By Ann Skarban
302nd Airlift Wing Public Affairs
PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. — Four 302nd Airlift Wing Airmen achieved major personal running milestones by becoming finishers in three extreme Colorado mountain running races during the weekend of Aug. 17. The three races were the Pikes Peak Ascent, the Pikes Peak Marathon, and the Leadville 100.
Air Force Reserve Staff Sgt. Denise Flory, 302nd AW historian, completed both the Pikes Peak Ascent, in which participants run 13.32 miles with a 7,815 vertical gain to the mountain’s summit, and the Pikes Peak Marathon where runners complete a full marathon by running both up and down Pikes Peak.
She ran the races back-to-back, running one race each weekend day.
“The mountain makes the rules,” said Flory describing the mountain races, and the high altitude challenges involved in running in Colorado. She had run the ascent race previously, but this was her first time running both the ascent and mountain marathon on consecutive days, a long-time goal for Flory. “I could feel the effects of the altitude with each step. Next to childbirth, this was probably the most physically challenging thing I’ve done,” she added. Describing her experience running the Pikes Peak Marathon, Flory said she felt stronger as she ran up the mountain and could feel the relief in each step as the altitude decreased on the marathon’s decent run.
“It was a pretty good challenge,” said Capt. Steve Papp, an Active Duty C-130 pilot with 52nd Airlift Squadron, the 302nd AW’s associate squadron, who ran the mountain marathon for the first time. The race is called “America’s Ultimate Challenge” by organizers and is ranked as the second most difficult marathon in the world on the Weather Channel’s website. “It was harder than any other flatlander marathon I’ve run.” Papp who ran the marathon in five hours, 14 minutes and 42 seconds described the extreme switch in muscle groups [in his legs] as he ran the 8,000 foot elevation gain and loss marathon course.
“It’s fascinating how running can grow on you and you continually increase your challenges,” said Lt. Col. Alan Flolo, commander of the 302nd Force Support Squadron who finished the Pikes Peak marathon in five hours, 39 minutes and 49 seconds. This also was Flolo’s first time running the Pikes Peak Marathon, but not his first marathon. Flolo is a two-time finisher of the Boston Marathon.
Meanwhile in Leadville, Colo., approximately 125 miles north and west of Manitou Springs and Pikes Peak, Senior Master Sgt. Ken Kunkel, a C-130 instructor/evaluator flight engineer with the 302nd Airlift Wing was taking on a 100- mile mountain run challenge with the Leadville 100. The “Race Across the Sky” has runners covering one hundred miles of extreme Colorado Rockies terrain from elevations of 9,200 to 12,600 feet. While Kunkel is an avid mountain hiker, this was Kunkel’s first ultra-race in the mountains. Kunkel also noted when flying at these elevations, he is required to use an oxygen mask.
“The Air Force Fitness program got me back into running,” said Kunkel who thought he was sidelined after undergoing knee surgery about 20 years ago. Kunkel ran the 100 miles of demanding terrain at high elevations from 4 a.m. Saturday until he finished at 7:45 a.m. Sunday.
Kunkel was glad to have the help of his “wingmen,” Lt. Col. Ed Strickland, a C-130 navigator and ultra race runner who is also an Air Force Reservist assigned to the 302nd Airlift Wing and retired Air Force Reserve C-130 pilot Lt. Col. Corey Steinbrink, who also attended the race and helped pace him. “They were great mentors,” said Kunkel who said he actually prefers hiking the mountain trails versus running.
Kunkel added this was by far the most challenging run for him. “It is truly mind over matter. It’s more of a mind game, dealing with your physical issues. You know you will be sore and in pain. You just have to keep a positive attitude and keep pushing through it.” After reaching each of their running goals in August, the four Airmen are already thinking about their next personal running challenges. Long distance races with even greater elevation gains are contenders for their next adventure.
Editor’s note: The altitude of Manitou Springs is 6,412 feet above sea level with the neighboring Pike’s Peak summit elevation at 14,114 feet above sea level. Leadville is ranked amongst the top of the list of America’s highest elevation cities with an elevation of just more than 10,000 feet above sea level.