Divine Madness

New York Times/August 2, 1997

Leadville, Colorado -- As the sun climbed over a distant ridge of the Rockies one recent Sunday morning and the temperature climbed through the 40's, Steve Peterson stood meditating at the edge of a meadow. His hands moving as if to conduct an inner orchestra, he performed a series of exercises meant to align his body and mind for a 55-mile training run, during which he hoped to achieve a state described by the name of his running club: Divine Madness.

While running has become a casual exercise for fitness and weight reduction for many Americans, Divine Madness pushes the outer edge of the sport's envelope, specializing in ultramarathons ranging from 50 to 100 miles. In three weeks, Peterson will try to defend his title in the Leadville Trail 100.

But for him and other club members, ultrarunning is part of a larger effort to achieve self-fulfillment through the breakdown of personal limitations and adherence to Eastern spiritual traditions, meditation and holistic healing methods. The group, which at one point had about 100 members and now has some 40 members, about 25 of whom are runners, is based in Boulder, Colo., that American epicenter of distance running and nonconformity.

Those in Boulder's running mainstream both appreciate the discipline, enthusiasm and achievements of Divine Madness and remain wary of some of its training methods, as well as the group's alternative life style of communal living and open sexual relationships. Some mainstream runners and former members describe the group as a cult; its bearded leader, Yo Tizer, is facing accusations of sexual assault by one former member and a lawsuit by three others who allege that he manipulated them physically, emotionally and sexually, violated their trust and replaced any valid psychological and holistic techniques with a "systematic destruction of human will."

Tizer calls himself a coach, holistic healer and a "contemporary American teacher" and prefers the name "community" or "school" for his group, though he has formal training neither as a coach nor as a teacher.

Some of the Divine Madness methods are decidedly unconventional. By applying downward pressure to a runner's outstretched arm, a method called muscle testing, Tizer said he could determine everything from muscle strength, emotional state, nutritional need and the correct fit of a running shoe. He has been known to jump in the middle of a group of elite runners at the Bolder Boulder, a popular annual 10-kilometer race, and run near the leaders briefly to get a close look at their running form. For his own runners, he will often test their adaptability by tacking on extra miles in the middle of a training run; group members are urged to finish each run, working through the pain.

Tizer said he sleeps 20 hours a week, and many of the group's runners have learned to get by with four or four and a half hours of sleep a night. As part of a work-hard, play-hard life style, the group holds dancing parties every Thursday night that begin after midnight and often last until dawn.

The top Divine Madness runners live in a rental house in Boulder and share cooking and cleaning chores. Other members of the group, whose ages range from 24 to 59, also live in communal clusters of five or six people. Members are single or divorced, and most are self-employed. Peterson, the 1996 Leadville 100 champion, is a housecleaner. Members are expected to make a financial "commitment" each month, ranging from $140 to $200. And inclusion in the group requires a willingness to surrender to Tizer some individual choices that can involve when and where to run, when and what to eat, with whom to share a personal relationship and mandatory attendance at late-night meetings and lectures.

"You try to discern, is this good for me?" Peterson said. "Most Americans are not comfortable with the idea of having a teacher. They are so individualistic. They ask, 'Why don't you stand on your own two feet?' It's the same as having a coach of a football team. He is teaching you, and if he tells you to do something, you do it. You give up some measure of control for a greater benefit. I feel the benefit of a different life style."

Not everyone agrees. In a civil lawsuit filed in late 1996, Georgiana Scott, John Hunt and Melissa Huntress claim that, rather than liberating members of the group, Tizer controlled them through fasting, sleep deprivation, isolation from friends and family and the prohibition of monogamy.

The lawsuit, which is pending in state district court in Boulder, alleges that Tizer "required that female clients sleep with himself and a number of other community clients before being allowed to have sexual contact with their partners." Those who tried to break free of the group were threatened with "physical illness and emotional destruction," the suit says.

A fourth former member of the group, Michele Hirsen, recently filed a complaint with the Boulder police department alleging that Tizer sexually assaulted her last summer. In her report to the police, Hirsen said that in his role as spiritual guide and teacher, Tizer always made himself more available to his female students, but that "the implicit requirement for his help is sex." Hirsen, a psychotherapist, was associated with the community for 11 of its 20 years before leaving last January after the alleged assault.

"There's not a lot of room for an individual to have a self," Hirsen said last week. "He has emotional and psychological control over everyone around him. He's a manipulative, diabolical person. He has a system where he tries to seduce any woman that comes across his path without concern for their boundaries and sensitivities. Many women felt confused and violated by these interactions."

While it was his job as a teacher to "shake up assumptions," the idea that he was a cult leader was "ridiculous," said Tizer, whose given name is Marc Tizer and who is also known as Yousamian and Yousef Amin. Another group member, Jonathan Rogers, said: "We don't carry guns. We're not Heaven's Gate. We missed the comet."

A lawyer who represents Tizer, Gary Jackson, said he had advised him not to make any comments about the civil lawsuit filed by the three former community members and said that neither he nor Tizer was aware of the sexual-assault complaint.

Tizer said people are free to explore multiple sexual relationships, but no one has been forced into any encounter. "There's such an illusion that I control people," Tizer said. "A cult is where everyone shaves their head and you have to give all your money over. This is something else, where people who are sincerely trying to improve themselves have a teacher who is more or less evolved and is trying to help them lead a more balanced, harmonious life. If these runners do as well in other parts of their lives, they can be exemplary people."

While some may perceive the group as more mad than divine, its recent accomplishments in the sport of ultrarunning are undeniable. Four members of Divine Madness finished among the top 15 at the 1996 Leadville Trail race. Another member, Janet Runyan, won the 1996 women's national championship for the distance of 100 kilometers, or 62 miles. This year, all six Divine Madness entrants in the Leadville 100 hope to finish among the top 20.

Fred Pilon, the publisher of UltraRunning Magazine, estimates that there are 8,000 Americans who run ultramarathons, which is defined as anything above the standard 26.2-mile marathon. That group includes Joe Schlereth of Fresno, Calif., who ran 9,021 miles in 1996 (173.5 miles a week), and the Sri Chinmoy Marathon Team of Jamaica, Queens, which began a 3,100-mile race, around a city block, on June 13 with a 51-day time limit. Most ultrarunners, Pilon said, are hobbyists who average 50-60 miles per week.

On Aug. 16, Peterson will try to defend his Leadville title against 400 competitors and to surpass the course record of 17 hours 30 minutes 42 seconds, set in 1994 by Juan Herrera, a member of Mexico's fabled running tribe, the Tarahumara Indians, who race in sandals fashioned from tires. The race course begins 10,152 feet above sea level in this onetime mining center and twice traverses a mountain pass at 12,600 feet. On the pass, the trail is so remote that supplies for an aid station must be brought in by llamas.

"It's kind of crazy to do this, but not in an insane, demented way," said Peterson, a tall blond who will be 35 on Friday, as he explained the club's name. "It also means tapping into something greater or deeper beyond yourself from nature or God."

While Americans continue to fade at distances from the mile to the standard marathon and draw criticism for training on their own, Divine Madness runners succeed by training in groups, as do Kenyan and Mexican distance runners. The ultra club also has a support system that would be the envy of any American distance runner hoping to qualify for the Olympics or win the New York City Marathon, which is a sprint for Divine Madness runners.

Associated with the group are a personal trainer, a physical therapist, a sports psychologist, a nutritionist and a registered nurse. Runners eat twice a day, adhering to a regulated diet of carefully chosen proportions. The organic diet is 40 percent fat, 20 percent protein and 40 percent carbohydrates. And whole grains are substituted for pasta, a staple of many mainstream running diets; the group believes that the grains lead to more efficient fuel consumption. Members of Divine Madness both eat and sleep on the floor, members said, because they feel more "grounded" that way.

The group also uses some engaging running techniques, such as a pronounced swinging of the hips, which is designed to rely more on the natural range of motion of the body's joints rather than the burning of muscle fuel for propulsion. The Divine Madness runners, who average 120-130 miles a week, do a 30-mile training run each Wednesday and are a fixture on the trails in Boulder on Sundays when they run for 25 to 50 miles, which can require eight or more hours.

"I think they're intriguing," said Rick Rojas, the 1976 national cross-country champion who now coaches runners in Boulder. "I'm a mainstream coach. They do a lot of stuff outside the mainstream. A lot of it is hearsay. It seems to border on cultism, but at the same time it provides results. They seem to know what they are doing."

"They're not nuts," said Mark Plaatjes, the 1993 world marathon champion who lives in Boulder and co-owns a running store that provides the group with shoe discounts. "They're very nice people. They're disciplined. They take very good care of themselves. They're intelligent. But they're a little out there. Some people in the club shouldn't be doing that kind of running. My wife has picked a couple up and taken them to their houses. They were delirious, too long in the sun."

The group's top six runners gathered earlier this month for three days of training along the 100-mile course, which is 50 miles out and back over punishing trails and dirt roads. Simulating race conditions, the group ran the first 23 miles, beginning at 4 A.M. and running with flashlights around a moon-lit lake. The next day, each of the six runners had a support vehicle, which carried extra clothing, food, water and sports drinks.

Divine Madness began its ultrarunning project six years ago after Tizer grew intrigued by a six-day race at the University of Colorado. The group built slowly over five years, increasing itsmileage to the point that the top runners could complete 40-mile runs fueled solely by water. In his first attempt at a 100-mile race, Peterson won the 1996 Leadville 100 in 19 hours 29 minutes 58 seconds, averaging just under 12 minutes a mile at altitude and finishing 53 minutes ahead of the second-place competitor. Like his club mates, Peterson had previously been a casual runner with no real ultrarunning aspirations.

"I didn't know how possible it would be," Peterson said of his initial efforts at training for a 100-mile race. "It was conceivable that I could run 10 miles. I could imagine running a marathon. But 100 miles seemed inconceivable."

He grew up in Eugene, Ore., worked as an environmental activist then made his way to Boulder 11 years ago. He had not gone to college, and like others in Divine Madness he was searching for something, seeking to tie up loose ends, and was not intent on a conventional life style. He became intrigued by personal-growth workshops taught by Tizer, a 49-year-old native of Philadelphia, who was a junior high school sprinter and later became a holistic healer. Running intrigued Peterson as a way to break down personal barriers, to expand his limitations.

"It's exhilarating to make it through to the other side of running," he said. As the leader of Peterson's support crew, Sarah Walker, a nurse, stocked her car with food that he would eat at various checkpoints on Sunday: squeeze tubes of mashed potatoes and yams for potassium, an avocado sandwich, carrot bread, potato chips, pretzels, papaya, cantaloupe, chicken soup. He has been training to eat more during this year's race.

Last year, Peterson had trouble forcing food down, which is a concern because runners are weighed three times along the course and can be forced to stop if their body weight drops below a certain level.

"Ultrarunning has changed him, big time," Walker said of Peterson. "It's made him a man. He's 35. He's been doing this five years. Before, he was boyish. His background is working class. His father is a maintenance man. He wasn't raised with a sense of striving. No one ever mentioned college. This has given him confidence, a sense of power and responsibility."

As he began his Sunday trek in the chill mountain air, Peterson went through a mental checklist designed to take him through nearly 10 hours of running: relax, head up, heels down, open the chest, eyes wide to draw energy from the environment, strike the ground softly as if in moccasin feet, maintain the circular stride of a Hula-Hoop rolling downhill. And smile. "It's amazing how much your energy changes when you smile," Peterson said.

At 6 feet 3 inches, 170 pounds, he is larger than most distance runners, and his loping stride carried him comfortably through the first 30 miles. As Peterson climbed a dirt road through aspen and pine trees, a teammate who trailed him, Art Ives, said, "He's got a size 15 shoe and five inches of that are wing."

But it is inevitable that during a 55-mile run, especially one that makes two trips over a mountain pass where runners climb 3,000 feet in three miles, even an ultrarunner hits the wall. At 42 miles, Peterson stopped to change his shoes and slurp some chicken soup. It is not easy to find shoes to fit a size 15 foot, and once he bought 30 pairs of the same brand in one purchase. Now, the pain was evident in his face. And Tizer threw a curveball: the run would be three miles farther than planned.

"Sometimes we're on a 40-mile run, and at Mile 39, I'll say we're going to run another 20," Tizer said. "Life throws a lot of things at you. This allows them to relax with the changes in life."

He spoke of a possible course record for Peterson on race day, but Peterson was not thinking about records. "I'm feeling the strain," he told Walker of his support crew. "Can I do this for 100 miles?" "You've been training really hard," she reassured him. "You'll get a lot of adrenaline during the race."

With a pacer accompanying him, as is allowed over the final 50 miles on race day, Peterson got his second wind. Two miles from the finish of the training run, he surged past Tizer, who was waiting outside his car along a dirt road, and jubilantly screamed words from Walt Whitman: "Plumb in the uprights, braced in the beams, stout as a horse, affectionate, haughty, electrical."

Tizer's driver pulled alongside Peterson and Tizer told him from the car, "See if you can get a source of power centered below your navel and let your legs fly below there."

Rejuvenated and exhausted at the same time, Peterson reached the finish in 9 hours 46 minutes, an hour better than his last training run. Perhaps a course record would be possible after all. He lay on a mat and propped his legs against a car, draining the fatigue from his limbs. A 27 mile run would follow the next day, and then tapering would begin for the race.

His pacer, Glen Turner, wanted to know whether he should continue toward town. Tizer decided to muscle-test him. Turner extended his left arm, Tizer applied downward pressure and told the runner not to go on. "I projected a thought," Tizer said. Once, while watching the National Basketball Association playoffs on television, Tizer said he projected thoughts toward Nick Anderson of the Orlando Magic. "I played with his neuro-vascular points," Tizer said matter-of-factly. "He couldn't make his free throws."

About 45 minutes after Peterson had finished, a teammate, Mark Heinemann, completed his 55-mile run, checked his watch, pumped his fist and let out a whoop. With a look of weary contentment on his face, he said: "You want to know what Divine Madness is? This is it."

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