Destination: Boulder, Colorado
Photo: Leo Lesperance

Boulder, Colorado: An American running mecca

Welcome to Beautiful Boulder

Boulder is consistently ranked among America’s best running towns, best places to live and the fittest cities in the country—and with good reason. It has been a Mecca for distance running since marathon legend Frank Shorter moved here to train before the 1972 Olympics, where he famously won the gold medal. By the time Shorter earned silver in the 1976 Olympics, scores of elite runners followed him, and that phenomenon has never really stopped.

Nowadays lots of elite runners, trail runners, triathletes, cyclists, mountaineers and rock climbers call Boulder home, but it’s really the population of ambitious and very fit citizens that have settled there—plus more than 200 miles of nearby trails, 23 local microbrews, dozens of notable restaurants and numerous boutique shops on the renowned Pearl Street pedestrian mall—that makes Boulder such a great place to run, live and hang out for a weekend. The relatively high altitude (5,430 feet in the city) takes some getting used to for visitors, but the vast collection of singletrack trails, local mountain peaks (including 8,150-foot Green Mountain and 8,459-foot Bear Peak) and deep running community make this uber-hip, medium-sized city with a mountain-town vibe and a thriving economy a great place to visit for a weekend, the entire summer or the rest of your life.

Highlighted Runs

Mount Sanitas/Lions Lair Trail

This is a challenging and rewarding route with a few moderate variations. Starting from the Centennial Trailhead, the main route up the south-facing ridge of Mount Sanitas is a 1.4-mile grind that climbs more than 1,500 feet along the way, offering views of the city and taller peaks to the south, including Green Mountain and Bear Peak. Running at a moderate to easy pace up the east ridge takes about 20–30 minutes and, yes, it requires some hiking in places—however, international trail running star Kilian Jornet zoomed up that side once in a record-setting 14:11! From the top, the views of Boulder are breathtaking, especially the view of the north side of Green Mountain and the tiny skyline of Denver in the distance. You can go down the way you came or opt for the 4-mile casual cruising downhill route along the singletrack Lion’s Lair trail—which offers a view of the Continental Divide to the west—that connects with Sunshine Canyon and back to the main Centennial Trailhead. Or you can go down the semi-technical east face of Mount Sanitas and wind up on the easier terrain of Sanitas Valley. The easiest way to run to the top of Mt. Sanitas is to start at the Centennial Trailhead on west Mapleton Street and run west along the singletrack route up Sunshine Canyon for 1.5 miles. From there, the route crosses the road and continues another 2.5 miles on a singletrack trail that gradually climbs to the top of Mount Sanitas.

Mesa Trail

This classic 7-mile route connects Boulder with the Eldorado Springs area south of town and leads to numerous other routes and peaks. The rolling, moderately technical and mostly shaded singletrack trails are ideal for long training days, fast workouts and casual, easy runs. There are dozens of ways to create unique loop runs and connect to trails that lead to scrambling routes up the Flatirons, and runnable routes up Bear Peak and Green Mountain.

The Skyline Traverse
Running this iconic route in Boulder is not for the faint of heart or the the weak of legs, but it’s probably the grandest trail run in Boulder. There are a lot of ways to do it, but it involves running up and over the highest peaks on Boulder’s skyline—Mount Sanitas, Flagstaff Mountain, Green Mountain, Bear Peak and South Boulder Peak. Start at the south end at the South Mesa Trailhead or begin at the north end at Mount Sanitas. Depending on the exact route you choose, it will be a rugged 16- to 22-mile run with at least 5,300 feet of elevation gain and an average grade of 13 percent. The views from the peaks are worth the struggle, but make sure you’re carrying plenty of hydration because there aren’t really any places to refill once you get started.

The Marshall Mesa trail system at the south end of Boulder offers stunning views of the Skyline Traverse (aka Bear Peak, South Boulder Peak, Green Mountain, Mount Sanitas). Photo: Brian Metzler

Marshall Mesa

Located on the south end of town, the Marshall Mesa trailhead offers access to a variety of rolling trails, including the idyllic 15-mile Dirty Bismarck Loop that connects Boulder with the neighboring town of Superior. A mild 4-mile loop can be made on the mesa itself, as well as a moderate 10-miler that connects Flatirons Vista Trail to Dowdy Draw Trail to Community Ditch Trail.

Magnolia Road

If you’re a marathoner or half marathoner, this is the ultimate testing ground for long runs and progression runs at altitude—just as it has been for hundreds of world-class marathoners through the years and the perennially strong University of Colorado cross country teams. Although steeped in history, “Mags,” as it is known locally by those who run it, is just a no-frills, dusty gravel road that winds through high-altitude mountain terrain west of Boulder. From the typical starting point where the pavement ends a few miles west of town, it twists and rolls between about 8,100 and 8,800 feet above sea level, offering an added physiological and mental challenge that can offer short-term and long-term benefits.

Local Flavor

Anton Krupicka is a world-renowned trail runner who set the world on fire with his long hair, scraggly beard and short shorts, no shirt and minimalist running shoes. He once ran the trail up and down Green Mountain more than 300 times in one calendar year while training for the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc race in Europe. Injuries have forced him to change his routine a bit in recent years; he still runs trails, but he also bikes and climbs and skis in the backcountry. He’s still a prominent figure around Boulder and has more sponsorship deals and followers on social media than ever. When he’s not out adventuring in the mountains, he’s been known to enjoy a good burger and a creamy Dropkick stout at the Mountain Sun. Other famous runners who live in town include Olympic bronze medalist Emma Coburn, world champion 1500m runner Jenny Simpson, ultrarunning legend Scott Jurek, former marathon record-holder Steve Jones, Olympic bronze medalist Lorraine Moller, world champion marathoner Mark Plaatjes, and, of course, Frank Shorter, who, four decades later, is still revered as one of the greatest American runners of all-time.

Local Beans, Brews and Burgers

The Southern Sun at the south end of town is one of the city’s finest craft brew pubs, a place where the Rocky Mountain Runners, Boulder Banditos and Flatirons Running fun run crew typically celebrate with post-run food and beverages on different nights of the week. It offers a range of tasty craft beers and a wide-ranging menu that includes vibrant salads, hearty burgers and grilled cheese sandwiches to die for. If you’re lucky, you might get a chance to imbibe the rarely produced by always loved Jah Mon ginger beer.

Community Knowledge

The Boulder Trail Runners have been setting off on group runs for runners of all abilities more than 25 years. It’s organized via a Yahoo! group and has a variety of runs on various days and nights of the week, including a tempo run, nighttime runs and long weekend runs. But if you really want a flavor of the group, join the 60- to 90-minute easy run on Thursday nights that culminates with a group gathering for cold beers and Nepalese, Indian and Tibetan food at Sherpa Restaurant.

Go Fast

The Bolder Boulder 10K, May 27, 2018—Heading into its 40th year, this iconic event sends 50,000 runners through the neighborhoods of what has been called “America’s fittest city” and ends in the University of Colorado football stadium, where one of the country’s largest and grandest Memorial Day celebrations takes place. The Bolder Boulder helped start numerous running trends (including wave starts, costumed runners and bands on the course), but the local flavor (including numerous Slip ’n’ Slide options in adjacent yards, belly dancers and unofficial aid stations that hand out bacon and beer) is what makes it a true community event.

 

Brian Metzler
Brian Metzler is the Content Director of MotivRunning.com. He was the founding editor of Trail Runner magazine, a senior editor for Running Times and the editor in chief of Competitor. He's wear-tested more than 1,500 pairs of running shoes, raced every distance from 50 meters to 100 miles, has finished three Ironman triathlons and enjoys the quirky sport of pack burro racing.
Photo: Leo Lesperance