Pikes Peak Ascent – A Hopefully Logical Approach to the Insanity of Running up a Mountain

Pikes Peak Ascent courseThe one word email response I received from my brother, he of the many marathons include Boston and others, states the reaction of most when I inform them I have signed up for the Pikes Peak Ascent (PPA).


He is, as usual, probably right.

For background, I just set a PR in the San Antonio Half, which I used for my qualification run for the PPA. At 53 years old, setting PRs is not difficult, since I didn’t start distance running until basketball and rugby killed my knees.

And I truly love hiking in the mountains (see the Grand Canyon app for perilous adventures).

So this is just combining the two, right? A half-marathon with an uphill hike.

After the PR I was looking for the next mountain to climb (poor pun intended).

We shall see.

Any other runners who read this and have run the PPA, and have further suggestions or comments, I would certainly appreciate the advice.

Pikes Peak Ascent Course Overview

This is certainly not a race that one can just “go out and run” (well, a much younger and faster person might). A familiarity with the course will certainly help. There is a nice description on the web site and several folks who have run it have posts. This is the most relevant description:

From the Manitou Springs City Hall, the races proceed west on Manitou Avenue for 0.42 miles to Ruxton Avenue. At Ruxton, the course turns west for 0.8 mile to (and past) the Cog Railway Depot to Hydro Street. At this point there has been an elevation gain of approximately 300′ for an average grade of 4.5%. At .23 of a mile past Hydro Street, or 1.45 miles total, the asphalt ends, and the course continues on a dirt/gravel road which parallels Ruxton Creek. At the end of the dirt/gravel road, there is a fenced area, and the course stays to the north side of the fence before meeting up with a small trail on the right. This trail, commonly referred to as the “spur trail,” connects to Barr Trail in .1 of a mile. From this point to the summit at 14,115,’ the course follows Barr Trail. The width of the trail will vary as will the grade (steepness) and surface (footing).

From Hydro Street to No Name Creek is 3 miles with an elevation gain of 2,150′ for an average grade of 13.4%. From No Name Creek to Barr Camp is about 3.3 miles with an elevation gain of 1,450′ for an average grade of 8.3%. This is the fastest section of the course and even includes several slight downhill sections roughly 1.25 miles above No Name Creek. Barr Camp to the A-frame shelter at treeline is another 2.6 miles and 1,800′ in elevation gain for an average grade of 13.1%. From the A-frame to finish/turnaround (~14,050′) is about 3.1 miles with an elevation gain of 2,050′ for an average grade of 12.4%


Altitude – I am, by definition, a “flatlander.” There’s air down here near the Gulf of Mexico. The elevation here in Tomball is 187 feet above sea level. The ascent starts in Manitou Springs at an altitude of  6,300′ (1,920m) and the summit is 14,115′ (4,302m). My new math tells me there is a big difference between where I am normally training and where the race is.

Skyrunner.com Altitude chartsThere is a great albeit technical article by Tony Eckels written specifically about this challenge and for this race. In it, he uses the graph here to show the amount of oxygen your body is used to (100%) and what it will experience at the start and finish of the Ascent. Basically, since I am near sea level, at the start of the race I will be sucking in 80% of the oxygen my body is normally accustomed to, and at the Peak a whopping 61%.

This could suck (or suck wind).

So I have a couple of choices to face this challenge: 

  • I could rent one of these and simulate a high-altitude, but not only is it more than I want to invest in this race, but it is much too Lance Armstrong-ish.
  • I could ignore the altitude differences, and assume, as the Pikes Peak Ascent website states, that I will add 30 minutes to my time
  • I could train at altitude.

This third selection is actually easier for me. My work requires an airport and wifi (and an occasional change of clothes) and my wife’s BFF lives just south of Denver. Several of the articles I’ve read state a couple of common rules for training at a higher altitude: (a) don’t run hard once you get there, as it takes your body a few days to produce more red blood cells to carry the oxygen; and (b) it still takes a while to adjust. So we’ll head to the area a few weeks before the race, curtail the hard part of the training for the first few days there, and hope that helps.

Elevation and grade change – The other part about being a flatlander is…well…it’s flat. And I am normally the runner who curses any hill put on the track (are they just trying to slow us down?). The normal course that I run is along a bayou, with an elevation change of maybe 20 feet when I cross the bayou.

The relocation piece toward the end of the training will help. But I’ll also add in a bunch of quad work, as suggested in several of the articles, like step-ups (one guys say find a car bumper to step-up on to prepare for the “Golden Stairs” at the end; sounds up-lifting) and knee lifts with leg weights after my flatlander running. Just gotta be sure and protect those knees.

Time duration – Though this is a half-marathon in distance, the time it will take makes it more like a marathon. The suggestions for predicting your finish time are to double your half-marathon time…and, if you are a flat-lander, add 30 minutes. My recent half time (which is my PR) is 1:47:44, so doubling is about 3:30ish. Add a half hour and that’s four hours…so I put in 3:50 as my projection.

I really enjoyed the Hanson Half Marathon training program I used for the SA Half (blog posts for the entire 18 weeks start here). Not only did I PR, but I avoided injury, and did not feel completely wiped out after the race.

The question for the PPA is: train for a half (which is the distance) or train for the full (which is the time)?

Unfortunately I have to work for a living. The Hanson Half program was a pretty large time commitment, and the Hanson full program is even more so. Therefore my current plan is to use the same Hanson Half program…though I may either (a)crank up the mileage on the easy runs or (b)use the “Advanced” plan (vs. the Basic plan I used before).

The 18 week program will begin April 12.

Trail surface – this is a trail run that changes surface types many times. Because of past knee problems, I’ve changed my gait and my shoes, and now run in Newtons. Newton makes a trail shoe called the BOCO, which I plan on adding to my rotation. I may wait until I get to Colorado to add it in, as that will still give about six weeks of break-in period for the shoes.

Dehydration – I’ve been to Denver for work, and always need to drink more water. Humidity down here in SE Texas is almost always high, quite the opposite of the location of this race. I have a bad habit of not drinking enough water, and need to get in the habit of over-hydrating during training here in Texas, and carrying that habit over to Colorado. The first part of the training (mid-April through June) I’ll do here in Houston where it will be quite humid. I’ll carry more water and work on a habit of over-hydration.

Weight – I like beer….a lot. But, if I have to make a choice between carrying five extra pounds up Pikes Peak or cutting back on the beer….well, it will be a tough decision. My previous PR at the New Orleans Half, I weighed 169. My current PR at the San Antonio Half in December of last year, I was about 175. And most of the poundage is beer weight, many of them blamable on Packers games and the Untappd app (and me drinking the beer…but let’s not get personal). The PPA is before Packers season starts, and I just hit my 1,000th unique beer on Untappd. So I’m out of excuses.

Lack of tunes – the PPA is a “no earphones” run, for obvious safety reasons. This should not be a major issue, though I do run while listening to music or podcasts. I’ll have to get used to listening to the sounds of my own panting for breath.

Yoga, Chi and other esoteric add-ins – when I did Karate, I was much more flexible. And I believe that flexibility helped avoid injuries and to recover sooner after workouts and runs. My beautiful wife has me going to yoga class with her. Not only does it seem to be helping with my flexibility, but also helps with core strength. Hey, if it works for Aaron Rodgers and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, it can’t hurt.

I’ve also been experimenting with using the Small Circulation of chi while running. Mostly this involves keeping my tongue pressed up against the roof of my mouth and being mindful of the chi passage. This is hard, as it gives me one more thing to think about (gait, breathing pace, etc.) while running. I’m not certain if this will be helpful, as the usage of the chi while running is mostly in the legs, and the Small Circulation is all upper body. But the chi circulation path that goes through the top of the mouth and through the tongue is key. I will at least concentrate on that part.


I’ll continue updating as the training goes, and would, as always, appreciate any comments, advice and support. The first week’s training post can be viewed here.

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1 Response

  1. Terry says:

    “Certifiable” indeed, but certainly a worthy the challenege! Looking forward to the chronicles of your progress as I will indeed be living vicariously through your experience. Enjoy the journey and Godspeed!

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