Sunday, August 21, 2011

The Big Race Update: A Cautionary Tale

Okay, let me start by offering a bit of advice. If you're going to run the Pikes Peak Ascent (or any race, really), don't let your training lapse for the two or three months leading up to it. I think I may have gotten a bit cocky, assuming I was in such great shape generally, that I could do just about anything--like charge 13.32 miles up a 14,115-foot peak after spending most of my time in a kitchen or at a desk, and the weekend prior at a low elevation. Nutritionally, I'd been doing everything right. I live at 7,800 feet, and I have done some hiking and biking in the last two months. How hard could it be?

Passing the "Garden of the Gods." with the peak in the distance.
I slept four hours the night before, and then lay awake in the dark waiting for the alarm, set for 5:30. I got up, suited up, had my ginseng-astragalus tea, and waited for my brother-in-law to pick me up at 6:00.

The ride to Manitou Springs at sunrise was pretty gorgeous, as usual. I shot a couple of pictures of the peak with my iPhone as we headed in. (You can click on the images to enlarge them.)

Starting line, downtown Manitou, at 6:45 AM.
We were in the "second wave" of runners, starting at 7:30, but we had some friends who were in the "first wave" taking off at 7:00, so we went early enough to watch them go.

As always, some lady sang "America the Beautiful," and then the gun went off. At this point, I downed my "Tarahumara running food" concoction, giving me 30 minutes to digest it before the second wave set off. Confidence was high. (Or was that arrogance?)

Shaking the chia. Peak confidence.
When it was our turn, the start ritual was repeated (song and all) and off we went. About four minutes into it, I got my first inkling of just how profoundly my lack of training was going to impact my performance (what had I been thinking would happen?). Oh well, I thought, so I won't beat my time from last year. Then we left the street and headed up the steep trail.

There are two stations on the route that must be reached by specific times, or they turn you around and send you back down. The first is "Barr Camp," 7.6 miles up, at 10,200 feet. At this point, you've gained just shy of 4,000 feet. Last year, I was ahead of the cutoff time by about an hour; this time I had only about 15 minutes to spare--not a good sign, because that left me scrambling to make the "A-Frame," at 11,800 feet, in time. For reference, last year I pretty much sailed by Barr Camp; this time I was already feeling spent.

I picked up a heart-shaped rock and texted a picture to my wife with the words "@Barr camp," as a proof-of-life/progress report. Then I downed some electrolytes and a packet of chocolate goo, and pushed on.

As an aside, there are two reasons you want to make the cutoffs: 1) most obviously, if you don't, you can't finish the race. 2) if you miss it by a second, you have to walk all the way back down, with tired knees, stopping your entire weight with each step. Hard as it is going up, the prospect of going down is worse. I can't imagine the marathon, run the next day, which is all the way up and all the way down. Runners get to the finish line bruised and bloodied from fatigue-stumbling falls.

The "A-Frame," a campsite at 11,800 feet.
The climb to the A-Frame was grueling. My leg strength was all but gone, although thankfully I had minimal cramping. As I pulled in, mere minutes before the cutoff, I heard a line from the song playing on the loudspeaker: "...but did I crumble, did I lay down and die? Oh no, not I! I will survive!" For some reason, that perked me up, which was good, because they were running low on water and had begun rationing. We only got a couple of cups apiece. The next station was 1.8 miles further up, and we were just crossing treeline, so there would be no more shade to offer respite from the high altitude sun. Oh--and we had less than two hours to reach the top, another 2,315 feet of vertical, or the whole exercise would be without reward.

Passing treeline, 12,000 feet.
At treeline, the landscape is surreal, as vegetation becomes sparse, with lots of gnarled remains of once-living evergreens. I spotted another heart-rock and texted a picture to my wife, waiting at the top, with a terse "@A frame." She didn't get this until about 45 minutes later, which was somewhat alarming. Coverage is spotty up there.

Fortunately, there was plenty of water at the "Cirque," the last station before the final 1.42 mile, 815-foot vertical climb to the finish line. That doesn't sound like very far to go, and I had almost 45 minutes left, but funny things happen to your body at this elevation--after you've pushed and pulled it 11.9 miles up the mountain at a steady clip. I stopped snapping pictures and went as fast as my remaining strength would allow.

Pale and winded, just past the finish line.
About a mile below the top, you can hear the race announcer and the cheers, which makes you think you're almost there--but it seems to take forever to scramble over the that last stretch of big rocks they call "the golden staircase." Then, when you least expect it, finally the finish line appears, not twenty feet away. I gathered everything I had left in me, and ran across. I had finished with four minutes to spare, and actually beat 12 other people (not counting all the ones who came in late). For this, I got a medal and a finisher's T-shirt, and a listing in the race results. That may sound anti-climactic, but you have no idea how validating it is after all you put out to reach the top.

It took me an hour and fifteen minutes longer than last year, but hey--I finished!
Now back to that bit of advice: if you're going to enter a race, especially an uphill one at high elevation, don't neglect your training! In the immortal words of Alexander the Great, "Train hard, fight easy."



  1. Alan, I'm totally proud of you. I know how debilitating the high altitude can be, not to
    mention the grunt of running.
    You're amazing! on many levels that is.
    Barb B.

  2. Congratulations on your ascent. I know you are an inspiration to others.


  3. Wow. Didn't know this side of you. I thought your wife was the wilderness buff in your family! Big kudos and well-deserved congrats. My friend and I were doing the Williams Canyon trail in Manitou at the time and I suffered greatly because I hadn't done one bit of exercise for weeks and weeks. What happened to the addage...age is just a state of mind!!! Love the posting. Jill

    PS The Wise Cracks novelette is awesome. My friend asked where she could buy it (after a session in my bathroom- well, where else would a title like Wise Cracks belong?)and I told her Amazon...right?