Field Notes: Today Boulder, Tomorrow the World

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, July 1998

Field Notes: Today Boulder, Tomorrow the World

They're making noises about reviving U.S. distance running. Is anyone listening?
By Bruce Schoenfeld

The front range of the Rocky Mountains rises with little warning off a prairie that sprawls as flat as a kitchen floor for almost a thousand miles. Tucked up against the foothills sits Boulder, Colorado, as if someone had swept that floor and pushed all manner of scraps and detritus to one side, where it somehow took hold and flourished as a haven for those outside the mainstream. In Boulder, master rolfers split rent with computer hackers, climbers gather for Nepalese lunches, professional cyclists atop $5,000 titanium pretzels glide past environmental lawyers who sip designer shade-grown coffee. Nearly all of them came from somewhere else. For the Deadheads and dreadheads, the hepcats at the Naropa Institute's Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics and the meteorologists who chart climate change at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, it's a destination, the end of the line.

Dan Browne is no different. On a snowy night in January, the 22-year-old U.S. Army lieutenant negotiates his black Camaro over a rise in the highway, sees the twinkling lights laid out below him, and feels a tug of excitement. An elite distance runner, the NCAA's fastest in three events as a senior at West Point a year ago, Browne is moving to Boulder as part of a program designed to make Army athletes competitive in Olympic sports. He and two teammates are getting paid to train together, their salaries funded not by taxpayers, but from PX sales around the world, a sweetheart deal he still can't believe.

Raised in Oregon, Browne passed through Boulder in the summer of 1996 and completed a 15-mile loop at six-minute pace with runners training for the Atlanta Olympics. Awestruck, he talked of little else for a year. When he and his teammates voted on where to live, Browne pushed for Boulder: for its mile-high altitude, its laid-back attitude, the facilities at the University of Colorado, but mostly for its distance-running subculture. Boulder attracts top-notch runners, Browne knew, and he wanted to be one of them.

Frank Shorter came first, a marathoner with a Yale degree and a coach who'd watched the Mexicans run at the '68 Olympics and realized altitude training had merit. "I invented training in Boulder," Shorter once said. He has lived here since 1970, busying himself with a running store (the first of its kind, though he no longer owns it) and the Boulder Road Runners club and the Bolder Boulder road race, managing his career as an NBC television commentator, Internet columnist, public speaker, and running sage, and often expressing disappointment with the nation's running scene. No American has won an Olympic medal at any distance over 3,000 meters since 1976, when Shorter copped a silver in Montreal.

As he crosses the city limits, Browne is only vaguely aware of Shorter's presence or the details of a storied local running heritage. What excites Browne is the new generation that has gathered in recent months to train together (and in the process, fan the smoldering hopes of Americans in global competition). "It's a natural human instinct to want to be part of something," he says, fresh from the comforting anonymity of West Point and all those identical uniforms.

Browne eases the Camaro to a stop at the PDQ on Table Mesa Road to call the family that has offered temporary lodging, and then — with no small appreciation of the symbolism of the act — he takes his first steps as a Boulderite. In his excitement and the swirl of snow, he doesn't notice the ice. He hits the ground hard on his backside, and stands up hoping the pratfall isn't a portent of the weeks and months to come.

IF — AND THIS IS SOME IF — AMERICAN DISTANCE RUNNERS WIN an Olympic medal in Sydney, there is a very good chance the medalist will emerge from the group Dan Browne finds squinting against the sunshine at the west gate of the Boulder Reservoir at nine the next morning. After calling a runner he'd met before to get directions, Browne needed half an hour to find the Reservoir, down a road of squat brick houses and pastureland northeast of town. But now, there they are: about half the world-class distance runners in America, in T-shirts and tights, cradling cups of coffee, leaning against parked cars, limbering up. "I'd seen these guys in magazines," Browne remembers. "I'm thinking, 'This is incredible. I'll get to run with them every day.'"

Trying not to seem too excited, he greets Pete Julian, who is ranked fourth in the nation over 10,000 meters, and his roommate Shawn Found, seventh over the same distance. He spots Marc Davis, at 28 one of the most talented American runners of the nineties. Davis pumps his hand and offers to help Browne get settled. He came to Boulder last September to join this nascent group and revive his flagging career. "It's like Stephen King's The Stand," Davis explained to friends before leaving Eugene. "We're all going to Boulder, and we're going to train there and make names for ourselves."

Though racing is obviously a solitary pursuit, group training is not a new idea — not to elite distance running, and not to Boulder. The Kenyans, the world's finest distance runners, have been living and training together at home and abroad for decades. A few of America's best runners have convened at various times in Gainesville, Eugene, and the D.C. area, but never with enough critical mass to amount to much. In the eighties and early nineties, a loose confederacy of world-class international runners converged on Boulder. Mark Coogan, pulling up now in his battered Saab, is the only link to that group. He became a top U.S. distance runner and road racer in Massachusetts and then moved to Boulder with his wife, Gwyn, a talented female marathoner, and caught the waning months of an informal running cadre that included Australia's Rob de Castella, Wales's Steve Jones, Canada's Jacqueline Gareau, Norway's Ingrid Kristiansen, and South Africa's Mark Plaatjes.

Browne knows little of this background. He's simply eager to get running, to show this fraternity of once-and-future Olympians that he belongs. So when the eight that have gathered here start to run with easy strides along the pavement as it curls around past a boat landing, Browne quickly jumps to the lead.

He's pushing them, on a chilly morning when they really don't need to be pushed, and after a few miles Coogan sidles up and tells him a little sharply to take it easy. "He reined in my horses," Browne will say later. "I guess I was going out a little hard to show them something."

After the run, Browne is stretching and joking with the others when Davis catches sight of his prized Camaro — which looks utterly out of place amid the four-by-fours and ski-racked Saabs of his new environs. "Hey, Big Daddy," Davis says, with a wave toward the snow piled along the edges of the parking lot, "better trade that in for something that'll get you around in this stuff if you plan on staying." Browne isn't sure how to take the comment, or Davis.

Yet during his first weeks in Boulder, Browne spends more time with him than with any of the others. Browne has the close-cropped hair and forthright demeanor of the Army officer he'll be until at least 2002, and he's staying out in South Boulder with the Millers, sixth-generation West Pointers and devout Christians who have three daughters who say "yes, sir" when they speak to adults on the phone. Davis, on the other hand, has gained a reputation as the wild man of American track. A San Diegan who studied psychology and dabbled in Buddhism at the University of Arizona, he spent the past few years in Eugene under the watchful corporate eyes of Nike, which lost patience with his haphazard training methods and wasted potential. He likes to show off the full-color Olympic rings he had tattooed on his belly after making the '96 team as a steeplechaser, and the Tao sign on his chest, and the Roadrunner on his ankle.

By his midtwenties, Davis had set a U.S. record in the two-mile and posted world-class times up and down the distance-running spectrum. But he also loved to deejay parties and spent much of his time whacking golf balls on a driving range and guzzling beer. His career needed direction, and he wasn't getting it in Eugene, despite the best intentions of mentor Alberto Salazar and plenty of Nike money. In Boulder now, Davis is pushed — one of the virtues of world-class athletes training together. "Someone's always ready in the pack every day," he tells Browne during one of their first lunches together. "One day it's Coogan, one day it's [former U.S. 10k champion Shannon] Butler, one day it's someone else. The group's going to throw someone at you every day, and you've got to be ready."

ON SUPER BOWL SUNDAY, SAM WILBUR, one of the country's top steeplechasers, hosts a party. Browne arrives with an attractive young woman named February, whom he met through the Millers (Browne calls her Miss February). Wilbur has rigged up four TVs and sirens that blare through his speakers when either team scores, and everybody's shouting and a little drunk. It's the first time Browne has seen many of the runners away from their workouts, and with an earnest conversation here and a flash of wit there, he makes an impression as something other than the intense, even arrogant, young hotshot some of them may have taken him for.

Over the weeks that follow, Browne gets more and more comfortable. His days develop a rhythm: run from 9 to 11, grab lunch at home, visit houses with a real estate agent, and then run again, four miles every evening, alone. "For peace and tranquility, that kind of thing," he says, sounding more Boulder every day.

He's beginning to understand why over the past two decades the town has become a sort of clich‰ for the sporting good life. As he walks down Pearl Street Mall, four blocks of tastefully zoned brick pedestrian promenade, he'll linger for a moment and watch the street performers. One has memorized every zip code in America; another does a tolerable early Dylan; another contorts himself to fit into a box, earning hatloads of dollar bills and pocket change in the city Coloradans have been known to call the People's Republic.

Most important, there's the sunshine, and the mountains on the edge of town dusted with powdered-sugar snow, and the balmy afternoons that clear the streets after even heavy snowfalls. Browne meanders through neighborhoods of Craftsman bungalows and ranch-style houses, looking for a place of his own, and can't help but notice elderly women on hybrid bikes, kids with skateboards, frenetic activity of some kind everywhere he turns. "If you told someone back East you were trying to make a living as a professional runner, they'd be like, 'Get a job,'" one of Browne's Army teammates remarks a few weeks into their stay. "Here, it's like, 'Cool!' You can get your oil changed in Lycra running pants and people don't think you're a queer."

Unlike most runners, Browne is free to explore town in the middle of the afternoon, because he's free from the crushing responsibility of trying to train as a world-class athlete while earning rent doing something else. There's a fine living to be made at running, if you're good enough; the two dozen pairs of Nike sunglasses stacked on Davis's dresser attest to that, as does his close-to-six-figure income. Coogan has made a lucrative career of winning road races and traveling to trade shows and clinics for New Balance. Others have to work. Butler puts in time at a law office. Wilbur has sold shoes. Shawn Found has worked at the Bank of Boulder, which looks like a squared-off spaceship landed at the intersection of 30th and Iris.

Sometimes it seems nearly everyone in town is world-class at something. You might hire a nationally ranked biathlete to train your dog, see a professional cyclist buying stamps at the post office, spot an Olympic skier browsing at the Boulder Book Store. "Everyone here is in their own circle," Browne reports. "And I'm here in mine."

If his circle has a center, it's the Boulder Running Company, owned in part by Mark Plaatjes and squeezed into a shopping center beside Beatniks Bagels at 28th and Pearl. Every hard-core runner in town drops in sooner or later. The clientele includes a group of secretive ultramarathoners who call themselves Divine Madness and are said to run as much as 50 miles every Sunday in search of spiritual enlightenment. Led by a charismatic 50-year-old named Marc "Yo" Tizer, they sleep as little as 20 hours a week, eat all of their meals on the floor, live together in rented houses around town, and tend to do quite well in races like the Leadville Trail 100. The more conventional runners, who run for fast times and take any spiritual enlightenment that comes along as a perk, know little about them. They're occasionally seen doing roadwork, a pack of apparitions at a 12-minute pace, but that's all. Every few months they file into the shop to stock up. "Terrific customers, as you can imagine," a store employee says. "They go through shoes like anything."

One morning after his workout, Browne stops by. He and Davis have just returned from Orlando, where they've placed first and second in the U.S. trials for the World Cross-Country Championships, scheduled for Marrakech in March — an early indication that this latest Boulder renaissance is bearing fruit. Noticing a display of running books under the glass counter, Browne asks a thin, somewhat haggard salesman for recommendations. The man points to a book called Running with the Legends, a series of interviews with history's finest distance runners.

Flipping through it that night, Browne gets an unexpected jolt of Boulder's running heritage. Coming across an entire chapter on Steve Jones, the now-43-year-old Welshman who won a slew of major marathons during the eighties, he does a double-take. "Holy cow, that's the guy who sold me the book," Browne says to himself. "He's in it."

Unless he's traveling, Browne's days center around the morning run. Some mornings he goes out strong, to stave off his West Point-induced fears of creeping indolence. Other days, he's content to rack up miles in the company of his elite cohorts. They'll start out chatting, joking, discussing something that happened the night before, but soon the slap of soles on pavement or hardpack and the rhythmic push and pull of quickened breathing lulls them into a trance of sorts, and the conversation lags. It's during those minutes that Browne feels his strongest kinship with the others, as if they're training for a mission that those outside their circle can't quite fathom.

As the weather warms, an increasing number of out-of-town trips break the daily rhythm, and the results speak well for the local scene. Late in the indoor season, Browne and Davis fly to Atlanta for the U.S. Championships. Again Browne wins the 3,000-meter race, and again Davis places second. On the giddy flight home, Davis leans over. "Hey, Gomer Pyle," he says with a grin, "if you're going to keep beating me, I may not let you train with me anymore."

Clearly, they're emerging from the local pack. "Somebody always rises out of a group that trains together," Frank Shorter intones. "I sense this Browne may be real good." Shorter is sitting in the living room of his new house on a sunny afternoon, tucked into an easy chair surrounded by windows looking out on snow-covered peaks. Beside him a glass-topped table holds his Olympic medals, the '72 gold and the '76 silver. At 50, wearing an old sweatshirt, he looks as if he could still step out the door and pound out 26.

This new house of high ceilings and polished cherry floors, set at the end of a dirt driveway northeast of town, seems to mirror Shorter's isolation from Boulder's running community. He's in it, but not of it. He helps organize the Bolder Boulder 10k and coaches a local runner through E-mail. But his disdain for recent generations of American runners and their work habits is well known. "We'll see him out on a run and we'll run right past him, eight or nine of us, moving at a very good pace," Shawn Found says. "And then a few days later he'll write in his column on the Internet that America's elite runners don't want to train together. Who did he think we were?"

Recently, Shorter says, he has noticed a change with this latest gathering of talent in Boulder. "I'm much more optimistic than I was a year ago," he says. "I just didn't see any personality types that I thought were really committed. There was a hell of a lot of lip service going on, and not much action. But seeing what Browne has done, seeing Davis come here and actually seem to turn his act around, I'm encouraged. Finally, for the first time, it seems like the group is cohesive. They stick together, they train together, they're truly what we'd call an enclave."

If Shorter has decided he likes what's developing in Boulder, however, word hasn't trickled down to where the runners live, mostly in middle-class neighborhoods of small bungalows and shingle-sided condo complexes off Iris Avenue. "He says Americans don't work hard enough, Americans don't want it, Americans can't run," says Davis. "Well, I'm working my ass off. I'm doing everything I possibly can, short of something illegal. And all he can do is criticize."

Despite the rift, though, even Davis concedes that Shorter gives the group a sense of what's possible. "I mean, this guy is an American who won an Olympic gold medal," he admits. "You have to respect that, no matter what else you think."

THE BOULDER CHAMBER OF COMMERCE promises 315 days of sunshine a year, but the weather can turn ugly fast. Clouds ride in over the foothills like airships sheathed in black. That usually doesn't stop runners, however. Shorter remembers a run through a blizzard back in the seventies with the legendary Steve Prefontaine, who complained about slogging through the snow. "I looked over and finally said, 'Nobody in the world is training harder than we are right now,'" Shorter says. "That shut him up."

On the last Monday in March, after a week of warmth that tricked Boulderites into thinking winter has fled, five inches of snow arrive overnight. Browne makes early-morning calls but can't rouse anybody; Davis hasn't returned from a road race in Carlsbad, and nobody's home at the Coogans'. That's how it's been lately, with everyone traveling. Browne went to Ireland for the World Military Cross Country Championships, and then to Morocco, where he met up with Davis, Julian, and the University of Colorado's Adam Goucher for the World Cross-Country Championships.

In a sense, that event marked a triumph for Boulder, a city of 96,000 that could claim four of the U.S. team's 12 members. On the other hand, the race's outcome suggested that this alleged Boulder renaissance is still barely making ripples in world competition. Davis, the top American finisher in the 4,000 meters, managed to place seventh; the rest lagged far behind. "I'm getting tired of winning the white man's award as a consolation prize," Davis had said. "I'm ready to win some races."

Browne, who placed 21st in Marrakech, sits in the Millers' kitchen and reads in the Boulder Daily Camera that a Kenyan, Paul Koech, has won the Carlsbad race for the second straight year, beating another Kenyan, Tom Nyariki. Just below is another telling item: Tanzania's Zebedayo Bayo has taken the L.A. marathon, beating a Kenyan. A few weeks later, in Boston, Kenyans take first and second. Even on American soil, only Africans are winning races.

There's no point in dwelling on it, but occasionally Browne can't help but wonder if life in Boulder, this pleasant fantasy that comes complete with a weekly paycheck, is obscuring the fact that Americans simply can't catch up. Browne is closing on a house this week because he wants to stay in Boulder, but soon enough the Army stipend will run out. And no one makes a living finishing 21st.

He folds the newspaper, sets his cup in the sink, drives through the snow to the Reservoir. There's accumulation on the ground, and running through it is hard work — but then, that's part of his job description. Like Davis always says, they can't control what the Kenyans do. They can only work hard and hope the rewards start coming.

He's a regular here now; Coogan calls him sometimes to ask where he wants to run. These days, Browne watches the newest arrival — Eric Mack, just in from Texas — start the same process he went through only a few months before. In that time, Browne became part of the pack, and then moved to the front of it.

Right now, it's strange to be running the Reservoir alone, and Browne struggles to concentrate. As he feels himself begin to sweat, an exultation sweeps over him. The sun is shining now. He can see snow gleaming on the mountains. And on this particular morning in Boulder, no one is training harder.

Bruce Schoenfeld has written for Outside about Spain's western coast and Britain's Direct Action movement.

Photographs by Stephen Collector

More at Outside

Elsewhere on the Web

Not Now

Open a World of Adventure

Our Dispatch email delivers the stories you can’t afford to miss.

Thank you!