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Race Report: Pikes Peak Marathon 2015

I know I haven’t posted in a little while, and I apologize. I’ve been a little busy recently with a race, my 30th birthday, moving, and asking my girlfriend to marry me… Yeah, let’s talk about the race.

If you ever come to Colorado Springs and ask the locals about their famous mountain they may tell you (over and over again, long after you’ve begged them to stop) how Pikes Peak served as the inspiration for “America the Beautiful.” They may glance up at it, and mention that the reason the top half appears to be a different color than the surrounding mountains is there are no trees anywhere near its 14,000 foot summit, because at those elevations there’s not enough oxygen for them to grow. But if for some reason you ask while wearing sweat bands over every conceivable extremity you may just get them to mention that yes, every year a collection of brain dead primates do gather from all over the world to hold a race from base to summit. And even worse, for those special few already destined by genetics to discover that drool and blank expressions are more than just a casual fashion statement, there’s a second race that doesn’t stop at the top, instead turning around and charging all the way back down. I guess to ensure the suicide sticks.

The last two years I’ve done that summit run, known as the Pikes Peak Ascent. This year I’d finally accumulated enough head injuries to take a shot at coming down under my own power as well, and running the full Pikes Peak Marathon. I’m not gonna lie, this race scared the hell out of me. Setting aside the fact that it continually makes lists of “World’s Toughest Marathons,” I’ve also come to realize that my strengths as a runner lean pretty heavily towards relatively brief burst of power, which can carry me all the way through shorter races or sustain my speed on HILLS when everyone else starts to flag. Pikes Peak is not a hill. And, frankly, my first four flatland marathons (a race distance I’d only signed up for originally to start preparing for Pikes Peak) had all ended pretty badly from a physical stand point. They say, optimally, you’re supposed to cover the second half of a race slightly faster than the first half. Instead of speeding up I typically spend the second half of a marathon wondering how bad it would really look if I crossed the finish line alternately crawling and rolling curled up in a fetal ball. Distance is not my forte. I absolutely expected this monster of a race to take a full sized bite out of my ass, and only if I was incredibly lucky could I limit it to that.

With all those thoughts floating through my mind on race morning I lined up with my wave, breathed deep through the countdown, and, stepped over the start line. You run a fine line with the beginning of this race. The first mile and a half is wide open street, but the second you hit the trail proper you’re looking at a few miles of switchback heavy singletrack, which makes passing a nonstarter for many racers, and a pain in the ass for the rest of us. You don’t want to go out too fast, shoot your load, and burn out early, but if you save too much gas you might find yourself boxed down for a significant portion of the early race. I lazed out of the gate as much as I dared, but, as per usual, my early pace was way faster than people with actual self control would consider reasonable, and I found myself catching the tail end of the first wave in less than half a mile, despite their two minute head start. I fretted about slowing down a little, but decided the alternative of getting stuck with these people, who were already going slower than I was comfortable with, was worse, and instead poured in a little extra speed to leave them behind. By the time we hit Barr Trail I’d opened up a pretty good lead on most of wave two, and zipped past at least half of wave one.

After about four miles of trail the inclines finally start to even out (and occasionally turn into a downhill) and some space opens up. This is where you start to find out how well you paced yourself early. If you did it right, you should start passing some of the pokier kids who’ve already worn themselves out. If you’re like me, and you blew over the start line like a cat who hears an electric can opener, you’ll get to feel an occasional breeze as the oncoming horde begins repassing you. To be fair my pace over this portion of the race was pretty good all things considered, but I did see a lot tail lights sidle on by me and fade off into the distance which is a cute way of saying I’d run too close to the front of the race and even if I could hit my own pace marks everyone around me was just plain a better runner. So the second they opened up at all I became an object that absolutely was not closer than it appeared.

You only get to enjoy this relatively easy section for a few miles before you hit the eponymous Barr Camp and just after that things turn to shit. The trail gets pretty damn technical here (unless you’re one of those runners who routinely spends more of their week with marmots and trail mix than people), and it’s still early enough in the morning that most of the dew hasn’t had a chance to evaporate, leaving those rocks and tree roots that suddenly comprise most of the foot space a little slick. And it’s further complicated by the fact that the incline’s back and making up for lost time. Oh, and since you’re somewhere between 11,000 and 12,000 feet above sea level now, the oxygen’s getting a little scarce too. You just have to accept that unless you’re one of those racers powered by a dark pact with the Satan figures from multiple religions (the power of one isn’t going to be enough here) the Pikes Peak races involve at least some walking. Hell some people just treat the entire race like one long power hike. But I’m proud to say up to this point I’d probably “run” 90% of the way. From here to the top though, that number was going to dwindle significantly. I took refuge in a group of 5 or 6 runners and we kept each other honest by trying to pass the second anyone walked too long.

Eventually we managed to haul ourselves up past tree line, where the final portion of the race switches things up one last time. The trail looks like it evens out again, with most up the uphill progress taking place in the corners of the switchbacks where you have to do some boulder scrambling (this is an optical illusion by the way, if you look up the mountain you can see the trail is progressing much more steeply above you than it appears to be when you get to it, I guess it’s just after all the climbing you’ve already done, what’s left in front of you doesn’t look quite so bad). What’s more, with all the trees gone, so are all the roots tangling up the trail, and except when you’re climbing those boulders it’s all pretty open and clear. Seems like a great place to pick up the pace a little, and make up for some lost time as you “gun it for the summit.” Or it would be, if you weren’t already so damn tired, and it wasn’t so damn high, so there would be some more god damn oxygen… Sorry where was I? Right uh, most people aren’t going to get above a fast walk here, and I’ve seen a lot of people spend as much, or even more time above tree line as they do in the entire rest of the race combined, even though it’s only a three mile stretch to the summit, compared to the 10+ they’ve already covered. All things considered I was happy to find myself nudging the dial forward a little from time to time, and staggering past “trudge” to “resembles human.” Or I was, until the runners ahead of me started to come back down. Look, there’s no question we should clear out of the way for the faster runners. They’ve earned that privilege. It is a race after all. But on a trail that can get as narrow as this one, I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t a giant pain in the ass, that absolutely slows you down. Especially as you hit the last area before the summit, named the Sixteen Golden Stairs, that’s essentially just one long series of boulder scrambles (and don’t ask me about the name, they don’t resemble stairs, none of them are remotely golden, and there’s a hell of a lot more than sixteen of them) where it can be borderline impossible to get out from under foot. If you’re more Zen than me you’ll take each sidestep as an opportunity to catch your breath and refocus, I was using them to pad out the cancerous ball of resentment I lug around on my back.

I finally hit the summit, and was actually feeling pretty good. I took a few seconds to gather myself (and revel in the adulation of the crowd), until I noticed one of the volunteers point to the incoming clouds and ask how much lighting they would need to see before shutting this thing down and pulling runners off the course. That’ll get you moving. Terrified all this effort was gonna be wasted, I lurched back onto the trail and started my descent. Immediately I discovered two complications: First, all those boulders make running downhill a tricky proposition, because you can’t just hop off of them. My legs were already in enough distress to consider amputation and weren’t willing to take the impact, so I had to slow down during every approach, and carefully, lightly, step through. Second, the oxygen deprivation leaves a lot of buzzed out zombie runners blankly drifting along, too confused to get out of the way for the downhillers… or they’re just being self important assholes. Probably some of each actually. In any case my pace was lagging quite a bit behind what I was hoping for in this section, considering the downhills were a refresh for my legs (note, refresh, rather than fresh new hell, which would come later).

Once I hit tree line and reentered the more technical area I was forced to slow down even further, but still ended up flailing my arms wildly like a D grade Peter Pan every four steps or so when my exhausted legs continually failed to lift quite high enough to clear the myriad of obstacles. I was striking my feet so hard and so often that at one point I got a pretty big pebble in my right shoe and couldn’t stop to get it out because I was sure I’d broken at least one toe, and if I pulled off the shoe to dump it, I assumed my foot would swell too quickly to get the shoe back on. Which left me limping along, waiting for the nerves to deaden enough to ignore it.

About a mile past Barr Camp the predicted rain finally swept in, bringing back my panic about them closing the course, and fueled by terror and Gatorade I started to up my pace. Timewise, I knew I’d hit the summit pretty fast, but I also knew my descent so far was way slower than I wanted it to be, and honestly, downhill or not, I was expecting to slow down even further as exhaustion set it. I’d set my expected finish time at 6 hours and 50 minutes during sign up, and figured, if things broke just right, I might be able to skim that 50 down to half an hour. After a couple miles chugging along in the rain I glanced at my watch and realized I wasn’t slowing. I was speeding up. In fact, if I could just hold serve I was going to do significantly better than my best case scenario. And if I could dig deep enough to go just a little bit faster…

Up to this point I’d been saving a little something to carry me through the backstretch, and I finally dared enough to start emptying that last tank. And let me tell you, I’m glad there weren’t too many people on the trail that day because my terror face as I skidded through switchbacks at full speed, inches from dumping myself ass over tea kettle off the trail and into a very long fall, is probably something I’d never live down if anyone had been around to see it. But was it fast enough? The trail itself has two different sets of markers, some rusted out signs, and more recently placed wooden half mile posts. Neither of them agree about how far you are from anything, and neither do the temporary signs put up by the race people, or the distance to the finish line the volunteers and bystanders would yell at you as you passed. I might have still been speeding up. Hell, if I was comparing the wrong signs and inspirational calls, I might have been going backwards. In the end, even if they had all been in sync, I was probably too run addled to do the math.

When we finally slipped off the trail I blew by one last runner like he wasn’t even moving, set my sights on another one about 40 yards ahead, reached inside, and realized I had nothing left to give. So instead, I leaned my head back into the rain (which was pouring to point that the worry center of my brain had shifted from fretting about the course shutting down due to lightning and moved into it being flooded out, a recurring problem in this section of Manitou), felt it wash over my face, settled in for the last half mile, and wondered if I could make it. When I turned the last corner, and the finish line came into view, maybe twenty yards away, I damn near cried, and probably should have too. With all the rain I’m sure no one would have noticed. Besides, with a final time of 5:49, more than an hour faster than my prediction, I’d damn sure earned it.

The finish is actually built into the med tent and I was tempted to finally take off my shoe and see if I could get that possibly broken toe looked at, but over the protests of one or two members of the med staff who kept calmly asking me to sit down, and if I could take fluids (as I was drinking fluids there in front of them) I collected my medal and quickly walked out. I had one last thing to do. Completing the Pikes Peak Marathon was probably the greatest accomplishment of my life. And would remain so for several minutes. Because as soon as I found her in the crowd, I pulled my girlfriend aside, and there in the pouring rain at the foot of Pikes Peak I climbed a whole different mountain and asked her to marry me.

Overall Impressions: Both the Pikes Peak Marathon and the Pikes Peak Ascent are fantastically well put on races. For the most part the course is gorgeous, from the opening miles through quaint little Manitou Springs (which looks every bit the classic hippy mountain tourist town), to the pine forests that compose most of the upwards trek. Even though the landscape around you gets a little barren once you break tree line, if you can muster the wherewithal to glance away from the trail out into the distance, you start to feel like you can see the entire state of Colorado rolling out beneath you, which can easily take whatever breath you still have away. The aid stations are well spaced, well stocked, and generally staffed by enthusiastic and attentive volunteers absolutely dedicated to getting you through every torturous step (as demonstration of that dedication, I’d like to mention most of the aid station supplies are hand carried up and down the mountain to their locations since there are no roads or ways to move motorized vehicles along this side of Pikes Peak). But make no mistake about it; Pikes Peak is not for the casual runner. The start line is at about a 6,300 foot elevation, which is plenty high for most people as it is, but from there you’re only going to climb until you reach the summit at a little over 14,100 feet. For the math impaired that works out to nearly an 8,000 foot elevation gain in 13 miles. After you reach a certain height you’ll start to notice members of search and rescue everywhere (some of them playing kazoos, and taking song requests, because why wouldn’t they be?) and it’s not for show. That being said, if you think you can handle the elevation (which is not a question of toughness but physiology, I’ve seen it take down people in way better shape than me) the Ascent is absolutely worth challenging yourself with, and comes with my highest recommendations. The Marathon? Look, if the thought of doing something that will only feel like it’s taking longer to kill you than smoking makes you tingle in far away places, then go for it. All the positives for the Ascent apply to the Marathon two fold, plus, on the way down the field really spreads out a bit, combined with the fact that damn near every hiker steers clear of the peak on race day, and it turns your descent into about as isolated a run as you’re ever likely to get on “America’s Mountain,” with the added bonus little aid stations where nice people offer you food along the way. The sole caveat is, if you’re wired to have the drive to do this type of thing, clearing out for the downhill runners is probably gonna make you twitchy as hell. I’ll admit, that’s not as painful as the race itself, but with the wrong kind of mindset, it might seem that way.