Wild West: the Durango Marathon
This new Colorado marathon features gorgeous views of red rock cliffs and snow-capped mountains. And, oh yeah, a lung-banging altitude of 6500 feet.
Posted Monday, 15 July, 2002
The snow-capped peaks of the San Juan mountains loom in the distance, creating an impossibly picture-perfect backdrop for red-rock cliffs lined with green and golden aspen. Marveling at the natural beauty of the valley of Rio de Las Animas Perdidas, the River of Lost Souls, it's suddenly easy to understand why so many outdoor enthusiasts have lost themselves here.
Durango, Colorado, is as good as it gets for adventure athletes, an adult playground on nature's largest scale. Outside Magazine calls Durango one of the seven best sports towns in the US. Mountain Bike magazine calls it "America's coolest dirt destination." Local runners just call it nirvana.
And so it's only appropriate that Durango is finally getting its own marathon, which debuts this fall on October 13. Indeed, for an area that also hosts the Hardrock 100 Endurance Run (arguably the nation's most challenging ultra) and the Kennebec Challenge (a 15-mile race up a mountain), a marathon almost seems like an event with training wheels.
"We've crafted a course that's not going to be a killer, but it's definitely going to be gorgeous," said race director Matt Kelly. "This course is stunningly beautiful, and it really offers the only flat running in Durango."
But make no mistake, at a lung-banging altitude of 6500 feet, this marathon won't be easy, particularly for those unaccustomed to running in thin mountain air. "It's a challenge to run at altitude," said Marc Witkes, a veteran of 22 marathons and president of Durango Motorless Transit, the local running club. "Runners should come out to Durango a couple of days before the marathon to acclimate, and they should drink lots and lots of water before and after they arrive."
"It's not optimal for someone trying to run a PR, that's for sure, because of the altitude," said Kris Oyler, a local runner who plans to run the marathon. "No world records are going to be set here, but it's going to be a beautiful course."
Red Rock Running
The marathon tours the Animas Valley, once roamed by Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (and also the location used for the 1969 film). In October, the valley is alive with autumn color, the golden aspen and green ponderosa in blazing contrast to the blue sky. Clouds rarely intervene in Durango, which enjoys 300 days of sunshine a year.
Not long after sunrise, runners will get a panoramic view of this scene from the starting line itself, perched upon a mesa 360 feet above the valley and affording three fast downhill miles into town.
"You're on this ridge up above the town with this bird's-eye, 365-degree view," said Keith Paris, a local runner helping to organize the marathon. "And then, off to the north and northwest you see these beautiful peaks, these snow-capped mountains. It's going to be quite a send-off."
Screaming down the mesa for the first few miles, the course then runs quickly through the town and emerges at mile seven on a two-lane road headed north up the valley toward the San Juan mountains, parallel to the Animas River about a mile to the east.
"On either side of the valley, you have the classic Southwestern red rock," said Paris. "At that time of year you'll have some ponderosa pine interspersed with patches of aspen which should be concluding their fall glory. It's a view that a watercolorist would do."
Here, many runners will likely get an up-close view of the morning run of the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, its coal-powered steam engine and bright-yellow cars taking passengers north to Hermosa and back, hugging the marathon course along the way.
Passing a waterfall on the west side of the valley, the course continues north past the Trimble Hot Springs to the turn-around just beyond mile 14, where runners cross the river and head back south on the opposite side of the valley, passing impressive homes and working ranches.
"I think that the second half of the course is a little bit nicer than the first half," said Witkes. "You're running right beneath high cliffs on one side of the road, and the entire gorgeous valley on the other side. The whole second half of the course is absolutely fantastic."
The course rolls gently back to Durango where runners return at mile 23, picking up the Animas River Trail at mile 24 and continuing right along the river past Victorian houses to the Main Street finish, punctuated by a big block party.
Nestled between desert and mountains in the flats of the Animas Valley, Durango is a small town of 14,000 people, a place that has somehow managed to maintain a grounded sense of self even as it has grown as an outdoor tourist destination. This part of the West is still wild, and nature still rules, as the area's recent wildfires have so devastatingly underscored. (Although some local races have been canceled or postponed due to nearby fires, organizers don't expect any fire-related problems for the marathon).
The surrounding valley is dotted with cattle ranches, and real cowboys walk Durango's sidewalks in real cowboy boots, giving the town a scruffy authenticity lacking in glitzier Colorado locales like Aspen or Boulder.
"Everybody in this town is an athlete. Literally. Everybody," said Witkes. "You don't live here for a career; you live here because the scenery is beautiful, and the sports are so accessible. You can run right out your door and have an incredible experience every time."
A mutual love of sweat and fresh air has created a tight-knit community of outdoor enthusiasts here, and marathon organizers suggest that a sense of small-town hospitality will infuse the event. The field is expected to be small in its first year, Kelly said, probably no more than 600 runners.
"This is going to be intimate," said Witkes. "We're going to know you by name, by face, we're going to say hello to you."
That hospitality includes a thoughtful set of grace notes. For example, runners who have qualified for Boston in the last two years are invited to put their own water bottles, elite-style, on separate tables at three of the 17 aid stations. "Boston qualifiers are some of the fastest runners out there, but they get very little recognition at most marathons," said Kelly. "So we thought this was a nice way to be able to treat them like the elite runners they are."
The entire town seems to be getting in on the act. The Abbey Theatre in downtown Durango will host a film festival on the theme of endurance. Local restaurants will be out in force at the post-race party, where runners will receive tickets to sample the food "instead of the two-day old bagel and green banana you get at a lot of marathons," Kelly said.
"We've spent a lot of time thinking about this from a runner's perspective, about what would make this a great event," Kelly said. "This is a course and an event that's designed to be enjoyed. It's going to be something a little bit different for people to come out and see Durango and one of the most beautiful courses you could possibly run."
Durango Marathon website
Online race registration
October 13, 2002
600 runners anticipated
Starts at 6,840 feet, finishes at 6,560 feet
(Highest: 6,880 feet; Lowest: 6,520 feet)
Start anticipated to be 30F, end to be 60F
Marathon team competition, 2-person marathon relay, 5K, kids' run