Running: Bolder Boulder Blues
This Witness Post focuses on a 10K race in Boulder, Colorado. It also outlines my near melt down in the first few miles of the race…
When first arriving in the Denver Airport in May, 2011, visitors were greeted by natives wearing t-shirts that taunted: Sea Level is for SISSIES! Although I considered myself pretty macho at the time, compared to many Boulderites, I now officially admit I am a sissy. I made it to the finish line of Bolder Boulder, and I had no near-death experience, but it was an exhausting lung work-out and an overly traumatic race nonetheless.
On Your Mark
After coercing Tracy Hooper, our daughter, Kathleen, Tracy’s brother, Tom Bagli, and his wife, Carrie, to join us for a great day in the Colorado Flat Irons. The Baglis’ who live in Boulder, were race veterans and they graciously agreed to host us for the weekend. Our daughter, Kathleen, joined us for some great outdoor exercise on a running weekend in Boulder. The story starts a few years earlier however, when we attended a Bagli high school graduation.
There are a lot of famed runners from Colorado, though I had never gotten around to running a race there. There are lots of reasons to PASS this state, the main one is the high altitude. Another reason is the short season. But athletes from around the country flock to Colorado Springs and the Olympic training center. Runners flock to Boulder for its famous 10,000 meter race, known as the Bolder Boulder.
Hearing about Bolder Boulder from Michael Deegan, a colleague of mine at TESSCO Technologies in Hunt Valley, Maryland, he ran the foot race in the early 1990’s. Michael had a framed poster from the race prominently displayed on his office wall. When I asked him about it, he said that it was terrific and summarized it for me roughly as follows: “There was nothing like the feeling of running into Folsom Stadium. It is a great thrill to be cheered on by people lining the streets. You run up and down the hills of Boulder, the people come out to the sidewalks and offer refreshments, and it feels like a party. Then Air Force jets ‘fly over’ CU stadium at the end.” When I heard that the race had been inspired by great Yale marathoner, Frank Shorter, I made a private pact that someday I would get around to it and run that one. It had a reputation of attracting some world-class runners, so it seemed fitting that I see what all the buzz is about.
On Labor Day 2011, after we attended the graduation of Alison Bagli from Boulder High, we drove to the Denver airport and saw lots of people in running clothes arriving at the departing terminals. There were a series of runners who had just completed the Bolder Boulder race. A few were on our plane flying back to Portland. That said to me, that if I had run the race in the morning, I could have finished in time to catch a flight back to the West Coast, and arrived back home at a decent hour that night. Now there’s a great idea!
It was such a great idea, I quietly schemed to have the Hooper & Bagli families run the race the next year. There was one problem: I should have fully disclosed the dates and confirmed a commitment from the others in the family to join me. I had certainly given adequate NOTICE to the family. But asking, “Isn’t that a great idea?” twelve months before a race, is different than getting a commitment. A commitment is calling them on the phone, coordinating schedules, arranging for housing, getting the dates set on everyone’s calendars, and paying the entry fees. I went ahead and paid for the entry fees for Kathleen and Tracy and me, but, in hind sight, that did not qualify as an ironclad agreement. I should have known better.
Drum Roll: The Color Run
We arrived in Denver on Thursday night and we found our Fairfield Hotel with ease. Tracy did not want to go to the LaQuinta, because to her it was obviously less sophisticated. I disagreed, but not enough to make a stink. On Friday night we invited our daughter, Kathleen, and some of her friends from the University of Denver to dinner at the Cherry Cricket in Cherry Creek. We ate outside and had great greasy food and soft drinks. We told the college kids that we were paying for food but not beer. They respected our decision and seemed fine with it. Tracy and I had a great time and believe the students did as well.
Many of the students were running the next day in The Color Run, and they were using it as both a fun run and a tune-up for Bolder Boulder. Tracy and I had not heard of the Color Run, so we decided that we had nothing better to do on Saturday morning and drove to City Park to see what the excitement as all about.
Dubbed “The Happiest 5K on the Planet” it is a loud and frenetic celebration of life. We parked a few blocks away and walked with the race participants to the start line for the event. Most participants were dressed in white outfits, including white t-shirts, socks, shoes and head bands. The only color was from the wash-off tattoo announcing the race and gym shorts. We even spotted a bride dressed in a white wedding dress. The Color Run seems to be a trendy way for non-athletes to ease into exercise and to win something. In this case it is great music, a community spirit, and something to laugh about with their friends.
The “color” is from pastel colored corn starch. It is non-toxic and it easily washes off clothes and skin. The race has been run in lots of cities around the country and it whimsically attracts people of all ages to exercise. I have been on a lot of wacky runs in Portland, Oregon, like the Twilight Run, the Bridges Run, and Nike’s Run Hit Wonder. I would go so far as to say that The Color Run is in a group of runs that are part of a social movement. I am not sure exactly where the movement all started, but it seems to have it roots in either the Rock & Roll Marathon series, the famous “Bay to Breakers” in San Francisco, or the many Susan Komen Race for the Cure events in communities around the country. Part exercise, part awareness raising, part fun. From the participants I spoke to, the Color Run attracts people who have always had running some distance on their “bucket list.” This fun run allows them to check off a 5K and to exercise with their neighbors, classmates and friends.
The Color Run is not an endurance test, but is can still be a great challenge to the couch potatoes out there. It is also took place on a weekend that gave me a new found appreciation for people who can run at altitude.
Get Set: The Prep Work
As our New Haven landlord, Stewart English, used to say in his British accent, “It’s all in the PREP work.” He was talking about painting, and explaining why it took him weeks to paint our living room wall, but the point is the same. Most important endeavors take time and preparation. In running, it is about getting your mind and body in shape for the race you are next taking on.
There are a lot of local Oregon runs that people can sign-up for in order to qualify for national races. The good thing about these runs is that most of them are FLAT. Yes, for those who love hills, it is better to run elsewhere, but if you like flat, Portland and Vancouver are ideal. They are also at sea level, so no altitude sickness worries. I ran in the Father’s Day half marathon in Vancouver and the Sauvie Island Fourth of July Half with Tracy and I had a very good run. The July 4th run assumes the name of a local running store, called Foot Traffic, so it is called the Foot Traffic Flat on Sauvie Island.
I was running with my friend, Bruce Bolton, who suggested we use it as a qualifier for the New York Marathon in November, 2012. That sounded good to me, as long as I ran fast enough, that is. For my age group, I had to run the half at a 7:35/mile clip, which was about 0:25/mile faster than I typically ran. Bruce was also trying to help his friend, Kurt to qualify, so we went out fast. In fact is was too fast for Kurt, who faltered in the second mile and never regained his composure. I kept on trucking and enjoyed the conversation with my fellow runners for the entire run. I was able to finish in just enough time to match the mark Bruce Bolton had established for us. I was pleased as punch! And I gloated for a few days. Then I realized that I had to commit to NYC in earnest and I might be able to use the time for some other mile stones I had for myself … like Bolder Boulder!
I wanted a good qualifying time on Sauvie Island so that I could earn a place in the 2012 Bolder Boulder, which is held annually on the Monday of Memorial Day weekend. I signed up our daughter, Kathleen, and my wife, Tracy, for the race, picked out some t-shirt styles and sent them a confirming e-mail. They did not know what the e-mail was all about, but I ASSUMED that they did. Big mistake.
Months later, when I was getting the airlines flights together, they were aghast. “Dad, what do you mean? I am not ready to run a 10K.” I assured Tracy and Kathleen that they would be fine and invited Tracy’s brother, Tom, and his wife Carrie to join us. Tom and Carrie live in Boulder and knew the drill. They were “on board” long before Tracy and Kathleen grew comfortable with the idea. I told them about my daydreaming with Michael Deegan, back in Maryland, and they were unmoved. “That has nothing to do with us,” was the reply. Fair enough, but I thought it would be fun, nonetheless, and I plowed ahead and made reservations.
My planning included arriving a few days early for altitude acclimation. I figured that we would be used to the altitude in three days of so, so with an arrival on Thursday and the race on Monday, that seemed like loads of time to get adjusted. What I did not know was what it would take ME to get acclimated.
I have read those mysterious books about oxygen deprivation and how it plays funny tricks on your brain. In his book, Into Thin Air, John Krakauer describes hypoxia in vivid detail. He goes through the stages of altitude sickness, as it takes over the human brain, how the deprivation of oxygen clouds your judgment and allows you to do things that in your normal mind you would not allow you to do. You take risks, you make mistakes, and you put yourself in life-threatening situations.
I never intend to climb K2 or Everest or any other extremely dangerous peaks in my life. I leave those daring feats to those who are driven to do it, like moths to flame. I admire the New Zealander, Sir Edmund Hillary, and Tensing Norgay, his Everest guide, and all of those bold explorers who have conquered the mountains, but I will not follow in their footsteps. I am happy to sit at a distance, a few mile distance, and imagine their joy. Instead, I typically have oxygen depriving moments in my life that others feel are foolish, like running Bolder Boulder.
More specifically, when I am “at altitude” I exhibit some signs of physical stress: my heart beats faster, my lungs ache, my nose bleeds, my lips get chapped and I get intense headaches. Besides that I feel fine. This time I decided to go on a 6 mile run on Sunday, the day after The Color Run, to test out how I was feeling.
Prelude to the Race
My body seemed to be OK as I ran north on Colorado Boulevard. The air was warm, about 65 F, with no trace of humidity. I took an easy pace in my Sunday run, stopping at a Spot-O-Pot to do my duty, and walking through the Cherry Creek Farmers’ Market to enjoy the scents. My head hurt, my breathing was labored and I needed water. Those are par for the course, so I thought little of it. After all, I was only at 5,280 feet, not 29,002 feet. I ran to a restaurant and met Kathleen and Tracy, who were there for brunch. I arrived in time to have some ice cold water and a warm burrito, which were perfect.
What is in a MILE?
When I was growing up, to me a mile was about the longest distance I could ever run without stopping. Our three daughter’s have confessed to me that they measure their distances to Circle Road in Ruxton, Maryland, which is one mile around. I “forced” our girls to join me for a jog around Circle Road every Saturday, rain or shine, before I headed off to Bellona Avenue and the hills around Charles Street in Baltimore County.
More obviously, a mile is the distance above sea level that Denver, Colorado sits. All the more reason to think about those thousands of feet, either horizontally or vertically. Boulder, Colorado rests 25 miles north of Denver and about 200 feet higher in elevation. No big deal, right? Well, it was for me.
Tracy, Kathleen, and I stayed with Tom and Carrie Bagli the night before the race, because we had heard it was a mad house in downtown Boulder the day of the race. To get from Denver to Boulder city limits and then through town would be a real challenge, no matter how early we left. Instead, we opted to go via free shuttles between the Bagli’s house and the race. We had picked up our t-shirts and numbers the night before, so we felt ready to go.
We caught the shuttle bus and arrived just as the early groups were lining up. I had a colored race number, which indicated that I was with the 7:30/mile runners. I understood that there were plenty of water stops along the route, so I did not carry any water with me.
I was standing next to a woman, who claimed to have driven that morning from Ft. Collins. She said, “This is a great race, because I can get here and home in no time. I have run it about eight times. The course is easy and the people are friendly.” I liked hearing the “course is easy” part, just as the announcer said, “And the 7:30 group is OFF!”
I started off well, the woman from Ft. Collins to my left. I felt pretty strong that first mile and looked around to see some of the spectators as they cheered us on and drank their beverages. As we rounded a corner and headed into mile two, though, I started to have seriously labored breathing. It was as if I were breathing, but getting no benefit from it.
No matter how hard my lungs were working, the oxygen uptake seemed zero. Within the next half mile, my legs started to feel like lead and suddenly went dead. Not literally, but they felt as if they had no energy. My arms were swinging, but they were hanging from my shoulders and not pulling me forward. The gal from Ft. Collins ran ahead of me, keeping up her steady pace. She was not slowing down at all, but I couldn’t help it. I soon felt I had to stop running, or pass out. Hypoxia started setting in. I resorted to walking, quickly, but it was definitely walking. I felt like I was sleepwalking and would fall into delirium if I tried to run more than a mile at a time.
Young girls in tutus and crazy outfits, old gray haired men, moms pushing strollers… they were all passing me. My legs were in molasses and the other runners effortlessly sauntered by me. I was feeling very wimpy.
I kept walking until my heart rate returned to closer to normal and then I started back up running. After another mile, however, I had to stop again. I kept up this pattern until we spotted the CU’s Folsom Stadium and I gave it one final push onto the track and around the infield to the finish line. I walked, limp-kneed into the runner refreshment area, where they were serving bag lunches and beer. I passed on the beer, from fear of passing out.
My time may not sound so bad to a beginner runner, and for a beginner it would be pretty good; however, to my disappointment I finished the Bolder Boulder in 55:19. That time which translates into just under 9 min/mile. The rest of my starting heat, including the woman from Ft. Collins, had finished the race in 1min and 30 seconds per mile faster than I had! I was mortified. Was I in that bad shape? Was I a WIMP after all? As I came back out into the stadium crowd, I gathered my thoughts: I could either sit in the stands by myself for the next hour and beat myself up for running so poorly, or I could run it again and see if it were a fluke.
After eating a bagel slathered with cream cheese and drinking some much-needed water, I decided to go back to the starting line, find Tom and Carrie Bagli and run the race again. I found a CU graduate student who pointed me back through the campus and to the starting line. I found their pace group, but not the Bagli’s. They were the leaders of their pack. I was tucked in the back. The second time around I enjoyed the costumes and the spectators tremendously. I did not run at a 7:30 pace, but I was slightly faster than my original jaunt, which felt somewhat redeeming.
I lamented my situation to a few of the spectators, who said to me: “Hey, buddy, stop whining. At least you beat your age.” I even received a congratulatory letter from Bolder Boulder saying that the top third of runners had “beaten their age”. So I decided to take that as a clue to keep my dissatisfaction quiet. No one else cared. That is until some of Kathleen’s friends, who were not runners, started reciting to me their finishing times: faster than mine. The joys of youth! They had not, however, beaten their ages.
In the end I was too competitive. What could have been a very pleasant run in the sun became a frustrating afternoon panting deeply and counting my excuses. So it goes. As my brother, Laurie says, “Excuses are like armpits, everyone has at least two.” My excuses mounted up: Allergy season, altitude, and sea level-only training…I was a sissy. Its time to get over it.
Sights You See by Running a Second Time
The elite runners are all held back until after the corrals of other runners are finished. The goal is to complete the Bolder Boulder and then to be seated in Folsom Stadium for the world class men and women to run. The race committee broadcasts the elite runners on the Jumbotron, and everyone else can sit and watch the thrilling finish right in front of them.
The race with the elite runners was terrific, as it was a relay race with countries grouped in threes. The US, Mexico, and Canada were matched, while Kenya, Ethiopia, and Egypt were also grouped. This set up a global competition that awarded top honors to the best total time. A novel way to do it, which made it as much about strategy as pure strength and speed. Not surprisingly the African nations won the first place individuals and the first place teams, but the crowd seemed to like the format as much as I did. Plus having Frank Shorter doing color commentary from the infield, was a special treat.
Long Time Sponsor
Frank Shorter graduated from Yale in the class of ’69, which was seven years ahead of me. He was a legend, of course. I used to stand in Yale’s Payne Whitney Gym and look at the college track & field records pained on the walls. Shorter was the captain of the Eli cross-country team (4-time NCAA champion) and he set the Ivy League record in the mile (4:06). He was extraordinarily impressive in the 10,000 meter, winning the NCAA’s four times, and in the Olympic marathon, where he won a gold (’72 Munich) and a silver metal (’76 Montreal). Shorter is also prominently featured in the movie Without Limits, which is the story of Steve Prefontaine (Pre). The two runners trained together before their 1972 and 1976 Olympic trials. They ran “at altitude” in Colorado, because they knew it would make them tougher and in better condition than their counterparts around the world. And Frank Shorter was one of the last people to see Pre, before he tragically died in an automobile accident in Eugene, Oregon in May of 1975.
Unfortunately I did not get the chance to meet Frank Shorter in person. I guess it is just as well, as my time was no barn burner and I would have been embarrassed to share it with him. I will have to wait for the next time. And I will find a way to overcome my “fear of heights” before my next attempt.
The Fly Over!