Sarah Races Leadville: A Story about Fear, Small Bladders and Help From Some Fast Fruit

Words by Sarah Sturm, Pro Cyclist for Team Specialized

My Leadville Trail 100 experience started a month before the race. I was invited to race with Team Specialized and was both honored and excited to get to check off a big box from my list of races I’ve always wanted to do. I had no idea what was in store for me with this experience but I was ready to find out.

What follows is an account of my experience of racing 100 miles in Leadville Colorado. I want to note that there is plenty of information on how to prep, what to dread, how you should feel. I for one, like to dive into things without reading about other’s experiences because I feel that it clouds my own feelings. This is my story about my first LT100 MTB. I will try not to tell you what to do or how to feel, it should be like reading a funny story, well I hope it’s funny!

Ride High. The Painful High. 

My prep for Leadville was no different than any big event, I did a few high country “altitude training” rides with a friend but mostly focused on being excited to race and motivated by the experience itself. I knew if my mind was tough, my body would be fine. And now (after having raced the Leadville Trail 100) I was only partially right, there was one very big factor that I massively underestimated, the big bad altitude monster! Wow was that a big surprise. Now let me explain, I know that altitude is a big deal, I just for some reason thought that living in Durango at 6,500 ft and riding at 6-8k would prepare me for this race. I’d been doing well at other endurance distances and I knew that I could handle the mileage, so I figured if I ate and drank accordingly and rode smart I’d be okay…. I’ll let you read the rest to find out how “okay” I was.

How Many Bottles?!

The night before the race was perhaps the most stress I had experienced that season. The reason I love racing endurance is that you can just throw a flat kit, some snacks and a few bottles in your pockets and on your bike and you’re off just like everyone else. You have to stop and refuel at the same aid stations just like everyone else. Leadville, is different. Everything is thought out, every detail from what bottle you get at which feed station and from whom. This, for me, is my nightmare. I am NOT organized in this way. It makes me very anxious and my friend/team manager/cat herder Fiona got to see this stress first hand. While everyone was filling their bottles with their favorite, pre-tested mix I was still trying to wrap my head around the fact that I had to prepare AT LEAST 10 bottles. TEN!?! I ended up just throwing mix in all of them and hoping that I wasn’t going to want plain water at any point. I gave up trying to specify which ones had caffeine, and marking at which feed station I’d want what, I HAD NO IDEA. So I just threw them in the bag and tried to forget about it. I told Fiona if I wanted or needed anything different I’d figure it out, and bless her soul, she was patient and kind and let me put my full trust in her and her organizational skills. I trusted that she knew me as an athlete and she was experienced in supporting this event, I don’t think I would’ve made it to the start line without her.

I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead…or not in Leadville

So then came the sleep. Or the lack thereof. It wasn’t until after the race that I discovered, from the tip off of my 18 year old roommate Quinn Simmons, that sleeping with oxygen allows you to actually sleep. Needless to say he didn’t share…haha. So I also tried to put the stress of not having slept in a few nights out of my mind, I assumed that no one else was getting great sleep either, so level playing field right? Now I’m used to waking up at insane hours to start these sorts of races, and no amount of experience or breathing exercises will ever be able to make those mornings comfortable. For me they are full of nerves, nauseous, mind clouding nerves that take over my GI tract, my thoughts and my ability to make normal decisions. All I can do is just cross my fingers and hope that I will somehow make it to the start line in time. My weird nervous body and mind take over and turn me into a zombie in spandex. The morning of the race was no different. 

The First Race, Getting to the Start

I was so nervous about getting a good spot in the corral  I was in that I showed up an hour before the race started. It sounds crazy, and it is, but this calms my nerves. I know I am where I need to be so I can relax. I found a friend and sat, planted to the cold ground, the only thing that felt solid and calm. I knew I wanted to be at the front of my corral, which was a few from the very front. I usually save my start line nerves for cyclocross season where your position very much matters, but in a normal endurance event I figure “welp, I’ve got 100+ miles to sort it out”. Leadville proved to be different. All I had been hearing was that you wanted to start at the front of the masses, and since I only had control over where I was positioned within my corral, that’s what I did. I accepted my situation and I sat. 

A Running Banana Saved Me

A lot of that day was blended into several memorable moments for me. I will spare you the minute by minute recount of racing for 100 miles. If you’ve done that race, then you know, if you’re thinking about doing it, then you’ll soon find out what it’s like. For me, these were the notable things that occurred in what I remember as chronological order, from thoughts to reflections:

*The start gun goes off*

  • Inhale, find a wheel, keep moving up but don’t get distracted by the pace. And what is up with this pace, these guys are sprinting and crashing left and right, we’re doing 100 miles right?!
  • As I start up the big climb up to Columbine, I feel okay and then I notice a bike off to the side of the road. I now know that’s the moment I passed Rose and gained the lead.

All I was thinking at that moment, after I passed the lone bike was, “I think that was her bike, she must be peeing. I should drink.”

  • As I neared the top of Columbine the climb had taken its toll. I start to realize I may have pushed it a bit too hard and I feel the effects of altitude in a way I have never felt before. Those gasps of air, the power you’re putting into the pedals, you don’t get that back. There is no recovery…and now I actually know what that means.

All I am thinking is how much pain I am in. My lungs, no…my legs…no that’s my back…wait, I think it’s my bladder. Yes, I believe I have to pee.

And then Rose passes me back. I am crouched on the side of the climb, hidden (ish) behind a rock trying not to pee on my shoes as waves of leg cramps come and go. 

*I am now in second place.* 

This is when I start questioning my life choices. I have chosen this path. I wanted to do this race and this is my life right now. Cramping, peeing, hoping that the rest of the day goes quickly but knowing that the battle has only begun. Yes, this is the life I have chosen for the moment…so lean in! 

  • I crest the climb, turn around and before I could relax into a different sensation than climbing the leg cramps take over. Pickles, I need pickles. 

*Another woman passes me*

  • The race mentality for me has now changed to just finishing this thing. I wont say that I no longer cared about winning, but if I was going to win, it wasn’t going to be about anything but just being stronger (or luckier) than the women in front of me. I decided instead of chasing or pushing I was going to just ride my pace and try to get through this thing, I was two thirds through the race and that last third seemed like a very big chunk. 

Buckle up, this is about to get way more painful! 

*and it did*

  • The feed and cheer zones are some of the best parts of the race. You spend so much time in your own mind and thoughts, and even though you’re around other racers a lot of the time having a mental break from the race is SO special. So when I saw my boyfriend’s mom for the first time it was an emotional moment! She had handmade signs propped up all over the place and was screaming my name and told me how strong I was. Even just writing it makes me emotional, it was the only thing that day that made me cry, it was so good to see her cheering. It really does give you extra oomf!
  • My most vivid memory was of Kenny, (Rose’s team manager/support/mechanic??) carrying wheels from the bottom of one of the last big climbs. Clearly she was far enough ahead of me that he wasn’t worried about me regaining the win, but he did tell me that 2nd place was just up the climb. I believe he said, “go get her, Sarah”. 

That’s all I needed. That little bit of human interaction with the outside world, a break from all of the thoughts going on in my mind, that’s all it took to focus.

“I am going to get her.” My race changed again, I wasn’t on the defense anymore, I wanted to catch that woman!

And then there was a (human) banana. 

  • I don’t know who that banana was, but they saved me. I had just given everything I had to pass 2nd place. I knew if I kept my pace then I’d be able to keep a lead, but in that moment all I wanted to do was just stop pedaling. And then the banana. 

Right as I looked up from grinding slowly up the steepest part of Powerline Climb, I see a yellow blur running (let’s be real, he was walking) next to me. Not only keeping pace but cheering and asking if I needed anything. 

Truth. For one solid moment, I thought I might actually have imagined it.

And then, even though my spirits had been lifted by just the sight of a run/walking banana, he gifted me a bite of watermelon as if he conjured it right out of thin air. 

If I had had enough oxygen in my lungs I would’ve sobbed from happiness and relief. I was so very tired and that happy little banana with a bite of watermelon made me feel happiness in that brief moment.

  • I promise this is my last memory. And then you can get on with your day, your life and get on that bike.

 

I carpooled to Leadville with Howard Grots, on the way he told me that the last “little” bit of the race was hard. And i don’t know why after all of the years of riding with him I still don’t seem to fully absorb that when Howard says something is a “little” hard it means BUCKLE UP YOU MIGHT PERISH, for all of us mortals. So as I rode up and then down, and then up and then down and then up again for what felt like a million years I thought of that little Howard voice telling me how it was going to be hard….and I agreed.

The Leadville 100 MTB race is the only race that I have seen the finish line and thought, “I might not make it”. I rounded the top of the rolling asphalt hill and saw the crowd, the line, BEER and I let out a dry, raspy sob. I didn’t care if 2nd place caught me at that point (she didn’t) all I wanted to do was crawl across that line. And miraculously I coasted across it, 16 second faster than my boyfriend’s time from 5 years prior.  

From frantic bottle filling, to startline nerves, running fruit and small bladders, my first LT100 MTB race was so much more than I could have ever anticipated. I will sign off with this one last thought, it’s a special thing to be a bike racer, it’s a special thing to be able to race a bike or ride one and challenge yourself. Never take for granted the opportunity to do that, look around at those next to you, look ahead and behind you, all of those people are pushing themselves at the same moment in time in the same place, and to get to be surrounded by that energy, collectively, that is something that is worth celebrating. I am thankful that I had the chance to push myself on that special day, I am proud of myself for crossing the line as the second female and I cannot wait until we get to have more opportunities to do it again.