Frank Shorter first came to Boulder, Colo., in the summer of 1970, one year after he graduated from Yale and two years before he won the marathon at the Munich Olympics. Boulder's attraction, at first, was altitude. "Bob Giegengack, my track coach at Yale, had been in Mexico City with the 1968 Olympic team," says Shorter. "He noticed that even though our distance runners did not run well at altitude, they came back down to sea level and ran very well. He believed there was a connection."
Giegengack's musings were not lost on Shorter, who began to search for a place to test his coach's theory. He settled on Boulder. "It's above 5,000 feet, and there was an indoor track as well as miles of trails," says Shorter. "The physiologists can say what they want—everyone has to get their grants—altitude does help."
If it doesn't, it has certainly exerted a remarkable placebo effect on the scores of top endurance athletes from around the world who now train in Boulder. The town, with a population nowadays of around 75,000, lies 20 miles northwest of Denver. It nestles cozily at the base of the eastern slope of the Rockies, where warm chinook winds frequently produce midwinter temperatures in the 50's, ideal for year-round training.
When Shorter first moved to Boulder, the runners had the trails pretty much to themselves. But with the founding in 1975 of the Red Zinger Bicycle Classic (later called the Coors Classic), serious cyclists discovered Boulder, and it is now home to Velo News, as well as to Davis Phinney and Connie Carpenter-Phinney, Andy Hampsten, and Marianne Martin, the winner in 1984 of the first women's Tour de France.
The cyclists, in turn, brought the triathletes, who were pleased to discover that there are nine 25-yard swimming pools in town, including seven indoors. Mark Allen, who won last year's Iron-man in Hawaii, Mike Pigg and Colleen Cannon, who won the U.S. Triathlon Series overall title last year, spend all or part of the year in Boulder. The newly married triathletes Scott Molina and Erin Baker have a place in the hills.
The runners, of course, are still there. Where else could you find such a superb group of distance runners living within a mile of each other as you do in Boulder's Wonderland Hills section? There are Arturo Barrios, of Mexico, the men's world-record holder for 10,000 meters; Ingrid Kristiansen, the Norwegian who holds the women's world records in the 5,000, the 10.000 and the marathon; Priscilla Welch, of England, the world-record holder for the women's masters (40 and over) marathon; Rob de Castella, of Australia, winner of the 1983 world marathon championship and the '86 Boston Marathon. Steve Jones, of Wales, a former world-record holder in the marathon, is buying a house in the neighborhood. Rosa Mota, of Portugal, the 1988 Olympic champion in the marathon, is a frequent visitor.
"You go to any athletes' party," says Diane Israel, a triathlete who moved to Boulder from New York City in 1981. "and it's like the opening ceremony of the Olympics. All these medal winners and all these languages."
But don't get the idea that all the foreign athletes train together. Far from it. Barrios likes to run alone on the flat dirt trails around the Boulder Reservoir, east of town. De Castella prefers the trails that start 50 yards from his door and then go for miles into the mountains. They might bump into each other along the Pearl Street Mall or gather at the Cafe Gondolier—"the Gondo"—for pasta, or at de Castella's house for long runs followed by brunch. "There's a training-camp atmosphere," says John Cabell, who moved to Boulder in 1980. four years after he ran 29:09 for the 10.000 as a Princeton junior. "People don't necessarily train with other people, but it helps to know other people are training."
Interestingly, among the runners. Americans are not represented in large numbers. Shorter thinks that's a mistake. "We've lost that enclave aspect," he says. "The Italians have their clubs, so do the British. This is a logical place to train. The foreign guys are just taking advantage of it."
But as Shorter is quick to point out, it's not altitude alone that makes Boulder so logical a place to train. It's attitude—what Shorter likes to refer to as the "accommodation factor." The town and the University of Colorado, which is based there, go out of their way to make life easy for athletes. "This is a beautiful place," says Cabell. "But there are others just as beautiful. The key is community support. Everyone in town works out. I take no-smoking restaurants and fit people for granted." Though there are already seven indoor pools in town, a hot issue in March was whether or not the city should include a 50-meter pool in the new recreation center being built in East Boulder. It was rejected by the city council, but proponents have not given up yet.
And it's not just the community. "The university is one of the best at letting people take advantage of its facilities," says Shorter. "I came here because Jerry Quiller, the Colorado cross-country coach, was willing to open the indoor track to me. I ran with his guys."
Then there's the anonymity factor. Back home in their respective countries. Barrios, Mota, Kristiansen and de Castella are major celebrities. But folks in Boulder more or less ignore them.
"It's easy to train and feel comfortable here," says Kristiansen, who first came to Boulder to prepare for the 1985 Chicago Marathon and now owns a house in town. "There are so many cyclists and so many runners and so many people who are good in sports, and you are only one of them."
Not everyone is drawn here. Pat Porter is one runner who isn't sold on the city's charms. The eight-time U.S. crosscountry champion lives in Alamosa, 250 miles south of Boulder. "Boulder's not for everybody. There's almost too much going on there," says Porter. "Don't forget, runners made Boulder. Boulder didn't make the runners. Most of the people who went there were great already."
That criticism notwithstanding, the town makes almost everyone else feel at home. It is liberal enough to encompass the extremes of the ideological spectrum, symbolically speaking: Soldier of Fortune magazine and the Celestial Seasonings herbal tea company are both headquartered in town; Boulder has a glut of bicycle shops, movie theaters and bookstores, and a New Age community. "When I first came here, a lot of the flakier stuff was hard to take," says David Welch, who is Priscilla's husband and coach. In Boulder the "flakier stuff' goes far beyond meditation, crystals and Rolfing. The town also offers myotherapy, yoga therapy, shamanic counseling and resonance balancing. Lorraine Moller, the 1984 Boston Marathon champion, has a business called The Bodymind Connection, whose patrons lie on a bed that rises and falls in a circular, wavelike motion that is designed to "exercise" the brain and release stress.
Boulder's residents believe, with seemingly near unanimity, that this lifestyle is worth preserving. Boulder owns a 25,025-acre greenbelt of undeveloped land and recently approved an increase in the local sales tax for further purchases of open spaces. There are laws governing the height of buildings and the size of signs, none of which are allowed to have blinking lights. Boulder is also the only municipality in the U.S. that owns its own glacier, to ensure the purity of the town's water supply.
Perhaps, in the end. Boulder's appeal has less to do with either altitude or aesthetics. "It's simple," says Shorter. "You train best when you're happiest."