- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 28, 2005

As he neared the end of his record-setting run to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro, Sean Burch, of Oakton, got so excited that he decided to sprint the final few yards at top speed.

That was a big mistake.

“I threw up,” Mr. Burch said, “because I had run so fast to the summit.”

Then his legs locked up. The cramps were so bad he could barely move for an hour or so.

So, there he was, sitting on top of a gloriously beautiful African mountain, having made it to the top in 5 hours, 28 minutes, 48 seconds — and in no mood to celebrate.

“I sit there,” Mr. Burch said, “and I was like, ‘You know, I’ve got to stop doing this.’”

The fitness maven already claims the world record for jumping rope at altitude, having done it on Mount Everest, and last year he won the North Pole Marathon. His next goal is a marathon at the South Pole.

But, first, Mr. Burch took some time this summer to relax in his Virginia home and reflect on the thrills and agonies of his Kilimanjaro record, which he set June 7.

Unlike other grand mountains such as Everest or the Matterhorn, Kilimanjaro doesn’t require special mountain climbing skills to get to the top. The path to the summit is basically a trek up a very long trail.

The 20.4-mile journey goes through five ecosystems, starting in a tropical rain forest and ending on a glacier. The vertical gain is nearly 15,000 feet, steep enough at times to slow Mr. Burch to a walk. Oxygen gets in very short supply when approaching the summit at 19,341 feet above sea level, the highest point in Africa.

Only 40 percent of the people who attempt the climb are successful, and they usually take days, not hours, to do it.

Mr. Burch began his run in shorts and a short-sleeve shirt — and finished in subfreezing temperatures wearing a jacket and long pants.

“When I started, it was raining,” Mr. Burch said. “It cleared up. I actually got sunburn. I got into a windstorm in an area called the saddle.”

Mr. Burch tried to limit his stops to once an hour, usually to drink water he kept in a backpack that weighed about 10 pounds. The pack also carried the warm clothes he knew he would need as he gained altitude.

Guides and park rangers were stationed along the way to keep time and help verify the record, but he was not allowed to receive any assistance. In the end, he clipped nearly eight minutes off the mark set last year by Christian Stangl of Austria.

After the sickness and cramps at the summit, Mr. Burch had one more scare. During what was supposed to be a leisurely descent, he had a buildup of fluid in his lungs.

“When you breathe, it’s like you’re gargling, but it’s in your lungs,” said Mr. Burch, who made his way to a rest area at a lower altitude until the condition passed.

Beyond the sheer joy of accomplishment, Mr. Burch’s motives for his adventuring exploits are twofold. First, they are a validation of his unique conditioning regimen for average people, a program he calls hyperfitness.

“You can take anybody and make them into an athlete,” Mr. Burch said, “or help them achieve a goal that they thought they couldn’t achieve.”

Indeed, Mr. Burch, who turned 35 this month, is his own best example. He looks fit, but not extraordinarily athletic at 6-foot-4, 180 pounds. He trained for the North Pole Marathon solely on a treadmill, and he must have looked downright peculiar during his training sessions for Kilimanjaro: 30-minute stints on a Stairmaster with his nose pinched while breathing through a straw in his mouth.

Mr. Burch also uses his endeavors to highlight environmental issues. During his trip to Kilimanjaro, he visited a Tanzanian school to promote an environmental education program in connection with the World Wildlife Fund. He was troubled with what he saw atop the great mountain, where the famed ice cap is vanishing as the planet gets warmer.

“He’s extraordinary,” said Bob Becker, who used Mr. Burch’s program to prepare for the 150-mile Marathon des Sables through Morocco’s Sahara Desert this year. “He’s the most focused athlete I’ve ever trained with. He just takes it to a higher level. It’s more of a lifestyle philosophy with him.”

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