Running the Pikes Peak Ascent

The Short Version

I started running back in January with Chris and Peter. Largely out of peer pressure, I joined a group of friends and signed up to run the Pikes Peak Ascent, a 13.4 mile run up Pikes Peak with a vertical rise of 7815′. I was extremely nervous before the race but it all turned out well in the end.I started extremely slowly but quickly started passing people who had gone out too fast at the beginning. Being from Colorado is a significant advantage in conditioning over people who, while fitter, live and train at lower elevations. After a steep climb up the initial parts of the trail, it “levelled out” for a couple miles and we managed to run. From half-way up, it got steeper again and rockier as well. We were also shrouded in dense fog for the second half. My goal for the race was to make it in under 4:20, but I managed to summit in 3:40:44, a full 40 minutes faster than my goal! Seeing Amy just before the finish and hearing everyone cheer was a huge boost and one of the highlights of my life.

We returned on Sunday to hand out grapes, Chex Mix, and gatorade at aid station for the Marathon. The weather was much improved and we got to see everyone come through our aid station twice. It was very positive and I feel great for being able to give back.

The Prologue

In the end, I’d have to put it down to peer pressure. My mountaineering buddies Chris and Peter sucked me into running last winter. In the depths of January, running was an easy thing to do to keep me occupied and fit on weeknights when there was nothing much else to do. Turns out it’s kind of fun. On March 1st, I once again succumbed to peer pressure and registered for the Pikes Peak Half Marathon, then over five months away, far enough to seem unreal. I didn’t really want to become a long-distance runner, but the idea of seeing how fast I could climb a major Colorado peak seemed kind of neat and gave me a goal to work towards.

There are two Pikes Peak races crammed into one big weekend of fun, both on the historic Barr Trail which climbs 13.4 miles from Manitou Springs (6000′) to the summit (14,110′). The Ascent (slightly longer than a half-marathon) which is the uphill portion and the full marathon which goes up and then back down via the same route. The trail is beautifully smooth and rock-free for most of its length and is never very steep (average of 11% grade). But it never stops! The Ascent is run in two waves spaced half an hour apart on Saturday, then the Marathon is run on Sunday. Each wave has about a thousand people in it, so it’s quite crowded. Now in its 51st year, registration for both Ascent and Marathon filled up in less than 24 hours! Not only are there a lot of crazy people out there, but they’re willing to pay good money to do this kind of thing!

m_course_bwIt’s good to know we’re not alone. Chris did the Ascent last year and he and Peter signed up for the full marathon this year. Other comrades joined us as well: Mike, Marella, Caroline, Marella’s dad Roger and Caroline’s dad Bob also registered for the Ascent. We might be crazy, but at least we were in good company!

We continued running as the days got longer and snow melted off the trails in the high country. My stamina increased until a six or seven mile run seemed like a pretty standard after-work jaunt. We “ran” Mt. Audubon in the Indian Peaks and discovered that “mountain running” is a euphemism for “mountain walking”. But I was hooked on the idea that you can go into the mountains and cover huge distances with very minimal gear. We ran up and down the steep, rocky mountains behind Boulder and did more runs above 10,000′ near the Contintal Divide. I did a long solo “run” up to a set of lakes on the Divide. We did a huge non-run of the Tenmile Range featuring over 8000′ of elevation gain in a day. Finally, we capped off our training with an 18+ mile hike/run up to and along the Divide in the James Peak Wilderness. And I feel great! I’m in the best shape I’ve ever been in and am five pounds below my usual summer trim. While I can’t yet leap tall buildings in a single bound, I can at least run up and down mountains with some degree of stamina and speed. Time for Pikes!

Friday – Pre-race Jitters

In the days before the race, I was increasingly tense and nervous. I had no doubts as to my ability to make it to the top and I have plenty of experience opperating (if not actually running) at high altitudes. But I’ve never run a serious race like this before and had no idea what to expect. There are cut-off times that get moved up in the event of bad weather. I’d invested an entire season of training with this single goal and I was as nervous as a bridegroom before the Big Day.

Jittery and tense, Amy and I arrived in Manitou Springs to scope out the scene. The weather was grim and a light rain fell in the park where the all-you-can-eat pre-race spagetti feed was taking place. We picked up my registration packet including race shirt, various promotional materials, and my bib (#1185). We gnoshed on spaghetti and struck up a conversation with Jason, a veteran racer and his fiance Megan. I mentioned my weather and cut-off fears and he said that the weather would have to be pretty spectacularly bad for them to cancel anything. This made me feel a lot better until the skies really opened up and it started to rain in buckets.

“That’s right,” I said to the clouds above, “get it all out of your system now.”

Saturday – The Amazing Race

When I stepped out of the hotel at 5:30 in the morning, it was pitch dark and raining. My mood was grim. Things weren’t off to a good start. I grabbed a few bites to eat and met up with Caroline and Bob for the shuttle ride to the starting line. But when we arrived, things had taken a change for the better; the rain had stopped and it was light enough to see most of the way up the mountain. We nervously paced around for a bit waiting for the festivities to start. I ran up and down the street a bit to warm up and spent a while stretching. Let’s get this show on the road!

At 7 am, the first wave started off. Amy, Josh, Peter, and Chris showed up to form the cheering and photography section. Mike, Marella, and Roger found me and we waited nervously for our 7:30 start.


All suited up, ready to go.

Even by “mountain running” standards, I felt practically naked going into this. Normally I’ll take a small pack with a couple liters of water, some warm layers, and various salt-and-calorie-laden food. Maybe a camera as well. But this was a supported run with water and food at aid stations every couple miles down the course. On Chris’s advice, I opted for a super-minimal set-up: waist pack with a small water bottle and a couple of energy gels, a thin hat, gloves and windbreaker stuffed in my lumbar pockets, and a thermal shirt tied around my waist. This turned out to be just about perfect. It was chilly standing around, but I knew I’d warm up fast once the running began.

And they're off! The second wave hits the streets.

And they’re off! The second wave hits the streets.

Finally the gun went off and the crowd surged down the road. I was trapped in the middle of a thousand runners all high on adrenaline. The first mile and a half through town is uphill, but not offensively so. Plus it is wide and paved and lined with spectators. Everyone said to go out really slowly at the start, that a lot of people, especially flatlanders not used to the altitude, would run the first mile at their usual marathon pace and burn out quickly. But at the same time, I wanted to get ahead of the main mass of people so that when I (presumably) started passing people up ahead, there would be less of them in the way. After dodging ahead of some fraction of the crowd in the first quarter mile, I settled into a very relaxed pace feeling good and looking forward to the miles to come. Being from Colorado and used to running at 6000′, I had a significant home-court advantage over the people who’d just flown in from sea level. Onlookers cheered and it felt good to finally, after five months of anticipation, be on my way. On my right, a guy about my age with a University of Missouri hat passed me mouth breathing so loudly I could hear him from five yards back. I got the feeling I’d be seeing him again pretty soon.

We worked uphill on narrowing streets past the Cog Railway station. At 1.5 miles we hit the dirt and started up the Barr Trail proper. This was the start of the famous Ws, a set of 13 switchbacks that criss-crosses the steep front of Mount Manitou. I dropped into a strong walking pace and fell into line behind a few hundred people doing the same thing. I’d been anticipating much worse, but the grade was pretty steady and doable and the trail was wide enough that passing wasn’t too hard. All in all, it was a lot like “running” up Flagstaff Mountain in Boulder. I passed one fellow going particularly slowly and looked back. He was wearing a white bib, not the red of the second wave. A first-waver already, even with his half-hour head start on us? What!?

Things settled into a rythm. Someone said we were on switchback #4, so I started counting. The forest was damp and misty and the views were opening up to town down below surprisingly fast. We were climbing at a pretty good rate. At 39 minutes, we passed the Incline Aid station and I grabbed a quick drink. The volunteers were playing energetic music and doing lots of encouraging cheering. Still feeling good–time to press on. The steep climb didn’t end at the top of the Ws, but continued on past a nifty rock arch. Eventually the trail levelled out for a hundred yards here and there and people started to run. I ran as well and several of the people I’d passed on the Ws passed me back. Miles to go yet. Keep it slow, slow, slow.

On my registration form, I’d put down 5 hours as my anticipated ascent time, figuring that I could pretty easily do that. Having talked to people in the interim, I’d decided that 4:30 was a more realistic goal. Then I’d learned that the average men’s Ascent time was something around 4:22. Okay, I’ve always tried to be above average, so I’d shoot for 4:20, but I wasn’t being anal about it. Still, I recalled that for a 4:30 pace, I should get to No Name Creek in about 1:20. Much to my surprise, the aid station hove into view at 1:03! I was quite a bit ahead of what schedule I had.

The trail became “flat”, meaing that the grade was only something like 300′ of gain per mile rather than the stiff 700′ of the Ws. Everyone started to run this section and for three miles it was nothing but open woodland and wide, gently rising trail. Hard work, but it felt great! We started passing quite a lot of white-bibs in this section, the tail end of the first wave. The sun was out and I caught a glimpse of the summit through the trees. It honestly didn’t look that much higher than we were right now!

At 1:19 I passed the Bob’s Road aid station and stopped for a quick bite. My minimal breakfast was starting to hit me and I downed an energy gel (PowerGel Tangerine, moderately icky). The aid station, manned by a local boy scout troop, was stocked with cheetos! Wow, so tasty! I pressed on settling into a mixed pace of running on the flats and walking on the occasional steep sections. I started seeing the same red-bibbed people from my wave again and again. We seemed to have a pretty consistent pace going on and were passing white-bibbed first-wavers by the dozens. Fortunately, I discovered that the limitting factor was my legs muscles rather than my lungs because “on your left” was rapidly becoming my catch-phrase.

Just before Barr Camp at about mile 6, all runnning ceased for me for the day. The trail became noticably rockier and it started to pitch up to a good grade again. But Barr Camp was worth the wait. As roughly the midpoint in time, distance, and elevation of the race, they put all the really good stuff here. Checking my watch, I was surprised to see I’d gotten here in 1:48 (a 4:20 pace would have had me here at 2:12)! At this pace, I might well break 4 hours! (That’s great, kid, don’t get cocky.) I was definitely feeling it in the legs at this point and in previous “runs”, I always hit the wall somewhere after that point. I refilled my bottles, grabbed a handful of grapes (mmmm, grapes!), and paused for a 2-minute break.

Next stop, A-Frame and tree-line at 11,800′. I cranked back on the pace a bit and downed another energy gel to stave off the mid-run bonk. Unfortunately, the hazy blue skies from earlier had been replaced with dense fog from about 10,000′ and higher. We moved into a damp, clinging mist and wound our way up steep slopes through dripping trees. Definitely not the kind of Colorado scenery I’m used to, but at least sunburn and dehydration were less of a problem than they normally are. Ahead and behind I could see perhaps a dozen people in each direction all hiking along into the mist. The energy gel kicked in and I started feeling much better. Excited at the idea of a sub-4 hour finish, I kicked it back into gear again and started passing a never-ending stream of white-bibs.

A-Frame and the ten mile point in the race came suddenly at 2:31. A bunch of chilled volunteers stood in the dripping forest handing out an array of goodies but mostly I was interested in water and gatorade. “Aren’t you cold?” one of them asked as I paused to rehydrate. “Nope. Sweating like a hog.” My quads, usually the part that feels the burn first, were feeling solid, but my glutes were really starting to burn. Three miles and a couple thousand feet to go. I ratchetted back the pace a bit to rest and get used to the new trail.

From here on it was above tree-line, although you’d never know it. The view consisted of lots of fog with large boulders and scrubby bushes. More switchbacks and more power hiking. Again, the aid station pee-break kicked in and I brought the pace back up. It was all quite surreal with all the runners and the fog and mumbles of “on your left… when you get a chance”. At some point I realized I could hear people yelling up ahead and that it must be the Cirque aid station up ahead. It sounded like they were Right There. Apparently fog carries sound quite well because it was a very long time on-trail before we finally saw them.

The best thing about the Cirque was the great quantity of grapes on hand. Grapes are my new favorite power food. Crunchy, sweet, juicy, and delicious. 2006 was a very good year and it was only by grape power that I didn’t drop to a complete crawl for the last 1.4 miles to the summit. That and the fact that I could now hear the fog-enhanced cheering from the summit above. There was an announcer saying something over a loudspeaker and it sounded like quite a crowd as well.

Crowds of spectators at the summit.

Crowds of spectators at the summit.

Patches of clearing appeared now and then and revealed steep cliffs above and a long line of runners winding back and forth through the rocks. There were also non-runners perched here and there amidst the rocks. Some of them were race officials or Search and Rescue personel, but many were fans and all the cheering was very helpful. Certainly nobody was running anymore but a few like-minded red-bibs and I did quite a lot of passing on the narrow, rocky switchbacks. This was the famous 16 Golden Stairs I’d heard so much about (usually in a voice of dread). First of all, one stair is composed of two switchbacks, so it’s really 32 of them. Just as I was beginning to think that the Golden Stairs weren’t so bad, one of the bystanders told me that this right here was the start of them. Goody!

Hell yeah! The 12th Golden Stair.

Hell yeah! The 12th Golden Stair.

I could definitely hear the crowds above now and it sounded mighty good. The stairs were a lot of work, but I knew that only a few tenths of a mile were all that separated me from those cheering crowds. It was all a bit of a blur. I passed people. I came to a flat section and tried running for a bit. Bad idea. Then more switchbacks. Left. Right. Left. Rightleftrightleft. Right again. Cheering louder now.

The fog lifted and at the other end of the 12th Golden stair were Amy, Chris, and Josh. My name, number, and home town boomed out from above and everyone cheered. And there was the big finish line arch. My motivation shot through the roof. WOW what a rush! I don’t remember if I actually ran the last hundred yards or if I only meant to, but suddenly there were people all over the place and Chris’s wife Susan was hanging a shiny gold medal around my neck.

“Cool!” I thought, “I won!”

But I didn’t win and it wasn’t Susan nor did she even look like Susan. Everyone gets medals, but my official finish time was 3:40:44 which put me solidly in 265th place in the men’s division (39th out of 128 in the 30-34 year old group). Since this was a full 40 minutes faster than my start-of-race goal of 4:20, I was extremely surprised and pleased. Chris was impressed, Amy was proud, and I was giddy, exhausted, and dangerously hyper all at once. Medal swinging wildly, I went bounding around unsteadily on the rocks, yelling incoherently as my other red-bibbed second-wave bretheren, close friends every one of them, neared the finish.

In particular, Mike came striding up the trail looking fresh as a daisy moving through the last switchbacks for a finish of 4:27. Minutes later Marella and Roger appeared finishing strong in a time of 4:32. More medals and more celebration ensued. An hour later, Josh screamed “There’s Caroline!” and the whole celebration started all over again. Caroline looked chipper and strong but Bob was listing to port and stumbling up the trail. I met them as they crossed the line (5:35) and followed as a medical person took Bob under arm to the medical building on the summit. A few minutes on bottled oxygen and he was good as new.

Everyone's a winner!

Everyone’s a winner!

Aid Station Split
Hydro Street 19:41
Incline 39:18
No Name Creek 1:03:38
Bob’s Road 1:19:28
Barr Camp 1:48:22
A-Frame 2:31:29
Cirque 3:13:51
Summit 3:40:44

All in all, I’m extremely pleased with my performance. In fact, everyone in our little group did much better than they’d anticipated. Honestly, it wasn’t that hard and it felt shorter than it really was, distance-wise. The training runs we did were universally on rockier terrain and often steeper as well. They definitely prepared me for Pikes. My strategy of going out really slowly paid off and I made up a lot of time later in the race. Passing people wasn’t as difficult as I thought it might be, which is good because I did a lot of passing people. Still, it was a pain to be stuck in the second wave and have a great speed difference between the front red-bibs and the back white-bibs. I wonder why they don’t just have one big wave or maybe space the two waves closer together so that the dispersion happens closer to the beginning. Next year I feel ready to tackle the full Marathon.

Sunday – Wirque at the Cirque

Rolling out of bed at 3:45 after yesterday’s exertions was even less fun than it sounds. We were headed to help run the Cirque aid station. I figured that this would be a great way to watch Chris and Peter run the marathon (along with a thousand of their comrades) and to give back some of the great volunteer energy that I received yesterday. We packed up quickly and drove to the Manitou City Hall where we rendesvoused with a large number of other volunteers. Everyone piled into vans and, after various chaos, headed for the summit. The weather looked like a repeat of yesterday but, when we saw sunrise from the van, it rose in a clear sky over the cloud deck. Pikes was undercast!

Undercast! Sunrise over the cloud deck from the summit of Pikes.

Undercast! Sunrise over the cloud deck from the summit of Pikes.

We debarked at the chilly summit, divided up gear, and headed down the trail. It had snowed in the night and the trail was covered by an inch or two of icy crust. As we descended, we kicked away at the ice trying to break it up. The first runners were still several hours away and hopefully rising temperatures would melt things quickly, but every little bit helps.

Reaching the Cirque, we set to work getting it set up and stocked. We’d carted in a small stereo, packets of Gatorade powder, bags of Skittles and Chex Mix, and thousands of green paper cups. I remembered it fondly as the location of grapes yesterday and there was still a huge bag of them. Some enterprising souls had run a long hose down from the summit and we filled a pair of trash cans with water, one for water, one for Gatorade. Amy and several other women set to work pulling grapes off their stems and getting them ready for the runners grabbing hands. Somehow, because of the altitude or the freezing temperatures, the grapes were incredibly sticky.

The weather was chilly, but sunny and the views were great. Everything was ready by around 8 and we waited for the first runners to arrive. There was little doubt who the first would be; local Matt Carpenter, owns every record there is on this mountain and we expected him around 8:45 or so. Unlike yesterday, the weather was gorgeously clear and we could see the trail for a mile in either direction. Right on schedule, Matt came into view and we all took our places strung out along the trail. Some held bowls of snacks, others dispensing cups of water and Gatorade, everyone yelling and cheering. Matt came running through (I certainly hadn’t been running at this point in the race yesterday) at high speed and never even looked at us. Total concentration. We watched as he negotiated the switchbacks above, running the whole time.

The next of the elite runners started to arrive about ten minutes later and similarly ignored us, jogging through toward the top. The first woman came through in fourth place and was very impressive. Matt came back down through about 25 minutes after he left (it took me 27 minutes just to do the Cirque-Summit trip one-way!). It was a two-way race now and runners were coming from both directions. We had to look sharp and everything became quite exciting for a couple hours. Amy and I were on grapes and Chex Mix duty. Usually one or the other would excite a runner quite a lot depending if they needed sugar or salt. I remember very clearly being in the camp that thought that grapes were the food of the gods, so I could sympathize.

The later it got, the more friendly the runners became. They were slow and tired enough that they actually stopped and chatted before pressing on. Peter came through a little before 10 in the thick of things, not running any more, but looking strong and moving well. Chris came through just after Peter passed us on the way down. Things were crazy for another hour or so as the main pack of runners summitted and came back down but then got a lot quieter as the number of runners arriving dropped and their speed became lower. Then began the “walking dead” phase, runners in name only limped in looking pretty haggard.

The summit cut-off was 1:30 and we finally heard that the last runners that were going to make it had come through. We were out of everything but grapes by this point, so it was just as well. We’d also been hanging out at 13,000′ for about 8 hours and were ready to leave. Finally, we dumped the remaining water, packed everything up, cleaned up the last of the crushed cups from the trail and started out. I got the envious job of carrying the garbage cans (fortunately drained of water and gatorade) back to the top. After trying several configurations, we finally just tied them to my backpack and I lugged them up. Uggg.

It was a really interesting and positive weekend. After having seen the state of some of the marathon runners, I’m more convinced than ever that I can and will run it next year. Peter finished in 5:49 while Chris managed a very respectable 7:17 finish. (Matt Carpenter finished in 3:33, shorter than my ascent time!) Working at the Cirque was a fun way to see things from the thick of it, and everyone seemed to really appreciate us being there.

While this was the big goal of all this spring and summer running, I don’t feel like I’ll quit. Whether or not I’ve caught the running bug, I’ll undoubtedly keep at it over the coming months.

But first, I’m going to take a week or two off….

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