Thursday, January 10, 2008

Running on Empty (Pikes Peak Ascent 2007)

Four a.m. comes very early this morning, but I have set two alarm clocks – just in case – and they both go off almost simultaneously, making it impossible to ignore them. The alarms wake me out of a sound sleep, which is not normal for the night before a big race, when I typically toss and turn, sleeping fitfully and having multiple race anxiety dreams. Not so last night: I was dead tired and so my body and mind both surrendered to total sleep. It’s not like I’m a stranger to the alarm clock these days, since I’m working eleven hour days and still trying to have a life: training, playing piano, paying my bills, occasionally seeing a movie, etc. What gives in this equation is sleep. And time with Mick and family and friends. And quality of anything.

But I’ve become accustomed to rolling out of bed without enough sleep, so I am up and out the door in near-record time. Thank heaven that I’ve done this enough times that I’ve learned to prepare and pack everything – and I mean everything, from laying out my clothes down to slicing the bagel and sticking it in the toaster oven – the night before. I’m not feeling bad at all when I pile myself and all my race accoutrements in the car and pull out of the garage.

Driving to Manitou Springs in the total darkness is also something I’ve become accustomed to – today marks my sixth Pikes Peak Ascent (“PPA”) – so I find the empty roads and starless skies familiar and somehow reassuring. I’ve been here, done this before. So I settle into the rhythm of the drive, and turn on the radio, expecting to find NPR to keep me company for the next 75 minutes or so. But it’s too early for NPR, so I flip over to KBCO for some music and find Jackson Browne singing “Running on Empty”:

Looking out at the road rushing under my wheels
Looking back at the years gone by like so many summer fields
In sixty-five I was seventeen and running up one-o-one
I don’t know where I’m running now, I’m just running on
Running on - running on empty
Running on - running blind
Running on - running into the sun
But I’m running behind

I’ve always loved this song, and I welcome the driving beat of the music, so for a moment I think “what a great omen – a running song for the road!” But then I listen to the lyrics a little more closely as I drive along and start to wonder. Can a song about running on empty really be a good omen before a long race?

There are few people on the roads, so the drive is easy, although I find myself almost nodding off in the car. The initial burst of activity before getting into the car has kept me wide awake for the first half of the drive, but now I’m yawning and wishing that I could pull off and take a nap. In fact, I’m yawning and spacing out so much that I miss the turnoff for Manitou Springs and end up driving many miles out of my way before realizing my mistake. Not to worry, I make it to the start on time, but with not a minute to spare. So much for the benefit of getting up early.

My goal for today is the same goal that I’ve had for the last several years: to get to the top in under four hours. The closest that I’ve come to that goal is the 4:07 performance that I turned in two years ago. Last year, after spending 4:10 to reach the top, I vowed that I would train more specifically this year and finally meet that goal. But life got in the way, as it always seems to do. For the last few weeks, I’ve tried to convince myself that the increased number of uphill runs that I’ve done over the last few months would get me to my goal. But then, late yesterday, I used Matt Carpenter’s pacing calculator to figure out where I would need to be at various points on the course to make sub-4 hours today. The results of punching in the numbers didn’t seem too daunting…until I read his warning: “Without training in very high altitude (12,000-14,000’), expect to lose some serious time…” Given that the bulk of my altitude training has been at 6,000-10,000’, I know, going into the race today, that my chances for sub-4 are slim. But a person can still dream, right?

The weather gods are smiling on us today, and it will turn out to be the best weather of any of my PPAs. Cool and partly sunny at the start, with clouds that will eventually burn off or move on over the plains, no wind, no rain, no snow: ideal running weather. You couldn’t order more perfect conditions. With weather like this, the race start goes off exactly on time, after the requisite singing of “America the Beautiful”. This race is not chip timed, but the road is wide at the start and it only takes 15 seconds for me to cross the start line, and then we’re climbing. As the folks on the street shout every year, “you only have one more hill to go!”

When I think about running PPA, I always divide the course into four sections, each about 3 miles long, with a 1.2 mile preamble that goes through the town of Manitou Springs. This preamble is all uphill, too, but having a wide street to start out on, and then turning onto a narrower street that becomes a single lane driveway, helps spread out the field before funneling us all onto the single track Barr Trail that will be our home for the next 12 miles. Having paved roads is a luxury for me, since I’m not a stellar trail runner. Lots of PPA runners grumble about this section of the race, but for me it’s always a welcome way to get started on the uphill journey. Today, I reach the first turn (onto Ruxton Street) ahead of the calculator, but I take that with a grain of salt. Running on this “easy” part of the course has never been my problem. Keeping a pace up high is quite a different story.

The first real trail section of the PPA is steep, with lots of switchbacks. The good news is that the trail is quite nice here – no roots, and just a smattering of rocks. A few years back, I started running this section with my heart rate monitor (HRM) as my guide, since I had lost momentum up high too many years in a row. I want to run a controlled race, so today it’s all by HRM. That means that I end up walking most of the first section. I have not brought the pace calculator splits with me, so after the turn onto Ruxton, I don’t have any reference points until I reach Barr Camp – and that’s not until halfway up the mountain. This is fine with me, because I just concentrate on HR and upward motion, and I feel really good through this section. Because it’s tough to pass on this narrow section of trail, once the initial order is established, that’s pretty much it until we get up higher. I pass a couple of people, and a few people pass me, but there’s not much shuffling going on quite yet.

The second section of the trail is the easiest – and as a consequence, it is my favorite. The trail widens a bit, but more importantly, it flattens out considerably, and it even goes downhill in a few places. Looky me, everyone, I’m actually running again! The running stretches don’t always last for long, but today, it feels really good to pick up the pace whenever possible.

This race has been quite different for me each year that I’ve run it. The first few years were all about discovery; the next couple were about trying to do well, and getting frustrated in the process – with other people, with the weather and conditions, and with my own performance, in about that order; and last year was all about just trying to enjoy the experience and survive. (This race is always about survival.) Once I decided to just have fun in the last couple of years, I had a great time chatting up people along the run. But today is different. There is a small amount of chatter going on around me, but mostly everyone is lost in his or her own race. And so it is for me, too. Although I end up passing and re-passing several people multiple times on my way up the mountain today, it’s a very solitary experience.

At 1:27 on my watch, I’m passed by the first couple of runners from the second wave. PPA has a wave start: people with a self-reported anticipated finishing time of 4:30 or faster are assigned to Wave 1, which starts at 7:00. Slower (or theoretically slower) people are assigned to Wave 2, which starts thirty minutes later. Every year, the fast people from Wave 2 (either sandbaggers, or (typically young) people without race history) end up passing the slower (i.e., me) runners from Wave 1. Typically, this happens in the final three miles of the race. Today, the first guy goes by me at less than 90 minutes into my day. That means he’s covered a distance in 57 minutes that took me 87 minutes. It’s not the greatest confidence booster.

At least partly because I’m not talking with other people, and because I’m working hard at capturing my splits, I start doing some mental math at around the “9 Miles to Go” and “8 Miles to Go” markers. (The mile markers on Pikes Peak are all “so many Miles to go”, not miles covered so far. The first time you run this race, it seems odd. But once you get above tree line, it makes perfect sense.) And I’m not so sure I like the results. Even at these early markings, the numbers are saying that I’ll need to average approximately 18 minutes/mile for the next 8 or 9 miles. While that might seem incredibly slow to the untrained eye, on Pikes Peak, nothing computes the way it might on flatland without the altitude factor. From past experience (not to mention the pace calculator I consulted last night), I know that the final three miles will all be 20+ (more like 25) minutes. I start to grapple with the very real possibility (probability?) that my day is already done, and that sub-4 hours is already out of my grasp. I push the thought away. I push onward, upward.

I reach Barr Camp, which pretty much demarks the end of section two and the beginning or section three, in 2:07. The traditional wisdom – not to mention the pace calculator – says that you need to be at Barr Camp by 2:00 if you want to have a chance at a 4 hour ascent. This is not a good sign. While my heart still clings to the possibility of a sub-4 hour race, my head is already accepting the reality: this is just not the day.

It’s a toss-up as to whether the third or fourth section of the race is harder. Votes in favor of section three will tell you about all the rocks and roots, and the fact that this section gets steep again, even though it’s in deep forest, so it doesn’t look all that daunting. I’ve tried to run this part before, but it’s pretty much not worth the effort, what with all the rocks and roots. Better to play it safe and walk at a crisp pace. So that’s what I do today. It’s surprising that I continue to pass people from Wave 1, but the truly amazing thing is the number of people from Wave 2 who pass me along this stretch. Why are so many fast people running in the second wave?

Sections three and four start to venture into very high altitude, and I start to feel it early on, although I pretend that it’s a non-factor. But I pass the A-Frame (which is the demarcation between sections three and four) at 3:06 instead of the pace calculator time of 2:50, and I finally accept that sub-4 was only a dream today.

Section four of the race is all above tree-line, and in many ways is more runnable than section three – largely because there are no more roots to trip over, and because the trail sometimes flattens out between switchbacks. It gets votes as the most difficult section of the race owing to the altitude, and to the fact that there are many places (particularly in the final mile) where the rocks are so steep that scrambling is really the only reasonable approach. Today, more than ever, the rocks and the steepness of section four do me in. For reasons that I can’t quite yet grapple with, the altitude starts to affect me big time, and I worry about my balance. My head spins. I soldier on the best that I can, but it’s really, really hard.

And so, my goal morphs as the day wears on. First, I change my goal from sub-4 to course PR. When that hope fades, I change the goal from course PR to somewhere in the top three of my PPA times. The next stage in the mutation of my goal is “oh please let me finish faster than my previous slowest time.” Finally, there comes a time when all I want to do is finish the damn thing.

In the end, I struggle at the top of Pikes Peak today as I have never struggled before. My head is spinning, and by the time I’ve climbed to the upper reaches of the trail, I’m using my hands almost as much as my feet whenever possible. I’ve worked hard at passing these people for miles, and now I just don’t care anymore. On one of the final switchbacks of the trail, I wobble precariously on a rock, and a volunteer – one of the many EMTs who line the course – says to me, “you did that just to scare me, right? Right?!?” I don’t really have an answer for him, but the moment passes, and I don’t tumble off the side of the mountain, and pretty soon – not soon enough – I cross the finish line in 4:26 and change. That represents my worst time on this course by more than 12 minutes, but given my state of mind, I don’t really care at all. I’m just happy to be done.

At the finish line, I’m toast, and I know it. I move over to the side to make room for those finishing behind me, but I just need a minute to get my breath. A volunteer hands me my medal, and it slips between my fingers, which are just not working quite right. When I bend over to pick it up, a host of volunteers come to my aid, asking if I’m okay. I wave a guy off, then try to start walking again, and another volunteer comes up to ask again if I’m okay. This one – a woman – grabs my arm and doesn’t let me out of her grasp until we’re past the cog railway tracks. At first I keep trying to tell her I’m okay, but then she asks how old I am, and I have a hard time answering, and it occurs to me that maybe some help is a good thing. (It’s a weird thought: that I’m climbing into the old-enough-to-really-worry-the-volunteers category.) She parks me, telling me “wait right here”, and goes off to get both Gatorade and water, then finally lets me go – but only after she watches me drink them down. By now I’m able to motor on my own, and I grab a few grapes and a few pretzels before reclaiming my checked bag and claiming my finisher’s jacket, and then climbing into the first van I can find that is heading back to Manitou Springs. After taking four and a half hours to reach the summit of this mountain, I’m heading back down in something less than ten minutes, a phenomenon that gives “it’s the journey, not the destination” new meaning.

The bus ride back down to Manitou Springs takes nearly an hour, and I end up having great conversations with other veterans of the race along the way down. It’s surprising how quickly I start to feel like myself again. When I get off the bus, a couple of guys come up to talk to me, and to ask me about my finishing time, since they recognize me from the run, and want to congratulate me on running strong. It’s a weird feeling, to have done so poorly compared to a goal, and yet to feel so bland about it. I think about the saying that is attributed to Albert Einstein: Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. And I know that this race, for me, represents a bit of insanity.

After I get home, I call Benji, to tell him how my day went. The first words out of my mouth are “I ran a personal worst!” Benji is calm, and asks all the right questions, and we work through the day together. Truth be told, there are plenty of times that I think I could get by without his coaching these days, since I know his system and could probably cobble together a plan on my own. Part of my reason for sticking with Benji is that I like having just one thing in my life that I don’t have to think much about on my own; Benji does the thinking, and all I have to do is run.

But the real reason that I stick with him is for how he handles these bad races. He has a great way of analyzing all the things going on in my life on any given day, and of rationalizing how those things affect my running. It’s not excuse-making, just classic cause-and-effect analysis. Not for nothing did he pursue a doctorate degree in biopsychology. Today, we talk for a long time about my crazy work situation and the hours I’m burning and the fact that I’m skimping on sleep. “Sleep deprivation does not mix well with oxygen deprivation,” he says; is this just another way of saying that I’m running on empty? We talk about how much longer the work craziness will continue, and then we start to make plans. One year, he says, when your work situation settles down, we’ll get you properly trained for this race, and we’ll even have you take some time off work so that you can spend a month or so before the race up at altitude. But for now, we’ll work on recovering, and then we can get back to real marathon training by mid-week. By the time we end our call, I’m feeling downright hopeful that maybe someday I’ll finally get this race right. Today, I’m not so hopeful as to think I can make that happen next year, but someday. Someday means that I still have hope.

On the way home from Manitou Springs – after the late breakfast at Uncle Sam’s Pancake House and before I dial in to yet another conference call for work, something that was delayed on account of the race – I stop at a Starbucks for a shot of caffeine to keep me awake during the drive northward. Starbucks’ brilliant marketing sucks me into buying a Grateful Dead CD – a compilation of stuff that I pretty much already own on other albums. But today it’s worth the price, since the music is perfect for my mood as I drive through the afternoon sun. Jackson Browne may have gotten my race right this morning, but the Dead get it right this afternoon, and I sing along to the lyrics of “Touch of Grey”:

Every silver lining’s got a touch of grey
I will get by, I will get by, I will get by, I will survive.

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