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Leadville: Cracking the Code - Part 1

Well, I just completed Leadville!  For the fifth time.  Five buckles to my name.  Three 'big ones, for going under nine hours, and two smaller ones, for finishing in under 12.  Those three big buckles were well earned, and at a different time in my life, when anything other than sub-9 would have been a disappointment.  This is not then.  This trip was all about helping to get a friend across the line, so that he could have a buckle of his own.  He missed out on a buckle, last year, so this trip was all about making that right.  He recruited a few friends, to help him through, and quite frankly, I'm pretty thankful, because I was fearful that I would be the one who would need the pulling.  Preparations hadn't been non-existent.  But, they had been spotty, at best.  So, I had to rely, pretty heavily, on experience.  What I lacked in preparation, I made up for in knowing pretty well how the day would unfold.  At least that's what I kept telling myself.

Well, my buddy, he didn't make it.  Columbine is one nasty, nasty climb, and that's what did him in.  It climbs up to over 12,000 feet, and the altitude sickness zapped him.  It gets pretty nasty up there.  Quite nasty.  And altitude can affect different people in different ways.

So, below is what I have learned over the years of having completed the event.

"Altitude is an attitude."

At this point, I have done a good deal of racing at very high altitudes.  Leadville is one of the highest incorporated 'cities' in the US, at about 10,300 feet above sea level.  That is where the race starts and finishes!  It climbs and descends, and climbs and descends, but eventually really just climbs up to about 12,500 feet, at the turnaround.  The course is, practically, an exact out-and-back, so if you're thinking that the way back must be easy…Well, no…Somehow, it's significantly worse.  But, more on that, later. 

Anyone who has ever spent any time at altitude, in Denver, or Tahoe, or Bend knows that the air is thin.  My home is situated at just under 100 feet above sea level, about 25 miles south of Boston.  I can practically chew on the oxygen, when I breathe.  You go out to Denver, and the like, and there isn't quite as much oxygen to chew on.  In fact, there is significantly less.  Your sense of normal is different.  Though not dramatic, climbing the stairs, going for a run, or your normal bike paces are affected.  And, not in a good way.  Go up to Leadville, twice the elevation of Denver, and the impact IS dramatic.  "Bigly", if you will…

So, you have to adjust, and that's why I say that altitude is an attitude.  I like to think that I came up with that, but who knows…?  Anyways, you simply have to accept that you are a lesser being at 10,000 feet, than you are at 100 feet.  That is the single most important factor to doing well in Leadville.  You can have all of the metrics in the world, from sea level.  Power, pace, and speed.  Just plan on them being lower, in Leadville.  It's a little schizophrenic, fitness-wise.  A split personality, of sorts.  You have your sea level mentality, intense and focused on maximization.  And then you have your Leadville personality, far more laid back, and not in nearly as much of a rush.  Almost an island mindset, at 10,000 feet. 

But, if I had to sum it up into a single piece of advice, I'd say to avoid going over threshold.  Everything below threshold is relatively tame.  You'll notice the altitude, but not in any kind of a dramatic way.  As soon as you push beyond threshold, things get ugly, fast.  People talk about extreme altitudes, and feeling as though they are breathing through a straw.  Yup!  You go above threshold, and that straw suddenly gets a crimp in it.  So, I avoid it, at practically all costs.  Yup, it means that I climb Columbine at about 4mph…But, I do it the entire way, and I do it passing people who are huffing and puffing.  It means that at the beginning, when everybody starts out at an inexplicable clip, as MTBers love to do, I hold back.  Do I feel like I am going backwards?  You bet!  But, it's a long day.  We all have our times when we feel like we are going backwards.  I choose to spend my backwards time, upfront.  To this end, you want to be the person, around you, who is the most relaxed, and expending the least amount of effort.  Especially, early-on.  There are an inordinate number of crappy pacers in Leadville!  Still good people.  But, horrible pacers.  Don't get caught up in the drama that they are creating for themselves. 

Drink, drink, drink, and eat, eat, eat!

One, it is an insanely long day, and requires a boat load of calories to get through.  Make them smart calories.  Fuels that are high in varied carbohydrates, and low in fiber, fat, and protein.  Gels, sports bars, sports drink, even some candy at the aid stations.  Be smart about it.  Give your body the fuel it needs.  And, feed it often.  Every 25-35 minutes, be eating something!  The more varied the things that you intake, the less trouble that your GI system may cause you. 

In same the light, drink plenty of sports drink.  Leave the water for others.  We want the carbohydrates, sodium, and potassium that sports drink will provide.  Don't have a sports drink chock full of sodium and potassium?  Find another sports drink.  Or, supplement with a product like Base Salts.  In general, you are looking for about 500 to 600mg of sodium, per 24-ounce bottle.  Any less than that, and you may want to supplement.  Ever been on a bike for 9, 10, or 12 hours?  A variety of cramping can occur.  The jury is still out as to what roles sodium and potassium play in stopping a cramped muscle, but we do believe that these do help in keeping the cramping at bay, before it does initially occur.  Plenty of sports drink will play a significant role in keeping those muscles contracting in a healthy way.  Water…Much less so.

This may just be an old wive's tale, but Leadville's high school football team has, historically speaking, been the smallest in the state of Colorado.  And, it's not because their recruiters suck.  At 10,000 feet the body is working at full capacity, and then some, just to keep you rolling.  The metabolic fire burns hot!  So, if you have a tendency towards mid-ride bonks, that will, likely, be even more so, in Leadville.  The good thing is that that is something over which you have a great deal of control, IF you are conscious of it.  I recommend you remain conscious of it…

80/20 Rule

A few months ago, I bought a new MTB.  I hadn't ridden it very much, at all, really.  Like, I've ridden it oddly little…BUT, I had been doing a decent amount of road riding.  A little inconsistent, to say the least, but I have years and years of aerobic riding under my belt, that I relied very heavily on.  Probably a little too heavily.  But, the key thing to remember, is that Leadville is not really a MTB race.  It is more of an off-road event.  Are there a few rocks out there?  You bet!  But, the technical skills required for the race are very minimal.  Don't get me wrong!  There are a few spots out there!  But, for the most part it is like a gravel race, that is just a little too rough to do on a gravel bike.  So, this is one of those events that favors the aerobic engines, over the skilled riders.  The great majority of your training can, and probably should, be done on a road bike.  I'd argue about 80% of it.  The remaining 20% on a MTB, with a focus on the course's more technical aspects, such as steep, loose climbs and descents.  There is little need to spend significant amounts of time on technical MTBing terrain, worrying about single-track, rock gardens, and other types of obstacles.  The most technical thing that you will encounter out there is fast descents, on loose dirt.  Sure, that can be its own kind of menace, but nothing that will require six inches of travel.

I'll leave you with that lead in for today, be sure to check in next week where I will walk you through the entire course. I am going to lay it all out, segment by segment on what you need to be thinking about. Leadville can be a VERY NASTY ordeal, but it doesn't have to be. It can be an awesome experience if approached in the proper way. 

-Tim Snow 

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