Trail running helped put Leadville back on the map and on the verge of revitalization.
Never will there be another.”
—Carlyle Channing Davis,
Leadville newspaperman, circa 1890
The first time I set foot in Leadville, it was a broken town.
Broken economy. Broken community. Broken buildings.
It was the summer of 1994, and like many residents of Colorado’s Front Range, I was just passing through. I had driven up from Boulder for the weekend with the intent of hiking a few of the 14,000-foot peaks in the Upper Arkansas River Valley and camping along Half Moon Creek in the valley between Mount Elbert and Mount Massive.
Driving through Leadville for the first time, I was struck by both the majestic peaks on either side of the city but also the deplorable state of what looked to have once been a dignified main street business district. Dozens of late-19th-century buildings still proudly lined Harrison Avenue, the main drag through town, as the end of the 20th century drew near, but chipping paint, boarded windows and defunct storefronts blatantly exposed the economic collapse following the Climax molybdenum-mine shutdown in 1982.
I was intrigued as I drove by what must have been at one time thriving businesses—the Golden Burro Café and Lounge, Bill’s Sports Shop and the Silver Dollar Saloon—but I only stopped for gas and snacks at a mini mart on the edge of town and continued on my way.
On that first visit to Leadville, I ran and hiked my way up Mount Elbert, the highest of Colorado’s 14ers at 14,439 feet, and was captivated by the views from the summit. Anchored by Elbert and neighboring Mt. Massive (14,421 feet), the Sawatch Range is Colorado’s loftiest mountain range, with three of the five highest peaks in the state making up Leadville’s western horizon line. Being up on those mountains will conjure up an awe-inspiring sense of scale to any hiker or trail runner, but they can also give context to the ruggedness of Leadville’s lofty perch too.
I returned again later that summer to bag more peaks and watch the Leadville Trail 100 unfold, witnessing the record-setting performances from Tarahumara runner Juan Herrera and American legend Ann Trason. While the Leadville 100 will always be among the most notable races in the ultrarunning world, it was the storyline of the 1994 race that really put it on the map.
Trason, then 33, was in the prime of her record-setting career when she came to Leadville and went head-to-head with five Tarahumara runners from the Copper Canyon of Mexico. Her stated intent was to win the race outright and she went for it. Only 25-year-old Juan Herrera outran Trason that day, doing so in a record-setting time of 17:30. But as an indication of how dominant Trason was at the time, her 18:06:24 effort from that race remains the course record 25 years later.
It was a transcendent summer for me, with moments that cultivated a deeper interest in trail running and what would become a growing intrigue for the small, but enduring city nestled 10,151 feet above sea level.
“It was a different time, a different sport and a different place back then,” says Peter Downing, who placed fourth in the 1991 Leadville 100 and finished runner-up in 1992. “Ultrarunning was still in its infancy. Back then, it was a bunch of old guys shuffling along and almost no one under 30 running at all. And Leadville was definitely a broken place with a dead economy.”
THAT WAS THEN
Much has been made about how the Leadville 100 trail-running race, started in 1983, helped to put Cloud City (a nickname derived from Leadville being the highest incorporated city in the U.S.) jump-start the city’s pulse at a time when the town was at rock bottom.
When the Climax mine shut down and nearly 5,000 workers were let go in successive layoffs in 1981 and 1982, the town was devastated financially. Within 18 months, 40 percent of the population had moved away, while the remaining 60 percent suffered from dire financial straits. School enrollment and faculty were cut in half, and real estate values dropped by 50 percent.
Shops closed, city services were reduced, tourism waned and unemployment, alcoholism and domestic abuse ravaged the community. Although the race and the endurance tourism it developed helped the economy, Leadville continued to struggle into the 21st century.
“Yeah, it was a pretty rough place,” says local resident Alex Willis, a professional Xterra triathlete and avid trail runner who grew up in Leadville, ran cross country for the University of New Mexico and trained briefly at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs before moving back to town in 2017. “It’s always been a beautiful place with a rich history of running, but when the economy went downhill, it changed a lot.”
It wasn’t the first time the city went belly-up from a mining decline—that’s happened several times in Leadville since it was founded in 1860—but few understood what Jim Butera had in mind when he started making plans for a 100-mile race in Leadville.
Butera was the president of the fledgling Colorado Ultra Club and a well-known trail race director who had dreamed about putting together a 100-mile run in Colorado’s high country for years. He originally wanted to hold the event between Vail and Aspen as a one-way event that would alternate directions every other year. But those ski resort towns never showed interest, so he approached other locations.
By September 1982, Butera had mapped out an out-and-back course that would start and end in Leadville early on a Saturday morning the following August. He went about rallying local support and getting permits from Leadville, Lake County and the U.S. Forest Service, knowing he’d need sponsors and volunteers to pull it off. He found enthusiastic support from Ken Chlouber, a Leadville miner, ultrarunner and Lake County Commissioner, and Merilee Maupin, a local travel agent, who both saw the new race as an opportunity to help revive the local economy.
“We had to do something,” says Chlouber, who would eventually own the race with Merilee Maupin after Butera backed away in the late 1980s. “We wanted to do something that would bring people here for the weekend and stay in our hotels and eat in our restaurants. We couldn’t just put on a 10K and have them come up and leave in the same day. We wanted to put on an event that required grit, guts and determination that symbolized what Leadville was all about.”
And what it was all about was a certain grittiness that comes with living at 10,000 feet. That hardiness had long been tied to a passionate running community well before the Leadville 100 came to life. Dozens of small trail races and snowshoe races have been held in the area since the 1970s.
The quirky sport of burro racing, the Colorado Summer Heritage Sport, had its origins in Leadville in 1949 and always been tied to a vibrant community of local trail runners. Plus, no high school in Colorado can claim as many cross-country championships as Lake County High School, which won 28 titles in girls and boys team titles between 1967 and 1996.
Could a running race help keep a rugged, high-altitude mining town from the edge of extinction?
Only 45 people lined up for that first Leadville 100 in 1983, but the rugged demeanor of those runners and the passionate local support helped start a movement. The race received considerable attention in the early years, especially when it was featured on ABC’s Wild World of Sports in the mid-1980s and later when Tucson-based wilderness guide Rick Fisher and his ultrarunner wife, Kitty Williams, brought several Tarahumara runners — the now-famous running Indians from rural Mexico — to compete in the Leadville 100 in 1992.
Fisher and Williams started a campaign to use the tribe’s long-distance running roots as a means to publicize their plight and help them buy food. The experiment went bust the first year, partially because the original group of Tarahumara runners Fisher recruited had trouble adapting to the American customs and the unique nuances of ultraunning. As a result, each of the five runners dropped out. (The Tarahumara runners would often shyly wait at aid stations to be offered food, and Fisher had tried to get them to wear shoes donated by a sponsor.)
In 1993 Fisher brought a new group of Tarahumara runners to Leadville with great fanfare and finally experienced the success he predicted a year earlier. Clad in his preferred footwear—homemade huarache sandals—Victoriano Churro, a 55-year-old Raramuri runner, went on to win the race. The following year, when Herrera outran Trason, it was just a blip in the national news, but it did send a ripple of fascination through the running community.
As the Leadville 100 race grew, it gradually brought more attention to Leadville and started to establish it as an endurance-sports destination. In 1994, Chlouber and Maupin added a 100-mile mountain-bike race and continued to grow the series through the years with the Leadville Trail Marathon, a 10K race and the Silver Rush 50-mile trail-running and mountain-bike races.
Chlouber and Maupin knew Leadville would never compete with more glamorous destination resort communities like Vail, Breckenridge, Steamboat Springs and Frisco as trail-running and mountain-biking destinations. Instead, they promoted Leadville’s broken-down mining-town ruggedness as part of its gritty, authentic charm by calling on event participants to dig deep and find that toughness inside themselves. It didn’t have the copious amount of manicured singletrack trails as those other towns, but it did have endless miles of old mining roads, quick access to 14ers and plenty of other tourist attractions.
Still, as Colorado’s population surged in the late 1990s, the ski towns grew by leaps and bounds and enjoyed the economic stimulus of new construction and booming summer and winter tourism. At the same time, Leadville, once the second-largest city in Colorado, bottomed out at an all-time low of 2,676 full-time residents in 1999 because of a lack of economic opportunities. The problem compounded itself as Leadville—the only affordable place remotely close to the resort towns—became a haven for low-income families and undocumented immigrants.
“It’s always been a small town, but the best part is that it has a soul,” says Marshall Ulrich, a 13-time finisher of the Leadville 100 and the first to run the 100 and the Pikes Peak Marathon in the same weekend. “I don’t know that it will ever change too much from what it is.” But that’s probably OK.
As hundreds of new condos were built at Copper Mountain ski resort, just 22 miles north of Leadville, an economic upswing also began in Salida and Buena Vista in the other direction. In Leadville, revitalization was slow to develop outside of busy summer weekends through the early 2000s.
“Leadville has a long history of boom and bust,” Chlouber says. “And the Leadville Trail 100 has been the fruit of one of those busts. But like all things in Leadville, it takes time.”
Signs of significant positive economic change finally began to emerge in about 2010, locals say, a few years after a recession shook the U.S. economy and even tourist-emboldened Colorado. Strangely, two of the biggest catalysts to change in Leadville were also national influences. The first was the popularity of Born to Run, the 2009 New York Times best-selling book from author Christopher McDougall that shone a spotlight on ultrarunning and the Leadville 100, partially through a historical look-back at the 1994 race.
“I think that’s one of the things that really started the growth,” says longtime local runner and business owner Mark “Smokey” Burgess, who moved to town in 1996. “That was when I first started seeing people become more curious about Leadville. It wasn’t a huge change, but it was a start.”
The other big change, ironically, was the 2010 decision of Chlouber and Maupin to sell the race series to Lifetime Fitness, a growing Minnesota-based chain of health clubs and endurance events. After adding 50-mile mountain bike and running races and promoting the six-event Leadman and Leadwoman series, Chlouber and Maupin packaged it up for a reported $1 million. Bahram Akradi, Lifetime’s founder, CEO, president and chairman, also saw the economic potential in Leadville through an endurance-sports lens and was eager to help both the town and the race series grow.
And grow it did. Lifetime upped the registration capacity of every race, perhaps too quickly. When the 100-mile run went from about 600 starters in 2011 to about 800 in 2012 and nearly 1,000 in 2013, things got messy. Pacers and crews had a hard time getting to the halfway point at Winfield and the mile 40/60 checkpoints at Twin Lakes were overwhelmed with vehicles and people.
“It put a little bit different spin on things,” Ulrich recalls. “It didn’t seem like the good old hometown race [in 2013]. Although it’s still an excellent event and an iconic race, everything just got bigger and more commercial.”
To its credit, Lifetime dialed back the growth, invested more time, effort and money into the Leadville community—including a scholarship fund for every graduating high school senior—and eventually brought Chlouber and Maupin back into the fold as more active consultants.
Since then, as the race series has continued to grow and property values have finally started to tick upward, the city has finally shown signs of an economic upswing.
A 2014 study showed that the race series brings about $15 million in economic impact to Leadville every year.
“The race’s biggest contribution is that we’re absolutely changing lives,” Chlouber says. “It’s not just in the town here or even in Colorado, it’s the lives of the people who come here and absorb what Leadville is all about. That’s why we tell people, “You don’t find Leadville, Leadville finds you.’”
THIS IS NOW
It’s the Fourth of July, and Leadville is in full glory. After a full day that included an early morning speed hike up Mount Sherman and an afternoon of trail running on some home-spun trails in the East Side Mining District, I head to Treeline Kitchen with friends just before dusk to watch fireworks. The roof-top deck is packed with a decidedly upscale crowd for Leadville, but it’s another one of the signs that Leadville has turned the corner on its economic dormancy. We find just enough standing room along a short brick façade on the south side of the patio and order a mix of froufrou drinks to toast the holiday.
As the sun sets behind Mount Elbert on the western horizon, Mother Nature’s light show begins as a bright-orange alpenglow shines on Mount Sherman and adjacent Mount Sheridan to the east. A few renegade fireworks can be seen and heard in the distance and, for a moment, I think about what the July 4th holiday must have been like in the early 1880s, when the city’s population peaked at about 50,000 residents.
Dozens of residential houses have been renovated over the past couple of years, while a few more have been built from the ground up. New stores, galleries, bars and restaurants, including Periodic Brewing Company, Harper Rose Studios, Treeline Kitchen and Buchi Café Cubano, are additional signs of the new Leadville that is emerging.
Along with the growth, Leadville’s City Council still values its history, and passed a demolition ordinance in 2019 that protects its historic buildings, such as the infamous Tabor Opera House, from being replaced by more modern styles. And as the town becomes more appealing for tourists, there are also programs for locals, such as Get Outdoors Leadville and Full Circle, that focus on involving long-time residents, youth and Latino and low-income families in the community. Still, the new investments and increased property values increase the economic strain for Leadville’s impoverished residents.
““It’s a great place to run and ride, but it’s always been that kind of place,” says Dave Mackey, a three-time Leadman finisher and two-time U.S. ultrarunner of the year who bought a house in Leadville in 2018. “It seems like the town is finally coming around. There’s a lot of building and remodeling going on everywhere you look. I just wish I would have bought property 10 years ago.”
On any summer day, it’s easy to see the renewed vitality in Leadville, especially on weekends when there isn’t a race or training-camp event. There are more trail runners, mountain bikers and peak-baggers out on the trails and mingling about in shops and restaurants than ever before.
A few additional local road and races, including the Turquoise Lake 20K and the Fish Hatchery 5K in June and the Boom Days 5K in early August, have emerged, as have new trail-running camps. New singletrack trails have been built near Colorado Mountain College and new routes are in the works near Turquoise Lake.
Meanwhile, the local “secret” trails in the mining district on the east side of town are becoming legitimized, while the paved 11.6-mile Mineral Belt Trail loop is becoming more popular for marathon training in the summer and fall and skate skiing and snowshoeing in the winter.
The Leadville 100 running race remains as the marquee race in town and one of the most notable in the world.
“We had a dry patch for a while when the economy dried up after the mines closed, but the point is there’s always been a really a proud running history in Leadville,” says Willis, who’s mom, Jeanne Willis, helped man the Hope Pass aid station in 1983 and completed the race in 2005 at the age of 49. “The ultra vibe around the 100 has been great, but I think it might have also kept people away too. I think there is plenty of opportunity for growth around shorter races and opening up Leadville as a bigger running destination.”
Not only are there more locals out running on a regular basis, last year, the top three finishers of the Leadman six-race series, Marvin Sandoval, Rodrigo Jimenez and Wesley Sandoval, were all residents. There are also two stores that sell running gear and accessories—Burgess’s Community Threads consignment shop and Leadville Outdoors and Mountain Market.
“There’s actually a pretty good amount of people to run with up here now,” Burgess says. “About half of my runs are with other people now, which says a lot considering how few people were running not long ago, aside from the big races.”
Leadville has come a long way in past 25 years, but not nearly as far as it might go in the next 25. With the vibrant race series and a growing economy as sustainable anchors, endurance sports should remain an integral part of Leadville for decades to come. There’s also been interest for years in trying to establish the city as a high-altitude training center.
Establishing a training center concept could help attract Olympic teams and professional athletes on a part-time basis, especially in the spring and fall, Willis says. He admits that, at 10,160 feet above sea level, Leadville sits considerably higher than the 5,000-to-7,500-foot high-altitude sweet spot of places like Boulder, Colorado Springs, Park City, Utah, Flagstaff, Arizona, Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Mammoth Lakes, California. But those who have lived and trained in Leadville, including Willis, believe there is a way to use the two-mile-high environs as an advantage.
“There’s more of a focus on strength-based endurance training here because it’s harder to run really fast workouts,” Willis says. “But with the right amount of recovery, it is possible to train at 10,000 feet. We have the trails and a pool, so we just need a few key things to make it complete.”
His wife, Sierra, a former pro triathlete who’s become a competitive trail runner, agrees.
“The science and the art of it is trying to figure out how to maintain speed at high altitude, but there are ways to do it,” she says. “The trails are beautiful here for sure and, it’s not easy to run up here, but there is a lot you can do to be creative and really get stronger.”
Plus, there’s something Leadville has that those other places do not—legendary toughness.
“I think the town has a huge opportunity to be one of the athletic centers of the nation. And why shouldn’t it be?” Chlouber says. “We know it can not only bring the best out of anybody. You wanna be leather tough? Come to Leadville.”
Brian Metzler is a contributing editor for Trail Runner, and has paced, crewed and raced in numerous races in Leadville. He is a 2018 Leadman finisher and a part-time Leadville resident.