Aspen, Colorado: A Runner’s Playground 8,000 Feet Up

Photo: Image Relay

A winter wonderland become a runner’s paradise when the weather warms up.

A lot of name- and number-dropping happens in the picturesque mountain town of Aspen—but not the kind you’d expect. Maybe it’s from the lack of oxygen at 8,000 feet or the inspiring beauty of the Elk Mountains, but by the time visitors (and residents) step onto Main Street in Aspen, talk shifts from conversational banter to top times on must-do running routes.

“Wherever you go, ridiculously fit people are out having fun,” says Chris Keleher, a local runner, cross-country coach and race director. “You see everything from people on a jog to those training for a high-level race, former Olympians and adventurers that have climbed Everest.”

From paved paths and quiet roads to singletrack trails, from minimal elevation change to lung-busting altitudes, this skier’s enclave by winter transforms into a runner’s playground during the summer and fall. And a hardcore one at that—with so many options, the daily question isn’t if you’re running, but rather where you’re kicking up dirt. But don’t worry: Aspen’s fancy reputation extends to the great high-country outdoors, where sweat is chic and dirt is high style.

Where to Run

Take some time to adjust to the altitude with a (relatively) easy jaunt along the outskirts of town on the mostly paved Rio Grande Trail, which starts near the entrance to the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies (ACES) and dips down into Roaring Fork Valley at a gentle 3 percent grade.

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To pile on the miles, you can take the Rio Grande all the way to Glenwood Springs—an insane 42-mile, one-way trip (you can take a bus back!). For a steady climb and great views of Aspen and the ski mountain, head up Smuggler Mountain Trail. The dirt fire road takes you by the old Smuggler Mine before continuing up for 1.5 miles. Once at the top, you can bomb down or tack on more mileage by making the trek to Warren Lakes or following the Hunter Creek Trail for a full 4.6-mile loop on both routes. For a panoramic view, take the Summer Road up Aspen Mountain (formerly Ajax Mountain) for 5 miles of steady lung-burning and leg-searing effort.

Where to Race

Relay warriors can hit the trails with friends at the new Ragnar Trail Snowmass.

Ambitious 26.2ers have two options, including Aspen Backcountry Marathon, a trail race that covers many of the best trails outside of town; and Aspen Valley Marathon, a net-loss Boston-qualifier run on mostly paved paths from Aspen to Basalt.

For 5 miles of road-running fun, sign up for Boogie’s Buddy Race. The Power of Four Trail 50K has almost 10,000 feet of climbing and takes racers across all four ski mountains. The annual Aspen Mountain Uphill is a lung crusher that starts in town and heads up the mountain, with an elevation gain of 3,000 feet. The Golden Leaf Half Marathon, the crown jewel of the running season, sends racers on the Government Trail from Snowmass to Aspen, enjoying rolling singletrack, beautiful views and, if Mother Nature cooperates, splendid fall colors.

Where to Shop

Centrally located, Ute Mountaineer (210 S. Galena St.; utemountaineer.com) is ground zero for local trail and race information, technical apparel, lifestyle clothes, gear and shoes. The Sports Center (308 S. Mill St.; thesportscenteraspen.com) focuses on running shoes and apparel. For the best selection and service in the valley, head to Independence Run and Hike (586 CO 133; independencerunandhike.com) in Carbondale, less than 30 miles from Aspen, for gear and insider tips from the sales reps.

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Marmot, Helly Hansen, Roxy and GoLite all have Aspen outposts, but if high-fashion shopping is more your style, you can take your pick from Gucci, Brioni, Ralph Lauren, Kate Spade and more.

Where to Eat & Drink

The outside tables at Peaches Corner Cafe (121 S. Galena St.; peachescornercafe.com) are perfect for a pre-run Americano and pastry or post-run brunch and Bloody Mary—the vegetable quinoa bowl with pesto and poached eggs will keep you going all day.

Join the debate about who has the best coffee in town—Victoria’s Espresso Wine Bar & Gourmet Grazing (510 E. Durant Ave.; aspenespressobar.com) is a good start. Spring Cafe (632 E. Hopkins Ave.; springcafe.org) is the place to go for a refreshing smoothie—the namesake Spring Shake or Blue Beauty are hard to beat. Paradise Bakery (320 S. Galena St.; paradisebakery.com) is, well, paradise for muffins, cookies and gelato any time of day. The deliciously healthy fare at Pyramid Bistro (221 E. Main Street; pyramidbistro.com) pleases even the most particular palates, while CP Burger (433 E. Durant Ave.; cpburger.com) or Justice Snow’s (328 E. Hyman Ave.; justicesnows.com) are tied for best post-run burger and fries. Enjoy drinks, billiards and shuffleboard at Eric’s Bar (315 E. Hyman Ave.; sucasaaspen.com).

Weather

High-country weather can be finicky—conditions can change from blazing sun to pelting hail in an instant, making both a waterproof layer and an insulating layer key for adjustability. Summer and fall are ideal for running, with cool mornings, temperate days and occasional afternoon showers. June is the driest month and July is the hottest, with temperatures dropping into the 40s at night and rising to the 70s or low 80s during the day. Higher elevation means you’re closer to the sun—so don’t scrimp on sunscreen.

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