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Sunday, August 17, 2003

Downhill isnít cruise to finish at marathon


Experienced runners of the Pikes Peak Marathon know better than to heed the old saying “It’s all downhill from here.”

Reaching the summit — the halfway point of the 26.21-mile race — would seem to put the most grueling part behind, but the return trip can stress the body the same, if not more.

Muscles can be more severely damaged running down than while running up. Slipping, sliding and tripping are common.

“People think it’s easier running downhill, but it’s not,” said Dr. Peter Davis, director of coaching and sports sciences at the United States Olympic Committee. Early this morning, about 800 runners will aim for the top of America’s Mountain — a rise of 7,815 feet — only to turn around and come down. The marathon course is known as one of the most challenging in the world. Most people look at Pikes Peak and see a mountain to be photographed — maybe climbed at a leisurely pace. Running up and down it is reserved for those in top condition, and indeed, endurance athletes come from across the country to accept the challenge.

On the way up, their hearts will work harder to move more oxygen to the muscles.

Their respiration will increase, and each time they exhale, they’ll lose water. Their bodies will burn glycogen, key energy stores.

Their inner thigh muscles and gluteals will get a way-beyond-normal workout.

Seven stations along the route will offer brief respites — places where runners can rehydrate with water and Gatorade, and re-energize with grapes, crackers and candy.


PHOTO FINISH: Jason Van Dyne, 30, of Springfield, Mo., is helped onto the pavement Saturday by race volunteers after finishing the Pikes Peak Ascent. The summit is the goal of the ascent, but itís only the halfway point of todayís marathon.
Search and rescue crews with medical training will be at each stop, in case a runner encounters trouble.

Participants must make the station at Barr Camp within 3ľ hours of their starting time. If not, they’re out.

The cutoff is for the runners’ safety.

“It’s only gonna get worse, so if by Barr Camp you’re already having problems, you’re just gonna get much much worse as you head up above timberline,” said Ron Ilgen, race director for the Pikes Peak Ascent and Marathon.

John Klopsch, who came in 79 th in the 2001 marathon with a time of 5:46:59, called the first half of the race “torture.” But, he added, “You don’t usually fall going up.”

Inevitably, on the downslope of the race, some runners will break wrists and ankles, or receive scrapes, bruises or fractures. Many will wear gloves to protect their hands, should they take a tumble.

Klopsch, 38, said he was fortunate to get some good premarathon advice that kept him from tripping on a tree root or rock.

“I had been warned about 20 times by different people: ‘Once you get down to that lower part, pick your feet up, pick your feet up.’"

Klopsch said it’s easy to let your guard down on the return trip.

For one, he was filled with emotion upon reaching the summit. “When I turned around, I was so happy,” he said. “I didn’t start crying, but I wasn’t far from it.”

Aside from the exhilaration of making it to the top, the body starts relaxing a bit, too, he said. The heart slows.

“You get a little bit of a euphoric relaxed feeling. That fatigue causes you to not pick your feet up as high as your normally, would,” he said.

Davis, too, warned of the importance of staying focused.

“People are gonna fall, and they need to be careful and keep their wits about them.”

By the time a runner is on the way down, the brain is tired, too.

Glycogen is the brain’s only energy source, and with so much of what was stored used on the uphill part of the race, people might not be thinking too clearly on the way down, he said.

Being tired in both body and brain isn’t the only danger on the downhill run.

Hitting the ground hard with each downhill step damages muscles.

“Going down you just pound, pound, pound all the way,” Davis said. “Of course, the heavier you are, the harder it is.”

The force can be close to three times a runner’s body weight.

“Coming down, you’re using quads to break the leg extension — using those muscles as brakes instead of drivers, and that’s where you get muscle soreness,” he said.

The run down also takes a toll on the toes.

“Trim your toenails before the race,” advised Davis.

Toes usually smash against the front of the shoe, and the result is black, bleeding or lost toenails.

“Downhill, you can really guarantee it,” he said.

Davis had a second tip for runners who have long second toes: Use a razor blade to cut a little notch at the front of the shoe where toe No. 2 would hit.

Davis said people should take some time off from running after the race — a week or two — to let the body recover.

They also should get special treatment for a time, he said.

“They’re going to have to be pampered a bit when they’re finished. They deserve it.”


How is a race at such a high altitude different on a body than a race at sea level?
Runners are more at risk for dehydration, not only because it’s drier when higher, but also because people breathe more at altitude and lose water each time they exhale. This high up, less oxygen is available for muscles, which then use more carbohydrates instead of fats as a fuel source.

What muscle groups are most used?
On the uphill, the adductors (inner thigh muscles), hamstrings, gluteal group, calf muscle, and vastus lateralis (part of the quadriceps group at the front of the thigh) will be the most taxed. On the downhill portion, the quadriceps, hamstrings and gluteals (buttocks) will work hardest.

How much water weight can a person lose during such a race?
It differs from person to person, but it can range from about 2 cups to 6 cups per hour. Weather conditions play into it, too. Because of the altitude, athletes who travel to Colorado Springs should pay special attention to their hydration and drink about four extra liters of fluid per day.

Those runners must be burning a lot of calories. How many?
It’s very individual. A 150-pound athlete racing uphill for four hours would burn about 3,800 calories. (Based on “running up stairs” in the Compendium of Physical Activities Tracking Guide).

How much water/fluids should an athlete drink?
Current recommendations are 4-8 ounces of a carbohydrate-electrolyte drink (Gatorade or Powerade, for example) every 15 minutes during a race. The sports drinks provide muscles with much-needed carbohydrates — the main fuel source for this type of race. The drinks also contain sodium, the primary electrolyte lost in sweat.

RESEARCH AND ANSWERS: Paige Holm, sport physiologist, United States Olympic Committee.

Copyright 2003, The Gazette, a division of Freedom Colorado Information. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

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