Sunday, July 20, 2014

Dave's Road to Pike's Peak: The Scream (and The Cry)

Some of us have one race that we just run over and over (and mostly in our heads). I prefer to move on to new challenges once I've conquered the older ones.

This season's challenge is to run the Pike's Peak Marathon. It's an incredibly compelling challenge to climb 7,800 feet over 13.1 miles, then run back down over the same brutal course with tired legs. (That sort of challenge might only be exceeded by beating our arch-nemesis JITFO in the Blue Ridge Relay. That's a race worth repeating!)

To train for Pike's Peak I've been seeking out hills and stairs whenever possible. Most of my climbing workouts have been in the Davidson College football stadium, where, following a workout designed by running buddy (and somewhat-legendary ultrarunner) Jeff McGonnell, I run up and down the bleachers (not the steps) in sets of 20. Then I run a lap around the track and do another set of bleachers. It's a brutal regimen, as demonstrated by this pair of photos:

'Nuff said!

On another workout I did the stair machine with Jeremy Alsop (who finished the Western States 100 miler in 22:45). His comment (after 3,000 vertical feet of climbing): "that's the first time I've ever seen a pool of sweat under that machine!"

A few months ago it occurred to me that barring a trip to Colorado, one local race might make the perfect training event for Pike's Peak: The Scream Half Marathon. The race web site describes it as "2,000+ feet of screaming descent from Jonas Ridge down to the sleepy ghost town of Mortimer." To get the uphill portion of the workout, I'd just need to stay the night in that sleepy ghost town and run up the hill in the dark morning before turning around and running back down! Bobby Aswell, who's run over 100 marathons, has decided that my workout should be called "The Cry."

As it turned out, the only accommodations available in Mortimer were in a first-come first-served USFS campground. Asking yet another ultrarunning friend, Brandon Thrower, I found out that as long as I arrived before noon the day before I should have no problem getting a campsite; "Just make sure you try and find a spot closer to the road to avoid the rift raft."

Fast-forward to Friday morning. I drove up to Mortimer in the driving rain. My tiny Honda Fit struggled on the winding gravel road for the last 20 miles, but eventually I made it to Mortimer Campground. I drove past the picnic area, across a bridge marked "floods in high water" to what looked like the first open campsite and found myself surrounded by what can only be described as "rift raft." It was only then that I realized that what looked like picnic grounds were actually the promised sites close to the road. You couldn't drive all the way up to them, so I hauled my gear across a footbridge 50 yards to the site.

Okay, it might not have been quite this wet, but still...

Let's just say that I was happy that I had decided—at the last minute—to bring my 10-foot canopy tent in addition to my camping tent. For the next 20 hours, it would. not. stop. raining. I sat under the canopy and read a book, made coffee and read, thought about what all this rain was doing to the gravel road I'd be running on and read, went for a 4-mile shakeout run in the rain, came back, showered, read some more, made spaghetti, read, and tried to go to sleep under the incessant beating of raindrops on my tent.

Finally it was 5 am, time to get ready to go. Yes, it was still raining. By 5:20, I was ready. I started up Runkeeper so my wife, traveling in India, could follow along. I put the phone in a ziploc, hoisted my hydration pack on my back, turned on my headlamp, and headed out into the darkness. After two miles of a flat, mucky road, I turned up a long, gravel hill. I told myself I could stop and walk every 4 miles while I took a GU. After 4 miles and 700 feet of climbing, I took my first break. At 6 miles after another 600 feet of climbing I decided it was okay to take a walk-break every 2 miles. Now I was starting to look at my pace. I had given myself 2 hours and 40 minutes to get to the top—12-minute miles. That should be doable, right? Mile 6, however, had taken 11:48, just under my target pace. If I ran this pace all the way to the top, I wouldn't have time to check in for the race and start with the other runners. Plus I probably wouldn't be able to drop off my hydration pack, which was beginning to chafe painfully at my shoulders.

Fortunately Miles 7 and 8 leveled off a bit and I was chugging along at under a 10-minute pace. Miles 9, 10, and 11 were steeper and took closer to 11 minutes each, but then I arrived at a paved road with just 2 miles to go. Unfortunately, I didn't know which way to go. Fortunately, a jeep filled with race volunteers pulled off the road at this exact moment and asked me which way the course went. I was able to direct them down the hill and they pointed me towards the start line. Now that the road was flat and paved, my pace quickened, and I arrived at the registration area with 20 minutes to spare. I had run the first half of the workout in 2:13, which Garmin told me was an average pace of exactly 10 minutes per mile, while climbing about 2,500 feet. Not bad for half a day's work!

I got in line behind yet another ultrarunning friend, Baki Oguz, who will be running Pike's Peak with me. He asked how the climb was and I said it wasn't too bad. Now that I was stopped, it was getting chilly, and I was glad I had packed a long-sleeved shirt. I wore the shirt for about 10 minutes before I dropped it, along with my hydration pack, in the truck that would carry our gear to the bottom.

Now everyone started jogging towards the start line, about a third of a mile away, and I connected with several running buddies: Chas, Sam, Bobby, Katie, and Sarah. All of them except Sarah (who had just run Grandfather Mountain Marathon the week before) would end up finishing ahead of me.

The race started on the flat paved road, and I was expecting to run an 8:00-ish pace, so I was surprised to find myself running a fairly easy 7:20, even though I was wearing my cushy Hoka shoes. There were maybe 30 or 40 people ahead of me and another 300 behind. Not bad for a guy who's already run 13 uphill miles!

Then we hit the gravel road and the steep downhill. I was surprised to find that I could maintain my 7-ish pace on this hill; my legs actually felt pretty fresh, and despite the pace, I didn't feel winded at all. Since I was running a full 26 miles, I decided that I would stop and walk at every aid station, taking a GU at every other station. This meant a few runners passed me every time. I tried to avoid getting dragged into a "racing" mentality. For me, this was just a workout. I would take what the terrain gave me, and no more. Somewhere along the way a dog started running along with us. He loped along with me for a quarter mile or so, then caught up with the next runner and kept on going. I later found out this dog made his way all the way down the mountain, finishing the race in fourth place! I hope he knew the way home!

My pace was solidly in the 7:10s to 7:20s all the way to around Mile 6, when the course turned uphill. What?!? Uphill? I didn't remember this from my climb up. On second thought, maybe that was the part where I had picked up the pace on the way up. Whatever, it still sucked. I actually passed a guy who was walking on the uphill. Later on the same guy caught up to me again and asked if there were any more hills. Apparently he was from Wilmington where any climb longer than 10 feet was an occasion for a walk-break. Maybe JITFO could use this guy!

Then the course continued down, down, without any significant incident. I continued to walk at every aid station to make sure I got enough water / nutrition. What, you say I'm being hypocritical making fun of the walker from Wilmington while taking my own walk breaks? I refuse to acknowledge any connection between the two.

Finally, with two miles to go, it was a matter of the final, flat, muddy slog to the finish. I knew I was going to slow down at this point, and steeled myself for getting passed some more. Sure enough, I did get passed, but I didn't slow down quite as much as I expected; I was still making an 8:40 pace through the muck. I even passed a couple folks myself, and picked it up a bit more for the last quarter-mile. Here's the shot Bobby Aswell took of me as I sprinted towards the finish line:

An 8:00 pace counts as a "sprint" after 26.2 miles!
Project Pike's Peak Simulation was a success. Officially, my time for the descent was 1:40:46, a 7:41 pace. Not bad, considering my uphill slog of a warm-up run! Here's the whole gang of DARTers at the finish:

Chas, Sarah, me, Katie, Baki, Sam, and Bobby. Fortunately none of us needed the ambulance

Needless to say, a few things will be different at Pike's Peak. 1. It will not be raining. 2. It WILL NOT be raining. Did you hear me, Weather Gods? 3. Pike's Peak starts at a higher elevation than any part of The Scream, then climbs three times as far as The Scream descends. 4. I will be going much, much, much slower.

But hopefully my experience at The Scream and my other climbing workouts will enable me to finish Pike's Peak.

Or at least crush JITFO at the Blue Ridge Relay a few weeks later!

My Garmin plot of the Scream/Cry is below.

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