Valley riders prepare for pain in Leadville 100 endurance race
Their motivations for participating in the Leadville 100 mountain-bike endurance race are different. Their expectations vary. Their experience is all over the map. But their training shares a key ingredient — lots and lots of time in the saddle.
The Aspen Times caught up this week with three of the multitude of Roaring Fork Valley riders preparing for the legendary race. Michael David Cook of Aspen, Sara Porter of Carbondale and Linda Geiss of Carbondale gave a glimpse into their training this summer and how they are otherwise preparing for the big ride Saturday.
Geiss did the race in 2005 and is returning for the first time in a decade and after having a child.
Cook is revved up for his fourth consecutive race. His mental image of the course is sharp and he is focused on where to shave time.
Porter quipped that she’s a virgin in the race. She wants to put her bike-riding passion to the ultimate test.
Event provides motivation
Geiss, a physical therapist in her mid-40s, said she’s not really a racer.
“I sign up for races so I can train,” she said.
In 2005, getting into the Leadville 100 was easy for women because there were so few female applicants. Now you apply for a lottery and cross your fingers.
“I just wanted to finish,” Geiss said of her first Leadville 100. “My goal was just to be the happiest person on the course.”
Geiss said she still aims to have fun this time, though she’s also serious with her training.
“It’s definitely a challenge. It’s not something you can do off the couch,” she said.
She enlisted the help of a professional athlete in Carbondale who helped structure a training program in April. She put in a lot of road-bike miles in the spring and early summer, then switched to mountain biking regularly as soon as the weather allowed in June.
She and two friends, including Porter, competed in the Fire Road Race in southwestern Utah, a qualifier for the Leadville 100. A good performance at Fire Road helped them move up in starting position at Leadville. That’s important, Geiss explained, because you don’t have to get around as many participants.
Practicing snacking skills
One skill Geiss has worked on this year is eating snacks she can consume while pedaling on the trail.
“I am totally a mouth breather,” she said. “I wasn’t good at eating and riding.”
Her training guru is helping her develop skills for consuming liquid carbohydrates and Honey Stingers energy chews on the fly so she won’t be consuming as much food at the aid stations, thus losing valuable time. Geiss said she will still have to stop occasionally, but not as often.
“I’m assuming I’ll get a little hungry and have to shove a banana in,” she said.
Her trainer also has her paying more attention to her body — incorporating more rest days so she can push harder on active days. If her resting pulse rate hasn’t dropped to 48 beats per minute, she won’t go hard that day, she said.
Geiss is spending 10 to 15 weeks in the saddle, often getting out on her road bike during the week and taking a long mountain-bike ride or two on weekends. She’s also swimming three times per week.
Her training hit a hiccup July 3 that probably would have knocked a lesser cyclist out of contention for the endurance race: She had an accident that resulted in a back injury and a broken rib. She missed a couple weeks of training but says she’s ready to roll.
Although it’s been 10 years since she competed at Leadville, she’s got a mental advantage of having completed it once. That helped her realize she can ride almost the entire course, which has some notoriously steep sections though it is not very technical.
“There’s no spot where you’re going to die,” she said.
She will go at her own pace but is confident she can improve upon her 12-hour time from 10 years ago. “The 10-hour mark would be a great goal,” she said.
Reaching into the pain cave
Porter said the Leadville 100 is a natural progression for her. She has raced with friends in the 18 Hours of Fruita and other endurance events.
“I ride bikes all the time,” said the 31-year-old teacher at Carbondale Middle School. Finding time in the saddle hasn’t been a problem for her this summer. “The rest days are the ones that are killing me,” she said with a laugh.
A friend motivated her to apply to get into Leadville. Once in, their training started almost immediately. They rode the classic 100-mile White Rim Trail in Utah in March, just her second outing on a mountain bike this year. That answered the question lingering in the back of her mind.
“Can we do 100 miles? Can we go deep into the pain cave?” she said.
Porter said she is consistently riding 15 hours per week, with her biggest rides coming on Saturdays. Her longest training ride has been seven hours. She also swims five days per week and runs at times.
“I like the mental strain it puts on you,” she acknowledged. “Everybody is asking me this week, ‘Are you ready, are you ready?’”
She believes she is. She’s put in the miles. She had her bike tuned and she cleaned it Monday. She made a special eight-hour mix of music.
Never having done the race, she’s uncertain what time to expect. Most likely, her time will be around the 12-hour mark, she said.
Porter and Geiss said they will ride together when practical, but both are prepared to go at their own pace.
Expect the unexpected
Cook is eager to get back on the Leadville 100 course for a fourth time. The route has changed very little during the years he has participated. Nevertheless, he knows to expect the unexpected.
“Every year, there’s some sort of snafu that keeps you honest,” said Cook, 50, a personal trainer in Aspen.
He spent considerable time on a super fat-tire snow bike this winter. He was riding up Independence Pass and Maroon Creek Road, so he felt strong coming into cycling season. He’s also working with a breathing coach to increase his body’s efficiency.
As a trainer, he said, he knows it is important to listen to his body on the ride. It’s important to drop your heart rate and increase your wattage.
Too many riders push harder than they need to, too soon. That’s why around 800 riders did not finish last year, he said.
His first two years of experience showed him that the Leadville 100 is essentially “a road race on the dirt,” he said. The route is predominantly on gravel and dirt Jeep roads, although some pitches are extremely steep. Much of the ride is higher than 11,000 feet in elevation, with the peak at about 12,400 feet. The total elevation gain for the day is 12,612 feet.
He started using a hard-tail bike, which has no rear suspension, last year and will ride it again this year. It’s lighter for the climbs and his cranking is dedicated to powering the bike with no absorption from the suspension system.
The move helped him slice 49 minutes off his 2013 time last year. Still, he’s looking for improvement this year.
“You’re not racing the guy next to you. You’re racing your time,” he said.
Haunted by 31 seconds
Despite the big improvement last year, Cook said he fell a few seconds short of his goal. He wanted to come in at 10 hours. He came in 31 seconds longer.
He can see in his mind’s eye where he needs to improve. There’s a feeding station at the 70-mile mark, when the endurance of most riders is fading, where Cook said he has lost time. This year, he will just pick up a feedbag that he will store there and eat on the fly.
He loves the challenge of trying to improve his time, but the endurance race attracts him for other reasons. He’s on the Chris Klug Foundation Leadville 100 Mountain Biking Team, raising funds and awareness for organ donation. He likes the camaraderie of participating with a team.
In addition, even though riders must pay almost constant attention to the trail, the views are “outstanding,” he said. The Leadville 100 is dubbed the “Race Across the Sky.”
Plus, Cook said, there’s no bigger spectacle than 2,000-plus riders crossing the Twin Lakes dam along the route.
“It was just epic,” he said.
He likes the experience so much that he aims to complete in the ride for years to come.
“God willing, I would like to do it 10 consecutive years,” Cook said.
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The dual-sport student-athlete was named to the Class 3A Western Slope League all-conference first team for softball as one of two Carbondale players on the Basalt High School softball team team last fall.