Pikes Peak, Colorado is famous for a few reasons, most know it for the most grueling uphill car road race (Pike Peak International Hill Climb). Also accessible via train with the Manitou/Pikes Peak Cog Railway, that’s been open since 1891, is a tourist hot spot to be at the highest railway stop and one of the tallest mountain peaks in the USA. You can find the largest stairway at the gnarly Manitou Incline made of 2,700+ wooden stairs at 41% grade for 1 mile.* The city’s most treasured production is the world’s hardest trail half & full marathon – Pikes Peak Ascent & Marathon – starting at 7000′, finishing at 14000′. With so many downhill races popping up here and there, you know, we just have to be different. Plus we have been meaning to visit Colorado, it really helped that our good running buddy from San Diego moved there so we weren’t lone tourists. To appreciate the mountain’s beauty (and pains), Dave booked us for the Manitou Springs/Cog Railway tour that brings tourists to The Peak! This was mainly for altitude adjustment and scouting the course. On the way up due to lack of oxygen, you get sleepy. Some people get severe headaches but we were fine. Up the cog rail you learn many history tidbits about the mountain, some that you never knew were nationally popular. For example, there’s a huge monument at the Peak dedicated to the song “American the Beautiful” because the author wrote it while looking at Pikes Peak.
The next day we would be experiencing the journey on foot…
Race Day (Roger’s experience will be in italics)
Since downtown Manitou Springs is the size of San Diego’s South Park’s village arriving early for parking was essential. We arrive by 5:30am, perfect timing to see no lines at the porta-potties. The calm and cool weather suddenly drops by 10 degrees, and we’re still 1 hour from the start for wave 1. Race day forecast was described as possibility of snow thunderstorms, rain, 15mph winds and 41 degree high at the top. Other racers start to gather with outfits ranging for the extremes of weather, and some people aren’t even using arm warmers like if it’s a summer run in San Diego. The Athlete Guide stated that if you didn’t bring enough clothing for when you pass the tree line of the clouds at 10,000′ and the weather changes, you would be turned around to walk back to the bottom! This traumatized me a lot because there’s no other way down from this trail, just on foot. The announcer breaks the suspenseful start line silence and states that although it’s overcast for us, the Peak has reported that it’s clear skies, 28 degrees and they’re seeing the sunrise right now! This is a relief, but this can still change in a few hours. I decide to put on my thermal long sleeve compression shirt, over my sun protection compression shit so that I don’t have to put it on at mile 10. Bad Idea. This is a real mountain, so the weather can change any minute as you climb, but it all ended up perfect.
Our friend Dave was in Wave 1 with me, organized by the top 50 runners at the race. Roger started in wave 2, which left 2 minutes after us. The incline in the first 1 mile is very steep so I had to walk it, the next 3 miles are a series of switchbacks. I immediately realize I’m not prepared to run this entire portion so I jog the straightaways and walk the corners. 4mph was right on target for my goal of 3.5 hours, but I had to stay steady. I saw many runners who their marathon time is same as this half marathon race… but they get to train in these mountains. For someone at sea level, add 30 minutes to your marathon time. I went out feeling good the first few miles, surprised to pass a better runner than me David Martinez… but he gauged his effort by heart rate monitor, which probably wasn’t working right. It did give me a shot of confidence to be ahead of a good local runner.
The weather gets warmer and warmer the higher we go, and there’s no cloud in the sky. Mile 8 at the 2 hour mark I’m still on target and suddenly the path straightens out and I get a 2nd wind to sprint down this half mile path. Once this section ends, the rocks become larger and the switchbacks start up again for the next 2 miles until the tree line break called “A frame” of 10,000 ft of elevation. The altitude started to get me at mile 9, I was tripping over large rocks that sucks the energy out of you that switches you into power walk mode. The exertion from Mile 8 killed my endurance at this elevation, and I was not able to recover to even jog again. I had to power walk the last 4 miles of rocks, 30 minute miles. Every time I tried to jog, my head would feel heavy and I’d feel my heartbeat in my throat. Without the shade of the trees to keep me cool, the severity of my cold weather gear makes me start to overheat and get really frustrated at my power walk prison (double-layered compression shirts and long pants, plastic bag wrapped feet in case it rained and camelback with rain jacket, hat and gloves). Stopping now on the single track of rocks to change outfit was out of the question, once you stop moving, at this level of air pressure it’ll be very hard to get momentum again.
Mile 11 (12,000ft elevation) more power walking where altitude sickness sets in and I almost vomited, but kept the motto JAM… just always move. If you stop you’re done. Blurry visioned I hit the finish quickly, that is where I finally stop, keeled over I can’t move. The large volunteer turn out had to walk me to the tent for quick wiff of O2. This was a great bucket list experience, most beautiful thing is going through the clouds into pure sunny rocks, as no tree can grow here anymore for 3 miles.
Since I started before Roger and didn’t see him at all, I got really worried. I thought for sure he would have passed me 2 hours ago when I started my jog to power walk mode. Past the A-frame you can see the other runners along the switchbacks and I kept looking back for him. There’s no cell service at this altitude, nor energy to talk much. Volunteers when the conditions are in suffocating 11-14,000′ altitude earn super amazing status. The last aid station had 10-15 people standing on rocks to allow the (now) power walkers enough room on the single-track to get through… cheering & dancing with maracas holding bowls of grapes, M&Ms, trail mix nuts, sport gels and water. Side note about the water: hoses & jugs have to be carried down from the peak base camp in order to have water for the last 3 miles!
I get to the last stretch and the rocks are large boulders to climb up to make it to the finish line mark. I run this .3 mile portion with any might I have left even though I’m feeling sluggish. I had shutdown my feelings to build endurance through the hard course that once I crossed, all my emotions surfaced at once: joy for completing something that was so hard physically/mentally, confused that the weather drama that fueled my run and clothing strategy failed after preparing for this event for months & it turned out to be a hot sunny day, disappointed I didn’t get to run it the way I imagined & missing my goal time by 1.5 hr after, thankful that I was able to make it to the finish, and exhausted! I get my medal and start crying really hard.
The most urgent is I’m so scared that I didn’t see Roger at all! I make my way immediately to the volunteers with the post race gear bag to ask if there’s a way to find out the status of a particular athlete with the timing mats, and they say not at the Peak only at the bottom. Trying to compose myself letting all my feelings cry out alone, with my sunglasses on incognito, I get another cup of water before getting on the Expo shuttles. Another runner with a bib of wave 4 or 5 approaches me and asks if I know what time we finished. I answer I’ve been here for almost 15 minutes so it’s probably 4:45 by now. She replies, “Well that’s overall time, I wonder if they know per wave.” I shrug and say, “I was in the 1st wave, so that is my overall time.” She immediately looks me up and down and says, “Oh, what happened??” This was over the top for my emotions, since I’m already frustrated and trying to compost myself, I say, “What, excuse me!?? ‘What happened?’ I don’t even know you lady. What happened is, I made it to the finish line! Why don’t you have your own watch? Please go ask talk to someone else.” She now realizes I was already upset, and attempts to apologize. “I’m sorry! I saw plastic bags on your shoes and thought you hurt your ankle. What are in your shoes?” I just reply, “I protected my socks with plastic bags, in case it rained. Yes, I see now it’s a beautiful day.” She apologizes for upsetting me more, and walks away. With all of that, I just get on the shuttle and wait for cell service to return to find Roger and Dave.
The 2-shuttle system down the mountain takes over an hour of suspense. I get to meet some people that just did the Saturday Ascent and are doing the Marathon tomorrow (13.1 up again and 13.1 down) which is the lunacy called “The Double”. I realize my 1 race weekend sounds pretty good deal right now. When the bus arrives back to the expo, all the volunteers and spectators waiting for their loved ones clap as the athletes get off the bus! It’s actually such an emotional welcome back to civilization. How profound it must feel for military to be greeted by applause after being gone for months. Roger texted me that him and Dave were fine, they finished on target time and were in the beer garden with the finish line pizza. That reunion after being deserted in the mountains was the peace of mind I needed. I’m so relieved to hear that he passed me early in the race, but since he didn’t see me, he thought I was doing really well and it motivated him to run harder. He tells me he’s proud of me, so happy we all finished and we lucked out on the weather.
2 days before the race, they posted on their FB: Pikes Peak Marathon & Ascent
Updated weather forecast. Still a chance of rain/snow showers. We never know what we’re going to get around here and Pikes Peal does not play by the rules. Be prepared!
2 days after the race, the Peak got snowfall again
P.S. This getaway was our 5 year anniversary celebration, which matches the theme of our wedding ceremony gift exchange of rocks. Quote from our ceremony:
“Each of you have a chosen a small polished stone that symbolizes your previous separate lives, separate friends, families and journeys. Each of your friends have taken a stone that represents their friendship and blessing wished for the couple in the future of your marriage. Rocks in your path can either stumble you or remind you to love and trust each other to step over them. We wish you happiness and strength to overcome rocks you will face in your future.”
Build and look forward:
Altitude “training” has helped athletes at sea level races, so I planned on the End of Summer 4 mile race in La Jolla a week after this, hoping the altitude race would help me build my red blood cell capacity for the race. Well, the 5k part is fast and flat, so I always shoot for 5k pr in this race (last mile downhill – so it doesn’t count in my rankings!) It also helps that there are really good athletes who show up (probably because it has been held for many years). I always bike from downtown to this race, using it to train for San Diego Triathlon Classic race (but this year I’m doing the Bonita 8k run race instead). I hoped coming back from Pikes Peak at altitude would help me this year but did not, I was about 30 seconds slower than last year I finished 25:04. Still its good prep for Balboa 4 miler.