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Yitka Winn Monday, 24 February 2014 10:17 TWEET COMMENTS 0

Saving Leadville - Page 6

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Pictured in the 2013 race, Bill Finkbeiner holds the male (30) record for most LT100 finishes. Finkbeiner ran it for the first time in 1984. Photo by Zazoosh Media

Shortly after leaving Hopeless, I exchanged an elated hug with my predecessor at Trail Runner, Ashley Arnold, who was on her way to winning the women’s race. As we headed off to our respective descents on either side of the pass, I eyed the two-way runner traffic on the other side.
I tend to run descents fast, and often make friends on downhill stretches of trail runs. At many other races, fellow runners had cheered me on with, “Go get ’em, sister!” or something similar.  Today, the first runner I blazed by called out after me, with an air of bitterness, “Nice work trashing your quads!”

A minute later, as I passed another runner and his pacer, I heard one mutter to the other, “There’s no way she’ll make it to the finish line, running like that.”

No one was in a good mood, it seemed. And, by the time I got to the bottom of Hope Pass again, neither was I. The final stretch before Winfield consisted of a quarter mile along a dusty road. Hundreds of cars lined both sides of the road, bumper-to-bumper and inching along. Horns honked; people yelled. There was nowhere for runners to go except to weave between the cars,faltering on shaky legs and coughing in the thick cloud of dust and exhaust.

When I finally made it to Winfield, my crew was nowhere to be found. I spent a few unceremonious minutes gulping down water at the aid station, then turned around and began the long journey back to Leadville. A few hundred feet up the road, I saw Steve coming toward me, running through the maze of cars.

“I’m so sorry!” he called out. “We couldn’t make it to the aid station to meet you. Your dad’s still farther up the road, stuck in traffic. It’s backed up for miles.”

According to Tami Conner and Bill Mulholland of the Forest Service Leadville Ranger District, Lifetime Fitness’ permit—which expires in September 2015—allows for “about 850 participants” in the LT100.
However, in 2013, 943 runners showed up to the starting line, an 18-percent increase over 2012’s 795 runners. Lifetime Fitness’s decision to admit an unprecedented 1,200 runners (versus 1,100 the previous year) was based on a 30-year-history of statistically consistent no-show rates.

“We’re not sure what happened,” says race director and longtime Leadvillite Josh Colley. “More people showed up than normal.”

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Marge Hickman holds the record for the most female (14) finishes at LT100. She ran her first in 1984. Photo by Zazoosh Media

In comparison, the next three biggest trail 100s in the country—Western States, Rocky Raccoon and Vermont—all cap their races at 300 to 400 runners. Moreover, 75 percent of all 100s in the U.S. start fewer than 100 runners.

When I asked Conner and Mulholland what went into determining 850 to be the number of runners whose impact the trails could handle at once, they told me, “That was done many years ago. We’re not sure what went into it. It could have been what [the race director] requested, the number he wanted to have, and felt was good in the race.”

Colley admits that 943 seemed like too many runners on the course. Next year, he says, he’ll work to keep numbers closer to 750.

But, already, damage has been done. In October, the Hardrock 100 Endurance Run, another of Colorado’s most prestigious, historic ultras, announced on its website that Leadville (among several other notable 100s, including Western States, Massanutten and Tahoe Rim Trail) will no longer count as a qualifying race.

“The Leadville 100 includes many of the features that are important for a HR [Hardrock] qualifier: high altitude, long climbs, potential for mountain weather, and more,” says the HR website. “However, the 2013 Leadville 100 ignored other traits of importance to the HR: environmental responsibility, support of the hosting community, and having a positive impact on the health of our sport.”

Indeed, the relationship between the town, the Race Series and the greater trail-running community remains tenuous. While many locals embrace the Race Series as the town’s lifeblood, not all share the warm fuzzy feelings.

On Sunday morning following the conclusion of the 2013 LT100, the popular post-race brunch spot in town, the Golden Burro, shuttered its doors. It left a note for runners: “Our city, this little café and our entire staff are finally so stressed out over trying to handle these huge crowds that … we finally decided we simply can’t do it any more. These multiple races are NOT profitable in relation to the costs involved in high payrolls, overtime and double shifts, higher food costs, etc … it’s clear the shear [sic] volume of races eventually becomes a no-win situation for everyone.”

As Bill Finkbeiner, who’d just run his 30th consecutive LT100, stood in front of the Golden Burro that morning, disappointed to miss out on his post-race breakfast tradition, the owner of nearby pizzeria High Mountain Pies stopped to say hello. When she saw the sign on the Burro’s doors, she told Finkbeiner and his friends, “We don’t open until 11, but why don’t you come on over, and I’ll make you a breakfast pizza with scrambled eggs and bacon.”

Finkbeiner, who lives in Auburn, California, says small-town moments like these are part of what makes Leadville so special. “With Wasatch or Western States,” he says, “you can go through Salt Lake City or even Auburn on race weekend and not even sense that something’s going on. In Leadville, the whole town is behind it, it seems.”

On the other hand, local residents are often unable to find parking in town on race weekends, including at the post office where many pick up their daily mail. Some are unable to even reach their own homes. According to Loretta McEllhiney, a longtime local who ran the LT100 twice in the late 1990s, Leadvillites have a saying: “When Labor Day comes, we’ll get our town back.”

By the time Sunday morning arrived, I’d been falling asleep while running (well, walking) on the trail for hours. After a rejuvenating nap at the May Queen aid station, I fell into a leapfrogging pattern with another runner over the last 13 miles.

As he ran, his pacer relayed details to him with a steady tone: “Rock to your right. Step up. A little mud. Rock to your left.”

Then I saw the sign on his back: “Blind Runner.”

There were things his pacer did not relay to him. Hundreds of gel and bar wrappers, half-eaten foil-wrapped sandwiches and plastic cups were strewn along the trail for miles. In places, piles of human waste lay several feet off the trail.

But, as we turned onto the final stretch back into Leadville, I thought also of the beautiful things he couldn’t see—the blue skies, the smiling crowds lining the street, the handmade signs congratulating us all for making it this far.

I crossed the finish in 29:27, feeling a mixed bag of emotions. Exhausted and proud, sure—but also, in some ways, let down. I’d made it to my Mecca, but I’d seen things I’d never expected to see—trashed trails, and everything from tension to frustration to outright animosity between runners. I wondered whether the overcrowding, and all its repercussions, was an outlier that could be addressed in future years, or whether it was simply a harbinger of what’s to come in our rapidly growing sport.

should runners have done a better job respecting the trails, and each other? Should the Forest Service have been more discerning with its race permits? Should Lifetime Fitness have better planned race logistics, and avoided hedging their profits on the assumption that a third of registered runners wouldn’t show up?

The answer to all these questions is likely yes—but, assigning blame is less compelling than considering opportunities for positive change. As trail runners, we can choose every day to show more respect for the trails we tread, as well as for our fellow runners. In two years, the Forest Service will have the chance to renegotiate Leadville’s race permits.

As for the race organizers, Colley promises that Lifetime Fitness is hard at work seeking ways to improve the race for next year. “Seventy percent of what we do is ask, ‘How can we make this better?’” he says.

Next year, they plan to reduce the total number of runners by about 20 percent, offer more shuttles for crews, beef up aid-station supplies, hire professional crowd-control and parking crews, increase trash receptacles and consider new parking situations at Winfield.

“I want our aid to be the best in the industry,” says Colley.

When the Climax mine shut down 32 years ago, the LT100 played a pivotal role in saving the town of Leadville. Now that Leadville—the race, that is—is facing accusations that it has lost its soul, one question remains: Can Leadville be saved … again?

Yitka Winn is Trail Runner’s Associate Editor.

 

This article originally appeared in our January 2014 issue.



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