Dave Mackey had been running for more than 24 hours when he turned onto 6th Street in downtown Leadville and set his sights on the finish line. It was the second time the 48-year-old Boulderite had completed all five of the Leadville Race Series endurance events. But this time was different. When he finished the Leadville 100 in the early morning hours of August 19, Mackey became the first athlete with a prosthetic leg to complete the Leadman—just 20 months after having his left leg amputated below the knee.
“It was hard,” Mackey says, comparing this year’s effort to his first Leadman in 2014, when he placed second overall. The series—which includes a mountain marathon, 50-mile mountain bike or trail run, 100-mile mountain bike race, 10k trail run, and 100-mile trail run—amounts to 284.2 miles of endurance racing on high-altitude, mountainous terrain. “But I remember coming into the [Leadville 100] finish in 2014, and I was hurting way more than when I did it with one leg.”
Mackey—with a gold-star running resume, including a USA Track and Field Ultrarunner of the Year designation in 2004 and 2005, and Ultrarunning Magazine’s 2011 North American Runner of the Year—first injured his leg in 2015, but he waited until late 2016 to amputate it, after recurring complications threatened to keep him from running pain-free ever again.
The accident happened while on a training run near his home. Mackey was navigating off the backside of Bear Peak, one of the prominent points on Boulder’s western skyline, when he stepped down to a ledge and it crumbled beneath him. He fell 50 feet, and a giant boulder landed atop of his left leg, crushing the limb’s lower half. It took four hours to rescue Mackey. The following weeks were spent shuttling between hospitals in Boulder and Denver, as doctors performed a number of reconstructive surgeries, trying to repair the open fracture wound, which had a high risk of contamination from the get-go. Between bone grafts and muscle grafts and skin grafts, Mackey spent a year ambling around with external fixator screwed into his leg, then a cane, then a limp. “The infection was persistent, the bone graph wouldn’t take,” Mackey says. “The question was how functional I would have been.”
Mackey decided he would rather amputate his leg below the knee. He hoped to maximize his quality of life, not only as an elite athlete, but as a father of two young kids. “I’m not big into labeling myself” says Mackey. “My leg is only [a small part] of the whole picture.”
Mackey originally planned to compete in the 2017 Leadman, just six months after his amputation. He would’ve raced against “One-Armed Willie” Stewart, who last year became the first-ever adaptive athlete to earn the Leadman title. But Mackey underestimated how long adjusting to a prosthetic would take. “I knew anybody can run 100 miles with one leg, which happens more often than you think,” he says. “But learning how to use the socket and not be in a ton of pain takes a year, really, because the fit of a socket needs to be just right, or else it’s really painful to even walk around.”
At the Leadman series, athletes have to be ready to perform at your best. Hundreds of elite athletes from around the world descend on Leadville annually to partake the series. Crossing the finish line of any single event is a lifetime accomplishment for most, especially the 100-mile trail run, which many consider to be one of the most challenging ultra-races in the world, due to its high-elevation profile. But a few “tough ones” compete in all of them, says Ken Chlouber, founder of the Leadville Race Series. This year, only half of the 88 Leadman/Leadwoman contenders finished all five events.
“Now to build on up to the Leadman, you gotta know that Leadville is a tough community,” says Chlouber, who was recently inducted into the U.S. Mountain Bike Hall of Fame. He founded the race series in 1984, as an economic lifejacket after the Climax mine closed and Leadville lost thousands of jobs overnight. The 100-mile mountain bike race was added a decade later, and the other races soon followed. “It just takes tough resilient people to live here,” Chlouber adds. “What Dave has done here is just a mirror image of life in Leadville. It’s just tough people that just don’t quit, don’t give up.”
Chlouber points to Mackey as a representative of what he envisioned when he first packaged all five events, officially, in the series. “It’s just constant; these athletes are always looking for another challenge, another dragon to kill,” he says. “I don’t know what’s ahead, but tough guys like Dave Mackey will fit right in. They set the standard for what we do.”
For Mackey, the greater challenges spur the greater rewards. “Part of my gift in running overall is just keeping on showing up in the day-in and day-out, which is what it takes to be good at something,” Mackey says. “Persistence is one of the biggest things I brought from the past into adapting to competing with one leg. I’ll probably keep doing it for a few more decades because of that.”