Thursday, July 14, 2005

Silverton Ultramarathon

When I was in high school I thought I might want to do something like this one day. Now I have different dreams.

Now, I'd be one of those who doesn't see the point of risking one's life for sport. But there are some appealing aspects to it, too - the accomplishment, the beauty, the spirituality that can be involved in a task like this.

"No one is in greater state of loss, is viler, or is lower than the person who does not believe what his Lord has guaranteed for him and allotted him before He created him. In spite of that, this person relies on his own strength, management, effort and striving and goes beyond the limits of his Lord by seeking ways and means which Allah swt has caused him to have no need of." - Imam Sadiq (as)

I can see that sometimes in sport, in ruthless capitalism, etc. People assume they accomplish things themselves and have power they don't have and they use it wasteful pursuits or in monetary gain at the expense of others, etc.

Jul 14, 12:13 AM EDT
OUT THERE: Mountain-filled ultramarathon pushes the limits of body and mind

AP Sports Writer

SILVERTON, Colo. (AP) -- The legs come in wobbly, weary and occasionally sturdy, many striped with scrapes and scratches, most caked in dirt. The faces are contorted in pain or glowing with joy, most raining sweat, some streaming tears.

The shoulders tell a story, too, drooping from exhaustion or thrust back in pride, each rolling to a different cadence.

But the eyes are where the truth of The Hardrock Hundred lies.

Narrowed in determination, never wavering from the finish line, the eyes of those who finish the Hardrock are like portals into the soul of someone searching for a higher spiritual plane through physical and emotional exhaustion. Getting to that finish line is the only verification they need to know it's worth the anguish.

"I've always sort of thought that at Hardrock you sort of live your entire life in a single day," said Roch Horton, a five-time finisher. "You'll be the happiest you'll ever be in your entire life, whenever that was, here at Hardrock. And the most ragged, lowdown, just desperate, decrepit, degenerate, sore - you're going to feel that, too, in one day, all in one continuous experience.

"I don't know anything quite like this."

Because there isn't.

There are plenty of 100-mile races and many are in the mountains, but few match the Hardrock's brutality.

Steeper, over more rugged terrain and at a higher altitude than any other ultramarathon, the Hardrock is a diabolical combination of physical fitness, mountaineering, wilderness navigation, stamina and willpower.

The race starts here in Silverton at 9,305 feet and climbs from there, covering nearly 66,000 feet of elevation change - 32,992 up and the same distance down. There are 13 passes of at least 12,000 feet - 14,048-foot Handies Peak is the high point - and much of the course is above timberline, on the bare rock (and snow) of the southern Colorado Rockies.

The runners run, walk, crawl and sometimes limp along cliffs, through forests, over avalanche debris and snowfields, across fast-moving creeks and rivers, and up slopes that would give mountain goats fits.

Think of it as a stage in the Tour de France, only there's 13 straight Category 1 passes, all in little over a day, all on foot.

"When you're 56 miles into a race, are you really happy?" asked Karl Meltzer, who won this year's race in 28 hours, 29 minutes. "You kind of are, if you're feeling good. If you aren't, you're feeling miserable."

The race begins at 6 a.m. with a gym full of alpha personalities smiling, joking and taking pictures. After a few hugs and kisses and plenty of pats on the back, the runners take off down the gravel streets of Silverton as dawn glows off the craggy snow-speckled peaks, then breaks over the Animas River Valley.

But serenity has a short shelf life at the Hardrock.

After clearing the outskirts of town and a short jaunt along the river, the race course punches the runners in the gut with a seven-mile, 4,000-foot climb to Dives-Little Giant Pass. The runners descend 2,000 feet from there, go up to Buffalo Boy Ridge at 13,000 feet and do it over and over again until sanity starts to fizzle in the thin air.

"Pretty soon there's these little demons starting to crawl all over you telling you, 'You really don't have to do this, just quit right now,'" Horton said. "Then the sun is coming up and you get a little energy from that, and then the stomach starts to go and you realize you still have a marathon to go. That's when your head really starts playing tricks on you."

How difficult is the Hardrock? The race manual warns runners that the course is "DANGEROUS." Half the field usually "bonks" out before the finish, including 54 of 125 this year - 30 before the halfway point.

Meltzer, a three-time winner and the course record holder, has failed to finish twice. Even race founder Gordon Hardman, who's completed nearly three dozen 100-milers, has quit six of the 13 times he's started, including this year.

"The thing to do is to quit before you die. That's always the smart move," said Hardman, who twice had to be taken to the hospital during the race.

The race has produced its share of broken fingers and arms from falls, plenty of runners have passed out from exhaustion and rapid-fire vomiting is not unusual.

There's also a problem with sleep depravation, particularly for those who need the full two days to complete the course, meaning runners might have to decide if that's really an elk in a cowboy hat or just a hallucination.

But the biggest dangers come from dehydration and elevation sickness.

One of the keys to finishing the Hardrock is making sure to take in enough fluids, which isn't always as easy as it seems. There are 14 checkpoints and runners are loaded down with water bottles and hydration backpacks, but there still have been a few cases of kidney failure.

Then there's the altitude. A combination of hypoxia - lack of oxygen in tissue - and leaking capillaries can cause swelling of hands and feet, and some faces puff up to the point that the runners appear to be having an allergic reaction.

Exertion in extreme altitudes also can cause irritation in the airways and lead to pulmonary edema (fluid in the lungs), a potentially fatal condition that reduces oxygen intake and can lead to respiratory failure. At least two or three runners are treated for pulmonary edema each year and a handful have been airlifted from the course.

No one has died while running the Hardrock - one runner died two days after the 1998 race because of a brain aneurysm - and the biggest danger comes from lightning strikes on the peaks.

"There's a huge physical burden," Horton said. "It's very tough to get around this course regardless how you do it. Whether you're the first place or the last place, everyone's suffering equally."

A link to history makes the pain worth it.

The course loops through the four mining towns of the San Juan Mountains - Silverton, Lake City, Ouray and Telluride - winding past huge piles of unproductive rock, old smelters and mining camps along the same trails miners and burros used to carry loads of gold and silver over the jagged passes.

Though the tipples and chutes are empty now, the runners feel a sort of kinship with the Old West miners, almost as if ghosts are pushing them to finish the Hardrock.

"It blows my mind that the miners at the turn of the century were carrying giant loads over the same passes we're doing for sport," Horton said. "For them, it was a way to keep their family fed and I have a huge respect for this town and all these little trails and roads and all the history that goes with it.

"It's sort of an honor just to be out there to celebrate that heritage."


On the Net:

© 2005 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

Sunday, July 10, 2005

planting the seed - the legacy of the venetuccis lives on

fyi: the venetucci farm is less than one mile from my house. Everyone here has wonderful childhood memories of the Venetuccis and their generosity - not just this little community here, but everyone who grew up in the whole city.

July 10, 2005

Nick Venetucci


Toward the end, developers would call Nick and Bambi Venetucci regularly, trying to persuade them to sell their 190-acre farm and its water rights.

“Golf courses, strip malls, condos. Those guys wanted to build all kinds of crap here,” said Mac Mackenzie, 80, who worked the farm in Security for decades.

Many people who loved the farm feared the Venetuccis, who had no heirs, would sell. The couple stopped planting pumpkins in 2002. After Nick died in September 2004 at age 93, it seemed like selling was only a matter of time.

But the farm isn’t for sale. The pumpkins are coming back.

To the couple who invited thousands of local children to their farm every fall, the acreage wasn’t mere land to be bought and sold. It was a legacy they hoped could be carried on somehow, by someone.

In 2003, with characteristic humility, the couple that always shied away from public thankyous and awards quietly called the Pikes Peak Community Foundation and arranged for the local philanthropic organization to take control of the farm. Eventually, the land will be placed in a conservation easement, planting the seeds that ensure the farm will be around forever.

This spring, the foundation’s caretaker sowed pumpkins and corn so Nick and Bambi Venetucci’s legacy could sprout again.

“I have total faith and trust in what they’re doing,” said Bambi Venetucci, 76.

The Venetuccis, both lifelong Catholics, also gave 35 acres to the Diocese of Colorado Springs.

Protecting the farm was an unusual move in sprawling Colorado Springs, which often acts as its own Vesuvius, willingly burying the region’s heritage in sudden eruptions of housing and retail space.

But Nick and Bambi Venetucci had sacrificed too much to see their spread wither. Both grew up the children of Italian immigrant coal miners.

Nick’s parents, Nicholas and Marguerita Venetucci, eventually scraped together enough money for a small farm near what is now Fillmore Street and Nevada Avenue. In 1936, they moved to the bigger place in Security.

To help the family, Nick gave up a promising career as a baseball catcher to work on the farm during the Depression. He labored on that earth with his hands for almost 70 years. His father died in the fields in 1961, and Nick carried him on his back to the house.

Not long before his father died, Nick started giving away the pumpkins that would make him a household name in the region. In the 1950s, the way he told the story, he was driving a load of pumpkins down Tejon Street and just started handing them out to every kid he saw.

Later, schoolchildren started coming to his pumpkin patch. He let every child pick out a free pumpkin. He probably gave away more than a million pumpkins.

Bambi Venetucci, who is legally blind, was a teacher at the Colorado School for the Deaf and the Blind. She married Nick in 1984 after a 27-year courtship. She would direct the lines of school buses bringing kids every October.

Bambi Venetucci - she wrote an autobiography about growing up blind out here in the 1920's and 30's.

The couple stopped planting pumpkins because of drought and Nick Venetucci’s age, but they always wanted their land to remain a working farm.

“Nick would get tears in his eyes when he even mentioned that his farm might not be around after him,” said Michael Hannigan, the foundation’s director. “That’s why he approached us. Now we want to make sure every day, in every decision we make, that we make him proud.”


The Pikes Peak Community Foundation has never taken on such a project.

Until this winter, when Bambi Venetucci broke her hip and moved off the farm, the 9-year-old foundation had focused mainly on managing endowments and investing money for other nonprofits.

“I don’t know squat about farming,” said Hannigan, “so we had to learn from the best.”

Hannigan knew Bambi Venetucci would be the key to learning all the quirks and traditions of the farm, but first he had to find a new farmer.

He didn’t look far. The foundation’s office manager, Amy Sue Lambert, said she and her husband, Tim, who grew up on a soybean and turkey farm in Minnesota, could move in immediately.

“She didn’t even call me, she just said, ‘We’ll do it!’” Tim said with a chuckle on a recent afternoon while taking a break from planting pumpkins. “This was a once-in-a-lifetime chance we couldn’t pass up.”

The couple moved to the farm with their infant son, Sydney, in early April. Then Tim Lambert visited Bambi Venetucci to ask her advice. At the time, she was recovering from her broken hip in the hospital. She now lives a few miles from the farm.

How long do I irrigate? Lambert asked. What are the tricks to starting the tractors? What about handling all those kids coming for pumpkins in October?

“Don’t try to do too much in one year,” she told him. “You have plenty of time. You’ll be fine. How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.”

Tim Lambert, working on the first pumpkin patch since Nick's death.


The Venetuccis leased the farm to the foundation for 99 years. Bambi Venetucci is setting up a conservation easement for the property that will ensure its agriculture character after the lease is up.

No one can replace Nick Venetucci, Lambert is quick to say, but someone has to disk the weeds and give the seedlings water. And he doesn’t mind the idea of being the new pumpkin man. Just the mention of it spreads a warm, wide grin across his face.

Lambert graduated from Colorado College in 1992 with a degree in economics. In the late 1990s, he helped develop the first vegetable-based motor oil.

Today, his day job still involves veggiebased lubricants, as chief financial officer of Agro Management Group Inc. He works the Venetucci land in his spare time and in return lives in the old stucco farmhouse.

Drivers on U.S. Highway 85/87 can see him most afternoons walking the rows or bumping along on a tractor in a dusty white cowboy hat.

“Things are just so busy now, I’m trying to plan next week and the next 10 years,” he said.

More immediately, he has to keep the fleet of ancient tractors running. The newest one was built in 1951. On a recent visit, none would start.

“I know Nick’s up there now, laughing at me. That guy was a genius. He did so much with what he had,” Lambert said. “It’s a lot of work, I’ve already lost 20 pounds. I call it the Venetucci diet.”

This year, he planted pumpkins, sweet corn and corn for popcorn along the highway, and some clover and alfalfa to keep down the weeds in the bottom lands. Next year, he hopes to get the farm certified as organic and start a children’s garden where classes can plant vegetables and visit through the season. He also plans community gardens where locals can work in return for a share of the crops. To old-timers such as Mackenzie who have been harvesting corn and mending fences at the farm for generations, some of the organic stuff is a little odd. But he said he’s glad to see the farm preserved, and Lambert doesn’t seem like that bad of a guy.

“He’s a young farmer, he’s got a lot to learn,” Mackenzie said, “But he’ll figure it out.”

Eventually, Lambert wants to refill a few drained ponds on the property, stock them with bass and ring them with a nature trail, and possibly raise hogs again just as Nick Venetucci did years ago. The long-term goal is to make the farm self-sufficient by planting niche crops like organic edamame that Nick Venetucci probably never envisioned but bring a good price.

As the director, Hannigan has his own wish list that extends beyond the farm’s fences.

“I want kids to watch their plants grow here and maybe cook them here and learn about healthy eating. I want their kids to have the same experience, and their kids.

“I want people to meet their neighbors here. I want people to come back 100 years from now and say, ‘You know, my grandparents got married here.’

“I want this place to really make this community proud.”



The Pikes Peak Community Foundation will hold an open house at the farm 4:30-6 p.m. Tuesday. The foundation is seeking donations of farm equipment and cash as well as volunteers. A line of farm apparel will be for sale, and officials will discuss Farm Project 400, a work weekend at the farm.

For information or to donate: or 389-1251.

Saturday, July 09, 2005

The Conference, cat, tree, death, taqwa

The trip to Los Angeles

I flew out with a fellow teacher on June 30. Our hotel was called the Westin Century Plaza. One of the nights we were there there was a 1.2 million dollar pseudo-Jewish wedding. I'd never seen so many ultra-expensive cars (Rolls Royce, Astin Martin et al) or expensive dresses in my life. I noticed that all the women in that part of L.A. wear heels - stilletto heels. Even to work, even if that work involves walking and standing all day. Stupid and crazy if you ask me. The shoe stores having nothing in stock for women but heels except maybe a few flip flops - most of those also have heels.

Beautiful flowering trees and bushes and fruit trees everywhere. Wonderful cool breeze because we were close to the ocean. Ridiculous grafitti, trash, pollution and traffic. Couldn't stand living there. Didn't see very many muslims. We were near a Jewish neighborhood that used Arabic script for their signs rather than Hebrew - interesting....

Went to the La Brea Tar Pits (worth going once), the J Paul Geddy Museum (art - if you don't like art, they have a beautiful garden - all for free), and Venice Beach (skip it unless you want to worry about possibly stepping on a drug needle in the sand, etc.). Spent most days two hours in a state Caucus in the morning followed by the rest of the day at the Los Angeles Convention Center in the assembly enjoying the antics of Parliamentary Procedure and voting on business. Got lots of free stuff from vendors to use Geocaching. Did one geocaching with fellow CSEA board member named Mark - walked from the convention center to downtown and found one out of two we looked for. The GPS was useless downtown - the signal bounced off the tall buildings and couldn't get more than about 60 foot accuracy and kept spinning.

The meetings were good over all. Ate at lots of expensive places with the voucher money. My return flight had some problems and got home just before fajr time Friday. Glad to be home! I didn't take many pictures but Irma, our President, did. I asked her to send them to me and if she does maybe at some point in the future I'll upload some here. My flight back was the day of the stupid evil terrorist attacks in London. That stuff really gets my ire because they hurt Muslims and non-Muslims alike - those people attacked, those people facing retaliation and restrictions because of the attacks, etc.,, they hurt innocent people, they hurt people just going about their lives, and they don't accomplish anything productive! My flight did not seem to be much affected. However, I avoided praying in the airport because I saw several signs asking people to look at everyone around them and report any "suspicious behavior" immediately.

While I was away, mom was coming to the house to put down cat food. On Saturday she tried to play with him and got bit. She got bit once before by one of her cats and her hand swelled a bit. Well, this time it got really swollen and painful. So Sunday it was so bad she went to the hospital thinking she'd get a shot but they made her stay in the hospital over night and take antibiotics through an IV. She didn't get to go home until late Monday and missed the annual family Fourth of July picnic. She said the doctor told her that cat bites and scratches are really serious and someone can even lose their hand from a bite if it isn't treated soon enough. I've grown up with all kinds of pets including cats and so has my mom but that was news to both of us. So think carefully about getting pets. Leo adopted me and now depends on me. But otherwise I don't think I'd get a cat now. So I felt badly about that- they didn't tell me about it until after I got home, though. About a month ago I got a good scratch from the cat. It was pretty sore. A few days later I came down with flu-like symptoms that lasted nearly two weeks. It was a long time, long enough that I was starting to think of going to the doctor because it didn't seem to be a normal kind of thing. I didn't put the two together at the time, but now I am suspecting that the scratch and illness were related.

Yesterday I was woken up by a call from my brother so he could come over and work on his master's paper with my computer and he brought his kids. They were here all day. The two youngest kids were outside playing and we went to check and them and lo and behold these two itty bitty kids had climbed my white pine tree so high they were about fifty feet above the ground! Needless to say, my brother told them to get down immediately.

Today I went to teach madrassah. I found out that one of my friend's son was murdered last night - shot near his home in Denver. He was about 20 and had gotten into some gang related problems in the past few years. But it is sad. I feel for his mother and his brothers, etc., left behind. God sometimes takes people like that when they're young before they dig themselves too deep into trouble. He was a Muslim boy of Iranian descent. I hope maybe I can visit her later this week. Lots of people were going today. But, after my dad nearly dying, I know how overwhelming well-intentioned people can be. And then a few days later there is no one. So maybe my company would be more useful a bit later, insha'allah.

I've listened to several people talking lately about struggles with faith and religion. Disillusionment. It is very easy to get disillusioned if our religion is that of the people. That is, if our focus in religion becomes on things depending on people like fatwas, religious rulings, practice at the masjid, terrorism, spousal relations, etc. People get away from what made them "religious" in the first place - a love of God, a love of the holy people who brought us the truth, and relying wholly on God. This comes first before everything. It is the beginning, the middle and the end. There is no deen or religion without God. Without that, all you have is ritual and shell of religion now matter how many times you go to church or pray or go to mosque, etc. The deen is not about the practice - the practice is about the deen. And the deen is all about God-consciousness. Everyone must get back to that, try to find God-consciousness before anything else and the rest will follow. And the rest that doesn't follow won't matter. This is what I am learning in this life.