The Pikes Peak Ascent was a little more competitive this year as runners from Europe, Africa, Asia and the Americas showed up to contest the World Mountain Running Long Distance Challenge. The US team won, but finishing 22nd overall as the eighth American should give an idea of how many different national colors were charging the Barr trail this year.
My preparations this year did not involve 14,000ft air prior to race day, but the Headwaters Relay, four days on the Colorado trail in the San Juans, and a dose of Boulder foothills certainly got mountain legs under me. I had been nervous about my foot after Loon Mtn, but everything held up wonderfully in MT as our seven person team raced south to Hell Roaring Creek and a landslide coed win. I ran faster than ever on several of my favorite legs, including the highest point of the relay on all out day three. It was another relay for the books, and another fond gathering of great Luther folks. After traveling to CO with Fish, I jumped on a supported run of the CO trail with the Durango high school cross country team, a preseason excursion for the kids that covers 80 miles of epic alpine terrain over four days. Parents drove our camping gear to the next site while we ran from Molas Pass to Durango, skirting afternoon thunderstorms, gawking at neon meadows of paintbrush, alpine aven, and larkspur, being swept up by the heart of the San Juans. Maybe not textbook xc training, but a heck of a experience for young runners. Finally I made the front range where I hung out with Franzen in Denver and Spooter in Boulder, getting lots of vertical on Green Mtn and Bear Pk, stomping grounds to many of the best trail runners in the country. Old Luther buddies really made this trip possible, and I can’t thank them enough. Time again for Pikes Peak.
When you look up from Manitou Springs at dawn, only one object has drawn the early light, and from Ruxton Ave by City Hall, it looks an atmospheric layer away. America the Beautiful rang, the canon thundered, and we were off to scale the heights of the front range on a beautiful sunny morning. I settled behind the lead pack, which was swollen to 25+ runners in the deep international field. The official representatives of team USA were just ahead: Joe Gray, Eric Blake, Sage Canaday, Andy Wacker, and Zach Miller. Lots of red up front. I was wearing white.
Entering the Barr trail last year I was 5th, a position I held for most of the race. This year I was in the midst of a conga line stretching out of sight in both directions. It was hard to anticipate footing on those first few switchbacks with the next runner so close; like driving a crowded freeway you don’t want to cede much space lest someone steals it. Staying relaxed, I followed when the pace felt right, and passed when someone seemed too slow. I moved up the conga line until my footing was clear and the switchbacks eased. My legs and lungs were feeling promising. Ahead were two of the better non-team Americans in the race and I wanted to shadow them as long as possible: Simon Gutierrez, masters runner and former Ascent champ, and Andrew Benford, a young guy who had beat me at Loon. I ran behind them into the flat sections mid-course, getting passed by the Italian pack and passing the odd Mexican and Danish runner.
I did a better job fueling than last year, taking my gatorade and shot blocks at intervals, avoiding my rookie pretzel mistakes. By halfway at Barr camp though I was starting to feel the altitude (10,000ft). It caught me off guard, again, how quickly you can go from strong to struggling, from eying the next runner to holding steady to hoping no one’s behind you. I’d passed a flagging Benford, but Simon was out of sight. A German named Marco passed me and I kept pace for a few switchbacks before he pulled away. That’s the pace I need right there! Except just like last year, I couldn’t keep it. I had an okay pace going, but other racers seemed to be accelerating. At treeline a whole herd came up behind me, and I knew the alpine would be a suffering zone.
I traded back and forth with another German and a Japanese runner as we climbed above the krummholz and into a landscape of boulders. A few other runners went by, but this time there was no hope of latching on. Just finish. I hiked a few sections I wish I hadn’t, but a couple too quick steps send you careening into oxygen debt and set your brain afire. At the golden stairs I felt the wobble from last year, head getting a little fuzzy, hands clutching anything solid. The German had scampered away (even after stopping to stretch his calf) but I seemed to be holding off the Japanese and a closing boulder jersey. Below Mantiou Springs and the Great Plains fell away, the earth’s surface arcing to the horizon. Above, a deep atmospheric blue and growing cheers from the summit; I could hear Spooter and Erin yelling for me.
Like any finish line, the sight is pure relief. A Pikes, it also has the amusing quality of being nestled between boulders, the cog railway hissing, bemused tourists and fans scattering the summit, all while at 14,100 ft. This is truly a unique event, where the resulting panorama validates all exhaustion and where any finish is tinged with a feeling of accomplishment. Of course I was hoping to place higher and run faster, but I managed to squeak 39 seconds off last years time for a new pr of 2:29:24. As a small consolation, I now have the fastest ascent time recorded by an Iowan or Oregonian. Better not move to Colorado.
When in Colorado though, you gotta go big.That same afternoon, Seth, Erin, and I drove to Aspen and parked ourselves at the base of the iconic Maroon Bells. It was time for back to back big mountain days, and the next morning we set off on the famous Four Pass Loop around the Bells. My legs did not have much run left in the them, so I settled for hiking the climbs and jogging the descents. West Maroon, Frigid Air, Trail Rider, Buckskin: the passes kept serving up incredible alpine vistas and meadow after meadow of late season wildflowers. My legs were exhausted but mind was buoyant. Pikas chirped, marmots sun bathed, krummholz pines stood sentinel, storm clouds rolled near, and the surrounding 14ers rang: it was a high country feast for the senses.
After 26 miles and 9000 ft I was just as tuckered as Pikes the day before…the day before!? Time for some rest. On my last day in the state we were treated to the first day of the USA Pro Cycling Challenge, where we cheered our old Luther pal Matthew Flip Busche as he sped around the Aspen valley, vying for the sprint finish downtown not an arms length away! A terrific way to close out trip riddled with highlights.