For the past 40 New Year‘s Days, a group of Boulder athletes have risen early, shaking off the past year and embracing the next with a ceremonial jaunt up Flagstaff Mountain.
Gary Sobol hasn‘t missed a year.
The 78-year-old Boulderite still organizes the self-named “Dawn Patrol” crew and meets the gang at the top of the mountain, although Parkinson‘s disease has led to Sobol driving part of the way rather than the usual group run.
“I‘m the only one who‘s made it every year,” he said of the crew, which fluctuates between around a dozen to 30 people depending on the weather. “With Parkinson‘s disease, it‘s very hard to go, but with the help of my adorable wife, who sticks right with me, we get to the top together. We take a little shortcut now, but we‘re up there and greet the first runner.”
Sobol and his family moved to Boulder in 1976.
“I was overweight and out of shape, so I started running,” he said.
Exercise introduced Sobol to some local runners and hikers who decided they‘d run up Flagstaff Mountain on New Year‘s Day to start the year off on the right frigid foot in 1977.
“We made a commitment: we would return every New Year‘s Day, regardless of anything else,” he said. “It was kind of comical.”
That first year, Sobol recalled just two people showed up for the run at the meeting spot in Basemar Shopping Center — in part, because he said it was 20 degrees below zero.
“By the time we got to the Flagstaff House restaurant, my friend had icicles hanging off his hat,” he said.
Icicle hats or not, folks kept showing up every year in bigger quantities as word-of-mouth of the healthy Boulder tradition spread.
Some ran, some biked, others hiked and some walked up from the Chautauqua Trailhead, gabbing along the way until they all met at the top for a celebration.
Longtime Dawn Patrol member Martha Eskesen said back in the group‘s glory days, they used to tote champagne and “scrappy, little fireworks” to the top.
Members of the Dawn Patrol celebrate the start of 2013 on Flagstaff Mountain. “It‘s the camaraderie I love —- the friendships,” said Gary Sobol, 78, who estimates the group spends four hours together on each morning of New Year‘s Day. ()
“I haven‘t seen champagne up there in awhile, though,” Eskesen said. “And, obviously, no more fireworks.”
When the Dawn Patrol reaches the ground again, they all head to breakfast at the Egg and I to feast and chatter.
“This group has been through a lot,” said Sue Brown, Sobol‘s daughter. “Marriages, divorces, illnesses. My dad has had three bouts of cancer and Parkinson‘s disease. Through it all, they‘re still together.”
Sobol estimates he and the crew spend four hours of their morning — from base to summit to breakfast — catching everyone up on their years.
“We show up and get out of the car and, because our lives get very busy, from that moment on, we‘re just talking,” he said. “It‘s the camaraderie I love —- the friendships.”
Eskesen takes pride in being the first female member of the group when she joined in 1985. When Eskesen‘s sister, who worked with Sobol, heard about his athletic endeavors, she knew she had to invite her sporty younger sister to show up the men.
“My sister made some kind of dare to these guys that her little sister could leave them in the dust,” Eskesen said. “I started biking with them every weekend, and then they invited me to join on New Year‘s Day.”
Eskesen has delighted in Sobol‘s competitive zings that motivate everyone to keep going up the mountain.
Some years stand out to members of the crew. Sobol and Eskesen both remember the year 2000 when the crew decided to run up Flagstaff at night.
“We assembled at 10:30 at night with flashlights for the millennium,” Sobol said.
Eskesen reflected on particularly cold, icy, snowy years. She laughed, noting that even though the crew arrives at 9 a.m., “it is Boulder, after all,” and, surely, someone will have cleared the trail a little bit before them.
“We strap on our snowshoes and do it,” she said. “We‘d wade through very deep snow. We‘ve all gotten older, and our abilities have changed, but we all still get together and do it.”
Brown even modifies her New Year‘s Eve plans to make sure she‘s ready to join her dad and the rest of the Dawn Patrol bright and early.
“We try to make sure we‘re home at a decent time, so we‘re not hungover or anything,” she said.
Brown finds the tradition inspirational on many fronts. Beginning the year with a reminder to stay healthy and active is a plus, but her father‘s commitment to the event is what really warms her heart.
“Not only has he had all these physical struggles, but he has kept this group together,” she said. “They‘re all really close friends, and it‘s impressive.”