The Crater Lake Marathon is known as one of the country's toughest, and on Aug. 9, more than 100 runners hope they can be just a bit tougher.

The Crater Lake Marathon is known as one of the country's toughest, and on Aug. 9, more than 100 runners hope they can be just a bit tougher.

"If you want to get a fast time, go somewhere else," said Bob Freirich, longtime Klamath Falls resident and race director with his wife, Beverly.

Yet in spite of the difficulties, runners from 28 states, the District of Columbia and Canada will gather at Crater Lake National Park to compete in the 33rd annual marathon, and about 260 more will run the shorter 13-mile and 6.7-mile races. All three runs, along with a 6.7-mile walk, start at 7:30 a.m.

The course begins at The Watchman at an elevation of 7,100 feet and follows the Rim Road for 19 miles before a descent to the finish at Lost Creek campground. The thinner air at these higher elevations makes it impossible for the body to perform as well as it can at sea level. The result: a slower race time for the same effort.

As if altitude were not enough of a challenge, the hills take their toll. Almost no stretch of this course is flat, and two-mile-long ascents and descents are more difficult than the altitude for many runners, according to Freirich. A hidden difficulty of this race, he adds, is that the Rim Road is banked in the same direction the entire way, putting an additional strain on tired legs.

So how do you prepare for this punishment?

"I train on trails above Mount Ashland," says Talent resident Todd Ragsdale, 39, who won this marathon in 2006 and placed second last year. "One of my shorter runs is six miles uphill followed by six miles downhill. I also hang out with maniacal runners," he adds.

"At first, everything is fine — the hills aren't too long or steep, and you're still running with the 6.7 and 13-mile racers, so there are people in sight, a lot of distractions. Then comes a long pounding downhill. You try to make up for lost time but it pounds your quads into mush," Ragsdale explains.

"Then there's a cruel twist. At mile 22, you pass the finish line but still have a two-mile uphill. Then you turn around and run two miles back. That first time is like a mirage. You really have to dig deep."

He and many others have been reduced to power walking on parts of that final, extended hill.

Martin Balding deals with altitude differently: he lives in the Northern California town of Eagle Lake at an elevation of 5,100 feet, so his body is completely acclimated to the rarified air. A three-time winner of this marathon — the last time at age 57 — the 71-year-old also holds the record for running the most Crater Lake marathons. He is signed up to run his 30th consecutive race this year.

When he toed the starting line for his first try in 1979, Balding had been unable to register.

"Since I had trained for it, I thought I might as well run anyway," Balding says. During the race, his wife figured out how to register him, and handed him his race number as he crossed the finish line — making his first-place finish legal.

Freirich started this race in 1976 with a running friend, former State Sen. Frank Shields, who at the time was a Methodist minister in Chiloquin. They had 37 runners that first year.

"Then Rev. Shields got transferred to Portland and left me with the whole thing."

Don't expect to drive to the starting or finish lines.

On race day, the Park Service will close the Rim Road at 7 a.m. to all but the buses that shuttle runners and volunteers from both the Mazama Hotel and Rim Village to the race.

In addition to being Oregon's toughest marathon, it is the most beautiful, which can sometimes be lost on runners just trying to survive.

"You notice the view driving up and when you're done," says Ragsdale.

During the race, he'll have other things on his mind.

For more information visit www.craterlakerimruns.com or call 541-884-6939

Daniel Newberry is a freelance writer and runner living in the Applegate Valley. Reach him at dnewberry@jeffnet.org