Racing the Leadville 100 with First Descents
This past weekend I was given the opportunity of a lifetime, to race and represent First Descents as a rider in the professional field in the iconic Leadville 100 Mountain bike race. It was an honor that I did not take lightly. I raced hard and it was brutal. In the end I managed a time of 9 hours and 23 minutes which was good enough for a fourth place professional female finish. It was an incredible experience to be out there with the First Descents team and to race on one of the hardest courses imaginable. Leadville is not to be underestimated. It will chew you up and spit you out. So incredibly thankful for the support of family, friends, and sponsors that have made racing this season possible!
Why Leadville? I’ve returned to the Leadville 100 every year for the last 5 years, either racing or in the capacity of Team Trainer for First Descents – cheering and crewing for our team of mountain bikers that has been 25 strong nearly every year I’ve been involved.
Leadville is special. The Leadville 100 race is unparalleled in my mind. It is certainly the most challenging and brutal race I have ever completed in my life. But the Leadville experience is about so much more than just a race. Each year the riders assemble in the Lake County High School gymnasium to listen to Leadville Race Series founder and legend Ken Chlouber. Ken talks about how the race series was started to save the town in the midst of economic crisis, when the mine shut down and overnight Leadville was faced with the highest unemployment rate in the nation. The race course was set at a brutal 103 miles starting at 10,000 ft of elevation and climbing some of the highest peaks around, for over 11,000 ft of elevation gain in total. Thus aptly dubbed the Race Across the Sky. A race so tough that those who came to compete in it would surely stay the night and bring business to the local economy. In his legendary pre race speech, Ken talks about motivation. How riders are motivated to sign up, and arrive in Leadville highly motivated to get out on the course and race. Motivation, however he warns “will leave you when you need it most” in the midst of the race, when the going gets tough. “Make pain your friend, and you will never ride alone” he advises riders. He goes on to state that he and the Leadville race series organization KNOW with absolute certainty that 100% of the race field can complete the course under the cut off. And he repeats it:
“We know that 100% of you can complete the race. What we need is for you to believe it. Inside every one of you is an inexhaustible well of grit, guts and determination. You are stronger than you think you are. You can do more than you think you can.”
The words fall on a captivated audience. And when he finishes, Ken is met with the deafening roar of a standing ovation from the riders who chant along with him “When you commit. You do not quit.” The experience is electrifying.
Riders that complete the Leadville 100 walk away with so much more than a race. They come away with a newfound inner strength. You are stronger than you think you are. You can do more than you think you can. To complete Leadville and receive the iconic belt buckle is a badge of honor recognized among athletes. And the riders apply the experience of Leadville to the rest of their lives – when motivation leaves them, they face life’s challenges with grit, guts, and determination. And they think of Leadville and the mining spirit of the town and the race.
Why First Descents? To endure and successfully complete a race as challenging as Leadville, in my opinion, you need to do so for a purpose larger than yourself. When you are racing for yourself, personal motivation, and glory, and the race day is not going well, and inevitably getting tough, it can be easy to say “it’s not my day” and find excuses to quit. When you have a purpose and goal that is greater than yourself, and involves giving back and supporting others, then you think of them, and you push on through the pain. When you commit to others, you do not quit.
The First Descents (FD) organization is special in that it provides life changing outdoor wilderness experiences for young adults coping with cancer and other serious illnesses. During the First Descents wilderness adventure programs, cancer patients and survivors bond with other young adults that have been through the same trauma, they push themselves physically and mentally kayaking, hiking, mountain biking, and rock climbing and discover their inner strength and abilities they didn’t realize they had. Their self-identity shifts from ‘patient’ and ‘survivor’ to ‘rock climber’, ‘kayaker’, and ‘athlete’. And they transition back to life. They form beliefs about themselves and their abilities and they start goal setting. Goals run the gamut from mastering a new rock climbing move, to enrolling in higher education, traveling, and searching for jobs. They learn how to live again, and how to start the next chapter in their lives – with a newfound inner strength and the support of a peer network that understands what they have been through. During the First Descents program, each participant is given a nick name. The nick name becomes a hallmark of their new identity and moving forward in life.
A 2015 University of Michigan study on the impact of First Descents programs showed that 100% of participants demonstrated an increased ability to cope with cancer and its effects and that 81% of participants reported increased self-efficacy, including confidence in physical, emotional, and intellectual aspects of life. Most importantly, participants originally having the greatest symptoms of psychological distress saw the largest gain for the longest time. In other words, those who need FD the most, saw the most benefit.
In the words of one of the FD program alumni “While the doctors and medicine may have saved my life, First Descents taught me to live again.”
The First Descents Leadville 100 MTB team each year raises funds to make First Descents programs possible. All FD program participants are given a scholarship to participate for free. This is crucial for families that have been faced with overwhelming medical expenses. The money raised by the Leadville 100 team each year is so significant that it represents 22% of First Descents annual operating budget.
As we gather each year in front of the Lake County High School, the First Descents Leadville 100 riders share stories of how we each became involved with First Descents, and why we are committed to challenging ourselves to take on the hardest race imaginable in order to raise funds and awareness to make their programs possible. The cost of a scholarship to one of First Descents’ outdoor adventure programs is $2000 for one individual. $2000 to change someone’s life.
Each of the First Descents Leadville team riders has a story. A story of a friend, family member or loved one who is battling with or who has succumbed to cancer. And as we greet each other in front of the high school for the team photos and share our stories, we read in each other’s faces, the pain, the sorrow, and the commitment to race and honor our friends and loved ones who have suffered from cancer. We are bonded by these ties and committed to support each other throughout the race, with the end goal of not only covering 100 miles in Leadville, but with raising enough money each to at least make two scholarships possible. To change two lives.
I first joined the First Descents team in 2015 as a rider to honor my brother and father’s battles with cancer. In fact, my entry into endurance sports and eventually the opportunity to turn professional as an athlete came through the experience of watching loved ones succumbing to cancer. I turned to running and riding as an outlet for the pain of witnessing them undergo so much suffering, and feeling powerless to help them. Read more about my journey to becoming a professional athlete here.
I remind our riders as we stand together in front of the high school, that we are so incredibly lucky to have the opportunity to ride our mountain bikes in one of the most beautiful places in Colorado. And that tomorrow, despite the inevitable pain and suffering of race day, we have a choice. We have made the choice to participate, and to undergo the pain of racing 100 miles at high altitude over one of the most brutal courses imaginable. Our friends and family members however, were not given a choice with cancer. And their pain and suffering did not last for only one day. We remind ourselves of our purpose, to honor our friends and loved ones and the harrowing experiences they have been through. On race day we remember this cause and the purpose that unites us. It gives us the courage to fight when the going gets tough and to keep turning the pedals over when the body is failing us. We are stronger together as a team.
Each time I have raced Leadville, I have asked those that have donated to First Descents in the name of a loved one who is battling cancer, to send me that person’s name. I have written them on my arm and carried thoughts of them with me across the 100 mile course and through the finish line. Looking down at my arm during the race is a powerful reminder of my cause and purpose for being there and keeps me determined and committed to crossing the finish line.
As I watch our First Descents riders crest the hill into the town of Leadville and cross the finish line each year, I am overcome with emotion and see it written clearly on each rider’s face. Plain and simple joy and awe in their accomplishment – in facing the toughest athletic challenge they have ever taken on and overcoming it.
The Leadville 100 Mountain Bike this year was no exception. It was the most incredible, brutal, and awe-inspiring experience imaginable. Thank you to all who have supported me and the First Descents team! For those interested in helping, please consider contributing to my fundraising campaign here. Every contribution, no matter how large or small, makes an impact! And for those interested in riding or running and joining one of our Leadville 100 teams next year, please don’t hesitate to reach out. I promise you – it is an experience of a lifetime that you will never forget.