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Hannah Otto: ‘Happy tears and a million stories to tell’ from Leadville Trail 100 winner

VeloNews writer Hannah Otto on her incredible victory at Leadville Trail 100.

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Winning a bike race is hard. I don’t just mean physically. The screaming muscles, sweat pouring from your helmet, and lung burn is just a small part of the equation. There are a million little and not so little things that go into winning. Everything from staying healthy, to the thoughts going through your head, to flawless equipment, not only can, but will very likely be the difference between standing on top of the podium or settling for something less.

Bike racing isn’t like team sports where two teams stand on a court or a field and have a 50/50 shot of walking away with a victory. On any given day at a bike race there are likely a dozen or more people who think they could possibly, if everything goes to plan, win. Then there is one person who achieves that goal and many who walk away calculating what could have been done differently.

This weekend at the Leadville Trail 100 it was my day. I won. Everything went according to plan. In fact, it went better. After suffering a crash the weekend prior where I incurred a Grade 2 AC joint separation, I actually wasn’t sure how Leadville would go at all.  That’s bike racing though, you can go from a crash and a race that leaves you reeling to a victory in what feels like a blink of an eye. You have to stay grounded, because if you let each race dictate your emotions, you’ll be on an ever-undulating rollercoaster ride. You have to find joy in the process and not just the result. The process is where we all come together.

Read more from Hannah Otto:

While in any given race only one person can win, every person can come away with a victory. When we focus on process oriented goals we focus less on beating each other and more on beating the challenge at hand. I feel this emotion more at Leadville than any other race of the year. 

On the line

When I stood on the start line at Leadville I began within myself. Due to my shoulder injury I had no idea what to expect on the day. I let go of expectation and looked outward. Often times letting go is the best option. You can’t force these things; you have to let them happen. I broadened my horizons and I saw my fellow pros, most all had faces riddled with nerves. I could only imagine what was going on in their heads.

Were they thinking about their last training session, their contracts or bonuses, or maybe even how their breakfast wasn’t sitting with them quite the way they wanted? I looked behind me at the sea of people ready to take on this challenge. I didn’t just see a bunch of people ready to ride their bikes all day, I saw people who had overcome injury and illness, people who had saved money and used vacation days to travel, people who had to find childcare to train extra hours. Most importantly I saw human beings. Often in those moments we seem to think everyone else has it figured out, like everyone else is an impenetrable force, and only you have had doubts or setbacks. We all have. Even before the start whistle blows, we’re all in it together.

August 13, 2022, Leadville, C.O.: Sarah Sturmy and Hannah Rae Otto (Finchamp) race head to head at the 2022 Leadville 100 MTB Race in Leadville, C.O. Saturday, August 13, 2022. (Photo by Joshua Strong) 

After we start there are many of you that I might not see again until the finish line because our paces are different, but we’re experiencing very similar things. I found myself at the venue the day before the race having a conversation about effort. Who works the hardest out on course? Is it the winner? I’ve been first and I’ve also been plenty off the pace and I’ve never felt like one is harder or easier than the other. Effort is just that, effort. I stand to argue that we’re all working equal parts hard out on course, just for some people the race lasts longer. Effort is another place were all our races come together.

As we started off the line there was a lot of chaos. I think I muttered the words “unnecessary” multiple times as I watched crashes, yelling, and brake checking happen all around me. The opening moments of the race were not glamorous. It was a lot of staying calm, minimizing risk and reminding myself that we have hours to go.

Also read: How to train for long events with short workouts

As we entered the first climb, I didn’t even know what place I was in. I knew I was safe and I had managed my energy well, not wasting it on getting overly frustrated by the chaos around. Just like the advice for anyone else at Leadville, I focused on myself up the first climb and set a comfortable and solid pace that I felt like I could hold for the full 7.5 hours of the race ahead. Eventually I discovered I was with a group of women who were in positions second to fifth and I let the joy of that placement in, but tried to keep the excitement and nerves at bay.

As we descended down Powerline, I felt extra cautious and nervous knowing that my shoulder was still a fresh injury. I tried to avoid the rocks and roots that I might normally power through and found myself a little wider eyed when I felt a close call here or there. No matter how many miles per hour you went down that trail we likely all experienced a white-knuckle moment at one point or another. That’s what happens when you push your own personal limits, we find similarity in the process.

As the group of women I was in powered through Pipeline trail we traded pulls and also words of encouragement. I felt like we were friends just trying to help each other reach max potential. I hope everyone experienced at least one moment of pure and honest shared encouragement out on course.

As I climbed up Columbine, that was probably the most invincible I felt on the day. I started with a couple of women near me and as the miles went on, I found myself alone. As I neared the top of Columbine, I could see first place just up ahead and it hit me, I had gained almost 3 minutes on 1st place climbing Columbine. Was there a moment out on course where you surprised yourself with your ability?

Going clear

As we came back returning on Pipeline I was riding with one other woman in first and second place when I realized I had the ability to win. I was holding a stronger pace and she was starting to fall off. I was nervous to go it alone, but I didn’t want to risk getting caught by the women behind so with almost 35 miles to go, I rode off the front. Did you take any risks that paid off?

From the moment I took the lead, I had a surge of adrenaline. I had wondered before what type of effort or power it took to be at the front of a race like Leadville and suddenly, I knew first-hand because I was doing it. Winning felt so far away still at that point that I focused on what I was doing in the moment. I focused on eating, holding my pace, and rejoicing in gratitude. I often thought, “What an incredible experience it is to be winning Leadville at mile 80. Can I make it to 85? 85 turned to 90 which turned to 95.” What small bite sized goals did you take out there to make it to the finish?

A big belt buckle and an even bigger smile for Leadville champ Hannah Otto (Photo: Life Time)

With 5 miles to go I knew intellectually that I could finish, but my body was hurting so bad that it felt like the next hill might just make me fall over. I bet a lot of people can relate to that feeling.

Finally, as I came into the finish chute, I let my guard down. All of the emotions I kept behind a gate all day came rushing out. I crossed the finish line with happy tears and a million stories to tell. I may have had more photographers waiting for me at the finish line than someone in the latter half of the race, but I know that I could trade stories with anyone on that start line all day long. And I did.

I was at the venue sharing stories and listening to all of your amazing victories until almost 6 pm after the race. It was a highlight of my day. The things you feel out there on all of those miles between the start and finish are difficult to describe, but if you’ve been there you know. We all have a shared experience at Leadville.