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Running down a dream 

With the number of weekly runners topping 1,000, the five-year-old Jack Quinn's Running Club is certainly the mother of all local clubs. But it shares space with plenty of feisty children. Over the past couple of years, and particularly in just the past six months, the Springs has seen an explosion of groups.

John Gardner, president of Pikes Peak Road Runners — at 1,600 members, the largest running club in Colorado — corroborates. "The sport's growing," he says. "It's evident in the number of races locally and nationally."

Why is that?

First, Gardner believes people are just trying to live healthier and be more active. He also thinks they're using social media to encourage their friends to join them — and realizing they don't have to record a 5- or 6-minute mile to run. Finally, he adds, "It's a relatively inexpensive sport."

Of course, Colorado Springs has long been a passionate running community. This August will bring the 56th annual Pikes Peak Ascent and Marathon, wherein runners make their way either up the mountain, or up and down it, while dealing with a gain of almost 6,000 vertical feet and the possibility of snow at the top.

I think that's crazy. But then, I know others who think I'm crazy to be training for this year's Garden of the Gods 10 Mile Run, which scheduled its inaugural event in 1977. On June 12, I'll join 2,000-some runners for the trek around the Garden, a trip that has its own not-insignificant "upper-downers."

It was with this in mind that I looked to local organized events for extra motivation. But I have to admit, free stuff is its own motivator (downturn or not). If you, too, consider it a sweet deal to run 3.4 miles in exchange for a cheap (sometimes free) brew or T-shirt, run along with me as I share the scoop on five restaurant-affiliated local groups I checked out over the past three weeks.

Jack Quinn's Running Club, jackquinnsrunners.com

5K: half paved, half trail

Tuesdays, 6 p.m. start

$2.50 Odell pints, food discounts, free T-shirt after 10 runs

Quinn's is where I started with local clubs three years ago, so it's apt that I begin my journey with a refresher. The route travels from Tejon Street, west on Colorado Avenue, behind the Antlers Hilton to Monument Valley Park. From there, it's north to Uintah Street, up the steep hill to Cascade Avenue (don't feel bad if you have to walk, I still do) and back south on Tejon to Quinn's. You really don't have to worry about getting lost, based on the mass of bodies heading the same direction.

This club may test your patience a bit — if you've never run before, you'll probably have to spend some time in line to sign releases, and most everyone has to wait a bit for their $2.50 pint after. But Quinn's will reward you with ample inspiration — whether pre-run, during loudspeaker announcements of upcoming races and contests, or post-sweat, while cheering on all the folks who are being "shirted." Every time I do Quinn's, I feel like I'm in the Church of the Running Goddess.

University Village Center Running Club, uvcrunningclub.com

4 miles or 6 miles: paved

Mondays, 6 p.m. start

Bargains galore at participating UVC stores, free T-shirt after 10 runs

For a fair-weather runner, tonight's outing is rough. The wind's blowing hard, and my car windshield catches a few snowflakes on the drive over to University Village Center. Even worse, I realize when I arrive, I've left my hat at home.

Shivering event coordinators, however, greet me at tables laid out with release forms, T-shirts for sale, free coffee, lists of tonight's deals (more on those later) and route maps. (They offer two: a 4-miler heading north on the Pikes Peak Greenway and a 6-miler heading south.) I've never been north of here on the Greenway, so I head that direction. Even though the air is chilly and the skies threatening, I alternately meet up with and pass other participants every few minutes.

When I return to home base, I cannot feel my fingers and my ears are cherry red, but I also cannot pass up the deals. Buy one meal, get one free at Noodles & Company? Hello, dinner! Fifty percent off my entire purchase at Glacier Homemade Ice Cream & Gelato? Nice to meet you, pints of Key Lime Pie and Vermont Maple Honey.

Oh, and while the deals do change sometimes (keep an eye on the website for current specials), they aren't just for runners. If you can walk a 1-mile loop around the UVC parking lot, you, too, can drink BOGO margaritas at Chipotle! Just beware the participant hand stamp (needed to claim your deals). It took me three days to wash the ink off my skin.

Blood, Sweat & Beers Running Club at Colorado Mountain Brewery, cmbrew.com

5K: paved

Wednesdays, arrive and start between 5 and 6 p.m.

$3 draft beer, 10 percent off the menu, assorted CMB swag and incentives after five-plus runs

Indicative of springtime in Colorado, the only similarity between my UVC outing and this Colorado Mountain Brewery one two days later, is the wind. The sun is shining, and my misplaced hat of Monday becomes the forgotten sunscreen of today.

The club organizer, CMB staff member Andrea Stiles, is happy to share all the details. She has me sign a release, explains their deals for runners and reviews a map of the route. Certain I'm unlikely to remember it, I take a photo on my phone. When I get about halfway, I pull out my phone and confirm that, yes, I'm lost. I turn around and run back the way I came.

The treeless land up here reminds me why it's always important to prepare for the elements — I'm slow and sunburned. About 15 runners cross my path at some point or another, and their smiles cheer me up, but the best view on this trip is of Pikes Peak. Unobstructed at this northern location, it ultimately reminds me, spent or not, why running in Colorado rocks.

Back at the brewery, I take advantage of your three-buck brew with a UniBräu Hefeweissen. Its citric sweetness and crisp body are perfect for mitigating sweat beads on your forehead.

Soul Runners at Trinity Brewing Company, trinitybrew.com

4.5 miles or 8-plus miles: paved

Mondays, 6 p.m. start

$3 house brews after running; free T-shirt after three runs

When I arrive for Soul Runners, named for the Soul Horkey beer at Trinity, I'm not the only one who feels lost. I overhear two other first-time couples asking for help. It's the first club (and ultimately, the only) at which I'm not asked to sign a release, nor is there a coordinator, staff member or volunteer, on site.

Out of the dozen or so people waiting around the front door, I approach a guy who appears friendly and "runnerly" — turns out his name is Domenick D'Amico, and he's a former Easterner and running coach who moved to Colorado about a year and a half ago. He graciously answers my questions about the routes and sign-in, and when the rest of the group heads for the 8-miler into Garden of the Gods, becomes my 4.5-miler buddy, running south behind the former Intel building toward I-25. He talks during most of the trip, as I try to keep breathing. (Him: Nine Boston Marathons. Me: One BolderBoulder 10K.)

On the return of this out-and-back, he tells me he thinks this route is actually harder than the 8-miler, because while the Garden route heads uphill on the way out, this one is uphill the entire way back. I'm starting to learn the questions to ask before I begin.

Nacho Ordinary Running Club at the Briargate Salsa Brava, rockymtnrg.com/salsabrava

5K: paved

Tuesdays, 6 p.m. start

Drink specials and "Runner's menu" available following run, free T-shirt after four runs, additional incentives after more runs

I arrive at Salsa Brava at 6 on the dot. The restaurant is full of customers, but I don't see any in runners' gear. The hostess is chatty when I tell her it's my first time here. She has me read and sign a release, add my name to a check-in list (supposedly I'm tonight's 43rd runner) and tells me the route. It's easy for even a newbie to remember — a square of sidewalks heading uphill east on Briargate Boulevard, south on Lexington Drive, downhill west on Research Parkway and north on Chapel Hills Drive. I wait a few minutes to see if anyone else shows up, and finally head out on my own.

About three miles and a half hour later (the route is a bit shy of a 5K), I'm back at Salsa Brava. I've come across no other runners — in fact, I've come across no other people, my entire trip. Just lots of pavement, battered election signs at every intersection, and more cars than I can count whizzing by. There's a lovely fire pit aflame on the Salsa Brava patio, but again, no runners. Inside, a few folks at the bar sport gym shoes and shorts, and the hostess greets me again and offers me a runner's menu. The deals are decent; appetizers and dinner plates under $5, but where are all the people to take advantage? It's like they've been instantaneously beamed elsewhere. (Quinn's, perhaps?) "Nacho Ordinary," indeed.

kakens@csindy.com

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