Race Across the SkyA first 100-miler attempt involves ample sweat, suffering and tears, and reveals what it really means to "dig deep"
Duncan Callahan, 27, of Gunnison, Colorado, crests the top of Hope Pass, which, at 12,600 feet, is the race's highest point, en route to winning his second Leadville Trail 100 in 17:43:24.
This article appeared in our November 2010 issue.
Loose rocks roll under my shoes like ball bearings as I skid down the spine of 12,600-foot-high Hope Pass. Nearing the halfway point of my first 100-miler, I struggle to find balance while moving as quickly as possible down the steep mountainside, leaning heavily on my trekking poles to save my quivering quadriceps.
After descending 3000 feet in three miles, the trail meets a dead-end dirt road cutting up a deep, narrow valley. I run a few painful running steps before deciding to walk the two and a half miles to the ghost town of Winfield, laboring to suck oxygen from the thin air clouded with dust churned up by a caravan of slow-moving crew vehicles. Weariness hangs on me like a lead apron and my feet throb like meat slabs beaten with a tenderizer.
I wander, dazed, into Winfield aid station, scanning the sea of cars and tents for a familiar face. “El, over here!” my husband, Rob Russell, and friend Sari Anderson call out.
A potent mixture of exhaustion, low blood sugar, relief and dread swirls inside me until I begin sobbing. Rob sets out a camp chair. Taking the weight off my feet feels so good that I consider never standing up again. By any measure, 50 miles in 11 hours is no small feat. But it is not today’s goal. That involves turning around and running those 50 miles all over again.
Welcome to the Lifetime Fitness Leadville Trail 100.
I wasn’t the only one struck with the crazy notion that running 100 miles would be a fun way to spend a weekend in the Rocky Mountains. Many who had read Born to Run, the best-selling book by Christopher McDougall, became inspired to follow in the footsteps of the now-legendary Tarahumara and unbeaten women’s record-holder Anne Trason (since 1994) and run alongside ultrarunning celebrities Tony Krupicka and Barefoot Ted.
And this year, 800 people—double last year’s fiel-d—signed up. Never mind the book’s warnings that: “Leadville racers routinely fall off bluffs, break ankles, suffer overexposure, get weird heart arrhythmias and altitude sickness. Fingers crossed, Leadville has yet to polish anyone off, probably because it beats most runners into submission before they collapse.”
The 28-year-old event is also one of the few 100-milers that doesn’t require qualifying races or use a lottery system to dole out spots. Anyone willing to cough up the $300 entry fee can enter.
On Friday, August 20, over a thousand people packed into Leadville’s old 6th Street Gym for the pre-race meeting. At the front of the hall stood a stocky man with a receding hairline, shoulder-length stringy gray hair, wearing a skin-tight cycling jersey and sweatpants with an enormous silver belt buckle.
Ken Chlouber, 71, is the miner-turned-ultrarunner who created the Leadville Trail 100 in 1982 to boost the mountain town’s sagging post-mining economy and has since become a celebrity of sorts. In his keynote speech, Ken talks about grit, guts, determination and resolve—undoubtedly all ingredients in his eclectic life as a mountaineer, bull rider, cyclist, hunter, burro racer and Colorado State Senator.
“You’re tougher than you think you are and you can do more than you think you can!” Ken bellows his trademark mantra, with race director Merilee Maupin standing by his side. Cheers arise from the over-caffeinated runners buzzing with pent-up energy from two-week tapers.
Ken hands the microphone to the race’s chief medical support, Dr. John Hill, who, instead of a dry lecture about hydration, altitude sickness and safety, delivers a veritable comedy act. “I’m not gonna lie to you, folks,” he says. “This race will make you hurt in ways you’ve never hurt before. You may be tempted to take ibuprofen, but it won’t help ya. But if you can find someone with narcotics, now that might do the trick.”
We laugh, but Dr. Hill isn’t entirely kidding. A lot can happen over a 100 miles. Before Ken’s shotgun blast at 10 a.m. on Sunday marking the race’s official 30-hour cut off, two defending champions would be carried off the course and almost 300 more of us would not finish.
In race morning’s cool, predawn darkness, a throng of runners and spectators huddle together on Leadville’s Harrison Avenue, which resembles a western movie set, complete with original wooden storefronts, a grand hotel called the Delaware and the Silver Dollar Saloon, which has been serving booze to outlaws, miners, roughnecks and, now, tourists and endurance junkies, since 1879.
At 4 a.m. the starter’s gun sends us down a residential street along which Leadvillites stand on their lawns in slippers and bath robes and wave glow sticks. Disco music blasts from an open front door.
After running the eight-mile stretch of singletrack hugging the shore of Turquoise Lake reservoir, surrounded by thickly forested mountains topped with a dusting of snow, I trot into May Queen Aid Station at mile 13.5 shortly after sunrise, where my 16-month-old son, Reed, toddles up to me. I scoop him up and give him a big kiss before handing him to my parents, who had driven 1300 miles from British Columbia to watch me run the race I told them would be the toughest challenge of my 20-year running career.
When I had first mentioned my plan to run 100 miles, they furrowed their brows and stared at me in confusion.
“But when do you sleep?” asked
“Is this really your idea of fun?” asked my dad.
“This isn’t just another trail race,” I explained. “I know what it feels like to run 50 miles in a day, but this is an opportunity to find out if I have what it takes to run double that.”
“Then we’ll be there to see you do it,” said my mom.
In fact, my motivation extended beyond my curiosity about physical endurance and willpower. The roles of wife and mom had flipped my world upside down, creating a seeping sense of vulnerability and self-doubt. I hoped that running 100 miles would help me rediscover my strength and independence.