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Family tradition drives Switzerland's Lauenstein to Pikes Peak Marathon championship

Switzerland's Marc Lauenstein dashed up Manitou Ave. at the start of the 2014 Pikes Peak Marathon. Lauenstein, who has family ties in Colorado Springs, won the race in 3 hours, 37 minutes, 21 seconds.

By Garry Harrington

Marc Lauenstein may be from Switzerland, but he knows full well the history of the Pikes Peak Marathon. He’s heard all about it from his wife and mother-in-law.

On Sunday, Lauenstein bolted from the starting line in Manitou Springs and led the 59th running of America’s Ultimate Challenge wire to wire, winning the Pikes Peak Marathon in a time of 3:37:21. No one finished within 20 minutes of Lauenstein, who lives in Cormondreche in western Switzerland, but has ties to Colorado Springs.

His wife, Sandra, grew up in Colorado Springs and was the first to congratulate Marc after his victory, holding their 16-month-old son, Matti. While Sandra has run the Pikes Peak Ascent two or three times, her mother, Beatrice Zurcher, has done the marathon at least six times, Marc said.

“It’s a family business I got married into,” said Lauenstein, 33, who has wanted to return to run the Marathon ever since he finished second in the Pikes Peak Ascent in 2010, when he represented Switzerland in the World Mountain Running Association’s Long-Distance Challenge. Pikes Peak hosted that event again this year, with 19 countries competing on Saturday.

“My wife has been telling me about this race ever since we met,” he said. “I wanted to do the marathon at least one time. It’s a very special race. It’s such an honor to compete against fifty-nine other generations of runners. Hopefully, for my son it will give him something to sink his teeth into when he is my age.”

Lauenstein left little doubt as to Sunday’s outcome. He jumped off the starting line ahead of the field of about 750 runners and seized the lead well before the runners turned up Ruxton Avenue and headed for the Barr Trail and the summit of Pikes Peak, more than 7,800 above them. The only other runner who was expected to challenge Lauenstein on Sunday was Alex Nichols of Colorado Springs, but Nichols withdrew from the race on Saturday after suffering a calf injury last week – ironically in Switzerland, where he finished a solid 15th in the famed Sierre-Zinal 31K race.

“Of course, it’s fun for me to compete,” he said. “I hoped there would be some more (strong) runners, but for me, it was more about the challenge. I love the feeling at the start line. Everyone is ready for an adventure. Everyone has the same goal – to get to the top and back down. Everyone (who finished) should be super proud. It was really hard.”

The race played out far differently than the 2010 Ascent, when Lauenstein – who entered that race as the defending WMRA Long-Distance champion, having won the 2009 race – watched Glenn Randall of Mesa, CO, steal the victory with a similar breakaway strategy. Lauenstein was the only runner to mount a charge to catch Randall, but fell short. “In 2010, there was a lot of competition (for the WMRA Long-Distance Challenge),” he said. “But, today, from the first seconds I was alone. It was not easy to pace myself.”

He opened up a sizable advantage over second-place finisher Jason Delaney well before reaching Barr Camp at about the midway point to the summit. He increased that margin to four minutes at A-Frame, about three miles below the summit near treeline. Then, he made the turn at the top more than 11 minutes up on Delaney and coasted to an easy victory on the long descent back to Manitou Springs.

“I was really focusing on my uphill time,” said Lauenstein. “I felt really good, better than I did in 2010 when I started faster and then my head was spinning when I reached my limit. I was hoping to beat my time from 2010, but I missed it by a few seconds (35 actually). Maybe I didn’t push it enough at the beginning, because at the end I was able to go pretty hard.”

Lauenstein said he was better acclimatized than when he ran the Ascent in 2010. He competed in an orienteering event – his main sport – in Zermatt, Switzerland, three weeks ago, then came to the U.S. for events in Laramie, Wyoming, and nearby Lake George the past two weekends. “I mainly compete in orienteering races, so I have been competing at altitude the past three weekends.”

Lauenstein said he laughed when Race Director Ron Ilgen apologized for the deteriorated condition of Barr Trail, which has been affected harshly by erosion caused by recent storms. “Compared to the forests we run through (in orienteering), the Barr Trail is a highway,” he said.

His only mishap occurred just after the turnaround, when he got side-tracked, he said, by the scenery, and banged his knee on a rock, opening a gash. “Oh, that’s nothing,” he said, when asked about the blood streaming down his left leg at the finish. “I wasn’t focusing for a moment when I was looking at the magnificent view, and I didn’t see a rock. I didn’t bother me (on the descent).”

Delaney, 34, of Polson, MT, said there was no way he could stay with Lauenstein, especially considering that he had raced the Ascent on Saturday, where he placed seventh. “That’s the best I could have hoped for,” said Delaney, whose time was 3:57:26, the only other finisher to break four hours on the 26.21-mile course. “I ran as hard as I could both days, but I sure could feel (the effects from) Saturday.”

This was the first time Delaney had doubled – running both the Ascent and the Marathon on the same weekend – after having won the Ascent in 2012 and finishing third in the Marathon last year. His combined time from the two days – 6:13:43 – was a new age group record for the 30-34 division, beating the time of 6:38:25 set by Karl Meltzer of Sandy, Utah, in 1998.

More importantly, Delaney said, his combined time was the fastest double ever recorded by a runner not named Matt Carpenter. Carpenter, of course, is the 12-time winner of the Marathon and holder of most of the major records associated with both races.

Carlos Ruibal, 27, of Colorado Springs placed third in 4:03:16, followed by Marco Zuniga, 42, of Durango, CO, in 4:11:01 and Darren Thomas, 20, of Colorado Springs in fifth in 4:19:29.

Ruibal ran cross country and track at the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs and had always wanted to run the Marathon. “I ran the Ascent the past two years, but I’ve wanted to get into some longer events, so I decided to run the Marathon this year,” said the Del Norte, CO, native. “I was trying to keep from red-lining the whole way down, but my quads starting cramping up once I hit the pavement. I was hurting pretty bad, but it was a great race.”

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