By Luke DeCock/The Gazette
Story editor Jim O'Connell; headline by Jim Bainbridge
BARR CAMP - Dressed in hat, cargo pants and T-shirt, Zeb Pyke looks like any other teen-ager.
There's plenty of them at Barr Camp, reading books in front of the cabins and A-frame shelters situated halfway up Pikes Peak. He's a little younger than most here, his hair a little shorter, but Pyke looks nothing out of the ordinary.
People make the mistake of thinking he's one of them, even after they hear the southern accent in his voice. They don't realize what they're dealing with.
Hidden behind the teen-age facade is the mature serenity and calm of an adult. Hidden beneath the teen-age clothes is the wiry freak-of-nature body of a mountain runner, one who's come all the way from McEwen, Tenn., to live and run and hike and train on the mountain first explored by Zebulon Pike.
When Zebediah Pyke was born, they put him in a "Born to Run" T-shirt. Seventeen years later, it's clear that he was born to run Pikes Peak.
When the Christian boarding school Zeb attended in Arkansas wouldn't let him run, he dropped out and did a correspondence course last year. His hero is Manitou Springs high-altitude runner Matt Carpenter.
Pyke started running when he was 9. He ran his first marathon at 12. They wouldn't let him run his first Pikes Peak Marathon when he was 15, so he ran it illegally. His time of 4 hours, 47 minutes, 20 seconds would have put him 24th.
He finished 36th in 1998, with a time ofin 5:12:51.
This year, he wanted to do better. He and his father Gary had camped on the peak in both the years Zeb ran, for six weeks last year. This year, Zeb wanted to come back and train. By himself.
He's spent most of his life in religious boarding schools, so living away from home was nothing new. He'd learned to love the mountain, love everything from the cool, thin air and evening rains to the loose gravel and ice-encrusted boulders of Barr Trail.
This is where he wanted to be.
His parents trusted him. Fully, completely.
"He does what he says he's going to do," said his mother, Virginia, who supports but cannot comprehend her son's addiction to running. "That may sound crazy, I guess. I was scared, but not scared at all."
Zeb walked the 7 miles up Barr Trail, set up camp, and lived alone at 10,500 feet. Occasionally, he'd see someone his age. A hiker stopping for water or a group passing through on its way to the summit.
This is what Zeb would rather do than play a video game or watch TV. It sounds like a video game, living and running on a mountain.
Zeb lived alone for a week, making 20-mile round trips into Manitou Springs for supplies, two-thirds of it walking and half of it uphill.
His dad, his running partner and soulmate, joined him a week later. "He's the one who makes it fun," Zeb said. "It's really a father-son thing."
Now, Gary's back. They're in the same spot they've camped in every year since 1996, when they first came to Pikes Peak. It's a shaded glade peppered with tree stumps just across Barr Trail from the relative bustle of Barr Camp. A small brook runs just feet from their two-man tent.
A pan of noodles bubbles idly on a camp stove as Zeb and Gary carry on a quiet conversation.
Zeb asks a visitor about the Atlanta Braves. "Are they winning?"
"Well, they won yesterday."
"What about the Mets?"
The visitor didn't know, and Zeb was disappointed. He admits to being a big fan of the Braves, at one point in his life collecting baseball cards.
That, like everything else, faded when he started running.
Understanding that is a big part of understanding Zeb. Before Zeb was born, Gary had run for years, seven days a week without fail. Virginia was cleaning out the attic when Zeb was 9 and came across some of Gary's old trophies. Zeb and Gary were soon running together at 4:30a.m., three days a week.
By the time Zeb was 12, he was in Cleveland running his first marathon, finishing second in the under-14 age group. Gary read an article in Runner's World about the Pikes Peak Marathon and decided it had to be next. "I thought he was crazy," Zeb said, but they've been coming ever since.
Unofficially, Zeb cruised in nearly 2 hours ahead of the next person in his age division in 1997. That person ended up with first prize. Zeb got the legend.
All of a sudden, everyone was talking about the little skinny kid from Tennessee.
"I was kind of jealous," Carpenter said of his first meeting with Zeb. "I didn't start running until I was a senior in high school."
Zeb's knees have been bothering him this year - "I jump too much" when descending, Zeb said, sheepishly - so the personal record he set in '97 will stand, maybe for quite some time.
But Zeb will be back. He's gearing his life around it. This fall he'll attend Daystar Adventist Academy, just outside of Moab, Utah. It's a mountain-biker's dream and there's a 12,000-foot peak to train on not far away.
It's far from home, but the allure of year-round altitude training was too strong. He wants to organize his year around this race.
His race. After all, it's pretty much named for him.
Luke DeCock may be reached at 636-0178 or at email@example.com