Chasing the Rabbit: Trails Abound in Steamboat Springs, Colorado
June 9, 2020
Heading north on Colorado Highway 40,just past the yesteryear hunting town of Kremmling (population: 7,300 humans, with seemingly just as many elk in the surrounding area), a series of roadside plywood signs begin. “F.M. Light & Sons. Use Yer Head When Buying a Hat.”… One of the signs has a cowboy boot with spurs. Another has a 10-gallon hat. One has a lasso. This is cowboy country, with open ranchland stretching gently uphill for 25 miles. There aren’t any roadside bathrooms—I know because I’ve looked for them. On the bright side, there are few witnesses if you need to pull off and sprinkle some sagebrush. Only the cows will see you.
The highway climbs as it beelines north before arcing westward. It eventually plateaus at 9,400 feet, on a long stretch that is unusually humid and experiences cantankerous weather.
On the north side of the highway, rocky crags litter the horizon rather than the high peaks associated with the Rocky Mountains. From one cluster of rocks ascends two columns of reddish basalt rock—side-by-side towers, like two vigilant rabbit ears. And thus is named this highpoint of the highway: Rabbit Ear’s Pass.
From Rabbit Ear’s Pass, Highway 40 makes a wide right-hand bend. Off on the left-hand side, beyond a guardrail and nearly three thousand vertical feet below, sprawls the verdant Yampa Valley. Farm acreage and ranchland stretch northward to a cluster of high peaks—home to the famed Steamboat Ski Resort. And, beyond the ski slopes, barely visible only with squinted eyes, is the town of Steamboat Springs, basecamp for ski vacations. Popular with mountain bikers, and, still unbeknownst to the greater trail-runner population, it is a blossoming hub for runners who crave putting foot to dirt.
An Emerging Trail Scene
Ski towns often get shunned by trail runners. Maybe it’s because summertime running is the red-headed stepchild of the powder stashes and white-glazed heaven of winter. Or perhaps it’s because trail runners prefer mountainsides overflowing with trees—not sliced by ski runs. It’s fun to get lost amongst the trees, but apparently not as fun to huff up grassy hills littered with the occasional ski-pole handle or orphaned mitten.
Steamboat is one of the exceptions.
My first idea that a trail-running scene existed in this well-known ski town was in 2004. While on an overnight stay on my way to the Bighorn 100 in northern Wyoming, I spied a small poster at a local café—a rundown of events in the Steamboat Running Series. I noted that a few of the runs were off road.
Actually, I learned later, some Steamboat trail races have been around for decades. The Hayden Cog Run, for example, is one of the oldest continuously run events in the state. Twenty-year Steamboat-Springs local and current Series director, Cara Marrs, estimates that the series has existed in some form for 25 years. Nowadays, as a new trail race seems to launch every week, that kind of heritage is hard to find.
“When I moved here it was all paper registrations,” recalls Marrs. “No website; you went and filled out a form at Christy Sports, paid a $20 check and showed up at the race the next weekend.”
The series now advertises nationally, and brings at least 2,000 runners to Steamboat every year. “The economic impact cannot be overstated,” says Marrs. “We had no idea how it would grow over the decade since we took it over.”
The following summer, in 2005, I stood at the foot of the Steamboat Ski Resort, at the start of another of the series’ must-run events: The Mount Werner Classic. This gnarly 12-mile trail run followed fire roads and singletrack nearly 3,500 vertical feet to the top of Mount Werner before a punishing fire-road descent halfway back down the mountain to the finish.
From the start—a low-key “three-two-one-go”—the pace redlined as more than 50 runners thinned out on doubletrack before funneling onto a trail. Determined to keep contact with the front pack, my lungs burned from the pace and the thin, dry air. We strode through aspen groves large enough to fill a football stadium, the day’s early sunlight filtering through their cellophane leaves, casting a stained-glass glow on the forest floor.
At the finish, runners sat in lounge chairs and on benches, soaking in the cool sun with the Yampa Valley meandering below. Not far off, a hot-air balloon hovered weightless and silent, keeping a peaceful vigil over us. Soon enough, I enjoyed a gondola ride down the mountain’s steep slopes, with a root beer in my hand and a happy ache in my quads.
Later that night, at a campground up on Rabbit Ear’s Pass, I smiled at my dumb luck—not in claiming a very rare win in my fledgling running career, but in discovering a hidden gem of a trail scene. I promised the campfire gods that I would come back to further explore the area.
Endless Room to Explore
When you consider the treasure chest of trails around Steamboat Springs, it’s a wonder that there are not even more trail races in the area. According to Avery Collins, general manager at the local running shop, Twisted Trails Running Company, the region is home to at least 1,500 (“Yes, 1,500!” he emphasizes) miles of trails, much of it singletrack through glorious stretches of backcountry.
“You can live here a lifetime and never run all the trails,” he says. “There’s something in the aspen groves that takes over your senses and makes you feel so free. Steamboat has a way of making you forget about what’s going on in the world.”
From the center of town—several colorful blocks of rustic storefronts and restaurants—a trail runner with wanderlust in his or her heart can set out in any direction and hit paved path or dirt within a half mile.
Barely three miles northeast of the town center, and connectable by paths, is the Spring Creek Trail, a portal toward 10,200-foot Buffalo Pass. Streamers of singletrack snake upward from the trailhead—with some detoured loops around alpine lakes. The climb upward is locally famed for its many bridge crossings, each of them numbered.
Six miles farther north—a short drive through rambling ranchland—are the wild and long trails of the Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest. After wandering the trails in these parts, it’s nearly a crime to not stop at the Strawberry Hot Springs. Keep in mind that clothing becomes optional after the sun goes down.
Farther north, the Mount Zirkel Wilderness offers more than 160,000 acres. This vast wilderness and locals’ haunt is punctuated by exposed metamorphic rock, 12,185-foot Mount Zirkel (not to mention 14 other peaks over 12,000 feet) and 70 crystalline lakes. Says 28-year-old Devon Olson, who moved to the area with Collins three years ago, “If I have a summer day off, I’m going to make the drive and either tag Zirkel Summit or do the 11-mile Zirkel Circle Loop. It’s unreal up there.”
Due east of town is Fish Creek Falls. This spot is a magnet for tourists, as a postcard-worthy, 280-foot waterfall is an easy quarter-mile hike from the parking lot. Not to worry, though—wander another quarter mile past the camera-wielding hordes to access aspen-lined trails, a stout-but-runable ascent and even another waterfall, which nobody seems to know about. These trails also plug into a larger network higher up, where you can run for days along the Continental Divide.
Southeast of Steamboat Springs are the ski hills, which offer a series of dirt maintenance roads and singletrack that can take you all the way to the top of Mount Werner, formerly called Storm Mountain, likely because of its tendency to snag so much of the area’s trademark champagne powder.
And for anybody tempted to dismiss running ski hills as a sanitized, unnatural act, think twice. While running up these slopes one morning, I spied a very well-fed black bear only a few hundred yards away, turning my mellow cruise into an interval workout. Perhaps it was the same bear that looted the runner drop bags at a race a few years back.
From the tip-top of the mountain, if your legs still have some giddy-up in them, take the Mountain View Trail eastward off the backside. It’s a scenic, rocky and remote route, contouring and undulating all the way to the serene Long Lake. For extra credit, take a left before hitting the lake, and head down Fish Creek Falls Trail all the way to—you guessed it—Fish Creek Falls.
Just south of town is Emerald Mountain, the beating heart of the local mountain-biking scene but also a haven for those wishing to keep their feet on the ground. This system offers over 24 miles of multi-use, roller-coaster trails.
When tackling Emerald Mountain, many trail runners start their adventures from the northern base, closest to town. True to the town’s ranching roots, this is home to rodeo grounds. Also fitting is the ski-jump hill, open year-round so that Olympic medalist hopefuls can hone their ski-soaring technique.
In fact, Steamboat takes great pride in the fact that roughly one out of every 152 people in town has been or is an Olympian. The locals brag that no other town in North America has produced more winter Olympians than Steamboat Springs—nearly 100 total as of the 2014 Sochi Winter Games. Most years, Steamboat Springs sends more athletes to the winter games than many small countries.
A Hare-Brained Idea
Nowadays, all of the true trail towns have their own backyard ultras. Leadville, Colorado, has its namesake legendary 100, plus a 50-miler. Ashland, Oregon, has the Lithia Loop Trail Marathon and the Pine to Palm 100-miler. Seattle has the White River 50 and the Cascade Crest 100. Auburn, California, has the Way Too Cool 50K and the granddaddy of them all, the Western States 100.
So, by the mid-2000s, already with a long list of beautiful trail races on its calendar, Steamboat seemed ripe for a national-class ultra.
The story began with Fred Abramowitz, a gregarious attorney who lives in Fort Collins, Colorado, another booming trail town, about 150 miles east of Steamboat Springs. Abramowitz co-owned a duplex in Steamboat with a competitive road racer and track athlete named Jon Sinclair. After pacing Abramowitz at the Hardrock 100 one year, Sinclair became instantly hooked by the idea of running farther instead of faster. “Before I knew what was happening, I was on the starting line of the 2005 Western States 100,” he says.
It was in training for the Western States 100 that Sinclair got intimate with Steamboat’s cache of trails. Sinclair had been directing the Colorado Marathon in Fort Collins, and he and Abramowitz started brainstorming about an ultra around Steamboat Springs. “With a quadrangle map, we started looking at how we could connect a lot of the trails to get to a 50-miler,” says Sinclair.
Soon, Abramowitz recruited the help of other runners in the area, including one of the sport’s luminaries, Betsy Kalmeyer, a five-time winner and 17-time finisher of the Hardrock 100.
“Steamboat Springs says that they have produced more winter Olympic athletes than any town in America,” says Abramowitz. “My pitch was that there’s no reason that it can’t be a mecca for summer athletes, too.”
So, at 6 a.m. on September 15, 2007, roughly 45 entrants lined up in the chilly darkness at the base of Mount Werner for the inaugural Run Rabbit Run 50-Miler. Abramowitz admits that the night before, in the pre-race briefing, “I remember looking around the room, thinking, ‘Who are these people and what are they thinking doing a race that has never been run before?’”
Rabbit Ears and Sore Legs
My own indoctrination into the Steamboat ultramarathon scene came the next year, at the 2008 Run Rabbit Run 50. Undertrained because of a broken ankle earlier that year, I headed up to Steamboat in mid-September with low expectations on what was reputed to be a tough course. My dread, though, faded quickly up on Rabbit Ear’s Pass on race-day eve—the blazing aspens up there helped me forget my lack of preparation. I thought, “The sheer natural beauty up here will get me through the low patches.”
The next day, I settled into an early rhythm as I climbed Mount Werner with the other racers, including an exuberant runner named Jenna Gruben. Our breath fogged up the few feet in front of us and floated away into the mountain air as we marveled at the golden rays of the rising sun.
After four hours, I scrambled through brush and across rock fields just below the twin rock spires that adorn Rabbit Ear’s Pass. A few miles later, I hit the turnaround point to cheers from the aid-station volunteers, some of whom wore rabbit ears atop their heads. Off in the distance across a marshy meadow, I spied a moose munching on some shrubs, oblivious to or unconcerned with my presence.
Returning on the same trail and feeling confident that a finish was within my grasp, I relaxed enough to savor the scenery. Ponds, pines and endless aspen groves pulled me along the trail.
Back on top of Mount Werner, I stopped to absorb the broad expanse of the Yampa Valley far below, with downtown Steamboat in the distance. A long, heel-slamming descent toward the finish ensured that my quads would remind me for many days of the serious toll taken by the Rabbit course.
After that inaugural year, the race almost went away. Says Abramowitz, “After that first year, I thought, ‘Great experience, but I’m never doing this again.’ Putting it on by myself was just way too much.”
“We really didn’t know what we were doing, and we had almost no volunteers,” he adds. Colorado speedster and former University of Colorado runner Zeke Tiernan won the race, and Abramowitz’s rag-tag team of volunteers had to scramble just to get aid stations set up before he came through.
Was the Rabbit 50 going to be a one-and-done affair? It looked that way briefly, until an angel intervened.
“I was running the next day, up Spring Creek Trail,” Abramowitz says. “This gal is running down toward me. I recognized her as the second-place woman from the race.”
“You’re Fred,” Abramowitz recalls the woman saying. “You put on the race.”
“Yeah, but I’m never doing it again,” said Abramowitz.
“She looked at me and said, ‘I’ll do it.’”
That woman was Jenna Gruben, who would become a critical link to the Steamboat running community. “She took on the role of volunteer coordinator,” says Abramowitz. If it were not for her belief in the race and enthusiastic ability to get the local trail community involved, the race may well have dissolved.
(In 2010, however, Gruben would tragically die in a car accident. She and two friends, including Marrs, were driving back from running the Moab Red Hot trail race in Utah. Several people interviewed for this story commented on Gruben’s lasting impact on the running community, through her hard work and inspiration.)
Hundreds (and Thousands) of Reasons to Run in Steamboat
In the eight years following my labored running of the Run Rabbit Run 50, the trail scene grew by leaps and bounds.
As it became clear that the Run Rabbit Run 50 had staying power, Abramowitz began dreaming of a 100-miler. But not just any 100-miler.
“We wanted to break the paradigm of races,” he says. “I felt that we could attract world-class ultramarathoners here.”
Abramowitz got the input of many renowned ultrarunners—Karl Meltzer, Geoff Roes, Nick Clarke, to name a few—on what would make for a memorable race. They all said that the course had to be hard. So Abramowitz and his team crafted a course with a lot of vertical, with as few access points as possible. “To get people back there into the wilderness,” he says.
Also, Abramowitz felt it would be great if the back-of-the-pack runners could get a view of the high-end competition, and even run side by side with the elites. So, he offered runners the chance to enter as either a “Hare” (translation: fast, experienced, and with competitive ambitions) or a “Tortoise” (translation: in it to finish, whether it took 24 or 36 hours). He staggered the start so that hares started later in the morning and would eventually catch up to the tortoises.
“Many people have mentioned the excitement of having the elites passing them,” says Abramowitz.
That first year, 2012, there was no shortage of hype around the Run Rabbit Run 100. The total prize purse came to $40,000—the largest in the sport—and the field was among the most elite assembled that year. Fifty-two “hares” took part, including Meltzer, Timothy Olson, Dylan Bowman and Lizzie Hawker (from the UK).
“Since we were the first 100 to offer good prize money,” says Abramowitz, “there were a lot of expectations.” Unfortunately, there were also glitches. Runners complained that the course was poorly marked. It was also long—107 miles by many estimates.
“Some people got lost,” says Abramowitz. “Overall, though, it went well.”
With a 31-hour cut-off, and some first-year pains, there were 16 hare finishers and 45 (out of 92) tortoise finishers.
A Tortoise’s Perspective
In 2016, during the pre-sunrise miles of northern Colorado’s Never Summer 100K, I ran alongside my friend Scott Klopfenstein, from Cascade, Colorado.
“You should think about the Run Rabbit Run 100,” he said, as I slurped from a water bottle, listening.
“I love the race,” said Klopfenstein. “It’s not too far from home. It’s in the fall—my favorite time of year. It’s easy for family to get to the aid stations and they don’t have to jockey for position like at some other races. The Friday morning start is nice too, since you can actually finish on Saturday and enjoy the rest of the weekend. The race itself is challenging and scenic.”
The following week, Klopfenstein’s words echoed. Despite the smorgasbord of other possible late-summer 100-mile races, the lure of the Rabbit’s scenery was too much to resist.
I signed up, crammed in some miles throughout August and packed up the car on September 15 to tackle the Rabbit.
More Than a Race
True to my last-second decision to run the Run Rabbit Run 100, I got to race check-in at the last second as well. Runners milled around taking photos of the last blasts of the setting sun painting Mount Werner. I dropped off my drop bags, said a quiet prayer that no bears would raid them and headed to the pasta dinner.
The next morning, Abramowitz, wearing bunny ears, sent us tortoises on our way up the mountain, into the brisk air.
The race flowed like all 100-mile trail ultras, with highs and lows meshing together into an epic experience. I made friends along the way—including 52-year-old Brit Brian Melia, who tripped over himself taking in the fall colors. I had euphoric patches, like descending Fish Creek Falls Trail, running morning miles along the placid Long Lake and later jogging under a full moon sans headlamp.
Then, I had my low points, such as leaving an aid station too soon when I sorely needed to regroup, and shivering in a catatonic state in the middle of the woods. Later, near sunrise, I stumbled up a seemingly never-ending dirt road, my toe frequently dragging in the gravel.
“Are you OK?” asked one runner as he casually strolled uphill past me.
“Yeah, I’ll get there,” I slurred. Minutes later, my stomach erupted and I vomited loudly while birds tweeted their pre-dawn songs from the nearby bushes. Instantly, I felt the best that I had in several hours, and continued onward.
Twenty-eight hours after I began, I descended Mount Werner alongside my pacing wife toward the finish line. Golden yellow leaves fluttered to the ground, settling on emerald green hillsides while casual hikers wandered the same trails. Overhead, the mountain’s gondola ushered tourists higher up the mountain. From the cable cars, an occasional head would pop up, likely confused by the juxtaposition of my labored shuffle and smile on my face.
As I always do in the final steps of an ultra, I let myself reflect. This time, my memories went far beyond snapshots of just this one race. I thought about the Run Rabbit Run 50, the Mount Werner Classic many years earlier, fun runs I’d done on Emerald Mountain in between, soaks at Strawberry Hot Springs and family outings to Fish Creek Falls. These experiences transcended any postcards or finisher’s medals. Steamboat, I decided, was the ultimate trail-runner’s escape.
That is, as long as you have bear spray in your running pack and a pair of cowboy boots waiting in the car.
Must-Run Races in the ’Boat
The Steamboat Springs Running Series is the foundation of the local trail-running scene. Directed by Cara Marrs and Tyler Jacobs, it runs from early May through December (www.runningseries.com).
June 17, 2017
Howelson Hill Trail Run 8M, 4M
Held on the singletrack of Emerald Mountain just as the wildflowers are starting to go off.
July 1, 2017
Mountain Madness 13.1M, 10K
Held over Fourth of July weekend, when Steamboat Springs puts on a great party, the Madness takes runners along country roads with sweeping views of the ski area and the Yampa River.
July 29, 2017
Spring Creek Memorial 9.5M, 5K
Run in memory of Patty Brenner Hagberg, who was struck and killed by a truck along the lower part of the trail in 1991. Spring Creek provides ribbons of singletrack and countless wooden-bridge crossings.
August 13, 2017
Steamboat Stinger Marathon & Half-Marathon
Hosted by the local energy-food company HoneyStinger, this is a grand tour of the narrow, winding singletrack that’s made Steamboat a mecca for mountain bikers.
August 26, 2017
Continental Divide Trail Run 50K, 16M
A glorious last hurrah to the summer season, with stout elevation gain and a course that tops out at 10,400 feet while exploring some of the area’s most remote reaches.
September 3, 2017
10K @ 10,000 feet 10K, 5K
A thin-air adventure that starts up high by Rabbit Ear’s Pass. Rumor is that it might be a tad longer that 10K, so you get your money’s worth.
September 8, 2017
Run Rabbit Run 50M, 100M
The trail-runner’s ultimate experience, with enough foliage, wildlife and wilderness to fill your iPhone’s memory.