Let me start this column off by issuing the following disclaimer: I’ve never fancied myself as an endurance mountain bike racer and have no plans to become one.
Despite winning the Marathon National Championship in 2009, I can count the number of marathon distance races I’ve done on one hand. I know that most normal people look at what I put my body through week in and week out XC racing and think that I’m probably a little crazy. However, when I look at the people out there racing 100-mile MTB races and 24-hour death-marches I know that they’re crazy. Why would you do that to yourself?
And yet somehow, all that said, I found myself at the start of my first 100 mile MTB race this past weekend in Bailey, Colorado. How I ended up here actually began in late 2009 when I started planning my 2010 season and I decided that I was going to try and win the Leadville 100 this year. While that race is a little different than my day job, the fact that the Leadville course has so much climbing — and all of it at really high-altitude — makes me think I’ve got a decent shot at it, no matter who shows up…
Given that I’m actually trying to win, and not just make an appearance, I figured that I should probably show up at the start line properly prepared for such an undertaking. I haven’t really changed my training at all — four to five-hour rides are the norm for a big day for me anyway, which is close enough to pull out one day that’s a little longer.
However, I did realize that I’ve never actually ridden my mountain bike 100 miles before. My biggest concern was nutrition, and how my body would feel trying to drink copious amounts of sugar while simultaneously going as hard as I could for six-and-a-half hours. I’ve done a few really long road races before, but you’re not going as hard as you can the whole time so it’s pretty different.
With my racing calendar already full I doubted that I would get an opportunity to test myself before Leadville and I had pretty much resigned myself to just winging it there. However, a late addition to the calendar in Colorado gave me just the opportunity I was looking for. The Bailey Hundo — a 100-mile invitational MTB race organized with the support of several state senators — rolled around at the perfect time in my training schedule. It was also a beautiful course; a mix of truly amazing singletrack that I grew up riding as a junior and a scenic mix of difficult fire road and double track climbs. I decided to give it a go.
At World Cup races we start at two or three in the afternoon, which we all hate since everyone just waits around all day to race. With the Hundo gun going off at 6 a.m. sharp, I didn’t have that problem. I woke up at 3:30, made my coffee and breakfast and drove to the start from my house in Boulder. It was a brisk 38 degrees when I arrived, but I decided to start in shorts and my thinnest weight jersey as it looked like it would get very hot later in the day.
With mist rising up from the river in the valley where we started — downhill a little too — I was absolutely freezing for the first mellow 30 minutes of racing. We hit the Colorado Trail after eight miles, and from there to mile 62 the course was nearly 100 percent singletrack. I moved to the front and rode a hard pace that seemed comfortable enough to maintain for the next six hours. I started stretching out a gap, and with an ear-to-ear grin on my face I charged from aid-station to aid-station, just grabbing a bottle in each one.
The course was incredible; a mix of the Colorado Trail and Buffalo Creek singletrack through fire-scorched meadows and aspen, spruce and pine forest. It was still really early and speeding though the trees in the low morning light with only animals around was such a cool racing experience.
Not So Bad
Ah, yes, this is what mountain biking is about. Maybe this 100 mile thing isn’t so crazy after all?
The singletrack section of the course ended at mile 62 with a 2,000 vertical foot plunge down the Colorado Trail to the South Platte River. I grabbed a few bottles and charged up the winding dirt road for the next 15 miles. I had been racing for almost four hours at this point and was still feeling really good. It was music to my ears to hear that I had 20 minutes on second place at 75 miles, because in second place was my former team manager and friend Dave Wiens – who everyone knows is a rock star at this stuff.
At this point I even allowed myself to think: “Man, I’ve got this 100 mile thing dialed.”
This Is Tough
Not quite. I suppose it should be obvious, but the challenge of MTB racing 100 miles isn’t racing the first 75 miles fast it’s racing the last 25 miles fast. The biggest climb of the course came from mile 80 or so to mile 92 — and it was hot, with a headwind, in a burned out wasteland with no shade in sight.
I still felt decent, but I could tell that every turn of the pedals was getting harder and harder. My back hurt, my feet hurt, my neck hurt and my hands were getting lightning flashes of numbness as I slumped on the bars. Every bump and rock in the trail made me grimace – is my suspension locked out?
My wife Heather was following me around at this point on her BMW Dakar and I looked longingly at her motoring up the climbs with the help of a 650cc engine.
I crested the final big climb still feeling OK . I now had about 15 miles of rolling dirt road to the finish. Oh yeah, the race was actually 105 miles, which, let me tell you, is a lot longer than 100 miles. I dragged myself in an embarrassingly easy gear over the last two big road climbs and finally struggled up the final .2-mile (which felt like 20 miles) steep rocky climb to the finish.
I stopped the clock at 6:36, which I was stoked with, as this was a hard course with a lot of trail and over 10,000 feet of climbing. I felt absolutely beyond awful at the finish line. All I could do was just sit there and be worked. I couldn’t eat or drink. My stomach felt terrible, all my tendons hurt and my feet were so sore I couldn’t walk.
OK, yes, this sh*t is crazy. Thirteen minutes later an energetic Dave Wiens charged across the finish line, chatted it up with everyone and rode off to get his car back at the start in Bailey. Whaaaat? I may have won the race, but he is the one who has this 100 mile thing dialed. I am really impressed. I was moving at a reasonable clip all the way to the end and he pulled back seven minutes on me in the last 30 miles. Whoa.
Despite that last hour and half of suffering — it was a great event — and I’m scared to say, I might do it again. I need to make sure that I can always count these races on one hand though, as I think each one takes a few years off your life. I’ve got one more this year, so that will make two. I don’t know whether I’m looking forward to it more or less now that I know what I’m in for. Leadville will be a much bigger battle than the Hundo. I better get to work on my endgame.
Jeremy Horgan-Kobelski races for the Subaru/Gary Fisher professional MTB team and and writes a regular column for Singletrack.com during the racing season. Look for more of his writings, photos, and video at www.jeremyhorgan-kobelski.com and www.jhkandheather.com.