Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Pikes Peak Ascent - Race Report

Earlier this summer, a friend and running buddy of mine convinced me to sign up for the Pikes Peak Ascent.  It was something neither of us had ever done and this seemed like the year to do it. Even with a lengthy resume of trail racing and assorted agony-adventures, racing up Pikes Peak seemed an intimidating venture.  Intimidating and very painful.  I would be wrong of course, a day in the hills is better than a lot of things even when it includes large stretches of climbing. This sentiment is born out by the stampede of registrants each year that rush to claim their spot on the starting line months in advance for the weekend's two races.
'Before' photo
We had logged a ton of miles earlier in the year and for that reason we were running Pikes, and when confronted at future cocktail parties and/or dirtbag barbecues as to whether we'd run this area test-piece we could now answer with a, 'damn straight' and leave it at that. Well, the race went better than planned and the following is recap of how it all went down.

When August rolled around we found a dog friendly hotel in the Springs (the La Quinta), and made the drive north. The next morning we made our way into Manitou Springs and found the general race registration area and starting line.  The place was congested and chaotic - a couple thousand serious looking runners, ourselves included, clutching Cliff bars and water bottles as if that alone were the secret to lift oneself into the heavens.  We pulled the car up as close as possible, Christina snapped a 'before' photo, and the wives drove off for some breakfast before meeting us later at the summit.

I looked around for any NM faces that might be familiar.  I heard the announcers say something about the Maas family, that they were running three generations strong that morning with Fred, Dan, and Dan's kid.  Brendan Maas was also in the race as were Matt Scarborough and Chris Chavez.  Chris has a sizable twenty-or-so year streak going, including running the double - both the Saturday Ascent and the Sunday Marathon - for the last nine of those years.  An impressive feat even among this not-so-easily impressed pack of runners. 

Boots and I discussed our relative fitness, whether we had a chance of besting any names, and whether we'd blow ourselves up spectacularly before tree-line - the last outcome seeming the most probable.  My goals were to dominate folks from lesser states (like Texas), and to not blow-up.  We had determined that 3hrs would be a good finishing time, so that would be an additional goal.  My strengths as an athlete are suffering, and motoring along at altitude - so I felt the race could go well if I could hold it together after the two-hour mark.  All of this is a familiar strategy of lies that athletes tell themselves before racing out into the unknown.
The start, heading west and up - photo by: PikesPeakSports.us
The starters sent us off and we moved together through the village of Manitou along with about eighteen-hundred other runners/climbers/suffer-bunnies at a controlled pace.  A large number of the runners we were moving with were sporting tattoos, shaved legs, waist-belts filled with energy gels and multiple water bottles, full camelbaks for some, arm-warmers with skulls and crossbones - I wasn't sure what to make of all that.  Boots was sporting basketball shorts because he enjoys destroying inflated egos when he goes by people, the guy is all business and a cold black heart. I wore a Running Hub hat and a NM race shirt so people around me would know what's up, New Mexico in the house people!  Boots and I chatted it up for the first mile plus, after which the grade of the road kicked up to an uncomfortable angle and the chatting abruptly stopped.
A couple minutes from the top
Miles two and three were unpleasant.  It turns out they were the steepest of the course, and maybe the most difficult aside from the last mile but we did not know this. Alarms went off and doubt crept in.  I had a sickening realization that this morning's misery might be several orders of magnitude worse than had been planned for.  Dozens of runners began to move backwards and we powered past large groups of them on the switchback corners.  Our position was improving after a relaxed start but I was more or less red-lining it through this section and wasn't going to hold out for too long.  After grinding for some length we passed a group of spectators blasting the Rocky theme song from their radio. Save me Rock! Save me Mother Mary and baby Jesus! The trail grade began to ease up just then and the flashing panic sign in my mind faded back. Eh, that part was not so cool. So more of that to come probably, but for the time being I started to make pace.

Boots and I were separated at this point, so I'd jump on the shoulder of just about anyone that came past me.  Working with a couple young guys we rolled past half a dozen runners, and then at mile six or so one of the guys I was with just blew up and they were both gone as if they'd jumped off the mountain.  Holy smokes, we were barely an hour in fellas. What gives? More than like there's some of that for me up ahead. We'll just ignore that for as long as possible.  

Sponsor's shot, The Running Hub
I felt comfortable in these middle miles and tried to get a sense of where I was on the course.  Was I through the W's?  Was the A-Frame at mile nine or ten?  It all just looked like a mountain trail to me.  I knocked out a couple 9min.plus miles in there and then miles nine and ten brought the pain once again.  I felt I was finally beginning to slow up and move backwards but I would catch a runner here, then a runner there. I seem to be moving fine so the trail was likely just getting steeper.  Nobody had run up from behind since my young pacers had walked-the-plank. At mile ten I could actually hear the finishing line announcer monotone-ing away about the lead guys coming up the trail near the summit.  I had 3mi of trail and at least forty-five minutes of effort ahead of me yet I was listening to a play-by-play of the finish a few thousand feet up the hill. This sounds kind of neat, but it was an indicator of how steep the next few miles would be so it kind of put me into a pain trance. 

I passed a Slovenian runner here who was cutting switchbacks like a mother. Could tell he was Slovenian by the 'Slovenia' on the back of his jersey. My man cut the trail so severely on one turn he moved ahead of me and I had to weave past him for a second time.  I laughed and asked 'whassup Slovenia?', and he answered back 'alright!' like Fonzie.  Ok dude, might want to stick to the trail.  Guy was trying to shark my finishing M&M's or victory beer or something.  I'm not ok with that.

Soon after, we had reached tree-line and the finish seemed really close.  My legs kept churning away and guys kept coming into view and passing out the back.  I passed a few women with national jerseys - USA! USA! That's right. Around mile twelve I passed a kazoo-band playing Coming Around the Mountain.  I felt better than I had all morning and continued to press.  Feeling great at 13,000 ft. meant surging and digging to bank a 15min. mile split.  Lots of legs and arms, not so much forward speed.  

Jackal smile in the finishers' chute
The final mile was grueling.  The altitude couldn't be ignored at this point and I tottered and lost my balance on a couple of switchbacks from dizziness.  The trail was narrow up top so you could reach out and stabilize yourself on the nearest boulder.  I passed three more runners in this last mile and these guys were suffering badly.  I felt guilty going by them and muttered some pathetic stuff like, 'looking strong man!'.  Dumb.  Rocky would've shaken his head disapprovingly at such foolishness.  I was pushing hard to bring it in under 3hrs, so I was jacked to come around the final switchback and see the clock at 2:52.  I know I could've just looked at my watch, but that really wasn't a good idea. Time is not your friend in those last couple miles. I raced through the final stretch all wild-eyed and crazy looking - happy to be done, and happy to have somehow dodged a prolonged detour of deep pain and misery. Too funny. Thankfully, Christina wasn't there to see this lack of stoicism.  Our support crew had to park a 45min hike from the summit and I made it up there first, even with an 18min final mile.  Boots wasn't too far behind, but the guy had had a bad day and blew-up down trail. Way too much work getting up that slag-heap to have to settle for a poor result.  He was not happy until we got a beer in his hand.

My crappy sand-bagging attitude from the previous week had given way to serenity as I shared the details of my morning with Christina.  I was told they'd seen a marmot on their hike up and Lucy had given it hell.  Good dog, those furry rats need to recognize.  Boots and I exchanged war stories. We waited for Brendan and Chris to climb the switchbacks and cross the line, and we rang our cowbell and made a racket much louder than the other runners were receiving.  We checked the time sheets and saw that Americans had won both races (touche my Slovenian friend), that the 56yr old age-group legend Ed Baxter had crushed me by several minutes, that I just barely made it into the top 50 overall, and that the trail-cutting Slovenian had somehow finished just behind me which was actually a little shocking.  
Self devastation much less than a typical marathon-length race
Later we walked off the back of the mountain back down to our car.  I met Bart Yasso at the after-party, introduced myself and shook his hand (Yasso 800s for the win suckas!).  Bart was pitching his new book, but we were more interested in food and beer right then. We tried in vain to get ourselves more than one slice of pizza but the pizza ladies were stern and un-yielding.

The following day Chris and Luis Chavez ran solid marathon legs as the only northern NM representatives in the race.  Well done gentlemen.  I don't know how people race the marathon distance without hurting themselves on the descent, so that's a race I doubt I'll ever run.  I know back in the day, Jemez' Steve Gachupin used to own that race. Los Alamos' Lynn Bjorkland still holds the women's marathon record. I actually got to meet Coach Gachupin this fall at a local cross-country meet and he told me he was at Pike's this year as a dignitary, handing out awards, and giving interviews. Steve was great so we wrote him into a page of New Mexico trail running all-stars and past champions.

The Ascent lived up to its highly rated reputation, at least in good weather.  The race organization and after- party were first rate.  I don't know if the trail itself can be compared with La Luz or Imogene or Big Tesuque - they're all fantastic trails in their own way.  My descriptions above not withstanding, the morning was not as difficult as I had imagined 3hrs of climbing to be.  I may have just had a big day.      


  1. Good job bro and good write up. I kind of feel a little wimply now complaining about the 3 - 5 degree 13 mile hill in Athens. Rocky would be proud.

  2. Beefcake little bro. BEEFCAKE!! No seriously, I don't know how I coax my body into doing these things. Well, actually I do - it's because the beer tastes a whole lot better when you're done. A very noble goal.



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