Come every August, hundreds of athletes gather in the small town of Leadville, Colorado to test their abilities and challenge their endurance at the Leadville Trail 100 MTB. For many athletes, the objective is to conquer the course and get across the finish line, an incredible accomplishment in and of itself. But for a subset of athletes there’s an added challenge – to finish the race in less than nine hours and get the big buckle.
Sergio Sandoval, a local Reno athlete, conquered this challenge with a finishing time of 8:48:33 at the 2019 Leadville Trail 100 MTB. Here are Sergio’s insights into some of the preparation, the racing, and the challenges that made up his sub-nine performance at Leadville MTB.
For Sergio’s full interview check out Successful Athletes Podcast Ep. 2.
The Leadville MTB 100
The Leadville 100 is an epic day in the saddle, to say the least. Located in the Colorado Rockies, the out and back course is one hundred and four miles of challenging off-road racing. The course is mostly made up of dirt roads and double track but also has sections of paved road and single track dispersed in between.
At the end of the day, finishers will have approximately 11,000 feet of elevation gain under their belts. And if that doesn’t sound tough enough, the event rounds things out with a course situated entirely at high altitude. With the start line in Leadville, a town that sits 10,152 feet above sea level, and the Columbine Mine turn around point situated 12,400 feet above sea level, Leadville definitely isn’t your average mountain bike race.
Training and Preperation
Sergio Sandoval knew he wanted to take on the Leadville Trail 100 long before he lined up for the event. Growing up in Vail Valley, he says he remembers hearing stories about the race from the time that he was just a kid. But it wasn’t until 2019, when his name was picked in the lottery, that he started working towards his Leadville goals.
His journey with cycling began well before Leadville, though. Sergio got his start in cycling when he bought a road bike in college to commute. In the years to come, Sergio’s interest in cycling only grew. He got into mountain biking, did some more road riding, and in the summer of 2016, Sergio and his wife rode their bikes across the United States! The ride took the pair 75 days to complete, with 64 days spent on the bike.
After his epic journey across the US, in the winter of 2016, Sergio decided to give structured training a go. So he signed up for TrainerRoad and got started with a training plan. When his name was picked in the 2019 Leadville lottery, Sergio knew just where to start. He jumped into the Sweet Spot Base plan and started to make his sub-nine goal a reality.
The Training Plan
In the progression leading up to the event, Sergio completed the mid volume Sweet Spot Base, Sustained Power Build, and Marathon Specialty plans. The Leadville course largely consists of long sustained climbs, which is why we recommend a progression like this. The combination of these phases helps build the base fitness needed for long efforts, the ability to hold high outputs of power over long periods of time, and the intensity required to navigate the terrain of an off-road course.
Sergio did the majority of the training indoors on his Hammer H3 Smart trainer. His hard work and dedication to his structured workouts paid off, and over the course of eight months and three training phases, Sergio increased his FTP by 28%.
Leadville 100 Training Plan Tip: The recommended training progression takes 28 weeks, but if you have more (or less) than 28 weeks to train for Leadville, you can use Plan Builder to build a custom training plan for your time frame.
A custom training plan, automatically built for your goals.Try Plan Builder
Extra Skills Work
Sergio may have done most of his structured training indoors, but he didn’t neglect his technical skills in preparation for Leadville. The Leadville Trail 100 is composed mainly of double track and dirt roads, which can make it easy for an athlete who hasn’t raced it to underestimate the skills required to take on this course safely. But skills work and trail time are an absolutely necessary part of preparation.
The double track and fire roads are not inherently technical, but it does take technical skills to safely descend these trails. Especially when factoring in the fatigue and elevation athletes have to deal with while racing. Sergio used the free training time he had to polish and refine his bike handling skills at the local downhill bike park. This skill work played a key part in his ability to navigate the busy traffic and loose fire roads on the course.
Leadville 100 Training Tip: Having the skills necessary to safely navigate the course and traffic of the Leadville 100 is key. Try swapping some of your indoor structured workouts for outside structured workouts to work on the necessary skills you’ll need on race day.
Early Morning Fasted Training
For Sergio, improving body composition and increasing his Watts Per Kilogram were important training goals going into this event. To accomplish this goal, Sergio would train early in the morning and complete the majority of his indoor sessions in a fasted state. Sergio used a healthy diet paired with fasted rides to lose 30 lbs before the event and increase his lean muscle to fat ratio. When he started training for the Leadville 100, he weighed 221 lbs. Going into the race, he weighed 191 lbs. This, in conjunction with a 28% increase in FTP, helped Sergio raise his watts per kilogram significantly for race day.
Leadville 100 Training Tip: Fasted training can work really well for some athletes in the early phases of training but can make it difficult to complete more intense training sessions. If you choose to experiment with fasted training, be mindful of how your body responds to fasted training and be sure to take in carbohydrates for the more intense workouts.
Race Week Nutrition
While Sergio did the majority of his training in a fasted state, his nutrition leading up to the race was an entirely different story. Sergio shifted his focus from fasting to taking in as many carbs as possible. Carbs play an essential role in longer steady-state efforts, and having your glycogen levels topped off going into the race is critical. In the days leading up to the event, Sergio did some major carb loading. Specifically, in the three days before the race, Sergio used carb-centric foods like rice, sweet potatoes, and even cereal to get the carbohydrate intake he needed before the event.
When it came to racing, Sergio’s goal was to take in roughly 100 grams of carbohydrates per hour. Research suggests that athletes can absorb and utilize anywhere from 60 grams to 140 grams of carbs an hour, so a carbohydrate goal like this is a good one for most athletes.
Sergio used the timer on his Garmin to remind himself to drink and eat. He set a timer reminding him to take a drink every ten minutes and another one to eat a gel every hour. Setting a timer on your watch or head unit is a great way to make sure you’re getting the fuel you need during a longer event. It can be an easy thing to forget to do. In Sergio’s case, he found it to be one of the more challenging aspects of the race.
To ensure that his body could handle gels and other quick foods, Sergio experimented during training rides by taking in multiple gels at a time. There were some tough moments, like at the Tahoe Trail 100 a few weeks prior, where Sergio found he didn’t have the correct amount of fuel for the 100km event. Sergio took this into account and adjusted his plan accordingly for Leadville.
Leadville 100 Nutrition Tip: Try experimenting with your on the bike nutrition ahead of time. Knowing how your body handles quick on the bike fuels like gels, gummies, and drink mix can help you plan your nutrition accordingly.
When it comes to altitude, it’s hard for anyone to truly be prepared for the challenge that is racing at 12,000 feet above sea level. The elevation of Reno Nevada is 4,506 feet above sea level, so Sergio wasn’t working with nothing, but he definitely wasn’t training anywhere near race elevation. Sergio says that he spent a week in Colorado before the event to get some practice rides in and adjust to the altitude as best as possible.
Leadville 100 Racing Tip: If your schedule allows for it, try and schedule a few days ahead of your race that you can spend at elevation riding and hanging out.
Pacing Without a Power Meter
For a sub-nine finishing goal, pacing the event appropriately is the most important part of the day. Sergio was used to training with power indoors on his smart trainer, but outdoors he didn’t have a power meter to help him pace. There are a number of ways an athlete can pace an event without a power meter.
In Sergios’ case, he used speed as his numerical pacing partner. Sergio knew that if he wanted to finish the event in less than nine hours, his average speed based on elapsed time would need to be around 12 mph. With descents that would average much higher than 12 mph and climbs that often went by slower, that average value would need to fall somewhere around 12 mph.
Sergio used this value in large part to keep himself on track with his pacing goal. This, paired with check in’s from his support team at the feed zones, helped him stay on track and know when he needed to pick up the pace to achieve his goal. His pacing plan worked too, and at the end of race, he was able to hammer it out to the finish line.
Leadville 100 Training Tip: Using speed paired with Rate of Perceived Exertion RPE is a great alternative when you don’t have a power meter to build a pacing plan.
The Hardest Part of the Course: When asked what the most challenging aspect of the course was Sergio said it the power Line climb, as long steep climb towards the end of the race was the most challenging.
Feed Zones and Logistics
The Leadville 100 is a supported event, which means there are several aid stations throughout the course. While athletes can stop at these aid stations for food and drinks, friends and family can also station themselves at feed zones to offer support.
With help from his friends and family, Sergio had all the extra support he needed at the aid stations. There are five different aid stations athletes can stop at but Sergio chose to stop at the Twin Lakes Dam aid station on the way out and on the way back. His friends and family we’re also waiting for him at the bottom of the power line climb. At the twin lakes aid station, Sergio swapped out his pack, changed bottles, swapped trash for fuel, lubed his chain, and made sure his set up was still dialed. He got time checks from his wife and then pushed forward with the rest of his race.
Leadville 100 Racing Tip: Try making an aid station plan ahead of time. Knowing where you want to stop, what you need at the aid station, who is going to be at that aid station, and what they’re going to help you with can save you time and stress on race day.
Words of Advice
The takeaways and tales from a 104-mile mountain bike race are endless, but if there’s one piece of advice Sergio says he can pass onto the next round of Leadville racers, it’s to get comfortable being out of your comfort zone.
Sergio tried a lot of new things during his preparation for Leadville. From fasted rides to eating five gels in an hour-long training ride. There was trial and error when it came to fueling races, along with the sacrifice and discipline that went into making his goals a reality. But at the end of the day, getting out of his comfort zone and experimenting to find the best training strategy got Sergio across the finish line 12 minutes faster than his goal.
And believe it or not, he enjoyed it and plans on coming back for more. Sergio says he’s already signed up for the Leadboat Challenge in 2021. Get started with a structured training plan, and maybe you’ll run into Sergio out on the Leadville course.
For more cycling training knowledge, listen to Ask a Cycling Coach — the only podcast dedicated to making you a faster cyclist. New episodes are released weekly.
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