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Skiing the Leadville Loppet - at 10,000 feet

Tue, Feb  26, 2008 - By Natalie Dawson

(Natalie Dawson is a member of Team and currently resides in Albuquerque, New Mexico, patiently waiting for snowflakes to fall in the desert.)

This weekend I was driving through the San Luis Valley in southern Colorado with two teammates, heading home from a race in Leadville, Colorado.  The sun was setting on the continental divide, the snow was blowing gently across the road in front of us, and we were talking about the race-the skiers, the course, the altitude, and I smiled. 

All across the country there were people driving home from races just like us, whether it was in northern Wisconsin, driving home from the Birkie, or Oregon, driving home from a citizen’s race in Bend.  We were all out there on the road, swapping race stories, battle scars, and water bottles with slightly funky aftertastes.  We are part of a small, yet growing community of cross country skiers, and although I thought being a cross country skier in Michigan was a rarity, it is even more strange to live in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and clad myself in spandex for three days every weekend, leaving behind the pangs of grad school for a chance to prove myself on some mountain course in some relatively obscure mountain town, where most of my competition is paid to ski, trains in Boulder, Colorado, and most likely was recruited from a Scandinavian country.  

Even more phenomenal than the sunset along the continental divide is the euphoric feeling following any competition.  And in this case, we were driving home from the Leadville Loppet, held the same weekend as the Birkie.  It’s not as big, but has its own claim to fame: It is the highest ski marathon in the country.  The entire course is above 10,000 feet, and its highest point is at 11,000 feet.  Legs and arms feel different at this altitude, and speed is mind over matter.  You can feel fast, but your time will not be fast, no matter how wonderful your race felt.  It will be 10-20 minutes slower than you expect, simply because you are skiing on top of the continental divide. 

This year, Jim Howe from Denver, CO won the 44km marathon with a time of 2:36:01 and I came across as the first female finisher with a time of 2:41:07.  I felt like I skied under 2:30, but then I remembered the elevation…

Leadville cross country ski race course 

The race course (temperatures were in the low to mid teens and the sun came out for the last half of the race).

If you are looking for a Midwestern-styled, homegrown cross country ski race in a mountain setting, I highly recommend the Leadville Loppet.  Started six years ago, this was my fourth Loppet, and each one gets bigger and better.  This year there were over 200 racers, and the race also became part of the Colorado Cup race series.  The race covers the entirety of the Mineral Belt Trail and the Colorado Mountain College ski trails.  The course winds through subalpine forests.  It offers the best views of any race course in Colorado, and during the most grueling (9km) climb of the race, in all directions, you can look up and see the high peaks of some of Colorado’s most famous 14,000 ft mountains. 

After the race, volunteers serve racers warm blueberry soup, and the awards ceremony boasts over twenty soups and chili’s from locals, along with deserts.  Age category prizes are pieces of pottery made by students in pottery class at Colorado Mountain College.  The weekend also includes a skijoring event (Clydesdale horses pulling skiers down Main Street) and a dogsled race in town, both entertaining post-race activities.  I don’t recommend entering the skijoring competition after completing the ski marathon.

Another great attribute of racing in small, Colorado mountain towns is that the race organizers will remember you next year, usually by first name.  They will send you emails asking you to come back and race.  They will give you monthly updates on happenings in Leadville, Colorado.  If you come to Leadville, you will leave Leadville feeling like you not only skied at the top of the world, but you just added a new city full of people to your cross country skiing family.  Plus, you may run into a racer or two from the great state of Michigan!


The same weekend as the ski race is a dogsled race in Leadville-so don’t be surprised if it town feels a little like Fairbanks, Alaska in March.