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.
Although its organizers term the Leadville 100 a run, those who hope to be successful at the race seldom spend all their time running. "Keep the effort level dialed down to 'medium to low' and keep forever moving forward at a pace that results in even breathing and medium heart rate," running coach and L100 student Scott Weber advises in his online recommendations for how to compete in the race. "Steadily walking the uphills, smoothly running the downhills, and incorporating an 8 + 2 run/walk pattern on the flats...results in a near optimal pace at Leadville."
Weber suggests that runners follow one of four patterns to ensure they finish within the required time. The first, the "Go Fast Early and Die Later," proceeds exactly as its name implies. Runners attempt to cover as much distance as possible in the early segments of the race, and then simply concentrate on finishing it. "Despite the negative overtones," Weber writes, the pattern "does work and is arguably the best plan for the runner who is a bit unsure about handling the second half of the race." The second and third strategies are the "Buckler Pattern," named for Bucklers -- runners who have earned a belt buckle for successfully completing ten Leadville 100 races, or 1,000 miles, and the "I Think I Can, I Think I Can."
Weber has named his last race tactic the "Peterson Pattern," in honor of the Divine Madness Running Club's Steve Peterson. The hallmark of this model is remarkable consistency. "Steve is known for his steady running," Weber writes, noting that Peterson completes the first and second halves of the race in nearly identical times.
Peterson is a tall, gawky-looking fellow, with big feet and long legs that seem too knock-kneed to carry him any significant distance, let alone a hundred miles. In addition to the devoted support of his teammates, several other factors were in his favor going into this year's race.
The first, of course, was his experience. Peterson was intensely familiar with the course, and over the years he has been remarkably consistent from race to race, particularly considering the distance involved. The difference between his slowest winning time, of nineteen hours and 29 minutes, in 1996, and his fastest, eighteen hours and ten minutes, his time the following year, was only an hour and nineteen minutes. While 79 minutes sounds like a huge gap, it works out to less than one minute per mile variation over the one hundred-mile course over a span of four years.
Peterson's second advantage was his age. Because it is a race of extreme endurance, the L100 rewards both consistency and mental fortitude at least as much as strength. Both traits, it turns out, are hallmarks of maturity. Of the twelve fastest times ever run at the Leadville 100, only one has been posted by a runner in his twenties. (A woman, 33-year-old Ann Trason, turned in the fifth-fastest time, in 1994.) In fact, eight of the top twelve times have been run by participants 35 years of age or older; the oldest top finisher was 42-year-old Skip Hamilton, in 1987. Going into this year's race, Peterson was 38 -- prime age for another win.
Still, in the early going, the race was dominated by a younger (26-year-old) unknown named Paul South, of Broomfield, who was competing in his first L100. Although he was passed once, while changing shoes at the base of Hope Pass about forty miles in, by another first-time runner, 33-year-old Chad Ricklefs, South regained the lead about three-quarters of the way up the pass and seemed well on his way to a victory. Peterson was running a solid third.
But long downhill runs are just as grueling, if not more so, than uphills. A pounding descent can turn a runner's legs to hamburger quicker than an uphill can burn them out, and about two-thirds of the way through the race South felt a twang in his knee. While he still felt fine otherwise, it was clear there was no way he could continue the race to its conclusion. He limped into the Turquoise Lake aid station and stopped.
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That left Ricklefs the leader, with Peterson next. Ricklefs is shorter than Peterson, but with Doric-column-sized legs. After South dropped out and he regained the lead, Ricklefs still had slightly more than a true marathon to run. "At 63 miles I really started to feel nausea -- lots of stomach problems," he recalls today. "I didn't hydrate or eat properly. At May Queen [86.5 miles], I knew that if I'd stopped, I couldn't have started again."
Although this was Ricklefs's first L100, he's no stranger to the genre; this was his eighth ultramarathon of the year, and the second hundred-miler. A 1990 graduate of the University of Colorado at Boulder, he'd also competed at high levels in ski and bike racing for a dozen years, so he was familiar with the games of hopscotch played by the mind and body over a long-haul event. "It's amazing how quickly things can get away from you -- sore thighs, injured feet and so on," he says. "But when I hurt a lot -- nausea, my body telling me 'I don't want to do this anymore,' I know that it'll all change in an hour or so."
Although Ricklefs says he constantly worried about Peterson suddenly appearing behind him, it never happened. He crossed the finish line at eighteen hours, seven minutes and 57 seconds -- the sixth-fastest time in the history of the event. About 75 people waited under bright event lights, shivering in Leadville's brisk night air -- it had rained early in the race, but the sky was now clear and filled with stars -- and they broke into raucous cheers as he broke the tape.
Peterson followed, about 25 minutes later, paced by a thin man with a long beard and ponytail; he was met at the finish by Yo and other Divine Madness members. (By the time the third- and fourth-place finishers arrived, after twenty hours of running, the reception crowd had dwindled to a half-dozen people.) Despite his second-place finish and the enthusiastic reception of his supporters, Peterson was clearly disappointed. Several minutes after he'd finished the hundred miles, he looked away from his friends and told them, "I just want to walk alone for a while," then struck off down Leadville's midnight streets at a brisk walk.