“Rocky Mountain High”: John Denver & Traveling to Denver, CO for 13.1 Miles of Running

“Rocky Mountain High”: John Denver & Traveling to Denver, CO for 13.1 Miles of Running

“But the Colorado rocky mountain high
I’ve seen it rainin’ fire in the sky
The shadow from the starlight is softer than a lullabye
Rocky mountain high”

– John Denver “Rocky Mountain High”

The other day was gorgeous outside, with the sun shining and 65°F. I mean, it could have been 50°F, and, as a New Englander, I would have thrown on shorts and celebrated! The temperature was incredible, and the snow finally melted. I went for a run, and along the way, as I allowed myself to fall deep into thought, I reflected on my favorite half marathons. I have spoken of them before on this blog, but my memory kept bringing me back to Denver, CO. The Rock n’ Roll Denver Half Marathon is one of the best races I have ever run, and I mentioned it in an August 2020 post. Denver is a fantastic city, and this was an awesome trip.

As I mentioned in one of last month’s posts, “No Sleep Till Brooklyn!”, my brother Jeff promised that if we ran the Rock n’ Roll Brooklyn race in 2016, he would support me in selecting a race destination, further away, in 2017. Knowing exactly where I wanted to go and supported by a series of welcomed cosmic occurrences, the stars seemed to align. I went to Jeff with my request to run in Denver. Join me as I explore the city, the race once again, but honestly, for the first time, first observing the emotional connection that sparked my need to visit the city and see the mountains I had read about, or more importantly, heard about in songs.

Background Based in Music

“Sunshine on my shoulders makes me happy
Sunshine in my eyes can make me cry
Sunshine on the water looks so lovely
Sunshine almost always makes me high”

– John Denver “Sunshine On My Shoulders”

If I told you that my need to see Denver, CO was out of admiration for John Denver’s music, would you believe me? The truth is, while I love all musical genres, and my post, When Time Stops, covered this topic well, I often have musicians I listen to constantly to center me or find solace. Aslyn, Alanis Morissette, Bryan Adams, and Pat McGee Band are a few of those I mentioned in that post. Still, none of them connect to me on an emotional level like John Denver’s music. Songs like “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” “Rhymes & Reasons,” “Sunshine on My Shoulders,” and “Poems, Prayers & Promises” are a couple of the songs I gravitate to on my iPod. His album Poems, Prayers & Promises, released on May 1, 1971, ranks as my favorite of his albums and is usually my first streaming selection.

The other day, as I flipped through the stations after watching the pilot episode of Superman & Lois on the CW, which was good, there was a John Denver documentary on PBS. I sat with my wife and watched it to completion, without even realizing that I had stopped searching for something else. I could not shut it off, and I have seen documentaries on John Denver before and understand the story of his life well enough. This film was nothing special, but I watched it. Maybe because of the utter turmoil the pandemic has caused, perhaps because I am starting to overcome the anxiety that plagued me off and on over the last year, I could not, in good conscience, change the channel. I was transfixed, ready for the next chapter/song to appear. In each moment, I felt reflective and weirdly happy.

I am not sure when I first heard Denver’s music. It was certainly after his death in October 1997 and might have been after I watched the made-for-television movie, Take Me Home: The John Denver Story, which stared Chad Lowe as Denver, and Kristin Davis as his wife, Annie. That premiered in 2000, so I probably became acquainted with his sound earlier. I was a latecomer to his quality of folk music, but I quickly made up for it by purchasing his CDs and swiftly becoming well versed in his catalog. It was luck that I discovered my mother was a fan who had several of his albums. I would often sneak into her collection and “borrow” them to play in my bedroom, sometimes with my headphones on and other times without, as I sat by the open window with views of the towns’ harbor and ocean breezes coming in. I listened to his lyrics and melody. I played The Wildlife Concert album so much it stopped working. It didn’t matter. My mother eventually purchased me the concert on VHS. 

Today, the music constantly plays on my UE Boom and music streaming service. I no longer need the albums or the CDs. I have instant access to every John Denver song, but each time I hit play, I think about my mom and her love of his music, and it often leads to the recall of my trip to Denver with my brother Jeff. Denver is someone whose music I play, usually, when I feel like I need an emotional pick me up. Not unlike how I consider movie original music, especially from Lost, which I wrote about in “Nobody Does It All Alone”. Therefore, when I hear it, I revert inward in a protective way, making me reflective and nostalgic. It’s the type of music I listen to whenever I write my posts for this blog, which might be why the style of most blog posts is how they often are, and why nostalgia is a primary core to this entire blog space.

While I wasn’t listening to music, as I ran in the beautiful weather the other day, the run itself produced a reflective outburst. Once home, as my wife worked, I put the headphones on and dove into my original cinematic music and various John Denver albums. I reflected on this blog and what I wanted to write about next, and it led me to Denver, the trip, and the half marathon I ran. The reason why I choose Denver as my race destination was first, in reaction to a pressing need to see the state John Denver sang about often. While I needed to see the Rocky Mountains, I first had to convince my brother. I looked for a cosmic sign that would indicate that such a trip, location, and idea were appropriate and feasible.

When I discovered that the Rock n’ Roll running series regularly held a Denver event, my mind flexed. Since my brother enjoyed the Brooklyn race, which Rock n’ Roll organized, I knew he could be convinced, as I was. The fact that the race was in October was even better since Jeff, and I run a half marathon each year, often in October or November. So, discovering that the city I wanted to visit had a Rock n’ Roll sponsored half marathon and held it in the fall, where two stellar pieces of information for Jeff. Still, soon I found the “ignition switch.” There was a New York Giants football game against the Denver Broncos at Mile High Stadium on Sunday Night Football, the race day. As Jeff and I are NY Giants fans, this seemed incredible. A half marathon, a bucket list city, and an NFL football game – all on the same weekend. If I wanted a sign, I certainly got it.

In May 2017, Jeff and I registered for the Rock n’ Roll Denver Half Marathon and began to train for running at high altitudes. In the months leading up to our brother’s weekend trip, I researched restaurants, breweries, transportation, and best lodging locations. We certainly had plenty of things to do, but I wanted to do it right. Denver was a city that I had always wanted to visit, and here was my opportunity. Filled with breweries, football, family, and of course, the music of John Denver to keep me centered, and with the Rocky Mountains as my backdrop, this “runcation” is one of the more memorable running trips. On Friday, October 13, 2017, Jeff and I departed Boston for Denver.

Welcome to Denver, CO

“But the dawn is breakin’
It’s early morn
The taxi’s waitin’
He’s blowin’ his horn

– John Denver “Leaving on a Jet Plane”

Jeff met me at the airport on Friday morning, and we flew directly to Denver on Southwest. Our flight was early enough that upon arriving in Denver, it would be lunchtime. It was a smooth and lovely flight. It could have been because I enjoy flying Southwest or the overall excitement of the trip itself, but the flight went by wicked fast. Upon landing in Denver, and as I walked from our gate to baggage claim, I noticed a “Colorado Music” Exhibit featuring John Denver’s guitar, handwritten lyrics, jean shirt and boots, and more. This exhibit was temporary, actually ending a few days after we left. It was an effective way to start my Denver trip, seeing John Denver memorabilia not previously displayed.

Shortly after retrieving our luggage, Jeff and I took the A-Line train, part of the Regional Transportation District, linked directly with Downtown Denver. With no need to use Uber to start our trip, this seemed an easy and direct way to get to our hotel. The trip lasted 40 minutes and dropped us off at the historic Union Station, only blocks away from Coors Field, home of the MLB Colorado Rockies. At this point, we were a mile away from our hotel, so we took the MallRide, which is a free shuttle departing from Union Station every five minutes and proceeds down 16th Street making numerous stops, but eventually comes within one block of our hotel. The shuttle was simple to navigate and allowed us to observe the bustling 16th Street Mall area, which, from our hotel, we had instant access to the entire weekend.

Jeff left the lodging selection to me, and I choose the Homewood Suites by Hilton Denver Downtown-Convention Center, which shares the building, and elevator, with the Hampton Inn & Suites. It is a nice hotel, with plenty of amenities and a complimentary breakfast buffet, which we took advantage of each day. The room was spacious with a kitchen, a large bedroom, and a pull-out sofa, which was adequate. Overall, the space was splendid and included views of the Rocky Mountains and the nearby Colorado Convention Center. It was all one could need, but we were not at the hotel long. We didn’t have any plans for the day other than eating and exploring the Denver beer scene. It was Friday, and the race was on Sunday, so we wanted to use the first day to have fun.

After departing the hotel, we walked to get lunch at Yazoo BBQ Company, which Jeff selected. This place was phenomenal. We tried the wings, ate a pulled chicken sandwich, and devoured a rack of ribs with some incredible sides. It was a perfect way to start our stay in Denver and reminded me of a somewhat more straightforward version of Fette Su in Brooklyn. We spent an hour there, as Yazoo prepared the food relatively fast, and we ate at an even quicker pace. Soon we found ourselves walking to our first brewery, Great Divide Brewing. Great Divide is one of Jeff’s favorite brewers, and the fact that Yazoo was merely two blocks away made it an ideal place to visit first. It was moderately busy when we arrived, and I was surprised by how small the beer hall was with two rooms of tables and a view of the massive steel beer tanks. We ordered our drinks and found a table near a window where we could chat and compare beers. The brewery space eventually grew lively and filled with beer tourists and NY Giants fans who had come to Bronco country for the SNF game.

Great Divide Brewing was fantastic, and I had a wonderful time. I laughed, joked around, tried some different beer styles, and chatted with many NY Giants fans. After nearly two hours there, we departed and went to Woods Boss Brewing Company. This taproom was freaking amazing. In Downtown’s heart, Woods Boss has a gigantic beer hall and is only a short walk from Great Divide. The breweries we selected were all close to each other, allowing us to walk from one to the other and, while an Uber would have been fine, we enjoyed the walkability. With rustic and industrial decor and hip vibe, Woods Boss was spacious, allowed for observation of their beer drums and tanks, and had plenty of seating. Although we were the only ones there, for the most part, the atmosphere was fun.

If I had a favorite brewery in Denver, it was Woods Boss. It had the beer, atmosphere, design, and overall vibe I enjoy most when drinking at a local brewery. It has board games to play while you drink, and we took advantage of that. Here my brother and I had one of the worst scrabble games that two people can have. I mean, I like to think it was the beer since the sun was still out and I had already had three beers at Woods Boss. I want to believe that the beer affected my ability to string together words of more than four letters. I like to think that, but I doubt it, and only Woods Boss will know for sure. Yes, I took a picture of the scrabble board, but I won’t share it. That type of embarrassment would be too much! After a couple of fun hours, Jeff and I departed Woods Boss for our third brewery. As the sun dipped in the sky, we visited Jagged Mountain Craft Brewery.

According to their website, Jagged Mountain is a “no-nonsense brewpub offering an array of house-made craft beers” and doing so in a hip industrial space decorated with a fun, unique style. Jeff and I were able to sit out on their patio and enjoy our beers. Sitting outside in October and Downtown Denver was wonderful. The weather that day and the entire weekend was incredible. The temperature fluctuated between 55°F and 70°F all weekend with zero rain. Those of you who frequent my blog posts know the weather is usually a challenge, but not in Denver. We sat out on the patio and drank fantastic craft beers. We talked, sometimes venturing into philosophy and politics, which reminds me how much I love the power of a solid IPA. While I acknowledge that I hit my limit, the night was not yet over.

We ended up getting food at Breckenridge Brewery, at a location near Coors Field. They had an excellent American fare menu and a fine selection of craft beer options. With a New York Yankees/Houston Astros MLB playoff game on the television, I enjoyed my final beer of the night while eating a burger, sharing nachos, and, well, to be honest, I don’t remember everything I ate, but that all seems correct. I recall that barely anyone was there, which was a theme of the night, although Great Divide had plenty of football tourists and Jagged Mountain filled with beer-drinking locals. We visited four breweries that night, outpacing what we achieved a year before in Brooklyn. We have not matched this drinking level since, but we are still young.

Finally, we walked towards our hotel, but when Jeff drinks, even though not drunk, he enjoys running. At one point, I had to chase him down since he started sprinting between two major roads, and while it was late, it wasn’t that late. When I finally caught up to him, he tackled me like he was preparing to play in Sunday Night Football, not participating in Sunday’s Rock n’ Roll Half Marathon. In the end, we laughed our way back, enjoying a wonderful stroll along the 16th Street Mall. While we observed the shops, movie theaters, and other establishments, Jeff vocalized his ice-cream cravings. Before going back to the hotel, I took him to Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory but quickly discovered they didn’t have what he desired, so we continued our pursuit for a cold treat. In the end, we found an ice-cream eatery and ended the night with Jeff devouring a sundae.

Expo, Rest, & Ramen

I’ve been lately thinking about my life’s time
All the things I’ve done, how it’s been
And I can’t help believing in my own mind
I know I’m gonna hate to see it end

– John Denver “Poems, Prayers & Promises”

The following day we woke, enjoyed the breakfast buffet, and had some plans, but not as much as one might think. Sure, we wanted to walk around downtown, but, more importantly, we needed to pick up our race packets at the expo. Therefore, wanting to accomplish that first, I called an Uber, and we ventured to the Rock n’ Roll expo, held outside of downtown at the Events Center at National Western Complex. Like my thoughts about the Rock n’ Roll series organizers holding the Brooklyn expo in Manhattan, I am unsure why the Denver expo was far outside the downtown area when they have a huge convention center in the heart of the city. When we arrived at the expo, we quickly picked up our bibs and had sufficient time to peruse and buy last-minute race items. We spent roughly an hour at the expo, no more. That is why I do complain, slightly, about the location. While the expo was easy to navigate and did the job, the Uber ride back and forth was not cheap, and the time spent at the expo was not sufficient to qualify the rideshare prices or loss of time to transport.

Upon returning to the downtown area, we went for lunch. Jeff chose Pizza Republica, located downtown, adjacent to Lawrence Argent’s art installation of “Big Blue Bear,” and less than a mile away from our hotel. Known for its “Neapolitan-style pizza,” Pizza Republica makes its pizzas in a wood-fired brick oven, which proved delicious. Jeff and I got individual pizzas, but Jeff also got a freaking delicious chicken parmigiana sandwich, similar to what he had in Brooklyn. Although not Brooklyn pizza, Pizza Republica was gourmet and a perfect pre-race lunch. After lunch, we decided to see a movie to relax, and since we both love cinema, it seemed a logical way to put our feet up. We walked to a massive nearby theater, a beautiful cinema in the 16th Street Mall area called Regal UA Denver Pavilions. We took in the showing of Blade Runner 2049, which I was excited to see as a fan of the original. The fact that it was a long film helped, and I enjoyed the 4DX experience, and once done, we walked around downtown. 

After exploring the Denver Performing Arts Complex and the Metropolitan State University of Denver area, we walked across the Central Business District into North Capitol Hill. We journeyed north towards Coors Field and observed the LoDo area. Walking in a large loop with the beautiful weather supporting us, we had a pleasant time. With the sun setting, we decided to get dinner. Seeing as ramen has continued to be a staple on most of my half marathon trips, we sat down at Menya Noodle Bar. Ordering the ramen, we loved the flavors and left incredibly pleased and satisfied with our pre-race dinner. It was an easy but filled day, and while we could have continued our day with an early morning race, we headed back to the hotel to listen to music and get a good night’s sleep.

The Denver Rock n’ Roll Half Marathon

“And you wonder where we’re going
Where’s the rhyme and where’s the reason
And it’s you cannot accept
It is here we must begin”

– John Denver “Rhymes & Reasons”

On Sunday, October 16, Jeff and I woke up very early. The race start time was 7 am, but we were only a couple of blocks to Civic Center Park, where it began. Rock n’ Roll Denver is the perfect example of how I want every race to start and end. Like the Brooklyn race and the Lincoln Presidential Half Marathon, our hotel was near both the start and finish lines. This “arrangement” does not happen often, so if you can plan out your “runcation” this way, take it! More often than not, one part of your morning will use some transportation, but in Denver, we walked to and from; it was like finding Wonka’s golden ticket. When we arrived, the weather was fantastic, perfect for running, and the sun had still not fully risen. The starting area was great as we got to hang out near the Colorado Art Museum and just outside the Colorado State Capital building, as we inched closer to the start line, waiting for the signal for us to start. Once we began, we fist-bumped and stayed together for the first half-mile.

I loved the Rock n’ Roll Denver half marathon because the course and scenery were flawless. As a newcomer to the city, this race allowed me to see places around the downtown that I might not see on a regular trip of this length, which often happens when I run these travel races. As HalfMarathon.net writes, the course “follows an out-and-back loop route that starts at Civic Center Park in downtown Denver.” As soon as we began, the course took us “in a northwest direction away from the park, along 14th Street on the way toward the Pepsi Center, the home arena for the NBA’s Denver Nuggets and the NHL’s Denver Avalanche.” Running in this route was a unique part of the run and helped pump up my adrenaline. 

Once through the sports complex area, we ran “up Blake Street past Coors Field” and made our way into several beautiful neighborhoods around Denver. The energy on the course was electric, and the weather was constantly amazing, with an excellent crisp feel, which stopped me from overheating and allowed me to run carefree. We eventually ran to and through City Park and “around Ferril Lake on three sides before continuing along East 17th Avenue.” Ultimately, we did a turnaround at Colorado Blvd. and sprinted to the finish line at Civic Center Park, finishing where we began. The last mile was probably the toughest and the only time when the altitude seemed to bother me briefly. No matter, it was terrific.

The Rock n’ Roll Denver half marathon was beautiful in various ways and for different reasons. I had little to no trouble with the altitude, which had induced some anxiety, and there were no significant hills that frequently crush my knees and stamina. The course had numerous excited spectators, and like other Rock n’ Roll series races, was well-organized and included awesome bands. In the end, it was only about a minute off my personal best, so complaining seems out of character. The race bling was fabulous and worn around my neck the rest of the day and evening. If you have read my half marathon posts, you know I am all about the half marathon bling! I quickly found Jeff in the finisher zone, and together we headed back to the hotel. Rock n’ Roll Denver is a race I would do again, no questions asked.

Post-Race Entertainment: Beer & Football

“Aye, Calypso, the places you’ve been to
The things that you’ve shown us, the stories you tell
Aye, Calypso, I sing to your spirit
The men who have served you so long and so well”

– John Denver “Calypso”

After running 13.1 miles, I was in charge of selecting our lunch eatery and chose Freshcraft because it specialized in local craft beer and was in a hip area. Located in a cozy and comfy building, Freshcraft is a “lively LoDo pub” offering more than 100 selections on its ever-changing list of craft brews,” and had an extensive and plentiful food menu. I enjoyed the LoDo area and those establishments around it, which had solid food and beer options. Freshcraft performed well, and I had two local beers and a freshly crafted cheeseburger with fries. After eating and walking around the area, we headed back to the hotel. With tickets for Sunday Night Football, we planned to get to the neighborhood early to eat and try a couple of breweries. Therefore, we rested before venturing over to the area around Mile High Stadium.

With a rest accomplished and ready for an NFL game, I called an Uber, and we departed for the Sun Valley area, which lies to the west of downtown Denver. Rather than going straight to the stadium, we visited Briar Common Brewery + Eatery. Dressed in New York Giants jerseys, we sat upstairs, on the outdoor deck, overlooking Jefferson Park, and drank delicious craft beers and ate excellent snacks and appetizers. Sitting outside, under a beautifully warm sun, drinking beer within eyesight of Mile High Stadium was not a terrible way to spend an afternoon with my brother. The brewery is incredibly hip and has a beautiful urban chic design and vibe, even though it was in what seemed like a neighborhood of lovely townhomes. We had a couple of drinks at Briar Common before walking towards Mile High Stadium, but we didn’t go in yet. Nope, we had one more brewery to visit.

Across the street from the stadium is Little Machine Beer. Out of all the breweries we visited, which totaled six, this was probably my favorite after only Woods Boss. This place had a hipster ambiance in all the right ways. Since it was so close to the stadium and game time, the brewery was packed, but they had a deck area that was standing room only, and we were able to order our beers and take them outside, where NY Giants fans filled the entire “fan zone.” Instantly, I knew this was the place to drink. The bar we ordered at was a uniquely designed circular bar situated in the middle of the brewery. I loved the place’s overall vibe, including the mascot/logo of a little machine guy. Remaining at the brewery until game time, I had a wonderful time talking and getting eager for football! A perfect day, so far.

The SNF game was terrific. I had a great time, and the seats were excellent. I bought them for 50% off when the NFL and Denver Broncos organization released the tickets to the general public, so I didn’t care where the seats were, but I was impressed. Sure, we were high up, but isn’t that the draw of Mile High Stadium anyhow? I felt like this was the perfect place to be, with stunning views of the Rocky Mountains and the Bronco statue. I got plenty of stadium snacks and enjoyed the game on a chilly night. It started warm and eventually got colder, but not enough to make this New Englander complain. Overall, we got to see the 2017 NY Giants win their first game of the season. Win or lose; it didn’t matter. I enjoyed sitting and chatting with Jeff at a beautiful stadium, under a stunning sky, in a remarkable and welcoming city.

See You Again Soon, Denver

“This old guitar taught me to sing a love song
It showed me how to laugh and how to cry.
It introduced me to some friends of mine
And brightened up some days”

– John Denver “This Old Guitar”

I could summarize this post by saying I love Denver, and please, if opportunity allows, visit. There is so much to see, so much to do, and breweries, on my goodness, the breweries. Of course, running a half marathon limited me in doing everything, but I did do a lot in the time I had, and running the race allowed me to see some wicked trendy neighborhoods that I will visit again. We departed Denver the following day, but the night before, we had officially ended our trip with a fantastic football game and as complete a Sunday as one could have. I had always wanted to see Denver, and I checked it off the list, but I added an asterisk next to it. Why? Well, you can’t ultimately check “off” something you want to do again. Like Nashville, I am eager to go back and explore the city and neighborhoods, and with Denver, explore the Rocky Mountains. Although I could see them, I look forward to getting a little closer next time. When I do, I will put my headphones on and click on “Rocky Mountain High,” letting John Denver do the singing as I look forward and up.

4 thoughts on ““Rocky Mountain High”: John Denver & Traveling to Denver, CO for 13.1 Miles of Running

  1. So glad my ‘hometown’ treated you well. With 300 days of sunshine, it can be a visitor’s paradise, especially if they’re from a region that tends to be cloudy a lot. And yes, the breweries are amazing. Craft beer is a real art here. And then there is the local bourbon to enjoy. Yup, running, playing tourist and enjoying libations…Denver’s got it all. 🏃🏽‍♂️🍺 🥃

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much for your excellent comment. Yes, your hometown treated both my brother and me wonderfully. I agree this is a city with it all, and finally, a trip where the weather was outstanding! As you say, craft beer is an art form in Denver, and it is incredible. I look forward to playing tourist again sometime in the future. Thank again for reading!!

      Liked by 1 person

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