The Outside Blog

Dispatches : Athletes

What It Takes to Finish the World's Toughest Ultra 20 Consecutive Times

On July 11, human anomaly Kilian Jornet smashed the six-year-old course record at the Hardrock 100 Mile Endurance Run. Despite Jornet’s unbelievable speed, Coloradan Kirk Apt, who finished in 39:38:51—nearly 17 hours behind Jornet—received the loudest applause at this year’s awards ceremony.

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That’s because the 52-year-old—who broke the course record in 2000 with a time of 29:35:00—kissed the Hardrock for the 20th consecutive year, a new record. The race was his 48th hundred-miler since 1991; that’s an average of 2.1 hundreds per year, and he’s managed to show up healthy and fit to all of them.

In an era when elite ultrarunners drop out as soon as the smallest thing goes awry, Apt is the exemplar of what determination and perseverance can accomplish: a level of lifetime fitness unknown even to the most famous and revered professional athletes.

We caught up with Apt at his home in Grand Junction to see how 20 years of Hardrock is even possible.

OUTSIDE: When did you start running ultramarathons?
APT
: I actually don't remember; it was probably a year or two before my first hundred, which was Leadville in 1991. In 1990, I paced my friend Greg Brunson at Leadville. The next year, we reversed roles, and since then I've lost count of how many times he has paced me in my 48 total hundreds. Probably close to 20, including Hardrock again this year.

What initially drew you to the sport?
The simple love of running in the mountains and the challenge of resetting the edge of the envelope physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. 

Who was instrumental in you getting hooked on the sport?
In addition to Greg, my early mentors include Steve Mahieu, Charlie Thorn, and John Cappis. 

You dropped from your first attempt at Hardrock in its 1992 inaugural running due to food poisoning. Was that a formative experience?
Maybe, in the sense that the experience solidified the feeling that I really don't like not making it to the finish line. That remains my only hundred-mile DNF.

You finished Leadville before you first ran Hardrock. Did that prepare you for the 100.5-mile loop through the San Juans?
Oh, it was so different than Leadville, and I was still quite low on the learning curve. There was so much uncertainty before the first Hardrock; we wondered whether it could be completed in 48 hours. I remember going into the run with a healthy dose of fear and respect. Certainly it was beneficial to have the 100-mile experience of one race, but Hardrock is a very different experience than other hundreds.

What memories do you have from your first Hardrock 100 finish, or have they all blurred together?
I do remember my first Hardrock. As for gear, I had the whole house with me, a huge backpack. I wasn’t even experienced enough to think I knew what to expect. My plan was to go out and see how it came to me. That first finish line was very special. I remember running super conservatively and feeling huge elation running into the finish, which was down by the gazebo and courthouse [in Silverton, Colorado] back then. It made up for the disappointment of the DNF the year before. 

What was winning the 2000 race like for you?
We were living in Boulder that year, and it was a low snow year. So, just great training in the Front Range. I certainly didn’t go into it with a “win or bust” attitude, but I knew I was super fit.

I did my thing through the race and found myself in the lead. We were going counterclockwise that year, and I got to Chapman aid station [mile 82] feeling pretty good and thought, “I've got a shot at winning this.” I’m really not competitive by nature, so I had to convince myself to go for it because it was a once-in-a-lifetime chance. It was a big mental effort to keep myself pushing.

I had the best running day of my life on probably the best day to have it. That was the high-water mark of my lifetime fitness.

Being able to show up at Hardrock for 20 straight years and fit enough to finish such a tough course is a level of lifetime fitness most people can’t achieve. How do you do it?
Luck. Also, because I've made Hardrock the focus of my year, all my training and other prep has been all about getting to the start line in the best position to be successful. I try to have a healthy lifestyle, eat well, get regular bodywork, train smart. I also take time off when necessary. And I stay positive.

What has been the key to your training?
I now train at really low intensity. I don’t have any problem walking if a climb is working me. My [slowing] times kind of reflect that.

For me, it’s just been the long run. Time on my feet. I don’t care how much ground I cover or how fast I’m going. I do try to get as much terrain [vertical gain] in as possible. May and June are the key times, but you can’t always get up high with snow in Colorado. I just do what I can.

When I was more competitive, I was underemployed, so I had more time to train. My partner, who is also a runner, and I have been together for almost 20 years. We don’t have kids. She’s key to keeping me on track with my training. 

Have you had any injuries along the way?
About five to eight years ago, I realized that my adrenals were kind of shot. That really had a hand in increasing my finish times at Hardrock. I worked with a naturopath doctor, got regular acupuncture, and was on multiple herbal adrenal-health supplements. Eventually that fixed it. Three years back, in the spring, I started to roll my ankle a lot—worse than usual. I ended up having to wear an air cast every time I ran for a year.

What’s your diet like?
I eat mostly vegetarian, but certainly not completely vegetarian. Dinners are always centered around a gigantic pile of steamed vegetables. I also eat beans and quite a few eggs for protein. 

What keeps you motivated year after year?
Well, there’s nothing I’d rather do than spend all day on my feet in the mountains. Motivation hasn’t been an issue.

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Advice from Our Fittest Real Athletes

Pros are so lucky. They get to devote their lives to the sport they love, and completely focus on training and eating well. Wouldn't it be nice if we could all be so successful? Look—you can. It's not that laundry list of obligations holding you back from being an amazing athlete, and our 2014 Fittest Real Athletes are living proof. They're power players at home, in the office, and competing alongside the pros themselves. And they're nice enough to share how they do it all, so start taking notes.

Train With a Buddy

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Case Study: Ironman Clay Emge, 30

Bona Fides
Last year, Emge, an engineer at an oil and gas company in Tyler, Texas, won the 25–29 age group at the Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii.

How He Does It
Emge has always been a strong runner—he completed a one-hour 22-minute half marathon in college. After getting into triathlons in 2009, he steadily improved his multisport performance through committed training: 6 A.M. swims at the YMCA, lunchtime runs and strength training, and grueling evening bike rides. But when he missed qualifying for Kona by just ten seconds in 2012, he decided to ramp up his approach—especially on the bike, his weakest discipline. “Realizing I was that close to something most triathletes only dream of made me dedicate myself to making it the following year,” he says. Emge began riding with a friend who was also targeting Kona and was a strong cyclist but a slower runner. “He pushes me on the bike, and I push him on the run,” says Emge. “Having a partner makes it that much more bearable—and makes you faster and more competitive, too” He also does weekly group rides. “I would never have won my age group at Kona without those steps,” he says. “I’m not motivated enough to push myself to the limit.”

Follow His Lead
Endurance coach Jesse Kropelnicki, who has guided several Ironman champions, strongly endorses working out with partners, particularly as a way to address weaknesses. But he cautions that doing so can result in overtraining. “If you’re working on improving one aspect of your sport, you need to decrease volume in others,” he says. “A triathlete who adds two hours a week of swimming needs to cut back on biking and running. Your body can only handle so much stress.”

Be More Efficient

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Case Study: Endurance Runner Blake Benke, 37

Bona Fides
In 2009, Benke, who lives in Connecticut and works in financial services on Wall Street, finished tenth place at the notorious Badwater Ultramarathon, a 135-mile race through California’s Death Valley. Last September, he completed the 153-mile Spartathlon in Greece in 28 hours and 29 minutes, earning him 13th place—the top American finish.

How He Does It
Benke has a 90-minute commute and two small children. Finding the time to train takes discipline, which he developed at the U.S. Naval Academy and later as a Marine in the Iraq war. It also demands creativity. “I think part of the fun is making it all fit,” Benke says. He uses the seams in his schedule to train. He works from 
8 a.m. to 6 p.m., “with no breaks,” but will often run eight miles from his lower Manhattan office to Harlem to catch a commuter train home. Usually, he does his longer runs on weekends. “Then, as soon as I get home, I’m taking my kids to birthday parties, giving them baths, and doing everything I can to pull my weight,” says Benke, who is currently training for November’s JFK 50 Mile race. “It helps that I really only need about six hours of sleep.”

Follow His Lead
“If something is important to you, you’ll find time to do it,” says David Allen, author of Making It All Work: Winning at the Game of Work and the Business of Life. “And often it will benefit the other things in your life.” Pack your day, as Benke does, and you can’t afford to waste a single moment, which helps you focus. “If you’re with your kids all the time but looking at your phone constantly, that’s no different than not being there at all,” says Allen. It’s all about balance. “If one part of your life starts to suffer, it’s important to reevaluate and figure out what needs to change.”

Set Goals—and Stick to Them

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Case Study: Climber Andrew Palmer, 27

Bona Fides
In October 2013, Palmer, a Boston-based data analyst at creative agency Digitas, climbed Jaws II, 
a 70-foot Class 5.15a route at 
New Hampshire’s famed Waimea crags. He was the fourth person 
to scale Jaws and one of a small number of Americans to send 
a 5.15a climb.

How He Does It
Palmer relies heavily on detailed goal setting, a habit he picked up 
in Richmond, Virginia, where he began climbing at 13, and honed as a student at Dartmouth College. These days he spends three nights 
a week at the climbing gym, training evenings from 8 to 10:30, always with a specific objective in mind. “I keep track of every workout,” he says. “If I’m not improving, I analyze variables like diet, sleep, and stress. If none of those things are to blame, I’ll take a different approach.” Almost every weekend, Palmer travels to Waimea—with a plan. “I’ll set a big goal, but start with smaller goals. When I was working on Jaws, I’d have a goal 
to make it a quarter of the way 
up, then halfway, then to just stay 
on the wall for a minute longer.”

Follow His Lead
“He’s doing everything correctly,” says Edwin Locke, professor emeritus at the University of Maryland business school and author of New Developments in Goal Setting and Task Performance. “He has a distant goal, some proximate goals, a plan to reach his goals, and a way to evaluate his goals.” Locke especially likes that Palmer tracks his progress on paper. If you do that and still can’t figure out what’s hampering your headway, he suggests reach-ing out to an expert like a coach or boss for help. “And make sure that the goal is for you,” he says. “If it’s 
to impress somebody else, you’ll fail 
or get hurt, or when you reach the goal it will feel empty.”

Multitask

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Case Study: Obstacle Racer Amelia Boone, 30

Bona Fides
Bankruptcy attorney Boone was 
the top woman and second-place overall finisher in the 2012 World’s Toughest Mudder, a 24-hour event that had competitors completing 
300 obstacles over 90 miles. Last year, Boone won the Spartan World Championship, a 14-mile course 
with some 40 obstacles.

How She Does It
During her interview for this story, Boone was rolling around on a lacrosse ball to smooth out some knots in her back. So goes training for a Chicago lawyer who occasionally puts in 80-hour workweeks at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher and Flom, one of the country’s largest firms. Boone has become a master at getting fit while cranking out billable hours. “I’ll do phone calls as I walk home,” she says. “And I always tell people that a conference call is the best time to get in a ten-minute squat test.” Of course, she also has to find time for dedicated training sessions. She often wakes up at 4 A.M. to go for a run or work out at her local CrossFit gym. If her ever changing work schedule allows, she plans to tackle at least 
20 obstacle races across the country this year—up from 12 in 2013. “I always make sure my travel bookings are refundable,” she says.

Follow Her Lead
Art Markman, a psychology professor at the University of Texas at Austin, says you can get away with Boone’s brand of aggressive multitasking if the exercises you’re doing feel habitual. “You can easily complete a task that you don’t need to think about, like walking or brushing your teeth, while also having a conversation,” Markman says. Plus, “exercise is really good cognitively,” he says. “It releases dopamine, which is associated with focused attention.” But things get tricky when you try to accomplish multiple tasks that tax your brain, like shopping online while talking to someone. “Your brain will shift back and forth between the two tasks,” he cautions, “and you’ll become inefficient at both.”

Eat Smarter

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Case Study: Triathlete Sami Inkinen, 38

Bona Fides
Since launching the real estate website Trulia in 2005, Silicon Valley resident Inkinen has climbed to the top of the amateur triathlon ranks. He’s a two-time overall amateur champion at the highly competitive Wildflower Triathlon, near Paso Robles, California, and was the 2011 world cham-pion in the 70.3 distance for 
the 30–39 age group. In June, Inkinen and his wife began their attempt to row a 5-by-20-foot boat from San Francisco to Hawaii.

How He Does It
Though his company is now well established, Finland native Inkinen still keeps a startup schedule, regularly putting in 70-hour weeks. So how does he maintain elite-level endurance fitness? “Really intense hour-long workouts,” he says. Inkinen will bust out ten intervals of minute-long sprints on a treadmill or stationary bike followed by a minute of jogging or spinning, then jump in the pool and swim 100-yard sprints. “It’s all the time I can afford,” he says. But the most dramatic improvement in his racing came when he rebooted his nutrition plan. Disillusioned with a low-fat, high-carb diet that left him constantly hungry and caused his weight to fluctuate dramatically, Inkinen experimented with different foods, ultimately adopting a high-fat diet made up of ingredients like olive oil, macadamia nuts, and avocados. “After a few months, I started becoming healthier and performing better,” he says.

Follow His Lead
According to Dina Griffin, a sports dietitian at Fuel4mance, which counsels elite athletes on nutrition, there are four key signs that you might be ingesting too many carbs: you frequently bonk, you’re hungry all the time, your stomach hurts, and you’re not recovering well from workouts. “We’re seeing that most athletes—from weekend amateurs to serious professionals—perform better with moderate carbohydrate intake,” she says. “If you eat pasta every night, cut back to once or twice a week and see if you notice a difference.”

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Tested: Maximalist Shoes of 2014

There are few debates more polarized in the running world than the one between maximalists and minimalists. It seems everyone either subscribes to the super-cushioned cult or the minimal movement, and there’s not much common ground in between.

After the minimalist craze of the past few years, more top shoe brands are entering the maximalist fray. So we reviewed the latest beefed-up options to get to the bottom of the dispute. Or at least add more fuel to the flame.

Hoka One One Conquest ($170)

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Intended for: Road

This is the Cadillac of road runners. The Conquest—the latest edition from the brand known for its trademark giant foam—is Hoka’s first attempt at a road shoe. Perched on a 29mm stack, the Conquest has twice the cushion of most normal road trainers. This makes it a great option for runners who log a lot of miles and want some extra cush or for those returning from injury.

Noticeably narrower and slightly less cumbersome than Hoka’s trail-shoe options, the Conquest still has a boxy, stilt-like effect. With that said, it’s also astonishingly stable thanks to a new Rmat® midsole-suspended cradle system that cups your foot. This shoe is laterally stiff and so cushioned that there's very little ground-feel, which might turn off some runners.

I found the shoe to be quite comfortable thanks to a seamless upper. Take note: the collar and tongue are uncushioned, and although I didn't have any problems with this, it could chafe some runners. All the more reason to try before you buy. The Conquest's Race-Lace system (similar to Salomon's Speedlaces) did cut into the top of my foot, but this was easily fixed by swapping in a pair of normal laces (included with every pair of shoes).  

The Conquest’s 4mm drop and rockered forefoot accelerate your transition from ground-strike to push-off, delivering on the promised feeling of “weightlessness.” Hoka devotees will notice the new foam is less plush than that in other Hokas, but this shoe is still a great combination of cushion and responsiveness for the road. Alberto Salazar told us, ”The more you run, the more support your foot needs.” This is a big-mileage shoe for any road runner looking to extend their long run in search of racing glory.

Important note: Hokas run at least a half size larger than the number on the box, so be sure to try these on for sizing before you buy.

Weight: 11.8 oz.; Drop: 4mm; Geometry: 25/29mm

Brooks Transcend ($160)

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Intended for: Road

The Brooks Transcend, the company’s first foray into the maximalist market, looks a bit like it arrived on a spaceship from the future. The Brooks Super DNA midsole is 25 percent more cushioned than any of Brooks’ other offerings. Its rounded heel and 8mm drop helps you roll through your gait cycle and allows the shoe to maintain Brooks’ quick-footed lightweight feel. It’s a traditional road shoe that doesn’t compromise its midsole responsiveness for unnecessary cushion. 

For this shoe Brooks departed from a traditional shoe post—designed to keep you in proper biomechanical alignment—in favor of a new technology it calls “Guide Rails” to protect against pronation and supination. These rails are specialized plates along the upper on the outside of the shoe. The rails act like bumpers, so if your foot doesn't roll in or out, you won't notice them. If it does, they'll keep you from over-pronating or over-supinating.

The shoe’s plush upper feels downright luxurious, but I found the shoe could use a little more room in the toe-box. Runners with narrow feet shouldn't have any problem with the fit, but if you have wide feet, definitely try before you buy. The Transcend is a wonderful option for a focused road runner who wants a bit more cushion, but who isn't ready to make the jump to a Hoka One One.

Weight: 12.2 oz.; Drop: 8mm; Geometry: 22/30mm

Altra Olympus ($130)

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Intended for: Trail

Named after a peak on the edge of the Salt Lake valley, the Altra Olympus is the first maximally cushioned, zero-drop shoe. The heel is at the same height as your forefoot, as it would be if you were running barefoot. Altra believes this promotes proper biomechanics.

The wide toe box allows your toes to naturally splay, good for anyone with wide feet or runners who battle neuromas. The foot feel is soft and slipper-like, even without socks (if you choose to go that route). 

The Olympus forefoot rocker—like a early-rise ski tip—helps initiate your stride. And the Olympus’ wide platform makes it a very stable ride despite its relatively high stack height. If you charge downhill, or hope to, the Olympus will gobble up terrain like no other. The price for that, however, is less return of energy from the midsole. At times this shoe feels like riding uphill on your big travel freeride bike: the shock absorption is great until you have to climb. That means it can have a wet-shoe feel on the flats.

Our major gripe? The Olympus' tread looks more like what you'd expect on a road shoe. It wasn’t tacky enough for rock, and it wasn’t toothy enough for steep dirt trails. Finally, I found its tongue needed to be a bit longer and wider, or it needed an offset loop, to keep debris out. On long runs, I inevitably got rocks in the shoe.

Weight: 11 oz.; Drop: 0mm; Geometry: 32mm

New Balance Fresh Foam 980 ($110)

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Intended for: Road

Of all the new maximal shoes this year, the Fresh Foam 980 doesn’t feel like it belongs in the super-cush category. It has the slimmest profile of the crop and really doesn’t comply with it’s marketing copy of “soft, pillowy, and cloudlike.” What this shoe lacks in “pillowy” however, it makes up for in proprioception. That means it provides superior ground-feel than its competitors. Combine that with how light this shoe is, and you have a fast, lightly cushioned racer. 

Fresh Foam 980’s 4mm drop encourages a mid-foot strike and a quick cadence. A comfortable fit with a thick cushioned tongue, it features an elegant single-piece midsole and outsole that provide long-term durability (a technique made possible by new 3D-printing technology). The breathable upper uses welded overlays to eliminate seams and possible hot spots for blisters. It has a narrow forefoot, and sizes a little small—you should probably size up at least a half size when you buy.

The Fresh Foam 980 is the fleetest maximal shoe on the market today. It’s super responsive, light, cushioned, and wonderfully flexible for a maximal shoe with a lot of midsole. When your training volume increases and your long runs get really long, this is the high-mileage workhorse you’ll be happy to own. 

Weight: 8.8 oz.; Drop: 4mm; Geometry: 22/26mm

Vasque Ultra ShapeShifter ($170)

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Intended for: Trail

The “Ultra” in the name denotes who this shoe was made for—ultrarunners. The super-cushioned ShapeShifter subverts the traditional construction methods (and associated construction waste) by attaching the shoe’s upper directly to a one-piece injection-molded EVA outsole. This method eliminates the midsole and the insole entirely. Take note: that also means this shoe won't work for those who run with orthotics.

The Ultra ShapeShifter features a roomy stretch mesh sock upper and the Boa L5 lacing system. The latter is brilliant for on-the-run customization, and anyone who prefers their shoes loose for uphills and tight for downhills. Simply bend down and twist the mechanism to tighten your shoe to your preferred snugness. Because the laces are thin (about the size of fishing wire), they can cut into the top of your foot if they're too tight. 

The one-piece sole is malleable and conforms to the trail, and I found it gave me great traction even on loose kitty litter. It’s also a fantastic buffer between you and the hard ground, which increased my downhill running speed. Eliminating the layering comes with the added benefit of giving the ShapeShifter good trail feel for a shoe that lifts you 28mm off the ground. 

The biggest downside: I found the fit to be quite odd. The front of the arch/midfoot was much narrower than any other shoe I've worn. I couldn't run more than a few miles in this shoe, and if you have wide feet, either consider another option or definitely try before you buy. 

Weight: 10.6 oz.; Drop: 6mm; Geometry: 22/28mm

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Levi Leipheimer's Life After Doping

On a spectacular day for a bike ride in Sonoma County, Levi Leipheimer is sitting on the side of the road adjusting his cleat position. We are in a group of five riders and less than an hour into a sixty-something mile route from the wine country town of Healdsburg to the Pacific Coast, but this is already the third time he has stopped to fine-tune some aspect of his setup. As a pro racer, Leipheimer was notorious for obsessively tinkering with his bike, so much so that he required a trusted personal mechanic in addition to the staff mechanics of his racing teams. He’s apparently unable to stop fiddling now, even in retirement, even on a casual ride with guys he could drop if he was pedaling a Big Wheel.

He’s also unable to stop riding. Though he’s been retired from professional cycling for more than a year, Leipheimer still spends 15 to 20 hours a week on a bike, split evenly between road biking and mountain biking. He weighs the same as he did at the peak of his career (135 pounds). Arguably the best American rider over the last 15 years not named Lance Armstrong, Leipheimer finished third in the 2007 Tour de France, won the Tour of California three consecutive times between 2007 and 2010, took a bronze medal in the time trial at the Beijing Olympics, and won the inaugural USA Pro Cycling Challenge, in 2011. He probably had two years of racing left when the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) served him with a six-month suspension in October 2012 for admitting to using performance enhancing drugs during the investigation of Armstrong and the US Postal Service pro cycling team. Leipheimer, who rode for US Postal early in his career, confessed to doping from 2000 to 2007, when he claims he abruptly stopped due to fears that he’d be caught by improved testing methods.

Shortly after USADA announced the suspension, Leipheimer’s team at the time, Omega Pharma-Quick Step, fired him. Many cycling pundits were furious, arguing that Leipheimer and others shouldn’t be punished for telling the truth, while others complained that the riders who testified in the USADA probe got off too easy. Either way, the expectation was that Leipheimer would find a new team and resume racing in the spring. But while many cyclists caught up in the investigation did exactly that, no team signed him and he announced his retirement in May 2013, at age 39.

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Since then, Leipheimer has been unemployed and, like other American cyclists who have bee tainted as dopers, trying to move forward. Retirement is of course difficult for any professional athlete. Cyclists, who don’t typically earn the kind of money that can last a lifetime, need to find new sources of income and often aren’t very employable outside the biking industry. This puts Leipheimer and the other confessed cheaters of his generation—a list that includes Tyler Hamilton, George Hincapie, Floyd Landis, Christian Vande Velde, and David Zabriskie—in a particularly challenging position. The automatic move of a former pro is to capitalize on the image and associations he developed while racing. But how does that work if his career is marred by a giant asterisk?

I was particularly interested in putting this question to Leipheimer given the ongoing success of Levi’s Gran Fondo, an annual fall event in Sonoma County that’s widely considered the best Gran Fondo in the United States and among the best in the world. Launched in 2009, it attracts 7,500 riders and a number of sponsors, including Specialized, Nissan, and Clif Bar, and has generated $1.2 million in donations to charities since its inception. Leipheimer’s confession and retirement has had essentially zero impact on its popularity.

Levi’s Grand Fondo also recently became the title sponsor of the NorCal High School Cycling League, an interesting arrangement when you consider that it connects teen athletes with a guy who has confessed to using drugs to compete. If so many people and organizations are happy to align themselves with Leipheimer’s namesake event, maybe they’re ready to forgive and forget more quickly than I expected. 

When I reached out to Leipheimer to talk about all this, he suggested we meet in Sonoma County and mix in a ride as well. If I could see the roads that inspired him to move there and then create the Gran Fondo, I’d understand everything so much better.

About an hour before we got on our bikes, I met Leipheimer at Flying Goat Coffee in downtown Healdsburg. He was wearing jeans, a black Gran Fondo hoodie, and a San Francisco Giants baseball cap, which covered his baldhead. At 5’7” and cyclist skinny, he’s an inconspicuous guy. But if you sit directly across from him for a conversation, there’s a guarded intensity that comes out of his striking blue eyes and steadfast expression.

I asked him how he’s been spending his time since retiring. What does he do to fill his days? He gave a roundabout answer that can be simplified to: not much.

“For many years during my racing, I thought about this time, when I’d be done,” he said. “One thing I always knew is that I would need at least a year of decompression. Just do nothing.”

The constant pressures of professional cycling, he tells me, were exhausting, both on and off the bike. “You have to make a lot of sacrifices,” he said. “I’ve needed time to transition out of that and try to live a normal life.”

A big part of normal is simply sticking around Santa Rosa, the largest city in Sonoma County, where Leipheimer relocated in 1996, shortly after he turned pro. He’d grown up in Butte, Montana, with its long frigid winters, and instantly fell in love with Sonoma’s year-round cycling weather and diversity of terrain, from redwood forests to oak woodlands to oceanfront headlands. Leipheimer and his wife, Odessa Gunn, now own a hillside property outside Santa Rosa where they care for some two dozen rescued animals—horses, donkeys, pigs, goats, cats, dogs. Leipheimer plays a supporting role in that operation and also handles a lot of the household management while Gunn works on her nascent clothing line, The Gunn Collection. As he sees it, she did so much work for him when he was racing, now it’s payback time.

Since his suspension, Leipheimer has had no income but has been able to live off the money he saved during his career. He gets zero dollars from the Gran Fondo and likes to call himself the event’s “number one volunteer.” When I asked him what he’d put on a resume, he thinks for a moment, then says, “Advocate.”

As for his next move, he doesn’t have clear answers. “It’s tough,” he said. “With biking, I found something that I completely loved and that I was really good at and had a lot of passion for. It’s not easy to replace that.” He paused for a moment, then added, “At some point, I either need to find something that I’m that excited about or—well, I guess that’s it. There is no ‘or.’”

He is very excited about the Gran Fondo, though his efforts on behalf of the ride, which is managed by Santa Rosa-based events organizing group Bike Monkey, don’t amount to a full time gig. Still, he said, “It’s fulfilling for me—I have a purpose.” 

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After admitting to doping, Leipheimer was worried that riders might abandon the Gran Fondo en masse. The fact that they didn’t was incredibly uplifting for him. “It meant more than I can describe that people were still willing to come back and try to understand the situation and the choices I made, and not just write me off,” he said. “That they were willing to forgive and give me a second chance and shows how great the cycling community is.”

A good number of participants might also be simply be attracted to the ride itself and not think too much about the former pro it’s named after. Leipheimer recognizes this. “What happened in the Tour de France and in the Tour of Spain those years is completely separate from my motivation for creating the Gran Fondo,” he added. “The event is about how much I love Sonoma County and how it forged me into a better rider.”

Indeed, the years Leipheimer spent getting better by grinding out miles on Sonoma roads are core to his self-identity and underlie his passion for the Gran Fondo, an event that draws cyclists willing to suffer through a grueling 103-mile route that includes 9,200 feet of climbing. He didn’t have the natural talent of other top cyclists when he was young, he told me, so he outworked them. “When I was on the USA national amateur team, the coaches were like, ‘You’re probably not going to be a pro,’” he said. “And I proved them wrong. I worked hard and incrementally, over the years, I got better and better. Despite the asterisks, that still holds true. And I think the 7,500 people on the start line of the Gran Fondo understand that.”

The NorCal High School Cycling League apparently understands it as well. In a scene from a new documentary about the Grand Fondo, Leipheimer stands in front of a room full of teen riders and candidly answers their questions about doping, recalling the last time he transfused his own blood, at the 2007 Tour de France. “Somewhere along the line, little by little, I got to that point,” he tells them. “That’s not something I’m proud of. It’s not fun to live through.” At another moment in the film, he says he was unprepared to face the choice to dope when he first became a pro. By telling younger rider what he went through, he hopes “that when the time comes to make a decision like that, even it’s outside the sport, they’re not blindsided. It’s giving them tools to go forward.”

Leipheimer has recently been advising a few NorCal riders advice on training and balancing cycling with life. He told me that when he ponders his future—“however long away that might be”—he thinks about mentoring younger riders and coaching master racers. “One thing I did well in my career was pay attention to detail—I was very organized,” he said. “I think I have a good philosophy about training, so that’s one thing I can pass along.”

For now, though, the decompression continues. Back in 2012, in the days after news of Leipheimer’s confession and suspension broke, he was in regular contact with some of the other pros who’d testified in the USADA investigation. “It’s so good to have those guys because we understand what each other is going through,” he’d told a newspaper reporter at the time. These days, the contact is less frequent, though he said he texts with some guys, including Tom Danielson and George Hincapie. This past April, he ended up on a culinary-themed group ride with Christian Vande Velde and David Zabriskie. “There will always be a connection,” Leipheimer said. “It’s a brotherhood that comes from living the same experiences.”

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Whatever they share in history, each of the retired American riders who have admitted using performance-enhancing drugs is charting his own path into the future. Tyler Hamilton published his bestselling tell-all last year and now has a coaching business. Hincapie, the most successful of the group, has a sporstwear line, a development team, a cycling-centered hotel, and his own three-year old Gran Fondo in North Carolina. Others are more adrift. “It’s hard,” said Leipheimer. “They don’t know what to do.”

As for the enduring impact the doper stigma will have on all of them, Leipheimer wasn’t wiling to speculate. “I think the best answer is that only time will tell,” he said. “Only time is going to bring clarity and understanding about all of it. I think after a while it will make more sense.”

That sounded like a platitude, but Leipheimer was being sincere. “For myself, after what I’ve gone through, I’ve had no choice but to be a better person,” he added. “And I see that for cycling as a sport. It’s going to become stronger because of all this.”

Leipheimer dialed in his cleat, but now he’s staring at my rear cassette, which is making some unsettling creaking and popping noises. We pull over to add some chain lube, but there’s no improvement.

“You need to take the cassette apart and check out the freewheel,” Leipheimer says with authority, before pedaling ahead, I presume, to escape the squawks of an imperfect drivetrain.

We roll on westward for several hours through extraordinary landscapes on a road that gets more pot-holed but also more empty by the mile. There are long stretches where we don’t see a single car or structure. This is the kind of riding that seduced Leipheimer to move to Sonoma County almost 20 years ago and that molded him into one of the best cyclists of his generation. It’s the kind of riding he wanted to celebrate when he created the Gran Fondo.

Close to the coast, we reach a fork in the road. Three of us are headed to the right, for one more relatively easy climb followed by a blissful descent to Highway 1, where we’ll have dinner and then get a car ride home. Leipheimer and another rider are going left on a route to Santa Rosa that will have them climbing another 3,500 feet over 40 or so miles. Leipheimer seems ecstatic at this prospect. He’s smiling broadly as he departs, eager to embrace another three hours of blissful pain.

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Tour de France 101

This year’s Tour de France has proven mysterious to even the most knowledgeable cycling fanatics, with both pre-Tour favorites Alberto Contador and Chris Froome out of the race due to heavy crashes. So we imagine that to the outsider, the race must seem almost incomprehensible. Presenting a beginner’s guide to the world’s most important cycling stage race.

#1: Does the race take place exclusively in France? 

Nope. It often starts in a nearby country, a tradition that dates to 1954, when the race set off in Amsterdam. This year, it began with three days in England, starting in Yorkshire and ending in London.

The Tour frequently passes into neighboring countries throughout the event, especially the mountains of Italy and Spain. This year’s edition also swung through Belgium for what became a contentious and slippery day on the cobbles.

#2: How many racers compete?

A total of 198 racers line up at the start. There are 22 teams, with nine riders per team. Throughout the event, racers drop out because of injuries. Riders must also finish within a certain percentage of time of the stage winner or they’ll be eliminated from the race. The percentage of time varies, depending on the difficulty of the stage.

The race jury can grant exceptions to riders who don’t make the time cut. And if more than 20 percent of riders miss the time limit, generally they are exempted. That’s why, on mountainous stages, you’ll often see a large group of riders, known as the autobus, group together at the back of the field—it’s safety in numbers.

#3: How does this stage racing stuff work? How do you win?

Each rider is timed on every one of the 21 stages. A rider’s time is added up from stage to stage for an overall elapsed time. The racer with the fastest elapsed time over three weeks wins the race.

So it’s possible to lose a lot of time one day, make it up throughout the length of the race, and still win. Maybe the best example came in 1958, when Frenchman Charly Gaul started the final day in the Alps 15 minutes behind but, thanks to atrocious weather, made up all but 28 seconds of that time. He went on to win the overall.

#4: Is it true that a racer can win the overall without ever winning a stage?

Yes. While it’s considered good style to win at least one stage en route to an overall win, it’s not a requirement. All that’s necessary is a racer finish with the fastest elapsed time over three weeks. 

Only six racers in 101 editions of the race have won the Tour without winning a stage. Spaniard Óscar Pereiro did it most recently in 2006, while three-time Tour champ Greg Lemond took his final victory in 1990 without a stage win.

#5: Are there time bonuses for winning a stage?

Through 2008, time bonuses were awarded for both pre-set sprint intervals along a day’s course and for the fastest finishers. Intermediate sprints earned the top three racers 6, 4, and 2 seconds, respectively, while the first three racers to finish a stage took 20-, 12-, and eight-second bonuses.

Race director Christian Prudhomme eliminated the bonuses in 2009, arguing that the true winner of the race should be person who clocks the actual fastest elapsed time. Both the Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a España still award bonuses, and some argue that the extra incentives make for more exciting races. 

#6: What’s with all the special jerseys?

The yellow jersey, or maillot jaune in French, indicates the rider with the fastest elapsed overall time in the race at any given point during the Tour. It is awarded after each day’s finish. If a racer wins a stage but isn’t the overall leader, he is awarded a maillot jaune for his win, but he won’t get to wear it the next day, the overall leader will. 

Concurrent to the overall race, there are three additional competitions in the Tour. The green jersey, or maillot vert, is awarded based on a point system for winning sprint stages. The racer who wears the polka dot jersey, or maillot à pois, is called the King of the Mountains. He earns the jersey by accruing points for reaching the tops of designated mountains first. And the young rider classification is awarded to the racer under 26 with the fastest elapsed time, who wears the white jersey, or maillot blanc

#7: Is the course the same every year? How do they decide on the route?

The course, often referred to as the parcours, changes every year, though given the long history of the race, towns and climbs cycle in and out from year to year. Towns bid to host race starts and finishes, which can bring in great revenue because of the influx of teams and spectators. The course is announced each fall, usually in October, in a gala celebration.

#8: How fast do the racers go?

On flats, the peloton moves along at around 30 miles per hour. On mountain stages, racers can descend in excess of 60 miles per hour. The fastest Tour de France on record was in 2005, in which Lance Armstrong averaged 25.882 miles per hour over the 2,241-mile course.

#9: Why do they shave their legs?

Arguably the biggest reason racers shave is because, in case of a crash, it’s easier to clean the wounds with no hair. Shaved legs are also said to be more aerodynamic, and though some people claim the differences are insignificant, Specialized recently refuted that. And if they’re honest, most cyclists will tell you shaving is also about identity.

#10: How do they go to the toilet?

Given that Tour riders can spend five or more hours a day in the saddle, it’s reasonable to wonder how they take care of business. Generally, the peloton will agree to stop somewhere discreet alongside the road for a “nature break,” when riders can go without being left behind. In some cases, if the race is on, riders will just go from the saddle, with other racers taking care to stay out of the way.

#11: How much money do you get if you win?

Winners of each day’s stage are awarded €22,500 (~$30,000), while the team time trial pays €25,000 (~$34,000). Overall winners of the green jersey and polka dot jersey take home €25,000 each, while the overall winner of the white jersey gets €20,000 ($27,000). There’s also an award for the most aggressive rider (€20,000), which is decided by a jury of eight cycling specialists, and for the fastest overall team (€50,000).

The grand prize for the racer who takes top honors at the Tour de France is €450,000 ($610,000), though traditionally he will share it among his team.

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