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No jog in the park

Danny Ripka endures the rigors of the 50-mile run in Withlacoochee State Forest to win for

By FRANK PASTOR
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 7, 2002


This was the last time she would see her husband, so Pat Ripka made sure he had everything he would need for his trip.

She set out the protein drink he mixed that morning and the electrolyte drink he prepared the night before.

She put ice in his hat. She had his music ready. Spare shorts, shoes and socks, too. Salt tablets and Ibuprofen, just in case.

Before he disappeared into the woods, she asked one last time how he was doing, if there was anything else he would need.

Then, she gathered her two Yorkiepoos, left the aid station and walked to the finish line. There was nothing left for her to do except wait -- and worry.

"I just pray that he's OK," Ripka said. "A lot of things can happen out there."

* * *

Ripka's husband, Danny, had been running in the woods for more than four hours. He was 35 miles into the Croom Trail 50-Mile Fools Run on March 30 in the Withlacoochee State Forest, northeast of Brooksville.

He was embarking on the last of three 15-mile loops through grass fields, oak hammocks, long leaf pine forests, sink holes and other ravines.

Danny Ripka, a 45-year-old Minneapolis resident who winters in Naples, had a 20-minute lead after the second loop. He was on a record pace. But he was beginning the most demanding -- and treacherous -- stretch of the race.

The midday sun was high and hot. Fatigue, dehydration and loss of blood sugar sapped Ripka's strength. Roots, fallen logs and old mining pits waited to trip him.

Pat Ripka wasn't worried about her husband finishing; he had completed every race he ran. She was concerned about his condition at the end of the Croom event. She had seen him break down before and finish as many as two hours behind the leaders.

She worried about the heat making him sick. She worried about the plantar in his heel. She worried about him worrying too much about the pain and leaving himself open to a more serious injury.

She worried about Eugene Carnegie, a 16-year-old from Palmetto the Ripkas picked up on their way to the race.

Carnegie had been running for just eight months and never had competed in anything longer than a marathon. He was the youngest entrant in the Croom race's eight-year history and was running without a water bottle.

"We tried to tell him to go out with the runners, to try to stick with a slower runner to begin with, but 16 years old, how many listen?" Pat Ripka said. "He thinks he knows his body well enough, and we'll see."

* * *

Forty-one runners started the 50-mile trek, which serves as the Road Runners Club of America 50M Southern Regional Championship. Another 32 individuals and 11 relay teams entered the 50K an hour later.

Each was driven by something different.

Danny Ripka, a recovering alcoholic who celebrated 12 years without drugs or alcohol March 31, said ultrarunning gives him a natural high.

"Now I run about as much as I used to party, so you can imagine how much I used to party," he said.

Defending champion Jeff Meyers, 43, of Manitou Springs, Colo., sought an outlet for his competitiveness.

Raymond Bell, 54, of Hudson, a 50K competitor, runs to stay young and keep up with his son, John, a track and cross country athlete at Hudson High School.

Carnegie, the youngest of the group, said he likes winning things.

"The longer the distance, the more fun it is," Carnegie said. "Plus, I'm better at longer distances."

* * *

The 50-mile trail course seemed perfect for Ripka, who won four of the previous five Croom races. But he got lost for five minutes during the second loop last year and finished fourth.

This time, Ripka went out with Meyers, 2001 third-place finisher Jon Docs, 38, of Tampa and John Dove, 37, of Macon, Ga., who completed a 100-miler in under 16 hours.

Only Ripka and Docs lasted past the second loop.

"It's just too hot," Meyers said. "I couldn't keep water down. To go back out there and hurt myself, it's not worth it."

Meyers won last year's Croom title in 6 hours, 57 minutes, 52 seconds. He set an age group record for men 40-44.

But the former St. Petersburg resident said he wasn't prepared for the heat after moving to Colorado, where he spends much of his time snowboarding in 30-40-degree weather.

"This reassured me that I made the right decision by getting the hell out of Florida," he said.

* * *

Bell has been running for more than 40 years and completed two races across America. He won in 1993 and placed second in '95 despite producing a faster time (442 hours) over the 2,938 miles.

He remembers hunters in ATVs removing trail markers, causing him to run 10 miles out of his way, and shooting holes in water jugs at aid stations during a race in Utah.

His body shut down during his last 50-mile event, allowing runners to pass him as he struggled to reach the finish.

Those experiences helped Bell through the 50K, which he won in 3:54:00. Despite suffering from asthma and arthritis and briefly losing his bearings, he never stopped running.

"(Getting lost) helped me, because it got my adrenaline really psyched up," Bell said. "I was so mad that I missed (the trail marker)."

Bell, who has been in the sport since 1959, has won a race in six consecutive decades.

"This has special meaning to me," he said. "I was wondering if this was going to happen or not, because I don't put the miles in like I used to."

* * *

Carnegie can't seem to find enough miles.

A sophomore at Palmetto High, he started running eight months ago because he wanted a ROTC athletic ribbon. To get one, he had to participate in a varsity sport.

He didn't want to put the time into football, so he went out for cross country. He started working with a trainer after the season and entered four half-marathons and the Jacksonville Marathon (finishing in 3:47:57) in December.

Carnegie was watching television when he saw a program on the Western States Endurance Run, a 100-mile race from Squaw Valley to Auburn, Calif. Intrigued, he searched the Internet and running books for other ultramarathons and found the Croom 50-mile race.

"I only had a month to train, so I figured I'd do that," he said.

Carnegie went out too fast and was breathing heavily at the 20-mile mark. But he paced himself better the final two loops and finished ninth in 9:06:37, setting a record for runners 29-and-under.

Carnegie ran the last 30 miles with a sprained knee. He's not sure how he did it.

"I have no idea," he said. "Maybe I'm just gifted, I guess, I don't know."

* * *

If there's one constant in running, it's this: The final loop always feels bad. It doesn't matter if you're traversing a course of one mile or 100.

It was the same for Ripka.

He led by 10 minutes after the first loop and 20 after the second. But with seven miles to go, he was beginning to wilt in the heat.

He put ice under his hat and let it drip onto his body. He poured cold water over himself, and he kept his cool.

"I just kept thinking to myself, "You're in control. You're in control of your own race. Just run smooth and run within you, and you should be able to pull it off.' "

Ripka did, pumping his fist in the air as he crossed the finish line. His time of 7:06:37 was the second-fastest of his five victories.

Afterward, he received a plaque, running shoes and a commemorative bottle of champagne. But what he really wanted were kisses from his wife and Yorkiepoos. He got those, too.

"Most of the people out here don't have the support I've got, and that's a big edge for me," Ripka said. "She knows I can do it, and with her having the confidence that I can do it makes it easier for me, too."

-- Staff writer Frank Pastor can be reached at (800) 333-7505, Ext. 1430, or pastor@sptimes.com.

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