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August 19, 2001

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Runners go to Barr looking for an edge

By John Branch/The Gazette

BARR CAMP -- The man sat on a soft and horribly outdated couch inside a cabin at 10,200 feet, reading a book. He barely moved when a hiker stumbled in, out of breath, just ahead of the afternoon thunderstorm.

The man hadn't moved far this day, his 12th at the cabin, or the day before. For the first week, he had run the six miles up the face of Pikes Peak each day. Twice. He slowed the regimen to once a day, then took a couple of days off to relax before Saturday's Pikes Peak Ascent.

The man had run the race 12 times before. He won seven times.

"This is the secret, as far as I'm concerned," the man said. "Barr Camp is the reason."

The secret isn't Scott Elliott's alone. A handful of this weekend's 2,600 or so runners turned Barr Camp into a temporary home, if not a wayward one, for those compelled to run more than 13 miles -- and 7,815 vertical feet -- up a mountain to where low oxygen levels make lungs burn. And, in some cases, running back. Being acclimated to the elevation -- as acclimated as runners mostly living at or below 6,000 feet or lower can be -- only makes the excursion a little less insane.

"This is my sea-level," Elliott said Friday, sitting on the deck at Barr Camp. "Everyone else, when they get to here, is gasping. And I'm just getting started. It's a huge advantage."

Eighteen hours later, he finished second to last-minute entrant and record-holder Matt Carpenter in the Ascent. Local running fans talk about Carpenter and his mountain-running skills in hushed tones. Elliott finished about 5 minutes behind and ahead of about 1,800 others.

Barr Camp is a year-round rest stop for hikers, about 7 miles from the Barr Trail trailhead in Manitou Springs, literally in the late-afternoon shadow of Pikes Peak. The main cabin is T-shaped, its front door at the bottom of the "T" and its bunkhouse -- including 10 single mattresses lined up side-to-side -- creating the cross at the top. Hikers and campers can stop anytime for water, first aid or a nap, or they can spend $15 to sleep in the main cabin or under one of the three heavy-duty, three-sided shelters. The four caretakers -- two in the dead of winter -- do all the chores.

Long-term renters get a break on the prices and a more varied menu.

"We give them half-price because they stay so long," said Stephanie Dennison, one of the caretakers. "And we try not to feed them spaghetti every night."

By Friday, most of the runners-in-training had headed down to Colorado Springs. About five people stayed more than a week, several others a few days.

The runners were quickly replaced Friday by 22 race volunteers. They plucked and washed grapes, cut Peak Bars into bite-sized pieces. At dawn Saturday, they filled hundreds of paper cups with filtered stream water and Gatorade, forming a mid-mountain cheering committee offering nourishment for the runners.

But two flat-land runners stayed, wanting to "semi-acclimate."

Ted Everly arrived from Chicago and Daryl Beatty from Houston Wednesday to prepare for today's marathon. Veterans of ultra-marathons they rented a car in Denver and drove straight to Manitou Springs and Barr Trail. Everly was popping Advil two miles up.

"We've done some ultras and thought, 'Well, this ought to be ultra-hard,'" Everly said.

It's not even an ultra-marathon. It's just one that goes to 14,110 feet.

"Down home, when you go over a bridge, people call that a big hill," said Beatty, who typically finishes in the top 10 percent of sea-level marathons, but simply hopes to finish today NLP -- Not Last Place.

Beatty and his family travel from south of Houston to vacation in Colorado each summer, and he looked for a place to camp at 10,000 feet or higher to prepare for today's marathon.

The two men did trial runs to the summit, and ate dinners of pork chops, lasagna and salmon. They stayed Friday to help the volunteers Saturday.

"When I found out about Barr Camp, with the food and everything," Beatty explained, "I said, 'This is it.'"

That's what Elliott, 37, said years ago. He sets aside his Macintosh consulting business in Boulder for up to three weeks leading to the race and moves to Barr Camp. Sometimes he'll jog the couple of miles to timberline, then "hammer" to the summit. Or he'll keep a steady pace throughout. Experiment. Learn the trail. Know the limits.

"If anyone wants to push me," Elliott said, "I know if they're being stupid or not, or if I can handle it."

Before he headed downhill for a softer bed closer to the starting line, Elliott considered the secret to his success.

Maybe the altitude isn't an advantage. Maybe it's an equalizer.

"The race might get guys who have records for 10Ks, or run sub-4 minute miles, or 2-hour, 10-minute marathons," he said. "They get in these races and everything equals out. Some come in with an attitude, and when they leave, they're pretty humble."

And next year, maybe they'll stay at Barr Camp.

Copyright 1999-2001, The Gazette, a Freedom Communications, Inc. Company. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

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