Friday, November 1, 2013

In Defense of Leadville (Yet Again) and Western States

I said I wouldn't weigh in on this issue but I've literally received 27 e-mails/Facebook messages from people asking me to offer my thoughts. So here goes....
“A note about the 2013 Leadville 100: The Leadville 100 includes many of the features that are important for a HR qualifier: high altitude, long climbs, potential for mountain weather, and more. However, the 2013 Leadville 100 ignored other traits of importance to the HR: environmental responsibility, support of the hosting community, and having a positive impact on the health of our sport. Because of timing, the 2013 LT100 will still be accepted as a qualifier for the 2014 HR. LT100 finishes will not be accepted as qualifiers for the 2015 HRH and beyond.”

That’s a recent statement from the Hardrock 100, which earlier this week revised its qualifications standards to exclude the Leadville100, the Western States 100 and other big races from its list of feeders.

The purpose of this post isn’t to whine about the decision. Let me state up front that Hardrock is a great race and it’s well-run and the people who participate year in and year out are, from what I know, representative of the best in this sport. It had always been my dream to one day line up for Hardrock—I see that course as an epic challenge. But at this point, my dream of doing Hardrock is on hold. I'll explain more below.

Let me also state that Hardrock, in the statement above, shined a light on some legitimate concerns stemming from this year’s Leadville race. Simply put, there were issues—mostly related to growing pains and the challenges you get with new ownership—and I’ve shared my concerns on this blog and via other means, including direct outreach to the race. To date, the Leadville organizers have been rather quiet, to say the least. So no one knows what’s happening on the inside and whether or not the 2014 running will involve some needed improvements. My inclination all along has been to give the organizers the benefit of the doubt, even amid the silence. Call me naïve but I think the organizers care about the race. They had a come-to-Jesus moment this past August and let’s hope they learn from it and make adjustments.

Sadly, there have been many people to lash out at the Leadville organizers, venting on Facebook, blogs, podcasts, etc. Some of this has been thoughtful criticism, but there’s also been plenty of slash-and-burn tactics and agendas at work. As a PR professional, I’m a bit perplexed as to why the Leadville organizers haven’t been out there talking. Being quiet during a PR crisis doesn’t work—you lose control of the issue and that’s what we’ve seen with continued attacks on the race and now this unprecedented power-play by another race (Hardrock). It's worth noting that, according to what I know, no one at Hardrock reached out to Leadville before the decision was public. To me, that's troubling.

It’s important to acknowledge that Western States and Leadville, along with Vermont and Old Dominion, are among the original 100s. Western States was first, and then along came Leadville. The sport of 100-mile racing came to be because one man had the courage and tenacity to go the full distance against horses back in 1974. The rest, as they say, is history—and what a glorious history it is. Western States has always been a Hardrock qualifier. In fact, there have been many to attempt the grueling Western States/Hardrock double—both races happening a few weeks apart. In that regard, there’s been a link between the two races—a link that Hardrock seems to want to break. I say all of that because it’s truly incredible to me that Hardrock has now scrubbed its qualifier list of the race that got it all started in the first place—a race that is no easy feat with its 18,000 feet of climbing and 21,000 feet of descending through red-hot canyons. Simply put, there would probably be no Hardrock if Gordy Ainsleigh had not completed what was considered a crazy, stupid, asinine, impossible 100-mile run in 1974. And there certainly never would have been a Leadville, either. God bless Gordy Ainsleigh. The man is a legend, and the race he founded occupies a special place in the sport’s pantheon—as in front and center. Western States deserves all the prestige it now has--and it's been a responsible steward of that prestige, its place in the sport, and the trust that runners put in its organizers every June. Western States is the gold standard. And so it's rather shocking (and saddening) to see another race's actions amount to undermining Western States' unique place in the sport.

Then you have Leadville. I’ll spare you a history lesson, but let me say this: the Leadville 100 was founded in 1982 to essentially save the town of Leadville from economic ruin. At the time, the town was within inches of death as a result of a mine closure. The skiing in Leadville isn't great so that wasn't an option for breathing new life into the town--but a 100-mile footrace might be! And so began the Leadville 100. While the town continues to struggle a bit, there is no doubt that the Leadville 100 and, to a larger extent, the Leadville Race Series have a significant economic impact. Leadville is a fairly isolated mountain town, so those who participate in the races, be it racers, crew members and families, usually stay in Leadville, where they spend lots of money. So it’s fair to say Ken Chlouber’s original vision for the race remains intact today. That said, there is certainly a love-hate relationship with the race series among town residents—and understandably so. Their small, quiet town is essentially invaded by endurance athletes every summer. But those athletes and their supporters spend lots of money in the process. So the town ultimately wins.

Having established all of that, I really want to focus on Hardrock’s decision to eliminate Leadville from its qualifier list. This decision was made on the grounds of a judgment against Leadville—that the 2013 race crossed the line in terms of “environmental responsibility, support of the hosting community, and having a positive impact on the health of our sport.” No specific details were shared. That’s all the information we have.

Let’s talk about environmental responsibility. Every race has a carbon footprint, whether it’s cups at aid stations, crew vehicles, use of pristine mountain trails, or transportation to and from events. Hell, even the clothes we racers wear represent a carbon footprint. Pointing a finger of blame at a race for its environmental impact opens up a can of worms and is breathtakingly judgmental when the race pointing that finger has an environmental impact of its own (be that as it may, why does Leadville and not UTMB, with its 2,000+ racers, get blamed here?). That said, littering is an issue I really want Leadville to take on in the 2014 race. There is no excuse to purposely litter on a trail…or anywhere for that matter. Every morning on my runs I pick up garbage. I get it, folks. Littering pisses me off. Big time.

Now let’s address “support of the hosting community.” What does that mean? No seriously, what does that mean? Because with Leadville we’re talking about a race that brings an economic impact to a depressed mountain town that numbers in the hundreds of thousands, if not millions. My "team" alone drops $2,000-$3,000 while we're there. During race weekend, every hotel and cabin is booked. Restaurants and shops are full. The Leadville Safeway is bombarded. Hell, even the hospital is busier than usual. You get the idea. Leadville brings the cash, baby, and I love being a part of that. And when you look at the Leadville Race Series as a whole, the economic impact is even higher. I’ll bet there’s not another ultra out there that has a larger economic impact that’s focused on one area than Leadville. That said, the organizers need to be more transparent about this issue. I would love to know the exact economic impact the races have.

On a related note, while I don’t know the terms of the sale to Lifetime Fitness back in 2010, I’ll bet that among them is a promise to bring lots of racers to Leadville every year. The more racers there are, the more dollars come to the community (and Lifetime?). If the field is reduced, the town suffers. It’s just that simple. So the relationship between the Leadville 100 and “hosting community” is pretty unique. And it’s also kind of untidy at times. As with almost anything in life, there are going to be conflicts now and then. Let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water.

I’m getting a tad bored so I’ll try to get through Leadville’s purported failure in “having a positive impact on the health of our sport” as quickly as possible. Simply put, I don’t get this accusation. How is having a race that attracts over a thousand runners, many of them newbies, not positive for the sport? I thought growth was good? I guess it’s not? And how is Leadville’s hugely awesome economic impact on its “hosting community” not a big plus for the sport? That economic impact shows what ultrarunning can do for communities. Yeah, I don’t get this one. Someone needs to explain it to me.

Bottom line: Removing Western States from the qualifier list was a huge slap in the face of the most hallowed race in the sport. We owe an eternal debt of gratitude to our sport’s founder, Gordy Ainsleigh, and to the race that got it all started and continues to set the standard. As for removing Leadville from the qualifier list, this I say: “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.”

Final point: Lots of people love to say Leadville is flat and not that hard. Really? The race is 100 miles between elevations of 9,200 feet and 12,600 feet, with about 17,000 feet of climbing, two rugged mountain crossings and very technical terrain the last 15 miles when most of us are running in the pitch-black dark. The weather is iffy, to say the least. This is no walk/jog in the park, folks. So to suggest Leadville is flat and not that hard is just absurd. Is Hardrock harder? I don’t think you can answer that question because the two races are totally different. Whereas Leadville is mostly runnable, Hardrock requires a lot of hiking. So it’s unfair to compare the two. But on the basis of the courses by themselves, yeah, Hardrock is in a league of its own. But Leadville will certainly help prepare you for it.

I do hope this decision by Hardrock is revisited and overturned. Hardrock is a great race and it’s captured my imagination for years. The folks who organize Hardrock clearly have built and continue to maintain a great race. My favorite cover of Ultrarunning magazine was of Kyle Skaggs in the process of breaking the Hardrock record—a record that still stands. I’m in awe of how tough that race is and of the people who do it year after year.

Sadly, until this decision by Hardrock is overturned, I’ll refrain from entering the lottery. Not that I'd be eligible anyway... And not that anyone cares.


  1. I think everyone with false outrage should just refuse to enter the lottery for Hardrock. :)

  2. This is great Wyatt! I really never thought the WS100 angle through but you are right, that is the source from which all other races were born. And even though I have had no particular interest in WS100, I still respect the place that race holds in our respective histories as ultra runners. It could almost be perceived that HR100 is wanting to undermine (read forget) that history.

  3. It is crazy to see this debate flaring up again. I wholeheartedly think that what Lifetime is doing with LT100 is all wrong. Regardless of the make up of the course (how much is roads vs trails), there is a direct impact to the course, the town, and the environment with an ever growing number of runners. What's more, the fact that many of those runners are thrill seekers that are not qualified and don't understand the trail runner "code" also has an impact on the course, the town, and environment. So, I think they should limit the number of entrants AND limit how much of the course pacers can run to limit/reduce the impact that 1200 runners (plus pacers and crew) has on litter, traffic, single-track trail, etc...

    That said, I am really annoyed that Hardrock chose to pass judgement on Leadville. They admitted in their report that "The Leadville 100 includes many of the features that are important for a HR qualifier: high altitude, long climbs, potential for mountain weather, and more." Shouldn't that be what they care about? Who are they to decide what the "important traits" are for all the ultra community? Ultimately it should be the other runners that pass judgement on Leadville by deciding whether or not to run the race.

  4. Hi Wyatt. This is a thoughtful response, and I completely agree with you. It would have been so much better obviously to have simply dropped Leadville without the preachy explanation. That is really over the top, uncalled for, and doesn't make much sense. I have raced the LT100 MTB a couple of times, and tried Leadman last year. I DNFed at mile 60 on the run, and my only problem before that was the crowded conditions at the 50 mile turnaround. I don't recall seeing trash on the trail in those 60 miles anyway. I believe those who say it was a big problem later in the race. But, I have seen the littering problem grow and grow in the last 7 or 8 years at many trail events I have been part of. I wish there were not so many people in either 100, but just accepted it since I knew going in it would be that way. And it was crowded on the bike course before it was ever sold to Lifetime. I am done with the bike race, but am quite likely to sign up for the 100 run again. It would still mean a lot to me to finish it. I met people from all over the world last summer who had come there to run the LT100, and I know it meant a great deal to each one of them. I don't know what changes may be made, but I did send a polite simple e-mail a few weeks ago to one of the persons running the event. They told me that yes they are assessing the size of the field, crew access, and more. I believe there will be positive changes made but have no idea when those will be announced. I do believe the persons I met last summer running the races care about the quality of the events as much as anyone else. We will see.

  5. Hi Wyatt. I agree with your comments completely, and it is too bad these issues have come up again as far as Leadville is concerned. Because it has been beaten to death really. But, the preachy proclamation in regards to the LT100 is way over the top and doesn't make a lot of sense as you carefully explained. Don't want it as qualifier? Fine, just drop it but spare everyone the pronouncements. The LT100 bike and run are big, crowded fields. Racers must know this before signing up, and evidently most don't care. Interesting that the marathon and 50 milers, great events also, don't even sell out. I tried Leadman last year and it was a great experience. I met the race staff, who actually do live in Leadville, and I trust they want quality events. I sent an e-mail a few weeks ago to one of them and they indicated they are assessing the 100 run for changes as far as the number of participants, crew access, and other issues. I think everyone will see positive changes in 2014. But, it will still be a big field I am sure by a lot of US ultra standards. It is a great event, and means a lot to those from around the world who are able to finish it. I know I want to give it another shot.

  6. Hi Wyatt. Totally agree with all your comments on the situation. I loved my Leadville 2013 experience. Don't really want to harp on and on about this decision to remove it as a HR qualifier but I put up a few littles blog after my Leadville. Nothing too in depth but has a few of my views. Feel free to check it out.

  7. The Hardrock list seems a bit arbitrary to me. They list a several criteria for the qualifiers but then make any number of exceptions. Several of the races on the list (Cascade Crest, Grindstone, Pine to Palm, Mogollon) don't have any high elevation for instance, even though that is the first criteria listed. TRT is dropped from the list, even though it does.

    Hey, it's their race, they can do whatever they want. But the new list of qualifiers is not defensible by any objective standard, including the standards they published.

    A lot of folks want to run Hardrock and Western States. Way more than either can reasonably accommodate. Having said that, there are now more than 100 100-milers each year in the US alone. Many of them are outstanding events which will change your life. If you don't get into Western or Hardrock, go run one of them.

  8. I loved your WSER angle and your obvious affection for it. The Auburn/Cool/Foresthill area is a breeding ground for the Gordy's of the world. Sadly, The WSER board has forgotten its local roots and own storied history. The new list of WSER qualifiers has eliminated all the local races in favor of larger (and easier) ones. I get the need for standards, but the local running community is the backbone of WSER -- we do the trail work, are rebuilding the bridges after the fire, and do everything under the sun come race weekend. We run the trail with the WSER legends and newbies alike. It's a sad day when a local comparable 100 miler like Rio Del Lago (ranked 94% on is eliminated (and no other created to replace it)and Rocky Raccoon is kept (ranked 83%) due to size. Like Leadville, we are small towns with tough economic times. Many of us could never afford to take a week off of work and travel with crew and pacers. We love Gordy, Cowman, Twietmyer, Cathy Mason (first woman to complete both the Tevis and WSER in one year)and all the rest of out local legends, but WSER will suffer without the support of the local running community. And we suffer without newbies dreaming of running WSER. I'm afraid WSER will be all about elite runners and big dollar sponsorship. If that happens, it will be too sad for words ....

  9. Absolutely agree. One quick thing: Old Dominion is actually older than Leadville. OD was technically the first measured 100 miler in the country (Western States was not actually 100 miles for the first few years it was run).

  10. Glad you deleted your prior post. Having followed your blog for over 2 years I was very disappointed and surprised at you specifically ridiculing an individual who never directly attacked you.

  11. Having no skin in this game, I can't comment on this topic, but I look forward to one day running Leadville.

  12. I have only run 2 ultras: the Leadville 100 and the Western States 100. Both were class acts. The camaraderie was unlike any other race I have entered. I was shocked these two races are being disqualified. I am in the lottery this year and hope to be selected. These three races might very well be the only ultras I run. Obviously, I will not be signing up next year.

  13. I was at Leadville this year and experienced many of the problems, that all related to just too many people. I am returning, because I know everyone makes mistakes. Greatness will be determined by what they do to fix this. I am hopeful. As for Hardrock, I will just have to run The Bear or Wasatch to apply for the lottery again.

  14. Just out of curiosity i would like to know is anyone able to enter the leadville 100 for running or is there a qualification process etc?