Colorado's Most Amazing and Punishing (and Magical) Race
Which was way longer than the Geneva Convention allowed German prisoners of war to work at a stretch at nearby Camp Hale.
Perna delivered his assessment as gently as possible. "This could become one of those Everest expeditions where you, uh...." Perna struggled for a euphemism. "Where you lose a few." Yet Perna agreed to do it. The doctor in him didn't like the runners' risks, but the Leadville in him disliked the kind of despair-induced injuries he'd begun seeing in his ER. Whatever psychological chemistry allows miners to live in a remote, mountaintop town and risk their lives underground every day also made them, once the work was gone, unusually prone to self-destructive behavior.
"Domestic violence and alcoholism was an increasing problem," Perna says. "And ultimately, I think we faced the disappearance of the city." Leadville only had about 4,000 residents-about as many people as you'd find in the stands at a minor-league baseball game. Like Ken, Perna sensed the "lethal doldrums" developing in Leadville. The miners needed to get out of the bars and do something. And frankly, a city-sponsored recreational event with an appreciable risk of mass suicide seemed like a reasonable prescription. Since someone was going to die, better it be trained athletes in quest of a goal than miners wrecking their pickups. Besides, Perna thought, maybe the loss of a few adventurers could serve a greater good of medical research: Right after shaking Ken's hand, Perna called a pulmonary specialist in Denver and suggested he use the race as a giant, open-air coronary lab.
To hell with that death and dyin' noise, Ken thought. We ain't falling-we're fighting. To make that point, he'd brought a little surprise to the start of the first race. He could have christened the first Leadville Trail 100 with the typical starter's pistol or air horn. Instead, Ken hauled out an ugly, old shotgun, the kind of heavy-hammered blaster the local outlaws used to rob the mining companies' stagecoaches.
"Remember!" he shouted to his 45 runners. "You're tougher than you think you are!" Then he aimed his shotgun right over the Climax mine and let 'er rip.
Boom! As the blast echoed, Leadville's future began trotting into the gloom. Ken put down the gun and went running after them.
Leadville's ghosts must have cheered from the shadows. Because if the "Two Mile High City" is known for anything besides mining, it's legendary badasses.
Located 38 miles south of Vail, in Central Colorado, Leadville is the highest city in North America, at 10,152 feet, and, many days, it's also the coldest. In the 1800s, prospectors who'd risk anything were still stunned when they got this far and saw what lay ahead. "For there before their unbelieving eyes loomed the most powerful and forbidding geological phenomenon they had ever seen," Leadville historian Christian J. Buys writes. A single slip on one of those switchbacks meant death. Something as simple as an ankle sprain could be fatal. But the toughest of the lot forged ahead and triggered not just a rush but "the richest, longest-lived, bawdiest phenomenon that America has ever witnessed."
The richest man in early Leadville, Horace Tabor, was also the grittiest. A frontier grocer, he endured historic blizzards and desperate poverty while riding out two devastating cycles of claims and busts: first gold, then silver. His wife was even more iron-willed. After Horace lost their millions, his widow, Baby Doe, obeyed his deathbed request to hold on to his last property; she spent her last 30 years in a dilapidated shack at the mouth of the Matchless Mine, alone and impoverished, her body in rags and her feet wrapped in newspaper, asking help of no one.
Jesse James was drawn to Leadville, not just by stagecoaches loaded with gold and silver, but also by the wild, impenetrable mountains, which let him roam free and vanish. Doc Holliday lorded over the Leadville casinos and was often visited by his old pals, Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson. It should come as no surprise that the Unsinkable Molly Brown chose to make Leadville her home.
"Folks who live at 10,000 feet are cut from a different kind of leather," Ken likes to say. Despite his shotgun séance with the spirits of Leadville, the truth was Ken had no clue if anyone really would be able to finish the race-hell, himself included. All he knew was how tough it was for even a donkey to run 22 miles in Leadville. It was his donkey, after all, that led to the idea in the first place.