How do you put a town into words? A town that’s boomed & busted time and time again, like a man on the operating table who’s pushed it too far once more but keeps getting shocked back to life. A town that sits at the feet of Colorado’s two highest peaks, that has an opera house across from the saloon, that celebrates its wild history with shootouts in the streets and burro races amongst the 100 year old mining ruins. It’s impossible, I think. For like most things, words only go so far. And yet, words often compose stories, and I reckon that stories seem to be what life is all about. So it appears that it’s Leadville stories that I will tell for this, the last installment before the 100.
Let’s start by stating that Leadville defines “quirky.” Here, pot-smoking backpackers, tie-dye hippies, history buffs, 14’er peak baggers, and endurance athletes all coexist in 10,152 ft. of low-oxygen harmony. Story #1 highlights one such man who fits perfectly into the quirky patchwork of Leadville – Jim, the official town greeter. After a
recent dinner at Leadville’s High Mountain Pies, I popped into La Resistance with a couple guys from my house. La Resistance deserves some airtime itself before we progress. An angsty coffee shop by morning, this storefront doubles as a speakeasy-style restaurant by night. Step behind the curtain and you enter a lounge that pays homage to Oscar Wilde and late 19th century Bohemian France by serving Absinthe in a setting straight out of “Midnight in Paris.” It was in this unlikely setting over a serving of the best cheesecake Leadville has to offer that we ran into Jim. According to the story told by my buddy, Jim knew at 16 that he wanted to be a “Town Greeter.” He traveled around America, searching for the right fit. He passed through Leadville, deemed it unworthy, wound up in hard times in Kansas, and by providence was led back to Leadville – this time deciding it was the right town for him. These days, Jim strolls up & down the streets of Leadville in a top hat strapped together with vintage motorcycle goggles, greeting the visitors making their way through town and making sure they feel welcomed.
Story #2 is of a lady who is the original Lead-Woman in my book. About a week ago, I went out on a final long training run with a couple other folks in town preparing for the hundred. As we approached the end of our 25 mile trainer and descended from the last
major climb of the LT100 course, we passed a woman who appeared to be in her 60’s who was absolutely motoring down the hills. We came to a junction in the road, and being uncertain of which way the course went we waited until our soon to be friend joined us. Upon meeting her, we quickly learned that this was no ordinary runner – this was Marge Hickman, 16 time finisher of the Leadville 100 and, if she finishes this year, the oldest female finisher of the Leadville 100 ever. After a mediocre day of running, Marge brought an overflowing amount of inspiration to me. Talking with this woman who runs a cleaning business in Leadville while also running 100’s like they’re nobody’s business struck some deeper chord within me. Here was someone who’s been there since the early days – before Scott Jurek or Lifetime Fitness, a woman who seemingly runs for the pure joy of it. A woman who by all rights is a Leadville legend and yet took the time to learn about us and help out our novice selves. Her advice that “The race doesn’t start until mile 75” has been and will be at the forefront in my mind until this whole crazy experience comes to a close.
And story #3? Well that comes from yesterday afternoon. As soon as you round the final turn of the journey down to Leadville and drop onto the main drag of Harrison Ave., you’re greeted by the tower of a beautiful brick church. I’ve walked past this church numerous times, tried to peer through the cracks to see what’s inside, and dreamt of standing in its belltower. As I was walking home, an incredible site appeared at its entryway – the front door was wide open! I hesitated for just a moment, then excitedly
strolled over. I passed through the doorway and was promptly greeted by a kind woman named Judy. She led me inside and introduced me to the 128 year old sanctuary. She pointed out the original wooden theatre-style chairs, complete with metal racks beneath each for the men to store their top hats during service. She told me how the pipe organ had been shipped in from Wisconsin and brought over the 13,000ft. high Mosquito Pass, a road that jeeps struggle to get up even today. She described how the parishioners would fire up the heating system the Saturday night before service in order to maintain some semblance of heat for Sunday morning. All the while I was transported back in time, imagining myself as a prospector high up in these unforgiving mountains, my ragged top hat tucked safely beneath my slightly warmed bum, thoughts of God & silver & surviving the winter running through my head.
As the tour was coming to a close, I found out that Judy has been working the May Queen Aid Station (the first & last aid station on the course) for nearly 25 years. While she used
to work both the early morning & late night shift, she’s retired to only working the early one, getting out around 4am to prep PB&J’s, snacks, and drinks for the hundreds of runners who will start passing as the sun is just bringing the adjacent Turquoise Lake to dazzling life. It was rather incredible, stumbling across another cornerstone of the Leadville 100 experience in such a historic place, and I can’t wait to see her again in a place of a quite different yet still powerful historical significance.
The Next Chapter
These stories, these people, these places, this is Leadville… or part of it, at least. Because as soon as you think you have it figured out, a new story comes around that exposes a whole new layer of this town’s core. Such stories and experiences have all served to deepened my affection for Leadville while also bringing a new level of meaning to the challenge that’s now only 9 days away. I’m not just running an ultra. I’m participating in an event that flows swiftly in the lifeblood of this wild, wacky, and wonderful town. And for that I am immensely grateful.
At this point in the journey, I’m cautiously optimistic for race day. 2 weeks of going up and down 14’ers combined with seeing nearly every mile of the course have me feeling the best I’ve felt this year. And yet, now that we’re firmly into taper-time, my mind suddenly has more moments to think about all that lays between now and August 19th, not to mention everything that could happen on race day. Fears of getting sick from any of the dozens of people coming through the house haunt me, and I find myself just wanting race day to be here already while all systems seem so ready to go. But instead patience is demanded as I seek to make the most of these 9 days by learning more about Leadville, caring for my body without turning into a hypochondriac, and honing the plans for race day.
To simply say I’m thankful for this time and these stories, seems like a gross understatement. And yet that’s the honest feeling that pervades. I’m thankful to be a minuscule part of the ongoing saga of Leadville. I’m thankful for the opportunity to soon share this place with so many friends & family. I’m thankful to chase this crazy dream that was born in my mind so many years ago. I’m thankful for the chance to, as Leadville itself says, “Do something awesome today.”
Thanks, Leadville. Let’s go write a great story.