Leadville is a small mountain town in Colorado about 2 hours southwest of Denver. It looks like an old cowboy town, and legend has it the last time Doc Holliday shot someone it took place in a saloon on main street. There are high snow-covered peaks in every direction. More recently, Leadville has drawn recognition for a different reason: the races.
Leadville is home to some of the hardest and most famous trail races in the world. Trail runners and mountain bikers from all over the world flock to the town to test their grit on the rugged courses. The most famous is the 100-mile run; the first and most epic of the ultra-marathons in the United States. Anyone who has read the book Born to Run may remember reading about it in the opening chapters.
I didn’t run that race; I can’t even fathom attempting it. However, I did run the Leadville marathon. Before you discount me as a coward for not running the real show, let me explain the marathon. It’s 26.6 miles like any other marathon, however that’s where the similarities stop. Instead of smooth road, the trail is rocky. Instead of flat terrain, runners have to climb 6,330 ft. in order to finish. And unlike most races run somewhere around sea level, the race peaks out at 13,200 ft.
It’s hard to put those numbers into perspective but let me try; imagine having to go up the stairs at the Freedom Tower in NY (tallest building in the United States) from the bottom to the very top. Do that more than 3 and a half times and that’s how much climbing runners must endure during the race. Then at the peak elevation of 13,200 ft. there is almost 40% less oxygen than there is at sea level. If you are coming from out of town you will certainly be wondering where the air has gone and why you can’t catch your breath. That is, if you don’t get altitude sickness on your way up (headache, stomach, dizziness vomiting, etc.). Now, replace the road of a normal marathon with dirt, boulders, running water and snow. Any one of those changes would make a marathon exponentially harder, add all 3 together and you have Leadville.
This was my third year running a race in Leadville. The last two years I ran the 15.5-mile race but this year I decided to go for the full marathon. There’s a crowd of a few hundred people at the finish line but that’s it. There are very few people besides staff and campers along the trail; the only people cheering you on are the other runners. And because only about 600 people run the marathon, you find yourself alone in the mountains quite a bit. You can’t wear headphones and you have to keep your eyes on your feet at every step to avoid a vicious rocky fall. Mentally and physically, it’s a totally difference race.
All that said it’s an incredible experience. The views in every direction are absolutely stunning throughout the entire race. That is, if you are able to forget the pain long enough to enjoy them. Kenneth Chlouber started the race 35 years ago, and he still fires a shotgun to get the race started every year. Leadville takes the race seriously and the whole town comes out for it. They have a big barbecue with free drinks and food for runners, and locals line the street near town where the race starts. The camaraderie between the runners is incredible. These are competitive runners, but everyone you run by offers encouragement. If someone falls, runners immediately are there to help him or her up. If someone starts to cramp, I assure you any runner who notices will give him or her a swig of their precious water bottle or a salt tablet if they have it. The race is small enough that every finishers name is announced to humble cheering as they cross the finish line in town.
The winning time was 3 hours 40 minutes (by a Leadville local mind you), much longer than your average marathon. It was one of the hardest physical and mental challenges of my life. My time was 5 hours 11 minutes which put me in 93rd place overall. I don’t know if I’ll ever do it again but all the pain was totally worth it. Are you up for the challenge?
Written by Kyle Barrett, Founder at Bighorn
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