You know you're in Denver when people get up earlier on Saturday than they do on weekdays. They get up early so they can get out and walk, run, ride.
In 2001, I moved to Colorado from the big city. The really big city, New York. I brought with me huge aspirations of becoming a tough, outdoorsy woman. Sadly enough, in the past two years, I have not camped, climbed rocks or ridden a mountain bike. And you can add hiking, fly-fishing and kayaking to that list.
But I've met many, many people who have done all these things. They're sporty in good weather and bad...but summer is really their season, when the sports get extreme.
And few races get more extreme than the exclusive Pikes Peak Ascent, a 13.32-mile run straight up Pikes Peak.
This year's competition, set for August 16, is the 48th time that participants will tackle the 7,815 vertical feet of winding trails. "It's definitely one of the most difficult races in Colorado, because the lack of oxygen at the higher levels really affects the runners," says race registrar Carol Kroth. "But it's also one of the most beautiful."
And despite its difficulty, the race -- with a capacity of 1,800 runners set by the U.S. Forest Service -- is always full by mid-March. "When you're standing at the start line in Manitou Springs, that peak is farther away than you could ever imagine," says Brian Coffee, who ran the Pikes Peak Ascent for the first time last year. "It's pretty insane."
An avid runner with five marathons under his belt, Coffee is still amazed at how strenuous the Pikes Peak race is. "It's way harder than any race that I've ever run," he says, shaking his head. "At the twelve-mile mark, I had to stop and eat as many Oreo cookies and drink as much Gatorade as I could, just to give myself the strength to make it to the top. I've never been so exhausted before in my life."
The record finish time of 2:01 was set in 1993; runners still staggering and sweating on the trail are officially disqualified when the race clock strikes 6:30. "I ran it in 4:20, which is an hour longer than I run a marathon," says Coffee. "And it's half the distance -- it's that extreme."
But not extreme enough for some people. On August 17, about 800 people will try something even harder: the Pikes Peak Marathon, a race up and down the mountain in a single day. "We don't really advise it, because it can be really tough on the body," says Kroth, "but that's what these people like to do." Already, over a hundred people have registered to run both races that weekend.
If you want details on where to watch the survivors -- or register for next summer's race, which should cost about $60 -- log on to www.pikespeakmarathon.org.
No less extreme, but offering many more ways to punish yourself, is Aspen's new Elk Mountain Adventure Race, scheduled for June 21. This race is broken down into three segments: Competitors must paddle down twelve miles of whitewater through the Roaring Fork Valley; run and trek 24 miles of trails through the Elk Mountain Range, with an approximate 7,500-foot gain in elevation, followed by a 75-foot rappelling section; and then bike 26 miles through the White River National Forest.
"It's on the same level as the Eco-Challenge, just a shorter distance," says Elk Mountain organizer Chad Denning. "The water is really huge right now, so that's going to be interesting, and the canyons definitely have a lot of ups and downs."
And here's the catch: You get only three map coordinates as your guide. "They're going to have to plot each checkpoint and try and find the fastest trail; some checkpoints are definitely hidden," says Denning. "You've got to train hard for this. Aspen has some pretty serious terrain."
Denning estimates that it will take between ten and sixteen hours to complete the course. "People are going to have huge smiles on their faces when they're done," he promises. "Adventure racing is definitely competitive, but it's also a really friendly environment." If you're feeling friendly, spots are still available at $300 per two-person team. Visit www.elkmountainrace.com for more information.
Besides, what's a little ten-hour race when you can ride all day -- and all night -- at the 24 Hours of Adrenalin mountain-bike race? That's right: Teams of up to ten people will ride from noon on Saturday, August 2, straight through to noon the next day in this massive Winter Park relay.
"You basically don't sleep at all, because by the time you get something to eat and clean up your bike, it's time to stretch and get back out there," recalls Bo Maurer, who rode the race last year with four friends. "It's an appealing race because it's so different. There is this mystique factor about riding through the woods alone at night."
Last year, more than 10,000 people participated in one of the nine 24 Hours of Adrenalin races held across the country. "Riding by yourself in the dark for an hour at 3 a.m. is really hard," says Maurer. "You can only see where your light is shining, which is directly in front of you, and everything is really wet, so it's really easy to fall."
Sound like fun? "It's a total blast," confirms Maurer. Entry fees range from $300 to $950 depending on the number of competitors; go to www.trilife.com for more information.
Of course, there's always that old standby: mountain climbing. Expect traffic to be heavy on Colorado's 54 majestic peaks that top out at over 14,000 feet.
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"As of the end of last season, I've climbed Colorado's fourteeners a total of 700 times," says Jim Gehres, a seventy-year-old retired attorney who has been summitting since 1960. "I've done all the fourteeners at least twelve times, several fourteen or fifteen times."
According to the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative, a group that works to protect and preserve our peaks, more than 300,000 people try to summit every year in this state.
"I've had some bad scares, but I've never been hurt so badly that I couldn't make it back to my car," Gehres says. "I do it because I like being challenged. It's obviously extremely good exercise, and the scenery is absolutely beautiful. There is no place in the world where you find so many amazing mountains so close to the general population."
The mountains may be close, but as for my summer Saturdays, I think I'll stick to pulling weeds in my back yard...once I get up, that is.