Sometimes Everything Isn’t Enough

Pikes Peak Ascent, Take 2

At the start on Saturday. Pikes looms in the far distance (photo by Caroline).

At the start on Saturday. Pikes looms in the far distance (photo by Caroline).

OK, so I’m nervous. Certainly not as nervous as last year, but definitely some butterflies. Come on, man! You’ve trained for this thing. You’ve logged more than twice as many miles as last year. Your training runs this time around make last year’s stuff look like a jog in the park. For crying out loud, you’ve logged more than 100,000′ of vertical this season. Another 13.4 miles and 7800′ should be a piece of cake!

My stated goal for this year’s Ascent was to break 3:30. Last year, I did it in 3:40:44 and a mere ten minutes (5%) improvement seemed pretty plausible, especially given the training I’d done this year. But part of me wondered if I could do better than that, if I could do a lot better than that.  Let’s not get cocky, but boy that would be pretty neat!  Unlike last year, I had a pretty good idea of what I could expect from the mountain and from myself. I came armed with pacing charts and strategies. The weather looked better this year with clear skies. Maybe a touch hot, but it shouldn’t be a problem up high. Plus I was in the first wave of runners this time around so I should have less traffic to deal with. Let’s get it on!

After the various ceremonies, the gun went off and we surged forward. Everyone started much faster than I’d expected and I soon found myself toward the back of the pack. How many of these people are going out too fast? Hopefully most of them. Keep it slow, slow, slow. We surged through town. I was feeling kind of loggy. Major traffic began at the end of the road and the Ws were a real bottleneck. Lots of people passed me but I stuck to my strict “no running in the Ws” policy. I’d pass them back later. Chris was apparently feeling good because he passed me half way up.

The Incline aid station appeared at 39 minutes, right on schedule for a 3:30 ascent according to the pace chart taped to my water bottle. So far, so good, but I was really hoping to be a little faster than that. No matter; I’ll make up time later. It was the same story at No Name Creek (1:03:35) and Barr Camp (1:46:32); I was consistently on or a little slower than a 3:30 pace. In fact, last year I hit Barr Camp at 1:48, so I was only a tiny bit ahead of my performance last year.

I wondered how Amy and the rest of the Wave 2 runners were doing. I’d been a bit surprised when Amy signed up for the Ascent, but she really trained hard this summer and was really excited and nervous about the race. She’s not much of a runner, but she’s strong, determined, and has loads more experience on big mountains than probably most of the people in the race. She should do fine.

Some tiny action shots from the fine folks at Marathonfoto.

Some tiny action shots from the fine folks at Marathonfoto.

The weather was still good up at the A-Frame and above tree line, but my pace still hadn’t improved. I passed Chris in there somewhere and he was still looking strong. By the “2 Miles to Go” sign, I was four minutes back from my most conservative target pace. By “1 mile to go”, I was five and half minutes back. This was not looking good. OK, if you’ve been holding back, now’s the time go pull out all the stops! Go go go!

The last mile is pretty hazy, but I do recall going as hard as my legs could go. I actually ran a good portion of what I was only walking last time, even all of the dreaded 16 Golden Stairs. I was dimly aware that Mike and others perched on some rocks yelling encouraging things, but I pushed as hard as I could, dodging past other runners sucking air, clambering hands-and-feet over boulders when necessary, and crossed the finish line in a state of total depletion. I’d timed my final sprint about right, but I still hadn’t made my goal. My time was 3:32:46, slightly better than last year, but not the sub-3:30 I’d been hoping for, never mind my private goal of… well, less than that.

And I felt like death! I crouched amidst the boulders near the finish. “Do you need help?” asked a volunteer, “Do you want oxygen?” While the thought was attractive, I couldn’t in good consience, as a CO resident and seasoned mountaineer, take that crutch. “No,” I said, “I’ll be okay.” Still, I don’t remember feeling this bad last time. I gingerly limped down to see Mike, Roger, Analeen, and company and help in the spectating.

Chris hove into view a few minutes later looking strong, as always. He finished in 3:42:06, lopping an incredible 44 minutes off his best ascent (which was during last year’s Marathon). I was glad I’d sent up binoculars because, unlike last year, the weather was clear and you could spot runners a mile down the mountain. Next up was Jim, a friend from Indiana. He’s from the flatlands and he hasn’t run all that much, but he still turned in an impressive 4:06 finish–unsurprising given the number of ambitious mountains he’s done this year. After a short pause, Marella appeared in the binoculars and finished looking fresh and rested at 4:27. Like me, she’d shaved 8 minutes off her PR as well. Amy showed up soon after and, busting past one incredibly slow person after another, finished in a respectable 5:44.

Immediately, it was a little bit of a let down to have trained so much more this year, and yet only gain a small improvement in my time. I could cite a number of mitigating factors (heat, crowd dynamics, too much breakfast, lack of the novelty adrenaline from last time), but perhaps I’ve reached the point of diminishing returns in my training. Still, I did improve my time by a few percent and that counts for something. That last mile must have been impressive if I made up three minutes there! It was still a good race and it was wonderful to see Amy striding confidently across the finish line with a big grin plastered on her face and big medal swinging around her neck. If I do something like this again, I will put aside the pace chart and just concentrate on having a good time and enjoying the process. The marathon should be much more interesting in that regard.

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