August 18, 2013 Updated: August 19, 2013 at 10:04 am
When Alex Nichols saw the flood waters rampaging through the streets of Manitou Springs Aug. 9, his first hopes were for the safety of hundreds of endangered residents.
His second thoughts - a distant second - concerned the safety of the venerable English Soccer game at The Penny Arcade, which sits a few dozen yards off Manitou Avenue, the town's main drag.
Nichols, a Colorado Springs resident, was talking, with impressive ease, 10 minutes after finishing second in Sunday's Pikes Peak Marathon. Not long before, he had been sprinting side by side with winner Touru Miyahara of Japan 26.1 miles into this punishing 26.2-mile event. It was a remarkable finish to a remarkable race on a remarkable day.
I share Nichols memories of Aug. 9. I watched in horror as cars cascaded down Fountain Creek in Manitou and hoped lives would be spared from nature's savage outburst.
But I couldn't help myself. I also wondered about the fate of Air Aces, a pinball machine that sits a dozen feet from the English Soccer game Nichols so admires.
On Sunday, Manitou Springs looked spiffy and full of life a mere nine days after one of the worst evenings in the town's history. Marathon day always is a happy time, with runners rejoicing beside friends and family. You would rejoice, too, if you conquered Pikes Peak.
No doubt, Sunday delivered a badly needed joyous day in Manitou, the funky alternative to Colorado Springs.
When pulling into town on Sunday morning, I parked next to a '66 Volkswagen, a remnant of the groovy Flower Power era. I saw Deadhead Only parking signs. I saw three white guys with dreadlocks. (Not a recommended look, by the way.)
No doubt; I was in Manitou.
When a quick escape is required, I turn to Manitou. It's where I struggle against Air Aces, a '70s pinball machine that depicts a dapper World War I fighter pilot smoking a cigarette while cavorting with a gorgeous woman with Bronco-orange hair.
Nichols is the same way. He retreats to The Penny Arcade each Sunday afternoon with his girlfriend to enjoy English Soccer and play the fake horses at Arcade Derby.
"Never won a race," he said, sadly shaking his head.
Yet he never loses when he travels to Manitou. Throughout its history, Manitou has served a variety of roles. A tuberculosis treatment center. A resort. A relaxed mountain town that beckons from the edge of a bustling city.
And now, in the words of The New York Times, Manitou is "hippie Mayberry." In other words, a small, friendly town where Sheriff Andy Taylor and Deputy Barney Fife could walk happily beside those who drive '66 Volkswagen buses.
Nichols was encouraged when he returned to Manitou after the flood. He could sense the dogged determination of residents to revive their town. He was impressed how quickly the flood's grimy residue had been removed.
He was returning to Manitou again late Sunday morning after a grueling run up and down Pikes Peak. As he neared Ruxton Avenue and the finish line, Nichols was, amazingly, battling side-by-side with Miyahara for the victory. Seeing a battle this late in a marathon is exceedingly rare.
Nichols could not quite persuade his lungs and legs to hold on.
Several minutes after Nichols crossed the finish line, he was greeted by fifth-place finisher Cameron Clayton of Boulder. Clayton's forehead, arms and legs were covered with blood after a fall with eight miles to go, but he remained astoundingly cheerful.
"Did you have fun up there?" Clayton asked Nichols.
"Not really," he answered in a whisper.
Nichols, 28, earned All America honors in cross country for Colorado College, where he now serves as assistant track coach. He started running as a youngster in the suburbs of Minneapolis and has seldom stopped.
"It's a challenge," Nichols said of Sunday's marathon. "It's an accomplishment. I wouldn't say fun is the perfect word to describe it."
Please, don't worry about Nichols being glum. He had big plans for the afternoon. He planned to walk down Manitou Avenue, take a quick left and walk into The Penny Arcade. His beloved English Soccer game, and the quirky brand of fun this resilient town forever offers, awaited his arrival.