At 9 a.m. on Dec. 30, Boulder's Mark Heinemann embarked on another of the grueling ultrarunning races he'd come to thrive on and love.
Heinemann was one of more than 70 people entered in the annual Across the Years "fixed time" races near Phoenix. Participants ran for 24, 48 and 72 hours, racking up miles on a dirt loop; the winner was determined by most miles completed.
Friends say Heinemann was one of the few, the tough, the mind-bogglingly determined who specialized in two-day races, becoming one of the world's top competitors after running just two such contests.
But 25 hours after Heinemann ran more than 200 miles to finish in third place, members of his "extended family" - a Boulder-based running group known as Divine Madness or The Community, led by Marc "Yo" Tizer - found him dead in his hotel room.
A coroner's report issued in late February found that the 46-year-old died of bacterial double pneumonia. There were no drugs in his system, nor did he have any other abnormalities that contributed to his death. His lungs were filled with pus, "severe amounts of blood" and foamy vomit.
"I was blown away, because he looked so healthy," says Dr. A.L. Mosley, medical examiner for Maricopa County, Ariz., who performed the autopsy. "You wouldn't expect to see someone like that die from pneumonia. Usually people who die from pneumonia are old fogies."
Given that pneumonia sufferers exhibit well-described symptoms, family and friends are asking why someone didn't notice his condition and get help. Nobody who knows the tight-knit Divine Madness group would ever suggest that they intentionally let Heinemann die. But Heinemann's family and many friends are wondering if the group's hands-off approach to health care, members' submission to Tizer's judgment and a philosophy of "welcoming discomfort" contributed to his death.
"They are totally responsible for my son's death," says Mark Heinemann's mother, Gisella Heinemann.
"I think Tizer is an enemy of society," says Mark's father, Peter Heinemann of New York.
But members of the group, still shocked over the death of their friend, say that if anything, Tizer took special care with his 48-hour star.
"Yo acted as a restraining influence on him in terms of the frequency and magnitude of races (Heinemann) wanted to compete in," wrote Susan Hart of Reserve, N.M., the group's designated spokeswoman, in a Jan. 30 certified letter to the Daily Camera. "(Mark) died doing what he loved."
Heinemann was drawn to Divine Madness 20 years ago by one of its practitioners in Seattle. He moved to Boulder around 1991 to be closer to Tizer. After such a long association, he was warmly regarded by group members, including a number of lovers.
He was born in New York City, a strapping blond baby of 9 pounds who "grew in the hospital," his mother proudly recalls. He was a good student, and athletic, playing both soccer and basketball in high school, even playing semi-professional soccer in his teens. He also was a runner, like his father, from childhood.
But his real love was music. He was adept at mandolin, banjo and guitar, and wrote music. After a year at the CW Post Campus of Long Island University, he transferred to Queens College to study music.
After college, he moved to Vermont, where he got a grant from the Vermont Council of the Arts and wrote a musical about William Butler Yeats. Later he was an artist in residence at the University of North Carolina.
He eventually moved to Seattle to be with his new girlfriend Maura Hayes, a former member of Tizer's group. In Seattle, where he continued his artistic pursuits, he and Hayes began working with one of the group's practitioners.
"He was a performer. ... He was sort of a coffee-house Bohemian," the former practitioner, who lives in Boulder, says of Heinemann. "He got into the group through me. ... He was really impressed with the work, and when Yo came out for a workshop, (all the new students) hopped on the bandwagon. Yo was a charismatic character." But Heinemann changed after joining the group, his mother says, and his life took a sharp turn. He seemed to have surrendered himself to Tizer.
Mark Heinemann, 46, while running the 2004 Across the Years 48-hour ultrarunning race near Phoenix. Heinemann died of double pneumonia the day after the race.
"They told him not to write music or have anything to do with music for five years," Gisella Heinemann says.
Yet other family members say Heinemann seemed to thrive in a setting that they admit made them uncomfortable.
"I had qualms, but I never confronted him about it. It was his life, he loved it, and what could I do?" Peter Heinemann says. And, he says, "The racing made him look great. ... He was a babe magnet in his group."
Former members say that Heinemann was one of the more independent, outspoken members of the group, unusually willing to take on Tizer. Some even say that Tizer, concerned that his 48-hour star was overdoing it, tried to talk him out of undertaking what would become his final race, but that Heinemann insisted on running.
Gisella Heinemann takes a much darker view of her son's relationship with Tizer. After listening to hours of taped conversations between the pair and examining notes from her son's belongings, she says she's convinced that group members surrender their autonomy to their leader.
"Mark described aspects of Yo that impressed him, and I said, 'Mark, you are describing a psychopath,'" she says.
Former members say Tizer bases his "teaching" on a personal philosophy rooted in the philosophies of Gurdjieff, the I Ching and other influences. And sometime in the late 1980s, he also became intrigued with the potential of ultrarunning as an avenue to fulfillment, enlightenment and health.
The taped conversations between Heinemann and Tizer portray a relationship in which the student utterly submitted to the judgments of his teacher.
"I've listened to these tapes, and no offense to anyone, but all the men are like they've had their balls cut off," says Johanna Heinemann, Mark's sister.
Former members say the insularity of the group, and its dependence on Tizer, has led to a peculiarly self-centered world view.
Gisella Heinemann received an e-mail from group member Nancy Monson about three weeks after Heinemann's death, for instance, that appeared to be asking for money to pay his rent and telephone bill: "He has no money, and is in fact in debt, so we need to work that out."
"Who would do that to a grieving mother?" Gisella Heinemann wonders.
And Heinemann's death is not the first time the group's methods have been called into question.
In 1996, two former group members (later joined by a third), sued Tizer, alleging that he used "emotional and sexual manipulation" to defraud and coerce members of his group. Magazine and newspaper articles followed, detailing former members' stories. They described Tizer's control of every aspect of students' lives, including what to eat and with whom to sleep, and his bizarre behavior, including frequent drunkenness, wild parties and allegations of sexual assault. The suit was settled out of court in 1998, and details were not disclosed.
After that, the group took a lower profile, though its runners continued to excel in the ultrarunning world. Late last year, it appeared they had another star in their stable.
Sun spilled generously over the sere desert landscape when Heinemann started the Across the Years race on Dec. 30. The one-third mile dirt track at Nardini Manor resort buzzed with excitement, with runners and their crews hydrating and joshing about the long haul ahead. Heinemann started off in good shape, his supporters recall, but other runners say he never seemed at his best during the race. He was gray and haggard once he started ticking off major miles, and suffered bouts of vomiting. But then, that's all par for the course for even the top performers in this extreme event, and he often looked ragged.
"He did struggle. He wasn't having his best race," says John Geesler of St. Johnsville, N.Y., who won the 48-hour category with a national record 248 miles. "He wasn't having a great one, but it's not like it was horrible."
At no time did Heinemann's crew - members of Divine Madness - the race directors or a nurse and doctor of osteopathy on hand to keep an eye on runners feel he looked bad enough to need medical care. Geesler, on the other hand, was stopped by race officials briefly to make sure he was OK before he powered to the win.
Marc "Yo" Tizer, leader of the Boulder-based ultrarunning community, Divine Madness, bases his unorthodox philosophy on sources ranging from Gurdjieff to the I Ching. He's shown here at the 1997 Leadville Trail 100 race.
There are conflicting reports about Heinemann's condition after the race.
Hart, the Divine Madness spokeswoman, says Heinemann was "very exhausted and it seemed he wanted to do nothing but sleep. In hindsight, this was likely a symptom but this is not unusual for someone who has just done a 48-hour race. ... Mark had a long history of looking this way. Having done as many races as he had, why suddenly be alarmed?"
In an e-mail sent to former Divine Madness member and Heinemann's friend Celia Bertoia of Bozeman, Mont., on Jan. 31, race director Laura Nagy wrote: "He did not appear to require medical attention immediately." Nagy said Heinemann joined in to cheer other finishers.
However, Heinemann's stepmother, Marie Savatierre, and his sister, Johanna, say that Nagy told a very different story when she called on the evening of Jan. 3.
"(Nagy) commented on how she knew Mark, was familiar with his running style and that at the end of the race he looked particularly bad and was incoherent," Savatierre says.
She says Nagy described an incident during the race when her efforts to help Divine Madness member Marty Feffer were rebuffed by other group members (he recovered to win a "coming back from the dead" award).
When Savatierre asked Nagy if she discussed medical assistance for Heinemann upon noticing his condition, she only replied, "The group is very closed."
"She implied that they would not have accepted (an offer of medical help) based on their earlier response to Marty Feffer's situation," Savatierre says.
Nagy did not return numerous e-mail and phone messages to be interviewed for this story.
According to a police report, group members accompanied Heinemann back to his hotel after the race, where he took a nap from 1 to 4 p.m. He ate a large meal after waking, then ate again later. Group members told police they saw him last at 11 p.m., but that he had gone to bed about 1 a.m.
A police report indicates that Heinemann's "roommates (sic) Timothy Blagen slept in the adjoining room," and Heinemann apparently slept in his room alone. Blagen told police he "last heard Mark stirring" through the walls at 9 a.m.
At 10 a.m., two members of the group, Lynn Smith and Jonathan Rodgers, found him cold and unresponsive when they went to look for laundry soap. Group members Nancy Monson and Rebecca Johnson attempted CPR after calling 911, but Heinemann was pronounced dead by paramedics, who did not attempt to revive him.
A Jan. 7 e-mail notifying friends and fellow ultrarunners of Heinemann's death, signed by "His Extended Family," said that he "died peacefully in his sleep" and claimed that "an initial autopsy came up negative ... in terms of ... heart attack, lung failure, suffocation, etc." The e-mail also speculated on what might have happened. Was it non-prescription pain relievers, which Heinemann didn't usually take during a race, but did this time? Was it a "pre-existent medical condition?"
And in the certified letter sent to the Daily Camera, Hart, who ran part of the race with Heinemann, noted that he had experienced "diarrhea of the more extreme variety" the night before the race. Hart lives with Tizer at the group's property - "The Retreat" - outside Reserve, N.M. (Hart says a reporter's previous stories on the group "disincline" Tizer to speak with the Daily Camera. Other group members contacted referred all queries to Hart.)
But the reality of what killed Heinemann was more shocking than any of those guesses, because doctors, including medical examiner Mosley, say he would not have died had he received medical attention. Clear symptoms - severe coughing, fever, shortness of breath, perhaps bloody sputum - should have been apparent to anyone who was around Heinemann, Mosley says.
"I'm sure they would have noticed something wrong with him," he says.
But, he notes, "I can count the number of people I've autopsied who've run 200 miles on one finger."
The vomit in Heinemann's lungs suggests he may have been unable to care for himself, says Boulder pulmonologist Dr. Hunter Smith, who is familiar with the portion of the autopsy relating to Heinemann's lungs.
"In conscious and awake people, they wake up, cough violently, they may get sick and seek medical attention," Smith says. But Heinemann may have been so sick that he had "a decreased sensory level of consciousness ... and was unable to protect his airways."
Heinemann's condition at the end was a stark contrast to that of a man who had just been invited to a prestigious 48-hour event in May in Surgeres, France, based on his course record finish - 222 miles - in the 2003 Across the Years race.
"I was surprised," Mosley says. "This guy, he's hard-bodied, and he just did a phenomenal thing."
Ultrarunners naturally focus on running through adversity - after all, it hurts to run 100 or 200 miles - and those who can't play the "mental game" don't succeed. But some say Tizer's group takes that concept to extremes. What most concerns Heinemann's family and some friends following his death is how Tizer's control intersected with the group's approach to health. The group has long used a technique called "muscle testing" - basically tugging on a subject's arm - to diagnose problems (and even what to eat, and sexual partners).
"They feel protected from harm, like Christ walking on the water," says the former member and practitioner who brought Heinemann into the group. "As a practitioner there, I learned a big lesson. ... Yo's arm pulls are worth s**t. ... They never go to doctors. I finally learned my lesson and told people to go to a doctor."
More often than not, the former member says, students were told that their complaints were merely emotional. Notes from Heinemann's sessions with Ann Hazen, a current practitioner, urge Heinemann in more than one place to "welcome discomfort as much as possible."
"I had a neck problem they said was emotional. They said I needed to (have sex with) more people," says the former practitioner, "But my neck problem was that I got a goddamn whiplash when someone smacked into me at a party. ... (Tizer) would say if you have cancer, it's better if you don't know, we would work on it another way."
In truth, in a sport where mental toughness counts for as much as physical ability, Tizer's extreme technique has launched some runners into the elite of the ultrarunning world, including Steve Peterson, five-time winner of the grueling Leadville Trail 100 race.
But sometimes, it also has resulted in serious injury. Celia Bertoia, the former member who now lives in Montana, says Tizer told her to run on a stress fracture, which "turned into a broken leg." Janet Runyan, who won the 1996 women's national 100-kilometer championship, broke her leg twice after being advised to "run through it."
And failure is frowned upon. Heinemann himself suffered pneumonia and a right-lung collapse after his first Leadville Trail 100 race in 1996. He was initially scorned by the group for being "dramatic," former member Bertoia says.
Medical experts say that Heinemann's history of lung problems should have heightened his awareness - as well as that of anyone coaching or crewing - to any sign of respiratory distress, since one collapsed lung is a strong indicator that it could happen again.
"I'm curious about that 1996 collapsed lung," Maricopa County Medical Examiner Mosely says. "You'd think that someone would have been more cautious."
Traditional preventive care is also discouraged in the group. After Gisella Heinemann asked her son to get a medical checkup for his intense running because of a family history of heart and cholesterol problems, she says practitioner Ann Hazen told her, "Well, we discussed it, and we decided nothing was wrong with him."
Mark Heinemann continued to teach music while living in Boulder. He's shown here during a 2003 visit to New York City, where his family lives.
And former members say that Tizer told them they would get sick and die if they left the group.
Yet Tizer has on occasion sent people for outside medical care and pulled others from races when they look bad. And all who see the group at work say they are among the most supportive, caring "crews" for their runners during races.
In an e-mail to Bertoia in Montana, Nagy noted that the group "gave (Heinemann) better support during the race than any other runner out there."
But despite all that support during the race, Heinemann's family and some friends wonder if the "run through it" mindset drove them to ignore his deteriorating condition and eventual shocking, ugly death.
"They just trust the muscle testing, which I feel is not right in regards to the intensity of miles and their lifestyle," Heinemann's friend Melanie Milasinovich said in an e-mail.
Mark Heinemann died alone, perhaps unconscious, his lungs filled with choking fluids.
"I imagine he was trying to clear his airways, spitting, coughing, hacking up stuff. He probably had a fever. He was probably sweating. All the classic signs of sepsis," Mosley says.
Not even Heinemann's family thinks that Tizer or any of his friends in the group meant for him to come to harm. They loved him ferociously, and remain in shocked mourning.
But people outside the group are now asking sharp questions:
Given the inherent dangers of ultrarunning, did the group's extreme "run through it" philosophy blind them to obvious suffering in their friend? Did Heinemann surrender so much of himself to the will of Tizer and the group that he trusted their judgment above signs of distress from his own body? Did their insistence on relying on their own, unconventional diagnostic methods take the place of medical care that probably would have saved his life?
And finally, why did they leave their friend to die in a hotel room alone?
Heinemann's family and friends want answers. They are angry knowing that he did not have to die.
"Why hasn't the (Maricopa County) District Attorney questioned the people who were in the room with him?" Gisella Heinemann asks angrily.
The family is still considering what, if any, moves to make next. In the meantime, they hope Heinemann's death will - at least - lead the group to consider changing its ways.
"This is the result: Mark died," Peter Heinemann says. "Maybe they will be more circumspect or cautious. And it would probably be helpful if some authority told them to do it."