I am still overcome with emotion and processing this past weekend even as I type this. LeadBoat is something you hear about and think “yeah, that’s for the crazies.” But here I am typing this and less than 24hrs ago I completed the challenge. Less than a year ago I tried mountain biking for the first time and never would have thought I’d have the opportunity to race one of the most iconic MTB races. Add to that, I live in flatland Michigan which leaves me 2 huge disadvantages. Firstly, I have no mountains to train on or learn how to descend or practice those skills. Secondly, Michigan is at sea level and Leadville’s 100 mile race was all above 10,000ft elevation. So why do this then, it didn’t seem to suit any of my strengths. Well, Leadville was one of the races of the Lifetime Grand Prix and SBT was a required team event - so after I found that out I was like, okay, saddle up we’re doing LeadBoat!
After I returned from my 750 miler in NY, I had ONE day at home to basically do laundry and take care of a few things around my house then I was on a flight to Colorado the next day. It was chaotic but I was really thankful for the day at home to unpack and then repack. Thankfully, my friend Julie rode her camper van out to Colorado and transported our bikes and some of my equipment which was a huge help! I arrived in Leadville a week prior to the race to try and somewhat acclimate to the altitude. The key with altitude is knowing how your body responds to try and combat that additional stress. Usually, days 3-4 are the worst in terms of performance so you want to either plan more time than that or come in the night before the race. I also had to combat the stress of prepping not one bike, but TWO bikes. I am responsible for all my own mechanical work, which has probably been one of my biggest stressors this season. I would be totally lost without the help of my teammates who help me fix something nearly every event I am at (thanks guys!). I also get a lot of help from my local bike shop, Freewheeler. When you compete at this level, you have to have your bike in the best possible condition to even have a chance of competing and if I’m being transparent, it’s a lot of work when you ride as much as I do.
So let’s start with Leadville. I had very low expectations for this race. I’m kind of embarrassed to say this, but I mostly just wanted to survive. The inner competitive gal inside argues against that statement, but that’s how I tried to balance expectations - by removing them. I wasn’t sure how I would do at altitude since I have basically no experience with it. And I know that everyone says “Leadville is basically a gravel race” but with me being so new to all of this, parts of the course we’re terrifying to me. Any proper mountain biker would laugh at me saying that, but if you knew where I was coming from you’d understand that statement. I can count on 2 hands how many times I have descended a real mountain, and most of those have been road. The steep section of Powerline and the chunky descents with a couple switchbacks on Columbine with 2 way traffic sure seemed technical to me. But again, everything is relative to each person. I remember getting to the bottom of Powerline and thinking “phew, I didn’t die or crash!” Leading into powerline I was about 45-60s back from some of the lead women but lost significant time on that descent. For reference, I descended Power Line in about 13:43 (per strava) and some of the lead women were about 10:47. For Columbine it was a similar time loss, I was about 21:26 compared to some of the top descenders that were sub 16 (Mel Rollins is crazy insane descender!). That alone was about 8 minutes lost, not to mention all the other descents and shorter techy bits that I certainly lost even more time on.
I have to admit that after the Powerline descent, I had about 20 people pass me in this section and I was in a really bad spot mentally. Not to mention some of the red corral people (including Julie!) had caught and passed me as well. I just felt like all my work climbing was a moot point since I lost even more time on the descents. I started to get frustrated and down on myself. But I have always been tough mentally and I knew that negative self-talk would not get me far across the next 80 miles, so I let my inner competitive nature shine and just told myself I may not be a skilled rider, but I was strong and tough. I reminded myself that although I was not technically skilled, it wasn’t for a lack of effort. This allowed me to give myself some grace and the confidence started to come back. As I entered Columbine, I knew this is where I would shine and I was motivated to start plucking people off that had passed me on the descents earlier. I passed numerous people on Columbine and numerous guys said “wow, such a good climber” and I chuckled given my body frame is not the classic “climber.” But I said screw those stigmas, my big girl watts were going to make me a climber today!
Once I made it up Columbine, I felt a sense of dread since I knew I then had to now descend. I was worried I would have a ton more people pass me again. So I tried to make myself uncomfortable on this one and push the limits of what I would normally want. The top section was more technical and the good line was on the left side where the climbers were at with the 2 way traffic. So I was on the loose chunky sections and since I was on a hardtail it just felt a bit more rough. I had a friend say he saw me descending as he was climbing and he said “your face looked terrified.” I chuckled and said “yeah, that’s because I was!” Thankfully, I climbed Columbine hard enough that not many people passed me on the descent. This gave me even more confidence and energy to hammer on the way back. There was a headwind through Pipeline and the road section to the base of Powerline. Sadly, I knew ahead of time that I did NOT want to be caught alone in this section. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what happened. So I did what I know best, told myself this was a Paige solo TT effort and I tried to get small and low and push the watts. I could see a group of riders behind me so this motivated me to not let them work together to catch me. Meanwhile, I knew Powerline was coming so I tried to control my effort so that I could ride hard in this section. Racing is always a balancing effort of when to push and when you control the effort for what’s next. Powerline was by far the hardest climb I have ever done. I am happy to report that I got a top 10 overall time on that (historically) so I think I crushed it! But, wow it was hard. It was so steep and grueling. After this, I was worried that this increased effort would take a bit out of my lungs and it sure did. I backed off for about 10-15 minutes. High elevation efforts take longer to recover from, so I reminded myself of this and didn’t panic when I felt rough. I stayed calm and just kept telling myself that I had a few other climbs to make up more time if I stayed tough and diligent. Since I was riding alone a lot of the time, I had to be cautious to not become complacent since no one was around me. It takes real focus and intention to keep pushing when you can’t see anyone around you.
The rest of the course was straight forward overall, I made it down Carter in good shape and still in control. I did have to stop since one of the flags on the course actually got caught in my derailleur on the descent. Thankfully I noticed it early due to the noise; I think if I pedaled with it tangled it could have damaged the derailleur and that would have been devastating 8 miles from the finish. After the Carter descent, I knew I was in the home stretch and I felt so much emotion come over me. I started to tear up riding the last stretch. I was just so proud of what I had accomplished and at this point I had no idea I was top 10. I just kept thinking back to last fall 2021 when I first got on a mountain bike and then looking at how far I had come in less than a year. I asked myself where I could be in 5 or even 10 years - and that’s when I got emotional. I thought of my sister who recently started riding and just got her first mountain bike. It was hard not to cry mid-ride thinking about all of this. Maybe it was the elevation making me loopy, not sure, but I will always cherish those miles. When you are as competitive as I am, you often want more. Which can be a slippery slope and a lonely road when you are never quite satisfied with how you did. So for me, I find it really helps to reflect and relish those moments where you are happy and content. Of course, in the back of my mind I was thinking, ‘wonder what I could do if I had 10 years of technical riding skills’ but at the end of the day I don’t. I am strong and I am willing to work and keep learning. That’s enough for me and I will choose to focus on that.
After Leadville, I tried to start eating and refueling as quickly as possible. I got a ride from some friends in a very packed car from Leadville to Steamboat and then stayed with my teammates for SBT. I was feeling pretty wrecked after Leadville, but I also had recent experience with some back to back long efforts on my Rando 750 miler so I was less scared of what that next day would be like. I fueled some more and then headed to bed.
That next morning, I was feeling pretty rough but I knew once I started rolling I would be better. I felt good on my warm up to the start but as soon as the race started I knew I was in trouble. Now, I will say that I had really poor positioning. Even getting there early we were about 100 people back in the start chute and I needed to be higher for a better position. When the group started to pick up the pace I was stringing off the back of the front group and that’s when you know you are in trouble. That’s one of the worst positions but also the worst feelings. I knew the pain in my legs would not tolerate that pace for long so I backed off and tried to find another group to work with that had a more sustainable pace for me. But I will not sugar coat this, I felt horrible. 10 miles into the race and I really questioned if I would finish. My back was extremely painful, not even sore, just significant pain. I am not used to the climbing and descending position and I had practically no time on a MTB prior to Leadville since my bike had broken in the month prior and I was on a borrowed bike that I got 6 days prior to the race.
When I was hurting and feeling rough, I just kept telling myself to eat. I knew that if I wanted to finish, I would need carbs and a lot of carbs. So I just tried to keep my effort below tempo and continue eating. Thankfully I had a group of guys to work with from miles 25-90ish which really helped. At around mile 90 there was a larger gravel climb and my group of 4 came up to 2 other females. They latched on for a couple miles but when we hit the dirt section I knew if I picked up the pace they would fall off and mentally that would be a smart tactic. So I put in a large effort on that climb and then never saw them again. I also passed another female on this section and from there it was mostly solo which really made the rest of the day drag on. I would occasionally regroup with 2-3 other guys but with the rollers and at the end of a long day the pace differences often separated us. The worst part of the race was the rain and cold. In the last 40 miles it was a torrential downpour. A lot of people took coverage in an aid station tent but I just kept rolling. It was thundering and lightning which was somewhat terrifying but oddly when I am on my bike I just feel safe and in control so it was somewhat surreal (not saying I recommend or endorse riding in a thunderstorm…). At this point in the race, I just wanted to be done. Everything hurt from the back to back days and every bump hurt my saddle area and I lost my appetite to eat and could feel my energy falling off. It’s rare for me to say this, but I just wanted off my bike!
When I finished I was happy to learn I was 9th overall pro female (but I think 14th overall women from what the results showed). I knew I would be close to top 5 in Leadboat but the results were not loading and I was so exhausted I couldn’t even do the math for adding up the times. I could not stop shivering and was slightly hypothermic and out of it. Thankfully the ABUS crew gave me a warm blanket and a ride back to the lodging. Thankfully a close friend (thanks Nick!) texted me the math on the LeadBoat stats and confirmed that I was 4th for LeadBoat. The final results still aren’t online, but it was as follows (per our math) on the top 4 and then from there the time falls off quite a bit.
Alexis Skarda: 15:12:43
Ruth Widner: 15:20:09
Rose Grant: 15:24:34
Paige Onweller: 15:39:23
Now if you follow cycling at all, you know those 3 names in front of mine are straight up legends. Ruth even broke her wheel at Leadville the day before and still finished second. I just am amazed by the talent and strength of female off road cycling. I know I am part of the Lifetime Grand Prix where we are trying to “increase cycling fandom” but the reality is most of the media and coverage is only for the winner or those at the pointy end of the sport that already have all the support they could ever need or want. But I know and see first hand the amazing stories of so many riders who have a unique story to tell. I just wish more of those stories were highlighted.
So, will I do LeadBoat again? I can’t even think about answering that right now. I’m just taking things one race at a time and if I’m honest I have no idea which direction or discipline I’ll head in for next year. For now, I am just happy to be riding and starting to get back in shape after my many setbacks this year. All I know is that if I stay curious to what I can accomplish, that will move me in the right direction! And lastly, I was so overwhelmed by the many messages of support and encouragement from everyone this past weekend. Covering about 250 miles with over 20K of vert across the 2 days all at altitude was brutal so I really channeled those words and messages to power me through! Thank you!
LeadBoat Race Stats:
Leadville 105 miles with 12K vertical gain
SBT 142 miles with 9,600K vertical gain
7:49 Leadville (earned that big belt buckle!)
4th LeadBoat (8th Leadville, 13th SBT)
Leadville - https://www.strava.com/activities/7633635179
Leadville and Steamboat Springs, CO
Leadville: Borrowed hardtail bike from local friend
SBT: Ventum GS1
Leadville: Maxxis Aspen 2.4’s
SBT: Terra Speed 40’s
Variety of Osmo (including their salt preload mix prior), Fluid hydration and Skratch
Awesome Sauce Spring Gels + Cliff Bars + Fig Bars + endless peach ring and gummies aiming for 100g carb per hour (Yes that is a lot of sugar)