By Paul Kirsch,
Madison, New Hampshire
I originally wrote this for my running club newsletter (The White Mountain Milers in Mt. Washington Valley, New Hampshire).
I first heard about the Pikes Peak race from a woman from Boulder, Colorado back in 1998. She and I were running together for awhile during that year's Mt. Washington Race (my first) and she remarked to me that she thought Washington was a lot harder than Pikes Peak. Hearing about Pikes Peak from her really intrigued me. I had only been running for two years at that point so I set a goal for myself of trying to Pikes Peak when I turned 35, in 2001. Back then that seemed safely far off in the future that I wouldn't have to face the reality of running up a 14,000 foot mountain anytime soon.
As always happens, time flew by and it was suddenly the fall of 2000. I went out to the Pikes Peak website and looked up information on the race. It said to run the Pikes Peak Marathon, you needed to have either previously run a marathon before (I hadn't) or have run in the Ascent. Finding that out I read about the Ascent so I could learn more about the race. It sounded pretty intimidating- 13 miles uphill, almost 8000 feet of elevation gain and the average finish time was 4 hours and 20 minutes.
They had a section on training for the race and it said to train like you would for a flatland marathon and also do lots of hills. The marathon training concerned me the most of all since my longest run ever at that point was 14 miles. So, I signed up for the race and began looking into marathon training programs. I had a basic book on running by Jeff Galloway that had a whole section on marathons. He talked about how he had changed his views over the years and that to run a marathon it was possible to do it by sticking to your regular weekly mileage but to add in a long run every two weeks. This long run should increase by ten minutes every two weeks with the longest one being several miles more than the distance you plan on running. This sounded like a feasible plan to me- run my usual 25-30 miles/week and then do one long run every two weeks. Since I was shooting to condition myself for time rather than just the 13 miles, I planned to peak at a 4 hour and 30 minute long run in the middle of July.
As I went out and did that first 10 mile run back in October of 2000, I tried not to think too much about what it would actually be like to run another 16 or 17 miles. Luckily, over time since I was only adding 10 minutes to each of those long runs, it didn't seem as daunting. I did a lot of these long runs on the dirt roads of Eaton, Freedom and Tamworth where hills always seem to be plentiful. I still vividly remember that first 4 hour run. It seemed strange to leave the house at 5 AM and tell my wife, "I'm going out for my run now, I'll be back in 4 hours."
Finally the summer rolled around and I got my first test of how my training was going- the Mt. Washington Race. I felt confident I would have my best time ever. Then I got a big dose of reality come race day. With temperatures near 90 at the start, I went out too fast and had my worst time ever. It was a big disappointment but, in the long run, a valuable lesson for me for Pikes Peak that I shouldn't go out too fast.
Come the middle of August, my family and I got on a plane to Denver to spend a week sightseeing and getting used to the altitude the week before the race. I remember booking some of our motels by their altitude hoping that I could force as much acclimation into the week as possible. As we made our way down to Colorado Springs I finally got to see the peak. It looked so much taller than anything around it. The fact that the top of it was covered in storm clouds didn't make it seem any less intimidating.
The morning of the race I remember standing at the start line looking to the top of the peak. It seemed *really* far away but I figured there was no turning back now. The couple of hours before the race was filled with lots of conversations with people from all over. I found myself being the only one from Northern New England, with most of the runners coming from either Colorado, New Mexico, Texas or Kansas. There's this one group of runners from Arkansas that were really fun. They come back every year to run the race and they all have their Arkansas Razorback race singlets on. There's another group of women who run the race every year who have started a group called Peak Busters. It's open only to women who run the race. Made me think how cool it would be to get a Miler's team together to do the race one of these years.
Once the race started, I kept trying to remember the "slow down" mantra that I read about on Matt Carpenter’s web page. It was killing me to hold back so much at the beginning of a race- especially in a race where there is so much spectator cheering and positive energy as you run through Manitou Springs.
As we headed off the road and onto the Barr Trail going up the first mountain (Mt. Manitou), things started getting crowded. Half the people who were running on the road were now walking. The rest of us spent a lot of time trying to pass, sometimes successfully and sometimes having to wait until we found an opening. The first few miles you're running up switchbacks that are less than two people wide at most spots. I tried to look out as much as possible to take in the amazing view.
At mile 4, I started to get a burning feeling in my lungs and the beginning of a headache- both signs of the increase in altitude. I figured that was a sign for me to hold back a little and make sure I kept my fluids up. I started going into a half run/half walk pace and made sure I sipped water the whole way. Gu also became my best friend. I had brought 5 tubes of it with me and tried to stick to having one every hour. I think between the water and the Gu, I was able to fight off some of the bad effects of the altitude.
Around mile 6, the trail began to level out. We were nearing the summit of Mt. Manitou. At first I figured it would last for just a few yards but then as I looked ahead, I could see it was level for quite awhile. I went back into a full run. The trail got much wider on the top of the mountain so passing was much easier to do.
The miles continued to pass away until I hit Barr Camp at 10,000 feet. The air was starting to get thin and so were the trees. I still felt pretty good but I was starting to get anxious as we approached tree line. I kept expecting the altitude to give me a real jolt at some point but luckily it happens gradually so you hardly notice it.
Each of the water stations along the race are manned by some really wonderful volunteers. They cheer as you come in, help you fill your water bottles and give you cups of water and gatorade while you wait. Since I brought a camera along with me, I would end up asking people at the water stops to take a picture of me. They were always more than happy to do it. I later found out that many of the volunteers go to their stations the Friday before the race and camp there until after the Marathon on Sunday. It's a dedicated bunch of volunteers!.
When we finally broke treeline around 11,000 feet the trail became very barren. Everything around you was reddish brown. As I left the water station there, there was a big banner that said "You're getting high and it's legal." A good dose of humor that I needed right then. I started to notice at this point that anything much past a shuffle-run wasn't possible. I started to look up at the trail up ahead of us but I found that every time I looked up, the altitude would hit me and I'd get light headed. I spent most of time staring down at my feet for the rest of the course so I didn't fall.
With about 2 miles to go, you can hear the announcer at the finish. At first this was a total morale booster, knowing that I was near the top. Then this guy from Oklahoma (also named Paul) who I had been running with for the last couple of miles reminded me that at our current pace, that meant we were about 50 minutes from the finish (The average pace for the last two miles of the race is approximately 30 minutes/mile). Keeping that in mind, I went back to focusing on my feet and shuffling along a step at a time.
Finally, we hit the 1mile to go marker. At that point we started to see the first bits of snow on the trail. It had snowed on the top the day before the race and we were hoping that the footing wouldn't start to get bad. Luckily, there were only a couple of slick sections. Since I had started in the second wave of runners, we were starting to catch up with the people at the end of the first wave. To get into the first wave, you have to have either run the Ascent before in less than 4 hours and 20 minutes or have run a flatland marathon in less than 3:50. Since I had done neither, I had to start in the second wave. My advice to anyone who thinks they can finish in less than 4:20 is to try and get in the first wave. Otherwise, you hit the same pack of people I did in the last mile. Passing becomes extremely difficult as the end of the first wave and beginning of the second wave meet.
After what seemed like an eternity, I finally saw the finish line. I sprinted for about the last twenty yards and crossed the line. It felt wonderful to finally finish. I walked around the top for about 15-20 minutes, talking to other runners and looking through the gift shop. After 5 minutes at the top, the race adrenaline left me and the altitude really hit me hard. Everything I did then seemed slow and deliberate (especially noticeable as I navigated the breakables aisle in the gift shop). As I rode down I was happy to reflect back on all the months of training and realize that I had done it, I finished my first Pikes Peak race.
Looking back on the race now, my advice to anyone else looking to do the Pikes Peak Ascent is to train with lots of hills and focus on long endurance runs. This race is as much a mental test as anything else; just getting your mind used to the concept of being out on a four or five hour run. The course is actually a little easier than Mt. Washington in terms of steepness, it's just that you have the altitude and distance to make it feel harder. I also learned the hard way not to spend too much time on top after the race. My lingering around up there caused me to have a pretty unpleasant afternoon back at the hotel after the race. I spent most of it lying in bed and trying to eat something. What I've read since then has said the best thing to do is to get off the top as quickly as possible and then eat some real food (i.e. not just Gu) as soon as you get to the bottom- even if it's just a protein shake. I'll have to remember that for next time.
Hopefully in about five years I'll go out and do the Marathon. Maybe by that time we can get a Miler's team together to go out and run it as well.
My pictures from the race are online at http://www.picturetrail.com/paulkirsch2000