Going the distance | AspenTimes.com

Going the distance

Nate Peterson
Paul Conrad/Aspen Times Weekly

One finish line, so many different stories.That’s the true story behind any organized race, especially a marathon – if only because 26.2 miles simply don’t get run without some deep-rooted internal motivation.What makes someone run and keep on running when the body is pleading to stop? From one to the next, the answer is likely as different as the runners who show up at races in search of their own finish.For a group of 34 locals, however, there is a unique, common bond – a cause that has linked them together for 20 weeks, starting in the spring, and forced them to push through pain, doubt and personal insecurities, all so that they can reach the same finish line together.For the past five years, Challenge Aspen has brought together valley residents of all stripes to train for and run a marathon; they subsequently raise money to fund the local nonprofit’s adaptive recreational and cultural programs for the mentally and physically disabled.In exchange for the minimum donation (this year each participant had to raise $4,500) each runner receives a fully paid trip to that year’s chosen race, as well as training instruction from professional coach Austin Weiss.After running in Switzerland, Monaco and Hawaii, this year’s Challenge Aspen team is off to Hungary in late September to run in the annual Budapest Marathon.The tradeoff of a free trip abroad is an enticing one, but then again, 26 miles is 26 miles – even in an exotic locale like Budapest.So what else pushes these valley residents to run?The answers provide insight into the people who have banded together to run for those who aren’t able to do so as easily – or at all.

Gwen Carew was looking for a challenge five years ago when one happened to show up in her mailbox.The words on a Challenge Aspen flier recruiting runners for a marathon team practically jumped off the page for the avid runner who, at the time, was looking into doing her first 26-mile race.”I’ll never forget it. It said ‘Challenge yourself. Go the distance,'” said Carew, who lives in Missouri Heights. “I’d done a half-marathon, and I was thinking about trying to train for a full one and had started to ask people who had done full ones about it … The flier just came at the perfect time.”What really tugged at Carew was the chance to run for a cause that was near to her heart. Carew’s daughter, Gwenie, has severe mental disabilities and has been a regular attendee at Challenge Aspen’s summer camps for disabled children.”The children get to experience things that typical kids don’t get to experience all the time,” Carew said of the camps. “Stuff like horseback riding, arts, putting on plays and musicals. What they do with these kids is amazing.”Without hesitation, Carew signed up to be a member of that first Challenge Aspen marathon team and jumped full on into her training for the group’s fall race in Lausanne, Switzerland. Carew didn’t have a hard time convincing family members and friends to write checks for the funds she had to raise.”People who know me and know my daughter, Gwenie, they really know how much she gets out of Challenge Aspen’s programs,” she said. “Over the years, I’ve had such great success with the fundraising.”Carew didn’t plan to run more than one marathon, but she so enjoyed that first one that she came back the following year to train with the group for a marathon in Monaco. She hasn’t stopped running since and is one of a handful of locals to have run on every single Challenge Aspen team – although she admits that September’s marathon in Hungary may be her last.Over the years, she has also recruited close friends and business partners to join her in the cause. This spring friends Catherine Rohrstaff and Rick Hayes had to break the news to Carew that they wouldn’t be helping her with her marathon fundraising because they’d be busy with their own. As for the months of training, both told Carew she could help them with that.”It’s not just about going over there and doing the race,” said Carew. “It’s about helping Challenge Aspen, and it’s the whole thing of every year getting to meet these new fabulous people during the training, adding on the miles, and then watching everyone finish every year. Every person has always finished.”

Running a marathon has always been one of Rick Hayes’ life goals, but that’s as far as it went for years. Between being a husband and father and running a successful real estate management business, there wasn’t much time for anything else.Suddenly, Hayes said, his 50s snuck up on him, and he noticed he was no longer the fit, robust man he had once been. He needed something to refocus his life and get him back on a healthy track – and that something, Hayes finally reasoned, was taking up a good friend on a longstanding offer.When he told his bookkeeper Gwen Carew that he was going to join her on the Challenge Aspen marathon team, Carew thought Hayes was pulling her leg.On Friday, however, when both headed out for a 15-mile training run together, there weren’t many laughs, just long miles spent putting one foot in front of the other and fighting through doubt and fatigue.”It definitely hasn’t been easy for me,” Hayes said. “I’m not a long-distance runner. I don’t have the body for it. I’m kind of stocky. I’ve always been a runner, I just hadn’t run much the last couple years, and getting back in shape was part of the issue.”While his quest to complete a marathon was rooted in personal ambitions, Hayes said it’s the thought of helping disabled children and adults that has kept him on the trail each week, gaining stamina and grinding toward his goal.If he were running just for himself, there wouldn’t be anything to stop him from giving up, he said. But whenever he’s doubted himself or wanted to quit, he thinks about those enrolled in Challenge Aspen’s programs. What they endure on a daily basis, Hayes said, is much harder than running 26 miles.”It’s been wonderfully rewarding, just working through the aches and pains, doubts and issues, he said. “We’ve got five more weeks of this, and while I know that this isn’t what I want to do every year of my life, I do want to get this done this year.”The training has been trying, but raising the mandatory $4,500 was the opposite.”I put out 75 notices with a one-page letter telling people, ‘You’re not supporting me, you’re supporting Challenge Aspen,'” Hayes said. “It wasn’t hard to convince people to give. I only had to strong-arm a few.”

Most runners on the Challenge Aspen team raise the necessary $4,500 in donations through letter-writing efforts. Kirsten Munachen and her fiance, Match Murphy, had a more swinging idea: Throw a ménage-à-trois party at the Margarita Grill in Snowmass Village.”They’re really popular in Sydney,” said Munachen, a native Aussie who works for Challenge Aspen. “We expect we’ll achieve at last a quarter of our fundraising goals between us with the party.”Munachen said she and Murphy plan to bring a visiting female Aussie friend of theirs to the Aug. 11 bash to complete their threesome. While Munachen joked before a training run last month that the “ménage-à-trois” theme is just that – and that those who pay the door charge shouldn’t expect an orgy to break out – the novelty of making partygoers arrive as a threesome creates a unique atmosphere.As for her training, Munachen has taken a much more serious tack.September’s race in Budapest represents her first marathon – a life goal, Munachen said, that she “needed to tick off her list.”As the weeks have gone by, and the group-training runs have progressively ratcheted up, the upbeat redhead said she has leaned on her more experienced teammates to keep her going.”I’m sure I could do a marathon by myself if I had to,” said Munachen, who completed two half-marathons before signing up for the Challenge Aspen team. “I’m sure that anyone can achieve a marathon on their own. There’s a million and one training plans out there, but I certainly think having this structure, and having [our coach] Austin has been a huge help. There have been times when I’ve had to miss workouts because of work commitments, and it’s been great to have Austin fire me off an e-mail and keep me going when I need it.”

For Snowmass Village residents Catherine Rohrstaff and Jenifer Blomquist, the goal of completing a marathon came from similar impulses.Before they were stay-at-home moms, both were active runners. And while both had a desire to get back into a regular running regimen, it was easier said than done.What both really needed was an organized, structured program that was already in place for them – one that took all the guesswork out of training for an actual race – and also had a built-in support network.”I wanted a scheduled activity that I had to stick with,” Blomquist said. “Something that I would be committed to and would get me back into an activity that I had done so often before I had kids.”

Rohrstaff was arguably an even more dedicated runner than Blomquist before motherhood; she ran in a marathon in her native Birmingham, Ala., some 20 years ago, and also ran in local races when she moved to the valley.Because of that experience, Rohrstaff’s friend Gwen Carew kept needling her over the years to join the Challenge Aspen team.”She’d been asking for a couple of years to go and do this, and I finally caved,” Rohrstaff said. Both Blomquist and Rohrstaff admit their bodies don’t recover as quickly as they used to when they were both young women. It’s for that reason that the instruction from the Challenge Aspen team coach, Austin Weiss, has been so vital – not to mention the support both have received from their running mates on group runs.”I’ve run into some age issues,” Rohrstaff said. “It’s certainly hard on my body. I’m not 20 years old anymore, and I’m having to pay attention … I don’t think I could ever do this by myself. The team has helped so much. It’s fun to be out there, and when you’re with them, you don’t feel like it’s that grueling and difficult. It’s a very upbeat group.””I would not have been able to stick with it on my own,” added Blomquist. “The Saturday training runs are really great. Being there with other people, they just kind of pull you along, and it’s very helpful. Austin is so helpful, too, but he’s also just enjoyable to be around. I had a little knee issue, and he helped me through it within two weeks.”Nate Peterson’s e-mail address is npeterson@aspentimes.com