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Face of the Race: John Callahan, 20-time Leadville Trail 100 MTB Finisher

In 1994, as the first ever Leadville Trail 100 beckoned, John Callahan and his friend, Roger, wondered if it was even possible to ride 100 miles on a mountain bike. This year, the Leadville veteran celebrated riding 2,000 miles of the famed course.

What was it like to cross the finish line on Saturday and hit that 2,000-mile mark — Did it feel extra special this year?

It’s always a great experience to finish the Leadville Trail 100, but riding up the red carpet and crossing the line this year was a extra special. This year, with all the hype of the 20th anniversary (interviews, photo shoots, everyone wishing me luck), was the first year when I was a bit nervous about finishing it prior to the start. So when I got to the top 6th Street and saw the finish, I was able to find some extra energy and finish strong. It was the first time I’ve taken my hands off the bars and put my arms in the air at the line.

Tell us about your first LT100 — what brought you to the race and what was the experience like then?

I was living in Park City, Utah, at the time and got a call from my friend Roger in Aspen. He said there’s this crazy event in Leadville, a 100-mile mountain bike race. The most either of us, or any of our friends had ever ridden on a mountain bike was maybe 35 or 40 miles. We’d never heard of anyone going 100 miles before. We discussed whether it would even be possible and then decided to give it a shot. Rog and I were the last two riders to roll over the start line and we spent the next nine hours passing people. With the exception of the turnaround at Columbine Mine I had no idea where I was at any point in the course. Until I hit 6th Street I didn’t know if I had one mile or 10 miles left.

Was there ever a year when you almost missed a race?

After finishing the first one there was never a question from year to year about whether I was going to do the next one. But there was one year, maybe around year 12 or 13, when I forgot to send in my registration. About a month after registrations were due I got a phone call from the race director Merilee O’Neal asking if I was going to do the race. If it wasn’t for Merilee I wouldn’t be doing this 20th anniversary interview. Thanks, Merilee!

How many bikes have you gone through over the years?

I’ve used three bikes. I rode a Scott with a front suspension fork for the first four years. It was a fairly low budget bike. In ’98 I bought a Litespeed titanium frame with XTR components. It came in the mail just two days before the race and I only got 45 minutes on it before I raced it. It’s normally a bad idea to switch equipment right before a big race, but this time it workout out great. It was so smooth and the XTR shifted so quietly sometimes I had to look down to see if it had actually shifted. That was a great bike. In year 17 I finally broke down and got a full suspension, a Trek Fuel 9.1. It’s also been a good bike, but I sometimes miss the simplicity of the Litespeed. Unfortunately the Litespeed frame has since cracked so I won’t be going back to it unless I can get it repaired.

Since you live relatively close by, do you ever train on the course?

I live in Aspen, which is only about an hour and a half drive from Leadville, and only an hour to the Twin Lakes dam. But other than during the race I’ve never ridden any part of the LT100 course. I have exactly 2,000 miles on that course. At this point I don’t need, or want to, ride the course before the race. I know what the climbs and descents feel like. I even remember specific rocks out there.

What are your favorite spots along the course? The most challenging?

The most challenging spot? That’s easy — Powerline! It’s 80 miles in, you’re tired, and it hits you right in the face. And it’s not just the yellow hike-a-bike section — once you get past that it’s still a long grind to the top of Sugarloaf. My favorite spot? It has varied from year to year. It depends on how I’m feeling physically and mentally at any given point. Even Powerline has been my favorite spot more than once. The Boulevard is my least favorite spot — and that remains a constant no matter whether I’m having a great day or not. It just seems to drag on forever.

Do you have a favorite memory or favorite year?

Year one certainly ranks up among the favorites, just because the whole thing was so new. And, of course, my PR year (8:07 in 2006) also ranks up there as a favorite. But my favorite memory was the second or third year (I can’t remember which). I got to the bottom of Powerline and there was one guy standing there (now there are hundreds on that section) and he told me I was in 18th place. I looked up and saw nine guys pushing their bikes between me and the top of the yellow section. I told myself, “There’s your top 10.” By the top of Sugarloaf I had picked them all off and got my top 10.

Things have changed a lot in 20 years, but is there anything that remains the same after all this time?

Powerline! I still dread it.

Thanks to Ken and Merilee and the whole LT100 team for 20 great years!

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