by John Dodds
About twenty feet beyond the finish line at the Pikes Peak Marathon is the entrance to the medical tent. I completed that marathon in August 1998, and I can still remember the first words the nurse said to me as I crossed the finish line and walked into the medical tent: "We'll take your blood pressure first and then decide whether to start an IV." Fortunately, I didn't need an IV, and after lying down on one of the cots for about 30 minutes, I was able to resume normal human functions--like walking, for example. As I was flying out to Colorado last Friday, I was wondering just why I was going to do this marathon again.
Why? My friend and running "coach" lives in Colorado Springs. Three years ago I decided to start running to lose weight. I called him up: "Rob, I want to start running and run a marathon. It's in 9 weeks. Is it possible?" Thus began my accelerated marathon training program. I did that marathon and several others over the winter and following spring. In one of his emails, Rob pointed out that I was running "flatland" marathons and maybe I should come out and do Pikes Peak. Like an idiot, I agreed. People like us -- from lower elevations -- are known as "flatlanders." I trained that summer running up fire roads in Shenandoah and went out to Colorado about a week before the race and ran/hiked at high altitudes.
About a mile into the race that year, I realized I had left my gel flask in the refrigerator. I had gel packs pinned to my shorts and that got me to the summit. But, for over 2 hours coming down, I had no gel. The race actually wasn't too bad until .9 mile to go. [On the descent, the mile markers show the distances to go in .9 of a mile (like 8.9, 7.9, etc.).] I was feeling great coming down until the .9 mile sign. At that time I was back on the pavement, and all my energy left me. It was as if the Running God said, "You're done, pal." It felt like I was running in slow motion, and I might have appeared that way to the spectators at the end. I think time stood still that day as I ran (sort of) "the mile from hell." It was close to 1 p.m., and the temperature was in the 80s, so it was hot. With about a quarter mile to go, I passed a woman on a stretcher who had collapsed and was being carted into the rescue truck. They later put her in the cot next to mine.
My brother-in-law, Ned, had traveled out there to watch (spectators can only watch at the start/finish area and at the summit). He has run several marathons with me, and it took him awhile to decide to do Pikes Peak himself. I think he was a little hesitant because of my inspiring finish two years ago. He has been training all winter, spring and summer to get ready for Pikes Peak. Somewhere along the way, I decided that I would go out again myself. He has come with me to Boston the past two years and watched my son as I ran that marathon, so this was sort of a like a payback -- to support him in his first attempt.
High altitude training. We can't do that here in Virginia. The race starts at about 6,300 feet and climbs 7,800 feet to 14,100 feet. So, you just don't worry about lack of this type of training. You can simulate running the ascent by setting your treadmill at a 12 percent grade, tying a tourniquet around your neck so you get only half your customary oxygen, and run/walk the best you can for 4 hours.
This year, Ned went out early like I did two years ago. I didn't have the time. Not only that, I hadn't really done a lot of running lately. I ran the Vermont 100 on July 15-16th and took off the next three weeks due to a pretty severe shin injury. In three weeks, my shin was finally back to its normal size except for just one small spot. So, with 2 weeks before the race I started running slowly and short distances: 2 miles a day for 2 days, 4 miles a day for 2 days, etc. I finally got up to 8 miles and declared myself ready. No time for any long runs and no time to get to Shenandoah to run the fire roads.
I flew out Friday and did the accelerated acclimatization program. We stayed at the Air Force Academy, and on Saturday morning we went to the track. I wanted to run around the track several times just so I would remember what it was like to gasp for air as I ran. We ran very, very slow, and by the third lap I was wheezing. I think I was allergic to something in the air. By the fourth lap, I sounded like a one-man band, so I quit. Not exactly the confidence-building session I was looking for, but it would have to do. The race was at 7 the next morning.
The Ascent. As I stood at the start, I was hoping that my shin wouldn't act up. I was also wondering if I would have the good judgment to stop running if it did. As it turned out, my shin wasn't a problem at all during the race, and I didn't have any repeat of the wheezing.
The race starts on the main road in Manitou Springs, and I was probably a good 20 feet into the run when I began breathing quite heavily -- maybe we should call it gasping. I was wondering how I was ever going to make it up almost 8,000 feet when I was already having trouble running level at this elevation. You really can't describe how hard it is to breathe. Even "sucking wind" isn't descriptive. You just have to experience it. How to cope then? Here's the trick: you walk. As my "coach" says: "You run when you can, and you walk when you can't." And that means you do a lot of walking.
My time two years ago was 6:00:29. My goal was to take off those 29 seconds. To get an ascent goal, you take your normal marathon time and add 30 minutes; your descent goal is roughly your half marathon time. You can add some extra time considering that you haven't trained at altitude. My goal in 1998 was 6:30: 4 hours for the ascent and 2.5 hours to come down. My actual ascent time back then was 3:46, better than planned. This year I wanted to get up in less time. Matt Carpenter, the skyrunner phenom, has a website that has a pacing calculator: plug in your ascent goal time, and it gives you various intermediate times along the way. This year, I was a little too optimistic and actually thought I could get up in 5:30.
The first part of the course is the climb up Mt. Manitou. From there it's not too bad into Barr Camp (at times, it is even downhill). Then you continue the climb and come out of treeline near the A-Frame. Although your first view of Pikes Peak itself is when you are in the trees, your first full unobstructed view is when you come out of the treeline. It is truly an amazing sight. You ask yourself, "How am I ever going to make it up there?" This is right after you've said, "Holy shit!" (your expletive may vary).
My first check was French Creek at 8,800 feet. The goal was 1:02 and I was there in 1:05. Not bad. Barr Camp is roughly the halfway point in terms of distance (elevation is 10,200 feet), and I was falling a little behind by then. I didn't even notice the time at the next checkpoint which is the A-Frame (11,950 feet). To tell the truth, I didn't even notice the A-Frame (it sits off to the side). Why? Because I was just staring at the Peak which I had been looking at after coming out of the treeline and would continue to do so for the next hour. It is so hard to keep your eyes off the summit.
We had good weather that day. The temperature at the start was about 60 degrees. The temperature at the summit at race start was 32 degrees, and I would guess it was in the low 40s by the time I got there. Temperature on the descent at the lower elevations was probably in the 80s -- it was hot. I wore a singlet, shorts and chose my road shoes over my trail shoes. I wore a solo fanny pack and where the water bottle normally goes, I put in a windbreaker, polypro hat, and gloves (as it turned out, I didn't need them that day). I carried one water bottle in a Fast Draw and had two flasks of GU; I took the GU every 45 minutes along with a SUCCEED capsule. My friend's wife was at the summit, and I had a can of ENSURE there. My time at the summit was 3:51, 6 minutes slower than my previous time. I was a little disappointed, but I thought I would still make 6:00 as I planned on staying at the summit less than I did last time. Ned and I ran together for most of the way up, but above 12,000 feet, I slowly moved ahead. I reached the summit about 6 minutes ahead of him [Overall, I finished about 30 minutes ahead of him. This was an excellent time for him (he had been waiting for this for 2 years)].
Descent. I felt a little tired as I came up the last 1,000 feet, and I was wondering how I was going to get the energy to run down. But it is not a problem. Once you turn to descend, you get very excited, and you just take off. The descent at Pikes Peak is probably the most fun I've ever had running (other than VHTRC training runs, of course). A pure blast. Breathing is not a problem going down, and the trail is all very runnable except for the 16 Golden Stairs, the sixteen pairs of switchbacks in the pure rock leading to the summit. This section is also runnable, but you have to go slower as it is single file and people coming up have to give way to you.
Just below the 16 Golden Stairs a runner just blew by me like I was standing still (I wasn't). I had passed her on the way up. She was probably in her 20s, but what got me was not her age, but her speed -- and the fact that she was wearing sandals! And I thought I was moving pretty well coming down. I saw her at the finish and learned that her descent time was 2 minutes per mile faster than mine. Looks like I need a little downhill speed work. I would try sandals, but I'm missing three toenails now as it is with shoes.
You have to be careful running downhill because you can really get up some speed, and you are at it for so long. I had a 90 % fall once and fell down once; my water bottle in my hand took the brunt of the blow from the rock I landed on. I had some very minor twists of my ankles, and almost a major twist of an ankle where I jumped on a boulder and got too far to the side. The trail is not any more difficult than others; you just have to concentrate for such a long period of time.
My finish time goal was 1 p.m. At noon, I realized I would just miss that. Oh, well. From then on, I would just try to catch as many runners as I could just for fun. And what I really wanted to do though was to stay strong the whole way, especially that last "mile from hell." I passed a fair amount of runners in the last miles and two after getting back on the pavement. I waved to my "coach" and his brother (they were sitting on the sidewalk, having finished in 5:24 and 5:21) as I ran by. I made the left turn at the intersection, and the finish line was just around the corner. My time was 6:07:37, and I was thrilled. It is hard to describe the feeling you get after finishing this marathon.
Finally. Let's end with several questions. Why did you want to run up and down Pikes Peak? Because it was there. Why did you do it again? Because it was still there. [My apologies to George Mallory.] Will you do it again? Never. Didn't you say that after the first one? Yes, but I mean it this time. For you VHTRC members who haven't done this marathon, you should definitely do it (unless you're overly fond of oxygen).