You have to scout the route, secure permission from the feds and private property owners to use the land, buy the insurance, recruit enough volunteers to pull off the race, map and mark the trail and, perhaps most challenging of all, find the runners who'll risk the cuts, scrapes, popped blisters, upset stomachs and sleeplessness that comes with the distance.
Colorado, which is known as a hotbed for trail runners, may have a long history of ultra-racing, but so far, hosting a 200-mile race has been a bridge too far. The only attempt, the Colorado 200 Mile Endurance Run, took place in 2015 and 2016 in the Gunnison National Forest. The race was back on the calendar for 2017, but organizers shut it down that year, citing lack of interest.
Now John Lacroix, who goes by the handle Sherpa John, plans to add a 200-mile length to his Sangre de Cristo Ultras, which he founded in 2018, and already offers 27-, 50- and 100-kilometer and 50- and 100-mile distances.
The races take place on the Rainbow Trail beneath the Sangre de Cristos. Lacroix's one-man company, the Human Potential Running Series, offers this description at the trail-racing website ultrasignup.com: “No race in our country is in a more wild setting. This unique race is about community, it is about traveling together, it is about discovering the hidden treasures in the mountains and those within yourself.”
The Sangre de Cristo Ultras will be run September 21 and September 22 this year, and you can register through September 17; the 200-mile race won't be added to the lineup until 2020. Those who want to go that distance can register on December 1, 2019, for $600, a large sum for a race entry fee but a reasonable price compared with 200-milers in other states. The starting and finishing line of the Sangre de Cristo Ultras is set up on a rancher’s land, where families of runners can camp and athletes can take naps mid-race.
Lacroix, a seasoned ultra-runner who has raced 23 100-mile events, lays claim to being the first person to direct a 200-mile race, which he held in Vermont in 2008. “At the time, I charged a dollar a mile. It was 200 bucks and you had 72 hours to get it done,” he recalls. “I had five people show up and had one finisher.”
Though 200 miles is a length he has not raced himself, Lacroix is familiar with the distance. In 2017, he planned to run from the lowest elevation point in Colorado, where the Arikaree River runs into Kansas, to the highest point, the peak of Mount Elbert. He made it 202 miles to Deer Creek Canyon, but was knocked off course when bad weather hit the mountains. So instead of running the entire distance, he drove to Mount Elbert’s base and ran up the fourteener in a blizzard to complete his trip.
Lacroix, who’s known for his old-school ultra-races that honor the scrappier, DIY side of trail running, has railed against the big-business takeover of the sport. He formed his company, the Human Potential Running Series, out of frustration with how the Leadville 100 and other prominent 100-mile races, which started out as bootstrap endeavors, had become “corporate monsters,” he says.
Yet over the past few years, he has shifted from being defiant and cranky to creating races where people come together, test their limits, prove themselves and connect with others. He's driven by his own experiences.
“I didn’t play sports in high school,” Lacroix explains. “I didn’t make the varsity team. But here I am, and I can run 100 miles by foot. I can run 200 miles. Those high school jocks that used to pick on me — they can’t do what I do. I built this business to satisfy the needs of people to belong and give love and receive love.”
For each race Lacroix directs, he offers a theme. At one, he handed out small rocks and told people they represented something heavy that the runners carried through their lives; during the race, he encouraged them to let it go. At the annual winter Stories Ultra, he puts an existential question on each runner’s bib, asking them to ponder their question through the race. Each time they do a loop on the course, he records their thoughts about the question, which he uses for a podcast.
While other races are about record-setting and athletes huffing and puffing for a hefty financial reward, Lacroix tries to keep his events democratic, honoring the fastest, slowest and mid-level runners equally.
“At my races, I don’t have a podium. I don’t give a special award to first, second or third place. I don’t even do age-group awards,” he says. “The reason why is because the single mom of three who’s out there running in my race has sacrificed just as much, if not more, to be there and compete at the level she’s competing at as the frontrunner has. Who are we to celebrate the frontrunner as some god? Because in my world, the god is the single mom of three who made it, and she accomplished her goal, whatever it is."