Divine Madness

Self-styled philosopher-coach Marc Tizer has built a bizarre spiritual community that has become an ultramarathon powerhouse

SI Adventure/August 4, 2003
By Bruce Schoenfeld

He had run the equivalent of three marathons, navigating narrow, rugged trails through Colorado's Rocky Mountains for the whole of a day and into the night. Now Steve Peterson had 20 miles left to finish the 2001 Leadville Trail 100, and two runners to catch. Peterson may have been hallucinating by then -- his body and mind protesting that man wasn't meant to run 100 miles at a stretch, not over passes 12,600 feet above sea level. But the voice Peterson was hearing in the gloaming as he chased front-runners Chad Ricklefs and Hal Koerner was real. A pacer was running beside him, offering inspiration in the form of New Age mantras like "Make your muscles into rubber" and "Smile at the sky."

Peterson, 41, was an unlikely candidate to be challenging the limits of human endurance. A 6'3" scarecrow of a man who runs with a plodding gait, he hadn't even been a recreational runner in the mid-1980s when he joined Divine Madness, a spiritual community based in Boulder, Colo. By 2001, however, Peterson had been tuned and tweaked to succeed at Leadville, his mind and body conditioned by an intensive regimen that began in '91, when Divine Madness embraced ultrarunning as a vehicle for attaining enlightenment. Remarkably, as he approached the aid station at the 86.5-mile mark, Peterson appeared not spent but rather reenergized. Somewhere deep inside, he had found a higher gear. "He passed me on the road coming up to the aid station, and he just had that look, like he was ready to go," says Koerner. "It's something I hadn't seen before."

Peterson covered the rest of the course so rapidly that some competitors believe he must have hitched a ride on a truck or an SUV, though he dutifully appeared at each of the remaining aid stations. In fact, Peterson was simply running like a man possessed. He was traveling at roughly a six-minute-mile pace when he finally passed Ricklefs around the 91-mile mark. While Peterson would cross the finish line in a personal-best 17 hours, 40 minutes and 53 seconds, his fifth victory at Leadville in six years, a battered and exhausted Ricklefs didn't even finish the race.

If not for its running prowess, Divine Madness would merely be one of the many eccentric sects or communities marching to its own syncopated beat on society's margins. But the performances of members such as Peterson have made the group a force in ultramarathoning. In addition to his success at Leadville, Peterson finished third in June at the Western States Endurance Run in California, a year after finishing second in the prestigious 100-mile race. "You don't make it into the top five of Western States without being about as good as anyone in the sport," says Twietmeyer, who is among the world's top ultrarunners.

But it is in the Leadville race, which will be held on Aug. 16, that Divine Madness runners have left their biggest stamp. Art Ives, a running coach who recruits new members into the group through fun runs, placed first among 40- to 49-year-olds at Leadville in 2000. Janet Runyan, Divine Madness's most successful female runner, finished first among women in the '01 race. Other Divine Madness runners annually speckle the list of top finishers.

What these runners give for such success is unyielding devotion to the cause. If hundred-mile foot races can be called the fringe of the organized sports world, Divine Madness represents its extreme fringe. The group's 35 members share a lifestyle that is at once ascetic and hedonistic. They live in rented houses scattered throughout Boulder or at a gated compound some four hours west of Albuquerque, work at subsistence jobs, pool a portion of their earnings to the group -- and run. Each Sunday as many as two dozen members will run as far as 50 miles over the paths and trails outside Boulder. In the past, two former Divine Madness members told SI, runners who didn't finish were occasionally not permitted to eat that day.

On Thursday nights, according to several former members, the group would typically dance until sunrise at wild, alcohol-fueled parties where random sexual couplings were encouraged. Monogamy was discouraged among those in the community, and rest and nutritional intake were severely rationed. Most members made do with about four hours' sleep on futons or mattresses laid atop bare floors.

The man behind Divine Madness is a charismatic figure with a wispy beard and a slender body. Marc Tizer is a self-taught running coach and self-styled philosopher who grew up in Philadelphia and came to Boulder from Chicago, where, in the late 1960s, he was a political activist. He studied Gurdjieff, dabbled in Zen Buddhism and the spirituality of Sufism, practiced yoga and created a collectivist cooperative that shared cooking and cleaning duties. Soon after founding the group in the late '70s, Tizer, who is now in his mid-50s, renamed himself Yousamien, a word he derived from the phrase "You are the same as me." His interest in ultrarunning began in 1991, when he witnessed a race at the University of Colorado. Intrigued by the idea of accessing man's spirituality through running, he began training his group for long-distance races. Soon the group, which came to be known as Divine Madness, was running ultramarathons twice a week. By '96 its members were dominating at Leadville, with five of its runners in the top 15 that year.

Tizer, in turn, dominates Divine Madness, setting its rules and, in the past, going so far as to designate members' sexual partners. He is, to say the least, eccentric. According to Celia Bertoia, a former member, while living in Boulder in the 1980s and '90s, he would spend most of each day cocooned in his small apartment, which, according to his specifications, had a toilet set in the middle of the bedroom. (When traveling, Tizer demanded that the door to the bathroom in his hotel room be removed.) Each day one woman from a group of female followers known as the Yo Ladies was assigned to rouse him from sleep, a rite that frequently ended with sex, according to a former member. "He'll pull you down, and the next thing you know, he'll be kissing you, and it goes on from there," says Bertoia, who joined Divine Madness in 1983, left the group in '96 and owns a small company that times races throughout Montana, where she lives.

Tizer, who declined interview requests from SI, would eat one meal a day, then take a nap. When night fell, he sometimes called a community meeting; this happened as frequently as four times a week or as infrequently as once a month, depending on his whim. Members were ordered to arrive at a local church or a member's house, usually between 10 p.m. and midnight. At the meetings, several former members say, Tizer would often slug back shots of Jack Daniel's while discussing ultrarunning strategy or a fund-raising initiative, or simply rambling from one philosophical topic to another. Then, usually around 4 a.m., he would select a partner and take her back to his bedroom. Inside the community, say ex-members, spending a night with Tizer was considered a great honor.

In 1996 two former members filed a lawsuit (later, a third joined it) against Tizer and Divine Madness, alleging that they inflicted emotional harm with techniques such as mandated fasting, sleep deprivation, threats -- including an alleged claim that Tizer had the power to afflict with cancer anyone who challenged him -- and limiting members' contact with outsiders. In a document filed in the case, which was settled out of court in early 1998, one plaintiff, Georgiana Scott, wrote that the latter restriction "reminds me of a battering relationship where the woman is not allowed to communicate with the outside...." After the publication the next year of a New York Times article detailing some of the bizarre aspects of Divine Madness, the isolation only increased; Tizer effectively cut off his followers from much of the outside world.

"There was an entire decade there when I didn't know anything that was going on," says Bertoia, who was not a part of the lawsuit. "When I got out into the world, people would talk about historical events like the Oklahoma bombing or the O.J. Simpson thing. I had never heard of any of them."

Divine madness isn't the first sect to tap into distance running as a means of attaining spiritual growth. The New York City- based Sri Chinmoy Marathon Team holds ultra events on loop courses, including one around a half-mile loop in Queens, N.Y., that covers 3,100 miles over 51 days. A band of monks based on Japan's sacred Mount Hiei claims to run a marathon every day as one of its purification rituals. The common belief among these groups is that the time spent alone with your thoughts, paired with the numbing repetition of the running movement, can help liberate the mind. Ultrarunning success doesn't demand physical skill as much as it does complete devotion to the cause of putting one foot in front of the other. "The distance is overwhelming, so you need some gimmick to get your brain there," says Greg Soderlund, the race director of Western States. "Your body will make it, but you need to make a deal with your God to get you to the other side. And a lot of people use that to motivate themselves."

Tizer tightly regulates his runners' training and diet. He dictates, and sometimes unexpectedly alters, their training -- waiting until his charges are almost finished with a run and then extending the prescribed distance by several miles, for example. Before a race, his runners are served a stew of beets, peanuts, carrots and potatoes ladled over rice that Tizer has named Angry Red Planet. By his decree, it must be served in a bowl, which he believes best preserves the food's energy. He is a shrewd race strategist who positions Divine Madness members who aren't competing along the course to feed him split times and, if necessary, run alongside racers like Peterson, encouraging and pacing them.

Tizer, who has claimed to have gained much of his coaching insight by watching sports on television, has employed a peculiar method of sizing up his runners' physiological needs. He would calculate how much each one should eat, sleep and train by pulling on their arms. It is a technique grounded in the applied kinesiology often used by practitioners of alternative medicine. But Tizer also has used it for nonathletic purposes. "He'd pull your arm and tell you who you should sleep with, or whether you should give up being friends with so-and-so," says a former member who requested anonymity. "It's all mind control."

According to several former members, Tizer believes that he has paranormal powers. He has rationalized his need to drink excessive amounts of alcohol by explaining that his mind gets overheated by the intensity of the thoughts he thinks and that he needs to cool it down. He has claimed he can control the movement of his own sperm, which is why his concubines don't get pregnant. (Two former members say that pregnancies, as well as subsequent abortions, were actually common within Divine Madness when they were there.) One evening Tizer was watching a football game with a female member of the group he'd summoned for sex. After one team kicked a field goal, he turned to her with a gleam in his eye. "I did that," he boasted. "I directed the energy to make it happen."

It's natural to wonder why Divine Madness members stay with the group, year after year. "Once you were in the community, that became your whole life," says Bertoia. "You worked with these people, you partied with them, you ran long distances with them, there was just a terrific camaraderie. Any time you wanted to talk with someone or have a meal with someone, there was always someone available. And it's someone you've bonded with because you've been through the same struggle.... It was a good life, a simple life." And for a moment she sounds almost wistful about its passing.

But she catches herself, mindful of why she lost her illusions about Tizer. Bertoia says that in 1995, while she and Tizer were staying in a motel on the way to Texas, where she was running in a race, Tizer got up in the middle of the night and headed for the bathroom in a drunken stupor. "He was so drunk that he stopped and urinated in the middle of the floor, all over the rug," she says. Bertoia fell asleep listening to his rhythmic breathing beside her in bed, wondering if that was really something a guru would do.

At Leadville last August, Ricklefs gained his revenge on Peterson, setting out at a torrid pace and letting it be known that he meant to sustain it. Ricklefs had become an outspoken critic of Divine Madness, believing that it further marginalizes a sport already well on the fringe, his resentment fueled, in part, by the belief that he and other top ultrarunners -- and not Peterson and his unusual lifestyle -- should be getting what little publicity the sport attracts. Around the halfway mark, when it became evident that Peterson would not be able to catch Ricklefs, Tizer instructed the five-time champion to drop out of the race.

By then, the rented farmhouse on Boulder's southeastern edge that had been a center for Divine Madness activity for years -- home for five and six members at a time and the site of most of the Thursday-night parties -- had been sold by its owner. Tizer had started spending two thirds of the year at the compound in New Mexico, which had been purchased by a group member. These days, he keeps track of his charges by phone and e-mail and frequent visits to Boulder, and while he still travels to Leadville and the Western States to coach Peterson and the others, his grip has loosened, say several Divine Madness alumni who still communicate with the group. "[The current members] get out and about more than ever," says Bertoia, "but [Tizer] is still the king, don't believe otherwise. By this time, most of the people have been there for many years. They're very loyal because they have so much invested in believing in him."

Some longtime members have moved away, putting Divine Madness behind them as a closed chapter in their lives. One former member who spoke to SI married a woman he met in the group, then moved to the West Coast. Even several years later, he remains fearful that his onetime involvement with a group that some perceived to be a cult will surface in his new environment. "I've worked so hard to build a business, and that would just kill it," he says.

Another ex-member says she attended law school while in Divine Madness, then left the group to start a private practice. She describes her years inside the community as an exercise in self-deception. "People who are charismatic can get people who are pretty rational to believe all kinds of things," she says.

Despite the attrition, Divine Madness endures. A few members have joined Tizer in New Mexico, but the majority remain in Boulder, where they run in the mountains and earn money cleaning houses and coaching running teams. Most of them are still training for Leadville, and every few months Runyan or one of her charges heads downtown to buy running shoes in bulk. They frequent a store that, according to one of its employees, gives them a 20% volume discount and humors their Michael Jackson-like demand that no customers be there when they arrive.

And twice each week, members set out on their runs on the trails around town and in the surrounding foothills. As the sun sinks lower on a Wednesday afternoon, Boulder's main roads are choked with traffic pointed toward Denver, and its recreational paths are clogged with bikers gliding past joggers, in-line skaters weaving in and out.

Back from the hills, the Divine Madness runners make their way to their houses, where a ritual bath and the strictly apportioned meal awaits. Their outward appearance suggests nothing different from the other runners who watch them shuffle past. No one knows how far they've come, or where they might be going.

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