8 min read

First Dirt in Leadville

After three years of dreaming, planning, and training, I am finally about to pre-ride the LT100 MTB course!
First Dirt in Leadville

The Night Before

Tomorrow morning I leave Boulder for Leadville, Colorado, with a singular purpose: to pre-ride the steepest and most challenging sections of the Leadville Trail 100 MTB course. I am sick with nerves. Butterflies imply cheerful anticipation; this is more like the war of the dragonflies in my gut. I can't shake them. I need to eat a lot in preparation for the distance, elevation, and climbing, but getting food down is challenging. Thank goodness my niece loves to bake and is a master of chocolate chip cookies.

I am often nervous before a big ride, even if it's not a race. I think back to my first time on the epic Whole Enchilada outside Moab, Utah, the nearby Captain Ahab trail, or Bryce Canyon National Park's sister land, Thunder Mountain. Nervous anticipation always precedes these adventures, no matter how many times my two-wheeled steed has guided me through them. Oddly enough, this nervousness doesn't seem to be born of fear. Not to sound cocky—I have more than a healthy respect for these world-class trails, and they challenge my skills and fitness every time.

Tonight, it's not as if I am not paralyzed with fear either. But I'm still more jittery than Mickey in a mouse trap factory. Why?

Perhaps akin to the fated meeting of two soulmates atop the Empire State Building, my first in-person introduction to the course carries disproportionate weight. What started as a distant dream over three years ago is less than three weeks away. My first post about this topic goes into much more detail about how I ended up staring this beast of a race in the eye, and I encourage you to check it out if you haven't already. Put simply; this race was the dream that called to me in the darkest moments of my grief, pulling me out of the emptiness of a life without purpose.

Pursuing my LT100 dream has given me endless goals along the way. Sure, I started by increasing my endurance on the bike. After years of riding, I began entering local MTB races and completed my first 100-mile ride. I became more confident on solo adventures, learned more about my bike than ever, and developed a keen interest in gains large and marginal. To that end, I lost 25 pounds and stopped drinking alcohol. I made substantial changes to my diet. Last year when I began training specifically for this race, I started planning my life around the rides. I discovered that I enjoy strength training and have big plans for the winter! I attempted to prioritize my sleep. Seven hours a night remains elusive, but I'll not give up trying.

One of my favorite pastimes has become getting my bike, nutrition, clothing, and gear all set the night before a race or big event. The list-making, route planning, bike tinkering, snack stocking, tool sorting, and kit layout all become train cars to pile in my nerves and fears, sending them away along the tracks of preparation.

So as I go through each of these tasks tonight, I am keenly aware that they do not have the same calming effect as usual. When I lay my head onto the pillow in my cozy van, my brain spins, and my nerves buzz. Sleep finally comes, a blissful break from the noise.

The Morning Of

Weaving my way through the battered highway that is I-70 West outside of Denver, I head into the mountains, finding the chaos of morning traffic much like navigating a tight singletrack, focusing all my energy and forcing me into the moment. As I discovered on my early morning drive to GRUSK this year, my favorite John Denver album is like a weighted blanket, its familiarity bringing comfort and security. How can I possibly be worried about how steep and rocky the Powerline decent is when I'm singing along with John Denver while driving through the Colorado Rockies?

Rolling down Ninth Street into Leadville, I think of the many times I've been here, whether for riding, hiking, or just passing through as a pilgrimage. This time feels different—as if I'm Meg Ryan finally meeting Tom Hanks atop the Empire State Building. What if he isn't there? What if he's not what I expected? What if I'm not what he expected?

My brain knows the course has no feelings. It doesn't think, throw things, or try to trip me up. It doesn't climb or descend. It doesn't consciously allow water to carve deep ruts or displace baby heads. It doesn't force moisture out of its pores and into the air to create moon dust. It doesn't do anything.

It just is.

I bring the doubt, the fear, the anxiety. I can also choose to leave them all behind. It's a lofty ambition. You would think past successes would contribute to an ability to do so, and to an extent, they do. But of all the muscles that need work, the confidence muscle is crying out for the most attention these days.

The corner of 6th and Harrison in Leadville, CO. This is where the race begins!

My route planning leads me to a pull-off at a fork of Turquoise Lake Road. I'm at about mile three of the course. On race day, it's a chilly early morning descent from the start to here. The challenge lies in traversing those first fast paved miles with hundreds of other riders. I can't practice that today, so I set my sights on the course's dirt initiation: a rocky, steep Jeep road known as St. Kevin, which tops out at Carter Summit. Descending the other side, I'll eventually hit Turquoise Lake Road again for about five miles, turning around a little past May Queen Campground just short of the climb to Sugarloaf. I loaded the route into my phone's Ride with GPS app and onto my Wahoo Elemnt Roam. During the race, the fantastic staff of volunteers will point us all in the right direction. The Wahoo will still come with me, and as I discover later, many times, simply following the little navigation arrows is all the information I can handle.

It is high time I build a checklist, so I write everything down as I prepare for the ride. Drink Mix. Water. Ride food. Tool bag. Helmet. Gloves. Shoes. Aleve. Caffeine. Sunscreen. The list is long, yet everything fits easily into my jersey pockets and top tube bag. I also take a Garmin inReach with me, as I do on all solo rides. It adds a lot of weight, which, thankfully, I won't have to lug around on race day.

The First Ride

Beep, beep. Van locked. I clip in and take off. I cross the railroad tracks and immediately turn right onto a sandy, tan-colored dirt road. I'm smiling. The expansive valley around me is so spectacularly beautiful. I fall into a steady pace. Slightly uphill, this first bit is a great warm-up. I take note of some campsites off to the right. I've found a home for the night! I continue, enjoying the sun's warmth while my skin temperature is still cool.

One of many spectacular views from the LT100 course. 

I think back to The Course, the LT100 MTB Race podcast segment in which the hosts deftly lay out a turn-by-turn description of the route. I come upon a sharp left, which means the grade just got steeper and the rocks and potholes a little bigger, so I adjust my gearing and cadence to match.

I'm in it now. At some point early on, I cross over the 10,000-foot elevation mark. Is my mind playing tricks on me, or am I breathing faster? I adjusted my FTP for this elevation, so my computer tells me I'm at my threshold power, and my heart rate is firmly in the red. My legs are still pedaling, so I roll with it. I focus a little more on the pacing of my breath, ensuring I'm getting every particle of oxygen the air will give up. My right leg is dominant, and it takes the brunt of the work if I let it. I can watch the power increase by consciously pushing and pulling through the pedal stroke with my left leg. I must remember to do this more often!

At the steepest point of the grade, around 18%, I lose momentum, and the rear tire slips ominously. I see a squirrely section ahead that requires more speed than I'm capable of right now. I decide to unclip and dismount. The self-doubt sneaks up on me only a few miles into my ride. "Really, is this how it's gonna go? Hike-a-bike for 100 miles?"

Of course, it's not. But getting off the bike so soon in the climb causes a little tear in my confidence muscle. Somehow, I cut myself some slack. I'm still acclimating to this elevation. This climb is extremely steep. Breathe, recover. Stretch the calves. In less than 30 feet, I'm back on the bike. The pitch gradually reduces. My pedal stroke evens out, and it hits me: I'm on the Leadville Trail 100 MTB course! Finally! So much planning, work, and sacrifice. And here I am, riding my bike along this unassuming yet famed Jeep road that has been the under the wheels of countless other souls, all digging deep, finding a new gear within themselves that they didn't know existed.

The van is always a welcome sight at the end of a long ride.

The rest of the ride is simply fun. Sure, there is plenty of work. I see a few other pre-riders out there, and the kinship this shared experience brings is immediate. That short 30-foot section was all I needed to walk, my route plan worked perfectly, and here I am, back at the van. As I begin putting the bike away, another realization washes over me. My nerves are gone. I'd slayed the dragonflies simply by executing my first pre-ride.

Tomorrow I head to the infamous Powerline, so check back next week for the rest of the story!

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