"If you want to run, run a mile. If you want to experience a different life, run a marathon." — Emil Zatopek
Nearly 2 million years ago, our ancestors would run for days on end in search of prey. While they didn’t have fangs or claws or horns, they did possess a few distinct advantages over the rest of the animal kingdom. They could sweat. They could think. And they could run — run for days, it seemed, in search of their next dinner ticket. For ancient man, 100 miles on the hunt was a walk in the park.
But aside from tribes like the Kalahari Bushmen and Mexico’s Tarahumara — made famous in Christopher McDougall’s bestseller “Born to Run” — the practice of “persistence hunting” is nearly extinct today. So how can modern man reconnect with this most primordial of instincts? The visionaries, masochists, elite athletes and nut jobs who run Colorado’s Leadville Trail 100 think they’ve found the answer.
It’s about freedom, about connection with our natural selves and our natural world. It’s about pushing your limits in a grueling 16- to 30-hour race that brings you from 9,200 feet to its high point above the tree line on top of the 12,600-foot Hope Pass. Runners dub it the Race Across the Sky because of its lung-busting altitude and seriously steep climbs.
Ashley Arnold is a 27-year-old walking springboard who won the Women’s 2013 race with a quicker-than-quicksilver time of 20 hours and 25 minutes.
“Us ultra-runners seem crazy, right?” says Arnold. “Running allows me to delve into a different world that makes more sense than the doldrums of the regular synthetic world. It allows me to push myself, feel my body and really connect to my environment in a way that feels much more authentic and natural.”
The Leadville Trail 100 is one of the oldest ultramarathons in the world. It started in 1983 with just 45 competitors, as a way to bring visitors to Leadville, a mining town gone bust. Today they have big-time corporate sponsors, training camps, occasional helicopters overhead and a series of connected events for triathletes, mountain bikers and other uber-athletes looking to push the envelope.
It takes an odd mix of perseverance, endurance and self-destructive tendencies to make it to the finish line and receive the coveted Leadville belt buckle. Bill Finkbeiner is one of the race’s most beloved elder statesman. The 58-year-old Californian has run in every race except the first. For many racers like him, it’s about the people along the way.
“It’s a diverse group of people,” says Finkbeiner. “You get out there and run for a few hours with a person and you feel like you’re an old friend.”
In fact, Leadville feels like a big party. The run starts with carb-loading dinners and mandatory medical check-ins, before participants line up with timing chips on the corner of 6th Street and Harrison, in the town’s historic center at 3 a.m.
It’s an out-and-back affair with lots of single-track trails, a few old miners roads and nary a hint of pavement. The toughest part about Leadville is the climbs. The highlight (and potential knockout punch) is the ascent over Hope Pass. At about mile 40, the trail goes up from the verdant Twin Lakes area, through meadows and past streams, traversing forest and rocks until it reaches the barren summit. At the top, there’s an aid station where volunteers dole out electrolyte-packed gels, soups and lots of liquid. After quad-busting their way down the pass, the marathoners turn around and do the whole thing again.
There are time cutoffs, medical checks and aid stations all along the way. Many racers never make it past the 50-mile Winfield aid station — and only half of the entrants generally finish before the 30-hour cutoff.
Super-elite men run the race in about 16 hours (that’s about a 4-hour marathon pace). Ian Sharman won the 2013 race in 16 hours and 30 minutes, also setting a world record for the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning, a ridiculously challenging race series that requires you finish the four oldest 100-mile trail runs in the U.S. in a year. The races include the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run, the Vermont 100-Mile Endurance Run, the Leadville Trail 100-Mile Run and the Wasatch Front 100-Mile Endurance Run.
So how does a mere mortal take on a feat like this?
“Getting started is really as simple as starting running,“ says Sharman, who also works as a professional running coach. “It’s a way to get out and enjoy beautiful views and push yourself.”
It takes a year or two to work up to the ultramarathon distance. But with dedication, hard work and just a bit of natural talent, most people can do it.
Start with short walks and trail runs, then sign up for a 5k or 10k fun run. From there, continue building the distance and add some cross-training for core strength (your arms get tired after swinging for 75 miles). “If you can run a marathon, then it’s not much more to run a 100k or 100 miler,” says Sharman.
Every June, the Leadville organizers host a super fun four-day training camp in June. Over the long weekend, you’ll learn race tips from top runners, head out on the trail to get a lay of the land, and run, run, run.
Julian Tonsmeire finished his first Leadville race in 2012, barely beating the 30-hour cutoff. “I run ultras because I like to push myself beyond what I think I’m capable [of],” says the Alaska-born pilot, who’s climbed Denali, guided in the Himalaya and fallen from the sky in multiple paragliding accidents. “I love looking back and saying to myself, ‘holy crap I did that.’”
About the author: Greg Benchwick is a Colorado-based freelance writer. He’s written about travel and adventure for Lonely Planet and National Geographic Traveler.