Running at the next level

— The word extreme in the world of sports elicits visions of skiers launching off the steep face of a cliff, bungee jumpers cheating death by inches underneath a suspension bridge and mountain bikers risking life and limb on the edge of a canyon wall somewhere in Utah.

The athletes are normally young adventure seekers looking for an adrenaline high by cheating death disguised as some sort of sporting adventure.

I’ve met all kinds of extreme athletes over the past 10 years, but until last week I had never really met a runner that would fall into the extreme category.

But all that changed when I heard the story of 48-year-old marathoner Craig Ewing. Ewing, a part-time Steamboat resident and father of Lowell Whiteman junior Kyle Ewing, has run 11 marathons in his life. But that alone does not make him extreme or does it?

You see, running a marathon is something to be respected and admired. But it lacks at least one element that is critical to any extreme sport that near-death experience that confronts almost every extreme athlete.

I mean, outside of an occasional freak accident that results from a runner who carelessly leaves one of the laces on his Nike running shoes untied, what could happen?

Let’s face it: Running can be grueling, but it can’t be extreme.

Or can it be?

What if the runner jumped on a plane or two and flew to Ushuaia on the southernmost tip of South America just to run?

Well, that would be crazy, but extreme?

To fall into the extreme category the trip would have to continue south on a Russian ice breaker before the runners would be ferried to the starting line on a large rubber pontoon raft called a Zodiac. The runner would invest four or five days on planes and a boat just to reach the starting line on King George Island. The entire trip would cover 8,000 miles and take the runner to the site of the most remote running race on the entire planet.

OK, now we are talking extreme, right?

The 27-mile course, which is slightly longer than a normal marathon, would be made up mostly of the dirt roads that connect research stations on the ice-bound continent. At one point the runners did run along a shoreline on rocks and on the ice surface of a glacier.

Ewing said the race, which was held March 2, was like stepping back in time a million years to a land that has not been impacted by humans in any way. It offered a rare glimpse of nature’s beauty and also reminded him just how vulnerable humans are to the elements.

There were 109 Gortex-clad runners who took the challenge to cut through the elements in either the full or half-marathon. The number of spectators found along the course, not counting penguins and skua, would sell out a John Tesh concert.

“Race conditions were ideal if you like high winds and snow gales,” said Thom Gilligan, race director.

I know what all you cliff-jumping skiers are thinking right now: “It’s exciting, but where is the death-defying aspect of the event?”

Well, if temperatures in the low 20s and 50 mph winds are not threatening enough, consider that the lead runner in the event was attacked by an Antarctic skua, a massive gull-like bird known for it’s aggressiveness.

“They are very territorial,” Ewing said. “There are not a lot of people in Antarctica, so the wildlife has no fear.”

The runner’s only real defense, Ewing said, was to hold your hand high above your head.

“The Skua will attack the highest point,” Ewing said. “So if you hold your hand in the air, that’s what the bird would attack.”

Well, it’s better to lose a finger than an eye, I guess. Now that is pretty extreme.

To tell the truth, I’m not really sure that man-attacking birds really know the definition of what an extreme sport is or if anyone in Antarctica really cares about extreme sports. I even wonder if Ewing, a lawyer in Denver, considers himself in the extreme class. But he has convinced me that even running can fall into the extreme category if the athlete is willing to take it to the next level.

“I’m hooked now,” Ewing said after the Antarctic trip. “I really love this adventure travel stuff now.”

The good news here in Steamboat is that Ewing’s extreme effort raised nearly $10,000 for the Lowell Whiteman endowment fund.

Nineteen parents, alumni and friends of the school pledged $300 a mile to support Ewing and the school.

“I was able to run strong with the thoughts of all the tremendous people back at the school supporting this effort.”

Ewing said he thinks he was inspired by the fact the school’s mascot is a penguin.

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