Race Report – Pikes Peak Ascent

Wow, state #6 is in the books! Sometimes I still can’t believe I did it.

I don’t usually run on, or race on trails, and I’ve never run at altitude, so I knew this race would be different than any other I’d ever done. It definitely was.

My boyfriend, S and I stayed in Manitou Springs, about 20 minutes west of Colorado Springs, and at the base of Pikes Peak, the night before the race. I laid out my outfit and packed a backpack with warm layers. In the emails sent out before the race, one of them mentioned the need to bring layers and carry them during the race. One year, several people were forced to drop out when they were nearing the end because they didn’t have enough clothes and it was snowing on the summit. I also packed a drop bag to pick up at the finish with fresh clothes and even more layers. Once runners reach the summit, they have to take a shuttle down, so it would be a while before I could freshen up, and the emails recommended packing warm, dry clothes for the ride down.

I was up at 5:20, and quickly changed, sprayed on my sunscreen, grabbed my drop bag and headed out the door with S. We only had a half mile or so drive to the nearby middle school parking lot where runners were recommended to park. I ate my Clif Bar while we headed to the porta-potties and drop bag area.

I instantly loved that our bibs had our names on them when one of the volunteers called me over by name to grab my stuff and wished me luck. Seriously, every race needs the option to personalize their bib. I wasn’t expecting any spectators during the race, but appreciated the acknowledgement from a friendly volunteer.

Then S & I headed off to the porta-potties. There was a U-shaped group of potties, and 2 far off ones, so we booked it for the 2 far off ones since the line was shorter. Turns out the shorter line meant the wait was still long since there were only 2. Duh.

After that, S and I headed to start line. The first wave started at 7:00, but I was in the 5th wave, so my start time was 7:05.

Like Boston, your bib number was based off your qualifying time, determining which wave you were assigned to start in. Loved this.

Soon I was passing off my jacket to S and kissing him goodbye before tucking in with the other 500 numbered bibs in my wave. I was nervous, mostly about the altitude. I hadn’t felt any effects in my short time in Colorado (we arrived Thursday night, and the race was Saturday morning), and knew the recommended time to race at altitude if you’re not accustomed is either within 48 hours of arriving, or 10+ days after. So you either get it over with before your body starts trying to adjust, or wait until you’re mostly adjusted. So I was within one of the recommended times, but I really didn’t know what to expect.

The website said the Ascent (13.32 miles) takes roughly the time of a runner’s standard marathon. But given that I hadn’t done any hill specific training (and obviously no altitude training), I told S that 3 hours & 30 minutes was the fastest time I’d meet him at the summit.

I tried to catch a signal on my watch at the start, but wasn’t surprised when it wasn’t happening since we were in a small town at the bottom of a mountain. I figured I’d take GUs and salt cap based off time. Speaking of, I took my first salt cap just before the start.

At 7:05 – we were off. Slowly 🙂

I was actually surprised how long it took to reach the hiking trail. We ran through Manitou Spring for about 1.5 miles before we hit it.

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I ran slowly and monitored my breathing closely, but felt ok. I was also trying to stay near the back of my wave. Shortly after hitting the trail, I started walking quickly with the runners around me.

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It was a cool morning, but it felt wonderful – just perfect for a long hike up a mountain 🙂

Around 45ish minutes in, I took a GU. By this point, mostly everyone around me was using a run/walk method. We’d walk the steepest sections, and run (more like trot) through the smaller inclines. I’d also noticed that rather than counting up miles like most races, this race counted backwards. The first sign I saw was 11 miles to the summit, then 10, etc.

The trail we were running on (Barr Trail), was a series of switchbacks in the beginning, so the race wasn’t as steep as I’d anticipated. I was actually surprised at how much “running” I got to do.

Barr Trail

source

I was also pleasantly surprised that there were spectators and aid stations (bring on the cowbell)! I didn’t see much about it on the website (pretty much my only complaint about the race, the website was not set up spectacularly), so brought my water bottle to the race. The volunteers were fantastic – so positive and supportive, and always cheering  runners on by their name. They also had pitchers to refill water bottles/backpack bladders, in addition to just cups. I ended up refilling my bottle twice during the race, and taking advantage of the Gatorade at most of the stations.

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Around and hour and 45 minutes into the race I took my second GU. It was it little under 7 miles to the summit I think, and the switchbacks were far and few between. I heard a girl behind me say we were probably at around 10,000 feet, since that’s always when her fingers started swelling. I checked my own, and confirmed my fingers looked like little sausages. Around 20 minutes later, I took my second salt cap.

While I was breathing hard, I felt like I was at marathon effort, and would even zone out from time to time, like I would in a runner’s high. What I did notice was that my legs were toast. My calves, quads, and hamstrings were sore. I liked the running parts more than the walking because it felt like a break for my muscles – if I was running it wasn’t as steep and therefore not as strenuous on my legs.

Eventually, we were above the tree line and back to the switchbacks, I think around 3 miles to the summit. I took another GU and kept on trucking. The views were gorgeous, but I didn’t enjoy them as much as I liked, because I was nervous. I was tired and the trail wasn’t super wide, so I didn’t want to stand around and lose myself in the view.

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While it was breezy up there, it was hot. I felt like I was right next to the sun and it was just roasting my pale skin. By now, I’d passed a couple people sidelined with cramps, and one guy was on his hand and knees and clearly very sick. He seemed determined to finish though when most people passing asked if he was ok.

With 2 miles left to the summit, I was feeling drained. It was very steep again. Every time I wanted to slow down, just to make it feel a little bit easier, I’d think of the finish line and get a little emotional. I was sooo close. But not quite there. I could hear the cheers of everyone at the summit for all the runners finishing and couldn’t wait to be there myself.

For a while, we were walking on small pieces of gravel and it was agonizing. My calves were screaming at me, and I was hunched over like I had a weight around my neck. It felt like charging up a hill made of sand.

When I saw the sign for 1 mile to the summit, I considered taking my final GU (like I would around mile 24 of a marathon), but just couldn’t stomach the thought of it. I was huffing and puffing, but I was close gosh darn it! I’d be at the finish in another 20 minutes or so, and I didn’t feel drained of energy, I just had very sore legs, and my breath was heavy from the altitude.

At one point, I stopped to lean against a big rock and dig a piece of gravel out of my shoe. When I pushed off the rock to get going again, I got dizzy. I slowed down a bit, worried for my safety, but keep moving forward.

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It was the hardest mile of my life – it took me 25 minutes. Every time I reached a switchback and had to change directions, I was hit with another bout of dizziness. I kept thinking of the finish line to keep myself going.

For maybe the last quarter mile, I was following a guy in a green shirt. He was like my little guiding light on a dark night. I just focused on him, and nothing else. At one point he moved to the side and offered to let me pass, but I blabbered something that I can’t remember, and he started moving again for me to follow him.

I felt like I was holding my breath for the last few minutes of the race – just hanging on for dear life and oh so ready to see the finish line. Finally I did, and I started trotting behind green shirt guy to the line. The announcer said our names & where we were from as we crossed, and I felt instant relief.

3:54:25

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Overall: 328/1694

Female: 74/634

Age Group (25-29): 16/79

I instantly started shaking uncontrollably, and burst into tears – from overwhelming happiness to have finally made it, and the need to just sit down and gather my bearings. The volunteers were amazing – they tossed a medal around my neck and grabbed me right away, then passed me off to one another up the hill, until of of them wrapped my arm around his shoulder and helped me to an area near the drop bags to sit down. On that short walk he was so encouraging. Maybe he thought I was disappointed from my tears, but he was saying how fantastic I was, that I did it!, and I kicked butt!

I sat for a while just slowing my breathing, and not moving as I people watched. They passed my drop bag to me, and I had signal for a brief second on my phone. I texted S to see where he was, and waited…and waited. Long story short, he didn’t have signal the entire time he was at the summit, and we were never able to find each other! He had pictures and videos of the finish line, but somehow we slipped by each other.

After 15 minutes or so, I got to my feet, changed in the summit store’s bathroom, and snapped a happy picture showing how I really felt about my accomplishment.

7,815 ft vertical gain over 13.32 miles…finishing elevation 14,115 ft (not at this sign :))

Then it was off to the shuttle vans to head down the mountain. A little ways down the mountain, they switched us from vans to school buses, and staring out the window, I was astounded at what I’d just power hiked (for lack of a better word) up. I rested my head against the window and watched the scenery pass my by.

Once my bus arrived at the starting area, I picked up my finisher’s jacket and grabbed the best food ever while I texted S and my cousin to come pick me up.

Not something I’d normally eat, except for the grapes (ok..maybe that sugary treat too ;)), but this was spectacular after the race. I hadn’t had anything since finishing the race about an hour earlier, and was starving. Salt, carbs and sugar was just what I was craving.

Would I recommend this race to another runner?

Ab-so-freaking-lutely! 

  • Stunning scenery
  • Fantastic volunteers – beyond helpful, kind, supportive, etc.
  • Manitou Springs (where the race starts, and the after party is held) is a pretty cool place 🙂 My cousin showed S and I around town that evening, and I fell in love with the small town, hippie feel
  • For the swag lovers: nice medal (has the elevation, distance, and vertical gain on it, as well as mountains on the ribbon), finisher’s jacket
  • Challenging in a new way – this race doesn’t have me wanting to do another race at altitude right away, but I’m definitely interesting in seeing what I can find for some of my other states 🙂
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12 thoughts on “Race Report – Pikes Peak Ascent

  1. What an amazing experience! This sounds so challenging, but what a cool thing to say you did! I would be really nervous to run at altitude, so its interesting to know that you should either run right after getting there or wait 10 days. Awesome job!

  2. You are AMAZING!!!! The race was an incredible challenge and you did it! I was really excited to read this. Too bad you and S missed each other at the finish line, but that happens sometimes.

    • Thanks! I was completely out of my comfort zone, but it ended up being so much fun!
      We were both so bummed that we missed each other, but at least we had the rest of our vacation out there to see each other 🙂

  3. I have been anxiously waiting to read your recap! What an amazing experience – you placed so high, too! I’d be terrified of that altitude! You are one tough chick. I can’t imagine how breathtakingly beautiful that course was. I want to do it someday!!!!

  4. You are amazing!!! That’s some hella elevation right there. I was just in slightly higher altitude than I’m used to (2000 ft) and I felt the difference in air there. I can’t even imagine going up to 14000 ft! You are so badass!! 😀 It sounds like such a great challenge but I don’t know if I’m up for something like that yet. How long did it take to recover?

  5. Thanks Charissa!
    The recovery wasn’t too bad actually, once I was back in Manitou Spring & eating some food I felt fine, just tired as anyone would be after a race. I even went hiking that afternoon 🙂
    The next day DOMS set in, but I think that’s to be expected after hiking up a mountain 😀 I’d say I was fully recovered in just a few days.

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