This story has been archived from the Sunday, August 14, 2005

Out of nowhere: Marathon’s winningest woman is an unlikely hill climber


LOS ALAMOS, N.M. — If she lived anywhere else, Erica Larson could be her town’s best-kept secret. But this is the home of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, where nuclear weapons are built and secrets are part of the town’s fabric, so the modest Larson’s little-known double life can’t possibly compete. Larson is a chemist at the lab. She’s also an elite mountain runner. Larson, who turned 34 on Thursday, has won the Pikes Peak Marathon five times (1999-2002, 2004) — more than any woman since the race crowned its first female champion in 1959.

She lost in 2003, finishing runner-up to Scotland’s Angela Mudge, a member of the world mountain running team. Race organizers say Mudge has not entered yet this year, but elite runners can enter at the last minute. Larson beat Mudge to the top, then lost her lead on the way down. Mudge, then 33, set the course record (4 hours, 19 minutes, 38 seconds) while Larson ran a personal best (4:22:29).


Now 34, Erica Larson grew up in the relatively flat town of Fond du Lac, Wis., before going to Marquette and the University of Kansas for graduate school.
“It was a great race,” said Larson, who will not defend her title this year because a calf injury and strep throat cut into her training. “It was fun to have someone else there.”

Want to stump a woman who earned her Ph.D. at 27, and had a 3.98 grade-point average as a Marquette University chemistry major? Ask her how it is that someone raised in the flatlands of Fond du Lac, Wis., the daughter of two music teachers who never raced, can run up and down 14,115-foot Pikes Peak with such sustained success.

“It took practice when I got out here,” she said, sitting in a Los Alamos hotel restaurant after work. “I just really liked being on the trail.”

How she arrived as Pikes Peak’s winningest woman is linked to how she arrived here, a town of more than 18,000 with a history that beats Larson’s for oddness. When Larson spoke with visitors in July, Los Alamos had just marked its 60th anniversary of the Trinity test on July 16, 1945, when the world’s first atomic bomb was exploded over the New Mexico desert about 230 miles south of Los Alamos.

The bomb was the culmination of the Manhattan Project, when a science lab and a community sprung from nothing in the midst of a desert. Thousands of people, mostly young scientists, moved to the remote site and worked secretly for about two years to develop the bomb, locked in an intense race against Germany.

Three weeks after the test, the U.S. dropped its bomb on Hiroshima, Japan, signaling the eventual end of the war while ushering in the world-changing nuclear age. Only after the bomb dropped did the U.S. government acknowledge Los Alamos existed.

For a community that didn’t officially exist, the town is thriving. Because of limited building space, the median value of homes sold in 2003 was $228,300, according to the town’s visitors guide. The 2000 census data showed median household income was $71,536.

The Los Alamos lab employs 15,375 people, including contractors, and has an annual operating budget of an estimated $2.2 billion, according to the lab’s 2005 community impact report. The lab occupies 40 square miles and 589 buildings.

But few outside the lab know what goes on inside. Tourists are drawn to Los Alamos for its quirky beginnings (a popular T-shirt reads: “I B Glowing. Los Alamos”), museums, hiking and biking, nearby spas and Bandelier National Monument.

Larson has lived in Los Alamos for seven years, arriving after her doctorate studies at the University of Kansas. The town, at an elevation of 7,355 feet, is an endurance athlete’s dream, with an extensive system of trails that rise and fall with the town’s mesas and canyons. Larson trains for Pikes Peak’s grade and altitude by running nearby Wheeler Peak (13,161 feet) and up the Santa Fe ski area (12,175).

While the community is active, youthful and affluent, it shuts down at about 9 p.m. Blame the workaholic scientists, most say. There’s only a handful of restaurants and two bars, say residents, who think nothing of driving 70 miles round trip to Santa Fe for dinner. They cheered the recent opening of the town’s lone movie theater after several years without one.

Larson would have to catch the matinee. She’s usually in bed by 8:30 p.m., up at 5 a.m. She wishes for more variety in things such as supermarkets and sporting goods stores. She complains good-naturedly about Los Alamos’ nerd factor. But of the lack of night life, she admits, “sometimes it’s nice not to have this stuff.”

Like most of the lab’s employees, national security dictates she can talk only in the most general terms about her job, even to her parents.

“We don’t ask a lot about it,” said her father, Warren, who taught music in the local school district for 32 years before retiring. “We just know she can’t answer.”

While walking inside one of downtown’s biggest tourist attractions, the Bradbury Science Museum, Larson tells how she works with tritium, a radioactive version of hydrogen. Tritium’s primary purpose is to help increase the efficiency of a nuclear weapon. Wristwatches, a building’s exit signs and gun sights use a combination of tritium and phosphors to stay illuminated.

Meanwhile, Larson’s fiance, runner and weapons scientist Miles Baron, talks about the holy-cow stuff. He explains in layman’s terms about the mock nuclear warheads and missiles on display. He points to a film that shows a nuclear explosion. Museum visitors can freezeframe it, run it backward and forward, over and over again. Larson is quiet as she listens, seemingly as impressed as any museum-goer just off the street.

“We support the mission,” Larson said. “But I don’t know a lot about the big picture.”

Not like she would act any differently if she did. Larson’s modesty, bordering on shyness, is the characteristic people often use to describe her. She enjoys her anonymity when it comes to running.

Once she was asked by Pikes Peak organizers to appear on a panel to give advice on running the mountain. A question and answer session followed.

“I nearly started to hyperventilate,” she said. “I don’t mind when I’m giving a technical presentation. I don’t like to talk about myself.”

At the lab, she doesn’t expect to be called doctor, though some refer to her as “Dr. E” anyway. Only those colleagues closest to Larson know she’s a world-class mountain runner and about her wins on Pikes Peak.

“She was the quiet, studious type” as a kid, said Larson’s uncle, Tom Cook of Monument. Larson also plays piano and draws.

“She must be both rightand left-brained,” her father said. “She’s always very goaloriented. If there’s something she wants, she’ll get it.”

Larson finished 34th in her first Olympic marathon trials last year. The top three went to Athens.

“I think I could do a lot better,” she said.

Larson is just getting started. Her best marathon time is 2:41:40. The Beijing qualifying time is 2:39. She plans to improve by 2008.

Because training for a road marathon is different than a mountain race, that might mean skipping Pikes Peak a few times between now and 2008. Running up and down a mountain, and on an uneven trail, means using a variety of muscles and changing pace. Road marathoners work on hightempo striding.

Larson’s background would seem more suited to running roads than mountains. She said the biggest hill in Fond du Lac (807 feet) measures less than 100 feet.

“They piled garbage up and covered it,” Larson said.

While Larson has Olympic aspirations, you get the feeling she’d prefer her faster, higher, stronger to happen at 14,000 feet.

“The finish of a road marathon, it’s just a line in the road,” she said.

“Pikes Peak is a destination.”



Ascent: 1976, ’80 Marathon: 1981


Marathon: 1999, 2000, ’01, ’02, ’04


Erica Larson has won the Pikes Peak Marathon five times, with her only loss coming in 2003 when Angela Mudge set an age-group record. (Larson only set a personal best.) Here’s her times in the six Marathons she’s run:

1999 - 4:46:01 - First place
2000 - 4:50:37 - First place
2001 - 4:49:10 - First place
2002 - 4:41:53 - First place
2003 - 4:22:29 - Runner-up
2004 - 4:28:27 - First place


Copyright 2005, The Gazette, a division of Freedom Colorado Information. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

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