Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Pike's Peak Ascent (August 19, 2006)

In the end, it is the prospect of shame, pure and simple, that gets me to the starting line of this race today.

It rains all the way from Denver to Manitou Springs, and I use the time in the car to rationalize why I should not run this race today. I have felt really, really tired all week, and getting up at 4 a.m. has not helped. My nose ran all day yesterday, and I can feel a sore throat and cold coming on. The forecast is for thundershowers throughout the morning, and since it’s already raining, I start to anticipate a full 4+ hours in the rain. It’s just not something I want to do, which is a bit odd, since much of my training this summer has been in the rain, and it hasn’t really bothered me. But today I just don’t cotton to the idea of being soaked through and through again. The temperature is dropping as I get closer to Manitou Springs – it’s in the sixties when I leave Denver, but the readout on my car thermometer has dropped to 57 by the time I park, just a few blocks from the race start. I can only imagine that if this trend continues, it is going to be really, really cold on top of the mountain. And speaking of the mountain, all of the mountains are so socked in that you can’t even see them for all of the clouds. I’m betting that Pikes Peak is covered with snow. This is the first time that Mick has not come to this race with me – this is my fifth year – and I’m unreasonably afraid of being alone and lonely at the finish. And did I mention that I’m really, really tired? I just want to go home and sleep.

So I park my car, and make up my mind to not run. I’m just too embarrassed to turn around and drive the other way so quickly after parking, what with all of the cars around me disgorging people dressed for a race. I decide that I’ll wait for them to walk away, and then I’ll leave.

But it seems to take some of the people forever to get going! The people in the SUV in front of me walk off, holding a large blue and white striped umbrella to ward off the rain. People are taking their own sweet time leaving the cars now parked behind me. There is a steady stream of people heading to the start line, and I want to get out of here, because I’m starting to feel guilty just watching them brave the elements.

And then the SUV folks are back, and they’re putting the umbrella away. It takes me a moment to realize that the rain has, for the most part, stopped.


I turn the key in the ignition to check the temperature, and see that now it’s climbed back up to 62.

Double Damn.

Finally, I lift my eyes up to the view straight ahead, and I see that the clouds have lifted some. And there is Pikes Peak, in all its glory. All its non-snow-covered glory.

Ah, for cryin’ out loud. Now all of my legitimate rationalizations are gone, and I’m left with the lousy excuse of being tired. Wah wah wah. I try and try to figure out how I will be able to spin this for all the folks who know I’m running today, and I just can’t do it. So I do the only thing left to me, and get out of the car to go run the damn race.

By now, I’ve successfully piddled away much of my buffer time, so the wait to get the race started goes quickly. It’s actually warm standing at the start line, and I realize that I’m way overdressed (just like 98% of the people around me), and I use the time to take off both my long-sleeved technical shirt and my extremely lightweight windbreaker, and to stow my gloves. This means I’m in a minority, wearing just singlet and shorts (the rest of the stuff either crammed into my CamelBak or tied around my waist), while most of the rest of the crowd is decked out in long sleeves and jackets and long pants.

An Air Force officer – a woman – sings an a cappella version of “America the Beautiful”, and she does a lovely job. For the final chorus, she invites the assembled racers and volunteers to join in, and it’s a nice touch. Since I get way too emotional at stuff like this and turn into a crybaby, I can’t actually sing along, but I love hearing this group ring out the words. Katharine Lee Bates wrote “America the Beautiful” after a trip to Pikes Peak in the late 1800’s, so it is always a perfect opener for this race.

The race gets underway, and it’s the familiar run up the streets through the town of Manitou Springs, past the cog railway station, and then onto Barr Trail. The one change to this part of the race course is that the roadway leading up beyond the railway station, before Barr Trail proper starts, has been paved with fresh macadam. The change is a very welcome one, since this stretch was formerly just a deeply rutted dirt and gravel road.

When we hit Barr Trail, I start to think about my race strategy for today. I’ve realized in the last year that if I don’t train specifically for this mountain, I’ll probably never hit my age-old goal of finishing under 4 hours. And I have not trained specifically for this race at all – no trail runs, no altitude training, and just a smattering of hill work. So it’s not that the goal is completely off the table today, it’s just that I know it’s not very likely. A week or two ago, I met Scott Elliott, who has won this race eight times (and come in second or third several more times). Scott focuses his entire being on this race, making a 5-hour round trip to Gray’s Peak from his home in Boulder every single weekday for the last several weeks before the race in order to train at altitude on trails. On weekends, he sometimes camps out in Manitou Springs so that he can make several assaults on the Barr Trail. This is a man who describes himself as “yeah, a little obsessed”. Scott’s advice to me – other than the obvious need to train at altitude and on trails like the Barr Trail – was to keep running, even if you take baby steps. This is completely at odds with the approach favored by my Tapir role models Melissa and Nattu – they both employ a powerwalk-up-the-hills strategy. What approach should I take?

I ponder this for awhile, and then realize that I have my own strategy for this race, which undergoes some refinement each year. First, I’m running by heart rate monitor (HRM) for the second year in a row, since that approach has been working so well for me in marathons. This means that whether I walk or run is dictated by my heart rate (HR). I’ve also finally recognized that I’m not a great trail runner, and that I should take some care to get around obstacles in the trail by walking them instead of running. In other words, rather than trying to power my way, running, over rocks and roots, today I’ll walk any section that is very rough. Another technique that my marathon (and sometime trail-running) mentor Jay told me about several years ago is to take the straightest line up the mountain, even if it means you have to clamber over more rocks and roots. His advice is based on the simple logic that the straightest line will save you from adding unnecessary mileage to the run. Finally, today I realize that often I trip on rocks and roots because I can’t see them – my view gets obscured by runners in front of me. I decide to try to employ a technique that Mick has been coaching me on in bike riding in groups. Try to see through and beyond the person in front of you, he tells me frequently. That way you can see what’s coming that might be an obstacle for you. Today this means that I’ll work on seeing beyond the runners in front of me, and also trying to pass people more quickly if I’m bound to pass them at all.

So that’s how I attack this mountain today. The first part of the trail is, as always, steep and narrow. I try to settle into a comfortable HR zone. Plenty of people pass me on this stretch, but I figure that’s okay. I’m just motoring along, knowing that there is more runnable terrain to come. I’m always surprised at how many people who pass me this early in the race are already breathing very heavily. One woman follows me closely for quite a while before passing, and she’s wheezing like an 80-year old asthmatic. I later pass her back; I only recognize her after I’ve gone by and hear the wheezing behind me again. Later a guy passes me, and his breathing sounds like a dog about ready to barf. It’s the most incredible thing.

The trail is wet but not flooded. This makes it a little more slippery than normal, but nothing too hard to handle. As we get to higher elevation, it also makes quicksand traps along the way, and in these stretches it feels like running on the beach. The weather stays damp and cloudy and coolish.

My favorite part of this race is the middle section, from about mile 4 to mile 7. There is a bit of a saddle on the mountain in the middle of this stretch, where the path widens and levels off from time to time, and you can actually run. The first truly runnable section is on the south side of the mountain, and the vistas down to Colorado Springs and the plains are normally quite spectacular. Today, when we traverse this section, the clouds have lifted just enough to offer up the view, but the grayness of the clouds robs the vista of its normal grandeur.

Today’s race is quiet. On the streets of Manitou Springs, I run alongside a couple of young women – late twenties, I’d guess – who are chatting and singing the tune from the theme song of Chariots of Fire. But after we leave Manitou Springs, nobody around me talks much at all. The field spreads out quite a bit more than normal, and I end up running alone more than ever before in this race. Although I miss the camaraderie that I had with other runners in last year’s Pikes Peak Ascent, I like having the open trail in front of me. It’s just one of life’s little tradeoffs.

The part of this race that has consistently kicked my butt is a section of three miles just below treeline, and shortly after Barr Camp. Today, I come through Barr Camp in 2:04, and as I look at my watch, I realize that I’m off pace to make a 4 hour ascent. The conventional wisdom of this race is that you have to clear Barr Camp by 2 hours in order to make a 4 hour time to the top. In all of my past years, I’ve made the 2 hour cutoff at Barr Camp, but never the 4 hour trip to the top. So I don’t worry too much about missing the time, although it does puzzle me some. It feels like I’ve been passing people steadily for several miles now, so my sense has been that I’m ahead of schedule. But I put it out of my mind, and concentrate hard on these next several miles.

The trail turns steep again, and now there are rocks and roots everywhere. In the past, I’ve tripped and stumbled my way through this part of the race, and hated nearly every step of the way. This year, I’ve decided to try to walk most of it, but to keep my HR high at the same time. All of my techniques seem to kick into high gear here, and I find that I stumble less and keep up a good pace, and I pass people left and right. This section finally feels good. I feel like I’m kicking some serious a**. For a short time, I entertain delusions of a sub-4 hour race.

But that’s before I reach the A-Frame. Conventional wisdom also says that you have to clear the A-Frame by 2:50 in order to make a 4-hour summit, and my watch reads 2:57 when I hit this landmark. I know that I won’t be seeing a three-something finish today. The final three miles above treeline are just too brutal for that.

Back in the middle section of the run – that wonderfully flat-ish part – the sun came out, briefly, in a burst of defiance and warmth. But the clouds won the battle, and the weather has been cool and cloudy again ever since. We’ve had a smattering of raindrops along the way, but we’re mostly all dripping wet from just running through the moisture-laden clouds that have dropped lower and lower. Now, above treeline, it’s completely socked in. And I like it just fine that way.

You see, the final three miles of this trail are all exposed on a treeless, featureless rockscape. The only break in an expanse of broken shale and granite is typically the colorful serpentine of runners (well, really, mostly walkers at this point) making their way along the switchbacks across and up the mountain. You can normally hear – if not see – the top way up there. And it never seems to get any closer. These are 20 and 25 minute miles, and they go by way too slowly. Today I am relieved that I can’t see much beyond 20 or 30 meters or so.

There are runnable sections up here, between the switchbacks, and I try with all my heart to run them. Who knows, maybe I can improve on last year’s time? I’m still going strong, but I’ve slowed since the middle section of the course. While I’m still passing people, I’m also getting passed some, too. I play leapfrog with a couple of other racers, so I figure that I’m mostly holding my own.

While there are runnable sections up here, there are also lots of sections that require huge steps up and I start scrambling, using both hands to pull myself up. It’s gotten cold enough that I reach for my gloves, but they’ve apparently fallen out of my CamelBak pocket. C’est domage. So instead, I don my lightweight wind jacket. I think about putting on my technical shirt, but it’s soaked through with the dampness of the air.

The final mile takes its toll on me, and it’s painful going to the end. But even with the cloudy and cool weather, there are lots of spectators at the top, and they are very generous and supportive as I cover the last arduous stretch. I hear people shouting my bib number as I go by, offering encouragement, and I’m grateful. At this point, I can use all the help I can get. A guy sitting a short ways from the finish is shouting to runners as we pass him, and as I go by he says, “good job, you’re on track for a 4:15 finish”. My heart sinks, since that’s slower than my slowest time, and it just doesn’t compute to me. But as I see the finish line, and hear the announcer call out my name, I’m happy to find that the guy’s predictions were off by five minutes. I cross the finish line in a time of 4:10.

At the finish, I realize that I needn’t have worried about being alone and lonely just because Mick is not here. The volunteers take fantastic care of us all. Someone hands me my finisher’s medal, and I put it around my neck, and then, because I’m a crybaby, my eyes well up with tears and I have to work not to bawl. Maybe it’s this, or the fact that I’m weaving a bit (who wouldn’t, at 14,000 feet?), that causes several medical staff to come ask me if I’m okay. Even though I protest that I’m fine, one of the volunteers grabs my arm and steers me up the rest of the path, and makes sure that I’m safely on the other side of the cog rail tracks before leaving me on my own.

As always, the ride down the mountain seems to take an awfully long time. Have we really come that far up into the sky? Apparently so. It’s good to chat with other runners in the shuttle on the way down. It takes some of the sting out of the mild disappointment that I feel about my result today. As I get sucked in to thinking about how to improve on that performance, and once again thinking about how I might perform next year, I start to wonder about the sanity of it all.

And so, in the end, if it’s shame that gets me to run this race, what is it that gets me to the finish, or makes me even register for the dang thing, year after year? Anyone who has ever finished a marathon can answer the first part of this question. Like Nattu, I think the answer for most of us is “relentless forward motion”. But why sign up for the thing to begin with? It’s something to do with Edmund Hillary’s famous answer to the question of why he climbed a mountain: because it’s there. It’s something to do with a sense of adventure, with taking on a challenge that seems just a stretch over our head. And it’s something to do with that little hope that lives in each of us that maybe today, just for this once, I can do something better than I’ve ever done before, maybe I can be just a little bit better-faster-smarter-kinder than I’ve been in the past. My finish today was a small disappointment, to not meet that goal, to not better my best time, to not come in under that arbitrary 4-hour mark. Why do the thing at all? So that maybe, just maybe, next time I can be just a little bit better than I’ve ever been before.

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