On top of the world
(All photos courtesy of Life Time)
By Henry Howard
Tamira Jenlink is on top of the world. Or at the very least, living, working and enjoying the beautiful town of Leadville, Colo., which sits at over 10,000 feet of elevation.
Jenlink is the race director for the Leadville Trail Series, a collection of long running and cycling races that were created to save the town when the mines shut down years ago. While LifeTime has become the primary sponsor, Jenlink handles the race logistics, operations and more.
She traces her roots to endurance sports back to her mom who ran marathons.
“As a kid, I honestly did not like running at all,” Jenlink recalls. “I probably liked it OK, but it was that natural division between mother and daughter that probably got in the way. So I veered toward climbing and mountaineering in my young years.”
She also rode mountain bikes and transitioned to 12-hour or 24-hour mountain bike races with friends. “This is kind of fun,” she recalls thinking at the time. “That quickly led to 50-milers and 100-milers with Leadville among others. That became a very clear passion sport for me.”
‘The magic of Leadville’
The race series traces its roots back to 1982 when the Leadville mines suddenly shut down, leading to unemployment and financial stress on the mountaintop town that sits at over 10,000 feet of elevation. Ken Chlouber and Merilee Maupin launched the first 100-mile run as a way to bring tourism, dollars and hope back to the community.
“We've started to really use the phrase, the magic as Leadville and that I think that came from Ken,” Jenlink explains. “I think that really touches it. You will probably get different answers from everybody. For me personally, I think a lot of the magic is the humans here. It has a lot to do with how this community sustains itself. And you have to imagine, that there is a very special human to some degree that lives at 10,152 feet.”
In Leadville, winter typically lasts for nine months.
“That's not for everybody. That takes a special person,” she says. “I've been watching this for the last year in this role and just fascinated at all the people who want to be a part to some degree. You can feel it. And that's an energetic thing. For me, I believe it has a lot to do with what the community creates in terms of being accessible, approachable, warm, hardworking, hard playing, just good, honest humans. Maybe it's the out of reach a little bit of that 10,152 feet just lands for some people in a certain way. But I think it's the community.”
Her path to race directing
Jenlink has a background in experiential education wilderness therapy. She embraces and encourages a life of movement, whether that is pedaling a bike, scaling a mountain, hiking a trail or running freely. Those who are active not only improve their own physical fitness, they also receive a mental boost.
“How does the mind take us in different directions?” she asks. “I’ve found that I am always happier and healthier in my body while moving, whether alone or with my dogs or with other humans. It's a long history. It didn't start with running and mountain biking, but it has been endurance in a lot of ways.”
Jenlink points out how participating in multiple sports helps build overall fitness.
“I'm really a big advocate of the dual or multi-discipline just so we don't overtrain muscles in a certain direction,” she says. “So mountain biking, gravel riding or roads, whatever kind of bike you put in front of me, I'm going to be happy with it. But I use running as a tool for both clearing the mind and aerobic base.”
Jenlink grew up in Wyoming but now lives in Colorado. With easy access to the Great Outdoors, she knows she is fortunate. But wherever you are, she says, there is an opportunity to get outside.
“We live in a world that is so fast-paced, so performance-driven and competitive in a variety of ways. It keeps us in our sympathetic nervous system. I think our connection with outside, whatever it is, is still going to have benefits. And one of those key benefits is helping us disconnect from that fast-paced technological world that keeps us in that sympathetic nervous system and getting into our parasympathetic.
“Our bodies are built to be far more mobile than they are.”
The right mindset
But for Jenlink, it’s not just the physical aspects of living a life of endurance sports. There is a mental component, too, that she embraces. And she passes on her knowledge and experience to others as a mindset coach. She also coaches a team of middle-school mountain bikers.
Our interview took place hours after she had led a training session for her team. She cited a group workout as an example of how challenging it is to stay present.
“I had them do some intervals and some of them asked, ‘How many do we have to do? And how many more?’” she recalls. “It's constantly about this future focus. We should be talking with them about the here and now. We're constantly in the past, in the future. And so some of those pieces played into how I got there.”
Jenlink studied herself, monitoring and learning her own behaviors. She would dive into how she was thinking and performing at mile 10 at a race and mile 80.
“I learned that what I'm thinking plays directly into my capacity in those given moments and that I can shut myself down pretty fast or I can get lost,” she says. “There was always all these things that we focus on that are the reason. I believe that is driven again by our culture to perform and succeed. And if we can't, we're always trying to figure out what either has happened in the past or what's going to happen in the future.”
Jenlink returns to the morning workout with the mountain bike team. She referenced imploring them to focus on the 45-second interval while they are in it.
“That's all I want you to think about — what can you do in this 45 seconds?” she recalls telling them. “And then all of a sudden you're in recovery. And before you know it you are in the next one. But you have to be in this moment. That very simplistic piece impacts our ability to perform no matter whether it's an endurance sports, endurance in our work life, whatever it is.”
Coach. Race director. Athlete. Jenlink is incredibly busy. Yet, she is able to achieve a balance to her life.
“We're all going to get stressed out,” she says. “I'll always be a big advocate of people connecting outside of the natural world.”
She recommends disconnecting from technology, like one’s phone. But understanding when to take that break is challenging.
“Most of us don't have time to think about all those things, right? We're trying to get through life, we're trying to survive.”
When I conducted the interview Jenlink was preparing for a race she was directing the following weekend. Still she had time earlier that day to decompress and reset.
“Finding that pathway to how and where I plug in is really important. Yes, I'm very busy, but I will also take time to ride with my kids. Because that nourishes me. That helps re-center me.”
The Leadville team, made up of sixth- through eighth-graders, also inspires her.
“It is nourishing for me to be out there and see them be excited about being out there and having that access and that opportunity while they'll compete in some races, I think part of what's amazing is just to watch how amazing they are and to be a part of that is completely inspirational. I don't ever walk away not feeling like I got something out of it. And to impart a few tips here and there and watch them employ them. Oh my gosh, it's incredible. And to watch them be kids is incredible too, right? It's just super nourishing on multiple levels to see them and see their eagerness, their excitement the what inspires them, what gets them going and to be a part of their growth. And that just feels like an incredibly humbling experience.”
Supporting the town and race series
Jenlink took over as the race director for the Leadville series about a year ago.
“My interest had a lot to do with the history of this race, of these races in Leadville and what I perceived or perceive as some of the stressors and strains these races create. They were founded out of trying to bring a town that was struggling because the mine closed in 1982 to some economic stability. And they definitely created that opportunity and definitely brought some economic stability to this community. There's also a very rich history and relationship between the race series and the town.”
At the same time, the popularity of the races and surge in visitors can cause a stressor for residents, Jenlink admits. During the 100-mile mountain bike race weekend, the town’s population swells from 3,000 to 9,000.
“While there's economic benefits to it, there's stressors to it too. I love the races. But I'm very interested in also small community and how we bond, how we stay together, how we take care of each other and this community is pretty special that way. The people have done an amazing job. and with everything there's always room for growth and growth often has pain points.”
Race directing has been a learning experience for Jenlink.
“I was coming from a world of feeling like I understood communicating and listening and it's deepened those skills even further, because there's so much that needs to be heard. And there's so much that needs to be brought to the surface and let people have a chance to speak to how all of these events in town impact them. I would say ultimately that my greatest takeaways right now are just being slow and listening and really trying to hear everybody's voice.”
Early in the season, there was an event hosted by the Leadville Legacy Foundation, the nonprofit arm of the race series started by Chlouber and Maupin. Jenlink left the event thinking it was a success as it brought in a range of the town’s residents.
“The people who are already invested or at least open are there, but the people we need to touch are the people who've kind of said, ‘I'm not sure about this in my town.’ So for me, I think that continual learning piece around how to reach them and how to open the doors. So I think I'll be looking at that the rest of my life though. I think that's a part of being a growing human —how to relate with people and how to open those doors.”
Jenlink will use those communication skills as she leads the race series into the future. She does not foresee changing from what has worked well.
“I'm not the person who's after a vision,” she says. “The changes that we're doing now are a lot more about how to address the needs of the community. So that there's a good balance of having those races happening here. So we're not changing anything with the course. We're not adding more events. We're not getting bigger. We're trying to really fine tune what's happening and focus on the here and now but also the impact, the elements. Our focus has been around how to open doors for more community to be involved. How to address things like parking and congestion and traffic.”
“These events have huge imprints,” she says, noting they are aiming for zero waste. “They have huge footprints and all the way from the chips you put at the aid station to the packaging that all the swag comes in. There's all these layers to how we create this footprint and how we hopefully find ways around it. It's more about how can we actually take care of what we have going on and decrease the impact.”
The 2022 season has come to a close. After the harsh winter, Leadville will once again open up to the community of endurance athletes who have saved the town from extinction. There will be elites, weekend warriors and those searching for their stretch goal.
As race director, Jenlink relishes the accomplishments of all the athletes.
“it absolutely moves me every time to tears,” she says. “Sometimes it's just exhilaration, but most of it is a constant awe of watching people push their limits and find that place inside. You see it, you feel it is intangible, but it is unavoidable. The experience is incredible and powerful. To be at that finish line, every chance I get to watch people do that is amazing. It touches me every single time.”