- June 2, 2006 at 5:15 am #5251
Long removed from the days of the Disco Dungeon, elite runners push themselves to the limit in Boulder
By John Meyer
Denver Post Staff Writer
Boulder – Before Boulder became an international magnet for elite distance runners, humble Olympic dreams were nurtured in a basement apartment known as the Disco Dungeon.
Before the world-record holders and world champions discovered the quirky university town with ideal training conditions, the Disco Dungeon was home for several post-collegiate runners hoping to make the 1980 Olympic team. Before the Bolder Boulder grew into one of the world's biggest road races, the Disco Dungeon was known as a place where runners passing through town were welcome to crash.
The floor was carpeted with worn-out AstroTurf that had been removed from Folsom Field. The 50-yard line was in the bathroom. One bedroom was a converted coal chute. And, of course, there were strobe lights.
“It was a dungeon with little tiny windows,” said Mike Hill, a 1974 graduate of the University of Colorado who still holds the school record in the decathlon. “You had to go down about eight stairs to get to the front door. The distance runners loved it because they could take their naps any time of the day, it was so dark down there.”
Today the Boulder running scene has evolved into something quite different from the days of the Disco Dungeon, when the success of Boulder transplant Frank Shorter in Olympic marathons lured young American runners to town, or the early 1990s when a world-record holder in the marathon from Wales trained daily with a former world-record holder from Australia and a future world champion from South Africa.
World-class runners from around the world and talented Americans come to Boulder because of its ideal elevation, training landscape and runner-friendly lifestyle. But the Boulder mystique isn't as romantic as it was in the old days, when runners were considered odd and American Olympic aspirants were apt to crash on couches or live in trailers.
“I don't think there's that mystique of, 'Wow, let's go to Boulder and hunker down, live in some shack and just train,”' said former University of Colorado runner Alan Culpepper, an Olympian in 2000 and 2004. “Now people look to, 'Where can I go to train to be the best and be the most effective?' Not, 'Where am I going to go to feel this sense of belonging to a cause?'
“Boulder used to have that. It was like, 'I'm going to Boulder because I want to get on board with what these guys are doing and I'm going to run well because of it.' Now it's, 'I'm going to go to Boulder because they have incredible terrain to train on, it's at altitude, I can get to even higher altitude and the weather's reasonable.”'
CU has become a power in collegiate distance running, capitalizing on the Boulder mystique, then contributing to it. The Bolder Boulder, which will send another stream of 40,000-plus participants flooding through town Monday, is one of America's showcase road races, the most obvious manifestation of a vibrant recreational racing scene.
Ideal time, ideal place
For those with Olympian goals, the sport is more professional than in the days of the Disco Dungeon, but it's more impersonal, too. The denizens of the dungeon didn't have much money, but they had each other.
“It was a group of running buddies who were hanging out together,” said Herb Lindsay, who never lived in the dungeon but knew all about it. “It was a kind of postgraduate bachelor running-geek kind of dive. A lot of runners roomed together, shared spaces together during that time period.”
Boulder was starting to attract young American runners with big goals, and the recreational running boom was just beginning.
“It was an ideal time at an ideal place,” said another dungeon dweller, Mike Ruffatto.
Steve Flanagan fondly remembers the formative years of the Boulder mystique. A CU grad student who had competed for the University of Connecticut, Flanagan ran for the Colorado Track Club and the Frank Shorter Racing Team.
“It was kind of like the perfect storm,” Flanagan said. “For one reason or another we wound up collecting in Boulder in '74, '75. We all trained together. We all worked hard and played hard.”
Flanagan was just “a good club runner” who never made an Olympic team. But a girlfriend who was a marathoner followed him to Boulder, and their daughter is the current U.S. 5,000-meter champion. Shalane Flanagan, a 2004 Olympian, was born in Boulder in 1981.
“I ran 29:06 for 10K and wasn't even the fastest guy on my street,” Flanagan said from his home in Massachusetts, where Shalane spent most of her childhood. “None of us knew how good we were. None of us knew how bad we were. We just all thought, 'If he can make the Olympic team, so can I.”'
Boulder first attracted attention when the 1968 Olympic team spent time training there just before the Mexico City Games. Shorter started coming there for long stretches beginning in 1971, when he was in law school at the University of Florida, and moved to Boulder permanently in 1974, convinced training at altitude paid big dividends. Shorter won a gold medal in the 1972 Olympic marathon – the first for an American in the marathon in 64 years – and a silver medal in 1976.
“For the elite guys, Boulder was no secret,” said John Lunn, a CU miler in the late '60s whose son Jason is one of the top U.S. milers today. “When the Olympic teams trained here and the guys got to go out and run and see how pretty it was, (with) the high altitude, they'd tell people. Then Frank does well. It just kind of grew from there.”
The Frank Shorter Racing Team – formed in 1978 – attracted talented young American runners such as Lindsay and Stan Mavis, who worked in Shorter's running store and trained together. Mavis and Lindsay were from Michigan.
“I remember Stan Mavis driving up to my front door,” Shorter recalled. “He and his wife at the time had a Ford van and a mattress in the back. That was it – all their possessions were in that van.”
Mavis managed Shorter's store.
“At the time, high mileage was king,” Mavis said. “Everybody was trying to figure out a way to stay at the subsistence level and at the same time be able to have the flexibility to train and get away when you needed to race.”
Giving the runners jobs and a training group was Shorter's way of giving back to the sport.
“The attitude was to share the opportunity,” said Shorter, who still runs 50-60 miles a week at age 58. “You have to understand, we were still competing against each other at the time. That's what I think athletes now have a hard time with, the coaches and agents mitigating against this fraternization.
“I think it's very unfortunate because if you look at the successful runners now, they fraternize. The Kenyans all live together, the Ethiopians train in camps. The Americans have become fragmented.”
Making it home
Shorter and Steve Bosley co-founded the Bolder Boulder in 1979. Soon the race began to attract top runners from other countries, many of whom decided to make Boulder their home. Most of them are still there.
One of them was Mexico's Arturo Barrios, who came to run the Bolder Boulder in 1986, decided to stay, and set a world record on the track for 10,000 meters in 1989.
“One of the reasons for me was miles and miles of trails,” Barrios said. “Also the altitude; I believe in altitude. The weather overall is great. How many days can you not train because of the weather? When you put all those factors together, it was no contest.”
Marathon world-record holder Rob de Castella of Australia showed up in the summer of 1982. New Zealander Lorraine Moller came in 1983, Rosa Mota of Portugal about the same time. Steve Jones, who broke de Castella's marathon world record, came in 1988. South African Mark Plaatjes came in 1990, East German Uta Pippig in 1992. All but de Castella and Mota still call Boulder home.
Many of the international runners were lured to town by Rich Castro, the Bolder Boulder's elite athlete coordinator.
“Boulder had an incredible running environment to begin with,” Castro said. “The university track was available. We had folks who were track junkies, running junkies, we had an Olympic gold medalist, which you just can't duplicate. All of a sudden that brings tremendous attention to our town. There's tremendous enthusiasm. We start building around that, and things start to snowball.”
In the late '80s and early '90s, a training group of about 10 runners would meet at de Castella's house every morning at 9 a.m., just as Shorter's house had been the gathering place for Sunday long runs in the '70s.
“Everybody ran what 'Deek' (de Castella) wanted to run,” Jones recalled. “It was good because Deek started off nice and steady. We could all go out and wind up the pace and kill each other before we got back to Deek's house and go have some breakfast.
“We had some great times. There were some great characters in the group.”
A fractured sport
That sense of camaraderie and community, the old-timers say, seems to be missing today. There may be more elite or near-elite runners in Boulder now, but they tend to do things on their own.
“It was a much smaller running community than it is now, and everybody did everything together,” said Plaatjes, who won the 1993 world championships marathon. “Everybody socialized together. Everyone went to the track on the same days. Everybody did long runs on the same days.
“Now no one socializes with anyone and they don't train together. There's a lot of splinter groups. In the past everybody did everything together and everybody helped each other.”
Culpepper is one of the best American runners of his generation. Dathan Ritzenhein, another former CU runner, is considered one of the best U.S. hopes for the next two Olympics in the marathon. They go months without seeing each other around town.
Jones said he believes today's runners are missing out.
“We had a great time socializing,” Jones said. “We would meet down at the pasta place on Tuesdays and Wednesdays and eat as much as we could eat for $2.99 or whatever. It was a great time.”
A running town
Thanks to pioneers like Shorter and the influence they had on popularizing running as a recreational sport, Boulder boasts a world-class sports medicine support system open to runners of all abilities. The Boulder Center for Sports Medicine offers scientific testing, coaching and therapy. The town teems with physical therapists, massage therapists and coaches.
Meanwhile the Bolder Boulder has grown into America's second-largest road race and the Denver-Boulder area ranks No. 1 in the country for runners per capita (18.9 runners per 100 residents), according to the Road Racing Information Center.
“Those of us who are here now are reaping the benefit of what those guys established in terms of the level of support we have here,” Culpepper said.
Ellen Hart-Peña moved to Boulder in 1982 to train under Castro and share a house he found for her with de Castella. She fell under the spell of the Flatirons that first night while running on a mesa above town.
“I turned around and I looked and I thought, 'I never, ever want to leave this place,”' said Hart-Peña, a two-time Bolder Boulder winner and former first lady of Denver.
Plaatjes said the mystique is still alive – and always will be.
“There's a number of things that contribute to that,” Plaatjes said. “It's the community, it's the medical support, it's the surroundings, it's the mystique of the athletes who have been here before. That's not going to go away. Kids are always going to come here for that.”
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