The Pikes Peak Marathon holds the marketing tag “America’s Ultimate Challenge” -it is truly a race unlike any I’d done before. In order to prepare for it, I spent several Sunday mornings driving over an hour to Manitou Springs to meet up with the Incline Club and train on the mountain. In June, there was still snow at the top!
As I’ve said before, I’ve really struggled with motivation lately. I ran the Steamboat Springs marathon at the beginning of June, but hadn’t run more than 13 miles at a time after that. I was a little nervous heading into this extreme event.
Thankfully, I had my friend Helen coming as well. Helen is a strong, confident runner (or as she admits, “a little crazy”). She loves a running challenge, and she was excited for the event. This helped me too – her enthusiasm is contagious. Which, of course, is evident when you consider that we’ve done races together in Ohio, Massachusetts, Indiana, Illinois, Pennsylvania and now Colorado. Before we’d set foot on the course, Helen was already talking about wanting to double next year (the Ascent on Saturday, the marathon on Sunday).
The day before the race we took the Cog Railway up the mountain, to give Helen an idea of where we’d be going. It was chilly at the top: 39F with a windchill of 29F. We arrived at the top around 1pm and saw some of the Ascent finishers.
As we headed back down, I think Helen started to really realize what we were getting into. She started to express some nervousness, but I was fairly confident she’d be ok. Helen runs with her guts as much as her legs, and in the end, you can just hike this thing to get it done with. But again: we were doing this race because it was a challenge, so it was an eager excitement. We debated over and over what to wear: an email we’d received from the RD suggested packing a hat, jacket, pants, etc. I wasn’t sure how I was going to carry these things and change into them! I think I got to worrying more about “stuff” than the actual activity!
We attended the race pasta party and went to a small ceremony the night before. Arlene Pieper, the first female marathoner, was in attendance with her daughter. Another fellow who ran the 1959 race was there, and he told some great stories about the race, and showed off the shoes he’d worn that day. Wow! It was another emotional, exciting event and helped us to feel we were part of something special.
The next morning we rose early, as we wanted to be sure we could park at the start. We had no problems finding a spot right next to the park, and actually sat in the car for awhile. I’d gone with capris and a t-shirt, gloves, with a jacket tied around my waist. Helen went with shorts, gloves, a long-sleeved shirt and a jacket tied around her waist. I also had gu, mini luna bars, trail mix and some e-caps tucked into various pockets, and carried Gatorade. There were a few aid stations on the way, but it had been suggested people carry water. I was also worried about getting hungry!
Then we were off! Helen pulled away from me pretty quickly, as she often does. The first mile of the race is on the road and leads uphill, and I knew there was no need to rush. I caught up with her in about mile 2, when almost everyone had resorted to walking. I explained “I’m not running that stuff!” I definitely had the advantage to know part of the course.
I’d run basically the first and last half of the race a handful of times: up to Barr Camp and back. So in my mind, I divided the course into three: up to Barr Camp, Barr Camp to the top, and from the top down. This really helped break it up.
I actually got warm pretty quickly, and stripped down to my sports bra. I knew we had a long day ahead of us and I didn’t want to get overheated. The first part of the course was familiar to me, so I just kept trucking along. I passed people, they passed me. I ran where I could and walked otherwise, knowing that there would come a time in the race where running was not an option.
Past Barr Camp I got to territory I’d only seen once before, so I didn’t have the advantage of knowing exactly what was coming up. I got caught up in a big traffic jam of people walking, so I tagged along with them for awhile. It was a bit of a relief (not to be trying to push myself, but still feeling like I wasn’t falling behind), but also a bit frustrating. Eventually I managed to pass them and pick up the pace. Another woman broke free as well ahead of me. She was taking pictures, and stopped to read a small plaque on the side of the trail. I asked her if it was her first time: it was. I exclaimed that she was doing great, and we started running together for awhile.
Before I hit the A-Frame, I think about 2:35 into my race, I heard the call: “Runner up!”. Longtime champion Matt Carpenter was on his way down. A few minutes later another runner followed behind. Ok, so those guys were running the whole way!
I actually was surprised at how the miles kept ticking by, even these harder miles above treeline. I put on my jacket as there was a bit of a wind, and just kept moving. Soon we were having to negotiate the trail with other runners headed back down, which meant pulling over and letting them pass. Things got a bit congested, but I guess that’s just motivation to run faster next year, right??
I actually thought I might make it to the top in less than 4 hours (the estimate of taking your road marathon time and adding a half hour), but I made the turn-around at 4:11. As I headed back down, I was eager to see Helen, to see how she was doing. I had passed the A-Frame at 2:48, and the cut-off time was 3:30. I wanted to know that she’d made it.
It was a mere 7 min later (and in this marathon, that’s like a quarter mile) that I saw her. The night before, Charlene Aldridge had told a story about her “Peak Buddy” who had run with her the year before. When Helen saw me, she yelled out “Andrea – I love you! You’re my peak buddy!” To which I replied “No I’m not – I left you”. All the folks around us laughed. Other than her giddiness, Helen didn’t seem to suffer at all from any effects of the altitude (this was at 14,110 ft).
So then I was in the third part of the race. I think every race should end with you getting more oxygen, and gravity helping you towards the finish! The biggest challenge for the downhill was watching your footing. Again, the congestion at the upper few miles meant we couldn’t go too quickly anyway. I stumbled a couple times, and people around me offered advice: “don’t step on rocks – be like a mountain goat”. I didn’t particularly want their advice, and I have no idea what “be like a mountain goat” means anyway! I just kept going at the pace and approach I was comfortable with.
My jacket was a real pain: it was a lightweight shell and even tied around my waist it kept slipping and hanging low. I had my phone (I thought I’d take pictures – ha!), gloves and food in my jacket pocket and they kept swinging out and hitting me. Twice I had to stop and retie or empty my shoe of rocks. It’s actually interesting that I never stopped on the way up, only down. Perhaps that was more mental than anything else?
I headed down the trail, not overly aggressive, just letting the trail pull me back. I only took a half a GU the whole race, preferring instead the grapes, skittles and jelly bellies offered at rest stops.
I hit mile 16 at 5 hours exactly, and realized I had to do 5 miles an hour to meet my 7 hour goal. A 12 minute mile at this point in the race was completely doable, so I felt pretty comfortable with that. I did think briefly about “the wall” and the fact I hadn’t run this far in a long time, but I felt fine. I was hydrating well, I wasn’t hungry and my legs didn’t feel bad at all!
I was also in familiar territory again: I knew from Barr Camp down (which was actually when there was 7 miles to go), I could run to the bottom in about an hour on a good day. I think I had a real advantage over others on the course, as I caught up with and passed a lot of runners in the last 5 miles. Most of the guys I encountered were good about pulling over and letting me through, but there was one girl who did NOT want me to pass her! I was on her heels for probably a mile before I did some quick footwork on a switchback and got ahead of her.
The last mile was on the road, and we had some spectator support. They announced everyone coming in, which was nice, and then you made a turn on Manitou Ave and you were done! I was happy to finish up in 6:42:15, well below my 7 hr goal. I grabbed some water and gatorade, and picked up my finisher’s jacket. I changed into flipflops, got some grapes and waited for Helen. As I went to watch for her, a couple ladies also watching the race asked if I’d run. One had done the Ascent the day before, and both were watching for their husbands to finish. They had plenty of questions, as they were considering the marathon the next year. We chatted away, and soon I heard the announcement “From Dublin Ohio – Helen Dunbar!” I tried to take a photo, but Helen tore by me to quickly. She wasn’t smiling as she passed, so I wasn’t sure how she felt. I headed back to the finisher’s area, where she was already chatting with someone. I walked over and she announced “We’re doubling next year!!”. I was SO happy her experience was great, and I paraded her back to the women I’d been standing with. Helen kept saying this was her favorite run ever (despite the fact that she fell around mile 16). It was a gorgeous, beautiful day, and we’d run an incredible race.
This isn’t to say it’s easy, though: we both ran well and felt fine, but not all are as fortunate. As John Noltensmeyer shared on twitter: you should see the medical tent for this race – looks like a war zone.
By the time we finished, it was after 2pm, so we had lunch before heading back to Denver. We got home, showered, and then got pizza and watched a movie. We probably were quite a site at Blockbuster, as we were both wearing shorts and Recovery socks. But yesterday we were both fine, no limping or soreness at all!
What an amazing experience, and of course it helped shake me out of my “I’m sick of running” mentality. Everyone keeps asking what’s next, and I have to admit I’m not quite sure. Will I double next year? Sure.. I’d do it. With a race like this, there are so many checkpoints and mini-goals: how fast to Barr Camp. How fast to the top. How far without walking. I can definitely see how it would get under your skin. I certainly know I loved that this was a trail race: pounding on pavement does not sound appealing right now. So.. we’ll see!
Oh yeah, stats:
I finished in 6:42:15.
Ascent – 4:11:49
Descent – 2:30:26
Overall – 297/709
Female – 50/171
Age-group – 13/23