Despite racing nearly every weekend, and thus having no shortage of racing to talk about, it’s been a while since I’ve written an update. The original plan for the past 2 months was quite ambitious: we were to spend 3 weeks at altitude in California, then race Crusher, Andorra, Nationals, Snowshoe, MSA, and Leadville all consecutively. You know what they say about the best-laid plans, and I’d say the plan to race 6 weeks in a row was not one of my better-crafted ideas. Suffice it to say that this plan went sideways as hell.
After Crusher, I got sick. Andorra didn’t go well, Nationals was medium, and Snowshoe was absolutely horrendous. Given that trajectory, and just the overall load of the season-that-doesn’t-stop (we’ve been racing since mid-February!), I made the really difficult decision not to race our home World Cup in MSA. I knew that if I wanted to be good for Leadville, I needed to have a weekend off of racing.
While I didn’t come to Leadville fresh, I knew that taking the MSA weekend off would at least give me a chance of survival. We arrived to Colorado on Wednesday evening and headed up to Leadville Thursday morning. Leadville is really high (like, in the literal sense). The town is at 3100m, and the race all takes place between 2900 and 3900m. I think I probably retained a little altitude benefit from our pre-Crusher camp, but I have to say, I felt overwhelmingly unprepared. Coming in having won the previous round in the series, and on the most climbing-dense course to boot, I felt a small ghost of the pressure to perform that I have felt in previous seasons. This time around, though, I knew imbibing the negative side of that pressure was a choice, and I chose to let it go. To be fair, it’s easier to do that when you know you’re not optimally prepared! And optimally prepared I was not… But, preparation is rarely ever perfect, and there can be no excuses on race day.
The race itself was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I have never cracked so hard and lost so much time in the final stretch of a race. I honestly didn’t know if I would be able to finish the final 5km, crossing the line barely pedalling and pretty much delirious. But let’s back up to the beginning!
The race started at 6:30am, which seems to be the theme for these mass-start ultra-endurance events. I honestly really like it; I love waking up before sunrise and getting right to the day’s mission. This day’s mission was something big - 168km of off-road racing and about 3500m of elevation gain. On paper, that doesn’t seem like it would be that insane. Certainly, it seems more tame than Unbound was. But I stand by what I said: Leadville was the hardest thing I have ever done.
It was a mass start, with no call ups. I was a little worried about this, because at Unbound I lost track of all the other women in the chaos of the start crashes. I needn’t have worried, though; it was far less sketchy than Unbound and I was able to stay out of trouble. I stayed near the front of the pack amidst the other women until we started the climbing in earnest, but it was near the top of the first summit that I realized I needed to ease off. I was really feeling the altitude and knew that if I wanted to survive I had to be mature.
I hit the first descent (pavement) in seventh, and held that through the top of summit number 2. The second descent was the gnarliest of the day, with really high speeds and random rocky sections. I had a small mechanical and lost the rivets holding my second bottle cage on the bike (along with with the full bottle and the cage), which I knew was a serious problem. I knew this meant that I would only be able to carry half the hydration I’d planned for (and needed!) throughout the whole race**. I’d planned to take 8 bottles, but knew that I’d only be able to have 4 throughout the race because of the spacing of the feed zones and my newfound ability to only carry one bottle. The feeds were few and far between, and when this happened, I was about an hour and a quarter into the race. There was an “oh s*%^” moment, but I just got on with it. (**Just now, while proofreading this, Lespy asked if I thought about putting a second bottle in my jersey and I said “I’m not a dummy, I was wearing a skin suit and the pockets were full of gels!”, to which he replied, “No, like IN your jersey, down the neck like a roadie”. To which I replied “omg I actually AM a dummy, no I did not think about that”. So now I feel like an idiot and know my suffering was avoidable.)
Finishing up that descent, I ended up with a few men that helped the rolling terrain leading into Columbine go quicker. I had my first leg cramps of the day about 2.5 hours in (already feeling the rationed hydration), which does not normally happen to me, and I was starting to get worried, but again, I just put that to the back of my mind and kept on a steady pace. Into the bottom of Columbine, I caught Huck (who is just back from having a child - talk about impressive). Shortly after, I saw Sofia up the road and was able to gently reel her in. Sofia looked to be having a tough day, but as always, was really nice and encouraging when I caught her. By this time I was in fifth and thinking “hey, that’s pretty good for my first Leadville” but also “I have only one mission and the mission is to finish” and ALSO "I am a bike RACER dammit". When the climbing opened up in the top third of Columbine (and when it got really steep and rocky to coincide with the 3850m peak), I could see Sarah up the road as well. She was having to walk one of the loose bits (it is honestly insanely difficult to ride technical terrain at this altitude), and I was able to ride by, albeit at a snail’s pace and mostly powered by a sheer stubbornness (and also the knowledge that if It tried to push my bike on foot, my arms would give out hah). Sarah was a trooper and shared some wisdom about the nastiness of powerline to come (the second-to-last, incredibly steep climb), and cautioned me to be steady. Very much appreciated that advice, because at this point I could also see Rose up ahead and dumb-athlete-brain-that-thinks-she’s-invincible was coming out of hibernation.
I crested Columbine SO relieved to have gotten the meat of the day over (LOL what a naive attitude… there was so much suffering in store still). Descending Columbine was honestly terrifying, because it was two-way traffic with hundreds of people still on the ascent. I was being very cautious, and probably could have pushed it a lot more, but didn’t want to risk crashing into someone on a corner. On the way down, I saw that Sofia had given her wheel to Russel (who no longer had a tire on his rim when I saw him) and was both sad for her day and impressed by her selflessness.
At the bottom of Columbine, I drove the pace as best I could to try to put a little gap into Sarah. I had a small hope that I’d catch Rose, but mostly I just wanted to keep charging. Coming into Powerline, I was really starting to feel it. Hamstring cramps, foggy brain, puffy eyes… I was mega-dehydrated and already thinking “this is really hard… can I do this? I don’t know if I can do this. But I’m not quitting”.
About halfway up Powerline, I could see Alexis walking up ahead (yes, it really was that steep. It was straight up savage). The spectators told me, “keep going, she’s just up ahead and she’s hurting”, and I responded with, “well… so am I aha”. But as any racer knows, the pull of a rider up ahead acts like a magnet and I soon found myself moving by Alexis, who unfortunately was having major gut rebellion.
By the top of Powerline, I was bonked. I now know that I have never before TRULY bonked, because I have never felt like THAT before. Delirious, dizzy, powerless, cold and hot at the same time (what??), muscle cramps… the works. But finish lines are powerful, and I just kept turning the pedals. On the final real climb, a kind spectator handed me up a coke and that probably saved my life. A guy passed me with some words of encouragement and intel that I had 5 minutes on the rider behind me (presumably Sarah). I had 18ish km left, mostly downhill and flat. I can’t even describe how seriously I imploded over these last 18km, other than to say that I literally couldn’t even pedal over the finish line, I had to coast. Just straight shattered. I honestly don’t even really care that I came third - I’m more just happy that I finished that beast of a day. That said, I now want to come back and try for the W… athlete brains are weird.
Also have to mention Hannah and Rose before closing this out; Rose, for a courageous ride in pursuit of a title defence to come 2nd, and Hannah for a crazy day of toughness that saw her win. Women are tough as nails, friends.
That was a long, self-indulgent race recap, but I thought you might like to see some of the struggle that goes on even at the front of the race. Leadville was battle of will. It was an epic effort to get over the finish line. I honestly can’t even comprehend how some people got up the next day and raced Steamboat, too (Keegan, are you even human?!!?!). But it’s one of those weird experiences that fills you up and makes you feel so inspired by the body and mind’s abilities to endure.
It also makes me wonder if this is a style of event that I’m naturally suited to. My preparation was so suboptimal, with the race/travel schedule, getting sick, and never having been at an altitude that high before. Should I be doing more of these? I don’t know. I DO know that I love them in a sick and twisted way, and I’m supremely grateful to MFR for giving me the opportunity to explore this facet of bike riding.
Next up, back to short stuff on the east coast this week for a Canada cup in New Brunswick (a training race weekend for me), a quick visit in Nova Scotia, and then another new event… Rebecca’s Private Idaho. So excited for that one!!!