Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Monster in the Rockies: The Leadville Trail 100-Mile Run

In the heart of the Colorado Rocky Mountains sits the small mining town of Leadville, known as “Cloud City.”

Situated at 10,200 feet, within close proximity of some of the world’s premier ski towns (Vail and Aspen to name a few), Leadville is the highest incorporated city in North America. Its winters are brutal and its summers fleeting but epic as the mountains clear of their deep snow, inviting hikers, runners and adventurers to take on some of the finest alpine trails in the world.

Towering over the town, now home to some 2,700, are among the most spectacular mountains in the lower 48 states, including the two highest peaks in Colorado, Elbert and Massive, each at over 14,400 feet and often snow-capped into July. The Sawatch Range features 8 of the 20 tallest peaks in the Rocky Mountains.

Source: Leadville Race Series
For endurance athletes worldwide, the allure of Leadville isn't just the mountains; it's also the city itself. The town oozes its storied history. In its heyday, Leadville was known for its gambling and hard living, once growing to a population of 18,000. It attracted some of the most notorious of characters, from Doc Holliday to Wyatt Earp. In those days, Leadville was among the wealthiest towns in Colorado—a bustling mining community and silver mecca two miles in the sky. Fortunes were made and lost in this “boom and bust” town. This extraordinary history is captured in the National Mining Hall of Fame & Museum, established in Leadville in 1977.

The city boasts a beautiful opera house, built in 1879 by Horace Austin Warner Tabor, who was Leadville's first mayor and made millions in the mining business. If you're from Leadville or even Denver, the names Horace Austin Warner Tabor and Baby Doe Tabor are quite familiar. They both sadly died broke. Baby Doe froze to death in their Matchless Mine—emblematic of the town’s “boom and bust” reputation. In 1895, to help breathe some life back into the Leadville economy, local residents constructed a huge ice castle. Standing some 90 feet tall, the 58,000-square-foot ice castle attracted over 250,000 tourists.

Living in Leadville got progressively harder as the 1900s progressed. The repeal of the 1928 Sherman Silver Purchase Act delivered a dagger near the heart of Leadville, where silver mining was huge. But the town, sitting atop highly mineralized earth, offered more than silver. It had lead and zinc, and plenty of it. The Leadville economy survived the repeal of the Sherman Act, with its reputation intact. During World War II, soldiers at nearby Camp Hale, home of the super-elite Tenth Mountain Division, were discouraged from going into downtown Leadville, where prostitution, drinking and general carousing were rampant.

But then in the early 1980s, disaster struck. In 1982, the hulking Climax mine just outside the town started undergoing a closure. The mine was a major source of molybdenum, used to strengthen steel, which was a big need during the Cold War. The Climax mine was the world's largest “moly” mine, supplying about three-quarters of the international supply and lots of well-paying jobs to Leadville residents.

The Climax mine's closure brought economic and social disaster to Leadville. The town faced a dire future. A majority of Leadville residents worked at the mine and now, with the gates closing, faced uncertain—indeed dire—futures. In this small mountain town, employment options were limited, and so the town plunged into economic and social despair, with over three-quarters of residents now out of work. Alcoholism surged. Marriages fell apart. Some residents even fled.

Then, in 1983, an unemployed hard rock miner had a crazy idea for Leadville’s future. His name was Ken Chlouber. Instead of letting Leadville disintegrate into another Colorado ghost town, he asked, why not take advantage of the surrounding rugged beauty and mountain trails and start a 100-mile foot race that could attract tourist dollars? With few better options on the table, Chlouber and Merilee Maupin founded the Leadville Trail 100-Mile Run.

The race course Chlouber and Maupin devised would be a monster, taking runners from downtown, through the surrounding high country and past the trailheads for Mounts Elbert and Massive, into the stunningly beautiful village of Twin Lakes, over the precarious 12,600-foot Hope Pass and into the ghost town of Winfield, and then back again, with many climbs sprinkled in for good measure--including the notoriously steep, rutted Powerline. The entire course would be between 9,200 feet and 12,600 feet. The course, as I have always seen it, represents the journey Leadville has been on for years. (Note: The course has changed a bit over the years, especially in the middle section. For example, runners no longer go through the Halfmoon Campground or Leadville National Fish Hatchery.)

When you consider that the Leadville 100 was only the third 100-miler at the time of its founding, such a course was unprecedented...and seen as downright dangerous. "You'll kill somebody!," the town doctor said to Chlouber when learning of his plans. Chlouber's retort? "We'll be famous then." Consider for a moment that the first 100-mile run, Western States, while breathtakingly challenging with its steep, deep canyons, extreme heat and 42,000 feet of combined elevation change, had a maximum altitude of "only" 8,750 feet. The second 100-miler, Old Dominion in Virginia, while no cake-walk by any stretch, was at sea level. What Chlouber and Maupin created in their "Race Across the Sky" was truly a monster in the Colorado Rockies.

But their creation was also economically advantageous to the town. Because of the depth of the challenge, runners and their crews would have to stay in town, bringing economic benefits to the community and surrounding area in the way of lodging, food and tourism dollars.

The first race was held August 27-28, 1983, with only 10 of the 45 starters finishing what was at the time billed as a "challenge." Skip Hamilton, who would go on to finish--and win--three more Leadville 100s, broke the tape in the inaugural race with a time of 20 hours and 11 minutes. Today, the Leadville 100 is the largest such race in the country in terms of finishers. In addition to putting on every race with Maupin from 1983 to 2010, Chlouber finished the 100-miler 14 times. His son, Cole, has finished the 100 four times, most recently in 2016.

Source: Leadville Race Series
With Chlouber and Maupin at the helm, the Leadville 100 quickly grew into one of the world’s premier ultramarathons, known as "The Race Across the Sky." The Leadville 100 has attracted some of the most famous ultrarunners on earth, such as Ann Trason and Matt Carpenter, both of whom still hold the course records for their respective divisions.

Looking to do more for the town, in 1994 Chlouber and Maupin created the now-famous Leadville Trail 100-Mile Mountain Bike Race. Like the run, the 100-mile MTB race has attracted the world's top talent, including living MTB legend Dave Wiens. More races, including grueling marathon and 50-mile run and bike events, were also added to create a integrated series bringing tens of thousands of people to Leadville every summer. The Leadman and Leadwoman challenges are for those souls brave enough to attempt to complete all of the events in the one summer.

In 2002, as part of their commitment to the people of Leadville, Chlouber and Maupin co-founded the Leadville Legacy Foundation to help support the changing needs of the community, such as through scholarship assistance for graduating high school seniors. In 2010, Life Time Fitness purchased the series. Chlouber and Maupin have remained intimately involved, ensuring an authentic experience for all and supporting the continued growth of the Leadville Legacy Foundation. Maupin is still there at the finish to hug every sweaty runner crossing the line.

Despite the meteoric growth of the Leadville Race Series, especially in past decade, the 100-mile run still represents what Chlouber and Maupin have called "the heart and soul" of the race series. Its motto, “You are better than you think you are and can do more than you think you can,” has long-defined the challenge. Just about anyone who's experienced and finished Leadville knows those words aren't a platitude; they mean something. You have to believe deep down you will finish. Just as with the hard rock miners of years past, if you dig deep enough, you will find silver and gold—in the form of the race’s famously huge finisher's belt buckle. But you'll find far more. Leadville takes you close to the razor’s edge of your limits and then deep into your own soul.

My 2010 buckle. Note the quarter, which is there for scale.
Even when we lived in Ohio until 2010, reading and re-reading enthralling accounts of the course and race, told by legendary mountain runners and Leadville winners like Anton Krupicka, Timothy Parr and Carpenter, I couldn’t help but fall in love with the race and town, dreaming of one day lining up for this legendary challenge. I reasoned that Leadville might be a stretch for a flatlander like me, but I still dreamt of it. (Side note: It is rumored that Krupicka, the night before winning the 2006 Leadville 100, slept in a local public restroom. Not sure if that's true but, if it is, it's hilarious.)

In 2010, my dream became a reality when Anne and I took advantage of the opportunity to relocate to a town southeast of Denver, Colorado, where we lived at 6,150 feet of elevation—more than a mile in a sky. When we arrived in Colorado, it was early spring and I still had time to register and train for the Leadville 100.

Amid my dreams of running this historic race was hesitation. I was scared, not of the distance but of the mountains and the elevation. Day after day I pulled up the registration page on my computer, never quite finding the courage to register. But then one day I got the nerve to sign up. Just like that, I was in. I had four months to get ready.

How did it turn out? Click here.

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