Fast forward five years. This past Sunday, I ran in my first Pikes Peak Marathon, which I was told is the third oldest marathon in the USA (behind Boston and Yonkers). Someone also told me that in the early years it was a challenge between smokers and non-smokers. This was the sixtieth running of this iconic race, which takes you from the streets of beautiful, charming Manitou Springs (elevation 6,300 feet) up to the summit of the hulking 14,115-foot mountain. Very few mountains anywhere offer the absolute gratuitous vertical that Pikes does--almost 8,000 feet of gain from the starting line of the marathon to the top. But that's only half of the challenge. Once at the summit, you run back down--an abusive pounding of your legs and hips. As my friend Mike Wilkinson says, "it's two races--one to the top, one back down." How true.
|The beautiful 60th anniversary jacket and finishers medal they gave me on Sunday.|
Although I've summited Pikes on two occasions (the last one being October of 2010), it's been almost five years since I was last at the top by my own power. In my last two or three summit bids, the weather forced me to turn back. Happily, I know the trail from the base up to A-Frame (which is right at treeline) quite well, so going into Sunday's race I felt comfortable with the thought of running to the top of Pikes and then back down. I had also made a point to read the many race reports George Zack has posted over the years to his blog. What I wasn't sure of was how the actual race would transpire for me. This being my first Pikes, I decided to be humble and let the race come to me, instead of jetting out of town and then crashing and burning from oxygen debt by Barr Camp--a trap many runners, even the good ones, fall into.
|The Barr Trail sign at the base of Pikes. Taken in June 2010.|
Before I go any further, I'll just put it out there: I finished in 5 hours, 39 minutes and 23 seconds--good for 71st out of almost 800 finishers. Not bad for a guy who's 42-years-old. As I've aged, I'm come to gain such a deep appreciation for being out there in these races and giving it a go. I'm grateful for the gift of running. No longer do I fixate on my times, though time is important to me. What I fixate on now is just the joy of doing these crazy races, and I try to maintain the deepest gratitude for the fact that my 42-year-old body still lets me run up and back down a 14,115-foot mountain with no issues at all--my quads were steel. My stomach also held up beautifully, which was such a confidence-booster after the Bighorn debacle. I think the key to my good stomach was that I'd hydrated really well in the week leading up to Pikes. I drank a lot of water. I also think my pacing on Sunday was smart. I needed a race with no stomach issues and got it on Sunday.
|I took this photo on my first summit of Pikes in June 2010. Impressive, eh?|
I also want to say that when I think of this race I think of Matt Carpenter. In his prime, Carpenter operated on a level I think we've never seen since. To do what he did on Pikes, at the Leadville 100 and at many other races is just crazy. People will say Kilian is just as good, if not better. Having seen Matt in action at the Barr Trail Mountain Race in 2010 (and heard lots of stories about his course record at the 2005 Leadville), I can say that the guy knew how to drop the hammer and crush his competition. Whereas Kilian has been known to wait at aid stations and kind of lolly-gag en route to new CRs like at Hardrock, Carpenter's MO (from what I've heard) was to just put his head down and hammer it from start to finish, living in the pain cave the whole time. I'm not sure Kilian could mentally deal with Carpenter if you put both athletes on the same course with Carpenter being in his prime, but maybe he could? Having said that, on Sunday I was looking for the now-retired Carpenter--thinking he might be spectating--but never saw him. I wanted to tip my cap to him (not that he'd care). The dude is a legend and I simply don't understand the times he put up back in the day.
So, in the final analysis, my result on Sunday was respectable but not great. I know that. With the benefit of some experience, I feel I could take off at least 20 minutes if I went back next year. The thing about Pikes is that it exploits so badly my big weakness as a runner. I'm not a good descender at all. If you put me on a hilly course with lots of ups and downs, then I'm pretty good. But if I have to descend a mountain for 13 miles, it's going to be tough for me. I spent the first almost 37 years of my life at sea level. My confidence on rocky mountain trails just isn't great. In the summer of 2013, having spent every day on trails, my confidence on descents was good. It's really a game of repetition. I wish I had rocky trails closer by. That's a long way of saying I'm OK with my result on Sunday because I understand who I am: A guy who works a full-time job, has a family, and lives in the suburbs. I think I could improve on my time by a good bit, but I'm happy and content with what I did on Sunday. Like I said above, I'm just grateful that my body lets me run in these races. A lot of 42-year-old men are broken down and sit around talking about the gold old days. Not me. I'm living the good old days now.
In summary, I feel like I ran a smart race. Here's how it broke down in sections:
Start (6,300 ft.) to Barr Camp (10,200 ft.): Right before the gun went off, I had the pleasure of talking for a short bit with Jeff Valliere (who I'd never met but whose blog I check now and then), JT, and Brandon Fuller. I also had the pleasure of meeting Jonathan Reed, who I know through my work. It was good to chat it up a bit with the guys. But we all had work to do! Starting in wave two, I ran this section mostly at or below MAF. I was never breathing hard and kept my heart rate under control because the last thing I wanted was to go into oxygen debt. I got to Barr Camp, which is about halfway up the mountain, in 1:38 feeling fresh and good. A lot of people around me were breathing very hard. This being my first Pikes, I felt it was important to get to Barr Camp in good shape and then let it all come to me. The weather thus far was great, which was a relief because the forecast called for scattered thunderstorms.
Barr Camp (10,200 ft.) to A Frame (11,950 ft.): Again, I felt good in this section and stayed in an aerobic state. I hiked a few sections but ran much of this stretch. I got to A-Frame, which is an emergency shelter right at treeline, in 2:23. A-Frame is at mile 10.2. It could be said I was sandbagging it a bit as I was aerobic at nearly 12,000 feet, but I really wanted to save "something" for the section above treeline because I knew it would be terribly difficult. I noticed that the sky started getting cloudy but I saw no immediate threats from Mother Nature. All good.
A Frame (11,950 ft.) to the summit (14,115 ft.): From A Frame to about 13,000 feet, I felt reasonably good. At one point, I even teased JT about hiking when this was a running race. JT went on to have a really strong race, besting me by 14 minutes. But then above 13,000 feet it got really hard. That high, the trail is rocky; the frontrunners are coming back down (meaning you have to yield to them); and you're operating at about 50% mental capacity. It's really a game of just putting one foot in front of the other and remaining calm. I got passed by a few runners in the last mile to the summit but I didn't let it get to me. I finally reached the summit in 3:29--not bad. I remember thinking when I took my first step back down, "Overall, I'm doing OK because I've run a smart race so far. My legs are tired but they'll give me what I need for the next 13+ miles. Let's do it." I also knew a sub-5 was probably not going to happen. So my new goal was sub-5:10.
Summit (14,115 ft.) to A Frame (11,950 ft.): In a word, bad. The crowded trail as I was descending really got to me. Or, I should say I let it get to me. There were hundreds of runners coming up (about 700 coming up) as I was going down and it was difficult to dodge folks even as the vast majority yielded (as you're supposed to do). Still, a few didn't yield and we bumped shoulders. I found the section from the summit down to about the Cirque to be maddeningly congested. Some runners can deal with this quite well; for me, it was a slog. After the Cirque (13,300 ft.), the trail got a bit less congested and my pace picked up. Still, my quads were a bit weak and I started to worry. I decided the weakness wasn't about a lack of strength or shot quads; it was about the thin air! I got into A Frame in a piss-poor 4:08. Sub 5:10 was now doubtful. Maybe sub-5:20?
A Frame (11,950 ft.) to Barr Camp (10,200 ft.): The crappy descending continued though my speed had improved a little. The trail was far less congested so I had no excuse for my slow descent other than it plain sucked. I'm just a really crappy descender. The mental fog that had come over me above 13K was now mostly gone and my legs started to feel better. I got into Barr Camp in 4:36. I looked at my watch and knew a sub-5:20 would be tough. But I remember thinking to myself, "Let's see what we can do in the next 24 minutes and then we'll take it from there." As I got two waters (one to drink and one to pour over my head), an aid station volunteer looked me in the eyes and said, "You can do this, Wyatt." She meant it and I appreciated her encouragement. That's how the volunteers at Pikes work; they show a lot of love. When you're the man in the arena, it means a lot.
Barr Camp (10,200 ft.) to finish (6,300 ft.): This is where I really opened things up by my own standards and felt good about my pace. I got some relief from a nice rain now coming down (which also kicked up the humidity a ton). My legs were singing a little but overall my quads were there for me and never let me down. I was in the pain cave but I knew I could stay here for a while and that I faced no threat of bonking, etc. between here and the finish. I wanted to catch that SOB, JT! A few times I glanced at my watch and saw that I was at sub-7-minute pace and it felt good. My visits at the aid stations below Barr Camp were very short and a few I ran right by. Once five hours rolled around, I did the math and realized I was probably looking at a time of 5:40-5:45. I was going to take it into the finish as hard as I could. I passed a few runners (most of them much younger than I), especially on the handful of sections where the trail flattens out and even goes up for a bit. They were walking in these sections and I just blew right by them. While the speed was iffy on Sunday, the endurance was totally there. When finally at the top of Ruxton (the street that takes you into the finish), I felt so glad that the end was near. I was happy. That steep hill down Ruxton that takes you past Hydro Street was tough but once at the bottom I was able to keep it about 7:10-7:20 pace. I had incorrectly thought the finish was where the start was but I was wrong. The finish was a lot closer; it was just off the roundabout and actually startled me a bit. What a sight!
The 1.5-mile walk back to my car wasn't so much fun.....
So there you have it. This was a phenomenal race. The organizers have every detail dialed and the volunteers were wonderful. I even got a beautiful jacket and medal. What more could I ask for?
Because I plan to return to Leadville next year, I have no idea when I'll toe the line for Pikes again, but when I do it'll be to double (Ascent on Saturday, Marathon on Sunday). I can honestly say this was one of the best-run races I've ever participated in and I would highly recommend it to anyone.
Now, go run.