With 75 miles behind him and 25 more to go, Jack Slater moved like a mountain goat along a dark and narrow trail in the Angeles National Forest.
"I could just drop right here, if I weren't on some sort of a quest," the 44-year-old Pasadena resident said, breaking the rhythm of his measured breathing as sweat beaded on his gray-bearded face. "I got whole mountains to go over now."
Sixteen hours earlier, Slater, along with 116 other men and 13 women, had begun the Angeles Crest 100-mile Endurance Run, which experts consider one of the toughest running events of its kind in the world.
The runners left the starting line in the San Bernardino County town of Wrightwood at 5 a.m. Saturday, headed toward their destination: Pasadena's Rose Bowl.
Thigh muscles aching and stomach ferociously upset, Slater jogged steadily uphill Saturday night as his flashlight illuminated the dangers of rocks, roots, rattlesnakes and cliffs in the San Gabriel Mountains.
Beyond the silhouettes of the mile-high ridges north of the San Gabriel Valley, stars formed an exquisite canopy. Insects chorused as Slater's sweaty, dirty running shoes marked the journey step by step.
Welcome to the rarefied world of the most "ultra" of the ultra-marathons.
Unlike the shorter yet far more celebrated marathons of Los Angeles, Boston or New York, no Mercedes Benzes or fat prize-money checks awaited these very long-distance runners. Instead, they received only the cheers, hugs and kisses of a small crowd of friends and family at the finish line. Runners received a plaque, a commemorative T-shirt and hat, and, if they finished in less than 24 hours, a sterling silver belt buckle.
Still, the runners--who came from around the United States and Europe to run the Angeles Crest--said there is the challenge of doing something very few people can do. Accounting for all the ups and downs, race organizers have calculated that the course is the equivalent of Himalayan peaks: 21,610 feet in ascent and 26,700 feet in descent.
"Why do you climb a mountain? Why do you sail around the world single-handedly? It's the challenge," said Ken Hamada, a 51-year-old aerospace engineer from Arcadia.
Six years ago, after jogging transformed him from an overweight smoker, he founded the Angeles Crest, now among nine 100-mile trail contests in the nation, stretching from Vermont and Virginia to Colorado and California.
"The L.A. marathon, the Boston marathon. They're very normal now for people to run," Hamada said. "But this is a 'man bites dog' kind of thing."
Sunday, inside the medical tent just south of the Rose Bowl, a half-dozen runners lounged on cots, swapping race stories and drinking beer and soft drinks as they waited for friends to finish.
"In a marathon, there are 5,000 or 10,000 people. The gun goes off. Nobody talks to anybody. You get your award and there's no post-race catharsis," said Wendell Robison, a 39-year-old internist from Sheridan, Wyo. In the last five years, he has completed 23 of the mountain "100-milers." "I really enjoy ultras because of the camaraderie."
Robison finished in less than 29 hours, 38th among the 85 who finally made it within the 33-hour limit by 2 p.m. Sunday.
The first-place man, 45-year-old Jussi Hamalainen of Agoura Hills, arrived shortly after 1 a.m. Sunday, 20 hours and nearly 13 minutes after he began. The top woman finisher, 38-year-old Vicki DeVita of Acton, took 23 hours and 46 minutes, arriving at 4:46 a.m. Sunday and placing 10th overall.
At aid stations along the way, where teams of 700 volunteers tended to runners and where personal pacers often met runners to accompany them partway, participants had gotten food and drink, and some even slept a bit.
In the medical tent at the race's end, Toni Stermolle, a 39-year-old urban planner from Apple Valley, massaged her swollen ankle and blistered feet. With her free hand, she ate a frozen ice bar.
"When you're running for that hard that long," she said, "you have one problem after another."
In 27th place, she came in four hours behind the first woman finisher.
When Slater, the operator of a landscaping business, started the race, he had hoped to place close to Hamalainen and at least among the top 10, as he had five times before.
But stomach queasiness never left him. Two hours before daybreak Sunday, he loped into view by the Rose Bowl. His image lit by the street lights, he crossed an expanse of soccer fields and trudged under the finish line.
He kissed his girlfriend, Katy Daunis, and acknowledged the dozen well-wishers at the finish line.
"Boy," he said, "that was tough."