Leadville Trail 100 w/Paul Zarubin

September 6, 2014

2014 Leadville Trail 100 Race Report

I know that you haven’t heard from me in a while, but for the last 10 months my focus has been on this one race. Leadville for me is the biggest longest Mountain Bike race that I have ever done or will ever do. It is also legendary among avid cyclists as the one race that you have to complete at least once in your lifetime. This race has attracted some of the top pros not only in mountain biking but road as well. Lance Armstrong, Levi Leipheimer, 5 time winner Dave Weins, Todd Wells, Christoph Sauser, to name a few. Along with the Bike race, a week later is the Leadville 100, and ultra marathon running race basically on the same trail.

For me, Leadville was a journey, a journey that started a year ago when I decided to enter the Tahoe 100, which was a 100k (60mile) race in my backyard at Northstar, and also happens to be a qualifier for the Leadville race. It was my first long distance race, and I did pretty good. Good enough that I earned a slot in the Leadville race and at that point I made a decision to race in the 2014 Leadville 100. And that decision was the start of a long and hard journey.

For starters my training had always been geared for 15 to 25 mile races, now I would be training to race 100 miles. Having never done that distance, I was going into some unchartered territory, but with everything I seem to do in life, the challenge of pushing beyond the ordinary, kind of aligns with my nature. My coach, Mark Redpath, designed a plan for me, and last October I started with my base training. Riding all winter down in Cool, I often would run out of daylight, and experienced dark and very cold trails wondering if the mountain lions would mistake me for prey in the dark. But I just kept reminding myself that the mental training was just as important, learning to adapt to suffering and being cold was essential when you find yourself in a hailstorm at 12,000 feet on race day.

I cannot stress the commitment level that one needs to have in order to be successful at an endurance race such as this one. I know that some are going just to complete the race, but I wanted to race it to win it and I did not want to question myself later if I failed, as to time spent in training. In fact looking at my stats, for the 10 months prior to the race I logged over 2500 miles on my bike, (not counting the stationary trainer), spent 640 hours in the saddle, climbed just under 200,000 feet, and burned 118,000 calories. Oh and I have a full time job, hence the late night rides.

I decided to do an old fashioned road trip with Lynn and get there a week early. When I left Truckee for Leadville on August 1 I felt mentally and physically prepared for this race like no other race I had ever done. But that changed as soon as we drove in to Leadville.


Having never been to Leadville, Colorado, I did not know what to expect. The first thing that struck me, were the mountains. They just rose straight up and the tops were bare of vegetation as trees and bushes could not grow at those altitudes. The steepness was daunting. I remember my first day walking through town just feeling so small and completely intimidated. I went to the local bike shop and started asking questions and started the learning process of how to race this race. I had to put aside a lot of thoughts, like “did I bring the right tires, the right bike, enough tools?” etc… and decided to first buy a map of this course and head right out and start surveying what I had just gotten myself into.

Normally I would pre-ride the course before the race but my coach had me doing just easy spins the week before the race in order to conserve as much energy and glycogens as possible for this race. So Lynn and I jumped in the car and each day that week we would drive parts of the course. I cannot tell you how much that calmed me. Sure the mountains were still steep, but there were many flat sections and descents, as well. Slowly I started to formulate a plan in my head on how I was going to ride each section. One of the takeaways from this experience is that proper planning is the cure for anxiety. The worst thing that could happen to me would be to lose sleep worrying what could go wrong, and end up waking up on race day completely exhausted from lack of sleep. I have to say that each day another piece to the plan fell into place and each night I slept better and awoke rested.

The next step in the plan was to develop the crew plan. You can only carry so much food and drink so you need to be able to replenish your supplies. The race promoters do provide food and water at various locations, but I wanted the luxury of having my own nutrition during the ride to insure that my stomach would not be bothered by something that it is not used to. The first thing we learned, is that with 1700 competitors and if they each bring 3 man crews, that means that there could be 5,000 highly energetic fans lining the trail. How in the world would I be able to pick out my crew from the 1,000’s? To solve that, we had an ingenious idea. We would get some sections of pvc, drive a piece of rebar into the ground and hang a very unique flag to the top and slip the pvc over the rebar, and also to roll a piece of red carpet in front of my crew so I would be able to find them both looking up or down. Second we scouted the 5 allowable crew locations and decided on the furthest one that was historically the least occupied. It happened to be at the base of the biggest climb on the course about 43 miles into the race. On the way back it would be at the 57 mile mark. So again developing race strategy, I would drop my camelback here and climb the 7 miles with only a water bottle, 1 gu packet, and a rice cake. This would take pounds off my back and make me the lightest for the climb to 12,600 ft. Because of the harsh conditions at that altitude, I would also be able to grab a rain jacket here if the skies looked threatening, and not have to pack the extra weight for the entire race. Plus on the way back, I would be able to grab a full camelback, more food and dump jackets if needed to complete the remaining 43 miles. Now my plan was really coming together and I started to feel really relaxed.

The final step to doing an endurance race is to have your nutrition down. This cannot be done the week before the race. It took me 3 months to develop a feeding plan that worked on the run and did not leave me feeling sick or bloated. Stopping to eat at a feed zone wastes valuable time and you are at the mercy of the available food and how it was prepared. To me their feed zones were a last resort stop only. In my 8 hour race earlier in the year, I stopped every 12 miles to re-fuel and it ended up costing me 12 minutes, I still won but the point is that if you carry your food, you can save precious minutes in a race where 5 minutes could determine the win. My coach recommended a book entitled “Feed Zone Portables”. The best investment I could have ever made. I learned so much about nutrition, actually more than I cared to know, but the bottom line is this. You need to learn how many calories you expect to burn and replace them as you ride not after you burn them. Second you need to understand that salt and sugar are essential to survival and your food needs to contain enough salt and carbs or you will bonk and not finish. Third is hydration. Racing as long as I have I know that at full throttle I need to consume 16 oz of water mixed with electrolytes every hour. For this race I would need a very minimum of 152 oz. Most camelbacks will handle 70 oz so with a spare bottle on my cage, that would mean swapping camelbacks once during the race. For my food I tried many of the recipes and settled on a coconut blueberry chocolate rice cake. One rice cake was about half the size of a Cliff bar, could be consumed in about 4 bites and provide 290 calories and all the salt and carbs to sustain me for an hour. I would alternate the next 30 minutes with a gu gel, and 30 minutes later with a rice cake. This worked extremely well for me, no sick stomach and no bonk. The most interesting fact that I pulled from the book was that eating a dry bar actually dehydrates you as your stomach will pull water out of your bloodstream in order to digest the bar because bars have less than 10% water content. My rice cakes had 60% water content. I was also able to use fresh organic ingredients and my cakes were made the day before the race. I will never race with dry bars again. The book even had some foil origami that was used to wrap the rice cakes so that I could unwrap them with one hand while pedaling.

Along with all the prep that went into the race I cannot stress that the final key was to prepare for the extremely high altitude. The race starts at 10,200 with the high point at 12,600. Even though I live at altitude, it is only 6,000 feet and my plan to adjust was to drive out a week early and stay with a friend at Breckenridge, whose house was at 10,500. There was an old railroad grade that climbed from near his house up to Boreas pass on the Continental Divide at 11,482. It was perfect for doing my easy 1 hour spins that week. But one day I found out how volatile the weather was and got caught in a lightning and hail storm above tree line in a matter of just minutes. Lightning was crashing down around me and the hail came down so hard, I thought my skin was going to get punctured. I quickly dove under a bush until it cleared and then rode back down. I was so chilled I almost got hypothermia, and could not ride fast enough to overcome the chill. It was an important lesson for me to learn, they weren’t kidding about not climbing to tree line without appropriate clothing.

photo 2

Finally with all the preparation and training, I was ready. We stayed in Leadville the night before the race and I slept like a baby. I awoke at 4:30, had breakfast, coffee, and my morning rituals and felt great. My crew was my son Ryan and my wife Lynn and they were excited for me. I rolled out did my warmups and met them at the start line. I could not believe the crowds gathered that morning. 1700 racers had qualified, probably 1500 showed up. The entire town and friends and family must have added another 5,000 people to the crowded street. It was 6:30 am when the shotgun sounded, and looking back at my computer the early morning temperature was 45 F but I was not cold with the adrenaline running through my veins I was excited to get this started. The police escorted us through the paved streets from the center of town in a race neutral position, which meant that we could not pass until we hit the dirt. The course actually has a gentle descent to 9800 ft before we hit the first climb. It was really hard to hold back on this first climb, but one of my race strategies was to really watch my heart rate for the first climb. When you taper your training, your body is refreshed and strong. It is only natural to feel unusually strong and the tendency is to ride hard. Problem is that all the extra stores of energy in your muscles can be quickly depleted and then you bonk and risk not finishing. So I hung back patiently. Of course there is no way of knowing who was in your age group we were shoulder to shoulder hundreds of riders, I just did not want to get taken out. As we climbed even at a moderate pace, I started passing riders. And many passed me. We climbed about 1,000 feet in 50 minutes and popped out on a paved road descent. I managed to tuck in behind a local that I had met at the local bike shop and was able to hit my top speed of 41 mph. Then at the bottom, we made a sharp right turn onto dirt and began the climb up to the top of power line. This is a famous landmark of the Leadville course. You can see the scar from miles away where the power line was carved into the mountain. It is steep and relentless, but more on that later. The initial climb to the top is on a moderate grade fire road. This is another 1,000 foot climb that I did in about 36 minutes. I am now feeling strong and excited with my time so far. Finally we get to the top and begin the descent. It is literally a straight line down right under the power line. I loved it, super technical and really separated the road riders from the mountain bikers. I passed a couple dozen people making great time, 8 miles in 20 minutes. The next 20 miles was fairly flat and boring. It was important to hang with a group of riders to work together much like a peloton does on the road. At this point of the race I was on track to break 9 hours, which would have been an incredible accomplishment for me. But I still had no idea what was ahead.

At 3 hours and 15 minutes into the race I hit my rest stop. I have to say in all honesty that I had the best crew there. It was like having a pit crew from the Indy 500 Lynn and Ryan knew exactly what to do each doing a different chore. I dumped the camelback, Lynn fed me the sports legs pills, Ryan swapped my water bottle and loaded the food into my jersey pocket. Because the skies were still blue Ryan told me to go without a jacket and I was off. This would be the climb to the top of Columbine Mine. We were going to climb 2900 feet in 9 miles, to the highest point on the course. It started off great. I was staying with the group that I had been with basically from the beginning. In fact about 5 miles into the climb, I felt great and had not seen any of the lead riders coming down. This course was an out and back and the top of Columbine was the halfway point. We were on a smooth fire road and although there was plenty of room for 2 way traffic here, I knew that higher up it would get tight and there would be a danger of a head-on with riders descending. Mile 45 and I still did not see any leaders. I kept thinking to myself, am I really only 5 miles behind the race leaders in a 100 mile race. I was on track to do great. Then suddenly we heard the yell “rider up” the first descender, man was he flying. I think it was Sauser. It was scary to be so close to them. Finally we hit the tree line and I knew we had 3 miles to go to the top. Then the wheels came off, or rather I came off the wheels. The trail had gotten so steep that no one could ride it, or at least because there were so many walking, there was no room to pass without endangering the descenders. I literally walked the next 3 miles. It was awfull. Now the altitude was affecting me and there was nothing I could do. No one passed me, I passed a couple guys who had to stop. I just knew to not give up and to keep climbing and get back down as quick as I could. Finally I made it to the top, but I had taken too long to climb. I was at the halfway mark at 4 hours and 50 minutes and would have to fight hard to get back on a 9 hour pace. I began the descent and it was scary with so many people coming up at me. For some reason, I was losing control a little on my turns and felt real sketchy. I looked down and sure enough my front tire was losing air. Because I run tubeless, I decided to not stop and get down as fast as I could to my crew that had a pump. We use a sealant in the tire so usually you only need to pump it up and go and it would normally seal. Hence my top speed on the descent was only 29mph, so I was not making up enough time. As soon as I hit the stop, again my awesome crew had me fueled, tire pumped up, chain oiled, food and water on board and I was off to complete the final 43 miles.


Coming back I remembered to not get caught alone on the flat sections as now we had a strong headwind. So the whole key was to get with some guys and draft our way back. Going through Twin Lakes there must have been 1,000 people crew and spectators cheering us on, it was like that every where, people out of nowhere would appear and cheer you on, it was unlike anything I had ever experienced, it was just like being on the Tour de France. Anyway instead of waiting for guys, I pushed hard and caught up to guys in front. We attacked the Goat trail, a short singletrack climb, I think the only singletrack on the entire course and then we popped out on a flat fire road. We were completely exposed and I started talking to my fellow riders and convinced them to work together. I just wasn’t going to wait. There were times that I felt like I was going to get dropped but then around mile 60 I just had a burst of energy and took the lead. By now our large group was down to about 4 riders and I kept encouraging them to stay strong. I told this one young man how awesome he was doing and thanked him for helping, he said “no I don’t feel strong, you are the strong one today.” That gave me a ton of confidence, then we hit pavement and made a sharp left turn and I felt my whole front tire wash out. Flat again. I stopped, pulled out my C02 inflated the tire and was off. Again hoping the seal would hold, I had another C02 and I was gambling that at the rate I was losing air I should be able to make it back with only one more re-fill. Fortunately we had just gotten out of the exposed roads and back into the forest where the wind was blocked by trees, where being alone was not a bad thing. Looking at my time I knew that breaking 9 hours was probably not going to happen but my original goal of 9.5 hours was still attainable.

The 78 mile mark brought me back to the base of power line and I have to tell you this was the climb from hell. I was pretty much alone but looking up I could see miles of people walking their bikes. The very first climb I had to walk, it was that steep. I was getting really angry at this course I love climbing, but hate walking. I really did not have feelings of quitting, I just wanted this to be over. I climbed/walked 1365 feet of altitude in 50 minutes, still on track to get 9.5 hours. You see the key to this race mentally is to race the clock not people. If you set a goal, stick to it and the podium won’t matter. I knew that if I could break 9 hours I could win, 9.5 hours would probably put me in the top 5, based on past results. So now it was time to descend and I did my best to make up for all the walking. But with a slow leak, I probably erred on the side of caution and used more brake than I cared to. Again, I was only able to hit 29 mph.

The next climb was on paved road and there was a rest stop at the top before the final descent. I remember hitting the 88 mile mark here at 8 hours and thinking that I just surpassed my longest race. I was starting to get tired as I entered this uncharted territory. Then I got passed by some guy and I tried hard to fight to get back on his wheel but could not, I had to let him go remembering that I am racing the clock. I kept a steady pace and actually did catch him at the rest stop, but had to get my tire pumped back up. Luckily they had a pump, but not being my crew it took about a minute and a half. I grabbed some drink and took off onto the final descent. Once at the bottom, I could only think of the finish line, but as close as I was, this section was perhaps the most discouraging.

As I hit the bottom and started the climb back to town, my computer hit 100 miles. I still had 3 miles and 430 feet to climb. I was mad. I was thinking that is a cheap shot, tell a guy it is a 100 mile race, completely demoralize him on the final 2 climbs and then just when he thinks he is done, add 3 more miles and 430 feet of climbing. I had no choice but to use my anger to turn the pedals over. Now I was in danger of not making the 9.5 hour goal. But then a rider came up and we worked together and I have to tell you he really helped me get through those final miles of discouragement. Then as I turned on to pavement my son Ryan was there to greet me and cheer me on as he ran along side of me, it was very emotional for me. Finally I crested the final hill and could see the finish line. It almost brought tears to my eyes. I rode down the paved road and there were lots of cheering fans bringing me home. It was worth it. I did it. I crossed the finish rode to Lynn and collapsed on my bars. Done, finished, end of a chapter, bucket list checked off.


Oh and my time? How about 9 hours and 27 minutes in 103.5 miles!! Not bad for a 60 year old. Overall I finished 4th in my age group out of 56, with only 38 completing the race. Out of 1100 male finishers overall, I was 378th, again not too shabby. Most important I earned the iconic Leadville Belt Buckle for finishing under the 12 hour mark. Could I have done better, will I do it again? Maybe and no I just want to take a year and not train every day.

photo 1

What I learned about this race, is that in training for it, it was always about me. When I arrived to Leadville and first saw the mountains and how the anxiety took over me for a day, I realized how really small I was. Then I met so many people and their inspirational stories, I was humbled. Yes I am proud of my accomplishment but it pales in comparison to people like our Wounded Warriors riding without all of their limbs, others who have overcome cancer, and still others racing in memory of those who are fighting and those who have lost their battles. The greatest memory that I have about this race, are the individuals who came here from all over the world and the story of what brought them here. This race is about not giving up, no matter what, the founder of this race stresses that over and over. My story is pretty trivial when compared to others. I don’t regret doing this race, I learned a lot about myself but more importantly Lynn, Ryan, and I were blessed to have met so many wonderful people and able to share their stories, both heartaches and triumphs. Leadville called, we rose to the challenge, and I believe that we are better for it.


Powered by God,

Paul Zarubin



One comment

  1. Great job out there Paul!

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