August 19, 2007
“The Pikes Peak Marathon is not a good first marathon. You see, there’s this big hill in the middle…”
“Are you nervous?” asked Amy as we rolled out of bed at 5am.
“No,” I replied, completely serious.
“Are you excited?”
“No, not really…”
Frankly, I wasn’t that enthusiastic about heading back out at dawn for what looked to be a repeat of yesterday, complete with all the pain and frustration. I actually felt surprisingly good considering how bad I’d felt yesterday. 8000′ of vertical gain is not trivial. But when you come right down to it, the Barr Trail is not that interesting, especially two days in a row.
Things picked up once I got on the shuttle and started wandering around the start area. It looked like a carbon copy of yesterday weather-wise, but the feel of the crowd was very different. The marathoners seemed much more laid-back about the race than the Wave 1 Ascent people and, like me, most of them seemed to have no particular goals besides surviving the challenge. I met up with Chris, Mike, and Roger, and my coworkers Lieko and Fred and we paced about waiting for the start. Once again, the gun went off and we shuffled forward. Strangely, I was feeling pretty good now and set a very casual pace through town. I’d planned to run with Chris, Roger, and Mike at least for a while, but we almost immediately lost each other. No matter. There’s a turn-around at the summit and everyone passes everyone else at least once during the race.
Once again, we loped through the turn onto Ruxton Ave and the pack started to disperse. I was feeling good and ran everything all the way to the Hydro Street aid station. The W’s were a mess, as usual, and traffic became pretty heavy. People jostled and ran here and there, but I maintained a steady walking pace. The Incline aid station came at about 45 minutes so I was about 5 minutes behind where I was yesterday. Good. I’d arbitrarily figured on a 4 hour ascent today and that was about the right pace. It didn’t feel any easier than yesterday yet, but I knew it would when the hustle started higher up.
Things continued about like this for a while. Despite not having an established time goal, each waypoint came about on schedule for a 4 hour pace and I felt pretty good. Perhaps it was the lighter breakfast I’d had today or maybe it was the fact that I wasn’t trying to set any records. In any case, it was getting to be pretty fun. Barr Camp came at 2 hours and featured the usual refreshments as well as a big stack of pancakes. Mmmm, pancake power! I still hadn’t seen Chris in a while, but figured he was probably ahead of me. On to the A-Frame and treeline.
The joke is always “So, when did Matt pass you?” Matt in this case is Matt Carpenter, master of the mountain and the general favorite in any Pikes race. I figured that he’d pass me on the way down around the A-Frame (mile 10). Right on schedule, I started hearing yells of “runner up!” at 2:49 about five minutes before the aid station. Matt came flying through like he knew every root and pebble of the course (which he undoubtedly does). His first persuer came through about five minutes later while I was refilling my bottle at the A-Frame, but downhillers didn’t become common until somewhere past the 2 miles to go sign.
I’d been a bit worried about two-way traffic on the narrow, rocky trail on the upper peak, but it wasn’t too bad. At my pace, I never minded taking a few seconds off to let someone pass (downhill gets right of way). After the Cirque in the final mile, it became quite congested but I tried to say encouraging things to everyone as they flew past. There weren’t as many spectators on the summit as there had been yesterday, but there were still a good number including Marella and her family. They shouted encouraging things and were audible from a surprising distance. The 16 Golden Stairs came at last and things got really crowded. The trail here is only about a foot wide in places and winds back and forth like an angry snake. I was squarely in the middle of the pack now and traffic probably slowed me down by a minute or two here. I fought through the last of the traffic finally reached the summit turn-around (time = 4:02, about what I’d figured). Time for the second half, the faster half, the dangerous half, the big unknown half.
I’d intended to walk the first mile or two of the downhill over the very rough terrain. Maybe it was adrenaline or maybe it was actually easy, but I ran nearly every step on the way down. The Golden Stairs were still a mess, but this time I had momentum and the right of way. I passed Chris still headed up about five minutes from the summit (he summited in 4:07), but figured he’d probably catch me on the way down. Mike and Roger were a little ways beyond that (4:33). After the Cirque, I fell in with a group of five people setting a similar, blistering pace down the trail. Upward traffic at this point was pretty thin and generally pretty slow, so we had no trouble flying past people. Despite my initial misgivings, this stuff was surprisingly runnable, but you’ve got to keep total mental focus or risk some spectacular crashes.
Down below tree line was probably the worst of the trail with big slabs of gravel-covered rock as well as roots and variable lighting conditions. I dropped the pace a bit and fell out of the back of the pace line. From then on, I was essentially alone. Particularly below Barr Camp where the trail gets smooth, wide, and rock-free it was kind of strange. I must have been slightly ahead of the main pack of runners, but we were spread out by a hundred yards or more. Did I miss a turn back there? I haven’t seen anyone else in a while. Oh, good, there’s a hiker. Hey buddy, have you seen a whole bunch of runners come through here? Yeah, I suppose you probably have, sorry, dumb question…. To my surprise, I was able to maintain a pretty solid pace despite the totally whipped legs and passed quite a number of people. The few short stretches where the trail descends on the way up were really nice at the time, but were pure torture now. Even the flat sections felt like murder.
The advantage of being spread out on the descent is that the aid station people are not distracted by other runners and are very attentive. The fine crew at Bob’s Road were very encouraging and the enthusiastic volunteers at No Name Creek were fantastic! It was getting hot and, as soon as I asked for water, three or four young women dressed in rabbit costumes dumped cups of water over my head. Wait, was that a hallucination? I have a history of that, you know and it is pretty hot out. Also, I did take a nasty fall half a mile back around that sharp corner…. No, I’m pretty sure that really happened. Cool!
The grade steepened after No Name, but I was getting excited. I was on-pace for a 6:30 finish which was pretty good. I’d been hoping for sub-7 hours, but a 6:27 would put me at 10 hours for the Double; an arbitrary goal but a good one nonetheless. The Ws were not nearly as bad as I’d feared. Steep and a bit rocky, but mercifully fast when you’ve got gravity on your side. I took another fall, this time ending up hanging half-way through the split-rail fence that guards the downhill side of the trail. Whew, that was close. I don’t know how much more of this I can take.
With two or three Ws to go, I came across a guy with a stereo blasting something classical and inspiring. Carmina Burrana? Chariots of Fire? I don’t know, but it was awfully inspiring. To my surprise, I saw that the last switchback and the road were Right There! It was then that the adrenaline really kicked in. Maybe it was the heat or something in the gatorade, but suddenly I felt great!. I rocketed through the last aid station (manned by very enthusiastic volunteers), down some dimly-remembered dirt road and I was on pavement again. One mile to go! Man this is steep! Gotta finish strong! Running that last mile was surely one of the highlights of my life. Hot runners shuffled along the pavement and I blew past one after another. Every time I felt my energy lagging, another spectator would cheer and I was off to the races again. The spectators grew thicker the lower I got and the cheering got louder. Amy and Susan were over there on the other side of the street, clearly surprised to see me so soon. Like a spent booster stage, I jettisoned my pack for that final burst to the finish. One hundred yards to go! I pass a young guy in a red shirt. A second later he passes me back. We glance at each other for a millisecond and both accelerate to about Mach 2. Neck and neck, we squeal around the final corner and cross the finish line.
Final time, 6:15:51! Not bad for a first marathon.
Chris, it turns out, was hot on my heels the whole way down and quite eager to catch me. After a bit of suffering on the way up, he made up a minute or two on the way down and, just about the time I could stand and walk without assistance, he came flying through the finish line at 6:19:04. We limped up the road to meet the wives and cheer on our fellow runners. Lieko had finished in an incredible 6:07 (27th place in the women’s field, wow!). Mike and Roger came in at 7:08 and we all retired to the creek to quench the fire in the legs.
There was quite a party going on by the time we emerged, dripping, from the most excellent creek. Man, I could really go for pizza. Or maybe donuts. And that run definitely earned me a beer or three. To my eternal surprise, the pavilion in Soda Springs Park sported both pizza and donuts! And our wrist bracelets entitled us to free beer as well. One could easily get used to this lifestyle. Finally, done! No more races. Nothing on the horizon but lots of sleep and rest and not turning in 30+ mile training weeks. We lounged for hours, but could have easily lounged for longer before regretfully packing up and heading back home.
It was a big weekend, as expected, though not in the ways I’d quite anticipated. A first marathon is certainly a milestone in the life of a runner and I’m glad mine was successful and so much fun. It’s a bummer I didn’t meet my goal in the Ascent, but therein lies a useful lesson as well: sometimes everything you’ve got just isn’t enough. Without defeat, there is no victory. I’m glad I did the Double rather than just one race or the other. There were only a hundred-some Doublers and there was always a certain comrades-in-arms feel when meeting another doubler. While most of us weren’t the fastest or anything, we did get to feel a bit like the craziest.
And now, I’m going to take a week or two off!