Words by Kate McLaughlin, winner of the 2021 Stages Cycling Leadville Silver Rush 50 MTB
If you told me three months ago, or even three days ago, I would win the Silver Rush 50 MTB, I would have told you to go kick rocks. Three months ago, I was a few days post-thumb surgery and two days into a new full-time job as a Data Analyst. Oh, and I was angry…like, really angry. I had been processing the reality for a couple weeks that I wouldn’t ride a bike outside for three or four months, and I was devastated.
I started mountain biking five-ish years ago, but I didn’t fall head-over-heels in love with it until about two years ago – so much so that I left my lifelong running background behind me to follow the stoke and spend most of my free time mountain biking. As a person who loves to compete against myself, I tend to channel my passions into competition, so I decided last summer I want to race mountain bikes. My partner-in-crime, Ryan, is the Marketing Manager for the Leadville Race Series; so, from afar, I witnessed the excitement, passion and intensity of the Leadville Trail 100 MTB over the prior year, and I wanted in. After getting into the LT100 MTB, I figured signing up for Silver Rush was the natural move to get some race experience and try to get a better starting corral for the 100.
I started riding more and adding in some strength training last fall in anticipation of racing this summer, before I even got into the Leadville Trail 100. Honestly, I had no idea what I was doing, but after enough years of college track and field, as well as self-guided training for running races post-college, I generally knew how many days to go hard in a week and how to get through some basic strength training in the gym. Fast forward to March 2021: while I didn’t feel like I made epic strides in my fitness, I was making progress and excited to attempt a more structured training plan for the 100 (and Silver Rush along the way).
The day things came unraveled, riding gravel in Hurricane, UT.
In late March, I was lucky enough to take a trip to southern Utah for some gravel riding around Zion National park. It was three days of big rides with a group of very talented (read: much faster than me) riders. The last ten miles of the three days was partially on some technical single track, which I was stoked about, given my affinity for mountain biking. Long story short: I misread a line, went over my handlebars, thought I was fine, waited a week to go to a doctor, learned I tore a ligament in my thumb, and had surgery a couple weeks later. The prognosis was six weeks in a cast up to my elbow, followed by six weeks in a protective brace, which equals at least twelve weeks of not riding a bike outdoors.
The surgeon nonchalantly told me it’d probably take a year to really feel back to normal. It’s a funny thing, trying to explain your passions to a surgeon and why his news is devastating.
The first six weeks after surgery were honestly terrible. I tried my best to hide my misery, but it was difficult to stay positive. Almost every indoor trainer ride I did felt challenging with a casted thumb and wrist. I couldn’t hold myself up at all with my left arm, since I couldn’t bend my wrist. I tried jerry-rigging a laptop stand on top of my drop bars with excessive amounts of duct tape to rest my arms on (it was a scene). This helped, but I was still extremely uncomfortable. Top that off with starting a job remotely and not being able to type quickly enough to keep up in meetings, and you get a sense of the kind of fun I was having.
I knew I wanted to start running again in the wake of not riding outside, so I balanced my time during the week for runs in between trainer rides. I expected to be cleared for weight-bearing activity on June 29th, so I all but concluded Silver Rush on July 11th was off the table; however, I decided to race the Leadville Trail Half Marathon in June as a means to stay motivated. Plus, *spoiler alert* trail running is the ultimate substitute for not pedaling up climbs outdoors.
But I stuck to it. Week in and week out, I got on that damn trainer and did my workouts for 5-6 hours per week (yes, I watched a lot of Netflix) and ran 2-3 days per week in addition. I distinctly remember getting home late on a handful of Sundays after being gone all weekend and forcing myself to do a long trainer workout starting at 8 or 9pm; as much as I dreaded it, I always felt accomplished afterward. I set my sights on the Leadville Trail Half Marathon as my next target to keep me motivated.
Finishing in 3rd at the Leadville Trail Heavy Half
After testing all that pent-up fitness at the Heavy Half, I was chomping at the bit to get back outside and on the bike. I finally rode my gravel bike for an hour the week before my 12-week appointment with the surgeon, and HOT DAMN was I excited. I kept it on flat roads, and it surely wasn’t comfortable, but it was a start. What was the glimmer in my eye, you ask? That was a glimmer of hope that maybe, just maybe, I’d be able to hobble my way through Silver Rush 50, even if my longest trainer ride was not even three hours long.
And then June 29th arrived, the day I expected my surgeon to clear me for weight-bearing activity. I did indeed get cleared, but in the same breath, my surgeon told me he could not recommend that I compete in a 50-mile mountain bike race in twelve days. While it was extremely unlikely I’d reinjure my thumb just riding, a fall could be devastating.
I cried. I drove home. I contemplated. I went and rode my mountain bike for the first time a few days later. It hurt. I rode my mountain bike two more days in a row for many hours. It hurt, but it hurt a little less. And that’s when I decided: I was going to race Silver Rush, even if just as a training ride. I would go in with no expectations, but I was going to have a fun day in Leadville with my friends who’d been training their booties off for this race too.
I rode my bike almost eight hours the week going into Silver Rush. Like I said, I was using it as a training ride, so why not train going into it? I didn’t even get nervous until race morning – I somehow kept it together until lining up at the start. Let’s be honest, it seems impossible not to get nervous staring up at that first hill with 500 other racers who mostly had much more experience racing bikes than me.
My goals for the race were seemingly simple: don’t blow myself up, keep it rubber side down, and have a fun freaking day out on the course. I felt surprisingly good on the first 11-mile climb out of the gate and focused on keeping myself in check. When I reached my friend waiting for me at the 14-mile aid station, he told me I was the first woman, and I almost laughed out loud. I assumed it was a fluke, and I thought there must be women right behind me, so I’d see them soon. I had a blast descending the next leg and all but forgot about the pain in my thumb and wrist. On the last climb approaching the halfway turnaround point, my good pal Jimmy, who was the second male at the turnaround, came ripping down on his return and informed me I was first female. I still thought it was a fluke.
While Silver Rush is an out-and-back, there is a half-mile loop at the turnaround where you can’t see who else is in the loop. Even though I knew I was the first female to the turnaround, I didn’t know if there were other women in hot pursuit, but I assumed there were. The next female I saw after that was probably ten minutes behind me. More than halfway through the race, I still felt shockingly strong. I continued focusing on fueling and keeping it steady on the next few thousand feet of climbing. Given the out-and-back course, I got to see friendly faces on the return, and getting cheered on by racers on their way out might have been the most fun part of the day. When I got to 40 miles, it finally sunk in that I might win this thing. The last 10 miles of the course is a descent, and I was fairly confident I wouldn’t let any women pass me on a descent of this nature. I was right. I crossed through that finish line tape with more than 20 minutes to spare until the next woman.
I’m not sure how to express the emotions I felt approaching the finish, but ecstatic might come close. I’ll admit it, there were some happy tears. Ripping through a finish line tape, albeit probably too fast (sorry Leadville Race Series family), is a rush to say the least. What a rollercoaster the last 3.5 months had been, and what an unbelievable, unexpected outcome. It was the sweetest redemption for months on the indoor trainer and months of forcing myself to stay positive. I would say it was the best finish to this journey, but you better believe it’s just the beginning.