On August 10, 2019, lead bicycle attorney Joshua Bonnici participated in the infamous Leadville 100 Mountain Bike Race. Below is a blog outlining his experience. Enjoy!
In late 2018, I came up with the crazy idea that I wanted to race the Leadville MTB 100 – the nation’s highest and arguably hardest one-day mountain bike race. I had a buddy who had raced it years back, and said it was terrible and he would never want to do it again. After some successful coaxing, he acquiesced and we entered into the lottery with two other guys as a “team”, as we heard that would better our chances of getting in. Once the lottery opened December 1, 2018, we registered, pre-paid the $430 (gulp) and waited.
To our surprise in mid-January 2019, we received an email congratulating us on our selection into the 2019 Leadville 100 race. We were in.
Planning immediately began with our four-man team: travel accommodations, Colorado AirBnB’s, and time off work flooded our group text. Oh, and training.
At the time, I had never ridden my mountain bike 100 miles. I’d done a few road century rides, but the furthest on dirt I had covered was about 50 miles on a supported “fondo” style MTB event. (If you’ve never done the San Diego Mountain Bike Association’s annual Archipelago ride, you’re missing out). But, being a self-described lover of a good sufferfest, I was up for the challenge.
I started working with a coach in March, and set my sights on building some fitness that would get me across the finish line on August 10, 2019.
We planned on arriving to the Leadville area about a week early to acclimate to the harsh altitude. Leadville is known to be difficult for one main reason: it begins at 10,100 feet above sea-level, and climbs to over 12,500 feet. Coming from beautiful San Diego at around 200 feet, I knew that acclimation would be necessary.
Before leaving for Colorado on August 3, 2019, I had logged over 3,000 miles in training (a healthy mix of road and dirt), had completed several 50-ish mile MTB rides, finished the Belgian Waffle Ride, and did a Leadville qualifier race in Austin Texas (the Austin Rattler 100k) to upgrade my starting corral for Leadville. (If you get in via the lottery, you’re automatically slotted into the white corral, at the very back of the nearly 2,000-person mass-start race beginning). Based on my effort there, I was upgraded to the purple corral, which is right in the middle – which I thought suited my fitness level and projected finish time.
Along with three of my “teammates”, we drove from San Diego to Grand Junction, Colorado, about a 12-hour drive. Grand Junction is about 4 hours from Leadville, and sits at 5,000ft elevation. We stayed there overnight, and then arrived in Buena Vista (about 35 miles from Leadville, sitting at 8,500ft) on Sunday, August 4th.
Our plan was to acclimate, pre-ride and rest in Buena Vista during the week leading up to race day. I had planned out the days I was to ride, what I was going to eat during the week, and when to start increasing my carbohydrate intake. Prior to leaving, I was nominated as head cook for the team, so I created a menu and we hit the grocery store Sunday. Our plan was to eat as clean as we could, with increasing carbs Wednesday around lunchtime.
Monday we pre-rode the course between the Twin Lakes aid station and Pipeline aid station. Leadville is an out-and-back course, so we knew that we’d be riding this section once each direction. The “flat-ish” nature of the middle section really showcased the beauty of Leadville, and caused us to stop for a lot of photo opportunities. The scenery, and altitude, was breathtaking. We ended up riding for about 3 hours, doing 36 miles – we got lost a few times – and refueled at a local brewery for wood-fired pizza. (No beer for me, as I was dry for 30-days leading up to race day).
Heading toward the Pipeline Aid Station
Descending some of the best trail on the course
Part of the miles and miles of fireroad
On Wednesday, I left without the team to do a group pre-ride of Columbine Mine – the 7 mile, 3,000ft climb at the middle of the course. You climb from about 9,600ft to over 12,500ft – mile 51 of 103 – turn around and bomb back down to then reverse course back to the start line. While the group intended on only riding up about an hour (approximately 4 miles) then turning around, I decided to go all the way to the top to see the entire climb. I was nervous of putting too much stress in the legs that close to race day, but was glad I did it. Legs felt great, and I was able to not only see what I was up against, but also take my time and really see the area. It was absolutely stunning, and the views were magnificent.
Looking over Twin Lakes halfway up Columbine Mine, where the ascent begins
At the top of Columbine – 12,522 feet
Thursday we went into town and picked up our race packets and toured the expo area. Got our race plates, t-shirt, and soaked in the “stoke” of racers milling about while some rain sprinkled down. There, I chatted with first time racers, 10-time finishers, and gawked at pros and their bikes as they came through. We went back to our little cabin in Buena Vista and did our best to rest up. That night, we constructed our drop bags to take to each aid station making sure our nutrition, and placement, was where we wanted it.
Our Buena Vista cabin
On Friday, we returned to Leadville for an easy spin around town, and the mandatory athlete meeting – which really turned out to be more of a pep-rally and motivational speech, but still fun. My favorite line from the race founder was: “tomorrow you are going to have an education about yourself, and your teacher will be pain.” I chuckled with the crowd, then suddenly realized where I was, and what I was about to do. After dropping off our aid station bags, we ate crappy Mexican food for lunch (grilled chicken, lots of rice and tortillas), and I really tried hard to take in what I was about to embark on.
Exploring Leadville before raceday
We had made it. We were here. This was going to happen.
Saturday – race day. Gun goes off at 6:30am, riders must be in corrals by 6:15am. We leave our cabin close to 5:15am, and get lucky with parking a few blocks from the start at 6th Street and Harrison (more on this later). After struggling with my tire air pressure at my car, I rush to the start line and barely find my two teammates in the purple corral. I wiggle my way into the crowded street just in time for the National Anthem. The weather was perfect – about 50 degrees, partly cloudy. I ask a spectator to take my photo, and as she takes my phone, the announcer starts to count down 5, 4, 3, 2… bang! I hear the infamous shotgun blast and people cheer. I grab my phone back, put my gloves on, and hit start on my bike computer.
The first mile is pavement, and downhill. This was one of two sections that made me nervous with such a large mass-start. Reports said there were nearly 1,800 riders starting the race all at the same time. We quickly hit speeds of 30+mph on asphalt with cold legs, nervous heads, wide bars and knobby tires. I decided not to push it here, and let others go around me if they wished. Once we hit the rolling dirt road, we began to all bunch up and speed was dictated by the group as passing became nearly impossible. A quick glance behind me revealed that my two teammates were not behind me, but I shrugged and kept looking forward.
Up until about mile 10, traffic caused speeds to slow, and I attempted social conversation with the racers around me. Surprisingly, not many riders were interested in chatting while we were moving slow and not working hard. Things started to spread out after the first descent, and the pace wasn’t as controlled by the pack. We hit the second climb which lead to one of the more sketchy downhills – Powerline – so I picked up the pace a bit and created space for the descent. Top of the descent was very fun and flowy with just enough rocks to create an optimal line on the fire road-sized trail. Then, a 20-ish% straight downhill with the famous loose-over-hard came up. Luckily, everyone behaved and took their time (I heard much a road rash was created on this section in the past). That lead me to the first aid station I stopped for at mile 28.
I pulled into the aid station and was immediately greeted my two volunteers who called out my race number, grabbed my bag and had it open for me within a few seconds. They were amazing. I switched my bottles, grabbed a PB&J from the neutral support, a Cliff Bar and gel from my bag and continued on my way.
I then started on the middle section of trail that I had previously ridden the Monday prior. I knew linking up with a group here was important, as drafting would be beneficial. I found a good group, and immediately went into paceline-mode. Unfortunately, I rode away from a few groups, but quickly jumped on other trains. After descending a really fun single track for about a mile, I knew it turned into asphalt briefly then a long clean fire road. A young girl ahead of me looked fast, so I jumped on her wheel and started to put out some power working with her. She pulled on the up hills, I did on the flats/downhills and we must have passed dozens of riders.
We pulled into the Twin Lakes aid station after about 50 minutes, which was exactly my arrival goal. While I lost my riding buddy, I again got a quick bottle switch, nutrition in my hand and mouth, and a nice push towards the big Columbine climb. I switched my gloves from normal riding gloves, to insulated gloves for the ride down which can quickly get very cold. I put those in my pocket, unzipped my vest and headed to the base of the climb.
As I hit about mile 43, the beginning of the Columbine Mine climb, I see a motorbike coming down blowing a whistle, meaning riders were starting to come down the mountain. I couldn’t believe that as I began the climb, riders were already finishing their descent! Three pros whizzed past me, with a few single riders close behind.
The first 4½ miles up Columbine is a wide, nicely graded fire road lined by beautiful Aspen trees with a few switch backs. Not too steep, but the conga-line of riders began quickly as they paced themselves at mile 45 up the longest climb of the day. With the addition of the quickening flow of riders coming down the road at high speeds, passing was made extremely difficult. I picked my way up the initial ascent, trying to pass a handful or riders when I could see a clearing ahead.
Nearing the treeline up Columbine
Once you get past the tree line, at about 11,400 feet, the now exposed road turned into a non-maintained Jeep trail, with just enough room for one car, and passing was now impossible. The walking began quicker than I thought, and I at times “jogged” passed a few riders in order to make up ground. We got to a ridgeline with a fantastic view of Twin Lakes, and the walking began again. At that point, we could hear what sounded like quads coming up behind us, when to our surprise there were two asking riders to step aside. They were medical assistance for a rider who had crashed coming down and wasn’t in good shape. We passed him, and while he was awake, he looked very dazed. (We later learned he had a bad concussion but will make a recovery). After walking two more sections, I knew there was another ½ mile left that was rideable. I passed people on a flat rocky section, did a 10-second descent and arrived at the Columbine Mine aid station at 12,544 feet.
I took some water and a gel there, knowing that I wasn’t going to be able to take any nutrition on the way down (which would take 20 minutes or so). As I started to ride again, one of the volunteers offered me a Stroop Waffle, to which I slowly accepted, but rode past her. This young volunteer then sprinted to catch me and handed me the most delicious Stroop Waffle ever.
As I started the descent, I again attempted to pass others since I knew once it got steep, passing would be impossible. Unfortunately, I came upon two riders taking the downhill very slow. With nothing to do but ride my brakes behind them, I started cheering on the riders coming up. “You look good! Keep going!” “You’re almost there!” “Nice work!” I shouted. It became a theme, with the rider in front and back of me doing the same. About half way down the Jeep trail, I realized that I was looking more at the riders coming up then at the trail, but was having no problem descending and keeping a safe distance from the rider in front of me. It was an odd feeling.
I passed two of my riding mates on their way up, both looking haggard, but I again shouted praises. Once the Jeep trail ended and the wide Aspen road opened up, I gave my brakes a needed break (see what I did there?) and coasted down nice and easy, hitting over 30 mph several times.
Once at the bottom, I kept a strong pace until the Twin Lakes aid station inbound. There I got two more bottles, a PB&J sandwich, a gel (which I somehow lost), regular weather gloves, and ditched my riding vest. I got a nice push by a volunteer, and made my way across the street and on my way back.
All of my research said to make sure and latch onto a good group between Twin Lakes and Pipeline aid stations, as there’s more flat and descending then climbing, and often a headwind. Unfortunately, when I ran into riders they were solo and slower than I wanted to go. I would slowly pass riders inviting them to work together, but most of them either didn’t respond or quietly shook their head as if they knew their day was already getting dark.
I hooked up with a single-speeder from Boston, and we chatted a bit on an asphalt climb, our speed being pretty equal. It was his first-time racing Leadville too, and he was already regretting picking the single speed bike. He seemed strong so I offered to pull on the downhills (I probably had 25 pounds on him) but unintentionally dropped him even coasting downhill. We met up a few times on the way back, although I think he ended up passing me on one of the last climbs and I never saw him again. Kudos to all the singlespeeders out there. Someday I’ll be bring my singlespeed to Leadville.
Nearing the Pipeline aid station, I worked with a guy wearing a huge backpack (like, bike-packing backpack) who did some strong pulls. Got to the Pipeline aid station at mile 72, feeling OK, but starting to feel the fatigue in my legs. As I began to leave, I saw four riders take off together, and decided to burn a match to get with them as I knew there were several miles of rolling asphalt to come before the grueling Powerline climb. I successfully latched on, took my pulls, but wasn’t able to hang on the entire time. I took one last pull, and slowly let the ride away with about a mile of asphalt left as I felt my heartrate begin to rise higher than I wanted.
I ended up catching them on the dirt, where at mile 80 we made the big left turn, then right turn to start the death march that is Powerline. It’s 0.6 miles of 20+% loose-over-hard, straight up. I was told that the 3.4 mile Powerline climb had five false-summits, and to expect pain. I dismounted, looked down, and pushed. And pushed. And pushed.
And boy were they right. I started to shake, cough, and wobbled with every step as I neared the top of the first false summit. A middle-aged woman was handing out water and had a sign that said “I think you’re sexy”, and I actually laughed out loud, as there was nothing sexy about me in sweaty, salty Spandex, huffing and puffing up a hill pushing a bicycle like a chump. I thanked her, and kept pushing. At the top of the 0.6 miles, a man was playing a bagpipe. Just before that a young kid was bumping 90’s rap and handing out Dr. Pepper. I don’t like Dr. Pepper much, but still took some. It was warm.
After pushing my bike for what seemed like 30 minutes, I had to stop and catch my breath, realizing that I may not have eaten enough since the last aid station. I lean my bike against a tree and quickly wipe off my chain, hoping for just a few free watts for the last 20 miles. My chain was surprisingly clean, but still I wiped it down.
From there, it was rolling rocky climbing with a few more stops to catch my breath. I traded with a few riders, first passing them, then them passing me. Our jovial banter turned into grunts and deep breathes.
We hit the final summit, and started to coast down a short downhill to a long asphalt climb. That’s when I felt my first rain drop. Crap. I had my rain jacket tied to my top tube, but really didn’t want to put it on. (I later learned that people finishing over 11 hours got dumped on for 15 minutes, and some had to be pulled from the race because of hypothermia from how wet they became and their lack of jacket). I coasted down a short hill, grabbing a draft from a camper van on the road (yeah, the roads weren’t closed, weird). Then, began the steep, three-mile asphalt climb we bombed down hours earlier. I found a good cadence and pretended I was doing a 20-minute interval, struggling to keep 6 mph. I must have passed 25 riders on that stretch, each looking more desperate and painful than the next.
I hit dirt, and made it to the last aid station at mile 91, and I was in a bad way. I started to get dizzy, short of breath quickly losing focus. As I pulled over, a super nice woman ran up and shouted “what do you need, honey?!” I sighed, asked for water, and she filled me up. She offered me a Coke, I drink it, she cracked a fresh one, offered it to me, and drank almost the entire can. I burped, then started pedaling as she yelled at me to go faster. I man at the end handed me a gel and without thinking I opened it and slurped it down. Warm chocolate. Gross.
Another 30 seconds later, I came very close to puking, but let out another burp, and kept going. That’s when I started doing math. Looking at the time and mileage, wondering if I could make it under 10 hours. Speed divided by distance, carry the one, square-root of pi… I couldn’t make sense of it. I thought, it’s close enough to be possible.
This is when I literally started talking to myself. “Com’on buddy, you can do this” came out of my mouth and I wanted to look at myself and say “really?”. I embraced the suck, and kept my pace strong. I remember after a bone-shaking rocky downhill I saw two or three riders ahead of me about 100 yards apart. “I can catch them” I said out loud, still weirded out that I’m fully talking to myself.
And I did. One by one, I caught and passed riders, no longer interested in drafting. “I just got my second-wind” I said aloud to no one.
That’s when I decided that I had 50 minutes to go until my 4:30pm 10-hour cut off, and opened it up. I remembered hearing a few riders joking at the beginning of the race, saying “finishing 9:00:01 and 11:59:59 was the same thing” – same finishers medal and buckle. I remember chuckling at it then, and not thinking much of it. But here I was, trying to do math to see if my sub-10 goal was realistic. Every time I was making good time to meet the average speed I thought I needed, the trail would go up and I’d slow down. I then remembered how much training I did to get to Leadville. The many things I put on the back-burner because of training. The times I left my wife at home when I was doing what seemed like endless 2×20 workouts on Fiesta Island, or the countless times I woke up at 5:00am for 3-hour weekday morning training rides, getting into the office late and staying late. “No” I said, I did too much to just roll in and be content that I was safely under the cutoff.
That’s when I decided to turn myself inside out and literally give it all I had.
And that is exactly what I did.
For those that know me well, I don’t really curse. It’s never been my style. However, words rarely uttered flowed from my mouth at what seemed every corner. I turned it on and starting passing riders like they were standing still. I remember holding 25mph on some flat sections with what seemed to be endless energy – my legs not making the connection with my brain about how tired they really were. I blew by other riders, selflessly ignoring their pleas to work together with only several miles left in the race.
After what seemed like miles and miles, the pavement ended, I hit some dirt and mud which I worked through, made a sharp left turn and was greeted with (what seemed at the time to be) a steep rocky section leading to a dirt road, and I broke. I downshifted to an easy gear and crawled up the rocks staring at the clock. I then hit what is dubbed “the Boulevard” – a triple-wide dirt road with a slight incline, but that was straight as an arrow so that you could see how long it went on. As I passed more riders, I started to slow and my eyes started to blur. The horizon started to shake. I shook my head and yelled at myself to focus, but my strong push was fading.
My odometer hit around mile 102 and the clock turned 4:30pm. I missed my sub-10 hour effort. I jumped onto the last asphalt section knowing I was close, and then recognized where I was. A small roller of an asphalt climb, a descent and then the 200 meter sprint to the finish line up hill.
Once I crested the roller, I could see and hear the finish line: the huge inflatable arch over 6th Street, with cheering spectators lined up nearly 100 meters down the course straddling a red carpet for riders to glide over to victory.
I don’t remember downshifting to my hardest gear at the top of that little hill, but when I was finished I was all the way at the bottom of my cassette. I locked my fork, shifted, and went as hard as I could. I flew by the spectators, carrying my speed up the hill towards the finish line. I passed another rider with what appeared to be his wife running next to him (to which I regret, now) and crossed the line. (Fun fact, according to Strava I did that last finish line sprint section the 9th fastest out of over 700 riders that day – sharing the leader board with a few pros).
I was finished – both literally and physically. When my bike came to a stop, I unclipped, and put my head on my hands on the handlebars, and did everything I could to stay upright. All of the stress and effort I put out the last hour hit me all at once, at 10,112 feet above sea level.
Almost immediately after finishing, a volunteer came over and enthusiastically congratulated me, put an award around my neck, handed me a hat, and offered me a bottle of water. “We can valet your bike if you like” she said. I looked at her blankly. She repeated herself, and all I could do was put up a finger and nod at her, as I swore that if I tried to dismount the bike I’d either cramp or fall over. After a few minutes, I successfully got off my bike, handed it to a volunteer, took the bottle of water, a GU recovery drink they were handing out, and sat under a tree in a daze for 20 minutes.
I had done it. All the training, time away from family and friends, planning and agonizing over details. I found myself sitting under that tree surrounded by hundreds of strangers in a salty, sweaty kit with an award around my neck, feeling, frankly, emotional. It was an unusual feeling for me, and definitely not what I expected. I tried hard to then take in where I was and what I had accomplished. I didn’t cry, but I almost wished I had.
As the fatigue started to wear off, the “post-race stoke” began to rise, and I decided to walk to my car and change. However, in my haze of a state, I could not for the life of me remember where I parked my car earlier that morning. After wandering for a few minutes, I had to ask Siri “where did I park my car?” And, surprisingly, she knew. I was only three blocks off.
I changed, returned to the finish line and found one of my teammates. We embraced and cherished that we had finished. We then went to wait for our other teammates. We watched them finish about an hour later, took a group picture, and headed to beer and food.
The sub-12 hour belt buckle
- The race volunteers were amazing. I was worried that my drop bag requirement would be slow and uncoordinated, but was far from right. They were so amazing that I now want to volunteer in that capacity soon.
- I 100% want to do it again with less pressure. I think with a little weight loss (on the bike and person) and a better starting corral, a sub-9 could be possible. But, not next year.
- I ran aluminum wheels (Spinergy LX 29’ers) and while I may have sacrificed a little weight (they weighted 1,622 grams for the pair) the damping of their spoke technology saved me. I never felt too jarred after 100+ miles on a hardtail, but loved having a hardtail on the many miles of paved roads. Wouldn’t change this at all.
- I ran a 46×11 tooth cassette, which I think was OK, but would opt for a 50×10 Eagle next time so I wasn’t grinding slow when stuck behind other riders. I think my 32 oval chainring worked well. Might experiment with a 30.
- I’d like to train more to be prepared to take all of my nutrition via gels and bottles. I never remember how hard it is to eat real food on the go, and how dry it gets.
- I think my altitude acclimation plan worked great. I supplemented with Ginko Biloba a week prior, and took 2 pills per day thereafter (heard it’s a natural altitude med) and slept at 5,000ft a week prior, then 8,500ft thereafter. I’d 100% do all that again.
- I think a powermeter can be used pretty well at Leadville, even though I don’t think they work well in traditional MTB races. I didn’t have one, but sometimes wished I did.
- I was having heartrate monitor issues beforehand, so didn’t run one during the race. Would have been interesting info after, but I didn’t want to stare at it all race as I knew that it would be off because of the elevation.
Bike Set up:
On raceday, I was 5’10”, around 190lbs with an estimated FTP of about 320 (at sealevel).