Boulder, faster stronger

Which of the following sights did I not actually take in on my recent trip to Boulder, Colo.:

A. A 75-year-old woman in a sports bra and running skirt, leaving me in her dust.
B. A medical marijuana clinic called The Candy Store.
C. A bum recycling his beer bottle.
D. A dog with dreadlocks.

The correct answer: I witnessed all four, driving home my long-held belief that I should, in fact, be living in this deliciously crunchy college town.

Don't get me wrong: Chicago, my lifelong home, has its high points. Like the runner-, bike- and blade-filled Lakeshore Path. Oodles of opportunities for arts and culture. The seven-pound Art of Pizza deep-dish spinach, mushroom and black olive bomb my husband and I pounded through last weekend. But the weather is abysmal; the winters, soul-crushing. We workout, but eight months of the year, we're driven indoors, chained to StepMills and elliptical machines like Vitamin D-deficient hamsters. It is not at all uncommon for people to drive to dinner … five blocks away.

But Boulder ... Boulder is magical. Consistently voted one of America's fittest cities by US News. In 2008, that meant 67.1 percent of residents exercised regularly -- 43.4 percent of them vigorously, versus a place like Chattanooga, Tenn., where less than 18 percent do. The very essence of life hinges around being active. I would wake up early -- on vacation -- and take a solo hike through the mountains (the majority of homes are located within spitting distance of a trailhead), where I was as likely to pass a group of deer as a family of four.

During one hike, my espnW writer travel companion, Cristina Goyanes, and I were blown away by the sight of a girl who couldn't have been older than 10, just booking it solo along a flat mountain trail, racing sunglasses wrapped around her head and a water bottle strapped to her hand. No parents anywhere to be found. While such a move seems downright dangerous to a New Yorker like Cristina or even a Chicagoan like myself (True story: My mother actually made me wear a whistle around my neck during my first unsupervised trip to the mall with friends in junior high), in a crunchy, near-zero-crime town like Boulder, it's just another Monday morning.

Vegan vending machines and bike-sharing programs aside, Boulder isn't just fit, it's happy ("Happiest City in America," 2010, Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index); healthy (No. 2 in Men's Health's 2010 "Healthiest Town in U.S."); runner-friendly (No. 3 in Masters Athlete magazine's 2008 "Top 10 Cities for Masters Runners"); foodie ("America's Foodiest Town," Bon Appétit, 2010) and "The Best Cities to Raise an Outdoor Kid" (No. 1, Backpacker magazine, 2009).

Truth be told, I'm not especially outdoorsy. I'm not a die-hard vegetarian. I don't ride bikes, thanks to a freak high school accident involving freshly paved hot tar, a missing "Road Closed" sign and a melted red Schwinn. And I actually think dreadlocks are fairly disgusting. But there's just something about being submerged in a culture where fitness and health are the norm, where Baby Boomers hit the gravel for daily hour-long runs and toddlers know the difference between CFL and LED light bulbs. The sun shines nearly every day and breathtaking mountain scenescapes implore you to throw on a pair of trail-running shoes and just go.

On my last day in Boulder, my group was treated to a private hike by a man who actually pushed his 5-year-old daughter up the mountain in a stroller. We passed fresh bear puke (and stopped to snap pics) as he regaled us with a story of a recent animal attack, during which a mountain lion snatched a child and darted off … only to be chased down and, ultimately, defeated by the kid's Israeli commando father. Instinctively, I reached for my mom's whistle around my neck. Instead, I felt my heart pounding from a combination of adrenaline and mile-high altitude. I plucked an organic Honeycrisp from my bag, took a juicy bite and kept on hiking.

espnW columnist Leslie Goldman is a die-hard workout junkie who covers health and fitness for many popular women's magazines and is the author of "Locker Room Diaries: The Naked Truth About Women, Body Image and Re-imagining the 'Perfect' Body." Full disclosure: Her high school athletic experience was limited to sophomore-year color guard.

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