What do you do if you’re a race director and bad weather is looming? It’s certainly a tough call, especially if you have 1,000 runners eager to race in one of the country’s most iconic half marathons and the event is run mostly on singletrack trails.
That’s what the organizers of the popular Golden Leaf Half Marathon in Colorado were faced with last weekend as snow and near-freezing temperatures swept into the Aspen area on Friday. The Golden Leaf is one of the most popular trail races in Colorado and, with about 1,000 participants spread over six starting waves, it’s one of the largest trail races in the U.S.
The 13.1-mile race is held primarily on the singletrack Government Trail between Snowmass Village and Koch Park in Aspen. It takes runners through the terrain of two ski resorts, primarily on land under permit from the U.S. Forest Service.
The race is typically held on a Saturday in late September during the peak of fall colors when the aspen trees are glowing in a bright yellow hue, something that adds to its attraction as a destination race for runners from Denver, Boulder, Colorado Springs and other locales farther afield.
Race organizers had informed participants via email that the event was still on as of late Friday night, but that they were keeping an eye on the situation. The official announcement of the cancelation was made early Saturday morning, a few hours before the 8:30 a.m. start time.
“We are concerned for the safety of our racers, volunteers and staff,” race organizers posted on the event website Saturday morning. “This is a difficult decision and we know it is disappointing to our racers, but we believe it is the best decision for the majority of racers. We hope you understand.”
Naturally, a lot of runners were very upset, especially because many booked hotel stays in the Aspen area for the weekend. Despite some cold, snowy weather across Colorado and Utah, several other races were held—including the inaugural Silverton Double Dirty 30 100K in Silverton, Colo., and The North Face Endurance Challenge races in Park City, Utah—but ultimately the decision to cancel the Golden Leaf was based on both the cold weather—it was 34 degrees in Snowmass Village early Saturday morning—and the potential for slippery, muddy and hazardous trails.
By the time the race was supposed to start, it was still cool with light snow flurries in both Snowmass and Aspen. Although the conditions improved considerably throughout the day, race officials believed they made the right decision.
“My stomach was in knots all day Saturday,” said Paul Perley, general manager of the Ute Mountaineer outdoor shop in Aspen, which co-organizes the race with the City of Aspen. “Most people have been supportive, but there are people upset and disappointed, and I get it. They wanted to run the race. But I’d rather hear that than knowing we had people getting injured out on the course.”
The Government Trail wasn’t officially closed on Saturday, so some runners opted to run all or part of the course anyway. However, several runners who ran the course on their own said the trails were still wet, slippery and muddy and could have presented safety concerns.
As in the case with virtually all races in the U.S., refunds are not offered in the result of cancelations—especially when the reason for canceling is tied to weather or safety concerns. Participants are made fully aware of those stipulations on the event website and in the race waiver and that the $75 entry fee is non-refundable, Perley said.
The money was spent in advance on safety personnel, aid station supplies, a non-refundable contract with a timing company, portable toilet rentals and more, he said.
But, Perley said, the race organizers are working on a system that will allow runners who registered this year to register again next year, even though they’d have to pay the registration fee again. That’s a standard situation when races are canceled because of weather and was the case when the New York City Marathon was canceled in 2012 because of Hurricane Sandy.
“That’s hard for people to understand, I know,” Perley said.
Despite the less-than-ideal weather, event organizers went ahead with plans for the catered post-race lunch and raffle—which are known as being among the best post-race events in Colorado—at Koch Park late Saturday morning.
“It’s disappointing to find out it’s not happening, but I think they made the right decision,” said Todd Kube, a runner from Longmont, Colo., who was planning to run the race with his daughter, who had flown in from Seattle. “It’s a tough call. The trail conditions were pretty wet in several spots and sending 1,000 runners on wet and damp trails would have beat it up quite a bit.”
The Golden Leaf Half Marathon had only been canceled once before, in 2006 when a snowstorm buried the trails the day and night before the race.
Eddie Metro, a runner from Boulder, Colo., was registered for the race but opted not to drive to Aspen on Friday once the forecast looked unfavorable. He didn’t have hotel reservations because he was planning to spend the night in his RV.
“I had been monitoring the weather since Wednesday. You do that in Colorado,” Metro said. “I saw what was on the way and had seen a few posts from people already there and in Crested Butte. I pulled the plug on going and stayed home and had a great weekend of cycling instead.”