Racing across the sky
Nick (left) and Vince Schino are all smiles after finishing the Leadville Trail 100 bike race for the second straight year in Leadville, Colorado on Aug. 15, 2015. Nick was able to present his father with his medal after finishing.
They started out at the very end of 1,500-person starting line, and both crashed and injured themselves at separate points during the race, though they both kept going after the setbacks. Vince crossed the finish line just 25 seconds after the cutoff time of 12 hours. By official standards, he didn’t finish the race, just missing out on receiving the commemorative belt buckle all 12-hour finishers earn at the post-race award ceremony.
That’s not to say the
longtime Bordentown residents were totally untrained. Prior to the race, known as one of the most grueling athletic events in the country, the two participated in Half Iron Man competitions, sprint triathlons and trained with coaches from Carmichael Training Systems, run by Chris Carmichael, Lance Armstrong’s former coach.
But it still wasn’t enough to keep up with many of the other athletes, some professional, some not. Many compete in Leadville qualifiers leading up to the big race, and even more competitors have biked the trail multiple times. Beginners don’t often fare well.
“We were far from trained,” Vince said. “You don’t know the science behind it. You think you’re in pretty good shape, and then you get out there and find out that you’re in a whole different world, a whole different league of people.”
So as soon as Vince and Nick, who finished the 2014 race with a time of 11:30:00, were able to gather their thoughts after their first go at Leadville, they decided to rectify that. The two dedicated the entire next year to crafting a training regimen and perfecting their bodies for this year’s race, held on Saturday, August 15.
Sure enough, it worked. Nick shaved over two hours off of his first time, finishing in 9:20:00—just 20 minutes shy of his nine-hour goal, which would have earned him special finisher status and a gold belt buckle. And Vince made up for last year’s close call, coming at at just over 11 hours.
“If I wasn’t training last year to do a Half Iron Man and taking five to six months of time to run and swim along with biking, I think my training would have been much beeter and I would have made it,” Vince said. “This year, it was all Leadville. That’s all I focused on. Everything is about the training, whether it’s what we’re eating or how much we’re sleeping.”
They started by participating in their first post-Leadville competition last September. The Barn Burner—a 105-mile race through Coconino, Arizona and the Kaibab National Forest—is part of the Leadville Race Series, and was one of several the Schinos competed in over the course of the year. They traveled from coast to coast all year, following the different races.
Successful finishes in the qualifiers earn racers corral spots—or starting positions—closer to the front in Leadville. Vince and Nick were able to move up much further than last year’s dead-last start.
And while starting position in a 100-mile race might not seem to be important, it’s vital, Nick said. Up to 2,000 bikers compete every year, and they’re packed like sardines down a narrow city street behind the starting line.
It crawls, at first—Vince said it took them three minutes after gun time just to get to the beginning of the race.
Once they get going, the trail dips directly into 3.5 miles of downhill road. Then, the trail’s width shrinks again.
“You’re doing upwards of 30 miles an hour, and then all of a sudden, it goes into a single-car-width dirt trail,” Vince said. “Everyone’s right back in and going really fast leading up to the first climb.”
Starting out close to the front means avoiding some of that traffic, and, often, it means steering clear of crashes.
In addition to the qualifier races, Vince and Nick also hooked their bikes to indoor trainers during the winter months and started riding outside once the weather warmed up.
They also worked even more closely with their coaches, both of whom live in California but are able to craft specified traning plans based on data collected through devices like power meters, which track energy output. They stay in touch online and over e-mail.
The two logged over 4,000 miles each in between Leadville races. Their strict regimen, which doesn’t allow for stopping once a ride has started, was difficult for their local training partners to adapt to at first.
“I will never ride my bike unless I have a specific workout,” Nick said. “Everything we do is very specific. Some of the people we’d ride with would want to stop for five minutes, so we would just ride around and come back to them when they were ready.”
Daily workouts and strict diets and sleep schedules all led up to a pre-race trip out to Leadville in July, where Vince and Nick trained for 11 straight days. They refamiliarized themselves with the trail and the terrain.
“One of the best things to do is just to ride the course so that you know what you’re going to be up against,” Vince said.
After that, they came back home for two weeks and continued to train. Then, it was back to Leadville on Aug. 3, where they stayed and trained until race day. Nick said that in order to adapt to the change in altitude—the race starts at 10,200 feet—it’s recommended to arrive either two weeks or one day before the race. That way, your body is either totally adjusted, or it hasn’t had time to realize it’s in a different environment.
One of the most important parts of that two-week on-trail training period is getting to know the Power Lines, the most difficult part of the race. It’s constant climbing on a 26 percent grade, and only the most seasoned riders can bike up and down the whole section—Nick was able to complete it once.
To make it even more difficult, frequent thunderstorms change the trail month by month and often create paths just wide enough for one or two riders that are lined with deep gullies—where Vince crashed last year.
Most walk their bikes through, and it’s where many racers decide to turn around and quit. It takes about an hour or more to pass through.
“Grown adults are just quitting, practically crying on the side of the trail and getting sick,” Nick said. “They’re throwing up, laying down on the side. They just refuse to go on. You hit that when you’re on your return back toward Leadville about 75 miles in. You’re already fried. It’s a climb that even when you’re completely fresh is insane.”
Both tried to learn that part of the trail as best as they could. One day, Nick’s workout was just to drive to the base of the Power Lines and go as far as he could get in 30 minutes.
“That way, I could see what lines I was going to take in the race so I have that burned in my memory,” he said. “It changed from when we were there earlier in the summer, and then a couple of weeks later, it changed again becuase of the rain storms.”
The training regimen had a day of tapering, or extremely light riding, built in just before the race. It left the pair antsy, but it’s necessary as far as making up for all the fatigure their bodies hadn’t been able to recover from due to constant training.
“The taper is cutting your volume down, keep a little bit of the intensity to stoke your engine up, but let your body start recovering,” Nick said. “So for the first time in months, we were at our absolute peak because we finally let our bodies have enough time to adapt as much as possible. The training is designed to lead right up to Leadville, where we would be at our absolute peak.”
Mary Ann Schino, Vince’s wife and Nick’s mother, also benefitted fromhaving one race under her belt this year. She and other family members were able to plan out where they would stand at several points in the race, driving to and from their stations. They often planted themselves 100 yards apart to hand out items like salt pills or new water bottles to Vince and Nick as they raced.
This was vital, the pair said. Another thing they learned from last year was the standard nutrition. They should have been consuming pre-tested food, water and other energy items during their first race, but proper nutrition wasn’t on their minds at the time.
“When you’re a beginner, those are the kinds of mistakes you make,” Nick said. “I overpaced myself, and my stomach wasn’t tough enough. I couldn’t eat or drink anymore, so I stopped, which was even worse.
“The blood in your body isn’t going to your stomach to help digest,” Nick said. “It’s going to your muscles. When you eat food, you feel like you don’t want to eat after a little bit. It feels like you’re going to get sick, but you have to keep eating. Otherwise, your body will run out of fuel.”
To prepare for this year, they tried out different foods while riding to figure out what stayed down, or what was most effective. Vince even taped written reminders to eat and drink onto his handlebars, and he set out to consumer 100-150 calories every hour or so.
“If you don’t get enough nutrition, you’re done,” Vince said.
Every training step matters, he added, and that’s part of what makes it such a grueling race. One wrong move could be perilous, even fatal.
It’s not uncommon to see a racer airlifted or carted off the course with a broken bone, and one participant reportedly died during the Power Lines portion this year.
Most racers are taken to a medical tent immediately after finishing to get an IV of fluids.
“As a crew or family member, you’re praying that they’re safe,” Mary Ann said. “That’s the first thing, that nothing happens to them, and then secondly, that they finish. I remember last year, just saying prayers, like, ‘Please, let them be safe,’ because you would see so many people hurt who have done it a lot more than they have. I try to explain to my friends that it’s the most amazing athletic endurance event you can witness.”
And Vince said Mary Ann’s support is invaluable to him and Nick.
“It is so special that I am able to do our training and race with Nick,” he said. “This race brings our entire family together. Our son Vincent, our nephew PJ and Mary Ann play a huge part as crew in helping. It is truly an amazing family experience.”