Race recap: Running the 2018 Route 66 half marathon

Cruising along, wondering, “What’s over there? Tacos?”

At the end of last year’s fall race season, I was not in a great place. I’d worked hard to train for the Route 66 Marathon’s half marathon race, hoping to substantially improve my time. I was on my way to doing that, but an illness two weeks before the race left residual junk in my lungs that made it a fight just to shave 30 seconds off my previous year’s effort.

After that, my head was not in a good place when it came to running. I’d drive by places where my long runs would go and think to myself, “Glad I’m not doing that anymore.” Months passed by and still no itch to run more than a few miles at a time. Between that and a bout of plantar fasciitis in the spring, I was wondering if maybe this was the year I’d sit out of all fall races and do something else.

But around that time, a friend of mine from Colorado started asking questions about good races in the Tulsa area. After a few online chats, he decided he was going to run the Route 66 half and wondered if he could couch surf at my place.

Man, I could hardly host a guy from out-of-town for a race and not at least try to get ready for it myself. So once again, as August drew to a close, I drew up a plan and got to work on half marathon No. 7.

TRAINING

I used the same plan as last year, but with a few tweaks. First, I took my rest day when the plan said so: on Thursdays. Weird, but yeah. And it worked. I’d ride a bike for a specific amount of time on Sundays, run a short route on Mondays, a medium-length run on Tuesdays and then do speed work (either 400-meter intervals or 3-mile negative split runs) on Wednesdays. But the time that was all done, the Thursday break was a blessing. I’d chill at the house or go for a short hike in the woods. I looked forward to those Thursdays.

Fridays would include a shorter route, and then Saturdays would be the weekly long run.

I continued to lift weights, but backed off considerably from years past. I did three full-body workouts a week (Monday/Wednesday/Friday), and no lift lasted longer than 30 minutes. I knew I’d lose some strength, but that happens every time I jack up the miles anyway.

The plan itself was a modified version of the Hal Higdon Intermediate 1 half marathon program. You can check it out here.

To be frank, August and September sucked. It wasn’t blast-furnace hot, but still hot enough and unusually humid. Heat indexes were regularly over 100 degrees, and those mid-length to long run days were brutal. It was a major downer to slog along at slow paces and see very little improvement.

October started getting better, and the last Saturday or the month is the day of the annual Tulsa Run. It’s a great tune-up race for Route 66, which is held on the Sunday before Thanksgiving. I feared this would be my slowest 15K (based on long run times), but in fact, it was surprisingly better than expected. Nowhere near a PR, but not too bad.

And then, the switch got flipped. Every training run after that race saw better times, stronger running and a general feeling that my conditioning was coming around. It was the same last year (I peaked at the Tulsa Run last year, running my second-fastest 15K before that cold bug got me), so my hope is that my fitness arc would peak on race day Nov. 18. And hope no one would get me sick before then.

Cool part of the race where we’re actually running on old Route 66. And is it just me, or is the guy to the left stalking me? He looks fishy to me.

THE RACE

Weather is always a key variable at Route 66. November in Oklahoma can hit you with 70- to 80-degree days. It can also hit you with 18-degree days. Rain, snow and ice — or bright sunshine — are all possible. What we got were temps in the lower 30s, a little drizzle and a stiff north wind. It was the kind of cold that goes right through you, but not the worst I’ve seen on race day and totally fine once you get moving.

The course was changed slightly, too. Construction at a new park forced race organizers to reroute a portion of the course through a neighborhood that included a long, low-grade climb that can wear you out. Now that the park is open, the course went back to Riverside Drive, a long, flat stretch between Mile 7 and Mile 10 that’s a welcome relief after facing a hilly section from Mile 2 through 6.

If I were to give advice to anyone running this race, I’d tell them to not blow yourself out running that early stretch. The Maple Ridge neighborhood is scenic and interesting, but it’s full of hills. If you’re not careful, you’ll wind up gassed by the time you get to Woodward Park 5 miles in. Not good when you’re not even half done (and if you’re doing the full and feel bad at this point, good luck to ya. It’s gonna be a long day).

Last year, I knew 3 miles in I was in trouble. This time, I took it in stride. It was tough once again, but I was careful to breathe deep on the downhills and slow my heart rate down before the next incline showed up.

Once you get through Mile 6, the course mellows considerably. Last year, I hoped to recover here, but never did. This year I felt great cruising through Brookside, then getting ready to make the northward turn back toward downtown.

But boy, did we get a fun surprise making that northbound turn: a biting wind right in our faces. The trees in the neighborhood shielded us for those first six miles, as did our southbound trip through Brookside. But now we got a good 4 miles of running into the teeth of it.

Surprisingly, it didn’t bother me that much. The miles ticked by, and then we took a quick out-and-back on the Southwest Boulevard bridge before going back into downtown.

For the half marathoners, this is the crux of the race. You get two good-sized hills back-to-back as you gain elevation into downtown (Tulsa’s central business district is on top of a long ridge overlooking the Arkansas River), and this is the place that always bites me. It did again this time. I was gassed, slowed for a brief walk break, then got going again. One of these days I’m going to blast all the hills. Just not this time.

At the top of that second hill is a sweet, blessed, oh-so-needed downhill pitch that goes for about seven blocks. It’s here where the full-marathoners turn east to start their second loop while the rest of us head into the Tulsa Arts District toward the finish line. It’s here I always ask myself if I regret not doing the full. So far, four straight years of “nope.”

Earlier in the race, I was just behind the 2:10 pacer, but I consciously decided not to make a thing of it. “Just run your race,” I told myself. If I saw her close to the end of the race, I’d catch her with a final sprint to the end. If not, no biggie.

Yeah, I was not anywhere close enough for that. So I just cruised into the Arts District, rounded the corner and sprinted the last three blocks toward the end.

Checking the clock as I ran in, I knew I’d run faster than I had the previous year. And I was right: 2:13:41, just shy of 50 seconds better than a year ago. No PR (I still need to trim 2 minutes off that time to get there), and I’m far from my gold-medal goal of breaking 2 hours. But my thinking is I was faster than the previous year, that’s a success, even if just a modest one.

Sprinting it in to the finish.

POST SCRIPT

I’d say I’m satisfied, overall. Had I not let my conditioning slide over the summer, I could have done much better. But the training program worked. This is now three years in a row that I’ve been faster. Not a bad thing to get faster as I get older.

There was also something else that worked for me. During that first month, I was griping to myself that I wasn’t as mentally tough as I used to me. It became too easy to bag it. Sure, I’d get all the miles as prescribed. But in terms of performance, pretty meh.

To combat this, I’d play mental games. I’d say “Go this far before you slow down” or “see if you can skip that water break coming up and push through to the next one.” Little things that were a tiny bit harder than what I did the week before, or the day before.

That helped me on race day. I got out of the aid stations much faster than in past years, and even though my 10K and 10-mile splits were slower than last year, the final 3.1 miles to the finish was considerably faster.

But here’s the best part: Unlike last year, I don’t hate the idea of going for 60- to 90-minute runs. I don’t feel the need to back off my training. I look forward to upcoming races. Mentally, I’m in a much better place.

It’ll take a lot (keeping my base, trimming some weight) to get my sub-2 hour goal — shaving a full minute per mile from my current pace. But it seems doable with time, effort and planning. In late 2017, such thoughts were far from me.

Now I’m looking forward to more weight training, but also getting in “mountain shape.” I want to show up in the Rockies in great shape and not suffer at altitude. When next fall rolls around, maybe my base will be strong enough that I can blow past this year’s time, crush my PR and maybe even crack that 2-hour mark. And then see what happens from there.

Bob Doucette

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Previewing the 2018 Route 66 Marathon

The Sunday before Thanksgiving is quickly approaching. For a bunch of us, that means running the Route 66 Marathon.

This race is where I cut my teeth on the marathon, and I’ve run the half marathon a number of times. So of course I’m running it again, as are thousands of you.

What you’re going to get is the same great event as always, But there are going to be some course changes, and from what I see, they are for the better.

So the purpose of this is to go over the course, and maybe give you a few observations before you toe the line on Sunday.

The marathon and half marathon follow the same initial loop right up into the 13th mile, when marathoners head out of downtown for their second loop. Here are some things you need to know…

Don’t be fooled by that first mile. It’s mostly downhill, so it’s fast, and the excitement of the race will amp up a lot of people’s paces. Soon after reaching 15th Street, you will meet a really big hill. You’ll climb part of it, then turn off into a neighborhood by Maple Park. Then it’s back east on 21st and a sizable hill. It will be the biggest incline you face until you hit Mile 11.

The hill gives way just before Utica Avenue, but the hilliness of the course won’t stop for a while. Running through the neighborhoods near Woodward Park is scenic, but there is a lot of up-and-down between Mile 2 and Mile 7. Pace yourself accordingly.

The hills will relent as you go through Brookside, then turn west on 41st Street. Turning north on Riverside will remain flat. The big change in the course happens here. In the past few years, the course ducked back into the neighborhood and a long, gradual climb on Cincinnati Avenue. The detour was made because of construction at the Gathering Place park. The park is open now, and so is Riverside Drive all the way to downtown. Runners will enjoy a flatter stretch through the park, and that should help with people’s times. It will also help you save some energy as you get ready to head into downtown and into Mile 11. And then it gets real.

First, you’ll turn west and cross the Arkansas River on the 11th Street bridge, a stretch that is part of the historic Route 66. At the end of the bridge, you’ll turn around and run back into downtown.

At Southwest Boulevard, you will begin the climb back into downtown, and it’s not small, lasting the better part of a mile, comprising of two hills. Just past Mile 12, you’ll turn north at Denver Avenue and start heading north and downhill toward the Tulsa Arts District. Marathoners will turn back east at Second Street to begin their second loop while those doing the half will continue north on the last mile — one more short climb, then a mostly flat finish.

For those going the full 26.2, it’s another trip out to midtown, but in different areas. You get to avoid the hills of 15th Street to start, instead eventually making your way south on Peoria between Mile 13 and Mile 15. Here, you’ll turn back east on a familiar road, south past Utica Square, but then farther east into different neighborhoods. I’ve found these areas not as hilly as Maple Ridge, but that will change soon enough. The mellower grades continue from Mile 15 through Mile 18 as you head north toward the University of Tulsa.

You hit one small but steep climb on 21st Street, then a long, gradual uphill slog toward the university between Mile 18 and Mile 20. The uphill continues through the school, then relents a bit as you leave and go back south on Delaware.

And then, my friends, comes the biggest mental test of the full, at least in my estimation. Just before Mile 22 begins, you hit 15th Street (also known as Cherry Street), and its sizable hills. Between Delaware and Peoria, they are big and somewhat steep.

Just when you think another huge hill awaits, you turn north back on Peoria (between Mile 23 and Mile 24) to start the trek back downtown. Fortunately, the hills of midtown are behind you. If you have any gas left in the tank, you can make some time here. If you don’t, at least gravity won’t be devouring you the entire way there. A slight grade up takes you from Mile 24 to Mile 25, then a gradual downhill on First Street to Denver Avenue lets you coast.

If you want to do the Center of the Universe Detour, it pulls off the course in the middle of the First Street stretch. It’s a party up there, and they give you a commemorative coin for your trouble. Back on the main course, you go downhill fast on Denver Avenue, under a bridge, then one last, short uphill climb to the Tulsa Arts District and the final, mostly flat portion of the course to the finish.

Marathon starting line stoke: It’s real, man. (Kirk Wells/Route 66 Marathon photo)

Last few observations…

First, I hope you did some hill training. Though only a few of the hills are big and there are some sizable flat spots, this is not a flat course. At all.

Second, expect good course support. Organizers have lots of aid stations along the way, well-stocked and well-manned.

Third, watch the weather forecasts. It’s going to be a cold start, with gun-time temps about 28 degrees. The high is expected to top out at 42 degrees, and it will be cloudy with a north breeze. Dress accordingly, and keep watching the forecast. Weather in this state can be fickle.

Fourth, the start corral has a different format. It will be a spoke corral to work around a construction site on Main Street: A and B corrals will be on Main Street south of Fifth while the C and D corrals will be on Fifth Street on either side of Main. And I’ve been told to tell you all that you have to enter each corral from the back – no hanging out at the roundabout fountain at Fifth and Main and jumping in another corral will be allowed.

Last, enjoy it! I’ve run this one a few times, and it stacks up well with any race I’ve done. The course is scenic and challenging, which always makes for a good time.

Bob Doucette

Chris Lieberman made a race for us. Here’s a chance for us to give back.

Chris Lieberman and his hard-charging Route 66 Marathon crew. Chris ran a marathon in Dallas and decided Tulsa needed a similar race. A few years later, he made it happen, much to the benefit of tens of thousands of people. (Chris Lieberman Updates photo)

I remember my first interaction with a real-life marathon. I learned about it because its starting line was on the street right by my front door.

So on a cool November morning, I went to the top floor of my apartment building at watched as the race started. Music was pumping, crowds were cheering, and with each new flight of runners, a gun was fired to start them off on their 13.1- or 26.2-mile journey through the streets of Tulsa.

I remember thinking, “One day, I want to be down there.”

A couple of years later, I was. My playlist was churning out “Run to the Hills” by Iron Maiden as my group got started on an icy fall day. The memories of that race are vivid, and I’ve either run the half or full course at the Route 66 Marathon five years straight.

Me finishing up at the Route 66 Marathon’s half marathon last year.

The guy I have to thank for it is Chris Lieberman who, many years before, ran the Dallas Marathon and concluded that Tulsa needed its own 26.2-mile event.

“I was like, ‘Tulsa needs this.’ I thought, ‘This can’t be too hard to do,’” Chris said from his midtown Tulsa home.

Creating the Route 66 Marathon proved to be a challenge, but more than a decade later, the race has become an integral part of Tulsa running community as well as growing into a nationally known event – all things he felt Tulsa needed and deserved.

Filling a need in his hometown has been a pattern in Chris’s life. But now he faces a need of his own, something we can all take part in fulfilling.

In 2016, Chris suffered an injury that left him with a severe case of traumatic brain injury. More than two years later, he’s partially recovered from the worst of the injury. But there is still a long way to go.

“Right now, I can’t work,” he said matter-of-factly. “And I want to work.”

THE INJURY

The accident was something that could have happened to any of us. He was on an extension ladder in his company’s warehouse when the ladder slipped. He fell 10 feet, with the of impact absorbed by his skull. Brain swelling ensued, and physicians had to put him into a medically induced coma to help alleviate the trauma.

When Chris regained consciousness, he was unable to move. “Zero mobility,” as he put it. It would be some time before he could speak.

Since then, Chris has undergone more than a dozen surgeries and spent countless hours at different rehabilitation centers in Oklahoma, Texas, and elsewhere.

The good news is that he’s conversational now. He can walk with assistance. But he’s nowhere near where he wants to be, that is, back to running his company, walking without assistance or fear of falling, and maybe taking a few strides on the marathon course he created years ago. He wants to leave his wheelchair behind.

A NEW OPPORTUNITY

Current rehab facilities have taken Chris about as far as they can. Chris and his longtime partner, Kim Hann, learned of another place called REACT Nuero Rehab, a Dallas-based organization founded by Kendell Hall, who had worked herself out of near paralysis going back to a 2009 car accident that damaged her spine.

In speaking to Hall, both Chris and Kim felt they found the place that could help him make the next step toward full recovery.

“She knew all my questions, and it just seemed like the right place,” Chris said.

In a post on a Facebook page designed to keep people up to date on Chris’ recovery, it was summed up like this:

“Chris is now ready for intensive rehab, he took it upon himself to do some research and found REACT in Dallas. We believe this is exactly what he needs to walk unassisted again! They are well known for helping people in wheelchairs to be able to walk again. We toured the facility and met with the staff at REACT. They believe Chris will be able to leave their program having achieved his goals. That being said, we have been exploring options to get him to React in Dallas. With your support, Chris will attend for a minimum of 3 days a week and will have to commute back and forth between Dallas and Tulsa each week. This is going to be a HUGE undertaking for Kim to travel back and forth and find housing and she will also need your and support during this time!”

The challenge, however, is this: This type of rehab isn’t covered by insurance. So that means the cost is completely out-of-pocket, and as we all know, medical care isn’t cheap. For that reason, Chris, Kim and their family are asking for help.

WHAT WE OWE

I watched a video Chris put out, and in the back of my mind, I kept thinking that I was looking at a guy who had done so much for the Tulsa running community, and the city in general.

Before the Route 66 Marathon was created, we just didn’t do marathons in this city. Now, the race attracts about 15,000 runners for its marathon, half marathon, marathon relay and 5K events. In terms of gear sold, hotel rooms booked, meals eaten and other commerce associated with the race, that’s about a $10 million annual impact that was created from scratch.

The success of the race propelled Tulsa running to another level. Where there used to be no local marathons, now there are several. Running stores now have new customers for their gear, and new clients for training programs. Road and trail races leading up to Route 66 benefit from having more runners using their events as tune-ups for November’s big event. Trail and ultramarathon events benefit from people who use the marathon as a gateway to longer races. Thousands of people – maybe tens of thousands – realize fitness goals never dreamed of before, and personal achievements that build confidence for greater endeavors. Chris likes to call Route 66 “the people’s race,” meaning that he wanted it to be an event for everyone, regardless of speed, athleticism or competitiveness.

That hit home with me, because that’s who I am. I’m a midpack runner who used to never run. Years later, I’ve got a marathon under my belt and six half marathons, three 25Ks and a bunch of shorter races that never would have happened had I not set Route 66 as a target. And I’ve got a running habit that has introduced me to new friends, new experiences and a sustainable form of exercise that will benefit me for years to come.

All of this was made possible by a guy who refused to take a salary from his own event until just a few years ago. I’m grateful for that, and I know a lot of other people are, too.

WHAT WE CAN DO

Chris and Kim hope to raise $20,000 to get this new round of rehab started. It sounds like a lot of money, but I figured there is a way to break it down that makes this very doable.

Like I mentioned earlier, thousands of people have run Route 66. If a thousand of these folks donated $20, that goal is met. Basically, if enough is us forgo the cost of a decent large pizza just this once, we get them there.

Want to help? Here’s some information from Chris’ site that gives you a couple of tax-deductible ways you can literally help Chris get back on his feet for good:

You can donate to Chris’ therapy below. Your donations will go 100% directly to Chris’ recovery fund.

  1. You can click this link to donate online.
  2. You can mail a check to Chris’ REACT Therapy Account.

Make checks payable to REACT.

(In the memo, please write “Chris Lieberman’s Recovery Fund”)

REACT

15046 Beltway Drive

Addison, Texas 75001

Chris at the Route 66 Marathon start line. (Chris Lieberman Updates photo)

LET’S DO THIS

This week, I started my training for what will be my seventh half marathon, and my fifth with Route 66. I’ve got my eyes on some goals for this race.

Chris has some goals, too. To walk unassisted. To get back to working full-time in the hard-charging, energetic manner that has been his hallmark. And maybe starting yet another new endeavor, such as creating a foundation to help others like himself who have suffered similar injuries on the job, at home, or overseas in the military. The need is there (some 19,000 Oklahoma veterans have some form of TBI). And in the same way he saw that Tulsa needed a bigger race, he knows Oklahoma needs what he’s seeking now.

Bob Doucette

Welcome to the neighborhood: Cyclists, racing and a city’s biggest block party on Cry Baby Hill

Cyclists race by as crowds cheer – and drink – at the Riverside Criterium of Tulsa Tough on Cry Baby Hill.

When I got up Sunday morning, the parade was already started. Out my window, lines of people were strolling down the hill, coolers and lawn chairs in hand. Some were in costume. Most were dressed for the heat. Some were already half-tanked.

A typical Sunday morning for the third day of Tulsa Tough, an annual cycling race series and festival that has bike enthusiasts from across the country descend on T-town with all the spandex anyone could ever want. Crowds gather for all three days of Tulsa Tough, but it’s the third day, on Cry Baby Hill, that folks really get revved up.

And it happens in my neighborhood.

A little about my ‘hood: it’s tough to define. It’s older, right on the edge of downtown Tulsa, and built on the banks of the Arkansas River. It’s a mix of people, from bohemian to bums, families and retirees, living in stately older homes, shotgun houses, or in open fields not yet developed. It’s a place where you can watch incredible sunsets from your porch, or view transients stumbling down an alley. I feel perfectly safe here, but sometimes there are police helicopters and searchlights. Typical urban neighborhood, I suppose, and the site for the Riverside Criterium of Tulsa Tough.

So let’s talk about Tulsa Tough. This was the 13th year for the event, which attracts top cyclists from across the country and the world. For three days, they race through different courses downtown, and as the years have gone by the crowds have grown. There’s also a gran fondo ride that goes well outside the city and a townie ride where anyone with a set of wheels can take a more leisurely trek.

The climax of Tulsa Tough is the Riverside Criterium. It’s the toughest course, with steep inclines on every lap. I’m sure that’s something cyclists can appreciate and dread, but for most people, the Riverside Criterium is all about the scene that is Cry Baby Hill. It draws the biggest, most raucous crowds of the entire weekend, and I’d say most people are there more for the party than the races. Folks show up by the thousands.

It wasn’t always that way. When Tulsa Tough started, people in the neighborhood gathered at a house or two to watch the races, guzzle some beer and cheer them on. One legend has it that regulars at the Sound Pony, a downtown dive bar frequented by cyclists and other endurance athletes, started making the Sunday Tulsa Tough races a thing. However it started, someone built this party scene, and man, did it grow.

Today, the Riverview neighborhood is choked with Tulsa Tough spectators and revelers. There’s lots of skin, vats of beer, weird costumes and creepy baby-doll heads on sticks. There are a bunch of whistles and people in referee uniforms helping the crowds “mind the gap” so cyclists can actually freely race without fear of running into errant fans. It’s grown so big that the food truck cabal decided to come, and live music on a stage popped up. Debauchery of all sorts happens, though most people keep it in check. I think. Anyway, I tell people that Cry Baby Hill is an annual excuse to get drunk on a Sunday morning, and I think that’s mostly true.

Some of the cyclists get into it. If they’re not concentrated on actually winning, they’ll slow down and take a brew from the crowd before continuing. Cops are there in droves, as are paramedic crews. It’s hot out there, and sometimes the combination of a 12-pack of Natty Light and high heat/humidity doesn’t work out too well.

You might think the description of my neighborhood, the event, and the crowd is negative, but let me shut that down right now: I dig this scene. Endurance sports don’t get a lot of love, so when the hordes arrive to cheer on the competitors, I’m all for it. Come on down, invade the ‘hood for a few hours and have a good time. Too many parts of town (any town, really) are too buttoned down, becoming regimented to the point of lifelessness. My neighborhood is a trip pretty much every day, and I guess it’s fitting that Day Three of Tulsa Tough is sort of a holiday of weirdness for my weird little place.

That all of it surrounds cycling hits home, too. I don’t race, but I spend a decent amount of time in the saddle these days. I chose where I live so I could bike to work. It’s also close to a paved trail system that’s great for longer rides. I’m not a racer, but I get these people even if my ride costs less than the accessories they attach to theirs.

So how did all this go down for me? Well, as the crowds clogged my streets, I mowed my yard. Picked up a half-empty can of Coors Light kindly donated to my lawn. I dumped the rest out, recycled the can, then jumped on my bike and rode to the center of the action.

While recording part of the race from a more “family friendly” part of the course, a half-baked spectator noticed by Denver Broncos ballcap and proceeded to talk smack. Turns out, he was a Chiefs fan. They got us twice last year, but I reminded him that the Broncos have three Lombardis in the case to Kansas City’s one. He was forceful at first (I was hoping that this wouldn’t turn into a real fight), but chilled out long enough to have a more nuanced discussion about how the AFC West was going to play out. His girlfriend got bored, so we bro-hugged and they left.

I rode to a few more spots, taking pics and taking in the scene. Everywhere I went, the streets were lined with people, sometimes ten deep. Whistles would blow, a chase vehicle would zip by, and then a couple of cyclists would follow. Behind them, the whirring gears of a few dozen more cyclists, bunched up in the peloton, breezed by. The crowd cheered, yelled, rang their cowbells and took a swig from coozy-lined cans and red Solo cups.

This scene repeated itself for several hours until the last pro races were done. Podiums were mounted and trophies awarded. Fans eventually stumbled back into their houses, or toward their cars, and not a small number of them took the next day off.

What does this all mean? I’m not sure about the origins of Tulsa Tough. There’s a healthy cycling community in Tulsa, but not more than any other mid-sized city. Even so, Tulsa Tough is a huge success, an international draw, seemingly getting bigger every year. That an obscure endurance sport can become so huge here is encouraging, even if half the appeal is just showing up for the party. It’s a weird, geared-up and beer-soaked thread in a community tapestry that might otherwise be mildly bland.

Come next June, we’ll do it all over again. See ya next time for Year 14 of Tulsa Tough. Cry Baby Hill awaits.

Bob Doucette

Land donation to Turkey Mountain points toward emerging opportunities for Tulsa’s outdoor recreation economy

Turkey Mountain and the Arkansas River in Tulsa. Two natural resources that people are starting to value more.

Man, how things have changed over the course of less than four years.

The news out of Tulsa this week was overwhelmingly good when it comes to the status of Turkey Mountain. On Thursday, the city of Tulsa and the George Kaiser Family Foundation donated 400 acres at Turkey Mountain to the Tulsa River Parks Authority. The move triples the size of RPA’s holdings at Turkey Mountain, and together with a 50-year master lease set up late last year, the future of Turkey Mountain seems more secure than ever before.

That future appears in line with what Turkey Mountain’s users, stakeholders and managers have laid forth: that the park will remain an open green space left in a natural state. Turkey Mountain is loved by trail runners, mountain bikers, hikers and nature enthusiasts, and is known as one of the finest mountain biking trail systems in the country. It’s an asset that has grown in popularity, as can be seen in the increasing number of visitors.

But back in 2014, this seemed in doubt. Simon Properties sought to build an outlet mall on the western side of Turkey Mountain, a project that would have practically sat on top of the Westside YMCA kids camp, threatened trails nearby and caused untold traffic nightmares for years to come. Simon had allies in City Hall, including then-Mayor Dewey Bartlett.

Strong local opposition changed the trajectory of the debate, and years later, Turkey Mountain’s place as one of the city’s premier parks is set.

This brings up a bigger picture that looks even brighter, particularly when it comes to public health and economic diversification. Piece by piece, the Tulsa area’s outdoor recreation inventory is building out in a major way. So, let’s examine that, and see where it’s going.

The foundation of it is in Tulsa River Parks. Paved trail systems and open park land offer Tulsans ample opportunity to walk, run and bike, with larger fields available for team sports (rugby and soccer) and disc golf. On any given weekend, thousands of people are outside, getting exercise or relaxing by the river.

West Bank paved trail at Tulsa River Parks, near Turkey Mountain.

Turkey Mountain, with what it offers, is part of that River Parks system. Besides the daily flow of users, Turkey Mountain is also the scene of cycling races, trail running races, and even festivals. People developing a taste for trail running, hiking and biking introduce new economic opportunities for retailers who sell to people involved in these sports and activities.

On the east bank of the Arkansas River, a massive transformation is unfolding that will change the face of Tulsa’s parks system and the city itself. The $350 million Gathering Place promises to be one of the greatest urban parks in the country. It’s set to open this year, with more development continuing through 2019. There will be something for everything at the Gathering Place, and it will serve as an anchor for the park system for decades to come.

And thanks to the latest Vision Tulsa sales tax initiative, a series of dams on the Arkansas River will guarantee even water flow and good flatwater surfaces. This will open up water sports opportunities like never before. If you’re looking for what might be possible, take a look at what’s happened down the turnpike in Oklahoma City, where a prairie trickle running by downtown has been transformed into an excellent water sports destination. Flatwater kayaking, team rowing and, more recently, whitewater rafting and kayaking has been introduced in the middle of Oklahoma, spurring competitive collegiate rowing sports and attracting an Olympic training center. The transformation brought on by OKC’s Oklahoma River project can easily be duplicated in Tulsa.

Short walls that are good for bouldering, at Chandler Park. 

Elsewhere in the city, the trails and wilds of Tulsa County’s Chandler Park are a hidden gem. Plenty of trail runners have discovered what Chandler Park has to offer: a series of challenging and scenic trails much like Turkey Mountain. Close to the park’s center is a series of bluffs and cliffs that are excellent for rock climbing and bouldering.

Summing it up, within the next few years you will be able to enjoy running, hiking, road biking, mountain biking, horseback riding, rock climbing/bouldering, and water sports, all within the city limits of Tulsa.

Growth of outdoor recreation isn’t confined to the city. To the north, people in the city of Claremore are reaping the benefits of the revival of a trail system by Claremore Lake. Work has been ongoing to update and expand that lake’s trail system, and Claremore Lake is quickly becoming a new hotspot for mountain bikers.

And east of Tulsa, folks in Tahlequah are upping their game as well. Tahlequah has long had ample trails to explore, and the Illinois River is well known for people who enjoy float trips, canoeing and kayaking.

A new organization, called Tahlequah Trails, is hoping to build on that, with its stated goal to “support a trail system similar to northwest Arkansas,” according to its Facebook site.

That’s a lofty goal, for sure. Arkansas is one of the top destinations in the country for mountain bikers in the know. But it’s a worthy one, considering how well Arkansas has tapped into its natural beauty to attract athletes and tourists. The state has been better than most when it comes to building its economy by offering people an active place to play.

A cyclist rides the trails at Turkey Mountain.

And that brings me to this: Northeast Oklahoma in general, and Tulsa specifically, has a huge opportunity before it. City leaders and businesses are hungry for growth, and they can find it in outdoor recreation. Nationally, the outdoor recreation economy is more than $887 billion a year, according to the Outdoor Industry Association. Yes, that’s billion with a “B.”

In Oklahoma, outdoor recreation accounts for $10.6 billion in consumer spending, $3.1 billion in wages and salaries, 97,000 jobs and a whopping $663 million in state and local taxes, according to OIA. Tapping into that economic energy has transformed other cities across the country. Communities like Chattanooga, Tenn., Boulder, Colo., Richmond, Va., and many more have diversified and strengthened their economies while upping their quality of life, thus making them more attractive to other businesses. In the case of Richmond, the presence of ample off-road cycling transformed the city’s economy and even its neighborhoods. Given the natural assets we have here, there is no reason that Tulsa can’t see similar results.

Circling back to the news of the week, we can see momentum building, piece by piece, to set the city up for success. Consolidating and preserving the land at Turkey Mountain has economic and ecological benefits that will pay forward for decades to come. Here’s hoping that we can keep this going. So much has already happened in the span of less than four years.

— Bob Doucette

A look back at 2017, and choosing the chase the good

This was a good day. (Jordan Doucette photo)

In the past, I’ve done these year-in-review posts where I examine some of the things I’ve seen and done. Last year, I took a different tack, instead encouraging folks to take stock in the good things that happened in an otherwise rough year.

Without question, 2017 was an extension of the chaos of 2016. I don’t want to rehash what I already wrote, as those words still apply. But it would do some good to at least look back at the visuals of 2017. When I see these images, it turns out 2017 wasn’t nearly as bad as it felt.

A lot of what was good was tied to places I went. A friend of mine from Kansas City, Craig Cook, was good enough to meet me at Magazine Mountain for an overnight camping trip and a couple of days of hiking on Arkansas’ highest point.

North rim cliffs at Magazine Mountain, Ark.

What a great mix if fun that was. We only scratched the surface, but got in some short day hikes plus a longer, wilder hike through the Ouachita National Forest to the top of the mountain. It’s good to have an adventure buddy to prod you to see new places.

Later in the year, there was a trip out west. There was a lot to see in western Oklahoma, northern New Mexico and in the mountains of Colorado.

Storm clouds form over the Gloss Mountains near Woodward, Okla.

Gloss Mountains State Park in northwestern Oklahoma offers some unique scenery I’d like to explore more.

Ruins of a mill in the Valle Vidal of New Mexico.

I’ve always been a fan of New Mexico. A few days there earned some prime scenery and good hiking in the Valle Vidal near Cimarron. Again, only scratched the surface. This is a huge area, and west of there is more exploring to be had near Wheeler Peak.

And then it was on to Colorado…

Coming off Cupid, heading toward Grizzly Peak D near Loveland Pass, Colo.

For the past three years, I’ve made a point to go to Loveland Pass and hike the peaks there. A couple more 13ers in the bag, but plenty left to do when I return.

Once that was done, it was time to hang out with another adventure buddy, by nephew Jordan. First stop: the Mosquito Range.

An abandoned mine on the flanks of Mount Sherman. My favorite photo of the year.

Jordan and I had done the Decalibron loop the year before, so it made sense to finish off the Mosquito Range 14ers together. We got up early, drove to Fairplay and then hiked Mountain Sherman. This was a surprisingly scenic peak.

Summit view from Mount Sherman.

Having tackled that, we gorged in Buena Vista, camped overnight and took a shot at La Plata Peak. A lot of hard work going up those switchbacks, but no summit. Still, what an incredible place.

La Plata Peak the evening before our summit attempt.

Jordan checking out the scenery on the way down from La Plata.

One the way home from Colorado, another pit stop at a place I’d seen before, but in winter conditions. Black Mesa, Okla., is special in summer, too.

Hoodoos near Black Mesa, Okla.

In the fall, me and Bec headed out to Arkansas, this time to Bentonville. This was not exclusively an “outdoor adventure” trip, but it did have that element.

A hiker on the trail in Hobbs State Park, Ark.

Arkansas knows how to do state parks. Hobbs State Park is amazing, and begs for another visit.

I’ve got a few other good memories that were captured closer to home. Over the course of the fall, I had plenty of time to soak in the scene while on long runs or bike rides. Fall came late, but when it did, the appeal of the changing season was clear.

West Bank paved trail at Tulsa River Parks, near Turkey Mountain.

Maybe six weeks later, another great signal of changing seasons: a decent dusting of snow.

On the ridge trail on Turkey Mountain, looking across the Arkansas River and into south Tulsa. Another one of my favorite images from 2017.

There are plenty of other memories of places seen and things done that I could recall — 365 days is a lot of time to collect memories — but this is a decent sampling.

It would be foolish to dismiss the negative of 2017, whether it be what’s happening nationally or around the world, or how life has changed for me personally. But it’s nice to balance those scales with the good. And here’s a little lesson…

Every photo you see here has one thing in common: Being in these places involved a choice. A choice to meet a friend and hang out. A choice to make time for family. A choice to endure physical hardship to see uncommon beauty. A choice to lace up the shoes, head out the door and run. A choice to take advantage of the moment, even if that moment was fleeting.

So as 2017 comes to end, feel free to say “good riddance.” But don’t forget to say thanks for the good. And if the thought of 2018 brings a little dread, remember to make a few choices, to chase the good wherever it leads.

Happy New Year, friends.

Bob Doucette

Happy trails, 2017!

Snow day: A rare hiking treat in my hometown

Living in the Southern Plains, snow is not guaranteed. Usually we’re good for a few snowy days a year, but not lately. The past few years have been remarkably snow-free.

But there is a lot to be said for a good hike on a snowy day. When it snows here, I don’t hunker down. I get outside. There’s nothing quite so beautiful as a forest with a fresh coat of snow.

These photos were taken on a modest five-mile hike at Tulsa’s Turkey Mountain Urban Wilderness Area over the weekend after a two-inch dusting overnight. By the time you read this, almost all of this snow will be gone. Hence the urgency to get out there and enjoy it.

The Cityplex Towers framed by snow-covered tree limbs.

Being in the middle of a city, you get a good mix of woodland and urban scenery. This view was a good example of that.

Moonscape, along the ridge at Turkey Mountain.

Sadly, I wasn’t up early enough for first tracks. But it was still pretty cool.

Snowy singletrack.

Not a lot of packed snow, and the trail was muddy and icy. But not too bad.

Leaving the ridge and looking south on the Powerline Trail

Snow and ice on the powerlines made a very audible buzzing sound. That was weird.

A natural arch.

Even though we’re in winter, fall is stubborn in these parts. Some plants refuse to lose their fall foliage, even when weighed down by snow.

Detail shot of frozen foliage.

I dig the optics of a winter close-up.

Anyway, nothing profound or earth-shattering here. Snow is somewhat of a novelty in my city. Although I grew up in snowy places as a kid, being away from its regularity has made it fascinating again.

Enjoy your winter, folks.

Bob Doucette