Gale Bernhardt is all smiles after finishing the 2009 Leadville 100 Mountain Bike Race.
I've been hooked on endurance sports since 1986. In that time, I've had the good fortune to participate in, and be a spectator at, some fantastic events.
When asked to boil it down to my top 10, it was tough. Be forewarned that some of these races fill up some seven months to a year in advance. If you want to experience any of these fun events, look into registering soon.
This event was one of my first triathlons, and it is still going strong. One of the things that makes this event special is that the organizers actually cool down the historic Glenwood Springs Hot Springs pool so that triathletes can begin the race with an open-water-style pool swim.
There was a bagpipe musician playing the pipes in a location tucked away beside the trail. It seemed magical.
Heats of racers swim circular laps in the historic pool, which measures 405 feet long and 100 feet wide. What also makes this event special is the post-race party, featuring a barbecue and awards ceremony. The food and hand-crafted awards have always been top notch.
Yes, you might say this is my hometown favorite, but the event has earned its spot on this list. The current swim begins in Lake Loveland, with perfect views of Longs Peak and Mount Meeker toward the west. The bike ride is a challenging loop to Horsetooth Reservoir and back, one of my regular (and favorite) local rides. Made for strong cyclists, the course is a hilly 30 miles.
The event finishes with a flat run, great food and awards in the amphitheater. Athletes can go for a cool-down walk in Benson Sculpture Park that showcases beautiful pieces from the artist community living in or visiting Loveland. Artists showcase work in these parks each August at America's largest outdoor sculpture shows Loveland Sculpture Invitational and Art in the Park.
The first time I did this race was in 2005, several years before Lance Armstrong made it one of his favorite races. With a cut-off time of 12 hours, I managed to score the "Last Ass Up the Pass" trophy with a blazing time of 11:59:55. Yes, a five-second, by-the-lycra-threads-of-my-shorts victory.
This narrow victory made me want to go back for more. I not only wanted more racing, where the majority of the event is held at altitudes above 10,000 feet, but more of the mountain town. After completing the 2005 event I read several books on the rich history of Leadville; which made me further respect the town, the people and its contributions to the state of Colorado, as well as the nation's history.
Some names of famous people getting their start in Leadville, or having Leadville significantly influence their course in life, include J.J. & (The Unsinkable) Molly Brown, H.A.W. (Horace) and Baby Doe Tabor, Daniel Guggenheim and Charles Boettcher. Of course the riches of gold and silver brought outlaws and lawmen the likes of the Younger Gang, Doc Holliday, Bat Masterson and the Earp brothers.
Honoring that rough and tumble history, race organizers give out great prizes that include ore carts, mining pans with real gold dust, belt buckles, pendants for women, whiskey and a small taste of the wild west via mountain bike. "You're better than you think you are, you can do more than you think you can."
I've done the 30K and the 50K events and both begin with a bus ride to the starting location. Both groups are dropped off at the same location, but 50K racers do a 20K loop in the mountains before heading back to Dayton on the same route as the 30K racers.
The route includes jeep roads, single-track trail, running through fields of thigh-deep wild flowers and finishes on a dirt road that takes you back to the park where you can soak tired legs and feet in the river. The years that I ran the event, there was a bagpipe musician playing the pipes in a location tucked away beside the trail. It seemed magical.
A group of us did a lot of training runs together, and I ran the entire 50K with a friend of mine. Though she is a much better runner than I, she was willing to hang with me. This event made me realize how much I enjoyed training for long endurance events with friends. It really is all about the journey.
5. Ironman — Multiple events world-wide, with the crown jewel in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii
Ironman-distance racing was made iconic world-wide via the television coverage of the Hawaiian Ironman event held in Kailua-Kona. The Ironman family has since expanded to host multiple events around the world.
In the mainstream sports world, it is arguably the accomplishments of Ironman athletes that associate the word "triathlon" with challenge, toughness, pain, endurance, overcoming obstacles and success. If you don't want to put yourself through racing one of these events, I highly recommend watching the start of one of these races and then return to watch the last hour of finishers.