Leadville Trail 100: Pain, Exhaustion, Elation on Ultra-Running Course

The 4 a.m. shotgun blast signaling the start of Colorado’s Leadville Trail 100 Run was a lot louder than I expected. Headlamps lurched into the darkness as 946 runners began the long struggle against mountains, distance and altitude.

About half would complete the journey. In all, 494 runners would cross the finish line before the 30-hour cutoff.

The race, held this past weekend (Aug 17-18) in Leadville, Colo., is among the toughest on the planet. For the whole weekend, I got a shotgun-seat view of the race by riding along with Jo Agnew while she crewed for her husband Kelly, an experienced ultra-runner with dozens of races under his belt. (He eventually finished in 26 hours, 19 minutes, 14 seconds.)

Runners stream from the starting line of the Leadville Trail 100 Run

What I witnessed was a large-scale, self-inflicted human drama of pain, suffering, love and kindness. While I saw plenty of contorted faces and bloody knees, what struck me more were the subtle moments of tenderness and caring that passed between racer and crew at every aid station, where hundreds of supporters sat for hours on end just for a fleeting glimpse as their loved ones scurried in from the trail, downed a gulp of food, and disappeared again for hours.

Scott Jurek, in orange, shakes hands with another runner moments before the start

Shaheen Sattar runs past the May Queen aid station.

I spent many hours riding along with Jo Agnew. The experience blew my mind. As a runner I find races almost meditative. The pain comes, I fight it off, work harder and dig deeper. Rarely is there much time for complex thought or logistical nightmares.

Not so for crew workers. Every minute is accounted for. Traffic jams happen. Directions are confusing. Hours pass with no food or rest. To those who crew for runners, much respect.

Here’s my look from the passenger seat, along for 24+ hours on a wild ride.

—Sean McCoy is a contributing editor.

Thomas Caughlan gets a shove out of the Fish Hatchery aid station from his crewman

Jo Agnew helps her husband Kelly Agnew as he arrives at the Fish Hatchery aid station

Kelly Agnew leaves the Fish Hatchery aid station while his wife and crew Jo takes care of final details

A runner doubles over about 30 miles into the race

Runners climb a small knoll before a quick descent into the Twin Lakes aid station

Kelly Agnew sees his pacer, Leon Lutz, for the first time since the start and gets a big man-hug

Drop bags await their runners at the Winfield aid station, the halfway point of the Leadville Trail 100

Crew, volunteers, pacers and spectators crowd the remote Winfield aid station, the 50-mile mark of the Leadville Trail 100

Some mid-pack runners make their way to the the Winfield aid station

Salt stains a Leadville visor white at the 50-mile mark

Kelly Agnew, center, gets attention from his pacer Leon Lutz and wife/crew Jo Agnew at the Winfield aid station

Leadville 100 founder Ken Chlouber drives a 4-wheeler through the Winfield aid station

Runners climb at the 61-mile mark

Children cheer on runners near sunset about 30 miles from the finish

Runners grind along the Leadville 100 course at dusk

Two runners shuffle slowly along the trail under the light of their headlamps

Crew wait for their runners May Queen aid station at about 3 a.m.

Kelly Agnew gets a hug from his pacer Leon Lutz moments after crossing the finish line

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Managing Editor Sean McCoy is a life-long outdoorsman who grew up hunting and fishing central Wisconsin forests and lakes. He joined GearJunkie after a 10-year stint as a newspaperman in the Caribbean, where he learned sailing and wooden-boat repair. Based in Denver, McCoy is an avid trail runner, camper, hunter, angler, mountain biker, skier, and beer tester.