Each summer, a curious spectacle unfolds over the course of two weekends in August when a mass of leggy and lithe endurance athletes descend on Leadville—a town of about 2,600 that sits at an elevation of just over 10,000-feet at the base of the state's two highest 14,000 foot peaks, 45 minutes up highway 24 from Vail—to cycle and run a 100-mile off-road ultra-marathon that's billed as a "race across the sky." The Leadville 100 Trail Run (2018's race took place over Aug. 18-19), one of the premier ultra-marathons in the world, began 36 years ago as a low-key foot race covering 100 miles of single track that 11 years later begat the Leadville Trail 100 MTB, a 100-mile mountain bike race that's held the weekend before (Aug. 11-12, 2018). Together, the events have made Leadville something of a mecca for ultra-endurance junkies, drawing thousands of racers, their entourages, spectators, and TV crews, economic salvation for a boomtown that not so long ago teetered on the precipice of becoming a ghost town.
Among the colorful Victorian-era storefronts that line Leadville's main street, backdropped by the mighty peaks of Mount Elbert is the Leadville 100 HQ, staffed by race founders Kenneth Chlouber and Merilee Maupin. "This used to be a storefront, and the kids in Leadville would come here to buy candy," says Maupin. "There was a gas pump out front, and some of the old buildings out back were rented by the train engineers or brakemen." All that changed, however, in 1982, when Chlouber—then an underground shift boss at the Climax Mine—was called into the foreman's office along with the other foremen told that the mine was closed. "It hit me like—you couldn’t run over me with that train harder," Chlouber recalls. "And I had to tell the crew—guys we’re all really close to—that they’re out of a job. We lost 3,250 jobs in a community of 5,000. Everybody—everybody—was out of work."
As the local economy cratered, so too did Leadville's morale. "The only businesses doing good in town were the bars, guys were spending their unemployment checks in the bars, and people were going home, beating up on spouses, taking it out on the kids, it just hit like a hammer immediately," remembers Chlouber. "The greater impact of it though was that we lost our identity, no longer were we underground miners—we were men who walked through rock—we were nothing, we were on the street without a job."
Help came when Colorado's then governor Richard Lamm visited the area with an economic development guru, who advised a band of locals—including then county commissioner Chlouber—that if they wanted save Leadville from becoming a ghost town, they needed to devise a festival or some signature event that would draw tourists to the area and keep them there overnight. "We had all kinds of people to come to us and say, 'Let’s do a fair, let’s do a 10k race,'" says Chlouber. "And I was thinking about it and I kept thinking 10,000 feet, all those zeroes, 100 miles, all those zeroes ... by damned if they don't spend the night for a 100-mile race!" Then he sold others on the idea. One of those was Maupin, a local travel agent who had gone from booking vacations to arranging one-way moves out of town after the collapse of the mine. As crazy as it may have seemed at a time when ultra-running was defined by the likes of Forrest Gump, the town coalesced around Chlouber's notion of a 100-mile foot race in the clouds. "Nobody said no because nobody was working," recalls Maupin. "When he brought the idea to one of his other county commissioners, he said the same thing that we heard from most other people in the community, he said, 'Ken, you are crazy. What can I do to help?'"
Since that first race in 1983, the Leadville 100 has become a bucket list race for a growing pool of ultra-runners (and now ultra-bikers), many of whom (including Chlouber) have conquered the course's 100 miles of dirt year after year. That's brought in more money (and a new partner in Bahram Akradi, a Leadville 100 alum and CEO of Life Time, formerly known as Life Time Fitness, the health club conglomerate), but the humble roots of the race haven't changed. Chlouber and Maupin have funneled revenue from the self-sustaining race (which doesn't rely on funding from local businesses or taxpayers—"The idea has always been to bring money into the community, not out," says Maupin) to found the Leadville Trail 100 Legacy Foundation, which provides any Lake County High School graduate who pursues higher education, be it trade school or college, with a $1,000 scholarship ("We're looking to bump that up," adds Maupin).
Greater than that, the endurance race series has spawned a renaissance in Leadville, and has given the community a new identity—a can-do spirit that runs as deep as the seams of gold, silver, and lead that birthed the town. "We tell [the racers], 'We want you to experience this race, be more, do more, when the going gets tough, dig deep. Inside you is an inexhaustible well of guts and determination and when life gets tough reach down and get it because the power is there,'" says Chlouber. "Use that same thing that got you across that line and use it at home, use it in your job, you'll have things that come up in life that are a helluva lot harder than this 100-mile race. You've just got to dig deep—that's Leadville strong."