Colorado's Most Amazing and Punishing (and Magical) Race

June 2005

The Leadville hospital director had his finger in Ken Chlouber's face, which wasn't good for his finger. If you've seen Ken, with those cowpuncher boots on his size 13 stompers and that miner's mug as craggy as the rock he blasted for a living, you'd figure out pretty quickly that you don't put a hand near his face unless you're dead drunk or dead serious.

Dr. Bob Woodward wasn't drunk. "You cannot let people run a hundred miles at this altitude," he railed. "You're going to kill them."

"Good!" Ken shot back. "At least that'll make us famous."

Ken had spent too many nights in the Leadville mines with dynamite in his jacket and a blasting cap in his helmet to take life lightly. "Boys," he used to tell his crew on the graveyard shift, "we're going under that big rock and blowing it up, and if one of us gets out alive, it's going to be Ken. So if you want to walk out with me, you'll do exactly what I say." Ordinarily, he doesn't joke about carnage, but these were not ordinary times. His neighbors were drinking hard, punching their wives, sinking into depression or fleeing town. A sort of mass psychosis was overwhelming the town, which is one of the early stages of civic death: First, people lose the means to stick it out; then come fights, arrests, and robberies; finally, folks lose the desire. It was 1982, and overnight Leadville had become the most jobless region in North America.

The Climax Molybdenum Mine had suddenly shut down, taking with it the paycheck of nearly every able-bodied man in town. Without Climax kicking in its enormous share of the property tax-in other words, without a local economy-schools and city budgets soon would be bankrupt. An epidemic of foreclosures was only a matter of time. A vision of the future was right across the mountains in Winfield and Vicksburg, and in dozens of other Colorado ghost towns that dried up after a boom. Leadville was ticking down to Deadville.  

"Hell and half of Georgia couldn't get me to leave," Ken liked to say. He loved watching the sunrise over Mt. Massive as he left the mine tunnels at dawn, and honking at buddies on Harrison Street from his black pickup with its flame-painted hood. He loved bringing his burro right into the bar for a beer every year after the Boom Days races. Ken loved Leadville, so he came up with a plan to save it.

Unfortunately, it was a really bad one. Ken wanted to start a 100-mile footrace through the mountains-a horrendous physical challenge, which would attract...actually, as far as anyone knew, the only people who ran ultramarathons were the Boulder housecleaners who called themselves Divine Madness (which everyone said was a sex cult) and those Sri Chinmoyists from New York who shuffled around the block all night. As far as publicity, the spectacle of a few silent, skinny obsessives chasing each other through the woods in the dead of night had all the ingredients of terrible TV, except in the case of a horrific catastrophe, which, according to Leadville's leading medical expert, was a near certainty. Ken wouldn't turn Leadville into Vail; he'd turn it into Jonestown.

Ken organized the first race in 1983, and sure enough the freaks were first in line. Some were burro racers who usually ran tied to a donkey; some were mountaineers missing toes; some, as predicted, were housecleaning cultists from Boulder. Interesting folks, certainly, but not the glam crowd that builds a tourist trade. However, that was only the beginning. The race has grown in ways that not even Ken, in his wildest, weirdest hopes, could have imagined. Llamas appeared, and a billionaire, and mystic guru Indians, along with a mysterious wanderer called The White Horse. Strange things began happening in Leadville-strange and wonderful things.

On August 27, 1983, less than a year after Ken's brainstorm-and at the exact hour the miners would usually be in the middle of a graveyard shift-dark shapes began moving through the Leadville streets. The ones who'd arrived the day before couldn't believe how cold it was, or how much their heads were aching. They now understood why, at around Leadville's 10,152-foot altitude, planes pressurize cabins. By 4 a.m., one woman and 44 men had gathered at Leadville's only traffic light. How many would still be alive the next morning was still in doubt. Cindy Corbin, the Leadville hospital obstetrics manager who gave prerace physicals, was sure some contestants were going to die. "Why wouldn't they?" she says. "They'd be alone all night in the mountains, with those snowstorms we get. And they were already so wired, their blood-pressure readings were off the charts." After Dr. Woodward protested that the race bordered on criminal negligence, Ken asked hospital Chief of Staff Dr. John Perna to be race medic. Perna knew his hospital director, Woodward, had a point-severe altitude sickness and exposure were the most obvious killers-and Ken's sales pitch only made it sound worse.

"It'll be in August," Ken had said.

OK, Perna thought, we can now add heat exhaustion to hypothermia.

"We'll go over Hope Pass heading out and coming in," Ken continued.

Plus possible dehydration, frostbite, fractures, and hypoxia-induced delirium and disorientation.

"And we'll cut the last ones off at 30 hours."