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Some have called them crazy, but training is serious business for this group of dedicated runners


By Todd Burgess/The Gazette
Story package editor, headline by Colleen Keeffe

Jerilee Bennett/The Gazette

Incline Club members ascend one beautifl June evening, staggering starts by abilities.

On Valentine’s Day, members of the Incline Club tested their hearts.

And their lungs.

And their legs.

Normally, Sundays entail a three- to four-hour run on Manitou Springs trails, including a visit to Barr Camp or Waldo Canyon.

Valentine’s Day was not a normal Sunday.

Matt Carpenter, world-class high-altitude marathoner and club adviser, decided the Incline Club would spend Valentine’s Day on the incline, a 1.02-mile-long, privately owned former route of the Mount Manitou Scenic Incline Railway with a 41 percent average grade. The goal was four laps each. Four times up the 2,011 vertical feet of gravel and railroad ties to the top of Mount Manitou and four times down either the incline or the four miles of Barr Trail.

“Other people have said we’re crazy,” Carpenter said, “but we had members of our own club telling us we were crazy that day.”

The 31 Incline Club runners (and six dogs) quickly spread out on the railroad ties that form stairsteps. From a distance, they looked like ants crawling up and down in various degrees of speed and grace but in a unified sense of purpose. Some hiked. Some stopped for several seconds to catch their breath. Some ran every step in both directions.

Other people on the incline that day were in disbelief.

“Four laps?” they asked. “I have a hard time just doing one.”

Five Incline Club runners completed four laps and five others finished three, pumping up the hard-edged reputation of a group of exercise fanatics.

The Incline Club meets every Thursday afternoon and Sunday morning in Manitou Springs. It began four years ago when Carpenter, Thom Santa Maria and Larry Miller met on Thursdays to run up the incline. Other people heard about the workout and began showing up.

The group became known as the Incline Club, and a formal workout schedule was developed. Now club members run on a variety of mountain trails — not just the incline, whose owners don’t want anyone hiking on it. The runners share a love for the outdoors and for the scenery the Manitou Springs trails provide.

The club attracts runners from all disciplines, from 10K road specialists to those training for 100-mile races, but the runners tend to excel at the Pikes Peak Ascent and Marathon, this year scheduled for Aug. 21 and 22.

Last year, Incline Club runners won the marathon and women’s ascent and marathon. Several others placed in the top 10, and 19 members won awards in their age groups.

Suffering and fun combine for training

Socializing definitely is not a cornerstone to this club ’s foundation.

Once in a while, two runners might fall in stride and swap stories as they cruise up or down a trail. But conversations tend to be brief: It’s difficult enough to run and breathe at 8,000-14,000 feet, let alone try to talk.

There’s a strange code to this group: During a run, they are runners first and friends second. Often runners don’t even say “hi” when they pass one another. Sweating and breathing hard, they blow by, gunning for the next runner up the trail.

“It’s become a race on Sun- days,” said Cindy O’Neill, who won the women’s division of the ascent in August and placed third in the marathon the next day. “People don’t run with you; they run past you.”

O’Neill is drawn to the club for the competitive edge it gives her. After covering every segment of the Barr Trail last year, O’Neill knew what to expect during the ascent and marathon.

At least one member doesn’t think the social aspect of running as a club has to be put on hold.

“I talk a lot when I run, even if it’s hard,” said Lynn Hellenga, the 21st woman to finish the Pikes Peak Ascent last year. “Matt yells at me sometimes: ’You’re not running hard enough if you can still talk.’”

O’Neill said she likes the club because it draws the best out of her, and rain or shine, she knows other runners will be there.

A workout has never been canceled because of weather — the Incline Club once convened when the temperature with wind chill factor was 13 degrees below zero.

This is a source of pride and amusement for members.

“It’s a social way to hurt,” said Yvonne Franceschini, who saw her Pikes Peak Ascent time drop from four hours and 20 minutes to 3:39:00 in her first full year of training with the group. “It’s fun to get to see other people suffering with you.”

On a club run, suffering and fun are oddly synonymous.

“The majority of the people are there not for games. They want to improve their times,” said Rick Hessek, who finished the past 10 Pikes Peak Ascents and last year won the men’s 30-34 age group in both the ascent and marathon. “When we take off, it’s time to run. Afterward, it becomes social.”

Carpenter keeps track of the club on his Web page (www.skyrunner.com. The only timed workout is the hike/run up the incline, but everyone who shows up for a run gets a star on the workout board.

Hessek once showed up for a Sunday run the day after a hard 25-mile race. He didn’t even think about skipping the Incline Club.

“It’s just like missing a class — you get behind,” Hessek said. “If you miss one, you feel like you missed a good workout.”

Other runners may help spur motivation

Everyone is welcome to join the Incline Club , but not everyone will enjoy their workouts. Runners who expect to have someone to joke around with during their long runs usually go home disappointed and don’t return.

A new runner must be confident, because it’s easy, even on a good day, to end up at the back of the pack.

Hessek has been there. When the Incline Club had five members, he was the slowest every week.

“A lot of people don’t go because they feel slow,” said Franceschini, who is dating Carpenter. “I said, the heck with it. If I’m slow, I’m slow.”

She was the last finisher her first time up the incline in 45:44. But she figured she wouldn’t get any faster by missing the runs. Her incline times keep dropping, down to a best of 28:08 last year.

Incline Club runners inspire one another. Some are motivated by watching how easily Carpenter, considered the best mountain runner in the world, runs up hills. They also are motivated by 62- year-old Glen Ash.

“I’ve always admired Glen,” Hessek said.

“He’s not the fastest guy, but he’s pretty good. I’m always going, ’I hope I can do that when I’m older.’”

Last year, Ash completed the Pikes Peak Ascent in 3:19:51, good for 99th place among the 1,008 male finishers. He has finished a dozen ascents, including one in 3:02:00, and is training for another.

It doesn’t bother Ash that runners in their 20s, 30s and 40s are motivated by him, but it doesn’t excite him either.

“I don’t even think about it,” Ash said of the age difference. “They probably think about it. To me, they’re just runners.”

Club always has room for additional runners

At 5:30 p.m. Thursdays, the runners meet at the Iron Spring near the Cog Railway Depot for hill workouts — and every fourth Thursday for the incline run. Starting at 8 a.m. Sundays, they do their long runs of 15-20 hilly miles.

Soon, the group will carpool up the Pikes Peak Highway on Sundays to tackle the upper part of Barr Trail.

The largest run has been 39 people, and more than 120 people receive the club ’s weekly e-mail. There’s room for more, Carpenter said. In fact, if the group became much larger, he’d modify the workout rather than turn people away.

“It’s not an elite club, but at every ability level we attract dedicated athletes,” Carpenter said. “Even the slow groups are people who are dedicated. What I like is not that an individual can go out and win a race, but that he or she is running as hard as possible.”

Ironically, as the Incline Club has grown, members spend less time on the incline. Carpenter said the group has cut back on incline use to lessen impact on the incline and because there are better ways to build speed.

“The incline is a great workout, but it’s not that conducive to being fast,” Carpenter said.

Last Valentine’s Day, it was conducive to building the reputation of a club that’s called crazy — an image somewhat deserved.

“We meet for two very hard runs,” Carpenter said. “We don’t meet for easy, social runs.”

Todd Burgess may be reached at 636-0257 or (e-mail address removed from www posting to prevent spam).

Copyright © 1998-1999, The Gazette


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