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August 19, 2001

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Meri-Jo Borzilleri may be reached at 636-0259 or merijo @ gazette . com
Reaching their maximum peak

Ascent runners battle through a 3-mile stretch above treeline before hitting the summit

By Meri-Jo Borzilleri/The Gazette

Mt. Everest has its Death Zone. The Boston Marathon has Heartbreak Hill. Manhattan has the Holland Tunnel. All tough to get through without a toll.

The Pikes Peak Ascent has its version of a nightmare: the 3 miles above treeline before the summit. For most, that's where the running ends and the staggering begins.

"The Walk of the Zombies," said Gina Garcia-Shaw of Colorado Springs, an elite runner who finished in a little over 3 hours Saturday, well under her 3:23 personal best.

"Hiking death," Boulder's Matt Oetting, 30, calls it.

That's where the trees disappear, air gets thin, the trail gets gravelly. Runners go from forest to moonscape. They can see the summit, but it never seems to get closer.

"They're the longest three miles of your life," said Tracy Wilcox, 27, of Colorado Springs.

The weather was near-perfect for the race, resulting in many runners setting personal bests. But the weather leading up to the race was anything but perfect.

On Saturday, deposits from two blizzards last week remained and made footing dicey, especially for the faster runners.

"It's the only time I can remember I stepped on snow during the race," said Matt Carpenter, the men's winner. "A couple steps I slipped a little and thought, oh, this is going to be interesting."

For some of the recreational runners, a bottleneck developed soon after the A-frame, where runners from the start of the second flight caught stragglers from the first.

THERE SHE IS: When some runners crossed the finish line, expressions of joy were hard to come by.

Most competitors were walking. Some sobbed. Many swayed and had to grab for the nearest boulder.

When Debra Geibig of Colorado Springs crossed the finish line of the Ascent in 4:06:15, her husband was waiting with an armful of flowers.

Her friends draped a red velvet sash reading "Miss Pikes Peak" around her torso. Cue Bert Parks. Get the Kleenex. "It's my first time I did the Ascent," she said.

Her idea for making the world a better place?

"I'd make the mountain a little lower," she said.

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

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