Monday, August 18, 2008

How the Leadville Trail 100 Events Came to Be

This is reproduced without permission, but I don't know who I'd ask, so there you go. Copyrights can be so inconvenient.

Rocky Mountain Sports
Mining Their Own Business
Contributed by David Vranicar Monday, 28 July 2008

How a mining town survived a mining bust with a brutal race, changing the course of history 100 miles at a time.

Desperation made it seem like a good idea.

Desperation made people in Leadville, Col., think that constructing a 58,000-square-foot ice palace – literally, a palace of ice – would save their town. Desperation spurred them to include a skating rink, restaurant and dance floor right inside the Disney-looking castle so that tourists and their dollars would flood Leadville.

If the Leadville Ice Palace was anything, it was desperate. But hey, in 1895, so was Leadville.
Emerging after the Colorado gold strikes of the early 1860s, Leadville’s identity had always been tied to mining. Gold, silver, lead, zinc and copper saturated the surrounding mountains, and a booming mining industry sprouted.

By 1880, though, the mines began to dry out. The town’s economy – which was essentially mining – came to a halt. Stores and banks went under, and by 1895 the population was less than 15,000, down from more than 40,000 in 1880. Leadville’s newspaper, the Herald Democrat, wrote, “Those were the days of panic and gloom for Leadville.”

And this led to the Leadville Ice Palace. People thought the imposing, record-setting palace would save the town’s floundering economy. But investors ended up losing lots of money, and there would never be another Leadville Ice Palace. Designed for economic stimulation, it was an economic disaster.
So forgive Carl Miller if he thought his best friend, Ken Chlouber, was nuts. With Leadville’s economy again faltering after a mining bust, Chlouber’s plan reeked of desperation, destined to become another ice palace.

Chlouber’s idea: Leadville should host a 100-mile run. That’s about four marathons – at once.
Chlouber was reduced to such a desperate (and, most people thought, stupid) scheme because Leadville once again couldn’t mine. After 64 years of production, the nearby Climax Molybdenum Mine shut down in 1982. The Climax mine employed 3,200 people, and most of them lived in Leadville – including Chlouber and Miller.

Almost overnight, Leadville had the highest unemployment rate in the country. “We got all these guys who have been mining their whole lives – this is some tall, rough timber – and now all of a sudden they’re out of a job,” Chlouber said. “They’re just sitting here in town, of course filling up the bars. Now we got alcohol abuse, drug abuse, child abuse, spousal abuse. All this sort of follows this displaced aggression – old man comes home, beats up the old lady. Old lady beats up the kids. Kids kick the dog. Dog bites the postman.

“So we had to have a way to bring money into the community. We knew we had to save our community, keep from being a ghost town.”

But how? The thing that Leadville did best – and the thing that they liked best – was mining, which had betrayed them again. The town couldn’t wait for the price of molybdenum to go back up and mining to return to Climax, but there were people like Chlouber who weren’t about to leave.

But for him to stay, and for the town to survive, something had to be done about the economy.
So under his crown of untamed, frizzy grey locks, Chlouber brainstormed the “Leadville Trail 100,” the logistics of which were nearly as outrageous as the dimensions of the ice palace. The starting point would be in downtown Leadville – above 10,000 feet – and twice the runners would have to conquer the 12,600-foot Hope Pass, not to mention more than 15,000 feet of vertical elevation gain. They would embark on this journey (to the sound of a shotgun) at 4 a.m. and, if things went well, would be done 28-or-so hours later.

If you think it sounds nuts, you’re not alone.
“I was for him 100 percent, but I just didn’t think that anybody would be crazy enough to run 100 miles up here,” Miller said. As Chlouber remembers it, Miller told him, “You’re crazy as hell, but I’ll still help ya.”
Sure enough, there were about 50 people who dared sign up for that first race in 1983. The sinister Leadville Trail 100 course only allowed 10 of them to finish, but the important thing for Leadville’s bleak economy was that people came, pumping some much needed money into Leadville’s economy.

Unlike the ice palace, the Trail 100 would see a second year. In 1984 the race doubled in size, as 100 people signed up for a day’s worth of torture. But it was that third year, 1985, when the Leadville Trail 100 declared that it would never become another ice palace, another monument to the town’s desperation. The television show Wide World of Sports did a feature on the Leadville Trail 100, or as Chlouber puts it, a feature on “these idiots trying to run 100 miles.”

“Then it exploded,” Chlouber continued. “That television show set it off, and it’s grown, grown, grown ever since.” From 1986 on, Chlouber says they had more entrants than they wanted.
But unbeknownst to Chlouber and the race’s co-founder, Merilee O’Neal, the Trail 100 was still in its infancy. It would take off again in 1994 when the Leadville Trail 100 Bike Race was added. Chlouber is the first to admit that he did not want to introduce bikes into the fold. The running race was going fine, and Chlouber was convinced that bringing in a bunch of cyclists would throw off the decade-old dynamic of the race.

“I said, ‘No, no and hell no’ to biking.”
But Chlouber eventually relented, giving birth to what is now one of the most sought-after biking events in North America. Even Floyd Landis, the 2006 Tour de France champion, has done the Leadville Trial 100. (He finished second.) [editorial comment by jcm - And so has Lance Armstrong, 7 time Tour de France champion - he also finished second, to the KING - Dave Wiens. We'll now return to our regularly scheduled program. . .]

“It wasn’t any foresight or intellect on my part,” Chlouber said. “It was just I was focused on our community. The mountain bike thing, though, you talk about a bozo with blind luck, that’s me.

That blind luck has resulted in thousands of additional entrants and millions of additional dollars for Leadville. With the foot race only able to handle about 600 runners, the inclusion of the bike race as part of the Trail 100 allowed for 1,000 extra entrants each year, each one of them staying in Leadville, eating in Leadville and spending money in Leadville. The Leadville Trail 100 had done what the Leadville Ice Palace couldn’t: sustain itself for years on end, and continue to generate money for the still not-mining mining town.
Exact numbers on the economic benefits of the Trail 100 do not exist, according to the Leadville City Treasurer and Chamber of Commerce. The County Treasurer and County Clerk’s office also do not have information on what happens to the town’s economy when the city is abuzz with Trail 100 entrants. Chlouber, though, ventured to say that the boost to Leadville’s economy is “obviously in the millions and millions” over the race’s quarter century.

Leadville’s current mayor, Bud Elliot, owned a pair of motels in Leadville before becoming mayor four years ago. He experienced firsthand the annual spike in business as bikers and runners flooded the town. “It’s really impossible to quantify it exactly,” Elliot said, “but some of those people come up three months ahead of time, stay in rental homes and train. They’re buying all their groceries here, eating at our restaurants.”

“I always knew that that was revenue I could count on,” Elliot continued. “They would check in and say, ‘I want the same room next year.’”

Said the once-skeptical Miller, “The economic impacts, you just can’t calculate. But this community would be in dire need without them. And they’re a given, they’re a given every year. The lodging, the restaurant business, all the other small businesses up and down Harrison Avenue benefit tremendously from this.”

The Leadville Hostel is one such business. The owner, Wild Bill (“That is my real name,” he says), is proud to announce that he has bookings through 2011 for people who know that they will be back to beat – or get beat by – the Trail 100. “The people we see here at the hostel, we see year after year – it’s almost an addiction,” Wild Bill said.

Willie Lambert is one of the addicts. He has tried the Trail 100 the last four years, finishing once. Each time he’s in town he stays at the Leadville Hostel, which, according to him, is like staying with family. “There’s not a place in the world like the Leadville Hostel the week before the race,” Lambert said. “It’s like a reunion. You see the same people every year, and it’s a fairly emotionally charged environment.”

The only night that Lambert spent in Leadville but was not at the Hostel was a few years back when there was a reservation mix up. Wild Bill was double booked, and with racers crammed everywhere, there wasn’t a vacant room in town. When hearing that Lambert – who was with his wife and kids – didn’t have a place to stay, O’Neal offered to let the entire family stay at her house. “That just blew me away,” Lambert said. “I don’t know many race directors who would do that. That showed how much she cares about not just about the race, but how much she really cares about the runners.”

Businesses like Sawatch Backcountry, an outdoor supplies outlet, also see business soar when Trail 100 devotees flood Leadville. Sawatch actually ran out of products like hydration packs and energy foods last summer when competitors were in town. They are loading up this year in preparation for the influx of business this summer, when they will no doubt be raided again. And Sawatch is but one of a handful of outdoor shops that will be preyed upon by Trail 100 entrants come August.

But aside the from the money that race participants pump directly into the community each year, profits from the Trail 100 have also helped pay for equipment for the local fire department, uniforms for the school sports teams and vision and dental care for people who can’t afford it. The Trail 100 sponsors an annual Christmas party for area children, and has given money to the senior citizen center. In addition, Chlouber and O’Neal ink a check for between $10,000 and $20,000 each year to the Leadville Legacy, an organization devoted to the economic well-being of Leadville.

“It’s not just some giving back, it’s giant giving back,” Elliot said of the Trail 100. “The economic benefits to the hotels and restaurants, that’s important. It’s people making a living and contributing to the tax base. But the Legacy fund, that’s giving back to another group of people.
“The Legacy has done more every year they’ve been in existence,” Elliot went on. “It’s really refreshing to see someone begin a foundation and every year they’re tying to do more. They’re not just doing a little bit.”

Chlouber and O’Neal seem most proud of a program launched this year that aims to provide each college-bound high school graduate from Lake County High School with a $1,000 scholarship. Usually about half of the 60-or-so Lake County graduates go to college, so they’re looking at about $30,000 a year. Elliot says that the $1,000-per-student goal is ambitious, but adds, “I don’t know if they’ll make it the first year, but if there’s anyone who can, it’s these folks.”
People from Austria to Japan, from Florida to Washington, make their way to the 3,000-person town of Leadville each summer for the Leadville Trail 100. But the race was never about making Leadville famous around the world. It was about making sure the people who called Leadville home still had a place to live.

“The total purpose of the race was community,” Chlouber said, “bringing people here to spend money. My passion has never been that the world needs more exercise. It’s that Leadville needs more money. You’ve got your choice if you wanna stay fit, but we want you to come here and spend money.”

If it had failed, people may claim that Chlouber’s solution for saving Leadville was just as desperate as the ice palace – a rash idea devised in the midst of a city’s economic implosion.
But the Leadville Trail 100 didn’t fail. Instead, it prevented the town from melting into the mountainside.

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