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Dispatches from Columbine: Top 10 Things to Know Before Your First Leadville Trail 100 MTB

By Rebecca Rusch

I still vividly remember my first Leadville Trail 100 MTB. I was quite unprepared for the adventure that lay ahead of me, but I loved it and obviously keep coming back for more.

There are a few things that make this race quite different from other hundred milers, so keep these in mind as you prepare and focus for the big day in August.

1. Riding at extremely high altitude requires patience and body awareness. 

You just don’t recover the way you would at lower elevations and it takes a little longer to get the engines revved up. If you start out too fast and burn all of your matches too early, you will pay dearly for it on the return trip home. Pace yourself at this elevation. It’s better to start conservatively and finish strong than to own the first 20 miles and blow up spectacularly later. Acclimatized or not, everyone needs to race a little differently when the air is that thin.

2. There are lots and lots of people. 

This will likely be the largest group of riders you’ve ever ridden with. There will certainly be times where you are in someone’s way or someone else is in your way. This is part of the deal for every single rider. Be patient and kind. Pass when you can. Wait when you need to. One of the most amazing things about this event are all of the people who are striving and pushing to finish just like you.

3. It’s not really 100 miles, but 103 — and those last three feel extremely hard.

The finish is not the same route as the start and I remember being quite surprised to be sailing towards town on pavement, only to have a course marshal detour me onto the dirt and towards another climb before the finish line. I suggest at least riding this last section of the course so that you can wrap your head around it and visualize your buckle performance on race day. I always ride the last few miles of the course alone before race day.

4. You are riding in the high mountains: Be prepared.  

Weather often turns on a dime and takes people by surprise. If anyone watched the 2009 Race Across the Sky, you saw the freezing rain and snow that hit scantily clad riders on top of Columbine. Many riders were not able to descend because their hands were frozen and they couldn’t operate their brakes. I rode with a thin rain jacket and pair of shell gloves that year, and was I ever happy to have those small items to insulate me from the elements. It made all the difference. Scan the weather and make a race-day decision about what clothing you will or will not bring.

5. A little course knowledge goes a long way.

Even if you cannot pre-ride any of the route, research the course as much as possible. Get familiar with the course profile, and spend time talking to other riders or reading up on their experiences. A little bit of course knowledge goes a long way. My first year, I taped a profile to my top tube so I would know when the big climbs were coming, how big they were and how many were left. This helped me immensely with pacing and motivation.

6. LT100 is a very unique course with super steep climbs and lots of them, but also some ripping fast flats.  

It requires the largest range of gears of any course I’ve ever raced. Train for climbing and also for big ring power riding. It’s also a mountain bike race with road tactics. Train to be comfortable riding in groups. Learn to draft and work in a pace line. You can save valuable energy by working with your competitors in certain sections.

7. It’s an out-and-back format. 

The beauty of this is that every single hill you ascend, you also get to descend.  Take note of this as you are riding outbound and save something for the climbs on the way home, but also celebrate all the ones you will get to go down when you turn around as well.

8. The crowds at Twin Lakes and the finish line are deafening. 

I can’t even explain how amazing it is to ride through a sea of people on both sides of the trail, screaming, dancing, cheering and celebrating! It is such a huge energy rush to get to ride through the Twin Lakes aid station just before Columbine, and then again as you are beginning the journey home. I have never, ever experienced crowds like this in any other mountain bike race in any part of the world. I cannot contain a big grin every year as I ride through there and feel the positive energy. The spectators don’t just cheer for the leaders; they are cheering for everyone. Soak it in, relish it and use it when all you hear is the sound of your own breathing as you climb Columbine. This is truly a special part of the event, so enjoy it.

9. It’s a big-time race with a small-time vibe. 

The Leadville Trail 100 has certainly grown exponentially from its original days, but the vibe remains the same. The volunteers at registration will still smile and chat with you, even though they are processing thousands of riders. The pre-race meeting and awards feel like a really big group of friends. Strolling downtown, you will get waves from locals and visitors. It’s just a cool place to hang out in the summer. Be sure to take a little time to pull your head out of your training plan and race routine to look around a little and soak up the atmosphere.

10. Not everyone gets to race the Leadville Trail 100. 

As you prepare and line up for the start, remember that you are one of the lucky ones! There are tons of other riders who did not earn an entry and will be watching the race from the sidelines or via the Internet that day. Use the fact that you get to be there as motivation to be at your very best. Train hard and give 100 percent.


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