Race Report: Pikes Peak Ascent 2015 (better late than never)
This race report for the 2015 Pikes Peak Ascent is late. The race was August 15…of 2015. Since then we’ve driven back from Denver, fixed a leak in the ceiling and recovered. Almost a year has passed, and the race is coming up again. I’ve had a hard time writing about this race, or survival encounter, or run in with my own mortality…whatever flowery words we could wrap it in. But with the 2016 version of the race happening in a few days, I have hope that these notes will help others prepare.
It was the most beautiful and challenging race I’ve ever run. I heard from racers who have run the Ascent multiple times that we were extremely luck with the weather. I have no doubt it would be even more challenging in bad weather.
TL,DR: I finished in about 4:30. My goal was 4 hours, with a stretch goal of 3:30 – those goals vanished quickly. The last mile took forever as I could not catch my breath. My lovely wife was waiting for me at the top, and her yelling my name was the only thing that got me across the line. I could call it the slowest half-marathon I’ve ever run…or the fastest I’ve ever run up a 14-er.
I finished it. And yes, I’d do it again. The picture below (taken by my wife), even as I was gasping like a fish for air, says it all. It was an amazing beautiful course, on a fantastic day. I doubt my stopping occasionally and playing awed tourist with my phone camera affected my time much. But the trail and the weather offered a unique perspective on the scenery, whether it was looking up a Pikes Peak, looking down on the trail just traveled, or spotting a lake off in the distance.
Description: The Pikes Peak Ascent is a half-marathon (13.32 miles) from Manitou Springs up to the top of Pikes Peak. Except for the first part on roads through the city of Manitou Springs, the race is on Barr Trail.
Elevation gain (start to summit) is at 7,815′ (2,382m); the start is at 6,300′ (1,920m) and the summit is 14,115′ (4,302m). The average grade is 11%.
It has been described as the toughest half-marathon in the world. After running it, I do not disagree.
Training: I’ve been following Hanson’s Half-Marathon training program, and as time allows jumping the mileage up to those described in the Hanson Full-Marathon training program. I used the Hanson Half-Marathon training program before, most recently to achieve a PR in the December 2014 San Antonio half marathon. It appears that the only differences in the training program are longer Sunday easy runs and longer Thursday tempo runs.
For those readers that I do not know, to level set: at race time I was 53 years old. My half marathon PR is 1:47. I am a “flatlander”, so much of my training (the first 12 weeks of the 18 week Hanson program) was done in Houston in very high humidity, very high temps and almost no altitude. I temporarily relocated to Denver around the 4th of July, to get a bit more used to the altitude. I’ve had ACL replacement in the right knee and have a bit of arthritis in my left knee (or so my ortho keeps trying to tell me) but have mitigated that by changing to Newtons and changing my gait to a short, choppy one with much more mid-foot than the heel-toe I was doing in my mis-spent youth. I sometimes run with a knee brace; sometimes this is to help the arthritis, sometimes it is to help with my imagination.
With the Hanson program as a my guide, my training was 153 miles in May, 165 miles in June. Though pace didn’t really matter in this race, my target pace for training was the same as my half-marathon PR (an 8:15 pace).
Upon arriving at higher altitudes, as instructed by several more experiences runners, I reduced the mileage for the first week to let me body adjust to the higher altitude. I did feel out of breath at the first, but dehydration was more of a problem. After the first week it was not an issue. But I did apparently aggravate my left knee, either from running speed runs the 2nd week in Denver or trying to keep up with my wife in yoga (pigeon pose? really?). After that, the knee brace was a constant companion. I backed it off a bit, and did only 136 miles in July, and wound down to 50 miles in the 14 days before the race.
Pre-Race: We indulged in the night-before-pasta dinner while picking up the packet, and heard a large portion of the Peak Busters program. The Peak Busters is a female race organization which includes the first lady to run a marathon, Arlene Pieper (it was the Pikes Peak Marathon) and Sister
We were a bit concerned about parking, as we doubted we could use the street side parking that we did for the Barr Trail Race. We opted for the “middle and senior high school” parking, which was a bit of a cluster to get into (a single lane in and out). But we were one of the last ones in, and it was easy for my wife to find for the drive up to the summit to rescue me.
Race: Unlike the Barr Trail Mountain race, the Ascent (this year, anyway) had a wave start, with about 100 runners starting every minute. My wave started promptly at 7:09am, on a nice sunny day with slightly warmer than expected temps. There was rain in the forecast for the afternoon, but no worries about weather at the top, other than the usual “weather can change on the Peak in a minute” warnings.
Also unlike the Barr Trail race, the Ascent (and the Marathon the following day) starts on the streets in downtown Manitou Springs, running along Manitou Avenue and Ruxton Avenue, joining Barr Trail about 1.6 miles in.
For a very detailed description of the course, see this article on the SkyRunner website.
Manitou Springs to Barr Camp – Barr Trail Mountain Race redux: The run through Manitou Springs was a nice warm-up, with lots of supporters (including my lovely wife) and everyone was in high spirits. In spite of the time I spent in Denver, the higher altitude had me breathing pretty heavily right away. But that happened during the Barr Trail race as well, so I wasn’t worried.
The road steepens quite a bit at the Cog Railway station and as I did on the Barr Trail race, I made sure not to tire by controlling the adrenaline. There were several who sprinted up the hill; these were the folks who knew what was coming and did not want to get to far behind in the single file track line going up the steps. See the photo at right to see what I mean.
Just like with the Barr Trail Mountain race, we did a “fast hike” pace rather than a run, due to the crowd of people. I found out very quickly that this was the norm for this race; there were several spots, especially on the switchbacks where you cannot pass and it is a steep climb. Therefore you either save you strength and just follow in line, or try to pass. I did a bit of both as we went through the “W”s, the 13 or so switchbacks as you climb up the trail. My tracker told me I was doing this about a minute per mile slower than the last race (doing 17-19 minutes, as opposed to a 16-18 minute pace before).
I won’t repeat a lot of the description I did from the Barr Trail Mountain Race (link). The flat part before Barr Camp was again very much welcomed, and the fast hike turned into a jog again. Then we carefully passed the wet rocks part at entered the aid station at Barr Camp.
I cannot emphasize enough how much running the Barr Trail Mountain run several weeks before this race helped. Folks local to Colorado Springs get to run the Incline or the Barr Trail frequently, but I never had. The Barr Trail Mountain race prepared me, at least for the first half. It was on the same trail, so it was familiar the second time around.
Not that it was any easier…in the Barr Trail Mountain Race, I reached Barr Camp in 1:42:47. This time I hit Barr Camp at 2:05:45. Granted the Ascent does start 1.6 miles earlier in Manitou Spring; but 23 minutes difference tells me I was taking it slow, as I meant to. There was a lot of race left.
To say this was “tough” would be putting it mildly. The elevation gain is about 2,150 feet to No-Name Creek, for a grade of about 13%. There were definitely parts where the voices in my head said I would not make it. But the mantra on this race is “Keep on Moving” so we did.
Barr Camp to the summit – Everything after Barr Camp was new to me. I’d never been on that trail. And, in spite of the “workout”, it was spectacular. Near the top, as you can see from some of the pictures below, it would be hard to describe the rocky masses above the tree line as beautiful. Yet it was.
Running from Barr Camp toward the point of interest called the Bottomless Pit, the trail goes through forest, similar to the flat part before Barr Camp but steeper. I had spied a young lady at the starting line that had some of the most muscular legs I have seen on any human being. At about this point in the race, she “road-killed” me, going by at a steady pace while offering piggy back rides to some of her friends who were encouraging her. I *almost* took her up on it.
There are a lot more exposed tree roots and step-up rocks on this part of the trail. I didn’t take a tumble as I did on the way down in the Barr Mountain Trail race. But I did stub my toes a time or two.
As one would expect, there are more switchbacks here, before you get above the tree line. The photo to the right shows one of the cooler turns, right underneath some huge boulders.
During one of these switchbacks, we could hear the folks at the top cheering. I turned to the runners next to me and said “That must be the winner finishing. We might as well break out the beer and just rest for a while, since we have no chance to win.” That started an entire conversation speculating who won…which is somewhat difficult to do while you are gasping for air (we were probably around 11,000 feet at that point). Like many, I was assuming local favorite Andy Wacker had won (as I mention in my Barr Trail post, he did some amazing running while starting late on the Barr Trail race). As it turns out, a gent from the Japanese army who was apparently still jet lagged won in a time of 2:15:42, beating Andy by about 3 minutes. It is humbling to know that these two ran up this mountain in half the time it took me.
According to the splits, I was doing about about an hour between each of the major milestones (start to No-Name, No-Name to Barr, Barr to A-Frame). Then, it got a bit more difficult.
Emerging from the tree line is an other-worldly experience. The trail had gone around a couple of turns where you could glimpse the summit…or at least think that you could as it was off in the distance. But now, with no foliage in the way, you could see that snaking trail of runners stretching out ahead and behind…if you dared to look up from the trail long enough. And the perspective is off – or maybe it was delirium – because it seemed like everything looked closer.
There’s only three miles to go at this point, and the trail is about 12,000 feet elevation. And, at least for me (and it seemed like several others around me) the race turned into a slog. JAM – Just Always Move – was what the voices in my head were telling me. And so, for a certain part of this length of trail, was a fellow runner. He was verbally egging himself on, telling himself to keep going, reminding himself of his training. It could have all been in my head, but at this point, I just wanted to be alone with my own voices. So I pressed on past him.
I did get a bit dizzy. Whether it was from the altitude or from improper eating on the way up, I may never know. I did hit every aid station, and I had gels with me which I ate at regular intervals. My brother and I have speculated that I may have had some low blood sugar – I tried to eat the sugary stuff they had at the aid stations (I think they were Skittles) but they just didn’t go down well. Next long run, it is definitely time to look into Tailwind Nutrition or something like that.
But I have no doubt that, even with spending as much time before the race in the Denver area as I did, the altitude was absolutely affecting me. A couple of the runners I talked to on the way up were always amazed when they heard where I was from, living right near sea level. I assumed, as I had read, that acclimation would happen in 2-3 weeks. But running at 6,000 feet doesn’t acclimate you for slogging at 12,000 feet.
My wife and I determined why the racer bibs are different in this race. The runner’s first name is displayed prominently. At this point on the trail, there were a lot more volunteers, many of them medical staff monitoring the runners. I must have had a more dazed than usual look in my eye, as I had several look at my bib and say “Larry, you okay?” I can’t say enough about these volunteers, and their genuine concern for the runners safety. I thanked as many of them as I could on the way up.
I feel I should describe this part of the race more, but it really is just an amazing number of switchbacks. Most of the trail is the kind of crushed gravel that you see in the pictures above, until it gets to the rocks.
Just when you are thoroughly exhausted…you get to the 16 Golden Stairs. I’m not sure who applied that label, or who put them in the way of a nice trail. But they are certainly not stairs, unless you are Hakeem Olajuwon. These are large rocks that runners (or, at this point, sloggers) have to crawl over. Supposedly some of the earlier finishers were running over these; more power to them. I ran a bit on the flat places, just because I could hear the crowds and assumed somewhere around the next switchback I would be done. There were a lot of switchbacks remaining.
I passed a signed that was cheering on “Uncle Larry.” I knew my nieces and nephews hadn’t put it there, but I was going to take any motivation that I could at this point. I heard my wife’s voice, and knew I was either close to the finish line or hallucinating again. I didn’t want to look up to find her, for fear of falling on my face (not the way I’d want to make the local news). The announcer called out my name as I passed over the timing mat, and someone on the medical staff asked me, again, if I was okay…then moved me out of the way when they saw that I was still able to walk.
My wife told me that she’d forgotten my bib number, and was worried about me, since I had forecasted a much earlier finishing time. She said they were calling off the bib numbers of people who had pulled out of the race or who had been hurt…but not saying their names.
There was no way I wan’t going to finish.
My line for the race: 4:34:31 was my time. 766th out of 1697 finishers. 69th out of 147 in my age group finishers. I could call it the slowest half-marathon I’ve ever run…or the fastest I’ve ever run up a 14-er. My elevation and pace chart is included below for your viewing pleasure.
Nutrition: I alternated water and gatorade in the bottle I carried with me. I had four Gu gels with me, and went through them at scheduled intervals. The aid stations were well stocked, and I ate grapes and salty snacks. And, as I said above, I tried to eat the sugary crap, but it just wasn’t happening. Next time I do a run this long, I’m trying Tailwind.
Afterwards: I lived. And then, my wife the race car driver sped down the Pikes Peak road, trying to kill me. We had some well-deserved beer at the after-party, got the incredibly nice warm up jacket (with thumb holes no less) that finishers get…then made the long drive back to Denver.
As a side note: I was content to crash, my wife wanted to go down and get her nails done. She called me and said I should come on down and let them fix the nails that I shredded today and from the last race. I told her that was a bad idea, but the ladies there insisted. While the warm foot bath was quite nice, the girl who was doing my nails almost fainted when she saw my feet…and then she valiantly soldiered on, even getting a bandaid when one of my blisters burst. The day ended with lots of Indian food, and thoughts on whether I could do it again…or maybe try the entire marathon!