Thursday, August 20, 2009

Pikes Peak Ascent Race Report

I showed up at the race packet/bib pick-up around 5:45 Saturday morning in Memorial Park near downtown Manitou Springs, Colorado. I spent the night at a friends place in north Colorado Springs, so I had a short 20 minute drive to Manitou. After showing my ID and receiving my bib number (#281), I stuck out my wrist so the volunteer behind the check-in table could stick a blue band around my wrist, signifying that I was, indeed, an official registrant for Wave 1 of the 2009 Pikes Peak Ascent.

To get the blue band on, I realized I had to push up the white and orange band already on my wrist, where the admissions clerk at Children's Hospital had put it about 20 hours earlier. The hospital band had my son's name on it and served as proof that I was one of his parents and entitled to wander around his hospital room's floor at will. He and my wife were still at Children's. They spent the night there following Jack's tonsillectomy and adenoidectomy Friday afternoon.

I wandered around the race start area contemplating important stuff. How many gels should I carry? Should I carry a hand bottle? Should I bring a long-sleeve shirt in anticipation of colder temperatures above 11,000 feet (race director said it was windy and 40 degrees on the summit that morning...and last year's wind, rain and snow were never far from my mind)?

Decisions soon were made. I decided to run with a hand bottle, half filled with water, and three gels. I was going to gamble that the weather would hold and I would survive in just a short-sleeved tech shirt. Warm clothes were included in my sweat check bag and tossed in a van for transport to the summit, 8,000 feet above where I stood and 13.32 miles away.

At last, it was time to line up. Runners gathered beneath the banner spread across Mantiou's main drag. The announcer gave us last minute info and the traditional singing of "America the Beautiful," a song based on a poem by Katherine Lee Bates who reportedly was inspired by the beauty she encountered on a trip up Pikes Peak, commenced. Soon, the gun cracked and the runners were off.

My goal this year was to break three hours for the Ascent. I'd run the race twice before, in 2007 and 2008. My best time was 3:23 in 2007. In 2008 I ran with a torn muscle in my chest, which made every deep breath painful. I finished slower than 2007 in 3:27.

I'd been training more consistently and at a higher volume than in years past and felt ready to have a go at 3 hours. I had written down the splits (from MC's pace calculator) I'd need to hit in order to break three hours, but managed to leave the note card in my car. I was going to have to wing it.

I felt great as we made the turn onto Ruxton Avenue and then up Hydro Street. My plan was to run through the Ws, the initial set of switchbacks and the steepest part of the race course and keep up a steady, but measured pace to Barr Camp. The only split I remembered was the Top of the Ws. I'd need to get there in 36:11 to be on pace. I hit that split in 33:XX.

Soon after leaving the Ws, I was passed by Jim M., who was running strong and looked, at least from behind, like he was out for blood. As JM ran away, I focused on keeping that steady pace. So far, so good. I made it through the Rock Arch, past No Name Creek and through a nice stand of aspens and the switchbacks that follow - a place I had speed hiked in previous races.

The section between No Name Creek and Barr Camp has several downhill and relatively flat stretches that gives one a good opportunity to get the leg turn-over going. After the nice (but too short) downhills and a few flat sections, I soon was approaching Barr Camp.

About the time I saw the first Barr Camp sign I was feeling the first real twinges of fatigue in my legs. It wasn't the fatigue of "I just ran a short steep section," but more of the "You are burning the candle at both've been warned!"

I ran through the Barr Camp aid station, holding out my opened hand bottle for refilling. Not too far out of Barr, around seven miles into the race, the pre-Barr warning became a full-on alert. I remember seeing the seven mile sign and thinking seven really hard miles is about the distance of the Bergen Peak time trials I had been running all summer in Evergreen. And, I still had five miles to go!

The 2.6 mile section from Barr Camp to the A-Frame, a small camping shelter tucked into the last trees before treeline, is my least favorite section. The switchbacks are long and rocky, with step-up after step-up. The fatigue set in here and I was reduced to hiking through most of this section.

At last, I hit the A-Frame. From here, it's just over three miles to the summit. I knew well what to expect from these three miles. The altitude is, of course, a major factor, but there are many sections here that are very runnable. Fortunately, this year the weather was cooperating. The sun was out and the temperature was perfect. Here I switched from speed hiking to alternating between survival hiking and jogging the flatter sections without step-ups. I remembered that there were signs in this section: 3 to go; 2 to go; 1 to go. I hit my watch at each to see what my mile splits would be through this section. They ended up being 17:59, 16:28 and 18:41.

Through those three miles I was in survival mode. I'd figured my three hour goal was out of reach...I was thinking it was way out of reach. I had lost track of time, frustrated by the slow going from Barr to the A-Frame. I decided to just gut it out and get the best time I could.

At one of the last switchbacks before the 16 Golden Stairs, I watched as the runner before reached out and accepted an offer of a pre-summit plastic cup of Pabst Blue Ribbon. To my great surprise and sincere appreciation, he downed it as he ran. I remember wondering why someone would bother offering runners that close to the summit Pabst. After 7,250 feet of elevation gain, haven't we earned something a little more special? (Note: According to Shad, the high altitude bartender was Brownie, a runner/blogger from Colorado Springs.)

I managed to pass a few runners in the approach to the 16 Golden Stairs. Just before the stairs (actually a series of 32 short switchbacks...every two switchbacks = a stair), a spectator yelled out, "Just five minutes to the top!!" For some reason, that energized me and a started climbing as fast as I could, pausing after the especially high step-ups to settle down the heart rate. I powered through this section pretty well, running the flattish sections at the top and made a final push to get under the finish line banner looking, if not feeling, strong. I crossed the line in 3:06:35.

I was a little surprised by the time. I thought I had lost more time as a result of all the speed hiking after Barr Camp. Six minutes! I saw JM at the top just after a volunteer hung a finishers' medal around my neck. He asked if I was happy with my time. A lot of emotions flashed through my mind in about three seconds. My initial reaction there on the summit, and today, is that I was and am happy with that time. Despite not meeting my three hour goal, I knocked 17 or so minutes off my 2007 time. I had a lot of great mountain runs training this winter, spring and summer. I had a great time that morning running up the mountain. I felt breathless, but good. Solid. Happy. My next thought, though, was, "I can find six minutes somewhere on the Barr Trail. I'll get it next year."

JM crushed his previous Ascent times with a 2:53 personal record. A really impressive race! He was already looking ahead to running the Pikes Peak Marathon the next morning - 13 miles up and 13 miles down. Read his Ascent and Marathon race reports.

After hitting the feeding trough and loading up on Gatorade and assorted sweets and salty snacks, JM and I headed back down below the finish line to cheer on the runners as they made the last push to the 14,115-foot summit.

Following an uneventful van and bus ride back down to Manitou I walked over to the race pavilion area and checked the results, eager to know who won. (See results here.) As I scanned down to my name, I learned I finished 73rd (out of just over 1,600 runners) and I was an age-group award winner. I figured that had to be an error. I checked in with a couple of race volunteers and learned that I had, indeed, placed in my age group. Turns out, my time was good enough for fourth place in the 40-44 age group. Major caveat here, though. I was fourth in my age group after the overall and masters winners were taken out. You can only win in one category in the Pikes Peak races. Still, I was thrilled to be an award winner.

After calling my wife, Jeanine, to fill her in on how things went (and that I needed to stick around another four hours for the awards ceremony), I loaded up on free food, showered at the local municipal pool, laid in the shade and read and wandered around downtown Manitou Springs.

Turned out that the age group placing earned me a nice little trophy, complete with a wooden cut-out of Pikes Peak, a small plaque and a small rock in the foreground. I was elated to be heading out of town as an award winner...even with the caveat.

Once in my car, which was parked on Mantiou's main street facing Pikes Peak with a full windshield view of the summit, I put
my hands on the steering wheel and glanced at the orange and white hospital admissions bracelet and blue Ascent bracelet still on my wrist. With a feeling of accomplishment and a gnawing desire to get home and check on my recovering kid, I hit the road.

I love that race.

Ascent photo credits: Bethany Garner & Eden Davis - the Incline Club (Thanks!)


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  2. Good work there sir! I was at the firehouse all weekend doing medical for Manitou Fire up and down the trail. That is an awesome time. By the way the guy with the PBR just before the top was my buddy JT,, he only drinks that piss water. Moving to Boulder on Sunday right by NCAR so hopefully we can run again soon.


  3. A 17 minute PR! Awesome!!! Congrats.