There’s nothing quite like lining up at the start of a race and seeing your objective, the finish line, above you… literally 1.5 vertical miles above you! From the main street of the quaint town of Manitou Springs, Pikes Peak glows a majestic purple against a flawlessly blue morning sky. 13 miles of distance and 7,800’ vertical feet stand between us.
This year, I was joined at the starting line by Ryan who was instantaneously out of sight when the starting gun went off, and also by about 100 international elite runners who qualified in their respective countries to race at the World Mountain Running Association (WMRA) Long Distance Challenge which was being held at the Pikes Peak Ascent this year. I lined up in the front surrounded by dozens of runners dressed in their nation’s racing uniform and proudly wearing their country’s flag on the bib pinned to their backside, and beside a handful of other “regular” runners like me. Behind us there were nearly 2,000 more of us.
The first 1.4 miles of the race are a full blown sprint to the end of town where the Barr trail begins. Hold back and you’ll get stuck in a traffic jam the minute the trail narrows. Go out hard and you’ll be red lining before you even leave the asphalt! Pick your poison.
As much as I hate sprinting, I hate bottle-necking even more. I reminded myself that at 13 miles long this whole race was basically a sprint. So out I went with the big dogs as fast as my little legs would take me. The gradual uphill trending street is punishing. Even though my pace here was pretty much the same as last year, it felt significantly less like someone was punching me in the gut. Last year’s race was one big giant sufferfest. This year, I was prepared to revisit that peculiar world of hurt that one temporarily forgets about when registering for the experience all over again. However, I was surprised, as I navigated my way onto the switchbacks on the lower Barr trail and overtook several of the Canadian and Slovenian WMRA runners, that I was actually feeling… dare I say?… quite strong. I savoured the feeling, knowing that it would vanish into oblivion at any moment.
By some miracle, that moment never actually came. The relentless switchback section of the Barr Trail set me into a rhythm that felt good. I focused on overtaking everyone in sight, one after another and sometimes 4 or 5 at a time. The extra effort to surge for a pass was rewarded by a confirmation that I feeling better than last year and better than most of the poor suffering souls on the trail. The straight-away section to Barr Camp offered a chance to accelerate and inhale deeply before hitting the treeline at the A-frame. From here, the summit reveals itself in all its glory. But how can something that looks so close still be so far away?! You can practically see the crowd at the finish line at the top and I was fairly certain I got a whiff of the infamous Pikes Peak summit donut shop. But we were still about 3 miles and 2,500′ away. Lungs gasp, heart races and legs burn. Oxygen is running out. Every little bit of effort consumes an extraordinary amount of precious energy. This is where you have to fight back and simply hope like hell that you’re gonna have a good high altitude day in the face of this suffocating 14,100’ beast.
High altitude is the great equalizer. It doesn’t matter how fit you are, some days your red blood cells bubble in cooperation and you’re able to adjust to the higher heart rate and shallow breathing, other days it’s like you’ve just arrived from Miami with a plastic bag over your head – you feel faint, nauseous and weak, and every part of your body screams to abort the mission.
I overtook an RMR teammate and he called out for me to catch a German and an American WMRA runner ahead of me. I caught the German runner within a mile and pushed on in search of the American who I found stopped and hunched over gasping for air with about a mile to go. Poor woman. I knew that feeling.
In the final quarter mile I arrived at the dreaded 16 Golden Stairs. 16?! Try 28 switchbacks and god only knows how many “stairs”! And then, in an impulsive “why the hell not?!” moment, I reached out and grabbed a mini-cup of beer that a group of rowdy spectators were holding out and taunting all the passing runners with. A quick chug and the golden stairs never felt so smooth! At the 28th switchback another spectator called out: “Right turn, left turn, finish!”. Boom! And like that, I crossed the finish mat in 17th place in a time of 3:00:11 (damn that 11 second beer stop!), a full 13 minutes faster than last year and infinitely happier. I had somehow managed to run faster than all but 14 of the WRMA runners, escape the clutches of hypoxia and have an absolute blast the whole way up the mountain! I doubt I’ll ever be so lucky again!
In the meantime, Ryan was long finished and waiting for me at the summit. Thankfully it was a picture perfect day and our friend Sage had managed to win the race (and the WRMA Championship!) so there was plenty of commotion on the summit.
Ryan had a great day on his first Pikes Peak Ascent coming in 23rd place overall in a time of 2:29:37 and boasts that he was the unofficial British winner since he beat all the English, Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish WRMA runners! He didn’t, however, beat the Mexicans!