Pikes Peak

16-Aug-03

By: Bill Oliver


Some seven years ago on a Labor Day weekend I participated with Mark Persons, an old adventure buddy, in the "Run to the Top" - the top being Mt. Baldy. At 10,064' the summit is the high point of LA County. I think the route was something like 7 miles and 4,000' gain. Although I didn't beat Mark, I felt like I had kicked some ass by actually jogging much of the course. Mark subsequently had a somewhat serious notion about running in the "Pikes Peak Ascent" in Colorado, which tops out at 14,110'. Trust me - I never entertained such a wild notion!

Then last summer I moved to the base of Pikes Peak in Colorado Springs! The Barr Trail is the standard route up this sucker- 12.6 miles and 7510' gain. The Mt. Whitney Trail, by contrast, goes for only 10.7 miles with only 6135' gain up to 14,495'. Unlike Whitney, however, Pikes Peak offers three ways down: the Barr Trail, the cog railway (opened in 1891), or the highway (completed in 1916).

Hiking the Barr Trail several times to Barr Camp (about the half way point), I was surprised and impressed by the hoards of people running the trail. Going RT to the summit one day, I was sorta annoyed to have a few people running past me in the last half mile. All these insane folks were training for the Pikes Peak Ascent and/or round-trip Marathon - run on consecutive days in mid-August. Although they don't attract many foreign runners, contestants come from all over the country to compete in these two events - many of them regularly and most of them from non-mountainous areas! I was starting to entertain a certain wild notion!

I signed up ($55) last February for the 48th running of the Pikes Peak Ascent - "America's Ultimate Challenge," also known locally as "The Race with an Altitude." By sometime in April the 1800 Ascent slots are always gone (800 for the marathon). Of course, I never intended to actually run this sucker. The course "closes" after 6.5 hours, and I figured that with serious training I could probably make that in a steady, brisk walk.

Two weeks ago I put this hypothesis to the test and made the summit in just under six hours. This was non-stop except for 15 minutes at Barr Camp. That was promising - with two significant caveats, however. (1) The PPA doesn't start at the Barr Trailhead! That simply wouldn't be feasible with so many runners. The start is in front of the Manitou Springs City Hall - 1.3 miles away and about 300 ft lower. The Ascent Race, then, is officially listed at 13.32 miles and 7815' gain. (2) In the last hour of my ascent I endured extensive and dramatic leg cramps. I had never experienced this before so it was quite startling. It wasn't actually very painful and it disappeared once I got to the top, but it did slow me down and I had to keep massaging various leg muscles. I'm sure some of these muscles don't even have names. Whatever - next time I would stretch more and consume electrolyte-powdered water, yuck.

OK - The 48t~1 running of the Pikes Peak Ascent was yesterday, and the round-trip full marathon was today. Oh, I think I failed to mention that 1 had signed up for the Second Wave. The First Wave (folks who expected to run most of the course) was off at 7:00. The Second Wave (folks who expected to walk most of the course) was off at 7:30. Roughly equal in size, each start was preceded by a less-than-rousing rendition of "America the Beautiful" - whose lyrics were composed on the summit in 1893 by Katherine Lee Bates.

Sitting at the curb before the gun, I chatted with a dude who drove in a couple of days earlier from Oregon. This was his first time. The highest he had been able to train at was about 5,000 ft. An old climbing buddy, Diann Fried, commonly flies in from LA every year for the race (First Wave), although she couldn't make it this year. I felt vaguely smug living at 6300 ft. In any event, I think most of us shared a simple, common goal -just to finish. That would mean getting on top NLT 2:00 pm.

I was hoping I would take a good crap Friday night. Didn't happen. I tried again early Sat. and then at the Porta-Potties. Didn't happen. Crap! What do world-class triathletes do? Although I've never seen any articles about it, they must take something to purge themselves - either that or they just unload in their shorts (that's why they always wear black). Trying to save weight, I brought a single Rantex (medicated butt wipe) and 18 toilet paper sheets. I also rationed myself to eight Ricola lozenges. Right - I was determined to make this a Personal Record!

Commonly, the race ends before the afternoon thunderstorms break. Commonly is no guarantee, however. So, I had a fanny pack with raingear; also a Camelback pack with extra water, which would allow me to hydrate continually. Neither of these items was conducive to running, as was immediately clear at the flat start.

This event has tons of awesome volunteers, and they somehow managed to deliver unlimited amounts of water and/or Gatorade at five more or less evenlyspaced waypoints. I was toting two Power Bars, two granola/fruit bars and some honey mustard pretzels. The first 1.3 miles give folks a chance to spread out some, but it was still pretty tight as we hit the Barr Trail. The pace, however, was about what I wanted, and you just get used to saying "excuse me" a lot. We were all well-behaved and I never saw anyone being a jerk. By half way to Barr Camp runners were no longer consistently tight.

Barr Camp was a chance to stretch the leg muscles, pee and change my socks - the only time I would sit down. World-class triathietes must know how to change socks on the fly. Then I was off again. I loved seeing the markers that announced how many miles were left to the end - and I treasured each one. The volunteers unfailingly cheered us on throughout the day - even for folks like me nowhere near the front. I hated it, though, when anyone said - "only one more hill to go."

We were blessed with great weather - very mild at the start, just a little too warm up the early switchbacks, and finally a chilly breeze near the top. The trail is mostly compact dirt, great for running. The last two miles get a little rocky - most notably the "Sixteen Golden Stairs." Mid-way up the second half folks were quite spread out, and it was much easier to pass then when people were congested. 1 felt I was making decent time - certainly enough to finish before the course closed. However, because I was pushing myself rather than taking a more relaxing pace, I was getting kinda tired. Well, hello, so were all the people around me. In the last mile or so I paused three times for about 15 seconds just to catch a few extra breathes. My right leg started to cramp slightly, and I immediately informed said muscles that that behavior would be quite unacceptable. I also paused to stretch three times. Actually, I was getting real tired, and I longed for it to be over within my lifetime.

Normally, looking up one cannot readily make out the trail above. Now full of runners (read walkers), it was kinda discouraging to see how it seemed to zigzag all over the freakin' mountain. The crowded summit area was finally in view, however, and soon I could hear the topside commotion. About 30 seconds before the finish, the PA system noted that Bill Oliver was about to arrive. Hey, I know that guy! No one was very close to me as crossed the line at 1:10 pm. A big clock under the Finish Banner told me it was 5 hours, 39 minutes and 58 seconds from the start - and then someone placed a way-too-heavy medallion around my neck. YES - a personal record! I hugged the lady who came in behind me.

Volunteers were poised to help people move away from the finish. I didn't need help as I vectored on the table loaded with oranges, bananas and grapes - and then stretched. Vans were lined up to take us back down the mountain. The winding road is about 20 miles long and takes a good hour. About a third the way down, a young lady in the front passenger seat threw up into a bag. She subsequently asked the driver if that happens very often. He said that in several years of doing this, there's always one person who throws up. This probably didn't make her feel any better, but I know the rest of us suddenly felt relieved!

The winning time was 2:13:29. This 39-yearold dude from Alamosa, CO. had never been on the course before and had never run above 12,000 feet. When he got to the top, he just kept running in circles for several minutes. The course record, set in 1993, is 2:01:06. Iranked l426among 1605 finishers. The oldest finishers, both male and female, were in their mid-seventies! [The winning marathon time today was 3:43:46; the course record being 3:16. Matt Carpenter won again, and he holds all the records!]

I was really glad this sucker was finally over, that I had finished before the course closed, and that I could now stop all the training. I hate training for stuff like this - as it takes a lot of time away from other adventures I'd rather be doing. On the other hand, I love doing things that I once imagined I could never do. Next year, if I'm in town, I'll see about being a volunteer. The most surprising event of the day occurred as I crossed the finish line. Suddenly and with no warning I just cried, and I had to sit down and let it happen. My initial reaction, beyond amazement, was that I was glad I was wearing my dark glasses. After about 1.8 seconds I decided it was OK, and I saw that I wasn't alone.

I finally made it home - and immediately got out the low-fat ice cream. That was OK too!

[Bill Oliver has run a few half and full marathons about 20 years ago, and he has climbed all the California l4ers. At age 60, however, this is his first combination!]


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