Back to the Mountain

Three weeks later, it’s like deja vu all over again. I’m standing in a valley looking up at a huge rock that I need to climb. Only this time, I know exactly what’s in front of me. For the third straight year, I toe the starting line of the Pike’s Peak Ascent Race.

Yep, everybody is headed for the top of that big one in the distance

Yep, everybody is headed for the top of that big one in the distance

The “Peak” is an unusual race in that you can actually see the finish from the starting line. Seeing it and getting there are two different things however. The course is 13.32 miles long, but it also climbs a total of 7,815 feet, ending at an elevation of 14,115 feet above sea level. This is a brutal race that typically takes a runner longer than a full marathon would at more normal altitudes. As an indication of its toughness, it was chosen to be the World Mountain Running Association’s 2014 World Championship Race. (I would not be challenging the front-runners.)

The race is especially tough on flatlanders such as myself. Besides the unrelenting climb, there’s about 20% less oxygen available than I’m used to….at the start. By the time you reach the finish line, the oxygen content of the air is down by about 40%.  In addition, the weather can be a tad variable. In 2013, I started the race on a sunny, 60 degree morning and broke through the tree line into a windy snowstorm.

The past two years, the race has taken me over five hours to complete; and it was not a pleasant five hours. Towards the top I had to stop and rest multiple times. It was that or fall down. During one section where the trail is etched into a cliff I repeatedly told myself to “lean left,” which was uphill. My hope was that by leaning correctly, I would merely drop onto rocks when I passed out, rather than head out into thin air. It seemed like a good plan at the time.

Standing at the start this year and staring at the finish line I had the same, “Holy shit, what the hell did I sign up for?” feeling as in past years, but it wasn’t quite as intense. While the lack of run training was worrisome, the month spent hiking at altitude gave me the confidence to know I could finish; I just didn’t know how fast (or slow) I’d be. It would be interesting to see how much the toughened legs and extra (or are they just bigger?) red blood cells help.

It’s clear and warm at 7:30 AM when the gun fires and about 1,100 of us start jogging through the town of Manitou Springs. Another 700 or so “elite” runners started at 7 AM.  The first mile or so on roads thins the crowd, but it is still a clog at the start of the trail which, for the most part, is single file. For the first several miles there is a combination of a slow jog on the flatter sections (under a 10% grade) and walking the steeper sections.

By the time I reached the water station at Barr Camp, (7.6 miles and 4,000 feet of climb) I had been going for a bit over 2 hours. The time was a few minutes faster than in previous years, but I felt much better. At tree line (10 miles and 5,700 feet of climb)I was still just barely ahead of my earlier attempts.

Still moving above tree line

Still moving above tree line

Above tree line is where things get tough. In years past, the final 3.1 miles (5K) has taken me nearly 2 hours. This is where hiking 500 miles at altitude began to make a real difference. With no 30 pound pack on my back and plenty of extra (or are they giant?) red blood cells to deliver fuel and oxygen to the leg muscles, there was no need to stop, or for that matter, even slow down dramatically. I grind up the final stretch, passing dozens of competitors as I went. The weather remains clear with temperatures in the 50s. I finish the race, actually feeling good, at 4:44:44, nearly a half hour faster than my previous best time this century. My first thought on finishing was, “Crap, I’ll have to hike the entire Colorado Trail again next year if I want to improve my time.” Perhaps the glass is still half empty.

After a short visit with my brother Dan in Denver, it was time to head out. As I drove away, I still hadn’t decided whether to head east, back home, or west to deal with those few miles of the Colorado Trail I had skipped to ride the train into Silverton. I guess I’ll see which way I turn when I get to I-70.

Pikes Peak, as seen from Garden of the Gods.

Pikes Peak, as seen from Garden of the Gods.