Monday, September 5, 2011

Until Next Time, Colorado: Pikes Peak Marathon Race Report

Another late race report for me to add to this memoir.

a foreword for a race report? I'm a whole new level of douchebaggery.
I got the chance to live a dream. Much to my delight, life has unfolded in an incredible way for me in the past few months. The entire summer was one of the most fulfilling times of my life, and racing the Pikes Peak Marathon was the best way to punctuate it that I could ever imagine.

Several months ago, I decided that I was growing weary of living in fear. Fear of not being good enough. Fear of being socailly inept. Fear not making a difference. Fear of not being able to satisfy a yearning for...I don't know what.

I took an internship in a career that I wasn't even qualified for. Only too late did I realize what my true desires were for my future occupation. Therapeutic Recreation is not totally unrelated to exercise science, and my experience outside of academia with people with disabilities falls under the category. Why the hell not? The idea of using movement and organized sports and play to rehabilitate the body and mind after trauma is what got me through the most challenging parts of my own life. I believe its the best means to a happy, healthy life in our society. I just never knew it had a name. Maybe that trip to Taco Bell instead of the counseling office all those years ago wasn't such a great idea after all. Hindsight's 20/20.

Even in my personal life, I knew that I was at a crossroads. Though outgoing to a fault at times, I still made certain to surround myself with the comfortable. I wanted to grow as an individual and make deeper connections with more people. I value relationships much more than monetary or social gain, and I wanted to show myself and others that my motives learn from others while helping them are genuine.

On the running front, I knew that it was time to jump into a big pond and see just how quickly this little fish would get eaten. My ultra experiences at smaller venues had treated me very well, and I think the competition here in the midwest is vastly underestimated by our mountain dwelling counterparts. That being said, there was a nagging little voice in my head that prodded me to seek bigger venues. I'll be the first to admit that I'm not a great runner. Hell, I've only run a sub 17:00 5k once in my life, and it laid me up for a week. I can barely crack 3 hours in a marathon. Elite is not an accurate descriptor. My successes at longer distances, no matter their ranking on the totem pole of running accomplishments, made me want to see what I was made of.

These seperate yet deeply intwined reasons led me to feel that this move to boulder wasn't some sort of fantasy summer vacation, but an absolute necessity to my fluourishing on a personal, professional, and physical level. This change of locale would provide the catalyst I needed to chase dreams.

The Pikes Peak race would by my last weekend in Colorado before Samantha and I headed back to Michigan for her to go back to college. After an entire summer of pushing my limits and finding my stride, it was time to see if I had learned anything. I was invited to race the marathon by Ron Ilgen and the great people behind the scenes of "America's Ultimate Challenge."

Pre Race Shenanigans

Our lease was up on the Wednesday before race weekend. I had my final session of helping out at wheelchair racing, frantically packed up my belongings from my subleased trailer, and prepared to head out of town....after a night out and crashing at a friends apartment.

The wagon was packed to the roof(and on top of it) with three months worth of stuff and we were off to Colorado Springs to our temporary housing in a hotel. We were running late, so we had to head straight to the press conference. Of course, we were awkwardly early and decided to walk around a bit and kill some time.

cool building near the expo/start line.

Want people to assume you're a wannabe Tarahumara?
Show up to a press conference in these bad boys
The press conference was quite a cool experience. Though I was invited as a fellow competitor, I was quite amused at the notion of me being of equal running ability to these real mountain runners. I have to be honest, I did no "recon" to figure out who anybody was that would be heading up the mountain with me in a few days. I knew I was just a goofball kid from Michigan who was given a shot on a whim.

After some milling about and attacking the party sub at the back of the room, I took a seat in the crowd and watched the competitive runners take their seats on the panel. There wasn't room for all of us, and I sure as hell wasn't going to assume the seat of a previous age group winner, local legend, or higly esteemed mountain runner. I happily sat among the press and public. I'm so nerdy I even took pictures.
Not a huge turnout for the press conference, but it was still cool to meet the
local legends and upcoming forces of the Pikes Peak races.
We were each given a chance to say few words to introduce ourselves. After those on the panel mentioned their accomplishments and goals, the rest of us were handed the microphone. I was sitting next to the unassuming and humble Martin Mudry, who would be running the ascentI was the last to go, and obnoxiously said that Pikes would be my shortest race of the year and that I would have to "try to run fast for this shorter and more intense race." I believe I even used the term "take it down a gear" fecetiously. Based on a few facial expressions, this came out completely wrong. Those that know me are aware that shorter races magnify my lack of focus and my tendency to back off when things get tough. To those that don't know me, it probably sounded more like this:
"blah blah blah! I am an arrogant young person and a huge tool! Blah blah blah!
I talked to a few volunteers and several of the racers. Once I was fully intimidated, I grabbed yet another hunk of sandwhich and a cookie before heading out the door.

I'll fast forward through the rest of the weekend. Though Samantha and I had a good time sight seeing, I wish I had something more productive to do. I was exhausted from simply walking around. I think I was making myself into a basket case by thinking too much and allowing negative feelings to flood my mind. Dwelling on my relative lack of preparation and inexperience was quite literally making me sick. How could I, the supposedly laid back ultra hippie, finally succumb to the pressures of running? I think the answer lies in the lead up. in every other race I've done, I've flown in under the radar. Had I just been one of the regular entrants in this race, I'd be one of nearly 1000. Since I was a given the opportunity to run as a competitive runner, I was one of 10. The silver lining is that on race day, we all toe the same line. Being one of the 10 runners who got competitive entries doesn't garauntee a top 10 spot.
Running on Friday with Martin at Garden of the Gods helped alleviate a little tension. I hadn't run in the last 24 hours due to time constraints, so not having that familiar "post run" feeling in my legs really made me feel ill at ease. Thanks for the run, MM(Martin ended up winning his age group at the ascent. Check out his film about running in Kenya here). After sme prodding from me, he mentioned his average weekly mileage leading up to the race. It was roughly twice that of mine. He was running half the distance this weekend, and had in twice as many miles as me each week. My inner monologue sounded bit like this: "I am so f**ked."

This area never ceases to amaze.

Some cool trails located right in the Garden of the Gods Park

Nothing like some natural wonder to make our little issues seem insignificant.
We saw some cool things while I grew nervous to the point of exhaustion the day before the race. Once my anxiousness hit critical mass, I finally decompressed. I quit caring. I realized that I had no expectations and that I was going to run this race as an observer of myself and the race that would ensue. I read a book and chilled out. We all have our security blankets in life, and one of mine is the book, "The Dahrma Bums" by Jack Kerouac. 

We ordered up some pizza and cinnamon bread, had it delivered, and pigged out. An early awakening was upon us since Sam was supposed to be at her aid station to volunteer at about 6am. I arranged a wake up call and we both set our alarms so I could sleep.
I'd like to say we split this, but Samantha ate only a little of each. There were no leftovers.
Gycogen stores topped off!
Finally,  the Race

I arrive and park in an empty lot about a block from the start line. I go to the bathroom mill around, and anxiously adjust things I seldom think to adjust. About 30 people were hanging around the start line, the rest were jogging, stretching, getting in the zone, whatever people do before races. I just kind of creeped around looked at the creek. How many races will I do before I stop feeling like an outsider? After realizing I was holding an empty water bottle, I headed over to the water coolers. The start line was starting to look busy, so it was time for me to meander over there. I talked to a couple of cool people who had run the race before and wished I had a pen and paper. This shit sounded tricky. I'm not sure if I was just more perceptive of the tips at this race, but they seemed to be in an incredible abundance. I've gone into nearly all my other races completely blind, so why wouldn't I use that strategy(or lack thereof) this time?

Ron, the RD, started talking over the loudspeaker, then handed the mic to the first woman ever to run the race, for she would be starting us off. Though explicitly invited to run this race as a competitive athlete, I still couldn't bring myself to nudge my way through to the front. Time would tell if those with more confidence than me deserved to be there. There were roughly 40 people in front of me.

...and a cannon goes off.

I forgot that marathoners don't start races by walking. I started out nice and easy
inthe back of the front pack.
Photo: Samantha Long 
I wasn't wearing a watch, but I would assume that early race adrenaline and the rather mellow uphill grade was pulling me along at a decent clip, probably in the 6-7minute mile range. We took a turn downtown onto Ruxton, then the grade immediately increased. We weren't even on the trail yet, and I was feeling the uphill. Non-technical, steep climbs are the bane of my running existence. Though hurting a little already, I attributed it to a little rust and powered past a couple guys before hopping onto the Barr Trail.  I was told that the first few miles of trail were some of the steepest. I was decidedly well informed, or at least I was hoping it would turn out as such. I was feeling pretty good at this point, so I got a couple passes in when the trail became wide enough. I also felt the sting of being passed early on in the race. I tried being aware of when a person was looking ready to get around. It takes so much energy to get someone on steep, technical stuff that its hardly worth the effort sometimes. Knowing this, I tried to be as sportsman-like as possible in hopes of good kharma.

The first aid station came up quickly, and went by just as fast. I tossed my t shirt to the side and grabbed  a cup of water. It was too early to fill the bottle or take any time, so I pressed on. I was hoping the Barr Trail wouldn't feel as steep as my semi-daily ascents of Green Mountain. How naive. Some more climbing and I actually reached a section that felt flat. If there's one nice thing about 15% grades, it's that they make 6% grades feel pretty nice. I saw a couple volunteers I met early on in the week and it made me happy. It's funny how a little suffering made a girl I met once three days prior such a sight for sore eyes. She smiled and I felt better for a minute. A little more trudging and speedier running on lesser grades and I was up to Barr Camp. This was one of the more happenin' aid stations. One can feel the history in these classic races. The area is hardly accessible, and yet so many people make the arduous journey to help out some hardy folks out to run up a 14'er. Though I was part of nearly 1000 people who were in the 56th running of Pikes Peak, I still felt like I was part of something special.

The trail began to get more technical as the terrain got more rocky. The rocks began to get larger and I started to approach uncharted waters. I hadn't done a continuous climb longer than 2 hours or so. As I searched for optimistic thoughts, I realized that I've grown to be pretty comfortable outside of my comfort zone. I thrive on awkwardness. I never know what I'm doing. I'm a chubby athsmatic with metal knee braceswho turned himself into an mountain runner Getting here was the hard part. This was the part I was looking for.  I was in search of an opportunity to really focus and put in a true 100% effort. Here goes nothing.

Crossing through the A Frame aid station was a blur. I grabbed a cup of gatorade and a cup of water. I dumped one on my head. Guess which one. Yep, I dumped a cup of lemon-lime gatorade on my head. Immediately after leaving the AS, I used half my water bottle get all that sticky sports drink off me. Not the first time this happened, and certainly not the last. I laughed about it and headed up to treeline.

Popping out from the trees was nothing short of breathtaking. Seeing how high we'd climbed since leaving Manitou Springs. The humbling effect of the mountain views isn't something I totally understand, but I know I haven't had enough yet. Knowing there were only a couple miles left to the summit renewed some of my vigor. The course was proving to be fun as it changed entirely over so few miles. Switchbacks were getting closer and closer together as we made our way to the top of "America's Mountain." The gravel and rocks were making for tough footing, but the frequent switchbacks were keeping the grade fairly runable. My adrenaline surged as I passed 3 or 4 people, running as they were walking(keep reading, I get my comeuppance).

Well before I could see the summit, I see a blast of white flying down the trail. It, of course, was mountain legend Matt Carpenter. He was leading the race, as he does each time he enters.

 I rounded a corner where a lady greeted me with a smile and said "welcome to 'the stairs.'"  I laughed, knowing the sadistic side of the trail running community. Any thing that sounds pleasant generally isn't. Seconds later, I was bending my knee up near my chest to climb up the rocks that composed the last section of trail. The part of the course notorious for breaking peoples strides actually put a smile on my face. This was just the type of running I sought out on my runs at Chatauqua Park over my summer meandering in the mountains. It sure wasn't easy, but at least it felt familiar. There were crowds of people at the summit when I finally reached it. I saw the clock at the top and was suprised. 2:56:11. My time, at the halfway point in this marathon, was within 30 seconds of my marathon PR. I was told by several people that the ascent is equivalent to a tough marathon. Apparently it's true. I grabbed a boston creme pie off some girl's stick and turned around. 11th person to the summit.

The first thing I noticed when I turned around was the endless stream of people. Since I was 11th to the top, that meant that I sould be passing about 990 people on my way back to Manitou springs. At this point, the run consisted of a lot of jumping down from rocks and avoiding people. Race directions instructed us to yield to the downhill runners, but on some of the blind corners and narrow trails it was nearly impossible. It was only a few minutes ago that I was the disoriented climber, so I stayed out of the way as best I could. Having only 1-2 hours left to go felt good. My legs weren't tired quite yet, and my lungs were still feeling pretty good at altitude. Sun was high in sky by this point and the heat was becoming quite noticeable.

The switchbacks above treeline were an absolute riot. I felt as if I were doing some sort of combination of skiing and downhill mountain biking. The loose gravel on the corners allowed me to lean over like a speed skater, nearly dragging my inside hand on the ground. Jumping from rock to rock as I picked my way by the upcoming runners gave me a head rush. Was it the most efficient way down the trail? Probably not, as made evident by the couple racers that passed me. They were looking great and I wished them well.

This is the point in most races that has me torn. I'm slowing down, but on an emotional high. Maybe I'm just a lifelong hobby jogger.

About as quickly as I plunged back into treeline, I started hurting a little. Clearly I had gotten a little excited after turning around. I snuck a peak behnd me and saw nobody coming down, so I used the alone time to relax and get myself back into a more even flow. From that point to the next aid station, I ran alone and was feeling more rejuvenated. I believe I got passed a couple times in these middle miles, but also did a little passing.

Back in these middle miles of the Barr Trail, the footing was less technical. About the second I relaxed, I really wished I hadn't. On a relatively easy section of trail, I kicked a rock and proceeded to fly "arse over tits," as my friend Kate the Brit would say(thanks mate). My feet actually went over my head as I slid about six feet on my shoulder. My head hit a log(set on the trail to prevent erosion), and my knee collided with something, probably my other knee. I initially thought I had done some real damage, but I inspected it for a minute as I picked some rocks out of my shoe. I had some blood running down my back, but it was just some superficial trail rash. I rubbed it off with my gloves and dug a handful of rocks out of the liners of my Brooks Infinity III shorts. I remember saying aloud to myself, "Gravel in my ass crack. Shit's about to get real."

This little crash took some wind out of my sails. I lost another position as I sat there trailside. Dude didn't even ask if I was ok! If you saw a bloody individual on the side of the trail clutching his knee, would you acknowlegde his presence? That's a whole different blog post altogether.

I was only a couple corners form the Barr Camp AS, so I kept pushing onward. The spill caused me to land on my water bottle, popping the cap off of it. A quick bottle refill and I was off and running. From here out the trail was steeper, but the mile markers seemed to get further and further apart. Some Roctane helped as the deliciously weird pie filling-y goodness of blueberry pomegranate sat in my mouth. About the time I tasted it in a burp, I felt refreshed. A few points that I remembered from the ascent were whizzing by as I tried not to eat gravel again. I grabbed the fenceposts and swung around as I descended the last few miles of the Barr Trail. Every corner I rounded made me think, "this is the last one!" but alas, it never was. Perhaps setting foot on a course before running it does have its perks.

After a bit of a low, I could hear voices over a loudspeaker booming up from the city of Manitou Springs. I reached the aid station where I left my shirt. This felt good because I knew I was less than a mile from the road. This section of trail was inundated with hikers. If it were possible to be polite while screaming, "Incomning! Runner Coming!" I certainly would have been. Most were pretty understanding, especially since it had happend to them about 20 times since this morning already.

The dirt ended and I was back on the road. For a second, I was dismayed. This would be the last time for quite a while that my shoes would touch Colorado singletrack. No time for crying or being nostalgic. I had 1.44 miles left to run. I blew through the final aid station. I knew I had plenty of fuel left in me, and one hell of a paved downhill to drop a fast mile. Though I felt a bit shitty about overtaking 4 people in the last road mile of a mountain race, but I had to use the rest of my fuel up if I was going to go home happy. My stride lengthened, I drove my knees forward and kept my back straight. This was the only time in the descent that I didn't feel as though I was fighting gravity. Guys that had blown by me as if I were standing still on the moutain were getting closer and closer as I reeled a few in one by one. I made a noise and tried to encourage a few to follow. Some did, some didn't. (I hope this didn't come across negatively).

I could hear more and more cheering for those ahead of me. I was reeling in the finish line of one of the most challenging footraces in the world. I was living a dream. I had no idea what place I was in, but it made no difference. The sun was shining brightly as I ran into the cattlegates to round the final corner. I could hear my name and hometown of Muskegon, Michigan called as I ran over the finish line. One of the toughest marathons in the world, and I put it all beneath the soles of my shoes. Never has a midpack finish felt so good.
It starts and finishes like any other marathon

Someday I'll just buy suspenders to keep my shorts up.
 A finisher medal was hung around my neck and my tag was pulled off my bib. I meandered over to a seat and plopped myself down in it. I could see the sun shining outside of the dark finisher tent, and felt a sense of accomplishment that I hadn't really felt before. It felt better than a race won or a PR set. It came from inside me somewhere.

Smiling like an idiot to myself.
Bittersweet moment as I already start missing the CO trails.
Getting the rocks dug out of my back and the cuts cleaned up.
PPM staff is top notch.

I was "between homes" at the moment, so I prepped for the 1300 mile drive
by taking a post race shower at the car wash.

The midwest was well represented in the 20-24 age group.
Luke Demmel and Peter Kostelnick from Iowa took 1st and 3rd, I took 2nd for MI

I also saw a really fat chipmunk!
I got a chance to pick the brain of mountain man Matt Carpenter,
who took the top spot yet again with a 3:48 finish time.
The first year he won this race was the year I was born, 1987.

This amazing opportunity took the place of a long run as I prepare for the Woodstock 100 back home. Here's hoping the intensity will suffice in place of distance.

Here's a quick breakdown of some technical stuff(as technical as I get anyway)
Pre race meal- bread and Nutella
1 GU prior to race
4 Roctanes and 2 cups of Gatorade, Boston creme pie during race
Shoes - NB 110
Average training week - 65 miles (16 hours combined with hiking and work stuff)
Time: 4:46(16th overall, 2nd age group)
Ascent: 2:56(11th to summit)
No watch.



  1. as someone who only eats pineapple and jalapeƱo pizza, i must ask: was that p/j pizza you were eating before the race?

    -great report. really killer running. you've got a tremendous style.

  2. It sure was, P! Its the only way to fly! Sweet+heat!

  3. Hey I don't know why it took me so long to find this but nice recap, cool to hear how the race went down and definitely a really solid run!

    Martin M.