Race Across the Sky

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Leadville

Pacing. Muleing. Crewing.  These three simple words are the difference between European and American ultra racing.

In Europe, mountain ultra marathons are a solitary affair. You carry what you need. You run alone. You get lost. You struggle.

In America, ultra racing is akin to a team sport. Whole teams of friends and family come out to support their runner; supplying them with food and encouragement at aid stations; taking it in turns to run with, and pace them between aid stations; helping them find the route; keeping them awake; even carrying their backpacks.

They seem almost different sports. But they have one thing in common.  With all the help, or without it – you still have to run 100 miles across the mountains.  And that’s no mean feat.

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My adventure in ultra racing began some five years ago in the little French Alpine town of Chamonix. It’s a relatively young sport in Europe and I got in at a good time, when it was still easy to get into the big races.

I’d had some five years of racing around Mt Blanc.  There weren’t that many people wanting to run 100 mile races.

So the Ultra Trail du Mt Blanc – the  brutal 100 mile race around Mt Blanc – became my race. Year in, year out I entered the race.  But each year it was never the same. I had terrible luck with the weather. Some years it snowed, others it rained relentlessly.  Over the years the races were cancelled or curtailed; rerouted or restarted.

It was with some pride that I finished every race I started, including that epic year where the race was lengthen mid-race and the runners informed by text message.

None of the races were simple. And none were the distance that was advertised.  I grew tired of all the changes. I thought it was time to spread my wings and stretch my legs.  I decided to call it a day with the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc. Finishing the UTMB last year, I vowed that my next 100 mile race, would be in America. But I would do it the European way – without crew or pacers.

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I won’t pretend that Leadville was my first choice. I’d applied, unsuccessfully, for a place in both the Hardrock 100 and the Western States Endurance Run.

But Leadville doesn’t have a lottery for places. You just have to get up early to register. First come, first served.

So one quiet morning last January, in Melbourne, I sat in front of my computer waiting for registration to open. I paid my money and got my place. It was also rather simple given the lotteries, ballots and uncertainly that plague other races.

A few minutes later the confirmation email came through and my journey Colorado and the High Rockies was just beginning.

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Leadville is famed for being the highest town in the United States. It sits a breathless 10,200 feet above sea level.  The town grew rich on the spoils from its silver mine. It was once the second biggest city in Colorado. But like so many mining towns, in the 1980s the mine closed, leaving thousands out of work and the town falling on hard times. Leadville would probably have become a ghost town were it not for the start of a bizarre race.

The Leadville Trail 100 race began because the mine closed.  An out of work miner called Ken Clouber dreamed up the race as a sort of homage to the back breaking work of the miners.

In 1983 when the race was first run, they weren’t sure anyone would be able to finish it. This was long before the huge popularity of marathons and triathlons.  Running 100 miles non-stop was a big deal then.  There were 45 brave souls who started that race, and just 10 who finished.  They couldn’t possibly have known what they had started.

Thirty one years later, the race has spawned a number of spinoff races, including a mountain bike race that has outgrown the run. But the run now attracts nearly 1000 starters and amazingly almost half go on to finish.

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So my journey to Leadville started in Melbourne in January ended, eight months later here in Leadville.  Where a tougher journey began all over again. Here’s the video:

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