Ultramarathon runner Bill Finkbeiner keeps telling himself he isn't doing this race again. Just finish - he always pleads with his body - and that's it.
For real this time, too, he promises.
No more taking the starting line for the ''Race Across The Sky'' 100-mile race in Leadville, Colorado, where the course climbs to a lung-searing 12,600 feet. No more chafing so bad he has to run bow-legged near the end. No more throwing up from exhaustion at mile 80, which always seems to happen to him. No more falling asleep on his feet and dreaming of walking through a door before being jarred awake by running into a bush.
Only, his body doesn't believe him anymore. Because he keeps coming back.
The 58-year-old Finkbeiner will run in his 31st straight Leadville 100 race on Saturday, only missing the inaugural event in 1983 because there were closer ultramarathon races to his house in Auburn, California.
He has finished every Leadville race, too, always staggering in under the 30-hour time limit. He has never turned an ankle so bad along the rocky course that he needed to withdraw, or sustained such debilitating cramps that he couldn't get up from an aid station. or had bleeding blisters on his feet that required medical attention, which is quite common.
''Just amazing,'' race director Josh Colley said of Finkbeiner's streak. ''What drives him? There's got to be something pretty special there.''
After all, the dropout rate in a race like Leadville is around 30 percent (some years, when it's really cold and rainy at the start, it's more like 40 percent). And yet Finkbeiner always finds a way to will his body across the finish line.
Usually, it's with his empty promise to his sore muscles that he absolutely won't return again. But each year as he drives home, somewhere around the Utah state line, he gets this thought in his head: `Just one more time.'
''I've got other hobbies,'' Finkbeiner said, ''and I'm always wishing at about mile 70 that I was doing them instead. I'm always thinking, `Why do I do this? I'm not coming back. No way.'
''Then, all I can think of is coming back.''
Two decades ago, Finkbeiner was typically among the race favorites, even taking third in 1992 with a time of 20 hours, 30 minutes.
These days, he pushes up against the time limit.
Finkbeiner even thought about pulling out of this race and breaking his streak, especially since he has only been able to average around 45 miles a week. But Ann Trason, a four-time women's winner at Leadville, agreed to pace him over the last 20 miles, and he doesn't want her to ''drive all the way out there for nothing.''
''So that keeps me positive,'' said Finkbeiner, who has run at least a mile each day since Jan. 1, 1980 - a streak that wasn't even interrupted by hernia surgery a few years back. ''This is a tough run for only a 30-hour limit.''
The 100-mile out-and-back course is a rugged adventure that sends runners over rock-riddled trails, through a thigh-deep stream and up embankments so steep they nearly have to crawl. The lowest point of the course is 9,200 feet and the highest is Hope Pass, which is more than two miles above sea level.
Oh, and at night, the runners shuffle along the trail by the beam of a headlamp, which casts eerie shadows that makes the weary runners almost see things in the dark.
The race was the invention of Ken Chlouber, a spirited marathoner who wanted to bring visitors to the mining town during a tough economic time.
His thought? If runners have to race 100 miles, they'll for sure stay overnight and spend money.
All the weary souls who get their soles over the finish line receive a belt buckle the size of a serving platter. That's the motivation - plain and simple.
Finkbeiner, a landscape contractor by trade, proudly displays all of his buckles in a glass case in his living room.
Not one buckle has come easy. Far from it, especially around mile 80, where he always seems to throw up whatever he has eaten. That's usually a steady intake of grilled cheese sandwiches and energy gels.
Recently, Leadville added pancakes to the aid station around mile 87. He drowns them in syrup, giving him just the sugar surge he needs.
''Those have really made a huge difference,'' said Finkbeiner, who usually goes through two pairs of shoes and countless socks during the race.
And while he's now run more than 3,000 miles along the course, he has never encountered anything bigger than a squirrel. No mountain lions, elk, bears or coyotes have come across his path - that he is aware of anyway.
As for what he thinks about on those long wilderness treks, well, that's simple. Not falling - asleep or over a rock.
''People always think I must get bored,'' Finkbeiner said. ''But you really do watch every step.
''I've been fortunate not to have anything to keep me from finishing.''