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Cloud City Comeback

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The first time I set foot in Leadville, it was a broken town.

Broken economy. Broken community. Broken buildings.

It was the summer of 1994, and like many residents of Colorado’s Front Range, I was just passing through. I had driven up from Boulder for the weekend with the intent of hiking a few of the 14,000-foot peaks in the Upper Arkansas River Valley and camping along Half Moon Creek in the valley between Mount Elbert and Mount Massive.

Driving through Leadville for the first time, I was struck by both the majestic peaks on either side of the city but also the deplorable state of what looked to have once been a dignified main street business district. Dozens of late-19th-century buildings still proudly lined Harrison Avenue, the main drag through town, as the end of the 20th century drew near, but chipping paint, boarded windows and defunct storefronts blatantly exposed the economic collapse following the Climax molybdenum-mine shutdown in 1982.

I was intrigued as I drove by what must have been at one time thriving businesses—the Golden Burro Café and Lounge, Bill’s Sports Shop and the Silver Dollar Saloon—but I only stopped for gas and snacks at a mini mart on the edge of town and continued on my way.

On that first visit to Leadville, I ran and hiked my way up Mount Elbert, the highest of Colorado’s 14ers at 14,439 feet, and was captivated by the views from the summit. Anchored by Elbert and neighboring Mt. Massive (14,421 feet), the Sawatch Range is Colorado’s loftiest mountain range, with three of the five highest peaks in the state making up Leadville’s western horizon line. Being up on those mountains will conjure up an awe-inspiring sense of scale to any hiker or trail runner, but they can also give context to the ruggedness of Leadville’s lofty perch too.

I returned again later that summer to bag more peaks and watch the Leadville Trail 100 unfold, witnessing the record-setting performances from Tarahumara runner Juan Herrera and American legend Ann Trason. While the Leadville 100 will always be among the most notable races in the ultrarunning world, it was the storyline of the 1994 race that really put it on the map.

Trason, then 33, was in the prime of her record-setting career when she came to Leadville and went head-to-head with five Tarahumara runners from the Copper Canyon of Mexico. Her stated intent was to win the race outright and she went for it. Only 25-year-old Juan Herrera outran Trason that day, doing so in a record-setting time of 17:30. But as an indication of how dominant Trason was at the time, her 18:06:24 effort from that race remains the course record 25 years later.

It was a transcendent summer for me, with moments that cultivated a deeper interest in trail running and what would become a growing intrigue for the small, but enduring city nestled 10,151 feet above sea level.

“It was a different time, a different sport and a different place back then,” says Peter Downing, who placed fourth in the 1991 Leadville 100 and finished runner-up in 1992. “Ultrarunning was still in its infancy. Back then, it was a bunch of old guys shuffling along and almost no one under 30 running at all. And Leadville was definitely a broken place with a dead economy.”

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