The Long, Strange Trip of a Running Guru Self-styled philosopher-coach Marc Tizer has built a bizarre spiritual community that has become an ultramarathon powerhouse

Aug. 04, 2003
Aug. 04, 2003

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Aug. 4, 2003

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The Long, Strange Trip of a Running Guru Self-styled philosopher-coach Marc Tizer has built a bizarre spiritual community that has become an ultramarathon powerhouse

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."

This is an article from the Aug. 4, 2003 issue

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

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

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

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

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.

COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK THE LEADER Tizer (left) turned his runners toward 100-mile races in the '90s to help them better access their spirituality.COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY TOM KIMMELL [See caption above]COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK (LEFT) THE STAR Under Tizer, Peterson (left, in June; above, with Tizer in '97) has gone from a nonrunner to a champion 100-miler.COLOR PHOTO: TOM KIMMELL [See caption above]COLOR PHOTO: SALLIE DEAN SHATZ (LEFT) THE SUPPORTING CAST Runyan (above) is Divine Madness's top female runner, while Ives (right) helps recruits new runners.COLOR PHOTO: PHIL MISLINSKI [See caption above]TWO COLOR PHOTOS: TOM KIMMELL (2) THE REGIMEN A strict diet and twice-weekly runs of at least 40 miles have helped ensure Divine Madness's dominance.
The plaintiffs alleged that Tizer controlled the group with
"IT WAS A GOOD LIFE, A SIMPLE LIFE," says one ex-member of her
years in the group. And for a moment she sounds almost
"The distance is so overwhelming, so you need some gimmick to
get your brain there. You need to MAKE A DEAL WITH YOUR GOD."