Monday, December 27, 2010

"Miners, muckers and mean MF'ers": The story of Leadville & tips on finishing the "Race Across the Sky"

Writer's note: This post has been in the works for a while and I've finally completed it!
Updated: 7.20.2011

So, you're drawn to Leadville and that big silver and gold belt buckle? Let me tell you about my own experience with "The Race Across the Sky" and share a few observations. Maybe that'll help you decide whether or not to take on the big, bad Colorado Rocky Mountains and one of the nation and world's most famous 100-mile foot races.

My El Plato Grande buckle. Note the quarter, which gives
you a good idea of how big the buckle is.

Leadville. It captures the imagination. It captured mine. It still does. In times like these, people are looking for fulfillment and meaning. They feel pulled to a place like Leadville. Only Leadville is more than a place. It's a state of mind. It's an experience. It changes you. Forever.

Not that long ago, the very idea of completing the Leadville Trail 100-Mile Run was but a crazy dream because at the time I lived at sea level--Cleveland, Ohio to be exact. Cleveland has some challenging hills and some amazing trails (along with a wonderfully vibrant running community that makes Northeast Ohio a hotbed of ultrarunning), but what it doesn't have are huge, rocky mountains and thin air. The city of Leadville, as many know, is situated at 10,200 feet deep in the Colorado Rockies and is the highest incorporated city in North America. The 100-mile foot race is run entirely between elevations of 9,200 feet and 12,600 feet. That's more than 2 miles in the sky, hence its well-known "Race Across the Sky" nickname. Incidentally, the Leadville Trail Marathon tops out at nearly 13,200 feet and is, quite simply, a vicious slap across one's face, but nonetheless a great experiece in and of itself as it's run on old mining roads.

When we decided to move to Colorado in 2009, races like the Leadville 100 and Hard Rock 100, along with dreams of life out West and experiencing the outdoors with my wife, Anne, and our son, Noah, were big motivators. I instantly set my sights on Leadville and, in the longer term, Hard Rock, which is even more difficult. Only a few weeks after arriving in Colorado in early April of 2010, I made the plunge and registered for both the 2010 Leadville Trail Marathon and Leadville Trail 100-Mile Run. As chronicled on here, I completed both (4:55 in the Leadville Marathon and 24:47 in the Leadville 100), but not without suffering through miles and miles of thin air trekking up some nasty climbs (also click here for my 2011 Leadville Marathon report). For as long as I live, I will never forget the death marches up 13,185-foot Mosquito Pass (the turnaround point for the Leadville Marathon) and up the backside of 12,600-foot Hope Pass, more than 50 miles into the 100. I'd be remiss in not also mentioning the difficulty of the Powerline/Sugarloaf Pass climb more than 80 miles into the 100.

For this lifelong flatlander turned Coloradan, these struggles weren't about a lack of leg strength or endurance (I have plenty of both); they were about oxygen debt. When you go into oxygen debt, you go into slow motion. You might eventually come down with altitude sickness.

Ultrarunning is by its very nature a noble sport. It requires extraordinary strength of character, a well-trained mind and body, and plenty of determination. It's an up-before-dawn, day-in-and-day-out, blood-sweat-and-tears, rain-sleet-and-snow endeavor. Most ultrarunners I know are very humble, salt-of-the-earth people who would give the shirt off their back to help another. I can't decide if ultrarunning brings out these qualities, or if ultrarunning attracts people with these qualifies. My guess is some of both. At any rate, Leadville is a tangible manifestation of these qualities. In order to complete (note that I'm using "complete," not "attempt") a race like Leadville, you have to be humble and have character, yes, but you also need a little mojo and, deep down, you need confidence. You have to believe in yourself and--I would argue--a higher power far greater than your own abilities. And, you have to believe in the motto of the race:
You are better than you think you are, and you can do more than you think you can.
Just about anyone who's experienced and finished Leadville knows those words aren't a platitude; they mean something. Because when the chips are down and you're climbing Powerline/Sugarloaf Pass in the middle of the night--with more than 80 grueling miles on your severely trashed legs--you have to dig deep and believe that, yes, you can do it. In the spirit of the hard rock miners, if you dig deep enough, you will find silver and gold--in the form of a finisher's belt buckle. But you'll find far more. Leadville takes you close to the edge (I would guess races like Badwater and Hard Rock take you even further to the edge) and deep into your own soul--places you've probably never been.

It is hard to describe what it was like, and how hard it was, to complete high-altitude races of 26.2 miles and 100 miles, respectively, when for the first 37 years of my life I breathed thick, voluminous sea level air. When you're running or, as often is the case, hiking at 12,000 or 13,000 feet, the very act of eating (if you even feel the urge to eat) is hard work. (LT100 record-holder Matt Carpenter reportedly dissolved PowerBars in water for his raceday fuel.) Your legs are You can't really catch your breath. You feel deflated. Your head may be pounding or, at best, you're dizzy. You're in slow motion. And all the while you're above treeline, where the weather can change in an instant. You're shuffling along a rocky, technical trail that requires your full attention. On my first summit of Pikes Peak back in June, I quickly realized when I was post-holing through 3-foot-deep snow at more than 13,000 feet--and fighting acute exhaustion--that I wasn't in Ohio anymore. The following photo from my Pikes Peak adventure in June (I've since summitted Pikes for a second time) illustrates the point. Yes, those are clouds far below.

It took several months to really acclimate to life at more than a mile in the sky (our home is in Parker, Colorado, which is at 6,100 feet and about two hours from Leadville). I've nearly had to learn to run again; the stress high-altitude running places on your mind and body is enormous compared to that of sea level running. My Leadville 100 training landed me with a devastating foot injury for which I'm still being treated--an injury that stemmed from the ungodly strain of high-altitude training combined with blissful ignorance. I'm hopeful that in 2011, with a year of living at elevation under my belt (and hopefully a healthy foot), I'll see big improvement in both my Leadville Marathon and Leadville 100 times. I don't mind saying that I never could have finished the Leadville 100 had I not had a supportive wife, an inspirational son, an amazing crew consisting of my brother and mom, and inspiring pacers...along with the intangible experience of finishing four races of 100+ miles. Yes, I dug deep.

One of those races was a win at the Mohican Trail 100-Mile Run in 2009. Yeah, on the heels of the Mohican win, I thought I was kind of a badass. And then we moved to Colorado and I ventured to Leadville, where I was humbled and got my ass handed to me not once but twice--the marathon in July and the 100-miler seven weeks later. In the 100, 700+ runners started. Half finished. And of the finishers, only 99 of us earned the big-ass sub-25-hour buckle. About five miles out, I passed a dude who had been trying for five years to get the sub-25 buckle...and valiantly came up short every time. I worked for 24 hours and 47 minutes for that buckle, coming back from the dead at the Mayqueen aid station (mile 86.5), where I was laid up for more than 40 minutes with altitude sickness.


For me, the allure of Leadville isn't just the mountains; it's also the city itself. Leadville has a truly extraordinary "boom and bust" history. At one time, Leadville was among the wealthiest cities in Colorado--a bustling mining town and silver mecca two miles in the sky. It's where fortunes were made and lost. And it's certainly a town with its fair share of colorful characters. Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp hung out there. Lots of outlaws came through town. Maybe this is why the Leadville 100 has such a cowboy feel to it (to me, the term "cowboy" conjures up good thoughts; it is indeed unfortunate that the term has now taken on negative connotations). During World War II, soldiers at nearby Camp Hale were forbidden to go into downtown Leadville, where prostitution, drinking and general carousing were a way of life.

The city boasts a beautiful opera house, built in 1879 by Horace Austin Warner Tabor, who was Leadville's first mayor and ultimately made millions in the mining business. If you're from Leadville or even if you live in Denver like we do, the names Horace Austin Warner Tabor and Baby Doe Tabor are quite familiar. At miles 7 and 93 in the Leadville 100 course, runners may access their crew at the Tabor Boat Ramp, named in honor of Horace and Baby Doe, who sadly died broke. Baby Doe froze to death in their Matchless Mine.

In "Born to Run," McDougall paints a rather animated picture of Leadville. As previously reviewed on here, McDougall is quite the storyteller and, at times, colorful, with a tendency for exaggeration. But I think he does a nice job of depicting Leadville, where in the early to mid 90s the Tarahumara Indians in Mexico's dangerous Copper Canyons fielded some incredible runners including the team that bested the indomitable Ann Trason, contributing to the Leadville 100 legend. (As depicted by McDougall, Trason was a petite "community-college science teacher" who routinely opened up a can of whoop-ass during ultra races, compiling an unparalleled running resume over the course of her historic career.) In many corners of the ultrarunning world, the Leadville 100 is nearly mythical, and I think the city and its people are a big reason why the Leadville 100 and the entire Leadville racing series are so unique.

Although Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp are long-gone, the residents of Leadville nowadays are still pretty tough folks. Living at 10,000+ feet, with the brutal winters of the Colorado high country, is hard living. As quoted in "Born to Run," Ken Chlouber says Leadville is a home to "miners, muckers and mean mother fuckers." Living in Leadville got even harder as the 1900s progressed. The repeal of the 1928 Sherman Silver Purchase Act was a dagger near the heart of Leadville, whose economy centered a great deal around silver mining. But the town, sitting atop highly mineralized earth, had more than silver to mine. It had lead and zinc--and plenty of it. And so the Leadville economy survived the doing-away of the Sherman Act.

But then in the early 1980s, disaster struck. In 1982, the hulking Climax mine just outside Leadville started undergoing a closure. The mine, which you pass on the way into Leadville on Highway 24, was a major source of molybdenum, which is used to strengthen steel. In fact, it was the world's largest "moly" mine, supplying about 75% of the international supply of the metal. The mine is still owned, but it's largely inactive. There has been talk of it reopening, but demand for "moly" isn't quite strong enough right now, and so the mine remains closed.

The Climax mine's closure was a disaster for Leadville. According to McDougall, some eighty percent of working Leadville citizens were employed at the mine. With the closure, the city suddenly faced a grave crisis. With a huge unemployment problem following the mine closing, alcoholism, wife abuse, and other types of violence escalated to alarming levels. What Leadville endured in those very dark years was described as "civic death." It faced a future as a ghost town. Lots of folks left.

Well, a guy named Ken Chlouber, a very tough dude who was a hardrock miner, had an idea. With Leadville's future hanging in the balance, let's see if we can turn this town into a tourist attraction and endurance junkie's heaven--even if the winters are brutal and the city is at a suffocating 10,000+ feet. So Chlouber founded what McDougall calls "a monster": the Leadville Trail 100-Mile Run. Ken was inspired by Gordy Ainsleigh, founder of the Western States 100. The Leadville 100 just wrapped up its 26th year, and is now a centerpiece of a series of high-altitude mountain races that bring major talent and lots of bodies to the area. The series includes the 100-mile mountain bike race that Lance Armstrong won in 2009 and Levi Leipheimer won in 2010. But when you're talking about the Leadville Trail 100-Mile Mountain Bike Race, you have to give props to the all-time legend, Dave Wiens.

It's easy to see that the Leadville racing series provides a major economic boost to the city of Leadville. For the most part, the entire town gets behind the races. The events bring in not only the racers themselves, but also their crew and pacers, as well as plenty of spectators. These people eat in the Leadville restaurants, stay in the hotels and lodges, shop in the stores and generally consume a lot, creating a critical revenue stream for a city with a struggling economy.

Sadly, this past summer, Ken and his longtime race partner, Merilee Maupin, sold the Leadville race series to Lifetime Fitness. I ran in the last Leadville 100 "owned and operated" by Ken and Merilee. The series is now owned by a big corporation. Let's hope Lifetime Fitness keeps these races distinctively "Leadville" in nature, honoring the legacy of a great city and its hard-rock mining tradition. Anything less would be a tragedy.


If you're interested in trying the Leadville Trail 100-Mile Run, allow me to offer a few observations based on my own experience, what I've learned from others, and mistakes I made.
  • Know what you're getting yourself into. It's clear that McDougall's book is bringing a lot of people to Leadville every summer. I wanted to run the Leadville 100 prior to reading "Born to Run," but I have to say the book raised my interest to an even higher level. When I was coming down Hope Pass, I saw lots of folks struggling badly up the mountain. Most of them were close to the cut-off and probably had to drop. I saw one guy lay down on a rock totally exhausted. If you do Leadville, just know that this race is very different than a sea level event.
  • If at all possible, spend some time at altitude before the race, especially if you've never been to the high country. In training for the LT100, I did three runs in Leadville (including the marathon), had summitted Pikes Peak and did several training runs above 7,000 feet, hard runs--as in 6:50-7:10/mile pace--on a treadmill set at 13% incline (which are likely responsiblee for my plantar fasciitis), along with running 1,500 miles in 15 weeks...and that wasn't enough to compensate for my inexperience at high altitude. Ideally, if you can do the Leadville 100 Training Camp in June, go for it--it's a golden opportunity to experience the course, learn from LT100 vets (which I'm NOT since I'm just a one-time finisher) and meet other runners.
  • Piggybacking off the previous tip, have a plan for raceday nutrition. I didn't realize that what worked for me at sea level wasn't necessarily going to work at altitude. Going into the 2011 race, I'm going to experiment with liquid calories such as Perpetuem and figure out precisely what works for me. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to raceday nutrition. Figure out what works for you, but know that for many eating solids at 10,000+ feet can be brutal.
  • If nothing else, for pre-race on-course training do the Hope Pass double-crossing out-and-back, starting at and coming back to Twin Lakes.
  • Work on your hiking, especially uphill hiking. You will hike some of the front side of Hope Pass and basically all of the backside of the pass. You will also hike a big portion of the Powerline/Sugarloaf Pass climb. Training runs are seperate from training hikes, but you could incorporate both into your long outings.
  • I carried trekking poles over Hope Pass and up the Powerline/Sugarloaf climb. Do I recommend them for all LT100 entrants? For some runners, yes. For other runners, no. I will likely NOT carry them in the 2011 LT100 but my crew will have them on hand just in case. My concern about trekking poles at the LT100 is that going up Hope Pass you probably don't want to wear a Camelbak because it's too heavy. You probably want to carry a single water bottle and maybe have a second bottle on a belt. It's hard to handle a water bottle when you also have trekking poles.
  • If your goal is to finish the LT100, I would avoid doing the Leadville Trail Silver Rush 50-Mile Run, which many use as a training run, since it's 6-7 weeks before the 100 and I think that's not enough time to fully recover from 50 miles at altitude. Instead, I would do the Leadville Trail Marathon in early July as a trainer and plan to venture to Leadville plenty in the following weeks for training runs. Basically any race in Leadville is going to be a significant undertaking, so plan some recovery time if you opt for the marathon as a trainer. Disclaimer: The Leadville Marathon and Silver Rush 50-Mile Run are not run on the LT100 course!
  • Hope Pass will likely be snow-covered through June. The best time to train on Hope Pass is July and early August. Otherwise bring snow shoes or just post-hole.
  • If you want a rough idea of what it's like to run at altitudes of 12,000+ feet, get on a treadmill and breathe through a straw or two for several minutes.
  • Do a lot of hill training. If you live in or near the mountains, there's your training ground.
  • If you live at sea level and have the resources, consider buying an altitude chamber.
  • Bring a crew and I would suggest two pacers. The crew will be critical especially from the first Twin Lakes aid station (mile 40) through the end. I would recommend at least two pacers--one who can pace you over Hope Pass and back down to Twin Lakes, and the other from Twin Lakes to the finish. Your Hope Pass pacer could also step in later in the race for relief work.
  • Understand that the Powerline/Sugarloaf Pass climb, which starts at about 78 miles, has many false summits and is an ass-kicker. The good news is that after Powerline/Sugarloaf, the big ascents are behind you!
  • Get your lodging ASAP. Lodging in Leadville during the races goes fast. Reserve yours now.
  • If possible, if you're from sea level, show up at least three days and ideally five days in advance. This will give your body some time to acclimate. If three to five days isn't possible, show up the day before the race.
  • Bring plenty of gear, including gear for rain, snow and sleet. Colorado weather can change in an instant and afternoon thunderstorms are common in late summer.
  • I think 80 percent of Leadville can be run with road shoes. For the other 20 percent, which is the Hope Pass section, trail shoes are ideal.
  • Keep everything as lightweight as possible. At Leadville, muling is allowed. I never took advantage of this rule, to my own detriment. Let your pacer carry your Camelbak and other gear...because later in the race, like going up the Powerline/Sugarloaf Pass climb, carrying yourself is going to be hard enough.
Those are just some suggestions. I'm by no means a Leadville expert. Do lots of homework, check out as many race reports as possible and consider joining the Leadville 100 Yahoo! message board, which is a great source of information. Here's a great resouce (prepared by a friend of mine, Adam Feerst of Run Uphill Racing who is a previous top-20 LT100 finisher) you might want to check out. Here's another great resource brought to you through


Here's a video of Timmy Parr climbing the front side of Hope Pass during the 2009 Leadville 100--a race he won. When you get right down to it, Leadville is about surviving the Hope Pass double-crossing.

1 comment:

  1. Is that Nick Clark talking in the video?

    Great write up here Wyatt. Hope we get to share some miles in 2011.