Pick a weekend in Colorado—literally any weekend—and odds are that somewhere within our state’s boundaries, you’ll find a bunch of sweaty people sporting race bibs, timing chips, and an array of moisture-wicking, speed-enhancing, heart-rate-tracking gear.
They might be on bikes or wearing skis or in kayaks. Maybe they’re just hoofing it in sneakers. It could be a snowy January day in the city or a scorcher in July on a high mountain pass. The exact details of each competition—be it a 5K, a century ride, or a backcountry ultra-grind—are mostly irrelevant. What is important to note? Friendly (albeit high-caliber) athletic competition is a way of life here in the Centennial State. Which is why we’ve taken it upon ourselves to help you find the best contests for your particular persuasions. With an eye toward varying geographies, disciplines, and distances, we selected more than two dozen races that truly capture the competitive spirit of Colorado. So read up, set your 2020 goals, and get your game face on. It’s go time.
For Fans of the Great Wide Open
When/where: September 11–13, Eastern Plains
Discipline: Road cycling
Distance: Roughly 50 to 80 miles per day
Cycling in Colorado brings to mind the grind and rush of steep mountain passes—but not everyone digs that roller-coaster ride through thin air. Enter Pedal The Plains, a three-day tour (with an optional century) of the bucolic landscapes and agricultural strongholds of Colorado’s Eastern Plains. The route and host communities change each year, but don’t be fooled into thinking this is a flat ride; in 2019, participants saw an elevation gain of more than 4,200 feet over the three days. Riders for 2020 will likely see similar climbs. Fortunately, two-wheel aficionados can also expect extracurricular activities like pancake breakfasts, barbecues, beer gardens, concert series, and genuine small-town hospitality between stages. Plus, the circuit typically showcases historical landmarks: In 2019, for instance, the course took riders to the Amache Japanese American internment camp in Granada; along part of the Santa Fe Trail; and even across the state line to visit Coolidge, Kansas, aka the farm town made famous by Cousin Eddie in National Lampoon’s Vacation. The 2020 ride will tour the northeastern plains (exact route TBD) and highlight what, for many Front Rangers, is a different way of life.
For Skiers Who Like to (Really) Earn Their Turns
When/where: April 11, Breckenridge
Disciplines: Running or biking, hiking, alpine skiing
Distance: 6-mile run or bike followed by 3,000 feet of vertical hiking (boot-packing or skinning) and a ski descent
It’s a run. It’s a bike ride. It’s an uphill skin. It’s a ski day! But mostly, the Imperial Challenge is a multimodal jaunt in fickle spring conditions up and down Breckenridge’s Peak 8, which tops out at about 13,000 feet. We caught up with Jeff Westcott, owner of the race’s parent company, Maverick Sports Promotions, for an inside take on what can be affectionately described as a pseudo-triathlon for masochists.
5280: Why do people sign up for this insanity?
Jeff Westcott: The obvious answer is that no other race has this combo of sports, all of which are endemic to Colorado: skiing, running, mountain biking.
How has the race changed over the past few decades?
Back in the first years, everyone carried their uphill skiing equipment on their bikes. Since then, we’ve added the running category, and we don’t require people to carry their equipment; there’s a staging area at the transition. And you can use your gear of choice, so people aren’t excluded because they’re on a mountain bike versus a road bike or on heavy metal alpine equipment versus lighter ski mountaineering gear. This race is as much about attitude as it is about equipment.
How much podium-chasing is there?
More and more people are doing it noncompetitively, as a rite of passage from winter to summer. It’s about the party, the celebration, and coming together with like-minded people.
If you’re in decent shape, could you do the race without intense training?
It’s hard, but you could. There’s also a relay option, with a team of two. One person does the ride or run and the other does the skin and ski.
For Summit Chasers
When/where: September 12, Ouray to Telluride
Discipline: Trail running
Distance: 17.1 miles
This thigh-burner goes up—way up, to 13,114 feet—and over Imogene Pass, a route that connects the San Juan Mountain hamlets of Ouray and Telluride. Each year, the course takes 1,600 pain-seekers through the area’s formidable terrain via some combo of jogging, hiking, scrambling, and praying to whatever higher power they believe in. Ridgway resident Avery MacKenzie, 35, locked down a spot for the first time in 2019 (the race can sell out in minutes). Here, she takes us into her thoughts as she experienced one of Colorado’s most notorious not-for-beginners challenges.
The night before
What the hell was I thinking?
A pre-race orientation dinner with race organizers came with a side of, as MacKenzie describes it, “incredible fear. It was all, ‘This cliff is where someone died, and these mountains don’t care about you.’” But, she says, the tough-love dinner conversation was balanced out with mantras of the “one foot in front of the other” sort that ultimately came in handy.
This feeling might be joy or sheer terror—I can’t tell.
Adrenaline can kick-start a runner’s system as she awaits the starting gun; it can also make her hyper aware of suboptimal circumstances, like the beginning bottleneck. “At the start, all I could think was, There are way too many people for this race!”
Through Lower and Upper Camp Bird
Yep, I’m mortal.
“This is where I said, ‘Yes, this really is uphill.’ ” By the time many racers reach Upper Camp Bird at the 7.6-mile marker (where, to continue, they’ll need to have stayed ahead of the 2.5-hour cutoff), they’ve transitioned from running to something resembling hiking. The course switches from valley forest to subalpine terrain, steadily increasing to a 14 percent average gradient.
Why do they let people do this???
With 2.4 miles to go before the summit, you’re grinding out steps on a nearly 15 percent average grade. This stretch mocks your pain. MacKenzie’s brain veered into stream-of-consciousness mania as she approached the summit aid station: Whose idea was this? Why am I doing this for fun? I bet my husband is in Telluride eating all the avocado toast, damn it! Oh, my God, there are no oxygen molecules up here. Oh, hey—they’re serving soup!
They have ambulances nearby, yes?
At nearly an 18 percent downhill gradient, runners lose 900 feet over a scree-filled mile of path. “While I was so happy to be going down,” MacKenzie says, “I was also very concerned I was going to break my ankles.”
Final aid station
I’ve totally got this!
With less than three miles left, participants arrive at the Social Tunnel aid station, and a sort of delirium-derived motivation sets in. “You can see town at that point,” she says, “and I actually thought I should run faster.”
That wasn’t that bad!
A gnarly final descent through a natural amphitheater requires careful footing before runners dip into residential neighborhoods near Telluride. Overwhelming relief—or, as some might call it, euphoric short-term amnesia—sets in. “It was, by far, the most fun I’ve ever had at a finish line,” MacKenzie says. “Would I do it again? 100 percent.”
When/where: May 16–17, Denver
Distances: 5K, 10/13.1/26.2 miles/marathon relay
Celebrating its 15th anniversary this year, the Colfax Marathon isn’t just another 26.2-mile slog with Gatorade and bagels at the end. Despite what you might assume about sweating it out on America’s longest and, in some spots, grittiest commercial street, there are plenty of highlights—like running through a working firehouse, the Denver Zoo, and Empower Field at Mile High—that make this event, held along the historical and eclectic thoroughfare, one of Colorado’s best. The most compelling reason to lace up, though, might be that Denver’s only marathon supports more than 200 local charities and has raised roughly $2.5 million over the past five years. In fact, its Charity Partners Program is the second largest in the nation, behind the New York City Marathon’s. Whether part of a corporate team or as an individual, you can raise money and/or awareness for the race charity partner of your choice simply by designating a group at registration.
For Water Warriors
When/where: June 18–21, Salida
Discipline: White-water paddling
With a rich history dating back to 1949, FIBArk, which stands for “First In Boating On The Arkansas,” is the oldest continuing white-water fest in the country. Centered around the frothy Arkansas, the nine river competitions (including kayaking, rafting, and stand-up paddleboarding)—plus some land races—are fierce, fun, and entertaining. Below, a by-the-numbers look at FIBArk.
56 Miles covered in the first Downriver Race from Salida to Cañon City through the Royal Gorge in 1949—a long stretch of river rife with Class III and IV rapids. The course, which can be run on any craft (kayaks are most competitive), was shortened to 26 miles for most of FIBArk’s history until officials shrunk it to 14 miles in 2019.
1:47:18 Time it took three-time Downriver Race champion Nelson Oldham of Carbondale to kayak the 26-mile course in 1995—the fastest time ever recorded.
10 Years since FIBArk hosted its first SUP surfing demo. Today, it’s home to the Colorado SUP Championships.
5,000 Streamflow, in cubic feet per second (cfs), of the Arkansas during FIBArk 2015. The high water forced race cancellations and course alterations.(Typical flows are between 1,000 and 3,500 cfs in mid- to late June.)
19 Years (from 1949 to 1967) that a special spectator train ran parallel to the Arkansas, shuttling hundreds of people along the waterway to watch the races as they progressed.
80 Weight, in pounds, of the original “fold boats”—alarmingly fragile vessels made of wood and canvas—paddlers used in the first FIBArk races. Today’s carbon Kevlar/fiberglass/plastic versions can weigh as little as 20 pounds.
25 Minimum number of gates paddlers must negotiate in slalom races.
20,000 Estimated number of people who come to the festival over its four-day run each year.
For Stewards of the Land
When/where: Early August, Middle Creek; mid-September, Lake Fork
Disciplines: Trail running, fly-fishing, beer drinking
Distance: 7, 10, or 13 miles
When two of the three disciplines typically count as leisure activities, you know you’ve chosen your Centennial State race wisely. The Rocky Mountain Flyathlon combines trail running, fly-fishing, and beer swilling to create one of the more enjoyable “triathlons” you’ll ever experience. The premise? Participants run the course with their angling gear, get their lines wet along the way, and knock back some delicious Colorado craft brews at the end. Finish times are adjusted according to the size of fish caught; in other words, the bigger the fish, the more minutes get shaved off your time. Per catch-and-release rules, the proof is in the photos: Racers must snap pics of their catches against the rulers printed on their race bibs before tossing them back. The event may have a tongue-in-cheek vibe, but there are certain aspects of the Flyathlon that organizers and participants take very seriously: inclusivity, responsible recreation, and fundraising for trail and river improvements (the majority of proceeds go toward river and trail conservation projects). But promoting good land stewardship doesn’t preclude fun, which organizers encourage just as freely.
Flyathlon Fun Facts
- Each race opens with a ceremonial sacrifice of a crappy domestic macro beer—sorry, PBR, it’s craft or die here.
- Sources say there’s an unofficial “whiskey bush” at the turnaround. Slug some of the good stuff, catch your breath, and enjoy the home stretch.
- The Rio Grande native cutthroat—found only in Middle Creek—earns you a “double fish bonus”: A 10-inch rainbow might net you a 30-minute deduction, but a cutthroat of the same size delivers a 60-minute deduction.
- Not only is there an award for the biggest fish caught, but there’s also one for the smallest.
For Backcountry Junkies on Two Wheels
When/where: August 16–21, Breckenridge
Discipline: Mountain biking
Distance: 220 to 240 miles
With six stages in as many days across Summit County’s vast trail network, this bucket-list race is designed in a cloverleaf format: Each day’s ride is a loop, ranging from roughly 30 to 50 miles, that begins and ends within a mile of downtown Breckenridge. Riders tour Breck’s breathtaking backcountry, mostly above 10,000 feet, via forested singletrack on swooping descents and over gritty gravel climbs that add up to about 40,000 feet of overall elevation gain. At the end of the final day, the podium is determined by cumulative times. But winning isn’t solely defined by who finishes in first, second, and third places. This race, which was created by a bunch of backcountry racing enthusiasts to reflect the spirit of the sport in 2009, still holds dear mountain biking’s blend of exuberance, self-inflicted suffering, camaraderie, reverence for the wilderness, and respect for local mountain bike culture. In fact, organizers recently turned down a proposal from Ironman to purchase the race. “There’s nothing else like this in the United States,” race director Mike McCormack says. “And we’re of the opinion that bigger isn’t better. It’s about protecting our resources.” If that isn’t #winning, we’re not sure what is.
For Winter Sufferfest Addicts
When/where: March 27–29, Crested Butte to Aspen
Discipline: Ski mountaineering
Distance: 37.3 miles
Every year, on a cold March midnight, about 200 two-person teams depart Crested Butte with the goal of skiing up and over the Elk Mountains to Aspen. With an elevation gain of 6,800 feet, the route is rife with avalanche danger and serves up such wildly unpredictable conditions that racers are required to carry enough supplies to self-support during a 24-hour bivouac situation (read: blizzard). The required minimum gear checklist is three pages long and includes items ranging from a two-person shelter to an emergency heat source to an avalanche rescue system. This is an alpine touring (skins and helmet required) endurance feat for experienced winter backcountry athletes and may take anywhere from seven to 17 hours to finish. Denverite Jason Leupold, along with teammate Andy Rodriguez, tackled this formidable ski race for the first time in 2019. Six months later, Leupold talked to us about the point in the race where the suffering got real.
“My moment was at the base of Star Pass, which is not quite to the halfway point. Once you make it over the pass, you’re on the Aspen side. If you don’t make the cutoff time, you have to ski back to Crested Butte. Imagine skiing 18 or 20 miles, missing the cutoff, and having to turn around to ski back and end where you started. It was about five hours in, and I was really tired. I have exercise-induced asthma, and the vast majority of the race is above 10,000 feet. There’s not much oxygen. I used my inhaler a lot to open up my lungs. But at the bottom of Star Pass, I just wanted to rest. It wasn’t that I was winded. It was the constriction of my lungs because it was so cold—like, close to zero degrees cold—and I was really working. If it had been a summer race, maybe I would have paused there. But you can’t sit, because you risk so much. You risk freezing. You risk your partner’s health. There was that point, though, where I said, ‘I need a minute.’ And I remember Andy saying, ‘You don’t have a minute. You need to keep going.’ He said that because I was getting cold, which doesn’t take long; you sit for two minutes and you’ve screwed up your whole game. You’ve got to get your jacket out, and then you’re messing with the stuff in your bag. The margin for error is pretty small. You’re in some of the most dangerous mountains in the United States—in March. I never felt like, Why am I doing this? It was more of a temporary frustration—a hurdle we had to get over. We both knew we were going to finish it, and we couldn’t let the other person down. Doubt didn’t really ever enter.
The final mile or two is really a slog. But it was so amazing to get to the top of Aspen Mountain; then you get to ski down 3,000 feet of vertical. It was awesome corn snow, and we finished around noon, so it was sunny. It was so cool to come across the finish line. I haven’t really ever felt as much of a sense of accomplishment as I did doing this race.” —Jason Leupold
The bRUNch Run | October, Denver
The best thing about running anywhere is (duh) the post-race feasting, which is the whole premise behind this event (5K or 10K) at Stapleton’s Central Park. The calorie burning is followed by serious calorie consuming courtesy of brunch bites and libations from some of the state’s most revered eateries, such as Denver Milk Market and Ginger and Baker.
The Rio Frio 5K | January, Alamosa
Dress in your warmest getup to run a frosty few miles on top of the frozen Rio Grande River (a layer of snow creates enough traction for sneakers to work just fine). The race slices through the San Luis Valley and anchors Alamosa’s annual Rio Frio Ice Fest.
Frozen Dead Guy Days Coffin Race (March, Nederland) or Emma Crawford Coffin Races & Festival (October, Manitou Springs)
Get a team of “pallbearers” together and suit up in your craziest team costumes. (Spandex-clad disco dancers? Eighties prom gowns? Zombies, Vikings, monsters, mad scientists?) Then lug a homemade coffin—one team member, the “corpse,” rides in the coffin—through town during one of these quirky, crowd-pleasing races that pay homage to local (if slightly morbid) folklore.