Monday, August 17, 2015

Pike's Peak Ascent Race Report

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I Survived

I start this post that way because my #1 fear, discussed in Pike’s Peak Ascent – Goals, Expectations & Fears, was not finishing. I didn’t have to physically crawl the final mile, although I felt like I was moving at a crawl. I finished in 5:08:32-- just 8 minutes over my goal time. I might have been slightly delirious at the top, but I still survived :) 

To say this race was hard in an understatement. I think I can safely categorize the Pike’s Peak Ascent as one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done. Now I understand why Pike’s Peak Ascent and Marathon are called America’s Ultimate Challenge.

The Race

Let’s recap a bit. In case you didn’t catch Part I or Part II of my Pike’s Peak experience mini series-- Pike’s Peak Ascent is a 13.32 mile run up Pike’s Peak mountain in Colorado. The journey begins in Manitou Springs at an elevation of 6,300 ft and ends at the Pike’s Peak summit at an elevation of 14,115 ft. That’s an elevation gain of 7,815 ft with the average grade being 11%.

The 2015 Ascent had 1814 runners start the race and 1693 complete the race. We finished 1148 overall.


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A Few Thoughts on the Altitude

If you’ve been following this journey, you’ve probably seen a few times how I was getting annoyed with the altitude comments. Everyone had something so say about it. Some of those pieces of advice I took more serious than others depending who they came from.

After getting the opportunity to speed hike (more on that to come) my way to 14,115 ft here’s what I now think about the altitude:
  • The altitude should be respected.
  • There really is absolutely no way a flatlander can be prepared for the altitude. Unless maybe they are making regular trips to train at altitude, but come on, that’s just not realistic for most runners.
  • It wasn’t what I expected. Most people used the word “burn” to describe how their lungs feel at altitude, or they expressed it as almost a sudden “gasping” because there is no oxygen. I didn’t experience either of those. To me, the altitude caused my heart rate to race. I could tell that I was breathing harder, although Nick said that I wasn’t doing any of the “panting” that he heard many other runners doing.
  • I’m pretty certain I experienced signs of hypoxia. I was dizzy from very early on until the finish and actually felt pretty sick at the top once I stopped moving.
  • There’s a reason there is such a thing as tree line. I didn’t notice the varying changes in altitude until we were above tree line, but really, it wasn’t considerably different until the final mile.

Journey to 14,115 ft

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On to the fun part!

The Pike’s Peak Ascent started at 7am. Due to crowding on the trails in previous years the race used a rolling wave start system. A wave of approximately 200 runners started every minute. The race begn in downtown Manitou Springs, and went for just over a mile on the road before starting up the trail. Don’t let the road portion fool you-- you gain approximately 300 ft in that first mile, with most of it being on one small section. This part of the course actually reminded me a lot of the Blue Ridge Marathon.

As soon as runners enter the trail they are stuck in this slow moving conga line. Most runners, except for the elites, are speed hiking already. I knew that I would be doing a lot of speed hiking, but I was nervous that I would be the only one. At the expo I was talking with a runner who had done the race a few times and she confirmed that most runners turned into speed hikers before mile 2. 

The first section of trail is called The Ws, and is single track for 13 switchbacks.  I did a lot of research about the Ascent and was aware that crowding was an issue. I had hoped that the wave start would alleviate it somewhat, but it was still an issue. You could pass other runners, but doing so expended way too much energy. Skyrunner recommended just riding it out until the trail opened up more. This is what we did for the most part. Nick was in a bad mood. He did not like his pace being controlled by the slower runners in front of him. It seemed that every time there was even the smallest rock step-up that the line of runners would come to a complete halt. I am by no means an expert trail runner, but this frustrated me a bit too. The trails we run on the east cost are very rocky/rooty, so even in my limited experience I know how to navigate rocks.


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Conga Line of Runners on The Ws

Finally we reached the top of The Ws and were rewarded with some runnable terrain. The next section of the trail was flat-ish and even had some downhill areas (which I hate, BTW, because that just means you need to go up even more). The uphill portions were reasonable in this section as well. But alas, all good things must come to an end, especially when there is still significant altitude to be gained.


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Look! There really are some runable sections.

There were a few aid stations between The Ws and Barr Camp, but nothing significant stands out in my mind that is worth reporting. I did start to eat around the 1 hour mark. I had a Clif Bar in my CamelBak and would take a small bite every once in awhile. I'm not a fan of eating and running on flat ground at sea level, and it was so much worse on a major incline at altitude. It was difficult to swallow. I ended up letting the Cliff just sit in my mouth until it was mush then drank it down with some Gatorade/water mix I had in my CamelBak. It's also worth noting here that the aid stations were pretty disappointing. They all had water and Gatorade (which was great!), but were lacking on the serious trail running food I've seen at other trail races. Only Barr Camp had PB&J! The aid stations all had grapes, which I grabbed every time, but I really was hoping for some orange slices, but again, only Barr Camp had orange slices. There was plenty of junk food (m&m's and skittles) if you're into that sort of thing; but when I'm running hard, I just want fruit and PB&J. 

Barr Camp was the biggest of all the aid stations. There was a lot more food options here and it had a party-like atmosphere. Probably because the most unrelenting section of the trail was next. I honestly don’t remember much between Barr Camp and A Frame. I was dizzy and just focused on moving. I would say this is where the race got hard for me. My mantra at this point was “Just Keep Moving”. I trained at a 10-12% incline for several weeks. If I had to make a guess, I would say this section was probably 15%. Like I just mentioned, it was unrelenting. You just kept going up, up, up. There were no flat reprieves-- not even a few yards where you could get everything under control again. 

A Frame was the last aid station before reaching tree line. I felt a little “second wind” when hitting tree line. We were still going up, but the grade was more reasonable, and there were flatter areas mixed in that allowed you to catch your breath. It was after A Frame that there was another conga line of runners, and now it was even more difficult to pass. I was tired, my heart was racing, breathing was difficult. I didn’t want to expend any energy to get around someone.

Something that we noticed throughout the race was that there were many runners who were not courteous about moving when you gave the “on your left” signal to pass. Or they would pass you only to slow down in front of you. And the worst one-- the person who would pass you, only to pull to the side a minute or so later and stop to catch their breath. I get it, we’re all tired. But basic trail etiquette still applies.

Hitting tree line is the signal that you’re getting close. There’s really nowhere to go but up at this point. You can now see the summit clearly. It looks so close, but it’s really not. You are still 3 miles away-- it took us roughly an hour and a half from this point. You can also hear the finish line which is pretty neat. The trail gets rockier after tree line. There are a lot of small crushed rocks and the rock step ups are more frequent. The view is also amazing at this point. I almost forgot to look, but then I remembered one of my goals was to take in the view :)


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I Sorta Look Like Death
Within 2 Miles from the Summit!

I mentioned earlier that I was dizzy pretty early on. I started to notice it even more the higher we got. I stopped briefly to take a bite of my Clif Bar, but a few seconds in, told Nick that I needed to keep moving. As soon as I stopped the racing heart rate and dizziness got to me, but when I was moving I didn’t notice it (anyone able to explain that to me scientifically?? It was weird.). The dizziness made the rock step ups more challenging. A few times Nick pulled me over to let someone pass us and I almost lost my balance just because my head was spinning. Moving was key.

Seeing the 1 Mile to the Summit sign was such a relief. We were SO close. There were a lot of volunteers and spectators cheering runners on during the last mile. Everyone was so positive and you couldn’t not smile every time they told you that you were looking great-- even when you know you look like death ;-) A few times on the final stretch Nick said “So, are these the 16 Golden Stairs?” There were a lot of switchbacks and we didn't fully know what to expect with the 16 Golden Stairs. But eventually we came across the actual 16 Golden Stairs sign. I will say, they were not at all what I expected. Don’t get me wrong, they were definitely a challenge at 14,000+ ft, but each switchback was very short. Before we knew it we were looking down the final switchback at the finish line!


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I am so delirious in this photo - I'm holding my medal backwards!

The Summit

After crossing the finish line there are more rocks to traverse and more mountain to climb to get out of the way. We went to sit down and take in the view a bit. I also wanted to get some photos. As soon as I stood up for someone to take our photo I felt really sick. I don’t entirely know how to describe it, but I’m confident it was altitude sickness because I was completely fine once we descended the mountain. I ate some fruit, drank some water, but still didn’t feel much better. I just wanted off the mountain :)


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Parting Thoughts

We did it! It's crazy that we trained so hard and long for something and now it's over. I'm so glad we had this experience. If nothing else it shows me how much more my body is capable of. If you knew me 10 years ago, or even just 5 or 6 years ago, you probably never would have thought I'd be pushing myself the way I do with running.  

Here are a few parting thoughts about the Pike's Peak Ascent:

Logistics - The logistics for Pike’s Peak Ascent were phenomenal. The entry fee for the Ascent was $150, and the race organizers put that money to good use to make this race run smooth. I was impressed with the organization of everything. The pre-race pasta dinner was hosted by the local Kiwanis. The food was delicious. It was all you can eat for only $12-- a major steal if you ask me. Race day morning the line to use the port-o-potty was crazy long, but they had a woman directing people to open stalls (what a genius idea!). We couldn't have waited more than 10 minutes. Even though I wasn't impressed with the food on course, the race organizers did a great job with the aid stations. There were plenty of stations, with plenty of enthusiastic volunteers ready to get you whatever you needed. As someone who worries about everything (call me Safety Steve if you'd like!) I was very impressed by the number of Search and Rescue and emergency personnel on the course. They were so friendly and so encouraging. I tried to thank them every time I passed. There were also a few cops on horseback. Again, another aspect that I wasn't expecting, but was happy to see. Also as an animal lover I enjoyed seeing these beautiful animals on the course. The transportation to get runners and families off the mountain was top notch. There were large 12-person vans transporting runners from the summit to an intermediate stop around 11,000 ft. From there school buses transported runners back to the start line. The entire evolution took at least an hour, but there was food and drinks for runners at the top, while waiting in line for the van volunteers brought bottled water over, and then again at the intermediate stop there was more food and beverages for runners. The buses dropped runners off right in front of the tables to pick up the finishers jacket, which BTW are awesome. The post-race runner food was segregated from everything else. Runners had to show their bib, and a volunteer put an X on their hand. Runners were only allowed to go through the line once. I know this sounds so strict, but I thought it was a great way to keep non-runners from eating the food meant for runners.

Weather - The weather wasn't quite what I was expecting. Everything you read said to carry long sleeves with you-- that you'd want it once you hit tree line. I didn't carry any extra clothes with me and I'm glad. I wore my Skirt Sport Vixen Skirt and a white fitted tank top. I thought the overall temperatures were pretty decent, a little warmer than I would like, but not terrible. The sun was hot and I was thankful for my visor. As we neared the top, volunteers and spectators were all in long sleeves and Nick said to someone "Is it cold up here or something?" We really couldn't tell because of how hard our bodies were working. I did get cold at the top once I stopped moving and was grateful that I sent my jacket to the top in my sweat bag.

Pros
  • Well organized race! 
  • I loved the finishers medal and jacket.
  • Conquering something very challenging.


Cons
  • Over crowding on the trail made the race harder than it needed to be.
  • Food at aid stations was mediocre.
  • Total cost of doing this race was high-- $150 for registration + airfare + hotel + rental car + food.  


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What Are You Waiting For?

If you are local to Colorado and have not done this race-- what are you waiting for?? The Pike's Peak Ascent should be a bucket list race for every runner, even flatlanders :) 

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Your turn! Would you ever consider the Pike's Peak Ascent {or marathon}? What would hold you back? If you have any questions don't hesitate to send me a message-- you can only write so much in a blog post! 
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♥AK 

This post is linked up with Jill for #TheFitDish and The Silvah Lining for #TuesdayTales. Check 'em out!

Photos were taken with GoPro Hero 3+