First held in 1983, the Leadville Trail 100 Run is one of the oldest and largest 100-mile trail-running races in the United States. Known for its tough, high-elevation course in the shadow of central Colorado’s Sawatch Range, the race has resulted in remarkable performances by the Rarámuri (Tarahumara) runners of Mexico as well as course-record holders Ann Trason and Matt Carpenter. The Leadville Trail 100 Run helped make Leadville into an endurance-sports hotbed and served as the genesis of the eight-event Leadville Race Series, which is now owned by upscale gym company Life Time.
The Leadville Trail 100 Run was the brainchild of Colorado Ultra Club president Jim Butera, who dreamed of staging a 100-mile trail race in the Rocky Mountains—seemingly a crazy idea in the early 1980s, just a few years after the first 100-mile trail race in the United States was held in California. Butera originally hoped to plot a course from Aspen to Vail, but permitting problems and a lack of interest from the resort towns led him to look for other locations. Lake County commissioner Ken Chlouber, who was also a runner and burro racer, suggested using Leadville, which was reeling from production cuts and layoffs at the Climax Molybdenum Mine and in dire need of visitors to help the local economy. Butera designed the course and directed the race with the assistance of Chlouber and local travel agent Merilee Maupin, who rallied the town behind the event.
The first race took place on August 27–28, 1983. It had about forty-four starters (accounts differ), including one woman, Carol La Plant. Ten men finished the race in under thirty hours, led by winner Skip Hamilton, a marathoner and cross-country skier, in 20 hours, 11 minutes. A year later, Hamilton won again in a new record time of 18:44. The first female finisher, Teri Gerber, crossed the line about ten hours later in 28:17.
The Leadville Trail 100 Run has followed roughly the same course since its inception, with a few minor changes over the years to remove road sections or account for alterations to existing trails. The course’s defining features are its out-and-back nature—from Leadville to the ghost town of Winfield and back—and its high altitude, usually hovering around 10,000 feet.
Runners start at 4 am at the corner of Harrison Avenue and Sixth Street in downtown Leadville. Heading west, they soon reach Turquoise Lake, where they skirt the lake’s east and north shores. From the western end of the lake, they embark on the course’s first major climb, ascending about 1,000 feet to Sugarloaf Pass (11,071 feet) before going down the Powerline section of the course on the other side. After passing by the Leadville National Fish Hatchery and Colorado Outward Bound School, runners head south along sections of dirt road and trail, including parts of the Colorado Trail and Continental Divide Scenic Trail, until they reach the town of Twin Lakes.
The central portion of the course is by far the most difficult section. Runners hit the course’s low point of 9,200 feet as they cross Lake Creek just south of Twin Lakes, then immediately climb about 3,400 feet in just a few miles to reach the course’s high point of nearly 12,600 feet at Hope Pass. From there they descend nearly 2,500 feet off the south side of the pass to reach the course’s halfway point at the mining ghost town of Winfield. Then they turn around and do the Hope Pass climb again in reverse.
From Twin Lakes, runners return to Leadville following the same path that brought them there. On the way back, the uneven footing of the Powerline climb at about mile 80 is usually the most difficult obstacle to surmount. Rather cruelly, the course also ends on a gradual climb from Turquoise Lake to the finish in downtown Leadville.
Runners are allowed to have pacers run alongside them on the return from Winfield for encouragement, support, and safety. Uniquely among ultramarathons, Leadville allows pacers to “mule” for their runners, carrying food, water, and other supplies. In addition, runners pass through thirteen aid stations stocked with food, water, and medical personnel. The cutoff time to complete the course and receive a finisher belt buckle is thirty hours; any runner completing the course in under twenty-five hours gets a coveted big buckle.
With its large field of entrants and lack of a qualifying requirement, the Leadville Trail 100 Run has tended to focus more on the experiences of newcomers and middle-of-the-pack runners than elites. Nevertheless, its long history contains several notable performances.
Leadville had attracted some national attention already in the 1980s, but it gained even greater renown in the early 1990s, when Arizona-based wilderness guide Rick Fisher and his wife, Kitty Williams, brought a group of Rarámuri (Tarahumara) runners from Mexico’s Copper Canyon to the race as a way to publicize the group’s need for food and aid. The Tarahumara were remarkable athletes, but their lack of familiarity with American trail-racing practices led them all to drop out. A year later, a different group of Tarahumara runners proved more successful, with fifty-five-year-old Victoriano Churro winning the race in a pair of homemade sandals.
In 1994 a group of Tarahumara runners again returned to Leadville, this time to face the most dominant female ultrarunner in the United States, Ann Trason, who was then in the prime of her career. Twenty-five-year-old Juan Herrera came out on top, setting a new men’s record of 17:30, but Trason came in second overall. Her time of 18:06 obliterated her own previous women’s record by more than two hours and still stands as the women’s record today, having never been seriously challenged.
A decade later, famed Colorado mountain runner Matt Carpenter came to Leadville to try to set a new overall course record. In 2004 he started strong but suffered in the race’s final third, eventually walking back to town on beaten legs in fourteenth place. The next year, he dedicated himself single-mindedly to avenging his poor showing and completed the race in 15:42, which many ultrarunners consider to be among the greatest 100-mile performances of all time. Carpenter’s record has attracted several challengers—including Anton Krupicka, who dropped out twice while in pursuit of the record, and Rob Krar, who came within ten minutes in 2018—but no one has surpassed it yet.
Growth and Change
By the time the Tarahumara runners helped put the Leadville race on the map in the early 1990s, original race director Jim Butera had stepped away, leaving the race in the hands of Ken Chlouber and Merilee Maupin. Under their guidance, the race focused on bringing more money and greater exposure to Leadville, which was still struggling in the wake of the Climax Mine’s closure. In 1994 Chlouber launched a companion Leadville Trail 100 for mountain bikers, which started small but exploded in popularity after Lance Armstrong raced in 2008 and 2009. At the same time, Christopher McDougall’s bestseller Born to Run (2009), which focused in part on the 1994 Leadville race between Trason and the Tarahumara, brought increased attention to the run.
As the Leadville races grew, Chlouber and Maupin fielded takeover offers from outsiders. They turned down at least one bid before accepting a reported $1 million from fitness company Life Time in 2010. Life Time made the Leadville Trail 100 races into the capstone of a Leadville Race Series that now includes several other running and cycling events throughout the summer, drawing thousands of competitors to town. More troublingly, Life Time quickly increased the size of the Leadville Trail 100 Run from about 600 starters in 2011 to about 950 in 2013, leading to sharp criticisms about crowding and litter on the course as well as traffic congestion on nearby roads. Life Time responded by reducing the size of the field, introducing new shuttle services to reduce traffic, and enlarging Chlouber and Maupin’s roles as race consultants.
The Leadville Trail 100 Run has continued to draw criticism from the trail-running community for its commercialism and from Leadville locals for overcrowding. Yet the race has proved remarkably successful in Chlouber and Maupin’s goal of supporting the local economy. Not only has it played a large role in helping Leadville transform itself into a destination for outdoor recreation and endurance sports, but the larger race series now brings tens of millions of dollars into the community each summer. In addition, Chlouber and Maupin’s Leadville Trail 100 Legacy Foundation, which they established in 2002, gives out thousands of dollars in annual grants to local organizations as well as a $2,000 scholarship to every Lake County High School graduate who wants to pursue higher education.