Keep an eye on these four Colorado endurance athletes who are ready to make some noise in 2019.
It is often said this time of year that April showers bring May flowers. But this spring and summer should produce some spectacular local blossoms in the world of endurance and adventure sports. While the weather certainly plays a role in making local competitors tenacious, Colorado’s inspiring sport communities, rugged topography and competitive gristmill are what allow locally trained athletes to shine so vibrantly. Here are four crushers to keep an eye on as 2019 rolls from spring into summer.
Trail Runner, Boulder
When Daniels attempted his first 100K race in Texas in January, he was running so hard he stumbled and knocked himself out. He was leading the competitive Bandera Endurance Trail Run by a good margin, but on a section of two-way trail, he tripped trying to get out of the way of an oncoming runner and crashed into a tree. He had been gunning for the win, which would have awarded him a Golden Ticket entry into this summer’s Western States 100 in Auburn, California.
“I was going too fast and trying to get out of the way of another runner and didn’t see the trees growing out of the embankment of the trail and I hit my head really hard,” he says laughing. “It was a bizarre situation for sure.”
The 30-year-old, who originally hails from Texas, has found success on the track (including running a 3:59 mile during an All-American career at Adams State in Alamosa, Colorado, roads (running a 1:03 half marathon that earned him a spot in the 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon) and the trails (helping the U.S. win a gold medal at the 2016 World Mountain Running Championships in Bulgaria).
Now he’s delving deeper into ultrarunning and appears poised for a breakout year in 2019. The Nike-sponsored runner redeemed himself on February 16 at the Black Canyon Ultra 100K in Mayer, Arizona, winning the race by 25 minutes in a new course-record of 7:20:28 to earn a Western States entry. Although he admits he’ll have his work cut out for him at the competitive June 29-30 race through the Sierra Nevada Mountains in California, he has gotten a lot of notoriety for being the first sub-4-minute miler to ever enter the race.
“It’s kind of funny to me because it doesn’t correlate at all to having an advantage over someone in a 100-mile race, but it’s got people talking and getting excited about it, and that’s cool.” Daniels says. “I’ve found a different kind of fitness than what I was used to in road running, track running and short-distance trail running. I’ve kind of had to learn to slow down a bit and train my body to endure the long days out on the trails.”
Although her first passion was gymnastics, Margo Hayes discovered a love for rock climbing as a pre-teen while tagging along with her dad and older sister on weekend sessions in Boulder Canyon. (Her grandfather was a mountaineer who led the first ascent up the east face of Mt. Everest in the 1980s.) She joined Boulder’s ABC Kids Climbing at the age of 10, where Robyn Erbesfield-Raboutou, a four-time World Cup champion and the third woman to climb 5.14a, became her coach and mentor.
As a young teen, when Hayes quit gymnastics and began to focus solely on climbing, she became a rising star. She continued to hone her skills in Boulder, earning seven medals at the international junior championships by the time she as 18. Once she turned 19, she competed in her first IFSC lead World Cup event in France and placed sixth.
Two years ago, she became the first woman to climb a route graded at 9a+ (5.15a) in Spain. Although two other women had recorded 5.14d/5.15a ascents, Hayes’ completion of “La Rambla” is considered the first female ascent of a consensus 5.15a route. Seven months later, she repeated the feat by sending her second 5.15a, “Biographie/Realization,” in Céüse, France. Several women followed with 5.15a ascents after Margo’s effort, but later in 2017, she sent the most difficult route ever climbed by a woman, a 9b+ or 5.15b route in Spain known as “La Planta de Shiva.”
“Just to be part of that progression and be one of the women who opened the door to those possibilities, that’s an honor,” Margo says. “We all kind of stand on each other’s shoulders and we push the bar higher and higher together.”
The North Face-sponsored pro is intent on climbing additional 5.15+ routes and making the U.S. Olympic team in 2020. Already in 2019, Hayes earned a bronze at the USA Climbing Open Boulder Championships in Redmond, Oregon.
“I love the movement and I love the expression on the wall,” she says. “I feel like it’s a dance and when I’m on the wall, when nothing else matters. It’s just me and the rock. I think that one of my strengths is believing that hard work can lead to success.”
Track and field, Boulder
There were plenty of twists and turns and stumbles on the path that brought Aisha Praught-Leer to Colorado, but she’s starting to realize the sweet success of the hard work she’s put in since moving to Boulder. The 29-year-old native of Moline, Illinois, was a rising 3,000-meter steeplechase competitor while at Illinois State University and later while training with the Oregon Track Club Elite program when she decided to compete internationally for Jamaica to honor the heritage of her father, Jamaican reggae musician Joseph “Blue” Grant.
But for a while, her career was marred by seemingly unavoidable mishaps in her biggest races. In the semifinals of the 2015 IAAF World Championships in Beijing, Praught-Leer accidentally stepped inside of the first lane of the track and was DQ’ed. Then in the finals of the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, she got tangled up with two other runners and fell briefly, relegating her to a disappointing 14th place.
When former University of Colorado star Emma Coburn suggested Praught-Leer move to Boulder to help start what would become a powerful all-women’s training group under the direction of coach Coburn’s husband Joe Bosshard, Praught-Leer was all-in, and so was her husband, Will Leer, a professional miler with a 3:51.82 personal best. But despite being in the best fitness of her life heading into the 2017 IAAF World Championships in London, Praught-Leer again finished 14th and was once again DQ’ed for stepping on the inside of the track. She could only watch as Coburn, her training partner, ran to a historic victory in a new championship record.
Finally in 2018, with more an a year of training under her belt, Praught-Leer was able to take advantage of her elevated fitness to win the 3,000-meter run at the Milrose Games in New York City and place sixth in the 1,500 meters at the World Indoor Track & Field Championships. Then last April in Australia, she won gold in the steeplechase at the Commonwealth Games. In August, she added a win at Boulder’s Pearl Street Mile (4:50) for good measure.
Praught-Leer started 2019 with a strong indoor track season, setting a new personal best in the 3,000-meter open race. With a stellar group of training partners behind her—including Coburn, milers Dominique Scott-Efurd, Cory McGee and Kaela Edwards and marathoner Laura Thweatt— Praught-Leer’s focus is on turning in a high finish in the steeplechase at the IAAF World Championships in Doha, Qatar this coming September.
“I know I probably should say ‘marrying Will, that was my high,’ but I think it’ll have to be a tie between marrying Will and winning the Commonwealth Games,” says Praught-Leer, who is sponsored by Under Armour. “I guess when you’re going for a really big goal, you believe it and you think it’s possible, but nobody else thinks that. My small circle, we knew that it was a possibility, but nobody else really counted me in.”
Mountain Biker, Durango
Christopher Blevins is as much of a modern Renaissance man as he is one of the world’s most talented up-and-coming cyclists. He started out as a BMX rider when he was five and won numerous national age-group titles before transitioning (with several years of overlap) to mountain biking, where he racked up even more age-group national titles.
Five years ago, as a 16-year-old, he concluded his BMX career by winning grand nationals. Since then, he’s continued to win cross-country mountain bike races while taking up road racing and throwing himself into the cyclocross fray.
But as much as the 21-year-old Specialized-sponsored pro is all about the bike, he’s not just about the bike. He’s studying business at California Polytechnic University in San Luis Obispo, California, but he’s also developed a passion for spoken word poetry and rap. He even recorded nine of his own rap tracks and set them to music last year. He also volunteers at the spoken-word poetry club on campus and serves as a volunteer creative writing teacher at a local juvenile detention center.
“I had always written rap just for fun, and then in freshman year of high school I had a poetry study in English, and I just loved it,” he told Cyclingnews.com last year. He participated in a poetry slam that fall, and calls the art form “a great outlet, especially with cycling. It’s very different, and that’s important to me.”
As the 2019 race season rolls into high gear, Blevins is the reigning under-23 cyclocross national champion and an elite short-track mountain bike champion. He’s also an up-and-coming road racer who last year competed for the Hagens Berman Axeon premier development team. Boulder-based Velo News says that his diversity of talents puts him among the most skilled young racers in the world.
Last April, Blevins won the second stage of the Tour of the Gila in New Mexico on a breakaway, attacking veteran Daniel Jaramillo in the final kilometer to secure the win. He also earned an impressive nine podium finishes on the international mountain bike circuit, including a runner-up showing in the U23 cross-country race at the UCI Mountain Bike World Championships in Lenzerheide, Switzerland, last September.
Look for Blevins to continue to ascend in the pro peloton, as well as rack up top finishes on the trails.
“He could be a world champion on the road or the mountain bike,” says Hagens Berman Axeon team manager Axel Merckx, the son of legendary Tour de France champion Eddy Merckx. “He’s that good.”