Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Big Challenge 2011

 Life is full of challenges. So why add any that aren't already there? I'm not sure, but two reasons that come immediately to mind are 1) Duh! Because it's fun, and 2) To keep from slacking, maintain an edge, and all that warrior stuff.

After signing up for the 2010 race; photo by my lovely wife.
A little after noon today , I signed up to run the Pikes Peak Ascent this August--a race I ran last year as part of my "vegan ascent" adventure. In fact, my decision to run the race was closely tied to my decision to stop eating animals (see "How This All Began"). I had visions of blogging about the whole experience (the picture on my blog's header is from a shot of Pikes Peak). As it turned out, I wasn't anywhere near ready to take on the commitment of keeping something like that going (you might have noticed a couple of major gaps).

 I had been told by some people that I would have a very hard time because I don't eat any red meat, so I wouldn't have enough red blood cells, and I'd have trouble breathing once I got above treeline (12,000 feet). They were so wrong. In fact, I had no breathing issues whatsoever--even at the top--the only problem I had was cramping in my feet and calves that started when I was about two-thirds the way up. I hear a lot of beefeaters had the same issues, so there you have it.

Now I'm going for it again, and this year I'm going to train harder and beat my last time (5:20:51). The race begins in Manitou Springs (6,412 feet), and goes (relentlessly!) uphill 13.32 miles to the top of Pikes Peak (14,115 feet). Basically, you're nuts if you even consider it--but it's that departure from normal thinking that makes it possible to go ahead and reach the top--and accomplish most things of note, if you think about it.

With my bro-in-law, just before the race started, around 7:25 AM
Your first time out, the race officials want to make sure you've got at least some of right stuff, because they don't want to be sending choppers out all day to pull people down from the mountain who had no business running anywhere, let alone trying something crazy like this. So they make you qualify by running a 10-Mile over some fairly steep rolling terrain--through the spectacular "Garden of the Gods," and then a 12K trail run that features a 1000-foot vertical loop. Finishing these makes you a little overconfident, in my opinion, because they're child's play compared to the ascent.

It's hard to imagine, let alone get your head around the massive size of a "fourteener," and the determination it takes to actually summit--so you're in denial until...oh, about a quarter of the way up. That's when a little respect kicks in--a little late, if you ask me.

Running up to the finish line.
By then you're set on finishing, so you have to shut everything else out of your mind. Which brings up another subject (mind), and how it's really not your friend. I'll elaborate just briefly, as it pertains to this story. Shortly before the gun goes off and I, along with something like 1500 other people dash off, I'm feeling great. Seconds later, I'm in the mass of runners, not even off the streets and onto the trail yet, and the voice in my head says, "This was a bad idea. My Achilles' tendon is already hurting." I ignore it and keep running. About an hour later, I'm not even halfway to Barr Camp (the first major milestone in the race, about halfway up) and starting to realize how freaking huge this mountain is, and how brutal the climb is going to be. "You know, you could turn back now," the voice says. "You could like, pretend to trip and twist your ankle or something. No shame." I keep going. Part of it is that I know that same voice would berate me mercilessly for being a quitter if I were to follow its advice and turn back (I know all about mind, believe me), but mostly it's because I also know that eventually it will get bored and start talking about other, far less germane topics, and it'll become much easier to ignore the bastard. Sure enough, it did. I don't even remember what it was nattering on about.

Not so bad...
I had heard everyone talk about "the golden staircase," the last couple of miles of the trail, and how awful that was going to be. At that point, you're pretty much scrabbling over giant rocks. Oddly enough, when I got to that part of the climb, the cramping relaxed, I got a second wind, and entered a state of freedom. I was still really tired, but I didn't care anymore. It felt pretty great, to tell the truth. Suddenly the finish line appeared in front of me, and I ran across it with my fists in the air and a guttural war cry.

My brother-in-law Bill, who's been running the ascent every year for the last 19 years, only beat me by 10 minutes (and was impressed by my running over the finish line--he had been too exhausted to muster that last bit of energy). "Damn!" that voice said, "if I'd known, I would've tried harder!" Yeah, right.

On top of the world, with medals to prove it.
The view from atop Pikes Peak is pretty amazing. A couple of weeks before, Bill and I had climbed Mt. Massive, the second-highest peak in Colorado (another story!), and the view from there was truly awesome, but with Colorado Springs sprawled out in the distance, it was like looking out of an airplane. The feeling of having gotten there on running/powerwalking feet is impossible to describe.

Possibly the best moment came that afternoon, when a bunch of us were gathered at a Mexican restaurant in Manitou (where there was pretty much nothing I could eat). We were all a couple of sheets to the wind (at least the margaritas were vegan), when someone asked Bill how it had gone for him. He looked over at me and said something like, "I dunno, I think I should become a grasshopper to Alan and let him teach me the ways of a healthy diet." Maybe it was the margaritas, but I felt a pleasant glow come over me.

Checking out my official finisher's shirt.

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