Sunday, August 22, 2010

Pikes Peak Ascent

I thought it strange that the woman sang "America The Beautiful" instead of our national anthem before the race.
Then I remembered where I was.
I was at the Pikes Peak Ascent, in Manitou Springs, which is just outside of Colorado Springs. If there's one mountain you probably know in Colorado, it's Pikes Peak. And the Ascent is, simply, a race up the peak.
Only it's really not quite that simple. The song they sing before the race isn't the only different thing about it. (And the reason for "America The Beautiful"? Well, the songwriter, Katharine Lee Bates, jotted down the beginnings of the song on the summit of Pikes Peak. But you probably remember that from your fifth grade music class). It's one of the most unique runs in the world. 
It goes up the Barr Trail all the way up the mountain, which makes it about 13.5 miles. That's an elevation gain of nearly 8,000 feet. I can't really put into perspective what that means. But I can try. Longs Peak, one of Colorado's more famous mountains and one of the tougher climbs, gains just under 5,000. 
So it's long, steep and on a trail. And three miles of it are above treeline. 
For some reason, I wanted to do it.
There are many good reasons actually. I love Pikes Peak because it's one of the more unique mountains in the country. It's a tourist trap. More than 500,000 visit the summit every year, most of them from people who drive or ride the train to the top. There's a gift store on the summit. There's even a camp in the middle of the trail where you can buy Gatorade and snacks. You might think this takes away from the experience but actually it adds to it: It's the only place I can buy a much-needed Mountain Dew after I've climbed a mountain.
I'd heard all about how great the race is from friends (and not to jump ahead but it was really great, maybe the best supported race I've ran, the volunteers were simply awesome).
But the main reason is it made me nervous.
There aren't many things that make me nervous much any longer. I know how to tackle some of the toughest mountains. I've run a marathon. I'm raising twins for God's sake. But I hadn't done anything like this, and that, I thought, was cool. I'd hiked Pikes twice but I had no real idea what to expect, despite advice (and good advice at that) from friends and the website.
So I listened to "America the Beautiful" with my eyes closed, trying to get into that frame of mind I always do before a race, meaning I not only expect to suffer, I want to enjoy it. There's just something about pushing yourself hard, much beyond what you think you can do, that I find satisfying. I realize others get the same satisfaction from beating "Guitar Hero." Sometimes, honestly, I'm jealous of those people.
When the gun went off, I went out hard. At least I think I did. I actually ran much slower than I would if I were doing a normal half marathon, not one that I hoped to run in four hours. But looking back, it was probably too hard. Spectators who lined the streets yelled at us almost right away to "slow down, slow down!" I ignored them, of course. I was running 11-minute miles! That's slower than even my training runs. It was my first mistake, and it's possible it was my most costly.
As the street seemed to turn into a 90-degree angle, I decided to stop pushing it so hard and walk it. Matt Carpenter, one of the best runners of this event, a local legend, really, says the same thing, to walk the steeper sections and run when the opportunity presents itself (in other worlds, when the trail isn't fucking steep).
OK. Well. I waited for it to get flatter. And I walked hard. And waited. It was not getting flatter. Three miles into the race, my time was on target for under four hours, but my legs were starting to tire a bit, already. That's what makes this race so damn tough, I guess, is the enormity of it.
At the dinner the night before, Bart Yasso, Runner's World's Chief Running Officer, said he thought this "half marathon" took the effort of a marathon, something I dismissed because, quite frankly, I'd already hiked it twice, and it was tough, but it didn't kill me. I even led a group of newbies up one year, and they did fine. 
I shouldn't have dismissed it because that dinner the night before was filled with amazing people. There were Ironman finishers and ultramarathoners (many who had ran 50 or 100-mile races) and extreme mountain climbers. A marathon was expected of you. Just to qualify for this race you had to run a half marathon in 2:10 (which honestly didn't strike me as that hard, but that's still not something just anyone can do). I honestly was instantly intimidated by the crew. What the hell did I get myself into, I thought, and I had to text some of my friends to calm me down. They reminded me I had a cool achievement, someone who's climbed all 54 14ers in Colorado, and sure, that's cool, but quite honestly that has more to do with persistence than real athletic ability, and the list of people who have done that continues to grow. 
As I continued up the trail, it finally flattened out, and I was able to run a bit. I loved this more than anything else during the day. It wasn't too high, too steep or too punishing. My joy was also short-lived, and the heat was a big reason.
At the start of the day, I wore a tank top and shorts. That's all I needed. That's nice but it's not good news for me. I discovered during the marathon that I sweat out a lot of salt, and eventually that can cause cramping. It's not a coincidence, I've discovered, that my best days come when it's cool.
By the time I climbed close to 10,000 feet, about halfway through the race, my legs were beginning to show signs of cramping. I was basically screwed if what happened to me during the marathon happened then. This wasn't a race you just "drop out" of if things go wrong. Remember, it's on a mountain. You either go back down or head on up. And the cutoff time at the top was 6:30. I was still on track to run four hours, but if my legs cramped up, there was no way I was going to make the cutoff.
So I took one of my sodium pills - one of my new solutions to this issue - and guzzled my Gatorade. I actually took four eight-ounce bottles up the peak with a fuel belt with me to drink in addition to whatever I could manage to take at the aid stations. I drank as much as I could then.
And then the last issue came.
The altitude has always been a worry for me. I've climbed almost 200 peaks, but at least some of those times I've gotten sick. And that same sick feeling in my stomach came almost instantly.
That started a long and torturous balancing act between making sure I ate enough and drank enough to keep the cramps at bay but not too much to make me puke. Starting then, I was nauseated most of the time, and yet I had to keep eating and drinking. I even had to choke down a banana for the potassium. It's honestly I wonder I kept it down.
That was my race the rest of the day. I wasn't able to run much, though I could occasionally, and by the time I reached the brutal, hot stretch that takes you from treeline to the top of the world, by far the steepest part of the day, I was shot, and I still had three miles to go.
Needless to say, I didn't exactly dominate that last part. I didn't even think about running. Walking it was hard enough, and every step I took only brought me into thinner air. 
One thing I always try to tell myself, however, was my fellow racers feel the same thing, and there was carnage all over the peak at this point, with people stopping every few feet to stretch or just sit with their face in their hands.
I reminded myself to keep moving. There have been many days on the peak when I start to get into a pattern of resting, then moving, then resting, and I couldn't do that in this case, even if all I really wanted to do, as I tried to keep my sickness, panting and cramps under control, was just sit on a rock for an hour.
The finish line did get there. I got my medal and my finisher's shirt. And then I got choked up.
Today was about setting aside a lot of crap thrown my way and finishing what I started.
Sometimes that's enough.

P.S. If you are curious, I finished in 5:15, which put me in the middle of the pack, though pretty far down in my age group and in males overall. And yes, I got "chicked" a LOT today. :)


Otis said...

I sat around and tried to come up with a good, masculine way to say you inspire me. But I couldn't do it. So...well, yeah. See above.

SirFWALGMan said...

good job

Memphis MOJO said...

Nice job, and good write-up.

Meys said...

Can't Imagine how it feel to be up there...

kurokitty said...

Congrats! I still want you to do the Pikes Peak Marathon someday!!

BadBlood said...


The Wife said...

Proud of you . . . and time means nothing to me . . . all I can think is "holy cow" 'cause I could never do it.