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Amateur racers run in the Bolder Boulder, held Memorial Day, May 29, 2023.
Amateur racers run in the Bolder Boulder, held Memorial Day, May 29, 2023. (Manuel Novik, The Colorado Sun)

BOULDER — At 87 years old, Mark Maloney hoofed it through downtown at 104 feet per minute — partly thanks to a pair of “antigravity pants.”

A quadriplegic and Vietnam veteran, Maloney was among thousands of runners who converged in the streets for this year’s Bolder Boulder 10K foot race, but he was likely the only one in a cutting-edge Lite Run exosuit. The device — modeled on a spacesuit and operated with pneumatic controls — is normally used for physical rehabilitation and creates a sense of weightlessness for its user.

“Once he’s in the device, he drives it,” said Lite Run CEO Michael Benkawski, who clocked Maloney’s speed as he covered roughly 1 kilometer inside the suit.

The octogenarian’s unlikely return to the race after a spinal cord injury three years ago was a fitting tribute to Boulder’s marquee 10K, an annual showcase of the quirky and the inspiring. The event continued this  year with upward of 40,000 competitors, a Memorial Day celebration inside Folsom Field, and a crowd of adoring spectators. 

Mark Maloney is a war veteran who served 22 years in the military.
Mark Maloney is a war veteran who served 22 years in the military locally and internationally. He walked 1 kilometer of the Bolder Boulder this year. (Manuel Novik, The Colorado Sun)
The LiteRun device used by Mark Maloney helps the patient use their own gait.
The LiteRun device used by Maloney to run in the BolderBoulder. The device applies anti-gravity science with air pressure that enables an unweight training effect. (Manuel Novik, The Colorado Sun)

Some fans set up chairs and tables to watch the people go by. Others cheered with megaphones and beers, or sprayed competitors with a water hose. Many others just woke up disoriented by the screams and live music blaring at points along the route. 

Bolder Boulder attracts racers of all kinds: Amateur athletes looking for a good athletic performance. People running in costumes or pajamas. Families who showed up to compete together. And of course the professional athletes drawn by the race’s hefty prize purses.

Between 1979 and 2019, more than 1 million people participated. The race was conducted virtually in 2020.  A socially distanced version was held in 2021. After a return to normalcy in 2022, with more than 35,000 people, the race this year drew an even larger field. The event, which also offers live arts, brings an estimated $10 million to the city annually.  

Participants running in the streets of Boulder.
Some runners participated with customized outfits they wore in the heat of the BolderBoulder on Monday. (Manuel Novik, The Colorado Sun)

A traditional Memorial Day ceremony at Folsom Field, on the University of Colorado campus, included F-16 flyovers, paratroopers, a rifle salute and remembrances of veterans’ war stories.

An outdoor history

The Bolder Boulder originated more than four decades ago. 

In 1967, Boulder became the first city in the country to tax public space management, leading to a hefty investment in the outdoors. The city has 200 miles of public hiking and biking trails and 43,000 acres of open space. 

In the 1970s, Boulder’s 5,400-foot elevation began attracting elite athletes in earnest. The first was Frank Shorter, who arrived in 1970, lured by the altitude and the indoor track that Boulder offered for winter training. Shorter won gold and silver medals in the marathon at the next two editions of the Olympic Games in 1972 and 1976. Gradually, more athletes moved to the city and brought with them a huge industry around outdoor sports.

In 1979, Shorter suggested to the then president of the Bank of Boulder, Steve Bosley, to create a race in the city. The first edition had 2,700 attendees, making it one of the most popular races of that era. The winner of that first event was Ric Rojas, who beat Shorter by 24 seconds. 

Throughout the years the race has retained a laid-back vibe, although recently athletes are becoming more closely tied to brand-name sports clubs and the University of Colorado. 

Some athletes land scholarships, thanks to the presence of university recruiters. Others, like Rojas and Shorter, have stayed connected to running with coaching and sports branding businesses. 

“There’s a million-dollar industry today in Boulder,” said race director Cliff Bosley, the son of Steve Bosley. “There are very large companies that have set up shop here.”

Rojas’ daughter, Nell, also won the competition in 2019. With her father’s guidance, Nell has become one of the top marathoners in the U.S., having competed in the 2020 Olympics and finished in the top 10 at the Boston and New York marathons. And she already has her sights set on the Olympic marathon trials in February.

Nell Rojas attended the 43rd edition of the BolderBoulder to officiate the start of the race.
Nell Rojas attended the 43rd edition of the BolderBoulder to officiate the start of the Memorial Day race. Rojas won the 2019 edition. (Manuel Novik, The Colorado Sun)

While attending the Memorial Day ceremony, Nell greeted friends and acquaintances in the stadium stands. She called the race a family tradition. “We have been part of the runner community here. Here there are trails, coaches, support. It is just the place to be for runners.” The father and daughter were the official starters of the 2023 edition. 

Nell Rojas did triathlons professionally for a while, but couldn’t make money. In 2018 she tried a marathon and finished seventh. Since then, she has become one of the best in the country. She also developed a coaching business for professional and amateur athletes. The winner of the female amateur category this year, Molly Grabill, trains on her team.

A race for amateurs and professionals

The registration of thousands of amateurs makes it possible to award prizes to professional athletes. This year, the top prize was $8,000 for men and women in individual categories and $6,000 for teams. Cliff Bosley says it is a challenge to attract elite athletes, because unlike marathons and other running events, there is no formal circuit for 10K races. Each runs independently. “There are more races than athletes,” Bosley said.

Today the Bolder Boulder is the seventh-most attended race in the country. But not being the biggest race isn’t something that worries Cliff. He’s content with having been named America’s All-Time Best 10K by Runner’s World magazine in 2010. “We want to be the best,” he says. 

Thousands of people running down an avenue in Boulder.
The race had categories for amateurs, elite racers, walkers and competitors in wheelchairs. More than 40,000 people registered for the 43rd edition of the BolderBoulder held on Memorial Day. (Manuel Novik, The Colorado Sun)

Another challenge is that many elite athletes choose to compete in marathons, often putting the 10k on the back burner. Even so, 18 men and 15 women came to compete this year in the elite divisions. The winners were Americans Conner Mantz in 29 minutes, 8 seconds, and Emily Durgin in 33 minutes, 24 seconds. Mantz won by 3 seconds, while Durgin led by 24 seconds. The athletes received a standing ovation from thousands of fans as they entered Folsom Field. No athlete has yet beaten the record set in 1995 by Josephat Machuka of Kenya, at 27 minutes, 52 seconds. 

One of the elite runners, Luke Caldwell, 31, arrived exhausted at the finish line after running close to 30 minutes in the 10K. The Boulder-based British runner came in 14th place, less than a minute behind first. This year he ran the London Marathon, and he’s preparing for the Berlin Marathon, both part of the “big six” circuit. Caldwell, an experimental physicist at the University of Colorado, lives and works in Boulder. He has run professionally in the U.K. and U.S. since 2014.  

For the team category, Caldwell said that the group “had a tough one. Two of the guys on the team don’t live here. I tried to give some advice, but there is so much you can do in two days,” he said of the altitude that makes competing in Boulder such a challenge.  

Luke Caldwell represented Great Britain. The athlete greeted fans at Folsom Field. (Manuel Novik, The Colorado Sun)

Memorial Day tribute

During the Memorial Day ceremony at Folsom Field, a trumpeter played the national anthem and four F-16s flew overhead. Members of the Mile-Hi Sky Diving Team parachuted into the stadium with flags representing each branch of the military. A rifle salute was performed by the Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps.

Cris Crisfield, a volunteer at the finish line and a 17-year race veteran, believes there’s something unique about the annual tradition.

“One of the secrets is that we have dedicated volunteers who believe in what this race does for the city,” said Crisfield, a retired minister from Longmont. “As Cliff says, it’s like running a business where you have one chance to make your customers happy. Just one.”