Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Then and Now: What’s Changed in Ultrarunning in the 10 Years Since the First Synchroblog

I have been invited to participate in the latest "Synchroblog" project. How exciting!

What is the "Syncroblog" project? Craig Thornley, aka "Lord Balls" (who is also race director for the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run), explains here on his "Conduct the Juices" blog. The topic for this latest Synchroblog installment is "Then and Now: What's Changed in Ultrarunning in the 10 Years Since the First Syncroblog?" and joining in this topic are Craig, Scott Dunlap, Andy Jones-Wilkins and Sean Meissner. As far as I can tell, the first Synchroblog published on January 15, 2009.

Those who have been in ultrarunning since 2009 know A LOT has changed in the last 10 years, starting with the emergence of social media--now a dominant force in society. I ran my first marathon in 2004 and my first ultra in 2005 and in those days social media didn't really exist. In 2009, a growing number of folks were starting blogs and joining Facebook.

Putting aside the many changes that have occurred in my own running life in the past 10 years--namely going from a 35-year-old runner consistently putting in 100-mile weeks, running sub-3-hour marathons, and competing for wins and podium finishes to a 45-year-old dude who, while still fairly strong (all things considered), is definitely slowing down--I am going to focus this entry on...the Leadville Trail 100-Mile Run.

I am going to show--or at least try to show--that 2009 was a pivotal year for the Leadville 100--a year that changed the course of the race for at least the next decade. But it wasn't just the year that changed the trajectory of the race; it was also a specific history-changing day: May 5, 2009.

Further below, I am also going to list some proposed improvements that I hope the Leadville 100 organizers will consider to make the race even better in the next 10 years.

But first, let's go back in time, shall we?

What Happened on May 5, 2009?
In 2009, Leadville locals Ken Chlouber and Merilee Maupin co-owned and operated the Leadville Race Series. They founded the Leadville 100 run in 1983. As the "jewel" in the spectacular Leadville Race Series "crown," the Leadville Trail 100-Mile Run in the 2000s annually drew about 450 starters--among them uber-competitive athletes. These were the days of Anton Krupicka's dominance. Anton's legend grew from his shirtless, seemingly effortless wins in Leadville. He reportedly slept in a public restroom the night before his 2006 win.

The course back then had some key differences, though fundamentally it remains the same. Back in those days, you ran through the Halfmoon Campground (about miles ~25 and 75) and up and back down the dusty Winfield Road (miles ~48-52). Plus, the Leadville National Fish Hatchery was an aid station at miles 23.5 and 76.5 (it has since been replaced with the Outward Bound station). Quick aside on the removal of the Halfmoon section: a fatal Blackhawk helicopter crash, only days before the 2009 race, forced this change. I have never understood why the course has never gone back to the Halfmoon section.

So what happened on May 5, 2009...a day that marked a new era for the Leadville 100--an era that some say has been good and others say has been bad? On May 5, 2009, a blockbuster book by journalist Christopher McDougall came out. Entitled Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen, the book would go on to sell over 3 million copies.

I will spare you a detailed overview of BTR--because you have probably already read it--but among its many stories were tails of some truly legendary Leadville 100 races in the mid-1990s, when Ann Trason endured epic showdowns against huarache-wearing Tarahumara Indians for the win. Adding to the intrigue, the book also told the story of how and why the Leadville 100 was founded in 1983.

Born to Run not only delivered Leadville to a mass audience; it also launched the relatively short-lived barefoot running boom. Anyone who ran the Leadville 100 from 2010 to about 2014 can recount many runners on the course wearing either Vibram FiveFingers or huaraches...or perhaps nothing on their feet.

The fame and intrigue that Born to Run brought to not only the Leadville 100 but also the town of Leadville could not possibly be overstated. A phenomenon, McDougall's book captured lightening in the "Leadville bottle." And this is reflected in the race registration numbers. In the 2009 race, with BTR only out 3 months, the Leadville 100 drew 498 starters--not far off from average but still the highest number in its history up to that point. Here's what happened in the next 9 years:
  • 2009: 498 starters
  • 2010: 647 starters (I registered in May)
  • 2011: 625 starters (closed out in January)
  • 2012: 795 starters (closed out in January)
  • 2013: 943 starters (closed out in January)
  • 2014: 672 starters (lottery instated))
  • 2015: 637 starters (lottery)
  • 2016: 650 starters (lottery)
  • 2017: 606 starters (lottery)
  • 2018: 712 starters (lottery)
As you can see, the Leadville 100 experienced a huge surge in registrations starting in 2010--as well as in web interest. From 2009 to 2010, it saw a 30% increase in its starting field. The 2013 race saw nearly double the number of starters as compared to 2009. If you're wondering why the precipitous drop-off in numbers after '13, we'll get to that shortly..... But the surge in interest was so steep that in 2014 the race instituted a lottery, now drawing thousands annually.

New Ownership
The surge in registrations for and interest in the Leadville 100 was only part of Born to Run's impact. The book almost overnight increased the "value" of the Leadville 100 and larger race series to the extent that suitors stepped forward with interest in buying the budding enterprise owned and operated by locals Chlouber and Maupin since 1983. Among those suitors was Life Time Fitness, a publicly-traded fitness club company.

In 2010--my first Leadville 100--Life Time purchased the race series from Chlouber and Maupin for an amount I have never been able to confirm. I ran in the last Maupin/Chlouber-owned Leadville 100 run on August 21, 2010. Quick note: Also in that race was the CEO of Life Time, who came up short in finishing the 100 in under 30 hours to score Leadman distinction.

Overall, Life Time did a solid job with the 2011 and 2012 races, though in 2012 it made a significant last-second course change, subbing in a new trail section between the near-bottom of Hope Pass and the Winfield aid station (where you turn around). While this change enhanced runner safety, the organizers announced it only a few days before the race, angering many runners who felt blindsided.

2013 Race
The 2013 race, which ended up being one of my best Leadville 100s, brought disaster to the "brand." Probably eager to cash in on the race's 30th anniversary and ongoing interest from BTR, Life Time let in many more runners than in previous years--a rumored 1,200 registered, with 943 at the starting line the morning of the race. Not only was the out-and-back course super crowded but many aid stations ran out of water and other key provisions. Plus, with many newbies on a course that is not appropriate for inexperienced ultrarunners, littering proved a problem. The 2013 race was a disaster.

In the aftermath of the 2013 race, the Hardrock Hundred dropped Leadville as a qualifier, accusing Life Time of failing to adhere to good practices related to "environmental responsibility, support of the hosting community, and having a positive impact on the health of our sport."

Understand that, going into 2013, there were rumors of Life Time marketing the Leadville 100 in its clubs nationwide. It also had instituted some really questionable promotional programs, such as a "CEO Challenge." Life Time had made the huge mistake of trying to further democratize a high-altitude, mountainous race that was/is really more appropriate for experienced runners, not your garden-variety gym rats. I am not saying that to be condescending. I am merely being straight-up that there is hard and even really hard...and then the Leadville 100. 

In the wake of the 2013 running, Life Time instituted a lottery and began "capping" the field but few still know what the cap really is. Whereas with races like Western States and Hardrock, you know the caps, with Leadville you do not. My guess is around 775 to 800 starters, understanding that 10%-20% will no-show.

Additionally, with the lottery, which began with the 2014 race, Life Time never really explained its criteria, as compared to Western States, which is very transparent with its lottery. The Leadville lottery has never taken place in public. It is a process that, in my opinion, is in need of more transparency.

Life Time Bought
In early 2015, private equity firms TPG Capital and Leonard Green & Partners purchased Life Time Fitness. With this purchase, Life Time became a private company.

Today, the race series is still owned by Life Time but rumors of its sale abound. Meanwhile, strange and seemingly off-brand sponsors have come on board, like Century Link, making some of us wonder if Life Time's investment in the race series has been cut, or maybe its interest has waned, forcing the series to seek sponsors to keep it afloat. I guess only insiders know the low-down.

A few years ago, the race also institute group registration for the lottery, angering traditionalists who decried such moves as akin to the Rock 'n' Roll marathon series.

Despite question marks about its ownership, the Leadville Race Series is still uber-popular, with many being denied entry via the ever-crowded lotteries for both the 100-mile run and bike ride, but some would say it's lost a bit of its mystique. I definitely believe its removal as a Hardrock qualifier cost the Leadville 100 some major prestige points.

The race still attracts quality runners, but is far below Western States, Hardrock and UTMB in terms of competitive fields.

The Next 10 Years!
Although it could be plausibly said by the purists that the essence of the Leadville 100 has deteriorated since Life Time purchased the series, it is still a great race that I love. It offers an incredible weekend in the mountains--an experience pushing you to the edge of your limits. While there are some concerning things going on with the race series, overall the Leadville 100's brand remains in tact...and I think that's largely because of the town, Ken and Merilee's ongoing involvement (thank God for that), and, of course, those mountains.

The race is still coasting a bit on Born to Run fumes. Rumors of a BTR movie have been circulating for some time, and quite honestly I hope it's never made. These days, you hardly see barefoot or huarache-wearing runners in the Leadville 100. It is now the age of Hoka.

Some really positive changes have happened, too, such as the new "surprise" aid station toward the top of the Power Line climb. The Mount Elbert water station, added in I believe 2011, was also a very positive change. Plus, the volunteers at the aid stations continue to be exceptional. Another thing that hasn't change is just how hard the race is! Plus, the town...it's awesome!

Summing up much of the above, opportunities for improvement in the next 10 years, in my opinion, include:
  • Create more transparency with the lottery, including a public name-drawing event similar to what the Western States Endurance Run has at Placer High School every December. It's a great way to build community and instill trust in the process.
  • Lock in the course and minimize changes. The section between the bottom of Hope Pass and Winfield has changed too much in the last 6 years. There needs to be more stability with this particularly critical section.
  • Create a board. I have been beating this drum for years but I really believe the Leadville 100 run needs a board of directors with some power--likely not going to happen so long as Life Time owns the series. If such a board exists, I know nothing of it. Look no further than Western States as a prime example of the importance a board can and should play in protecting the integrity of a historic race. If you're getting tired of me pointing back to Western States as the gold standard, sorry but it is the gold standard.
  • Institute a qualifier requirement. Leadville is a tough, tough race and one should be required to have completed at least a 50-miler--preferably a 100-miler--in the last year to enter the lottery. That alone would narrow the field of entrants.
  • Remove the CEO/Executive Challenge. It's ridiculous.
  • Remove the group registration feature. It's ridiculous. This is Leadville, not a Rock 'n' Roll Marathon.
  • Move registration to Ultrasignup or another platform that is part of the ultra community.
  • If possible, return ownership of the race to the community. This is a race that locals should own. At the very least, it should be owned by Coloradans.
  • Stop with the random stupid things, such as denying Jim Walmsley a spot in the 2019 starting field because he didn't get in through the lottery. Save a few spots for invitations for the best.
  • Add an aid station at Tabor Boat Ramp inbound (mile 93). As hardcore as I tend to like things, I think an aid station at Tabor, which is about halfway between Mayqueen inbound and the finish, will enhance runner safety.
  • Create a prize purse. Unless I am mistaken, Leadville has the freedom to throw down a prize purse for the top finishers. Why not do it?
What changes have you seen in ultrarunning in the last 10 years? Comment to share, please.

Check out what my fellow Synchrobloggers have to say about what's changed in ultra in the last 10 years!


  1. great recap, wyatt. welcome. i agree with your suggestions for Pb. private, for profit entities tend to be corporate driven and don't build the cultural continuity that fosters growth like Ken and his crew did. Hopefully, whomever is in charge this week at Lifetime will get a look at your blog and take them to heart.

    1. Thank you, Scott! You nailed it with "cultural continuity." I just feel that when you're staging an outdoor event that goes over beautiful trails and pristine mountains above treeline--most on public land--it can't be about profit. I appreciate your feedback! If I had the capital, I'd buy the damn series!!!!!!