Racers endure 100 miles of Rocky Mountain terrain while climbing 15,600 feet to the finish line by foot or bike. The “Race Across the Sky,” also known as the Leadville Race Series, challenges thousands of athletes every year.
This year, two Native athletes have added their name to the list of finishers and have earned the race’s momento: a silver and gold buckle.
Randy John Jr. is a Diné cycler and Daniel Madalena is an ultrarunner from Jemez Pueblo who competed in separate events at different times in August and both finished with time to spare.
Going into his August 17th race, Madalena’s training consisted of running through his ancestor’s terrain in Jemez Pueblo, New Mexico. He hired a coach and never ran more than 32 miles at a time. He remembers stopping by his grandpa’s house and hearing stories about his community’s long tradition of running.
“Our culture and tradition is centered in running,” Madalena said. “Throughout the race, I felt like I was well prepared especially living in Jemez. It’s pretty easy to get to some of these higher elevations.”
He channeled this energy during his 100-mile trail run in Leadville, Colorado, which is nearly two hours southwest of Denver. He completed his run in 29 hours and 27 minutes.
Madalena remembers one of the biggest challenges of the course was through a back trail called Hope Pass. It is a 5-mile incline that starts at 9,200 feet and ends at 12,600 feet.
“I really had to dig deep there… my goal was just one foot in front of the other,” he said.
He endured with the help of his crew who consisted of family, friends and children. While running he met them regularly at aid stations where they helped him fuel his body. He was drinking water as often as he could and ate regularly.
At mile 38, he had some Chinese food.
At mile 60, he had half of a hamburger.
At mile 78, he had a bologna sandwich.
“You’re just trying to get as many calories as possible so that your body doesn’t crash,” Madalena said.
After Madalena’s arduous journey, he was greeted by members of his community when he returned home, where he serves as a tribal official. He was asked to run into his village’s plaza where 50 to 100 community members greeted him.
People said prayers and congratulated him. This made him feel many emotions but there was in particular: “I’m happy I could inspire a whole Pueblo to keep going again,” he said.
Moving forward, Madalena plans on running Leadville again and even has his eyes set on the 100-mile Western States Endurance Run in California.
Randy John Jr.
On August 10, 2019, Randy John Jr., Diné, had exactly 12 hours to bike through 103 miles of the Rocky Mountains. And he did, even while the odds were stacked against him.
John Jr. had attempted to get into the race for nine years -- a race so competitive they receive more than 60,000 applications to get in -- before he was granted the opportunity to compete. Last year, his number was chosen through a lottery system but he broke his arm two weeks before the race in a cycling crash.
At the starting line, he found himself at the back of the pack because he was a first-timer. First time riders are put in the back of the pack while previous winners and professional riders are granted seniority.
Because of this, the first 20-miles of his race meant navigating through bike traffic as riders were so close to one another that they were quite literally handlebar to handlebar. People told him he had a 30 percent chance of making the first cut off time because he would have to work his way up.
And then he pushed through the remaining 83 miles until he saw the finish line. In total, John Jr.’s ride was 10 hours and 52 minutes, beating the cut off time of 12 hours.
To his surprise, he still had energy when he completed his ride. John Jr.’s crew was able to monitor his heart rate through a mobile app. They saw that he was very relaxed through the whole race and hardly had an increased heart rate.
“I was shocked,” John Jr. said. “I was really shocked that I was perfectly fine.”
He credits his accomplishments to his training and preparation.
Just 14 years ago, John Jr. found himself at his heaviest, weighing 305 pounds. He decided to change his habits after a life-changing doctor’s appointment. He recalls going through his cupboards and throwing away processed foods and replacing them with natural food.
It was shortly after this when he started taking riding seriously.
Since then, he has used his training as a way to meet new people, and spend time with loved ones. While training, he would ride with family, including his nieces and nephews and his friends, James Junes of the James and Ernie comedian duo. Once, John Jr. and Junes even collaborated to form a riding team, the Hogan Heroes, at a 24-hour race in Gallup. Their team did well and was the first Native team to take the podium at the event.
John Jr. says his backstory made his accomplishment of crossing the finish line at Leadville that much more meaningful.
He also had the opportunity to meet the founder of the Leadville race who was “really pumped” that John Jr. was Native. He shared that he hopes there is a bigger push to get Native people to participate in the future.
He plans to continue competing in the race series with a bit of help.
“It’s not just me running, it takes a whole crew,” he said.
Aliyah Chavez, Kewa Pueblo, is the Rowland and Pat Journalism Fellow at Indian Country Today and a reporter-producer. Her email is: firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter: @aliyahjchavez