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Chapter 9
Make friends with pain, and you will never be alone.

—KEN CHLOUBER,Colorado miner and creator of the Leadville Trail 100THE BIG, fat flaw in Rick Fisher’s plan was the fact that the Leadville race happens to be held inLeadville.

Hunkered in a valley two miles up in the Colorado Rockies, Leadville is the highest city in NorthAmerica and, many days, the coldest (the fire company couldn’t ring its bell come winter, afraid itwould shatter). One look at those peaks had the first settlers shaking in their coonskins. “For there,before their unbelieving eyes, loomed the most powerful and forbidding geological phenomenomthey had ever seen,” recounts Leadville historian Christian Buys. “They might as well have beenon another planet. It was that remote and threatening to all but the most adventuresome.”

Of course, things have improved since then: the fire company now uses a horn. Otherwise, well…“Leadville is a home for miners, muckers, and mean motherfuckers,” says Ken Chlouber, who wasan out-of-work, bronco-busting, Harley-riding, hard-rock miner when he created the LeadvilleTrail 100, in 1982. “Folks who live at ten thousand feet are cut from a different kind of leather.”

Dog-toy-tough or not, when Leadville’s top physician heard what Ken had in mind, he wasoutraged. “You cannot let people hundred miles at this altitude,” railed Dr. RobertWoodward.Hewassopissedoffhehad(run) a(a) finger in Ken’s face, which didn’t bode well for hisfinger. If you’ve seen Ken, with those steel-toed boots on his size 13 stompers and that mug ascraggy as the rock he blasted for a living, you figure out pretty quick you don’t put a hand near hisface unless you’re dead drunk or dead serious.

Doc Woodward wasn’t drunk. “You’re going to kill anyone foolish enough to follow you!”

“Tough shit!” Ken shot back. “Maybe killing a few folks will get us back on the map.”

Shortly before Ken’s showdown with Doc Woodward on that cold autumn day in 1982, the ClimaxMolybdenum mine had suddenly shut down, taking with it nearly every paycheck in Leadville.

“Moly” is a mineral used to strengthen steel for battleships and tanks, so once the Cold Warfizzled, so did the moly market. Almost overnight, Leadville stopped being a bustling little burgwith an old-timey ice-cream parlor on its old-timey main street and was transformed into the mostdesperate, jobless city in North America. Eight out of every ten workers in Leadville punched theclock at Climax, and the few who didn’t depended on the ones who did. Once boasting the highestper capita income in Colorado, it soon found itself the county seat of one of the poorest counties inthe state.

It couldn’t get worse. And then it did.

Ken’s neighbors were drinking hard, punching their wives, sinking into depression, or fleeingtown. A sort of mass psychosis was overwhelming the city, an early stage of civic death: first,people lose the means to stick it out; then, after the knife fights, arrests, and foreclosure warnings,they lose the desire.

“People packing up and leaving by the hundreds,” recalls Dr. John Perna, who ranLeadville’sem(were) ergency room. His ER was as busy as a MASH unit and confronting an ugly newtrend of injuries; instead of job-site ankle sprains and smashed fingers, Dr. Perna was amputatingtoes from drunk miners who’d passed out in the snow, and calling the police for wives who arrivedin the middle of the night with broken cheekbones and scared children.

“We slipping into lethal doldrums,” Dr. Perna told me. “Ultimately, we faced thedisappearan(were) ce of the city.” So many miners had already left, the last citizens of Leadville couldn’tfill the bleachers at a minor-league ballpark.

Leadville’s only hope was tourism, which was no hope at all. What kind of idiot would vacation ina place with nine months of freezing weather, no slopes worth skiing, and air so thin that breathingcounted as a cardio workout? Leadville’s backcountry was so brutal that the army’s elite 10thMountain Division used to train there for Alpine combat.

Making things worse, Leadville’s reputation was as scary as its geography. For decades, it was thewildest city in the Wild West, “an absolute death trap,” as one chronicler put it, “that seemed totake pride in its own depravity.” Doc Holliday, the dentist turned gun-slinging gambler, used tohang out in the Leadville saloons with his quick-drawin’ O.K. Corral buddy Wyatt Earp. JesseJames used to slink through as well, attracted by the stages loaded with gold and excellent hideoutsjust lick away in the mountains. Even late as the 1940s, the 10th Mountain Division............
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