Running Like Hell

Women's Sports and Fitness, Nov./Dec. 1999
By Michael Finkel

I kissed Janet Runyan because I fell in love with the way she ran. I fell in love with her stride --the way her legs appeared to arc instead of scissor, the way her feet seemed to brush the pavement rather than pound. The swing of her arms. The slight, steady bob of her chin. These are not the only reasons. I kissed her because she is beautiful. I kissed her because her life had become a jumble of sleep deprivation and physical pain and a training schedule that was the equivalent of running nearly five marathons a week, and I wanted her to know that I, an outside, did not condemn her for her choices, however unorthodox they were, nor did I pity her or want to change her. I kissed her because there seemed no way to explain all this. It was five o'clock in the morning, and everyone around us was paired off. Kissing seemed to be on the agenda. So that is what we did.

I met Janet early last summer, in Boulder, Colorado, in the midst of a long and extraordinary run. I had come to Boulder for two reasons. First, to conduct research for a book I am writing about the motivations and lifestyles of people who seem addicted to excessive exercise. Second, I wanted to aid my own pursuit of exhaustion. Over the past year I had been methodically preparing to run an "ultra" -- that is, a race longer than the standard marathon distance of 26.2 miles. The race I had my sights on was the Western States 100. But in June, less than a month before the event, I found myself daunted by the enormity of running 100 miles and overwhelmed with doubts. My training began to stagnate. I came to Boulder seeking inspiration. I came to find a group of people known as Divine Madness.

Nearly everything I knew about Divine Madness I'd gleaned from a pair of articles published in The New York Times and Newsweek during the summer of 1997. The article had a strong effect on me; I cut them out and pinned them to my office wall. According to the stories, Divine Madness was a strange and insular group consisting of a guru and approximately 40 followers, men and women whose ages ranged from mid-twenties to late fifties. Their way of life included communal living, all-night meditation sessions and no shortage of unconventional sexual behavior. There was also a lawsuit, filed by three ex-members (two of them women), accusing the guru of systematically destroying their lives.

What fascinated me most was the running. Spurred on by their guru, about 25 of the Divine Madness members had taken to ultra-running. They logged incredible distances -- sometimes 50 miles in a day -- hours upon hours of running; an entire lifestyle, it seemed, built around running. All this training had resulted in some remarkable performances. A Divine Madness member named Steve Peterson had triumphed in each of the past four years at the Leadville 100, a race that is the equivalent of running nearly four successive marathons combined with an elevation gain in excess of 15,000 feet, more than the rise from the base to the summit of Mount Everest. His winning times were usually between 18 and 19 hours. In 1996 Janet Runyan won the U.S. 100-kilometer national championships, covering the 62 miles in less than nine hours. This guru is on to something, I thought. His runners had evidently tapped into an energy source I had not discovered, one I hoped they'd be willing to share.

Establishing contact with the group was not difficult. I phoned a Boulder running-shoe-store (where, it turned out, Divine Madness members get a discount) and asked how I could get in touch with a member. I was promptly given the phone number for Art Ives, one of Divine Madness' strongest runners. I called and left a message.

Art rang back a few hours later. I told him that where I live the mountain trails were still clogged with snow and that I planned to be in Boulder the following week, in order to train for my ultra. I told him about some of my recent training difficulties. Neither of us mentioned the name Divine Madness.

"We do a pretty good run on Wednesdays," Art said. He paused. "I suppose you could join in."

I told him I'd be honored. "Where should I meet you?"

"Well," said Art slowly and, it seemed, a bit evasively as if he were weighing his invitation, "I won't know that until Tuesday night."

I gave him my cell phone number. The next Tuesday I flew to Boulder and met friends for dinner. Around eight o'clock, I began to get antsy. Perhaps Art had discussed his invitation with the other members and felt that the presence of a stranger was not a good idea. Perhaps they felt I wasn't a strong enough runner. (I didn't know if I was strong enough.) Two hours later my phone rang. It was Art. "We're on," he said. He gave me the name of a trail head on the outskirts of town and told me to be there at 8 a.m.

"Be ready for 30 miles," he said. "Maybe more."

Ultra-running is a strange, all-consuming sport. There are very few ultra-runners in North America (a rough estimate is 8,000), and for good reason: It is the point, I believe, at which running crosses the line from sport to obsession. Ultra-running is hard on the body; hard on the joints, the muscles, the hips, the spine. It may be punishing right down to the molecular level; doctors are beginning to question whether excessive running can corrupt healthy cells, resulting in maladies such as chronic fatigue syndrome and even cancer.,

Ultra-runners are on a first-name basis with misery. For many of us, the longer we run, the more sleep-deprived we are, the closer we come to absolute exhaustion, the more satisfied we feel. I have been in the throes of such an obsession, and it's not difficult to imagine how soothing it would be to find someone who could guarantee my body endless challenges, who was willing to manage and schedule and plan my pain.

Divine Madness, in fact, is not the only guru-led ultra-running community in the United States. The 2,000 or so followers of Sri Chimnoy, based in New York City, include a large contingent of ultra-runners, several of whom have completed the group's annual 51-day, 3,100-mile-long race. A few weeks before meeting with Divine Madness, I spent time in New York, watching and occasionally running with several Sri Chimnoy disciples as they plodded around a one-mile loop for 10 consecutive days, stopping only for catnaps. There was a contingent of ultra-runners in the EST movement who called themselves the World Runners, and a group known as Nichiren Shoshu of American, or NSA, occasionally embarked on long sessions of group marching.

In describing Divine Madness, The New York Times bandied about the word cult. Divine Madness, of course, hates that label, preferring to call itself an Ultra Club. Divine Madness is "definitely cultic," says Carol Giambalvo, director of the recovery program at the American Family Foundation, a group that keeps tabs on cultic groups nationwide. Indeed, the lawsuit supports Giambalvo's belief that Divine Madness meets most of the criteria that indicate a group is operating as a cult. According to the suit (which was settled out of court last year), Divine Madness isolated its members from the outside world; attempted to control members' physical needs and finances; and inculcated fears or phobias.

Divine Madness is centered on one man: Marc Tizer, whom has adherents call Yo. He spends most of his time at the group's retreat in central New Mexico. He is small and gaunt, with wild eyes and unruly Brillo pad of a beard and mustache. Now 51, Tizer came to Boulder from Philadelphia (via Berkeley, California) in the '70s and began teaching a healing system he called harmonizing. It is a grab bag of religion, mysticism and self-help programs, including meditation, group therapy, holistic healing and frequent consultation of the I Ching. The goal of harmonizing is to achieve a state Tizer calls transformation. Yo, his followers believe, has reached the state of transformed being, which gives him superhuman powers: the ability to influence people's thoughts and health, and the Denver Broncos' win-loss record.

Evidently, harmonizing was profoundly appealing to certain people, and within a few years, Tizer had enough adherents to establish his group, which called itself the Community. Members rented a series of houses in and around Boulder and began living in groups of five or six, men and women together. According to the lawsuit, contact with the outside world is limited: "Tizer forbade reading of outside literature; forbade travel outside of Boulder; forbade watching television and required daily reading and study of the notes of his lectures." Most members are self-employed, working in town as caterers, music teachers or running coaches, and reportedly donate portions of their incomes to the group. The 160-acre New Mexico retreat is said to have been paid for in cash by a member; another said she turned over a $100,000 inheritance to the group.

Tizer introduced running to his followers about 10 years ago, after witnessing an ultra-race at the University of Colorado. Tizer, himself an avid runner, seems to have made the sport a metaphor for the state of one's mental health. Aches and injuries and other troubles encountered on a long run have direct counterparts in deficiencies in one's pursuit of transformation. Extreme distance running seems to fit perfectly into Tizer's ideas of self-fulfillment through deprivation and exhaustion. His rambling, stream-of-consciousness lectures frequently last all night, and group meetings can go until dawn.

The emphasis on ultra-running and sleeplessness, explains Giambalvo, is a variation on a classic cult theme. "A cult leader often seeks to have his followers in a weakened state," she says. "People who are sleep-deprived or physically exhausted are more malleable, more suggestible and far less likely to disagree with the leader's demands."

According to the lawsuit, one of his demands is sex. Marriage and monogamous couplings are discouraged; Yo believes such relationships sap too much of the spiritual energy needed to accomplish transformation. "I am tired of feeling the sexual pressure," wrote one ex-member in a letter included in the lawsuit. "I am tired of having to field that energy and feeling guilty when I don't want to make love ... it remind me of a battering relationship where the woman is not allowed to communicate with the outside for fear of other influences." The lawsuit states that Tizer had open sexual relationships with many women in the Community and that he "told female members of the Community that their emotional health required that the control their sexual activity." His regular partners are part of an inner group known as "the Yo ladies."

The guru denied all charges of wrongdoing in The New York Times article. "There is such an illusion that I control people," Tizer was quoted as saying. "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.."

Of the 40 members of Divine Madness, there are about a dozen men and a dozen women capable of completing ultras. It is no coincidence that Tizer's top students seem to be those who can run the farthest. "The community revolves around the best runners," one former member told me. "Those who don't run work as support crews for those who do; they kiss the runners' butts. When I was in Divine Madness, I was sure it was the coolest running club in the world. It took me years to realize that the price of admission was my mind and my spirit and my independence."

On Wednesday morning I arrived at the trail head a minute late. Art was already there, looking perturbed. Divine Madness runners are exceedingly punctual; I soon discovered why. Art took off up the trial, which headed across a cow pasture and into the craggy foothills of the Rocky Mountains. It was a gorgeous day: 70 degrees, with puffball clouds meandering across the sky, the peaks still pleated with snow.

Art had a quiet, loping stride and the physique of a spider. He told me he was in his early forties and had run several hundred-mile races, including a twelfth-place finish at Leadville in 1997. It was just the two of us. Two or three miles into the run, though,

Art began to check is watch. We sped up a bit, came to an intersection with another trail and there, as if by design -- it was be design -- was another runner.

He was introduced to me as Kevin, and the three of us continued together. A while later came Rebecca. Kevin and Art soon surged ahead, and Rebecca and I locked into a slower pace. She had long blond hair, a muscular physique and a perpetual-motion machine of a stride. She wore a pained expression, not uncommon for ultra-runners, that suggested to me she was doing this solely because it would feel so good once she stopped.

Rebecca, it turned out, hadn't run at all until she joined Divine Madness four years ago. Now she was completing runs that lasted upwards of several hours. In a few months she was scheduled to compete in a 100-kilometer race. She had just turned 30. I had reached the same milestone a few months earlier, and there was something about this coincidence, I think, that made her open up to me. "The last half of my twenties were the worst years of my life," she said. Had things been better since she'd turned 30? "Sort of," she said, in a tone that implied not.

I had the impression that she wanted to say more; that the opportunity to speak candidly was a rare one, but it was only a matter of minutes before Kevin and Art slowed down and we were all together. Over the next dozen miles other runners started appearing at various intersections. This was the way Divine Madness operated; an intricate interlinking of workouts, everyone on their own schedule, and yet, as the run reached a crescendo, everyone running together. And then, more than 20 miles into the run, we jumped onto the paved roads and a woman came toward us, running with an extraordinary fluidity, moving as if the road were transporting her.

"This is Janet," said Art.

The woman came upon us, slowed to a stop and pivoted. Than she fired up her stride and continued with us. We'd run nearly a marathon by this point. We ran in a tight, churning group, a sort of runners' peloton. The pace picked up. Seven minutes a mile. We all clicked subconsciously into the same cadence. Our footfalls became synchronous. There was an energy encircling the group, almost a centripetal force, that made me feel as though I'd she my individual burden and were part of a single multi-legged entity. I was swept along by the rhythm, swept past pain and fatigue and concern. I felt less tired as the miles passed.

I ran behind Janet. A dusty-blond braid fell halfway down her back. I watched her calf muscles flex and relax, pump and deflate, like something on a steam engine. The source of her stride appeared to be not her legs but someplace in her center. Her braid scarcely swung. There was an intensity about her, about the way she ran, that I couldn't quite grasp. Occasionally she would say something aloud, a scrap of imprecise coach-speak to keep the group moving in tune: "Shorten the stride. Round the hips. Lean forward."

We shortened and rounded and leaned. I tried to emulate Janet's pace. She seemed to be running in slow motion, and then we were moving faster. Six forty-five. Six forty. We were closing in on 30 miles. I sidestepped to my right, opened my stride and pulled beside her. We started to talk, in staccato phrasing, to the tempo of our breathing.

She gave me her credentials: winning the 100-kilometer championships and then, the next year, finishing second in the 50-mile championships in just over seven hours. Later this summer she'd be shooting again for the 100K title. She'd come from Texas, she told me, shy and timid and seeking fulfillment. She came to Boulder and found Tizer. She hadn't started running until she was 24, and not seriously until she was 32. She'd just turned 40. We charged up a short, steep hill. Janet burst into the song, "Chattanooga Choo Choo," sung to the credence of our pace. "I live to train," she said when we had reached to crest. This much was clear: She was radiating the spent joy of exhaustion She told me she ran 130 miles a week.

What made Janet run? There was her piercing intensity -- the single-minded drive endemic to almost all top athletes -- but through the slits in that intensity I could sense something else. She had a purity of focus that seemed too pure. "I'll never marry," she said, matter-of-factly. "All I really do is run and eat and sleep." I couldn't help feeling that she was afflicted with an odd sort of low-grade fear, a deep-seated nervousness, as if she thought something terrible might happen to her if she stopped. All I could do was run beside her.

We came to the trail head where the cards were, and the run was over. Four hours solid, more than 30 miles. One of the best runs of my life, maybe the very best. I mentioned this to everyone, along with my thanks. Rebecca hopped into a car and was off. Janet smiled and glanced at her watch and said she hadn't finished her workout, and she took off down the road.

Art chose that moment to ask me if I knew about the group and its leader. I said I'd read the articles about Divine Madness but had come with an open mind. Art told me he'd been upset by charges against the group. "If Divine Madness is a cult," he said, "Christianity is a cult."

The more I thought about the run, the more I wondered what these runners had subjected themselves to and why. The next day, seeking explanation, I went to see an ex-member I'll call D. She had joined Divine Madness at 24; she left the group in 1997, when she was 42.

D.'s home sits on a bluff overlooking Boulder, where she runs a New Age cooking school that she calls a nourishment center. We sat in her backyard in lawn chairs, catching wonderful tomatoey whiffs of the Tuscany bean soup stewing on her stove.

I began by asking about the guru. At first, D. Claimed that much of her time with Tizer was rewarding. "Yo can be an incredible teacher," she said. "At times his ideas seemed magical. He held my essence. He slowed down my aging process. He was the one who told me that my destiny was with food." When I mentioned some of the eccentricities I'd read about -- the isolation, the sleep deprivation -- her tone shifted abruptly and her eyes narrowed. "You kind of surrender yourself to Yo," D. Said. "You live in a cocoon with him. Sometimes we'd listen to Yo talk all night about running. What a waste. Yo said [much sleep] wasn't necessary. He said the organs in the body have their own time to sleep and that as long as you got your liver sleep, between 3 and 5 a.m., you were okay." D. Also said that Tizer did not allow his runners to eat their first meal of the day until after their workout, even if the run was five or six hours long. "And if you don't finish the run," she said, "you don't eat either."

Tizer, she went on, had frequent sex with women in the Community, often while drinking. She confirmed the existence of the Yo ladies, though she wasn't one of them. "Oh yeah, I had sexual relations with Yo," she said. "He needed to make love every night. One time, in the morning, I said I didn't feel like it, and he said, 'Oh, you'll get over it.' Just so he could get his rocks off."

Toward the end of our visit, I asked D. If she still ran. "No way," she said. "And I don't miss it I don't miss it at all."

On the drive back to town, my cell phone rang It was Art, calling to invite me to a party. "You seem like the type of person who wouldn't mind staying up late," he said. There was a gathering that evening, and he gave me an address. "Come around midnight." As I hung up, I was reminded of something D. Had told me I had asked her how she was first enticed to join Divine Madness. "I was invited to a party," she said.

The gathering was held in the loft of a renovated barn behind one of the group's homes. The loft was windowless and steam room hot and contained at least 30 people, two thirds of them women. Vinyl records were being played -- classic rock, a good amount of Beatles. Many of the men were shirtless and dancing wildly, legs and arms flapping, hips pumping, hair spraying sweat. Women mirrored their moves. A bottle of Maker's Mark whiskey was pressed into my hand. I took a long swig and passed it on. Soon another bottle was in my hand. I drank again.

It took me several minutes to realize what was going on For 30 seconds into each song, there was regular rock >no' roll dancing, but this would soon devolve into dirty dancing and then body smearing and then, quite suddenly, passionate kissing Some of the couples ended up rolling about on the carpeted floor; others sat and fondled each other. No one, save me, seemed the least bit self-conscious. I took another drink.

Janet and Rebecca were both there, and I stood near the turntable and watched them dance. I saw Janet dance with someone else and, soon enough, kiss him. After a dozen songs I had watched her kiss four men, this stirred in me surprising jealousy. I'm not quite sure when it happened, but one moment I was watching Janet dance and the next she had flopped down beside me. My pulse jumped; I began to sweat. We got to talking -- about running, the mechanics of her exquisite stride, the endless pursuit of faster times -- and somewhere during this talk she wound herself about me, so that when she started telling me about her injuries, she'd glide my hand to the site of the wound. I had the feeling I was slipping headlong into trouble, but I did nothing to stop her. She told me about ripping her calf muscle during a 100K race and running through the agony. Down went my hand to her calf. She guided my hand to just above her left knee, where I felt a button-sized scar, and then near her hip, where I could feel a second scar. She told me she'd broken her femur while running and had had a metal rod inserted to hold the bone together. She had even competed with the rod in place.

It got to be late, very late, and suddenly people were pairing off and leaving. I felt that strange dizzy energy on the other side of exhaustion, so I said to Janet, "Let's go look at the stars," and we unhooked ourselves and walked downstairs, holding hands. But there were no stars outside, because the sky was already turning blue. Janet said, "Do you want to go running at nine?" I wanted to go, but I needed more than three hours' sleep, so I said, "I can't, Janet, I really can't," and I leaned forward, and we were very close. The moment seemed to beg for closure, like a first date, so I kissed her -- or maybe, in truth, she kissed me -- but it was an innocent kiss, drylipped and brief. We were too tired for passion, and I think we both knew it, but we tried again, and again it was the same, and so I said, "Good night," and she said, "Good morning," and we laughed again and I walked to my car and drove away.

Two days later, Art invited me to join the Sunday run, the most intense workout of the week. I ran for six hours, covering more than 40 miles, and again I found the experience profoundly strength-giving. I spent much of the run with either Janet or Rebecca.

Rebecca and I ran together for some time, just the two of us, and she continued where she'd left off on our previous run. She expressed doubts about her desire to continue running, fears about her spiritual growth. It was impossible for me to remain neutral. As we ran through the foothills, I told Rebecca of the joys of travel, of the pleasures of riding a bike and swimming in the ocean and sleeping late and goofing off and generally being in charge of one's own life. I could tell she was listening, thinking about the path she had chosen, weighing her choices.

For a long time she was silent. Then, suddenly, her foot caught a tree root and she went down hard, skidding on all fours over the rocky path. She jumped up, but already blood was gathering at both knees and tears were pooling in her eyes. She kept going.

"I know why that happened," she said after a few minutes.


Again there was no sound except the slap of footfalls and the rasp of her breathing. "I lost my concentration," she eventually said, "because I was wondering if it would be okay to call you sometime."

Her confession unnerved me. In one intimate moment she had transferred to me all of her pain and chaos and confusion. I told her my E-mail address, and she memorized it, but after one exchange of pleasantries a week later, the messages stopped.

I ran my final miles with Janet. When my six hours were up, I gave her a brief hug and watched her push on alone. Janet, I realized, would be miserable if she left Divine Madness, even though I felt she was surely damaging herself by staying. She had become an athletic machine, constantly running, constantly exhausted, never quite finished, never quite transformed.

To unlock the secrets of the group's runners requires a sacrifice I'm unwilling to make. I left Boulder, but not before tucking the memories of my runs into a spot where I could access them when necessary, deep into a difficult workout.

Three weeks later I completed my 100-mile race. I finished in 23 hours and 48 minutes, and I'm convinced my runs with Divine Madness helped me break the magical 24-hour mark. My race strategy was uncomplicated: I simply envisioned Janet's stride every step of the way.


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