By Luke DeCock/The Gazette
As the second wave of the Pikes Peak Ascent left the starting line Saturday morning, a large flag rose like a battle standard above the amoebic mass of runners.
Fluttering in the wind, the red-and-blue state flag of Arkansas billowed above the competitors as they disappeared down Manitou Avenue.
Everywhere you looked there were T-shirts, sweatshirts, jackets and bumper stickers proudly proclaiming the wearer (or owner, in the case of the bumper stickers) as a member of the Arkansas Pikes Peak Marathon team. Every T-shirt commemorated a different year, it seemed.
Was this Manitou Springs or Hot Springs?
The Pikes Peak Marathon and Ascent have a definite Razorback flavor to them. The Arkansas Pikes Peak Marathon Society brings more than 100 people from Arkansas by bus, plane and car to run up a mountain 14 times as high as any in their state.
"Oh, we've got a mountain in Arkansas," Arthur Kerns said. "It's 1,011 feet tall."
This got a big laugh from a group of marathon runners seeing off their friends at the start of the Ascent.
Kerns is the unofficial historian of the group, a Pikes Peak veteran from North Little Rock who remembers how it all happened.
It goes a little something like this, he says: It all dates back to 1976, when a guy named Max Hooper came out and ran the marathon for the first time. He talked another guy named Ken Ropp into doing it and Ropp was hooked.
"He is really the father of the Arkansas Pikes Peak Marathon Society," Kerns said. "He literally started proselytizing around the state to running clubs and recruited people."
It started with three vans and 18 people in 1986. By the early '90s, they were regularly getting more than 200 - as many as 225 in 1993. Not long after that, Ropp moved away.
Without his push the numbers dropped to about 100 this year, but a very visible 100 weighted heavily toward today's marathon.
They train on trails in national parks and they battle heat and humidity instead of altitude and wind.
That's the best they can do at sea level.
"We go to Cripple Creek," said Ronnie Adams of Fort Smith, as he made a slot-machine motion with his arm. "That gives us a little bit of a workout."
There are other tactics. Former race director Carl McDaniel came out to the society's kickoff meeting one year. Since there's 40percent less oxygen at the summit than at sea level, his recommendation was that they hold their breath for 4 out of every 10 minutes they run.
"The humidity and heat gives us a little bit of conditioning to deal with the lack of oxygen," Kerns said.
"It's all we've got," said Elaine Gimblet of North Little Rock.
"That and the paper bags on our heads," said Jane Lee of Little Rock.
Massive laughter from the assembled group.
It's all very tongue-in-cheek, but it can't hide the fact that they work all year for this one weekend, a weekend no one else in Arkansas can comprehend.
"Probably not," Adams said. "Most folks in Arkansas, unless they came out here and walked up the mountain, they really don't have any idea."
As he spoke, the flag continued its way toward the trail.
"He was letting everybody else know what a wonderful experience it was," Kerns said. "Either that, or he was a damn sadist."