Stunning revelations at high elevations: Runners experience life on the edge by pushing their bodies to the limit on the grueling Crater Lake course
August 11, 2002
By DANI DODGE
CRATER LAKE NATIONAL PARK — As the sun sent its first rays dancing onto the azure glass of Crater Lake, 51-year-old Mike Shiach tore himself away from the view to join 300 others at the start of the Crater Lake Rim Run.
It was his 23rd marathon, but still furrows of worry formed above his wire-rim glasses.
“What did I get myself into?” asked the bearded, stay-at-home dad from Bainbridge Wash. “I’ve never run one this high.”
Running at 7,850 feet above sea level is part of the beauty and the brutality the Crater Lake Rim Run — a race many marathoners Saturday were calling the toughest race of their lives.
The high elevation means less oxygen. Less oxygen means less energy to the muscles. And less energy to the muscles means what would usually be a walk in the park becomes a lifetime on the road.
On top of that, there is the road itself: a 26.2-mile course with miles of steep climbs followed by miles of severe downgrades.
“When you go uphill for that long, your muscles tend to tense up, but if you are able to change from up to down more often, they are more apt to relax,” said Margie Retterath, 45, of Klamath Falls, who was vigorously trying to shake out balled up calf muscles at the end of the run. “It does the same thing going downhill because you are pounding … your muscles get really hard and tensed up.”
It’s a punishment that is a testament to tenacity.
Retterath woke up Saturday with severe diarrhea. Only a few miles into the run, she stopped. And started to walk back.
“I didn’t think I would be able to do it,” the CPA said. “I was in pain.”
But another runner asked her what she thought she was doing. He urged her to get to the next aid station. When she hesitated, he walked her there. Once there, she downed cup after cup of Gatorade.
“That’s one of the neat things about marathons,” Retterath said. “Everyone is willing to help.”
Retterath took first in the women’s marathon division.
“These are hard-core people who put up with this type of course,” said Richard Benyo, the editor of Marathon and Beyond, a national magazine published in Champaign, Ill. “Between the extreme uphill and downhill, it’s a bear of a course.”
But it wasn’t just a race for people who crave 26.2 miles of pain. More than 300 people — ages 10 to 77 — participated in four different races Saturday: a 6.7-mile walk, a 6.7-mile run, a 13-mile run and the marathon.
And even Gretchen Williber, a 64-year-old Bend resident leaning on a walking stick and bringing up the rear, enjoyed herself.
“I got up at 3 a.m. to be here,” she said. “I knew I would be behind; I’m 64 with a broken leg.”
In fact, she’d only gotten her cast off four weeks ago. Several dozen walkers in front of her was 72-year-old Ira Stanley from Tule Lake, Calif., who has been doing the race 22 years. He used to run the marathon, but now walks the 6.7 mile and talks about a knee operation he should have.
There was a couple rolling their 5-month-old baby in a stroller. There were groups of jog-walkers jiggling their hips up the hills. And then there were the marathoners, including 19-year-old John Dodge of Ashland who stopped at viewpoints along the way to take pictures of the scenery with a cheap, disposable camera.
And as the sightseers and stragglers hobbled up the hill, 13-year-old Josh Lytle, of Newberg, was eating watermelon at the 6.7-mile finish line. He finished 16th despite painful knees.
The boy, with a chlorine-bleached blond buzz cut, said he and his family planned to spend the rest of the day fishing and hiking.
“The funnest thing about the race is finishing because you know your done,” he said. “And the rest of the day will be awesome.”
Stephen Siegel, 29, of Sacramento, Calif., was first to finish the 13-mile “half-marathon.”
“My sister lives in Bend, and she said Crater Lake has to be seen,” the probation officer said. “She was right. I’m glad this was on a road and not on a trail because I would have been tripping all over the place looking at the lake and mountains.”
He was followed by Laurie Greenberg, 27, of Chester, Vt., the female winner of the half-marathon. Coming in 64th was park superintendent Chuck Lundy, doing the half-marathon for the second time.
“It really slows you down and allows you to see (the park) in slow motion,” Lundy said. “Until you get so tired you can’t watch the lake.”
But Gunnar Rethfeldt, a 32-year-old financial analyst from Germany who is currently living in Portland, wasn’t slowed much by terrain, altitude or beauty. Screaming “Yeah!” and running through a finish line ribbon set up between two lodgepole pines, he ran the marathon in less than three hours.
He said the difficult conditions added about 20 minutes to his normal time. The secret was staying slow and steady throughout the race, rather than speeding up at the beginning, where the hills aren’t so steep.
“And I took the time to notice the beauty,” he said. “That’s the difference between this marathon and city marathons — you’re not cruising so fast you can’t enjoy nature.”
An hour-and-a-half later, Shiach crossed that same wooded finish line. He was so exhausted he couldn’t talk. He was beset by nausea and weakness even a half-hour after his finish.
“The first 22 miles aren’t so bad, but after that I was dead,” Shiach said. “Normally I recover faster, but not this time. I’m from sea level.”
Reach reporter Dani Dodge at 776-4471, or e-mail email@example.com