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August 16, 2001

The Pikes Peak Ascent is Saturday. The first wave starts at 7 a.m., the second at 7:30 a.m. The Pikes Peak Marathon is Sunday at 7 a.m.

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

One very fast man and his mountain

By Meri-Jo Borzilleri/The Gazette

Pull up a chair, sit for a spell. Listen to the legend of Steve Gachupin.

The story goes that Gachupin could run like few others.

"He used to fly. Running was nothing to him," said Joseph Loretto, of Jemez Pueblo, N.M., the Native American reservation 50 miles from Albuquerque, where Gachupin also lives.

In the early morning, Gachupin would get up, pull on a pair of jeans and cheap sneakers and run 10 miles or more in the mountains outside town, which sits 7,500 feet above sea level.

On his runs, he'd see animals. He'd chase them. Sometimes catch them. His daughter tells the story how her father caught a fox once, brought it home to show his children.

"The fox jumped out the window," said Bertilla Toya, Gachupin's daughter. "My father would tell us stories, what he would have gone through during his runs."

For Gachupin, running is a mystical, spiritual exercise, a connection to Native American ancestors famous for delivering messages on foot over hundreds of miles.

Gachupin is famous for something that would make his ancestors proud: he's the only man to win the Pikes Peak Marathon six straight times. He did it from 1966-71.

Matt Carpenter may own the course record (3:16:39) and is tied with Scott Elliott for most wins (seven) on the mountain. But no one has yet reigned as long as Gachupin.

"The way I see it, it's more like my dad's mountain," said Gachupin's son, Dominic, 31. "The Utes ran on it. We respect it. It's another level of life up there."

Gachupin's 58 now. He struggles with a back injured from a fall. He says he won't be running this weekend, preferring to leave an age-group record attempt for next year.

Instead, he'll stand at the Pikes Peak Ascent's finish line, welcoming runners at the end of their struggle up the 14,110-foot mountain.

Or so he says. In 1996, the last year he ran the marathon and about five years after suffering a mild stroke, "he told my mom he would volunteer," said Dominic. "But he ran it. She was shocked. He has that little sneakiness. He didn't tell me. He knew I wouldn't like it. I don't want to lose my dad to the mountain."

Steve Gachupin said he'll make his next attempt in 2002.

"I'm not going to quit yet. I'm not that old yet."

His back "still bothers me when I run uphill," Gachupin says. "I fell on an icy sidewalk a few years back at work. I still jog in flat places. Uphill still bothers me. I'm still running. I'm still tough."

Tough enough, in his glory days, to be the first to run up and down Pikes Peak without walking.

Tough enough that his then-record time of 3:39:47, set in 1968, would have won the marathon the past three years. (The course was extended by 1.2 miles in 1976, yet Gachupin would still have been competitive.)

Tough enough that when you see him in old pictures, impossibly small at 5-foot-6, 124 pounds, it's hard to believe his body was tough enough to run up and down that mountain.

"He wore these super-thin shoes," Carpenter said. "It just amazes me to look at the shoes that he wore on the rocks. They look like old Converse or something, like leather pieces of baseball cleats."

Gachupin ran Pikes Peak in the days before Nikes, before Lycra, before Camelbacks.

"I don't carry water," he says. "Old people used to tell me, 'If you run in hot weather, grab a cedar tree. In the mountains, grab a Christmas tree.'"

These days, Gachupin still runs, getting up at 4:30 or 5 a.m. for an easy jog through the mountains. He and his wife, Bernice, still share the adobe home in which they raised five daughters and a son. It has no phone.

Gachupin, a retired school custodian, shares something else: his experience. He coaches the Jemez Pueblo High School's track and cross-country teams.

Gachupin, once one of the nation's elite marathoners, placed 15th in the 1968 Olympic marathon trials in Alamosa.

He didn't make the team, but he was proud to beat Billy Mills, the 1964 Olympic medalist and Native American.

"I passed him at the 18-mile mark," Gachupin said.

Pikes Peak, however, is special. Gachupin has run 50 marathons in different cities: like Boston, San Francisco, Las Vegas. Pikes Peak is his favorite, because "I grew up in the mountains and I love to run in the mountains," Gachupin says.

They tug at him still.

There have been recent times, besides 1996, when he kept the Pikes Peak Marathon a secret from his family. He didn't want them to worry. They'd find out later, when he came home.

"I just said, 'You're crazy, man,'" Dominic said.

Crazy like a fox. And, as legend has it, fast as one too.

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

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