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Leadville: an "all-comers suffered" sensibility

Leadville, Colorado is known to trail runners for the Leadville 100, a 100-mile foot race that leaves downtown Leadville and travels fifty miles southwest to the ghost town of Winfield before returning back to town. Leadville sits at a headache-inducing 10,151 feet, and runners stay above 9,000 feet for most of the race, crossing Hope Pass at 12,508 feet. It can be a gut-wrenching race for runners who aren’t acclimatized. Typically, only about half the starters finish regardless of how prepared they are.

The race was founded in 1983 to boost the town’s economy when the molybdenum mine failed. Leadville is a quintessential boom-and-bust mining town, and the race is notable for how it reflects the town’s “all-comers suffered” sensibility. You don’t have to prove you’re ready to run the Leadville 100. You simply register and hope your name gets drawn in the lottery. As it was for the early gold and silver prospectors, all comers are tolerated, and the probability of failure is high.

I’ve had the good fortune to win Leadville twice, and I have two extremely heavy ore cart replicas to prove it. The carts are piled high with rocks. They are certainly the best race prizes I’ve ever won. However, the carts aren’t attached to the award’s base. This makes them both great toys for kids, and wildly dangerous. I almost rolled the cart and all its ore onto my foot when they presented it to me. That would have been the end of my running career.

My history with Leadville goes back further than these ore carts though. After a mid-course correction in life, I worked for Outward Bound out of Leadville. In fact, I met my husband there. It is also where I saw my first and only saloon brawl. I was in town to teach a Wilderness First Responder course, and my co-instructors and I stopped at the Silver Dollar Saloon for a drink after class. We’d just gotten our order when a ruckus started. A man picked up a chair and threatened to smash it over another fellow’s head. Happily, he did not follow through. The chair did not look like it would have splintered harmlessly on impact like chairs in Westerns do. The bar patrons were entirely nonplussed. They simply picked up their drinks and moved to tables farther from the action. My friends and I followed suit. Eventually, the bartender got the brawlers outside for the police to deal with. She told us later that she’d been hit in the process, but she was fine because the guy “hit like a girl.”

When people ask me about Leadville, this memory always bubbles up. The town’s surroundings are gorgeous, but it’s not an easy place to thrive. You feel the “take your chances” history of the place more than you do in other mountain towns. The race captures these characteristics well. It was created to help the town and its people and it’s done that incredibly well. You should visit and see what you think.


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