For the Love of the Mountain

Inside the world of ultra running, wherein athletes come to Colorado's Rocky Mountains and spend their vacation running through one of the most challenging and rewarding settings in the country.

On a cool, August morning in the small town of Leadville, 400 runners line up at the start line to AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell” playing over the loud speakers. The countdown expires, spectators cheer and runners begin moving along, heading up the main street hill and back into the Rocky Mountains for a 24.2-mile journey to the next finish line. This is day number three of TransRockies Run 2014—the final day for some and the third of six for many others. 

TransRockies Run 2014

The 58-mile and 120-mile TransRockies races are among the expanding Colorado ultramarathon scene, where participants test their endurance, athleticism, spirit and willpower to reach finish lines.

“For a lot of people it’s about having a really unique experience—a running vacation, an active vacation, a chance to meet like-minded people and push themselves,” says TransRockies race director Aaron McConnell. At this year’s sold-out event, 34 states and 18 countries were represented. Participants included a blind runner, an 18-year-old who had volunteered in previous years awaiting her chance to finally run, a honeymooning couple and another couple who became engaged at the day-two finish line.

Though the European ultramarathon scene began flourishing long before here in the United States, “It definitely seems like the ultra scene is growing quickly,” McConnell says. According to UltraRunning Magazine, there were nearly 30,800 finishers in U.S. ultramarathon races in 2008, and more than 69,500 in 2013, with a 10-percent increase from 2012 to 2013 alone. The most popular ultramarathon distances include the 50K, 50-miler, 100K and 100-miler, the last one being a distance many ultra runners aspire to one day complete.

TransRockies Run 2014

The growth in ultra running can be credited in part to two best-selling American books. “Born to Run” by Christopher McDougall, published in 2011, documents Mexico’s Tarahumara Indian tribe running hundreds of miles without rest or injury and in minimal footwear, as well as the American ultra runners who venture to train and race with them.

A year later in 2012, “Eat & Run: My Unlikely Journey to Ultramarathon Greatness” by Boulder ultramarathon runner Scott Jurek was released, and assisted in inspiring runners of all levels through his firsthand-encounter stories, advice and passion for the sport. Jurek entered the ultra running scene by winning America’s oldest organized 100-miler, Western States Endurance Run, and continued to defend his title for a total of seven wins in a row. He is also the two-time winner at the Badwater Ultramarathon, a 135-mile run through Death Valley, and winner of Colorado’s Hardrock 100, among other spectacular accomplishments.

Both books have ignited interest in ultra running for many—especially in Colorado where Jurek continues to play a prominent role in the ultra scene and the written accounts in McDougall’s “Born to Run” put Leadville in the spotlight of interest for ultra running events.

TransRockies Run is one of several races that run through the town of Leadville, but the Leadville Trail 100 is among the oldest ultramarathons in the country and has earned world notoriety. The “race across the sky” was founded in 1983 as an effort to help save the old mining town. Running through the trails of the highest incorporated city in the United States, the course ranges in elevations of 9,200 to 12,600 feet. Once a rival city to Denver in population and state capital potential, the small mountain town has gained respect and intrigue for its history, scenery, altitude and trail conditions among ultra runners. 

Attracting runners of all different backgrounds, the Colorado trails provide inspiration and challenge unlike any other. Avid ultra runner Sean Wetstine explains, “I was going through a horrible divorce and a lot of self doubt when I signed up for the Leadville Trail 100 the first year.” He says “the opportunity to see if I could persevere through an obstacle like a 100-mile race,” motivated him to train and compete in the event and many other races to follow. 

Ultra runner, race director and coach David Manthey says, “In today’s society when we’ve kind of become a little bit lazy, a little bit soft, you see this element of people.”

These are people who wake up before the sun rises each day to get in their long runs; people who dedicate their vacation time for traveling to a destination to run in a race through the wilderness; people who camp out, make do with basic necessities, help each other through the tough parts of the course and form unique bonds with one another.

“You’re out there, you’re being pushed to your limit and you’re just depleted of energy, you’re totally exhausted, battling dehydration, throwing up,” Manthey says about the often cruel conditions participants encounter along the courses. “Some people say that ultramarathoning develops character, and I’d say it reveals it. The walls come down, the filters come off; people talk about stuff that they wouldn’t tell their wives and their husbands.”

TransRockies Run 2014

Along with the mountain lovers and vacation runners, phenomenal athletes in the ultra running scene seem to appear out of nowhere, Manthey says. Unlike athletes of other sports who compete in the spotlight and are eyeing for Olympic slots, ultra runners spend hundreds of hours training on the trails without any need for a grandstand finish line—they are often there merely for the love of the mountains.   

Though expanding, the ultra running scene still maintains a community feel. The directors of TransRockies Run continue to give out their cell phone numbers at the pre-race meeting and know many of their participants by first name. At the end of each race day, during the group dinner, participant nominations are considered and gifts awarded to two runners who exemplified greatness throughout the day’s course—by helping another runner in need, picking up trash or for other notable and often inspiring achievements.

TransRockies Run 2014

Ultra running is a “very inclusive environment,” Manthey says. “You go to a marathon, you’re cheering people on, and they’ve got tunnel vision and their headphones in.” Once runners are finished, they collect their medals and food and go home, left with only a handful of people around as the last runners come through the finish.

At an ultra, “Oftentimes the person who finishes last gets cheered the most,” he says. “[Author Scott Jurek] will win lots of races, but he is routinely one of the guys who is at the finish cheering in the last runner.”

No matter the battle, each ultra’s finish line sees tears of joy, cheers of accomplishment and embracing hugs with loved ones as well as brand-new friends from along the trail. 

Kimberly Gunning
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