Features & Essays

Finding Their Stride

Colorado’s first family of running keeps it real on and off the race course.

STEPHENIE AND SHAWN SCHOLL are hanging out at the big communal wooden round table in the front of Kremmling’s Big Shooter Coffee. The couple opened the funky Western-inspired coffee and ice cream shop on U.S. 40 almost 20 years ago to fill a void in this sleepy part of Grand County. Talk to anybody who’s passed through town and they’ll tell you that Big Shooter is the place to stop for high-country road-trippers and locals alike in need of a latte or pre-adventure breakfast burrito. Shawn, 52, lounges back in his seat, exchanging goofy one-liners with a stream of customers that come through the door. Stephenie, 54, perches on her chair with an intense but friendly gaze—befitting of her no-nonsense, git-’er-done attitude—and tosses an occasional wave at the regulars who pop in for an afternoon pick-me-up.

Neither is concerned about the influx of people lining up for their caffeine or smoothie fix; that’s because their teenaged kids, who hover around the table during lulls, are handling it. When a gaggle of chatty customers filters in, 15-year-old Tyler pops up, unprodded, and scoots behind the counter. Tabor, 19, keeps her eye on her brother. “I’ll take the next rush,” she tells her parents. It’s nearing closing time on summer vacation, and the siblings have been working all day—with their parents, no less—yet, impressively, there’s no griping and nary a Snapchat or text message to be found on anyone’s home screen. Heck, there’s not even an iPhone in sight. Could they possibly be real teenagers?

In fact, they are the realest: The kind of real that’s so rare it’s almost unrecognizable. The kind of real where no one in your family owns smartphones because, well, there’s no cell service or WiFi on the Parshall ranch where you live, so what would be the point? Email or Google? Sure—only on a computer in the back office of Big Shooter during work hours. The kind of real where your parents don’t put you in daycare or hire a nanny; instead, they bring you to their job every day. “If we’re working, you’re working,” Stephenie says. “They just tagged along. We said, ‘you’re gonna learn how to do this and live this way.’ When my kids go out in the world, they know it’s not all rainbows and unicorns.”

Ultimately, it’s the kind of real that’s all the more noteworthy considering the Scholls’ unofficial status as Colorado’s royal family of running. As far as athletics go, all four Scholls are almost unreal. Although they can all make short work of most Nordic skiers and rowers, it’s their endless string of running times that have catapulted the family—most recently, Tabor and Tyler—into the competitive spotlight over the past few years. Name a Colorado running race, from 5Ks up and down the Front Range to more isolated trail runs in the high country, and one or all of the Scholls have probably crossed its finish line. Tabor, a five-time Colorado state high school champion whose personal best in the mile is 4:39, runs for the University of Colorado Buffaloes and competed for Team USA in the 2013 and 2014 World Mountain Running Championships in Italy and Poland, respectively; she hopes the coaching and training she’s getting at CU will help her secure a professional running career and, in a world of all worlds, an Olympic berth the next time trials come around. Tyler, now 16 and among the top three runners for his age in the state, is building his own set of credentials that include a pair of cross-country world championships and a seemingly endless string of podium finishes—not to mention his own Olympic aspirations.

The kids heap gratitude on their parents for their constant support and the fact that they’ve inherited obvious genetic talent. Shawn, a world-class decathlete who went to Olympic trials for both Nordic skiing and cycling, also trained for several years with the U.S. national rowing team leading up to the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens, often besting athletes more than 10 years his junior. Stephenie, who could also post elite rowing scores at the time, is better known for her running and continues to consistently rack up podium spots in her age group. Sure, Shawn and Stephenie say, their kids get some of it from them; but it’s more than that. It’s a genuine desire to push themselves to shine in the things that make them happiest. “They were blessed with an amazing gift of genetics,” Shawn says, “and a gift in the heart that they want to work that hard.” Neither parent demands elite performance times of their kids. “They want us to go and be great,” Tyler says, “but we have to choose it for ourselves.” And they do.

So what’s in the water up there in Parshall? How does such a talented family, with so much Olympic-caliber athleticism all around, remain so refreshingly grounded that they raise a high-school kid who tells his parents “nah, I don’t want one” when they float the idea of a smartphone? (Tabor is the only one in the family who owns one—a necessity now that she lives away from home at college.) Part of the secret: togetherness. The Scholls have always trained as a unit. On one hand, they don’t have much choice; they live in a completely solar-powered home at 8,000 feet in elevation off a county dirt road in tiny Parshall—no cell service, no internet—15 miles outside already-isolated Kremmling (population: 1,957). Their home is adjacent to the certified Angus cattle ranch once owned by Shawn’s grandfather. When they’re not whipping up lattes and espressos, they’re baling hay or dragging themselves out of bed in the wee hours to pitch in during calving season. Between the constant physicality of ranch chores, the daily rigors of running a small service-industry business and their remoteness, there’s not much opportunity to coordinate with other running buddies—and, to be frank, not a whole lot of locals who can keep up.

On the other hand, you can’t help but think they’d choose each other as training partners anyway. Every weekend finds the Scholls traveling to a different race, event or invitational, smoking their competitors to the finish or cheering each other on. They drive hours upon hours back and forth to mingle with their peers in a way they can’t during the daily Monday-through-Friday grind, sometimes at banner events like the Bolder Boulder or Pearl Street Mile, other times on lengthier trail races in Steamboat Springs or Frisco. They plan vacations not around free time to sightsee, but around events where they can catch up with other athletes and get their competitive juices flowing. But at the finish, no matter what, there’s always family; local press clippings show photo after photo of Tabor and Tyler flashing chummy grins with their arms slung over one another’s shoulders, or striding it out just a few steps in front of Mom or Dad on the racecourse. They are each other’s biggest fans and, in a way, biggest rivals. Gone are the days when either parent can school the kids on a racecourse. “A lot of people go to concerts; we go to athletic events for our social outlet,” Shawn says. “I remember that very first race in Steamboat when Tyler finished, saying, ‘Mom, I did it, I did it! I finally beat Dad!’ Success breeds that positive feeling. So we make an event out of it.”

It might sound as if the Scholls planned from the get-go to groom their kids into being champions, but both say their journey has been anything but calculated. Shawn, who has a master’s degree in physiology, and Stephenie, whose master’s is in exercise science and human nutrition, both previously worked in Kremmling’s cardiac rehab center, which eventually got frustrating for the fitness-oriented couple when they repeatedly treated patients who didn’t really want to change. “We kind of burned out caring more about people’s health than they did,” Stephenie says. Enter Big Shooter Coffee, an entrepreneurial success named after Shawn, the “Big Shooter” himself. While Stephenie ran the shop, Shawn eventually became the Paralympic Nordic coach at the National Sports Center for the Disabled in Winter Park, all on top of making sure their working cattle ranch . . . well, worked. Throw in a couple of kids with their own itineraries and a rigorous athletic schedule across the state and beyond, and the Scholl M.O. becomes clear: organized chaos.

Beyond an early exposure to a relentless work ethic and unfettered access to the outdoors (the ranch, near Williams Fork Reservoir, is home to trails and terrain galore for endless running and biking circuits), the Scholls didn’t pressure the kids to shape their interests. “Humans were meant to move. You’ve got to move to feel good. We live in this amazing place where you go out the back door . . . we live where people vacation to do all these things, and we’ve learned to embrace that. We were not consciously [pushing them],” Stephenie says. “We had no plan. We winged it, took it day by day, doing what we could do and what we could afford.”

And some of it was unconventional. Tabor completed high school through Colorado’s Department of Education online school program but competed for West Grand High School in Kremmling. Tyler is following a similar game plan with online schooling—not always convenient with no internet at home—and runs for Middle Park High School in Granby. It’s not exactly a typical teenage existence when getting home from your day is less about checking Instagram and more about throwing a towel around your neck, hopping on a four-wheeler, and cruising down to the reservoir for a dip. There’s something gloriously simple about it, like the way life should be, or used to be. Make no mistake, though; it’s not all leisurely jaunts through the hills. All four Scholls are disciplined in their workouts, especially Tabor and Tyler, as they stare down potential professional forays into running.

Not one of the Scholls seems wistful for a more mainstream existence, or prone to bringing up their druthers. That doesn’t stop others from wondering. “Sometimes,” Shawn says, “people look at living here as a liability because the kids weren’t able to do the group activities—the soccer and lacrosse games. We look at it as a way to decompress. Also, looking at the softball and soccer parents, I said to the kids, ‘you’re not doing that sport because I’m not going to sit on the sidelines and watch all day.’”

Another thing the Scholls don’t do: pretend their accomplishments come easy. All four laugh at the thought and chime in at once, recalling the times they cried or struggled in a race. They all agree: It’s about putting yourself out there again and again. “People are scared to take risks,” Stephenie says. “Everyone thinks my kids have never failed! People think those of us who exercise every day are special, that we wake up and jump out of bed and go ‘Whoohoo! I can’t wait to get up in the dark cold and run!’ People ask Tabor how come she’s not in the Olympics. And she says ‘because I’m not good enough yet.’ They have no idea the commitment it takes. It’s just as hard for us to get going as it is for everybody else.”

Case in point: Tabor’s first go at Division I running in the 2015-2016 school year was plagued by administrative and emotional hiccups that ultimately resulted in a gap year of sorts; she left the CU program and moved back home, where she worked at Big Shooter while continuing, in an impressive demonstration of discipline, to train and compete on her own. Perhaps it’s that passion, despite all surrounding circumstances, that got the CU coaches to believe in her in the first place and bring her back for a fresh start on the team this past year. Head Coach Mark Wetmore summed up his thoughts on Tabor when he addressed the media before the start of the school year: “She has excellent track credentials for somebody who has less than excellent access to a track,” he said. “What we liked about her the most is her room for growth and her original talent. It’s going to be a big switch for her, [having] been homeschooled and being with her family way up at 9,000 feet [sic]—it’s kind of isolated—[and now] being down in Boulder on a college campus with all of the distractions of that. It’ll be interesting, but she’s really talented.”

Much like his sister, Tyler knows what he wants. Tall and lanky, like he’s not quite grown into himself, his handshake—that of an old soul with a firm grip—suggests anything but. He’s remarkably well-spoken and self-aware for his age; maybe that’s because he’s been racing with grown men (and beating them) since he was six. He focuses on progressing and he takes self-improvement earnestly. He’s made it a point to scale the 22-foot climbing rope the Scholls have in their house (because, of course) every day before bed for the past two years, just for the sake of fitness. “I love [running] so much,” he says. “I’m putting so much time and effort in in hopes of one day making an Olympic berth. I want to influence people. I feel like I was put here to do something great.”

Shawn and Stephenie know their kids are unusual, their accomplishments great. They also stress the importance of not taking yourself too seriously. The idea: Set your goals, try like hell to meet them, but don’t forget to laugh along the way and be a decent human being. That’s one of the huge benefits of raising the kids in a working environment. “Their social maturity has come from human interaction here,” Stephenie says, gesturing to the Big Shooter counter behind her. “Humor is a huge part of our daily interactions. They have amazing senses of humor.” Indeed, both kids come off as self-assured, driven individuals quick to laugh and lighten the conversation. That comes from balance, Stephenie says, and knowing yourself, and the Scholls surround themselves with reminders of that every day. Literally. The cheery red-and-orange walls of Big Shooter are painted, in bright meandering letters, with what Stephenie calls words to live by: “The essentials to happiness in this life are: Something to do. Something to love. Something to hope for. Remember that happiness is a way of travel, not a destination. Until you make peace with who you are, you’ll never be content with what you have.”

And when it comes to their kids’ evolution as elite runners, it’s really pretty simple, Stephenie says. “We’re all in. When they believe, we believe. We know how they feel when they’re not first, or when they’re last. [But] if they go home at night and say, ‘If I can’t win, I’m not anyone’ . . . that’s not what Shawn and I are trying to do to our kids,” she says. “In the daily rush of our lives, it’s all about humanity. We all are just people, just trying. I think we lose sight of that sometimes because we’re always trying to get to the next thing.”

It’s true: Tabor and Tyler are constantly in pursuit of the next: The next meet, the next PR, the next championship. It’s part of being young and inspired and having Olympic heights within your grasp. But the Scholls are realists. Sometimes, your best comes up a little short. So you unpin your race bib and, in the Scholls’ case, add it to the coffee shop ceiling, which is covered, nearly end to end, in a patchwork of race bibs from all over: Junior Olympics . . . Pearl Street Mile . . . Regional Championships . . . CU Cross Country . . . Golden Gallop . . . It’s a slice of Scholl racing history, immortalized.

Today, under this canopy of her family’s accomplishments, Tabor swishes over the coffee-shop floor with a mop. It’s closing time, and the Scholls are no doubt itching to get outdoors and hit the trail. She pauses to consider her future. “Running doesn’t define us,” she finally says, “regardless of how I do.”

We’ll call that a parenting win.

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