For the past two years, on the morning of the Colfax Marathon, I've gotten up at dawn, prepared myself for the grueling day ahead, then steered my car east along Colfax Avenue.
But unlike the stalwart runners, I did not continue all the way to the edge of Aurora, where Colfax Avenue, the world's longest commercial strip, a stretch that Playboy once called America's most wicked street, a ribbon of asphalt that runs just over the official marathon length of 26 miles and 385 yards, begins. I made it no farther than the patio of Mezcal, the Mexican cantina at 3230 East Colfax, a wickedly good place to both cheer on runners and toast the street's renaissance.
Colfax has come a long way since the days of Schuyler Colfax, who became Ulysses S. Grant's vice president in 1868 and gave his name to the path that would-be gold miners had pounded on their way west. By the turn of the last century, Colfax was a Victorian promenade, with brick mansions and elegant office buildings standing post along the mile to the State Capitol. By the middle of that century, it was the fabulous 40 strip, the gateway to the West, with motels stretching from east Aurora to the Foothills. And by the start of this century, Colfax boasted some of the worst patches in three towns.
But in the last few years, residents, businesses and municipal leaders in Aurora, Denver and Lakewood have been fighting for Colfax block by block. And when it was introduced over two years ago, the Colfax Marathon was to be part of that civic venture, a celebration that sent runners from one end of the street to the other on a pavement-pounding tour through history. But there were problems with that straight run — "We definitely listen to our runners," says race spokeswoman Liz Easterly — and so the route was adjusted last year, but that adjustment resulted in a race that was actually longer than an official marathon. And so course corrections were made again for this year's incarnation, with those last three uphill miles cut off and everything starting and ending at one central location. This time, the race will send marathon runners (and marathon relay teams) from City Park down to Colfax, then west to Golden and back, and half-marathon runners east from City Park to Aurora and back. But from the Lowenstein project — the crown jewel in Colfax's redevelopment — to just past Colorado Boulevard, this human parade will pass Colfax by.
Jesse Morreale, who opened Mezcal over four years ago and added the All-Inn motel with its Rockbar to his empire last year, got the bad news last week that race planners, who'd already sent the marathon west from City Park, were now going to cut the half-marathon out of the Bluebird District, too, in an effort to save money. "I can't imagine it's less expensive," he says. "And this is the part that everyone wants their little part of Colfax to look like."
Morreale is one reason why that part looks so good, says Don Novak, the creator of MyColfax.org and a major promoter of the street. Two years ago, when he shared his vision for Colfax, "Jesse was throwing me out of his office," Novak remembers. But they both persevered, and when Novak heard that the route was changing again, he made lemonade out of lemons. Specifically, he organized Marathon Month, which will run from May 17 to June 8 and include a Colfax Scavenger Hunt on May 24 (kids from 1 to 4 p.m., adults from 8 p.m. to midnight) and the Colfax Stomp on May 31, a many-block party that will stretch from Vine to Marion streets. He's also created the Colfax Passport, which you can punch at Colfax businesses while you're enjoying the festivities, then take to the People's Fair for a free T-shirt.
In just over a week, working his way along Colfax, Novak enlisted 51 businesses between Broadway and Colorado, "businesses that now actually read and respond to my e-mails," he says. "It's taken a couple of years, but..."
The businesses that will distribute the Colfax Passport include some of the great recent additions to the area, among them the Tattered Cover, which took up residency in the Lowenstein alongside Twist & Shout two years ago; Steve's Snappin' Dogs; the Shoppe (cupcakes and cereal!); What's Knot to Love; and Hooked on Colfax. "I consider us pretty much the gem of Colfax right now," Novak says. "We just got selected for the Denver Neighborhood Marketplace Initiative."
On May 1, the Denver Office of Economic Development announced the five areas that will be part of this initiative, commercial districts with strong leadership from residents and businesses alike, as well as evidence of community investment in the past, present and future. "And that's something we've certainly seen in the Bluebird District," says the OED's Derek Woodbury.
But runners won't see it on May 18.
Dave Walstrom, the longtime Colfax booster who's president of the Colfax Marathon Partnership, sounded chagrined last Friday when he confirmed that the route I'd checked on just a week or so before — I had to make sure that Mezcal would open at the ungodly hour of 6 a.m., since the half-marathoners would be passing by early, and would have enough Tecate for a marathon party — had changed again. "I had to make a judgment call in terms of economics, look at all of our costs, including traffic and barricades," he explained. "It's the last thing I want to do, but I have to try to break even," he said. "Last year, we didn't hit our numbers in runner registration, so we surveyed them. They said the course was too difficult, and there was that uphill slog. We looked at reversing things, but then you run into the sun." So first they decided to split the course at City Park, and then they decided to take the Colfax Marathon off Colfax for an inexplicable two miles, moving it to 17th Avenue from the park to Bellaire Street.
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"I hope next year we will be back on this section of Colfax," Walstrom told me. "It's such a wonderfully redeveloping part of Colfax. It's really Main Street."
The race may be back, but whether Walstrom will be is uncertain. He went on emergency leave this week, and his office says he won't return until after race day. But the Colfax Marathon continues.
From my perch on the Mezcal patio, I've watched families who live in old Denver squares and hipsters who live in new lofts come out to cheer on the runners, watched crowds in front of nearby cafes raise their coffee cups in salute, watched the clerk from the adult store across the street check on the runners' progress, watched the racers themselves absorb energy from this thriving stretch.
For such a straight street, the story of Colfax takes a lot of twists and turns.