Madly in Love With the Maah Daah Hey

Original Article Here

Have you ever loved something so much that you would walk 200 miles for it? Through heavy brush? With a push mower? Nick Ybarra has.

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"It was here that the romance of my life began." —Theodore Roosevelt

Theodore Roosevelt was often given to waxing poetic about North Dakota's Badlands, and it’s easy to see why. The earth rises and plummets in sepia folds that form dramatic buttes and canyons, dotted with dark pine trees. Prairie grasses bend and twist in the ever-present wind and mingle with the brilliant reds and muted browns that make up much of the clay-heavy soil. Roosevelt is known to have cited his time in North Dakota as being the reason he fell in love with the outdoors and set him on the path to becoming President.

It is this same North Dakota landscape that was Nick Ybarra’s first love.

Ybarra has wide, dark eyes and an easy smile. A black ball cap emblazoned with his company’s logo seems permanently affixed to his head, and acts almost like a weathervane, rotating with his mood. When he is serious, the cap’s bill points directly ahead as he leans to talk. As he begins to relax, his hands seem to unconsciously rotate the cap’s bill slightly to the side, giving him an even more youthful appearance. At 34, Ybarra has a habit of quoting our 26th president. Ybarra describes himself as an average guy, quoting Teddy Roosevelt, ‘“an average man … but I work harder at it than the average man”’.

 

Nick Ybarra | Photo: Chad Ziemendorf

Ybarra fondly remembers moving to small but prosperous Watford City, North Dakota, from Bismark after the oil boom of the early ‘80s. Though he always liked North Dakota, it took two wheels and miles of sprawling grasslands for him to fall in love. He was just 18 years old and the closest bike shop was over an hour away (so he rode a hundred-dollar bike from a big-box store), but from the moment his tires hit the trail, Ybarra was hooked.

Since moving to Watford, Ybarra has spent thousands of hours and almost every day either riding or caring for North Dakota’s premiere long trail.

“Mountain biking is my favorite sport, it is my hobby, it is my exercise plan, it is my long-term health insurance policy, it is my sanity, it is my passion.”

The Maah Daah Hey Trail is more than 100 miles long and winds through rolling grasslands, dramatic plateaus and expansive valleys of the Badlands. Local riders joke the most technical aspect of the MDH is dodging the cow patties that blossom on the trail in the summer months. The trail gets its name from the Mandan Indians, a North Dakota tribe whose name means “something that will be around for a long time.” A simple depiction of a turtle marks each of the trail’s signs and mileposts, a symbol of resilience, determination and perseverance that characterize the trail.

 

Photo: Zoe Rom

After Ybarra’s first excursion on the MDH, he did everything he could to get back out on the trail. One of his first dates with his now wife, Lindsey, was on the trail. He took a job on a drilling rig in 2010, working for two weeks at a time and riding the MDH during his two weeks off. He loved the solitude he found on the twisting prairie singletrack, the rush of adrenaline that came with nailing a descent or the breathless exhilaration experienced after a grueling climb.

“Mountain biking is my favorite sport, it is my hobby, it is my exercise plan, it is my long-term health insurance policy, it is my sanity, it is my passion,” said Ybarra.

In the summer of 2011, the MDH started to disappear. After a particularly wet spring, rough prairie grasses began to sprout on the trail, all but obscuring the already faint singletrack. Due to budget cuts, the U.S. Forest Service (USFS), which manages the Little Missouri National Grassland through which the MDH winds, was unable to keep up with the encroaching prairie—the MDH was in danger of vanishing altogether.

“At least half the trail was dead, gone, extinct and the rest of it was not very enjoyable, not like it once was,” said Ybarra. “I was willing to do just about anything to save the MDH from disappearing forever.”

So, he did what anyone whose true love was threatened would do. He got a lawn mower.

 

Ybarra mows the 100-mile Maah Daah Hey—in both directions. Photo: Chad Ziemendorf

“You know, Roosevelt said the best thing in life is to work hard at work worth doing.”

The MDH can be narrow and winding, and it traverses sections of wilderness and grasslands that restrict the use of motorized vehicles, requiring that Ybarra use a push mower to cut the grass on both sides of the trail—totaling well over 200 miles. Although a handful of close friends eventually helped Ybarra with the mowing, he logged well over 100 miles himself. Terrain that is intended to be fun for horseback riding and mountain biking is less welcoming to the unwieldy grass-cutting tool, rendering descents a bit scary and uphill pushes incredibly laborious. Like everything that lives in North Dakota, prairie grass is tough. Really tough. And a sturdy blade and persistent mower is required to cut it.

“As humans, we have this undying passion to do everything we can to save what we love,” said Ybarra. So, he set out mowing every bikeable section of trail. He started at the CCC trailhead near his hometown of Watford City and mowed all the way to nearby Medora, where President Roosevelt had his ranch.

Growing up around ranches and working on an oil drill, Ybarra has never shied away from hard work and manual labor.

“You know, Roosevelt said the best thing in life is to work hard at work worth doing.”

However, Ybarra realized that single-handedly mowing more than 200 miles of trail was hardly a sustainable way to save his beloved trail. The best way to preserve the MDH was to share it.

One thing that makes the MDH so attractive to riders like Ybarra is the solitude it provides. Its remote location and relative obscurity have earned it the nickname “North Dakota’s best kept secret.” In order to draw attention to conservation and restore the MDH to its former glory, Ybarra decided to host a race.

 

In 2012, Ybarra held the first MDH 100—a grueling race that would take riders through Ybarra’s favorite sections of trail. Still working part time on an oil drill, Ybarra had no idea how to organize a race. He quickly learned how complicated it can be to organize such a large event as well as scouting and marking the race course himself, along the way discovering that cows love to eat pin flags and ribbon.

The first year, 60 riders showed up to race. The 107-mile course of remote singletrack wound in and out of the grasslands, and several riders got lost on cattle trails that led them on miles-long detours off route. However, racers loved the long and scenic trail, and North Dakota’s best kept secret was out. This year, 560 riders rolled up to the starting line.

“I love sharing my favorite thing in the world with other people. I love getting them out there and seeing that glitter in their eye when it clicks and they get it,” said Ybarra, “you get to fall in love all over again.”

“I knew the only way to save the MDH trail to its former glory was to roll up my sleeves and partner with the USFS.”

Watford City is a small community with only a handful of local riders, and it’s a tight-knit group. Everyone knows when anyone else is riding, and bikes tend to circulate within the small group, trading hands as group members upgrade. Watford City and the surrounding region is distinctly working class, with the majority of people working either in oil extraction or on ranching operations. Ybarra hopes to get as many area residents out on the trail as possible.

“I believe in staying active, but I also believe you really have to enjoy it, and we have this incredible trail just a few minutes from where we live, and I want to share that,” said Ybarra.

Though Ybarra was largely maintaining the trail himself with just a handful of volunteers, he was still searching for a way to get more people involved in his passion project, whether through riding or conservation. In 2013, Ybarra founded Save the Maah Daah Hey, a nonprofit that worked in partnership with the USFS to maintain the MDH. In the past two years, Ybarra has had the help of 20-40 volunteers dedicating well over 1,100 hours of volunteer trail work to keep the trail in shape for year-round riding.

“I knew the only way to save the MDH trail to its former glory was to roll up my sleeves and partner with the USFS to make the MDH findable, usable and enjoyable,” said Ybarra.

Even so, it’s not enough to keep the trail maintained, and Ybarra believes the trail’s best chance at survival depends on bringing in riders from out of town. In 2016, Ybarra was able to quit his day job and begin work as a full-time race director. He now hosts eight events each year on the MDH, including the 100-miler, a gravel race, a Christmas fatbike race, kids races, trail runs and even a winter race that takes bikers, skiers and snowshoers down a frozen creek that traverses the trail.

The North American Trail Symposium awarded him an Outstanding Trail Leaders award in 2017 for his work restoring the trail and building a mountain biking community dedicated to stewardship. Now, he has two young daughters who are just old enough to start biking the MDH, and he plans to spend as much time with his favorite people, and favorite trail as possible.

Said Ybarra, “Sharing the thing that you love the most with the people you love, and seeing them fall in love, man … there’s nothing like it”

THE GUARDIAN OF HOPE PASS

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For 30 years, Vicky Foster and her llamas have hauled beer, ramen and medical supplies to the highest aid station of the Leadville 100 ultramarathon. This year marks their final race.

Like many things, it began with a breakup.

In 1986, Vicky Foster was an avid hiker and backpacker when a recent breakup left her seeking solace in the backcountry. Her mother, concerned that she was spending so much time alone in the outdoors, gifted Foster her first llama, Stretch.

“I had Stretch for 27 years,” said Foster. “That’s the longest relationship of my life.”

Foster and Stretch spent days and nights exploring the trails of Wild Basin near Foster’s home in Allenspark, Colorado. Stretch kept Foster company, carried her camping equipment and would warn her of wildlife with her distinctive call, halfway between a yodel and a whinny.

“I hike them, they hike me. We keep each other in shape.”

The walls of Foster’s home are lined with framed images of her animals: rows and rows of dogs and llamas that have kept her company through the years, organized like a furry family tree. Foster has smiling eyes and shoulder-length white hair tucked behind her ears. Earrings that bear the likeness of a llama and a snow-capped peak engraved in turquoise and pearl dangle above her shoulders. She wears jeans and running shoes, proof of the hike she has planned with some of her llama packing friends in the afternoon.

She tries to hike with her animals as much as possible. “I hike them, they hike me,” she said. “We keep each other in shape.”

 

Photo courtesy of Vicky Foster

An avid marathoner, Foster would often lace up her running shoes to explore the winding trails near her home alone. Her desire to help others, coupled with her love for running, inspired her to pursue certification as an EMT and a degree in exercise physiology.

Foster has a competitive streak and has tried her hand at llama racing, in which humans race against each other to saddle and harness their pack animals before running two and a half miles alongside their long-necked companions to the finish line. About a decade ago, Foster’s llama Corky was the first female to ever compete at the Fairplay Llama Race, breaking a decades-old gender barrier in llama racing’s premiere event. “I’m a bit of a feminist,” said Foster, stroking Corky’s nose. “We both are.”

 “Everybody said we couldn’t do it, and so we did.”

There’s a long-held belief in the llama packing community that you can’t race or pack female llamas because, like rabbits, they’re always fertile and would distract the males. Foster had to work to convince the race director that she would be able to safely compete without slowing down her male counterparts. “Everybody said we couldn’t do it, and so we did,” said Foster.

Corky’s success in llama-racing’s Super Bowl has encouraged other racers to compete with female llamas. After smashing through llama-racing’s glass ceiling, females have won the past two consecutive years. Foster, herself, has not raced in many years, though several of her llamas—including one named Talkeetna—have won.

 

Photo courtesy of Vicky Foster

In 1987, Foster heard about a relatively new ultramarathon outside of Leadville that took runners up and over Hope Pass. A fellow llama packer and ultrarunner put out a call to the llama packing community, urging volunteers to help set up a renegade aid station for runners at the top of the pass. As an EMT, runner and llama packer, Foster jumped at the chance to be a part of the quickly growing race. The Hope Pass aid station combined everything that Foster loved: running, helping others and pack animals. So, Foster loaded six of her animals into her 1980s Ford EconoVan and headed into the mountains to support Leadville’s Race Across the Sky.

Hope Pass sits just below 13,000 feet in the shadow of Hope Peak. It’s a long and fairly technical trek that weaves through dense forest and across a glacial terrain before ascending a steep series of switchbacks to the ridge’s saddle. Runners of the Leadville 100 will encounter this pass at mile 45, and then again at mile 55.

The Hope Pass aid station looks less like a snack stop for a race and more like a basecamp for an Andean expedition.

Foster used the steep hike up the pass as a training run, hustling up and down the pass with several llamas in tow. The animals themselves are loaded with packs and panniers containing everything from medical equipment to beer and food. The Hope Pass aid station looks less like a snack stop for a race and more like a basecamp for an Andean expedition: Large tents for medical emergencies, cooking and beer-drinking dot the pass as thirty-something pack animals munch on grass nearby. This year, Foster will take roughly 12 cases of ramen noodles up Hope Pass for runners to munch on while they traverse the difficult section at the race’s crux.

“The amount of support that we have up there would surprise people. We have oxygen, IV fluids, ramen, everything,” said Foster.

 

The cook and medical tents at Hope Pass | Photo courtesy of Vicky Foster

What was once a renegade aid station is now officially supported and sanctioned by the race’s organizers and has grown to include up to 36 llamas and 30 people. They call themselves the Hopeless Crew, and they take great pride in hauling hundreds of pounds of equipment up to the race’s most difficult section, five miles across several streams and straight uphill from any roads accessible by vehicle.

“It’s people from every walk of life. We only see each other once a year, up on Hope Pass,” said Foster.

“We’ve seen snow, hail, sleet, rain, extreme heat and high winds all in the same day.”

The Hopeless Crew travels to Twin Lakes, Colorado, to set up basecamp a week before the race. For those new to ultrarunning, the amount of organization and preparation that goes into setting up an aid station—especially one hundreds of feet above treeline—might surprise them.

“We’ve seen snow, hail, sleet, rain, extreme heat and high winds all in the same day,” said Foster. “We’ve really got to be ready for anything.”

 

Photo courtesy of Vicky Foster

The Hopeless Crew has trekked up to Hope Pass to support Leadville 100 participants every year for 30 years, patching up blisters, slinging snacks and helping runners any way they can. This year will be Foster and her llamas’ last year. After three decades, she’s retiring.

Foster says it’s been a good run up on Hope Pass, and she’ll miss her packing friends as well as the colorful runners she encounters each year staggering up and over the pass. “Every year we come together and run an important aid station. We roll up our sleeves to make sure everyone gets up and down safely,” said Foster. “But it’s time for some new blood.”

She hopes a younger generation of llama packers will roll up their sleeves, saddle their llamas and head up to Hope Pass to help ensure the safety of runners in this historic race.

While this will be Foster’s last year up at Hope Pass, she plans to keep packing with Corky and her other llamas as much as possible, keeping each other in shape and in good company.

Public Lands Are Under Siege. Here’s What Trail Runners Need to Know.

Morgan Sjogren - Running in Bears Ears

Morgan Sjogren - Running in Bears Ears

Original Article in Trail Runner Here

In a leaked memo obtained by the Washington Post on September 17th, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke recommended that President Trump modify or reduce 10 national monuments. The report is the culmination of a months-long review of 27 U.S. national monuments (the review was limited specifically to national monuments created under the 1906 Antiquities Act since January 1996, and only those of at least 100,000 acres).

If these proposed reductions come to fruition, they would be the largest elimination of land protections in U.S. history.

Even if they don’t, there are numerous other threats mounting against public lands, any one of which could set new precedents for the way those lands are managed and funded.

What are all these threats, and what can we trail runners do about it?

 

Zinke’s national monuments proposal

Zinke’s 19-page memo suggests the Trump administration “protect objects and prioritize public access; infrastructure upgrades, repair and maintenance; traditional use; tribal cultural use; and hunting and fishing rights.”

Some of these things sound promising – “protecting objects and prioritizing public access,” maintaining “tribal cultural use.” But there are threats mixed in, too—namely, prioritizing “traditional uses.” This means, essentially, opening monuments to grazing, logging, coal mining, oil-and-gas extraction and commercial fishing in marine monuments.

While the memo was scant on specifics, and the White House has declined to comment on the leaked papers, experts like Mark Squillace, a professor of law who served as assistant to former Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt, believe that the changes could be drastic.

“We do not yet have specific details regarding the scope of the likely reductions, but the early indications are that they will be substantial,” Squillance says.

Bears Ears National Monument, Utah

Perhaps no other monument has become so symbolic of the fight to protect public lands than Bears Ears, an expanse of desert red rock, canyons and mountains in Southeastern Utah designated as a national monument by President Obama in 2016. Zinke recommended shrinking Bears Ears from its original 1.35 million acres down to just 160,000 acres, the “smallest area compatible” with management of the over 100,000 archeological sites within the monument’s current boundaries.

Runner Luke Nelson spent four days running through Bears Ears National Monument in April. “In the roughly 150 miles that I traveled on foot, I learned that [Bears Ears] contains more cultural heritage than I could have ever imagined,” he says. “Around nearly every corner in the canyons there were petroglyphs, pictographs or nearly intact structures. It was simply astounding.”

The proposed reduction has been applauded by farmers, ranchers and the oil industry as it opens previously protected lands to expanded development. However, in reality, the region’s relative remoteness makes energy extraction an unattractive option.

Bears Ears contains hundreds of miles of runnable slickrock trail, and many worry that these reductions will hinder access to those trails. (For trail beta, check out The Best Bears Ears National Monument Hikes, by Morgan Sjogren.)

Zinke’s memo does suggest that acerage taken out of national monuments could be turned into national recreation areas. This designation, reserved for areas that attract a high volume of users, are usually designated by congress and include a land-management plan prepared by the land agency that is responsible for it—typically either the National Forest Service or National Park Service. However, designation as a national recreation area won’t protect those lands from budget cuts, which could halt trail maintenance and park law enforcement.

Golde Butte National Monument. Creative Commons 2.0 / Bureau of Land Management.

Gold Butte National Monument, Nevada

Zinke’s memo also recommends downsizing Gold Butte National Monument, 296,9337 acres of rugged red-rock desert less than 100 miles from Las Vegas. Gold Butte, which contains historic dwellings, ancient petroglyphs, mountains and sections of the Mojave desert, was designated a national monument in December of 2016 under President Obama. The given objective behind Zinke’s proposed cuts is to “protect historic water rights,” though he has proposed no new specific borders.

These cuts would leave open Gold Butte to potential drilling, mining and increase grazing, though the primary concern is that potential boundaries would leave archeological sites and artifacts as well as historic water sources vulnerable.

“These are fabulous running trails that offer incredible views, scenery, flora and fauna,” says Terri Rylander, a trail runner and board member of conservation group Friends of Gold Butte. Rylander is primarily worried that reductions to the national monument boundaries could result in reductions in funding. Gold Butte relies on its designation as a national monument to fund everything from staffing to adequate signage and trail maintenance.

“Anything that’s done to take away those protections threatens those benefits,” she says. 

 

Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Creative Commons 2.0 / Bureau of Land Management.

Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah

America’s largest national monument, Grand Staircase-Escalante (1,700,000 acres) was designated by Bill Clinton in 1996 and sits in south-central Utah. At the time of its designation, Grand Staircase-Escalante was contentious for halting a coal-mine project. The monument remains divisive, as Utah Governor Gary Herbert remains a staunch opponent to what he considered a federal land grab.

In his memo, Zinke points out that Grand Staircase-Escalante has “an estimated several billion tons of coal and large oil deposits,” an observation that has many conservationists worried that proposed cuts would spur unprecedented oil-and-gas development in the area. Zinke’s recommendation would also remove limits on motorized vehicle use in the monument.

There is much for trail runners to lose if Grand Staircase-Escalante’s borders are reduced. Miles of trail and quiet wilderness could fall prey to energy development or encroachment by roads.

Nelson has fond memories of sharing Grand Staircase-Escalante with his family. “Seeing my young children having an incredible adventure exploring slot canyons and streams of the monument still brings a smile to my soul,” he says. “It was during that trip that I think they started to gain an appreciation for wild and protected places, and it a lit a fire in me to protect these spaces.”

Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument. Creative Commons 2.0 / Bureau of Land Management.

 

Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument, Oregon

The expansive Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument rests on Oregon’s southern border, and is a favorite of Pacific Northwest trail runners. The 86,774-acre monument was designated by President Clinton in 2000.

Zinke recommends removing an unspecified amount of land, citing logging as the primary reason. (The current management plan allows for controlled logging to help maintain a healthy forest ecosystem.) The expansion of logging practices not directly associated with forest health could hinder access to some of the monument’s 50 miles of trails—including a portion of the Pacific Crest Trail.

 

Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument. Creative Commons 2.0 / U.S. Department of Interior.

While the previous four monuments have gotten the most attention—and are, perhaps, the most consequential to trail runners—six other monuments face management changes that could threaten local ecosystems.

Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument, Maine

The 87,563-acre expanse of Katahdin Woods and Waters was acquired privately by Burst Bees founder Roxanne Quimby, who bought the land in chunks after years of unsuccessfully lobbying the state to buy it. She donated it to the federal government just last year, when it got its official designation from President Obama. The monument features a network of trails through old-growth forests, including a section of the Appalachian Trail. After voicing support for the monument in June, Zinke is now recommending changing the land’s management to allow for future logging.

 

Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument. Creative Commons 2.0 / Bureau of Land Management.

Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument, New Mexico

Designated by Obama in 2014, this monument lies just north of the border with Mexico. The mountains sprawl for 496,330 acres, towering above a desert that is home to numerous animal species as well as Native American rock art and ancient dwellings. Zinke’s memo points to a modification in management plan that would allow for livestock running and cattle grazing in the area.

 

Rio Grande del Norte National Monument. Creative Commons 2.0 / Bureau of Land Management.

Rio Grande del Norte National Monument, New Mexico

Obama designated Rio Grande del Norte in 2013, setting aside 242,555 acres of northern New Mexico high desert. Zinke’s memo notes that ranchers have been discouraged from renewing area grazing permits and aims to protect “traditional use” that would likely include cattle running and grazing, as well as authorizing tribal management in designated areas of the monument.

Zinke’s memo also recommends reinstating commerical fishing in these three marine national monuments:

Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument, Massachusetts

Just over 100 miles southeast of Cape Cod, this monument protects abundant and diverse coral species and deep-sea ecosystems.

Pacific Remote Island National Monument

Located south and west of Hawaii, this chain of islands and atolls comprises one of the largest and most biodiverse areas within U.S. jurisdiction, including coral reefs and marine wildlife. The monument was established by George W. Bush in 2009 and expanded by Obama in 2014. 

Rose Atoll Marine National Monument, South Pacific Ocean

Created by George Bush in 2009, Rose Atoll is home to many threatened and endangered marine species.

 

How likely is it that these management changes and boundary reductions will come to pass?  

According to Squillace, it would take an Act of Congress to shrink or abolish these monuments, which seems unlikely as this proposal would likely lack sufficient support. “Zinke and presumably Trump believe that the President has the authority to modify monuments by presidential proclamation,” says Squillace. “If Trump moves forward as expected, this will almost certainly end up in court.”

Even without reducing the size of national monuments, there are plenty of other plausible threats. Namely: budget cuts.

“Cuts to federal funding can mean parks don’t have the resources to maintain trails, ensure places are safe and allow access,” says Hallie Fox, co-founder of Run Wild, a group that engages and informs trail runners about protecting public lands.

 

Other public-lands threats

In February the House and Senate both voted to reverse a rule called Planning 2.0, which gave citizens an avenue for participating in the decision-making process for how all Bureau of Land Management public lands are managed.

In March, Secretary Zinke reversed the Obama-era freeze on leases for coal extraction on public lands.

Also in March, Nevada representative Mark Amodei brought a bill to the floor which would empower the Nevada state government to sell parcels of local public land to private citizens. The bill has not been voted on.

As recently as September, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) was pressured by fossil-fuel industry lobbyists to formally propose a rollback of regulations for fracking on public land (the public comment period has closed, but an official decision has not yet been announced).

 

What can we do?

In the face of these threats, trail runners as well as other outdoor special-interest groups are mobilizing to protect public lands.

Call your local representatives.

“Trail runners should save their senators’ phone numbers and, whenever compelled, call and leave a message … urging them to speak out against Secretary Zinke’s recommendation to shrink 10 National Monuments,” says Clare Gallagher, ultrarunner and public-lands advocate. “Trail runners can read more. We can talk about the politics of public lands and climate change.”

Get informed.

Take a moment to look up your local trail network online and find out who manages it. What kind of protections allow it to exist, free of roads, buildings or commercial operations? What, if any, are the threats?

Connect with other land users.

When it comes to protecting public lands, trail runners, hunters, anglers and other seemingly disparate user groups want the same thing.

“Trail runners should connect with anglers and hunters who fork over a lot of money to maintain public lands,” says Gallagher. Contact your local chapter of hunting and fishing organizations like Backcountry Hunters and Anglers or Ducks Unlimited, and start a conversation about how trail runners and other outdoor users can work together.

Nelson agrees. “We can’t simply watch other groups do all the work. That may mean joining and participating in [advocacy] groups or at the very minimum actively working in our local communities to stand up for the public lands we love to run on.”

HOW THE LEADVILLE 100 SAVED A STRUGGLING MINING TOWN

Ken Chlouber in his office in Leadville - Photo - Zoë Rom

Ken Chlouber in his office in Leadville - Photo - Zoë Rom

Read the original piece on REI Co-op Blog

When Ken Chlouber dreamed up one of the country’s most challenging trail races, the town of Leadville, Colorado, went from a struggling mining town to a bona fide adventure destination.

It was December 14th, just one week before Christmas of 1981, and Ken Chlouber was preparing to work the swing shift at the Climax mine. He pulled on a heavy pair of overalls and gloves and donned his helmet in preparation for work as a crusher, using dynamite to break up large rocks in the mine. A call came out over the intercom summoning all the shift bosses to the mine’s office.

Chlouber, along with the other bosses, shifted nervously in their boots, eyeing each other as whispers of cuts and layoffs filled the room.

“Boys, we’re shutting her down.”

Overnight, the town of Leadville was unemployed. Three-thousand people out of a population of 5,000 were without work. “That morning burns in my mind every day,” said Chlouber.

 

Ken Chlouber in his office | Photo: Zoë Rom

All the typical ills that accompany unemployment began to plague Leadville. The bars filled up with jobless miners. Families grew hungry or packed up and left. Not only had the town lost its primary source of revenue, but community identity was also at stake in a place literally named for that silvery, molybdenum ore pulled from deep within the earth.

It seemed dangerous. What if someone died?

Leadville knew it needed to find a way to save itself, and fast. Community leaders put their heads together in search of a way to draw in tourists. The idea of a fair was floated. Or a 10K race. They knew they needed something big—something that would convince people to stay the night in town, rent hotels and buy food.

That’s when Chlouber had an idea, one potentially grand enough to put Leadville on the map: “What about a 100-mile race?”

Several people, a prominent hospital administrator included, objected. Who would want to run 100 miles? It seemed dangerous. What if someone died?

“Well, then we will be famous, won’t we?” responded Chlouber.

 

Leadville 100 finish line, 2016 | Photo: Glen Delman Photography

As a sport, ultra-running was still in its infancy. Ultramarathons like the Western States Endurance Run existed but were far from the mainstream. One-hundred-mile runs were not the norm, particularly not those across rugged and mountainous trails following ridges and passes that rise up to elevations just below 13,000 feet. In Leadville, the nation’s highest incorporated town at 10,152 feet, the air is thin and the weather is unpredictable—not ideal, dreamy race conditions.

Nonetheless, in a town running out of options, Leadville decided to give it a shot. The town’s lone travel agent, Merilee Maupin, was hired on as the race director due to her experience organizing the ever popular burro races during Leadville’s Boom Days festival.

Chlouber and other members of the community went to work promoting the new event, distributing pamphlets at running stores along the Front Range in the hopes that a handful of runners would choose to brave the long and technical route.

“I never wanted to ask anybody to do anything that I wouldn’t do, that I was afraid to do.”

The first race in 1983 had 49 entrants, 10 of whom managed to cross the finish line. Among them was Chlouber himself, who traded his shovel and dynamite for sneakers and trail shoes. “In mining, as a boss, I never wanted to ask anybody to do anything that I wouldn’t do, that I was afraid to do,” said Chlouber.

So Chlouber began training, spending days and nights running through Leadville’s rough and rowdy trails. He fell in love with the mountain tops that he had spent so much time beneath as a miner, enjoying the new perspective and freedom that running granted him. Before the advent of GU, Chlouber chomped on Snickers bars for energy. He was determined to finish to prove to the skeptical that it could be done and that running 100 miles in this gritty, oxygen-deprived place just might save it.

Now, he’s completed the race 14 times, earning the prestigious 1,000 Mile belt buckle. Aside from being a miner, Chlouber had been a successful burro racer, where his endurance, grit and “ability to deal with asses,” he chuckles, served him well.

 

Chlouber’s 1,000 Mile belt buckle | Photo: Zoë Rom

The next year, 100 runners toed the starting line. Then, in 1985, it was featured on the TV series Wide World of Sports. “From there, it just kind of blew up,” said Chlouber.

While ultrarunning remained a fringe sport, it garnered a cult-like following of devoted practitioners. The Leadville 100 gained in popularity, partially due to the beautiful mountain vistas offered from the Collegiate Peaks and the challenge of the course’s elevation, which starts at 10,000 feet and rises to heights of 12,527 feet at Hope Pass. Less than half of participants finish and earn the much coveted Leadville 100 Buckle. The 18,168 total feet of elevation gain make this one of the most harrowing races in the country as runners struggle to traverse technical ridges late into the night. Many runners are pulled off the trail at checkpoints along the way if they fail to meet the 30-hour cutoff time. Others succumb to exhaustion, hypothermia, heat stroke, dehydration and other threats posed by the unpredictable alpine summer weather.

 

Leadville 2016 | Photo: Glen Delman Photography

Surprised but unphased by the popularity of his event, Chlouber saw an opportunity. In 1994, he added a mountain bike event, challenging bikers to race, yes, 100 miles over rugged mountain terrain.

This year, Leadville expects around 800 runners to bring in approximately $15 million in revenue for Lake County.

Today, both races are so popular that getting an entry is a challenge in and of itself. About 100 spots are reserved for runners who qualify through another Leadville Race Series event: 25 spots each for the Leadville Marathon, Silver Rush 50 and other events held outside of Leadville. Gold coins are distributed to runners who place well within their gender and age category, giving more coins to the more competitive categories. Otherwise, would-be 100-milers must apply for Leadville’s lottery, a system where one in three participants gains entry to the race. While Lifetime Fitness, the company that now owns the Leadville 100, does not disclose the exact number of lottery entrants, its reputation as such an iconic and difficult race has made it one of the most popular lotteries to enter.

This year, Leadville expects around 800 runners to bring in approximately $15 million in revenue for Lake County. “It’s tremendous. The influx of racers is so positive for us. It really helps us pay bills into the year,” said Adam Schuknecht, owner of City on a Hill coffee shop in Leadville. “It brings a lot of people in from all over. Throughout the year, we see people who remember us and they order our coffee online, and it’s overwhelmingly positive for us, and for Leadville.”

Outside of the money that runners spend on hotels and food, the race itself funds a scholarship fund for Leadville High School’s seniors, all of whom receive $1,000 upon graduation to pursue secondary education.

“The community is incredibly supportive,” said Chlouber. “Ninety-five percent are either out there at an aid station or cheering on the runners at the finish line.”

 

The race course acts as a self-guided tour that winds around wooden mine shafts and buildings that bear witness to Leadville’s past. While many are in disrepair, several look well-kept, as if they could suddenly spring back into production. The colorful soil of the trail, too, hints at the mineral wealth just beneath runners’ feet— bright yellows and deep oranges reveal Lake County’s geologic diversity.

Leadville has retained a stable population that hovers around 5,000, 300 of which are still employed in mining. Though it maintains its identity as a working class mountain town, it is now a bedroom community for ski resorts and a destination for adventure seekers. The historic downtown is lined with cheerful and eclectic cottages decorated with ski-fences and steam-punk mining paraphernalia. It’s home to the National Mining Museum and more than one old-school western saloon, just dusty enough that you can imagine it filling up with dungaree-clad miners at the end of the day.

“I love seeing new people, new businesses coming in,” said Chlouber. “It’s the strength, grit, guts and determination that’s inherent in Leadville. We’re not just going to survive, we’re thriving.”