Three years ago, actually just after I started running marathons, I did what most long distance runners do. I created my racing bucket list. If you haven't done this yet don't worry you will, its just one of those things runners end up doing. When I created this it included the usual suspects like Boston, New York and London but it also had some races that were off the beaten track. One of those races was the Pikes Peak Marathon in Colorado. With a reputation as being the hardest marathon in North America no other sales pitch was required to have it make my list.
Two years ago when I began doing Ultra Marathons my bucket list ended up going through some major renovations. I began to care a lot less about running Boston (more about this in a later post) and New York. Western States and UTMB became the must do races however one thing didn't change and that was that Pikes Peak was still right on top of that list.
For those of you unfamiliar with this race its a 13 mile climb up a mountain and then 13 miles back down. That doesn't sound hard enough? Well then you have to take in to consideration that you start at 6000 ft and then climb 8000ft to the summit at 14,115 feet with more then 3 miles of it above the tree line. On top of that its mostly single track trail shared by both the runners going up and back down so collision potential is high.
Since I had never been to Colorado we decided to make this race into a week vacation and so I dragged both my wife Kim and my mother along to participate / observe my never ending quest to do really dumb things. I had managed to talk Kim into registering for the Ascent (13 miles up) which is run the day before the marathon. I mean how hard could it be?
We flew in to Colorado Springs on Friday afternoon. A quick scan of the horizon revealed the monstrosity that we were suppose to run. How did we know which mountain was Pikes, thats easy we just looked for the highest one.
Kim at the Airport
A quick stop at our hotel and then we were off to the race kit pickup. Got our kits no problem but of course no shirt as you don't get a shirt until you finish. Damn didn't I pay for that already. How dare they make me earn it. Expo was pretty small and featured the only disappointing thing about the race. The official race jackets were sold out in my size. Damn dude what the hell. I had squirrel away the cash to grab one of these things. Oh well more beer money for me.
At this point I guess its got to be said. I am very worried about this race but have been trying not to show it. I know that Kim is going to have a hard time as she lost 6 critical weeks of training with an injury. I am also going to be in for a major beat down. My injured ankle is really bad. So bad that it hurts to walk on it. The week I have taken off has done nothing to help it in fact it feel worse then before the rest.
Before we leave the kit pickup I do what I have come to refer to as my "test run". I jog for about 15 meters. My ankle is excruciatingly painful. I can not believe that it hurts so much. I begin to suspect that there will be no race for me on Sunday.
We head down to the start line to see Kim off. She looks pretty nervous but is up for giving the race a try.
After Kim heads out me and my mom head up to the summit via the train. Man its really high. I walk down past the finish line to try and get a better picture of runners coming up the mountain. I only climb down 50 meters or so but am sucking wind like theres no tomorrow. Crap what the heck have I gotten myself into. I have never been at altitude before and if walking feels like this running is going to be really hard.
We head back down the mountain to wait for Kim to finish. Unfortunately she ended up missing a cutoff by 2 minutes and DNFs. Its her first DNF and she is very upset by this (I know all about DNFing grief) but I am so proud of her for even trying given how difficult the course is and her injury issues. Read her blog account of her race HERE
I get up at 5 AM and soon we are on the way to the start line. My ankle is hurting. I am not really sure I can even start the race but decide to give it a try. I know I will be slow and probably do more damage to myself but then I don't want the regret of not at least trying to run. I had expected to run the race in 6 - 6:30 depending on how much of a factor the altitude becomes. I am now going to be running just to make it under the 10 hour cut off. I need to get me that race shirt. Just before I walk to the start line I ask Kim to hang around for 20 minutes after the start just in case I cant run and drop out right away. Then its race time.
The first mile of Pikes Peak is on road and mostly uphill. I know this will be really hard on my ankle so I start out slow and look for something to distract my mind from the punishing pavement. I happen to glance over and notice a runner wearing a Mohican 100 race shirt so I ask him if he ran the 100. He tells me he ran 50 and we chat for a few minutes. It turns out that he is from Burlington, ON. I have somehow managed to find one of only 5 other Canadians running in this race. We talk some more and then I see see the trail head coming up so I speed up a little to get past people before it gets narrow.
Once you are in the woods the real fun begins as you hit the first set of switchbacks and start to climb. They seem to never end and soon I lose track of the number of switchbacks on the way to Bar Camp. Is it 12 or 16 or more, I cant say for sure but its a lot. The trail is not technical but its some of the steepest climbing we will do all day. My ankle hurts but taking it easy keeps the pain at a manageable level. I am in the middle of a long line of runners but slowly things start to thin out some.
Somewhere around the 4 mile mark the climbing temporarily comes to an end and we are treated to some nice flat trail running and even a couple of small downhills. Its a welcome break that lasts for the next couple of miles. I want to push some but its a no go with the lame foot. I have also started to feel the altitude and the lack of air is causing me to breath heavy. I wonder what it will be like higher up but try not to think to much about it.
Soon enough the climbing starts again as we move through the last mile before Bar Camp. As I turn a corner I look to my left and see a large doe less then 5 feet off the trail. It is chewing a mouthful of grass and staring at me with a who the hell are you look on its face. Its so close I could probably reach out and touch it. Five feet behind the doe is a much larger stag who seems very unimpressed. As I pass by the deer I pray they will not bolt and run me over. I also am thankful that it wasn't a bear.
I hit the aid station at Barr Camp, half way up the mountain, in 2 hours. I am happy with this given my situation. The weather has been great so far, warm, sunny and not a cloud in the sky. So far the trail has not been technical at all but a mile later this all changes. The higher up we go the rockier it gets and straight ahead running shifts to picking you lines and footing. Usually I love this stuff but not when I am gimpy. It makes for tough going. Its also becoming harder to get enough oxygen to my lungs, my chest feels like it is being squeezed in a bear hug. Come on lungs do your thing.
Somewhere before A-Frame the lead runner Matt Carpenter passes me going back down the mountain at roughly the speed of light. Its truly surreal. As far as I can tell he is 8 miles ahead of me already. I don't see another runner descending for a good 45 minutes.
The technical running causes me more pain and I am getting slower the higher up I climb. By the time I reach the A-Frame aid station I am beginning to struggle. I am well below the cut off times but still I feel the wheels could come off at any point in time. If I can just finish this race I swear to god that I will take time off and let my ankle heal properly. Is it just me or is making deals with god a really bad sign.
Within minutes of heading out of A-Frame the trees become short, stubby and increasingly farther apart. Soon I am passed the tree line and into the rocky part of the climb. At first this goes reasonably well or at least as well as it can go when there is no air to breath. At some point after 12,000 ft things begin to get really tough. I am moving slower then I ever though possible, the lack of oxygen is making even basic thinking a major chore and now runners are coming down at me a regular intervals. This makes the technical climbing even more of a challenge.
I ever so slowly make my way up the 16 golden stairs. There are no stairs instead there are switchbacks, the 16 switch backs of hell. I keep thinking I will be at the top soon but every time I look up I can see a winding column of people still climbing. The tempeture has started to cool and a nice cold wind is blowing into my face. I am just thinking about how nice it feels when I hear a race marshall yell out "Thats not a good wind, weathers coming in".
What? I look over my shoulder to see that the clear blue sky has been replaced with dark fast moving storm clouds. Oh crap! I make an effort to pick up my snails pace to a slow death march in hopes of getting off the summit before the storm hits. A couple of minutes before I get to the turn around a runner going the other way yells at me "It gets way easier once you turn around". I have my doubts about this. I am crashing in slow motion and cant imagine that easier is on the menu anytime soon.
I hit the summit in 4:48 turn around and head back down. Two things happen almost instantaneously, my ankle is now in severe pain and I can breath again. The bracing needed to go downhill is putting pressure on my ankle in such a way that it makes things worse, much worse. Yet now heading downhill instead of up I can breath almost normally.
As I attempt to run the 3 miles back to the tree line I can feel the temperature drop and then suddenly I am being showered with ice pellets. They are small but they hurt especially on my bare arms and shoulders. I think about putting on my jacket but don't want to take the time to get it out of my pack. I am racing (slowly) to get back under the tree line before there is any lightning. My leg is not letting me move fast however and everyone and their dog is passing me along here.
I struggle with this very technical portion. Not only do I have to pick my footing carefully but I also have to try and pick footing that prevents me from having to step down any significant drops onto my screaming ankle. This is really tough to do and makes for slow going. I make it to the stubby trees and then into the tree line just as the ice pellets let up and I hear the first crack of thunder.
Now I am beginning to think I might just make it to the end of this race. I have lots of time left to finish and before I know it I am out of the technical section. I pass two search and rescue people taking out a runner on horseback. He looks okay but he is not very happy. Seeing the horses makes me realize just how in the wild I actually am. Then I am coming into Barr Camp.
Its all straight ahead running from here with some very steep downhills but very little technical. I am able to get into a rhythm and begin to run better. I am still slow but thats okay. I see the 3 miles to finish sign and I still have 3 hours until the cut off. I know I will finish this unless my foot falls off. I slow down a little on purpose as I want to make sure I don't fall now and hurt myself more. I am also frustrated as I wind down the switchbacks. My legs feel great and so strong but I cant really use them. My strength is downhill running and I cant capitalize on it. It sucks but I just remind myself that I didn't think I would be running at all.
I head out of the trail and onto the road for the final stretch to the finish. Its downhill and road but I fight the urge to speed up. Somewhere in the back of my mind I have an image of my ankle finally giving out half a mile from the finish line and me attempting to crawl it in.
As I run along I look down at the road and see the word BEER drawn in large pink chalk letters with an arrow pointed towards some people on the sidelines. As I reach them they hand me a small cup of beer which I gladly accept. It is the best tasting beer I have ever had and by the time I down it I am almost at the finish line.
I end up crossing the finish line in 8:01:11.
Kim and my mum are waiting at the finish line. With the exception of my ankle I feel great. I pick up my shirt and medal and then we go to the post run area. They have Mr. Sub sandwiches, brownies and beer which turns out to be an excellent combination.
I think I can honestly say that this was one of the best races I have ever run. Every single aspect of this race was outstanding from registration, to aid stations, to course, to post race. These guys really take care of their runners in what must be a logistical nightmare. I cant recommend this race enough. Oh and also its really freaking hard (this years winning time was 3:48).
So is this the hardest marathon in North America? I cant say for sure but I don't know how you could make a race harder then this. I will be doing this one again with the hope of being able to run on both legs next time, although I most probably will be doing the Double (Saturday Ascent, Sunday Marathon).