Sunday, August 21, 2016

Pikes Peak Marathon 2016

This story begins six years prior. It was August 3, 2010 that I was hiking Pikes Peak for the first time with my father and my very good friend Matt. We were on the Barr Trail making our ascent and found it to be such an enjoyable and inspiring trail. We were hiking on Pikes Peak after an already busy week of summitting 14ers. We had summitted Mts. Harvard & Columbia as well as the Lincoln-Bross-Democrat combination and even San Luis Peak. After such a busy week we were well acclimated and in great shape for the Barr Trail, and it showed. We pushed up the trail with few stops and were feeling great. In fact, I can still recall reaching the 16 Golden Stairs and being ready to almost jog up them. It was there I also was treated to a new sight: a number of men and women running up and down the trail, there, above 13,500 ft. I was amazed to see people able to move so well, so quickly at such an elevation. I thought I had impressed myself just being able to hike well. This was one of my first experiences with trail-running and it was quickly an eye opener. My Dad was aware of the Pikes Peak Marathon and so we talked with awe at these folks and what they were preparing for in such a few short weeks.

The notion of actually running this myself didn't come for a few more years. I would have success at the Chicago Marathon in 2014 and the North Country Trail Marathon in 2015. I would also develop a growing love of trail-running and so the idea finally came to mind. When I had finished North Country, which itself had 3000 feet of elevation change, I started to think I was wanted to try something even more. It didn't take long for my sights to head towards the Pikes Peak Marathon. With my love and experience for hiking the 14ers and my growing skills for trail-running this looked like the perfect combination.

Initial Planning and Registration:
I began to research the PPM and found that registration opens up around 5 months ahead of time.  I set numerous reminders for myself to remember the date and be ready.  It intrigued me how anxious I was as the date approached.  They opened up registration at 2pm Eastern on Saturday March 12.  I was ready to roll as I had thought I heard in previous years things filled up fairly quickly.  Right at 2pm I refreshed my browser a few times and got rolling through the process.  All runners of the PPM were required to have previously run a marathon in the prior two years.  You had to enter the name, time, and URL of results of this previous run for them to verify.  I used my time from 2015's North Country Run.

The race registration was a little pricey and had even gone up $25 from the 2015 price.  It was $175 for the marathon, plus another $13.79 online registration (read: price gouge) fee, and then you were able to make a $10 donation to El Paso County SAR which seemed like a good idea.  

I followed some of the facebook posts of the PPM which noted that within the first hour of registration the Ascent has 1158 of its 1800 runners and the Marathon has 628 of its 800 runners.  But they didn't fill entirely that first day.  After the initial rush I tracked things and found it wasn't until around the morning of March 17 that the Marathon finally filled and the Ascent filled around April 8.  

To get ready for Pikes I made a goal to get as much elevation running as possible.  Here in the flatlands of Michigan this was going to be accomplished by numerous treadmill runs at a high incline as well as frequent runs up and down the sledding hill nearby.  I also wanted to get to the more hilly Rec Areas an hour away when possible.  To help me plan out the long mileage runs and day to day grind I found the 2016 Kal-Haven Trail Run Training Guide somewhere on the web and set out to follow it.  With it I designed a routine of doing my longer runs on Friday mornings and these would be followed up by easy and not quite as long runs on Saturdays.  

I had been doing long training runs (13mi) all the way back to January as prep for earlier races this year and so by the time I got to June I was already well acclimated into training.  It was about the week of June 12 that I started specifically training for Pikes and worked into the training plan.  As is usually the case I was quickly adjusting it with our family having had plans to travel to the U.P. for a week and a half and then two weekend trips to Chicago which messed with the timing of my long runs.  I got my 16-mile and 18-mile training runs in by early July and those were back to back followed by 12 and 10 mile runs.  They all went fantastic.  I then was set for a 15-15 weekend but as things played out I only got in the first 15-miler.  This set me back with a bit of disappointment.  On July 29 I got in my 20-mile run by running the whole Potawatomi loop at Pinckney with an extra two miles on the roads to get 20.  It was exhausting in the humid air but went well enough.  I even got in an 8-miler the following day as the last big step on training.  

As Pikes neared however I felt like I started to run out of gas a bit mentally.  I was just barely getting in the big runs and I wasn't getting in the strength workouts and cross-training that I wanted to.  I wasn't eating well either.  It left me a little bummed and unsure of where my training would leave me come Pikes.  To make sure my legs were fully recovered I really tried to taper hard the last two weeks before the race only getting 26 and then 20 mile weeks in. 

Race Week
In preparing for the Pikes Peak Marathon one of the steps I enjoyed the most was planning out what to do in terms of when to head out to Colorado and what to do in the days I was out there ahead of the race.   There are a few people who argue you should just fly out the day before the race and do it with little-to-no acclimation time.  There is even some scientific, and perhaps some anecdotal, evidence that says this isn't all that crazy an idea.  On the other hand, having been to Colorado dozens of times I also felt getting out 4-5 days early did offer some benefit to be taken.  It also gave me the chance to just enjoy Colorado and hike a few mountains which in the end was the clincher.

I knew I wanted to maximize my high altitude time once I was out there and even researched which towns offered higher elevation than others.  I also debated which 14ers or other peaks would be most reasonable to climb ahead of time to get the high altitude time but yet not over exert myself physically.

I ended up settling on a plan which would have us sleeping in Dillon, CO the first few nights which sits up around 9,000 feet.  My first day out there I would hike La Plata Peak which was easily accessible via our compact rental car and also only a 9.25 mile hike.  The second day my wife and I would drive to Summit Lake on the Mt. Evans highway and I would hike the peak from there with her driving to the summit.  We would then drive down together.  On day three we would head towards the Springs area and drive to the Pikes summit where we would enjoy more high altitude time and then perhaps relax the rest of the day.  This would also be a day to do packet pickup in Manitou Springs.  Day four would be a rest/fun day and perhaps we would hit a zoo.  Day five was race day.

The plan mostly worked very well once it came to fruition.  Come race day my cardio-vascular system felt great and I felt well acclimated for the climb ahead.  We also just enjoyed our time out there and it didn't feel like it was all work or too regimented.  The one mistake, and indeed was nearly a big mistake was how I handled La Plata.  It was a steep trail and I worked it very quickly.  Too quickly.  I knew I had had past issues with creating sore quads when doing too much downhill too quickly and I still let myself move a real fast pace on La Plata.  After the hike I thought I felt good enough, but by the next morning I had some latent soreness creeping into the quads.  I nearly woke up and abandoned the Mt. Evans idea until summit fever got the best of me.  The night after Evans (Thursday night) I knew I might be in trouble as more and more soreness was gripping my quads.  It was a debilitating type of soreness that made going down steps and even maintaining a running trot very painful and difficult.  I became so anxious I slept poorly that night and was up early the next morning so concerned that my over eager approach to La Plata might risk my Sunday race.

I spent Friday moving around gingerly and it hurt to go up and down steps.  I had contemplated doing a bit of hiking around Pikes summit but with the now sore quads it was enough just to walk around the summit building.  That afternoon we stopped by Garden of the Gods in CO Springs and it was painful going downhill on any of the trails.  

I became very nervous about what would come on Sunday.  I prayed and prayed that enough healing would come that I could just make it.  I even began to run the numbers of what it would look like to power-hike the whole peak and just make it under the 10 hour cut-off.  After all of the time and training put in I felt so ashamed that I might have ruined it and would make a fool of myself out on the peak on Sunday morning.

For me, it wasn't just about finishing the race on Pikes.  It wasn't even about making the 10-hour cutoff time.  I knew I could do both.  I feel this is true with all races I've signed up for.  For me its not about finishing, its about finishing well for me.  Its about running the race with the challenge of getting a time that is in line with what I think I can, or I should do.  Its always a race against myself.  And its part of that personal challenge and even personal pride that makes running and racing so enjoyable for me.  

As Saturday came my wife and I spent the day leisurely at Cheyenne Mountain zoo which turned out to be quite a lovely place.  I had been really trying to stretch and work the quads and I noticed some slight improvement in my legs that day which left me with some hope I might actually be able to run on Sunday.  I knew my uphill power-hiking would work but getting a run while in town at the start and finish or the 13 miles of downhill was going to be a big question mark.

Race Weekend
Between the Pikes Peak Marathon website, the facebook page, and the couple of e-mails sent during race week I felt like I had everything I needed to know about the race to be ready.  They offered a number of different packet pickup times on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday for the marathon runners.  They also invited folks to the RaceFest being put on in Memorial Park in Manitou Springs.  We made it there midway through Friday afternoon and found it a very difficult time parking in Manitou Springs.  We ended up pulling over in a temporary spot just uphill from the park with Sarah remaining in the car while I hit the packet pickup tents.  I found the right spot, gave my name, ID, and bib# and they gave me my bib and put a yellow wristband on me.  That was it.  I walked around the RunFest tents a bit to see what all was being handed out and then I was out of there.

On Saturday evening Sarah and I showed up in Manitou Springs again with a reservation at the Rodeway Inn to be close to the race start in the early morning.  We saw a few runners around our hotel, also ran into a few more when we hit a Walgreens briefly.  It looked like Manitou Springs was getting quiet the night before the "storm" with tomorrow bringing a very busy day for a very small town.

I got my stuff all set out the night before to be ready for the early morning.  I would be wearing my typical race shirt, a blue Salomon tech shirt and my black running shorts.  I would use my Salomon SpeedCross 3 trail runners and also wear my Osprey Rev6 running pack.  I had debated carrying my light goretex jacket, and early in the week it had even been suggested by the race organizers.  The weather reports initially called for possibilities of snow and rain and cooler temps, however as Sunday morning approached it appeared the weather would be perfect.  Saturday indeed turned out well  and so I opted not to carry the goretex.  I did bring a very light long-sleeve tech shirt just in case I did get cold.  I carried a very small first aid kit, about a liter of water, sunglasses, light running hat, a pair of very light gloves and an assortment of snacks.  I had a few granola bars, about 4 Gu gels, a package of peanut butter M&M's, a small bag of pretzel goldfish, and a CLIF Shot bloks pack.  In the end this would turn out to be a little too much food.

With just the night waiting between me and the race I was gaining confidence.  My legs had shown some improvement and so I was saying my prayers they would get there by morning.

Race Stats
Start Elevation: 6,300 ft.
Start Time: 7:08 am
Barr Camp Time (ascent) (10,200ft): 9:11am (2:03:46)
Summit Time (14,050ft): 11:21am (4:13:15)
Barr Camp Time (descent): 12:21pm (5:33:59)
Finish Time (6,345ft): 1:57pm (6:49:55)
Finished 241st of 702 finishers

Race Report
As race morning arrived, I was up at 5:40am, turned on the television and was greeted by a pleasant surprise. NBC was doing pre-race coverage on the Olympic Marathon in Rio. Its Olympic tradition to run that the last morning of the Olympics and then to do the medals ceremony at the Closing Ceremonies of the Olympics. For some subtle reason I felt uplifted running a marathon of my own the same morning as that worldwide event.

Typically I'd be up and going much earlier on a race morning but that's also when I'm going to be running fast and wanting to keep my stomach clean of digestive issues. I knew the uphill pace today would be slow and an extra early breakfast wouldn't be necessary. For breakfast I had grabbed some Nature Valley Soft-baked Oatmeal Squares (Cinnamon Brown Sugar flavor) the night before. I'd never tried them before but they looked like they would fit the bill of easy to eat and flavorful for this morning. I munched on a couple of them and drank some Gatorade.

I woke my wife up at 6am and while I had originally planned to walk the mile from our hotel to the race start I decided I would like her company for a few minutes longer this morning. She offered to drive me close to the start and so we set out about 6:15am. She dropped me off at the corner of Manitou and Mayfair leaving me just less than a half mile walk. Along the way I had a nice conversation with a young gal and her mother talking about the race and our previous races.

At the starting line area they had a water table and plenty of port-a-potties to make sure everyone was ready to go. It was about 50° out and I kept my long-sleeve layer on as everyone waited with anticipation. I had wanted to be early just to see what their pre-race procedures were like. They did have a person on the loudspeaker giving various announcements and directions but nothing of significance. The highlight of pre-race was about 7-8 minutes before start when they had a singer lead everyone in America the Beautiful. Typically you would anticipate the national anthem but then it was made apparent why they made this song choice: the song was inspired by Pikes Peak in its writing and so it was beautifully appropriate to sing it.
Getting ready to start

At 7am prompt they got the first wave started and in one minute intervals they would announce the next waves could start. At 7:08am my turn came and our wave rolled on through the starting line. After all my anxiety and worry of sore quads over the last few days I was ever so thankful to find this morning that the legs had healed enough that I could run again. I was probably 90% back to normal. The first mile and a half was on the city streets in town and then on up Ruxton Avenue. It was a constant uphill but it felt good to be moving. There was even a steep section of hill on upper Ruxton that had most everyone walking. I was working a 10-11 minute mile pace hoping to find a balance between moving but yet not overdoing the start. It was nice starting on the streets as this left plenty of space for movement. That would change when the trail began.

We didn't start at the actual Barr Trail TH but followed Ruxton to its end where it becomes dirt road and then trail, this eventually met up with Barr Trail at a switchback. While working up trail in the W's, most folks were hiking at a brisk pace and not so much running. Occasionally folks would pick up a jog pace to pass but it was narrow at points making this difficult. The first two aid stations were water and Gatorade only and I made it a point to get Gatorade at every station I could. I also hoped that carrying only a liter of water in my hydration pack would work out in keeping the weight down but still being able to refill it at stations.

Above the W's the pack started to thin a bit. When we would encounter level sections of trail folks would speed up to a modest run for awhile, but once the slope steepened it slowed again to a brisk hike. This was pretty much the name of the game for the whole climb up. I found myself passing more people than would occasionally pass me and the legs were feeling quite good through the first few miles.

At Aid Station #3 at No-Name Creek the good snacks finally started. As would happen at most all aid stations they would have a bowl of goldfish, a bowl of M&M's, sometimes would have bits of fruit like bananas, at one station they had what looked like peanut butter & jelly in tiny tortilla roll-ups. There would also be pretzels and of course water and Gatorade. I found that the food was helpful enough at all the aid stations I really could have cut back a bit on what I carried.

At Aid Station #4 at Bobs Road we were greeted with several interesting cardboard signs for a good laugh. I wish I had stopped to snag a picture of them, but then again, I was trying to run a race. Several were cheering folks on and I believe one of them had a humorous message like "Be Aware, the Squirrels are Watching You." I knew my wife would have loved that one. After Bobs Road comes some of the easiest terrain on the ascent as there are a handful of flat sections. The trail also widens at numerous points giving you the opportunity here to pretty much move at whatever pace you want. I was able to get in a few short runs through there.

What everyone really looks forward to on the way up is finally getting to Barr Camp. Its refreshing as mileage-wise its over halfway and elevation-wise its almost exactly half. When you get past the half mile to go sign you can almost begin to hear the noises from the Aid Station there. There were folks with cow bells clanging and people just cheering on the runners. I stopped to get a liter of water added into my hydration and noted my time. I had been hoping to be close to two hours and I came in at 2:03 so I was pretty pleased with myself. Overall I had wanted to do the Ascent in 4:30 or better and I was pretty sure I could do the rest in 2:30.

After Barr Camp I remembered the trail well as this was my 3rd time up here and I still remembered it from our winter ascent just a few years back. The trail really begins to climb and starts with switchbacks-a-plenty through the woods. Again I was doing well in being able to pass people and yet would still get held up by groups of 4-8 people working on the somewhat narrow trail. After many a switchback and set of rocky trail the A-frame aid station comes along. Very soon after the trail then moves above tree-line.

There were pros and cons above tree line. The trail itself becomes more fine and loose gravel so there are less tree roots to trip on. You're also able to see the footing much better. On the downside, you're very exposed to the sun. I was able to put on some sunscreen as I moved up hill. I found above tree line that more and more people were really slowed to a walk and would find the occasional person stopped on the side resting for air.

I was feeling fantastic in terms of cardio and breathing as I got up high. I was hoping this would be a strength of mine today and might translate into a good time. I am certain my acclimation plan starting with La Plata worked great, coupling that with 25 years of experience on the 14ers. This really helped my outlook on the Pikes Marathon in general. I looked at this like about 60% 14er hike and 40% race. It didn't even feel as daunting to me as the two Midwest marathons I've done as I knew I wouldn't feel as pressed to make a running pace for 26 miles. The uphill climb didn't scare me, the thin air didn't scare me, I was ready to gobble them up. The downhill however, well I was still waiting to see what that would hold.

Its worth noting that I was about 27 minutes past Barr Camp when I finally met the first downhill runner. It was Bib #82, I believe he would eventually finish 3rd. I was on the big long switchback above the Bottomless Pit sign when he passed. Once the onslaught of downhill runners started this would really change the race dynamic up high. At first there were just a few, but in the last 2 miles of the Ascent we were of course hitting a lot of downhill runners as I had at least 250 people ahead of me. The proper race etiquette for the Marathon is for the uphill runners/walkers to yield to the downhill runners. It makes sense as the downhill folks are easily working for more speed. The downside is this probably lost several minutes of time for me as I found myself stopping more and more frequently. For many people this works as they'll need the breathing rest up high, but I was feeling good, I had many times I wanted to keep moving.

I was amazed at the aid station in the Cirque as it literally looked like it was on the side of the mountain. It was in the middle of the big eastern face of Pikes and was situated on a wide enough section of trail that there was room to grab drinks or a brief snack. I was doing my best to stay well hydrated, and I'm sure I was, but also getting good amounts of calories back in the system. I only took in two Gu gels on the Ascent and then random amounts of food handfuls from aid stations.

One thing that was really encouraging with this race, and something I haven't seen anywhere else, is our first name was printed on our race bib. This led to numerous places, particularly up high when we were moving slower, where spectators or even other runners whom we would face as an uphill/downhill pass would occur that would cheer us on by name. It was great, it was really encouraging. I especially enjoyed the SAR volunteers who were stationed on various switchbacks up high giving their time to watch out for the crazy runners. I did notice the temps starting to drop more the closer I got to the top. I did pull my gloves out of my pack and put them in a pocket but I never felt the need for my long-sleeve layer and didn't even don the gloves at all.

As I neared the sign for the 16 Golden Stairs I was moved through one of a handful of slightly emotional moments on the Ascent as I knew I was going to make it. And not just make the summit, but my quads were good, the anxiety perhaps all for nothing, and I was quite possibly going to make a very solid time. The remaining switchbacks went at a modest pace as I was forced into following a handful of people and that was just fine. I summited in 4:13 which was just over 15 minutes faster than my goal. I made a real quick turnaround, slowing enough to make sure they got my Bib#, and grabbing some snacks at the aid station. In hindsight I wished I'd grabbed a few photos but it just wasn't in the mindset at the time.

At the turnaround I was real curious what the legs would feel like as I began the downhill. I had done short sections of downhill on the Ascent and so I knew it would work fairly well, but as the miles added up that could be a different story. I took it slow at first as I began to weave through the switchbacks. Slow both for my quads and the terrain really called for a careful pace. I was passed in the upper 2 miles by a handful of others coming down and I figured that might just be how the descent would go. Somewhere above the A-frame I did finally stop and snag a few pictures.

My big challenge downhill was to keep the calories and fluids going and to stave off cramps. My first two marathons were really de-railed around mile 19 by leg cramps and I absolutely wanted to finish this one strong. Well I did get the beginnings of a cramp in my left calf about 2-3 miles from the summit and I quickly slowed up to fight it off. From that moment on I was really cautious with that leg and I was doing everything I could nutritionally to make sure I could fight away the cramps. This even included a bag of peanut butter M&M's which will quickly become a new mountain favorite food.

I was getting Gatorade everywhere and I was pushing whatever salty foods I could find. I was also starting to take in the Hammer Endurolytes capsules as frequently as every 30 minutes on the descent hoping that would help too. In the switchbacks below the A-frame I once more caught a few people who had already passed me and I found I was starting to make better time descending down through the rocky trail than others. At the A-frame aid station I put another liter of water in my hydration pack, my second refill of the day.

As I roared into Barr Camp I was really starting to consistently string together a good running pace. I hadn't been following my watch too closely but I knew if I could get to Barr Camp in 1:25 on the descent and then finish the last leg in 1:20 I could hit 7 hours total. Well I hit Barr Camp in exactly 1:20 on the descent and this was a great boost. After Barr Camp I was surprised how well the legs were still holding up and actually feeling pretty decent. I could sense the occasional tinge of a cramp creeping into that left calf but it held together. I was doing mostly 10-11 minute miles, occasionally pushing to a sub-9 pace for short bits. The few short uphills on the descent would get run for a little and then I would walk some of it to keep the breathing in check.

It wasn't until just over mile 22 and I neared the top of the W's that I could tell things felt like they were starting to wind down. I had another pair of runners pass me as the legs began to feel heavy in the switchbacks. Yet, as my pace slowed a bit I was still going and I felt like I was able to still go. The thought had run through my head of the struggles I had had in the other two marathons in the final 6 miles and it was pleasing to know my quads hadn't cramp as it was the others, and things were holding up. Was it the downhill? Was it better nutrition? Someday maybe I'll know. Mentally I noticed with this race that it worked so differently and so well for me focusing on getting up and getting down as opposed to following the numbered miles going by. It gets mentally and then physically disastrous when you just look for the next mile marker to go by while also thinking about how many you have to go. Here on the Barr Trail I was able to simply keep the focus like a typical mountain climb, get to the summit, get back home and this allowed me to focus so much less on the actual mileage.

My pace actually picked up again as I hit the final long stretch on the Barr Trail and continued to increase as I passed the final aid station and began to near the pavement. When I was on the road it was such a pleasing feeling to know I was almost there. I had another pair of guys pass me and on the very steep section of road I tried to keep things easy so the quads wouldn't give out. I did notice the heat picking up as temps were into the 80s in Manitou. I could even sense myself getting short of breath because of the heat and would be sipping on my hydration pack every minute or two just to keep things moving. I kept pushing it and in the last half mile passed 2 or 3 of the guys that had overtaken me. It felt great having the citizens of Manitou and others cheering us on, I even got a high five from a few kids. I didn't feel like I was going all that fast but I could see on my GPS track after that I was finishing the last half mile with a sub 8 minute pace. Wow!

I remember them reading my name off as I neared the finish line and then the shock of seeing the clock at the finish and knowing that not only had I beat 7 hours, I had beaten it by just over 10 minutes. I was on cloud nine. I didn't even feel physically dead, at least not yet. After passing the finish I can remember them giving me my finisher's medal and then quickly a doc was asking me how I was and directing me to sit. He even got me an ice pack and said "hey, most folks think this feel's pretty good, would you like one?" and I said yes as he put it on the back of my neck.

Finisher's photo Sarah took of me

Post Race
I was also given a banana and a small cup of Gatorade in the finish chute. It was only a minute or two that I sat and I was feeling pretty good, no light-headedness or anything, and so I got up and slowly moved around a bit. It wasn't long and I spotted Sarah and we were together. I got my finisher's photo with the official photographer and also went over to the nearby tent with my finisher's jacket. Still feeling well, Sarah and I crossed the heavy traffic on Manitou Ave and made our way over to Soda Springs Park for the finisher's party.

There I was able to show my wristband and get slices of pizza from Marco's and other foods. I also got some beer trying the Pikes Peak Brewery Devil's Head Red Ale. I think it was a decent beer, but in my exhausted post-race state I felt like a shameful trail-runner and just didn't feel like finishing the beer. Somehow in that first hour post-race my stomach is in a funky position of just not knowing what it wants. I was able to lookup my results on my phone and was ever so pleased with the 6:49:55 time and saw that I was near the 32th percentile overall which was fantastic.

We shopped a bit in Manitou Springs and were walking back to our car as the awards ceremony started, but we didn't really stick around to see any of it. I was instantly feeling as though I would be ready to do this race again and found it to be the perfect match of hiking a mountain and running, right up my alley. So much went well today from the weather to my legs healing up enough to my ability to keep the run going to the very last mile. I was so very thankful for it all.

I have a track and waypoints from the hike all contained in a KML file that you are welcome to download and use (at your own risk).

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