the event. I was doing more than just letting the race happen to me.
Training/Fitness: After reading feedback about the new course, watching videos, studying the elevation profile, and finally pre-riding the course, I realized that Lee and I are obsessive nerds. I was also concerned that with the course riding like one interval after another, I wasn’t trained for this. A phone call with Coach convinced me otherwise. She said I put in enough of a variety of workouts the past four months to cover the race. The only reason I give myself a B is because I missed some key workouts the week before.
Preparation, pre-travel: I give myself an A. I booked our hotel months in advance. I started organizing clothing and gear several days before departure. Lee and I split packing responsibilities based on our strengths, and worked well together. We were mindful of the weather and left early to miss the snow and Denver traffic. This allowed us enough time to make the full drive in one day instead of splitting it.
Preparation, pre-race: Also an A. We took full advantage of arriving a day early. We did the full course preview on Thursday, so that Friday we could do an easy spin, hang out, and recover. By Friday evening, we did a final bike check, set up our race food on the bikes, had our number plates ready, clothes laid out and organized. Race day, we were up and at the venue early enough to finish getting ready at a relaxed pace, and still have time to sit for a little before the start.
Nutrition, pre-race: I could have done worse, but I also could have done better, so a C. There were some things I did right, like packing PB&Js and fruit to avoid gas station gut bombs early into our drive. Unfortunately, there were not many healthy options on our route or in the town where we stayed. I could have made more conservative choices on my meals out, and could have had less beer on Thursday, but I had a little bit of the “I’m on vacation” attitude as well as PMS attitude, so fish and chips it is. I hydrated well on Friday, and my pre-race meal of PB&J, an apple, and black coffee hit the spot.
Nutrition, during race: After the pre-ride, we realized there weren’t many spots on the course where it was easy to eat and drink. We ended up using hydration packs for water instead of bottles, though we did carry a small bottle of sports drink mix as well. For calories, we taped gels onto our top tubes for easy access, and put a couple more in our pockets for backup. I wish I could eat real food while riding, but it hasn’t worked yet. At our truck, we set up a couple of cans of soup (with a pull tab for easy opening), a jar of pickles, bags full of spare gels, blocks, and bars, a couple gallons of water, drink mix, and a cooler full of Gatorade bottles and filled water bottles. The aid station had much of the same minus the soups and pickles. I stuck to my strategy of eating two gels per lap, reminded myself to drink water, and managed a few sips of sports drink halfway through each lap. I stopped after the first lap and took in some soup. I will give myself an A, but because of how the race ended, I didn’t get to see my food strategy fully play out.
Execution of Strategy: The game was to start easy, finish strong. Coach wanted me to stay calm on the first lap, build on the second, and leave it all out there on the third. I thought that was a splendid idea. I positioned myself well at the start, and knew there were plenty of opportunities for passing and being passed, so I had little concern of getting backed up in traffic. I let the crowd pull me along when I needed to speed up, I let them pace me when I needed to chill out, and passed when the time was right. By the second lap, the race was way more spread out, and I was gaining ground. I was getting tired, but was ready for a third. I give myself an A.
Attitude: It was maybe a C after the pre-ride on Thursday. I was coming off a long week of being sick, recovering my back, packing, and travelling. The course felt loose from the get-go, and I felt like I had nothing for the punchy hills. I tried talking Lee into putting the easier gear back in my bike. After lunch, beer, and retail therapy at Mellow Johnny’s, where I got a new helmet to match my bike, and more beer, my attitude got a little better, though I was still skeptical of my ability to ride that course with any gusto. On Friday, we went back to the venue to meet our friends, and my instructions from Coach were to keep it super easy that day. With the pressure off and my mouth running, I noticed the first few miles of the course seemed to ride a little better, though that’s all I rode that day. Back at the venue, I ran my mouth some more, as we ran into friends and made new ones. By the time we headed back to town for dinner, my attitude was a solid B+. It stayed that way until a few minutes into the race, when I settled into my groove, and it went to an A. Two miles into the second lap, the skies opened up. A+.
We knew it was going to rain on race day, from what the hourly forecast said, for the first half of the race. We were actually pleased that it was still dry as we were getting ready, and still dry at the start, since it was already supposed to be pouring by then. As we took off on the dirt road, it didn’t feel nearly as loose as on the pre-ride. As we kept riding, it seemed that the damp air settled the dust, and tacked up the trail a little bit, even though it hadn’t rained yet. The trail fairies must have also done some magic, as a couple of water crossings that were spicy for a stampede of riders had a bridge put in for one, and some flat rocks filled in for the other. Some loose corners were tamped down and became way more rideable, some stray rocks were kicked off the trail. The gear I thought was too hard two days ago, I was spinning with ease, and though I was still off the bike for a couple of really loose, steep sections, I powered over pitches I swore I would stall out on. I was riding well, and the trail suddenly flowed and made sense!
The sky was cloudy all morning, but the darkness that settled around me at the start of my second lap was unmistakable. I yelled to the guy I was riding next to “It’s about to come down, you know”, as if I were some sage who has been living on this land for generations and can predict the weather by the flight pattern of the wrens. A minute later, it was raining, 30 seconds later, I was completely soaked. 30 seconds after that, the guy I so diligently warned about the rain pulled over to put on a rain layer that was also about to get soaked. I continued riding. One down. The mud was nothing like it was last year, this was all still rideable, but the new streams running down the established trails created a suction effect that forced me to increase my effort. I was working harder than I thought I should be, and was convinced that I was going to be walking way more than the first lap. After stopping to confirm that the brake rub I was hearing was more noise than malfunction, I continued on, staying on my bike, with very few exceptions, still passing people, and very rarely being passed. The thunder and lightning were unnerving, but I pressed on steady, and focused.
The second half of that lap went by much quicker. It was still raining on and off, but it just didn’t bother me. I loved being in the rain, still relatively warm, unlike Colorado rain, where it’s instant hypothermia. That part of the course was also sandier, so all that rain actually packed it down, and it rode faster. Soon, I was back on the dirt road, eating a gel, swigging some sports drink. I was tired, had plans to stop for some canned soup, and was ready to finish myself off on that third lap. Half a mile to the Start/Finish area, where outbound and inbound parts of the course converge, I saw Lee standing with his bike on the other side of the caution tape. I immediately assumed that something happened to him or his bike, and he was out of the running. He yelled “Push hard, this is your last lap!” I then assumed he was fucking with me, so I yelled, “No it’s not, I’ve got one more!” I was almost out of earshot when he yelled back “They called the race early, this is it!” then to the guy trying to pass me “You’re about to get beat by a girl on a singlespeed!” The two of us gingerly picked our way through a slippery muddy section, decided that Lee is probably not fucking with us, and started riding in earnest. The stretch to the finish line was flat, I was spun out, so he did not get beat by a girl on a singlespeed.
Lee stood at that spot for at least another half hour, freezing his ass off, encouraging racers to pick up the pace for a strong finish, making sure they don’t stop for an unnecessary refuel before they cross the finish. I was relieved to go shower and put on some dry clothes, but also disappointed I couldn’t do the last lap. I knew I had more in me, and a lot of folks that came in ahead of me looked very spent according to Lee. I also have this underlying guilt that I “owe” my training, or the bike gods, another 21 miles, since I was so set on doing the full 60. Not too dissimilar from how I felt getting cut off at Leadville last year, but this time it had nothing to do with me. We hung out for another few hours, drinking some beer, eating food, and hanging out trading war stories with people I’m liable to see back in Colorado in a matter of weeks.
This whole race and the events around it, have been a bit of a struggle for us this year for various reasons, from issues with the bike build (see The Wrong Gear #2) to not being able to get out on dirt much, to issues with scheduling, and work, and minor health problems (see the last post), to the drive itself. Lee had his own gremlins to deal with, trying to find time to train, and working the bugs out of his new bike. Maybe I wanted this whole chain of events to resolve itself into some glorious win (Lee won his class, and it’s awesome) but that did not happen for me, I was second out of two in my class, second to a superhuman. Instead, what I did get was a little vacation somewhere a little warmer and greener, hanging out with my type of people, and a little bike race in the rain, just for shits and giggles. I raced well, and had too much fun.