Steve Smalzel had been sitting in a folding chair for 20 minutes when Hal Koerner crossed the finish line and entered the recovery tent.
Second-place finisher Leo Torres had already left, but Smalzel was still basking in the glory of his Pikes Peak Marathon victory on Sunday when Koerner was the third to finish.
His smile turned to amazement when the 23-year-old Koerner spoke.
"This is your first time?" Smalzel asked. "You could win this thing! Twenty-three, coming in third on your first race - that is really awesome."
Stranger things have happened. Smalzel cruised to an easy win - his second - after registering less than two weeks before the race and Koerner's been running less than three years.
Smalzel's time of 3 hours, 48 minutes, 13 seconds put him well ahead of Torres, who finished in 3:59:08. Koerner was behind them in 4:08:01.
They made an odd pair. Smalzel older and skinnier, his frizzy hair in a french braid under a Mickey Mouse hat, and Koerner the upstart, wearing a straightforward white mesh top and nondescript blue shorts.
In a way, though, the paths they took to their meeting in the tent were even odder.
Smalzel was given the hat after winning because that's what Mickey Mouse means to him. He'd raced in Colorado for 10 years wearing a Mickey Mouse shirt he bought in Tijuana, Mexico, but couldn't find it after running in the July25 Telluride Get High.
"I'm not much into superstition," Smalzel said. "I just liked that shirt."
Mickey or no, it was a surprise he was running at all. He won the marathon in 1991 and was third in 1995 but gave up competitive running in 1996 after suffering through a couple 100-kilometer races.
A change in diet this spring provoked a return to racing.
"I started eating more meat this year," the 35-year-old from Salida said. "Consequently, I'm full of vigor."
As a former winner, it's his perogative to enter at any time, so that's what he did - on such short notice his name was missing from some master lists.
He had the lead at Barr Camp on the way up and led the rest of the way. At the top, Smalzel asked the crowd what his time was. When fans said about 2:27, he got a little profane and headed back down. He was worried about Torres behind him, a downhilling legend and a serious old-time mountain runner who finished second to Smalzel in 1991.
But Torres knew when he got to the top that he wouldn't catch Smalzel, not with the lead he had.
"He's a pretty decent downhill runner also," Torres said.
Torres did catch Koerner on the way down, about 2 miles from the summit, but Koerner held on for third. An amazing feat, considering he'd never even trained on the downhill part of the course - or any downhill course, all summer.
He'd rolled an ankle in May and under orders from his chiropractor did almost all uphill training.
"I knew he was pretty fast and when he came through there I tried to run with him for a while," Koerner said. How long did he keep up? "Probably 2 minutes. That was about it."
A student at CU-Denver and a health-club worker from Parker, Koerner started running as a way to get in shape 21/2 years ago. Yet there he was discussing the technicalities of running downhill with Smalzel - not something he even would have considered in 1996
"No, never," Koerner said. "Not back then. I could run about 3 miles."
Perhaps there's a simple explanation for his progress. Of everyone in the race, Koerner maybe had the most motivation.
He had to be at work at 2 p.m.
He was off the course by 11:05 a.m., in plenty of time to get to his job.
And if Smalzel's right, and he should know, with plenty of time to win in years to come.
Luke DeCock may be reached at 636-0178 or at email@example.com.