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Survivor!

The Leadville 100 is more a test of endurance than a test of athleticism.

When does an athlete stop being an athlete and simply start being a lunatic? The question of where to draw the line occurred to me a few weeks ago when a friend and I drove up to Leadville late on a Saturday night to watch the finish of the Leadville 100 trail run. The race is considered one of the most brutal in the country, and with good reason: Not only is the course one hundred miles long and held at an elevation of over 10,000 feet, but the trail that runners take from, and then back to, downtown Leadville rises and falls more than two miles' worth of elevation. The L100 is a combination long race and steep climb, and it is impossible to complete without some large measure of pain. This year more than half of the people who entered the race did not finish it.

In addition to plenty of discomfort, this year's race had a measure of drama, too. Steve Peterson, who has won the race every year since 1996, was attempting to become the first person to win the event five times. Peterson is a member of a Boulder running group called the Divine Madness Running Club, which in the past several years has been attacked as being more cult than athletic organization. In lawsuits, its founder and continuing leader, Marc Tizer, a short, intense-looking man with frizzy hair and burning eyes, has been accused of sexual improprieties toward female members of the club. Former members also have come forward to accuse Tizer -- known as Yo -- of exerting unusual control over their lives, from dictating what they eat and how far they must run, to where they live and with whom they have sex.

Peterson is the club's marquee runner, and this is one of a small handful of races he enters each year. Many members of Divine Madness work to prepare him for the race, and then help him run it on race day by pacing him the entire length, as a sort of full-time pit crew. The Leadville 100 has become the defining event for the Boulder group and, despite the club's questionable methods and its members' unusual lifestyle, Peterson's success has given Tizer a reputation for coaching ultramarathoners. This year, Peterson was the odds-on favorite to repeat yet again.


It wasn't so long ago that the 26.2-mile marathon race was the benchmark of endurance. But in recent years the concept of pure endurance in athletic events (that is, stamina minus the other ingredients that normally figure in sports, such as skill and talent) and its attendant discomforts has leapt to the fore, and the ultramarathon has surged in popularity. This race can involve any distance from a mere fifty miles to one hundred miles, and even longer.

And that is only the beginning. For people who need to compete over one hundred miles, it was only a matter of time before merely running an obscene distance alone proved unsatisfying, and premier events have added harsh conditions to the mix. The Leadville 100 is run at extreme elevation on mountain trails. The Badwater 146 covers that nominal distance, but from the lowest point on earth, Death Valley, to the highest point in California, the summit of Mount Whitney. The Marathon des Sables running race is a true marathon in name only; the course covers 150 miles -- through Morocco across the Sahara Desert.

Not surprisingly, all of these events turn less on speed, the traditional measure of races, than they do on plain survival. A typical winning time at Leadville, for instance, averages out to a pace of about eleven minutes per mile. (The racecourse is closed after thirty hours -- an eighteen-minute-per-mile tempo.) Taken in context, that is more than double the per-mile time in which top marathoners cover their distances.

The newest craze of endurance addicts is called "adventure racing." This decade-old experience, of which the Eco-Challenge is the best known, consists of up to five events. A team of five men and women struggles to cover long distances (usually in exotic, telegenic locations) by running, biking, trekking, kayaking, riding horses and so on. Along the way, the athletes may be required to climb a rock face, or find their way out of a wilderness, or ice climb. This year's Eco-Challenge, which took place in Borneo, covered about 320 miles.

Indeed, it is taking more and more creativity to come up with suitably taxing events. Several weeks ago, a talented Colorado athlete, Danelle Ballengee, who has had great success in this country and abroad competing in long du- and triathlons, tried to break the record for climbing all 55 of Colorado's 14,000-foot peaks in the shortest time. She finished in just over two weeks -- averaging nearly four mountains per day -- but missed the record by about a day.

Even if she'd broken it, however, her mark would not have stood for long. Last week, a young man from Oregon -- accompanied by a cook, driver, physician and masseuse -- shattered the old record anyway. Both he and Ballengee had to be in peak shape to accomplish the feat, and it certainly was athletic. But I'm not so sure it was sport.

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