It started with a broken leg — his own.
The vision and inspiration for what is now the Endurance Santa Fe Mountain Races began the moment Peter Olson was working on his City Different home, lost his footing on a ladder, got his leg tangled on the way down and suffered a gruesome injury that led to two surgeries, nine screws, a plate or two, three months on crutches and years of rehab.
An avid distance runner who spent years traveling long and far to find trails to challenge him, he used the down time to hatch a plan for an endurance race in his own back yard. While working out the kinks from that fractured leg, his dream became a reality pretty quickly.
A frequent visitor to Ski Santa Fe, he limped into their offices on New Year’s Day half a decade ago and asked if they’d be interested in helping him start a race unlike anything New Mexico has ever seen.
Now in its fourth year, the Endurance Santa Fe Mountain Races — a mind-numbing list of events that features a 50-mile run, a 50-kilometer race, a 13-mile trek and a one-mile sprint — are bigger and more popular than ever.
As of Thursday’s entry deadline, 270 people had signed up for Saturday’s all-day affair that had a 4 a.m. start.
“The first thing you need to know is that our 50-mile and 50-K versions are the hardest races you’ll find in New Mexico,” Olson said via satellite phone from the top of the Sangre de Cristos on Friday afternoon. “These are literally some of the hardest races anywhere, not just here in the state.”
The main race climbs from a starting elevation of 10,000 feet to more than 12,000 in just the first three miles. The entire race has a combined 12,000 feet of climbs before runners finally reach the finish line.
Compare that to the wildly popular Leadville 100 in Colorado, a challenging 100-mile race that has about 11,000 feet in climbs in a distance that’s twice as far.
“What kind of people compete in a race like this?” Olson said, repeating a question he’s probably been asked more times than he can count. “Crazy people to begin with. People that are not only physically fit but mentally strong because when you’re out on a trail for 14, 16, 18 hours it takes a very strong mind to stay involved, to overcome the demands and not quit.”
The elite runners in Saturday’s 50-mile race will hit the finish line in 11 hours, Olson said. Most will take between 14 and 16 hours.
And remember — the event is being run at a minimum of 10,000 feet. Even this time of year you can pass by the occasional snow drift or mountain stream of snowmelt.
While the majority of the runners hail from within the state, the rock stars of Saturday’s event are from the Copper Canyon region in Mexico.
Two members of the Tarahumara indigenous people of northwestern Mexico include Arnulfo Quimare and Manuel Luna, distance runners famed for competing in events wearing sandals made of recycled tires. They’ll both compete on Saturday.
Each was featured prominently in the popular 2009 book Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen, by Chris McDougall.
Perhaps the biggest benefit to Saturday’s race is the collaborative effort between the U.S. Forest Service, Ski Santa Fe and the race organizers. The three entities came together to map out the longer legs, much of which trace trails not currently listed on the inventory provided by the service.
“They’re there; they’re just historical trails not on their inventory,” Olson said. “We worked with the forest service to identify the trails we could use and, really, they were a huge help in making it work.”