"It is not the mountain we conquer but ourselves".
I'm often asked what I consider my proudest running accomplishment after more than 3 decades of running. Let's see, there's the first time I ran Boston, and I got a pretty big charge out of running 100 miles for the first time (well, every time actually). As far as racing, doing 50 miles under 7 hours was a HUGE thrill for me, and I will always be proud of finishing 13th in the USA 24 Hour Championships. But, when I look back through the 60,000 or so miles I've pounded, I am still most moved by the 26 miles I put in doing the Pikes Peak Marathon. Being that this weekend marks the 55th running of that marathon, I thought I would recall how this flatlander handled one of the Rockie's tallest peaks.
For some unknown reason, one day I was sitting at my computer and got this wild hair of an idea to run the Pikes Peak Marathon - Yep! THAT Pikes Peak. The one that sits majestically 14,115 feet above the surrounding countryside. Thank Goodness, the entries were closed that year, but I figured that gave me about 13 months to prepare (or come to my senses).
I read everything I could (and there is a ton!!), and trained pretty hard and consistently to prepare for the uphill grind. The trail ascends at an average of 11% for 13.3 miles.So, I found steep, mostly 8%, hills, to do repeats on. I did awful treadmill "runs" at 11%, and for altitude training...well, the climb to the 1010' summit of local Oak Mountain was going to have to do. I thought about putting a paper bag over my head and smoking a cigarette while running up the OM trails, but that was a little radical.
My wife and I flew out to Colorado on the Friday before the Sunday race. I had read you either go out to altitude to acclimate at least a week before the race or 1-2 days before the race, I guess to try to catch your aerobic system by surprise before it realizes what you've done.
We flew to Denver and had about 60 miles to drive to Colorado Springs. On the way, I kept trying to pick out which one of the "higher than Oak Mountain" peaks was the right one. I was always wrong - Colorado has 54 peaks above 14,000 feet!
On getting to the beautiful little town of Manitou Springs, we picked up my race number at the expo, which consisted of about 3 tents. It sort of bothered me that one of the tents was the "El Paso County Search and Rescue". Late that night, there was a huge thunderstorm on the mountain and on Saturday morning, the peak was covered with 5" of snow!! In August! Fortunately, I wasn't running till the next day, but that morning was the Half Marathon ("The Ascent"), so for those folks, it was slippin' and slidin'.
The Marathon is run completely on trail that weaves it's way from Manitou (elevation 6,295') to the 14k+ summit. I must admit that, honestly, looking up to the top the day before, I asked myself often "What in the world made me think this was a good idea?". The nervousness I felt was more than the normal pre-race jitters. I really wondered if this was a gold-plated stupid idea.
Race day dawned warm (50 degrees) and clear. My nervousness was as high as the mountain and strectched a little higher when the Race Director said "It's clear on the summit now, but severe storms are predicted for around noon". Great, that would be about 30 minutes after I hoped to get to the top.
The race starts on 1.3 miles of uphill road, and the rest is a mixture of dirt, gravel, rocks, and boulders. The next 4 miles is a 15% grade that severly takes the starch out of your legs early. For those of you in the Birmingham area, the incline from Lakeshore Drive up Columbiana Rd to Shades Crest Rd is 8%!! There are some parts of the course that actually levels off running through the forest, but the 11% average UP for 13 miles is a pull.
Gradually, the trees got shorter and someone turned the air off! At 10 miles, trees and greenery ceased to grow because they realize you need oxygen to live. Above the tree line, this Alabama bumpkin knew he wasn't home anymore. It looked like the moon. The last 3 miles gains 3000 feet (20% incline) and everything works in slow motion. I tried to take a Powergel at 12-13,000 feet, but didn't have the strength to open the stupid packet.
With two miles to the top, I looked towards the summit and felt like I was looking at a sand-colored brick wall. Then, way up there, I saw small lines of runners snaking their way up the switchbacks and prayed they weren't in the same race I was! There was no way I could get up there. My pulse was around 200, my legs were absolutely dead, and I was in the "just move forward" stage. This strategy doesn't get you to the top very quickly, but I was still passing rocks like they were standing still.
The last half mile is something called the Sixteen Golden Steps. Doesn't that sound magical? Well, it's 16 (or 100) switchbacks from hell across the final cliff of Pikes Peak. You can see the turnaround, you can hear the (few) people at the top, but it never gets closer!
The time/distance continuum has little to do with running on Pikes Peak. I hate to admit this, but with 2 miles to go, I looked at my watch and it said 4 hours exactly. When I got to the turnaround, their clock said 4:48. My first thought was "Either their clock or my watch is way off". Then I looked down at my watch - 4:48!! It had taken 48 minutes to do the last 2 miles. UGH!! Actually, I was damned proud of it.
The turnaround is really somewhat comical. All you want to do is put both hands on your knees and thank God for being alive. Instead, it's rather unceremonious - they tear a tag from your race number, spin you around, and pretty much give you a push to get you started downhill. No lollygagging here!
I carried a disposable camera with me and did stop to take a picture from the top. Despite all the toil, the gasping for air, the frequent rock sitting, and the questioning of my limits, it all became so worth it. The view from the top makes you realize both how significant and at the same time how insignificant we are. Supposedly, the song "America, The Beautiful" was written from the summit. Stand up there, and you understand why. I had two thoughts - "Thank God I can run and do this" - and "I can't breathe. Get off this mountain". Three and a half hours later, on blistered feet, I jogged into town, crossed the finished line, and cried like a baby. I mean I was bawling!! My wife said it was a release of emotions and stress. Maybe it was happiness that I had finished the toughest run of my life. I clutched the finishers medal so tightly in my hand that I had an imprint of the mountain in my palm!
As the promised thunderstorms were cracking the summit above like a whip, I couldn't have been more proud of what I had accomplished. I didn't beat the Peak, but the Peak didn't beat me either. We just shared a day I'll never forget.
I'll see you all on the roads - AL
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