Before the Pikes
I don’t remember the exact moment I decided to run the Pikes Peak Marathon. It was some point between when I moved to Colorado and when I remembered the Pikes Marathon existed. I registered for the race on my phone during the St. Patrick’s Day parade in Denver, worried that if I didn’t get in right away it would sell out. What followed were hundreds of training miles of trails, concrete, and road. Hill repeats, track circuits, and day-in, day-out consistency in running. I made new friends as I found people who would put up with my crazy miles at crazy hours who were also willing to share the gas to train at “America’s
As I trained I started to set goals. Over the miles, I would run numbers through my head like rocks in a tumbler. Taking my average trail pace, times a marathon distance, factoring in fatigue and elevation, I decided to shoot for a 6-hour race. That was before I drove to the top of Pikes Peak for extreme elevation training at the summit. After that, all bets were off. The reality of what I had committed to do began to set in. If the stars aligned I might hit close to 6 hours, but I decided 7 hours were more realistic, and 8 were in no way out of the question. So many little things could set
So many little things could change the direction of that run. The weather could be too warm or too cold (it had already snowed at the summit twice in August), I could get a twisted ankle, or take in too much or too little food or water. I don’t know if you’d call it a snowball effect, a butterfly effect, or maybe a ripple effect. I began to realize during my training that I had to lay a good foundation of training and have a solid plan, but the best-laid plans were at the mercy of the mountain.
The morning of Pikes Peak Marathon I woke up early. We had a hotel not far from the start. All my gear was set out the night before so I could grab it and get out the door. I dressed and dragged the family out of bed. I didn’t want to have to compete with parking, so we got to Manitou Ave. over 90 minutes before the start of the race. We snagged a great parking spot not far from the start of the race, which was directly in front of Memorial Park. As we sat there, I wondered what my heart rate was. I looked at my watch and realized that I’d forgotten my heart rate monitor in all of my preparing at the hotel.
Monitoring my heart rate had been a big part of my training and was a crucial part of my race plan. The course was hard and varied. Keeping a consistent heart rate was how I planned to not wear myself out early in the race. So, cursing under my breath so the half-sleeping children would not learn any new words, I gave up my perfect parking space and sped the 10 minutes back to the hotel for my heart rate strap.
We got back with plenty of time to spare. We may have had to walk an extra 1/4 mile, but it wasn’t too bad. At the starting line, the energy was high and contagious. A talented young lady sang “America, the Beautiful” at the start, which was inspired by the sight of Pike’s Peak. The start was in waves and the waves were released once a minute after the gun. I was in wave 6, so I was able to watch the elite 1st wave take off before heading back the crowd for the start. One by one the waves toed the line, and just like that, we were off.
Everything in me knew I couldn’t blast off the start line. Manitou Ave. was a mild incline, and then the route turned left on Ruxton, which gradually became more and more steep. It took
everything in me to keep pace under control. My heart-rate was already rocketing. I passed a lot of people, but I did my best to make sure it was because they were going slower than my pace and not just the adrenaline pushing me forward.
Eventually, just before hitting Barr Trail, Ruxton became almost impossibly steep. It is one of the steepest portions of the course. Once we hit Barr trail the runners had to narrow down to single-file. Passing got difficult and I questioned how much I should be passing people, but the trail conditions really slowed a lot of runners down. Whenever there was a safe place to pass I would get around as many other runners as I could. There was usually a group of runners trying to pass. It seemed to be an accepted part of the race. No one got upset or tried to block the trail. I was nervous about the amount of passing because I would have to accelerate to pass, which would ramp up my heart rate. There were times I was sitting in the low 180’s, which I knew was not sustainable for a long period. I was trying to keep it around 175 for the climb. So I would ramp up, and then settle back in, and repeat, for the first 4 miles.
Around miles 4 or 5, the trail mellowed out a little. It also widened for stretches, so it was easier to pass and be passed. I had remembered that portion of the trail, from the top of the “W”s, a series of switchbacks up the initial climb, to Barr Camp, the quasi-halfway point, as being easier. In a sense it was, but I was still pushing.
The aid station at Barr Camp was incredible. The volunteers were enthusiastic and excited. The food was amazing. I had my fill of orange slices, banana, grapes, and pickles. I never eat pickles unless I’m racing, and then they are the most amazing food in existence.
After Barr Camp, I ran near a lady named Kim. She had just finished a 200-mile hike in the San Juans. Pikes Peak was the last ascent of the 58 Colorado 14ers for her. She had completed over 30,000 feet of vertical gain in the last week and she was outrunning me.
I had told a friend that after we crossed treeline, which happens at a spot near a shelter aptly named “A-Frame”, I expected the wheels to fall off. The lack of oxygen combined with increased trail-difficulty on tired legs was a brutal combination and I wanted to be mentally prepared.
Running Out of Oxygen & Energy
When you think you’ve thought of everything and prepared mentally for the worst, that’s when the game changes. It’s alright to say you’re prepared for the wheels to fall off. It’s nice to be willing to walk the hardest three miles. But wheels fell off 1 mile below A-Frame and I was not prepared. Breathing was difficult, my stomach was in knots, and I wasn’t thin king straight. There was only one thing I knew for certain; that moment could make or break my run. My ability to complete the race, perhaps even make the summit, hung on how I handled the new few minutes.
When I slowed down I listened to other runners more. I listened to Kim talk about the 200-mile hike she had finished 2 days before in the San Juan Mountains, with over 30,000 feet of elevation gain. Pikes would complete her summiting all 58 of Colorado’s 14,000-foot peaks.
I spent some time behind Mike Wardian who was in the process of setting the Leadville/Pikes double record. It’s a feat that almost none try. He finished the Leadville 100 miler at midnight Sunday morning in 10th place at 20 hours and 18 minutes, an almost inhuman accomplishment by itself, and proceeded to drive the 4 hours to Manitou Springs to complete the Pikes Peak Marathon in just over 6 hours. He talked like arranging the airlines and rental cars were the hardest part of the whole thing.
Somewhere along the way, a search and rescue volunteer played “Final Countdown” on a kazoo.
On Top of the World, and Down Again
By some miracle, I summited the peak at 4 hours, 5 minutes. Only 5 minutes past my goal. Could there be hope for a 6-hour marathon? Between catching my breath, eating all the food I’d grabbed at the summit aid-station, and forging through the 540 runners who were yet to summit, the first downhill mile took 18 minutes. Once I started pushing again, trying to pick up my pace, I discovered that my legs didn’t want to move. They were trashed. I needed a sub-nine minute mile average and I was struggling to maintain 12. Nearby runners were much more sparse and I let the footfalls of someone behind me motivate my pace. It helped for a while.
Below A-Frame the oxygen began to come back, which was nice, but the terrain was still rough. As I neared Barr Camp the foliage changed, and the climate was much cooler. I fell in with a group of guys at a similar pace. I still had to fight for every step, but with someone to follow, I was able to carry on. We were still barely cresting the bold side of 10 minutes per mile.
The enthusiastic volunteers at Barr Camp invigorated me again. I couldn’t rest long, for fear my legs would completely give up, so I pushed on.
After Barr was the easiest portion of the trail and we were moving. I got complacent, didn’t pick my feet up enough, and suddenly I was laid out on the trail, picking gravel out of my palms and legs. It wasn’t bad, and it would have been disheartening if it hadn’t been for the 3 guys running near me. Two in front and one behind stopped to make sure I was ok and helped me up. At this point in the race, we were a team and were in it together. We had no hope of making an age-group award. It was just us and the mountain.
The next few miles were much the same. Rocks, roots, stumps, switchbacks, rocks, roots, stumps. Finally, we reached the trail exit onto the gravel service road that would become Ruxton Ave. I grabbed some grapes from the last aid station. One last push and I’d be there. The runner in front of me took off. He’d found a last hidden well of energy that I just couldn’t tap.
There are two ways to descend Ruxton Ave. You can fly down like an eagle or you can gingerly hike down trying not to break anything. Not really having a choice, I went with the latter. As I neared Manitou Ave. the slope mellowed and I was able to pick up my pace. That was also the moment that my body had had enough. My stomach cramped. I couldn’t move my diaphragm to breathe. It was agony. I doubled over. Runners passed by. I eeked out a few dozen steps. More cramps.
With less than a 1/2 mile left to go, I decided there was nothing for it but to finish. Breathing be damned. So I put one foot in front of the other. Like a true Idiot, I ran, I smiled, I drank water, and I did not die.
The crowd support was amazing. The cheering and encouragement from the sidelines carried me the last 100 yards. I passed Natalie and the kids on the other side of the street and they cheered louder than anyone else. All the pain and fatigue faded away. This was it. The months of training, the last few hours of running, had all led to this one moment of triumph.
When I crossed the finish line I leaned over and managed the words, “I need help.” They sat me down and gave me ice. I was amazed how quickly that turned me around and had me feeling better. Natalie and the kids came and met me at the finish tent, and the kids gently, one by one, hugged me. They are getting old enough to appreciate the accomplishment, and also to know better than to jump all over me at the finish line of a marathon.
After that, we made our way across the street where the kids were able to play at the park and I paid $10 for a 20-minute massage. Best investment of my life.
Recovery has gone pretty well. The lack of residual soreness amazed me. I was exhausted for days, and stairs were a challenge for a couple days, but I was never in much pain.
That is how I romanced the mountain. I’ve told several people this before: You don’t conquer a mountain like Pikes Peak. You have to coax her secrets out. You have to learn her twists, turns, nooks, crannies, and curves. For your efforts you are rewarded with experiencing the mountain, God’s handiwork, in a way very few others get to experience it. The ups, the downs, the halcyon skies, and the purple mountain majesties.