Front of the Front Range: Hiking in Boulder and Not Running the World’s Most Famous 10K

Boulder, Colorado: May 2017

Mt. Sanitas is one of the easier mountains to summit in the area around Boulder and is so close to the center of the city that the hike more or less began when we walked out the door of the inn away from the bright rising sun.  The neighborhoods sloping towards the mountains were beautifully tree lined and clean.  Lauren and I passed several dog walkers and backpackers donning wilderness chic Lululemons and Fjallraven jackets – the uniform of Boulder. “Good morning!” most would say, with the disposition of someone who can walk leisurely around town on a weekday.  The twenty somethings carried themselves as if they were 35 and the older folks looked as if they were. 

The neighborhood stopped at the foot of Mt. Sanitas and the linear trail shot upward and was suddenly sinuous.  We hiked unhurriedly, excitable to every small change in scenery like two people who had just touched down from the flatter middle states.  Runners passed frequently, including one man of about seventy who charged up the incline with remarkable ease, able to summon a, “Great day, huh?” with a noticeable lack of breathless syllables. 

The Mt. Sanitas trail runs along the ridgeline, rising a little over 1,000 feet from Boulder.   It appears drier and less tree covered than many of the local mountains, favoring sprawling cacti, immense rocks, and twisted piñon pines over the firs and aspen of a Colorado calendar photo. This being the very front of the Front Range, any glance to the east rewards you with endless plain, and any to the west with the high Rockies, each mountain slightly taller than the one in front.  At one overlook on the eastern side, I dropped my water bottle about twenty feet off of a ledge and upon clambering down to retrieve it I realized that there was nothing but a steep grassy slope between where I was and the flat land below- The exact point where the high plains transition into the mountains.  After I found my bottle, Lauren and I were going to continue over the rock to the next overlook until we heard a distinct rattle rattle and decided otherwise. 

The trail has a consistent angle, never flattening and, save for a few quick ascents, never becoming particularly steep.  Sometimes the rocks underfoot are sharp, other times smooth, but they always have a presence.  Nearer the summit, the remnants of the late season snow were visible on the shady west slope, and the roof of the Front Range, Long’s and Apache Peaks, inserted themselves into the background.  The last climb to the top was the toughest part of the hike, and also the most crowded.  We placed ourselves in queue between two panting teenagers who inched forward and an old man not shy about his desire to pass them, and by extension, us.

Despite not being particularly high in elevation, the summit of Mt. Sanitas is a topographical peninsula in a sea of foothills and therefore allows for an expansive vista: downtown Boulder, airplanes at eye level, a distant Denver on a clear day.  The trip down was a series of weaving switchbacks on the grassy side of the mountain.  It was a substantially steeper and quicker, as if we had creaked up the chained slope of a roller coaster and now were in the process of tumbling downward, a fortunate change of pace, as clouds had moved in and begun to spit tiny warning drops our way. This sudden hiking buddy quickly changed to a drizzle and then a shower as we headed down on the Dakota Ridge Trail and back into the center of Boulder.  By the time we walked into the door of the inn, we had once again removed jackets and added sunglasses, returning abruptly outside for a walk around the city.

Pearl Street downtown has a four block section, pedestrian only, with bars and coffee, buskers and burnouts, plenty of novelty shops, expensive outfitters and galleries.  There was more than one Himalayan art shop with a grinning Buddha in the window and a string of prayer flags strewn along the awning, outnumbered by the multi-storied book stores, niche shops with massive sections on favorite progressive subjects.  I could look around Pearl Street for hours, and we did.

One place sold rocks, gemstones and fossils and had an animatronic dinosaur greeting you at the door.  They had a several thousand dollar trilobite impressed in stone that was so large it wasn’t really locked away because nobody could walk out with it unless they somehow had a forklift which would surely attract attention. 

Several stores had bumper stickers and tee shirts with predictable puns about getting high in Boulder followed by the city’s elevation.  The slightly more elaborate, though no less requisite I went to Colorado and the highest I got was 14,000 feet! also got some serious play.  For the more ambitious in town there was the Wake & Bake coffee mug, complete with a bong stem for your favorite herb.  Going by what you see in stores, of the five states that have legalized recreational marijuana, Colorado is definitely the one that took what they were given and rolled with it.

We lingered for a fair bit in a shop that sold historic maps – of Colorado, the world, other states.  These weren’t reproductions but period maps from the frontier days, authentic nineteenth century scribblings or sailor’s charts from the Gilded Age. Lauren and I have several framed maps in our apartment and we would have enjoyed adding to the collection but I wasn’t interested in taking them from the frames, rolling them up like left over wrapping paper, and stuffing them into a checked baggage, so they were left for the next geophile to enjoy. 

Everyone in Boulder seems content with themselves and their surroundings, and it is a very unhurried place.  There is an air of mutual understanding that the community is for everyone and that people could be themselves without second thought, the only thing that is judged is being judgmental.  As well, it is an outgoing city, and I found that people in Boulder just like to chat.  In so many places in America, it’s against the social norm to strike up a conversation in a coffee shop with a complete stranger waiting in line.  If you ask, “how’s the cold brew here?” to the person in front or behind you, most parts of this country you’ll be met with a shocked one word answer and a look that says, “Don’t you have a phone screen on which you could aimlessly scroll?”

It’s also extremely bike and pedestrian friendly.  Setting aside the matter that Pearl Street is one of the few successful traffic-free streets in the country, the drivers in Boulder are so courteous that it took some time to get used to.  If it even looked like we were contemplating crossing the street, cars would almost always stop, and with a wave instead of an exasperated brake slam from an agitated driver, passive agressively daring us to think twice next time before heading out for our destination sans engine.  It’s no wonder it costs so much to live here.

We dined at Mountain Sun Brewery, which doesn’t accept plastic payment, information I was fortunate enough to absorb while perusing online reviews before eating a wonderful date and poblano cheese burger with two pale ales.  They have an ATM in the corner, but for the more dogmatic they have a system called the karma box.  If you’re lacking cash, you can still eat and drink away the evening and they’ll give you an envelope with the restaurant’s address stamped on it so you can send in your bill and the proper compensation at your convenience.  I’m not sure for how long that has been the restaurant policy, or how well to which it is adhered, but I can’t think of a city outside of Boulder where it would last more than a week and a half.

Yet another downpour had cleared Pearl of troubadours as we walked back to the inn. Rain jackets at the ready, we had already familiarized ourselves with the vernal sensibilities of the Front Range in May:  Each morning we were greeted by an azure sky and a shadowless Mt. Sanitas from our balcony.  Then sometime in the early afternoon the first of several clouds floated into town to deliver a drizzle enough to cool off the day and send the street artists indoors.  After a half hour or so the sun would again peek out.  Repeat until dinnertime. 

The next morning, we asked for recommendations for any semi-local hot springs.  One woman who was staying at the inn for a pharmaceutical conference mentioned a couple by name but then strongly encouraged something else. She said that all but the most expensive and exclusive springs are unkempt relics of prior eras. The floors are sticky, the walls are moldy, and the décor was manifested from the June 1975 issue of Interior Design. The crowds are overbearing during the day and unsavory at night.  Apparently college students like to gather at the hot springs to do drugs out in the open and have sex in the corner, with the exceptionally bold doing the reverse. If there was one nearby, we probably would have visited, and not given up the idea based on one bad review, but that conversation was more than enough to talk us out of a two hour drive. Instead the inn’s proprietor, a fit woman in her forties, suggested a hike to Royal Arch.

The trail to the arch was unlike that to the top of Mt. Sanitas in every way except that it too went upwards. The trailhead was at Chautauqua Park in front of the Flatirons, a line of five pointed rock slabs along the slope of Green Mountain which have become the de facto symbol of Boulder. Their likeness is featured in bank logos, local art, Colorado University panoramas, and Bolder Boulder tee shirts.  Even if you don’t know you’ve seen the Flatirons, you’ve seen the Flatirons.

 While not at the summit of a mountain, Royal Arch is slightly higher up than Mt. Sanitas, and to get there we walked through lofty pine forests rather than cacti and red rocks.  Much of the first half of the hike straddles a rushing stream, crossing it at some of its smoother points.  At one bridge, I reached down to touch the water and it felt every bit the 31 degrees that the inn owner claimed it would be.  . Further up, the path and the stream became indistinct, as we climbed over a pile of rocks while the water did the opposite. 

There is a false summit of the trail indicated by nearly every map or trifold about the park, and was repeated by a ranger sitting next to a perched owl when we entered and asked directions to the trailhead.  That didn’t stop a group of three hikers about fifteen years our senior from false summiting loudly behind us in confusion as Lauren and I sat on a rock eating cashews.

“Where’s the arch?” said the first.  “I don’t see it” replied the second.  The third was huffing and puffing more than the others and just shrugged.  “Still a half mile that way,” Lauren said and we pointed to the trail, leaving the precipice and heading to what appeared to be down the mountain.  “That’s down, arch is up!” said one of the men and we didn’t see them again.

The arch was magnificent and well worth the morning climb.  Once underneath, the rock face opens up to a multi-tiered ledge teetering over the mountainside – a lone pine tree and a couple thousand feet of open air your only company should you stumble.  A group of intrepid chipmunks dashed around the edge, leaping from one rock to another while keeping their eyes tauntingly fixed on us. One of the creatures jumped so close that I almost dropped my water bottle down the mountain again, this time for good.  Still, we enjoyed watching them play their games.  A young woman climbed up with a black lab on a leash and sat down to take some pictures of him with the arch in the background.  Before too long, the chipmunks diverted the dog’s attention and he was restless at the end of the leash.  The rodents took it a step further and ran up near his tail and then quickly scampered back to the edge.  The distracted lab tried to follow, jogging toward them, snout in air, but was snapped back by his owner a yard or so before disaster.  We descended before having to watch the end of that story and settled into a brewery to wait out the evening rain.

By our last weekend, the entirety of the pedestrian section of Pearl Street became an outdoor expo for the Bolder Boulder 10K; one block for shirts, another for bib pick up.  A third had blood pressure gauges, treadmills, and what seemed like an excessive amount of medical staff. Several treadmills were occupied by uncomfortable looking people, loping and simian, attempting to prove their worth to race officials who determined during which wave they would start.  Most were moving quickly and probably would’ve had a good looking stride had they been running down Pearl, but something about sprinting on an eternal conveyor belt makes even the best runners look like the leftmost images on the Evolution of Man graphic. There was a long list of cutoff times beneath which these unfortunate souls would have to run a mile to qualify for one wave or another. The top two were unattainable for most, (below 5:15 I believe) but I was fairly sure I could qualify for the third start, though as it turned out I wouldn’t have to.

It falls on Memorial Day every year and we had to fly out that Sunday.  Had we considered it when choosing flights we may have pushed it back a day and joined the other 49,714 runners at Folsom Field.  This number was actually down a bit from the previous year, when over 54,000 people ran what the race itself calls “10 Kilometers of Pure Heaven.”  The race gets to boast quality as well, consistently being rated as the best 10K in the U.S. by the likes of Runners World and others.  Much of this has to do with separating runners into waves with surgical exactitude.  Not simply elites vs. weekend warriors vs. walkers, or even tens of groups like the big time marathons do, but roughly 100 different waves.  I appreciated this.  At least I imagined I did – though I may have felt different had the leaders been crossing the finish line and enjoying some Colorado craft while I was still waiting to get going.  That most certainly would happen to some, because this race is fast.  With one of the largest non-marathon prize winnings in the world, the run is no stranger to professionals looking for a return on investment.  This year’s edition would see nine runners complete the distance in under a half hour.

Earlier in the trip, I had run a sort of qualifier to assure placement in the race, which, had I actually signed up for Bolder Boulder, would’ve gotten me out of treadmill hell.  Not that you need to qualify to run it a la Boston, but you need to prove you can start near the front without tripping over yourself or infuriating others. It was a small out-and-back 5K around a reservoir with high plains on one side and the Front Range silhouetted on the other. I ran fairly poorly, the elevation and lack of training revealing themselves around mile two, but still enjoyed the crisp air and high level of competition from the impossibly healthy Boulderites. I would indeed have qualified for the third wave of the 10K start had Lauren and I stuck around, but it was not to be. We each bought a Bolder Boulder shirt from one of the kiosks and went for a beer. The following day we would leave Boulder and drive north to spend time in a Tiny Home and in the National Park.

Front Range Trilogy Part 2 and Part 3 here!

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