Jim O'Leary

Waverly Star

By Jim O'Leary

An e-mail newsletter for and about Waverly people, used with permission in the HLW Herald and on this web site.

  Oct. 27, 2003

The incredible 100-mile race across the sky

I was standing on the steps of St. Joseph's church in Leadville, Colo. this August when I found out about it.

I was wearing a Waverly sweatshirt Berni Reardon had given me years ago, when a beautiful young woman came out of the church and asked me if I was really from Waverly.

She was Anna Belu from Minnetonka and she told me she had arrived in Leadville a few days before in order to get into condition in the two mile high altitude for the big race.

Two miles high? Yup. Leadville, Colorado is the highest town in the U.S.A. Big race? Yup. A hundred mile race in fact. That information provided me with the experience of a lifetime.

It was hard to believe there were people willing to do this. It wasn't just the $195 entry fee I found hard to believe, or the fact that only 50 percent are able to finish the 30- hour race, or the fact that more than 100 of the people who sent in the entry fee never show up, or the fact one had to sign up a year in advance to have the privilege of running across the mountains above Leadville in the dark.

It was the race itself that was hard to believe. The race would start with the shotgun start at 4 a.m. and would end 30 hours later at 10 a.m. with the firing of the same shotgun.

The runners would race through the whole day and then through the cold night, carrying flashlights for the dark, slippery trails. They would run and run. There would be aid stations every 20 miles or so, which are like pit stops in the Indy 500.

There was a physical check-up one had to pass. No runners under 21 were allowed. All runners had to sign a waiver: "WARNING: In order to enable this event to take place and assure your participation in it, you must freely and voluntarily agree to the sole responsibility for the extreme and unknown risks of the Leadville 100."

Hoping to get a column out of this, I interviewed people at the finish line. I asked them to give me three words about how they felt: "Yee Haw!" a guy from Texas said. Others said, "Murderous," "It was like living a whole life in one day,"

"I'll give you three words: 'Heaven and hell,'" "After Leadville, you can do anything," "Exhilirating," "I limped for 20 miles," "I'll have to walk up stairs backwards for a long time to come," "Awesome,"

"After doing this, anything else in life is easy," "Nobody will ever be able to tell me ever again I can't do something because it's too hard" and "It's the first time I have ever run through two sunrises." No wonder they call it an ultra-marathon.

It was hard to interview the finishers because the people who run in ultra-marathons become very close friends. It was like intruding on a family reunion of a close-knit group of people who had the important common bond of living through an excruciating experience. Perhaps it's like a reunion of Iwo Jima survivors.

Incredibly, 206 runners came in under 30 hours. The first place men's winner, Paul Dewitt, finished the 100 miles in 17 hours, 58 minutes and 45 seconds. I asked him if he had been a college athlete and he told me he had been on the track team at North Carolina State. Track team? I'll say. He choked up at the Awards ceremony when he thanked his family and support crew.

The first place women's finisher was Valerie Caldwell, who had run six 100-mile races before this one and said she was "thrilled to death" to win.

I found out from her that the ambition of many ultra-marathoners is "The Grand Slam," which is doing four of these things within ten weeks. I was surprised to learn they have these kinds of races all over the world, but the consensus was Leadville was the toughest.

This "Race Across the Sky" covers horrible terrain in less than 30 hours, a terrain which would take a healthy backpacker four days to complete.

I wanted to find out why people would do such a crazy thing as this and I found out each person had a different answer. I also found out they weren't crazy at all, but some of the most interesting people I have ever met, coming from all kinds of backgrounds.

I met runners from Germany, Mexico, and Canada. Tarahamara Indian runners from Mexico always participate. One of them won the race one time, running on sandals made from rubber tires.

One of the runners from Mexico told me he was 34, and in 19 years had run 157 marathons. His name was Mario Amaya and he is a businessman in Mexico City.

Many other writers have covered this race. The best coverage, of course, was from "Outside" magazine, an outstanding international magazine published out of Boulder.

One of their staffers, Jon Krakauer, has written two best sellers, "Into Thin Air," about the fatal climb up Mount Everest, and one current best seller, "Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith," a book on the Mormon religion which the Mormon church, understandably, doesn't like very well.

"Outside" magazine, in an article by Lee Green called "Long Day at Leadville" said that "Nighttime at a 100-mile trail race is an interminable affair. Seven of the top 20 runners at 50 miles bowed to various combinations of exhaustion, hypothermia, anoxemia and hypoglycemia. Another was mercifully disqualified for missing the cutoff time at a checkpoint."

It rained on the runners in the race I saw, and even though it was August, it snowed on them for three hours, sometimes blinding them in the high mountain passes.

My wife, Jeanne, who had run a marathon herself, was at the finish line with me. She was awestruck by the sight of raw and bleeding feet as the weary runners took off their shoes and socks.

How did this exquisite torture get started in such a nice town as Leadville? The booklet issued for the runners tells the story: "In the early 1980s the mines shut their doors and the unemployment rate in Leadville soared to 50 percent, the highest in the nation.

It had always been a boom and bust town, but this one took the cake. Leadville is a town known for trying just about anything to recover from a bust so an ou- of-work miner came up with the idea for a race; a race that would start in Leadville, turn around 50 miles later in a late 1800s ghost town called Winfield, and then return.

Since 1983, when 45 runners lined up, it has become an obsession for thousands who have wanted to test themselves at the Leadville Trail 100."

Merilee O'Neal has been race director for 14 years now. She told me that Minnesota always sent one of the largest contingents to this race. This year there were 14 runners from Minnesota.

She told me the event has been featured on CBS, NBC, HBO, and ESPN among others. All told, more than 2,000 athletes, volunteers and spectators from across the country come to Leadville (pop. 3,500) for the event.

It results in colossal donations to local charities, from supplies for day care centers to purchasing hospital equipment. Merilee also presides over the 100-mile bicycle race a week before the "Race Across the Sky."

Waverly's own Mark Klingelhoets raced in that one this year, but he left town before I knew he was there.

Anna Belu, the woman from Minnetonka, had to drop out at 50 miles after she had an anaphylactic reaction from a hornet sting, but she was there at the finish line to cheer on her fellow Minnesotans.

Merilee O'Neal, a runner herself, thinks that the athletes who take up the challenge of the 100 mile run discover they can do more than they think they can. "The event has definitely changed some lives because they take that confidence with them and apply it to their everyday lives."

It changed my life. I came back home to Corpus Christi and joined the YMCA.

For previous issues of the Waverly Star, see the web site at www.heraldjournal.com/waverlystar.

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