“Have you ever had altitude sickness?” These were the words that went through my head as I started the 2011 Pikes Peak Ascent Half Marathon – a 13.3-mile run up one of Colorado's 14,000+ foot mountains – in Manitou Springs, Colorado, on August 20.
Being a flatlander from Northeast Wisconsin, embarking on her first event at altitude, these words were not especially encouraging, but I guess that is what I get for striking up a conversation with a complete stranger outside the porta-potty line right before the race. As my new friend related to me just how his super-fit runner wife had gotten to within 400 feet of the summit recently and stopped unable to move another step until they half-carried her to a lower elevation, I wondered – not for the first time – why I had signed up for this crazy event.
Let me make one thing clear: I am not a good runner. I am not a contender. I don't make race plans. There is no need; I will never win an award - age group or otherwise. Despite my best attempts, I never seem to get any faster than a mid-to-back-of-the-pack pace. What I do have going for me is that I love running, I can be incredibly stubborn, and I like new experiences.
Signing up for the Pikes Peak Ascent had been a “decide-now-ask-questions-later” type of thing. My husband, a much stronger runner than I, had run the Pikes Peak Marathon in 2009, and was keen on doing the Double – Ascent Half Marathon on Saturday and Pikes Peak Marathon up and down the mountain on Sunday – in 2011. I had played with the idea of doing the Ascent but had never considered it seriously. But to every protest I had, there was a solution. Me: We're taking the kids this year, who would watch them? Him: No worries, his mom would fly out from San Diego for the weekend. Me: I am not that great of a runner on flat land, let alone uphill. Him: That's okay. The “run” is really more of a power hike. Besides, the really hard part is the descent, and you won't be doing that. Me: What if I don't make the cutoffs? Him: You only have to maintain a 2.0 pace to make it. Me: What about the altitude? Him: Okay, you got me there, but I'm sure you'll do great. Strange, many months later, that is exactly how the man telling the story about his wife ended the conversation. “You never know if you'll get altitude sickness, but don't worry. I am sure you'll do great!” If only I could have the confidence in myself that complete strangers have.
The race website advises that your projected finish time for the ascent should be your marathon time plus 30 minutes. Since I had only done one marathon five years before, I didn't have much to go on. But based on that, my projected finish time was 5:40 – only 50 minutes before the finish line cutoff of 6:30. Not a lot of wiggle room, especially considering I was sure I hadn't gotten any faster in the ensuing five years. Not exactly confidence-inspiring, but still I signed up and was very excited about doing the event.
Located outside the city of Colorado Springs on the state's front range of the Rocky Mountains, Pikes Peak is one of Colorado's famed “Fourteeners,” and altitude sickness is a very real concern. Already at the start of the race at 6,000 feet, the level of oxygen in the air is 18 percent less than at sea level. At the Ascent's finish, oxygen has diminished to 43 percent less than that at sea level. Coming from Northeast Wisconsin, which is about 900 feet above sea level, that is a significant drop. I wasn't really worried about what the lack of oxygen would do to me; I knew the good folks of El Paso County Search and Rescue would be dotting the mountain carrying oxygen tanks … seriously. However, going to all the trouble to do the event, the last thing I wanted was to be carried off the mountain with a DNF. Who knows if I would ever get back?
The day of the race dawned bright and beautiful. The weather was warm. The temps during my one-mile 6:30 a.m. walk to the start were mild enough that a jacket was not needed. After hitting the porta-potty line twice, eating a GU, and topping off my Gatorade, I waited nervously for the gun to go off. I was in Wave 2, timed to start at 7:30 a.m. My husband who was in Wave 1 had already started his journey up the mountain at 7 a.m. While waiting, adding to my nervousness was the announcement that a storm was expected to move in over the mountain at noon.
Now, storms are a real deal breaker in this race. Pikes Peak has one of the highest concentrations of lightening strikes in the U.S. Despite the very real danger of being struck by lightening (the Pikes Peak Marathon website actually links to a picture of what running shoes look like when they are too close to a lightening strike), the real threat in any participant's mind is the possibility of being turned back. In 2008, slower folks had been turned back three miles from the summit due to weather. Not only did they not get to reach summit, their 13-mile event turned into a 20-miler as they had to hike back down the mountain. Knowing that I could not make it to the summit by noon, all I could do was hope for the best and not think about it too much.
I felt I was outfitted well enough considering that temperatures and weather conditions vary greatly from the start of the race in town to the summit, and considering that weather could change unexpectedly. I had chosen to wear running shorts and a short-sleeved running shirt, hat, compression calf sleeves, my regular cushioned road shoes, and gaiters to keep the small rocks and debris out. Around my waist I had tied a running jacket with wool hat and gloves in the pockets and windbreaker pants.
After singing "America the Beautiful," whose words were penned on Pikes Peak, we were off. The first mile was a slow jog through town, as the 1,000 people in my wave wended their way to the trailhead. Having been advised not to start out too fast but rather save my energy for the top of the mountain, I took it slowly. Of course, most of the others did, too, and by the time we reached the trailhead for the Barr Trail, I found myself in a logjam of people. Starting out at an average grade of 13.4 percent, the trail makes it clear from the start that unless you have significant hill training, you will be walking a good portion of this event. Even if the grade weren't so steep, the crowd ahead of you does not allow you to choose your own pace. Where you started out is where you remain for the first few miles. Advice for the run tells you that it is not really worth it to try to pass people at this point. The last few miles demand so much that to expend unnecessary energy early on is foolish.
The trail starts out a couple meters wide, but then quickly narrows to a single-track, dirt-and-rock trail as you follow a series of switchbacks, called the Ws. True to everything I had read, the first three miles were a tough slog up a steep narrow trail. Views in the first few miles are breathtaking, however. Pine covered slopes and glimpses of town greet your eyes as you move up the switchbacks, quickly gaining 2,150 feet in elevation. At the three mile mark, the trail heads more into the trees and flattens out a bit – averaging only an 8.3 percent grade. There are even a few slight downhills that tease you along the way. In the next three miles, participants get to experience the “fastest” portion of the course. A nice reprieve from the relentless uphill hike, even I was able to enjoy the change of pace – literally – as I ran a bit here and there in the miles leading to Barr Camp – the first cut off point – at 7.6 miles.
Making Barr Camp with a half hour to spare before the three-hour cutoff was encouraging. Up until that point, I still felt relatively strong, leading me to believe that I might be a much stronger uphill hiker than I am a runner. I had even managed to pass some folks. After Barr Camp, which has an elevation of 10,200 feet, it seemed that things started to get more serious as other participants started to feel the altitude.
To ward off altitude sickness, the only real thing a flatlander can do – aside from getting to the mountains weeks ahead of time to acclimate – is hydrate well. I took that advice seriously, carrying my 16-ounce water bottle in my hand during the event. I sipped on it constantly, perhaps as much as every 20 feet or so. I sipped on it so often that by the end of the race, I was tired of the act of drinking. However, the positive side is that I feel the altitude did not have as big of an effect on me early on as it could have. I was constantly surprised by the others around me who had water bottles, but were not drinking as often. I thought there was something wrong with me until I started passing people after Barr Camp. Being a back-of-the-packer I have never been in a race where I have passed so many people. Often people were on the side of the trail trying to stretch out cramping leg muscles. But more often than not, too, folks were just sitting on the side of the trail staring into space, completely zoned out. I still wonder if those folks ever finished the event. The higher we went, the worse it got.
After another hour or so, I made it to A-Frame, which is the second and last cutoff point before the summit. I had 25 minutes to spare, which made me feel pretty good. A-Frame is at 11,950 feet in elevation. This also marks where treeline is, because beyond this point trees refuse to grow. Leaving A-Frame, I still felt surprisingly strong. I had continued to make forward progress and felt I had passed more people than had passed me. I had made the two major cutoffs before the finish with some time to spare and I still wasn't really feeling the altitude. It was hard to believe, however, that with three miles to go the race was really just beginning.
From A-Frame to the summit is approximately 3.1 miles with an elevation gain of 2,050 feet and an average grade of 12.4 percent. The trail changes from a typical, semi-technical dirt trail you could find in almost any wooded area to primarily loose gravel and broken rock above treeline. Due to the altitude, it takes most runners around 30 minutes to cover each mile beyond this point. To add insult to injury, the homestretch of the race is called the 16 Golden Stairs – a series of 32 switchbacks with step-ups in places of 10-15 inches. As a side note, an interesting element of the lower oxygen level, or “thinner air,” is that distances are deceptive. From A-Frame the summit looks closer than it actually is. Mentally, that throws you off a bit.
Support on the course was amazing. There were seven aid stations before the summit. The first several had water, Gatorade, and a virtual buffet of food to nosh on. The last couple were limited to water. Aid stations in this event are all the more amazing because the volunteers could not just drive up to a site and unload everything. For the most part, these folks hiked in from miles away carrying everything needed on their backs. At the Barr Camp and A-Frame water stations, volunteers arrive Friday and spend the weekend on the mountain hand pumping water through a filter system. At other water stations, the water is trucked to points on the mountain where it is then piped through several thousand feet of hose to the aid stations. Without these volunteers, this race could definitely NOT happen, and they are rock stars in my book.
By the time I made it to A-Frame, they had actually run out of water and were hand filtering it one cup at a time for participants. Although this was a slight hitch in operations and just another reason to carry your own water bottle, it just goes to show the amount of work the volunteers were doing.
It is said that after treeline is where the real race takes place, and it was no different for me. Despite feeling pretty strong leaving treeline, the lack of oxygen started taking its toll within that first mile. I continued to pass people heading up the trail where possible, and I got passed as well. However, not having been able to fill my water bottle completely at A-Frame and the fact that I was drinking so much, I soon found myself staring at my last couple of swigs of water with still about a half mile to go to the next aid station. By then the last GU I had eaten at treeline started feeling like a rock in my stomach and the altitude and time on my feet were taking their toll. Mentally, I was just getting tired of the relentless climb – almost like there was no end in site. And, indeed, there really wasn't any end in site. Looking up, there was what seemed to be an endless progression of runners going up miles of switchbacks, and the summit's finish line banner still wasn't visible from that angle.
Around this time, a woman behind me joked with a neighbor that this was the first race she had done where she was thinking how good an oxygen mask and a gurney would be at the end. And, she was right. It didn't sound bad at all. Just when I didn't think I could keep going without more water, the Cirque water station appeared. Seemingly clinging to the side of the mountain, volunteers there were filling garbage bag-lined cans with water from a hose coming off the summit. I was never so happy to have my water bottle plunked into a garbage can of water. As I passed their water station, Search and Rescue crews seemed to be more prevalent. Passing muster with them was a relief, because it meant I could keep going. Staring doggedly at the heels of the shoes in front of me, I just kept moving forward. I stepped where those shoes stepped and avoided the places where they stumbled. Strangely, I felt a little lost when those shoes stepped to the side of the trail to sit down. I quickly realized I had become one of the zombies the race website had joked about.
The 16 Golden Stairs passed in a blur – albeit a long blur. They seemed to go on forever, and I was in such a mental fog I couldn't even get excited about some of the drop offs we passed. Being marginally afraid of heights it was nice to know I was so out of it, I barely noticed that part of the event.
In the final couple of miles there was a real drama going on behind me. I never turned to look, but a woman who had passed me with complete determination and then I later passed was convinced she would not make it to the top. She wanted to quit. Another lady, who apparently was much stronger, talked her up those two miles, kept her going, and wouldn't let her sit down. It was really inspiring and helped me keep going as well.
It didn't get easier the closer we got to the summit. Strangely, that last bit of energy I usually get when I see the finish line didn't really occur. I was so tired, I could barely acknowledge all the great folks sitting on the top of the world in the thin air cheering us on. Crossing the finish line, finally, at 5:22 (20 minutes before my projected finish time), all I felt was relief and happiness. I was happy to have made it but so glad to be done and relatively healthy. The medical station's beds were filled with people on oxygen and with IVs in their arms. One lady passed out and was being carried in by four people just as I was leaving. It really made me realize this is not a race you try to bluff your way through. You need to respect the mountain.
The storm they had warned us about at the start of the race never really materialized. We did hear some thunder above treeline, but the clouds passed south. As another storm was blowing in, however, we were encouraged to get on the shuttles heading off the mountain as quickly as possible. A shuttle ride to a school bus six miles down finally got me back to town almost an hour and a half after finishing the event. Amazingly, coming down to lower elevations had an immediate effect on how I felt. I almost felt revived getting off the school bus – well, almost.
The Pikes Peak Ascent was an amazing event. The volunteers and those few spectators you saw on the course were very supportive. The challenge itself of just going up the mountain – the relentless uphill climb – was an experience I will look back on in amazement for a long time to come. Having done not one but two half marathons a week apart earlier in the year while sick, I thought I knew what it felt like to be completely wrung out and exhausted by a run. Was I wrong! This event – especially if you are not completely prepared – takes the average runner to new places both mentally and physically.
Would I do Pikes Peak again? Yes! I wouldn't hesitate to sign up for this again, and, with some proper hill training, who knows maybe even do the marathon or the double. Crazy as it sounds, people probably either love this event or just don't do it. I am clearly in the former category, as is my husband who completed his goal of doing the Double. Perhaps the thing I like about the race is that even though I know he is a stronger runner, it sounds like his experience above treeline was similar to mine. It's nice to know there is an equalizer somewhere.