In the pre-dawn dark of 4 a.m., 850 competitors will gather on Sixth Street at the start of the Leadville Trail 100 run.
Getting up early is just the first of many challenges and sacrifices that the competitors will face throughout the next 17-plus hours along the 100-mile course.
2013 marks the 31st year of the Leadville Trail 100, which was started by Leadville local Ken Chlouber, who hoped the race would bring overnight visitors to the town, which was struggling economically after the shutdown of the nearby Climax mine.
“Besides being an athletic event, they were trying to make it a stimulator for the town of Leadville,” said race director Josh Colley.
The popularity of the race has grown so much over the years that now event organizers cap the number of entrants at 850, which it consistently reaches. Racers don’t need to qualify to run; they just need to sign up.
“We’ve always been welcoming to anybody who wants to try, whether a beginner or a pro,” Colley said.
This year’s race features a number of well-known names among the ranks of ultra running. Ryan Sandes, who hails from South Africa, won the race in 2011 and is back again this year. The women’s champion of 2012, Tina Lewis, is also returning.
Those who have read the book “Born to Run” by Christopher McDougall, or follow ultramarathons with regularity, will recognize the name Scott Jurek. A professional ultra runner, Jurek has won numerous 100-mile races all over the world.
Among the returnees this year is the man who has returned the most. Bill Finkbeiner, of California, has raced in 29 of the Leadville 100 races that have been held so far. This year, he will be attempting to complete his 30th. Those who have competed at least 10 years — and run 1,000 total miles — are awarded a commemorative belt buckle. If he crosses the finish line this year, Finkbeiner will be the first to have done so for the past three decades.
“We’re really going to push as hard as we can to support Bill and get him through,” Colley said. “It’s always nice to have that race hero. … I can’t wait to see that finish line when Bill comes up Sixth Street.”
There will undoubtedly be a lot of emotion and celebration when that happens, he added.
“It’s going to be an absolute party.”
The ultra course
The Leadville course runs just a little bit over the 100-mile mark when all is said and done. It starts in the town of Leadville, at the corner of Sixth Street and Harrison Avenue. It then winds along the shoreline of Turquoise Lake, goes through May Queen Campground, over Sugar Loaf Pass (11,000 feet), down to Twin Lakes, then up and over Hope Pass (the course’s highest point at 12,600 feet) and into the ghost town of Winfield. This brings the racers to about 50 miles, or halfway through the race. They must then turn around, head right back up Hope Pass and repeat the first half of the race in reverse.
Various aid stations are set up along the way, stocked with water, all kinds of food, medical supplies and runner’s drop bags, which may contain food or gear such as dry socks, gloves and long-sleeved shirts.
The best spectator opportunity, according to Colley, will be at the halfway point in Winfield.
“It’s definitely one of the hardest parts,” he said, adding that “it’s probably the bulk of really seeing some of the heartache coming through there.”
It’s also one of the most beautiful parts of the course, surrounded as it is by the Collegiate Peaks, many of which are Fourteeners. Colley estimated that the main group of runners may come through that area between 4 and 6 p.m. It all depends on the weather, of course, and the individual runners.
“Those fast guys, they just put their heads down and run,” Colley said. “They just run the whole 100 miles. It’s incredible to watch.”
Jeff Berino, deputy fire chief for Lake Dillon Fire Rescue, has competed in 10 past Leadville 100 Trail runs and knows the physical toll that the race and the altitude can take.
“It’s an emotional roller coaster, during the whole race,” he said. “As you talk to some other people, you’ll find out it’s just as much mental as it is physical. It’s a long time on your feet. It’s like living a whole year in one day.”
Berino remembers well the 50-mile turnaround and the prospect of facing Hope Pass a second time, which he adds is steeper on the south side.
“I know every inch of it,” he said.
The ultra experience
Ultra running can be incredibly punishing to the body, which is why Berino said he’s taking a few years off from racing 100-mile events. Yet the races which he has completed fill him with pride.
While the physical challenge of the race is considerable, Berino added that the atmosphere is friendly and that the people involved make the event special. More than 600 volunteers help out with the race. Most runners also have their own pacers — people who run alongside them, particularly toward the end, to point out the course, motivate and assist.
“They’re just a fantastic help, someone to talk to and keep you on task and try to keep you motivated and moving forward,” Berino said. “The pacers really help because it does get a little lonely there on the way back at one or two in the morning.”
In the end, Berino said that the ultra race is an experience that never leaves him.
“It’s just a wonderful experience and I think it’s made me a better person because of it,” he said. “When life throws curveballs, you can think back to mile 80, and you think, ‘I can run 100 miles, I can certainly deal with this issue.’”