Leadville, Colorado is a perfect setting for human drama.Leadville started life as a classic, wild-west town full of miners in search of fabulous wealth.It is the highest incorporated town (10,200 feet high) at the foot of the highest mountain range in North America.That means that it is short on oxygen and long on superlatives.The steeple of the exquisite Victorian Catholic church (where the famous “Unsinkable Molly Brown” was married) is, naturally, the highest church steeple in North America.In the grip of an 24-hour stomach flu, I recently earned the distinction of throwing up on the lawn of the highest town hall in North America!
Every August, hundreds of outsiders descend on Leadville to kick the inherent drama of the place up a few notches.They have come to attempt the highest ultra-marathon in North America: The Leadville Trail 100, “the race across the sky”.Runners seek to cover 100 miles across mountainous terrain that rises as high as 12,600 feet and to finish within 30 hours.They begin the race in the pre-dawn darkness at on Saturday.To be counted as a “finisher” you have to stagger across the finish line before the gun goes off at on Sunday.To finish on time, runners cannot sleep, and must run or walk all night up and down steep mountain trails in temperatures that routinely drop into the 30’s.This past August, 199 runners – 51% of those who started - finished on time.
I first heard of the Leadville 100 from the bemused owner of a bed and breakfast in a tiny mountain town which serves as one of the race’s primary aid stations.The poor man described dazed runners who were so exhausted that they had to be pushed in the right direction or they would simply miss the trail.The whole thing sounded so extreme - so utterly crazy - that I couldn’t believe that rational human beings would take part.I have since found out that nearly every person – including those who now run it - reacted that way when they first heard about the Leadville 100.Everyone thinks it is crazy - until you witness one - and what I have come to think of as the “Leadville Effect” hits you:
When a community promotes, models, and intentionally supports outstanding achievement in its members, people change . This transformation, and the extraordinary achievement that results from this transformation, is what I mean by the “Leadville Effect”:
People begin to see themselves differently and the world differently.
What they assumed to be “normal” and “possible” begins to change.
The result: “ordinary” people begin to imagine, aspire to, and accomplish extraordinary things.
Let me try and explain.
First of all, no one attempts the Leadville Trail 100 alone.The secret of the race is the very high level of community support behind each runner. There are a minimum of two supporting workers for every participant.Hundreds man aid stations all day and night, handing out water, Gatorade, power gels, cookies, and hot potato soup to all.Volunteers time runners in and out of aid stations, weigh them and assess their condition, give them a chance to warm themselves, to change their clothing and gear, and if necessary, insist they stop before they hurt themselves.Teams on mountain bikes follow behind the runners “sweeping” the trail in the dark to make sure that all stragglers are found and no one gets lost.
In addition, most runners have their own personal team of supporters.Many have “pacers” who can run beside individual participants for the last 50 miles.Pacers are not competitors but often run the equivalent of an ultra-marathon themselves simply to support someone else.Throughout the night, pacers can be heard softly talking, encouraging, challenging; making sure their runner keeps hydrated and doesn’t get lost, and if necessary, telling their runner when to quit.Family and friends, often wearing matching sweatshirts with mottos like “Ted’s team”, met the runners at aid stations with specially prepared food, changes of clothing, and sun block.They massage and bandage battered feet, provide dry shoes and socks, and a stream of encouragement.
The whole drama culminates at the finish line between 9 and on Sunday morning.The uber-athletes have long since finished and gone but the crowd just keeps getting larger and more exuberant.They know that the last hour is the most moving because so many of the late finishers are ordinary men and women who are attempting something extraordinary, perhaps for the first time in their life.The “race across the sky” is not just for the young and extraordinarily fit.Runners in their 40’s, 50’s, and 60’s finish every year.Finishing Leadville is not primarily about speed; it is about courage and heart and the power of community.
At the finish line this past August, I could not help but notice a large support team of perhaps 40 people all dressed in brilliant scarlet t-shirts.On the back of each shirt was the phrase “already finished”.I was intrigued and asked a couple of the team members who they were supporting.They pointed to the writing on the front of their shirts “In loving memory of Daryl Bogenrief”.Twenty five year old Daryl had been killed the summer before in a white water rafting accident.His young wife of 10 months, Angela, was running the Leadville 100 in his memory.A few minutes later, word spread among the team that she was two miles away with only an hour remaining.Instantly, Angela’s army set off to meet her.
I waited by the finish line.The minutes passed.One by one, runners crossed, often running hand-in-hand for the last 100 yards with the spouses, children, and friends who had made their achievement possible.Grizzled, grey-haired men broke down and wept in joy and relief within seconds of finishing.Each one was cheered vigorously by the hundreds of on-lookers who had by this time formed a kind of human tunnel around the finish.But I kept my eye on the ridge of the last hill, looking for signs of Angela.
Then I saw it: a scarlet phalanx formed at the crest of the hill a quarter mile away, and began to marching steadily towards us.As the group drew closer, I could see that they had formed a solid, cheering, human wall around a young woman with long brown hair.Angela’s pacer was beside her.Her friends were carrying all her gear but a single water bottle, freeing her up to focus on one thing alone: finishing.Angela was limping but her face was radiant, as she crossed the line 18 minutes before the final gun went off.
The power of the Leadville experience has stayed with me because it has such obvious implications for the formation of lay apostles.I know many “Angelas”, men and women who are doing astonishing things for the Kingdom of Godbecause and only because they have the active, sustained, enthusiastic support of the Christian community – a sort of ecclesial Leadville effect.
Last summer, I received a letter from a recently retired pharmacist named Claudia who had attended a Called & Gifted workshop in a South Carolina parish. As a result of her discernment, she had volunteered to serve as a lay missionary in Tanzania.There she would teach pharmacology at the very first medical school in the country. Claudia’s mission: to enable Tanzanians to qualify for funding for AIDS medications by training them to administer the drugs in question. This woman’s skill and expertise could conceivably save the lives of an entire generation and change the course of a whole nation. When I told her story at a small group gathering in my parish in Colorado Springs, one woman blurted out “She’s like Esther! Who knows but what she has been prepared for such a time as this?”
Claudia is an Esther and she has obviously been prepared for just such as time as this.And yet, the irony is that such a possibility was beyond anything Claudia had ever envisioned for herself. As Claudia put it, “I was deliberating what to do next and whether there might be some purpose for my life.” Discerning her charisms “set me on a path that I’d probably taken years to find on my own.”It was an experience of a discerning Christian community that enabled Claudia to first imagine, then aspire to, and then do the extraordinary thing that will change so many lives.
Our Catholic parishes are filled with anointed but unconscious Esthers and Dominics, who have been prepared for purposes beyond anything they can now imagine. As Catholics, we have a beautifully rich theology of evangelization.But our evangelical imagination as individuals and as a community is stunted because we haven’t seen it livedat the local level.Can we imagine what Holy Spirit would do in our midst if our parishes were spiritual Leadville’s, challenged all the baptized to imagine, aspire to, and live their God-given vocations?