I slept fitfully the night before the 2012 Pike’s Peak Marathon. I felt more nervous than usual. I kept thinking about the difficult course, and the altitude. Trying to settle myself, I replayed what had brought me here. At about five AM I got up, ate a small breakfast of bagel with peanut butter and banana, and headed out to the start in Manitou Springs.
The forecast was for a warm day with lots of sun. I had packed my race stuff the day before, with my drop bag stocked with post-race clothes, and a light backpack with stuff I’d carry along. I’d packed for an ultra race rather than a marathon. I had enough gels, salt tablets, and lots of electrolyte drink mix for a seven hour race.
From the line we could see a sunny Pike’s Peak, tucked behind some other mountains. I was struck by just how far it looked, as they counted down to the start.
Often as I start, I feel some nagging doubts – 26.2 is a long way, and there’s no guarantee of finishing. Lining up for over forty marathons and ultras hasn’t eliminated this. And this morning, the degree of uncertainty was higher. We started at seven AM sharp.
The “forced” slower start amidst a sea of other bodies may just be the best way to avoid paying an expensive price — in the form of exhaustion – later. After the canon goes off the race starts just like any other, and just like any other the first minutes are the most important. Now is a good time (and the only chance for a long time) to look up at the Peak and ask yourself if you can hold your current effort for the next 2 to 6.5 hours
The first mile or so was on Manitou and Ruxton Roads, heading out to the trailhead. I had some trouble settling into a comfortable pace – the incline was not terribly steep, but definitely noticeable. Between that and the 6300’ altitude, my heart raced a little and my breathing felt more labored than I like it to be during the first mile.
You will get a short flat section before you come to the end of the third switch-back where there is a sign reading: PEAK 12 MI, ELEV. 7,200′. If you are pushing here let this sign be a reminder that there is still about 6,850 feet of climbing left. This is a good time to point out that all of the distances and elevations on the metal trail markers are suspect. Use them as reference points only.
By the time we hit the Barr Trail, the pack had started walking. Some runners stress about positioning before this happens. It’s difficult to pass on the single track trail, and the early switchbacks.
Soon we edged out into the sun, and started a steeper ascent. My pace was a brisk walk by now – perceived effort felt harder than going up Mount Si had a couple of weekends before, which should have concerned me. Feeling the climb so early, with over ten miles and 6000’ feet of ascent to go meant it wouldn’t get easier.
Eventually we settled a steady plod up the trail. We made it through the first two aid stations, along the initial ascent and then at Bob’s Road. Then things leveled off a bit, and we got to run for a few minutes. Having gone up over 2000’ at the point, we were not sprinting, but it definitely felt good to pick up the pace. Progress.
The next right turn will give you a view of Pikes Peak. If you are smart you will not look because it will appear so far away. If you do look however you can repeat after me, “This serves as yet another reminder to slow down.”
About four miles in, we crested a hill, and were rewarded with a nice view of the big mountain, framed by some large rocks bridging over the trail. I felt bad that I didn’t take the camera out and capture it, but really wanted to keep moving. By now I definitely felt a bit of fatigue, not so bad that I was concerned, but much earlier than I’d usually feel it.
We continued through the forest, climbing steadily along longer switchbacks. The trick here was to keep moving but manage to conserve energy too. We passed through Barr Camp, just over 7.6 miles and at 10,000’. People more prepared than I had camped out here earlier in the week, and did some training runs in the days before. Some of the fellow Marathon Maniacs I’d met for dinner the evening before had done this. They spoken about the stretches between Barr Camp and the A-frame as being difficult because you couldn’t see how far along you were towards the summit.
Within a few hundred yards of Barr Camp you can see a helicopter landing pad on the left. Rides are expensive so don’t even think about it. Besides, considering the relatively small number of helicopters that have landed here you would do well to remember that one of them crashed into the trees on take-off. Although no one was seriously hurt large parts of the blade landed only a few feet off the path from Barr Camp to the Outhouse. Your odds are better if you just keep running!
To this point, I’d kept a brisk walking pace, running only when the trail flattened. The predominant grade had been a steady 13%. By the numbers, this was not as steep as I’d done on Mount Si, but the altitude clearly made a difference. At only 8 miles into the race, I was already feeling marked fatigue. Even while walking, my foot turnover was getting slower all the time. And my mile splits were getting longer and longer.
At the end of switch-back number 15 you will come to another trail marker that reads: TIMBERLINE SHELTER, PIKE NATIONAL FOREST. From here the A-Frame will be down to your left. If all is going well you have reached 71.2% of your goal time. If things are not going well you can either sit down on the big log to the left or go take a nap in the A-frame. Do keep in mind the … cut-off time however or you could find yourself heading back down the mountain without a number.
As we passed the A-frame aid station, we were nearing the treeline. My legs felt heavy and slow, and I was beginning to wonder whether I’d make the summit. Doubt began to crowd into my brain, and I wondered whether I’d make the peak.
It was about then that the lead runners started to come down the hill past us. At that point Kilian Jornet Burgada had a six minute lead over Alex Nichols, which was very close to his eventual margin of victory. Watching them descend fast, fearlessly, and gracefully was amazing! it was just what I needed to keep moving.
At the end of this switch-back you will take a left — a left that will change the rules. Almost thirty percent of your time is going to be spent covering the final 3 miles if you stay on schedule. However, ask any Peak runner what happens above 12,000′ and they will tell you that schedules don’t mean a thing. Indeed, this mile alone has crushed the dreams of many runners. From here on up it’s about wanting to get to the top. Think to yourself — JAM! Just Always Move!
As we cleared the treeline, we could see what lay ahead for the final 3 miles and 2000 ft of ascent to the peak. The trail snaked back and forth, in tighter switchbacks higher up. We could see a line of runners plodding along. And they were pretty small way up there. The summit felt really far away.
Personally, I try to avoid looking toward the summit at all during the last three miles — it ALWAYS looks farther away than I feel I can run. I prefer to take the final 3 miles one switch-back at a time.
I focused down on my feet, because each time I looked up at the snaking line of folks ahead, it would bring me down. I reflected a bit on the dinner discussion the evening before. Amongst the eight or so people around the table, there had been hundreds of marathons completed. but there wasn’t the usual degree of confidence about completing this one. Several people were concerned about making the time cutoffs. As I slogged up the switchbacks, I began to worry a bit.
Three switch-backs more and you will pass the Cirque sign: CIRQUE 1,500 FEET BELOW. If things are really going bad you can end it all with a sharp left turn
By then, I ‘d fallen in with Joann, a fellow Marathon Maniac whom I’d met at the dinner. We talked a little, but I was lacking energy to talk very much. Every ounce of blood flowing in my body needed to go to my legs. Right around the time we hit the Cirque at 13,300 ft, she went ahead.
Perhaps the most dreaded sign on the trail reads: 16 GOLDEN STAIRS.
Climbing “the stairs” was something. By then I was so depleted, it was hard to raise my feet enough to clear the rocks. I reminded myself that I was less than a mile from the summit – how could I quit when I was so close? So back and forth I went. By now each mile was taking nearly half an hour. The downhill traffic had really picked up, so we spent a fair bit of time negotiating how to share the trail.
And then, after a couple of shorter switchbacks, we were there. I took a few minutes to rest at the top, taking in what I’d done : going higher than I’d been before, and probably working harder than I had before, My time to the top had been 4:52:06, about 30 minutes longer than I’d hoped for.
I ate a gel, swallowed some salt tablets, finished my bottle of Cytomax, pulling the other one out of my pack. My hands weren’t working so well, and I felt lethargic. The idea of going another 13 miles didn’t sound like fun. But it was time to head out.
I walked a bit to get my legs moving again, and then started to run a bit. It was here that I noticed that my vision seemed a bit cloudy, as if there were dust in my eyes. I figured things would get better once I ‘d been moving a bit, and pressed on.
With my foggy head and cloudy vision, navigating the switchbacks through a steady stream of uphills runners was interesting. Ordinarily I would have felt much more acrophobic leaning out to let people pass on the inside of the trail – but I was simply focusing on where to plant my feet, and how to keep moving forward. Great food for thought, once I had some bloodflow going into my brain again – how to push through some learned fears.
While going down “the stairs”, I had a scary near miss. I veered right a bit wide to allow some uphill runners space. One of them accidentally pushed me a bit over the edge. I probably would have fallen, had a fellow runner not grabbed my arm, and kept me on the trail. Wow.
I learned later on the course that the runner who pulled me back onto the course was a guy named “Matt”. Thanks very much, wherever you happen to be now Matt.
As I passed the A-frame again, I had mustered a good stride. The problem was, my vision was still pretty cloudy. As we passed in and out of the sun, I found it almost impossible to make out objects like roots and rocks below my feet. Shortly after the aid station, I went down hard, landing on my knees, elbows, and the side of my face. After dusting off my hurt pride I got moving again.
While running from the A Frame down to Barr Camp, I had more stumbles, and turned ankles. By now I was very concerned about my vision. Since my bike accident in 2008, I only see out of one eye. Now I wondered whether I needed to worry about my one good eye going bad. And more immediately, I was worried that not being able to see where I was planting my feet might be a good reason to consider dropping out. It was difficult to walk, let alone run.
As I approached the Barr Camp, I looked up at the course monitor ahead, and then suddenly went down pretty hard – landing on the right side of my rib cage, and bouncing the side of my face off of the trail. It hurt both my body and my pride.
As I got up, I felt pretty shaky. The nearby volunteer ran over to help me. I took some time to assess whether or not I’d be able to continue. I felt frustrated and embarrassed. As I stopped to get some water, they quizzed me about how I was feeling. Wary that he might boot me if I seemed hurt or foggy, I affected as much confidence, certainty and humor about falling as I could manage. I apparently convinced him that I was not on the verge of passing out and he let me continue.
I plodded down over Bob’s Road and No Name Creek, trying to keep patient. Being tempted once more by a nice even downhill stretch, I fell again, again landing hard on my side and face. Another runner gave me a bag of wipes so I could dab the dirt off my face and elbows, but I was shaken up enough that my hands weren’t quite able to make it work. I pressed on, knowing that I would not run again until we reached the road.
These last trail miles were long and difficult. I counted down the miles and worried that I’d run out of time to finish. I passed a final aid station, and attempted to clean my hands and flush my eyes a bit. I was shocked at how cloudy my vision remained. Discouraged, I plodded down the trail, sliding into ruts and skimming rocks as I stepped. My walk was very tentative, and my pace was slow. I worried that if I fell again, I’d be done.
With just over a mile to go, I left the Barr Trail for Ruxton Road, and began running. Unhampered by roots and rocks, I was able to muster a nice pace, I felt oddly rested from hours of slow walking. I passed several others as I wound down towards the park.
I crossed the finish in 8:54:33 – the longest I’ve ever taken to finish an event. I felt very disappointed that things had not gone according to plan. I’d disappointed both on the ascent and descent.
Just after crossing the finish, the medics looked at me. My bloody scrapes apparently caught their eyes. I got some special attention when I told them I was having some trouble seeing. The doctor quizzed me to see whether I was feeling at all faint, due to heat or altitude. I guess I seemed coherent enough to allay those concerns. I stumbled to the car, and then very carefully drove back to my hotel.
Back at the hotel, I felt pretty down. I’d come to Colorado to run this race, and felt like I’d messed it up badly. I showered up, and got a nice meal.
Time heals most wounds. When I returned to the room after dinner, I looked at some of the pictures I’d taken. I began to internalize what it meant to reach the summit, how I’d pushed myself to reach it, how we’d navigated the stairs, and braved the narrow passings near the top. Once my vision improved again, I felt good about my decision to push for the finish. I had climbed higher and worked harder than ever before.
The next day to get in the car and head up to visit some friends in Boulder. We went for a wonderful recovery run from the Flatiron Vista trailhead, just outside of town. The trail had some rollers, but was pretty gentle. It was also beautiful there.
Several of the others had paced runners during the weekend’s Leadville 100 trail race. We swapped stories, and dodged rocks on the trail. I soaked in the beauty around me, enjoyed the stories, and around dusk ran into the whipping headwind.
I was tired but smiling, remembering why running feeds my soul.
Course info quotes are taken from Matt Carpenter’s skyrunner site : http://www.skyrunner.com/ppcourse.htm. Official race photos taken by marathonfoto.com.
charts and graphs for running geeks
Here, the mile splits only tell part of the story. The wildest thing is the variance between different splits – ranging to a factor of three.
mile splits and cumulative average split – I got slower over time.
elevation verses speed – an inverse relationship.
the map – we ran from east to west, then back.