Colorado History

Leadville Trail 100 Is as Tough and True as Its Namesake Town

The Leadville Trail has been referred to as the "race across the sky."
The Leadville Trail has been referred to as the "race across the sky." Glen Delman Photography
The Leadville Trail 100, set this year for August 17, is renowned around the world for its elevation (10,200 feet to start, with a 3,500 foot gain), sweeping views and difficult terrain. But the road to the race's creation was just as rough.

Leadville started out as a mining town, and it was still a mining town in 1982, when the Climax Molybdenum Mine closed and 3,200 jobs were lost. More than half of the 5,000 residents of Leadville were out of work. That's when Ken Chlouber, a miner and runner, came up with the idea of hosting a 100-mile run that would be as tough and gritty as the town, designed for anyone willing to push their body and mind to the limit. "You don't find Leadville," Chlouber says. "Leadville finds you."

In 1983, 45 people participated in the inaugural run. The race got bigger each year, attracting new and veteran runners alike. A decade in, a 100-mile bike race was added, then a 100-mile stage race, along with shorter running races; today it's known as the Leadville Race Series. Many people participate in more than one event; those who do all of them qualify for the Lead Man or Lead Woman award. 

While many other races require qualification in order to participate, the Leadville Race Series events are open to everyone. "When these miners came in the 1860s to dig for gold, they didn't have to qualify for anybody," Chlouber says. "I firmly believe, if you think you're good enough, I think you're good enough. You don't have to prove yourself to me or to Leadville."

Today, though, the race is so popular that a certain number of spots are reserved for those participating in qualifying races, and the majority of spots are filled by a lottery system that opens in January every year.

click to enlarge Llamas greet runners at an aid station for a little moral boost. - GLEN DELMAN PHOTOGRAPHY
Llamas greet runners at an aid station for a little moral boost.
Glen Delman Photography
"The purpose of these races since day one, and it still is today, is about what we can give, not what can we get," says Chlouber, who was elected to the Colorado House of Representatives in 1987, then moved on to the Colorado Senate, where he served until 2004. Although the races always gave back to the community, Chlouber decided to make things more formal, creating the Leadville Trail 100 Legacy Foundation.

One of the foundation's first moves was giving a $1,000 scholarship to every Leadville high school student going on to any type of higher learning. Has that continued? "Absolutely not," Chlouber says. "We give $2,000! The number-one need I saw then was opening the door of opportunity for our high school students. I don't care if they go to a research university or if they go to a diesel mechanic or a trade school, welding, pipefitters, carpenters, whatever." Last year, all fifty grads of Leadville's high school took advantage of the scholarships.

The foundation also funds a bike pass and repairs at the Tabor Opera House, and helps other local institutions in need. "Our intention is a better, brighter tomorrow for Leadville," explains Chlouber. This year, he estimates that the race series will bring over $20 million into Leadville.

Although all spots in this year's race, the 37th, were filled months ago, you can still join the spectators who'll be watching the action in Leadville all weekend. The Leadville Trail 100 begins at 4 a.m. Saturday, August 17.
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Zoe Yabrove is a Denver native with an undergraduate degree in creative writing and a master’s in special education. She is a teacher in Denver Public Schools and contributes to Westword to get her writing fix.
Contact: Zoe Yabrove