It's loud and the mood is festive upstairs at the Jack Quinn Irish Ale House & Pub in downtown Colorado Springs.
The room is warm and humid and smells of beer and sweat. It's been this way on Tuesday nights for nearly 10 years.
The runners in the Jack Quinn's Running Club light the place with laughter. Outside, the temperature has dropped to 18 degrees. Rush hour has ended. It's dinner time. It's dark.
But on this cold winter's night, Alan Flolo and Julie Thompson plod along the Pikes Peak Greenway Trail. Their headlamps light the way. This has become their tradition. The running club is their connection to a larger community.
"Having the club helps me keep running through the winter," says Thompson, who commutes from Woodland Park to run with the club. "Even though it is cold and dark out there, I know there will be other people on the trail, and I feel safe."
It's common for 500 or more to brave the coldest weather to run in the winter. In the summer, 1,200 or more attend each week. Almost 1,800 once ran with the club on a June evening.
There is no cost to join the club. Just lace up your shoes and go. Runners are asked to provide their names and e-mail addresses at the pub before their first run. Then they sign in each time after that. Those who complete 10 runs earn the club's popular green-and-white T-shirt (though they have to buy it for $10). There are also commemorative shirts for those who complete 50, 100, 200 and other milestone numbers of runs.
The running starts at about 5:30 p.m. Old friends in fancy running shoes and winter running gear clamber up the stairs and make a beeline for the bar after. Some nights are slower than others, but the group is raging on this recent Tuesday.
At 7 p.m. club officers award the shirts to those who have reached a milestone, and a chant begins. "Bubba ... Bubba ... BUBBA!" Gene Chavez emerges from the crowd, and the place goes berserk. "Bubba" has completed 200 runs on the club's 5K course downtown. It's time for celebration and silly photos. Bubba is grateful for the friendship.
"I love the people here," he says. "The best friends I've ever made, I made here. They welcomed me in and made me feel like I belonged."
The crowd is diverse, with former Olympians, national champions and Pikes Peak Ascent winners mixing easily with people who struggle to run three miles without stopping to walk.
Frank Morrey, 74, has finished his run, wraps his hand around a pint glass of beer, leans against the wall and observs the scene. He began running with the club shortly after it started, in 2006.
"It's not an intimate little club," he says. "It's huge, but I like it. I've made friends here. Some of them I no longer see, but there are folks that still come every Tuesday that I've known for nine years."
Tom Finke wasn't a runner when he made his first strides with the club. "I had had six knee surgeries," he says. Retired from the Air Force, he began by running one mile, then two, and slowly built up to the full distance. He volunteered for various club positions and now serves as the interim president.
The organization's success is revealed in the story of every runner here. Flolo lived in Colorado Springs for eight years before running with the club, which is how he met coach Chris Bittinger, who encouraged him to run a marathon. Five years later, Flolo completed the Run Rabbit Run 100-mile ultra-run.
The Boulder Running Company has been a club partner since the get-go. "It's an awesome partnership," says the company's manager, Sadie Leibfritz. "We want to be involved in the running community, and we like being part of the Jack Quinn's Running Club."
Kerry Page took attendance at the first Jack Quinn's run, when 76 people showed up, surprising everyone. She's since finished more than 400 club runs and remains impressed by the organization.
"A lot of the original folks have moved on, or stopped running," she says. "But people are still finding inspiration here. It's cool to see this running community growing so much."
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