On August 15, approximately 2,000 mountain bikers will roll up to the starting line of the Leadville 100, an epic 100-mile race that—despite its daunting length and 12,612 feet of elevation gain—is approachable for intermediate riders who are committed to a goal. Consisting mostly of fire roads, the out-and-back course isn’t technical. The challenge is in elevation and constant climbing. With proper preparation, even weekend warriors can make it to the finish line under the 12-hour mark to earn the coveted Leadville 100 belt buckle.
Take it from Jenn Dice, a 14-year Leadville 100 veteran who has to work hard to balance her passion for mountain biking with her demanding job doing government relations for People for Bikes. “I have a super onerous day job. I work 60 hours a week. It’s really hard to carve out time to train. I always try to schedule it in,” she says.
The key? Start well in advance—six to 12 months out, which means now. With snowy weather dominating the forecast, it’s the perfect time to bust out the trainer or dart into the gym to log some miles. Non-elite racers who have busy lives with job, family, and other responsibilities should plan to squeeze in an average 10 hours a week of training.
According to Nadia Sulllivan, a FasCat Coaching associate coach who has trained more than a dozen riders for the race over the last three years, racers should spend 12 weeks building their base fitness. This involves riding long, slow distances at a pace you could maintain all day.
Michelle Grainger, owner of Athletic Excellence, has been coaching athletes for 20 years and says after the base phase, athletes progress to a two-month build phase, with increased intensity and decreased volume. Think hill training, intervals, and time on the trail developing technical skills. Plan to increase intensity each week for three weeks, then recover for a week before repeating the four-week cycle.
Building in rest is also critical to good performance. “We don’t get stronger in training, we get stronger in recovery,” says Sullivan. “One of the biggest parts of my job is telling people to rest.” A rest week might mean backing off from 10 hours of pedaling to six or eight.
Riding the course—or at least sections—in all kinds of weather is another way to improve performance. Knowing the course ahead of time can help you pace yourself. If a climb takes 40 minutes on a training day, then you know how to dial back your pace on race day so you don’t burn out.
Dice agrees. “Towards the end, there is one climb in particular with a lot of false summits,” she says. “The people who haven’t ridden it before self destruct.”
Riding the course also gives you training at altitude, a good idea given that the course tops out at 12,424 feet. You want to have a good idea of how your body reacts to altitude.
Nutrition is another critical part of preparation. It’s important to eat enough during calorie-intensive training, and then learn how to fuel optimally during the event. This means knowing what foods you can stomach after 75 miles, and how to eat in the saddle.
Grainger recommends doing several shorter races in order to dial in your prep and see how you perform under pressure. A month before the Leadville 100, the Silver Rush 50 is good option, allowing enough time to adjust your technique based on what you learn. Grainger also suggests doing a couple of other shorter races during the summer.
Keep a cool head. “If you don’t do well in your mid-summer race, don’t panic. It’s a time to learn,” says Grainger.
Spend your final weeks of training working on your weaknesses—whether it’s speed, pacing, hills, eating on the go, or bike handling. Two weeks before Leadville, dial back your riding to five to six hours a week so you’re good and rested on the day of the event.
If this sounds like a lot to plot on your own, then get help. Working with a professional coach is a surefire way to improve performance. Dice says after three years of 12-hour+ races, she hired a coach and shaved almost two hours off her time.
“Before I had a trainer, I used to go out and ride as much as I could,” says Dice. “Then I learned to train smarter, with a program of intervals, rest days, and building up endurance.”
Sullivan also emphasizes the importance of attention to detail. “When you’re talking about distances this long and especially up in the mountains, details become very important. You can have all the best training in the world, and if you you’re not prepared for the varying conditions, then it can really wreck your experience.”
“Plan for the best but know that a lot of things can happen,” says Grainger. “Practice enough to stay calm.” Above all, stick to your training. “Consistency. Consistency. Consistency,” she says. “The more consistent your training can be, the better.”
Dice also advises racers to not be too hard on themselves. “Everyone at Leadville the day before has some sort example of why they haven’t trained hard enough,” she says. “You’re going to Leadville for a personal challenge and to conquer your demons and prove to yourself that you can do something great.”
Given all the suffering, why do people keep coming back for more? Dice says it’s because of the family and camaraderie that Leadville has created. “Leadville has this infectious community of people who love the town, love the race, and love the suffering.”
The lottery for the 2015 event is already closed, but you can still earn a place by participating in a qualifier event. Or set your sights on 2016 and start planning now.