RITE OF PASSAGE 

Nearly 2,500 masochists sign up for the Race to Robie Creek

What's it like to run the Race to Robie Creek? Three-time veteran Keith Folske says it's "like passing a kidney stone."

This race earns its moniker as "The Toughest Half-Marathon in the Northwest." It starts in Fort Boise Park, and the first 8.4 miles gain about 2,000 feet of elevation. Most runners agree the last half-mile to the Aldape summit inflicts the most pain. Some of the best runners walk that stretch, while poorly trained entrants just stand and pant. Runner Kit Shuman admitted, "Sometimes the final climb hurts so bad I walk backwards just to use different muscles."

A lot can go wrong on the ascent. Racers frequently cramp, become dehydrated or give up. Ginger Newton once vomited in front of a photographer. Gwen Worley remembers overheating on the first hill. "I was so sick, hot and cold, chills, no energy. By the time I got to the eight-mile mark, I stood there in tears." But like most Robie racers, she kept going as the Table of Temptation awaits. The Table, located just below the summit, is run by the Boise Hash House Harriers, also known as a drinking group with a running problem. Larry Olsen heads up the volunteer operations. "Every year it blows my mind," he said. "Eight miles into this grueling race, runners are looking for beer, Twinkies, hard liquor and cigars. Last year we went through eight boxes of Twinkies and Ho-Hos, 2.5 cases of Highland Hollows Spoon Tongue beer and two gallons of Hurricane, that's rum and hurricane mix from New Orleans."

The Table has a reputation for dishing out goods with irreverent style. In 2003, six-foot-tall volunteer Brandon Ihli donned a Playboy bunny costume and peddled beer. Last year, volunteer Jennifer Gelband balanced Hurricane shots on her backside. She said, "None of the runners would take shots, so it was my harebrained scheme to unload the booze. Lo and behold, it worked!"

After a brief-or extended-stop at the Table of Temptation, runners endure the push to the summit. This is about the time Folske begins seeing a talking burrito. "He laughs at me and I think about eating him," he said. "I'm not sure if it's real or not."

Any exultation a runner experiences upon reaching the top is short-lived. There's still 4.7 miles of downhill to go. Five-time Robie winner Mike Carlson regards the first 1.5 brutally steep miles after the summit as the worst of the race.

John McCrostie once suffered a painful but not uncommon descent. "My calves started to cramp like nothing I've ever experienced in my life," he said. "Finally, I had to completely stop. I ended up walking from mile 10 to 12, at which point I decided to tough it out to the finish line."

About two miles from the finish, the course levels out. For Jeff Ulmer, it's pure agony. "Your legs are so tired from the uphill and trashed from the downhill, then as the course flattens out, it's just fatigue," he said.

Sooner or later, nearly everyone participating reaches the finish line. Volunteers marked the achievement last year by adorning competitors with a Zydeco-themed finisher's medal-a miniature bottle of Tabasco sauce tied to a piece of rough string.

The course record is 1:13:06 for men and 1:23:52 for women. Cori Mooney set the women's record in 1998 and recently said, "Robie Creek is different from other half-marathons in that only the people who have run Robie understand what it means to finish it. There's a huge sense of camaraderie because Robie finishers, whether fast or slow, appreciate the enormous challenge of it."

Some participants, however, prefer agony by believing Robie is not tough enough. Matt Booth, for example, is using the race as a training tool for his upcoming triathlon. He said, "At 8 a.m., I will swim 1.2 miles, then bike 56 miles, then show up to the start line for the half-marathon."

Jim Cooper prefers two scoops of pain, and routinely indulges in over-and-backs. "I start at the finish, run over in time for the noon start of the race, then run back with all the rest," he said.

Dale Keys has run the race 19 times, and declined an offer to join Cooper on the over-and-back this year. "I can think of things that sound less painful," he said. "For instance, getting a circumcision reversed without anesthesia."

For the majority of runners, the ultimate goal is reaching the post-race party in Robie Creek Park. "It's awesome," McCrostie said. "Mostly it's about the free food and beer."

Folske agrees, "The party is the best part, as long as you feel OK. If you're suffering from gastrointestinal distress from punishing yourself on the course, it's not the place to be. It's a long ride to the nearest bottle of Maalox."

Spectators are welcome at the party, but only if they have a pass. Robie Creek Organizing Committee member Jack Kaper explained, "It's a fragile piece of ground and can only hold so many."

The 750 available passes disappeared quickly this year, and the race sold out in just seven hours. But it takes more than free beer to explain the popularity of this race.

Some runners, like Sheri McNabb, are simply obsessed. She's flying in from Georgia to run her 11th Robie, and describes the race as "an annual rite of passage, an addiction, an event not to be missed."

For many first-timers, though, the Race to Robie Creek is about earning street cred, about becoming a full-fledged member of Boise and its running community. Robie virgin Kathleen Simko said, "It seems like bad running karma to call yourself a runner and live in Boise, but never run the Race to Robie Creek."

Amber Stockert has only lived here six months, but she's ready to battle the mountain, too. As she put it, "Every Boisean has done Robie, right?"

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