Riding your bike 100 miles in a single day is one thing. Riding your bike 100 miles in a day over multiple mountain passes at altitude with a vertical gain of more than 12,500 feet is quite another. But every August, over a thousand mountain bikers (a good number of them from Utah) venture to the oxygen-deprived mountain town of Leadville, Colorado to do just that, in the Leadville Trail 100 Mountain Bike Race.
As North America’s highest incorporated city at 10,430ft., Leadville boasts a vibrant and tumultuous past. Miners discovered gold in California Gulch around 1860, and the settlement of Oro City sprung up near present-day Leadville. The gold rush sparked a population boom, but never amounted to much due to heavy brown sand that impeded sluicing. In 1874, some intrepid prospectors found that the heavy sand was cerussite, which carried a high silver content. They traced the silver to larger deposits nearby, and the founding of Leadville proper in 1877 marked the start of the Colorado Silver Boom. By the 1880’s, nearly 40,000 people resided in Leadville, making it the second largest city in Colorado at the time, behind Denver. But like any boom town, the prosperity was short lived.
The town’s initial decline began with the repeal of the Sherman Silver Purchasing Act in 1893, which drastically cut the amount of silver the US government purchased. Despite another small gold boom and a nearby military base during World War II, the town never regained its former affluence. Industrialists came to rely more on lead and other mineral deposits, including molybdenum, which sustained a small population over the years that now hovers around 2,800 people.
Leadville entered a new period of economic downturn in the mid 1980’s with the closing of the Climax molybdenum mine, which put nearly 3,000 local miners out of work, including Leadville Trail 100 race director and founder Ken Chlouber. Chlouber started the race in an effort to fuel tourism to the town and resuscitate the local economy after the mine closure put the majority of residents out of work.
Known as the ‘Race Across the Sky,’ the Leadville Trail 100 began as a 100-mile footrace with only 45 competitors. 1994 marked the inaugural Trail 100 Bike Race, and the field has since expanded to include a marathon, the Leadman and Leadwoman races, the 24 Hours of Leadville, and several other races. The Trail 100 Mountain Bike Race remains the showcase event, however, now drawing nearly 1300 mountain bikers to the high-altitude course each summer.
Long considered a major event in the cycling community, the race gained increasing notoriety in 2008 when Lance Armstrong entered, placing second to six-time champion Dave Wiens. In 2009, Armstrong returned to win the race and shave more than 15 minutes off the course record. The documentary Race Across The Sky, released last fall, exposed even more to the race. The high-definition film captured the race’s rich history, the battle for first between Armstrong and Wiens, and the touching stories of some lesser-known riders.
To call the Leadville Trail 100 course challenging would be a gross understatement. A physical and mental testpiece for even the fittest of riders, the course follows a 50-mile, out-and-back route starting and ending in downtown Leadville. Between mile 40 and 50, the race culminates in a 3,000+-foot climb to the Columbine Mine at 12,570ft, which marks the turnaround point. Those who finish in under 12 hours receive the coveted, cowboy-style Leadville silver belt buckle for their efforts. Finish in under nine, and the buckle turns to gold.
Although it is technically a race, coming in first isn’t the goal of the vast majority of riders. Many credit the Leadville 100 with a strong and supportive community atmosphere where racers encourage each other while pursuing their own personal goals. Some strive to break the nine-hour mark, while others are content to finish at all. In any case, solid fitness and a certain mental toughness are required equipment.
I caught up with a few local Utahns riding in this year’s Leadville 100, from someone heading down for their first time to a race veteran, to get an idea of what the race is all about and what it’s like to prepare for such a physical and mental undertaking.
The First Timers
Kym Buttschardt, owner of Roosters Brewing Co. in Ogden and her friend Kelsey Bingham, will ride in the Leadville 100 this summer with the Roosters Endurance Team. Buttschardt traveled to the race last year as part of a support crew for a group of her friends, and quickly made plans to return this year with her bike in tow.
“I was inspired by the beauty, and of course I love to ride bikes, and I was kind of envious of my friends…I thought, I’ve gotta ride that,” she says.
“It’s kind of a bucket list thing to do for a lot of mountain bikers,” Bingham says.
No stranger to large race-style events, Buttschardt works with the Get Out and Live (GOAL) Foundation, a non-profit that puts on the Ogden marathon and other events to promote outdoor athletics around Ogden. She says she connects with the race organizers and the story behind the Leadville 100.
“[The organizers] just want to do something to help their community rally back, and they just did it,” she says. “I know what it takes to put on a race like that, and their army of volunteers is outstanding.”
Buttschardt’s main training revolves around lots of swimming, a few century road rides, and some steep elevation training around her home in Ogden, but she hasn’t set herself to a strict training schedule. She also plans on traveling to Leadville a week early to get a better feel for the course and the steepness of the terrain.
While Buttschardt is taking a more casual approach to training, Bingham has been working with a professional coach and following a specific program focusing on shorter road and mountain rides early on and progressing to longer mountain bike rides to train endurance as the summer goes on. She also plans to race all summer in Intermountain Cup Racing Series events and several multi-day stage rides to prepare.
Bingham’s main goal is to finish in under nine hours, and with her current training schedule, she says weather and the altitude are the only unknowns for her at this point.
“The things I can’t control are the things I’m a little apprehensive about,” Bingham says.
The most valuable tip Buttschardt gleaned from her friends who had ridden before was to “wake up on race day, and say ‘I’m gonna ride 100 miles today.’ Not can I ride 100 miles, not will I ride 100 miles.”
One Buckle Down
Shane Osguthorpe of Ogden was initially drawn to the race by its unique, high-elevation course and his adventure-happy buddies. “We have a group of friends and it’s kind of like a series of escalating dares,” he says. “We’re always trying to one-up each other with a different challenge we’ve never done before.”
Osguthorpe and his crew had done several long road rides like LOTOJA, and every year a group goes down and rides the White Rim Trail in a day, so he was no stranger to endurance biking when he drew a spot for last year’s race.
Like so many others, Osguthorpe praised the race’s communal vibe and the element of personal challenge involved.
“You’re toeing the line with…the greatest in the world—the fact that you’re not just on the same course, but you’re in the same race as them,” he says. “I think everyone’s got the goal of the buckle, everyone wants at least that silver buckle, and then once you get a taste of that all you want is to go back and get the gold buckle.”
Osguthorpe stresses the importance of high-mileage days when training, whether on the road or the trail. Before racing in Leadville, he’d often do a monster ride every Saturday, linking long stretches of trail along the Wasatch Front to gain endurance and simulate the dramatic elevation changes. And after last year’s mid-race rain/snow storm, Osguthorpe says August weather at 12,000 feet is nothing to take for granted. “Even the slightest bit of bad weather is horrendous at that elevation.”
Racking up miles is paramount, but the mental challenge is not something to be underestimated, he says. “You’ve never felt so alone and yet surrounded by so many people at the same time. Your head is just in so many places. It’s like a rollercoaster—five minutes ago you were on top of the world, and then five minutes later you want to die.”
Although he didn’t draw in this year’s lottery, Osguthorpe says he plans on returning to Leadville. “It’s one of those things that once it gets in your system you want to go back and be a part of it [again],” he says.
Jeff Kuehn of Park City started riding in the Leadville 100 ten years ago, when he’d drive down and camp in his van before the race. Now married with kids, Kuehn and his family make the yearly pilgrimage down to Leadville, where his wife acts as his support crew. Kuehn cites the interesting combination of intense personal challenge with a communal atmosphere as one of the driving forces that’s kept him coming back.
“Since everyone has their individual goals, you end up chatting with each other, and everyone’s really supportive of each other,” he says. “For me it is more about the personal challenge, and not just the challenge but what you learn about yourself going through something that difficult.”
“There are a lot of people taking it very seriously, and everyone wants to do well, but it’s not like going to a NORBA race where the whole weekend is focused on this two-hour period where everyone is going balls to the wall.”
But intense training and the aggro race mentality has never been Kuehn’s style.
“Once I had broken nine hours, I kept feeling like in order to go a whole lot faster than that I’d have to really take the training seriously. I like to ride my bike, so I don’t really train, I just ride as much as possible and enjoy it every time I do. I sort of made a new goal for myself, which was to do it ten times, and not really worry about how fast.”
“Ever since , I’ve been more interested in getting my friends to come and helping them to finish it. It’s something you don’t go through very often, so to share it with someone else has really been cool.”
After riding the same course for ten years, Kuehn says he has the details and logistics fairly dialed and continues to hone the process every year.
“People approaching it for the first time, especially if you haven’t done an event like that before, really have to think about what your body needs, what kind of gear you need, what bike you need,” he says. “After doing it so many times, I have a pretty good idea of what I need to eat,” and the other logistical details that first timers might not have dialed to this particular race. “I just feel like I know what it takes to get it done.”
Like Buttschardt, Kuehn stresses the importance of not giving yourself an out on race day.
“If you give yourself an option to quit, you’re gonna think about it all day, but if you don’t give yourself that option, chances are you’re gonna carry it through to the best of your physical ability.”
Those who ride in the Leadville 100 ten times are awarded an extra-large 1,000-mile belt buckle, Kuehn says, and he’ll be claiming his prize after completing this year’s race. After this summer’s milestone, Kuehn isn’t sure if he’ll return to the race. “It’s become a real part of my life, so I don’t know. I wouldn’t rule out doing it again, but it certainly feels good to not have to.”