Monday, August 18, 2014

Race Recap: The Pikes Peak Marathon

Last fall, I decided I would give ultra-running a try. I would run my first 50-mile race and then do a marathon that is really more like an ultra in terms of difficulty: The Pikes Peak Marathon. Both races turned out to be more difficult than I imagined. I couldn't finish the 50-miler, but I was determined to stick to my plan to do Pikes Peak. Yesterday, I gave it my best shot.

The Pikes Peak Marathon starts in the classic Colorado tourist town of Manitou Springs, at an elevation of 6,300 feet. Over the next 13.32 miles the race ascends 7,800 feet to an elevation of 14,115 feet, with almost no breaks in the climbing. Then runners turn around and run back down the same trail. Much of the race is what I would consider "very technical trail," though apparently most Coloradans wouldn't agree, because all the information I could find online in advance of the race suggested that the trail isn't too difficult.

Pikes Peak
Pikes Peak, from near Manitou Springs

The barren peak above the treeline represents only about the last 2,500 feet of climbing. Manitou Springs is in a valley below. In this race, we used the Barr trail, but another infamous trail, The Incline, is clearly visible in this photo as a diagonal up the ridge in front of Pikes Peak. The bottom of that trail is still about 500 feet above where we started.

On race morning I walked the half-mile from my hotel to the start, then lined up with my friend Baki Oguz, an awesome ultra-runner who I expected to beat me handily.

Pikes Peak
Me and Baki at the start

After a nice rendition of "America the Beautiful," which I later learned was inspired by the view from the top of Pikes Peak, we were off. The first 1.3 miles, on pavement, are where runners jockey for position. After that the trail is a wide-ish singletrack where passing is difficult. I decided to run a fairly comfortable pace, which turned out to be about 8.5-minute miles. Out of 800 entrants, I would guess about 100 of them were in front of me when I reached the trail proper. Baki, however, was more conservative than me, and I didn't see him when we reached the trail.

I had planned out my paces mile-by-mile all the way to the top, but I was really just thinking I'd let the terrain guide my pace. The plan involved my best guess as to what the trail would allow, so if everything went as expected, then "letting the terrain be my guide" would get me to the top in 3 hours and 41 minutes. The first few miles of the trail were very steep. It was wide but usually there was only one good line to run / hike in. Most of the time, I was hiking, but if I found myself right on someone's tail for a while, I'd look for a spot to pass. I passed quite a few runners along this stretch, and by the time I reached the third aid station at Mile 4.3, I was about 5 minutes ahead of my planned pace.

Pikes Peak
About 4 miles in, with Manitou Springs in the background

The views were already spectacular here, only about 2,000 feet above Manitou Springs. Still 5,800 feet of climbing left! I was carrying a hydration pack with 5 GUs, some Clif Bars, and about 1 liter of water. The plan during the climb was to use the aid stations (which were around 2 miles apart), but supplement with the hydration pack. It was working well so far.

Here the trail leveled out for a couple miles, and I was able to run nearly all of this section, climbing "only" 300 feet each mile. But my pace chart had me maintaining a fast-ish 11-minute pace through mile 8, and the trail wasn't cooperating. For the first time, I was going slower than my planned pace, and I began to worry that as the trail got even steeper ahead, this race could quickly turn into a death march. Fortunately, the scenery remained spectacular, and I was able to get some photos:

Pikes Peak
More mountain ahead

Pikes Peak
Where I've come from

I had now passed enough runners that I seemed to be among folks in the same general ability range as me. I got passed a couple times, and I passed a couple people, but this was mainly jockeying for position as the runners ran faster or slower on train that suited their style more or less. I was out of breath, but feeling okay, and pretty much going at my planned pace (which at this point was about a 17:00 per mile pace). I made note as the elevation on my watch passed 10,000, 11,000 feet.

Pikes Peak
Me with some of the mountain yet to climb

Pikes Peak
The glistening streets of Colorado Springs are behind me

Soon I was above the treeline and climbing through a boulder field. Now according to my watch, my pace was considerably slower than the plan -- I was doing 23-minute miles when I should have been doing 21-minute miles. But the mileage markers on the course weren't quite matching up with what was on my GPS watch. Occasionally I'd see an elevation marker and I could see that my watch was showing me several hundred feet lower than I actually was.

Pikes Peak
More boulder-climbing

Up, up, up we went, going slower seemingly with each step. Around two miles from the top, the race leader came careening down the course, and the runners all moved aside to let him pass. I managed to catch a photo of one of the leaders -- I think this guy was third or fourth:

Pikes Peak
Flying down the hill!

After my watch read about 12,000 feet (I'm guessing my real elevation was closer to 12,500), I could detect a dramatic change in my body. Up to this point, I had at least been able to stride confidently up the hill, but now each step had a wobble in it. My pace slowed even more -- but  I wasn't getting passed. I think everyone was starting to feel the effects of the elevation. This photo gives you a sense of the procession of "runners" making their way up the hill:

Pikes Peak
I call this the "zombie walk"

Then, all the sudden, I was at the summit, with my watch reading something like 13,500 feet (the actual elevation was 14,115)! Amazing! Greta was waiting for me (she had taken the Cog Railway to the top), and quickly I gave her my hydration pack, slathered on some more sunscreen, and took the obligatory summit photo:
We're planning on framing this for our friends at Summit Coffee in Davidson

Here's a picture Greta took of the scene at the top:

It really feels like you are standing at the edge of the world!

I had made it to the top in 3 hours and 41 minutes -- exactly as planned! Now all I needed to do was run back down the mountain. That was the easy part, right?

Not exactly.

At a 20-minute-per-mile pace, headed uphill, the trail wasn't too bad. Now, headed downhill and trying to average around an 11-minute pace, the going, for me anyways, was much tougher. There were rocks, and boulders, and runners on the ascent to avoid, and the footing was treacherous. I know that the leaders head down this stretch at a 6- to 7-minute pace, but for me, all I could manage was maybe a 14-minute pace. That was hardly faster than my climb. The aerobic part of the run was not the challenge, it was simply the mental feat of anticipating where to step, several steps ahead. I just couldn't keep up with the terrain. I passed Baki on his way up; he seemed impressed by how far ahead of him I was — he ended up arriving at the summit 15 minutes after me. But the problem of making my way down the mountain still loomed. Each step was a precarious balance between pushing the pace too far and slowing down too much.

Finally about a mile and a half down, the terrain caught up with me. I stumbled on a rock and was falling head-first toward a boulder. I managed to catch myself -- barely -- with my fingertips, on a very jagged rock. The pain was most excruciating right on the tips of my fingers. Then I realized I had a nasty scrape on my knee as well. I got up, blood dripping from my left thumb, right index finger, and knee, and after four or five runners had passed me headed down, started back down the trail. First, I walked. A number of the runners headed up commented that "that's the way I'll be going down." But I didn't want to be walking, I wanted to be running. My knee wasn't so sore that I couldn't run; what I needed was confidence. Or courage. Or stupidity. Finally I managed to start running on some of the easier sections.

I built my pace back up to 13-minute miles. Now the mountain was starting to heat up. I was about halfway down, and I'd guess the temperatures on the exposed parts of the trail were in the mid-80s. It wasn't too much of a problem because I wasn't exerting myself as much on this steady descent, but I had to remind myself to continue to consume water, and GU, and electrolyte tablets. I took two cups of water at every aid station. Somewhere around here, Baki passed me on the way down. He had made up 15 minutes on the return trip, and was cruising along at a much faster clip than me. I told him I had fallen, and he said he had too -- twice. So much for excuses. I pressed on.

The terrain was steep but not quite as technical as it had been higher up. Here the problem wasn't so much rocks and boulders, but gravelly soil that slipped when you stepped on it. Also the trail was worn in a deep, rutted V-shape, with the choice being running on the sides of the "V" or in the rocky bottom. But I still think I managed a faster pace on this section than I had above.

I was getting passed frequently. I'd guess at least 50 runners passed me on the downhill; maybe more. I only passed one or two folks, who were obviously injured and just limping their way down the mountain. Clearly I am not a master of Colorado-style trail running! One guy said "on your left," and before he could pass, I heard him stumble over a rock. I braced myself, and he grabbed on to my shoulder to keep himself from falling. "Thanks," he said as he passed, "I was going down for sure!"

Finally, after what seemed an eternity, I reached the pavement. Now I could just run and not worry about obstacles. After maxing out at perhaps an 11-minute pace on the trail, I was hitting 7:15 miles for the last bit of the race. People in Manitou Springs were out on their lawns cheering us on, and the crowd was 2- or 3-deep at some points near the finish. I was thrilled to be done, perhaps more so than in any other race. Greta managed to get a photo of me as I was approaching the line:

Somehow this doesn't quite capture my elation. Trust me, I was elated!

I crossed the line in 6:21:49, after a descent that took 2 hours and 40 minutes. I had nailed the "harder" uphill portion of the run but struggled on the "easy" downhill, which I had hoped to complete 30 minutes faster than I did. Baki finished 10 minutes faster than me, in 6:11:39. If only we could have run this as a team, with me on the ascent and Baki on the descent, we would have broken 6 hours!

My online friend Kate Avery also ran the race, smashing her goal of a sub-8-hour race with a 7:54:34 despite a horrific blister on her heel.

At the finish line, after spotting Greta outside the finish area, I went to the medical tent, where Baki had just finished getting both of his knees cleaned and bandaged. An extremely friendly medic cared for my wounds. My knee had gotten completely encrusted with blood, which formed a scab all the way down to my calf sleeve. After she cleaned me up, I could see that it was really just a minor scrape. In 10 minutes, I was released, and actually felt better than I do after most marathons!

After a shower and a bit of a rest, Greta and I celebrated in appropriate fashion: with a Pikes-Peak-size mountain of nachos!

Pikes Peak
Yum! And I had a hamburger and fries after that!

Normally I include a link to my Garmin record of a race, but unfortunately it seems that my Garmin record was corrupted. Argh! Fortunately I was also tracking the run on Runkeeper, which managed to collect data for the first 21.74 miles of the race (before my phone ran out of battery). Here's the link. (Note, I started the app early, so the first mile is off -- should be around an 8:20)

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Oops...*Really* getting ready for Pikes Peak

Earlier this week I posted about my final race preparation, including a detailed spreadsheet with splits for every mile. So far, so good!

Then yesterday while I was obsessively searching -- er, I mean while I happened to be glancing over last year's results, I noticed that runners who were doing the ascent in the times I had projected were completing the descent quite a bit slower.

Then I re-read the Pikes Peak Marathon site's advice on predicting your Marathon time: "add 1/2 hour to your flatland marathon time. The average descent time is about 63% of the runner’s Ascent time. In other words, the downhill is not free and there are even a few ups on the way down!"

I had been computing my downhill time based on 60% of my flatland marathon pace, not 63% of my Ascent time. So I should probably expect to be descending considerably slower than what I thought before -- instead of a 9-ish average pace, it's probably going to be more like a 10-ish pace. Also, I had added in an extra aid station at Mile 1.2 that isn't actually there. So here's the revised pacing sheet:

Corrected version, still fairly optimistic
As the caption indicates, this is still a bit optimistic, because I only bumped my downhill pace to about 58 percent of my uphill time, not 63 percent.

This morning I completed my final shakeout run for the race, a two-miler to watch the start of the Ascent race. I wanted to get a sense of how quickly the field handled the run on the paved section leading up to the trails. After the elites took off at unimaginable paces, it seemed to me that the regular runners were taking a fairly reasonable approach. Taking into account the fact that I was only watching half the field (the Ascent is divided into two waves; for the Marathon everyone starts at the same time), I felt like I could be in the middle of the Ascent's first wave and be very comfortable. This would put me in the top 25 percent of the Marathon pack, which is about where I want to be. I had been concerned that there would be a mad dash for the trails, leaving everyone pooped before the race had even started.

Final preparations on the last day before the race include staying off my feet as much as possible, eating whatever I want (as long as it isn't likely to upset my stomach), and endlessly fretting about irrelevant details. Wish me luck!

Oh, and one last thing. If you want to follow my progress during the race, there are two possible ways of doing it. One is the race website's "almost live" results, found here. The organizers don't promise real-time results but they can provide splits at various points along the course, assuming they manage to get internet on the side of the mountain. You can also try following my Runkeeper account, which is supposed to provide live tracking but again is limited by internet availability.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Getting ready for Pikes Peak

Five days from now as I write this, if everything goes as planned, I should have completed the Pikes Peak Marathon.

I consider this to be a "for fun" race in that I don't really have any aspirations to PR or win an age group award. But of course it is a serious challenge, and I'd like to do as well as I can.

So for me, naturally, that means spreadsheets. The Pikes Peak Marathon climbs 7,800 feet on a trail from Manitou Springs Colorado at an elevation of 6,300 feet to the top of Pikes Peak at an elevation of 14,050 feet — and then back down. This is higher than I've ever stood on the ground, let alone higher than I've ever run! Over the past two weeks, however, I have climbed to elevations as high as 12,500 feet, and I've run to over 13,000 feet before, so I think I should be able to handle the elevation.

That doesn't mean the elevation won't slow me down a bit — or, rather, a lot! But how much, exactly? The Pikes Peak Marathon home page offers the following rule of thumb for "flatlanders" doing the race for the first time:

On the ascent, take your flatland marathon PR and add 30 minutes. So over 13.32 miles you actually will likely be slower than your best effort for a full 26.2! My PR is 3:22, which puts my estimated ascent time at 3:52. I'm being slightly more optimistic than that because I've been spending these last two weeks acclimatizing to the elevation and will have had nearly three weeks at elevation by race morning. On the descent, even though it's downhill, the organizers suggest multiplying your marathon PR by 0.6. That means you'll be running 20 percent slower than your marathon pace, on a downhill burner of a course. I believe that -- I could only manage about 7:40 per mile on the descent at The Scream a few weeks ago, and that wasn't at nearly the elevation of this course. With that in mind, I've created this spreadsheet as a guide for what pace to shoot for. I plan on laminating it and carrying it with me during the race:

Note that aid stations are not at even mile-points

This has me at the summit in 3:41, a 16:35 pace, and gives me about 1:55 for the descent, just under a 9-minute average pace.

My wife Greta will be meeting me at the top; she's taking a train up there and will be arriving about 3:35 after the start, or just 6 minutes before my race plan has me arriving. I have been instructed that I am not allowed to leave the summit without seeing her, which gives me a tremendous incentive not to exceed my planned pace. I'd just be sitting around waiting for her at the top!

So what will happen when I get there? There's another spreadsheet for that:

Yes, I really do have a spreadsheet entry to remind me to clip my toenails!
I'll be wearing a sleeveless shirt to the top but carrying a long-sleeve shirt just in case. I'm wearing a hydration pack for the ascent because with some aid stations over 2.5 miles apart, I might be going an hour without any opportunity for fueling. Greta is carrying a bunch of stuff to the summit. I'm planning on dropping my hydration pack there, since I will encounter aid stations much more quickly on the descent. I will definitely swap my sleeveless shirt for a short sleeved shirt, and depending on the weather, I will possibly add a long-sleeved shirt and gloves that I might remove partway down. If the weather is really bad I will also put on a rain jacket at the top.

Hopefully all I will need to do is put on the short-sleeved shirt, add some sunscreen and Trail Toes lube (I prefer this to the more-commonly-used Body Glide) and head back down the mountain.

I had initially planned on changing shoes at the top as well, starting off with light trail shoes and switching to Hokas. But I had such good luck at The Scream and the Kennebec Mountain Challenge just wearing the Hokas that I've decided not to add that variable to the mix and just stick with the same pair of shoes the whole way.

...and I think that's about it. I might modify things somewhat if the weather outlook changes significantly. Right now the forecast calls for a low of 36 and high of around 65 above 11,000 feet on race day, but of course that could change significantly in 5 days! It has been known to snow on runners during this race. So I'll try to be prepared for everything but expect that the weather should continue in the same moderate pattern I've seen over the past week or so in Colorado.

Wish me luck!

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Race recap: The Kennebec Mountain Challenge

A couple months ago, I was planning my training calendar leading up to the Pike's Peak Marathon. I knew I would be in Colorado for the final two and a half weeks before the race, so I figured, "why not do a tune-up race two weeks out." That led me to the Kennebec Mountain Challenge, in Durango, near Telluride where I would be staying. I signed up impulsively, before checking Google Maps to learn that it was about a two and a half hour drive from Telluride.

Fast forward to yesterday. It's 4:24 a.m. when I wake up to the noise of Telluride revelers outside my window. Really? I'm getting up for my race and you're still partying? But I needed to be on the road by 5 am to get to the race on time, so I packed up my gear, hopped into the rented car, and hit the road.

Two and a half hours later I arrived at the start to a well-organized event. There was a great map of the course, and a bulletin board with all the results from previous races. This was a 15-mile trail run that started at 9,000 feet and rose to 12,000 feet elevation before heading back down to the start. There was no chance I was going to win; I was just hoping to be finish in under 3 hours, which looked to be a respectable time based on the previous years' results. The winners would be finishing in closer to 2 hours.

Before I knew it, we had started. I was planning on taking it easy for the first mile since I was running the race with no warm-up. I had done a couple runs in Colorado and knew that my usual race pace for an event like this would have to be tossed out the window; at 9,000 feet my "easy" 8-minute pace involves considerable effort, even on flat, paved terrain. This meant that lots of runners were ahead of me; I was solidly in the middle of the pack.

Midway through Mile 2, we had already climbed over 300 feet, and the road was just getting steeper. The runners around me showed no signs of slowing down. I, on the other hand, was ready for my first walk break. "Run your own race, Munger," I told myself, and walked for 60 seconds. I was passed by a couple people but didn't lose much ground. I told myself I had to run for another 5 minutes before I could walk again. But when I got to the point where I was planning on walking, the road leveled out. Dang it, I can't walk here. I pushed myself another 5 minutes before taking another walk break.

My internal dialog went like this for the next several miles, but the road kept getting steeper and the walk breaks got more frequent. Finally the road got steep enough that I was walking nearly all the time. I wasn't getting passed any more, and I seemed to be keeping up with the other runners, even when they were running and I was walking. The valley opened up to some spectacular views.

Headed up into the clouds
If you look closely, you can see the trail and some of the runners above me.

I kept running -- mostly walking -- and ascended higher and higher up a progressively rockier road. It got to the point that it was really too technical to run, even if I could have managed it on the 15% grade at 11,000 feet above sea level. Some runners had started early, and in this section I was beginning to pass a few of them. It was impressive to see 60-and 70-year-olds tackling this terrain!

One woman ahead of me persistently ran up everything at a solid, steady pace. After a while, I began to realize I might actually be gaining on her, even though I was walking. A half a mile later, and I was beside her. "That's not fair," she wisecracked as I passed.

The views continued to be impressive, and I stopped to get a selfie:

Not sure where the camera is? Or just distracted by the scenery?

The scenery is prettier without the goofy runner in it...

Around mile 5 the route turned off the road and onto a rough trail. Now it was almost a scramble up rocks and scree. Then we hit a traverse across a steep field of scree. Every once in a while I needed to put my hand down to get my balance, and I realized I was sticking it out almost horizontally to the side and still touching the mountain. Finally we reached the top, at 12,000 feet in a fog bank. Instantly I was chilled and put on my gloves.

As it turned out, the gloves would come in handy. The trail down was steep and technical, with lots of slippery dirt sections. The final stretch had to be at least a 60% grade, and I was basically sliding down sideways, balancing on my feet and one of my hands. Then we were back on the roughest road yet, and had to head back uphill for a final half mile. Once again, the view was spectacular:

Here I don't think I'm distracted so much as exhausted
Finally I made it to the top of the pass, and I could see it was downhill from here to the finish. I stopped to tighten my laces and remove my gaiters, then plunged down the road. It was, again, technical and rocky, with grades in the 10-20 percent range, and it was all I could do to focus on stepping on solid ground on each step. Somehow I was managing around an 8:15 pace, and was even beginning to pass some runners. But unlike at The Scream, I was laboring for breath. Even a steady downhill was tough at this elevation.

It was also starting to get warm, and there were long, unshaded portions of the road. I passed the final aid station, and with 4.25 miles to go, I checked my watch. As long as I could maintain a 9-minute or better pace, I should be able to come in under three hours. But the incessant pounding of the downhill was beginning to take its toll. There were a few short uphill sections, and I actually let myself walk on one of them, to the surprise of the woman ahead of me, who must have been certain I was about to pass her.

With two miles to go I felt a rock in my shoe. I didn't want to get a blister, so I stopped to take the shoe off and got passed by a couple other runners I had passed earlier. I couldn't find the rock in the shoe, and when I started running again, it felt like it was still there. Oh well, nothing to do but keep running. Finally the finish was in sight, and I crossed the line in 2:56 -- solidly under my 3:00 goal. Here I am cooling down in the finish area:


Overall the race didn't feel too bad; I was able to push fairly hard on the downhills, though I was laboring towards the end. Hopefully that's just because I haven't gotten used to the elevation yet. I'd like to think that in two weeks at Pike's Peak, I will be able to handle the thin air. With 11 more miles of running and -- gasp -- 4,700 more feet of climbing, I'd better be!

My Garmin GPS record of the race is below.