I might be getting better at getting quality sleep the night before a big race, but I still managed to roll around and wake up at least a time or two heading into Sunday morning, when I’d face the daunting Pikes Peak.
Per usual, I woke up for good about 10 minutes before my actual alarm went off and proceeded to suit up into the clothes I had set out the night before.
After double-checking my Osprey backpack to make sure it had everything I could possibly need during the ascent and descent, Jen and I were off to Manitou Springs, Colorado.
For this extreme run, I most definitely over-packed, though I would happily have an extra pound or two on my back than to be without something critical when I might need it most.
I was wearing:
- Saucony Peregrine 6 trail shoes
- Injinji trail high socks
- Janji Ethiopia 2-in-1 shorts
- Under Armour short-sleeve t-shirt (with November Project tags, of course)
- Ciele FASTCap
- Osprey Rev 6 backpack, carrying:
- Extra socks
- Extra briefs
- Body Glide
- November Project buff
- iPhones 6S
- Under Armour sweatpants
- Baltimore Marathon long-sleeve shirt
- Fed Thrill sunglasses
- Tums (for altitude sickness)
The 50-ish minute drive went by quickly as we listened to music, enjoyed the sights of the mountains, and discussed our game plans for the day: my plan for the marathon and Jen’s for killing time in town.
Before we knew it, our GPS directions instructed us to get off the highway and take a few local roads for the final dozen or so miles to get to the bottom of Pikes Peak. Along the way, we kept trying to find Pikes Peak mountain, looking for the biggest, most intimidating behemoth in front of us.
Eventually, we did. To be honest, among the other mountains, it didn’t loom quite as monstrously as I expected, though climbing any of the peaks we saw through our window would be quite the feat.We parked in a community lot, picked up my bib, and wandered around the start area. With about 45 minutes before the race began, I had time to go to the bathroom– in one of the many open port-a-potties– and chat with Jen. We even met another November Project tribesmember, a woman from NP Boston who was as excited to run as me.
The anthem was played and runners were encouraged to enter their wave corrals. I said my goodbyes to Jen as the first three waves shot off and away. It was now time for my wave, wave No. 4 to go, and I was running.
For this recap, I won’t be able to provide mile-by-mile descriptions as it all was more drawn out and defined better by terrain and aid station. Bear with me, friends.
Start to Ruxton Creek (9:40/15:35 minutes/mile)
From the starting gun, I– and the hundred or so other runners in my wave– darted off, passing City Hall and continuing on the road of Manitou Avenue. I knew that the beginning would be on the road and that it’d offer a brief stretch of semi-flat terrain, so I tried not to push hard at all. My goal for the day, after all, was to survive. While I had finishing times in mind that were average for my marathon pace, I wasn’t concerned with a number. I wanted to finish with working feet and a smile on my face. Thus, I resisted the urge to run too fast at the beginning, when I’d otherwise bite thanks to race adrenaline.
We continued on the road for another little bit and passed the Cog Railway Depot– which houses the trams that are used to transport less adventurous tourists up to the top of Pikes Peak. Soon after, the road ended and we continued on a dirt road, parallel to Ruxton Creek. I knew that the switch from road to trail represented the elevation challenge ahead, so I slowly shifted from a jog to a power hike.
Ruxton Creek to No Name Creek (18:37/17:56/18:47)
Over the next 2.7 miles, I found myself jogging and hiking behind a particularly outspoken runner who seemed to know what he was doing. He was talking to another woman who was a self-described rookie at the course, and was explaining the upcoming turns, climbs, and aid stations. I decided to stick right behind them for as long as I could to not only soak up all the knowledge I could gather from the veteran, but also preserve some energy for the remaining ascent.
During this stretch, I felt like we followed the course of a children’s roller coaster, climbing up a turn, leveling out, and then descending down a rolling hill. It was a bit tough to get in a groove because of the changes, but it also was nice to give my feet different elements and my mind short stretches of running on which I could focus.
No Name Creek to Barr Camp (14:19/14:48)
As noted by the 10-time Pikes runner in front of me, the section between the No Name Creek and Barr Camp aid stations would offer some legitimate downhill sections and thus, could serve as a way to throw in a fast mile or two. He also said, however, that things would get trickier after Barr Camp– more specifically after A-Frame at mile No. 10.2– so I wasn’t trying to run too fast even when my legs wanted to get moving.
Barr Camp to A-Frame (20:43/22:36/28:52)
At this point, we hit more than 10,000 feet of elevation– up nearly 4,000 feet from the start of the race– and I was starting to feel it. Leading up to the race, I was constantly reminded to not mess around with altitude sickness and shortness of breath, so I most definitely took my time any moment that I felt a bit light-headed. Given my goal of surviving, I had no problem taking a 30-second timeout under a tree or by a rock during this stretch. It was encouraging to see a number of other runners, many of whom seemed more competitive stopping for a minute to try and suck in some more air.
During several of my breaks, I had to move out of the way as a few elite runners were already working on the descent portion of the race. The way they zipped down the trail, effortlessly maneuvering around rocks and roots, was inspiring but also horrifying.
A-Frame to Pikes Peak Summit (28:41/36:42:37:29)
As my splits indicated, this part was slower. Reaching the A-Frame took a lot out of me, but it was nothing compared to the three-mile death march above the trees and along the clouds, up to the top.
Too high for trees, the trail zigged and zagged back and forth all the way for what seemed like much more than three miles and those runners in front of me looked like little ants dragging onward.
Known as the 16 Golden Stairs, the 32 switchbacks remaining to the summit looked impossibly daunting, yet manageable. At this point, a lot more runners were working their way back down, so us ascenders had the extra challenge of getting out of the way for speedier racers.
This stretch of the course offered a ton of absolutely literally breathtaking views. Each time, it took a little bit longer for me to work up the energy to keep moving, but then again, I was OK soaking up the scene– and the sun, which was now shining down on us.
The trail turned from a mix of very small rocks to boulders along the course, and our march of hikers pushed closer and closer to the top. Soon, we could see the final climb, accompanied by a handful of volunteers keeping a close eye on the runners below.I took my time sliding through rock gaps and up short stretches of straightaways before the final turn to the top. Passing by even more volunteers and medical officials, I felt very supported and ready to make it to the top. We followed the course up to the top, over the timing strip to capture our ascent time, and next to a bunch of food to snack on before turning back around. I made sure to grab a bunch of M&Ms, as well as a banana, before asking a volunteer to take my picture.
Halfway done, I looked down at my remaining half marathon and then out to the view in front of me. We were 14,115 feet up in the air and it was gorgeous. When I had my fill of views and snacks, I returned back down the trail I just followed up and began my descent.
Pikes Peak Summit to A-Frame (33:20/19:33/14:34)
With each turn, I descended a bit more back towards sea level and though it wasn’t physically clear that my regular breathing would return, it did feel good to know that the hard part was over.
It still wasn’t easy to run during these miles, but more and more frequently, I was presented with stretches of flat terrain. Thanks to my slowly restoring energy, my jog found more consistent pacing.
I was now on the descending side when passing by hikers on their way up and I’d be lying if I said it didn’t feel encouraging to know I was on my way down while they were still on their way up. I did, however, make sure to high-five or cheer on as many ascenders as I could.
A-Frame to Barr Camp (19:19/13:37/13:09)
Sure, I was running more and more, and faster and faster, but it wasn’t much easier than the climb up thanks to the added challenge of avoiding tree roots and awkwardly positioned rocks.
During this leg, I started actually passing some people. I felt like a rag doll at times, just flaying my arms and legs out in front of me as I bombed the downhill segments, but it had worked up until this point, so why not change it up?
Barr Camp to No Name Creek (11:56/11:47)
More of the same rag dolling and faster jogging over the next two miles. I nearly bit it a couple of times as I clipped my feet on a rock or root, but each time managed to catch my footing and avoid a disastrous tumble. I swear I looked like an idiot to those out there, but then again, I was passing most of those people, so good riddance.
No Name Creek to Ruxton Creek (9:47/10:39/11:56)
I picked up the pace even more over the next few miles, but towards the end of the trail, I ran out of liquids in my Osprey, so I spent more time at the aid stations before returning to my award-winning posture and form of downhill trail running. In between some of the downhill segments that made me look like a fool were some flat and slight-uphill sections, where a lot of people were walking. For me, I was under five miles from the finish and while my feet hurt from the hammering of downhill running, I kept running. Maybe it was the long runs during my marathon training or maybe it was just the experience of running marathons in the past, but I wasn’t about to take a break on these sections. I was too close to finishing. I kept running and kept passing people. I wasn’t stopping until I crossed the finish line.
Ruxton Creek to Finish (11:34/8:30)
Running right through the last aid station– who needs water with under two miles to go?– I finally reached the road again. It was much more of a downhill run than I expected, so I continued with my goofy stride until it flattened out. I was still running, though, and as we got closer to civilization, more spectators appeared, offering me internal boosts of adrenaline and encouragement to keep on going.I passed a few more runners, high-fived a few more spectators, and rounded the final corner, entering a sectioned-off bit of the road that funneled right into the finish line. I saw Jen, blew her a kiss, and ran through the finish as I heard an emcee announce my name and finishing time.
A volunteer handed me a medal and then I found myself sitting in a chair in a tent where medics could look over runners to make sure they were OK. Someone placed a bag of ice on my neck– which I can only describe as the most relieving feeling ever in the history of the universe– and then a kid gave me one cup, and then another cup, of Gatorade.After a minute or two just catching my breath, I got up and found Jen. I picked up my awesome finisher’s jacket and even gave my legs an ice bath in a creek by the finish before heading to the car and going back to our friends’.
On the drive back, before I entered a blissful phase of half-sleep, half-runners’ high, I checked my results. As you can see above, my times weren’t great– but I didn’t care, I finished and lived to tell the tale.
There are, though, two key points I’d like to make now.
- I must love finishing.
According to not-exact heart rate monitor in my Garmin Forerunner, my pulse was faster at the finish (188 bpm) than at its fastest over any point during the course (179 bpm). As strenuous as the climb was, my heart was trucking along even faster on the flat section at the bottom, with the crowd– and more importantly Jen– cheering me on.
- I’m not a fast hiker, but I can awkwardly run like a rag doll with the best of ’em.
Looking at my official times across each marker on the Pikes Peak Marathon results page, I did some serious work from the 1-Mile Down marker to the finish.1-Mile Down
From Mile No. 14 to Mile No. 26.2, I passed a total of 191 runners. Again, I didn’t earn any style points, but it’s still something of which I’m proud.