THE runners crowd the white linepainted in the grass, anxious and impatientas racehorses at a starting gate. They shaketheir legs, wag their arms at their sides, rolltheir necks from one shoulder to the other.Some look for family members in thecrowd and smile excitedly; others are allconcentration, eyes burning down the soccerfield, around the white church and upthe dusty dirt road that leads to MountChirripó.The gun sounds and the dam of humanitybursts. There are yelps of adrenaline,fists thrust skyward in premature victoryand a stampede of anxious feet as the floodpours over the soccer field and flows upand away toward the very tall-lookinggreen peaks.The commotion is sharp and suddenbut over in a matter of seconds. All eyesfollow the blur of bodies until the tail ofthe herd disappears around the bend, leavinga cloud of thick dust in its wake.THIS spectacle is none other than the17th annual Chirripó marathon. Betweenthe plaza in San Gerardo de Rivas and thedormitories three miles from the summit ofCosta Rica’s tallest mountain and backdown again, the runners cover a grueling34 kilometers (21 miles) and climb some2,050 meters (6,700 feet).They follow the same trail used bytourists and Ticos alike who climb themountain for recreation. Narrow enough inparts to allow only one or two competitorsto run side by side, the path follows suchsteep hillsides and valley walls that oftenthe runners’ view is of the canopy of treesrooted hundreds of feet below.ASIDE from the daunting display ofperseverance by the runners, the most surprisingthing about this weekend inFebruary is how San Gerardo has changed.This otherwise quiet, quintessential CostaRican mountain town has transformedovernight into a hive of activity and thefocus of intense press attention.The soccer field buzzes with movement.Tents and cars cluster along the farsideline because of the sudden overcrowding,and vendors in booths bearing Pepsi,Imperial and Dos Pinos logos push freesample cups to the front of their tables. A30-foot inflatable bottle of orange Gatoradetilts slightly in the breeze and casts a longshadow across the grass, providing rows ofspectators with much needed shade.“I think what they do is crazy,” saysJavier from Cartago, watching his brothercompete for the second time. “Incredible,but definitely crazy.”This is a common sentiment heldamong the spectators gathered here.“I can’t imagine running up that thing,”admits a U.S. tourist from Portland. “Iclimbed it last week and that was hardenough.”DURING the lull in action, while therunners are climbing methodically, battlingeach other and the surely present pain intheir legs, the crowd dissipates but the fieldremains active. Children run amok, a volleyballgame rages in the steady sun and arapid chatter streams from a radio boothbroadcasting developments and analysesas the runners advance.With the inherent risk involved in 200people running a race on a course of looserock and generally unstable ground, theRed Cross ambulance is a reassuring presence.Sprained ankles, lacerations and evenbroken bones are not uncommon occurrencesfor the event. Medical personnel areplaced strategically along the course, as arevolunteers manning tables offering waterand fruit.Much of the talk on the field and in thetown’s lone restaurant is of the five brothersfrom the Cabécar tribe who walkedthree days from their village to arrive inSan Gerardo by race day. The brothers, allin their 20s, were the odds-on favorites tofinish high in the standings. In the end,three would place in the top 20.FINALLY, a whistle blows sharplyand a bright red flag is raised; three hoursand 23 minutes after he sped away fromthe starting line, the first runner hasreturned.Seconds later, his still steady stride carrieshim into view. Applause erupts fromall directions as he picks up speed, theemotion of the crowd carrying him the last20 yards across the finish line.Gerardo Mora is a coffee farmer fromCoto Brus, in the Southern Zone. A goldmedal is placed around his neck as hepaces back and forth, breathing hard,sweat pouring from his face. Within secondshe is surrounded by a group ofreporters, microphones and tape recordersshoved impatiently under his chin.“I want to thank God for giving me thestrength to finish today,” he says humbly,eyes on the ground.“How did you train?” the crowd shoutsat him.“I just ran,” he responds.THREE minutes later, the whistleblows again and a second runner finishesthe journey, some 10 minutes behind thecourse record of three hours, 15 minutes.Soon, the flag is being raised every coupleof minutes. Competitors throw their arms inthe air in triumph and blow kisses to theadoring crowd. Some arrive covered in dirt,elbows and knees bloodied, having obviouslytaken a fall. Others collapse at the finishline, grabbing cramped legs, teethclenched in pain. One man falls to his kneesin tears and makes the sign of the cross,overcome by the emotion of the moment.After crossing the finish line, athletesare ushered to tables laden with Gatoradeand watermelon, and are urged to keepmoving. Those who request it are led to agroup of five tables under a tent, wherevolunteer masseuses and masseurs stretchand massage sore backs and legs.Sonia Rojas, the first woman to finish,comes in at four hours, 45 seconds. JoséMaría Brenes, at 70, the race’s oldest competitor,limps across some three hours later.But today, times are not important. Asrunners embrace each other and familymembers take pictures, the green peaksloom tall in the distance.