Find out why the Leadville 100’s veterans keep going back for more
To someone who’s been running nonstop for 10 or 13 hours, by the light of a headlamp, the boulders along the trail can look like mountain lions! Actually, in the lengthening shadows, they look like mountain lions leaping toward you. It’s terrifying. But it helps keep Bill Finkbeiner awake. Otherwise, the Leadville 100 veteran, who turns 60 this year and will compete in his 32nd Leadville ultra marathon this August, might start drifting off. This can happen while putting one foot in front of another, still moving, until he veers off trail or stumbles and wakes with a start.
Marge Hickmann is the opposite sort of runner. The Leadville 100 champion from 1985 (when the race was three years old and she was one of just two women to even cross the finish line), has never fallen asleep while running. At 65, she too will embark on her 32nd Leadville 100 race this August. The Leadville local who claims to have once been “a chubby girl from Pennsylvania” has competed in the 100-mile trail race every year for the last 31 years. She has only finished 16 times – two of them unofficial – because she had exceeded the 30-hour time limit. Although the win in ’85 was spectacular, the highlight of Hickmann’s Leadville 100 career was her tenth place overall finish in 1997, when she tallied her fastest time – “23 hours and change” – and claims that the last 30 miles of the race “were like running on air.”
Finkbeiner, “sleep jogging” as he was at times has finished the race for 30 years straight. But when the California native started his 31st race last year, he limped to the starting line with knee pain.
“I knew two blocks into the run that I wasn’t going to make it,” he says. “But I’ve run every day for 35 years. I didn’t want to stop. I wanted to wait until I was pulled for time. I ended up doing 51 miles anyway. My knee stayed swollen for two or three weeks.”
You have to finish in 30 hours or it doesn’t count
Launched in 1983 by Leadville local, former miner, Colorado State Senator and self-proclaimed cowboy Ken Chlouber, the Leadville 100, also called the Race Across the Sky, has become one of the most popular ultra marathons in the world. It is likely the most difficult, as well. With a starting elevation of 10,200 feet and topping out at about 12,600 feet, the race climbs and plummets and climbs again, for a total vertical ascent of 16,000 feet. The course starts and finishes on Leadville’s main drag – Harrison Avenue – and takes runners up and out of town on dirt back roads, over Hope Pass on steep, narrow, rocky single-track, and traverses straight through creeks and across marshy wetlands. Racers kick off the starting line at 4 a.m. Typically, less than half of the starters (there were 670 last year) ever make it to the finish. Many stop to vomit at certain points. Many keep running while vomiting. Some sprain their ankles, stop momentarily at an aid station to wrap their injury, then keep going; others change out of their soggy shoes while shoveling a few bites of pasta into their mouth. Many squish along for dozens of miles in soaking wet shoes. Some never stop. In August at 12,000 feet, it’s not unusual for snow to fall at some point during the dark night. At the halfway point, most of the field is hunched over and moving in reptilian lurches; some are slogging along with dragging feet, wearing clothes that look far too big for them and faces fixed with a thousand-yard stare. At 4 a.m., 24 hours into the race, the group resembles a pack of zombies.
Matt Carpenter of Manitou Springs holds the course record from his win in 2005, when he finished in 15 hours, 42 minutes and 59 seconds.
“They look like death coming in,” says Abby Long of Life Time Fitness. The corporate giant operates dozens of events and more than 100 athletic facilities throughout North America. Life Time took over the Leadville 100 run and mountain bike race as well as the Silver Rush 50 and marathon events from Chlouber in 2010. “I cannot wrap my head around the 100 [mile] run, seeing people cross the finish line who’ve been out there for 30 hours, running the whole time, through a sunrise twice,” Long says. “But then you see the folks winning sometimes who look great … like they just went out for a light jog.”
Even the winners, fresh faced as they may appear, will admit that it hurts. Talk to anyone within an hour of finishing the race and he or she will most likely swear to never, ever do another 100-mile race again. But give them a few more hours and they’ll change their tune. Some might call it masochistic.
I’ll never do that again. Wait. Sign me up for next year
“I’m down to 24 to 48 hours after the race when I want to do it again,” says Finkbeiner, who, with his 30 finishes, has more than anybody in Leadville history. After his first ever DNF last year, he is even more charged up for this year’s race. “I’ve always thought that with a 50-percent finish rate, there aren’t a lot of people hurting more than I that finish. If it’s not a medical emergency or missing a time limit, I’m going to stick it out.”
Sure, you have to be in phenomenal shape to even attempt a 100-mile running race. It takes months and even years of training to come close to staying on your feet for that long. But there’s a lot more to it than mere fitness.
“It’s not really about physicality. It’s at least half mental,” says Leadville 100 Race Director Josh Colley of Lifetime Fitness, a Leadville resident since 2000. “When you’re at the finish line, you see those guys who have tried and not made it, then they dig deeper and they finally make it. It’s magical to see.”
Chlouber, who is still involved in the race and has completed 14 of the 100-milers himself, is the king of the “dig deeper” mentality. Now 76, the former senator narrowly avoided a deadly avalanche that killed 11 climbers in Nepal in 2012, after he uncharacteristically turned back from a summit bid on Mount Manaslu, a feat that would have made him the oldest American to climb an 8,000-meter peak.
“Inside each of us is an inexhaustible well of grit, gut and determination,” Chlouber said in a video documenting his training for the 8,000-foot climb. “We have the courage to reach inside to that level, dig deep and go on when others will turn back.”
Still, as Chlouber himself demonstrated in Nepal, there are times when a person simply has to turn back.
Hickmann knows this, having stopped short of finishing the Leadville 100 approximately half of the times she’s attempted the race. But with 16 finishes – 14 under the 30-hour limit – she’s notched considerably more than any other woman in marathon history.
When you think you’re done, dig deeper
“You have to have a tough mental mindset to get through these cause it’s gonna hurt,” she says. “Everybod0y has their own mental games they play to get them through. I tell myself it can’t last longer than 30 hours and then the pain will be over. If I start to lose it, start whining and complaining, that’s when I actually talk to myself and say, ‘Shut up, Marge. Dig deep. Everybody’s hurting. Keep moving.’ ”
For Finkbeiner, whose best Leadville finish was 20 hours and 30 minutes for third place overall in 1992, the secret is to re-structure the way he thinks about pain. Or rather, to not think about it.
“There was a quote that said, ‘pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.’ I take that to mean that suffering is the mental part of how the pain affects you. Pain is the physical part,” he says. “You have to enjoy and embrace the pain.”
While many out-of-towners have spent their summers in the high Rockies training for the Leadville 100, Finkbeiner, from Auburn, CA, rolls into town the Thursday before the race (which begins at 4 a.m. Saturday morning). The altitude is a bear. It slows him down. And sometimes paired with the fatigue and eye tricks, he sees bears on the course that aren’t there.
“When it’s dark and you’re tired, you start to worry about what is out there that could get you,” he says. “You’re running down Hagerman Pass Road, and if there’s a boulder or tree stump, the shadow is moving toward you, and it looks like this thing that’s going to get you. That can really happen easily. But I’ve never seen a real animal out there bigger than a rodent. My biggest single problem is falling asleep. I start to have a dream. You hit the edge of the trail and trip. You go mile after mile dozing off. That hurts my time, too.”
Hickmann doesn’t have that problem. Her mind is focused on the simple task at hand … putting one foot in front of the other.
“I’ve never had hallucinations,” she says. “I’m also a massage therapist and going through massage school, you learn to be in touch with your intuition and body. I’m very focused on my body when I’m running. I can tell if my shoulders are getting tight, if I need to stretch a little. If I’m in a good running zone, I can just zone out. Sometimes during the day, I’ll think about my mom or dad who have passed away or this and that. But mostly I’m just cruising along on cruise control.”
The 2015 Leadville Trail 100 Run kicks off at 4 a.m. on Aug. 22. Registration has been sold out since January but there are still some qualifying spots available. For more information, visit leadvilleraceseries.com.