Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Pikes Peak, Colorado - Pikes Peak Marathon

August seemed like a long way away when I registered for the Pikes Peak Marathon back in early March.  I had a good winter of running and a successful marathon in Phoenix a couple of months earlier, so I figured five months would be plenty of time to take my training to the next level to run Pikes Peak in Colorado.

Pikes Peak in the distance viewed from Garden of the Gods in Colorado Springs, CO

Pikes Peak Marathon bills itself as "America's Ultimate Challenge" due to the distance, grade, extreme elevation, constant threat of severe weather, and the likelihood of falling on the rocky trail during the descent.  The race begins at 6,300 feet in the town of Manitou Springs, climbs 7,815 feet for 13 miles to the summit of Pike's Peak at 14,115 feet, then returns back down the mountain to complete the 26.2 mile marathon.  About 6 miles of the course are above the 12,000 foot treeline where the thin air adds to the challenge of running on the steep terrain.

I met up with my Dad in Denver on Friday and we drove to Manitou Springs to check in for the weekend and pick up my race packet.  I've seen Pikes Peak before, but knowing I had to run up and down the mountain made it seem particularly intimidating as it loomed above the town.  We had some great food and beer at Trinity Brewing Company in Colorado Springs and called it a day.

On Saturday, rather than sitting around and stressing all day, we made a couple of trips to check out some of the nearby sights.  Our first stop was Garden of the Gods in Colorado Springs.  The park offers a range of outdoor recreational activities from hiking to rock climbing and contains numerous unusual red rock formations.

Garden of the Gods

Garden of the Gods

After Garden of the Gods, we headed south to Canon City to check out the Royal Gorge Bridge.  The bridges crosses the Arkansas River at a height of nearly 1,000 feet and until 2001 it was the highest bridge in the world.  Unfortunately, crossing the bridge requires an admission to the nearby tourist trap amusement park.  We settled for free views of the bridge and the gorge from a nearby overlook.

Royal Gorge Bridge above the Arkansas River

The marathon started at 7:00 AM with perfect weather conditions - clear and cool.  The mountain loomed ahead as the first couple of miles of the course took us through downtown Manitou Springs and past the Cog Railway depot to the Barr Trail.  It was uphill, but so far so good and still on pavement.

Pikes Peak Marathon start line

Start line of the Pikes Peak Marathon with Pikes Peak in the back left

We joined the Barr Trail and the next couple of miles took us up a steep set of switchbacks known as the W's.  A lot of people seemed out of breath at this point and the pace slowed down as the narrow trail made passing very difficult.  I was feeling great, and even though I didn't want to blow my race by running too hard so early, I felt like I needed to get farther up in the pack.  Fortunately, an aggressive runner passed me and I followed her, along with a few other runners, toward the front of the congestion.  As our group reached the top of the switchbacks the trail opened up a bit and became less steep, and our group took off with a pace that I was very comfortable with.

Passing No Name Creek on my way to Barr Camp at mile 5

The next several miles were on packed dirt and the grade was not as steep as the switchbacks.  The scenery was beautiful as we passed through pine forests with occasional glimpses of Pikes Peak.  It was feeling like a typical hilly run for me and everything felt very good, but I was well aware of what was coming every time I looked up at the looming peak.

By the time I reached A-Frame at 10 miles and 12,000 feet elevation, the running had become significantly more difficult.  My pace had slowed and I was constantly out of breath.  My legs felt strong but the rest of my body was struggling to keep up.

When I emerged above treeline, it felt like I was on the moon (with about as much air!) . There were still 2,000 feet to climb and the peak seemed like a giant vertical wall right in my face.  It made me dizzy to look up.  I felt much better than I had expected as this point, but out-of-breath gradually became gasping for air.  I ran until I felt sick or dizzy, power walked to slow my breathing and heart rate down, and ran again as I made my way to the summit.  People would try to run ahead, only to slow to a walk less than a minute later.  It was humbling. The mountain had a grip on all of us.

Running above treeline - headed for the summit of Pikes Peak

Approaching the summit of Pikes Peak - mile 13

The 16 "Golden Stairs" to the summit are neither.  They are 32 short, very steep switchbacks for the last few tenths of a mile to the summit.  They are the final ass kicking you get to endure before reaching the summit and turning around for the descent.  I felt like I was hiking instead of running a marathon.  My arms hurt the next day.

People waiting for runners at the summit

Summit of Pikes Peak Marathon

Everything felt like a blur at the summit.  I saw my Dad at one of the last switchbacks - he had driven up to cheer me on.  There was music, yelling, screaming, cowbells.  It was surreal.  The view would have been breathtaking if I wasn't already gasping for air.  I reached the summit in 3:29.  I was hoping for a summit time between 4:00 and 4:15 so I was very excited.  13 miles up, now 13 miles back down to the finish...

Summit turn around for Pikes Peak Marathon

Headed down from the summit

It was a whole different race on the way down.  The constant pounding was painful and tiring, but at least I could breathe!  People still making the ascent were cheering me on by name (on my bib) as I made my way down.  The runners and volunteers for this race are amazing people!

I had a huge smile on my face all the way past A-frame until I found myself face down in the dirt. I have no idea how it happened, but I had taken my first fall.  I got up, dusted myself off, and started limping down the trail.  I was sure my race was over because the pain was where I had torn my hamstring last year.  After walking for a few minutes, my leg felt better and soon I was running again, more carefully and in constant fear of falling again.

The miles passed more slowly as they always seem to do at the end of a marathon.  It had become very warm and I was glad I had my water bottle to keep me going between aid stations.  I fell a couple more times, but no serious damage.  I felt so clumsy, but my legs were tired and the trail had quite a few rock and root surprises.  There were no other runners around me for a few miles and I really enjoyed the quiet solitude and the gorgeous scenery.  It was exciting to see Manitou Springs below and knowing that I was going to finish, barring any more nasty falls.

Mile 25 - back on pavement!

It was a relief to hit pavement again with about one mile left.  I sprinted towards the end, saw my Dad along the way, and entered the finisher chute with tons of cheering people giving me high fives.  Did I mention how awesome the people that support this race are?  I crossed the finish line in 5:43 for a top 100 finish, well ahead of my predicted finish time.  The finishing tent looked like a triage center. Apparently some people took some nasty falls.  I felt great and lucky to have left only a little blood on the mountain.

Finish line of the Pikes Peak Marathon

As amazing as the actual race was, even more amazing are the volunteers and El Paso County Search and Rescue that support this race and make it happen - safely.  Many of them packed supplies up to the aid stations and camped on the mountain all weekend.  Their hard work and enthusiasm are probably more impressive than any of the runners in this race.  They also managed to put on smile on my face no matter how much I was suffering.  Thank you!!  Also, thanks to my Dad for coming out to support me.  It was a fun weekend.

Thanks Dad!