The Race Across the Sky. (Leadville Trail 100, Colorado Rocky Mountains)

By: Don Kardong

Source: Runner's World, March 1995 v30 n3 p84(8).
Electronic Collection: A16524257 RN: A16524257
Full Text COPYRIGHT Rodale Press Inc. 1995

In an almost mythical running of the Leadville Trail 100, a woman and a Tarahumara Indian battled for the win.

Observing a 100-mile run, you're prepared for the struggle. You know this will be a grand sumo mismatch, Each human - steeled through months of training, myopically focused, and yet appearing small, wizened, not quite up to the task - will square off against his or her colossal opponent: a rugged, sometimes precipitous, intermittently gloomy, seemingly unending stretch of wilderness.

You're ready, then, to watch a few hundred individuals burrow deep within the dirt of their own souls to find that essential light the spark of survival that will get them to the next mile, and the next and the next.

What you are not ready for, though, is the race. You did not come here expecting to see a riveting battle for the lead, from well before the first light of dawn until well after dark. You did not expect to find yourself standing halfway up a steep trail in the Colorado Rockies in the middle of the afternoon, wondering if this time when you see them pass, the woman will have built her lead over the Indian. Whether in fact she is on her way to beating all the legendary mountain runners of Mexico's Copper Canyon, along with most of the rest of the male and female ultrarunning world in this, one of the sport's premier events.

"I mostly just wanted to run the best race I could," says Ann Trason, long after she has completed one of the fastest 100-mile races anyone has ever run. "I never expected to lead the race." Be that as it may, you can't help but be fascinated by the scene here, 53 miles into the challenge and halfway up 12,640-foot Hope Pass. Take a deep breath, check your watch. When they've passed, you realize she has picked up another 3 minutes, extending her lead to 7 minutes. You trot down the trial to the car and head for the next check-point. There, you wonder, another 20 minutes down the path, will she still be leading? And if so, by how much?


It is essentially a test of humans against distance. And yet, from the beginning, the 1994 Leadville Trail 100 has also hinted at just the sort of epic race that will finally would more like a movie script than a hardscrabble footrace.

Ann Trason, a seasoned 33-year-old from the San Francisco Bay Area, has been nipping the heels of front-running male runners on virtually every North American trail run since she took up the sport in 1985. Or, more often in recent years, letting them bark in frustration at her heels. Along with holding women's world records at 100-K, 50 miles and 100 miles, Trason has a habit of winning ultras (at distances under 100 miles) overall. She often finishes with no men in sight.

In June's prestigious Western States 100-Mile in California, two months before Leadville, eventual winner Tim Twietmeyer reportedly entered an aid station at 93 miles with one big question on his mind: "Where is she?" Everyone knew who "she" was, and she was a mere 10 minutes behind.

Trason eventually finished second at Western States, well behind Twietmeyer but beating her own course record by 37 minutes. As Leadville beckoned, then, no woman had won a major 100-mile race out right... Not yet

In Trason's mind, though, that was not the issue. "It's hard to imagine, but because I'm female and running in the women's race, it isn't the male-female competition thing that people make it out to be."

Fair enough. For Trason, this would be a chance to show bow fast women can run at long distances. No male-bashing here, just advocacy. But for those of us watching, the possibility that female athletic excellence might eclipse male on this day kept us scuttling along the trail, measuring the possibility. Could she stay ahead, or would another fascinating character, or characters, steal the show? Juan Herrera and Martimano Cervantes would eventually emerge as the two leading challengers, but it was all seven Tarahumara Indians who teased the imagination.

Their people call themselves the Raramuri, or foot-runners. Legends of their long distance exploits in the mountainous areas of northwest Mexico's Copper Canyon have drifted north for ages, becoming yarns passed from one gringo runner to the next. The Tarahumara are said to travel up to 70 miles a day, 170 miles without stopping, 500 miles a week carrying 40 pounds of mail. Competitions between villages, in which runners kick a wooden ball along a trail for days on end, can cover more than 100 miles before someone finally gives up. Just imagine, the legend went how well these Native American Spartans would do in a footrace outside their own territory.

Imagine, indeed. With the exception of brief appearances in the 1928 and 1968 Olympics, though, it wasn't until 1992 that the Tarahumara first showed up to run outside their native environs. That was when wilderness guide Rick Fisher and ultra-runner Kitty Williams first brought some of them to Leadville.

Amid much speculation, the experiment went bust. The problem, it turned out, was an unfamiliarity with the trail and the strange ways of the North. The Indians stood shyly at aid stations, waiting to be offered food. They held their flashlights pointed skyward, unaware that these "torches" needed to be aimed forward to illuminate the treacherous trail. And so on. All five Tarahumara dropped out before the halfway point.

The explanations seemed far-fetched, the legend tarnished. Until, that is, the 1993 Leadville race, when Tarahumara - this time well-versed in ultrarunning practices, strategies and local topography - captured first, second and fifth. Me legend, freshly polished, was back on its sandaled feet.

Every single one of the 317 starters of the 1994 Leadville race knew the story, just as they knew the legacy of Ann Trason. They would get two chances to see the main characters: once at the start, once on the trail. The out-and-back course would allow everyone to see everyone once along the way. But with 100 miles staring you in the face, who could have much fundamental interest in anything other than his own survival?

At the prerace briefing the day before the run, Ken Chlouber, founder of this event and a veteran of nine, asked for anyone who had failed to finish at least one Leadville run to stand. Dozens did. When he asked for anyone who had failed to finish two or more to remain standing while the others sat down, and so on. By the time he asked for a show of how many had failed at least four times, it began to seem as if he was picking on the handful of people still on their feet.

"The point is," said Chlouber, clarifying his intent, "there are some twisted minds out there."

Twisted indeed. And appreciative of other bent minds, so they applauded wildly when Chlouber introduced Laurel Myers, who had 10 unsuccessful attempts (and was about to add number 11). This may be the only sport on earth in which there is as much appreciation for those who fail but keep coming back again as for those who battle for the lead.


Saturday morning presented cold, clear, still weather, a respite from weeks of soaking storms. Running 100 miles in the rain is no great treat so this was greeted with enthusiasm. A full moon hung overhead, promising at least a dry start The clear weather was equally appreciated by crew members, who would be feeding, clothing and tending the destitute travelers for the next 30 hours. For an event that celebrates individual grit in the face of lonely struggle, there is a palpable sense of a wider community of support, an extended family of provisioners, well-wishers, spirit-boosters. Stories of runners in the final throes of exhaustion, when muscles turn to stone, faces droop below the knees, and personalities degenerate diabolically, are part of ultrarunning lore. Relief is spelled C-R-E-W.

"You know what 'crew' stands for, don't you?" asked Scott Mills, a 43-year-old entrant from Virginia. "Cranky runners, endless waiting."

Knowing this, runners at the start were genial. Best to enjoy one's normal nature before it gets reduced to shreds and shards. Best to bathe in camaraderie before the hounds of one's hellish self are loosed, somewhere around the 60-mile mark.

At the starting line, runners posed with friends and family members, while |harsh television lights and the loudspeaker created a surreal mood. Perhaps, |here on the highest Main Street in the country, some 10,430 feet in altitude, one was simply living out a strange dream.

At 4:00 A.M., the dream got legs as 317 runners dashed into the darkness, much too fast it seemed.

"Good luck on your 30-hour journey," boomed an amplified voice at the runners' backs as they disappeared into the blackness. "We'll be here when you get back."

A half-mile later, at the top of a hill just outside of town, those runners would be able to squint into the moonlit distance and see nearly the entire flank of the mountains they would be traversing. With a little imagination, you could almost make out the sharp-toothed, predatory grin of the Rockies.


There are only a handful of places along the Leadville Trail where support crews and spectators come in contact with the runners. From a non-entrant's perspective, then, the journey becomes a series of vignettes, separated by large gaps of time filled with waiting, wondering, worrying.

The first scene was at the Tabor boat launch at about 7 miles. There, like a crowd awaiting an alien encounter, dozens of people stood in the dark near Turquoise Lake, staring into the distance. To the right the moon, about to dip below the peaks, sent a shimmering column of light across the lake. To the left, the stars in Orion's belt hung low in the sky. Straight ahead, across the water, the first points of fight began dancing through the woods.

Just after 5:00 A.M., when those points of light had spread flickering all along the shoreline, the first runner passed. Men another, then two more. It was too dark to be sure who was who, so those of us watching simply passed on our "good lucks' and "looking goods."

"Thanks," came the replies, followed by the soft padding of footsteps through the trees.


Six miles farther along the trial, we watched first Johnny Sandoval of Gypsum, Colorado, then Ann Trason, then Mark Tarr of Columbia Falls, Montana, enter and leave the May Queen aid station. Dawn was imminent mist rose from the lake, and bagpipes played from somewhere in the distance. The runners used this station to discard or exchange items of clothing.

A race like Leadville is not so much a single race of 100 miles as a series of chunks - 6, 7, 10 miles - that runners approach individually. Seeing friends, refueling and changing clothes all help regenerate the spirit.

"It makes such a difference," noted one runner. "It's Eke sm" over."

Each of the Tarahumara used this first to switch out of shoes provided by the sponsoring Rockport company and into the footwear they know best sandals made from old tires, strapped on with leather cords. The perfect shoe, it seemed, for the next 87 miles of rocks, roots and rough terrain.

At the starting line, I had seen an elderly woman holding a sign that read: "Go, Glen, Go. Wisconsin Family Supporters." At May Queen, I saw her again and asked about her son, Glen Vaassen. As it turned out, this was his first attempt at 100 miles, and his mother, father, three sisters and two nephews were here for moral support. Two years ago, she said, her son had had a dream in which he'd finished his first 100-mile race, and his family had been at the and to greet him.

"Doesn't that give you the creeps?" she said.

Creeps or clairvoyance, Vaassen would finish his first 100-mile race the next day in 28 hours, 53 minutes and 21 seconds. Feet swollen, tears welling up, family cheering his final, dog-tired steps.


When we saw the leaders again at 23 1/2 miles, Sandoval was still leading, but two Tarahumara, Juan Herrera and Martimano Cervantes, had edged ahead of Trason. All were within 4 minutes of each other as they left the Outward Bound aid station.

In the full light of morning, these two Indians, dressed in an odd mixture of traditional and modern garb - breechcloths, bandannas, sandals, Rockport caps and shirts - were emerging as favorites. Trason, meanwhile, exuding both strength and lightness, represented a kind of modern cultural icon, the exceptional female athlete. As it turned out, though, at this point she was less interested in what she represented than in where the hell her support crew was. Husband Carl Andersen finally showed up, taking full blame for upsetting his wife's focus.

"I just waited too long and missed her," he confessed later.

Missing your support crew is like having the transmission drop out of your car. Shaken by the experience, Trason pushed on.


During the 16 miles from Outward Bound to the next access point at Twin Lakes, the course climbs nearly 1,000 feet and then descends over 1,000 feet to the 39 1/2-mile mark. This offers plenty of time and territory for a major overturn in fortunes.

When the first runner reached us, it was Trason. Herrera and Cervantes were a few minutes behind, while Sandoval had begun dropping back and would eventually finish 34th.

Afterward, Trason described the exchange of places before Twin Lakes as both odd and a bit unpleasant. Earlier, Herrera and Cervantes had accelerated past her on downhill sections of the course, only to decelerate, turn and stare, then accelerate again. Not quite sure what to think of this, Trason threw in a downhill surge of her own on the way to Twin lakes, passing the two.

"Herrera took off when I passed him," noted Trason, "then stopped right in the middle of the trail and just watched me."

To Trason, it seemed a sign from Herrera that he could outrun her whenever he chose, that he would not be beaten by woman. And to the Tarahumara? After the race, third-place finisher Cervantes reportedly expressed "the greatest admiration" for Trason during the race. One can only dimly imagine the full range of thoughts and emotions a runner from an isolated village in Mexico must have felt, racing a woman through the mountains of Colorado.


Fifty miles into the Leadville 100 is the ghost town of Winfield. There, at the end of a hot dusty road, volunteers had set up a mobile medical facility.

By the time the runners reached that point what must they have felt like? To have run up and down trails since 4:00 in the morning, battling dehydration, thin air, weary legs and despair. To have climbed over a 12,640-foot mountain pass and ached down the other side. To have shuffled down a dusty dirt road to the aid station, with the sun retiring toward the horizon. To sit down for a moment for some food and drink - congratulations, you're halfway done - and to know that almost the first thing you've got to face now is that same 12,640-foot mountain pass on the return. Somehow the runners all seemed to manage it, or at least they managed to begin it.

Heading up the long climb to Hope Pass on the return trip, her husband Carl now along as pacer (pacers are permitted even encouraged, during the last 50 miles at Leadville), Trason climbed steadily through the aspens and rockslides to the rarefied air above treeline. She was now 7 minutes ahead of Herrera.


And so it continued, for another 20 miles and two more mountain passes, past repeated words of encouragement from those still on their way to Winfield, runners who must have relished the chance to ignore their own discomfort long enough to wish this woman well. By the 72-mile mark, Trason's lead had extended to 18 minutes.

"I was heading up Hope Pass, and she just blew by me going the other direction-voo-o-o-om!" remembered Glen Vaassen afterward. "She was cruisin."

Knowing that Trason was beginning to show signs of raggedness but impressed by the minutes she had gained, most of us watching were ready to call it a lock. What could possibly happen in those final 28 miles?

Leaving the Outward Bound aid station at 4:32 p.m., Trason wiped her brow with a bandanna and slowly jogged down the road, well ahead of both Herrera and the men's course record.


In the unobserved spaces between checkpoints, muscles stiffen, stomachs churn, spirits rise aid fall, and ultra legends are born. Thus it was in the 1994 Leadville Trail 100, when word of Juan Herrera's dash up Sugarloaf and past Ann Trason began reaching the aid station at May Queen even before he did. Herrera arrived 6 minutes in the lead, then tore off around Turquoise Lake for the final 13 miles at what looked like 7-minute pace.

When Trason arrived at the aid station, the fire was washed out of her eyes, the result of an extended battle with nausea on the trail, and not for the first time in her ultrarunning career. "I'm trying to figure out why it happens," she confessed later. "It's sort of my limiting factor."

Pacer Carl later reported that he'd had a hard time coaxing her to the finish, in spite of Trason's remarkable performance (18:16:26), one that would break the women's course record by a spectacular 2 hours, 37 minutes.

"Oh, I knew that guy was going to catch me," Trason would say. She will also wonder, though, about the odd sensation of feeling as if she's let people down, failing to do something she didn't set out to accomplish in the first place, to beat all the men.

Herrera, meanwhile, heading down those final 13 miles, scrambled toward Leadville as the sky darkened, the moon rose, and stars began to dot the firmament. It must have seemed a kind of heavenly welcoming committee for the light-footed, tired eyed Tarahumara, a familiar evening countenance for a man far away from home. Herrera reached the line in 17:30:42, the fastest time in the event's 12-year history.

Then he headed for bed, which is more than can yet be said for the other 300 entrants of this race. They will continue to run through the night under a sky ruled by what appears to be the planet Saturn.

"Saturnine," reads the dictionary. "Having or showing a sluggish, gloomy temperament. Suffering from lead poisoning." Yes, it must be Saturn.

Several runners, like 39-year-old Thomas Taylor of Michigan, will feel themselves turning so sluggish on the final trek that they'd turn off their flashlights so runners behind won't realize they're walking.

"We got to the finish," Taylor will laugh later, after holding on for eighth place, "and found out the guys right ahead of us had done the same thing."

Others, those whose legs or feet or stomachs simply won't operate for a full 100 miles, will drop out and wait for another year. Over half of the starters will not finish and will have to suffer sleep interrupted by the loudspeaker announcing those who did.

"That's the aggravating thing about this race," says one unlucky runner, Bill Barker of Princeton, Iowa, who ran out of steam at 60 miles. "You hear that thing all night long."

Still others will walk through the darkness, relying on their flashlights and those internal lights, too, holding on to the goal of finishing before the 30-hour closing time.

Founder Ken Chlouber will complete his 10th Leadville in 27:21:30. Harry Deupree will nail his 10th in 28:21:45, while Bill Finkbeiner and Al Binder will each finish their 11th. Fifty-six-year-old Nico Solomos will run 24:53:12, the 42nd and last finisher to win a gold-and-silver trophy buckle for finishing under 25 hours.

For almost all finishers, dim eyes will seem even more prominent than dead legs. But pride, a shared sense of achievement, will clearly shine behind those dim windows to the soul, uniting everyone who finishes and everyone who watches.

Of course, what real difference does it make that anyone - Tarahumara, woman, common citizen - has finished in front of anyone else or that they have successfully wrestled their way through a 100-mile opponent in less than 30 hours?

"Car-ul! Car-ul! Car-ul!" the crowd shouts at the finish, as 66-year-old Carl Yates shuffles up the red carpet to become the 156th and last runner to reach the finish in under 30 hours, earning the final silver buckle of the day.

No difference, really.