The Pike’s Peak Ascent:“I Have to Go ALL the Way Up There?”

Race Recap

The first question I kept getting asked about Pike’s Peak was ‘Why?’so that is how I’m going to start this re-cap. In the midst of my quarter-life crisis (yes,they do exist) I found myself working as a waitress where the required uniform was a polyester vest,black skirt,fishnet stockings and a pin that said ‘Happy to do it’. I was not happy about doing anything at this place,especially since the managers were less than motivational. One of them would brag constantly about how he had done the Pike’s Peak Ascent and Marathon on multiple occasions. When my current boss sent me a link last year saying “you should do this”I had to sign up. If my wanna-be-in-shape ex-restaurant manager (and Jessica Simpson stalker) could do this I can too….so I signed up.

Pike’s Peak is one of the many fourteeners in Colorado and the race is the third oldest on foot in the US. It started as a contest between smokers and non-smokers and was the first marathon to accept women,50 years ago in 1959. The biggest obstacle in this race (besides the fact that you go up over 7,000 feet in 13 miles) is the altitude. Lucky for me,Rachel Rodriguez of AIM Fitness here in San Francisco has an altitude chamber in her gym. So twice a week for the last 5 months I would work out…in the bubble…yes,kind of like a hamster.

Race day. I was lucky enough to stay with my amazing friends Lisa and Dan Veit in Denver and woke up at 4am to drive down to Manitou Springs. The race started at 7am and I got there with plenty of time to grab my number and get all my winter clothes to the drop bag van. It is roughly 40 degrees colder at the top so they suggest you send up LOTS of warm clothes for when you finish. It was also suggested that you bring a long sleeve shirt and gloves and maybe a rain coat with you for the run up there. Did I mention there was a blizzard up there last year? I was not taking chances despite the forecast and wore my gloves,sleeves and long sleeve wicking material shirt around my waist.

We started promptly at 7am. The first mile and a half or so is on road,through the streets of Manitou Springs to the Cog Railway. Since the race starts at almost 7,000 feet I felt the altitude right away. Once we got to the trail it was very obvious that we were going up! Ironically,the small pitch at the start happens to be one of the steepest parts of the entire run. After that we hit what is called the ‘W’s’because if you look at the side of the mountain the 13 switchbacks resemble sideways ‘W’s’or ‘M’s’I guess,but I’m not one to argue and I was already having trouble breathing. I tried running most of the switchbacks,although the caravan of people sometimes prevented this. At the top of the Ws a sign lets you know there are 10 miles to the summit and if you look to the left you can see the mountain and it looks really,really,really far away. I said to the guy next to me “we (breath) have (breath) to go (breath) all (breath) the way (breath) up there?”He didn’t answer…there wasn’t too much talking in this race apparently. It was at this point that I gave up any time expectation and just wanted to get up there. When I finally got to Barr Camp,about 6 miles into the race,I met up with a 62-yr old PP veteran,Clyde, who had run the double (the Ascent and the Marathon back-to-back) on multiple occasions. He explained that the race really began at A-Frame or tree-line,at roughly 12,000 ft,yikes.

So,7 miles to the summit and it’s sort of a run-walk thing I’ve got going. In fact,I probably should have put the stairmaster in the altitude chamber instead of the treadmill. I was drinking a lot of water to try to combat the altitude,but found I was a lot hungrier than I expected to be. Thankfully,they had grapes at every aid station. It was like a race dream! And the aid station volunteers were amazing. All of them would comment on how proud they were of us runners and how we were inspirational and we’re going to get to the top…so friggin nice! Finally at A-Frame and they are now screaming ‘Only a 5K to go!’…okay,a 5K at the end of a marathon is something you can really get excited about,but when you realize that you’ve gone 10 miles in 2 hours and 45 minutes,you don’t get too excited. It sounds far,plus if you thought you couldn’t breathe at Barr Camp,now it’s like you are drowning. Trees are dying around you and you can hear the megaphone from the top echoing down as the long line of runners-come-hikers make their way to the top. Clyde informs me that for a 4 hour PPA time the split from A-Frame to the summit is about 1:07. Great,over an hour to go….

These last 3 miles are the longest of my life. The good thing is the weather has held up and it’s actually pretty sunny. The board at the A-Frame aid station said it was 33 at the top,which is still hard to believe at this point. So I hike,and hike (and run a few yards for fun until I hear my heart in my head),and hike. 20 minutes later…2 miles to the summit. Still don’t have the feeling like I’m close,still a long line of people way ahead of me still walking,and now anything that was alive up there is gone and it’s all rocks. I realize that if I stop it actually hurts worse trying to catch my breath so I keep moving. About 1.5 miles from summit is the last aid station,the Cirq and shortly after that I run into a group of people hanging out at the edge of a switchback handing out dixie cups of PBR (that is Pabst Blue Ribbon for those of you who may not know,yes,beer).  Um…okay,I will take it.  I’m light-headed already so it can only help,right?  One mile to go….one looong mile to go and about 800 ft of climbing left.  With 400 meters left the sign to the Golden Stairs appears….these are neither gold nor stairs.  It is a series of short,steep switch backs that take you to your final destination.  That is if,you have the strength to lift your leg up over the big rocks.  It also doesn’t help that I’m 5’2″(on a tall day) so the gloves actually come in handy to help me over these ‘steps’.  There are a lot more spectators at this point and cameras,lots of cameras,nice…when I feel like I’m going to pass out that’s when you want to take pictures?!?!   What feels like forever and was probably close to 15 minutes for less than half a mile I finally reach the summit!  There are so many people up there and I actually sort of pretend to run under the finish sign.  Clyde is sitting on a rock close to the end and gives me a high five.  And yes…I did get beat by a 62 year old,but c’mon he’s done this 13 times and he lives at altitude!  I wanted to stop and chat,but when I did I felt like I was going to pass out so I kept moving and grabbed my sweet finishers jacket and winter wardrobe.

I would stop there since it is the summit and the race is over,but we still had to get down from this thing and on Ascent day,running isn’t an option.  They had 15-passenger vans heading down the mountain consistently and a bunch of us jumped into one for the long ride down.  It’s funny,altitude really makes you feel like you’re drunk.   Combine that with a race high and you’ve got quite a giddy group.  There was non-stop talking from everyone on the bus (save the guy two-down from my right whose head was glued against the seat in front of him in order to fight the urge to barf).  About 45 minutes later we now have to switch to a school bus where we meet up with 3 more van groups for the next 20 or so miles back to town.  Now more chatter with new people,but it’s clear that the headache is not going away and I really just want to get back to my car for the 90 minute drive to Denver,plus I’m starving!   All of the sudden the bus pulls off the side of the road and it’s smoking.  The driver informs us that the brakes are shot and we will have to wait for another bus to come get us.  Someone jokingly asks how far it is to run back,haha,no…I’m serious.  But apparently running on a highway for 10 miles with winter clothing is not a good idea.  Instead,my new friend Brenden and I sneak off to ask some very nice women if we could hop in the back of their pick up truck back to Manitou.  They blow us off at first,but then change their minds.  Woo hoo!!  We are on our way back and leave the ditched bus behind.  We feel bad,we really do,but they didn’t think of it,right?  Thank you pick-up truck ladies!!

Turns out it took us almost 2 hours to get back to town,the average time it takes to run down Pike’s Peak for a 4 hour Ascent.  So…I think I may actually take that route the next time.

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