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For ye fools (Read 413 times)


A Dance with Monkeys

    Pikes Peak Marathon and Ascent registration will open and close on march 1. Register here. Here is the short version of my report from last year, in case you are on the fence: ---------------- Pikes Peak or Bust - The Pikes Peak Marathon is in a class of its own, distinguished by Pikes Peak itself, one of Colorado's notorious 14ers, mountains above 14 000 feet tall. Pikes Peak carries a reputation for challenge and a history of intimidation. Pikes Peak derives its fame and reputation from being easily visible for many miles to the east, more so than any other of the Colorado Rocky Mountains. It has long been the single goal for homesteaders and then miners headed westward. For these early westerners, Pikes Peak was once thought to be unconquerable due to its elevation, conditions and location. While it is now clear that the Peak can be readily summited by car, foot or rail, the Barr Trail up its eastern face remains among the most challenging footpaths around. For most, the Pikes Peak marathon is actually two events: it is first a long 13.1 mile fast run/hike over an average 11% grade path that includes a road, a narrow trail and numerous switchbacks and rocky step-ups to a point well above treeline; second is a tough as nails, body-beating downhill half marathon on the same course, with a clock timing the whole thing as a single event. As you climb from below 7000 feet elevation to above 14 000 feet, the air thins, your thinking muddles, your legs tire and your mind despairs. But time flies and before you know it, you are headed back downhill, where you feel the air return and your thoughts clear. This occurs just in time to feel the burning in your quads and back. Pace is vital; run ahead of your abilities and predicted time and you will risk burning out. Run too slow and you will risk spending too long under the dangerous conditions on the mountain. The average finish time for the past five years is 7:06 for men and 7:36 for women. Last year's winner finished in 3:58. In addition to the trail conditions, the elevation and the length, Pikes Peak adds the potential for extreme weather; it could be hot and sunny, raining and slick with lightning, or even snowing and sleeting (as was the case last year). And runners may experience all of these conditions during the course of a single run. To compound the drama, people running this thing occasionally die. As in dead. Living in Nashville, how was I supposed to prepare for this challenge? How could I ensure that I would complete the marathon and come away uninjured and with positive memories? How could I do as well as possible on such a tough run? Well, the first thing I did was go over to Matt Carpenter's website, www.skyrunner.com. Carpenter lives, trains and runs at the high altitudes of Manitou Springs, the home of the Marathon. Carpenter sets records on nearly every course he runs, including the Pikes Peak Marathon. From the website, his basic suggestions for those who live close to sea level and without major mountains (i.e., so called "flatlanders") is nonetheless to emulate the Pikes Peak Marathon as much as possible: 1) run several times for more than four or more hours; 2) run at inclines of 10-12%; 3) run as much as possible on rugged trails; and, 4) learn as much about the course as you can. Carpenter comments that for flatlanders, there is no way to emulate the effects and feelings of running at altitude short of actually running at altitude. Since I have a day job and could not go to Colorado for weeks or months of high altitude training, the best I could do would be to spend a single week beforehand climbing some of Colorado's 14ers and sleeping at 10 000 feet above sea level. So a group of us from Middle TN went out a week early to spend as much time sleeping, sitting, hiking and running at high elevation. Saturday, we ran the Georgetown to Idaho Springs Half Marathon, which started at 8500 feet elevation, then dropped 1000 feet over its course. I ran feeling short of breath and lightheaded, with heavy spaghetti legs the whole way. On Sunday we ran the Leadville Trail 10k at 10 000 feet elevation, over a course that covers the first three miles of the Leadville Trail 100 mile run, goes down a 400-foot steady drop over the course of 3.1 miles, and then turns around to return to the start up the same hill. Monday, we climbed Colorado's highest peak, Mount Elbert, on a trail that covered 4.6 miles each way and rose an average 23% (and a maximal 50%) grade, over single track, piled rocks and scree, with no real switchback to soften the climb. Tuesday, we drove up Mount Evans, a Colorado 14er that has the highest road accessible point in the country, where we hiked a few nice trails around Summit Lake. On Wednesday, a few of us climbed a 14er called Mount Democrat up an average 23% grade, but this was mostly over small boulders and scree through a poorly marked trail; the 2 mile climb took almost as long as the 4 mile climb up Elbert. On Thursday we returned to Mount Evans to spend an entire afternoon at elevation, reading and relaxing through changing weather that brought sun and 60s at one moment and sleet and snow with a cold wind at another. And on Friday it was off to Colorado Springs to get ready. We spent Saturday sitting atop the Pikes Peak summit as Diane and Trish, two of our group, ran the 13.3-mile Ascent up the mountain. It was densely foggy and frigid, with occasional misty snow and rain. While there, we enjoyed the fudge, hot cocoa and the "World Famous Donuts" in the Summit House. (The thin air, you see, makes the donuts puffy, crispy and greasy.) More importantly, atop the summit we recognized the physiologic changes that had occurred over the week. When we arrived, even walking at an elevation of 10 000 feet above sea level would cause our hearts to race and our heads to spin. In Leadville, my resting pulse was in the low 90s and around 110 while walking, compared to my pulse in Nashville, where it is usually 56-58. On this Saturday, we found that we were much more comfortable 4000 feet higher than Leadville and over 2 1/2 miles higher than Nashville; my pulse was just 80. The diminished effects of high altitude combined with the relatively fresh appearance of Ascenteurs finishing in about the time I expected to summit the next day reassured me. Marathon morning began with our hotel wake up call at 4:45 AM. The weather forecast was calling for partly cloudy skies with a temperature in the 60s at the starting line, 30s at the summit and 70s at the finish. With the fog and rain the day before, marathon morning was offering beautiful mountain weather. We collected the items we would need for the run, including fluids, energy gels, sunscreen and sunglasses. A quick bite at Denny's, and we were off to the starting line. The sun began to rise as we drove to Manitou Springs, lighting the top of Pikes Peak in a brilliant orange glow. Beneath the peak, there were a few wispy clouds that had settled into the alpine valleys just below treeline. The deep blue sky framed the orange peak, the silvery clouds and the dark green forests as the scene dominated the western horizon ahead of us as we approached the marathon. Once there, we joined the crowd of runners, all lining up for pictures with the mountain in the background and the starting line banner in the foreground. The Pikes Peak Marathon starts and finishes in the town of Manitou Springs. The course climbs from town up to the Barr Trail, an approximate 12-mile path that winds its way from the base of the mountain, up over Mount Manitou and then up Pikes Peak to the summit. The trail includes over 250 switchbacks, large boulders and roots, scree fields, dense forests, streams, mountain and valley views, vast boulder-strewn expanses above treeline, and several structures built at different times during Pikes Peak's recent history. Running up the Barr Trail, with its changing grade, terrain, available oxygen and topography forces the runner substantially to vary pace at different places. Matt Carpenter’s website offers a calculator which estimates landmark-based intervals. I wrote down a pacing chart that included the major landmarks along the way, and the times I should reach them if I were to run a 7:00 marathon. I also wrote down the times for a 6:30 marathon, just for kicks. With a couple of minutes to go before the start, the race director made the usual announcements to inspire us and make sure we understood the rules of the road. Then, a choir of school children sang “America the Beautiful”, which was inspired by Pikes Peak itself, and was written after the song's author, Katharine Lee Bates, visited there in 1893. Standing there with the Pikes Peak summit in sight on a beautiful and cool Colorado morning after months of preparation and angst, I became choked up. My sunglasses hid tears of joy, excitement and nerves as the children sang and the crowd grew silent. And then, "on your mark, get set, go", a gun shot into the air, and we were off. The first section of the Pikes Peak Marathon course goes through the center of Manitou Springs, along Manitou Avenue and among hundreds of cheering spectators, then veers left up to Ruxton Street and Hydro Street as it makes its way up to the trail. On the side of the road, a spectator was blasting the tune from Chariots of Fire. While running, the field thinned just a bit, and many people quickly passed me. I had been warned to take it easy and let folks pass; either they had the ability to maintain their pace, or they would quickly burn out on the long road ahead. The morning remained cool as we progressed up the hill towards the Barr Trail. My times to the first two landmarks were ahead of schedule: 4:37 minutes:seconds to Ruxton versus 5:17 for a 6 hour 30 minute run, or 5:41 for a 7 hour run (herinafter listed as actual time/6:30 finish predicted split/7:00 predicted split, or 4:37/5:17/5:41 for Ruxton, then 14/15/16 for Hydro Street). I was ahead of schedule, and felt good and light. My heart rate was right at 160, I felt air in my lungs, my thinking was clear and my legs felt pretty limber. A good start, and I hoped it was sustainable. The trail begins with a series of thirteen switchbacks, known as "The Ws" because of their appearance as stacked Ws on a map. The trail itself is made up of a narrow, single-track path with rocks, roots and steep sides that all together make passing prohibitive. Much of the trail on this section is also steep as it traverses through a dense conifer forest, still misty with the morning humidity. Many of the runners continued to vie for position, passing each other when they could squeeze by. I passed a few people in this section, and other runners passed me. At and aid station at the top of the Ws, I took some fluids and some grapes and found myself even more ahead of schedule, 43/48/52. At this point, I did not feel quite as strong from the recent climb, but my heart rate remained in my target zone and my thinking remained clear. So on I went. The next part of the marathon allows you to establish a rhythm through gentle hills and flats. During this part of the run you get your first glimpse of Pikes Peak still far away and high above. In the hour that had passed since the start of the run, the Peak had become even more spectacular. At this point, it filled the view, framed by the dense green forest and the large granite boulders jutting out above the trees. Wispy clouds remained in the valleys above and below, and the sun was at just the right angle to illuminate the entire scene. Shortly after ducking under a natural granite stone arch and climbing another hill, I reached the next landmark, the No Name Creek and aid station: 1:05/1:10/1:15 hours:minutes. I was still ahead of schedule, my heart rate still in zone, and I felt good. I took fluids, ate some grapes and energy gel, and then moved on. Above No Name Creek, the trail climbs higher through more woods and includes a traverse over to Pikes Peak proper. As before, this section mostly winds through the forest, over generally well-kept trails of dirt and gravel, with occasional tree roots and clusters of small to medium sized granite rocks. The technical quality of the trail and the climbing grade forces the runner to pay attention with every step. There are occasional views of the mountain above and the city below, the latter now mostly enshrouded in low-lying clouds. At this point, the running field had thinned considerably, and you could see only a handful of runners ahead and behind you. As I climbed higher, I began to notice that my legs felt heavier and heavier and that I began to feel weaker. I remained ahead of schedule, but by a shrinking margin: 1:30/1:35/1:42 to the sign that says 7.8 miles to the summit, and then 2:00/2:01/2:11 to Barr Camp. My heart rate had begun to drift lower at this point, suggesting that my actual effort was dropping while my perceived effort was increasing. But I pressed on. Just past Barr Camp was the seven mile marker, and my elevation was just over 10 000 feet. I was more than halfway to the top, and still moving forward The trail from Barr Camp up to the treeline is where most runners feel the air thin, the elevation climb, their legs slow and their heads spin. Due to the numerous switchbacks, steepening climbs, and more obstacles on the trail, this is where those marathoners who are still running finally begin to walk. The trees begin to thin and the bright sun becomes more intense. From here, hydration, sun protection and determination all become more important. The work was beginning to get hard, and I began to feel the first thoughts of despair: What am I doing? Can I finish this? As I approached the treeline, marked by an A Frame cabin and another aid station, Matt Carpenter came flying back downward towards his finish in first place. He appeared as something between a gazelle and a sparrow, while I felt as if I was carrying lead. I made it to the A Frame somewhat slowed but still ahead of my schedule: 2:55/2:50/3:03. The A Frame is at an elevation of about 12 000 feet above sea level, and just below the spot where the trees gave way to the tundra and open boulder fields that continued all the way to the summit. By definition, trees do not grow in the conditions above treeline. My wife has commented that there must be a lesson in this fact. The rules change above treeline. That means all the pace plans go away and any forward motion towards the summit is good. Climbing the remaining 2000 feet of elevation in over three miles to complete the climb up the Barr Trail generally takes the ascenteur far more time and effort than anything that came before. Add to that steep switchbacks which do little to flatten the climb, closely placed boulders that you must slow to climb over and substantially thinned air, and there was no good way to predict how long this section would take. Even the fastest runners struggle here, and nearly all of them walk or crawl. According to my schedule, it should take between 65 and 85 minutes to finish the climb. Along the way I would pass three major landmarks, each one attesting to my progress across the otherwise featureless rock field: the 2 miles to summit sign, the Cirque--a scenic view from a 1400 foot dropoff to the valley below--and the 16 Golden Stairs, a set of 16 switchback pairs just below the turnaround point. While these points indicate progress towards the summit, they also point out the runner's ever-slowing pace. On this morning there were large patches of fresh snow covering and surrounding the route above treeline, as well as snowmelt turning many trail sections into small streams. The air was cold, about 36 degrees according to the signs on the way up. A strong wind blew across the boulder field that made up our route, sometimes to our backs and sometimes to our fronts, as we zigzagged up the switchbacks. Looking forward I could see the summit far away and high above, now with a visible stream of marathoners winding up from where I was enduring my own struggle. Occasionally somebody ahead would call out, "runner" as one or more of the faster marathoners would come craning down the path, headed back to oxygen, the trees and the finish line. In the meantime, I was part of the slow march upwards. By this point, my heart rate had dropped further, my legs were concrete, and my head spun with exertion. In most marathons, the runner begins to encounter a feeling of despair around mile 18 or 20. During the Pikes Peak Marathon, I experienced this doubt around mile 11. But I had to push on and up. I made it to the 2 miles to summit sign still ahead of schedule, but just barely: 3:20/3:14/3:29. I continued to traverse the steep stone fields. I passed more landmarks. One mile to go. Then the feared Golden Stairs. I counted them off, one, two, three, four, and so on. The rocks were slippery. Each switchback required a big effort to climb. I occasionally had to use my energy to move aside for a downhill runner. There was no air. But as I got closer to the summit there were people yelling and clapping and shouting encouragement. Fifteen switchbacks, sixteen, seventeen. I could see the turnaround sign, hear the music, feel the top. Twenty six, twenty seven, twenty eight. And then, I was there. I reached the summit, took a few breaths of the scant air, some fluids and grapes and looked down at the mountain. I made it right behind my goal time: 4:19/4:00/4:18. But that was fine; I could make up that minute on the downhill. And so after one last look around, downward I went. On the way down, within a few steps, I suddenly could breathe, feel the strength return to my legs, and notice my head clear. I was barely below the Golden Steps and I felt like I was running a new race, albeit on tired legs. Now it was my turn to have the right of way; all the marathoners coming up moved to the side to allow me to come down. In my renewed excitement, I plummeted downward with near-wild abandon. I was so excited to be moving that I stopped only briefly at the first few aid stations for fluids. And while some of the switchbacks and boulders made slow down, for the most part I could run smoothly and consistently. My pace improved from approximately 15 minutes per mile on the highly technical sections at the top, to 12 minutes per mile as I passed below treeline, and then to 10ish minutes per mile below Barr Camp where oxygen awaited me. The trip down was great fun as I dodged the rocks, roots and ruts in the trail, passed numerous runners and vied for position with others, stopping occasionally to grab fluids and candy at the lower aid stations. The trail wound its way down all the switchbacks we had previously climbed, through dense forests and among light clearings, with occasional mountain and valley views to distract from the mounting fatigue. I found the descent portion the easiest second half of a marathon I have ever run. And so on I went, headed to the finish and hoping for a sub-goal time. Down past Barr Camp. Down across the traverse to Mount Manitou, then onto Mount Manitou and No Name Creek. I kept a close eye on my altimeter: 11 000 feet elevation, then 10 000, then 9000. Down through the granite natural arch. Down several switchbacks and some significant steep drops that I did not really remember from the climb. Down to 8000 feet. Then 7000 feet. Three miles to go, then two. Then the Ws, counting them down. At the bottom of the Ws, somebody was again playing Chariots of Fire. Then, immediately past this, one mile to go, and again I became choked up. And then asphalt. And then cones to guide us. And then a steep downhill. And then turn the corner to Ruxton Avenue. And then the crowds started to appear with kids waving for high fives. And again, Trish calling out my name and holding up a sign. Excited to be nearly done, I threw my Camelback to Trish so I would not have it in the finish line photo. And then down through the enclosing crowds and swelling cheers. There is my name and hometown being announced. And then around the corner, the finish line. And I was done. 6:48:17. Ahead of schedule and happy as can be.
    Scout7


    CPT Curmudgeon

      Sooooooo tempting..... Especially since the mary is the day before my b-day. Right now I'm trying to convince my coworkers to send me as a gift. Might have to pull that trick on my wife.....


      A Dance with Monkeys

        Sooooooo tempting
        Interesting. Those were my exact words on February 28, 2006... Evil grin
        Scout7


        CPT Curmudgeon

          Yeah, but you still enjoyed it, didn't you? (Sorry, I didn't read your novel all the way through yet...)


          A Dance with Monkeys

            I did. After many "oh no, what have I done?!?" moments following registration. Enjoy the novel...


            A Dance with Monkeys

              Registration will open in 12 hours...