I was watching a great documentary the other night called "Running the Sahara" about three men who ran all the way across the Sahara Desert where temperatures reached 140 degrees F. Check it out. It's a great documentary of an amazing athletic achievement.
It got me to thinking about an athletic performances that are right at the edge of human capability, and I remembered one that I witnessed a runner named John Bramley accomplish in the summer of 1977.
I had met John a year earlier through a mutual friend in Ft. Collins, Colorado. At the time, running and aerobic exercise were becoming a national craze. Steve Prefontaine had elevated the U.S. in to the highest echelons of distance running with a gutsy, dramatic fourth place performance in the 5000 meter in the Munich Olympics. Nike would soar to fame and riches is just a few years. It seemed everybody, including me, was running 10Ks.
John Bramley was different than the rest of us because he was on the verge of bursting onto the national scene as one the best distance runners in America. He had been a solid runner in college a few years earlier, but was getting faster and faster as he matured. While the rest of us might run 50 miles a week, he ran 120. And not on the flats. He'd run a 20 mile loop out of Ft. Collins then up, over, and down a dirt road that ran along Horsetooth Reservoir west of town, then back. He loved running, and like all runners, loved to talk about it. He had a great sense of humor and was very down to earth making us all feel like we were his running peers, when the differences between us in skill and endurance were day and night.
That summer in 1977, my friend, wife and I went to watch John Bramley compete in the Mt. Evans Ascent (then known as the Mt. Evans Trophy Run). It's the highest road race in America, climbing 14.5 miles from Echo Lake at 10,600 feet to the summit of Mt. Evans at 14,264. Because of the extreme high altitude, the race only attracted a couple hundred runners, many of whom would finish walking or not finish at all.
When we got there, we went to say hi to Bramley. He was his usual friendly self, but understandably a little distracted by the challenge ahead. Near the starting line, I was approached by a guy who was a cameraman with a major Denver station. He needed a ride on the course so he could film the race; there'd been a glitch and his ride hadn't shown up (this was pre-cell phone). He had noticed I was driving a Volvo station wagon. He had permission to take a vehicle onto the course.
So my wife and friend got in the station wagon, and the cameraman sat to the left under the rear door that opened up, with his legs dangling over the bumper. When the starting gun fired, we pulled away with the lead pack just a few yards in back of our car. I got the car in a position that I could see them in the rear view mirror in the space not occupied by the cameraman.
Within a few minutes, Bramley had pulled away from the rest, and he opened a bigger and bigger lead with each step. We marveled at how fast he was running - even paced, relaxed, at an amazing tempo. We knew we were seeing something special. Soon he was the only person I saw in the mirror.
At the cameraman's urging, we sped a couple hundred yards further ahead of him and stopped on the last switchback before the summit so he could be film Bramley on the final climb to the finish. We all got out and yelled encouragement. He smiled as he came by and crossed the finish. He had just run 14.5 miles (7 minute miles) uphill at very high altitude in 1:41:35, setting a course record that stood for 31 years.
Within two years, Bramley would also run the second fastest marathon in U.S. history, a record that only lasted a few months. I saw him once during that time. He was training for the 1980 Olympic Trials. He had been training hard and had some leg problems and been sick a lot. I heard he didn't make the final roster for the Olympics. Then I lost track of him.
After watching the story about guys who ran across the Sahara, I did an Internet search to remember the details of Bramley's accomplishment that day. My heart sunk. When Bramley's name came up in association with Mt. Evans, it also came up in connection with the story of a man whose body had been found on Long's Peak, a 14,000 ft. massif in Rocky Mountain National Park, in 2009. At age 55, John Bramley had died from a fall down the side the that mountain.He obviously never lost his passion for physical extremes. I read the obituary and some online remembrances. He left a wife and three daughters. He was remembered as a good father and friendly, humble, funny man. And a great runner in his time.
I felt sad, but privileged to have seen him run that day. I'll always remember John Bramley framed in my rear view mirror, running hard and fast, forever young.