Two debut races put Aspen back on marathon map

Rick CarrollAspen Times WeeklyAspen, CO Colorado
Paul Conrad/Aspen Times Weekly

ASPEN – Maybe it was by sheer coincidence that in 2010, efforts were under way to debut not one, but two marathons that start in Aspen this summer. After all, last year marked the 2,500-year anniversary of a heroic run that marathoners can truly appreciate.Legend has it that it was 490 B.C. when Greek messenger Pheidippides ran 24.85 miles from Marathon, Greece, to Athens, trumpeting the news of his country’s defeat of the Persians. He then collapsed and died.But for all the would-be and already-established martyrs out there who relish running a marathon, Pheidippides isn’t the only one they can thank for their obsession. They can also lift their energy drinks in a toast – or curse her name in vain, should they so desire – to Queen Alexandra, for it was she who ordered the marathon in the 1908 Summer Olympics in London finish in front of her royal-box seat at White City Olympic Stadium.Previous Olympic marathons had covered 24.5 to 25 miles, and the London race was set for 26 miles. But the queen’s demand extended it another 385 yards. Ever since then, the marathon has covered that precise distance – 26 miles, 385 yards – which might explain the source of the term “royal pain.”But it really wasn’t until America’s running boom of the 1970s, fueled by the iconic likes of Jim Fixx, Steve Prefontaine, Bill Rodgers and Frank Shorter, that the sport surged into the U.S. mainstream of recreational sports, from 5K fun runs to the granddaddy of them all – the marathon. And by 2010, there were an estimated 507,000 finishers in U.S. marathons, according to a report issued March 16 by Running USA of Colorado Springs. That marked an 8.6 percent increase over 2009, which enjoyed the second largest increase in the last 25 years, the report showed.One area that has failed to capitalize on the marathon’s surging popularity, however, had been the Roaring Fork Valley. The last time a road marathon was held locally came in 2001 with the Roaring Fork Sunday Marathon, which started in Basalt and finished in Glenwood Springs. But when the race’s title sponsor, the Roaring Fork Sunday weekly newspaper, folded, so too did the event. The early to mid-2000s also saw the Aspen Grove Trail Races, which included a marathon marked by two loops in the Hunter Creek Valley and Sunnyside areas, located on edge of town. The race was short-lived, however, leaving the valley marathon-less.Meanwhile, other Colorado towns and cities, from Boulder to Denver, Fort Collins to Grand Junction, and Breckenridge to Steamboat Springs, drew on the sport’s popularity over the years, becoming destination draws for the highly competitive and casual runner alike. That’s evident in the number of marathons on tap between May 1 and Nov. 12 in Colorado – at least 26 marathons (excluding ultra-marathons) are on the foot-race docket, including two that start at downtown Aspen’s Wagner Park.But other than the starting point and the distance, those two races – Aspen Valley Marathon and Aspen Backcountry Marathon – could not be more different, from the courses’ terrain and topography to the required training regimen to complete them.

Last July, in the weekend sandwiched between Aspen’s popular Fourth of July Boogie’s Diner Buddy 5-Mile Race and the Race For the Cure, locals Kat Fitzgerald and Sean Solon debuted a half marathon that started at W/J Park in Woody Creek and finished in Basalt.The Aspen Valley Half Marathon was fairly low-profile, attracting more than 110 runners who took the gradual downhill trek along the Rio Grande Trail. Word at the time was during the same weekend in 2011, a full marathon would be added. Fitzgerald and Solon made sure it wasn’t just a rumor. “We just decided that so many areas in the U.S. and internationally have marathons, but the valley doesn’t,” Fitzgerald said. Said Solon: “We thought the idea of a marathon would be a great way to showcase the valley.”Meanwhile, Bill Linn, and assistant police chief at the Aspen Police Department, himself an avid runner, was kicking around the idea with another officer who runs, David Thompson, about bringing an “extreme” marathon to Aspen. “Dave was proposing a road marathon and I was proposing a real extreme backcountry marathon, and of course in the middle of that discussion the Aspen Valley Marathon came up. They announced they were going to propose a full marathon for this year, so we advanced the idea [of a backcountry marathon] to [the city of Aspen’s] special events,” Linn recalled.Soon, Austin Weiss, the city’s trails coordinator and a seasoned marathoner, joined the discussion, as did City Councilman Steve Skadron, also an accomplished runner and well versed with the local backcountry – and the idea of a challenging trail marathon began to take serious strides. Working the business side of the Aspen Backcountry Marathon have been the city’s special events coordinator, Sandra Doebler, and Kristin Drake, an associate in the sales and marking division of the city’s Parks & Recreation Department. On March 9, both races made announcements that the marathons were a go. Registration is now underway, while organizers of both events say they’ll need approximately 50 volunteers to help with the start, aid stations, and the finishing area, among other tasks. Organizers also say they hope to draw anywhere from 200 to 300 participants in the inaugural events.

While both marathons await governmental approval for their courses, organizers consider that part of the process simply a formality.The courses for the Aspen Valley Marathon, scheduled Saturday, July 9, and the Aspen Backcountry Marathon, slated for Saturday, Aug. 27, run mainly on trails. But there’s no sense comparing the Rio Grande Trail, where most of the Aspen Valley Marathon will be run, to the trails that comprise the Aspen Backcountry Marathon. Other than the distance and start, both races share little in common, and will push runners in vastly different ways.For starters, the Aspen Valley Marathon is predominantly downhill and asphalt, though participants will have the option on certain segments of the Rio Grande Trail to run on the parallel soft, dirt gravel surfaces. They’ll also see a net loss of about 1,400 feet, which could equate to some fast times (sub 3 hours) for the winners. Runners will start in downtown Aspen, get on the Rio Grande Trail, which they’ll take all the way down to Emma, before heading back up to Lion’s Park in Basalt. Or, they have the option of running either a 5K or half marathon, which will be held the same morning in conjunction with the marathon.Organizers Fitzgerald and Solon said they hope to make the race a qualifier for the Boston Marathon, one of America’s most prestigious races not only because of its rich history and talented field, but also because its runners are required to run certain times (based on their age and gender) in order to participate. Fitzgerald and Solon consider the potential for fast times as the marathon’s biggest allure, but they also see it as a potential tune-up for those competing in the Aspen Backcountry race.”We are encouraging people who run in our race to run the backcountry marathon, too,” Fitzgerald said. While the Aspen Valley Marathon has all the ingredients for some fast results, with the top finishers averaging a sub 7-minute mile clip, that won’t be the case with the Aspen Backcountry Marathon.The backcountry race will see more than 3,400 vertical feet, cover dirt trails, with many twists and turns.Here’s the breakdown:• Start at Wagner Park;• From Wagner Park up Smuggler Mountain and into Hunter Creek;• Up to Four Corners via Van Horn Park and Hobbit Trail; • Across and down Sunnyside (Aspen city limits); • Down Sunnyside to the Rio Grande Trail and Stein Park;• Up Cemetery Lane, around the Aspen Golf Course via Homestake Road; • Down into the Maroon Creek Valley; • Out of Maroon Creek alley by Tiehack;• Up Buttermilk via the Government Trail;• Return to Tiehack via the Oregon Trail (Aspen city limits, in town); • Cross the Tiehack bridge and onto the Moore Open Space; • Cross the Marolt Bridge and down Hopkins Avenue; • Into Koch Lumber Park via the Midland Trail; • Cross Aspen Mountain via the Ajax Trail; • Ajax Trail to Ute Avenue;• Back into downtown Aspen Wagner Park. Weiss said that depending on whom shows up, the top finishers could come in between 4 and 4 1/2 hours, while other well-fit runners could complete the course in roughly 6 hours. The course will be open for 10 hours. For those up for a lesser challenge, the marathon also is open to three-member relay teams. “We want it to be hard and we want it to be a real challenge,” Weiss said. “But it’s also some of the best trail running we have in the state, I believe.”To complete either race, Fitzgerald, Solon, Weiss and Linn suggest those new to marathons to start preparing now, if they haven’t already.A marathon training program should last at least 12 weeks, if not 18. There’s an abundance of information on the Internet, and the Pitkin County Library has a few marathon training books as well.Put simply, however, runners gearing up for the Aspen Valley Marathon should log at least two 20-mile runs, along with a taper period – that’s when their training drops off considerably before race day – of at least two weeks.Weiss suggests that those running the Aspen Backcountry Marathon to take a different approach. Hours spent running, not miles logged, are what he recommends, with at least two runs of five to six hours on backcountry trails. Lots of vertical would help as well, he said. “You’re looking at some very long runs in July,” he said. “And make sure to back off in August.”


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Members of the valley’s Jewish community gathered at the Albright Pavilion at Aspen Meadows Thursday for their second annual menorah lighting ceremony to celebrate and acknowledge the first day of Hanukkah.

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