Luke Graham: I've never run the race, but I'm from Leadville

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Luke Graham

Luke Graham's column appears periodically in the Steamboat Today. Contact him at 970-871-4229 or lgraham@SteamboatToday.com.

Find more columns by Luke here.

— I was 10 years old and kicking around Leadville on my bike when I saw them.

They were white with blue designs and, strangely enough, they were brand-spanking new.

I wasn't sure what to make of the brand-new Rockport shoes in the trashcan. I figured there had to be something about them that would make someone discard them.

Then I got home later that afternoon as my mom was preparing for her ambulance shift on the Leadville Trail 100. She enlightened me - there were several Tarahumara Indians in town running the race.

See, this was when the race was big. Big, as in it got national attention.

Big enough for the highly reclusive Tarahumaras to venture away from the Copper Canyons of Mexico and run "The Race Across the Sky."

Running to the Tarahumaras is like breathing to us. But apparently, these top-of-the-line, American-made shoes weren't for them. So, instead, they ventured a little south of town to the local landfill and made sandals out of old tires.

That year - 1994 - Juan Herrera of the Tarahumara tribe won the Leadville Trail 100 in what was then a record time.

It's still a story I tell when I talk about Leadville.

Leadville's got three things people know about: its elevation (10,230 feet), the mining history (believe it or not, Leadville once was an option for the capital of Colorado) and the Leadville Trail 100.

It's funny that that's what most people know about the town, because all three are deeply intertwined.

The elevation is self-explanatory. It makes the race brutal. The lowest elevation runners encounter is 9,000 feet. The highest is more than 12,000 feet.

But the mining and the beginning of the race are quite a story. Leadville was the molybdenum capital of the world for a good portion of the 1900s. Then prices dropped, mines in South America became cheaper and Leadville faced the gloomy future fellow mountain towns Winfield and Vicksburg already had experienced.

Insert quasi-crazy miner and state Sen. Ken Chlouber.

Chlouber's quite a character with a horse-like head, long hair and a rugged face that looks like leather. He doesn't hold back either.

Despite concerns the race would kill someone, Chlouber pushed for it, and the first one took place in 1983, a year after the Climax Molybdenum Mine closed down, turning the Leadville economy around 180 degrees.

Chlouber would contend the Leadville 100 saved the small town. That's probably partly true, but Leadville would have been OK with budding ski towns like Vail, Aspen and Breckenridge within driving distance. The pay's good there, while the rents are low in Leadville.

Still, the race brought attention to the town. But with other ultramarathons popping up and the Tarahumaras not returning after a mysterious dispute, the race has lost some luster.

However, the Trail 100 - much like Leadville itself - still has a mystique about it.

It's rugged. It's rough. It's tough.

But most of all, it's got a unique soul about it.

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