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August 20, 2000

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A natural obstacle course

By Ann Tatko/The Gazette

The race covers 13.32 miles, has a 7,815-foot vertical gain and finishes at a 14,110-foot elevation.

Naturally, that leaves runners with plenty of room to encounter a trouble spot or two.

Or three or four.

The Pikes Peak Ascent is like a minefield of vexing challenges, as 1,800 runners discovered Saturday.

For 45 years runners have traversed - and often stumbled - along Pikes Peak's narrow, winding trail of gravel and dirt, surrounded by protruding rocks and roots and fraught with sharp turns and abrupt inclines.

And within this daunting maze, every runner finds a twist or turn to dread.

Which is the worst part?

That depends on who you ask.

"Let's see," said Jenny McCargo of Telluride. "How about the whole damn thing?"

Practically every mile of the Ascent has preyed on at least one runner - even the first mile.

Susie Tuffey of Colorado Springs prefers the race after that first mile, when it moves from the asphalt to the mountain trail.

"That bottom section is rough," Tuffey said. "There are a lot of people, so you really have to look where you're going, especially as they try to pass."

Once on the trail, runners begin a battle with themselves as they maneuver up the mountain. With 12 miles to go, they try to set a pace that won't leave them drained for the nightmare that awaits.

The nightmare begins above tree line, just past the A-frame shelter. Only 3 miles remain until the finish, but by then, runners have already climbed more than 5,000 feet in elevation and are entering the most windy and rugged terrain.

At this point, a steady run turns into necessary lapses of walking.

"There are some rough sections with rocks that make it difficult to run, even though you don't want to stop running," said Monument's Bev Zimmermann, who finished third among women. "You want to keep your momentum, and it takes a lot more energy when you have to start running again."

Momentum is especially crucial on the 16 Golden Stairs. In this stretch the gravel trail frequently forms step-ups ranging from 12-20 inches in height.

The uneven terrain makes running difficult and dangerous.

"The 16 Golden Stairs are brutal," said Kraig Koski of Longmont. "I was so tired at that point, those 16 steps felt like 50."

During the last mile, exhaustion usually accompanies runners to the finish line.

They are almost delirious from lack of oxygen, barely seeing the dirt at their feet. Their legs have turned to rubber, wobbling with every step they take.

And their minds become a battleground between their determination to finish and their desire to surrender.

"Survival depends on visualization," McCargo said. "In my mind, I just go away to some place else, like Hawaii."

But every runner eventually has to come back, especially for the final half-mile.

As if the past 13 weren't grueling enough, that half-mile sends runners staggering over a section of broken rocks known as the rubble.

Even veteran Ascent runners slip in the final turn.

"It's a very rocky place, and with all the people yelling, you have to force yourself to look at the trail," said the men's third-place finisher, Paul DeWitt of Woodland Park. "At that point you're stumbling, but you don't want to fall down in front of everybody."

Once on the peak, the challenges and misery end for the Ascent runners - unlike today's marathon competitors, who turn around and go back down the mountain.

Jim Mitchell of Jackson, Wyo., ran Saturday's Ascent but won't join his wife for today's marathon adventure.

"I think I'm smarter," he said.

One way along this trail is enough.

Copyright 1999-2000, The Gazette, a Freedom Communications, Inc. Company. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

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