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A Spiritual Community in Reserve Is Also An Ultramarathon Powerhouse

By Leslie Linthicum
Journal Staff Writer
    RESERVE— Joe Gaebler had never even jogged before he met Marc Tizer, the self-appointed leader of the Divine Madness Running Club.
    But within months of attending a Divine Madness party, according to his family, the 18-year-old freshman at the University of Colorado had quit school, moved into communal living quarters in Boulder and was running more than 100 miles a week.
Running to Extremes
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Pat Vasquez-Cunningham/Journal
The Divine Madness Running Club's compound, shown in this aerial view, is located near Reserve. The compound is in a deep canyon inside the Gila National Forest, hidden by a circle of 8,000-foot mountain peaks.

  • On The Road, Off The Record In Reserve more

  • Divine Madness Running Club in Their Own Words more

  • 10-photo slideshow of the Divine Madness Running Club here

  • Photos from this week's ABQjournal.com
  • Journal Photos

  •     By early this year, Gaebler had become one of the best in one of the most extreme and grueling sports— ultrarunning. He won national titles by racking up more than 150 miles in a 24-hour period, running loop after loop around a track.
        For the last year, Gaebler lived inside a Divine Madness compound in rural New Mexico, pounding the pavement 25-40 miles several times a week on the highways and mountain trails around Reserve.
        He was one of Tizer's stars.
        Then, he disappeared. Gaebler loaded up his old Volvo station wagon, drove away from the complex and wasn't heard from for months.
        Worried about the gaunt, extreme runner who had become more and more a mystery to them, his family in Colorado called the Catron County sheriff in Reserve. According to his father, Gaebler's contact with family dwindled as his running increased.
        A missing-person investigation started and, within weeks, Gaebler showed up safe and sound in Olympia, Wash.— another Divine Madness Running Club dropout.
        Over the years, hundreds of people have chosen to follow Divine Madness's leader, a short, bearded 58-year-old known as "Yo," who now lives year round at the compound near Reserve.
        Set in a deep canyon inside the Gila National Forest, the Divine Madness compound is stunning and remote, hidden by a circle of 8,000-foot mountain peaks. What goes on in the canyon is a mystery to most of the 400 or so people who live in Reserve.
        In a small mountain town, the presence of a dozen extremely thin people running at all hours on the highways and dirt roads does not go unnoticed. But Catron County is also a place where privacy is respected.
        People in town are amazed by the runners' physical stamina, worried about their health and in the dark about what drives them to run, run, run.
        No one in Reserve seems to know about the group's controversial history in Boulder or of the allegations of sexual manipulation and mind control that have been lodged against Tizer.
        A former group member who left the group 10 years ago said that, when she was with Tizer, food was restricted to two small, mostly vegetarian meals a day, talking to outsiders was frowned on and members who complained or broke a rule were put in the "hot seat," a chair surrounded by group members who spent hours criticizing the transgressor's behavior.
        Former members of the club said they ran through pain and injury and turned in as many as 200 miles in a week.
        Tizer, according to former members in legal documents and interviews, controlled everything from what and when members ate, when they ran and who they had sex with. He was also personally demanding— insisting his banana slices fill in every gap in his peanut butter and banana sandwiches and deciding which of the "Yo Ladies" was to have sex with him that night, according to former members.
        Celia Bertoia, one of the former Yo Ladies, was in the group for 13 years before quitting in 1996.
        "Tizer is the dictator," said Bertoia, now 51 and living in Montana. "Every aspect of our lives was controlled— the number of hours you sleep, who you should have sex with or not, how much you eat, how many miles you should run, whether you could visit your parents."
        Group member Susan Hart declined requests for interviews with Tizer but sent several written responses to questions about former members' allegations against him.
        In a statement, she said the group's dedication to spiritual and personal growth has been overshadowed by "the spurious claims of cult status foisted on the media by a dozen or so malcontented former students (out of the hundreds who have been students here over the years and thousands who have been helped by us and former members sharing our knowledge and methods.)"
        "All you hear in the press are horror stories," Hart said. She said the criticism relates to a snapshot of time in the 1990s, not life within the group today.
        "At this point," she said, "that stuff is ancient history, based on a specific period when Yo was doing specific things to teach his students."
        She said that, now, the group is even scaling back its ultrarunning.
        In a rare interview in 1997, Tizer told The New York Times he had never forced anyone into a sexual encounter or any other activity and denied Divine Madness was a cult.
        "There's such an illusion that I control people," Tizer told the Times. "A cult is where everyone shaves their head and you have to give all your money over. This is something else, where people who are sincerely trying to improve themselves have a teacher who is more or less evolved and is trying to help them lead a more balanced, harmonious life."
    'Sex and running'
        Is Divine Madness a spiritual community? A commune? A cult? Or nobody's business?
        One of the hallmarks of the group still appears to be secrecy and control. Running has not always been part of the mix.
        Tizer, a Philadelphia native, moved to Boulder and started a commune influenced by Eastern thought in the late 1970s. He advocated communal living, meditation and exercise. It wasn't until 1991 that Tizer, in a late-night speech, told the group he had been thinking about the power of running in a group as a tool to reach transformation.
        Bertoia, a former real estate agent who had joined the group in 1983, said she was there that night and said Tizer told everyone they would run 12 miles the next morning.
        They did, slowly, and two weeks later Tizer told them to run 14 miles. Every two weeks, he added two more miles until the group was running 40 miles every Sunday in the hills surrounding Boulder, Bertoia said.
        Divine Madness, named by Tizer to describe a state of bliss achieved through earthly activity, according to Bertoia grew into an ultrarunning training club increasingly micromanaged by Tizer.
        Bertoia said she was frequently called on to have sex with Tizer— sometimes several times in one night.
        She said that, like the other members, her food was limited— in her case to two cups of food twice a day— and she was told how many miles to run.
        "It is basically a sex and running cult," she said.
        Group spokeswoman Hart in her written statement disputed Bertoia's and other negative characterizations of life in the group.
        "As far as all the myriad allegations leveled at us over the years... ," she said, "the simplest most direct and honest statement we can make is that they are either outright lies or constitute a gross distortion, exaggeration or mischaracterization of fact and context."
        Tizer allowed dissension and formed committees to encourage independent decision-making.
        "As for Celia," she said, "she hasn't been involved with this community for nearly a decade so she has no idea of any of our lives, health and habits as they are now. Her allegations range from flat out inaccurate to massive distortions referring back to a very specific, experimental period of time."
    Death drew scrutiny
        Tizer approaches ultrarunning as a path to better health and enlightenment.
        Members of Divine Madness have had impressive and sustained success in the extreme sport of ultrarunning.
        The competitions involve running as many miles as possible in a set time, usually making loops on a dirt track, or by clocking the fastest time on a 100-mile road race.
        "You can imagine the physical toll that doing 100-mile races has on the body," said Don Allison, publisher of UltraRunning magazine.
        Allison, who has written a training guide to ultrarunning, said the sport takes dedication and hours of roadwork. Often, ultrarunners train together in formal or informal running clubs, he said, but few push themselves the way Divine Madness runners do.
        "It's extreme even in ultrarunning, which is an extreme sport," Allison said. "It's extreme in its training. It's extreme in its secrecy."
        Allison said he has met Tizer but never had an extended conversation with him. Tizer's results, he said, are obvious. Divine Madness runners from Reserve and Boulder take part in races throughout the country and routinely place among the top finishers.
        Tizer competes in long-distance races but runs considerably slower than his protegés.
        His intense training methods and disdain for doctors were pulled into the spotlight in 2004 after one of Tizer's top runners, Mark Heinemann, was found dead in his motel room hours after running a 48-hour race. Heinemann, who had won the race the year before, placed third in 2004, running 207 miles.
        An autopsy revealed that he died of pneumonia, which family members told The New York Times should have been obvious to Tizer and others in the group.
        Bertoia said that, when she was in the group in the 1990s, Tizer told runners nearing the end of a 40-mile training run they would be running 20 additional miles— and they did.
        She said runners were allowed only water on long runs, not energy drinks or snacks, and were instructed by Tizer to run through injuries, even serious ones.
        Bertoia's weight— she's 5-feet-7-inches tall— dropped to 108 pounds. When she developed a stress fracture in her leg, Bertoia said Tizer's recommendation (which the group denies he made) was to stop running for three days, then to run two miles. About a quarter mile into her two-mile run, Bertoia said, her leg snapped.
    Whiskey and beer
        Bertoia said that, at some point, she began to question Tizer's rhetoric.
        While group members were limited to meager macrobiotic rations for breakfast and dinner and hot tea with honey for lunch— enforced by Tizer to break down their psychological attachment to food— Bertoia said Tizer ate heartily of cookies, pancakes and thick peanut butter sandwiches.
        While group members were allowed to drink once a week at a dancing party, Bertoia claimed that Tizer drank every day, preferring Jack Daniel's and beer. A group member confirmed that Tizer liked two shots of whiskey and a beer.
        She said Tizer's teachings were designed to bring group members to "transformation from an earth-bound physical being to an entity that can get above yourself." But she began to notice that none of the group members, according to Tizer, ever reached that goal.
    Crediting healthy living
        Members of Divine Madness in Reserve have incorporated as a nonprofit corporation called "the Corporation for the Dissemination of Teachings of Value" and list on their federal tax returns income of between $80,000 and $100,000 a year, with about half coming from their property and half from contributions.
        According to the corporation's statement of purpose, it exists "to develop and disseminate educational techniques and materials and for, but not limited to, lifestyle and personal development." Their purpose, it says, is to help people improve the "quality and meaningfulness" of their lives.
        The compound's farm, named the Gathering of Friends, is certified organic with the state of New Mexico. According to the New Mexico Organic Commodities Commission, the farm grows culinary and medicinal herbs, vegetables and hay.
        According to Hart, the community is about healthy living.
        "We are a spiritual community dedicated to spiritual and personal growth and development, holistic healing, health, right lifestyle, and cooperative living," she said in a statement. "Our great running success, which drew media attention, is owing as much to our balanced and harmonious lifestyle as the particular running and training methods we use."
        Hart said the group plans to release books and teaching materials detailing "what we actually do and why we do it" to allow the public an unbiased view of the community.
        While group members spend little time in Reserve, they do gather at the Black Gold Emporium, a general store, where they pick up packages. The United Parcel Service truck can't make its way down the dirt road to the group's compound.
        They thank owner Elena Gellert for this service with gifts of organic vegetables, which Gellert says are delicious.
        Gellert has been to the forest compound once and met Tizer there. She describes him as "not what you'd expect from a charismatic leader."
        Gellert said she has been invited out to the compound for the weekly party but didn't go.
        "You dance when Yo says to dance," Gellert was told. "It can be 8 o'clock or it can be two in the morning."
        Gellert said she doesn't know anything about Tizer's philosophy because none of his followers talk about it.
        "They're not vocal about what they do or what they believe," she said.
        But she has been impressed by the group's farming and running.
        "I have a lot of respect for them and what they do," Gellert said. "They're some of the most loving, caring, gentle people."
    'He was their star'
        George Gaebler said in an interview that his son remains estranged from his family in Colorado but appears to have cut ties with Tizer. Joe Gaebler did not respond to a request for an interview passed to him through a friend in Washington.
        Joe Gaebler left Divine Madness briefly in 2004 and returned to his family. During the time he was home, he told them about sex-on-demand within the group and the weekly party that involved beer, dancing and sex until late at night.
        The next morning at 5 a.m., Gaebler told his father, members would be expected to be up and on the road training, with no food until after the hours-long run.
        "I said to him, 'I am so glad you're out of that cult,' '' his father remembers telling him. "He hit the ceiling, got madder than hell and he lunged at me."
        Joe Gaebler returned to the group a short time later and continued running.
        He won the national 24-hour championship in San Diego in 2003, completing 162.2 miles in the allotted time. He also won the 2002 Across the Years run— 145.5 miles in 24 hours.
        In 2005, he was ranked second in the nation among ultrarunners.
        "He was their star," his father said.
        Gaebler had little contact with his family after he returned to the Reserve compound, according to his father. He called once and, in a hushed voice, said his job was to tend the vegetable garden and he was enjoying the work.
        Spokeswoman Hart said Gaebler "had a fair amount of contact" with his family by phone, letter and e-mail.
        George Gaebler said he doesn't know when his relationship with his son might mend.
        "They captured his essence and emotions and didn't allow him to contact family," his father said.
        A consultant in Florida who runs a support and referral system for former cult members said she was aware of Divine Madness and had counseled several former members.
        "From stories I've heard from ex-members, it certainly is a cult," said Carol Giambalvo, who also sits on the board of directors of the International Cultic Studies Association.
    Special powers
        Tizer told the Times in 1997 that he had the ability to determine what training and nutrition runners need by pushing on their outstretched arms and said he can project thoughts, explaining that he made an Orlando Magic player miss free throws while watching a game on TV.
        Two former members of the group, later joined by a third, sued Tizer and Divine Madness in 1996, claiming he used "emotional and sexual manipulation" to control and defraud them.
        In the lawsuit, former members claimed they were deprived of food and sleep, told whom to have sex with and threatened with getting cancer— Tizer said he could give people cancer— if they crossed him.
        Tizer denied the allegations, according to his Denver lawyer, Gary Jackson, and the lawsuit was settled out of court in 1998. Jackson said he enjoyed representing Tizer and said, "The charges were just frivolous."