Richard Provost had been running through the Angeles National Forest since 5 a.m. Saturday. He had set out in the cold and dark with 60 other runners and now, more than 21 hours and 97 miles later, the breathtaking sunrise and the beautiful sunset were memories. It was cold and dark again.
He had left the other runners behind--some had given up at the early aid stations and some were still dragging themselves up and down the grueling mountain trails. Provost had a big lead, and he was taking it easy over the last miles, running alongside the fresh pacer who was there to help him find the yellow tape that marked the last turns through the foothills and would guide him out of the woods and onto the streets of Pasadena.
He knew he was just minutes from a triumphant finish on the grassy picnic grounds outside the Rose Bowl. His girlfriend and son and a handful of ultramarathon aficionados would be there to celebrate his victory in the first Angeles Crest Endurance Run--his first 100-mile victory.
But those last few miles seemed to drag. And not because of exhaustion. He kept checking his watch and wondering why he was still in the woods. Why were the last miles taking so long?
Finally, while making his way up another steep grade that he thought should not be there, he asked his pacer, Tom Galbreath, to backtrack and be sure that they had not missed a turn. Meanwhile, he continued up the trail.
About five minutes later, Galbreath came sprinting back, shouting that he was off course and that another runner had taken the lead.
Provost retraced his steps, found his way out of the woods, and stepped up his pace. He passed his training buddy, Jack Slater, with a little more than a mile to go. He kept up that pace and won in 21 hours 52 minutes, seven minutes ahead of Slater.
While Provost hugged his girlfriend and calmly announced, "I feel great. I'm just fine," Galbreath was surrounded by race officials eager to know where he and Provost had been for the last half-hour.
There were aid stations and spotters set up all along the trail, and at each checkpoint, radio operators were reporting runners' progress to headquarters of the Sierra Madre search-and-rescue team, which was charting the progress by computer.
Provost had left the Millard campground at 1:11 a.m. and was reported to be running strong. When it got to be 2:25 and he still hadn't come off that mountain trail, there was cause for concern.
Like a blip disappearing from a radar screen, Provost had disappeared from the computer printout.
Galbreath, sweating, panting and shaking his head, could not explain just how it had happened, but he said that they had missed a marker and missed a turn.
He added in a tone of disbelief: "He's amazing. He ran an extra 20 minutes, at least, and he still won. He had to come from behind after all that. He ran the last mile at a six-minute pace.
"I don't know how he did it."
It was hard to believe that the 40-year-old corporate banker from San Pedro who was standing there on steady legs, needing just a minute or two to catch his breath and not even looking for a place to sit down, had just run more than 100 miles.
He was getting quite a welcome from his family and his fellow Point Fermin Flyers, people who were relieved to see that he had not, after all, tumbled over a cliff, wandered off in a daze of exhaustion, been eaten by a bear or been shot by a deer hunter.
But it really wasn't much of a welcome for someone who had just completed such an awesome feat. The first runner to complete 26 miles 385 yards over the streets of Boston each year is greeted by cheering crowds, hordes of reporters and smiling corporate sponsors.
Provost ran more than 75 miles farther and was greeted by one reporter, one photographer and a "crowd" of people he could call by name, all standing in the light produced by one portable generator and the headlights of cars and campers turned on to light the finish.
The Rose Bowl itself was dark and silent. Earlier in the evening, 48,000 football fans had gathered at that sports monument to watch UCLA beat Cal State Long Beach. Now, even the grounds crew had left and all was deserted, save for the little camp-like area where a radio truck and a couple of tents marked the end of the runners' trail.
As Slater came into view, finally visible through the darkness when he was about 50 yards away, Provost politely stepped aside to give Slater a clear finish line for his big moment, and then he came forward to give Slater a hug of congratulations for finishing his first 100-mile endurance run.
Slater appeared to be as sound as Provost and they stood there, casually comparing notes and chatting about the run as if it has been a Sunday morning bird-watching excursion.
Slater finally agreed to accept a lawn chair and something to drink. Provost went to put on some warmer clothes.
So why aren't these runners about four times more exhausted than marathon runners? Why no swoons at the finish line? No rubbery-legged staggers? No vacant stares?
"It's simply a matter of conditioning," Provost said, simply stating the bottom line the way one would expect a corporate banker to do. "I love to run up there. It's beautiful up there. I run 35 to 40 miles at a time in training runs. I'm used to the ups and downs.
"The first runners in are always in the best shape. There are plenty of runners out there right now, either sleeping at aid stations or sliding down hills on their backsides, who are really struggling.
"That's a very difficult course."
The course covered 85 miles of mountain trails, 10 miles of dirt roads and 5 miles of paved road stretching from Wrightwood, through the Angeles National Forest to the Rose Bowl. In a sense, the run was downhill, losing more than 5,000 feet in altitude. But that included a lot of ups and downs--ups totaling 19,100 feet and downs totaling 24,230 feet.
Ken Hamada, the race organizer, is a veteran ultramarathoner himself. He's an engineer from Arcadia who trains in the Angeles National Forest.
Hamada wanted the course to be challenging, but he was more interested in making it aesthetically attractive for the same reasons that distance training is attractive to these older professionals. The packet of information that he mailed to competitors included not just mileage and topographical maps, but descriptions of the trails and points of historic interest along the way.
"To be able to finish one of these monsters, you have to train for six months, running 100 to 200 miles a week," Hamada said. "But it's not dog work because you're not running around a track or on the streets, just counting miles. You run in woods and it's a personal experience. You hear birds and see deer and drink from mountain streams. You run along a trail and you go somewhere.
"Some of the other races are run in a loop or multiple loops--which makes it much easier to set up. That way you can use the same marked trails, the same checkpoints and the same volunteers several times. But I know that the runners get a greater sense of accomplishment if they run from one point to another point."
Ultramarathons are relatively new, although six-day races date back to the 19th Century in England.
The standard marathon distance is no longer a challenge to runners who want more of an endurance test than an outright race. There are several 50-mile runs and 100-kilometer--62-mile--runs. And there are unique distance runs, such as a 54-mile run through the Santa Monica Mountains and a 72-mile run at Lake Tahoe.
But 100-mile runs are really catching on. There are annual runs in June in West Virginia, in July in the Sierra foothills, in August at Leadville, Colo., and in early September in Utah.
The biggest is the Western States in the Sierra foothills, which has been run since 1975 and now gets 3,000 applications for the 300 available openings.
Hamada said: "That race really gained popularity after it was on the 'Wide World of Sports.' For that race, they have to have a lottery. For the 1987 race, which will be run next June, the lottery closes in November."
Which leads Hamada to the conclusion that there is need for another ultramarathon in these western states. The plan is to establish this race as the fifth major endurance run in the country.
Hamada drew 69 entries for his first Angeles Crest run, which he said was encouraging. He is expecting 130 to 300 next year.
Robin Doyno, a member of Provost's running club, predicts that the Angeles Crest run "absolutely" will catch on.
"The course is beautiful," Doyno said. "It's demanding, but it's within reach. It's a quality race that went very well for a first-time thing.
"I think runners look for the challenge, the beauty of the course, the dependability of the aid station and a serious, non-exploitive race director."
Hamada lost several thousand dollars this time, which he expected. But if the race grows, with runners paying entry fees of $100 each, a race can be a money maker.
Doyno expects more and more people to join the ranks of ultramarathoners, noting: "This isn't a crank, fad event. It's not like the marathon dances of the '30s. These are well-conditioned athletes."
Most ultramarathoners are in their late 30s or early 40s.
As Hamada put it: "The ultra-marathon attracts professional people, successful people who like to challenge themselves. They're 30 years old or older. They've fulfilled their vocational dreams, have their mortgages under control and are looking for something else. They've been running marathons for 5 to 10 years, and they're looking for more of a challenge.
"It's like asking why a mountain climber wants to climb the seven peaks on seven continents. To run 100 miles is quite a satisfying accomplishment."
Satisfying it may be, but is it a good idea? Has this health and fitness craze reached the point of unhealthy fanaticism?
Dr. James Puffer of the UCLA school of medicine, who will be the U.S. Olympic team doctor at Seoul, chuckled a little when asked if a 100-mile run was a healthy thing to do.
"Well, I'd say the race itself is not tremendously beneficial to the body," he said. "Anyone who finishes a race like that is going to need some recovery time.
"They'll be sore, and there will be some inflammation of the joints. That kind of a run is quite a stress on the muscular-skeletal system. There will be some tissue degeneration in the muscles.
"Along the way, they will have to guard against hypothermia (subnormal body temperature) and hypoglycemia (abnormally low blood sugar).
"But from what I understand, these runs are well covered from the medical standpoint.
"The runners who attempt something like this are very experienced athletes who know the risks, and the ones who finish will be very well-conditioned athletes who have prepared their bodies for this kind of stress."
Puffer acknowledges the mental challenge of the ultramarathon and the overall physical benefit of the months of conditioning. But he said the 100-mile ordeal itself isn't something that should be done too often.
"I'm not adamantly opposed to such a run," Puffer said. "Not at all. But you have to realize that we're talking about a very elite, very specialized group of athletes who have properly prepared themselves and who know how to take care of themselves along the way."
That includes eating at every aid station on the route to maintain the proper level of blood sugar, and it includes taking layers of clothing on and off as the terrain and the climate change so that there is not an excessive loss of body heat.
There were doctors and nurses from Orthopaedic Hospital at some of the aid stations, and runners were weighed-in to see that there was not excessive weight loss. They were checked to see if they were lucid and strong enough to continue.
Better to stop a runner against his will at an aid station than to send out the Sierra Madre search-and-rescue crews.
Provost agrees that the key to ultramarathons is not just conditioning, but taking care of yourself along the way.
He learned the value of chicken noodle soup after seeing how he could run out of gas by not eating during the Western States run. He suddenly had no energy and dropped from No. 6 to No. 25 in less than three hours. The next time out, five cans of chicken noodle soup kept him going.
Inexperienced runners rush through the checkpoints to try to pick up a few minutes. But this is a race more suited to the tortoise than the hare.
Before the race, Jussi Hamalainen of Finland was considered the biggest challenger to Provost. Provost said: "He was pushing me early. He was right with me. He's a very good runner. But this was his first 100 and he didn't pace himself and he didn't eat enough. That's just lack of experience. He'll learn."
Hamalainen finished third. In all, 36 runners completed the 100 miles, including two women, Sheila Hasham and Jeannie Wood.
Provost gave credit to his support group, which included his girlfriend, Terry, and his son, Brian. They met him at all the checkpoints that had accessible roads, and they carried loads of food.
"This was the first time I didn't burn out," Provost said. "I have been known to run out of fuel.
"I'm also known for getting lost. That's cost me in several runs. I've won a few trailblazer awards. This wasn't the first time."