by Peter Holleran
"The biggest risk in life is not risking."
In pursuit of new excitement and after diligent preparation including altitude training at Yosemite and Mt. Whitney I threw caution to the winds and entered the most famous mountain run in the United States - the Pikes Peak Marathon (Note: there is no apostrophe in "Pikes". Don't ask me why). Held on August 18, 2002 in Manitou Springs, Colorado, and stretching 13.3 miles and a vertical mile and a half up to the lofty height of 14110 feet - and then back DOWN - Pikes Peak challenges two thousand runners from across the country to test their ability on its majestic heights. The mountain usually wins. The majority of participants come from states along the Continental Divide where living at high elevation grants them a natural advantage, but strong contingents from such unlikely places as Arkansas and even Holland are present. While promoted as a marathon this race due to its elevation gain should really be considered an “ultra” event, and to finish it, as they say, is an accomplishment - or, depending on your point of view, at least an adventure.
I arrived on the Thursday before the Sunday race and was greeted by my host, a likeable chap named Howard Brooks who was in the Air Force for ten years and now works for United Way, is an avid climber, having previously summited Mt. Aconcagua (at 22000 feet the highest in the western hemisphere) and numerous other peaks. A true aficionado, Howard has two climbing walls in his garage. Responding to an email request I sent out to the Pikes Peak Roadrunners Club asking someone to host me for the event, he took a chance by choosing not to err on the side of caution and graciously accepted me for the weekend. I am sure I got the best of the bargain. I actually received four positive reponses the day I sent my email. To my mind this is one of the purposes for a running club - helping out of town runners avoid spending their nights in a lonely, sterile motel.
The first evening of my stay we joined champion Matt Carpenter and the Incline Running Club for a brief pacing trial up the one mile road that leads out of town, in order to insure that we didn’t start out at too fast a pace on race day. Since the Barr Trail immediately begins a relentless steep climb an initial aggressive spurt would have disastrous consequences later on. Just about everyone went a couple of minutes too fast, as the estimated pace for ones predicted finish time according to a race calculator computer seemed incredibly slow. As many would find out, however, it was probably just about right. Somewhat disconcerting to me, however, was that even at such a perceived slow pace I had quite an unexpected struggle. Manitou Springs (a quaint and funky suburb of Colorado Springs) sits at an elevation of 6300 feet, and my previous high elevation training seemed to have already worn off. I hoped that two more days would restore my capacity to tolerate the effects of the much thinner atmosphere. The air was also much drier than in California.
The next day we drove the 19 mile Pikes Peak Highway to the summit to spend some time “up high”. The strain of getting air into the body was quite noticeable. Walking a little ways down the race trail was easy, but just standing up after resting on the rocks, and even more so taking a step or two upwards, brought on immediate dizziness and more than expected tiredness. Not a good sign. The view from the summit, however, was incredible. At the top is a gift shop and restaurant, and also the endpoint of the tracks of the famous cog railway. People from many states and countries were there, many of them registered for the weekend’s races. After a couple of hours we drove down to a shoulder of the mountain known as Elk Park for lunch and several hours resting and further acclimating at 12000 feet. It would be ideal to acclimate just 1000 feet per day, but I was under the gun. Conventional wisdom says that 75% acclimation is achieved within three weeks, and 100% by four to six months, which is why out-of-towners have such a literal uphill battle. My running friend Tim Hicks camped out for three weeks before the race in 2004 while climbing several of Colorado's 14,000 footers, and his superior acclimation paid off as he beat me by a full half-hour, despite being seven years my senior. Ah, but such is the benefit of early retirement, with the freedom to fully pursue such important things as this!
The road up Pikes Peak is not overly steep, but the upper half is on dirt with no guardrails (except one very short section at a spot appropriately named The Bottomless Pit), and the first time driving was a little scary. I couldn’t imagine the stockcars, motorcycles, and big rigs that race up it every year! I was informed that unprepared motorists have been known to drive over the edge on some of the hairpin turns, and one safety measure that the park takes to prevent this is a mandatory brake check on the way down. If your brakes are over 300 degrees a half-hour cooling out period is required. After coasting downhill in first gear the brakes of our agile Subaru Forester registered 75 degrees and we were quickly waved through.
The following day, Saturday, the Pikes Peak Ascent was held. In this half-marathon race one “only” runs to the summit and not back down as in the marathon held on Sunday. The race is second only to the Mt. Fuji Ascent in total vertical climb. (Wait - on July 16, 2005, there was a pricy trail run up Kilimanjaro with a 13,000 foot rise!). The trail is steep, gaining 577 feet per mile. For those familiar with the famous Dipsea race this would be equivalent to running the section of the Dipsea Trail from Muir Woods to the top of Cardiac six and a half times in a row - at high altitude. Since the middle third of the Pikes Peak course gains a relatively gentle 300 feet per mile, however, the first and last third are actually much steeper. The final mile rises 900 feet. About 1500 runners chose the Ascent, which is much easier on the body, while 691 opted for the marathon, with an additional 13 miles of downhill running that does a job on the legs. About 50 brave people, the “Pike’s Peak Doublers”, ran both! Pretty impressive. Last year BOTH races were won by Matt Carpenter, the best in the world at altitude, with a VO2 max of 90% and resting heartrate of 36, similar to that of cyclist Lance Armstrong. Matt lives in Manitou Springs, runs on the mountain all year long, and has never had a car, all of which must help. He would, however, be somewhat of a freak in my Tamalpa running club, because - according to Trailrunner magazine - he has also never had a beer! Fellow runners describe him as “a pair of legs and lungs.” This year he won the Ascent in a time of 2:23, shy of his pretty-much-unbeatable-course-record of 2:01, but still great at the age of 38 and plagued by nagging back problems. In 4th place finishing in 2:27:43 was mildly disappointed nineteen year-old local, Andy Dimmer. Word has it that he ran 2:25 in mid-winter with the top half of the course covered in a foot of snow. Seems truly impossible. Also showing he still has what it takes was former Dipsea great and Mt. Tam Hill Climb record holder Tom Borschell, now 44 and living in Idaho Falls, who won his age-group in a swift 2:36 and was 10th overall, looking so laid back at the awards ceremony in overalls and beard you would think he was from Mayberry RFD. There were, in fact, many amazingly fit individuals in town the weekend I was there who redefined the limits of age. I was particularly impressed by one 80 year-old at the awards ceremony who didn’t look a day over 60, and even more so by a studly 70 year-old first-time daddy proudly sporting a newborn in each arm, who said he just never had the desire to have kids before now. (I guess that’s what running can do).
My friend ran the Ascent in a personal best of 3:32, a twenty minute PR, and finished a very satisfied 140th. I drove to the top of the mountain to meet him after his race, thereby getting another day at high altitude in preparation for the marathon. Besides having continued trouble in the thin air (at 14000 feet there is approximately 56 % of the sea level oxygen, as well as 54% more UV), a mounting pre-race case of nerves was setting in. Other side effects of high altitude, moreover, are dizziness, headache, and difficulty sleeping. Nevertheless, I didn’t think I felt too bad when I got up Sunday morning - but not too great either.
I learned on my trip that Katherine Bates (not the actress) wrote “America the Beautiful” while on top of Pikes Peak, and before the gun went off for each of the races a local woman passionately sang it for us. (I mentioned to Howard that a couple of notches down on the cultural scale singer/songwriter Barry Manilow wrote “Daybreak” from the summit of my local running hill, Mt. Tamalpais). The town of Manitou Springs remains basic America. While the downtown looks very much like my local stomping ground, Mill Valley, California, the similarity ends there. The night I arrived a local symphony performed patriotic songs under a canopy in the park, Pikes Peak is billed as “America’s mountain”, the race “America’s greatest challenge”, and even the local pancake house is named “Uncle Sam’s flapjack’s”. It has been years since anyone but a Republican was elected locally. Consistent with roadside Americana, at the entrance to the Pikes Peak auto road is a “Santa’s Village”, similar to “Northpole USA” near Whiteface Mountain in upper New York State.
After days of high temperature it dawned cool and cloudy on raceday, a real boon to the runners. As we lined up on Manitou Avenue the announcement was made that it was currently 38 degrees at the top of Pikes Peak, but I figured by the time we got there it would probably be 50 which did not require bringing extra clothes, although summer rain or snowstorms are not unheard of. If one planned a long hike he should definitely go prepared, but based on the history of the past few months a storm in the next six hours or so did not appear likely. Therefore I, like most others, only wore shorts and T-shirt. When the gun went off we made our way up the streets through town and past the starting point of the cog railway to the beginning of the Barr Trail that leads to the summit. I purposely hit that checkpoint two minutes slower than I had on the Friday night practise run, but it still felt hard. I also began to question my logic in running hills Tuesday night to “stay fresh”. Runner after runner passed me, including one who got excited upon seeing my Quadruple Dipsea T-shirt. At that moment I didn’t exactly feel I was living up to the intimidating image I intended to create by wearing it. Then followed several miles of steep switchbacks over the portion of the course known as “the W’s” taking one to the top of Mt. Manitou at 8000 feet, after which the distant summit of Pikes Peak loomed into view. The race description advised not looking at the summit at this point, as it would seem too far away, and they were right, it was a LONG way off. One's immediate attention therefore was resigned to focusing on one step and, increasingly, one breath at a time.
The first really disappointing sensation of non-acclimation became noticeable at about 9000 feet, way too soon considering my previous efforts at altitude training. I hit the half-way point, Barr Camp, in 2:07 instead of a projected 1:45. I kept expecting to reach a total crash and burn point, but thankfully it never came, just a gradual running out of steam. Consequently, I, and most others, walked a good deal of the remaining miles from Barr Camp to the summit. The question was how fast. For many it was walk three steps, jog, stop, breath, walk, jog, stop, breath, etc. The day before while perched at the top of the mountain during the Ascent I watched lead runner Matt Carpenter come into view far below. He didn’t look very fast. Therefore, since all is relative, I must have looked like I was standing still! For a long time on the way up I traded places with several interesting characters: a guy with rabbit ears and tail, another carrying a large Arkansas flag, a 72 year-old hunched over guy who I just couldn’t seem to catch, and a couple of ladies. That was really demoralizing. (Not the ladies, the 72 year old guy). I finally did overtake him at the top, but only by one minute.
After ten miles a significant moment came when we emerged above tree-line at a point known as the A-Frame and got a glimpse of the massive upper flanks of Pike’s Peak and the remaining three miles to go. At this point the early leaders passed by on their way down, seemingly so close but already a full two hours ahead. The summit while in plain sight seemed truly unreachable, and all one could do was take one switchback at a time. After a long traverse passing the final aid station (supplied with water from a hose stretched out just for the race in a straight line a half-mile from the summit) the trail turned sharply right at a point where, according to Matt Carpenter, one could “end his misery by taking six more steps” and entering the 1500 foot drop-off known as the Cirque. Thales, the Greek philosopher, was said by his pupil, Anaximenes, to have died by falling from a steep hill while entralled and gazing at the stars in his old age. I guess it's as good a way to go as any, and better than most.
The average male pace for the final mile is 27 minutes, course-record pace a seemingly pedestrian 12:30! Soon afterward the voices from the summit became audible, and after negotiating a final steep series of hefty switchbacks known as the 16 Golden Stairs (where last year runners encountered snow and ice) I arrived at the top, a disappointing 497th out of 691 runners. The clock read 4:49, an hour later than anticipated. Ugh!. After a quick drink I began my descent, anxious to reach more breathable air and salvage what I could of this race. The words of Marlon Brando from On the Waterfront came to mind and I desperately needed to shake them: "I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am." This would not do. After all, I was wearing that Quadruple Dipsea shirt and had to exonerate myself.
After starting down, I realized that my legs were still pretty fresh and I wasn’t that tired. Rather the experience was as if I had been restrained by a governor (the lack of oxygen) which slowed me down, but that I actually hadn’t run that hard. Basically I still had plenty left in the tank and with every step down there was more precious air to breath. So I began a brisk and sustained dash to the bottom, eventually passing 199 runners (some who had reached the top an hour before me) to arrive at the finish line 298th out of 691 in a time of 6:52. It was satisfying to whiz past those who left me in their dust earlier. Running downhill can be easier on the legs the faster you go. Most folks I passed, however, were pretty timid in their approach. I therefore credit Tamalpa with my success in this portion of the race. It was really a piece of cake picking people off! In actual fact, no one passed me going downhill, and my time for the descent (2:03) was beaten by only 65 runners. If the race were downhill only (which it wasn’t) I would have been in 66th place, and among those my age (53) or older - about 110 runners - I would have been 3rd! More importantly, however, I beat that 72 year-old guy by an hour and forty minutes. That made me feel better. Now if I could only conquer the altitude. For that purpose I must return and challenge the mountain at least one more time.
The Pikes Peak Marathon is a big event in Manitou Springs, and for forty-six years the town has rolled out the red carpet for runners making the yearly pilgrimage. When you come down off the mountain people on the street and sitting on their porches cheer you on, and each runner’s name and home town are announced as he crosses the finish line.
The course record is a phenomenal 3:16, set in 1992 by Carpenter in the same race he ran his 2:01Ascent - which, considering the technical nature of the rocky switchbacks on the top third of the course, worked out to him running 5-minute mile pace or better for the bulk of the downhill miles, an impressive feat. This year’s winner finished in 4:10, with the last runner straggling in just shy of ten hours. That’s a long time to be out there. I had some concern for those poor souls, for coming down the home stretch I felt a few drops of rain (the first in many months), and long afterwards while waiting at the airport I could see what looked like storm clouds over the mountain. Some undoubtedly called it a day at the summit realizing they had bitten off more than they could chew. Near the top I looked at faces that were whiter, grayer, and greener than any I had ever seen, and after finishing I witnessed a row of athletes on their backs hooked up to I.V.’s. and others in various states of bloody disarray getting patched up. I attribute my good fortune in avoiding their ranks to Howard’s sage counsel to hydrate myself beyond all human limits in the days prior to the event. For weeks after the race I was sick just looking at Gatorade. The only real effects I suffered from the race, however, were two PRETTY sore legs from the relentless half-marathon long descent. The downside of this was that even after a week I was in no shape to run one of my favorite races, the Headlands 50k. But such is the price to pay for taking your best shot.
Non-runners wonder why one would do such a thing, or even why one runs at all. We can tell them that the first few jogs after years of couch-potatohood are difficult, but when one gets in basic shape the experience is actually quite pleasant. To be like a gazelle bounding through the woods or down a mountain slope is exhilarating, evoking long lost primal urges. The runner covers more ground and sees more sights, gains health benefits while testing his limits. But perhaps the thing in itself has been most simply put by Oliver Wendell Holmes:
“People do not quit playing because they grow old,
they grow old because they quit playing.”
This year I finished 210th out of 809 runners, 7th out of 51 in my age group (age 55-59), and beaten by just 30 of 186 women, most of them in their 20's. As in 2002 no one passed me on the descent. I reached Barr Camp in 1:58 and the summit in 4:12, with a total time of 6:14:43 - a 38 minute improvement from two years ago. The winner ran 4:00, the slowest a grueling 12:59. There is no question in my mind that with another week of acclimation I could knock 20-30 minutes off that time. The real question is, how much acclimation can I afford? I spent only four days adjusting to the thin air, including two spent at 9500 feet in Cripple Creek, a gold-mining-turned-gambling-town now saturated with boutique casinos. I skipped town the third night as 7500 bikers began to ride in for an annual POW/MIA motorcycle rally. Some strange dudes. Lots of marines with beards and tattoos, selling T-shirts that read "Mercenaries never die - they just go to hell and regroup" and "Sniper shot - don't bother to run, you'll only die tired".
It snowed on the summit of Pikes Peak for three days, and on the Saturday of the Ascent there was still 4 inches of snow on the upper section of the Barr Trail, threatening a treacherous descent on Sunday during the marathon, but fortunately it melted before the race began. The overall situation had looked dicey, with lots of thunder and lightning in the afternoons, but on race day morning the weather was near perfect - cool and dry. Because it had been so warm the last time I was there, however, I almost decided not to bring even a long sleeved t-shirt. As it turned out I was glad to have packed a fleece and waterproof jacket. You never know what will happen in the mountains. The day before the race I drove up the auto road, leaving Manitou Springs where it was 78 degrees and sunny, arriving at the top at 3 p.m., and within 5 minutes the temperature plummetted from 48 to 33 and it began blowing snow and sleet like midwinter, with heavy fog dropping to the ground. A ranger in the summit building said I should get off the summit as soon as possible because he didn't know when it would stop. Not wanting to be stuck up there overnight I took the advice and started down just as the road began to ice up. Since there were no guardrails, it was a little scary going down in my four-cylinder rental car with no chains, but I made it alright. It pays to respect the mountains, even in summertime.
An interesting diversion and pre-race-day warmup is climbing the Manitou Incline, a 45 degree line of old railroad ties rising 2100 vertical feet to the top of Mt. Manitou (elev. 8600'). Locals have been using this for hiking and training workouts for years despite the "no trespassing" signs. Matt Carpenter claims a mind-boggling personal best of 18:35. Here is a link that shows him making it look easy. To locate the Incline follow a rough path from the northwest corner of the Barr Trail parking lot for about 100 yards to the crest of the hill. Once at the top of the Incline take a spur trail slightly up and to the left for 0.3 miles to rejoin the Barr Trail for a four mile return to the base. I remember saying to myself when hiking up that it seemed to be a fairly "civilized" route and was thus not very likely I would see any wildlife on the way. At that moment a bobcat crossed the tracks and stood there for a long time checking me out.
On June 3-5, 1994, a heroic contingent of ultrarunners attempted a Pikes Peak Quad, consisting of four back to back roundtrips to the summit. The weather was harrowing, with deep snow on the upper mountain, along with bitter cold and white-out blizzard conditions. Because of snow completely obliterating the top three miles of the Barr Trail an alternate route was roped out with a fixed line, requiring crampons and ice axes to negotiate the steep couloir to the top between 11,500 to 14,110 feet. Reports came in that the leaders were making up the time lost on the ascent by glissanding down the 2600 vertical feet from the summit to the A-frame in only fifteen minutes! The winner was Mark McDermott who finished the race in 33 hours, 10 minutes, which included a nap of several hours after lap number three. Unbelievable.
Click here for an excellent and very detailed Pikes Peak Marathon course description with photos and estimated split times by Matt Carpenter.
Race registration usually begins January 1 and fills by May.