Seeing the Leadville 100 course through the eyes of 2022’s winner.

By Hannah Otto

Photo credit: Wil Matthews (2022)


The 2023 Leadville 100 is a few weeks out, and – as the defending champ – Hannah Otto is in the thick of race prep. Despite her loaded schedule, she still made time to tell us what she learned from her winning ride, the course itself, and her build-up for 2023. She also shared some of her favorite rides that aren’t The Whole Enchilada, which she famously FKT’d.

The below is a transcript of our conversation with her, lightly edited and arranged for clarity and length. The conversation was so long that we’ve divided it into two parts. You can read the second part, which focuses on fueling for ultras and maintaining positivity – and for more about Hannah’s life and career, check out her First Endurance athlete profile.

No Clearance, No Expectations

Last year, I had separated my shoulder a week before the race and I didn't actually get clearance from the doctor to race until Wednesday, just a few days out. That turned out to be sort of a blessing in disguise, because it allowed me to go into Leadville with minimal expectations.

Turns out that can be really beneficial at a race like Leadville, because a lot is gonna happen in those eight hours, and not every single thing is going to go according to your plan. You have to be extremely flexible. Looking around at my competition at the startline last year, I could see how incredibly nervous they were – it was written all over their faces. That's usually me, but instead I was looking around and seeing what I typically look like from a new perspective.

I realized nerves for an eight-hour race aren't actually beneficial, because you're just ripping through calories on the startline with that nervous energy – and you're never going to get those calories back. If you can be as calm as possible at the startline, and then for as long as possible in the race? I think that is really key. I put down a great time last year. I think it was the sixth fastest on record, and that's what the shoulder separation afforded me – learning to be flexible and to stand on the startline without those nerves, instead thinking, “we'll see what happens.”

New Year, New Approach

The only thing harder than winning Leadville once is winning it twice in a row, but my personal goal at the start this year was to defend my title. I want to stand on that startline of Leadville feeling like the best version of myself, that if everything goes my way, I can win.

Last year, I mixed these longer endurance ultras into my XCO schedule. That meant I was racing a 90-minute World Cup mountain bike race, and then turning around six days later to race Leadville, a seven-plus hour mountain bike race. Shoulder separation and tempered expectations aside, that's really, really difficult to train for.

While I did take a similar approach of balancing XCO and ultras this year, I also sorted my schedule in a way that would allow me to focus more on the different race types. I focused on XCO through June, and then I put a pin in that. From then until the race, I’m focused on Leadville. During this six-week period, I’m doing an ultra endurance block, which is a whole lot more than the single prep week I had last year. I'm pretty excited to have this dedicated block to really focus on Leadville by putting in those long hours.

I would also say that my training for this sort of thing isn't necessarily only in that six-week window. It's months and months and months in advance, and it's years of putting in those miles and those hours in the offseason or training seasons. In January, I'm already storing hours in my body for these long events, putting in 30-plus hour weeks to build that foundation. That base is really huge for these long events.

Leadville’s Critical Points

In my opinion, the race doesn't typically “start” until Columbine, because if you go too hard before Columbine, there's just way too much racing to come. I've done Leadville twice, and both times, the woman who was leading at Columbine didn't even finish on the podium. I think the person in front at that point has burned too many matches, so my goal is to get to Columbine within striking distance, but by burning as few matches as possible up until that point.

If you're going that hard at the start, there's also a very strong possibility that you're not fueling that effort accordingly. You’ll become under-fueled, and you just can't make up for that. Sometimes, my fueling is also a gauge on my pacing, because when I start going at a certain intensity, I'll start to notice that it gets harder and harder to reach down for the bottle or to reach back in my pocket. That signals to me, “Hey, if you're not willing to eat, you don't deserve to be going this pace.” So that's when I have to take a moment and either eat or slow down enough that I can eat. There's no option there.

I think people also forget about all the time after Powerline, being so focused on Columbine and Powerline that they forget that there's almost two hours of racing after Powerline. I think that’s where the wheels really fall off.

I always find mentally, I have to be very careful about playing games in my head. I’m really motivated by counting down the miles and thinking, “you're almost there,” but if you go into that thought process too soon, like after clearing Powerline, then you're gonna fall apart, because that can make you forget everything else. Fueling, drinking – it can make you stop paying attention to those things, and an hour’s a long time to ride after having already done so much. I mean, last year I took a gel 15 minutes out from the finish. You have to go all the way in this one.

At around mile 98 or 100, there's one climb that proves this point. It’s steep and it's loose, but it's probably only 10 minutes long, so it doesn't have a name. No one really talks about it because Leadville includes these other massive climbs, but if you’re with other riders there, it’s the final opportunity to make a move before the race becomes a sprint finish. So I think that little 10-minute climb at the end is big.

What Goes Up…

The biggest challenge that’s unique to Leadville is the altitude. That leads me into the question of acclimation and why I don't travel to the race beforehand. I live in Salt Lake City and I do a lot of my training in Park City, so I do have some altitude under my belt, which I think is very helpful in comparison to living at sea level. But Leadville altitude, when you’re approaching 10,000 feet, is a whole different beast.

First, eating is an issue. Usually, I'm simply trying to max out what I can take in, which for me is pretty much the same before and during every race; but at altitude, two things are happening: your hunger response is muted and a higher percentage of your caloric burn is carbohydrates. It can be a really difficult juxtaposition of needing more carbs versus not feeling like you want to eat.

I typically don't have an issue eating before a race. But at altitude, I do. For something like Leadville, being fully topped-off going into the race is a really big challenge. When you’re at low altitude, it's pretty easy to just eat massive amounts of rice – or whatever your go-to is – but it's not at Leadville, because of that muted hunger response and higher carb burn rate. So the times that I actually have gone early to high altitude for races, I've struggled to eat, and I’ve gone into the race massively under-fueled.

Fitness also plays a role. In order to truly have any sort of acclimation, you need to be there at least two weeks. But if you're there for two weeks, you can't train as hard, because your numbers are gonna be lower until you fully acclimate. You're gonna lose some fitness through that training, and you also can't recover as well. So any training you do, you're gonna be suffering more on the back end and maybe not recovering and tapering as well.

Last year – again, a blessing in disguise because of my shoulder – I didn't travel to the race until just a few days before. I came into Leadville last-minute, on Friday, the day before the race, and it worked really well for me. This year, I'm doing that again, and my reasoning behind that is not only because it worked well once, but because of all those things I just listed. I think that 10,000 feet of altitude is sort of a “get in and get out” situation for me.

Non-Enchilada Routes

I live in Salt Lake and I’m known for that FKT on The Whole Enchilada, but I also spend a lot of time in Palm Springs. One of my favorite routes there is called the Palm Canyon Epic – which, incidentally, they like to call The Whole Enchilada of California.

It's basically a 5,000 foot climb, straight up, and then this really techy singletrack descent. I love doing that ride, and it's become sort of a personal race route for me that I use to try to better my time year over year – that growth measurement is really fun.

I also have a favorite local loop in Salt Lake City. I start in Salt Lake on the valley floor, and I'll ride up into the mountains over one of the area’s definitive climbs, the Crest, and then down into Park City. Then I loop around Park City, and go back up and over Crest and down into the valley.

That's about 8,000 feet of climbing in about six hours, and a lot of people will recognize the Wasatch Crest. It’s a very well-known ride, because it's sort of on a spine, and there's tons of spectacular views – but most people shuttle it, and so to ride up and over it and then down and then up and over it again is pretty unheard of.

July 27, 2023 — First Endurance
Tags: inspiration

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