25th OWS members conquer brutal half marathon

  • Published
  • By Marc Touchton
  • 25th Operational Weather Squadron
"You're going to do what?"

Recently, members of the 25th Operational Weather Squadron heard this question after stating they were going to run in the inaugural Mount Lemmon Half Marathon on Oct. 17.

The Mount Lemmon Marathon and Half Marathon is billed as the toughest marathon in the world and the only uphill marathon in the United States. The course winds along the Catalina Highway, the only paved road to the highest peak in the Tucson area.

Mount Lemmon sits at 9,157 feet above sea level in the Santa Catalina Mountains, just northeast of Tucson. The marathon started at the beginning of the Catalina Highway at 3,028 feet, while the half marathon started at Windy Point Vista at 6,612 feet. Both courses finished in the town of Summerhaven, just below the summit at an elevation of 7,814 feet, after climbing to a maximum elevation of 8,369 feet.

Early in 2010, the idea began to circulate through the squadron about participating in this first-time event. Initial reactions were skeptical to downright impossible.

"There's no way," said Capt. Tim Villaran, a flight commander with the 25th OWS, "forget about it."

Slowly opinions changed and some embraced the challenge and the chance to run the first offering of the race. Eventually word spread and more people signed up to run the half marathon. Running experience varied from runners with several half marathons already finished, to those doing their first half ever, to those who had never run a race before.

In July, participants started a training plan which would prepare them for the race. Mileage increased gradually and the majority of the runs were on hills, with some on the Catalina Highway itself.

Along the way, rolling hills were conquered, grueling trail runs through the desert were endured, muscles were fatigued, got sore, and then stronger. Cactus needles were removed, toe nails were bruised, but in the end confidence increased.

To prepare themselves even more, the group took part in two races, an eight miler and a ten miler. With varying work schedules, participation at the training runs varied, but everyone remained committed to finishing the run up the mountain. The training plan was rigorous.

"We never knew what (was) in store for us," said Lt. Col. Lee Byerle, 25th OWS commander.

The week prior to the half marathon, anticipation was high. Running strategies were discussed, last minute equipment purchases were made and encouragement from runners and non-runners alike was continuous.

After months of preparation, the morning of the race finally arrived. While some slept well the night before, others tossed and turned, but everyone arrived in the wee hours of the morning to get the ride to the start, half way up the mountain.

Participants included: Colonel Byerle, Captain Villaran, Marc Touchton, 25th OWS meteorologist, Senior Master Sgt. Gabriel Lacayo, 25th OWS operations superintendent, and 25th OWS forecasters Senior Airman Carlos Calle and Airman 1st Class Michael Neahr.

Spirits were high and the temperatures were just right for a long run. As the time to start the race approached, warm ups were completed, final bravado exchanged, and estimated finish times declared. To the east, the sky was beginning to lighten with the approach of dawn.

Shortly after 6 a.m., the race started in the pre-dawn darkness. The mountain immediately greeted the runners with a climb right from the start. No gently rising slope to ease into the climb here. Along that initial climb runners were treated to some incredible views of the surrounding mountains and the sight of the road below them that the marathoners would have to conquer.

Before moving into the trees in the higher elevations, the sky was afire with the complete palette of sunrise colors as the sun approached the horizon. Runners absorbed these sites as the mountain continued to punish them on their way to the top. In the initial miles of the race, there were some short downhill runs to break the rhythm of climbing. As the miles passed and the elevation increased, the terrain changed from mountain chaparral to evergreen forests. And still they ran uphill.

At about the half way point of the half marathon at close to 8,200 feet elevation, the runners faced a two mile downhill. Depending on running style, this presented a reprieve from the arduous climbing and a chance to improve their average pace or another challenge of using already fatigued muscles differently. At this point in the race, the coldest temperatures were encountered.

Runners could see their breath, something not usually seen in Tucson except on the coldest of days. This downhill was followed by another climb and then another short descent. Immediately after was perhaps the toughest part of the entire course. Just short of Summerhaven, the course turned up the road to the ski resort. This section of the course was steeper, longer than any section prior.

Coming toward the end of the race, this climb was very daunting. During this climb, the runners ahead were coming down the other side of the road, offering words of encouragement. At the end of this one mile plus, 570 feet climb was a mile and quarter downhill to the finish.

As the announcer blared out the names as runners approached the finish, the crowd and other runners were cheering the runners on.

"It was great to do something I have never done before," Sergeant Lacayo said.

"It was an incredible experience, the experience and atmosphere of this race was like no other," Captain Villaran said.

While some runners felt good, others nursed injuries, but everyone shared a sense of accomplishment.

"I will never forget it," Colonel Byerle said. "We challenged ourselves and pushed our limits. I'm proud of the team's camaraderie and esprit every step of the way, par-for-the course for 25th OWS!"


Mount Lemmon Half Marathon Results
Colonel Lee Byerle - First Half Marathon; 2:03:34; Third in 35-39 age group
Captain Villaran - 2:08:32; Tenth in 25-29 age group
Airman Calle - First Half Marathon; 2:18:40; Third in 20-24 age group
Mr. Touchton - 2:28:54
Airman Neahr - 2:45:04; Tenth in 20-24 age group
Sergeant Lacayo - First Half Marathon; 3:28:58