More than two decades ago, six college kids from the Boston area headed West to strike it big and, thanks to savvy planning and a string of daring escapades, returned home with a lucrative haul.
Their destination: Vegas. Their game: blackjack. Their prize: cold, hard cash. Their university: M.I.T.
Last winter, four college kids from a university a mile away hatched a new plan to head West in pursuit of a hefty reward. Their game was far different – no cards to count; the number 25 more important than 21. The prize they sought amounted to little more than a partial wardrobe upgrade and a lifetime of personal pride.
There is gold to be found in the mountains in and around Leadville, Colo., but it must be earned. Specifically, a big, gold belt buckle is the reward for completing the Leadville Trail 100-mile endurance run in less than 25 hours. A smaller, silver buckle is awarded for completing the course in less than 30 hours, but the bulky and bright gold buckle carries special allure in the ultrarunning world.
Gold buckles were on the minds of Harvard Medical School student Maartje Bastings, Harvard Graduate School of Engineering student Max Darnell, Harvard Business School student Charles Hornbaker, and Harvard Law School student Kyle Pietari last winter when they began plotting their Leadville adventure.
After months of diligent preparation, on Aug. 20-21 they put their plan into action.
The Allure of Leadville
One need not be an ultrarunner to understand some of the allure of the Leadville 100. The drive into town via Highway 91 from Copper Mountain or Highway 24 from Buena Vista typically takes care of that. Surrounded by snow-capped peaks, many of them pressing higher than 14,000 feet into the sky, the views are as breathtaking as the mountain air in the highest incorporated city in the United States.
An easy stroll down Harrison Ave., Leadville’s main drag, quickly reveals local gems that make this quaint mountain town feel like home. Leadville locals can be seen sewing sweatpants, hats and pullovers at Melanzana; the coffee is always hot, the pastries fresh, and the service friendly at City on A Hill; the beer is cold and the views spectacular from the outdoor seating area at Tennessee Pass Café.
Yes, the allure of Leadville is strong.
For ultrarunners, however, there’s more to it than the scenery. There’s the personal challenge that the “Lead” part of Leadville subtly implies. The Leadville 100 is known as “The Race Across the Sky” for a reason. With a low point of 9,200 feet and a high point of 12,600 feet, a runner’s lungs may be challenged more than their legs.
Pietari and Hornbaker both had fallen for Leadville’s temptation before. Pietari completed the race in 2012, 2013, and 2015. He finished fourth overall in 2013 and was the runner-up last year. Hornbaker finished Leadville in 2012 and 2013.
For the four Harvard students, Leadville in many ways was at the very root of their friendship.
“I met Kyle three years ago at a running group called Harvard on the Move during the first few weeks of graduate school,” Hornbaker said. “We both showed up wearing Leadville 100 shirts, so we immediately started talking about the race.
“I met Max at Harvard on the Move also last year as he was prepping to run the Vermont 50. Max and Maartje had met in a similar way—they both showed up to a meeting wearing Leadville gear.”
It was during a random run at the Blue Hills Reservation that Bastings recalled the group met up and began the journey toward Leadville. Pietari and Hornbaker had Leadville racing experience, and Bastings had been tempted to take a crack at the course since serving as a pacer at the Leadville 100 in 2014.
It didn’t require arm-twisting to get the whole group on board, Hornbaker recalled.
“When it got close to the lottery this year in December, all of us started talking more about doing Leadville,” he said. “Kyle and I got in (through) the lottery, and Max and Maartje were both determined to get in through the other options. By spring this year, we started linking up for long training runs, most of which had Leadville as a focus of conversation.”
A Plan, Followed by Preparation
With Pietari and Hornbaker already in the race-day lineup via the lottery system, it was up to Darnell and Bastings to find a way to join them.
Darnell earned his spot in the Leadville field in April by placing third overall at the Austin Rattler 66K in Austin, Texas, which was a Leadville qualifier race. Bastings secured her position in the race by attending the Leadville Trail 100 Run Training Camp in June.
All four were in the field.
The months between securing their spots at the starting line and actually standing there ready to start the race included a few long runs together, but their training paths often diverged as graduations, jobs, family and moving impacted their race preparation.
Pietari graduated from Harvard Law, moved with his family to Colorado, and headed to California to race the Western States 100 where he earned an eighth-place finish. While away from Boston, he eagerly anticipated the reunion with his friends in the mountains and found inspiration by following their training from a distance.
“It was really motivating to know that people I’m close to were training hard for the same race, and that I would see them on race day,” Pietari said. “Following friends on Strava genuinely makes a difference in how hard I train, in that when I see friends pushing the envelope, I’m more motivated to do so, as well—especially when I know they’re training for the same race I’m training for!”
Hornbaker finished his MBA at Harvard and then headed to Utah where he tackled the rare and brutally difficult Speedgoat Triple – a Vertical Mile race (6.4 miles and 5,400 feet of vertical gain) and a downhill-only Quadbanger (10.5 miles and 10,400 feet of vertical loss) sandwiched around the Speedgoat 50K which includes 11,800 feet of climbing.
“The three races were an excellent mix of sustained uphill hiking and technical downhills, all in an awesome location out near Salt Lake City,” Hornbaker said. “I took a nasty fall about halfway through the Quadbanger, and ended up limping it to the finish with some serious cuts and scrapes. I would highly recommend that race series—either on its own or as a Leadville workup!”
Darnell spent his summer training, and also provided pacer duties for his friend, Jake Dissinger, at the Vermont 100. Meanwhile, Bastings relocated to Leadville for two months where she fully immersed herself in the local community and culture while using library and coffee shop WiFi to work remotely.
“I think this benefitted me enormously both in getting fully acclimatized to 10,200 feet, and to be able to train on the course and getting quality vert in,” she said. “Vert training in Boston is doable, but can be challenging. When you live in Leadville the problem is not where to get vert, but how long and steep you want it.”
Bastings tackled Leadville’s Silver Rush 50-miler as a training race in early July, and then met up with Pietari and Hornbaker to travel to Silverton, Colo., to crew/pace at the Hardrock 100, bagging a few mountain peaks along the way. Later, she and Hornbaker tackled the Manitou Incline on Pikes Peak, and then Darnell joined them to conquer the Maroon Bells Four-Loop Pass.
“(There were) just so many great days on the trails with friends that made this summer special,” Bastings said.
After a summer spent making memories in the mountains, race day arrived. Bastings, Darnell, Hornbaker and Pietari were healthy, focused, and ready to execute their plan. There were gold buckles to be had, and 25 hours to earn them.
“One thing we knew for sure,” Bastings said, “in order to run well, everybody had to run their own races.”
That’s exactly what they did.
Pietari’s ability to earn one of Leadville’s big buckles for a sub-25-hour finish wasn’t in question. He owned three of them already including for his second-place finish at the 2015 race in 18:16:03. Whether he would earn another hinged on overcoming an illness two weeks before the race.
Although he was still battling a sore throat on race day, Pietari found himself near the front of the pack, and he raced in the top five for most of the day. He battled nausea during the return trip over Hope Pass, threw up twice, and then fought through dehydration and calorie depletion for the remainder of the race. He threw up again with 11 1/2 miles to go, but pushed hard to the finish line.
Pietari’s bib No. 2 – which he received for placing second a year ago to Ian Sharman – proved to be prophetic as he once again placed second to Ian Sharman, 35, of Bend, Ore. Sharman claimed the victory in 16:22:39, while Pietari crossed the finish line as the runner-up in 18:16:48 – just 45 seconds away from matching his time from the year before.
Hornbaker knew the thrill of earning a gold buckle, as well as the nightmare scenario of chasing cutoffs on the cusp of not finishing. He finished the 2012 race with barely 20 minutes to spare, and then secured a big buckle in 2013 as he finished in 24:34:58. His Speedgoat-tested climbing strength and prior knowledge of the course benefitted Hornbaker as he put together a strong first 60 miles. He completed the double-traverse of Hope Pass and returned to Twin Lakes at mile 60 within 13 hours.
“One of the best things about Leadville is that you get to see everybody on the course at some point,” Hornbaker said. “It was awesome to see Kyle coming back up Hope Pass just minutes behind Ian Sharman, and I saw Max and Maartje coming down as I was heading back up. I know that things can change significantly after the halfway point, but it was great to see that everyone was still there and looking strong.”
Hornbaker’s race took a difficult turn during the second half as stomach problems threatened to derail him. Nausea forced him to slow to a walk, and he credited his pacers, Chad Morgan and Ryan Chang, with pushing Hornbaker through what he described as “the most miserable miles of my life” en route to the finish line which he crossed in 23:08:00, good for 41st overall.
“Once I finished, I quickly got an update from my crew on when Max and Maartje had hit the last aid station,” Hornbaker said. “Once I knew they were through May Queen, I was sure they would make it under 25 hours, so I insisted on waiting around until they came through.”
Sure enough, Darnell and Bastings were having themselves fine races.
Darnell put together a remarkably consistent first half of his first 100-mile race, reaching the turnaround at Winfield in 10:18:06 and in strong contention to earn his sub-25-hour buckle. It took him nearly four hours to make the return trip over Hope Pass, but upon doing so he returned to his consistent ways and began closing the gap on Hornbaker. While Darnell never caught his friend, Hornbaker greeted Darnell at the finish line upon completing the race in 23:50:02, good for 56th place overall.
Meanwhile, Bastings was crafting an impressive race of her own. The climbs up Hope Pass in each direction cost her quite a bit of time – “It took me two hours to get up the front side, 30 minutes longer than in training, and I just could not get myself to move faster,” she said – but she made up for it by pounding the downhills. She made up an hour between Twin Lakes inbound at mile 60 and Outward Bound inbound at mile 76.
Bastings was ready to battle for the final 24 miles, starting with the Powerline climb.
“We totally hammered Powerline up and down, and that for me was the changing point in the race,” she said. “I stood on Powerline summit just before midnight and knew that I could get the final 18 miles down in five hours to make the big buckle, as long as we kept running.”
That’s exactly what she and her pacer did, dropping the pace below 15-minute miles until three miles remained. At that point, Bastings hiked the final stretch—until she hit the red carpet when she ran across the finish line—and completed the race in 24:15:50, good for 71st overall and 12th-place female honors.
“For me, the red carpet wasn’t the moment of realization and relief, it was making the turn three miles earlier onto the Boulevard,” she recalled. “I had been chasing the 25-hour cut since Hope Pass and ran the flatter sections and downhills as fast as possible. We limited our aid station time and I don’t think I sat down for more than five minutes total in the last 40 miles. With three miles left and 90 minutes until 25 hours, I knew we had the big buckle. Walking on the boulevard under the almost full moon in the middle of the night was my special moment. The red carpet and my team at the finish was the icing on the cake.”
The next morning, Pietari, Hornbaker, Darnell, and Bastings regrouped at the Lake County High School gymnasium for the awards ceremony where they were among 340 finishers who would receive their belt buckles. Of those, 86 would receive the huge gold buckles for finishing in less than 25 hours.
Four of those big buckles were handed to the friends from Harvard.
They reminisced about the race and shared their personal battle stories; they posed for plenty of photos; they were proud of each other.
“This year, my own achievement was far less of a big deal to me,” Pietari said. “I was just as excited that all three of my friends earned big buckles as I was about the fact that I had an awesome finish!”
Hornbaker shared similar sentiments, noting that it was a perfect conclusion to a journey shared among friends. Nine months after hatching their bold plan to take on Leadville and come away with a gold buckle haul, they executed that plan to perfection.
“Seeing (Max and Maartje) both finish was an amazing feeling. It was so great to have such a positive outcome after so many months of talking, training, and planning. Kyle had an incredible race again as well, so the awards ceremony was a total celebration,” Hornbaker said. “It was great to know that even though we will all be going separate ways after Leadville, the race tied us all together in a very special way.”