Colorado's Most Amazing and Punishing (and Magical) Race
If you get down the mountain, past the rustic log lodges of Twin Lakes while the sun is still up (and that's a hell of an if), you're psyched, because at least you have daylight to ford Lake Creek before heading back up into the ultimate meatgrinder: Sugarloaf. "I came here thinking I was going to blow this course away-until I got to Sugarloaf," says Miles Krier, who'd grown up running the deep canyons of northern California. "I'd been running ultras for 11 years, but Sugarloaf on the way back is one of the most brutal climbs I've ever done. It's so steep, so long, the temperature is dropping..."
May Queen Campground, consequently, should smell like victory: You've gone 87 miles; you've survived a long night in the woods with no company but your flashlight and rasping breath. The sun is warm and you're 13 miles from triumph. Curiously, though, May Queen is where some of the most experienced runners drop. Mary Moore, winner of the shorter Leadville Marathon in 2002, gave up here. So did Craig Robertson, who's run dozens of long races across the country, but only finished Leadville four of eight times. "Cut the band off me!" Craig demanded one year, lifting his wrist as he stumbled into May Queen.
Craig was so nauseous, the idea of one more step made him wretch. Miles Krier tried to quit at May Queen, but after a glance inside the medic's tent full of weeping, moaning, bleeding, vomiting casualties, which he calls "The House of the Damned," he instead limped on to Leadville.
Awesome! You're back in Leadville, your friends are screaming, you're minutes from pancakes and bed, but you've got one more obstacle: time. As the clock ticks down, Mayor Bud picks up his shotgun and carries out his cruel annual ritual: At the stroke of 10 a.m., 30 hours after the start, with his back to the finish line and the runners struggling toward it, Bud fires the shot that ends the race. If you've breasted the line, you've done it! Congratulations, you've won yourself a belt buckle. It's silver with "LT100" written in gold lettering. If you're late, even by a minute, you haven't.
"It hurts," Ken admits, and he knows just how much: He's run every single year, but for the last six the shotgun has beaten him to the finish.
The only runners who ever really mastered the race are the guys who appeared one year in loincloths, pirate blouses, and sandals they'd made from scraps of tire scavenged from the Leadville junkyard. They were Tarahumara (pronounced Tara-Mara), a near-mythic Indian tribe considered the world's greatest-and most reclusive-distance runners. Word of the race had reached them at their home in the bottom of Mexico's most impenetrable canyons, and lured them out to compete for only the third time in 67 years.
"Hola!" Ken greeted them. He offered the phrase he'd been taught by the high school Spanish teacher for, "Have a good race!" The Tarahumara remained silent. Few of them spoke Spanish. One of the other two times that the Tarahumara had left the canyons to compete, at the 1920 Amsterdam Olympic marathon, they finished in the middle of the pack and were amazed that the race was over already. The Tarahumara are used to drinking cactus moonshine all night, then waking up to run 150 miles while kicking a small wooden ball.