Ultrarunners have a saying: It never always gets worse. I'd like to argue that this phrase only applies while at or below 10,000 feet. After that - it can always get worse. Pike's Peak is a prime example.
I'd ran up Pike's Peak once before, last June, when I came out to Colorado to visit my buddy Chris. I made it to the top and decided, because I didn't want to be a lighting rod, to hitch a ride back down. A lovely old couple from Florida gave me a lift and I managed to avoid puking until I had gotten out of their car. My goal for this run was therefore to not puke at all. I like to keep it simple, ya know.
Erin, her Dad and I arrived in Maintou Springs around 6 on Sunday morning. The race starts at 7 which, if you ask me, is about two hours too late. I think this thing should get going at 5 - or there should at least be an option for an early start. Mainly to allow for slower runners to make it up and start back down the mountain before the nasty and unpredictable afternoon weather rolls in.
I digress. We got there early and managed to find a parking spot - quite an accomplishment considering how small Maintou Springs is and considering how half the roads were blocked off for the race.
It was coooold. In the upper 40's cold. We had just left KC two nights before and it was in the 90's with a good dose of humidity. I shoulda brought a parka with me.
We mulled around and talked. Me trying to mask my nervousness. I felt trained, well, as trained as someone who lives at 1,000 feet can be for a race that starts above 6,500 and ends at 14,000. That's what worried me. That thin air. I was worried about being able to eat and drink above treeline - something I had trouble with when I did my solo run last year. I'd manage, I kept telling myself.
Eventually I ran out of Mexican-In-The-Cold jokes to use on Erin's Dad and we headed over to the start. I felt like I was headed out for a 50-miler. I had my jacket tied around my waist, my Nathan Pack loaded with food, salt and other goodies and gloves and a headband stuffed somewhere for when I got really cold.
At the start the RD spent some time talking about the first woman who had ran Pike's Peak - 50 years ago. The race claims to be the first to recognize a female finisher. I don't know how true that is but it was the theme of this years race and it was nice to see her at the start. After the national anthem we were off.
Now, I was apparently in the first wave - first of two waves that is. My San Francisco Marathon time of 3:38 put me in the "fast group". I wanted to point out that I wasn't fast, especially at low-flying-plane altitude. This was another thing that worried me. This turned out to not be a problem as they made no effort to separate the first wave folks from the second wave.
My strategy for the race was to take it really easy and save my energy for my time above 12k feet. Keeping that in focus would be really difficult for me as I tend to get caught up in a pack and forget my plans. So, at the start, which is relatively flat, I forced myself to stay at a 10:00 pace. I ignored all the folks passing me (many already sucking wind after only 20 seconds of running) and stuck to my pace. This was a big accomplishment for me and I think it paid of later when I forced myself to walk some flat sections.
Anyways, we ran through Manitou for a bit then turned towards the mountain. I ran part of the first hill we came to then decided I better start walking. This walk lasted me about 12 miles. I was really surprised but us back-of-the-packers essentially walked the entire way up the mountain.
After maybe another half mile of pavement we hit gravel road, still uphill, then we hit trail, again, uphill. Turns out the first hill of the race is really the only hill of the race...all the way to the top.
I fell into a group walking at about 15-18 minute miles. It was a healthy pace and I was able to talk so I knew I wasn't working too hard. All I had to do was keep this up, I'd be fine.
I started chatting people up, as I tend to do, and found a guy running Leadville the next weekend. Wow. Quite a way to acclimate to the altitude - go run a 14-er then go run Leadville. I also met a guy who was doing the "double" - the ascent on Sat and the marathon on Sun. That's pretty nuts also.
Turns out, a lot of the folks who run Pike's Peak are ultra-runners. I met very few "regular-old-marathoners". After the fact, this makes a lot of sense.
Back to the race - well, not a lot to say. The aid stations were great. Well stocked with people willing to help fill packs and other stuff. I maintained my walking pace and just focused on moving ahead. I felt fine up past Barr Camp (10,000 feet) and kept a strong pace even up to the treeline, which is right around A-Frame. I think this was about 12,000 feet...maybe a little lower.
Then my eating and drinking problems started. I don't know what it is about altitude that makes it difficult for me to eat and drink, but I get a really sick feeling anytime I do. Now, I'm sure it has something to do with the fact that I'm getting less oxygen at 12k feet than I am at 1k feet, but it's just odd.
It's about 3 miles to the top from A-Frame. I was managing a 30 min/mile pace at this point so I had an hour and a half to fight through to make the summit. I just started putting one foot in front of the other and kept telling myself I'd get there.
I got passed a lot during the trek above the trees. I didn't have to stop and catch my breath like I did during my solo run, but I wasn't fast by any means. It did get a bit discouraging to think I was probably in the bottom 25% of the racers at that point. Ah, who cares - I had to keep telling myself.
The trail to the top was littered with some folks who were not in good shape at all. There were a couple of pukers and some folks sitting there staring blankly off into space. I offered them salt, water or food. No takers. Ok.
At this point, I started to think about how a flatlander could better to train for this race. I came up with 3 strategies:
First - a stairmaster is your friend. Do 2-3 hour sessions. For creativity points mix in some running with the climbing. Maybe a 5 mile run followed by a couple hours of stairmastering (is that a word?) followed by more running. I only did a mile or so of running before hitting the stairmaster. The longest I was on was 2 hours. I should have done a bit more.
Second - find a straw, insert it in your mouth, then run with it. Keep the pace you can keep only breathing through your nose and that straw. Try not to trip and impale yourself with the straw.
Third - find a happy hour or grab a sixer of your favorite lager, get a buzz, then try either the first or second strategy. Being at that altitude really made me feel drunk. I couldn't walk completely straight and I was pretty confused at some points.
So, the altitude change is why I say it can actually always get worse. As you climb there's no way to avoid the loss of oxygen. Now, I know, eventually you start running downhill and it's a whole new ballgame. Fine. But for those first 13 miles - it can always get worse.
Eventually I turned a corner and saw the top of the mountain. Then I looked lower and saw the turnaround for the race. What! Man, I felt gyped. The race turnaround is about 50 feet lower than the top of the mountain. I found this odd in my mildly confused state. Whatever. I got to the halfway point, headed towards the aid station, and started looking for Erin.
See, Erin and the kids were going to meet me on top of the mountain. The plan was for her to drive up, bring me a new shirt, get some pictures, then head back down. I also wanted my sunglasses. Except...Erin wasn't there. Hrm.
I pulled out my trusty iPhone and called her. Through a terrible connection I made out "stay there, we're ...static, static, silence, static... top". Then it cut out. What?!?!? I just ran my happy little ass up this dammed mountain and you're not here! I was furious - for about a second. Then I looked around. See, this whole time I hadn't taken a second to really appreciate where I was. Wow, what a view.
Now, this might sound mildly lame but I think there's a huge difference between experiencing a view from the top of Pike's Peak when you drove or took the cog up versus when you mustered the will to climb up the boulder pile yourself. This is what I realized as I was stuffing my face with grapes. I had just spent the last five hours putting myself through hell to climb to the top of a 14k foot mountain. That felt pretty good.
So, instead of saying screw it and heading back down the mountain I decided to just sit and enjoy the view. I didn't care about my time. I had plenty of time to make the cutoff. I was up there - I was going to enjoy it. This is what I refer to now as my navel time. I spent almost an hour sitting there, just enjoying the view. The search and rescue people came over to me and asked me if I was ok - probably wondering why I hadn't started back down on my own. I said "well, I'm here, I might as well enjoy the view". They looked at me, looked out over the landscape, then looked back and me and said "yeah, good point".
Eventually Erin and the kids appeared at the top. I saw them and scurried to the top, got some pictures and hugs and strange looks from them. Apparently they had a harrowing experience driving up and weren't totally happy to be up there. Plus, I was probably way more chipper than they expected me to be at that point. We talked for a bit, then I decided it was time to head down.
Now, I'd like to point out that I actually made it to the top of Pike's Peak, to 14,115 feet. As far as I can tell everyone else made it to 14,075 feet. A minor yet important distinction.
Once I started downhill, after an hour of sitting, I was surprised at how good I felt. I had no problem running or breathing. What a difference from the trek up. I pushed myself a bit and started passing folks. I like to think I'm a pretty good downhill runner and it showed here.
The journey back to the treeline was pretty uneventful - except for the C-130 I saw fly through the valley below, swinging side-to-side as it avoided the mountains. Pretty cool to see.
Once I got into treeline I kept up my slow jog, passed more folks, worked on eating since I had more of an appetite and focused on finishing. I also noticed I had what felt like rocks in my shoes. Under both of my heels. I kicked my shoes around a bit but couldn't get the rocks to move. Odd. I kept running.
Eventually I decided to stop and take the rocks out of my shoe. I sat down, took the shoes off, and couldn't find any rocks. Huh? Weird. As I was putting my shoes back on a deer came out on the trail about 20 yards behind me. He looked at me, didn't seem to care I was there and walked on. I'm not sure why but that was really neat to me.
I crossed the finish line at 9:35:36. That put me cleanly in last place for my age group and I was 525/540 male finishers. Pretty much last. But - I had fun which is really all I cared about. I knowingly burned an hour at the top and I'm totally ok with that.