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August 20, 2001

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John Branch may be reached at jbranch @ gazette . com
Descent's a real downer

Believe it or not, reaching Peak is easy part for many racers

By John Branch/The Gazette

MANITOU SPRINGS -- Like a stumbling toddler whose head travels faster than its feet until the whole body topples over, Matt Owen knew he was about to face-plant.

"I just cratered forward and did a Superman," the Monument runner said, blood still trickling from his right knee down to his ankle as he sat at the finish line of Sunday's Pikes Peak Marathon.

The course -- more than 13 miles long and 7,815 vertical feet to the summit, and the same distance and subsequent drop to the finish line -- is a study of two disparate types of running.

Running up Pikes Peak requires a steady pace, piston-like legs and voluminous lungs.

Running downhill requires a pogo-stick's agility, Gumby-like flexibility and a certain addiction to fear and pain.

Going up is brutally difficult, as any of the 1,800 or so runners of Saturday's Pikes Peak Ascent can attest.

But for most of the 800 marathoners Sunday, it's the downhill portion they'll be feeling today. And tomorrow. And the next day.

When Matt Carpenter ran the marathon in about 3 hours, 16 minutes in 1993, he ran up to the top in 2:01. He came down in 1:15 -- an average speed of more than 10 mph.

"It's very technical and it can be very dangerous," said Manitou Springs' Jonathan Cavner, who finished fourth Sunday. "Even the good downhill runners get really sore afterwards."

It's rare that a strong mountain runner does both disciplines well. Carpenter, 5-foot-7 and lighter than a supermodel, is an exception. Scott Elliott, a seven-time champion of the Ascent, won't run the marathon.

"I'm not built for running downhill. I'm an uphill guy," he said. "Running downhill ruins me."

It ruins a lot of people.

The medical station at the marathon's finish line was filled with bloodied runners, their shirts smeared with dirt, their legs scraped as if by a cheese grater, their hands cut open by sharp rocks. Most years, a handful of runners end up with fractures. Most are broken ankles from an awkward step. Others are broken wrists or cracked elbows, trying to brace the fall after an awkward step.

"The consequences can be pretty severe," second-place finisher Dave Mackey said.

About six runners were sent to the hospital Sunday to have possible fractures examined.

"This marathon is crazy," said Todd Rowader, director of Memorial Hospital's HealthLink, overseeing Sunday's makeshift emergency room.

"The people who do this ... Some people come down here and say, 'Why did I do that?' And I say, 'Yeah. Why did you do that?'"

While Saturday's problems centered around fatigue and altitude, the bulk of treatment Sunday, according to Rowader, in plain-yet-descriptive medical language, was "wound cleansing."

Runners reach the summit of Pikes Peak, their tired legs jiggling from the relentless uphill drive. That's when they turn around to head downhill, the legs switching jobs to become part dancer, part shock absorber, bouncing down a trail filled with obstacles -- rocks, roots, gravel, deep drop-offs, and, in the case of Carpenter, about 799 other runners -- that come before the mind can process the danger.

"The hard part is definitely the shock," said Mike Donovan, who finished seventh. "You take a step, and you're dropping down. Either you have to have the shoes to absorb it or the legs."

Nearly every veteran of the Pikes Peak Marathon has the scars to prove that they've not only gone up, but come down.

Scars on the knees from rocks, on the shoulders from brushes with tree branches, on the hands from falls. Many carry gloves to the top, and put them on for the run down.

Going up may take up to twice as long, but coming down is the hard part.

Maybe that's why there's an Ascent. And a marathon. But no Pikes Peak Descent.

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

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