Saturday, August 15, 2009

Pikes Peak Ascent - Bubble Boy

In tournament poker they have a nickname for the guy who is the last one eliminated before people start getting paid: bubble boy. Today on Pikes Peak, I was that guy, although we're talking shoes, not cash!

In the days leading up to this race, I wasn't feeling too motivated by the prospect of running 13 miles and 8,000 vertical feet to the top of a 14,000 foot mountain as hard as I could; at the four-mile point in the race, I was sitting in 20th place feeling even less enthused about what lay ahead, swearing to myself that I would never be back. Sitting here writing this blog post, I'm plotting my return and thinking about some unfinished business up there on Captain Pike's mountain. Running's a funny old game.

So I got into Manitou Springs shortly before seven, just in time to pick up my bib and to take a quick walk into town to see if I could find a coffee shop that would be open early enough for coffee at five. I couldn't. Lucky for me, I bumped into George Zack - Mr. Pikes Peak of the blogosphere - on my way back to the car, and he was kind enough to offer me a bunk for the night in the spare bed of his room at the Silver Saddle Motel. The room had a coffee maker, meaning my caffeine dilemma for the morning was resolved. The added bonus was that I wouldn't have to sleep in the back of the truck. Worth two minutes off my finish time? Maybe. Thanks, George!

After shooting the breeze and talking Pikes for a bit, I got down for a great night's sleep. Got up, made the coffee, downed two glazed donuts and got ready for the off.

Photo: George Zack

As usual, I bolted from the gun as if I was in a mile race, but soon found my pace and settled into a second pack of runners behind a lead group of Simon Gutierez, Tim Parr, Alex Nicols, Payton Batliner and a couple others. In the video below I'm on the curb in the big chase group at the turn for Ruxton.

By the time we hit Hydro Street (8:43), I was sitting in 13th place, looking at an already sizeable gap to the lead runners. By the spur to the Barr Trail, I was probably 15th and beginning to feel like it was going to be a long day. My legs didn't have the zip I wanted and things felt labored. I remember thinking to myself that I was probably in for something of a suffer-fest and that all bets were off with regards to pre-race goals.

Tucking into the opening few switchbacks, through the steepest section of the course, I was sure I was in for a miserable morning. My legs felt heavy and the runners in front looked to be moving effortlessly. Somehow, however, I managed to keep my place in the pecking order through the 'W's, but was soon passed by a slew of guys as things leveled out a bit at the top of the 'W's. According to my count, I was running in 20th by No Name Creek (43:13) and losing ground. It was still early in the race, and I knew the real action wouldn't happen until after Barr Camp, so I actually felt good about getting out of the claustrophobic pack, even if it left me with a ton of work to do if I was going to meet my goal of a top-ten finish.

After taking a quick glance back on one of the longer stretches, I now realized that I was essentially on a training run; there was no one in view behind and not a soul to follow in front. This was the turning point in my race.

Through the rollers to Barr Camp, I felt the weight lift from my legs and finally began feeling like I was warmed up and ready to race. Not far from Barr Camp, a couple of singlets started coming into view. First a neon yellow one, then a red one, then a green one. I recognized them all as belonging to the pack of guys that had stormed past me at No Name Creek. Game on.

By Barr Camp (1:15:48), I had caught 19th and was soon easing past two other guys who were still moving well, but obviously slowing. Okay, I thought to myself, three down, seven to go. And so it was, all the way up to A-frame, picking off guys who had overextended themselves in the early going. By A-frame (1:49:02), I was sitting in 12th having just passed Gerald Romero, the last of the guys who had gone by me earlier. However, while the others I passed were soon out of sight behind, Gerald was hanging tough and pacing off me.

Immediately above tree-line, with three miles to go, I caught sight of a runner in an orange singlet, 11th place. Hmm, maybe a top ten was still in the cards. I was feeling strong and all I needed was two more runners. As I'm thinking this, I get a surprise from behind as Gerald eases by me looking like he's found a new gear, putting me back in 13th. I watched from afar as Gerald laid down the hammer and quickly caught the orange singlet in 11th (Johannes Rudolph). I, however, was gaining ground on Johannes very slowly. As best I could judge, he probably had 90 seconds on me at the two-to-go marker. When I saw the 2:05 split I realized that a 2:30 wasn't going to happen, so 2:35 quickly became the new goal. Top ten was still a reality as far as the race was concerned, although I was beginning to feel somewhat resigned to 13th.

Between miles two-to-go and one-to-go, there is a long straight stretch across the face of the peak that allows for unobscured views of the trail ahead. I counted four guys that I could maybe catch, Gerald included, but I'd pretty much given up on him as he looked to be getting stronger and stronger, now running in 9th. Johannes looked to have picked it up a bit and was probably moving at about the same pace as me in 11th, while the guy now in 12th (Batliner) looked like he might be slowing, and by the time I got to the switchbacks at the end of the traverse it was apparent that he was, while the guy in 10th (Zach Thomas) had been reduced to a hike and was being overtaken by Johannes and Batlinger.

I knew I had the two immediately in front, but also knew that I wouldn't catch Johannes. There was a shot of beer on offer from Pit Brownie not far from the end. Knowing my fate was now decided, I reached for the beer, but fumbled the hand-off. It was probably Pabst Blue Ribbon, so I wasn't too sad to watch it hit the ground as I continued on.

And that was the race. I picked off Thomas somewhere around the one mile mark, and Batliner just before the Golden Steps, finishing 11th in a time of 2:35:40. I was able to close the gap a bit on Johannes, but just couldn't reel him in through the last mile. Tenth was worth a pair of La Sportiva shoes (~$100 essentially), but even with that motivation I couldn't get it done.

Almost done. Photo: John Garner

Stick a fork in me, I'm done!


Hydro ........ 8:43
No Name ... 43:13
Barr Camp . 1:15:48
BP .............. 1:27:48
A-Frame .... 1:49:02
2 to go ........ 2:05:24
1 to go ......... 2:19:16
Finish ......... 2:35:40

Tough race, good times, and I hope to be back for the up and down version next year for a spot of redemption. On a side note, Johannes was the winner of the inaugural Blue Sky Marathon last October, which is put on by members of the Fort Collins Trail Runners. He'll be back this year, as will I, so it'll be fun to see how it plays out on an entirely different course.

Oh, and congrats to Tim Parr, who's 2:12 is reportedly the fastest (Matt Carpenter excluded) ascent since 1997. And thanks to the race organizers who put on a supremely well managed event.

Results here.


  1. Sorry about the poor handoff!

    I musta counted wrong, when I saw you pass the guy just before the Golden Stairs I thought you were moving into the top 10. Great run!

  2. Great job in the race and making up lost ground. Thanks for sharing your report and wishing I was there.

  3. Nice run! Sucks you missed out on 10th by 40 sec. Sounds like you are ready for a rematch with Johannes though...

    Tim Parr's run was impressive. Should be interesting to see him and Anton next weekend.

  4. Nice job, Nick. Quite a season you've had.

  5. I guess I was bubble boy today on the cash then?

    Good work yesterday, after seeing you dominate the FoCo trail scene, good to see you mix it up in what surely is the most competitive trail race in Colorado. I think you did really well against that field.

    Rudolph has won the Estes marathon the last 3 years and also ran 2:33ish earlier this year at Napa I think.

  6. Awesome run for your first competition there. We are going to have to get that Boulder / Fort Collins show down going ... umm, but not for a bit.

    You had donuts?!

  7. Thanks all!

    Nick - yeah, Leadville is going to be interesting. Parr vs Krupicka is the headline match-up, but Dennis Flanagan and Duncan C should keep them honest. Krupicka has to go in favorite, but Tim seems like a pretty intense guy, so I'm thinking he's definitely ready, which means he'll be in the hunt through the early stuff; however, the race starts at 75 miles. If someone offered me better than 3-1 on Parr, I would make that bet. I'd also put you in my top five; 19 hours should get that done. See you Saturday!

    Justin - you picked up $100, no? Justin Ricks was bubble boy for the cash purse in the marathon. And yes, Johannes is definitely better suited to the Blue Sky race, as it is a pretty fast course, but it's right in my backyard, and I'm planning on giving him a run for his crown.

    GZ - I'm thinking November some time for the Boulder/FoCo showdown. Let's see if we can make it happen. Oh, and donuts = my personal rocket fuel. Tried and tested.

  8. I didn't realize that I was due $100 and didn't get anything yesterday. Sent them an email to see if they're mailing it or what.

  9. Coffee and 2 glazed donuts? Never knew that was the breakfast of champions!

  10. Hey Nick, it was cool to read your account of Pikes Peak that I randomly stumbled across. And speaking of stumbling, you might recall passing my dying ass during the race...I finished right behind u in our age group, Jon Clark. Anyhey, nice to 'meet ya' :-) (I was wearing a crank sports - e gel singlet, shaved head, tats...)