Team of wounded war veterans race against the odds to finish grueling Leadville Trail 100

As 1,549 Mountain bikers lined up in the pre-dawn cold of the Colorado Rockies to race the Leadville Trail 100, one of them was different. Matt Dewitt doesn’t have any hands.

He lost them in Iraq, July 2003 when a rocket propelled grenade struck the weapon he was operating on top of a gun truck. Matt fell back into the humvee and his forearms fell in on top of him. Shrapnel knocked out his teeth and something from the blast tore the skin off large sections of his legs. Long hospitalization and rehab followed. Withdrawing and turning away from life’s challenges were options for Dewitt. “I’ve been down that road. It’s boring. It’s not good, you know it’s not good,” he says.

A double amputee had never completed the 104-mile race. Leadville is famous in cycling and endurance sport circles because the grueling race rolls on rutted, rocky terrain over 3 mountains, then returns to Leadville, so racers can suffer up the slopes a second time before the finish line. However, the 12,000 plus feet of climbing in Leadville begins at 10,200 feet above sea level. It is like some sadist took an endurance event and removed the oxygen, just to make it interesting. That sadist is the founder of the Leadville race series Ken Chlouber. “To complete this race, riders need to summon the grit, guts and determination that miners called on here 100 years ago,” Chlouber said. “They have to dig deep.”

Easier spoken than executed. Despite months of training, 17 percent of the riders at the starting line or 262 of them, would either fail to complete the race or fail to finish before the 12-hour cutoff time. Dewitt was going to do it with hooks where the rest of the riders have fingers.

He is part of a team of wounded vets assembled for this race by Ride 2 Recovery. Also at the starting line was Shawn Morelli. She was hit by an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan. The blast forced vertebrae into part of her skull.  She suffered a concussion and severe nerve damage. Tremors and muscle spasms are lingering side effects of her injuries and she lost sight in one eye. “I have no depth perception,” she said, which can be a significant problem navigating rugged trails on a mountain bike. “Sometimes I hit them right, sometimes I don’t.” Which was why she was racing paired up with Ride to Recovery staffer Sarah Bell, to serve as an extra set of eyes on the trail.

Jordan Bressler was an Airborne Ranger. While serving in Afghanistan he was shot in the hip. His pelvis shattered like window glass. The nerve in his leg was not severed, but it was damaged. After months confined to a bed and years of rehab, Jordan got back on a bike. Saturday morning he was at the startling line in Leadville. “I have always been in pursuit of how far I can push myself, how much challenge I can take,” he said, explaining his motivation.

With fifteen hundred anxious racers at the starting line, there is chaos when the gun goes off. “I was worried about people crashing in front of me,” Dewitt said. Morelli felt the same, “I had to really focus myself, focus on my immediate surroundings and where I needed to put my bike.”

Shortly after the start, the team encountered problems. Fifteen miles into the race, spokes broke loose on Sarah Bell’s back wheel, they whipped around, tore the derailleur off her bike and the tire went flat. In an instant, her wheel was a catastrophic failure. With no access to a replacement, Bell was out of the race. Morelli was without the partner she had planned on, and back to racing with only one eye. “I don’t quit, I just refuse to quit,” she said.

“I was thinking I was going to tear it up,” Bressler said. But as he reached the top of Sugarloaf, the second mountain on the racecourse, he started having trouble with his legs. “I was only 30 miles into a 100 Mile day and I was already feeling like there was no strength. I could not produce the power I wanted.”

After clearing and descending the second mountain, the three team members found each other on the rolling flats en route to the third and largest climb in the race. When Dewitt found Morelli, she was pushing with such determination that other racers were drafting her, so they could do less work in her wind shadow. “We got to Shawn and she was pulling a train of like 20 people,” Said Dewitt. He, Morelli and Bressler remained close to each other navigating the flats. They leaned on the help of Ride 2 Recovery crews in aid stations, who among other things, opened packages of gel and power bars and fed them to Dewitt. “I surely would have been broke off if they were not feeding me and everything,” he said.

With no fingers, Dewitt also cannot operate brakes and gear shifters on a standard bike. So the bike upon which he had been grinding away is customized by Ride 2 Recovery engineer Scotty Moro. Electronic triggers for shifters are mounted on the top tube of the frame. Dewitt bumps them with his knees to change gears. A panel behind the seat triggers disc brakes. To slow the bike, Matt backs up and presses what has become known as the butt brake. “It’s a lot less fatigue on me with the shifters and everything else,” Dewitt said.

The three vets were still close to each other as they started the 3rd and highest climb of the race, 3,000 feet up to the top of Columbine mine and the halfway point. As they pushed above the tree line, Morelli had strength in reserve and pulled away. Bressler’s problem increased. “That was the first time I started to feel the nerve pain,” he said. “It’s like a deep, deep ache. It’s kind of electrical. Then you start to get acute stabbing pains.” Bressler was still shy of halfway.

The turnaround is at 12,242 feet at the top of Columbine. What follows is a treacherous, high-speed descent from the mountain and a race back across the rolling terrain in the direction of Leadville.  After 80 miles, riders come up on a notorious spirit-breaker. They must ascend a steep, loose, water-rutted trail on the side of a mountain named powerline for the electric cables than run over the top. Late in the race, the sides of this climb are often littered with riders, head in hands, their energy or will to continue spent. Sometimes you can hear them cry out, as cramps tie their fatigued leg muscles into knots.

On the loose dirt, keeping the bike upright requires more energy than most riders want to or can spend that late in the race. Even elite and pro-racers generally elect to dismount and push the bike up sections of powerline.

Morelli made the same choice. However, given the fatigue, muscle spasms and tremors from her combat injuries had returned. “I could barely pick my leg up,” she said. She fell a couple of times, got back up and continued pushing her bike. “I was in the middle of powerline. No one was going to carry me home.”

By this stage of the race, Bressler was nearly broken. Pain shot through his body and his legs spasmed uncontrollably. He kept riding. With tears welling in his eyes, he explains how he summoned the memory of buddies lost in combat, the goals they achieved and those they never would. He resolved to complete this goal for them and for an intangible that people who have not been in combat may find hard to understand. “I feel like I have something to prove to myself, to chase away the demons. It was like the demons were nipping at my heels.” That motivation carried him over two more mountains and roughly 20 pain-filled miles back toward town.  After the odometer rolls over to 100 miles, the Leadville course leaves one last bit of torment too keep riders from an easy roll to the finish line. A left turn onto the boulevard puts them on another steep section of loose, round rocks that roll out from under the tires when depleted legs try to push the pedals. Bressler ducked his head and pushed through the pain. “It was like I was saying ‘Go to hell. I don’t quit.’”

When Bressler reached the finish line, his whole body shook. He didn’t say anything, he just groaned loudly as teammates pulled him off the bike, laid him on the pavement and got him water. “He is a hard man,” said teammate and retired marine Tommy Muir. “Jordan is a hard, hard man.” Bressler banged a fist into his knee for about 15 minutes until the spasms stopped.  He was not even aware that someone hung a finisher’s medal around his neck. “It wasn’t even that clear that I finished until I went to take a shower and noticed the medal,” he said.

Morelli rolled across the finish line and hugged teammates showing showing little emotion. “You can get through anything if you put your mind to it,” she said. “ My mind was made up in the morning.”

Dewitt claimed his little piece of history and became the first double amputee to complete the race at 5:36 PM mountain time when he rolled up to the finish 11 hours 6 minutes after the starting gun. He summoned energy to punctuate his ride by bunny hopping his bike over the line and stomping it down on the other side, hoping to inspire other wounded vets. “I hope it sends a message that you can still do stuff,” Dewitt said.