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A Pikes Peak Pounding

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My first week or so back at sea level, and I was constantly exhausted. I slept nine hours a night, usually added on another one or two on the couch in the afternoon. My knees buckled as I trudged around the house. I was down about five pounds from my usual weight. Suffice it to say, the Pikes Peak Marathon annihilated me. What fun, though!

But there were moments I thought I'd be a DNS for the race. Like 24 hours beforehand, when I couldn't run a single step. Somehow, I managed to aggravate an old rib injury and could barely breathe, never mind bounce my body on my feet while running. I studied the cut-off times on the race website, determined to at least start the run the next day.

Luckily, the injury subsided over night, and though bothersome didn't affect my time much the next day. As a Pikes Peak veteran now, I managed to find good parking and timed my arrival at the starting line nicely. The weather was perfect! The race director announced the conditions at the summit (30F, wind chill 15F) before ceding the stage to some local high-schoolers who sang an a capella version of "America the Beautiful" to get everyone in the right frame of mind. With Pikes Peak towering in the background, not a sound was heard from the crowd as the singers rendered their version of the song.

And then we were off! Mindful of my ribs, I started out slowly, but within a couple of minutes things loosed up and I was able to move at a decent pace. Soon the course left the paved streets of Manitou and took us up the initial steep switchbacks of the Barr Trail. I was happy with my pace, overtook a few and was overtaken by a few, but overall maintained my place and steadily ate up the distance.

This year, I'd have to not only go up, but also get back down. "Up and back down" - that sounds a little like "There and back again", the title for Bilbo Baggins' book on his travels with the dwarves. Unlike Bilbo, I wouldn't have to worry about Smaug the dragon at the top of the mountain though. Just breathing - the air at the summit has only 48% of the oxygen found at sea level.

Wearing my Garmin, I ignored the distance display and instead focused on elevation, the true indicator of progress in this race. 7,000', 8,000'... I was feeling decent. While I don't have my splits from last year's Ascent, I felt I was on a similar pace.

Things were moving along nicely until what must be my altitude cutoff... about 9,500'. Just like last year, I started falling back among the runners. Trying to make myself feel better, I asked a lady who was passing me if she was from "altitude". "No, I'm from Chattanooga, Tennessee," she answered cheerfully before leaving me behind for good. Damn! So much for my master plan of acclimatizing to elevation before the race.

Oh well, slow down was to be expected. But something was not right, or better put, something was worse than last year. Without consulting my times, I knew I was slower, especially on the relatively flat section of the course before Barr Camp. Things only got worse as the trees got smaller, the light got brighter, and we emerged from the woods onto the martian landscape of Pikes Peak above treeline.

Soon enough, shouts of "downhill runner!" preceded the appearance of Matt Carpenter, ruddy-faced but handily on his way to another marathon victory. More runners followed suit, intermittently at first, but then with increasing frequency until finally I was seemingly constantly balancing on the edge of the trail to make way for downhill runners.

That still didn't explain my pace, though. The first two miles above treeline took me 22 minutes and 25 minutes, respectively (versus about 20 minutes each in training not five days previously!) The final mile to the summit was especially brutal. I had trouble focusing, got tunnel vision and at one point almost fell off the trail. "You scared me for a minute!" said a rescue team member. "Imagine how I felt," I replied.

31 long minutes for that last mile to the top. I took a standing eight-count on the infamous 16 Golden Stairs, with the summit banner in sight, leaning against a large boulder, trying to catch my breath without passing out. Once I did make it to the top, there was no time to celebrate. Get me off of this thing! Air! Air! The Ascent, meantime, had taken me 3:57 - 12 minutes longer than last year.

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Surprisingly, the descent was almost as bad as the ascent. My legs felt like complete rubber, and I had to walk large sections of the trail for fear of tripping, falling or just outright collapsing. I continued to be passed by runners who apparently had nowhere near the trouble I had with the thin air. Invariably, the sections I tried to actually run properly ended when I'd roll my right ankle. Fearing a trip to the emergency room, I'd slow back to a walk, just trying to survive this psychotic race. My fears, incidentally, seemed to be well-founded, as I heard some volunteers discuss another runner's broken ankle. Ouch!

Soon after A-Frame, I was passed by a runner from the Incline Club I had talked to previously. Her time from 2008 had been a little over seven hours. My God, was I that slow?! I had to pick it up, one way or another.

9,500' became my mantra. That was my magic number, the spot where I hoped I'd return to some semblance of my normal running self. Alas, a good section of the Barr Trail meanders through the woods at around 10,000' - 11,000'. I managed to attach myself to another runner who was having trouble similar to mine. Although we were both being passed quite often, I took solace in the fact that I had found a partner in pain, someone else who was struggling in the thin air.

With about five miles to go, I found the strength returning to my body. Now the downhill training I'd tried to focus on this summer seemed to pay off, as I managed to move quite well on the rather steep descent towards Manitou Springs. The temperature, meanwhile, had climbed into the 80s, in contrast to the near freezing temperatures at the summit. What a crazy race.

Nearing the end of Barr Trail, I found myself bringing up the tail of a small pack of runners. I was content to stay there, since passing was treacherous and I felt confident I could accelerate away from these other runners once we hit the asphalt of Manitou Springs. The only problem in this stretch was the gravel I collected in my right shoe (note to self: buy gaiters). The gravel caused a pretty painful blister on my right heel, but at this point, it seemed no more than a minor inconvenience in the grand scheme of things.

The final mile of the race took us into Manitou Springs. As expected, I pulled away from the small pack, hoping I hadn't underestimated the distance to the finish line. It seemed to take forever, but eventually a line of cones formed a small lane along the road to lead us to the finish line. But where was it? I rounded a corner, and like a jack-in-the-box it popped up suddenly... and the clock read 6:39:55. I sprinted like a mad-man, and my final time was recorded as 6:39:59.

The finisher tent, blessedly, had some chairs, which felt heavenly after having been on my feet for almost 6 and three quarter hours. My slowest 50K time, incidentally, is 6:11! This had been quite an excursion. Meanwhile, another section of the tent looked like a WWII hospital, with numerous runners having taken painful spills along the course.

I picked up my sweats and a sweet finisher jacket and headed to the creek, where many runners were icing their legs. With numbing muscles, I contemplated what went wrong and came to the conclusion that my 10 days at altitude hurt me more than they helped. It seemed that day to day, I'd grown more tired instead of acclimatizing. Perhaps my next altitude race I'll try to arrive as close to start time as possible, to take advantage of the short period before performance deteriorates.

I don't know if I'll ever return to Colorado Springs and that insane set of trail races. I can honestly say that the Pikes Peak Marathon is the hardest race I've ever done... and one of the neatest runs you'll find in America.

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