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.)
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.
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.