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By Frankie Cates
It all started at the Leadville Lake Tahoe Qualifier race. I signed up for this race for many reasons. Qualifying for Leadville was not at the top of the list. Just visiting beautiful Tahoe and riding new dirt were the main reasons. Getting a spot for Leadville would just be icing on the cake.
With a healthy dose of suffering and a bit of luck, I got a spot in the Leadville 100! I knew they were about to call my name and I was already considering all the aspects of actually heading off to Leadville. I would have about three short weeks to make arrangements. Also, I knew I did not have enough long distance training throughout the year to prepare me for a race like Leadville. This particular fact made me really worried. I’m in the middle of thinking about all of this when they called my name. I immediately said, "Yes!!!"
I head back to the hotel. I take a refreshing swim in Lake Tahoe, get cleaned up and eat some dinner. I head off to bed exhausted from a day of racing. I woke up the next morning thinking everything that happened the prior day was just a dream. As I’m still lying there, almost a minute later I realize, "Holy crap!?! Did I sign up for Leadville?!?" Yes, yes you did!
I knew exactly why I wanted to do Leadville. I wanted the experience and knowledge of doing a race on the magnitude of Leadville. I’m also not a stranger to long distance races, but racing 100 miles at altitude would obviously be new. Even though I did not officially have the training, I’m in the best shape of my entire life. I knew I would have a fighting chance to get that buckle. I would go to Leadville, learn a ton, be part of an awesome experience, and propel my riding to the next level. I would squeeze every drop out of the experience.
What followed after Tahoe was trying to find a place to stay, booking airfare, getting the bike boxed up, and constant nerves beating me up along the way. Every hotel in the surrounding areas was booked full back in January and all had about 20 people on their waiting list for cancellations. We ultimately decided to stay in Beaver Creek, which turned out to be a blessing. It was absolutely beautiful. There were many excellent food choices and other conveniences. The downside was that it was quite a drive to Leadville from Beaver Creek. It makes pre-riding the course inconvenient. Also, race day would mean an extra, extra early alarm.
The Beaver Creek trail
The bike survived the flight and went back together nicely. It was now time to do a pre-race ride and see how my body felt at altitude. I pedaled from the hotel and rode up Beaver Creek trail. It started at about 7,200ft and climbed to 9,200ft. I felt great. Lungs and legs felt good. The heart was racing, but this was expected. The high heart rate would be a common theme during Leadville; affects of the high altitude. After climbing Beaver Creek, I rode Village-to-Village trail. It’s a beautiful trail that flows in and out of a tree canopy. 20 miles of excellent riding.
The packet pickup line.
Friday has now arrived and it’s time for packet pickup and the pre-race meeting. We head over to Leadville to find a line wrapped around the block for packet pickup. Thankfully the line was moving at a decent pace. Packet pick up went smoothly and it was now time to head over to the gym for the pre-race meeting. I was looking forward to this. The opportunity to see David Weins; six time winner of the Leadville 100. Ken Chlouber would of course also be there; co-founder of the Leadville 100. I was looking forward to hearing Ken speak. He did not disappoint! He spoke his timeless words, "You are better than you think you are! You can do more than you think you can!" The crowd and energy in that gym was tremendous following these words. It hit me again. I’m here and I’m doing Leadville!
The pre-race meeting.
It’s now race day! The alarm went off at 3:30 a.m. The bike, gear, food, bottles, Camelbak and breakfast were all prepared the night before and ready to go. We head down to the lobby to retrieve the car. It was a pleasant site to see a fellow Leadville racer also loading up. It also calmed the nerves that we got loaded up and were on the road first, which meant we were on schedule and heading towards Leadville. We arrived and got a good parking space amongst the other 1,800 racers. The car indicated it was 33 degrees outside. It was dang cold, but it did not feel miserably cold. Later, it would still take about 20 miles before my hands were no longer numb and hurting.
We made our way to the the start line where racers were grouped in corrals. Pros first, and then it trickled back to the "first timer" group. We were there early. I had a good spot and hundreds of racers proceeded to get in line behind me. I was surrounded by hundreds of bicycles in every direction. Now it was time to wait and shiver in the cold until it was time to pedal. Friendly chatter was made. Racers were checking their bikes. Wives, girlfriends, and family members were shivering in the cold. Racers were making last minute trips to the bathroom to relieve nervous jitters. As time crawled by, racers started returning to their bikes. We were getting closer. It was almost time.
At the starting line.
Ken Chlouber’s voice started blasting through the speakers and could be heard throughout the small town of Leadville at 6:30am. The tension and energy started to ramp up. The shotgun blast was now eminent. My wife wished me good luck, and gave me a parting kiss and hug before I embarked on my Leadville journey. My wife and the family members of the other racers then quickly moved off to safety. Ken was about to begin the countdown! 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, BOOM! The shotgun was fired! The Leadville 100 was officially started! This was it! A few, "Woohoos!" were shouted. A few, "We’re off!" were shouted.
Then a huge roar of laughter erupts! We’re actually not moving at all. We need to wait for the hundreds of racers in front of us to roll out. A lady even asked someone next to her to hold her bike as she runs off to the bathroom. Then a guy comes walking through the crowd asking if anyone has seen his bike. We all got a chuckle out of this. People were shouting they saw a bike, because we in fact saw several bikes lying in the road that racers did not get back to in time before the start.
The delay is humorous, but we all knew it wouldn’t last long. We’re actually seconds away from rolling out very fast. As soon as you see the bike in front of you start moving, it’s going to get fast really quick. The moment finally occurred. Bikes are now moving. We’re officially racing! We hit 20-30mph shortly after passing the start line and rolled out of town. We would hit a couple of short bottlenecks along the way, but the pace would pick up quickly again. The pace would stay like this until we reached the first dirt.
We reached the dirt and the racers piled up a bit. It’s dusty. Really dusty. We’re starting our first climb. Everyone is strangely quiet. We’re all concentrating on our goal to keep moving and to stay out of trouble. Racers are crossing tires. Racers are trying to pass. Racers are grinding gears. Racers are falling over because the person in front of them was going too slow. Racers are suddenly dismounting which would sometimes cause a mini pileup. I was lucky. I found a racer that was moving consistently and locked onto their wheel. I wanted to stay out of trouble and I could tell this rider did too. I stayed locked onto this wheel for a long time. After their pace dropped off, I found another tire to lock onto. This strategy paid off because I pedaled trouble free for the 10 miles it took for the riders to finally spread out. At this point I was feeling good. I had a clean start. My hands were starting to thaw out. I was moving along. I made it a point to look around and enjoy the scenery. So far trail conditions were excellent. I was no longer riding close to other racers. I was finally in my own race now. A race to just finish.
Surprisingly I started seeing power lines ahead. Could this be the infamous Powerline descent already, I wondered? Sure enough it was. We were heading down Powerline. I had a pretty clear field around me. "Excellent!", I thought. I’ve heard the legends. This was going to be either the nastiest, most technical, and rutted descent ever, or it was going to be the easiest descent I’ve ever done. What would turn out to be true? Well, it was a little bit of both. I’m approaching the first descent of Powerline and I pass a racer that had crashed. Seconds later I pass ATVs that are speeding towards the downed racer. His race was done. My descent continues and Powerline gets rockier and more rutted. Someone then crashes in front of me. Thankfully it’s not serious and they quickly move off to the side. It’s getting surprisingly steeper and I’m catching up to other racers. It’s now slow going. It’s getting harder to keep moving while also not getting locked up in the ruts. I quickly understand why this section becomes so dangerous. I finally reached the base and I’m relieved I made it through the infamous Powerline without incident. The race continues on.
Now the goal is to keep a fast pace and make it to the first cutoff. I’m still feeling great. I’m passing through beautiful scenery. I’m remembering my nutrition and my stomach is not fighting back. The bike is performing perfectly. My race is going well and I’m officially in a groove. I reached the first cutoff at top speed and blew through the time check station. Little did I know, I also blew through an aid station as well. I realized this a short time later, but it was too far to go back. It was okay. I had enough fluids. I shook it out of my mind and tried not to let it get a hold of me mentally. I pressed on.
I reached mile 46. "Only 4 miles left until the turnaround point", I told myself. We were on a steady climb through the trees. It was slow going but there were only 4 more miles left of it. I felt great. Visions of getting the buckle started entering my mind. I knew I had 50 miles left and that I also had to climb Powerline back out, but I told myself, "I have this thing done. I’m getting a buckle." Little did I know the Columbine ascent was ahead of me. The trees started to clear. I came around a corner and then I saw it. The trail went straight up to the clouds. Others around me saw it too and gasped. This climb was going to take us to 12,000ft in a few short miles. We put our heads down and forged on.
At this point things started to deteriorate. Racers were now heading down. They were heading down fast. We now had two-way traffic to contend with. The trail we were attempting to climb was steep, loose, rocky and getting narrower. Dust was getting thicker by the second. Racers in front of me were getting tired and coming to a crawl. This meant a ton of energy needed to be exerted to pass them quickly in between the racers coming down. "One foot in front of the other", I told myself. I forged on.
However, the further we went the higher we got. My head was pounding. My heart was pounding. My legs felt like lead. I stopped for a brief second and almost fell over. "Don’t stop. Keep moving", I told myself. I forged on. More racers were heading down. This started taking a mental toll on me. This is also when it occurred to me that none of them were saying, "You’re almost there! Keep going!". Things like that are usually said at the appropriate time by those heading downhill. I never heard it said once. A short distance later I learned why. We reached one of the summits and way off in the distance was the aid station and the turnaround point. I couldn’t believe how far away it was.
Someone behind me said, "That can’t be the aid station way over there?!" It was indeed. I put my head down and forged on. I told myself, "What ever happens, you’re making it to to the top of this!" I pressed on and finally made it to the top! However, it did not feel like victory at the top. It felt more like relief. My heart rate calmed slightly and I relaxed a bit. I made it to the top.
Now, normally I would leave this next detail out because I would not want to tarnish the spirit of a wonderful event, but it was a significant event during the race. I slowly rolled up to the aid station and a volunteer came up to me and asked me what I needed. I quickly said, "I need water." "We’re all out of water", he said. I quickly responded with, "Are you serious?" "Yes, we’re all out of fluids", was his response. I couldn’t believe it. I checked my water supply and thankfully still had some. I was in conserve mode since passing the last aid station. The entire way up all I could think about was topping off my bottles and washing my gels down with a few cups of water from the aid station. Not being able to do that after conquering that climb zapped me mentally. Someone found a tiny bit of water as I was heading off. It brought my spirits up a little bit.
I shook off the situation and started the descent. The rough decent was harsh on my already fatigued body. At this point, I was no longer riding the bike. It was riding me. You know you’re tired when the descent you’ve been looking forward to isn’t so sweet. As I’m heading down a racer crashed in front me, which turned into a very frustrated racer. He threw his bike. His race was obviously done. A racer broke their leg on the way down. Another racer appeared to have injured their shoulder. Other racers had minor crashes that signaled it might be safer to stop pedaling. Exhaustion was taking its toll on everyone at this point. I made it safely down Columbine and to the next aid station.
It was at this aid station where I could finally top off my water supply. It was also at this point where I bumped into Mike. Mike and I are friends from Southern California and we ride in the same circles back home. Actually, I first bumped into Mike on the toughest part of the Columbine climb. He came up behind me and said, "Where did you get that jersey?" I turned around and realized it was Mike and we were both wearing The Path Bike Shop jerseys. We said hello and exchanged a few incoherent words and I went back to my goal of just putting one foot in front of the other. We were now standing at the aid station together on our way back to the start line. We still had about 40 miles left, but we were on our way back none the less.
My water supplies were now in good shape and I yelled to Mike, "Are you ready? Let’s get going! We can do this!" I pedaled off. Very slowly. I got slower with each pedal stroke. I started thinking about what was left. Mike caught up. My first question to Mike, "Do we have to pedal up those switchbacks we came down?" "I think so", he said. "Crap!", I thought. Those are going to rob any energy I have left before the climb up Powerline. Mike and I started chatting about our race. He explained how he used way too much energy trying to make the first cutoff and how he made it by only 5 minutes. This wiped him out early on. We then started talking about timing and doing some calculations on what we had left at this point. All the while I’m moving slower by the second and getting off the bike to walk the smallest of hills. We hit some fast rolling sections, but these are deceptive in the way they force your heart rate up to maintain the momentum.
Based on the rate we were moving and what we had left, it was clear it would be time to stop once we hit the next aid station whether we made the cutoff or not. We forged on and chatted as we did. We could now see the aid station in the distance. We both picked up the pace and used our remaining energy to hit the aid station with speed. We pulled in and our race was over. Although I knew this moment was coming for the last few miles, the fact that my race was over hit my emotions like a ton of bricks. The volunteers handed out much needed hugs to racers that we were coming in and as the tears started flowing. Most of the tears were mine, but that fact isn’t important. Mike and I exchanged a manly hug and I told him how proud of him I was. He accomplished so much leading up to Leadville. I’m also glad we bumped into each other and could chat during the remaining miles. The race was over. We both did almost 75 miles out of the 100.
Although I did not get a buckle, the Leadville race was the most perfect day on the bike I’ve ever had. The weather was absolutely perfect. The trail conditions were exceptional. The views were magnificent. I had no crashes or mechanical problems. I completed almost 75 miles. My longest race yet. Thank you to all the volunteers for a great race. I’m so glad I could be part of such a wonderful event.