Why the Leadville Trail 100 felt like Lollapalooza — is Lifetime Fitness a friend or foe?

Start of the 2013 Leadville Trail 100. Photo courtesy Rob Timko Photography.

Start of the 2013 Leadville Trail 100. Photo courtesy Rob Timko Photography.

I had been seriously contemplating running the Leadville 100 next year –- I mean, I’d have one of the best coaches by way of my (new) husband—and heck, it’s practically in our backyard.

I no longer plan to run the Leadville 100 next year.

We had headed up to Leadville this year because I’d been asked to pace a friend up and over the Hope Pass leg at mile 50. I was giddy to finally be part of this legendary race, one of the first trail ultra’s, one that Andrew placed second at back in 2008 — with no training and only one pacer. I was also hopeful for my friend Laurie who had been busting her bum, training for nearly a year. I was ready to participate in the good vibes and aesthetics of why we take to trails and happily torture ourselves on technical terrain rather than pounding the pavement in some sea-level city.

I mean, wasn’t this what it was all about? Leaving the stresses of urban entrapment behind, heading to the mountains to run, getting back to our roots and maybe doing a little yodeling if so inclined?

My vision, unabashedly objective given my newbie status in the ultra-running scene, was quickly crushed when we arrived at Twin Lakes that Saturday. We weren’t at Fish Hatchery earlier that morning, but we were told that it had been even uglier.

Later, at Winfield, we were offered a first-hand glimpse at the over population of a race (literally and figuratively). At one point Andrew looked at me earnestly and said, “I really don’t want you to run this.”

From the throngs of people, cars, and racers, to the gross disorganization and ubiquitous stench of port-a-johns,this  felt more like a dirty, overcrowded music festival than a prestigious trail race — the epic scenery of the Sawatch eclipsed by traffic jams, cranky volunteers, and a constant plume of dust from too many tires on the dirt roads.

Organized by Lifetime Fitness, 900+ runners toed the line at 4 am for the start of this years race; that, IMHO, is just one of the reasons why it sucked. Greed is never a pretty thing to witness. For the record: I understand that this race has brought needed revenue to the town of Leadville; however, surely there has to be a happy medium rather than blatant avarice. Out of respect for the sport, the runners, and those supporting their runners, it should be the task of Lifetime Fitness to do better by this thirty-one year old race.

The race, sadly, seemed to no longer even be about the runners.

Here’s why:

1. Too many cooks in the kitchen

The aid stations were a circus both for pacers, crew, and racers. At one point, while trying to fill our runners water bladder at Twin Lakes, we were told by one volunteer (or, barked at) not to use the spigot outside, but to go inside, and once inside we were yelled at to get outside, at which point the two volunteers began bickering with each other. Getting your runners drop bags to the right places was a disaster and then finding drop bags was even messier for the runners.

2. Running out of supplies

Also at Twin Lakes, we were approached by medical staff asking for any extra band-aids we could spare, as they’d run out. At Winfield we were asked for water, because—again—they’d run out. Seriously? I know Colorado is landlocked, but who runs out of water at a 100 miler? For a $340 registration fee, water and band-aids should be copious.

3. Winfield. Period.

We spent hours inching down the 13 mile washboard road to Winfield, along with hundreds of other cars. Many of us pacers donned our clothes in cars and hopped out to start walking the road, fearing we’d not be there when our runners came through. Eventually my driver was able to pick me up again. Arriving at Winfield, we witnessed runners dodging vehicles while inhaling the thick road dust, confused traffic controllers, and a small grassy area for maybe 100 cars to park. Add one poorly marked entrance to the weight station for the runners, cars at a standstill, and a fist fight which nearly broke out between two spectators, and I was ready to head back to Boulder. A feeling of mob mentality hovered; I felt uneasy. Finally, after the 6:02 pm cut off, many of us were told conflicting information as to where the remaining runners would be taken after trail sweeping.

4. Too many racers

When Laurie came down, her IT band shot, and explained that part of the reason she was behind was for how often she was hopping off the trail and side stepping as the mass of uphill runners approached—i.e. not enough room on the trail for all the runners—I went from disappointed to angry. Her experience and success had been impacted too many runners on the trails.

I wondered if the race had always been this way? Had I just missed the memo that this was all part of the process?

The most recent race I had for comparison was The North Face Endurance Challenge series, of which Andrew and I ran the trail marathon back in December. The race was calm, cool, and organized. Aid stations were fully stocked with goodies, parking and shuttles were no problem. Granted, this was not a 100 miler, so crews and pacers for the 50 mile run were much smaller in  numbers, but those things considered, I think Lifetime Fitness can do better.

Last time I checked, runners had enough to worry about e.g., dehydration, lightening, stomach issues, bonking, and ravaged feet — I didn’t realize they now had to add to the list: dodging cars, unequipped aid stations, too many fellow runners on the trails, and utter chaos for those crewing.

I left a bit deflated. I wanted to be bitten by the Leadville bug, but I think this introvert will seek out a race that far fewer have heard of.

18 Responses to Why the Leadville Trail 100 felt like Lollapalooza — is Lifetime Fitness a friend or foe?

  1. samh August 27, 2013 at 10:23 am #

    Amanda, considering looking into the Superior Trail Races located in an area that Andy has plenty of experience with. I am not an ultra runner but I follow a particular friend’s pursuits online who runs this ultra and I also used to do volunteer trail maintenance with a former race director so I feel confident there is a much different vibe up there.

    • Amanda Misiak August 27, 2013 at 10:55 am #

      Thanks, Sam! I’ll check into that one. I’d love to do another race outside of Colorado and seem some new sights. — Amanda

  2. Molly Cochran August 27, 2013 at 10:57 am #

    I also vote for Superior Trail Races. I may be bias as I’m a MN native, but I’ve raced there several times and volunteered more. Not a better 100 miler point-to-point in the country – great course, great volunteer support & aid, easy crew access, won’t break the bank. Volunteering for the 100 and running the 50 in less that 2 weeks. I’ve never been a fan of the big name ultras – I prefer the more intimate feeling ones.

    • Amanda Misiak August 28, 2013 at 7:17 am #

      I’m from Michigan originally, so I’d actually be right at home in your neck of the woods. Sounds like we have 2 votes for the Superior Races, so I’ll look into that. Thank you!

  3. Luke August 27, 2013 at 1:17 pm #

    It was my first experience at Leadville too. I paced my brother (his first 100-miler) back over Hope Pass. Heading into Winfield was a disaster. I changed in the car and hiked in, only to be picked up by a complete stranger. My brother desperately wanted a Coke, but all they had left was Diet Coke. What?!?

    Being completely new to Ultras, I had nothing to compare it to, so I assumed this was standard practice. It’s good to know that there are other, better organized races out there. Thanks for the info!

  4. John B. Abela August 27, 2013 at 7:10 pm #

    So, ~100 parking spots for 900+ hikers… and nobody running this operation had the wherewithal to stop and ponder on the consequences of that before they opened up registration.

  5. Gabe August 27, 2013 at 8:44 pm #

    Check out The Bear 100. Its a point-to-point traverse of Utah and Idaho’s Bear River Range. 22,000 feet of elevation gain, endless golden aspen leaves, crisp autumn temperatures, a dedicated race director, and about 250 runners. Low key ultra running at its best. If that doesn’t float your boat, the Bighorn 100 is a absolutely top notch earlier season race in big wonderful Wyoming. Best of luck!

    • Amanda Misiak August 28, 2013 at 7:14 am #

      I’ve heard great things about The Bear, Gabe. You had me at “golden aspen leaves, crisp autumn temperatures.” — Amanda

  6. Lisa Erikson August 27, 2013 at 8:53 pm #

    I agree, luckily my body was healthy this year but last year I had the same issue as Laurie and all the traffic was really a mess. I won’t be running it again, but that stems more from my entry fee and discussion with the race director about cheaters which they blatantly ignore. I’m counting it as a learning experience and “leadville” as being a past event that was once great.

    • Amanda Misiak August 28, 2013 at 7:12 am #

      Lisa — it’s funny (well, not really), but Laurie actually saw a certain notorious female cutting the course on her way down Hope. Albeit, it was a small section, but if she did it there, where else did she do it? I know that was a major issue on top of everything else. A huge congrats to you, Leadwoman! This by no means takes away from one epic achievement on your part. — Amanda

  7. Duncan Lonsdale August 27, 2013 at 10:20 pm #

    My first thought before reading your blog and only looking at the photo is how ridiculous the start line looks with some of the guys bent over as if this were a 50 yard dash. This race is 100 miles! As for Lifetime Fitness, they are the “big box” retailers for gym going Americans. I’ve been to a couple of their facilities – large, impersonal factory-like setting… not my style. So not surprising that the lack of a “community feel” at their gyms would transfer to a race like this. I personally know race directors and they are passionate about the details (the good ones). It’s a labor of love they tell me so not surprising that a very corporate Lifetime Fitness does not have such a person that is a qualified ambassador to handle the Leadville 100. Sadly, I cannot offer any advice on the ultra-running circuit in general. (Those distances scare me.) Congrats to the newlyweds!

    • Amanda Misiak August 28, 2013 at 7:16 am #

      The photographer, Rob Timko, was laughing at the guys toeing the line as well. Like, hold your horses, gents, you have a looong way to go! I know not all races are like this, perhaps even most are not, so I think one just has to be more selective and stay away from the larger spectacles. Thanks for the congrats! — Amanda

  8. Sam Larson September 3, 2013 at 6:11 pm #

    So terrible to hear about this race. Happy for your marraige though! Feel free to contact my wife in regards to “coping while your husband is on an adventure” techniques!

  9. JD September 4, 2013 at 1:51 pm #

    Having run the LT100 for the third time, I agree that the feel of the race has changed from ’09, my first attempt, to ’11, my first finish, to this year, my first sub-25 hour finish. Lifetime Fitness plainly dropped the ball this year . . . from the race guide coming out the Wednesday before the race (lots of help for a guy coming from Iowa), to the traffic problems both on the trail and on the road, to the aid stations being under supplied, over crowded and confusing. Assuming that Lifetime Fitness can get the enrollment number right (600 or 700 runners versus 940?), I would not count the race out in the future.

    Given the array of offerings at the aid stations, the race organizers should consider banning crews altogether and shuttle all pacers down Winfield Rd. While, yes, it’s great to see a freind or family member along the way, between drop bags and food offerings, there’s no true necessity to have 900 cars all traversing narrow roads at the same time. I personally didn’t like running on the pavement outside of Outward Bound where I was sharing the same side of the road with a few cars travelling at 30 plus MPH . . . and I was weaving between cars on the brief stretch of Winfield Rd. (which BTW was ten times worse in ’11 when runners were on that gravel segment for 5 miles or so of the race with the moving parking lot).

    There will always be something very special about crossing Hope Pass (especially inward bound), running along the Colorado Trail and experiencing the super fans that stay on 6th Street in Leadville throughout the night. While I regret that your friend DNF’d, there’s still a great vibe about the race and, but for the greed of making it too big, Lifetime has not gone overboard commercializing its ownership of the race (and I say that coming from an area that has zero Lifetime Fitness gyms). I’d encourage you to see what number they put on the race in ’14 and decide then. I have to think that Lifetime Fitness will learn from the many problems this year.

    Until then …. keep on running :)

  10. Dave September 6, 2013 at 3:30 pm #

    Amanda, heading out to meet up with Andrew in the morning for High Sierra’s. Thought I might see you guys at LT100. We avoided pacing from Winfield it seemed like a real nightmare when we scoped it out a few days before – and sounds like it was!

    It is a great race in a great place and I can only hope the new owners can maintain the tradition and value that it has had up to this point – I am skeptical though. We had a great time (at least up until I was pacing my runner who was near delirious at mile 80), but we got him across 8 min before the 25 hour mark. There were many areas that could have been better, but we just ran our own race and didn’t depend on aid stations any more than we had to – which is a shame since it shouldn’t be that way.

  11. Janet Lightburn November 25, 2013 at 5:57 am #

    I guess I consider myself more of a mountaineer than a runner and thus do not expect much from the aid stations. I only think of them as a place to get water, drop bags, and serious medical help. I did not have a crew or pacer at Winfield, so I was not so aware of many of the problems, but an aid station worker there was very helpful to me, and I had good experiences with all the aid station workers that I interacted with throughout the race. I do agree that there are too many people in the race, especially for one that is an out-and-back on a narrow mountain trail. They should consider 2 races: one that you qualify for by doing a prior Leadville or running under a certain time in select races, and one that is for others. I would like to try the Leadville again for under 25, but I seem to do better with more solitude, and thus might consider doing it unofficially with a some friends crewing and pacing for me. Then I will probably move on to less crowded races, or just do my own thing.

  12. Tommy July 14, 2014 at 7:00 pm #

    Thinking about the number of runners on the trail, and of pacers coming to backcountry sites to meet their friends, I can only think that if pacing was not allowed, the trails and roads would be less congested. Leadville 100 in 2014 is limiting pacers to after the 50-mile mark, yet they indicate that a runner can have “as many pacers as you wish.” I realize the value of a pacers, but the crowds and traffic could be lessened if the concept of “needing a pacer” was rethought. I have not raced a 100 miler, but I have run a couple Leadville Silver Rush 50-milers. These races follow by one day a 50-mile mtn bike event on the same course. Provisions, traffic and all the rest seemed perfectly handled.

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