The Golden Leaf Half Marathon is part of a jam-packed weekend in Aspen on Sept 16-17 that includes a mountain bike race, trail run, hot air balloon festival, and Ruggerfest, a big rugby tournament. This weekend had optimal weather for all events, so we decided to check out as much as we could.
A Weekend In Aspen
Aspen is a gorgeous mountain town, and much to the surprise of many, is not all full-length furs and Learjets (although you do see them). There is plenty to do, and much of it can be done cheaply.
First on the agenda for us was the hot air balloon festival (not one of the cheap activities, but still fun). Through our hotel (the comfortable and spacious Residence Hotel right downtown, where owner Terry and her dog, Max, were happy to help), we arranged to have the Unicorn Balloon Company fly us as close to the festival as possible so we could “join” the other balloon pilots in their distance competition. It turned out to be a spectacular way to see Snowmass, as we gently used the frigid morning breeze to work our way down the valley (note to future balloonists – you can’t possible wear too much wool). John, our pilot, was well versed in the stories behind dozens of $10+ million homes we flew over, turning it into a “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” tour. It was also fun to see all the other balloon pilots racing each other down the valley.
Over the next couple of days of “acclimating”, we enjoyed window shopping, driving up to Independence Pass, the Saturday market, and lots of great food that made use of local cooking styles and ingredients. If you don’t mind dropping a few bucks on meals, I recommend Montagna (French/American, and the only restaurant I know that serves a cotton candy course), Cache Cache (classic French bistro), and Syzygy (unique and tasty American/Asian Fusion). For something a bit easier on the checkbook, Poppycocks (breakfast), The Bookstore (amazing vegetarian food in a quaint bookstore setting), and NY Pizza (by the slice!) were all great. At each one of these places, our meals were so tasty we cleaned our plates to the very last crumb. Maybe it’s the altitude?
I should note that Aspen is a SERIOUS dog town. If you have a pooch, bring him or her, and you will pleasantly surprised at how accommodating the local restaurants, hotels, and bars are to our four-legged friends. We probably saw 30 dogs at the Saturday market. Next time, Rocky gets to go!
On Sunday morning, I grabbed a shuttle to SnoMass for the race. I was surprised to see many of the people I met on the bus last year among the 400 participants, including Ross Moody from Austin, TX, Bob MacCloskey from Wilmington, DE, and Colorado-local Tania Pacev. Like many, the wide range of Aspen colors from last year drew us back for more. This year, the aspens were turning a bit later so the colors were more “lime” and “yellow”, but it was still gorgeous.
The weather was clear and already hitting the 60’s as I lined up at the start. I recognized Bernie Boettcher, last year’s winner, lined up right next to TRM Series leaders Dale Reicheneder and Michael Robbert. And per usual in Colorado, a whole bunch of 20'ish speed demons were also ready to roll.
The course quickly separates the “flatlanders” from the “hill people” by starting at 8200 ft elevation and going up 1500 more feet over the first two miles. Within a few minutes, I was gasping and struggling to find a rhythm (maybe two days of beer wasn’t such a good way to acclimate). As I looked down the trail, it was easy to pick out the rest of the flatlanders – we’re the ones weaving back and forth on the trail wheezing like asthmatics. By mile 2, Bernie and four others were already six minutes ahead of me. Amazing!
At the top of the first hill, it flattened out and we all got our bearings. The single track was very technical and had lots of quick turns, so one had to stay on one's toes. I was wearing my short-course trail runners (a pair of inov-8 Mudroc 290’s that a British racer had brought me from the UK) which worked well for accelerating out of the corners. I passed a few people and ended up pacing with Michael Robbert and Lisa Gonzales-Gile. Lisa is one of those uber-tan, uber-toned 40-something Colorado women that don’t even train for races like this and still kick ass. We all traded off the lead as we crossed the many streams and hiked the steep ascents of the course.
At mile 5, the trails began to get less technical as we crossed the barren ski slopes of Buttermilk. Given some room to stretch my stride, I pulled away from Michael and Lisa to try and make up some time from those first two miles. I quickly found myself behind Ernesto Grain, who was pretty close to my pace. But every time I asked to pass, he wouldn’t move! And as if to rub it in, he kept looking back to see where I was. “How rude!”, I thought. That is, until he finally turned around and said, “You look great! Tap me on the shoulder when you’re ready to pass…I have a hearing aid so I can’t always hear from behind”. Hmmm…is there a “biggest jerk” award for this race?
Ernesto and I hung tough through the next 6 miles, with Ernesto setting the pace. The scenery quickly shifted from the white and yellow of deep aspen groves, to the golden grass of the open hills. Although the colors weren’t as rich as last year, there was also considerably less leaves on the trail so you could see what you were stepping on. We passed a few injured runners, reminding us not to do too much sightseeing along the way or pay the consequences. Even when we did pay attention, every five minutes or so one of us would veer off the trail or flail our arms around to try to get balanced again. This was a challenging course!
In the final two miles the trail flattened out, as we crossed a large bridge and headed into the town of Aspen. There were volunteers at every corner, so there was no chance to get lost. My lungs felt sandblasted at this point, but I tried to keep my pace up. I finished in 1:49:08, about 36th place or so. Ernesto, Lisa, Dale were within a few minutes behind me, while Michael Robbert nursed a twisted ankle and came in about 15 minutes later (Michael reports a bad sprain requiring a splint, but is already quick on the recovery). Ross Moody came in just under 2 hours, cutting nearly 10 minutes off of last year’s time (nice work, fellow flatlander!). As I caught up with the other finishers, it was clear there were plenty of crashes along the way. Bernie had taken a full-speed tumble, and was dirty and bleeding at the knees (and in typical Bernie fashion, he still got 3rd overall in 1:29:57, just two minutes off winner Ryan Padilla, who is half his age), and another woman was getting her lip stitched back together. But everyone was smiling and having a good time.
Or maybe those are for runners? Photo courtesy of Christi Dunlap)
As I packed up and headed out, one racer came up and said “congrats on being the second lowlander” and she pointed out that Greg Rhoades from Bloomington, IN, was the only non-CO runner to finish ahead of me. Dale (who would be the 3rd lowlander) and I chuckled, but lightheartedly admitted we were outclassed by the insanely fast highlanders of Colorado. Still, it won’t stop me from coming back again next year.
My thanks to Ute Mountaineer, the volunteers of Aspen, and my fellow racers for a great race!