Pikes Peak Ascent – 08/19/17

Pikes Peak Ascent will always be a bittersweet memory for me – I’ll start with the sweet and if you make it through this novel of a post, you’ll find the bitter.

This event entry was my birthday present from my parents and I was eager for the challenge. I spent all summer hiking with my friend (whose great idea it was to begin with and signed up first) to prepare for the relentless climb, torturous early mornings in the altitude room trying to acclimate to activity in the thin air, and months of excitement of conquering my first 14-er.

Mt. Hood

I boarded my flight to Denver on Friday morning, landed and picked up my rental car, enjoyed the 75 MPH speed limit on the Colorado freeways, and found my way to the race expo in Manitou Springs. I picked up my packet (which consisted of a bright orange plastic bag and my bib. End of list.) and then headed out to the Colorado Springs airport to pick up my friend. We hurried back to Manitou Springs to pick up her packet and then wandered the streets and found a cute bar for our pre-race grub. The entire town was ready for the race and I loved how supportive everyone seemed.

Our hotel room for the night was a hilarious, “cozy” place – you just had to like leopard print! Our bizarre, yet helpful front desk clerk showed us the place and we called it a night; 5:30 AM would arrive soon enough.

We hurried through our early morning continental breakfast and threw our stuff in the car. We had about a mile walk to the starting line as our “warm up”. We bid the Harley Davidson gang adieu and took off. The race officially started at 7 AM, but runners were sent off in waves every couple of minutes. We were going to start around 7:20. I met up with a friend from Denver briefly (she would be running the full marathon the next day), had a little photoshoot, and at long last, we began our race! (P.S. See all my race day photos here!)

The golden summit in the background is the destination!

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Course from Google Earth / Pikes Peak website

It was a slog right from the gate. Funny enough, one of the steepest sections of the entire course is on the pavement right in town. It’s known to be one of the world’s toughest half marathons, and it proved that to be true early on. We slow jogged as far as was sensible, then the hiking commenced. As expected, once we hit the singletrack it was a bottleneck. It was hard to pass and also hard to be passed. My friend and I didn’t talk much – we just listened to the complaints of other racers, took in the increasingly beautiful view, ate and drank as needed, and just…were. The trail was truly stunning and made me fall even deeper in love with Colorado.

The minutes ticked by and seemed to quickly turn to hours. We were leap-frogging with a few runners, which eventually became mentally exhausting. We also were typically by-passing the water stations, as they only had water or Gatorade. No food.

We made it to the first cut-off point (Barr Camp; 10,200 ft; mile 7.6). We were supposed to be there by 10:30 AM and we rolled in around 10:25. Eep! Here they had grapes, Goldfish crackers, bananas, oranges, pretzels, and a few other food items. Plus more water and Gatorade. And Search & Rescue. And, we discovered, a helicopter. Really, there was no way to get off the mountain save for a medical emergency. Everything had been hauled up by horses or humans, which is impressive. While I lament the fact that there was no Coke (because I am a spoiled ultrarunner now), I can appreciate the difficulty in providing aid stations for this course.

Note the time on the clock..!

After a few minutes, we left the aid station to carry on. We had to make it to the next cutoff (A-Frame; 11,950 ft; mile 10.2) by 11:45 AM. Here is where the going got really rough and I had to have the conversation with my friend about how we’d continue. We both accepted that I would carry on without her, so after a brief check-in about supplies and planning, I took off. I had to hustle and my anxiety carried me up the mountain. I passed so many racers; some walking hands-on-knees, others sitting on rocks looking defeated, others giving it their all. I felt great, but it was warm and the trail was steep. Unfortunately we were nearly above tree-line and we could hear the finish line announcer, despite having 3+ miles to go. It was a total mind-fuck.

Eventually I came up to the A-Frame aid station and was shooed away by the volunteers. “You can’t stop here!” “Keep going!” “There’s no time!” “Just 4 more switch backs – you only have 5 minutes!”. I was both accepting of the fact that I didn’t have time to stop but also miffed that the timing chip wasn’t before the aid station. It seemed ridiculous to turn runners away (honest and encouraging, sure, but it was poor planning). I dug as deep as I could and ran those switchbacks, desperate to make the cutoff. I passed an older gentleman digging deeper than anyone, shouting in agony, and I burst into tears for him. The intensity of that moment was so much, and so pure as we both raced toward the technology that would determine our race fate. I crossed just in front of him and slowed to a walk to assess what was next. I looked to the top of the mountain and could see the building at the summit. I could hear the announcer. And I could see the steady stream of racers inching their way up the mountain. So close, yet so far.

Tuning back into my own surroundings, I noticed dozens of runners sprawled across the rocks just after the timing chip. Clearly they dug deep enough they needed to rest before the final push. Feeling fine, I took a mental shrug and joined the single-file line to the top.

From here it was straight up on the left, straight down on the right, switchback, and reverse. I could see Manitou Springs and the beauty of Colorado beyond it. We were all going slow enough, it was easy to snap photos and enjoy the view.

The only way to pass others was if they sat down. It was a bit of a lost cause to try to squeeze around someone because the next person was just as slow. We passed more Search & Rescue volunteers, another aid station (with food and at this point I was obsessed with eating green grapes and couldn’t get enough), some kazoo players (whom I didn’t care for, but appreciate the light-heartedness of the moment), and scrambled over endless boulders. At some point, when it became necessary to start using my hands to help with the scrambling, I began to notice blood on all the best hand holds. I was equal parts concerned and annoyed, as it added an additional layer of difficulty to the task. Finally, the infamous Golden Stairs (i.e. the 32 switchbacks to the summit where every step is literally a step). I heard the announcer say “Just 4 more minutes until the official timing ends!” and I panicked. I could make it, but not behind the slowpokes in front of me. I picked up the pace and my “On your left”s held an aggressive edge. I “sprinted” to the finish line and collected my medal. What I later learned was that the finishing time cutoff was 6 hours and 30 minutes from your start time, so I actually finished with 15 minutes to spare, but at the time, I was certain I was cutting it close!

The finish line was lonely for me. I didn’t get to cross with my friend, as we had planned for months. Jesse wasn’t there, and I knew no one else around me. It was such a big event that there was no race director to shake my hand, no volunteers serving food to joke around with, no one I recognized from the trail for a moment of solidarity. There was no finish line music, the food was just MnM’s and grapes (and more Gatorade) and the line for the shuttle bus was 13.1 miles long, so I just quietly took in the accomplishment. I physically felt great, like I could just run back down had it been marathon day. I enjoyed the views from 14,115 feet, had some kid push sand on my head as I rested against the building in the shade, and ultimately just collected my drop bag and stood in line for my ride back down.

The first 1/4 of the drive was in a 10-person van. With 8 other sweaty runners and an overzealous driver, I started to feel sick. We were soon at the drop location and I boarded a school bus. The infamously winding road was beautiful, but I had to keep my head down so I could keep my grapes down. I watched the altitude on my watch drop until I felt better: ~9,000 feet.

The view from Pikes Peak (on the other side)

Back in Manitou Springs, I texted my friend that I had arrived, hoping she would be ready to meet up and recap the day. Still feeling a bit queasy, I found a shady spot in the grass to lie down. After about 15 minutes I moved to the adjacent park with still no word from her. I was distracted by a deer family for a few minutes and texted Jesse about the race. At this point I’d been back in town for about 30 minutes and after some mental math, realized I hadn’t seen or heard from my friend in over 4 hours. I tried to call her, to no avail.

I wandered over to the race tent and found two ladies with radios and a list of runners. I asked how I might go about finding my friend, whom I was certain did not finish (DNF). They suggested she may have just returned to the hotel room, which I found to be an utterly useless answer and was extremely frustrated. As I continued to explain why that was unlikely, my friend sidled up next to me, asking what the problem was. “Oh, thank GOD!” I said, hugging her. “What the hell?”. “I just got down…” she explained. Confused, I asked what she meant. She told me that she made it to the A-Frame aid station (mile 10.2) but not within the cutoff period and they wouldn’t let her continue to the summit so she had to walk back down. Instead of a 13 mile day, she had a 20+ mile day. I couldn’t believe it. In hindsight, I can understand the reasoning, but to this day I am still baffled about how such a huge event is so unprepared (and subsequently how runners are taken by surprise) for those who do not make the cutoff.

The icing on the cake is that in order to receive a race shirt, runners must cross the finish line, get the coveted “black Sharpie X” on their race bib, ride the shuttle back down, and pick it up at the expo tent. I got my X at the top and picked up my shirt back in town without a 2nd thought, but as they turned my friend away at the aid station, she received the “red Sharpie X” and therefore could not receive the shirt that she not only paid for, but also deserves. (Note: the shirt does not say “Finisher”). To make matters worse, the shirt could be purchased in the gift shop tent. I was blown away at the audacity. They did, however, give her a token for her efforts.

All in all, I am proud of my accomplishment that day (and my friend’s. My goodness). I hope to return to repeat the course with Jesse one day – but not for this particular event; I found it to be completely elitist. Perhaps I am being overly defensive of my friend and a bit unfair to the event, but for an expensive race on public land with basic aid, a lackluster finish, and withholding race tees to those who DNF, I’d argue that if you’re not on the podium, the race doesn’t give a shit about you.

We took off from Manitou Springs and headed to Colorado Springs to my friend’s sister’s fabulous new house. We got all cleaned up and re-capped the day with each other and everyone else. After a beautiful dinner, we spent the evening relaxing and called it a night.

Sunday was spent with more family and my friend’s mom so sweetly saved the Sunday newspaper for me – my name was featured as a finisher, which was fun.

On Monday (eclipse day), before I left for the airport, we took in a hike at the Garden of the Gods and I got to see a rattle snake in-person for the first time! Have I mentioned how beautiful (yet terrifying) Colorado is? Colorado Springs stole my heart with their pink highways, red rocks, cute and clean city…oh, and their affordability! PDX, I love you, but I also may have to leave you.

We took in a bit of eclipse viewing (which may arguably be my favorite memory from the entire trip) and then I took off to meet up with some friends in Denver before finally flying home.

I wish I had a more diplomatic view about this race. My experience was exactly what I expected from such a large, internationally known event where I was a solid back-of-the-pack-er. And I can appreciate that events like this are not designed for the last place runners. But as the day unfolded, the way those who did not / could not make it to the summit were treated rubs me the wrong way. “Get yourself off the mountain” – fine. Tactless placement of “funny” signs as they were coming back down – OK.  But give ’em their damn shirts.

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