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Emily Thompson never received a call to evacuate. In fact, when a massive wildfire hit her hometown of Louisville, Colorado, on Wednesday, Dec. 30, the 45-year-old triathlete’s view wasn’t of a smoke-filled sky. Completely off the grid on a boat in Belize, she was surrounded by endless blue ocean and fluffy clouds. There was a slight breeze—nothing like the 100 mph winds that whipped the fire into a frenzy in the foothills of Boulder County. While her neighbors frantically grabbed what they could, Thompson had no idea about what was happening back home.
Her fiancé, Stefan Kienle, wasn’t home either. He was teaching on the slopes of Beaver Creek Mountain—something the former collegiate skier always does the week between Christmas and New Year. As friends and family began to call and text, his phone was on silent, oblivious to the Marshall fire that ultimately destroyed over 1,000 homes in the towns of Louisville and Superior.
When Kienle finally learned that their house was no longer standing, he found a bit of solace in the fact that he had brought their two dogs to work with him.
Kienle texted Thompson hoping she would read his text before she heard the news. “He texted just asking me to call him when I was back on the grid to let him know when my flight would arrive. Typical Stefan,” she said. “He didn’t want to upset me until I needed to be upset.”
It wasn’t until the Sunday after the fire (a full three days later) that Thompson even knew what had happened. Finally in cell range, her phone pinged with texts and phone messages from friends and family to see if she was OK. “The first thing I did was call Stefan,” she said. “All I cared about was that he and the dogs were safe. It really didn’t hit me at all that I had lost my entire material history—my journals from college, and my mother and grandmother’s jewelry.”
But it wasn’t long after her return to Colorado that the loss finally started to hit. A catalog went through their heads as the two began the process of insurance paperwork. There were external hard drives and pre-iPhone photos. Sentimental artwork from Kienle’s mother, who had passed away in early December. And, of course, lots and lots of triathlon and outdoor gear. Everything was gone.
Among those things was “Justin,” Thompson’s 2010 Cervelo S2 that she rode for all 13 Ironmans she had completed. “I got really sad when I thought about not getting to ride Justin in Kona this October,” she said, where she had earned a Legacy spot on the Big Island. “It took me almost 12 years to find what works for me,” Thompson said about all of her gear. “I am a little heartbroken he won’t be joining me at the big dance!’”
Over a decade ago, a doctor suggested that being more active could help alleviate sleep issues and ongoing stress. “Next thing I know I was running, and then I was biking,” she said. After two years of riding an ill-fitting bike, Thompson splurged on her first new bike, Justin. “Justin made cycling pain-free and was all about fun and providing me freedom to escape NYC,” she said.
Trying to process how she could get a new bike now, in a market already affected by low inventory and high demand, Thompson turned to a Facebook group, EnduranceGirl Colorado. “I just asked for the group to keep an eye out for a used Cervelo bike in my size,” she said. An anonymous endurance athlete and coach, along with a few other donors, instead came together to find Thompson a replacement bike in a matter of days and to cover the cost of buying it. “I can’t believe how wonderful everyone has been,” she said.
It will take a few rides on the Cervelo S3 before she can give it a name, she said. But, naming her new bike will be “therapeutic,” she thinks, much like the sport of triathlon itself.
To add another obstacle to the duo’s challenges, Kienle recently tested positive for COVID-19. Thompson’s tests have so far come back negative and they have been taking precautions, but it’s also made it more difficult to view local rental properties that are high in demand already. And insurance has to approve a rental before money will be distributed for expenses; a recent rental they applied for in Boulder fell through. In the meantime, they’ve been sleeping in separate rooms in their short-term condo in Breckenridge, wearing N95 masks even inside their temporary living space.
With all of that going on, it’s been hard to get back into any sort of training. Yet, Thompson, said it’s a key part of processing her thoughts and the daunting task of starting over. She said she could see her personality begin to degrade after taking so much time away from riding and running. “I’ve led a very charmed life, so I cannot say that I have had too many really tough times in the past,” she said. “But cycling and running have been my tried-and-true therapy and help me maintain a positive mindset.”
Just talking openly and freely about the experience motivated her to finally get out for a run this past week. While the dogs were the happiest to get out for some activity, both she and Kienle couldn’t deny how much better they felt too about getting out the door. “I felt tired, but it felt really good to do something normal again,” she said, decked out in gear that was all donated from friends and teammates through Revolution Running and Runners Roost. “Especially this week, I have become more aware of the importance of being active for my overall well-being.”
Thompson and Kienle will be running the Austin 3M Half-Marathon on Jan. 23. They plan to also jump into the local Stroke and Stride series in Boulder this summer. And then Thompson will be racing 70.3 Oregon in July as prep for her Kona debut on the new bike.
On a recent trip to sift through the ashes of their house, Thompson was able to find what was left of Justin. The once red and white carbon fiber bike is now nothing but blackened remains, with only a bit of the cassette and chain discernible.
The two are also planning their wedding this coming August, but don’t know yet whether they plan to rebuild in the space where their home once stood or start over. Whatever happens, they are incredibly thankful for the support they have received though, from offers of a place to stay to meals to gear to time off of work. They know they want to be close to friends, and close to familiar and comforting bike routes and running trails. The best way, they said, to show their gratitude is to pass it on and reach out to help all of the others who lost everything on that day. “There are so many families that were underinsured, and we ask that you help others by donating to the general fire relief fund,”said Thompson.
You can donate to the Boulder County Wildfire Fund to help families affected by the Marshall Fire.