Zoe Courville, 1997 Denver Lutheran assistant coach, stands outside her room at the Pueblo Holiday Inn. State was postponed to the next weekend. Photo by Bill Stahl.
Special to Colorado Track XC by Bill Stahl
The one-week postponement of the State cross country meet brought back for me vivid memories of another even more infamous meet delay – the October ’97 blizzard.
Picture being stranded in a Pueblo Holiday Inn for three days with 19 overactive cross country kids, including a wheelchair athlete. Driving down in a thundersnowstorm in which all I could see were the reflectors on the side of the highway to navigate where I was going. Making a five-hour trip to a Safeway a mile away to get food off nearly-barren store shelves. Kids dying their hair blue and then, when trying to get it out, staining towels, sheets, shower curtains, and bathtubs.
The Colorado State cross country meet turned into an epic event. The forecast was dicey, but with no cancellation notice from CHSAA, I drove a van from Lutheran High School down I-25 into the gathering storm. The aging 14-passenger van already fish-tailed when you drove it, and the accumulating snow on the pavement wasn’t helping matters. We were followed in this snail’s pace trek by one team family’s motorhome that was so nice it would have made Rodney Dangerfield proud.
By the time we passed Colorado Springs, I could no longer see where the edge of the road was. Only the reflectors showed me that I wasn’t driving into the ditch. The heavy snow was being driven by a fierce north wind that completely coated all of the road signs, so only my familiarity with the route enabled me to take the correct highway exit.
We were trying to find an Italian restaurant in Pueblo for which we had a reservation. In this era before GPS devices, I needed to read street signs that were now unreadable. At one point, as I was straining to make out one of these signs, a flash of lightning was followed by all of the street lights going out. I then had to maneuver the van into position so the headlights would shine on the sign so I could see where we were. We finally reached the restaurant, which fortunately was able to feed us despite having lost half of their power.
Upon arrival at the Holiday on the northwest side of the I-25/US 50 intersection, we learned that the State meet had been canceled. At about the same time, Channel 2 news was broadcasting a State meet preview story about Cristian Murphy, the boy on our team in a wheelchair, who’d made headlines all over the country. Cristian was born with spina bifida, and spent his early years in a Romanian orphanage, more like a warehouse for kids that the communist government there had no use for. His legs useless, Cristian’s only means of locomotion was by pushing himself off the floor on his fists. His parents had adopted him from this horrible plight, and their journey had been chronicled on Channel 4.
I had coached Cristian’s older sister, Jenny, so I got to know Cristian and how he could speed through the school’s halls and screech to a halt an inch from my foot. One day, a light bulb went off over both our heads and we decided to let Cristian try cross country. We had no idea that he would be the very first high school wheelchair cross country athlete. Channel 4 picked up the story and of his debut that year at Liberty Bell, and next thing we knew, stations all over the country were latching onto it.
After watching ourselves on TV, the Lutheran team hunkered down into the Holiday Inn, expecting to leave in the morning to get ready for a State meet that would take place a week later. Mother Nature had other plans. The next morning, we obviously were not going anywhere, perhaps not even across the street. The snow that would eventually stack up three feet high and probably two or three times taller in drifts was coming down sidewise in a fury. We were not prepared for a stay beyond that morning, so feeding this hungry horde became the next priority. The nearest store, however, was a mile away, and our vehicles were no match for the conditions.
I knew that my friends with the Holy Family team had more suitable transportation, so my assistant coach, Zoe Courville, and I decided to hike diagonally across the I-25/US 50 intersection to their hotel in a quest for sustenance. Zoe, who grew up in Granby and was a former Middle Park star athlete and a scholarship skier at DU, stated that she didn’t think she’d ever seen a storm that fierce. I’d fortunately brought my snow boots and parka for this trek because what should have been a five-minute walk took almost a half-hour in the thigh-deep snow. Holy Family’s hotel was without power, and the kids were cavorting in the hallways with little else to do.
Zoe and I rode with two sets of Holy Family parents in a Suburban first one mile to a Lowe’s where we purchased their entire stock of snow shovels, all leftover from the year before and covered in dust. Then we inched another mile to the Safeway. Along the way, we pushed out numerous marooned vehicles and steered around jack-knifed tractor-trailers in the middle of intersections. By the time we got back with our food, the trip had taken five hours!
Upon returning, I learned that one kid, Nate, had gotten hungry, and, defying my orders to stay put, had ventured out into the storm in search of a fast-food fix. He might as well have ventured into an Antarctic blizzard. We were powerless to do much about this appalling situation, and after several anguishing minutes, Nate thankfully turned up, frozen and empty-handed, of course.
The kids invented some, uh, interesting activities to occupy their time. The boys got their fingernails painted by the Kent Denver girls. I had never thought of doing that to pickup girls before! The team held a contest to see who could hold their breath underwater in the hotel hot tub the longest. Our top runner, Scott, won in 45 minutes. Yes, I said minutes. It turns out that this bright boy discovered he could stay underwater indefinitely by “breathing” the air coming out of the hot tub jets! Another “favorite” activity of theirs involved pouring water on the snow outside of someone’s hotel room door, letting it turn to ice, then knocking on the door and waiting for the occupant to come out, slip, and slam to the ground.
The team got into an ice chunk chucking war with the also-stranded Alamosa football team. Fifty football players versus 19 scrawny cross country runners. Quite a concept.
I guess things got ugly. At one point, while lying on my bed watching the Indians-Marlins World Series game from balmy Florida, I received a phone call in which the anonymous caller announced that “the next ice chunk” is coming through my front window. Obviously, it was time for a truce (or surrender). I sought out the Alamosa coaches in the hotel bar and negotiated peace. When I returned to the room, ticked off at having missed two innings of the game, one of my runners asked me how I enjoyed “Jason’s phone call.” I immediately summoned Jason, our fifth runner, to my room, where I angrily grabbed him by the collar and shouted, “If there were any way to send you home right now, I would!” I shoved a shovel in Jason’s face and instructed him to clear paths so Cristian could get around.
The most exasperating activity the boys undertook was, after all dying their hair blue for the meet, realizing that they would get crucified by the assistant principal for violating the school dress code, so they worked on getting the dye out. However, the intelligent hair dye purchaser had gotten permanent dye, so the removal operation stained a good deal of the room’s contents. The Holiday Inn management threatened to bill us $300 for each ruined tub, and more for the linens. Since we had nowhere to go, I bargained for a reprieve. During my next trip to the now-cleaned out Safeway, where I bought $100 worth of fried chicken to feed the team, I also purchased Comet and bleach. The boys discovered that the bleach removed the dye from the tubs and linens so well that they decided, not knowing the dangers involved, it might work just as well on their own hair! I ended up with a team of Billy Idol look-alikes, except for one boy, Eric, whose naturally light hair inexplicably turned seaweed green for the rest of the school year. But we avoided any additional Holiday Inn charges.
By Sunday, the sun turned the tables on Mother Nature, and the 60-degree temperatures began to transform Pueblo into a flood zone. We enjoyed a team run in which most of the boys stripped off their shirts and took turns diving into massive snowbanks, despite my warnings that those piles might be covering hard objects like fire hydrants or small cars.
I-25 remained closed until Monday, and we finally journeyed home that afternoon. We counted the abandoned cars alongside the highway. The tally exceeded 300!
We returned to Pueblo the next week, and to my surprise, the Holiday Inn allowed us to stay there again, and even gave us a healthy discount. The boys finished a respectable 9th at the meet, and our one girl qualifier, Michelle Quinlan, was 22nd. The adventure didn’t quite end there. As I filled our van’s gas tank on the way home, I noticed the absence of a spare tire. Murphy’s Law struck as we had a blowout somewhere south of Castle Rock, and had to call parents to ferry us back to school, arriving much later than we’d expected.
This week’s postponement afforded me an opportunity to re-tell the story of an unforgettable experience that required all of my coaching “survival skills,” but that I hope to never endure anything similar again.