Running with the Belles |

Running with the Belles

Colleen O’Neil
The Maroon Belles Trail Club is a group for women to get together and run on the trails around the valley. Here, women run to Thomas Lakes on a summer evening.
Ann Driggers / Provided |

When I was working at Independence Run & Hike in Carbondale, I’d field a recurring question from newcomers to town. The eager runners, fresh from Denver or Cincinnati, would ask, “Are there any running groups around here?”

There are — the store has two group runs on Thursdays and Saturdays that are attended by a core group of folks who have been coming for years. Occasionally new runners would show up, but they wouldn’t always stick around when their lives in the valley got busier.

Mostly people in the valley ran on their own time, whenever they had a free hour away from work or their kids. Sometimes they’d flock in groups of two or three. But mostly they ran alone.

About two years ago, one runner got an idea.

Yitka Winn saw a gap in the running community when she moved to Redstone in 2013 to accept a position at Trail Runner magazine in Carbondale.

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“I had to say goodbye to a vibrant trail-running community in my previous home of Seattle,” she wrote in an email to the Post Independent.

“The Roaring Fork and Crystal valleys are filled with so many incredible, active — but busy! — women,” she said. “I kept meeting women who also loved to trail run, and we’d talk about how we should really run together sometime — but then we rarely ever made it happen.”

Winn, along with two fellow trail runners in the valley, Jen Burn and Elinor Fish, decided to set a time once a week to meet up and run together at Red Hill or Prince Creek.

They created a Facebook group to help connect all the women in the valley who also loved to run trails.

It started small, with just their friends and acquaintances. But in the time since, the Maroon Belles has grown to include almost 200 women.

Winn has since moved to Telluride to pursue her freelance career and train for long trail races (most recently the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc in France).

“I’m sad to no longer be in the valley,” she said. “But it’s still immensely rewarding to watch the group grow from afar, and know that I’ll always have friends to run with when I come back to visit.”

Now the group is managed by local running coach Elinor Fish and Kylee Schuler. The Maroon Belles has members from New Castle to Aspen, so it serves as a way for women to connect from all over the valley.

Schuler, who moved to Carbondale from Crested Butte last winter, felt like running with the Maroon Belles helped her find a community.

“I’ve met some amazing, like-minded women — and men — from all around the valley,” Schuler said. Even though she was a Division 1 runner at the University of Richmond, she likes to run with people of all ability levels.

“It’s just nice to be able to connect with other trail runners and share a special experience,” she said. “Some of the best moments of my life have been spent on runs with friends.”

The running club has also helped some of its members return to trail running after burnout or injuries.

Five years ago, Michelle Smith, an avid outdoor athlete who ran track at James Madison University, took a fall while mountaineering on the Grand Teton in Wyoming. With a shattered leg and a broken back, doctors told her that full recovery would take five years. Running long distances was questionable.

But last weekend, she celebrated her five-year recovery by completing the Four Pass Loop in the Maroon Bells Wilderness above Aspen. The trail has 8,000 feet of elevation gain and loss, and it stays around 10,000 to 12,000 feet in elevation for 27 miles. Smith and a few other women ran the whole thing in one day.

“I didn’t even consider doing the Four Pass Loop in a day before I started running with the Belles,” Smith said. “I found I was given a ton of positive energy and motivation from running with them.”

They organized weekly long runs throughout the spring and summer to build up to the distance.

“We kept each other stoked and committed all summer long,” Smith said. Smith, a filmmaker, is working on a documentary about the female trail running community based on her experience with the Maroon Belles.

Jordan Fields, who just moved up to the marathon distance this year, credits the Belles with helping her go further than she thought she could.

“The Belles introduced me to fast and talented women who push me to go harder and further in the mountains,” she said. “I’m not sure how I would have met them otherwise since they would probably just breeze by me on the trails.”

Every week, Schuler leads weekly workouts and trail runs for the group, which she posts on its Facebook page, The Maroon Belles Trail Club. Look them up on Facebook — there’s no club entry fee. Just show up and run.

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