Rickey Gates and his red mustache collected gold Saturday in the 35th annual Golden Leaf Half-Marathon.
Gates, an Aspen High School graduate and globe-trotting professional trail runner, won the 13-mile race from Snowmass Village to downtown Aspen for the first time in his distinguished career.
After a string of four second-place finishes in the Golden Leaf, the 32-year-old Gates won Saturday’s race in 1 hour, 26 minutes, crossing the finish line at Koch Lumber Park with a huge smile under his sweeping, red mustache.
While Gates broke the spell of four second-place finishes, women’s winner Stevie Kremer extended her Golden Leaf streak with her fourth career victory in Aspen — 1:37, good for eighth overall.
“I felt really good the whole way,” said Kremer, an all-around endurance athlete based in Crested Butte. “This was a great race.”
Kremer, who recently returned from a season racing in Europe, adjusted her tactics a bit in her fifth Golden Leaf race, sponsored again this year by the Ute Mountaineer, Salomon and the city of Aspen.
“I have a tendency to go out too strong, especially if it is steep, because I prefer the uphill,” Kremer said. “ I think I took it a little easier at the start, and so the rest of it was smooth trail running.”
And it was her best finish time ever for the course that climbed the Snowmass ski area before turning down Government Trail for the up- and-down run into Aspen.
“My fastest time before was 1:43; this was much faster,” said the Connecticut native who moved west for college. After attending Colorado College in Colorado Springs, Kremer said, she moved to Crested Butte.
And guess what?
It changed her life.
“It wasn’t until I moved to Crested Butte, to the real mountains, that I discovered my passion for them,” said Kremer, who also is a top ski mountaineer on the competitive circuit.
A member along with Gates of the Salomon Running Team, Kremer is the women’s record-holder on the Mount Evans Hill Climb in Colorado. She’s also a winner of the Mont Blanc Marathon in Europe.
“The course was great,” Kremer, 29, said. “A beautiful day.”
And men’s runner-up J. Marshall Thomson, of Crested Butte.
“The course was a lot drier than I expected,” said Thomson, a top finisher in the Power of Four mountain trail run in Aspen earlier this summer. “Some of the downhills I expected to be muddy. But it was actually super-nice.”
Thomson, a familiar name in ski-mountaineering races (including his victory in the Grand Traverse backcountry race from Crested Butte to Aspen), dueled with Gates early in Saturday’s race.
“Marshall took the lead for the first, like, six miles or so,” said Gates, a five-time member of the U.S. Mountain Running Team. “I was going quicker on the ups, and Marshall was going quicker on the downs.”
Gates, who finished second in the famed Mount Marathon climb in Alaska this year, made his move on the last of the uphill sections halfway through the Government Trail.
“I really cranked it up there … got 40 to 50 meters on Marshall,” said Gates, who now lives in San Francisco. “That’s pretty much how it stayed until the end.”
“Didn’t see any wildlife. I was looking,” Gates said. “I did see some mushrooms.”
One of the first to congratulate Gates in the finish area, along with his family, was Aspen High School cross-country coach Chris Keleher.
“That was really cool to see,” Keleher said of Gates’ victory Saturday morning. “Zeker (Zeke Tiernan) has won this race; now Rickey’s won it,” Keleher said of the Aspen High School alumni who have graduated to trail-running success.
“It’s good to see these guys coming back here and running, and running well,” said the Aspen High Sschool coach.
“I saw Rickey coming into town (Friday night),” Keleher said. “I told the kids to look for him. Big red mustache … you can’t miss it.”
Keleher said the runners of all ages in Saturday’s Golden Leaf Half-Marathon made a strong impression on the current Aspen High School runners, who volunteered as course marshals again this year.
“We had 17 kids helping out as course marshals,” Keleher said. “These are people who help us out at our races. So we have to give back.”
Keleher, a disciple of developing running as a lifelong pastime, said the Golden Leaf extends the message.
Keleher’s coaching colleague at Basalt High School, running veteran Ron Lund, completed Saturday’s Golden Leaf Half-Marathon for the record 35th time. He’s the only runner to have participated in all 35 races from Snowmass Village to Aspen.
“I’m just glad I didn’t fall,” Lund said. “I heard a guy fall behind me … I didn’t want that.”
Women’s runner-up Laura Tabor, of Boulder, also was happy to finish upright with no mishaps on the occasionally rocky and rooty course.
“I ran this last year. It’s a fun course,” she said. “I definitely wanted to come back. There was a lot of back-and-forth in the women’s race.”
She eventually finished just nine minutes back of Kremer in 1:46, 17th overall.
A former high-school runner in New Hampshire, Tabor ran at Dartmouth College before moving west.
Complete results of Saturday’s Golden Leaf Half-Marathon will be available on the Ute Mountaineer website (utemountaineer.com).
Gates, who has competed all over the world, said one other factor helped in Saturday’s Golden Leaf victory — green leaves still on the aspen trees.
“Sometimes, it’s hard to pay attention (to the trail) when the leaves are yellow and all over the ground,” Gates said of the hypnotic condition of changing golden leaves scattered on an autumn trail. “This year … it was green. This year it was a racetrack.”
Even the changing golden leaves couldn’t keep up with Rickey Gates and his red mustache this year.