Justin Morris: Conquering Leadville 100

25 August 2022

The Leadville 100 is undoubtedly the world’s most iconic mountain bike race. Starting in 1994, the race was instigated to help the economy of the local region after the closing of a large gold mine in Lake County, Colorado, USA. In 1994 the unemployment rate in the town of Leadville was the highest of any town in the USA. Hence, the race itself held and still holds a very powerful purpose in the local region.

Purpose is a theme that rang loudly on many occasions during the 9+ hours it took me to complete the grueling 100 miles across some of the highest ground in North America. The course is more or less entirely above 3000m asl which is an altitude I am very unfamiliar with given the highest point in my home country of Australia is just 2228m! Alas, as with most things in life and especially in life with diabetes, you don’t know until you go. This race that had captured my imagination since my childhood was calling. Living in the USA in 2022 meant getting to this event was going to be the most realistic opportunity I would likely ever have. 

Nearly everything about this race was unknown for me outside of the obvious logistical information provided. How my body and my blood sugar levels (BSLs) would respond to altitude, if and how would the super dry alpine air affect my diabetes management. These were somewhat scary things to confront, but I was confident in my ability to meet these uncertainties. I believe the biggest factor in gaining and improving confidence is knowing you have support. I was so grateful to have my former TNN teammate/ fellow T1D Ben Dilley there on race day as a supporter in the feed stations. Having him there with my finger prick BSL machine and an assortment of hypo treatments if required really gave me the gumption to start this challenge and then enable me to complete it.

With the benefit of support out there, I now had the confidence to keep pedaling as the race went on. However, when the going got tough (which was about the 6km mark in this race) I needed to call on some extra fuel to continue pressing on those pedals. Much of this race you are alone or in a small group on very remote alpine terrain. Hence, the need to call upon some kind of inner strength and purpose is real, especially when pushing the pedals on the seemingly never ending grind up the Columbine Mine climb which tops out at nearly 4000m asl. At the top of this climb most riders were walking their bikes as the terrain was so steep and the air so thin that pressing on the pedals just became too arduous. 

I believe everyone that pins a number on for this extraordinary challenge has some kind of good purpose pushing them on. For me, I was grateful this purpose was written across my kit: ‘Driving Change in Diabetes’. I had received so many encouraging messages from fellow T1Ds in the lead up to racing here, I knew I was racing for more than just feeding my own ego. 

In the pre-race pep talk from race founder Ken Chlouber, we were all reminded about the need to dig into the ‘well of grit, guts and determination’. On the surface, this saying sounds like cliche Americana culture but I can assure that during this 100 mile ordeal that is exactly what myself and the other 1900 racers had to do: dig into this well. 

Purpose is what kept me going. The days I had spent nearby beforehand did help my body somewhat adjust to the altitude but more importantly it gave me an insight into how my BSLs would respond to the harsh mountain environment. Hydration and nutrition were to become twice as important at altitude as they are at sea level. My BSLs were running high in the days preceding the race and especially the evening preceding when nerves started to play their part in confounding BSL management. During the race itself, the opposite was to become true as I was continually fighting a downward trend of BSLs. Having the fingerprick machine in the feed zones was integral. However, as I was paying so much attention to wanting to add glucose to the system, it was around mile 80 where the sensations I was experiencing represented a feeling not of being too low but the opposite: of being too high. Alas, now I was fighting a fervent fatigue that could not be addressed with more nutrition. The last hour or two of the course was a grim grind for myself but being out there for longer made crossing that finish line even sweeter. 

Diabetes was a massive challenge in the ‘race across the sky’ but it was not a barrier. SUPPORT and PURPOSE were my two biggest fuel factors that kept me pressing on the pedals in the Rocky Mountains. As with all races Team Novo Nordisk does, we can see bike races as a great metaphor for any dream or pursuit in life. All require a great challenge but can be met with good support, a strong purpose and a dose of self belief. I’m grateful for all those who believed in me to get this childhood dream accomplished and especially to Ben Dilley for being my lifeline on the day!

Race stats:

Distance: 169.34km

Elevation gain: 3 644m

Time: 9h29min

Max elevation: 3 810m asl

Max speed: 70.2kph

Lowest BSL: 2.6mmol/L* (42km to go)

Highest BGL: 25.4mmol/L* (finish line)

*These numbers are personal and refer to how MY body reacted to all the above mentioned conditions. Everyone’s body and diabetes is different, and these numbers should not be taken as reference. If you are considering participating in a similar adventure, please make sure to talk to your doctor and diabetes expert, in order to find out what will work best for you.

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