Originally published on August 10, 2018
Leadville Trail 100. These three words have become synonymous with America’s highest city. These three simple words have been spoken around the world in different languages, they’ve been written about in national publications, and they’ve been discussed over family dinner tables for decades. If you live in Leadville Today, it’s hard not to hear these three little words. Especially this week, as the iconic LT100 Mountain Bike race gets ready to celebrate 25 years this Saturday, Aug. 11.
But in the past year, these three words have also evoked more questions than answers, especially among the locals. What’s going on with the races? Who owns them now? Did Ken and Merilee buy them back? And what about those qualifying races? Who owns those? Life Time? And how does Josh Colley fit into the puzzle since he left as Race Director in 2017? More questions, than answers.
In fact, other than the brief “we’re back in the saddle” message announced by LT100 Founder Ken Chlouber at the beginning of last year’s race season, there has been no formal announcement from Life Time regarding their shift in management for the Leadville Race Series (LRS). After all, who could forget the 2010 fanfare of Ken and Merilee selling the races to Life Time (fitness)? So what was all this about?
And if the locals’ questions regarding the races are bubbling up, within the cycling circles, they appear to be coming to a full-boil as this Saturday’ start-line draws closer. Even the press is asking, what’s going on with the Leadville races? More questions, than answers. To that end, this past spring Leadville Today (LT) sat down with former LT100 Race Director Josh Colley to get some of those answers. Here is that interview. LT hopes it gives readers more answers, than questions regarding their beloved “Race Across the Sky.”
Looking Forward, Looking Back: Tales from the Trail
By Kathy Bedell © Leadville Today
By the turn of the 21st century, Leadville was beginning to see some signs of recovery from its latest bust cycle brought on by the closure of the Climax Mine in the 1980s. Leading the charge out of the pit was the Leadville Trail 100 (LT100) and its fearless leader, Ken Chlouber. What had started with a 100-mile foot race in 1983 had grown into a series of events which pumped much-needed cash into the Leadville economy all summer long, with the international sports spotlight never far off.
Around that same time in 2000, Josh Colley came to Leadville. His dad Larry Colley was the Director of Lake County Recreation, running one of the most successful programs to date; his mother Chris Colley was a beloved first-grade teacher. Josh settled in quickly to his new mountain home, was married, and started a family.
“I have a degree in recreation sports management from Fort Hays State University (KS),” said Colley in an interview with Leadville Today. “But I never really used it, until I got out here.” In 2010, Colley joined the LT100 staff with a warehouse position. In fact, the year he was hired was also the year the Ken Chlouber and Merilee Maupin sold the Leadville Race Series to Life Time fitness. So, with little more than a race season under his belt, Colley moved up quickly, and in 2011 was named Race Director.
“The race changed my life,” Colley explained. “People say that, and you know, it’s true. Coming across that finish line and having my kids waiting for me, and crying. You see something bigger than yourself.” Colley has done the 100-mile mountain bike race twice and the 50-milers, “4 or 5 times.” He’s also paced runners in the 100-mile race a couple of times.
“It’s not just a bucket list item, it’s hard to explain.”
So when the opportunity came to run the show, Colley stepped in, ultimately interrupting the fast-growing list of former employees, who found it hard to endure the burdensome yoke of the new, corporate management style.
“I was excited as heck to be the Race Director for the Leadville Trail 100,” said Colley. “You couldn’t ask for a better learning platform, it was a complete wealth of knowledge.”
But that same year, as Leadville was finding its own way with the new leadership, Life Time was aggressively building out a new model for the races. And in the spring of 2011, the publicly-traded company (until 2015) announced the establishment of qualifying races for the LT100 MTB which would be held at different locations across the country. These races drew people in by the hundreds with the hopes of a lottery entry into the iconic mountain bike race in Leadville every August.
To date, the qualifying races have calculated millions of dollars for Life Time, and carried the Leadville name far from the corners of 6th & Harrison. There’s the Willington Whiteface Mtb, played out on the Olympic grounds of Lake Placid in New York. There’s the Austin Rattler MTB in Texas and the Tahoe Trail MTB in California. Of course, closer to home that list includes the Silver Rush 50-mile MTB as well as the Leadville Stage Race, both held on home turf and still managed locally.
“The beauty of the qualifiers is that they decided to put them in really nice places,” explained Colley. And these were places that Life Time had no imprint on beforehand. So with the Leadville brand and name in tow, they set up shop across the country.
Meanwhile, back at home, a noticeable shift was happening, and the hushed whispers began. The empty chairs at roundtable discussions and coffee meetings historically filled by former-owners, Ken and Merilee were duly noted. It was becoming clear that under the new Life Time model, the LT100 staff that could depend on the off-season to re-invest in community relations, was now charged to haul the brand-new, supped-up race signs and supplies in shiny new trucks emblazoned with the Leadville name, all around the country, to the qualifiers. The new model no longer nurtured the winter-time renewal of friendships that fed the pipeline of support and local volunteers for the next summer’s race season.
“The new shiny had worn off,” is how Colley describes the situation by year three under Life Time’s new approach to racing. The travel demands were taking their toll on the LT100 staff – and their families. In addition, the expanded race schedule made for an increasing challenge, as the Leadville staff hoped to avoid a mechanical failure or force of nature which could impede their arrival at the next venue, forcing the cancellation of an ever-growing revenue stream of racing.
By 2014, Colley explained, he made it clear that it was getting to be a lot for the LRS staff. “It was too much. I had to talk about it for three years before Life Time understood the risk, that if the crew didn’t make it back to Leadville in time, some money would be lost.”
By then, another crack in the newly sculptured model began to appear with the ever-widening gap between the old-school volunteers who would humbly show up for their aid-station post each summer, and the new spandex-laden gen-Xers, along with their fist-pumps and loud music. The pot was beginning to simmer a bit more.
But Leadville folks are stoic and respectful, particularly when it comes to the LT100, and Ken and Merilee’s legacy. After all, the “old-timers” didn’t need another economic development impact study to educate them about the impact these races had on their lives. They had lived it. They had seen it play out all those years from its genesis in 1983 when 45 runners laced up to the start-line at 6th & Harrison and forever changed this small mining town.
“That last year it was getting harder and harder to be Race Director,” Colley describes leading up to his ultimate departure in January 2017. “I was already having ideas about moving on, no real reasons why, other than I could kinda feel the mesh of how things were ran, was going to change a little bit.”
Colley pauses, carefully choosing his words. “Money was getting tighter, budgets were getting tighter. It was getting harder to be the race director. Because it was more about, how do we get more people?”
It was an honest statement, but one that also might resonant strongly with the local community. After all, even the most faithful, Leadville-born-and-raised LT100 fan was willing to admit that the pressure of race season needed to be addressed. It was getting to be too much for residents, who endured the overload of visitors, the traffic snares and other inconveniences. Each summer, they were asked to sacrifice the best weather months living at 10,200 feet was to offer, in order to share their community with others and help their friends’ businesses thrive. In addition, the burden on local services was also becoming more measurable, from law enforcement, to trash, to water and sewer. Race season is hard on this small mountain community, and it still is.
But all along the way, as city and county officials assured their voters that entry-cap discussions and growth management concerns were being addressed, Life Time continued to set its course.
So was it Life Time’s intention to build all these qualifiers out from the very beginning? Yeah, answers Colley.
“I think that they were shooting to have ten or fifteen, not four. They wanted to have them every week throughout the summer. Kind of like the Ironman does – that has races consistently leading up to Kona.”
But it’s at this point in the story, with the Life Time map for Leadville Races Series in front of him, that Colley gets an opportunity to GPS his own trail, flag his own future.
“I was looking for the next step,” explains Colley regarding his exit out from under the LT100 umbrella. “You know, it’s hard to walk away from the Leadville Trail 100 Race Director position, it really is, but I was ready.”
Ironically, he’s likely to be the very last Race Director the series ever sees, as the information distributed at the “2018 Summer Kickoff & Info Session” lists Merilee as Race Director Emeritus, which by definition means: having retired but allowed to retain their title as an honor. The title of LT 100 Race Director, it seems, will now forever rest with Merilee.
So in January 2017, Life Time called a meeting with Colley and offered him a unique opportunity. They were ready to give the Leadville Qualifying Races their very own management pop-up tent. They needed someone that they could depend on to produce the races the way they had been, and not, according to Colley “goof them up, to keep their identity, keep their tie to Leadville. Me being from Leadville helps,” he concluded. However, it should be noted that since this interview conducted last spring, Colley has since moved to Buena Vista located 30 miles south of Leadville. However, the business opportunity presented to him that day, would be a hard one to turn down, whether you’re a racer or not!
“It was the most exciting 24 hours, when I knew that they offered it to me and it was my decision to finally say yes or no,” Colley enthusiastically recanted. “To be able to say I could literally be my own business owner, and run these things the way I want to run them, and treat people in my own style . . . exciting!”
And so, Youphoria Productions was born. To date not only does Colley have the management contract for the Leadville Qualifying Races, but he’s added more to his portfolio in a short period of time, including a short track race in Austin and the Vail Valor which had its inaugural run under Colley’s new management team last May. Readers may also be interested to know that he is also working with former LT100 MTB Champion Lance Armstrong on a new WEDU Race Series to be rolled out this September in Aspen.
So where does that leave Leadville? Is this a good move for the community? Here’s how Colley categorized the shift:
“It might have worked for the first few years, with Leadville operating a bit like an island. It had enough power and clout, and that brand was strong enough that it would never really get changed by all of that. Well, it started getting changed to where – I’m not going to say good or bad, well, maybe not good for Leadville, but for the actual race itself and for the bigger picture of where they want to take it, yes it’s good.”
However, this season, Life Time’s model of race building is raising a few eyebrows, particularly as rumors of the corporate giant sniffing around for other possible acquisitions, snort more loudly than usual. In the end, it could be Leadville that serves as the example as to how that looks for small town races.
For example, in the past, the lottery to get into the Leadville Trail 100 was not only one of the most coveted, but also one of the most respected. Stories of returned checks along with rejection notices were legendary, and leveled the playing field for many. Even 6x LT100 MTB Champion Dave Wiens jokingly recalled his rejection letter in the 2009 movie “Race Across The Sky!
But even well into the golden years of 2008 and 2009, the LT100 was not seduced by fame or fortune, as racers held their breath every January, hoping their name would be drawn in the official lottery.
Today, Life Time’s approach to the LT100 MTB lottery has an even has a bigger ulterior motive beneath its wings, as described by Colley: “Me and Life Time tried for 6 years to figure out a way to make those qualifiers more about the race, than about qualifying for this race. Because we wanted for those to be stand-alone.”
In other words, if for some reason they were no longer a qualifier for the LT100, or “something else happened,” these newly-developed, qualifying races, which stood on the shoulders of the Leadville name, could become stand-alone events, so that Life Time could still make money off them.
But, you see faithful readers, Leadville has its own magic, as evidenced by the next question’s answer. So what percent of those racers in the Qualifying Races have their eye solely on the prize for that slot. 75%!
“It’ still about the qualifier, it’s still about getting that coin at the end,” explains Colley. “It’s amazing; the strength of this race is crazy!
Even so, one down side to the qualifiers, reported by Colley was that the lottery numbers for the LT100 MTB had decreased.
“When people have an option to go race, to get into it (the LT10 MTB), they don’t need to worry about getting into the lottery. So it kinda was a little counterproductive at the same time. We worried about it all the time,” states Colley describing his six years at the helm of the LT100. “How is our lottery doing? Where is it sitting?”
So how many lottery slots are made available through the out-of-town qualifiers? Through race sponsorships? Through special relationships? The world may never know. And to hear Colley describe it, there is no clear answer anymore.
“Well it depends on how many qualified the year before because they can roll over or they can defer. It’s a very fluid thing. But, for example, this year in Austin I have 70 spots available,” says Colley, continuing with, “the entry point used to be one direction, now you can just sit at home watch the lottery tick by and say, nope I’m just going to put all my eggs in one basket and if I do well in Austin, I’ll be there, and if I don’t, I’ll try next year. Or maybe they’ll just decide to hop over to Willington or Tahoe. We have a few athletes that do more than one qualifier.”
So then, the question seemed to beg, for the average Jane-cyclist going through the lottery process, have the odds diminished? Yes, probably so, Colley reported, adding, “and then there’s the whole deferment issue. People that were in last year and didn’t get to make it to the race, they can defer to 2019.” Huh? Yes, even the trail to the start-line seems a bit muddied.
Regardless, come Saturday, Aug. 11, hundreds and hundreds of cyclists will clip-in to set sail on what’s continually considered to be the “race that changes your life.” And, perhaps, the same can be said for the thousands of Leadville residents, many of whom will still show up at the finish line to cheer on their neighbors, their friends, their families. And as they wait to encourage that last guy across the finish line, they still might be holding more questions, than answers about what the future holds for their “Race Across The Sky,” but it won’t stop them from saying “Welcome Back to Leadville! We’re glad you made it home!”