It takes a whole lot of grit, guts and determination to finish the Leadville Trail 100 MTB, but it takes something else entirely to do it 25 consecutive times. Todd Murray is one of the few riders to have completed the race since its inception, and he doesn’t plan on stopping anytime soon. We interviewed Todd to see what motivates him to keep doing Leadville, how his race strategy has evolved over the last quarter century, and why he and daughter Lauren plan to kick off their 2019 season at the Austin Rattler MTB on April 13.
Last year, you and your daughter Lauren raced the Austin Rattler MTB for the first time. How did it go?
Lauren and I decided to race Austin in 2018 in part because my good friend Ken West did the race several times before and told us that the course was fast, fun and not too technical for Lauren’s abilities. We were both excited to road trip down to Austin and compete at a lower elevation, hoping for a fast race. We met some really neat people from all over the country at the venue and at our hotel.
We were very anxious on race morning when the conditions were not what we expected, with miles of challenging mud on the course in place of fast, flowing singletrack. We actually broke one of the general rules of racing: “never do anything new on race day that you haven’t practiced before.” Because of the mud, we decided to incorporate a little bit of cyclocross technology to our race plan.
The day before the race we bought a can of Pam non-stick cooking spray and completely coated our entire drivetrain and frame where the mud might collect. We re-applied the Pam after each lap of the course when we stopped to grab more fuel and hydration during the race. It worked. Neither Lauren nor I had any major drivetrain problems because of the mud. I can honestly say that the race was the muddiest race I have ever done. I never thought about quitting and didn’t think Lauren would either. I feared that a mechanical problem might force one of us to stop, but we were lucky enough to avoid that.
After the race I overheard another female competitor who had done the race — and who had completed an IRONMAN triathlon — tell Lauren that the 2018 Austin Rattler MTB was harder than IRONMAN. That race was Lauren’s first ever mountain bike race. I told Lauren that by starting with such a hard race, all her other mountain bike races will be easier!
Now that Lauren is doing more mountain bike events, what’s it like to race with her? Do you ever get to ride or train together?
The 2018 Austin Rattler MTB is still the only mountain bike race that she has done. She raced cyclocross the past couple of years, and we also did some gravel grinders together, including one 50 miler on our tandem. She is getting stronger on the bike, and as her technical abilities increase I predict it will be harder to keep up with her.
This year we plan to train together more as we both prepare for Leadville in August. I hope to take her on some of my favorite rides that I have historically done to prepare for the race. Living in Colorado Springs we have so many great places to ride and train, including many areas with lots of climbing like America’s mountain — Pikes Peak at 14,115’, just west of town.
You also achieved an incredible 25 finishes at the Leadville Trail 100 MTB in 2018. How was your race? What was it like to ride up the red carpet for the 25th time?
Last year at Leadville was very special. John Callahan and I were trying to complete our 25th consecutive race. Every previous year I would see John briefly either before or after the race and we would exchange a few words, but I had never really spoken with him at length. I invited John and his son Kevin over to our place before the race, and I got to know John a little better. We talked about previous races and shared stories that extended back to our first race at Leadville in 1994. It was really cool to get to know John in a way that I had not known him before.
On race day we found ourselves standing next to each other in the red corral. We chatted as we waited for the start of the race. When Ken fired the shotgun to start the race, we both wished each other good luck. Over the years John and I have had very similar finishing times at Leadville, with him finishing ahead some years and I finishing ahead other years. He has a faster PR than I do at the race, with both of our bests just over 8 hours when we were much younger.
After the race started I was not aware of where John was until he passed me on our return trip up the Powerline climb near mile 80. I was suffering, and John rode right by me with encouraging words to just keep going. John rode out of sight as I continued to suffer up the climb. Somewhere near the top of Sugarloaf I started to feel better and got my second (really more like 20th) wind. I felt good again and was pushing hard.
On the Boulevard with about 3 miles to go I caught John. It immediately occurred to me that in the 24 previous races we never had the opportunity to finish together, and for the 25th race it would be really cool to finish with him. I asked John if he would like to finish together and he agreed. We rode in the last few miles together and crossed the finish line holding hands. It was one of the most emotional finishes I have ever had at Leadville because I knew I was finishing with someone who I have the utmost respect for and who could completely relate to me and what it took to complete 25 Leadville 100s.
What is consistently the most difficult aspect of preparing for the LT100 race each year?
Throughout the year I stay pretty active as part of my normal routine. In the fall and winter I enjoy mixing in some running and cyclocross when the weather gets cold and wet. Lauren has been doing well at cyclocross, so I’ve been experimenting with it as well. Last October I crashed during a cyclocross race and fractured my scapula. That required a 3-month recovery period where I really couldn’t ride outside. Even running was uncomfortable, but I did continue to ride my turbo trainer. In the spring and summer I definitely spend more time riding my bikes whether it be the mountain bike, road bike or gravel bike.
Staying active throughout the year makes it easier to begin my specific Leadville training, but in reality, everything I do throughout the year helps me prepare for Leadville. I really believe the adage that the journey is the reward, not the destination. My most memorable experiences include some of the epic training days with friends, especially the ones that didn’t go as planned.
What’s the one part of the LT100 course still makes you nervous?
The first 15 minutes of the race is the most nerve racking for me. With close to 1,800 mountain bike riders racing out of town at 35 mph, elbow to elbow, I get pretty nervous. Most mountain bikers are not used to riding in a large group like road riders do, and I’ve seen some pretty nasty crashes at the start of the race in previous years. As soon as we get off the pavement and on to the dirt I feel like everyone can start to relax and get into the groove of “all-day pace.”
We’re betting we’ll see you on that carpet again this year. What drives you to keep racing Leadville year after year, and how many finishes do you want to get? Any other goals you’re hoping to hit in Leadville? How has your approach to the race changed, if at all?
This year my motivation for Leadville is to race with my daughter. Lauren is enjoying the bike as much as I do, and I believe this year will be very special training and racing with her. We plan to race together at Leadville, and I know it will be hard to keep up with her on some of the climbs. We are trying to focus more on the preparation rather than an expected finish time since there are so many factors that affect the finishing times at Leadville, and simply finishing will be an accomplishment.
I do not have a certain number of finishes I’m shooting for, but I’ll continue to do the race as long as I’m still enjoying it and can physically complete it. My approach has remained the same as far as enthusiasm to prepare, but I have had to cut back on the intense training as I’ve aged. My body just doesn’t recover as fast as it used to. I also have a great amount of support from my wife, family, friends and even our local bike shop Pro Cycling, which I ride for.
What are you looking forward to about racing the 2019 Austin Rattler MTB?
Lauren and I are very excited about racing Austin this year on a new course. It will be our first bike race of 2019, and the timing is perfect as we prepare for Leadville. We have mapped out our calendar which includes about one race a month from Austin in April all the way through Leadville in August.
Austin is also attractive because we can road trip to the venue and we expect warmer temperatures than here in Colorado. It is always nice to mix things up and travel to a race destination that is lower in elevation and warmer than where we train. The 100k distance is perfect as well and will give us a gauge to see if we are on track to finish a 100 miler later in the summer. I really like the look of the course profile with the rolling terrain and mixed singletrack, and look forward to chasing Lauren around the course.
Is there anything else you’d like to discuss about your upcoming season?
I expect this year to be one of my most fun ever on the bike as Lauren and I train and race together. Austin will be our first test to see how our training is paying off, and we hope to ride strong. For us, the 100K in April is a manageable goal to prepare for while we keep in mind that we have a 100 miler in August as our last long race for the year. For some people the Austin Rattler MTB might be their big race of the year and that’s great. Others might consider starting with the 33k option, especially if you have a friend or family member that is interested.
As a father I can honestly say that it is the greatest feeling in the world to be able to go out and complete an event like the Austin Rattler with my daughter. Anyone reading this who has even the slightest interest in doing this event should take the plunge and commit to it. In our family, we usually need to sign up for an event before we actually start training for it seriously. The reward comes in the form of all the training days spent together preparing for the event and then actually completing the goal by finishing it.
Life is too short to be a spectator. Get out there and ride! If this year’s race is anything like last year, we will have more epic stories to tell for years to come. Hope to see you on the trails.
Ready to test your training? Register to ride the 2019 Austin Rattler MTB on April 13.