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Wednesday, August 24, 2005
Denver, CO

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john meyer
Togetherness fuels passion for Phat Man
By John Meyer
Denver Post Staff Writer

Steamboat Springs - Waiting at the final exchange zone for the bracelet I would carry to the finish line in the 193-mile Wild West Relay on Saturday morning, race volunteer Rachel Nelson made me feel like an imposter.

"Oh," she said after learning I was on the Phat Men Running team that was the talk of the relay, "you're the elite guys!"

Well, not quite. In my first ultra relay, I was the one ordinary runner on an otherwise extraordinary team that won the 6X6 category (six runners, six legs each) and was second out of the 58 teams that finished, most of which were 12-person teams.

Winning was sweet, even if I had little to do with it, and it was fun to impersonate an elite runner for 24 hours, 19 minutes, which is how long it took us to run from Fort Collins to Steamboat via Woods Landing, Wyo., and Rabbit Ears Pass. Thanks to my five fleet teammates, it took 12 runners to beat us.

"We heard what your team was running, and we were a little bit concerned," said Dennis Vanderheiden, captain of the No Small Feet team, which reached Steamboat first with a time of 22 hours, 30 minutes. "You guys were a formidable challenge."

It would be fun to dismiss No Small Feet as slackers for only running 16 miles per person compared to our 32.1, especially because they had the opportunity to catch some sleep and we didn't. But they were outstanding runners, averaging under seven minutes per mile in a race run mostly above 8,000 feet with sections over 10,000 feet. Props to them.

I had the good luck to be invited onto the team by Steve Krebs of Lakewood, a friend who is an outstanding marathoner. Also on the team was ultrarunner Kevin Shilling of Salt Lake City, who finished third in the Hardrock 100 last year. Krebs gave him the hardest legs, and he pummeled them. I got the easiest.

My job was to run six legs totaling 31 miles, which I did in 4 hours, 34 minutes (8 minutes, 49 seconds per mile). Despite sleep deprivation, loss of appetite, overnight temperatures in the 30s, a few steep ascents, several steeper descents and many miles on lonely pavement above 8,000 feet, it was the most fun I've ever had while running.

I loved the camaraderie within the team and biding time in the various exchange zones along the route with runners from other teams. We were united by a common passion for running and a hunger for challenges, so we understood and respected each other immediately. We raced as competitors but ran as friends.

I've run 11 marathons and loved them all, especially the two in Boston, but this was different.

"With a marathon, it takes months and months to get prepped, and then in three hours it's over," said Krebs, a physician and fierce competitor who hammered the steep downslope coming off Rabbit Ears Pass into Steamboat at an insane 5 minutes, 39 seconds per mile. "With a relay, you do all that same training, but you get to have fun for a day or a day and a half."

And in a big-city marathon, you're surrounded from start to finish by hundreds of runners. In a relay with a staggered start, if you're not in the van or an exchange zone waiting for your next leg, you're running mostly by yourself in lonely places. You feel the expectations of your teammates every step because they're depending on you, but you're on your own on the road.

Those lonely miles are most thrilling after dark. The moon rose on one of my legs near the Wyoming border. The sun rose on another near Rabbit Ears Pass. Heading due south into Walden around 2 a.m., I ran 6.2 miles with the moon directly in front of me. I will never forget the joy and solitude I felt there.

I can't wait for another chance to chase the moon in the mountains.


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