Saturday, September 22, 2012

Running 10K in Colorado:
A jog through the housing bubble

Some people boast of having visited all 50 states. (I'm three short: Arkansas, North Dakota, and Alaska.) But how many people have run at least 10K in all 50 states?

I have no idea, but if I finish this odd quest, I'll be one of them. And on Thursday, Sept. 6, I added another one: Colorado, bringing me to a grand total of five.

Why was I in Colorado? It was a one-day visit that's best described in another place. What I want to do here is describe the run, which had its unusual aspects. Turns out I ran straight through one of the epicenters of America's great housing bubble disaster stories, and I didn't even know it.

First, I was based in a Days Inn on Tower Road, an area of open prairie about 20 miles northeast of downtown Denver that's only seen development in the years since Denver's "new" airport opened in 1995. (I put "new" in quotes because how new is anything from 1995 anymore?)

The area is divided into large squares of criss-crossing boulevards, many not yet extant. Right now, the unfinished checkerboard delineates a surreal landscape of finished neighborhoods abutting open land. Sidewalks come and go, roads disappear into the scrub, and the area is dotted with pumping stations for several major oil and natural gas pipelines that run diagonally underneath it all.

It's weird: when a full neighborhood goes in over a pipeline, you can still follow the route because nothing can actually be built on top of it, which results in peculiar open spaces running diagonally through the otherwise orderly blocks—at least those that are finished.

The day was hot (low 90s) and bone dry, and I only had a few hours in the afternoon for my run, so I couldn't wait for cooler weather. Thankfully, high clouds moved in during the run, screening out the brightest sunshine and preventing me from burning to a crisp. Denver's altitude of 5,000 feet above sea level was also a factor to reckon with, both in terms of sun and also oxygen levels.

Checking maps online, I aimed for an area a few miles to the south called "Green Valley Ranch," a seemingly pleasant area to run. (Sidewalks, yay!) Starting at 72nd Ave., I hoped to get as far south as 40th Ave., and then come back in a loop.

Well, off I went, into a strange and unfinished world. One minute I'm on a newly built sidewalk complete with handicapped warning strips in the curb cuts. The next minute, I'm in open scrub land with nothing more than a broken beer bottle shards to keep me company. I got as far south as about 53rd Ave. when I felt I had to turn around, due to time and also the heat getting to me.

Coming back, I made the mistake of turning up a long boulevard that was a dead-end. No problem: I could see the hotel about a half-mile off across some open scrub land, without any evident barriers. So off I went, leaving the grid and freelancing through the empty land, picking my way through strange weeds and anthills and the occasional sign warning of yet another buried pipeline. Besidessome nettles getting stuck on (and in!) my running shoes, I made it across relatively unharmed.

But then I looked at Google's satellite photo of the area (copied above), and it turns out the open area I ran through had been excavated enough for a street pattern to be visible. Check it out: the dead-end road to the school is straight up-and-down on the right of the image. The hotel complex is in the upper left. The area that I ran across appears as a kind of eggplant color, and look at all the streets that are visible!

What happened? Well, the housing bubble burst is what happened, and this area of Denver was absolutely devastated. It was so bad, USA Today once featured a map of one corner of Green Valley Ranch showing how many properties had been foreclosed on between 2006 and 2008:

Red = foreclosed. Wow! On a few streets, it's practically every other property!

And that was certainly why the open area I crossed never got any further than some basic excavation perhaps a few years ago, just before the music stopped. I have to say, I had no sense that anything had been done to the land, so it's quickly returned to its natural state, at least to the naked eye at ground level.

But Google's satellite image of this area must be at least several years out of date (as of September 2012) as several areas I passed through have since been filled in. The photo, for example, shows a vacant lot in front of the Days Inn, but there's now a brand-spanking-new 7-Eleven convenience store. I used it to buy water, so it was not a mirage.

One thing I also saw that's not visible in the satellite photo is a jack rabbit who popped up in front of me near one of the hotels as I neared the end. He disappeared into a bush, and then I disappeared into the Days Inn, for a shower, a change of clothes, and the flight home. State No. 5 in the books: 6.3 miles (just barely over the minimum of 6.2 miles, or a 10K) in 1 hour and 15 minutes, although the heat made it feel longer.

Next up: Shooting for both Missouri and Arkansas during a five-day visit to these states at the end of the month. And then there's possibly Illinois the first weekend of October, when I'm in Chicago for a conference. We'll see. And Texas is somewhere there in October, as I'm flying to Dallas for business and there might be time for a run.

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