Boom Or Bust: 48 Hours At Leadville's Treacherous UltramarathonS

After 99.75 miles and more than 16 hours of running, Thomas Lorblanchet comes striding slowly down 6th Street in Leadville, Colo. It's almost 9 on an August night, and as he crests a small hill, his way is lit only by his headlamp and the glowing light from the one-story houses that line the street. His strides are short and economical, and his churning legs seem to operate independently of the rest of his body. By his face, you wouldn't even be able to tell that he was running.

Somewhere behind him are the other 794 entrants in the Leadville Trail 100, strung out along rocky mountain trails or out of the race altogether. Ahead, where 6th Street meets Harrison Avenue, the town's main street, is the finish line. He sees that if he hurries, he can finish in less than 16 hours and 30 minutes. Breaking into a sprint, he snaps the tape: 16:29.

Lorblanchet, who is sponsored by Salomon, traveled from France for this, his first time at Leadville, to race through the cold and thin mountain air on uneven trails, reaching altitudes as high as 12,000 feet. The crowd, sparsely lining the street by the finish line, greets the moment of victory with dutiful cheers. Merilee Maupin, the co-founder of the race, is waiting for Lorblanchet with a hug and a silver Leadville 100 belt buckle, which hangs from a lanyard like a medallion. A smattering of photographers from running-dedicated websites snap photographs. The winner completes a 30-second interview over a public-address system, kisses his wife and child, and disappears.

Where he's gone isn't clear. There aren't many places to go in Leadville. I've never been here before, exactly, but I've been to Idaho Springs, Georgetown, Frisco, and various other carbon copies of the standard Colorado mountain town. Harrison Avenue is lined with the requisite antique stores, coffee houses, and gem shops: a "cute" place for local tourists to walk around in and eat ice cream.

It's this event, now in its 30th year, that distinguishes Leadville from other places. I had been waiting for the first racer to cross the finish line since I'd driven into town the previous morning. I had expected Lorblanchet's triumph over the trail and his competitors to be a moment, as in other notable races.

I was wrong. The area around the finish line is just as dark and quiet as it was before Lorblanchet came sprinting to victory. It would take another 14 hours, and another mostly sleepless night in my car, before Leadville gave me the moment I was looking for. The Leadville Trail 100 isn't about who finishes first. It's about the people who finish last.

* * *

The Leadville Trail 100 was born out of failure. In 1982, the local molybdenum mine, Climax, the backbone of Leadville's economy for more than a century, was shut down—because, perversely, there was too much demand for its product. The growth of electronics made large-scale molybdenum mining worthwhile, and the small-scale operation in Leadville was squeezed out. The town was devastated financially; within 18 months, 40 percent of the population had left.

The year after the mine closed, a former miner, Ken Chlouber, came up with the idea of hosting an ultramarathon in order to inject some economic life into his hometown. As an avid marathoner himself, Chlouber was committed to making his idea a reality, despite being told by a local hospital administrator that such a race would surely lead to someone's death. Chlouber is said to have responded, "Well, then we will be famous, won't we?"

The result is one of the original and most popular ultramarathons in the United States—a leg of the "Grand Slam of Ultrarunning"—pushing runners beyond their previous limits across rocky trails and through the thinnest of air. Chlouber was right that the race would be good for business: Leadville is now synonymous with running culture, home to a series of endurance races that bring a steady stream of competitors, fans, and tourists into the town throughout the summer. Lifetime Fitness, a running apparel company that operates the race series, opened a popular retail store in the center of town.

Boom Or Bust: 48 Hours At Leadville's Treacherous Ultramarathon

At first, I found it unusual that a boom-or-bust mining town would end up having its identity so thoroughly tied to the world of fitness and endurance. Other places, like Central City, have gone for mountain casinos, which would seem more fitting. But then I went to the place where Leadville's mining legacy is housed, the National Mining Hall of Fame and Museum.

The interior of the museum is of modest size and filled with lo-fi exhibits, housed in a building that carries a distinct 1970s-schoolroom aesthetic. Rather than industrial pride, the prevailing theme is endurance and perseverance. One of the featured exhibits is a model castle, about the size of an old-fashioned storage trunk, constructed with a local assortment of rocks and minerals. Some of them have been smoothed and polished, but most remain as they were found. The model was created by a local citizen, and it took him 25 years to complete. The name of the piece is "Patience."

Then there's the final panel of an exhibit that lays out a timeline of the town's mine. The panel reads:

And there's still plenty of molybdenum to be mined at Bartlett Mountain—and it will be, when the market is right.

A hundred years from now, who knows what the story will be?

Booms and busts are but brief episodes in the slow, steady burn of life continuing apace. What better place for an ultramarathon, really?

* * *

Leadville's ultramarathon stands apart from others of its kind because it does not require the race's entrants to meet any kind of qualification. The race organizers have a soft cap of 1,100 runners and fill the field on a first-come, first-served basis. All you need to do to pit yourself against the mountains is to sign up and pay the $275 registration fee.

And then you have to run it. The course goes 50 miles, with runners going out from Leadville and back again, mostly over mountain trails. The start and finish, in town, is at 10,200 feet, and the course reaches 12,000 feet at the turnaround. There are aid stations every 10 miles or so, where racers can rest, rehydrate, eat, and get medical attention.

To keep things from straggling on forever, though, the race has a 30-hour time limit. If you can't go 100 miles in a day and a quarter—or if you miss intermediate time checkpoints at the aid stations—you're out. Most of the runners are assisted by their own crews, which drive between aid stations to resupply their runners with food, clothes, shoes, etc., and to run alongside their runners as pacers during the last 50 miles.

This year, only 358 of the 795 runners who began the race would reach the finish line in time. The others were broken by hypothermia, altitude sickness, rolled ankles, twisted knees, dehydration, nausea, dizziness, malnourishment, and muscles that cramped to the point of paralysis.

On the drive from Denver to Leadville—about 100 miles horizontally and a mile vertically—I'd briefly pondered those overmatched amateurs who choose to join the field. Why pay $275 to participate in a particularly tortuous race, with less than even odds of finishing at all? They must be crazy, I decided, and turned my thoughts to the top entrants, pushing themselves toward triumph and glory.

* * *

The highest incorporated city in America, Leadville sits in the middle of the Rocky Mountains. Imposing peaks dominate the view from almost any vantage, with Mt. Elbert—the tallest peak in the Rockies—looming above them all to the southwest. Arriving in town the day before the race, I stopped by the media center—a room with a few tables and power strips that would remain empty through the entire race—to pick up my press credential. Then I headed to the 6th Street Gym, where the runners were gathering to hear the race organizers give this year's pre-race speech. The gym was exactly as unimpressive as its name suggested, nothing more than a single basketball court flanked by wooden bleachers and adorned with ugly, skinny-rimmed baskets.

I sat down in a collapsible plastic chair next to a brother-and-sister pair. The sister, a 41-year-old lawyer, had completed the race before; her brother was running for the first time, and she had come along for support. He seemed genuinely nervous about what was about to happen to him.

I asked her what it felt like to finish. "It's an amazing accomplishment," she said. "Sometimes I'll find myself sitting in a particularly hectic or stressful meeting and I'll think to myself, 'This is nothing. I've run 100 miles before, I've done something truly amazing.'"

The pre-race welcome speech lasted for a mostly dreary hour. Various people in charge of organizing the race chipped in with rah-rah sentiments, the mayor of Leadville welcomed us graciously, and a doctor gave everyone some tips on how not to die while running 100 miles at altitude: Don't get struck by lightning. Eat lots of food. Tylenol is OK. But ibuprofen will kill your ass dead.

Things got good near the end, though, when Ken Chlouber's son, Cole, took the microphone. It's a tradition for Ken to close things out with a "Fire em' up" speech that gets everyone excited about the race, but Ken wasn't available due to a family emergency. So it fell to his son to bring the fire and brimstone. He brought it:

"My daddy was a hard-rock miner. And when you're a hard-rock miner you go way down into the pit and through the tunnel, and you come to what is known as the Face. And at the Face you're alone in the cold, and you take that steel and you drill. You drill and you take that dynamite and you blast and you walk on rock until you're done. You don't quit and you keep going. The Face is called the Truth, and the Truth is where all of you are today. At 4 a.m. you're gonna start on that starting line, you're gonna go through the toughest, baddest mountains Colorado has to offer, and you're gonna turn around and do it again."

And: "Within each and everyone one of you is a well of grit, gut, determination, and resolve."

And: "We want you to take this success, take it through life, and make your lives count. Make them better."

And: "The race is about you. Only you. ... We all have one goal: You getting that buckle on Sunday.

And: "If you quit, you're gonna let yourself down, and you're gonna have to face that."

Anyone who's seen a sports movie could imagine the scene. Each line fell like a blow from a rock hammer, and the crowd belonged to Cole. He finished by leading everyone in a chant of, "I will commit! I won't quit!" and he stepped off the stage to a standing ovation. It occurred to me, maybe a little cynically, that many of these people standing and clapping, vowing to commit and not to quit, would never see the finish line.

* * *

On race-day morning, at 3:30 a.m., Leadville's popular coffee shop, City on The Hill, was packed full of people, and a line stretched out the door in the darkness. It was about a block away from the start and finish point on Harrison, and runners and their crew members had come for one last sip of coffee and bite of muffin, and a reprieve from the biting cold outside. Nobody looked like they had gotten much sleep, and many of the racers were having trouble hiding their anxiety. Deep breaths and nervous chuckles were heard in every corner.

I sat down next to a runner who, like everyone else in the coffee shop, was decked out in the most modern racing attire: CamelBak hydration backpack, arm-warmer sleeves, compression socks, and a pair of expensive running shoes. He told me that this was his first 100-mile race, but that he had been an avid runner since college. He'd entered the race to test himself, and he said he didn't know if he would be able to really feel like himself if he were unable to finish.

Boom Or Bust: 48 Hours At Leadville's Treacherous Ultramarathon

At 4 a.m. sharp, the starting gun went off. As the mass of runners ambled down the street, Merilee Maupin, from a platform above them, shouted, "You can do more than you think you can!" and, "I will commit! I won't quit!" into a microphone over and over again. The runners made their way toward the mountains, invisible in the blackness of the distance, with the way lit only by the bulbs in their headlamps. I realized that almost all of these people would see the sun rise, set, and rise again before they had finished running, and I started to see some value in the organizers' Tony Robbins routine.

* * *

A few hours later, I drove to spend most of the morning and afternoon at the aid station in the nearby town of Twin Lakes, which marks the 40- and 60-mile point, going and coming back. The way was easy and flat, with the road turning to dirt only when I reached the speck on the map that was the town itself, in a low valley on the way up to Hope Pass, the highest point of the race.

One side of the road, opposite the station, was lined with a small crop of double-wide trailers, which serve as homes to Twin Lakes' sparse population. The station itself was the size of a two-car garage, with three walls and a tin roof. The runners entered it from one side, where a computer logged their time by reading a computer chip on their wrists. They were free to stay inside as long as they liked, with a plethora of snacks (bananas, sandwiches, watermelon, M&M's, soup) and drinks (water, soda, Rocktane) for refueling. All the aid stations were much the same, although a few of them required runners to go through a medical checkup before proceeding.

I got to Twin Lakes at 10 a.m., just in time to see the leaders zoom through the station without stopping for any food or water. There weren't many spectators there to see them, but that didn't mean they lacked fans. As Tony Krupicka, the leader at the time, ran past us, a woman sidled up next to me and said, rather lustfully, "If only we all could run like that. He's amazing."

After a few hours, the atmosphere started to change, as the crews began showing up to see their runners through. The day had warmed considerably by now, and many runners peeled off layers of clothes to leave with their crews. Cars parked on every available piece of road, trunks popped, lawn chairs were set up, and coolers full of beer and snacks opened as the crews settled in. It suddenly felt like a music festival rather than an endurance athletic event.

Once the runners arrived, though, the crews went taut. Each team fed and clothed its runner with impressive speed and efficiency, a pit crew without mechanics. One crew went so far as to create a prayer circle for its nauseated runner: "Please, speak to his stomach, Lord."

By the time the glut of runners at the back of the pack made it into Twin Lakes, the area around the aid station was packed full of crew members and spectators. At one point it was so crowded that the runners exiting the station had to pick their way through the crowd before finding the open road again. Nobody seemed to mind. An overwhelmingly positive attitude had taken root.

It began with the aid station volunteers, mostly locals, who were there to cheerlead just as much as to provide material assistance. Every runner was told that they were "lookin' great," and "doin' just fine." One volunteer, who had DNF (did not finish) with an X through it written on his arm, was especially adamant.

Spectators were in the spirit, too. For about an hour two girls stood in front of the aid station and screamed for every runner who came down the hill: "Oh man, look at this champion in the blue shirt coming our way! You are beautiful, Blue Shirt!" One of them had a kazoo, which she sometimes blew to the rhythm of a military march while saluting the passing runners. Neither one of them knew any of the people they were cheering for.

On the other side of the aid station, a bunch of guys lined up to bark encouragements at the runners, addressing them by their bib numbers. "Hey, you're doing a great job, 278. Just keep moving." "541 lookin' good! You're killing it right now, don't quit!" Behind them a chorus of cow bells and cheers rose from the crowd each time a runner went by.

* * *

After Lorblanchet and the rest of the pros finish the race, a website with live-updating results and checkpoint times lets me know that it will be many hours before another runner sees the finish line. After seeing Tony Krupicka, a two-time winner, finish fourth, I leave the quiet downtown and drive back up into the mountains.

Past midnight, I'm at the Mile 87 station, on a hilltop near a river dam. A volunteer is announcing the name of each runner over a small sound system as he or she comes in off the paved, wooded road outside, wobbly and shivering. The temperature can't be more than 40 degrees, and the clear black sky offers a bit of moonlight to help light the way. Many of the runners who enter the station fall into a severe limp as soon as their running strides break, making me worry that they'll never be able to start up again. There's an edge to the encouragement now as the runners huddle under their brown Army blankets, needing to be willed back out and forced to continue by the ever-positive volunteers and crew members.

I'm looking for something dramatic among the nonprofessional runners at this aid station, deep in the crisis point of the race: a fit of vomiting, violent delirium, tears, something that I can tell friends about later. But the runners pausing here carry solemn, heavy looks of pain and determination. I feel guilty for gawking, let alone thinking about interviewing them. They are somewhere else, far away in their own world of weathered punishment and physical agony, and the last thing they need is some jerk who's maybe a bit chilly but very much not in physical pain crowding under the heat lamp with them to ask stupid questions.

Around 1:30 a.m., with a steady stream of runners still passing through the station, I make my way back to my car, wrap myself in blankets, and pull my beanie down over my eyes. For more than 20 hours, I've been watching the packs of runners pass through various aid stations. By now, it seems less like a race, something with a particular competitive object, than like a communal exercise in self-affirmation. To run in the race is to suffer, but also to be constantly told how wonderful you were—to feel a whole world of complete strangers supporting you and cheering you on.

* * *

Now it's 8 a.m. The temperature has warmed considerably, and the sun glows in a cloudless sky. The race had its winner more than 12 hours ago, yet the crowd has grown and grown since Lorblanchet's moment of triumph. Throngs of people line 6th Street to watch the last, and largest, crop of racers come down the final stretch. The race clock reads 28:00.

Top-40 music blares from a sound system, and cheers rise over it each time another runner approaches. Two volunteers are waiting, stretching out a new piece of finish-line tape between them for every single runner to snap. The supply of finish-line tape is endless.

The atmosphere is palpably charged, as it never was for mere victory. This is the climax of the race, this parade of also-rans, cheered back into Leadville by their friends and family members. Each runner's name and hometown is called out at the finish, and Merilee Maupin is there with a hard-earned belt buckle and a sincere, prolonged hug.

Every man or woman who crosses the line turns to mush, half-standing, some so bent and hobbled that they need to be carried into the final aid station by the race medical staff. Some of them are accompanied across the line by their families. Some of them unleash guttural and triumphant screams before bending over in exhaustion. Some of them weep.

The one common emotion at the finish line, though, is joy. Even the runners who come to the end slack-jawed and nearly catatonic have a look of pure bliss growing behind their thousand-yard stares, and everyone watching is eminently sincere and genuine in expressing their happiness for those who have made it to the end. Everyone just feels so damn good. So good, in fact, that two marriage proposals occur at the finish line.

That little onrush of cynicism that I felt during Cole Chlouber's speech two days prior seems silly now. As I watch runner after runner come across the finish line, I keep thinking about what Krupicka, the fourth-place finisher, said the day before the race began. Krupicka is one of the best ultrarunners in the country, having won the Leadville Trail 100 in 2006 and 2007. I'd asked him what it's like to run a 100-mile race.

He said: "A classic slogan is that, 'It doesn't always keep getting worse.' You can be feeling really terrible at mile 70, and then 10 miles later be feeling great. Which sort of defies logic, you know? That's sort of the special thing about running 100 miles, going through those peaks and valleys and persevering through them and making it to the finish line. ... You have to have this optimism that you can persevere and have some control, too. You have the choice when shit's going bad to be tough and not get down on yourself and just hang on, because it will turn around eventually."

Control. If these people were looking for affirming rhetoric, the stuff that's been washing over them from volunteers and spectators for the past 30 hours, they could have found it in places that didn't involve a crushing run through the Rockies. The goal here was something interior: No one completes an ultramarathon half-heartedly. In order to finish a race like this, you have to be in complete command of your mind and body. Every spasm of nausea, dizziness, and muscle cramps has to be met with resolve and the certainty that this situation can be made better; that all of the pain rising in your body can be tamed for longer than it has ever been before.

An ultrarunner can't set a nagging ache aside because he or she is almost done. There is no "almost done" in a race like this. Pain cannot be ignored; it has be to be conquered, and when it inevitably returns, it has to be conquered again. Those who take on this race, whether they finish it or not, get to experience a level of mastery over their own actions that they most likely never experience in any other facet of their lives. These people come to Leadville because they want to know what that mastery feels like. They come to a fragile place built on fads and bubbles—from silver to molybdenum to distance running—to run a race that is ultimately about creating and sustaining your own unburstable bubble of hope and willpower.

Boom Or Bust: 48 Hours At Leadville's Treacherous Ultramarathon

The runner in the photo above reaches the finish five minutes after the 30-hour cutoff, the first entrant to have missed it. He crosses the finish line in a slow jog, buries his face into his hands, and bends over into a pose of defeat. He stays like this for a long while, as a group of people gather around him, offering consolation. He ignores them. After having spent 30 hours conquering so much on those mountain trails, his journey was all for nothing; a waste of money, time, and energy.

That's what his body language seems to say, at least. But I and everyone else at that finish line know better than that.