Saving Leadville - Page 2
With its 31-year history hosting one of the country’s most prestigious 100-milers, the town of Leadville has become synonymous with ultrarunning. The highest incorporated American city, at 10,200 feet, it is home to 2,600 residents. Each August, its eponymous footrace travels from downtown Leadville to the 50-mile turnaround at the ghost town of Winfield, and back again.
Years earlier, after running my first trail 50K with a friend in Seattle, we’d proclaimed, “Next up—Leadville or bust!” and collapsed into giddy laughter at the improbability of it all. After all, we were nothing but starry-eyed novice trail runners, testing out the sound of wild ambitions.
The Leadville Trail 100 (LT100) was our point of reference—the ultimate challenge, the Boston Marathon of the trails. The town of Leadville was our Mecca. Someday, we imagined, we’d make the pilgrimage.
Racers cruise a long stretch of downhill early in the race. Photo by Scott Laudick.
It’s not hard to see how Leadville has entrenched itself in the minds, hearts and bucket lists of trail runners everywhere. All it takes is one encounter with Ken Chlouber, the former miner, politician and self-proclaimed cowboy who co-founded the LT100 with Colorado Ultra Club’s then-president Jim Butera; Chlouber’s passion for Leadville is as colossal as the mountains that surround it.
“Leadville is a historic mining community where success means never giving up,” he says. “Never quit. Dig deep. We encourage [runners of the LT100] to take that attitude home, make it part of their family, their job, their community.”
Leadville is also unique for its longevity, as one of the oldest ultramarathons in America. More than half of the 118 100-mile races in North America have cropped up in just the last five years. Unlike many other 100s, there are no barriers to entry into Leadville—no qualifying races, no lottery, no requirements other than willingness to shell out the entry fee.
And, from the beginning, Chlouber and longtime co-race-director Merilee Maupin have used the word “family” to describe what sets them apart from other ultras. At the finish line, every runner gets a hug from Maupin.
In its inaugural race in 1983, the race drew 45 runners. In 2013, it sold out its 1,200 spots months in advance.
“It used to be like a small family reunion where you could look forward to seeing the same family every year,” says Leadville resident Marge Hickman, who has entered every race since 1984 and has 14 finishes under her belt, including a win in 1985. “Now, everybody has discovered what we always knew and wants to be a part of this gigantic family.”
Winfield aid station at mile 50, with piles of drop bags lying in the foreground. Photo by Adam Danforth
Part of the appeal of Leadville is that it is, in a way, the “everyman’s ultra.” Chlouber’s rebellion against what he perceives as the elitism of other 100-mile races has granted first-timers the opportunity to tackle the tremendous challenge that Leadville presents, alongside legends like Jurek, Matt Carpenter and Ann Trason. With a mountainous course that fluctuates between a dizzying 9,200 and 12,600 feet and boasts six major climbs and a stiff 30-hour cutoff—signified by a shotgun at 10 a.m. on Sunday—it’s no walk in the park, either.
“What never gets old is the magic of being at the finish line for the final two hours,” says Garett Graubins, who’s run Leadville five times between 1998 and 2012. “You can take the emotions and inspiration of those two hours, bottle them up and tap into them for the next year.”
In 2010, something unexpected happened. Chlouber and Maupin sold the race, including their entire series of trail-running and mountain-biking races in Leadville, to Lifetime Fitness, a two-billion-dollar conglomerate of fitness mega-gyms across the country. Whispers echoed throughout the trail-running community about whether Leadville, with all its old-timey, cozy charm, would remain true to its roots.
Part of my journey was to find the answer to that question.