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Pikes Peak Ascent and Marathon runners endure trial by nature

click to enlarge Colorado Springs Leanne J. Cool was one of many Pikes - Peak Marathon runners who reached the summit. - DAN WILCOCK
  • Dan Wilcock
  • Colorado Springs Leanne J. Cool was one of many Pikes Peak Marathon runners who reached the summit.

Conquering Pikes Peak in a running race calls for a mental and physical struggle against nature.

For the competitors in last weekend's 50th annual Pikes Peak Ascent and Marathon, nature put up a fearsome defense.

Shortly after Ryan Hafer, a 19-year-old from Colorado Springs, reached the peak and the end of the 13.3-mile Ascent on Saturday morning, a storm descended on the mountain.

Around 6 inches of hail pummeled runners as they made their way up the peak's famous 16 stone steps, which quickly became slick with ice and crowded with competitors.

After more than an hour of nonstop, skin-welting hail, officers closed the Pikes Peak Highway for safety, stranding hundreds of runners at the 14,110-foot summit.

As they began to pack into the summit house and the medical tent, lightning bolts struck and sent runners and onlookers hiding under cars and rocks.

"It was the worst I've ever seen it," said Debby Bloch, who was handing out finishers' jackets Saturday morning and ran the marathon on Sunday -- her 16th time running either the Marathon or the Ascent. A paramedic for the Colorado Springs Fire Department, Bloch added, "We're lucky no one died [on Saturday]."

As the weather deteriorated, Bloch and other volunteers eventually began handing out the jackets to all takers to prevent hypothermia.

"We ran through hail for an hour," said Jan Seeley, publisher of the running magazine Marathon and Beyond, who was among those stranded on top. "[The hail] started as tapioca [-sized], went to peas and then went to marbles."

Officials stopped the race shortly before noon, and as many as 50 runners were forced to turn around two miles below the summit and make their way down the mountain without official times.

According to eyewitness accounts, a 75-year-old nun, Sister Marion Irvine, made it to the A-frame shelter near tree line before succumbing to hypothermia. She rode down on horseback.

"We'll call her a cowgirl from now on," said Ron Ilgen, race director.

People stranded at the summit saw some relief when the Pikes Peak Cog Railway sent up an empty train, free of charge. Two-hundred-fifty crammed aboard. The highway reopened in the late afternoon.

While Sunday's marathoners benefited from clearer skies and less hail at the summit, they still had to contend with Saturday's aftermath. Rain had left much of Barr Trail a muddy slick, and runners did whatever they could to keep from sliding off.

Exertion from the 26.2-mile race proved fatal for one runner, 59-year-old Gary Williams of Oklahoma, who died of what appeared to be a heart attack on Sunday. Ray Allard, who served as volunteer summit chief for the Ascent and worked along the trail during the Marathon, also suffered a heart attack Sunday night. Allard was recovering as of Monday.

"There were many heroes over the last two days," Ilgen said, referring to the volunteers and search and rescue officers who helped guide runners to safety.

"I was really impressed with how the runners helped each other," said marathoner Kirk Brown, a 55-year-old retired lieutenant colonel in the Air Force who first ran the Pikes Peak Marathon in 2000. He said runners held their arms out and cradled runners in front of them, keeping them from falling.

Now considering whether to stop running marathons after surviving the 50th marathon at Pikes Peak, Brown admits the mountain holds power over him.

"Five years from now," he said, "when they run the 55th marathon, we'll see how I feel."

-- Dan Wilcock

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