Former jeweler Paul Gotthelf is discovering the beauty of chasing athletic goals at 70
Longtime Vail resident completed his 13th Leadville 100 bike race this fall and his fifth American Birkebeiner last month
Chasing athletic goals into his eighth decade, one could say Paul Gotthelf is appropriately realizing the best metaphor for his love of sports is a diamond. After all, the joyful testing of one’s physiological limits — no matter the age — has an obvious, timeless value. It sometimes takes years, however, to twist the rock and realize each angles’ hidden beauty.
“I always looked at it as exercise, number one,” said the longtime owner of Gotthelf’s Jeweler, once a staple business in Vail Village.
“And competition made it fun,” he said, regarding his passion for endurance master-blasting. “But I never really focused on the competition.”
Now a real-estate broker for Slifer Smith and Frampton, Gotthelf set some ambitious goals for himself this year.
“When you turn 70, things change in your world of entertainment,” the long-distance mountain-bike savant said before explaining his goal of returning for a 13th-career Leadville 100. He finished the 104-mile race with 12,600 feet of climbing in 10 hours and 33 minutes, first in his age group by an hour. Even that didn’t satiate his appetite for proving to himself that he’s still got it.
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“And then I thought, well I’m going to really try hard to get in the top 20 (in my age group) in the Birkie,” he said, referencing the American Birkebeiner. The point-to-point 51-kilometer skate race in Wisconsin featured 3,943 participants (and over 10,000 in various events over the weekend) and is essentially the Boston Marathon of the Nordic world.
“It’s just a sea of people,” described Gotthelf, who started skate skiing roughly 20 years ago. Along with Vail Nordic Center director Dan Timm, Gotthelf joined a group of locals who ventured north for the bucket-list race. He wound up finishing 16th out of 70 athletes in his age group, completing the hilly course in 4 hours and 9 minutes in cold conditions.
“We had a ball together, it was really fun,” Gotthelf said.
“I kind of wish I would have finished a little bit better, but the conditions were really tough and it’s a sport that if you’re not born on skis, it is what it is,” he continued with a laugh.
“I always tell people, one of the hardest sports on the planet is skate skiing because of the technique, timing, core strength — it’s incredibly hard.”
While “easy” wouldn’t necessarily be the best descriptor for his leisure activities as a whole, Gotthelf’s bottom line is simple: “If I could give one message forward, it’s just stay active, especially as you get older. Your life is so much more flavorful.”
If you’re tempted to think his command is easier said than done — especially when the metabolic pathways have been chiseled into place — consider Gotthelf’s background. Suffice to say, sports didn’t play a major role during his high school days in Canmore, New York.
“I was pretty fast, but I was more of a geek,” he said. “I was into science and science fairs — that was my world. I never really discovered athletics until I came to Vail.”
After graduating from college in Rochester, he was hired at a nuclear power plant. His background was electrical and mechanical. “I just decided I was getting enough radiation and I always wanted to be a ski bum, so that’s why I moved to Vail,” he recalled.
After injuring his knee skiing in the 80s, his friend Steve McSpadden suggested mountain biking to rehab, and Gotthelf was hooked. Still, his debut race wasn’t exactly a triumph.
“I think we biked all the way up to Eagles Nest, and I just died on that thing,” he recalled of his first town series event. “I was dead last. I said, ‘well, I’m going to figure this out.’”
He worked his way up through the town series, competed in multiple Moab 24-hour events, and eventually got to Leadville, where in 1994, he raced its first edition, placing 17th. He improved his time to 8 hours, 17 minutes. His best finish ever is eighth overall. Even though the event, now owned by Lifetime Fitness, has a significantly more commercialized feel — and a thousand or so more racers— compared to the grassroots ride it was 29 years ago, Gotthelf enjoyed every mile in 2022.
“It’s revisiting history, really, and that’s what I felt this year. It was really kind of fun,” he said. “It was really fun to revisit my training and then when I got to the course I was like, ‘wow I remember every little corner of this course,’ which was cool. It was cool, but painful.”
Exercise and community got him in the saddle. Chasing whoever happens to be right in front of his wheel kept him stimulated on those grinding, all-day affairs.
“To me, it’s all about going out and having fun and exercising,” he said. “I could really care less about where I finished. I always did it with a smile on my face, and the competition thing does fall in and make it a little bit more fun.”
Of course, a fairly strict training and diet regimen have contributed to his successes, too.
“It was the same every week and that really helped me,” he said of his weekly long rides that progressed from 40 or 50 miles to a full century ride during his build-up. He mixed in group rides on the road with key interval sessions sprinkled in on top. In the winter, he cross-trains using Nordic skiing, relying on occasional technique tips from his buddies at the Vail Nordic Center. He also got into skinning a few years ago and, ironically, now rarely skis the mountain he left New York for to chase the ski bum life.
Of his training, he aptly summarized, “You’re just having fun in the valley, basically.”
In a sporting story as bright as the diamonds he spent a lifetime shaping, the carat has always been determined by enjoyment and the targets restrained by nothing — even age.
“If you stay active, you can pretty much set your goals and do anything you want.”