Monday, August 22, 2011

Pikes Peaked, Up Complete – Pikes Peak Marathon

After weeks of what can only be called hill training by comparison, I have completed the toughest marathon of my career, summiting the 14,115-foot Pikes Peak Mountain in Colorado. Most marathons cover 26.2 miles giving you a tour of a city or covering pretty trails through national parks. Pikes Peak Marathon takes you from the cute town of Manitou Springs at 6,500-ft above sea level immediately uphill for a grueling 13 miles up to the top of one of Colorado’s famous fourteeners. The course is brutal, with endless switchbacks, tough rocky terrain with tons of big boulders you have to step high up and over; and Lord help you if you look up during the race as the top of the mountain looks impossibly far away.

My training for this event started back in April of this year with the tallest climb I had ever done, which was up the North and South rims of the Grand Canyon. Those rose 6,000 and 8,000 ft respectively and from April to August would be as high as I would get. Living in the San Francisco Bay Area you just don’t have access to anything approaching Pikes Peak. My weekends were filled with climbing Mt. Tamalpais in Marin County, Mt Diablo in Contra Costa County and climbing up to the Skyline ridge along the peninsula. The distance I knew wouldn’t

be the problem. It was the altitude I was worried about.

To acclimate to the high altitudes for this race, I came to the Denver area the week prior to the race. In between client meetings and research work I trained at Lookout Mountain which rises above 10,000 feet and Pawnee Peak which gets to 12,000. All this training gave me a new

appreciation for mountain climbing as the views were simply incredible from each mountain I summited. Plus I found that, other than some stiffness in my neck the altitude didn’t really bother me. But I was told by just about every Coloradoan I met that it would be different from 12,000 to 14,000 feet.

Pikes Peak Marathon starts in the cute little touristy town of Manitou Springs, just five minutes from Colorado Springs, which is the home to the US Air Force Academy and the US Olympic Committee. Because of its high altitude, it is a fantastic town for athletic training and thus one of three US Olympic Training Centers is located here. We took a tour of the state-of-the-art facility which houses a select hundred or so promising athletes who are sponsored into this program by the governing boards of their respective amateur sports – only the top 10 percent of athletes in each Olympic sport are eligible. Future Olympians in swimming, shooting, basketball, gymnastics, volleyball and hundreds of other summer, and some winter sports train here. In fact, this program is so elite that one year’s entire class of basketball players are now all in the NBA.

Also down the street from Manitou Springs is an incredible park filled with massive red rock

formations known as the Garden of the Gods. Here you will find rocks hanging at what seem to be impossible angles, suspended or balancing on tiny rock bases and sheer cliffs that are straight drop offs on both sides. It’s a bit of a Mecca for free form rock

climbers, hikers and cyclists. This park also served as the start point for the new USA Pro Cycling Challenge, a bit of a Tour de Colorado featuring many of the pro cycling teams from the Tour de France. While I was climbing Pikes Peak, Reesa and our friends from Denver saw Tour de France three-time runner up Andy Schleck and his brother Frank training in the Garden in preparation for the following day’s kick-off time trial.

The night before the race, we stayed at the incredible Garden of the Gods resort where every spacious suite-style room had breathtaking views of the park and far beyond it Pikes Peak. From arrival, through dinner and all through the night I stared down my nemesis of the following day like a gladiator might look upon his opponent.

On first arriving in Colorado Springs and seeing Pikes Peak, I have to admit, I was intimidated. From town it looks incredibly far away and ridiculously high up. As we were walking through the Olympic Village, touring the opulent Broadmoor Hotel, and especially as we were picking up my

registration packet and bib number, it seemed to get taller and more intimidating. I kept reminding myself that it was just 13 miles to the top and as I tell all our Team in Training participants about hill climbing -- don’t look at the top of the hill but just 50 feet in front of you and before you know it you will be at the top. I sure hoped that philosophy worked over 7,000 feet.

The night before the race, a huge grey cloudbank rolled in covering the top of Pikes and pounding us with rain, thunder and lightning. There are often afternoon showers in August in Colorado and we had had similar but much lighter showers the prior two days. This was concerning because the weather at the top of Pikes Peak can be very unpredictable. It can be as much as 50 degrees cooler than at the bottom and when clouds roll in can become very windy, let loose a torrential downpour with not a moment’s notice, or let out a lightning storm that has singed runners in prior years. That night’s storm turned out to be a good omen as it rained all the moisture out of the skies giving us a perfectly clear day for the marathon.

This event is capped at around 900 runners and sold out in less than 40 minutes back in February. I registered at 5am from my hotel room in London. There is also a half marathon here that happens the Saturday before the marathon; 1,800 runners make the Ascent which normally takes about twice the time of a typical half marathon. I factored that into my planning. As a 3:40 marathoner that meant it would take me about as long as a typical marathon to reach the top and about half that time again to get down.

At 7am Sunday, I gathered with the other marathoners as the gun was fired and we headed into the mountain. On my left was Marcos a twenty-something Colorado Springs native who as attempting to break his PR on his third attempt. On my right was Phil from Los Angeles who set his sights on Pikes Marathon a year and half ago having never run further than a 10K in his life. He jumped into running hard after setting that goal, crossing the line at 4 marathons prior to this one and summiting Mount Baldy.

The course starts out by leaving town and passing the Cog Railway Depot. This is home to a train that climbs to the top of Pikes Peak in about two hours. It gets its name from the massive iron cogs used to pull the train up the mountain. After leaving town the course jumps on the Barr Trail and begins climbing immediately; and nearly everyone walks the hills. With 13 miles of this ahead, you have to really focus on energy conservation; otherwise the top of the mountain can turn into a death march -- if you see it at all. Over the next several miles we traversed a series of switchbacks, known as the Ws stepping over boulders and large tree roots. This portion gets its name from how it looks on the course map – the letter lying on its side and repeated several times. It’s a long, slow climb. There are times where it levels out that you can run a bit and points where it is wide enough to pass a slower climber or two. The group I crossed the Ws with I would see nearly the entire race as we pass each other back and forth up the mountain.

When we emerged from the Ws there was a small clearing from which you can see just how high we have already climbed – Manitou Springs is a speck below us. Here it is mostly level as we shift from a foothill over to the main mountain. The clearing gives everyone a chance to run a bit as well as rest their climbing muscles for the next section which is more switchbacks. These are a bit tougher as the boulders we climb are larger and the incline greater. We were deep in the woods at this point working our way up to Barr Camp which about half way up the mountain; half way from a distance perspective but only 30 percent of the way in total climbing time. As we moved higher the incline got even steeper and when we got above treeline rocks took over the trail. For the next 3 or so miles the terrain was crushed rock which gave like a sandy beach making the footing a challenge. Each switchback was an exercise in pushing off, with each step losing a little ground. It was a perfectly clear sunny day so we were spared any rain or strong winds and at this point, you could see incredible views far beyond Colorado Springs – a perfect day for this race.

With three miles to the top the terrain shifted to mostly rock with large boulders you had to strain your quads to step up and over. We were using our hands and arms to help us step up over the bigger ones and many had jagged edges making the going rough. The last three miles were so steep that they took over half an hour to traverse. They call the final mile the 16 Golden Stairs (click the link if you want to know why). There are way more than 16 steps and while the rocks are kind of yellow the only thing “golden” about any of it is reaching the summit, which I do just shy of 4 hours from the start.

When you get to the top you don’t get a breather in this race as the volunteers take a bib tag from you to confirm your summiting and immediately send you back down. There’s no clearing at the top where you could walk around a bit and take in your accomplishment. That would have to come later. So I took a quick look at the view and immediately begin the descent.

The way back is the same as the way up and those still climbing did their best to get over to the left yielding to downhill runners. It was tough going at times because the trail is very narrow. Gravity pulled me down the Golden Stairs and due to the height of the boulders I was literally leaping from rock to rock. After the first couple miles down my quads and hamstrings were screaming and I knew I was going way too fast. But I have to confess, this was the most fun part of the course and I felt like a little kid bounding down the mountain. I returned to treeline about 30 minutes later and as the incline leveled a bit my legs started to feel the effects of the 16 miles now behind me. The rocks and roots jutting out from the trail made descending quickly very treacherous so I slowed way down in this section so as not to fall. Several other runners did the same and a few who didn’t, paid the price. One went by with blood streaming from his head, another twisted his ankle trying to navigate between two large rounded boulders and a third wiped out after his foot caught on a root.

When we reached Barr Camp for the second time I was heavily fatigued. I started stopping at each aid station to drink water and rest a bit. I was wearing my Nathan running vest which had a bladder filled with 70 ounces of PowerBar energy drink which allowed me to blow past all the aid stations on the way up. I still had some electrolyte drink left but by this point it wasn’t feeling so good on my stomach. Plus after 6 PowerBar Energy Gels I needed something simple.

Once past Barr Camp the downhill became easier with more runnable surface and less jutting rocks. The miles came a bit faster now – prior to this it seemed that the miles were way longer than they should have been. From here down I was running most of the way. With five miles to go the clouds moved in and thunder cracked overhead. As I ran through the Ws light rain was falling over me which was a welcome coolant. Thankfully the overnight downpour had not made this trail all that slippery and there were no large mud puddles I would have expected back home.

Shortly after passing the “2 miles remaining” marker and then the final aid station, I emerged from the Barr Trail and was back on the roads in Manitou Springs. The course was still very steep at this point and the asphalt was tough on the feet. Locals were cheering us on as we wound down the hill and into town where Reesa was waiting and cheering. I crossed the line at 6:16, winded, spent and proud.

After a bit of stretching I then headed for a small creek just behind the finish line and went right

in for an ice bath. Along with several other thankful runners I sat hip deep in the cool waters immersing my sore legs and feet. We traded stories about the Ws, the Golden Stairs, PRs and what we went through to get here. Champions all.

Now I begin training for the third leg of my ultra challenging year. In four weeks is the Tahoe Triple – 3 marathons in 3 days circumventing Lake Tahoe. Wish me luck.