Suffer fest. That’s how I was describing to friends my impending experience at the Pikes Peak Ascent in Colorado this August. But before I could have the privilege of predicting my oncoming pain, I needed to get into the race.
For months it had been fingers crossed to get into the field, and when I did not hear back by the specified date, I was crestfallen. Sure, I did not have much, if any, of a mountain racing resume, but I had envisioned grinding up the mountain so many times that not competing seemed a denial of mountain running passage. To the top or there and back, Pikes is one of the biggest and most historic American mountain races. If I was going to test my uphill running ability, both terrain and competition, I needed to race Pikes.
I was in Boulder visiting college friends when I finally got the email confirming my entry. I stayed one more night in town before committing to a heavy diet of 10,000 ft oxygen in the Leadville area. Preparations the week before included (mostly) running Mt. Massive and Mt. Elbert back to back days, a rest day cheering for my college coach at the Leadville 100 mountain bike race, and (mostly) running the jeep roads up Mt. Antero. I wasn’t sure if these 14ers were building my confidence or shaking it. Wolfing down so much thin air seemed advantageous for the suffer fest ahead, yet I could not gain a single summit without multiple stops and walk breaks. In short, I was already suffering badly. How was I going to run the whole way on Pikes? I was just crossing my fingers the leaders might need to walk too…
The last few days before the race were spent in the memorable old stomping grounds of Durango, CO. Easy runs along the Animas River in the morning, afternoons reading in the park, and ferocious rounds of monopoly by night. It was time to rest up and hope enough hay was in the barn.
I also had it easy in Colorado Springs the night before thanks to our generous host Leroy, an old friend of our college cross country coach Steve Pasche. A big thanks to Leroy and his family for a warm bed, pizza, and plenty of general banter and good conversation to take my mind off the race.
My good friend Dirk rousts me from bed, out the door, and to the starting line. In the quickly filling high school parking lot, I smear cold sunscreen on my shoulders and hope the mountain will warm enough later to warrant the precaution. Dancing around in the early morning chill, speakers blare The Black Keys: from groggy to go time.
After a quick ode to the history of the race with America the Beautiful, a cannon sounds and two thousand souls of questionable senses dash through the quiet streets of Manitou Springs. The finish line is a lofty and nearly incomprehensible 7,815 feet above.
I find myself near the front, watching two runners pull away from the field. To chase in the first mile would be pure folly. While still pavement, the course is not flat for long, pitching up toward the trail where I enter around fifth. I’m already further up than anticipated, I just need to stay relaxed and focused ahead.
Approaching the first aid station, I know I need to grab a cup of Gatorade and a quick snack, but I flat out fail the nutritional order of operations. I gulp down some fluids and then swipe a handful of pretzels, and no sooner have I swallowed the first one before my mouth transforms into the Mojave. My tongue laps at the air for relief, but I get none until the next station. Wow, nice rookie move! My technique improves slightly at the next stations, but I still find myself pausing too long, fumbling with cups, mouth going dry, storing more food scrapes in my shorts pocket than in my belly. I’m hoping it won’t all crescendo in a spectacular bonk within sight of the summit.
Thankfully, I’m able to keep the pace churning, and with a guy named Greg following, I climb higher with each step. Soon after the mid-point at Barr Camp we pass someone walking, and with a sideways glance I see a bib number. One place higher! Then Greg politely passes me (he ran all the way into 2nd!). I try to keep cadence with him, but it produces an unsustainable burn. Zero sum in the standings. Just keep grinding.
I mostly blank out the next few miles until the pines begin to shrink and twist, and then disappear completely. Tree line and the alpine. Most of the miles and vertical are now behind me, yet arguably the hardest stretch remains. Above 12,000 feet my pace slows, though the effort is straining my threshold. Large boulders crowd the trail, and I clutch at the crude handrails, staving off an impending wobble. The sun shines brilliantly, rocks all aglow. An occasional outward glance yields emptiness, a hazy view and proof of the last two hours of solid uphill movement.
Out of the trees, I focus above. I can hear the garbled blare from a megaphone and see a crowd of human specks on the summit, the structure of a finish line. More fans sprinkle the trail side, no doubt eager to cheer their friends and witness racers suffering in the hardest moments. Someone shouts I’m in fourth place, but it doesn’t make sense. I have carefully counted the runners in front of me from the beginning, and was positively in fifth. Again, cheers for fourth, and “third place is right up there!” Not sure whether the altitude has clouded my counting skills, the shouts pick my feet a little higher, bring the summit a little closer. Into the famous Golden Stairs, the final set of switchbacks before the top, I use my hands to push off boulders and relieve my stumbling feet. There is no relief for the lungs and my head is going a touch dizzy. If this were any other day I would sensibly stop and catch my breath, but this is a race, third just ahead and fifth potentially closing, and the only option is to keep moving and hope for the summit.
As I emerge into the dense cluster of onlookers near the finish line, I know I will not be catching third, but have also solidified fourth. I’ve greatly exceeded my aspirations for a top ten result, not to mention I just ran to the top of Pikes Peak! With a pump of the fist I cross over the timing mat and under the finish banner, which look slightly out of place nestled among the boulders at 14,000 feet. Normally I avoid sitting down directly after races, but my legs and head didn’t give me much choice after this one. Dirk snapped a few photos to memorialize the moment, because surely I was going to have foggy recall. As my breathing and heart rate subdued, and I started looking down instead of up, I finally took in how very far I was from City Hall in Manitou Springs. That a person can run from sleepy civilization to the summit of one of the country’s most iconic mountains, over 13 miles and up 7,800 feet…well, it still seems a touch remarkable.
Pikes ended up being the longest duration race I had done to that point at 2:30:03, which coincidentally was only three seconds slower than my predicted finish time. I must have had one of the better guesses in the whole field! Had I run about two and a half minutes faster I could have caught up with Simon Gutierrez, a distinguished mountain racer twenty years my senior. A little faster yet and the US Anti Doping Agency would have been escorting me post race rather than my best friend. I suppose being drug tested could be a good goal for my next major race: you’re fast enough to matter!
After an edge of the seat drive down the mountain, Dirk and I rested and cleaned up in Colorado Springs, made the awards ceremony, and pointed northwest for the next pressing goal: getting to Leadville in time to cheer our college teammate, Seth Spooter Kelly, over the final miles of the famous 100 mile footrace. We arrived at an unusually busy forest service road well after dark, the cars and cluster of headlamps giving away the aid station near the 80 mile mark. This was my first time watching a 100 mile ultra, and trying to comprehend what the racers were feeling with 80 miles in the legs and 20 more dark ones to go certainly put perspective on my morning jaunt up the mountain. Soon after uniting with the support crew, here comes Spooter like he was going for simple jog through the woods! Even after 80 miles of fatigue and toenail malfunction, his pit stop execution and positive attitude was impressive and contagious. Over the last fifth of the race he moved up from around 25th to 11th, closing faster than all but the top two runners, despite a chair session to remove the third toenail of the race. Burly indeed. As a freshman in college I looked up to Spooter and took notes on (most of) his wisdom. The same is still true today. Another breakout trail performance by a Luther alum!
The race weekend was truly complete when a group of us spent much of the next afternoon soaking in the cottonwood hot springs outside Buena Vista. No 100 miles necessary to enjoy that.
Finally, after sizing up the complete Pikes Peak results, “IA” definitely looks a bit strange next to the blanket of “CO” entries. A finish for flatlanders everywhere! I can’t wait to return next year for this well organized and historic event.