Steve Patt lumbered out of the San Gabriel Mountains in a pair of mud-caked athletic shoes Sunday to accomplish one of the most daunting feats in sports: the completion of a 100-mile trail race.
Yet there were no TV cameras or pompoms to greet him as he crossed the finish line of the Angeles Crest 100 Mile Endurance Run in Pasadena. Only a smattering of applause from a laid-back crowd, a handshake from a race official and the promise of a commemorative belt buckle awaited him.
Patt's wife, Deborah, accidentally missed his big finish and asked him re-create it so she could shoot some video. He complied. Then the 55-year-old plopped into a camping chair and opened a Pepsi.
"What a stud," Deborah said of her husband, who placed 46th.
For a moment the impossible seemed ordinary, a moment repeated many times Sunday as 63 runners trickled onto a secluded baseball field to finish what many aficionados consider to be one of the most punishing courses in the world of long-distance running.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday September 22, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 33 words Type of Material: Correction
Endurance Run -- A photo caption with an article in Monday's California section about the Angeles Crest 100 Mile Endurance Run misidentified one of the finishers, Bob Adjemian of Hollywood, as Mark Ryan.
The race started at 5 a.m. Saturday in the mountain town of Wrightwood. The competitors paid between $180 and $280 to run in the relentless sun and the inky dark, battling muscle cramps, poison oak and even depression.
They scrambled down shale mountainsides and clambered up steep switchbacks, gaining 21,610 cumulative feet that included a climb to the top of Mt. Baden-Powell, the second-highest peak in the San Gabriels.
The physical demands of the race were so great, competitors faced the possibility of severe dehydration and renal failure, as well as threats from predatory animals such as mountain lions and black bears, whose snarling likenesses were included in pre-race information packets.
Organizers said 21 people dropped out, including an experienced female runner who was hospitalized after passing out around mile 50.
"You don't run this for ego," said Patt, a Cupertino resident who has run one other 100-mile race. "You run it because you enjoy running trails -- and you get to run on them for a long time."
The race, in its 18th year, used to conclude outside the Rose Bowl, adding some grandeur to the finale. But organizers had to move the finish line in 1992 to make room for a Guns N' Roses concert.
Since then, crew members, friends and fellow runners have gathered on an anonymous spot near the Jet Propulsion Laboratory to cheer on the finishers, tend to their blisters and offer them plates of carbohydrates.
Veteran runner Ronda Sundermeier, 38, said the intimate reception is well-suited to endurance running, a sport whose brutal physical realities require a commitment to personal goals, leaving little room for hoopla.
"All of the 100-mile races are like that," said Sundermeier, who finished in just over 26 hours, the second-best female time.
"Crossing the finish line, you're elated, but you're so exhausted and ready for it to be over that you're not over-hyped like you are in a marathon."
The universe of athletes with the ability to cover 100 miles straight is small, and many of the runners here have known each other for years. The bonds can be strong: After hours of running side by side with someone, Sundermeier said, "You really see them at their rawest."
Most tackle the course with a combination of running and hiking. Sunday morning, a few came gasping and wobbling toward the finish line. Others strode across confidently, shook a few hands, then sauntered off for a beer or soda.
The level of emotion also varied.
Federico Fuentes crossed the finish line in 37th place, with a time of 28:28:18. Fuentes is a member of the Tarahumara, a tribe from the Mexican state of Chihuahua whose members' distance running skills are legendary: Some say they once hunted deer by chasing them until the animals collapsed of fatigue.
The 34-year-old traversed all 100 miles of the race in homemade huarache sandals. As he neared the finish, he was greeted by a joyous yelp from a few fellow Tarahumara Indians who had come to watch him run, as well as a group of Californians who sponsored his trip.
Later, wrapped in a blanket, Fuentes described his motivation with a single Spanish word: orgullo, or pride.
Runner Jerry Bloom, 51, cruised in about two hours later, looking calm and fit. He received a polite round of applause and instructions on where to have his post-race photo taken.
A few minutes later, more than 30 hours after embarking on the race, Bloom couldn't stop smiling -- he attributed that to an intense endorphin high.
But this was his 13th 100-mile race in five years, and he was eager to get home to Shingle Springs, about 40 miles east of Sacramento, to get his pets out of the kennel.
The winner of the race, Los Angeles machine operator Jorge Pacheco, had crossed the finish line just after midnight, when attendance was sparse. His time for the course was 19 hours, 10 minutes, 47 seconds.
By afternoon, the crowd had grown to well over 100.
The most fevered cheering came as the last runners limped and hobbled toward the finish line. Any who failed to cross by 2 p.m. -- the 33rd hour -- would have been disqualified.
Ulrich Kamm, 57, was the last across, collapsing in a heap and sobbing in the arms of his wife. He had made the deadline with less than five minutes to spare. Kamm turned his head, saw the finish line behind him, and complained that he had gone two yards too far.
The crowd laughed, and the timekeeper yelled that this year's race was officially over.