Loopy in Lead King
Shivering in the crisp 36 degree fall air I found myself lined up at the start of the Lead King Loop 25k trail race. Billed the most scenic race in Colorado in 2006, it is also a monster, its 16 miles looping through mountainous terrain in the Maroon-Bells Snowmass Wilderness. With 4,000 feet of climbing, most of it in the first five miles, I admit to being a little nervous too.
As the sun crept down the mountain sides in downtown Marble we were off. The first mile, rounded Beaver Lake, its spectacular views up the Yule Creek drainage a forecast of the beauty to come. This ‘flattish’ half mile section was the short warm-up. Soon enough the rough road raised itself towards the sky, its steepness reducing many, including myself, to a walk. For an hour and 15 minutes the road switch backed its way towards Lead King Divide, alternating between the dappled sunlight of the cool aspen forest and the frosted open meadows. Likewise we mere mortals alternated between an asphyxiating attempt at running and a lung-searing speed hike. Just as I thought my wheels were about to spin wildly off into the forest, I crested the Divide. The elevator shaft had finally delivered me to the penthouse suite of the Elk Mountains. And what a sight it was. The storms of last week had left a mantle of snow on the highest peaks. The undergrowth and leaves were starting to take on their autumnal orange and yellow hues. The sky was a piercing blue and the sun was finally starting to warm my chilled limbs. To top it all off, the trail started to snake its way downwards into sublime Lead King Basin. A huge smile spread across my face as I flew down a few miles of smooth road towards the Crystal River.
After crossing the river on a somewhat precarious log we left the Basin and headed down towards Crystal City.
The road into town (population one) was rocky, loose, steep and hard going. Having passed a few racers on the climb up, I now found them speeding past me on the downhill. I was heartened however when I succeeded in passing an older gentleman in Crystal, although he had actually stopped. Apparently to drink a pale ale, he told me as he later sped on by. Blame for that embarrassing moment I laid entirely on his ‘performance-enhancing fuel’. The last five miles followed a rocky and wet 4WD road back into Marble. Weaving in and out of the puddles, and two and a half hours out of the starting gate, my legs started to complain. But at least the road was relatively flat, and followed the aquamarine waters of the Crystal River providing me with a beautiful distraction to the pain. I crossed the finish line in just under three hours, for about 12th place. So no marble medals for me though I did take full advantage of the racers trough, foraging on bar-b-que pork, cookies and beer. Along with the scenery, the finishers feast is one of the rewards of running such tortuous races. The Lead King Loop is top of my list.