Hannah Otto: “Happy Tears and a Million Stories to Tell” from Leadville Trail 100 Winner


Winning a bike race is hard. I’m not just talking physically. Screaming muscles, sweat dripping from your helmet, and lung burns are only a small part of the equation. There are a million small and not so small things that go into winning. Everything from staying healthy, to the thoughts running through your head, to flawless gear, not only can, but most likely will be the difference between standing at the top of the podium or settling for something less.

Bike racing is not like team sports where two teams stand on a court or field and have a chance of coming away with a 50/50 victory. Every day of a bike race, there are probably a dozen or more people who think they could eventually, if all goes according 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 was my day. I won. Everything went according to plan. In fact, it went better. Having suffered an accident the previous weekend where I suffered a level 2 AC joint separation, I was actually not at all sure how Leadville would go. It’s bike racing though, you can go from crashing and a shocking ride to winning in what feels like the blink of an eye. You need to keep your feet on the ground, because if you let every run dictate your emotions, you’ll be on an ever-rolling roller coaster. You need to find joy in the process and not just in the outcome. The process is where we all come together.

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

On the line

When I stood at the start line in Leadville, I started into myself. Due to my shoulder injury, I didn’t know what to expect that day. I let go of all expectation and looked outward. Often letting go is the best option. You can’t force these things; you have to let them happen. I broadened my horizons and saw my fellow pros, most all had their faces riddled with nerves. I could only imagine what was going through their heads.

Were they thinking about their last workout, their contracts or their bonuses, or maybe even the fact that their breakfast didn’t quite suit them 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 injuries and illnesses, people who had saved money and used vacation days to travel, people who had to find daycare to train overtime. More importantly, I saw human beings. Often in those moments we seem to think everyone has it figured out, like everyone is an inscrutable force, and only you have had doubts or setbacks. We all have. Even before the starting whistle sounds, we’re all in.

August 13, 2022, Leadville, CO: Sarah Sturmy and Hannah Rae Otto (Finchamp) compete in the 2022 Leadville 100 MTB race in Leadville, CO on Saturday August 13, 2022. (Photo by Joshua Strong)

After the start, many of you may not see me again until the finish line because our rhythms are different, but we experience very similar things. I found myself on the site the day before the race having a conversation about the effort. Who works the hardest on the course? Is this the winner? I was the first and also very late and never felt one was harder or easier than the other. Effort is just that, effort. I argue that we all work equally on the course, just for some people the race lasts longer. Effort is another place where all of our races come together.

At the start of the line, there was a lot of chaos. I think I mumbled the words “useless” several times as I watched the crashes, screams and brake checks happen all around me. The first moments of the race were not glamorous. It was a lot to stay calm, minimize risk and remember that we had hours left.

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When we entered the first ascent I didn’t even know where I was. I knew I was safe and had managed my energy well, not wasting it getting too frustrated with the surrounding chaos. Much like the advice for anyone else in Leadville, I focused on myself on the first climb and established a comfortable, solid pace that I felt like I could hold for the 7 .5 hours of racing ahead. Eventually, I discovered that I was with a group of women who were in second through fifth positions and let the joy of that placement go, but tried to keep the excitement and nerves at bay.

As we descended Powerline, I felt very cautious and nervous knowing that my shoulder was still a fresh injury. I tried to avoid rocks and roots that I could normally walk through and got my eyes a little wider when I felt a call here or there. No matter how many miles per hour you’ve put on this trail, we’ve probably all experienced a white-knuckle moment at one time or another. This is what happens when you push your own personal limits, we find similarities in the process.

As a group of women I was propelled into by the Pipeline trail, we exchanged pull ups and also words of encouragement. I felt like we were friends just trying to help each other reach our maximum potential. I hope everyone experienced at least one moment of pure and honest shared encouragement on the course.

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

become clear

When we got back on Pipeline, I was riding with another woman in first and second place when I realized I had the ability to win. I was holding a stronger beat and she was starting to fall. I was nervous about going alone, but didn’t want to risk getting caught by the women behind, so with almost 35 miles to go, I took the lead. Did you take risks that paid off?

From the moment I took the lead, I had an adrenaline rush. I had wondered before what kind of effort or power it takes to lead a race like Leadville and suddenly I knew first hand because I was doing it. Winning still seemed so far away at that point that I focused on what I was doing at the time. I focused on eating, keeping my pace, and enjoying gratitude. I’ve often thought, “What an amazing experience it is to win Leadville at mile 80. Can I make it to 85?” 85 became 90 which became 95. What small goals did you take to reach the finish?

A big belt buckle and an even bigger smile for Leadville champion Hannah Otto (Photo: Lifetime)

With 5 miles to go, I intellectually knew I could finish, but my body was hurting so much I felt like the next hill might knock me down. I bet a lot of people can relate to that feeling.

Finally, entering the finish chute, I let my guard down. All the emotions that I kept behind a door all day came rushing in. I crossed the finish line with tears of joy and a million stories to tell. I may have had more photographers waiting for me at the finish line than someone in the second half of the race, but I know I could trade stories with anyone at that line of departure all day. And I did.

I was on hand to share stories and listen to all of your amazing victories up until almost 18 hours after the race. It was a highlight of my day. The things you feel there on all those miles between start and finish are hard to describe, but if you’ve been there you know it. We all have a common experience in Leadville.

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