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Hard-core runners get high off the Peak

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For the third time in as many years, Erica Larson of Los Alamos, N. M. captured the first-place title  and she didnt even look winded. - GEORGE MERWEDE
  • George Merwede
  • For the third time in as many years, Erica Larson of Los Alamos, N. M. captured the first-place title and she didnt even look winded.

The long-distance runner is a master at self-deception -- the burning legs and lungs, the dizzying distortion of space and time in a mind that tries to keep tethered to a body en extremis. Masters of denial, runners just keep pushing on, one stride after another; they keep moving forward, because that's all that matters. Only finishing, the end result, matters, so naturally much of the drama at the Pikes Peak Marathon last Sunday happened at the finish line.

There, Manitou's own Matt Carpenter did the seemingly impossible, becoming the first person to win both the Pikes Peak Ascent, the 13.32-mile half-marathon on Saturday, and the Pikes Peak Marathon on Sunday. He's the first to win both since the races were launched on consecutive days in 1981. All told, in a little over 24 hours he had run 40 miles, up Barr Trail, then up again, and back down, climbing and descending 7,815 feet from the start line in Manitou to the 14,100-foot summit. Combined time: 6 hours, 9 minutes, 7 seconds; 2:15:13 and 3:53:54 respectively. "I wanted to show it could be done," Carpenter said. "Somebody may come along and [win both] again, but I did it first."

To do it, the 37-year-old Carpenter pushed himself to his own considerable limits. Although not excessively out of breath, he was pale at the finish line and immediately lay down on the blacktop in the shade of the recovery tent, amid Gatorade, bottled water and fresh fruit. He lay there for a few minutes, then went back and lay on a stretcher. Moments later emergency medical technicians hooked him up to an IV to rehydrate him. Within a half-hour Carpenter was sitting up and attentive.

"The IV was just to get me back. I started to try to drink, but I could feel I was going to puke it up," Carpenter said. "I was pretty good for about 20 seconds, then everything started to cave in. The last three miles I was in denial. I kept telling myself, 'One step at a time. Every step I run is one I won't have to walk.'"

Erica Larson showed her mastery over the course by winning the women's division in 4:49:12. It was the third time in three years, Larson, 30, of Los Alamos, N.M. had won the race. "Going down I felt like I was just surviving," Larson said. "But you're better off to just keep going 'til you get to the finish line."

The majority, though, don't run to win. Their goals are of a more personal kind. "Super" Floyd Paiz crossed the finish 24th in the men's division, the message "In memory of Susan" written in magic marker across his shoulders and arms. Susan Hoffman was a friend and schoolteacher in Crested Butte who was killed in an avalanche last February.

"Today was the best marathon I've ever run. She was the wind beneath my wings," said the 45-year-old Gunnison runner, removing his shoes -- which have bells on them, "so they can hear me running them down" -- exposing a silver dollar--sized blister on his right heel. "Running gives you the ultimate high," he said. "The pain ain't nothing. I'll deal with that tomorrow."

Master runner Carl Schwenck of Ridgeway crossed the finish line first in the over-60 men's division. The 64-year-old Schwenck battled leg cramps to finish in 5:54:39. "It's the hottest I've ever seen it [on race day]," Schwenck said. "From the top down I was cramping."

Some years the marathon falls on overcast, drizzly days and those years, the enemy is the mud; more than a few contestants come limping home with mud-smeared knees and elbows, bruised and bloody from fresh spills. This year, however, there wasn't a storm cloud in sight. Record 94-degree heat and the threat of dehydration took its toll. Six hours after the start, the finish line area started resembling a triage station. A half-dozen runners lay on stretchers on the ground -- some with oxygen tubes, some with IV tubes -- replenishing their spent bodies. Here and there, runners with nicked elbows, skinned knees or frightening blisters sat on chairs, having their wounds dressed by a medic.

Outside the recovery tent, in the results tent, sat Pete Thrasher, waiting for his father Don to finish the marathon -- in much the same way he waited for his father to finish the Ascent the day before. "I was really happy with my performance," said Pete. "The frustrating thing was that Carpenter did both, and he passed me coming down while I was still heading up to the summit." About an hour after Pete finished, his father ambled across the finish line. "Every year I say I'm not going to do this again," Don admitted, "but then it grows on me. But right now I'd say no, I won't run it next year."

Across the street, in Soda Springs Park where the awards podium stood, the runners received their true rewards -- free massages offered to all competitors. Exhausted runners literally melted into the tables under the hypnotic spell of smooth, scented hands. Exhaustion flowed out, replaced by groaning satisfaction.

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