Photo: Mike SeligWell this race was a game of two very different halves - the up and the down, the good and the ugly. Typically I consider myself a stronger donwhiller than climber, and running well on Pikes in the Big Boys race is as much about the down as it is the up, but boy was the down painful for me today.
Anyway, the weekend was thoroughly enjoyable on many different levels. On the Saturday morning I got to hang out with my son and some good running buddies at 14,000 feet while watching some incredible mountain runners bust out one of the faster Ascents in the race's storied history. Situated just above the Golden Stairs, we had an absolute blast cheering people through the last grunt to the finish from our perch on a rocky outcropping. A whole slew of running friends and acquaintances were up there with us and a good laugh was had by all as we cheered on a very international field of runners, including two Brits who finished in the top 10.
After a pretty solid night of sleep, it was up at 5am for coffee and nibbles before heading down to the start where I mingled and got ready to race on what was setting up to be a beautiful morning. A short warn up with the boys and then down to business.
From the gun, I settled into a very comfortable rhythm, finding myself in twelfth place as the positions started to settle in up Ruxton Ave. My first time-check at Hydro was within seconds of my Ascent split from last year, which was encouraging as I felt like I was working at a much easier effort. On the short steep section of dirt road up to Barr Trail I took the opportunity to swing around a couple of people, and I believe I was in eighth or ninth as we hit the trail proper.
Mountain running is all about rhythm and effort output. The effort has to be under control for a long ascent like Pikes, and you have to take what the mountain gives you as far as corresponding speed is concerned. Push too hard early and you will be in a whole world of hurt higher up the mountain. Thankfully for me, the mountain was blessing me with good climb karma on this day. Working the first couple of switchbacks on Barr Trail, I knew I was in a good place; my pace felt good and the effort was well and truly under control.
Moving up the steep switchbacks of the section known as the 'Ws' I could tell that I was gaining on my buddy Justin Mock and another guy running a few ticks behind him, and about half way through this section I had eased past the pair of them putting myself in sixth. Of the five guys ahead of me, I figured that Matt Carpenter, Daryn Parker and Timmy Parr were gone, and then there were also a couple of Spaniards from the Pyrenean region of Catalan who were unknowns and also out of sight ahead of me. I figured I had a good shot at catching them, but that it probably wouldn't happen until the air started getting really thin up above 12,000 feet, so I just settled in and focused on rhythm and effort.
Approaching No Name Creek, I started getting some visuals on Timmy in fifth. This was not entirely surprising to me as he'd had a (really) bad day defending his title in the Ascent the day before, so I had to assume that whatever was going on with him Saturday had carried over to Sunday. But any which way, as I edged past Timmy somewhere on the flats up to Barr Camp, I figured that this was a once in lifetime for me in any race shorter than 50 miles. This put me in fifth overall, and with the ease of effort up to this point I was feeling good for more scalps as I progressed up the mountain. With that said, I had a third Catalan, who had been sitting 10-20 seconds behind me the whole climb to this point, and he was still hanging tough and seemingly running a steady race.
I went through Barr Camp two minutes up on last year and got my head down for the grind up to A-frame and the real work above treeline. The breeze coming through the trees was nice as the morning was really heating up, but I could tell that it was pretty gusty which would mean an added challenge up above treeline. Up to A-frame, I was focused on keeping the effort steady and not chasing down places. The race opens up with regards to visuals once you're above the trees, so I knew I would get a read on what was going on ahead of me soon enough.
Immediately on getting above the trees, I saw a runner a few switchbacks ahead, but he probably had at least four minutes on me given the long and deceiving nature of the early switchbacks above treeline. The third Catalan (behind me) was still right there and seemingly content to pace off me from a distance. I hit the two-to-go sign with 2:01 low on the clock, which meant the sub-2:30 goal for the ascent was still alive, but it was definitely going to be close, especially with the wind gusting hard.
Probably my favorite section of the whole race occurs shortly after the two-mile point when the long sweeping traverse across the face of the peak opens up and you get a reliable read on who's ahead of you and within striking distance. I saw both Spaniards and they were both mixing some hiking in with the running. Fuel.
By the Cirque, I had caught Castaner (the stronger on paper of the three), and I was closing fast on the second, but I just couldn't shake the third who was right where he'd been for the last two hours. Somewhere before the 16 Golden Stairs, Matt C came shooting through and Darren wasn't far behind. With the big step-ups on the stairs, I started getting the wobbles in my calf, meaning the cramps weren't far behind. I dropped to a hike through the big step-ups to stave off a full-on cramp. I got some great encouragement from those assembled in the very spot that Alistair and I had been bellowing from the day before, and I chuckled to myself at the fatigue I was beginning to feel given the heckling we'd been giving those who'd been walking here just 24 hours earlier. I took a quick peek at the watch and saw 2:26 high. Having counted off numerous lead runners in the Ascent on Saturday at about three minutes from that spot, I knew I was still in the hunt for the 2:29, but I also knew that it was going to be touch and go - a matter of seconds.
Push! push! push!. No cramp! no cramp! no cramp!
I bumped into the third-place guy and came to a dead stop at the penultimate switchback, just as I was trying to get a read on the summit clock: 2:29:30. I knew I had it as I got the wheels back in motion, making the summit turn in 2:29:48. Goal number one achieved. Now for the drop.
Top 12 at the Turn. Vid: Charlie Woodcock
Within a quarter mile of the technical stuff I was right on third and waiting for a spot to pass. As soon as we were through the Golden Stairs, I zipped past and put the hammer down. Time to go. I blazed the first two miles of the descent, but I was beginning to feel the sun and getting very dry in the mouth department, but worst of all my shadow was still right there. I simply couldn't shake him.
After the first two miles, I started catching the top of a few rocks and had a few very close calls with superman'dom. By A-frame, my Catalan shadow was right on my shoulder and I was beginning to feel lazy and even more uncoordinated in the legs, which led the muscle between my ears to think that third was now a long shot. Weak. About two switchbacks after my brain flopped on me, I overshot a turn and Jordi from Girona was through in a shot. However, on the very next switchback Jordi also overshot and I was able to muscle back through after a bit of shoulder to shoulder stuff that brought back some fleeting memories from my rugby days - running is not often a contact sport.
Jordi stuck with me for the next mile, maybe two, but I could tell he was just biding his time. I made it easy for him, however, catching a rock and taking a nasty skin-scraper on my right shoulder. I was straight back up after some serious profanity, but the wind had been knocked out of me pretty good. In situations like these where there is no serious damage, you just try to shake it off and get back on with it, but I knew immediately on getting up that the game for third was up. Jordi was out of sight within minutes, and I was now beginning to feel like I was slipping into survival mode with a good eight miles of joint-jolting descent to come.
After another couple of stumbles, I went down hard again. This time I took it on the knees, thighs and hip with a pretty hefty head-to-gravel thud thrown in for good measure. Getting back up from this one, I decided that it was time to shut it down and get back in control of the situation. At the next aid, I stopped and took down three cups of water and probably two gels worth of EFS Liquid Shot from my gel flask. Within a quarter mile I was feeling a little bit of life in my legs, but was again massively dehydrated. I also managed to turn my ankle for a third time somewhere in here and would do so again for a fourth and final time a few miles later.
I took two more cups of water at No Name Creek and started looking at the watch. I figured I needed just over six-minute miles for the last four miles to get under four hours. That seemed highly unlikely, but I still tried to push out the best effort I could. With two to go, I was down to 5:30 miles - definitely not going to happen - and to add insult to injury the guy I had passed early on the descent had caught right back up to me and zipped through. His back represented $100, but I just didn't have the means to respond.
With one to go, my watch read 3:54:30, which was a huge surprise. Wow, I was back on the road and all I needed was a downhill 5:30 mile to hit my goal. By golly, I may still have a shot at this. I started winding it up and actually felt like I was moving well, but unfortunately the feeling of speed is relative to energy levels and prior speed. Yes, I was moving faster than I had been, but unfortunately that only translated to six-minute pace. As I rounded the last turn, the clock was already reading 4:00:xx. Bugger! I crossed the line with a head of steam anyway, missing my goal by a scant 35 seconds.
Chatting with the amicable crew of Catalans after the race, I learned that the guy who pipped me for fourth was from a village of 25 people in the Pyrenees and was a childhood friend of Kilian Jornet who grew up in the same village. For those not familiar with Kilian, he was the dude who I ended up racing through the last two miles of the Western States 100 earlier this summer. He ended up beating me for third by a minute.
If I ever find myself in that village in the Pyrenees ...
So on balance I am really happy with my run. Sure I'm bummed I missed my goal by less than a minute, but I am super stoked to have gotten up the hill in under 2:30. Mike Selig has a comprehensive list of guys who've gone under 2:30 from the race's 55-year history and while I can't remember the exact number, I think it was less than 150 (edit: 136 after 2010 races), so pretty rare air.
With my top-10 finish, I get a free entry for next year. While I can choose the Ascent or the Marathon, I think it's going to take me quite some time to think that running the Marathon again is a good idea. While I retain the right to reconsider, I'm gonna say right now that the Pikes Peak Marathon is the toughest race I have ever undertaken. By comparison, the Ascent last year was child's play.
I'll add some pics later, but for now check out this one of me and Jordi crossing right below the summit.
Top Ws: 28:44
No Name: 42:31
Barr Camp: 1:13:44
A Frame: 1:45:45
2 to go: 2:01:09
1 to go: 2:14:02