They call it America’s Ultimate Challenge and I have to admit they are right. This past weekend I competed in my first ever Pikes Peak Ascent. I’ve been up the peak before, but I’ve never experienced what I did on Saturday.
Let me start from the beginning. I arrived in Manitou bright and early around 6:30am. I was in the second wave and our start time was 7:30. There were about 1800 competitors this year so the streets of Manitou as you can imagine were crazy. 600 people went off in the 1st wave at 7am and then it was our turn. The Star Spangled Banner was sung, the gun was fired and we were off.
The first leg is through downtown and up Ruxton St. That’s when the reality of what you are doing really begins to sink in and you realize that unlike most other races you’ll be running UPHILL for the next 13 miles. My calves were already screaming as I struggled to control my heart rate and pace myself for the long journey ahead. Once past the cog we ran straight, past the turn that you would normally take to the Barr Trail parking lot. About a half-mile more and we hit Barr Trail. The first switchback slapped me right in the face. Not only was it steep but trying to maneuver with dozens of others on a not so large trail can be challenging. There was a lot of "on your left please."
I have run Barr Trail dozens of times, but usually I am running down after a trip up the incline. Running up the first four miles of trail never seems to get any easier no matter how many times you do it. The first hour actually went by pretty quick and before I knew it I was at the top of the incline and well on my way to Barr Camp. If you’ve ever climbed the peak, you know that this is where you get somewhat of a break as the trail flattens out for a few miles. This was the section that I knew I needed to run so I could make up some time. I felt good and kept up a good pace. I reached Barr Camp in about 1 hour and 45 min. There was a great cheering crowd at the aid station at the camp and I was able to refuel for the second half of the race. But this was also the point where my running slowly turned to a fast hike/walk. I was making good time for the next mile or so and then about a mile from A-frame, something changed. I am going to blame the altitude. I have found that sometimes it affects you and sometimes it doesn’t, but on this day, it got the best of me. By the time I reached the aid station at the A-frame I was hurting. Nausea and dizziness had set in and nothing sounded good except maybe laying down on the rocky trail. I knew that I just had to keep moving. I made it to the 3 mile to go sign still ahead of where I had hoped to be, but the final three miles proved to be ridiculously tough. I took it one step at a time, one breath at a time. Watching the time tick away on my watch, I was suddenly humbled. It’s the exact reason that trees don’t grow at that height, just not enough oxygen. My slow pace got slower I swear with every step and looking up at the top at that point is almost detrimental. It seems like an endless hike to nowhere, the trail going on forever, up into the clouds. But with each passing second I did get closer and pretty soon I was at the Cirque. I tried to eat a few grapes here, which was a bad idea as I almost threw them back up. One more mile was all that was left. The worst mile yet and the slowest at that. Each step your calves scream louder, your lungs fight for more air and you really start to think that climbing a mountain, let alone trying to run up a mountain this high, is crazy! I could hear the announcer at the top, knowing that my pain was almost over. Slowly but surely I made it to the 16 Golden Stairs. Oh they aren’t too Golden at this point, but they do lead to the top! Finally I was within reach and got one final wind and was able to run through the finish as I heard the announcer call out my name. An amazing feeling if you’ve never accomplished a physical challenge like the Ascent. It’s the reason I do these things, that feeling of adrenaline at the end is unlike anything else.
My final time was 4:05. My goal was to beat 4 hours so I was a little disappointed, but I was also humbled. I finished though and that’s the most important thing. On Saturday I told myself that I was totally insane, I will never do that again, but as the days have passed I have started to think about next year. My time qualified me to race in the 1st wave, an advantage when it comes to crowds and so what if? What if I trained just a little harder, pushed just a little more? Could I conquer the mountain even faster? I plan to see in 2011! Oh and Pikes Peak, the Purple Mountain Majesty, looks different now from the streets below in Colorado Springs. I have a new appreciation for her height and her beauty! If you’ve been thinking about racing in the Ascent, do it! You won’t regret it!
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