The Race Across the Sky

Article by Lynda la Rocca

Events – August 1994 – Colorado Central Magazine

It’s approaching 4 a.m. in downtown Leadville, a city not exactly famous for its nightlife. Yet tonight — or is it this morning? — the joint is jumping.

I’m one of about 400 people — most wearing what looks like neon underwear — jamming the intersection of Harrison Avenue and West 6th Street. Nearby an olive-drab Army tent sprawls across the courthouse lawn. A woman perches on a scaffold, megaphone in hand. As a final surreal touch, a mountain man in furs and leggings (probably the only person dressed appropriately for the 45° temperature) totes a muzzleloader past the crowd.

Are these the preparations for some bizarre high country ritual? Or is someone shooting the western equivalent of a Fellini film?

Neither. The starting gun is about to sound on the Leadville Trail 100, one of the world’s most grueling ultraruns.

Runners tackle a 50-miles-out and 50-miles-back course through the San Isabel National Forest, doubling back at the ghost town of Winfield in northern Chaffee County. Trail elevations range from a “low” of 9,200 feet to 12,600-foot Hope Pass south of Twin Lakes village.

The course is rocky. The course is steep. The runners follow it through the night, foregoing sleep, wearing cap lamps and waving flashlights to stay on course, and determine the source of assorted rustlings, grunts, howls and wails echoing through the darkness — most of which are not emanating from local wildlife.

Although I’m part of the action, it’s not as a runner. From where I sit, and “sit” is the operative word, life affords few activities worth indulging in at 4 a.m. Those that come to mind do not involve running shoes.

So could I run the Trail 100 — if I absolutely had to? Not in this lifetime. My running genes cease functioning at the quarter-mile mark. If I tried running 100 miles in 30 hours or less, over some of the country’s roughest, highest, most unforgiving terrain, I’d never be heard of again, except at the memorial service.

Then what am I doing standing in this sea of spandex? Simple. I’m here to cheer 300 runners on their way. I’m here to show these intrepid souls that, though I sometimes think they’re crazy, I also think they’re wonderful. I’m here to applaud their ability to persevere, endure, and triumph.

And as the day progresses, I’ll continue to show my support while volunteering at a race aid station and checkpoint.

OVER THE YEARS, my aid station duties have included cutting up enough fruit to feed a small Third World country, boiling potatoes, making soup, and restocking M&M bowls. These are all staple runners’ foods.

But everybody’s got a gimmick. One Trail 100 veteran — you know who you are — swore by massive Balltown Burgers from the now-defunct Balltown Lounge. Another tried chocolate. Then there was “Pizza Man”…

I’ve mixed industrial size — and strength — batches of sports drinks, recorded runners’ times, searched for drop bags holding personal supplies, dripped contact lens solution into reddened eyes, tucked blankets around fatigued racers, and exchanged sweaty hugs with friends on the run.

I’ve even practiced my Spanish with teammates of last year’s first-place finisher, 55-year-old Victoriano Churro, a Tarahumara Indian from northwestern Mexico. Fearing he’d be considered too old to participate, Churro initially lied about his age, claiming to be 38. The amazing thing is, he looked so good, no one even questioned him. He completed the race in just over 20 hours.

The modest, sedate Tarahumaras, two of whom finished second and fifth, made a memorable impression with their loin cloths, tunic-style shirts, peaked caps, and sandals pieced together from discarded tires scavenged from the Leadville landfill. The sandals qualified as distance footwear because the tires still had some tread.

The Tarahumaras’ appearance at the Twin Lakes aid station prompted one volunteer to tell her young son, “Don’t ever ask me for $150 running shoes again”

The aid stations are the place to observe race action and collect anecdotes.

One year, I volunteered for the final shift at the May Queen, the first — and last — mandatory course checkpoint. It was nearing cut-off time when a woman staggered into the aid station tent, sobbing uncontrollably. Several of us rushed to her aid, leading her to a cot, offering cookies and earnestly assuring her that she could still make it to the finish line. “I’m a pacer,” she finally gasped as her runner entered the tent.

“You’d better let her stay here. She needs the rest, her runner advised on the way out.”

BUT FOR PURE DRAMA there’s no place like the finish line. Few sights are more nerve-wracking — or exciting — than spotting the last runners turning onto West Sixth Street in the final moments of the race. As pacers, families, friends, and strangers urge them on, these racers stumble across the finish line, often literally falling into the arms of whoever’s closest. Some make it with less than 30 seconds to spare. Some miss it by even less.

And me? I’m at the finish line, crying for the finishers and for the non-finishers. I cry longest and hardest for the last straggler across the line. Then I gear up to cry again at the post-race awards ceremony.

I’m just so thrilled for all the Trail 100 participants. Whether they finished or not, they challenged themselves. They tried. And as far as I’m concerned, they all succeeded.

Race director Merilee O’Neal also admits to getting teary-eyed with nearly my same frequency.

“You don’t receive much more than a belt buckle for completing this race, so the only reason to run it is for personal satisfaction,” O’Neal explains. “It would be so easy to quit. It’s personal drive and determination that keeps these runners going.”

That, plus the promise of a hot shower, a good night’s sleep, and the chance to do it all over again in next year’s Leadville Trail 100.

When she’s not assisting hard-core runners. Lynda la Rocca is a free-lance writer based in Leadville.