‘Ultraski’ race livens up Leadville
For competitive endurance athletes, winter can be a frustrating time, with a dearth of long-distance events. But a new cross-country "ultraski" race, the Leadville 100, promises to liven up the snowy season with a lung-busting, thigh-burning high-altitude event that could eventually take its place alongside other classic winter endurance races like the Vasaloppet and Birkebeiner.Scheduled for March 15, the Leadville race covers four loops on a 25-mile course along trails maintained by Colorado Mountain College and sections of the Mineral Belt Trail.The event is open to relay teams and individual competitors. So far, organizers say about 20 people have signed up, with racers coming from as far away as Idaho. Most of those people have previously participated in some other type of 100-mile race.Proceeds are slated to benefit the Lake County Animal Shelter, the Leadville Nordic Community, and a scholarship fund at Colorado Mountain College."I think it’s a very skiable and racer-friendly course," says Paul Rauschke, a professor of ski area management at the college. "It avoids the more technical sections of the college course, but it’s not boring."Keeping racers mentally engaged over that distance is just as challenging as the physical aspects of the race, he explains. Each 25-mile loop includes 1,500 feet of vertical relief. The lowest point on the course is 9,900 feet, the high point, 10,600 feet.Rauschke, who also sits on the board of directors for the Mineral Belt Trail, says one aim of the race is to promote the Leadville area as a winter destination for Nordic skiing. "Obviously, I might be a little biased, but I’ll put the Mineral Belt Trail against any trail in North America," Rauschke says.As part of an advanced management class, Rauschke says his students at CMC put together a template for a 50-kilometer race that could be held on a regular basis. That’s a classic distance for Nordic skiers, but there have been plenty of longer races, here in Colorado as well as in other parts of the world.According to Vail endurance athlete Dawes Wilson, previous Colorado long-distance cross-country ski races included the Coureur de Bois, covering 105 kilometers between Paonia and Sunlight, and the 80-kilomter Big Shooter Bonk, held between Kremmling and Gore Pass. Those races are no longer being held, although there are still several 50-kilometer events, considered the traditional Nordic marathon distance.Long-distance cross-country ski racing has deep roots in Scandinavia, where thousands of citizen and elite racers participate in famed events like the Vasaloppet in Sweden and the Birkebeiner in Norway. Early Norwegian kings were expected to excel in skiing. According to some ski historians, it was considered to be one of the eight essential Viking "arts."Like the Olympic marathon, some of the classic long distance Nordic races also spring from a somewhat martial history. The Birkebeiner, for example, has its roots in 1206, when two Norwegians loyal to King Hkon Hkonsson were charged with carrying the king’s two-year-old son from Lillehammer to stredalen. According to the history books, Hkon wanted to unify Norway. But not all the tribal leaders were on board with that plan.Those warlords wanted to break the lineage by killing Hkon’s son.The two Birkebeiners (so named for the birch bark strips they wore to keep their lower legs warm) managed to elude their pursuers and deliver the child. Later, as king, he unified and expanded the realm.Those exploits are commemorated each year by thousands of skiers who recreate the 58-kilometer race along the same route. Races with the same name are also held in the U.S. and Canada each year.Similarly, the Vasaloppet in Sweden also is held in commemoration of a historical event dating back about 400 years when a Danish king ruled the area we now know as Sweden. A young Swede named Vasa organized a revolt, but failed and ended up in prison. He escaped and sought support from people in the town of Dalarna, near the Norwegian border. They turned him down, but had second thoughts after he left, so the town sent their best two skiers to chase him down. The skiers caught up with Vasa in Salen and from there headed to Mora to gather more support for a revolt. Today’s race follows the route of the trio between Salen and Mora, and draws up to 40,000 skiers.The new Leadville 100 has a long way to go before it reaches the near-mythic status of those events, but every tradition has to start somewhere. Some racers are looking forward to participating in this first-ever edition.All racers must attend a mandatory pre-race meeting March 14 in Leadville. Entry fees are $175 for solo racers, $125 per person for pairs teams, and $55 per person for teams of four. The race begins at 6 a.m. with a strict 18-hour cutoff at midnight. Intermediate cutoff times will be imposed at 50 and 75 miles. Each division singles, doubles and quartets, will be divided into three age groups; 34 and under, 35 to 49 and 50-plus. Pairs and teams will average their combined ages.For more information, call (719) 486-9455.