Recently Sandi Yukman was doing what she loves: running a favorite loop through the Garden of the Gods in Colorado Springs, Colorado. She knows the loop usually takes her under an hour but on this day she was two minutes off. Maybe the music she chose to listen to that day was a little slow. She usually sets her pace to a mix of hip-hop, country and pop – anything with the right tempo for her stride. Maybe it was the distracting scenery on this day at the end of summer in a place where red sandstone towers shimmer in the morning sunshine.
Whatever the reason, Yukman wasn’t bothered. “I run every other day. I don’t keep records, but I know my good times.”
Yukman, 51, is a Colorado native. She was born in Denver and was on the track team in high school, but says she wasn’t a serious runner. She went to the University of Colorado in Boulder and ran throughout her years there.
“Running is my way to stay in shape for all I do and all I want to do,” she says. The list of all Yukman does and has done is extensive. She started her professional career at Colorado Interstate Gas and began working as a programmer analyst for Colorado Springs Utilities, the city’s public utility company, in 1990. She worked her way up through the ranks finally serving as human resource general manager, providing employee support, training and development. She has served on countless boards that speak to her interests and passions – Pikes Peak Therapeutic Riding Center, Child Nursery Centers, Girl Scouts, the Red Cross and the American Heart Association.
But it was her most recent job with Colorado Springs Utilities that gave her an experience she says she will never forget. In 2005, Yukman joined the Utilities Catamount Wildland Fire Team, formed to protect reservoirs and other utility properties in forested and urban areas. On June 26, 2012, as an out-of-control wildfire flowed like molten lava into the Mountain Shadows neighborhood in northwest Colorado Springs and Yukman was on the front lines. The Waldo Canyon Fire eventually destroyed 347 homes and killed two people. After the fire was under control, the media reported that Yukman’s actions helped save 16 homes near that neighborhood’s Chipeta Elementary School.
It was a life-altering event for this long-time Colorado Springs resident. In an essay that was a part of a book about the Waldo Canyon Fire, she wrote, “As far as I could see, homes and hillsides were on fire. I remember saying to my fellow firefighters, ‘there is no way we will ever get all these fires out’. I feared we would get trapped in that cul-de-sac.” Yukman calls the fire “a nightmare I’ll never forget.”
She recently retired from Colorado Springs Utilities and the fire team, but Yukman hasn’t slowed down. She’s on the board of directors of Incline Friends, a non-profit group formed to care for the Incline, a ridiculously steep trail that rises out of Manitou Springs and attracts thousands of people each year. The Incline has been a favorite training challenge for residents for decades but until last year, it was technically closed to the public. A concerted effort by Yukman and other Incline fans raised $100,000 toward the estimated $1.4 million cost of the trail’s renovation (along with city, state and federal money) and work is currently under way. Yukman says she has a personal relationship with the Incline. “I started training there to get in shape to walk up mountains with hoses and firefighting tools,” she says. It’s also helped her succeed at another of her favorite outdoor activities – the Ascent, the up-only 13.32-mile race on the Barr Trail on Pikes Peak that takes place each August as a part of the Pikes Peak Ascent and Marathon.
Yukman has run the Ascent 13 times and it’s on the Barr Trail where she had her best and worst running experience, both in the same year. “The first year I ran it, I had a really good time. I wanted to finish under four hours and I did 3:47. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done and I was so excited to get there, that when I got to the top, I started to cry. All these people came rushing to me, throwing blankets on me and asking me if I was OK. I said, ‘yeah, it was a great race. I’m just happy.’”
The Ascent is a grueling race that takes runners on a trail booby-trapped with roots and softball-sized rocks. Yukman calls the race the hardest thing she has ever done. “It’s a great race, and it never really gets easier. The only thing that can help you is training hard. One year, I didn’t train hard, and I learned my lesson.”
Pikes Peak might be the closest 14,000-foot peak for Yukman and her husband Tom, a realtor and real estate consultant who shares her love of running, but they don’t spend all their time there.
They’ve climbed the 120 highest peaks in Colorado – all 13,000-footers over 13,800 and all the fourteeners. Yukman climbs rock and ice and loves to snowboard and she says she’s pretty sure she has run every race in town. She’s a member of Jack Quinn’s Running Club, a local group sponsored by a downtown pub.
The couple just got back from a high-altitude adventure on the Inca Trail, a famous route in Peru known for its mountain scenery and cloud forests. “The city where you start is at 11,000 feet, and we did 50 miles,” Yukman says. They’re planning a hiking trip in Patagonia, with a side trip to Antarctica. The Pacific Crest Trail and Mount Kilimanjaro are also on her to-do list, and she has a little dream that involves the Colorado Trail.
“Our son hiked 230 miles of the Colorado Trail by himself last summer. One day, he came around a corner and there was a table sitting in the middle of the trail with cookies and cold sodas on it, with a sign that said, ‘brought to you by the trail angel.’ There wasn’t a town within 50 miles but someone had hiked in and set that up.”
“I want to be a trail angel.”