This story was saved from the August 21, 1999

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The Long Run

A distance runner and mentor fights for time and against cancer.

By Lee Jenkins/The Gazette
Story editor Geoff Grant; headline by Stephen Olver

In Room 406, Carl McDaniel is charging up the mountain and doesn't feel any pain.

He tells his Coronado High School cross country runners to ignore the aching in their legs, the burning in their gut. Run to the finish line, he tells them, with your teammates beside you.

The Pikes Peak Hospice is an odd setting for a race, but it will have to do for now. Carl McDaniel has no choice.

He has too far to go and too little time. He will no longer coach at Coronado, run up Pikes Peak, or direct the marathon that starts this weekend. The cancer took all that away.

But it missed the people. So many people. They will come to Room 406 to talk, remember and - as the sign says outside the door - love. They will come to Carl McDaniel.

He curls his 55-year-old body under a blanket and pillows like a newborn - wrinkled skin, soft bone and a bald head peppered with tiny hairs. His wife sleeps on the couch. His sister paces in the doorway. Flowers decorate the windowsill.

Visitors shuttle in and out - runners coming for a friend, business associates for a colleague, teen-agers for a coach, family members for a father.

They sit in front of the bed, where a collage hangs with all the innocence of yesterday.

The photos were taken this summer, of a man, his family and his dog. Even the dog seems to be smiling.

"It's been the quickest year," Carl said.

Cancer steals everything, even time. For a man given three months to live, each passing day is a solemn reminder the one before it is gone. By the same token, tomorrow is his reward for having lived today.

Carl describes his coaching style as "distance-oriented." Indeed. He has lived with this disease one year come September, nine months longer than the doctors thought he would.

Leave it to a runner to cover this kind of ground.

"It's mental concentration and what you want to accomplish, what you want to do," said Carl. "This is a race. The race is my life. And it's trying to concentrate on everything I can do. Get everything negative out of my mind. Concern yourself with living."

Even through the pain. He had been complaining of discomfort in his abdomen since last May, but doctors dismissed it as a stomach flu.

That "flu" spread from his pancreas to his liver in no time. It's touched every part of the Colorado Springs racing community, which looks to Carl as a father and a friend.

He's directed the Pikes Peak Marathon since 1980, run it well before that, and was honored with a lifetime achievement award at a dinner he couldn't attend Friday night. Missing the race this weekend is killing him more than any disease.

"When you get up race morning, look at the mountain on another glorious day in Colorado, see the athletes, the citizens, wanting to go up Pikes Peak, it's a high," Carl said.

He's getting excited, which might make the nurses nervous, but they're not here now. There are just tubes, monitors and a cup of ice chips that Carl awkwardly spoons into his mouth.

He was a college football player at Adams State, an outside linebacker who used to hit like a cement truck. "I was heavier then," said Carl.

When he lost part of his right arm working on a construction crew in New Mexico, he started running. That was about the time he met Ruby, who still sleeps by his side, as though nothing has changed.

"When you invest 30 years in a man, you stay with him," said Carl's sister, Rosale.

This man, especially. Son Robert is skipping a semester of graduate school at North Carolina to be with his father. Daughter Michelle is starting her freshman year at Boulder, but will be making the trips back on weekends.

Still, Carl's missing it all, and he knows it. Cross country season begins. There's no one to run his real estate company. And the marathon will go on without him.

A man who used to run Pikes Peak for the fun of it has been rendered stationary.

"It is really frustrating because you see things develop around you," Carl said. "School, the Peak (Marathon). Watching that race come together every year is something incredible."

It was because of him. And maybe that's why race coordinators spend nearly as much time in the hospice as they do on the mountain. On the wall across from his bed is a quilt, patched with the logos of every Pikes Peak Marathon he directed.

Ruby had that made for him. They will celebrate their 30th wedding anniversary Sept. 1, the very month that Carl was diagnosed last year.

One of the first things he did was tell his runners at Coronado what the doctors had said, and what he was going to do about it - essentially sprint to the finish.

"There's so much to do and such a short period of time," Carl said. "No one knows how long life will be. You've got to make the most of every minute, every hour, every second of life. You've got to do as much as you can do."

His runners learned more than cross country last season. It was a lesson in life.

In this most individual of sports, so many people run alongside their friend. On Thursday alone, he was visited by a buddy from Adams State who was the freshman class president. Friends from his junior high school have even come through.

"The hardest part is seeing them all go through the anxiety and the suffering, devoting their time and effort to me," said Carl.

But don't get him wrong. He wouldn't have it any other way. It's when he's alone, running solo, that the demons come. When Ruby is asleep on the couch, when Rosale has gone back to Iowa, when the kids are at school and the friends are at the Peak, that's when a person thinks about the odds and the doctors and death. It's when it all doesn't seem worth racing from.

"Support is so important," Carl said. "Faith, believing, it's how you get down the road."

"He always says, there's one more mountain to climb," said friend Lee Guthrie. "And he says running is a cure for everything."

While exercise used to be what made him feel alive, now it's the thrill of a human relationship.

He speaks Spanish with Ruby. Talks life with his son, and running with his friends. He's keeping tabs on the marathon this weekend, hoping it will be as great as ever.

"Almost everybody who runs the race says they'll never run it again," said Carl. "Then they're entries the next year. It gradually becomes a part of your life."

He remembers everything he put into it, everything he got out. "It's a mountainous task," he said, and didn't even think of the irony.

Here, at the base of the Front Range, in the town where he's lived nearly 30 years, here is the mountain. The thing he's climbing makes the Peak look like a molehill. "You've got to tighten up your running shoes and get down the road," Carl said.

A slight smile creeps into his wispy moustache. He's a shadow of an outside linebacker, but the spirit is as healthy as ever. He jokes, philosophizes and narrows his eyes when he wants something.

"My runners would say I'm firm, but in a directional way," he said.

The direction is up. To the mountaintop. Carl McDaniel used to run 8,000 feet in the sky, just because he could.

"Putting up your arms, crossing the finish line, it feels so great," he said.

He tilts his head back, smiling gently, drifting away from Room 406, into that special place where there's no such thing as pain.

And for a moment, Carl McDaniel looks like the one man who could climb the mountain.

Lee Jenkins may be reached at 636-0195 or at ljenkins @ gazette . com

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