Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Oxygen Is So Overrated, AKA Pikes Peak Marathon Report

Confession: I freely admit that I was not sure if I would finish this race or not. That had nothing to do with the average 11% grade or the weather or anything else; it was more that I really didn't know how my body would do at elevation. The highest I can get in Tucson is 9300', and once in New Mexico when I drove up to the top of a 12,000' peak I had major trouble (dizziness, trouble breathing, etc). I had this fear going into the race that my heart would explode as I got up to 14,000'. Oxygen is available on the trail if you need it, but you're disqualified if you use it. I was determined to keep moving unless I was physically incapable of putting one foot in front of the other. Now, without further delay, the report:

Saturday morning. According to the wisdom of the message board for the Pikes Peak Marathon, there are only two ways to deal with the altitude of the race if you are a flatlander: either arrive three weeks early and give your body time to adjust, or arrive as close to the race start as possible and just do the race before your body has time to realize what happened to it. I picked the second one.

Saturday evening: packet pickup in Manitou Springs. At this marathon you don't get the shirt unless you finish the race, i.e., no shirts were being handed out with the packets. I like this! You should have to EARN that finisher's shirt. This marathon has a time limit of ten hours, with various cutoff times throughout the race. I am a crappy trail runner but surely I can make 26.2 miles in 10 hours, right? RIGHT? The Ascent race was today and all the returned runners are milling around Memorial Park talking about how much fun they had. Everyone looks to be in good shape so maybe I am scaring myself unnecessarily about the difficulty of this event. (I don't really consider it a race so much as an endurance event, since I will be mainly trying to survive as opposed to racing.) Then I look up -- and up, and UP -- at Pikes Peak, all rocky and bare of trees and impossibly high above the town, and it is incomprehensible that I will be getting up there on foot tomorrow.

Saturday night: Dinner is the pre-race pasta feed in Memorial Park, all-you-can-eat watery spaghetti, baked potatoes, and carrot cake. Tim and I stuff ourselves and listen to Marshall Ulrich speak. He is one of those crazy ultrarunners who did all the prerequisite "normal" crazy stuff like Badwater, all the 100-milers, etc, a long time ago and has now moved on to the super crazy stuff like running across America and running the Leadville 100 one day and then the Pikes Peak Marathon the following day. I'm a sucker so I buy his book, since his theme is: "You can do more than you think you can." I look up at the Peak, now all covered in dark, scary clouds, and hope that is true.

Sunday morning: Race day! I've had my McDonalds Egg McMuffin meal and I'm ready. (Don't laugh. All my best races start out with McD's.) Last night was a violent storm with torrential rain and thunder and lightning. It was nice to listen to while lying in the comfortable bed in the Victorian B&B we stayed at, but I couldn't stop wondering what was going on up there at 14,000 feet.

Start Line: There is no line for the Porta-Potties, something I have never experienced at any marathon. The Ascent had double the number of runners that the marathon has; that probably explains the abundance of Porta-Potties. It is a bright, sunny, warm morning and race officials report that the temperature at the top is 44. That's not bad at all. I take deep breaths of the wonderful, cool, dry mountain air and listen to local runners complain about the heat. That makes me want to laugh. The high temperature for today will be upper-80's to low-90's but that is the coolest weather I've experienced for months. Lots of other things may be problematic for me today, but I am willing to bet heat won't be one of them.

Race Start: I wave at Tim, who is holding the video camera, as we head out of Manitou Springs. The road goes up but not steep. It is easily runnable, even for me who stinks at hill running. Then we hit the little road that leads to Barr Trail and everyone en masse stops running and starts walking. My God, this is steep. I didn't even know roads could be this steep. I don't know what the grade is but I'm sure it's at least 15 or 16%, maybe even more.

Onto the Trail: Mercifully, that steep road ends and we get to the trail part. It switchbacks up the mountain and is slightly less steep than the road was but is so narrow that passing is difficult. The grade there is probably close to the one on the Aspen Trail going up to Radio Ridge. The trail itself is practically pristine compared to gnarly Tucson trails like Phoneline and Blacketts. Hardly any rocks to speak of although there are plenty of roots. Most people are still walking. Every so often someone squeezes by and passes. I do pass a couple people but not many. Most people seem content to just walk, and that was the advice given for people who just want to make sure they finish and are not racing for time.

Mile 3(ish): We finish the switchbacks and can look down on Manitou Springs. My God, it is tiny! Hard to believe we've come so far up in just a few miles. Pikes Peak, on the other hand, looks just as far away as before. I look at my watch and we're at just about 8000'. I decide not to look again in case the sight of the elevation numbers triggers anxiety. The trail gets really nice here. Still climbing, but lots of room to pass and not quite such a horrendous grade.

Aid Stations: They rock. I cannot imagine the logistic difficulty of getting all this water, Gatorade, food, garbage cans, etc out onto this trail. The organization is as good as at any big-city marathon, better than many. And these people know what runners want. Every aid station we pass through has all of the following: water, Gatorade, pretzels, Goldfish crackers, M&M's, grapes, oranges, and bananas. I have never seen a more impressive buffet line at an aid station. I am especially glad that they have plenty of salty foods, although eating them proves to be a little hard. I grab a handful of Goldfish because they look delicious but then discover that chewing them takes a lot of energy, energy that is better used putting one foot in front of the other. So instead I just hold them in my mouth in a gummy lump and wait for them to dissolve. I stick to my salt tablets after that.

The Middle Miles: It is actually possible to do some running in the middle. There is even some downhill! The trail is wide and beautiful here. It meanders through pine forests. There is plenty of shade and it's not hot at all. Who needs oxygen when the trail is this pretty?

10,000': The trail turns narrow, and almost technical for the first time. The grade gets steep again. I still don't have a headache, and am not nauseous or having any more trouble breathing than I do on any steep trail at 4000' or 5000' back at home. I'm in better shape than a lot of people and pass them pretty easily. No one is running now though. If you have energy to talk, you're doing pretty well. Somewhere in here we hear loud cheers and screams coming from above us. It is Matt Carpenter, the King of Pikes Peak, cruising downhill to his umpteenth victory. This provides a much-needed boost to all of our spirits as we start looking forward to seeing more downhill runners. Matt is so far ahead that we don't see another runner for about 20 minutes after he passes.

Timberline: One second there are trees all around me, and five steps later I am out on the rocks looking down at the trees below me. Suddenly I am at the bottom of Pikes Peak looking up at the top of it. Just 2.5 miles to go; I might actually make it!

To the Top: The trail switchbacks through a boulder field with about 1800' to gain in 2.5 miles. Here is where the notorious "zombie line" starts -- a long line of "runners" now just shuffling along, gasping for air, staring at the ground. If you look up you can see an impossibly long zigzag line of brightly-colored running clothes disappearing towards the top. I only look up once and do not do that again. I'm still in pretty good shape compared to most people. I'm not running, but I don't feel like I can't breathe. I pass a lot of people in the zombie line. Nevertheless, it takes me 35 minutes to do the last mile. This is partly because I'm slow but also because the trail is narrow and every time a downhill runner comes by the uphill runners have to pull over and let them pass. This is an argument for going out a little faster next time. There are hundreds of downhill runners passing so even though I am grateful for every tiny rest break, it really slows me down.

Summit! 14110'. Tim is out there with the video camera, having driven up to the summit after dropping me off. It is so good to see him. I get to the top and the volunteers are yelling, "Turnaround here, rest behind us." Rest sounds pretty good so I go and hang out by the aid station, eating grapes and pretzels. I am not in a hurry. I take a picture of my Garmin showing the elevation, and even try to upload it to Facebook (but can't because of no Internet). Finally after about 5 minutes I decide it's time to go.

Racing Back to Timberline: The clouds at the top, which had been brilliantly white and puffy earlier, are now dark and there isn't much sun left at all. I wave goodbye to Tim and head down. It is nice to have all the uphill runners yielding to me. The trail is so crowded (and slightly technical at this point, really calling for some rock-hopping skills) that I still can't settle into a good pace. This is too bad because we're starting to hear thunder, and soon after that it starts to sprinkle. I know they have called off this race because of lightning in the past and don't want to be caught up here if they do it again, so I run as fast as I can. It seems to take forever to get to timberline. I pass quite a few walking wounded, and some not walking. There are a lot of people just sitting on boulders with their heads in their hands, some being tended to by Search and Rescue. I don't know why some people get altitude sickness and some don't, but I just feel lucky that I feel basically fine. My only problem is that I really have to pee. I have had to since the start, actually, and somehow forgot to during my leisurely rest at the summit 100 yards from a bathroom. I remembered within two switchbacks after starting the descent that I had to pee, but there was no way I was going back up for that and nowhere to discreetly duck out of sight in a boulder field with no trees. Guess it will just have to wait.

Back in the Trees: It is now raining hard. I have to stop and rearrange the contents of my pack so that my iPhone is stuffed inside my hat and gloves. (Fortunately the rain is not cold enough for me to need hat and gloves.) You all know how I feel about rain but it's not like I had much of a choice but to keep going. A bit further down the trail some guy takes a header onto a rock. He has a wound on his head and there is blood. Everyone stops running and a bunch of people stop to help the guy back up onto his feet. He decides he can keep going so they help him on down to the next aid station. I'm not sure whether he made it out on foot or not. I do pass a guy from the mounted SAR division, riding one horse and leading another, heading up the trail towards the aid station I just passed, so I don't know whether that guy got a ride out or someone else did.

The Next 10 miles: Downhill, wet. Pretty much sums it up. I am running by myself so much of the time that I almost think I took a wrong turn somewhere. I finally have to stop and pee in the woods. I hate doing that; I will never be one of those outdoorsy girls who just pees anywhere without giving it a second thought. I like toilets, thank you very much. But I do feel much better afterwards.

Best Aid Station Volunteer Ever: As I stumble into the Mile 22 aid station, a crew of cheerful volunteers in rain slickers offers me all the usual good stuff. "Something salty? Or a banana?" one girl asks. "Oh, banana, I guess..." I mumble. Then the girl says, "How about some salt ON the banana?" Oh my God! Yes! That's EXACTLY what I want and no one but a runner would understand that. She peels my banana and sprinkles salt on it and that salty banana tastes awesome. Thank you, anonymous volunteer!

The Finish: It stops raining and the last couple miles of trail are beautiful and easy. Then the course hits pavement for the last mile and that is a brutal shock to the body after all those miles of soft dirt. I really want to slow down or maybe even walk but it is impossible; there are too many cheering spectators. So instead of walking I go faster. The announcer reads off the name of every single finisher, which is awesome. Then it's all over and into the usual routine of trying not to throw up on the person hanging the medal over my neck. Finish time is 7:12. I predicted seven hours but was totally okay with 7:12. At least it wasn't ten hours!

*Altitude not only did not kill me, it barely even affected me. (Although, interestingly enough, we drove to the summit the day after and I was very short of breath then. So I guess I can run up to 14000' but driving there is a bad idea.)
*Tucson trails are steep enough to provide plenty of good training for this marathon.
*Long-sleeved shirt and shorts with gloves and hat in my pack was absolutely the right choice for this marathon.
*I could've done better. I trained lazy (walking whenever I felt like it) so, as usual, my performance on race day reflected my training. Funny how that works. When I get home I am going to dig that heart rate monitor out of the drawer where it's lived for the past three years and use it, so I don't lie to myself anymore about how hard I'm working or not working. With the heart rate monitor I will know.
*I am definitely hooked on trail running, even though I still hate it, too. I said before this marathon that my feelings about it would determine whether I signed up for the OP 50 next year. Needless to say, I'm going to.
*Everyone should step out of their comfort zone once in a while and do something like this. After having "run" up Pikes Peak and run down it, I really feel like anything is possible.
*Colorado is a fantastically beautiful place. It's hard to leave.


  1. Great blog Christie. Really enjoyed reading about your adventure. As a 6-time Ascenter (a new word) I cannot begin to appreciate what it takes to go down as well - that's the tough part in my mind. Congratulations!

    All the best!

  2. Catching up on some blog posts about Pikes. Thanks for sharing this great report. Hope to see you at Pikes in the future.