Jason Saitta hears the whispers and sees the fingers pointed in his direction.
As the four-time winner of the Steamboat Marathon, he has achieved celebrity status in town, and when he arrived at the registration center at Christy Sports on Saturday, he didn't go unnoticed.
"It's kind of funny because I would never see myself that way," Saitta said.
Saitta will attempt to win his fifth-straight title in today's marathon and figures to be the favorite unless an unknown phenom lines up at the Hahn's Peak Village start line.
Or unless Saitta's friend, Charl Mattheus, challenges the champion.
Mattheus was one of the world's elite ultra marathoners in the late 1990s, twice winning the prestigious Comrades Ultra in his home country of South Africa.
But a ruptured Achilles tendon ended Mattheus' sponsorship deals, and ultimately his pro career, shortly thereafter. Now, 26.2 miles is more than a mid-week jog to Mattheus, as he works to get himself back in shape.
"I had it all," Mattheus said.
Mattheus, 38 and seemingly fit to the average eye, knew his time as one of the world's premier racers eventually would end, so he is content with what he accomplished in the prime of his career.
But don't be fooled. Mattheus expects to run today's marathon in less than three hours. If he does, he almost certainly will finish among the top five, perhaps as high as second to Saitta who will be disappointed if he doesn't finish in less than 2 hours, 40 minutes.
Up until two weeks ago, Mattheus was still on the marathon waiting list, so he wasn't training with the same sense of urgency as he would have with a guaranteed spot. Still, he said he is capable of running with Saitta for the first 13 miles.
"Then it would start the nightmare run to the end," he added with a laugh.
Despite losing touch with Saitta after the two met at a Denver race a couple of years ago, Mattheus registered for the Steamboat Marathon confident Saitta would be entered, motivated to defend his title.
"I don't want to lose," Saitta said.
Training has been going well, and Saitta had a solid run at the Bolder Boulder 10K on May 26. Mattheus finished behind Saitta in Boulder but went on a 26-mile training run the day before, likely affecting his performance.
Which brings the two to today's race.
The pair sat together Saturday at Christy Sports, hidden behind sunglasses and bragging about the other.
But Saitta spent his time in the shade, hydrating, while Mattheus sat in the sun with a smile.
Friends or not, Saitta is in town to win, and the people of Steamboat know it.
--To reach Melinda Mawdsley call 871-4208
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