Steamboat Springs They stop often, catch their breath. Breathe deep again. And they continue.
Jenna Gruben’s friends and loved ones are not at a loss for words. Instead, they have so many to describe Gruben, who died after being involved in a Saturday evening car accident on U.S. Highway 40 between Hayden and Milner.
“All I can think about is how big of a heart and smile she had,” said Mike Hlavacek, a friend.
“She was one cool woman,” Walter Magill said.
“Just a great person and a good community member,” added Cara Marrs.
Angie Mangiardi paused and sniffled and spoke through tears.
“She was just one of a kind,” Mangiardi said.
Along with Marrs, Mangiardi spent Saturday with Gruben. Mangiardi was driving when she lost control of her Nissan Xterra on the slushy highway near Steamboat.
“There wasn’t anything bad about Jenna. She was giving. She was kind. She was responsible and a good friend, a good teacher, a motivator and the most selfless, unselfish person in the entire world,” Mangiardi said.
“It wasn’t sometimes with Jenna. It was always.”
A beautiful day in Moab
Gruben, Marrs and Mangiardi drove nearly 300 miles Saturday. They were returning to their Steamboat Springs homes after a trail running race in Moab, Utah.
“It was a beautiful day. Just a great day,” Marrs said about the morning and afternoon.
Gruben, known to many in Steamboat for her enthusiastic approach to trail running, spent her last day doing what she loved, and as usual, she did it well.
Running in the 33-kilometer race of Moab’s Red Hot 50K+ ultra-marathon event, Gruben finished fourth in a deep and talented field.
“We’ve done all kinds of different races and runs together, but we rolled into Moab, and there was something special about it,” Mangiardi said. “There was so much snow. It seemed like Steamboat. But it was sunny and at the highest point, looking out at the La Sal Mountains and the San Juans. It was just beautiful.
“It was just a special, beautiful day. And she did well.”
The accident happened about 15 minutes from home. A Colorado State Patrol press release stated that at about 6:25 p.m., Mangiardi’s Xterra started to fishtail and spun into the westbound lane. It was struck broadside by a Dodge pickup driven by Wesley Jenkins, of Craig.
The three runners were rushed to Yampa Valley Medical Center, where Gruben died. Marrs sustained a concussion and minor injuries, but she and Mangiardi, who was not injured, were released.
Neither Jenkins nor his passenger in the pickup, Denise Ketchum, were taken to the hospital. Both refused treatment for their minor injuries.
Gruben may have been most widely known in Steamboat for a Wednesday night running club she helped establish.
“It was always informal. She wanted it to be informal,” said Magill, like Gruben a regular on the Steamboat Springs Running Series circuit. “She was so encouraging to the new people that came out.
“She was the spirit of the running community here.”
The weekly get-together started with a few friends. At the end of last summer, there were more than 180 people on the mailing list Gruben used to coordinate the event.
That came as no surprise to her many friends. Gruben, 32 years old with an expressive face and a wide smile, always was well organized and inclusive.
Gruben finished her first ultra-marathon in 2007, when the Run, Rabbit Run 50-mile race made its debut in Steamboat Springs. She talked some of her best friends — Mangiardi, Hlavacek and future husband, Matt Morrill — into joining her on the trek.
Fred Abramowitz, a Fort Collins runner who helped bring the race to Steamboat and still organizes it with former resident Betsy Kalmeyer, said he ran across Gruben on a local trail a few weeks after that first race and mentioned that it was unlikely to return without more local support.
“Next thing I know, I have an e-mail from her saying ‘I’ll do it! I’ll do it!’” Abramowitz said.
Gruben served as the event’s volunteer coordinator for the next two years. She also competed in both of those races. She won them both.
“The only reason this race existed and continues to exist is because of her,” Abramowitz said. “She had a passion and a love for running. She had a passion for life.”
A broken heart
Gruben also had plenty of passions that didn’t involve sneakers.
She grew up in Denver and with a few short exceptions, lived in Steamboat for about the last 12 years.
She married Morrill three weeks before September’s Run, Rabbit Run event. She crossed the finish line and leapt into his arms.
A day later the couple left for a three-month honeymoon. They traveled to Nepal for an extensive series of hikes among the world’s tallest mountains.
“They were amazing together,” Hlavacek said. “From the day I met him, I just knew they were meant to be together. There’s no one else I can ever imagine those two with.”
Gruben was dedicated to working with special needs students in and around Steamboat Springs. She worked with the Northwest Colorado Board of Cooperative Educational Services in area schools as a speech pathologist. Then, during the summer, she helped out at the Humble Ranch Education and Therapy Center.
“She was one of the most amazing speech language therapists I ever worked with,” said Liz Leipold, who worked with Gruben both summer and winer. “She’s creative, always positive and she always got the kids involved. She was just so enthusiastic.”
Friends say she could be ready for a joke when need be, ready for happy hour when 5 p.m. hit and ready for a long conversation at any moment.
She was a friend to many and her unexpected death struck like thunder in Steamboat Springs.
A memorial tentatively is planned for later this week in Denver, though details were not available Sunday. Friends also hope to hold a service in Steamboat in the near future.
“I feel like some people make a bigger impact on a community,” Mangiardi said. “She was one of those people. I feel like everyone that knew her, even in passing, will feel this. I feel like Steamboat will have a broken heart for a while.”