Leadville Camp of Champs

As a first time participant in the Leadville 100 MTB I’ve been looking for every advantage I can to make sure I have the most successful performance I can. After locking up my charity slot in December I quickly decided to commit to the Camp of Champions where participants ride the entire course (and more) over 2 days with race experienced guides that include former and multi-winners Dave Wiens and Rebecca Rusch.

Warning: this post is going to be long, it was an eventful trip! 🙂

Our story begins 2 days before arrival when, at the time, it was unbeknownst  to me that during my Tahoe Ride I had broken the lower bolt on the upper pivot on my Santa Cruz 5010 – the bike I planned to ride in Leadville! For those without a calendar handy this was July 3rd – the day before the 4th of July – in Incline Village, NV.  Not exactly the best time/place to be in desperate need of an infrequently stocked spare part!

Saturday morning, July 4th, during the process of breaking down the bike for shipping I noticed a familiar looseness in my swingarm.  Frantic, I began calling every shop in the area. The only ones to answer the call at the time was Village Ski Loft in Incline Village. Immediately I rushed over with the bike only to hear from the mechanic that indeed I had broken the bolt. And no, they did not have a replacement in stock. He did his best for what seemed like an hour to remove the broken portion of the bolt from the swingarm without success.

Optimistically I packed the bike in the hopes of finding a solution in Colorado. Later, still on the 4th of July, I started calling every shop in Colorado listed as a Santa Cruz dealer. After mostly no answer and the rest no stock I finally reached the Wheat Ridge Cyclery and they indicated they had a kit that included the bolt! Relieved I enjoyed the fireworks in Incline Village before my early morning trip would start.

Day 0 – Travel, Bike Shops and Pre-rides

At the Denver Airport getting my bike
At the Denver Airport getting my bike

My Reno-Tahoe shuttle arrived promptly at 3:45 am, getting me to the Reno Airport around 4:30 for my 6:10am flight.  Landed in Denver, retrieved my bike from oversized luggage and was off to the rental car desk.

Hit the road in my Jeep Patriot and headed straight for Wheat Ridge Cyclery, conveniently just off of I-70 west of Denver which was the direct route to Leadville!

I arrived a little early so grabbed lunch at the pizza place across the street to kill some time. Keep in mind it’s Sunday and it’s July 5th so as I was in front of the store rebuilding my bike the line of people grew and grew.

Super busy right from opening time in the service area
Super busy right from opening time in the service area

Thankfully once they opened their doors I was able to maintain my #2 position in line as it only got busier and busier! Recounted my story to the technician and he took my bike back to behind the visible service area to another. After about an hour of milling about the store I returned for an update on the status.

Good news? They successfully drilled out the broken portion of the bolt. Bad news? They spare bolt they said they had didn’t fit the 5010!  My heart sank with disappointment and immediately I was beginning to work on plan B in my head, rent a bike? No WAY, I couldn’t go out like this!  After pleading my case one more time they miraculously found a working bolt. I won’t say where they acquired it but it saved my trip and for that I’ll be forever thankful.

Off to Leadville!

Right in the middle of town on the main drag
Right in the middle of town on the main drag

Arriving at around 4:30 I was able to get my swag bag and check in at the Leadville Race Series (LRS) HQ and get checked into the Delaware Hotel before the scheduled 6pm pre-ride around Leadville with Dave Wiens and Rebecca Rusch.

Arriving back in town just before the scheduled 7pm showing of the 2010 Race Across the Sky. Owning it and having watched it countless times I stepped out to get some dinner at Mountain High Pizza Pies an excellent spot, clearly a local fav with great service.

Day 1: Start & Finish

Recall the format of the Leadville 100 MTB race is out & back so it only makes sense that breaking up the race into two days the plan is first to ride the start and turn around and ride back the finish, leaving the middle portion of the course for day 2.

One thing I’ll say about the altitude that I hadn’t heard or had been concerned about prior to camp was the effect on sleep. Perhaps it was the rock-hard bed or the combo of that and the altitude but I slept like crap. I have a Fitbit ChargeHR and looking at the overnight pattern on my heart rate it’s significant.  Most nights at sea level my HR dips down as low as 40 bpm and settles in the mid-40s while in Leadville on my worst night it never went below 55 and settled closer to 60bpm!

Part of the rider breakfast before day 1
Part of the rider breakfast before day 1

Breakfast was being served at LRS HQ at 6:30 so I got up, dressed to ride and headed over for a bite. As an early arrival the ratio of LRS staff to campers was high, the attention was great. Met Trapper and split a bacon covered donut because, well, bacon covered donut. Duh!

Tactical error on my part, being just a couple blocks away I thought I’d go back for my bike and gear between breakfast and the rider meeting at 7:30 before the 8am departure.  Perhaps unsurprisingly I underestimated how much time it would take to get everything prepped – my nutrition, hydration pack, bike assembly/extraction from the back of my rental car, etc. Hurried but still didn’t arrive back until after the rider meeting had started. Whoops!  Note to self, better to show up later for breakfast fully ready to ride than getting an earlier bite.

2015-07-06 at 07-40-19
Gearing up for the day 1 ride!

After the brief rider meeting we geared up for the start of the day’s riding. The weather was looking great, so much so that I left my rain jacket behind. Too optimistic? We’ll find out!

We set out right on time at 8am with police escort through town and out to the turn off of 6th street. There were, perhaps, 50 riders in the camp which is a far cry from the 2000 expected on race day but it was still good to get a taste for the pace and a crowd on the initial stretch of road before peeling off to climb St. Kevins.  I was surprised how fast the pace was and I’m sure it will be faster still or at least feel that way when the clock is running with 40x the number of riders!

St. Kevins was certainly a wake up but wasn’t the toughest for me on this day, that came later at the top of Sugarloaf, elevation 11k. I was more affected by elevation here than at any time during the trip. My mouth wide-open there just didn’t seem to be capacity in my lungs to draw in enough oxygen to power my lungs even (not a sustainable situation to say the least) . There I slowed down the pace until my heart rate started to drop. Every time I went for a pull of water from my pack, however, the heart rate raced back up. No win situation!

After clearing the summit it was time to drop down power line. Trail conditions were pretty solid given the rain that had been hitting the area in the afternoons during weeks leading up to camp. Living in Marin and riding things like Eldridge grade down from Mt. Tam, Solstice, 7-11 and the upper east side of China Camp Powerline is not as scary as it’s made out to be. Rutted? Yes. Bomb-able? Absolutely, unless of course you are surrounded by roadies with little to no technical experience (no offense, you all crush me on the other 97% of the course).

Lesson #1: There will be many, many people who take the downhills – power line and columbine especially – way slow AND expect that no one has experience being passed under these conditions.

Given this lesson, and for someone whose strength (relative to the field) is downhill, it’s extremely important to get ahead of as many riders as possible by the start of these descents.

During this descent I met a couple of riders that were part of a larger group that came to Leadville together from other parts of Colorado. We’d end up riding together for pretty much the rest of the day, grabbing photos, drafting and finishing together. Great to meet these guys and I’m looking forward to riding with them again come August.

Getting a little over-confident I attempted a pass at the bottom of power line that was a tad too aggressive. See the video for details on that.

From there it was out to the pipeline aid station and the turnaround point. Between power line and pipeline is a long road section that reminds you that this  is more of a road race on a mountain bike. Going out there was little wind and after starting with one group and riding together I broke away to try to catch the next one before the turn. Didn’t happen and I spent too much energy on that feeble attempt.

After getting razzed by Ken Chlouber at pipeline aid station for taking a spill and fueling up I rode out with my new crew to do the finish.  Trying to keep in mind that at this point we need to imagine having done another 40 miles and the 3k ft climb up Columbine I did my best to settle into a sustainable pace.

That didn’t last long.

The wind picked up and we had a nasty cross wind hit us too which introduced me to the formation concept of an “echelon“.  It came time for me lead the group and for some silly reason I accelerated! Maybe it was the feeling of responsibility? Maybe it was the position with no one in front of me that made me just want to open it up, I have no idea but I do know it was d-u-m-b!

Thankfully almost immediately one of my new crew shouted at me to, “slow down and save it for Powerline!”

Lesson #2: when riding in a group and taking over the lead, don’t change your effort level, ride within your pace. Never lead for more than 30 seconds and if others want to go faster, let them.

The last part of that lesson was directly from the lips of Dave Wiens.

Again trying to set my mind as though this is mile 80 and not mile 40 it was time to make the ascent up Powerline. As many will tell you, this is where the race is won. If there’s any good to this climb it’s that undoubtedly it will occur with a decent separation of riders and hopefully walking will be at the rider’s option and not forced. That said myself and one other from the crew decided not to burn ourselves trying to ride the whole thing and opted to hike. This is when I experienced another valuable lesson.

Lesson #3: Riding is almost always faster than walking but that doesn’t mean it’s worth it.

My hiking partner and I watched our friend ride the last stretch of Poweline while we hoofed it. He expanded his lead on us but not significantly. We were much better off, at that point, for saving the energy. We caught back up to him right away and I’d say with a less empty tank judging by the remainder of the day.

Everywhere you turn as you learn about Leadville you will hear those words or something similar to them “sometimes walking is faster”, “only superhumans ride the whole thing”, “there’s no shame in hiking”, “even Dave hikes sometimes”, etc. Of course I’ve read all that and, probably like many, just dismiss these suggestions as challenges. After all we’re here to ride, right? Personally I loathe walking and pushing my bike. Tells me I’m out of shape, insufficiently skilled or just on the wrong trail.

Put all that aside on race day. Is your goal to finish under a certain time or to clean the whole course? If the latter, just do it some other time and don’t bother with the race – chances are someone in front of you will spoil that goal anyway!

The top of Powerline at Sugarloaf Summit is not the end by any means but mentally I can see this being a big milestone come August 15th. At this point there is about 20 miles to go with another aid station available (Carter) and the toughest climbing is behind you.

Coming down from Sugarloaf pass we stopped for a photo opp
Coming down from Sugarloaf pass we stopped for a photo opp

Just after summiting we pulled off for a group shot above Turquoise Lake, quite the scene and would have been happy to crack open a beer right then and there!

On this day some missed the turn from Turquoise Lake Rd to St. Kevins. We would have missed it as well had I not caught the Carter aid station off into the woods on our left out of the corner of my eye. The turn is marked but if you’re tired and weary climbing that road you’re not exactly looking for turns as you just try to keep your front wheel pointed forward and your legs moving.

From the Carter aid station you begin what is officially known on Strava as “the home stretch“. Based on my cursory analysis of various sub-9 finishers it seems 50 minutes is the remaining goal for those final 12.5 miles. My time on this day was 53:23 which felt pretty good at the time as we came across the finish line at 6th & Harrison in Leadville and on to convene with my new found crew at LRS HQ for some well earned brews and Mexican food.

After stuffing my face and only one beer, thankfully, I was asked if I wanted to participate in the descending clinic with Dave and Rebecca. Without hesitation I responded, “Sure, sounds like fun!” .  And it was fun, a lot of fun, until I flatted. Fortunately that happened on the final run of 5-1 mile descents with Dave and another fellow camper.

A note about flats and tires in Leadville: this is not an uncommon occurrence of course but it certainly shakes my confidence for the downhills. After a lot of research I had decided to run Maxxis Ikon tires (2.35in up front and 2.2in rear).

Of course the mechanics at my shop think pretty little of these tires for this exact reason – fragility. There’s just so much advantage to a low resistance lightweight tire on this course. Important to note, however, that this tire survived Powerline descent which is notoriously the most common segment for flats – and I held nothing back on that effort.

Back in town my first order of business was to seek out a new tire. I had my all mountain tire of choice (for Marin, not Leadville) back in the hotel with everything I needed to put it on tubeless which was my backup to any lack of options at the shop. One thing was for sure: I was not running with a tube to start the day that included coming down Columbine! Very likely that would be my only opportunity to ride Columbine before race day and I wanted to test my pressure (25psi rear, 28 front) and tire choice without fear of pinch flats!

Cycles of Life, the local shop in Leadville, was busy of course with 50 riders coming off of riding 60+ miles and many in need of service (that place will be a nut house during race week). Sifting through their selection I found the only 27.5″ tire they had that seemed workable was the Maxxis Crossmark. According to Brian in the shop this is the tire he recommends for the Leadville 100 MTB race. This tire seemed a closer option to what I’d planned to ride and certainly was better than riding tubes.

After dropping the bike off at the shop and getting cleaned up I enjoyed a leg massage back at LRS HQ. That massage rolled back about 40 miles of wear. So worth it. Immediately I signed up for a slot after day 2’s ride – something to look forward to as the end of that ride approaches!

View from dinner at Tennessee pass. Amazing spot.
View from dinner at Tennessee pass. Amazing spot.

The last event of this long but terrific day was a dinner at Tennessee Pass Cookhouse. Bison burgers, grilled salmon, pasta and tremendous views of the Colorado Mountains as the day ended.

As always Dave and Rebecca were there to answer questions and give their perspective on what we accomplished today and what to expect on Day 2. The constant theme in all the Q&A sessions – “you are here, in Leadville, getting prepared and this is a huge advantage for you.” Certainly looking back this is one of two enormous confidence builders for my first experience and I can only imagine where my mind would be the day before the race had I not experienced this camp.

Day 2: The Middle

Got up just before 6am to find that the weather was looking ominous. 80% chance of rain around 10-11am and the mountains weren’t visible from town at all – for all we knew it was snowing at the top! Took the rain jacket and made the call to go with a long sleeve jersey.  This time I had everything I needed for the day and brought a bag with a change of clothes for after the ride as I set out to grab breakfast at LRS HQ.

It seemed like an eternity as we waited until 8am to set out. Everyone trying to spin the bad weather in a positive way, “race day could be just like this!” being the common utterance.  We finally set out and made our way toward the course where we left off on Day 1 – pipeline. Of course we’re not riding the whole thing today so we rode out a different way from town which added about 20 miles to the 44 we had remaining of the course.

This connection was all road and some of it slightly descending. We were cooking, 25-30mph in a giant peloton! As my body warmed up quickly I could feel the 60 miles in my legs from the day before and serious concerns settled into my mind – did I go too hard yesterday? How is it going to feel climbing Columbine if I already feel it now!??

Quite fortunately after a few miles of Pipeline I settled in and the fatigue melted away, at least for a while.  While there are long sections of road and flattish riding which can bring tears of boredom the race does seem to mix it up in a way that makes it go faster than you’d think and offer some points where your focus has to change as well as your physical position. For example, there is a single track section on the course we hit after pipeline which seemed to rejuvenate my energy and motivation.

Approximating the twin lakes aid station.  Probably what threw off Greg's estimate
Approximating the twin lakes aid station. Probably what threw off Greg’s estimate

Not long after the single track is the Twin Lakes aid station. During camp they set up at a different location which would have a significant impact on my experience. At the aid station I regrouped with my crew from the day before but this time there were more of us.

We set out from here to make the journey up Columbine. Now for those who don’t know about this the base is at around 9.5kft of elevation and the road goes straight up to 12.5k ft. The lower portion is a switchbacking dirt road until it reaches tree line at which point it gets very loose, rocky and steepens significantly until it reaches the top. This climb is almost all people talk about when they talk about the Leadville MTB course. And if it’s not all they talk about it’s certainly the first thing.  So as a first time participant there is a certain sense of fear around this climb.

So after we get away from the aid station Greg, one of the riders in my crew, who has done the race and the camp before says encouragingly, “OK, so it’s 10 miles from here and in about 7 miles it’ll get steeper so then you’ll only have about 3 to go!”. Immediately, I look down at my Garmin and it says we’re at 24 miles for the day so my goal now is to climb in a good spin until 31 and then hopefully I’ll have the lungs and legs to crank to 34.

At about mile 28 I notice the road deteriorates a bit and gets a little steeper and the trees are thinning out. Thinking this couldn’t be the “real steep stuff” I charged at the pitch in front of me to make an attempt to clean it. Cleaned the first part and then there was a very short break before another. Looking at my heart rate racing up I decided to hike the next pitch.

This is about the point I started to see the first people coming toward me from the camp. Wow, they were killing it! Two or three riders later one says to me, “You’re almost there, keep going!”. Huh? Based on my math I’ve got like 4 miles to go. “Almost” is relative I guessed.

After grinding away for a few more minutes, though seemed like 3x that, I saw Dave Wiens standing on the side of the trail about 300yds up the hill – the very steep hill. Not wanting to embarrass myself I stayed on the bike and powered up. He shouted to me, “Keep going you’re doing great! This is the steepest of what’s left. The top is just ahead you can do this!”  At this point I switched my Garmin to view to show me current elevation – 12.2k ft (high point would be 12.5k) and I realize that it’s not my math that’s wrong but something about Greg’s assertion earlier. Indeed after I got passed Dave I could see the top and it wasn’t far.

Lesson #4: Know the course backwards and forwards, literally because you have to ride it both ways, and always know where you are!

Turns out Greg was 3 miles off because the “Twin lakes aid station” that was set up for camp was 3 miles further than the one on race day and he had the race course memorized.  What a feeling to have less than a mile left instead of over 3, especially when you are above 12k ft! Feeling even more energized I turned it up to get to the aid station.

Yours truly with the legend, Ken Chlouber - founder of the Leadville Trail 100.
Yours truly with the legend, Ken Chlouber – founder of the Leadville Trail 100.

Such an elated feeling when you reach the top of Columbine. So much so that I was oblivious to the weather which was cold and getting colder – mid 40s according to my Garmin and the clouds were coming in and they didn’t look friendly.

Great to see Ken up there and get a nice helpful greeting from him, “Hello there orange blossom, get your jacket on it’s not getting any warmer just standing there”  Immediately I jumped on that advice, grabbed some fuel and refilled the water bottle.

One of our crew had already reached the top ahead of me and Greg came in not long after me. They both wanted to wait for a couple more of the crew before heading down but I decided not to see whether they made it up before the weather turned so I bolted. There’s an annoying little climb up from the aid station, you think it’s going to be “all downhill from here” when you reach the “top”. Even more annoying if you don’t stop at the aid station which is certainly my plan going into the race. Speed picks up quickly from there and it was fun to see Dave smiling as I passed him and shouted, “this is why I lugged this full-suspension up with me!”.

Lesson #5: Experience counts. Riding Columbine before the race made me realize that it’s not as bad as people make it out to be. Get a comfortable pace and just keep pedaling – recovery awaits on the descent.

I have to remember a couple things about this day when it comes to race day – there will be many more people climbing Columbine when I descend it and the conditions will not be better. It wasn’t too loose and with so few people many of the downhill lines were open for bombing this day.  The thought of a flat never entered my mind. This was one of those descents that is so long and requires so much focus that everything in the world disappears for those 15 minutes where I averaged nearly 30mph. Incredible.

Pulling back into the Twin Lakes aid station Josh, the LRS race director who drove me, Dave and Bob up the hill for our descending clinic, recognized me and said, “you had fun on that didn’t you?!”.  Oh yes I did.  At that point there was actually a little sun breaking through the clouds and I was getting warm so I put my jacket into my pack.  I looked back for any sign of my crew, didn’t see them so I took off.

Not long after the aid station I got my first taste of Leadville wind and I did not like it.  No sir, not one bit! I could feel it picking up slightly as I climbed back up the singletrack section I so enjoyed on the way out and then after a turn maybe 1/3 of the way through that section I hit a wall of wind that almost brought me to a complete stop.  And not far behind that wind were some seriously ominous clouds.

Nature's idea of motivation
Nature’s idea of motivation

The sky definitely took away my concentration but gave me purpose to pedal harder. I wanted to make it to the pipeline aid station before putting my jacket back on. Didn’t happen as the sky opened up and rained on me. Not a warm rain either. I’d later learn that it was hailing on top of Columbine. Glad I didn’t spend much time up there and another reason to avoid a stop at the top if at all possible!

Just after putting the jacket back on I hit a very steep and loose section that I had to walk. Don’t think I could have ridden if I’d tried but again, not always worth it to ride anyway let’s not forget. Re-mounted and got into a good rhythm back to pipeline. Caught up to Bob and we traded strengths for the next few miles to the pipeline aid station. He’d pass me on the uphills and flats and I catch back up to him on the descents.

When we arrived at pipeline there were two riders waiting for us there. They were waiting to get some help on the open road section. Remember the wind I mentioned?

Lesson #6: At pipeline inbound look for riders to join for the open road section to help fight the wind. Hint: those riders may be behind you!

I was certainly the weakest of the 4 and being the last one into the station I had the least rest as well. They waited patiently for me to refill my hydration pack and electrolyte mix bottle. Once that was done and I crammed some watermelon into my mouth we took off together.

You’d think I would have learned my lesson from the day before, specifically lesson #2 but alas no. Apparently not a quick learner, or maybe just overpowered by my foolish instincts. Our pace was strong, nearly matching the wind, and it came to me to lead and I did it again – I pushed way too hard. This time, however, no one was yelling at me to slow down – so I didn’t until I had to physically. I died.  Completely fell off the back of our group and despite a couple of feeble attempts never caught back up to them.

Lesson #2, Lesson #2, Lesson #2.

LRS staff gave us the option, well more the challenge really to take “the boulevard” back into town or come back in the way we went out which is shorter and all roads. Knowing the group of people at camp I’d wager very few if any took the easy way home and I was certainly not one of those campers.

That section definitely felt longer the second time and not just because I was on it 2m30s longer. I’m trusting and hoping that on race day no matter how depleted I am physically and mentally that when I hit this stretch I’ll be within range of my goal, the weather will be good and if I can dig deep enough I just might have the adrenalin to power me to the red carpet.

Arriving back at LRS HQ I was greeted with cheers from the staff and riders who preceded me including the crew that rode out with me from Pipeline before I crumbled (Lesson #2!) . Today’s post ride nutrition was pizza from Mountain High Pies and I truly think I could have eaten about 3 pies.  So good! Beyond nutrition, one thing was on my mind – how long until that massage?

Changed into my dry post ride gear that I’d packed in a bag and left at camp. They didn’t mention this but I saw others do it on day 1 and decided it would be better and more fun to hang out after the ride at HQ and it’s always good to get out of sweaty wet ride gear quickly once the riding is done – especially when it’s nether sunny nor warm.

Still had some time to kill before my final massage with Val so I went back to the room to pack and get the bike packed up for the trip home. After Val stripped about 30 miles of the ride out of my legs I headed back toward my hotel and the last dinner which was just across the street at the site of a former brewery that was being renovated.

Dave, Rebecca and the LRS crew reflected on the prior two days and gave us advice for how to approach the time until the race. Funny debate about Tapering – Rebecca does and Dave doesn’t. Personally I’m planning to scale back simply because I’ll be acclimatizing at the taper point anyway but I don’t think I’m going to drop all activity off completely. Will see what my coach throws at me I guess.

One piece of advice from Dave that evening which I’ve incorporated into my training regimen is hike-a-bike practice. Twice a week until the race I’m going to push my bike up Ponti fire road.

Yours truly with the man, Dave Wiens!
Yours truly with the man, Dave Wiens!

At the end of the evening at the end of a long but great day in the saddle I said my good-byes to the friends I’d made, thank-yous to the LRS Staff and cajoled Dave for a photo op before turning in.

So much to absorb, process and incorporate into the remainder of my training, my race plan, crewing strategy and general mind set heading into the home stretch before the big day!

Overall, it was an incredibly valuable and fun experience.  If you are considering the Leadville 100 MTB race for the first time this camp will give you a huge boost in confidence.  Seeing the entire course, experiencing the altitude, testing your nutrition, tires, etc meeting others you’ll hopefully see again and maybe ride with on race day is all priceless.  It’s also positioned at a great time in your training calendar so it’s no wonder why there were so many repeat campers here.

The final countdown is on!