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)


  1. Great article! Congrats on finishing. That one is definitely on my bucket list!

  2. Contrats Dave- great recap. Way to push it! Hope to see you and Baki at a fall race. Martin from Salisbury

  3. Amazing....i want to do this one someday...beautiful pictures...breathtaking - in more than one way! :-)