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August 17, 2001

Matt Carpenter thought he had it tough running on Pikes Peak.

Then he traveled to Italy for a marathon on Monta Rosa, where he climbed 11,000 feet in a 9-mile stretch. Indeed, some worldwide marathons make Colorado Springs' signature mountain into a molehill. Here are some of the world's most difficult marathons:

This one, which Carpenter ran in 1995, didn't have any major hills. It didn't need any. Runners completed seven laps on a 6-kilometer course -- all at 17,060 feet.

"You never recovered," Carpenter said. "That's one of the few races where I can really say it hurt the whole way. That was pain from the get-go."

The Tibet race at 17,060 feet was an anomaly -- normally that marathon was run at 14,350 feet. The current Everest Marathon, in which it takes 17 days to hike to the starting line, starts at around 17,000 feet and ends around 10,000 feet.

The uphill half of this marathon was so demanding to Carpenter in 1995 that it took him longer to reach the top (3 hours, 29 minutes) than to complete the entire Pikes Peak marathon (3:16) in 1993.

"They had ropes in the snow so you had the option of holding onto the ropes so you wouldn't slide down the mountain if you slipped," Carpenter said.

Carpenter finished in 5 hours.

Runners must scale a volcano in Iztaccihuatl. The highest point is 17,343 feet.

"I was reduced to walking because it was so steep," Carpenter said. "There's a few sections where it's hand over foot."

Carpenter broke his tailbone in his lone Mexico appearance, 1997.

This one, Carpenter says, took a greater toll on his body than any other marathon. Its summit in Italy at 14,947 feet.

"The whole mountain was made of glaciers at the top," Carpenter said.

Marathon & Beyond called this the toughest marathon in North America.

Held 500 miles north of the Arctic Circle in the Canadian Northern Territories, two of the longer hills are called "Marathoner's Madness" and "Pain in the Ass." The lodging: sleeping bags on a cold gym floor.

Contact information
Mark Fitzhenry may be reached at 636-0178 or markf @ gazette . com

Peak tops the mountain
The Pikes Peak Marathon was rated the United States' toughest

By Mark Fitzhenry/The Gazette

The Pikes Peak Marathon is the toughest marathon in the United States.

Says who?

Says Marathon & Beyond, a publication which polled a group of runners who have run marathons in all 50 states.

Says Matt Carpenter, a Manitou Springs resident and one of the world's most well-known altitude runners.

Says Dave Zehrer. OK, he's biased. He's the race director. But Zehrer knows The Pikes Peak Marathon begins more than a mile above sea level and climbs 7,815 feet in 13-plus miles. The first half of the race is uphill, on a narrow trail with occasional rock and root protrusions and little room to pass.

The temperature can drop 50 degrees from the start in Manitou Springs to the summit at 14,110 feet. And on the upper reaches of the mountain, weather can be cold rain, snow, or sleet -- with high winds.

And then the runner heads downhill, which can reduce a runner's thighs to gelatin. The mind, which has received less oxygen than usual, is reacting about 2 seconds slower.

The average winning time in the past 10 years has been 3 hours, 35 minutes -- about 1 hours slower than the top finisher at a marathon close to sea level.

"There literally is no other race like it," Zehrer said.

The race bills itself as "America's Ultimate Challenge." Several runners polled for Magazine & Beyond agree, at least compared to other marathons.

One is Don McNelly, a veteran of more than 700 marathons who told the publication: "This one I failed. I went one-third of the way and quit."

Jose Nebrida told the magazine: "There are extreme elevation changes, and they are so relentless that I thought I'd run 3 miles, but it turned out to be only 1.

"At 13,000 feet, I could barely breathe and began to hallucinate."

Of course, selecting the country's toughest marathon is a matter of opinion. Some runners don't like to compare, pointing out that any race that pushes a runner to the limits are equally tough.

But, to paraphrase the movie "Animal Farm," if all races are equal, some races are more equal than others.

At the NipMuck Trail Marathon in Connecticut, the course map includes directions to the nearest hospital, and as a warning first-time runners are given a letter from a former contestant who doesn't want to run it again.

The Leadville Trail 100 Marathon (formerly the Mosquito Marathon) has a higher average altitude than Pikes Peak, and includes steep uphills with 4 miles to go.

But no current U.S. marathon has a peak altitude higher than Pikes Peak, and the terrain and temperature changes add to the difficulty.

"I can't think of any U.S. race that would be in that category," said John Barbour, a marathon veteran and coach of the Greater Lowell (Mass.) Road Runners. "For years Pikes Peak has enjoyed a justifiable reputation as being among the most demanding anywhere."

So tough, in fact, that runners cannot enter the Pikes Peak Marathon unless they have previously completed the Ascent -- a 13-mile race that goes up the mountain -- or they have completed a marathon before.

And out of 800 participants annually, about 50 or 60 people on average won't finish.

Pikes Peak stands out for two reasons: the altitude and the uphill climb.

At altitude, it's tougher to absorb oxygen and people dehydrate quicker. That alone makes it more difficult than a road race at sea level.

As for the climb, one consolation is it's all downhill after 13.32 miles. But the trail leaves little room for passing. And that can mean trouble when uphill runners and downhill runners meet. Those running uphill are supposed to yield, but collisions occur.

And when many runners finally descend from the mountain, they're back on the pavement during the hottest part of the day for the last mile.

That's why the Pikes Peak Marathon calls itself "America's Ultimate Challenge" -- and few runners will stand in line to disagree.

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

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