Colorado's Most Amazing and Punishing (and Magical) Race
Rejecting gaming was courageous but potentially fatal. Leadville sure didn't have money to build any fancy convention center or any kind of touristy draws. It could barely pay the economic developer who suggested such things. Besides, who'd visit a place where every sea-level dweller has a headache the first three days in town?
Ken's master plan came courtesy of his donkey, ol' Mork. Ken needed a pair of running shoes to get in shape for the burro race. He figured he'd splurge on a pick-me-up and drive the two hours to Denver for a pair of those fancy Nikes with the waffle soles and yellow swoosh. Browsing the racks, he bumped into a guy, Jim Butera, who had a notion of a race from Vail to Aspen. Another guy in California had done something similar eight years earlier.
It would be a nice event for Aspen, Butera figured. Aspen had a resident community of endurance athletes and a crack search-and-rescue operation on hand for ski season, but most of all it was rich enough to bankroll a likely money-loser of an event. Ken knew another reason the race was better suited for Aspen than for Leadville, but he didn't share it with Butera: Miners despise tourists. To them, this would be some dumb-ass lark for pussyfooting yuppies.
On the other hand, wasn't this just what the economic developer had recommended? Use the mountains and Leadville's heritage. Besides, Leadville at its heart was a frontier village, with the same determination and underdog spirit as the ultrarunners. What was a miner, after all? A man trying to conquer a mountain.
"Screw Aspen," Ken snorted. "Let's do it in Leadville." Besides, it sounded kind of cool.
Here's how impossible it is to run from Leadville to Winfield and back: Dean Karnazes, the ultramarathon cover boy who's run 262 miles nonstop, can't do it. "We call him O-fer,'" says Ken. "He's tried it twice, and he's O-fer-2." Laurel Myers, a marathoner from Aurora, has tried it 19 times and never succeeded.
Yet here's how possible it is: Gary Johnson, the 46-year-old former governor of New Mexico, has done it. So has millionaire Steve Fossett, at age 47. King Jordan, the deaf, 62-year-old president of Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., has done it-ten times. "I told O-fer we got senior citizens up here who can kick his ass," Ken says. "Musta hurt his feelings. He's never been back." Ken never thought the Leadville Trail 100 would turn out to be such a counterintuitive conundrum that it seems to favor the old over the young, the super-determined over the super-fit.
Race Day begins around 3:30 a.m., when the runners gather outside the Leadville Courthouse. The scene is a blend of carnival and locker room. Leadville's fire trucks park near the starting line; their flashing lights, along with the streetlights and the runners' flashlights, cut throught the darkness. The pungent musk of tiger balm mingles with bug spray, sunscreen, and nervous farts. Screams of laughter erupt in the distance from partiers who've stayed up all night to see the runners off. Standing at the starting line, runners hear voices from the dark sidelines describe how vigilantes used to lynch claim-jumpers right here-"right where you're standing"-and leave their corpses to rot from the ropes.