Marathons, Mountains, and Microbrews - August 2001 - Pikes Peak Marathon

I've been running marathons for nearly six years now, and it was time to try "America's Ultimate Challenge," the Pikes Peak Marathon.  It's no ordinary marathon-starting at 6235 feet in Manitou Springs, Colorado, climbing to 14110 feet to the summit of Pikes Peak, about 13.4 miles, then descending 12.9 miles back to downtown Manitou Springs.  It also has cut-off times, six hours thirty minutes to the top, (strictly enforced), ten hours to finish (a bit more flexible).

Training this summer has been a little more intense than normal for me.  Instead of my normal 20 or so miles during non-marathon weeks, I've been averaging around 35.

I arrived in Manitou Springs late Friday morning, stopped to visit for a while, then did an acclimatization trip up the mountain by car.  On the way up, I got a treat.  About the time the road turned from pavement to gravel, it started to rain.  The farther up the mountain I got, the thicker the raindrops became-I was now driving in SNOW!  After the hot, sticky Michigan summer it was sheer delight, driving up a mountain in the snow with no guardrails.  Spending an hour or so at the top, including lunch at the summit hut/gift shop, I noticed that feeling of tingling in my fingers and aching in my head that accompanies the lack of oxygen.  It was a pretty enjoyable buzz.  

While my summer training left me with no reservations about my ability to complete the course in the allotted time, my play-it-by-ear attitude did leave me with no reservations for a place to stay for the two nights in Manitou Springs.  I walked into the Foothills Lodge, about 25 yards from the starting line, to inquire about a room.  Which was available.  Now, anyone who does races knows how convenient this is.  Sleeping in a little longer, no rush to park, no standing in port-a-john lines, and no dealing with any of the other anxiety-causing problems that we have before a race.

Saturday morning was the start of the Ascent, which starts in two waves at 7:00 and 7:30. After watching the start of both waves, I was so inspired that I didn't want to wait another day before starting.  After a quick breakfast, I drove over to the Garden of the Gods state park, only about a mile or so from the motel.  Red rocks, piled on top of each other surrounded me. The cool morning and the bright sunshine combined to make it a perfect morning to be alive. Mountain and rock formations carved by wind and water for millions of years combined with manmade roads and trails to make this the perfect recreation spot.  

Then on to Old Colorado Springs, where I discovered a farmer's market in the park in the middle of town.  While there, another discovery-a t-shirt from a local microbrewery!  A short conversation with the wearer of said shirt and my lunch plans were taking form.  I enjoyed a couple of good local brews at Bristol Brewing Company, and Jeremy the bartender recommended the Front Range BBQ for lunch.  Good suggestion!  A little rest for the afternoon and I was ready to head back to the park for the pasta dinner.

At the pasta dinner, I met a whole group of Dead Runners from St. Louis, including Dave and Toni Braun, Pam Thurston, Tracey Grzegorczyk, Mark Oppenheim, Dave Nish and Dave White.  Back-home running friends Ken and Barb Vanderberg were there with their Quilt Your Memories t-shirt quilt booth.

I like traveling west for marathons because my body still thinks it's on Michigan time, so getting up early in the morning is no problem.  This time, though, it was a little ridiculous.  After 3:30 it wasn't even worth it to stay in bed anymore, the time difference and the excitement of the upcoming race keeping me more or less awake and ready to go.  

Hearing from the announcer before the 7:00 start that the temperature on summit was 40 degrees, I walked back to the motel and left my jacket with Aleece the owner.  I headed up the mountain wearing shorts and singlet, my water bottle belt and a disposable camera.

The Pikes Peak Marathon is billed as America's Ultimate Challenge for a good reason, especially for a guy from Martin, Michigan, elevation 785.  At the 6245' starting elevation, the air is considerably thinner, and at the 14,110' summit it's getting a little tough to breathe.  It was going to be a fun day.

We started out running, but as soon as we got past the starting line crowds, most everyone slowed to a brisk walk.  I asked a couple of Pikes Peak veterans if this was fast enough to get us to the top on time, and they assured me it was.  I was walking for a while with Bill Hollihan, a 71 year-old who was doing the DOUBLE-the Ascent on Saturday followed by the Marathon on Sunday, and 62-year-old Manny Lopez.  Both are experienced ultra-runners from Wisconsin.  They served as my inspiration for the first few miles.

After about 1.4 miles, we came to the Barr Trail, and the first mile marker, 12 miles to the summit.  I was moving very well at the time and was able to pass quite a few people.  By the time we were two miles into the race, we started to get gorgeous views of the mountains and valleys below us.  As I snapped one picture, Nelson Petersen, an acquaintance who produces TV shows with Kibo Productions said, "You taking pictures Don?"  He asked if I had the breath for an interview.  He got out his video camera and went in front of me to get some footage and asked a few questions.

After three or four miles, I caught up with Pam and Tracey.  I passed them and then turned to take a picture.  Once again, the scenery was gorgeous.  Everyone continued up the mountain, with little conversation due to the lack of oxygen and the strenuousness of the climb, but with the camaraderie that comes from fighting a common battle.  My miles were averaging around 17 minutes.  Water stops were only about every three miles or so, most had some food, including animal crackers, cookies, grapes, or Peak Bars.  

As I approached the Four Miles To Summit sign, someone yelled "Runner Up" and we soon saw race winner Matt Carpenter coming down at us.  My last mile had been 25:09.  The next four miles would be a constant stream of short rest breaks, as we would get off the trail so that the faster runners could get by us.  We were moving above tree line, and with three miles to summit, my mile time was 33:26.   With two miles to the summit, Pam passed me and Tracy would follow a few minutes later.  The lack of oxygen was slowing me down, but I never felt bad.  

With a mile to go, we reached the 16 Golden Stairs, a series of switchbacks through the rocks.  My last mile had been 47:41.  In spite of the slowness, the last mile to the summit was a blast.  The first big goal of the day was in site, and my spirits were high.  Tracy may have thought I looked pretty whipped as she met me on the way down, but I knew I'd easily beat the 6:30 cutoff, and the day would be a success.  I met Mark O. on the way down, and we took pictures of each other.  I was walking part of the time with a hiker named Katie, who I think I talked into doing the race next year.  As I approached the last couple switchbacks, the energy in my body took over and I had to run.  I yelled back at Katie and asked her to take a picture of me at the top, and left my camera on a rock for her to pick up on her way past.  Adrenaline carried me that last few yards to the celebration at the top.  My last mile to the summit was 50:07, net time of 5:46:36, beating the cutoff by nearly 45 minutes.

I was a little disappointed that the turnaround is not quite at the top of the mountain.  "I didn't come here to go part-way up a mountain," I said, and then walked up over the Cog Railway track to the summit sign for a picture at the top.  Between that and a short rest and replenishment stop at the turnaround area, I managed to kill about 15 minutes before starting back down.  Back down the Golden Stairs, it was congratulations to all the people who were making it to the top on time.  The last few people would make the cutoff included Manny, who I met and encouraged to keep going.  

The trail down was harder on the legs than going up.  Still, though I knew it would be slow, I also knew it was going to end.  The miles going down started with 11.9 on the back of the 1 Mile to Summit sign at the bottom of the Golden Stairs.  My mile times while decsending were averaging 17 minutes or so.  Even though it was easier going down, I could run for just a short time before having to slow down to catch my breath.  Manny caught up with me about 3 miles down, but as I got closer to sea level, I passed him again.  With about 7 miles to go, I passed Ken Vanderberg sitting on a rock dumping his shoe out.  I hadn't seen him when he met me on his way down, but here he was.  We spoke for a minute, and afterward I realized that I should have asked him if he was OK, since he's usually faster than me and has a lot more endurance.  I still expected him to pass me before we finished.

As I got down farther, the miles were going by faster too.  Increased air in my lungs, and the excitement of the approaching finished line moved me along.  At the two miles to go mark, I had just run 11:39.  During the last four miles I was catching and passing people regularly. With a mile and a half to go, I left the Barr Trail.  Running on pavement was a treat.  I passed the .9 miles to finish sign and party time was in full swing.  A block later, a kid up on the porch, trying to be encouraging, said, "You've got 'bout a mile and a half to go."  I looked at him and laughed.  Nice try, kid.  I was running down Ruxton Avenue, and saw a guy (Bill Flevares) walking ahead of me.  I decided to catch him.  With a little more than a quarter mile to go, I rapped him on the shoulder and said, "Come on!"  He met my pace and with a little race going on between us, the crowd got into it.  He thanked me for the push, and with him right on my side, what I had left of competitive nature was kicking in.  We both sprinted for the line, I edged him out by just a two seconds.  Nine hours and 25 minutes, and here we are racing for a two-second difference.

Bill and I sat and got acquainted for a few minutes, eating and drinking and basking in the accomplishment.  I had such an endorphin buzz going that I set off toward the Foothills Lodge running, my finisher medal bouncing on my chest.  By the time the shower was over, the buzz was gone, and it was time to relax, eat, and have a beer.  

All of my above mentioned friends finished, Ken coming in at 9:41, and Manny at 9:43.  America's Ultimate Challenge had been met.  I talked to Aleece and made reservations for next year.  I think I'll do the Double!

and the adventure continues....