Editor’s Note: This is a special race read because it’s from one of our dearest friends and my training partner. Robyn and I met literally on the run and we’ve spent countless hours running together since. When we started training together, we pretty much stuck to the roads and as I began to get more into trail running, Robyn was somewhat hesitant to get off pavement. I think it’s safe to say she’s a trail runner now. I was proud of her and her husband, Adam, before they even started the race – it takes guts to sign up for something like this! And I was ecstatic to hear she had such a great day out there. Go, Birdie!
I’ve been on a bit of a “summer vacation” when it comes to my training over the past few months. Rather than disciplined workouts and planned out weeks, I’ve been taking more of a free-lance approach to running; sometimes fast, often times slow, lots of mountain climbing, and some trail running. It’s a welcome break after several seasons of marathon training that were so regimented I’d lose sight of the joy in the sport. I love to compete, and I love the challenge of training hard, but there’s been something wonderful about playing it day-by-day.
Mountain climbing, in particular, is a primary focus for Adam and me during the May through October months. Somewhere along the way, we came up with the “brilliant” idea of running the Pikes Peak Ascent , a famed race in our hometown of Colorado Springs. The idea of the race is simple; run from the base of the mountain (6,300 feet) to the summit (14,115 feet). The realty, though, is much more complicated. Unlike your standard half-marathon or your standard 14er hike, there are elements to each that you have to find a balance between. So, despite the half-marathons I’ve run and the mountains I’ve climbed, finding symbiosis between the two was a confounding task. Which, admittedly, I kind of loved. It was exciting not knowing what to expect, even if the unexpected could have been wickedly brutal.
I had a hard time narrowing down a goal finish time, because I know firsthand that at high altitudes you aren’t very in control of how your body reacts. Ultimately, I would have been happy with a finish that didn’t require Search-and-Rescue assistance, but since I’m unable to run a race without some kind of a benchmark, I did decide on something basic. Thanks to the legacy of the Ascent and the helpful nature of people it attracts, I learned that a good finish time predictor is to take your marathon PR and add 30 minutes. For me, that would be a 3:59 finish, so I decided that sub-4hours would be a reasonable goal provided I was feeling well enough to watch the clock.
I woke up eager with anticipation; I coffee’ed, bagel’ed, sunscreen’ed, body glide’ed, and all that pre-race jazz while simultaneously feeling myself going into that familiar competitive zone. It was like being in the presence of an old friend, and I was thrilled to have her around.
We headed to the start, and it was so enjoyable to have my people along for the adventure. Not only was Adam running it, but Kate – my mom’s partner – was running it for her fourth time around. We said our good lucks, separated into our respective corrals, and I narrowed my focus onto the task at hand. My corral stepped up to the start line, and following a “3-2-1,” we were off to climb a mountain!
The first 1.5 miles or so follow an uphill paved road to the Pikes Peak trailhead. It’s well-known that in order to get a decent spot on the single track, it’s best to try and push as much as you can in this section of the race. However, I was warned that it’s easy to go out really fast and blow up even faster once the ascending starts on the trail. I trusted my hiking and running endurance enough to know that even if I didn’t have a great starting position on the trail, I would be able to make up for it in the later stages. So, I took it slow, smiled, and psyched myself up for the miles to come.
Once we got to the trailhead and onto some actual dirt, almost everyone came to a quick hault in their run and started to hike. I took the hint and hiked myself, knowing that this ebb and flow of running and hiking would be the name of the game for the rest of the mountain. This section of the course, Barr Trail, is referred to as “the Ws,” which are just as they sound; steep and short switchbacks that go up and up without much reprieve. There were several portions I felt I could run and wanted to move around the conga line of people in front of me, but instead I welcomed the energy save and power hiked most of this section, ran when I could, and occasionally passed people when I had an opening. It was also already pretty hot, and I didn’t want to mess around with early overexertion.
The Ws lasted until about mile 4, at which point I knew we would get the “flattest” section of the course for a few miles. I planned on using this as an opportunity to run as much as possible, since I knew people would have spread out enough to make passing a little easier. After 4 miles of constant climbing, even the slightest flattening on the trail felt like heaven! Consistent running was such a relief for my legs after all the off-and-on power hiking and short bursts of running. I was so happy to be actually moving and passing people! I figured that once I was above treeline, all progress would slow tremendously, so I wanted to gain as much headway as I could. This was probably the best I felt during the race; I felt strong, in control, and generally giddy to be out there. I held short snippets of conversations with the people around me during the part too, which really helped boost my spirits and kept me entertained.
There’s a campground on the trail to the summit called Barr Camp, and although it was at mile 7.5, I thought of it as my halfway point, since the mountain only got steeper and harder after you pass it. I could hear the volunteers at Barr Camp from at least half a mile away, and it was amazing to run into the camp with so many happy, encouraging faces to greet us. While all the aid stations along the way had water, Gatorade, and food a-plenty, Barr Camp had at least double the amount of fuel and people there to welcome in runners. This type of aid station setup was totally new to me, and I loved it! My standard became to grab Gatorade, pretzels, and grapes, refill my water bottle, and high five as many people as possible. I checked my overall time at this point (1:54), which would indicate that I was on target for my sub-4 prospect.
I ran a bit more after leaving Barr Camp and was quickly backed up again behind runners who’d slowed to a hike. It was quickly obvious why; we were headed UP again, and the trail was getting much rockier. I decided to utilize my strongest power hike during the section, something I’d tried to practice on other mountains, and recoup my energy as much as I could to preserve a little gusto for the higher altitudes.
We broke tree-line a little after mile 10 at about 12,000 feet. I was happy to be able to see the rest of the mountain face, and every once in a while the yellow glimmer of the finish line would appear on the summit. However, this also meant that I could see how far i had to go, and with several runners up ahead of me, it was no secret just how much more climbing there was to come. However, I still felt good, I had managed to pass a lot of people at that point, and I knew this was the final stretch. My spirits were lifted, as well, when I noticed the trail had become much less rocky and actually fairly…runnable. I chose to forgo any conservation efforts at this point and run whenever I could. This was a bit of a stop-and-go routine; I’d run for 200 yards, get held up by another person on the trail, hike a bit, try and decide if I should pass, catch my breath (emphasis on try), rinse and repeat. Although it was unbelievably slow and rickety, I did notice that I was one of the only people around me still attempting a run.
As I approached mile 11.5, I heard shouts of “beer!” and the sound of little toy kazoos buzzing in the thin air. Up ahead, I saw the most eccentric aid station of the day: a big group of guys who were drinking, singing, handing out Dixie cups of beer, and clearly having a fantastic day on the mountain. I was still trying to run/hike at this point, and I happened to be on a “run” segment when I approached the group. As soon as they noticed I was running, they went completely nuts, and I ran through a tunnel of whirling kazoos and shouts of, “We’ve got a runner! We’ve got a runner!”, and “You’re gonna beat all those dudes up ahead!” It was a highlight for sure, and it gave me so much motivation to keep pushing, slowly but surely.
My running began to turn into a power hike, and my power hike became more of a trudge as the altitude got higher and higher. I’d try to run a small stretch only to find that my breath was immediately caught in my chest; there was no denying it, we were closing in on 14,000 feet. But, I kept a smile on my face, and I began to hear to sounds of the finish line the higher I climbed. I knew my sub-4 hour goal was in reach, now was just the time to hunker down, gut it out, and make moves whenever I felt I could.
I got to the base of the “16 Golden Stairs,” the final series of steep switchbacks before the summit, and I felt a surge of energy with the knowledge that I was nearly there. I pushed and pushed, running tiny portions of trail when I could, and kept up as much effort as I could sustain in the altitude without pushing too far. It was a fine line, and I felt myself waver back and forth on it a few times toward the end, but once the full finish line came into view just a few switchbacks up, the complete joy of having made it overwhelmed me, and my final push felt nearly effortless.
I spotted my family (holding a Colorado flag no less), Adam’s family, and hundreds of cheering spectators and felt an indescribable sense of accomplishment. I crossed the finish line in 3:49:33, overjoyed with the experience I’d just had. I hadn’t felt that sensational post-race feeling in a long time, and to be able to share it with my family and Adam made the experience all the more special.
I found my people, ate a lot of chips and Goldfish, and waited for Adam and Kate to finish. It was so fun cheering them in and spending the rest of the morning on top of the mountain we’d all just climbed. The summit was windless and the sun was abundant; it was a perfect day.
I learned a lot from this race, most of which I’m still processing, but there is one thing that stands out more than anything: my love for the mountains and my love for competing aren’t mutually exclusive. While I might have been treating my current training as spontaneous and random, I think I might actually be tapping into a new kind of competitive outlet, and I’m excited to see where it leads.
The summit of a mountain is a truly poetic setting for a finish line; the tangible triumph is undeniable, and the barren landscape is a perfect metaphor for the raw, fundamental nature of distance running. Pushing my limits on the mountain I grew up beneath was a superbly sentimental celebration. It was an amazing race, an amazing experience, and I can guarantee it won’t be my last jaunt on that beautiful peak.