Now let's fast-forward to a few days after this year's race. With lots of anger swirling among Leadville nation, I chose to call the race director. When he didn't answer, I left a voice mail for him, expressing support for the race and confidence that Lifetime would fix the problems. I kind of expected a return call. To date, I haven't heard back from him, and a few others I know who have reached out to him also haven't heard back. In a sport where virtually everyone knows everyone, I find the lack of response to my inquiry deeply troubling. This never would have happened in the Ken and Merilee years. I am certain about it, because I can personally attest to the dedication that they put into their races. I mean, Ken fished through a pile of crap in search of my Salomons!
In order to understand what's happened to the Leadville 100 over the past few years, we first need to understand Lifetime Fitness, its business model and who it serves. Lifetime operates indoor fitness clubs in cities across the nation. There's one here in Parker. I remember a few years ago visiting the Parker club, when we were interviewing for jobs and trying to figure out if we'd move here, and they wanted me to shell out something like $30 for a day pass. Needless to say, I declined to pay and walked out. (For $5, you can get a day pass at the Parker Recreation Center, which is super nice and has an Olympic-size swimming pool.)
It's important to note that Lifetime is a publicly traded company. That means Lifetime has shareholders and trades on the New York Stock Exchange. Its shareholders are people wanting to make money. Lifetime has a CEO and a board of directors. The board is full of rich guys and gals with companies of their own. The company's mission is: "We’re here to provide an educational, entertaining, friendly and inviting, functional and innovative experience of uncompromising quality that meets the health and fitness needs of the entire family." Lifetime describes itself as "the healthy way of life company."
Here's the cold, hard reality: At the end of the day, Lifetime's goal as a publicly traded company--even if it doesn't say this--is to deliver "shareholder value." In other words, Lifetime wants to make a lot of profit that will then translate into high stock prices and happy shareholders. How do you make a lot of profit? Well, you sell lots of memberships, make people pay through the nose for one-day passes, keep costs as low as possible and invest only in what makes you the most money (this is called return on investment).
Another important part of delivering shareholder value is avoiding public relations crises that might threaten your brand and cause your stock value to go down. What happened with this year's Leadville 100 likely won't cause Lifetime's stock value to go down, mostly because A) very few people in the non-ultrarunning world know about it, and B) the media isn't onto the story (yet). Hell, I doubt even the Lifetime board of directors knows what went down in Leadville a few weeks ago.
Despite the town of Leadville's well-documented economic struggles (it was these struggles that led to the creation of the Leadville 100 in the first place), Lifetime bought the Leadville Race Series in 2010 because it obviously saw a cash cow with tons of profit potential. Some of that was because of The Book. But let's be honest here--the big cash cow was/is the 100-mile mountain bike race. We're talking about a race that guys like Lance Armstrong, Levi Leipheimer and Dave Wiens have won.
With the mountain bike race being king, it's no wonder that one event continues to get rave reviews by entrants, while the 100-mile run has continued to deteriorate in quality and, I would add, runner safety and experience. To be sure, this year's run race was dangerously overcrowded with many novices on the course who had no business out there. I was nearly killed by an idiot who almost caused me to fall down Mount Hope! And many of these novices fell behind and found themselves facing aid stations without water and other essentials.
But, one might ask, why are so many novices out there in the first place, especially given that Leadville is hardly a race you want to do without some solid experience? The answer to that question lies in who Lifetime is marketing to. They aren't marketing to you and me, save the occasional ad in Ultrarunning Magazine. No, they're marketing to their club members--a very big and cheap audience to reach. And that's a major problem. You see, Lifetime has for years operated indoor fitness clubs. By contrast, ultrarunning is an outdoor sport with participants who, for the most part, don't find much enjoyment in a gym. Ah, a cultural clash!
There is a place in ultrarunning for corporations. Consider the Western States/Montrail model. Montrail has a major stake in the Western States 100, but Montrail is an outdoor sports company. It gets the outdoor way of life and it understands ultrarunning. So it makes sense for Montrail to be involved in Western States and have a qualifying series. It makes sense for The North Face to be involved in its own ultrarunning series. It doesn't make sense for a chain of gyms to get involved in ultrarunning and try to run one of the world's most storied 100-milers, especially when a small mountain town's very livelihood is at stake.
As many of us know, there's a huge cultural difference between trail runners and, say, folks who drive to the gym a few days a week to burn some calories on the elliptical trainer. I have nothing against the elliptical folks--I think it's great that they work out. What concerns me is that Lifetime is getting them to sign up for a race that they have no business--from a fitness and experience standpoint--participating in.
So what we've been increasingly seeing in recent years--especially this year--is a sea of novices who've signed up after being aggressively marketed to in their local Lifetime club. And that has created a bloated field and led to catastrophic failures in meeting the basic raceday needs of the runners and their crews.
As for whether or not Lifetime fixes the problems that undermined runner safety and caused all kinds of problems for crews this year, we'll see. Lifetime has been mum so far. But this we do know:
- Lifetime is a publicly traded company that wants to deliver shareholder value.
- It bought the Leadville Race Series because it obviously saw a huge cash cow.
- It's making a boatload of money on the race series.
- It holds huge power over the town of Leadville, which depends on the dollars that the race series brings in every year in the form of money spent on food, lodging, etc.
- The quality of the 100-mile run has gotten worse every year, even as Lifetime's profits have most likely gone up.
- It has yet to acknowledge what happened this year, which leads one to believe that Lifetime simply doesn't care.
- Hire a race director and team that understand how to execute 100-mile foot races. Lifetime is asking too much of its current team, which has to manage a full range of races and two major events on back-to-back weekends. As it stands, the current team may understand bike races, but it doesn't understand 100-mile foot races.
- Stop marketing the race to rank-and-file Lifetime club members and start marketing the race to athletes who are prepared for the challenge.
- Engage the Leadville nation in getting the race back to where it needs to be. Lifetime needs to admit that it can't do it alone--it needs help. I'm glad to lend a hand!
- Figure out a way to make the field smaller. Maybe consider a qualifier. Definitely forewarn aspiring entrants of the monster they're going to take on. I think too many entrants don't understand what they've gotten themselves into and are caught off-guard on raceday.
- Ban crew access at Winfield and shuttle pacers into and out of the area. This will make that critical section of the race more manageable.
- Ban crew access at Mayqueen outbound (mile 13.5). The congestion at Mayqueen outbound sets a bad tone for the rest of the day.
- Establish a new aid station--without crew access due to limited parking--at Tabor Boat Ramp inbound (mile 93). This will enhance runner safety.
- Do everything you can to thank and show appreciation for the wonderful volunteers who man the Hopeless aid station. This year they were set up for failure. As I hear, they knew they'd run out of supplies and, sure enough, they did. Having to transport supplies up a mountain via llamas, they can only do so much. Take care of them because, short of a helicopter drop, there's no other way to get supplies up there.
- Get the aid station volunteers into the race by having a contest to see who has the coolest aid station. Let the aid station volunteers create their own themes. Of course, we'd want all of the aid stations to have some basic stuff, like tent cover, water, sports drink, PB&Js, soup, heaters, cots, etc., but allow the volunteers to get creative and have fun. Admittedly, this idea came to me via Footfeathers.
At this point, it's hard to be hopeful about the future of the Leadville 100-Mile Run. And that's really sad, because ultimately more than a great race is at stake. It could be the town that pays the highest price of all.