By Hal Walter
In my book, what really sets the greatest athletes apart from the really good ones is what they do off the field of play with the skills they developed through sports.
Recently, when I was asked to introduce my good friend Tom Sobal to the Leadville-Lake County Sports Hall of Fame, I began to research his athletic accomplishments in order to prepare a short speech. The thing most striking to me was how Tom’s community efforts were just as impressive as his achievements in running, pack-burro racing and snowshoeing.
Many years ago I wrote in Rocky Mountain Sports magazine that like many other explorers before him, Tom Sobal rolled into Leadville over Mosquito Pass. He pitched his tent in the highest valley in the Arkansas River drainage and he began prospecting.
It was 1985, and Tom had only a mountain bike, a tent, a sleeping bag and a few clothing items. He wasn’t looking for gold or silver. He was looking for a community where he could be himself and hone his skills as a mountain runner. He found that in Leadville, and he later extended this community down the Arkansas River to include Buena Vista and Salida, where he lives today. Today his influence reaches far beyond.
I first met Tom in the Leadville Boom Days Pack-Burro Race about a year after he arrived in Leadville. He was a bit of a mystery, but some whispered of his accomplishments at the Kendall Mountain Run in Silverton and at the Pikes Peak Marathon.
In only a short time, everyone in the sport would know about Tom Sobal and his burro, Maynard. His accomplishments would become fully legendary as he racked up 11 total World Championships at Fairplay. He won more than 55 races in his burro-racing career and once won 27 straight races. Because of record-keeping issues, we are not sure exactly how many Triple Crowns Tom won, but it’s safe to say he won more than anyone else likely ever will again. He holds the records on every triple crown pack-burro course including a 3:44 performance at Fairplay and a 2:27 time at Leadville that both likely will stand the test of time.
And all the while he continued to make his mark in other sports including trail-running and snowshoe racing. He won the 100-mile Iditashoe snowshoe race in Alaska one winter, set the record for the marathon on snowshoes running 26.2 miles in 3:06, and won more than 130 snowshoe races in all. As a mountain and trail runner, Tom won more than 85 races ranging from three to 35 miles, and was a three-time member of U.S. National World Cup Mountain Running Team. He placed 11th in the inaugural Leadville Trail 100 Mountain Bike, carrying his bike at a run for several miles due to a mechanical issue.
Tom also organized and served as race director for the Turquoise Lake 20K Trail Run and Turquoise Lake 20K Snowshoe Run, as well as other local events. He served on numerous sports governing panels.
From the beginning I found a kinship with Tom, despite what was a fairly intense competition between us out on the burro race courses.
I also have great memories of more leisurely activities with him when I lived in Leadville, including pitching horseshoes, and incompetently batting balls back and forth at each other in a totally non-competitive manner at the Leadville tennis courts. More important, we shared a love for the outdoors, the mountains and the ecosystems here.
These days I’m big on a concept I call “Endurance for Life.” This means taking skills acquired through sport and putting them to good use in the real world. This includes the concept of endurance – both physical and mental-emotional – and may also include the lost arts of patience and humility.
When I think in these terms, I think of Tom Sobal as a true champion. There’s a lot more to Tom than meets the eye, and a lot more than his athletic accomplishments say about him.
Many don’t know Tom was instrumental in developing the snowshoe racing program for the Special Olympics, paving the way for hundreds of neurodiverse and intellectually different people from all over the world to participate in this sport. For 20 years and over the course of five World Games, Tom worked to provide this opportunity to 25 to 30 delegations of athletes from the far-flung corners of the world.
Tom has also been a champion advocate for hikers, mountain bikers, trail runners, equestrians, hunters and fishermen and others who enjoy non-motorized trail activities. Through his work with the Quiet Use Coalition, hundreds of miles of trails in the Pike-San Isabel National Forest have been protected for our enjoyment.
Recently Tom spearheaded a lawsuit against the U.S. Forest Service challenging its decision to open up hundreds of miles of trails to motorized travel without proper environmental analysis and review. That lawsuit, which spanned several years, has ended in a settlement, and Tom will now be negotiating with forest officials to review these decisions and hammer out a new plan for a travel management on these 500 routes which comprise 700 miles of trails on 2 million acres of public land.
All outdoor sports enthusiasts have a good reason to thank Tom for this.
On a personal note, I have to say that Tom is a champion friend. In recent years I have been taking my son Harrison to a day camp in Salida. While Harrison attends the camp, Tom and I head out on the nearby trails. It’s just like we were back in Leadville, rambling about the back-country, talking about our lives and challenges with family and work life, pointing out plants and geology. Nothing has changed and for that I am grateful.
In the final analysis, Tom Sobal is World Champion athlete and human being. It was a pleasure to officially induct him into the Leadville/Lake County Sports Hall of Fame.
Hal Walter is a 30-year resident of Custer County and the author of Full Tilt Boogie – A journey into autism, fatherhood, and an epic test of man and beast.