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Dispatches from Columbine: It’s GO TIME!

By Dave Wiens and Rebecca Rusch

The Leadville Trail 100 MTB is just days away. This is the moment you’ve been preparing for and thinking about for a long, long time. We sincerely hope that our Dispatches and shared experience have helped take some of the guesswork out of your training and preparation. Our goal is to help you cross the finish line and have a great day on the bike!

This time we bestow upon you some final words of wisdom for race day. Have a ripping good time, and we will both see you in Leadville!

The Day Before: Getting Ready

DAVE: The day before the race is busy — way busier than you’d think. By the time you get through packet pickup and the meeting, it’s past noon and time to think about getting some lunch. I always liked to ride directly after the meeting, but in August that can be risky with thunderstorms. It always worked out for me, but I’d hate to get poured on out there or be dodging lightning the day before the race. Only in 2010 did I plan ahead enough to get my ride in before registration and the meeting. If you can pull off riding prior to the meeting, I think that’s best.

You’ll need to attach all your race numbers, lay out your clothes, fill your bottles, and dial in your race nutrition and crewing details. Then you’ll need to check your bike. There was always more last-minute monkeying around with my bike than I expected: double-checking every bolt, working grease into the chain and making sure the shifting, tire pressure and brakes were perfect. (Hint: Don’t ever use special aftermarket rotors made from a composite of titanium, aluminum foil and moon rocks, no matter how light they are.) Oh, and don’t forget to eat dinner!

I don’t always feel great the day before the race. However, I noticed a trend years ago that has been fairly consistent with me: the worse I feel leading up to a race, the better I do in the race. So in 2008 — before the first race with Lance, when I had a splitting headache and generally didn’t feel right the night before the race — instead of being worried, I became more confident. Never, ever defeat yourself before you have ridden at least half of the race. You just don’t know how you’re going to feel once you get out there.

REBECCA: Yes, the day before the race is always more hectic than I would like it to be. The energy around town is thick and seeing all of the racers and all my friends is a bit frenetic and exciting. However, I try my best to make this day as relaxing as possible.

Stay on task and set a schedule so that you can get everything done and relax a bit. If possible, do as much bike and gear prep as you can on Thursday. Enlist the help of your family and crew to grocery shop, make dinner, fill water bottles or take care of other tasks so you can take it easy.

No matter who is telling you what to eat or what gear to use (including me and Dave), now is not the time to start questioning your bike set up, your food choices or your crew tactics. Stick with what you know and don’t make last-minute changes, unless there is an unexpected problem. Problems do crop up, so if you do suddenly need a repair, or realize that you forgot your shoes, or have any other unforeseen stress, just handle it as calmly as possible. Running around like crazy and getting emotionally charged just burns energy and rarely helps the situation.

I always ride the day before the race. There are two reasons for this. First, I use the ride as a final bike and equipment check. I also do a practice hand-off of the musette with my boyfriend, Greg.  Leadville is the only race where I use this tactic, so I need it to be seamless. The second reason for the pre-race ride is to stoke the fires a bit. I usually spin easy for about 60-90 minutes, tossing in a few accelerations and harder efforts. I do this alone so I can collect my thoughts and have a bit of quiet time before the chaos of registration and meetings. I make it a priority to get this ride in early so that I can relax the rest of the day.

Like Dave mentioned, don’t worry if you don’t feel super spunky and sharp during your ride on Friday. It is not an indicator of how you will feel on race day.

The Night Before: Elusive Sleep

REBECCA: We all know that sleep and rest are important parts of the recovery process, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to sleep the night before a big event with an early morning start. Don’t add to your stress by lying in bed worrying that you’re tossing and turning. You’ll just end up in that vicious cycle of not sleeping because you’re stressing about not sleeping. Resting and sleeping well the week and days leading up to the event are more important than the night before. Take care of yourself during the entire week and the night before won’t make any difference. My high school running coach always told me that two nights before the race is more important than the night before. That fact has brought me a lot of comfort over the years.

You can, however, stack the odds in your favor by getting all of your prep done early so that your mind can stop spinning once it’s time for bed. You do not want to be in bed wondering if you tightened the bolts on your shoe cleats. Do some mellow stretching, drink hot tea, read, chat with your family about something other than the race, or do whatever else you can to mentally wind down. Do NOT go over time splits, race stats and Google your competitors before bed. There is nothing you can do at this point other than take solace in your preparation and realize that your work is done.

DAVE: I doubt I’m alone on this one, but I know that I barely sleep the night before Leadville. I always get into bed later than I plan to, feel totally wired, and then usually get up around 3:30 or 4:00 am. In 2003, we we’re staying in the Super 8 and had the room right over the entrance. That place was like Grand Central Station that night. I think the cops came three different times. In 2004, the young fellow I was sharing a room with kept getting text messages all night long.

My best night of sleep probably came in 2010 and was a fitful 4 hours at best. Hey, it’s just not that easy to get a good night’s sleep before Leadville, but the story is likely the same for many lined up at 6th and Harrison. You truly should not worry about the amount or quality of sleep the night before the race. In the grand scheme of things, that’s a minor detail that will become ancient history once you’ve glided across the red carpet and Merilee puts that medal around your neck and welcomes you back with that Leadville hug!

The Morning of: Warming Up & Starting the Race

DAVE: I’ve always been fortunate to be able to warm up before the race. Depending on your starting corral and your strategy, you may not warm up at all, or your warm-up might be well before the gun is fired. Any warm-up, though, is better than no warm-up. I like to climb the city streets behind the start line at a steady pace a few times, then incorporate a couple accelerations into my final warm-up climb.

The countdown to the start is intense and sometimes you just feel like bailing and going home. Don’t do it, though — the fun is about to start. The start itself is pretty intense, so be sure you are paying attention. It is pack riding at its finest, downhill and in the cold. You’ll be too fired up to feel the cold, though! If you’re nervous about group riding, consider staying on the outside of the pack, keep your glance forward, hold your line and relax. There’s nothing behind you that you need to see and a white-knuckle grip on the bars is never going to help. Your grip on your bars should always be about the same (remember that 38 Special song, “Hold on Loosely”?). I think most of the field breathes a collective sigh of relief once tires finally hit dirt.

REBECCA: It may seem strange to warm up before such a big day on the bike, but I feel it’s an important part of my mental and physical preparation. I do an abbreviated version of my normal warm-up because the race starts so early and you have to get to your starting corral well ahead of time. Experts often say that unless you can do your warm-up within 15 minutes of the start time, the benefits are lost, but this can be tricky to accomplish at Leadville.

My LT100 warm-up serves a slightly different purpose. I use it as a way to actually wake up since it’s dark out and I’m hardly a morning person. Spinning in the cold air is energizing. I also use this warm-up as a final check of my bike and clothing selection. I’m usually cold the morning of and pile on way too many clothes until I can get the blood flowing. If I went straight to the start dressed how I do for the warm up, I’d be overheating before we hit the end of 6th.

The start itself is hectic, full of nervous, twitchy riders lined up shoulder to shoulder. Everyone is amped up, including the pros. For a mountain biker, this road start experience is very different and can feel really stressful and dangerous. Keep in mind that no one wants to go down here.  Stay relaxed, be smart, and don’t try to push through the pack. Everyone wants to get to the dirt quickly, but don’t take unnecessary chances here. Stay smooth, hold your line and be alert for the sudden movements of other riders. Look ahead, not just straight at the wheel in front of you, and always try to predict the flow of the pack. Don’t worry if people are flying by you and jockeying for position. If you are experienced and can move up in the pack, go for it, but if you can’t maneuver ahead safely, take a deep breath and just wait a few minutes until the group hits the dirt. Then you can safely start picking your way through the crowd. The pack spreads out sooner than you might think, so be patient — there are plenty of miles ahead to make your move.

During the Race: Picking Your Pace

REBECCA: Pacing is a crucial part of the LT100. It’s a long, long day in the saddle and the course never lets up, including the last climb up the Boulevard. Throw extreme elevation into the mix, plus the biggest crowd you’ll ever ride with, and you have a recipe for charging out too fast and paying for it later as you feebly try to turn the pedals over at mile 95.

I train all year with heart rate and power, but when I race, I do not use those tactics for pacing. Perceived exertion is the only way I know how to race and pace myself. Regardless of any power number or what competitors are doing, you must race your own event that day. Only you know where you can give more or need to pull back. Only you know how to find your fine line between racing hard and blowing up. Yes, there is a benefit to grabbing wheels on the flats and there are many sections where you can benefit from riding in a group. Do this when possible to save energy, but don’t kill yourself hanging with someone who is truly faster at that moment. We are all different and some people start faster than others. Some rip up the climbs, but are slow on the flats or descents. Ride your own rhythm and race your own race. If you are not sure, it’s better to be conservative in the first half, then ramp it up and finish strong in the second half than it is to start too fast and pay for it later.

A prime example of this was the 2011 race when the women’s field was absolutely stacked for the first time in race history. I knew it was going to be a big battle and I would not have taken a bet on who was going to win that day. All I did know was how I felt and how I could ride. From the lower parts of St Kevins, one by one, my competitors pedaled past me. I counted as four women passed me. I was working as hard as I felt like I should at that point, so I let them go and just focused on an efficient pedal stroke and taking care of myself. I wasn’t happy to be moving slower than the front of the field, but I also knew that I was riding the right pace for me at that moment. We all know how last year’s race ended and it’s one of the most cherished victories of my career because I felt like I raced smart and paced well despite pressure to go faster at the beginning.

DAVE: I suggest that riders pick a gear they think they can sustain and then back off one or two more. You might feel silly and way under-geared, but I can guarantee you that later in the day, you’ll barely be able to turn over your easiest gear. On the descents, I want to be quick but cautious, aiming for no crashes and no trauma to my bike. You likely won’t earn your buckle on the descents, but you certainly could lose it with an unfortunate crash or untimely mechanical.

Don’t waste any energy. This often happens (and we guys are especially guilty of this) when we engage in passing games with another rider or riders. Passing games are foolish, and when we throw out temporary displays of strength by going back and forth, passing and getting passed by the same rider for no other reason, we’re not being smart. Let that guy ride in front of you. Get on his wheel. Pass him later and pass him for good when it actually counts. And if he truly is faster than you, let him go. Use every drop of your energy wisely.

During the Race: Dealing with the Pain

DAVE: This is when you really find out what you’re made of. My race in 2007 against Floyd was my toughest ever, for the longest period of time. In 2009, when Lance just crushed it, I remember having to bite the bars pretty hard just to keep going, especially late in the race. If you are really hurting, just imagine a little Ken Chlouber on your right shoulder telling you, “Don’t be a crybaby!” If that doesn’t snap you out of it, nothing will.

REBECCA: I have a few mantras that circle around in my head when I’m racing. I chant these to myself over and over again when I’m hurting and need extra motivation. Endurance racing is hard. It will hurt and you will need to give yourself a pep talk, perhaps multiple times. Despite thousands of other racers, it can feel pretty lonely out there sometimes. Your brain is your strongest tool and also your biggest enemy. When your mind is in the gutter and full of negative thoughts, it’s crucial to turn that around and remind yourself why you are out there riding in the first place. Is it for your family, for the challenge, to be better than you were yesterday, to raise awareness for a cause, to push your limits? Whatever your reason, remind yourself that quitting is not an option. Riding a bike for 100 miles hurts, but we all signed up for this because we wanted to do it for one reason or another. The hurt goes away as soon as you cross that finish line. In your dark moments on the course, visualize the red carpet at the finish line, visualize your friends meeting you with hugs, visualize yourself pedaling stronger. Turn your head around and in Ken’s words, be “stronger than you think you are…do more than you think you can.”

Crossing the Finish Line

DAVE: This is difficult to describe and, depending on how your race is going, there are actually some finish lines of a sort that come before the red carpet. Take the end of the Boulevard for example: Climbing that little popper that puts you on the pavement feels really good. Then there’s that last paved climb with the suburban homes on either side. That thing relents painfully and slowly but as it does, downtown Leadville and a bit of a respite toward the finish line unfold in front of you. That’s always a very cool sight. Then, yes, of course, actually crossing the line, greeting the lovely Merilee and whomever you have there to greet you is a one-of-a-kind experience. One that makes all of the sacrifices, challenges and training rides so worth it. It’s a pretty special feeling for sure.

REBECCA: 6th Street in Leadville is like the Champs-Elysees of mountain biking. Never before have I rolled to a finish line with more cheering people and positive energy than at the LT100.  Every rider, from the first to the last, is praised and greeted with a hug from Merilee for the effort. It’s the culmination of so many years of hard work for so many racers. Year after year, people dream of seeing that finish line and then on race day, they are doing it, realizing their goal.

I didn’t really get that vibe until I went to Leadville to see it for myself. That red carpet symbolizes so much more than just the finish of a bike race. For each person who crosses it, there’s a bigger story. Having all of those stories, all of that hard work, all of those riders who are part of our tribe collected in one place is an experience that is hard to put into words. The emotions of each time I have crossed that red carpet are burned into my memory forever. I look forward to seeing all of you on the red carpet.

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