Colorado's Most Amazing and Punishing (and Magical) Race
It was one of the greatest ultra showdowns of all time, and Leadville's crowning moment. Two Old World cultures-unbending miners and unbeatable Indians-had just taught the New World a lesson that's hard to glean from professional sports and even from the amateur Olympics: that sports aren't about riches, but rather about the richness of human potential, tested and realized.
Too bad the lesson only lasted half an hour. Right after Herrera's victory, Ken says, Rick Fisher demanded that Rockport cough up $5,000. "He held Rockport hostage [so the company could] use film of the Indians," Ken says. To avoid a PR mess, Rockport paid-even though no winner has ever gotten prize money at Leadville, just a little something to help them hold up the pants. Well, bullshit on that, Ken decided. He began enforcing a rule that every runner fill out and sign their own application, which ruled out the illiterate Tarahumara. Meanwhile, Fisher, who could not be reached to comment for this story, went on the rampage, accusing Leadville and three other ultra races of conspiring against the Tarahumara.
A showdown between the Tarahumara champ and ultrarunning's current champions would draw more TV cameras to Leadville than it's seen in a decade. But the Tarahumara won't be there. The only trace of the tribe will be whispers of speculation about why they left and what could have been.
"Hear that?" Ken asks.
The two of us stop snowshoeing for a sec, and once our crunching footsteps fade away I pick up the whining bark of coyotes among the junipers. It's cold for March 27, and nowhere colder than Leadville, which CNN is declaring the chilliest city in the nation at 5 degrees. Never mind that a serious squall is brewing, Ken wants to sneak in a fast hike into the mountains to show off Hope Pass.
Along the way, we pass a giant herd of elk. If we're lucky, Ken says, we may see bighorn sheep. What we don't see are casinos, or fake-Swiss time-share villages à la Vail, or even a Starbucks. The vast cement shopping malls of Silverthorne are an hour away by car, but a century away in spirit. Bit by bit, Leadville has been plumping back out. It's changed, of course-the grammar school is predominantly Latino, and there are more Mexican restaurants than steak houses-but in the ways that matter, it's remained the same, soulful and simple. If you need a bed for the night, you talk to Miles Krier, who once shook Ken's hand and said, "Sir, I like your town and respect your race, but I'm never coming the fuck back." Now Miles owns Leadville's AnyTrail Lodge. If you want a triple latte, see Milly Austin, who abandoned her lab-manager job in Alaska and degree in cellular and molecular biology to open Cloud City Coffee House. Craig Robertson can build your house. He left a great teaching job and a gorgeous girlfriend in San Antonio to become a Leadville carpenter. And Mike Hickman, who'd been a CPA in Kansas City before running Ken's race, is now a local county commissioner. Shoot, now Leadville's even got itself a screenwriter, David King, who came here from L.A. These are all people who visited for a race but stayed for the community they found. They represent a future that without the race might not have been. Because of them, because of the race, because of Ken, Leadville's indefatigable legacy will remain rock solid for at least another generation.
For the first time in a long while Ken has time on his hands. After he got laid off from the mine, he packaged his howdy-partner charm and acute intellect into a successful run for state Legislature in 1986, followed by a seat in the state Senate. He lost an underdog race as a GOP candidate for U.S. House of Representatives in 2002 ("Got m'butt whipped"), but returned home to Leadville a well-liked and charmingly idiosyncratic Republican who dressed like Buffalo Bill and was simultaneously pro-union, pro-gun, and a pushover on gay rights ("What folks do in bed ain't my business").