“Sir, are you feeling OK? I think you should sit down,” a man in the medical building said, ushering me to a nearby chair.
Oh yes, I was good. Very, very good. The Pikes Peak Ascent was done, and it went far better than I’d expected.
A few minutes later, after the man plugged my nose with a hose that pumped bottled oxygen into my lungs, I was even better. My heart rate slowed, the room stopped spinning and my thoughts cleared.
“I did it … 3:57 … holy cow,” I thought. Four months of training paid off.
Hot days, long months
Back in March, shortly after running my first half marathon, I began searching for a bigger race to train for. I’d never traveled for a race, and my summer vacation budget was almost nonexistent, so I started scouting out reasonable options. A few friends had run Pikes Peak before. Plus, it met my love of the mountains and high-altitude thrills.
I signed up, and on March 31 my name appeared on the official list of entrants for the Pikes Peak Ascent — 13.32 miles and 7,815 feet of elevation gain to the summit at 14,115 feet.
In the four and a half months that followed, I undertook a training regimen more grueling than anything I’ve done since high school, pounding out mileage five days a week, strength training and sticking to a healthy diet. I peeled off about 15 pounds in the process.
I also relied on the knowledge of many of my fellow runners — and that made a world of difference. Sarah Henning, Colinda Thompson and Danny Miller all shared tips from their experiences on Pikes. Matty Mullins — a regular training partner — is a multi-time Pikes Peak finisher, and he shared knowledge of the mountain while also showing me how to train. In addition, Matty and Brian Brooks taught me to love hill running. At first they talked me into running Ogg Road hill repeats with them, and eventually I made it a part of my routine on solo days as well.
On multiple occasions I scheduled “Ogg Mondays” to do six miles of solo hill repeats, and oftentimes as I’d be heading up the backside of the hill, Matty would come flying over the top and down as part of his preparation for the Pikes Peak Marathon.
We had as hot a summer in Kansas City as I can remember, but I never let it keep me indoors. If it was 100 degrees, I was on the trails or pounding out hill repeats. When it was 111 degrees in early August, I ran with Coleen Voeks, Deb Johnson and Laurie Euler.
We had rain in the days leading up to departure, and on those mornings and evenings I slogged through the drizzle to pick up a few more miles.
When I boarded my flight for Colorado on Thursday, Aug. 18, I felt confident that I’d done all I could to prepare.
Upon landing in Colorado, I headed to Leadville to have lunch with Laurie. She was running the Leadville Trail 100 the same weekend (She finished, by the way, and did awesome!), and I was eager to hear how she was feeling in anticipation of her race. Plus, I was excited to see famous Leadville for the first time.
We grabbed lunch at the Tennessee Café, walked the main strip and grabbed coffee at Provin’ Grounds before I headed back to Manitou Springs.
The three hours in Leadville provided good acclimatization time above 10,000 feet and likely paid dividends two days later.
As I neared the hotel, I received a call from Shelley. She and Kelly were headed to Leadville to crew for Brooks Williams and looking for a place to crash. I had a spare bed in my room, and the sight of a few more friends from home was very welcome. They departed early Friday morning for Leadville, and shortly after we had breakfast I headed to packet pickup and ran into Rick Troeh from Kansas City. He was there to do the double (Ascent and Marathon). Later that afternoon, Matty arrived, adding to the slew of friendly faces from home that kept me company and helped settle my anxiety.
I ended up having short but good nights of sleep both Thursday and Friday, and that definitely paid off Saturday.
Bring on the mountain
I set my alarm for 5:45 a.m., but was wide awake well before then. I felt well rested and ready to go. I met up with the Mullins crew in front of the hotel about 7 a.m., and we made the six-block walk to the starting line, dropped off bags of warm clothes to be transported to the summit, and then snapped a ton of photos.
Finally it was time to go.
I found a spot close to the front of the pack, just behind the runners who looked like they would sprint at the start. I made sure to stay near the side of the crowd so I could avoid being boxed in if I needed to pass.
On your marks … set … GO!
From the starting line in front of Manitou Springs City Hall (6,300 feet), we headed up Manitou Ave., turned left on Ruxton Ave., and up past the Cog Railway Depot to Hydro Street. At that point — 1.45 miles into the race — we reached Barr Trail and headed onto the narrow dirt trail. My legs were burning a bit because of the constant uphill, but I was feeling good. The pace I’d determined on Thursday for the early part of the race paid off. I’d avoided a logjam at the trailhead, and I hadn’t gone too fast.
The next 2.7 miles were steep. We gained about 1,900 feet during that span to No Name Creek. I focused on the race strategy suggested by Pikes Peak legend Matt Carpenter to give a consistent effort throughout, regardless of your pace. “Run when you can; walk when you must; never stop moving,” I told myself.
Passing wasn’t too difficult, and I quickly found a few other runners who had a similar pace to mine. I fell in line with them and hit a comfortable rhythm power-walking the steepest areas and running the rest of it. Each aid station came quickly.
Ruxton Creek (1.65 miles): 19:30.
Incline (2.8 miles): 40:00.
No Name Creek (4.3 miles): 1:05.
A third of the way in, I was well ahead of pace for a five-hour finish. I felt good, though, and continued to cruise at a comfortable clip.
The next mile to Bob’s Road included 550 feet of elevation gain to 9,350, and I rolled through in 18 minutes, reaching the 5.3-mile aid station in 1:23.
From there, it was 2.3 miles and 850 feet of gain to Barr Camp. Most of that stretch was runnable, and I picked up the pace. Just 31 minutes later I reached Barr Camp at 10,200 feet in 1:54. More than half way home, the possibility of a sub-four finish entered my mind.
Less than a half-mile out of Barr Camp, my hydrapack went dry. I had another two miles to reach the A-Frame aid station, I was well above 11,000 feet, and I had no water. Fortunately most of this section was steep and I was forced to power walk a good portion of it. It cost me some time, but the walking helped me avoid sustaining leg cramps until I reached A-Frame and was able to refill my hydrapack with Gatorade.
The 30-second stop to refill was the only time my forward momentum stopped during the race, but it was a necessary step to give me fuel for the rest of the race — and also so I could wash down two S-caps.
With a full hydrapack, I left A-Frame (10.2 miles; 11,950 feet) in 2:42 and prepared for the grueling push above tree line.
It was 1.7 miles to the Cirque aid station. The whole section from A-Frame to Cirque was exposed to the sun, and it included 1,350 feet of elevation gain. Most of it was steep enough that power-walking was necessary — although there were a few runnable areas. I ran whenever possible, passing numerous runners who’d started in the first flight. It took 47 minutes to reach Cirque. By then, the summit was in sight and dozens of runners were doing a zombie walk up the trail or sitting on rocks with their heads in their hands.
I was lucky. Altitude has never been much of a problem for me. Breathing was tougher at 13,300 feet, but my head and stomach felt fine. I started passing more people and picking up the pace as much as possible. I passed through Cirque in 3:29.
I wanted a sub-four-hour finish.
Passing became harder as the path narrowed and grew significantly rockier. Dizzy and dazed runners crushed by the altitude weaved and wobbled up the trail. Those with minds clear enough allowed me to pass. A few wouldn’t move and turned down offers for assistance. Long switchbacks made this portion even more mind-numbing, but finally a smiling aid worker sitting on a rock said, “Welcome to the Golden Stairs! You’re almost done!”
Ah yes, the 16 Golden Stairs — 32 short, steep, rocky switchback step-ups to the finish line. These are supposed to be the final spear through the soul before finishing. They bring many runners to a standstill and make the oh-so-close finish line appear so far away.
I glanced at my watch, saw it read 3:52, and kicked it in gear up the first step. What felt like a sprint was probably more of a steady jog, but I charged up the stairs as quickly as possible, turning the corner on each switchback and bolting toward the next one. Glance at my watch: 3:54. Up a few more stairs. Another glance: 3: 56. I heard the announcer at the finish line call out my bib number, my name and hometown as I entered the second-to-last switchback. One final turn, a few more steps and I crossed the finish line.
One of the volunteers congratulated me. Another draped a medal around my neck. A lady with a camera snapped my picture.
I stumbled around gasping for air, choking up as the mix of shock and thin air combined to having a truly dizzying effect. I wobbled over and claimed my bag of warm clothes and then stumbled toward the medical building where a man took me by the arm and led me to a chair before hooking me up to a tank of oxygen.
For 10 minutes I sat with cool oxygen pumping through my nostrils and into my lungs. For 10 minutes I didn’t stop smiling. Four months of training paid off. The race went so much better than I’d imagined. What a trip.