The Bolder Boulder, ready to step off for its 40th year, has long been acclaimed as one of the largest and most respected road races in the world.
But the race that draws more than 40,000 people every Memorial Day has a secret: It was almost dead before it even started.
For a few tense hours on Memorial Day weekend of 1979, it looked as if that first Bolder Boulder might have to be canceled when organizers realized no one had secured a permit from the city. If it had been canceled, there would have been no coming back.
At the last minute, a city bureaucrat stepped in to save the day — and the race.
“Had we not had an event that year, it would have been over,” said race co-founder Steve Bosley, who was then president of the Bank of Boulder. “We would have had to refund entry fees. We were already over budget, we were a small bank and didn’t have a lot of money to do this, and our reputation would have been ruined. Being able to come back the next year and start over, I don’t think it would have happened.”
Bosley hustled down to city offices a few days before that first race, on a holiday weekend, determined to secure the permit and keep the race alive.
“I went through all the official offices, anybody I could talk to,” Bosley said. “They said, ‘No, there’s not enough time. Here’s the procedure, and the people who do that aren’t here. It’s too late; you didn’t follow the process.’ “
Then he found Andy Hollar, Boulder’s director of public works.
“I told him the story and he laughed,” Bosley said. “I thought, ‘I don’t think it’s so funny.’ He got up and left the office, I’m sitting there thinking, ‘He just walked out on me.’ I’m trying to figure out what to do next, looking up and down the hallways.
“It wasn’t 10 minutes, and he came in and had a permit.”
That first race had 2,200 finishers. After that, the Bolder Boulder experienced explosive growth, doubling in size the second year, surpassing 11,000 in its fifth year and 20,000 in its 10th.
Now, after 39 successful years, Runner’s World magazine proclaimed the race “America’s all-time best 10K,” and it has averaged nearly 47,600 finishers over the past 10 years. It will surpass 1.5 million total finishers in its 40th running on Monday — and Bosley wants Hollar to finally get some credit.
“How many bureaucrats today would step up and act that way?” Bosley said. “He was the epitome of serving the Boulder community.”
Hollar, who retired about five years ago and lives in Rocky Ford, said Bosley’s accolades are “kind of embarrassing,” insisting he was just doing his job.
“I’ve always felt that public servants ought to be serving the public,” said Hollar, 77. ”Sometimes there’s a need to be bureaucratic about something. But other than that, I think you’ve got to be able to serve the people who are paying the bills.”
The genesis of the race is an oft-told story. Bosley wanted to put on a track meet for kids. He sought expert advice from a friend, Frank Shorter, who had won the 1972 Olympic marathon and took the silver medal in 1976. Shorter suggested Bosley put on a road race instead.
Bosley famously replied, “What’s a road race?”
He soon learned. Bosley was the man in charge for the first 20 years before passing the responsibility to one of his sons, Cliff, who is marking his 20th year as race director.
Through last year’s race, the list of people who had competed in every Bolder Boulder stood at 61, ranging in age from 44 to 82. One of them was John Tope of Denver, who was 29 the first year.
“I remember a bunch of us (saying), ‘Wow, Frank is running, there’s a chance we’ll see Frank Shorter,’ ” Tope said this week. “It was nice to watch it grow over the years. It became a real special thing. People may not run anything else all year, but they’re going to take the family and make a day of it and do Bolder Boulder. I think that’s really cool.”
The first year, the race finished at North Boulder Park, and the next year Steve Bosley moved the finish to the track at Boulder High School to accommodate the doubling of the entries. Then, University of Colorado athletic director Eddie Crowder came to Steve Bosley with the idea that would give the race its unique stamp: the Folsom Field finish. Crowder and Arnold Weber, CU’s president at the time, saw it as a way to promote the university and reinforce its connection with the community.
“They pushed really hard,” Steve said. “They had to convince me. I was reluctant. I was concerned that if CU decided to change the rules 10 years or 20 years or 30 years out, we would have no choice.”
But they insisted the “partnership” would endure because both sides would benefit and treat each other fairly. “Some day,” Crowder wrote in his initial letter proposing the idea, “you might even fill the stadium.”
Now, filling the stadium is an annual occurrence.
Under Cliff Bosley’s direction, with counsel from his father, the post-race stadium scene evolved into one of America’s biggest Memorial Day commemorations. They were careful about it at first, not wanting it to appear that they were commercializing a solemn holiday.
“I am furious when I see a used car dealer (on TV), he’s got balloons and he says, ‘Come in for our Memorial Day Special,’ ” said Steve Bosley. “You know, 1.1 million Americans since the Revolutionary War died to keep this country free. That’s what Memorial Day is. As we eased into it, I think we did a flyover the first time, but it was so well received. A piece by piece by piece was added, refined and changed around.”
Now, every observance recognizes veterans who demonstrated exceptional heroism, along with the playing of “Taps” and a 21-gun salute. Often there is a military flyover.
Another key innovation that set the race apart came in 1983, when Steve Bosley incorporated the “wave” start: a sequence of starts segregating runners by ability and spreading them out so they could run the early parts of the race without being impeded by the crowding of other runners. It was a unprecedented concept at the time, and it required a lot of thinking to figure out the sequence and size of each wave to keep things running smoothly.
It was a big risk, too.
“I can still remember being in the stadium, waiting to hear what was happening,” Steve said. “Our starting line crew came bursting into the stadium and said, ‘It worked perfectly, it worked just exactly the way we intended.’ “
The following year, Steve separated the professional runners and started their race after the masses so ordinary runners could linger in the stadium after their run and watch the elites finish. In 1998, the pro race was reconstituted as the International Team Challenge with teams of three runners representing their homelands, the idea being that foreign runners might not have recognizable names but spectators could get excited about runners racing for their countries.
Steve Bosley has many reasons to be proud.
“The first pride is what Cliff has done for 20 years, to carry on and expand it and take it other levels,” Steve said. “When you can affect this many people’s fitness — plus enhance the reputation of your community; contribute to the interaction between the university and the city; help the sport of running; help the American professionals by bringing big dogs here for them to race against; and to be able to talk to 50,000 in the stands and remind people what Memorial Day is, to honor veterans — there’s no way to describe that.”
Cliff Bosley ran the first Bolder Boulder at age 12. On his watch, the race surpassed 40,000 finishers in 2000 and exceeded 50,000 in 2010. It has hovered between 43,500 and 48,400 the past five years.
“We think it’s the best 10K in the world, and probably the best race in the world,” said Cliff. “It’s nice to be on the list of the big races, to be in the top three or four in the country and top 10 in the world — there is stature associated with that. But with that kind of size, doing it best, that’s how everybody here is predisposed. We said: Let’s be the best road race on the planet, let’s set the standard for road racing around the globe.”