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Chapter 9
Make friends with pain, and you will never be alone.

—KEN CHLOUBER,Colorado miner and creator of the Leadville Trail 100THE BIG, fat flaw in Rick Fisher’s plan was the fact that the Leadville race happens to be held inLeadville.

Hunkered in a valley two miles up in the Colorado Rockies, Leadville is the highest city in NorthAmerica and, many days, the coldest (the fire company couldn’t ring its bell come winter, afraid itwould shatter). One look at those peaks had the first settlers shaking in their coonskins. “For there,before their unbelieving eyes, loomed the most powerful and forbidding geological phenomenomthey had ever seen,” recounts Leadville historian Christian Buys. “They might as well have beenon another planet. It was that remote and threatening to all but the most adventuresome.”

Of course, things have improved since then: the fire company now uses a horn. Otherwise, well…“Leadville is a home for miners, muckers, and mean motherfuckers,” says Ken Chlouber, who wasan out-of-work, bronco-busting, Harley-riding, hard-rock miner when he created the LeadvilleTrail 100, in 1982. “Folks who live at ten thousand feet are cut from a different kind of leather.”

Dog-toy-tough or not, when Leadville’s top physician heard what Ken had in mind, he wasoutraged. “You cannot let people hundred miles at this altitude,” railed Dr. RobertWoodward.Hewassopissedoffhehad(run) a(a) finger in Ken’s face, which didn’t bode well for hisfinger. If you’ve seen Ken, with those steel-toed boots on his size 13 stompers and that mug ascraggy as the rock he blasted for a living, you figure out pretty quick you don’t put a hand near hisface unless you’re dead drunk or dead serious.

Doc Woodward wasn’t drunk. “You’re going to kill anyone foolish enough to follow you!”

“Tough shit!” Ken shot back. “Maybe killing a few folks will get us back on the map.”

Shortly before Ken’s showdown with Doc Woodward on that cold autumn day in 1982, the ClimaxMolybdenum mine had suddenly shut down, taking with it nearly every paycheck in Leadville.

“Moly” is a mineral used to strengthen steel for battleships and tanks, so once the Cold Warfizzled, so did the moly market. Almost overnight, Leadville stopped being a bustling little burgwith an old-timey ice-cream parlor on its old-timey main street and was transformed into the mostdesperate, jobless city in North America. Eight out of every ten workers in Leadville punched theclock at Climax, and the few who didn’t depended on the ones who did. Once boasting the highestper capita income in Colorado, it soon found itself the county seat of one of the poorest counties inthe state.

It couldn’t get worse. And then it did.

Ken’s neighbors were drinking hard, punching their wives, sinking into depression, or fleeingtown. A sort of mass psychosis was overwhelming the city, an early stage of civic death: first,people lose the means to stick it out; then, after the knife fights, arrests, and foreclosure warnings,they lose the desire.

“People packing up and leaving by the hundreds,” recalls Dr. John Perna, who ranLeadville’sem(were) ergency room. His ER was as busy as a MASH unit and confronting an ugly newtrend of injuries; instead of job-site ankle sprains and smashed fingers, Dr. Perna was amputatingtoes from drunk miners who’d passed out in the snow, and calling the police for wives who arrivedin the middle of the night with broken cheekbones and scared children.

“We slipping into lethal doldrums,” Dr. Perna told me. “Ultimately, we faced thedisappearan(were) ce of the city.” So many miners had already left, the last citizens of Leadville couldn’tfill the bleachers at a minor-league ballpark.

Leadville’s only hope was tourism, which was no hope at all. What kind of idiot would vacation ina place with nine months of freezing weather, no slopes worth skiing, and air so thin that breathingcounted as a cardio workout? Leadville’s backcountry was so brutal that the army’s elite 10thMountain Division used to train there for Alpine combat.

Making things worse, Leadville’s reputation was as scary as its geography. For decades, it was thewildest city in the Wild West, “an absolute death trap,” as one chronicler put it, “that seemed totake pride in its own depravity.” Doc Holliday, the dentist turned gun-slinging gambler, used tohang out in the Leadville saloons with his quick-drawin’ O.K. Corral buddy Wyatt Earp. JesseJames used to slink through as well, attracted by the stages loaded with gold and excellent hideoutsjust lick away in the mountains. Even late as the 1940s, the 10th Mountain Divisioncomm(a) andos were forbiddento set footin downt(as) own Leadville; they might be fierce enough for theNazis, but not for the cutthroat gamblers and prostitutes who ruled State Street.

Yeah, Leadville was a tough place, Ken knew. Full of tough men, and even tougher women, and—And damn! Goddamn! That was it.

If all Leadville had left to sell was grit, then step right up for your hot grits. Ken had heard aboutthis guy in California, a long-haired mountain man named Gordy Ainsleigh, whose mare wentlame right before the world’s premier horse endurance event, the Western States Trail Ride. Gordydecided to race anyway. He showed up at the starting line in sneakers and set out to run all onehundred miles through the Sierra Nevada on foot. He slurped water from creeks, got his vitalschecked by veterinarians at the medical stops, and beat the twenty-four-hour cutoff for all horseswith seventeen minutes to spare. Naturally, Gordy wasn’t the only lunatic in California, so the nextyear, another runner crashed the horse race … and another the year after that… until, by 1977, thehorses were crowded out and Western States became the world’s first one-hundred-mile footrace.

Ken had never even run a marathon himself, but if some California hippie could go one hundredmiles, how hard could it be? Besides, a normal race wouldn’t cut it; if Leadville was going tosurvive, it needed an event with serious holy-shit power, something to set it apart from all theidentical, ho-hum, done-one-done-’em-all 26.2- milers out there.

So instead of a marathon, Ken created a monster.

To get a sense of what he came up with, try running the Boston Marathon two times in a row witha sock stuffed in your mouth and then hike to the top of Pikes Peak.

Done?

Great. Now do it all again, this time with your eyes closed. That’s pretty much what the LeadvilleTrail 100 boils down to: nearly four full marathons, half of them in the dark, with twin twenty-sixhundred-foot climbs smack in the middle. Leadville’s starting line is twice as high as the altitudewhere planes pressurize their cabins, and from there you only go up.

“The hospital does make a lot of money off us,” Ken Chlouber happily agrees today, twenty-fiveyears after the inaugural race and his showdown with Doc Woodward. “It’s the only weekendwhen all the beds in the hotels and the emergency room are full at the same time.”

Ken should know; he’s run every Leadville race, despite having been hospitalized withhypothermia during his first attempt. Leadville racers routinely fall off bluffs, break ankles, sufferover exposure, get weird heart arrhythmias and altitude sickness.

Fingers crossed, Leadville has yet to polish anyone off, probably because it beats most runners intosubmission before they collapse. Dean Karnazes, the self-styled Ultramarathon Man, couldn’tfinish it the first two times he tried; after watching him drop out twice, the Leadville folks gavehim their own nickname: “Ofer” (“O fer one, O fer two …”). Less than half the field makes it tothe finish every year.

Not surprisingly, an event with more flameouts than finishers tends to attract a rare breed ofathlete. For five years, Leadville’s reigning champion was Steve Peterson, a member of a Coloradohigher-consciousness cult called Divine Madness, which seeks nirvana through sex parties,extreme trail running, and affordable housecleaning. One Leadville legend is Marshall Ulrich, anaffable dog-food tycoon who perked up his times by having his toenails surgically removed. “Theykept falling off anyway,” Marshall said.

When Ken met Aron Ralston, the rock climber who sawed off his own hand with the chippedblade of a multitool after getting pinned by a boulder, Ken made an astonishing offer: if Aron everwanted to run Leadville, he wouldn’t have to pay. Ken’s invitation stunned everyone who heardabout it. The defending champ has to pay his way back into the race. Heroic grand master EdWilliams still has to pay. Ken has to pay. But Aron got a free ride—and why?

“He’s the essence of Leadville,” Ken said. “We’ve got a motto here—you’re tougher than youthink you are, and you can do more than you think you can. Guy like Aron, he shows the rest of uswhat we can do if we dig deep.”

You might think poor Aron had already suffered enough, but little more than a year after hisaccident, he took Ken up on the offer. New prosthetic swinging by his side, Aron made it to thefinish under the thirty-hour cutoff and went home with a silver belt buckle, thereby stating betterthan Ken ever could what it takes to toe the line at Leadville:

You don’t have to be fast. But you’d better be fearless.


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