I ran up a big hill on Saturday. Yes, I did the Pikes Peak Ascent (PPA) again. And once again it humbled me.
For anyone who doesn’t know, the PPA is the premiere mountain running event in the USA (maybe tied with Mount Washington): 13.3 miles of uphill running at high altitude with an average grade of 11%. Runners start in downtown Manitou Springs, CO (elev. ~6,300) and follow the Barr Trail to the summit of Pikes Peak (elev. 14,100’) gaining roughly 7,800 vertical feet. There is also a race the following day, the Pikes Peak Marathon (PPM), which requires runners to tackle the same uphill portion as the PPA and then pound all the way back down to Manitou. Elite PPM runners cover the down portion at 6 minutes per mile pace or faster! Personally, I would be fearful of running downhill for 13 miles at 6 min pace. Most PPM runners I talk to agree recommending never doing it. I know I will do it someday but for now I need to learn how to run up this mythical mountain.
Race day started at 4:30am. I was escorted outside to Gertrude (James red Ford Windstar) where I would start the 1 hour drive to Manitou. I hopped on the I-25 southbound with Gertrude boisterously humming and engine warning lights brightly glaring from the dash. I confirmed with James that Gertrude would actually get me to the race so my mind was at ease even though every critical warning sign was telling me otherwise.
During the drive my thoughts drifted back and forth between the upcoming race and the sights of keg ball players spilling beer all over them from the previous evening. I had the opportunity to watch the Denver Keg Ball league in City Park. Basically, it’s a kick ball game but you have to always have a full cup of beer in your hand at all times. I was quite impressed with the organization and sheer number of twenty somethings out there. As you might imagine, players spill most of their beer on themselves while balancing their cup during all the running, catching, and throwing. It was quite the spectacle. I did not participate as it was plenty fun to watch.
I finally pulled into Manitou right around 6 am, picked up my packet, parked Gertrude, dropped my sweat check bag off, and went to the bathroom with 30 minutes to spare. I warmed up 10 minutes and before I knew it lovely vocals of “America the Beautiful” paused and silenced the anxious crowd from their pre-race routine. There was certain intensity that came over me, which always comes over me, while staring at the stone cold faces of other competitors during the ceremonial playing of a nostalgic song before sporting events such as the “Star Spangled Banner.” I was ready to get after it.
The gun went off and I settled into somewhere around 20th place. At Hydro Street (I apologize to all you Barr Trail aficionados for not knowing every landmark along the course) somewhere around 8 minutes. Mike Selig commented on how fast the pace was so I felt more comfortable with my position and decided to take the next steep couple miles really easy.
I felt in control and comfortable during the first 4 miles. The course levels out after the first 4 so I opened up my stride a bit. I felt ok and was consciously holding back a little to make a late race push above Barr Camp and more importantly above A-Frame where most runners crumble.
Somewhere between 5 and 6 miles my race took a turn for the worst, literally. I made a wrong turn. I took a right when I should have gone straight. I acknowledged there was a sign but didn’t read it. I blew by the sign as I was running at a good clip. It wasn’t until I started downhill for a long while and saw wood planks in the shape of a foundation that I knew I was off course. I stood waiting for 30 seconds to see if anyone was behind me, then slowly jogged back, then rapidly ran back and still didn’t see anyone. Finally, I made it back to the intersection where I went wrong and saw tons of runners. It was a pretty stupid mistake but I didn’t feel as bad because one local guy who runs the mountain frequently also made a wrong turn. It happens.
I covered that mile, from 5-6 in somewhere around 15-16 minutes at a point in the race where I was averaging ~9-10 minute miles. For the next mile I did exactly what you shouldn’t do when you make a mistake or fall down- Try to make it all up as soon as possible. I ran the next mile in under 8 minutes which is fast, a little too fast. I don’t have exact splits as I reset my watch upon finishing.
I was picking off people by the handful until I realized I wouldn’t be able to maintain the pace, especially above tree line. Eventually, I settled in behind a group of 3 who seemed to be working together at a sustainable pace. I inquired about our position and they told me 35 place.
I passed A-Frame and saw a guy lying on the ground in obvious discomfort and pain. I quickly came to the conclusion that despite the day I was having things could be worse for me. I later found out it was defending champ Tim Parr. I don’t know the guy personally, though he looks striking similar to former Tech top distance runner David J Atkiss, but I admire him. He is a mountain runner, Chrisitian, and isn’t afraid to run or win a 5k or 100 miler. But mainly I like him because of this blog post where he sleeps in a park next to La Guardia Airport in New York City after being stranded without a rental car. I could definitely see myself doing something like that. Kudos to Tim for gutting it out and finishing the race.
I worked my way to roughly 25th with a mile to go before starting my death march. Last year, my death march started with 4 miles to go so comparatively I was feeling stronger than last year. However, my finish time was roughly 4 minutes slower than last year. I was a bit disappointed.
The top two ladies passed me the last mile as my competitive juices had evaporated. As much as I hate to admit it, I succumbed to the discomfort and reasoned that I was really 5 minutes “ahead” of everyone around me so what was the point in trying to pass them. I ran my best but once again the mountain got the best of me mentally and physically. Humbled again. 0 for 2 at Pikes Peak.
It is truly one of the better organized races I have run. Hopefully, I will get a chance to go after it again and run fast. Maybe next year. But in order to run well, I need to work harder and train smarter for this unique event.
I wasn’t too disappointed after the race. On the plane ride over and back, I read a book called In the Pit with a Lion on a Snowy Day. Great book. The first couple chapters basically say that failure is a good thing and you can learn from it (Hmm, never heard that before). So I am thankful for this less than perfect day because I will learn from it and get better.
The ride down the mountain went better than last year. I didn’t vomit everywhere after getting off the bus at Manitou. So that’s a plus.