Saitta ends hiatus

Three-time champion to return to Steamboat Marathon

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— He's back. Jason Saitta, a three-time men's Steamboat Marathon champion, is entered in the June 5 race after missing last year's event and dropping out of the 2003 marathon with an injury.

Saitta said he's healthy and excited to return to Steamboat's grueling 26.2-mile course. At least he's as excited as one can be when discussing an approaching marathon.

"Every year I come up with a different idea on how to run it," Saitta said. "It helps to have someone to run with. If there are people who want to go out and do a six-minute mile pace to start out that would be great."

Saitta said it's important to begin at a slower pace to allow the body to warm up, but the combination of adrenaline and the downhill start makes it difficult to hold back. In the middle, he usually finds a steady pace and increases his speed toward the end.

"But that hill isn't too friendly by the airport," he said.

Saitta thinks this year's Steamboat Marathon will be his 17th marathon overall, and he is still looking to run the perfect race at this altitude. A resident of Parker, Saitta mostly trains in the Front Range, averaging 65 miles a week for the past 2.5 months.

"My mileage is down from where it normally is, but I've done more quality runs," he said.

"Sometimes I would just run to get my number up. When I run in Steamboat I don't feel like the altitude is making that much of a difference but I notice it in my times. It's a combination of the altitude and, while they say it's downhill, it's really a rolling course."

The 24th annual Steamboat Marathon begins at 7:30 a.m. June 5 at Hahn's Peak Village. The half marathon and 10K begin at the same time. The kids' fun run begins at 11:15 a.m. All races end in front of the Routt County Courthouse.

More than 1,500 people from throughout the United States are expected to take part. This year, racers range in age from 9 to 75 and several are traveling from as far as Hawaii or Rhode Island to run.

The Steamboat Marathon -- which includes a half marathon and 10K as well -- has become one of Routt County's signature events, much to the delight of those who participated in the first marathon 24 years ago.

"It has been a real neat thing to see it expand," said Ed Hill, one of the race's founders.

Hill and Steve Maloney, who also is running this year's marathon, marked the original course, which used to end at the Depot Art Center. When the runners interested in starting the Steamboat Marathon were looking for a possible route, it didn't take long to decide on Routt County Road 129.

"We knew it was about 25 miles to Hahn's Peak, and it's such a beautiful road," Hill said. "It seemed like a natural thing. There wasn't a great deal of traffic on the road back then. It was all the runners. There wasn't anyone else around. It was a well run race, even the first one."

Larry Handing still has statistics from the first race in 1981. Aurora's Jeff Fisher was the men's winner, and Steamboat's Jill Leary was the women's winner.

"Actually I surprised myself," Leary said. "Steamboat's harder than you think. People have the perception it will be easy because it's downhill. When you get to that airport hill it's hard. I've seen people bonking on that hill."

Handing credits Frank Shorter, a Boulder resident who won marathon gold in the 1972 Olympics and silver in the 1976 Olympics, for energizing the distance-running community. Shorter, who started the Bolder Boulder, has run Steamboat's 10K race.

"This is probably one of the older marathons -- and for sure one of the more notable ones -- in Colorado," Handing said. "I knew it was going to be special because of the fact the run is a beautiful thing. It is somewhat of a mountain setting that is unique to marathon running. It is a runners' race. There isn't a whole lot of congestion. People can get out and feel alone with themselves."

Which brings up an obvious question. What do runners think about for 26.2 miles?

"I wish I had an interesting answer," Saitta said. "Sometimes nothing. Sometimes how I feel or what I want to do when I'm done. What I try to do is focus on the guy riding the bike. He doesn't generally ride a consistent speed, but it gives you a feeling like you are running with someone."

The urban settings where marathons are commonly held feature throngs of well-wishers lining the streets and bands playing all types of music at all levels. It takes a special person to participate in Steamboat's Marathon, which begins at 8,128 feet and winds through the countryside.

"There is that purist who doesn't want to run it and the extremist who says why not," Handing said. "Running a marathon is difficult anyway, but running a marathon a mile-and-a-half above sea level is that much more difficult. It is a challenge to come to the mountains to run."

--To reach Melinda Mawdsley call 871-4208

or e-mail mmawdsley@steamboatpilot.com

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