Saturday, August 18, 2012

"Just A Glorified Hike" -- Pikes Peak Ascent Race Report

For months now, practically ever since I registered for the Double, I've been calming myself by reminding myself that the Pikes Peak Ascent is "just a glorified hike". Well, after completing it today, I must say that... I'm right! It IS just a glorified hike! God, I love being right. What an awesome feeling.

The Ascent has a wave start with the first wave starting at 7:00 and the second wave starting at 7:30. I was in the second wave due to my mediocre performance at last year's PPM. That was actually fine with me; I was thrilled to have the extra half hour of sleep I won't get tomorrow morning. (The marathon doesn't do a wave start, even though they have two waves for registration purposes.) My mom and sister are here in town to watch me race, so we drove in to the start line area together after getting my requisite McDonalds for breakfast. We're staying in the basement of a very nice house pretty close to the burned area. The burn scars on the hills are visible and some of the burned houses are too. There are houses that burned to the ground right next to houses that weren't touched at all. It's very sad to see the burned houses but encouraging to see how quickly they're cleaning up and starting the rebuilding process. But I digress.

Unlike every other race I've ever been at, there was only one line for the 30 or so Porta-Potties. There was something else I've never seen before -- an event staff person managing the Porta-Potties and pointing people to whichever one was open as soon as it opened up. The volunteer had rolls of toilet paper under both of her arms and was very enthusiastic and loud. She was doing a great job and the line moved extremely fast. Leave it to this race, with its superb organization, to have a Director of Porta-Potties too! God, I love this race, in case I have not mentioned it before.

Weather was beautiful, sunny and clear. I wore tights and a long-sleeved shirt (my OP-50 shirt, for the first time ever) because it was chilly for me at 64 degrees. Brrrrr. Actually I wore the tights because I didn't know how cold it would be at the top and I remembered being freezing in shorts at the top last year when it started raining. Well, I admit I was hot in the tights this year and I should have worn shorts. I was pouring sweat by the time I was a mile into the race. The start line is at 6400' and being that much closer to the sun makes you feel like an ant under a magnifying glass.

The amount of actual running I did in this race was minimal. I ran the first mile out of town. As soon as I started the steep climb at about Mile 1.2 (16% grade), I stopped running like I'd hit a brick wall. So did everyone else. That is actually the steepest climb in the whole ascent until you get to the very last 1/2 mile. It's exhausting and my least favorite part of the course. You have to just hold your nose and get it done, and look forward to the better parts later.

Fortunately everything is better. Even when you can't breathe. The next part of the course is the W's, a series of switchbacks about a mile and a half long. It is possible to do some running on these, though most of the people who were running weren't going much faster than the people who were walking, which was just about everyone. Barr Trail through the W's is narrow, really only wide enough for one person but with room on the side for a second person to squeeze by if they're really in a hurry. Conventional wisdom says Walk the W's, and save energy for later. I will add to that conventional wisdom that I, personally, think it's a good idea to go out fairly hard in the first mile and a half getting out of town. I look at it as, every single person I pass will be a person I don't get stuck behind at the W's. Besides, we will all be walking the W's anyway except for the elite runners, so there's plenty of time to get your energy back from the run uphill out of town.

The next landmark after the W's is the Rock Arch, this cool rock formation that you have to climb through. After that, the first nicely runnable parts of the trail appear. There are even a few (brief) downhill sections. I still haven't ever heard any better trail running advice than "Walk when running's too hard, run when walking's too easy." That's what I do, and even if I can only jog a short distance before slowing to a walk again, it makes a difference in my time.

I think it's Mile 6-7 that is the most runnable. It's a nice long downhill (which becomes a shitty, miserable uphill in the marathon on quads that have by then forgotten how to do uphills, but I didn't have to worry about that today). I passed lots of people on that downhill, including some of the slow people from the first wave. (They had blue bracelets, second wave had purple, so they were easy to identify.) I loved picking off blue bracelets! It was as much fun as picking off fast swimmers on the run part of the aquathlons when I used to do them. Take THAT, "fast runner". Ha.

I don't look at my watch during this particular race. I don't like seeing the elevation numbers and knowing how high I am. It's one thing to know I'm gaining 7800' in elevation; it's another thing to see 13000 on my Garmin. I wasn't going for any particular time so had no idea how I was doing, other than a general awareness that I was doing a little better than I had been last year. I really did not have a problem with the elevation at any point. Oh, sure, it was a little harder to breathe but I sound exactly the same gasping for breath whether I'm climbing up Douglas Spring or Old Baldy or, apparently, Barr Trail. I never got light-headed or headachy or nauseous or anything. The one thing that happened was that my hands swelled up. They looked like what happens if you take a rubber glove and inflate it like a balloon. (I KNOW I'm not the only one who's done that.) I guess it's my bad circulation. All I had to do was raise my hands up in the air for a while and they went back down to normal.

Once I got above treeline, it was exhausting, of course, going through those never-ending switchbacks through the boulder fields. But I was still doing better than most other people. I was still able to walk-jog and even talk to people occasionally. Even though every time I had to lift my foot up I felt like I was pulling it up out of glue, I was moving at a decent pace. Finally when I got past the Cirque aid station I looked at my watch for the first time. Time was 3:55. I was only about 6/10 of a mile from the finish and realized it was totally possible to get in under 4:15, which is the qualifying time for Wave One registration. So I picked up my pace as much as I could and got more assertive about passing people rather than just latching on to the back of the guy with the nicest calves and letting my eyes lock on those calves and going whatever speed he's going for a while.

Unfortunately the last part of the course is the hardest. That section is a bunch of switchbacks called the 16 Golden Stairs. I don't know why they're called that because 1) there are not 16, there are way more, and 2) they are not golden. They stink. It's a section of big busted-up boulders where you have to step up, a lot. I hate step-ups and I especially hate them at 14,000'. I did them, though, and passed loads of suffering people on the way. There were more people sitting on boulders with their heads in their hands than I saw last year. Of course there are twice as many people in the Ascent as in the Marathon, so maybe that's why.

I was looking at the finish line so close above me and looking at my watch and saw that it said 4:14 on it. Crap, I wasn't going to make the 4:15. I did as much of a "sprint" to the top as I could, but it was not fast enough and my Garmin said 4:15:10 when I stopped it. Oh well, I hadn't been trying to make the Wave One qualifying time anyway until I knew I was so close to it, at which point I wanted it insanely badly and didn't get it. I still beat my time from the ascent portion of the marathon last year by eleven minutes. (I am fiercely trying, with limited success, to tell myself that that was because I was faster this year and it was NOT because I didn't have to yield to downhill runners like I did in the marathon. Ha ha, sure that wasn't the reason. Anyway, I can lie to myself if I want because if I'm slower tomorrow I can just say well of course I am, I just ran up this mountain yesterday.)

I feel pretty good actually! I want a nap, but my legs don't feel tired, and when I got to the summit, a part of me wished I was running back down. I don't care much about my ascent time tomorrow but I would like to improve my descent by at least ten minutes over last year's time. This should be possible if I don't waste five minutes hanging out at the summit aid station, and if it doesn't rain and force me to slow down, and if I don't have to stop to pee. Those three things wasted some time on last year's descent.

Surprise happy ending: I checked my chip time online, and it was 4:14:56. YES! Such a stupid little thing to be excited about, but yet here I am, excited.

PPM report tomorrow.

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