Like many other runners, I heard about Leadville from the classic running book Born to Run, with its tales of elite athletes and insane conditions and 100-mile races in the mountains. So when we showed up in town to pace a new friend at the Leadville Trail 100 in 2016, I was nervous (to say the least).
Back in the safety of Denver, it had seemed like a great idea, a fun adventure! But as we parked our car at Twin Lakes (one of the aid stations), everyone else seemed to know what they were doing, be an expert runner, and just seemed very cool.
I was worried I’d made a mistake, that I didn’t deserve to be there, that as someone who could barely run a 5k with a nagging ankle injury I shouldn’t have even come. I had willingly plopped my beginner self into the world of elite trail running. And surely I did not belong.
I was dead wrong.
People welcomed us with open arms.
The atmosphere in Leadville the weekend of the 100-mile run is honestly like nothing else I’ve experienced. Considering it’s such a difficult race (understatement of the century), everyone is having an absolute blast.
The volunteers are smiling, fellow runners are cheering you on if they pass you, and people are cheering on runners at every turn while enjoying some time outside in a beautiful place. Yes, even at mile 75. In the dark. When it’s getting cold. And you’re on the boring section of the race that’s just on a road.
Leadville is where I got bit by the trail running bug. It’s where I walked four miles through some cow fields and down a lonely paved road with a new friend to get her through the night (because she was not having a blast at that point).
It’s where I willingly stayed up until 5 a.m., got an hour or two of sleep, and jumped out of bed to run with Katy across the finish line for a personal record finish time. It’s where I met some of the coolest, genuinely nice people I have ever come across.
Leadville is where I fell in love with running.
I came back to Leadville in 2017 the week before the big 100-miler. Katy was running again, but we had a wedding to go to, so we came up a week early to see her and our other friends while they were in Colorado. And to run a 10k.
The Leadville 10k is a warm-up run for many who run the Leadville 100, but it was my Everest. As everyone was getting ready for the race on Sunday morning, I found myself retreating to the backyard to try to get a hold of myself.
As I sat stretching with my legs up the side of the house, I wasn’t sure I could do this. I had suffered from altitude sickness basically every time I had gone to the mountains this summer, which was all at much lower elevation than the 10,000-foot mountain town I was about to run in. I wasn’t sure I could even run 6.2 miles on such a hilly course.
By the time we were down to the start line, I was practically giving myself an ulcer from worrying so much. Everyone seemed like they were about to take a walk in the park, while I was worried if I would even finish. Would I look like an idiot with my pack of snacks and water? Would people judge me for how slow I was going?
But then I saw a man in head-to-toe lime green spandex, complete with furry leg warmers. He matched his wife, who was in all hot pink. There was another guy in a banana costume. There were a bunch of other ladies with packs on, all lined up at the back of the finish line with me in the slow group.
That same electric energy I experienced at the 100-miler came back. I looked around and everyone was just pumped to go for a run. Running is FUN, remember?!
By the time I was trudging up the homestretch (literally, it’s up a giant hill to the finish line, it’s awful), I was out of breath, very tired, and just hurting. I turned to Billy and for the first time said, ” I don’t know if I can do this.”
But then I saw my ultra-marathon running friends. Because they had finished 45 minutes ahead of me, but also because they were purposely waiting at the finish line for us to cheer me on to the end.
They knew that while this was a walk in the park for them, it was a huge deal for me, and were screaming and cheering and urging me on to the finish. A group of little kids ran out to give me high fives as I “ran” by them, and it hit me that every single person was out here for the simple love of running.
It didn’t matter that I was slow. That running 6.2 miles was REALLY hard for me. That my goal was literally just to finish and hopefully not get altitude sickness while I was at it. I was part of this amazing community that just. loved. running.
I never thought I would belong in the running world, or that I would ever be actually enjoying running. The spirit Leadville embodies is what is amazing about this sport, and how inclusive it can be, despite how it appears from the outside looking in. You better believe I’ll be back next year for more.
….And that’s where I was going to end this blog. But then I remembered I’m white, skinny, and look like a “typical” runner. No matter how much of a beginner I am, I still enjoy some privilege when it comes to blending into these spaces. While the crowd at Leadville wasn’t all white, it was certainly a majority white space.
So obviously I can’t speak to what it might be like entering this space as a person of color, or a person of color who is also a beginner. Or even a white person that’s doesn’t fit the stereotype of what a runner is “supposed” to look like.
That’s why I want to hear from you about your experience in Leadville. Did I completely miss the mark on this blog? Did I only find Leadville’s elite running world welcoming because I look like the people on the podium? Tell me in the comments.