October 07, 2011
The high desert surrounding Leadville, Colorado in the summer is dusty. And after watching 1800 racers blow past me over our 100-mile mountain bike race course, Leadville gave me a chronic mineral-tainted cough that sounded like the opening to Black Sabbath’s “Sweet Leaf”.
At 10,200 ft. above sea level, Leadville is not for the faint of heart – or asthmatics. But a lingering cough was a small price to pay to experience the “Race Across the Sky” – The World’s Highest Mountain Bike Race. That’s why I was in Leadville, working with our team of five photographers and a video crew to capture the speed, grit, determination and beauty of this iconic race. For 5 days, our team worked pre-race, in-race and post-race crisscrossing the course trying to “get the shot” over and over again.
Mornings started before dawn with a 45-minute drive on mountain roads you clearly needed to drive a few times in the sunshine in order to feel even remotely comfortable on. This was a luxury we never enjoyed, as the drive back to our hotel was always after nightfall. But for a race that takes an average of 12 hours to complete – we had our work cut out for us. Add to that the fact that we personally worked with or knew dozens of competitors, and we knew we couldn’t complain for a minute about fatigue.
At the 6:00am start of the race, Leadville Trail 100 creator Ken Chlouber fires up the crowd with the ceremonial “shotgun start”- with an actual shotgun! I was in the photographer’s vehicle (an old pickup, naturally) and we took off at over 40 MPH to stay ahead of the riders. Ken had been waving a flag prior to the race, and stuck it into one of the truck’s side panels. Imagine all our terrified looks as, just after we got up to speed, the flag dislodged and flew through the air and hit the lead rider.
Miraculously, it glanced off his helmet and fell harmlessly between the following riders. Although it probably didn’t send the intended message of national unity as the entire field either ran over the flag or closely avoided it.
The race continued throughout one of the most beautiful days I have ever seen. Blue skies, the tallest peak of Colorado’s Rocky Mountains and the world’s greatest mountain bike riders pushing past pain, past logic and burning fuel derived from pure determination. At the finish line, we saw stories unfold with every rider. Dads crossing the finish line with their kids. A rider with a completely mechanical arm, another who crossed the finish line and briefly started to convulse (the medics attended to him immediately).
The winners, Todd Wells and Rebecca Raush, are both long-time Leadville racers. Todd won his first race and Rebecca took home her third title. The crazy thing about this 100-mile race? These two got nothing more than belt buckles and medals – just like the other 1,200 riders who finished in under 12 hours. No cash, no prizes. Just the satisfaction of being the very best at one of the very hardest races on Earth.
But for me, the best part of the race was seeing some of my very closest friends and co-workers cross that finish line and have a medal draped around their neck. The race materials we created, including the finish line structure, medals and dozens of apparel items made the weekend almost surreal. Seeing what had been files on a computer screen come to life, framing this amazing event in a really tight, cohesive brand, was something we all were very proud of. 22 hours after the alarm went off, I switched off the lights on one of the most amazing days of my life.