Pikes Peak Marathon: Race Report
My buddy Corey called it “dancing with that big honking mountain”, but if that’s the case, I’ve got two left feet. This is a brutal race and it never fails to inflict tremendous pain on me and this year was no exception. I’d run twice in the last 33 days and one of those runs was a run/walk the day before. The other was 3 miles this past Wednesday. I basically hadn’t run since the Barr Mountain Trail Race. Why would anyone do something like that? My excuse is that I overloaded my schedule. I spent two weeks in Switzerland climbing the Eiger and other peaks with buddy Homie (also running the PPM) and then, last weekend, I raced the Leaville 100-mile Mountain Bike Race with my brother. I could have dropped out, but what would I tell people asking about that decision? I could easily say that I wasn’t prepared to do well, so why suffer for a mediocre time? But that’s the coward’s path.
Sheri drove me down and we left the house at 4:30 a.m. She’d see me off and then drive to the summit to give me cushy pair of shoes. I went up in minimal footware, my favorite Helios, but wanted more protection for my feet and knees on the way down. I checked with Matt Carpenter about the legality of this and he confirmed it was okay. Cameron Clayton, a world-class ultra-runner and running in his first Pikes Peak, did the same thing. Sheri talked with his parents on the summit.
I saw my friends Galen Burrell, Dave Mackey, Jeff Valliere, George Zack, and of course Homie at the start. I lined up next to Homie with hope that I’d be able to stay with him for a good portion of the race. He hadn’t run hardly at all since Hard Rock, but Homie is a very tough man... Tougher than me and it was perhaps conceit that I would think I could match him.
I went out easy, I thought, but my heart rate was a bit high and I backed off. I had my watch set to beep if I ever went above 165 bpm or below 150 bpm. My initial plan was to run until my heart rate went above 165 and then walk until it dropped below 150. It turned out these weren’t the right values. These turned out to be the wrong settings. I couldn’t really get my heartrate above 165 so I never had my watch beep, telling me to walk. That wouldn’t do. I lowered it to 160. Also, when I was walking I could keep my heart rate above 150, so I never was forced to start running again. This wasn’t a problem and I walked a lot. I knew I would be walking a lot and it was disappointing to not be able to run more, but my heartrate was high and I was working hard, so it is what it is. I was back in a part of the peloton that I’m not used to, but it’s getting a lot more familiar to me.
Halfway up the W’s I missed a turn, which is hard to do, and Homie went by. It wasn’t long before he was out of sight and I wouldn’t see him again until he was coming down. I walked a lot and only ran when the angle eased. It was humbling, but I just told myself that I didn’t deserve anything better. I didn’t do the proper preparation, so that’s what I got. And going conservative wasn’t just to make things easier on myself. I knew what was coming. The descent is hellacious with the pain increasing exponentially the entire way. I knew I wouldn’t escape this mountain unscathed, no matter how slow I was on the ascent.
I got to Barr Camp in 1h40m. I had less than 6 miles to go to the summit and was hoping to match that time on the upper section, but I could not. My heartrate dipped further and I had to adjust my target rate to 140 bpm so that it would stop beeping. Some of this was due to the altitude - it’s hard to get your heartrate up when there isn’t much oxygen - and some was my legs, which were rapidly fading. I was getting some cramping on the sides of my calves. I experienced this for the first time at the Barr Mountain Trail Race and I think this is mostly due to my poor running. I land on the outside of my feet and I think this is putting strain on the outside of my calves. I was cramping already, but it wasn’t like a cramp in the center of my calf, as I could still move through it and stretch it as I ran or walked. This would plague me the rest of the race, but never stopped me from moving.
I walked my way to the top and cheered on former-winner Galen as he came down in fourth place, which he’d hold to the finish. Cameron came down in 5th place and then the amazingly versatile Dave Mackey in 6th place. Dave still owns the speed record on the Third Flation, a 33-minute effort, yet he’s still setting course records on 50 and 100-mile races, including the fastest Masters’ time ever run at Western States. He excels at every outdoor sport, but is world-class at ultrarunning. Jeff Valliere came next and he’d end up as the 4th overall Masters. Then George Zack, having a rare tough day. I got pretty close to the top before I saw Kristi Anderson and Homie coming down. Kristi made the summit 7 minutes faster than me and Homie was three or four minutes faster. Chris Reveley, former winner of this race, was also right around here.
I saw Sheri just before the turn-around and went by, wanting to complete the ascent first. I came back down to where Sheri had a great rock seat for me. She helped me change my shoes and filled my bottle. I started down, taking it very easy and was surprised to find that I could run okay. I took things super easy, knowing that any pressing here would jeopardize me even finishing. Still, I passed a number of runners who were having some trouble on the more technical upper section. I wasn’t spry by any measure and I took things slow and careful on the technical sections as well, but clearly I was more experienced on this terrain than the runners around me.
This year every runner had their first name printed in bold letters on their bib. I’d never seen this before and I absolutely love it! It created an incredible sense of camaraderie among the runners. Everyone was cheering on everyone else, by name! This included the incredible female winner Stevie Creamer. She came within two minutes of a decades-old course record and yet was cheering on runners as she went by me. I saw her walking the streets after the race and she is super nice and by far the biggest badass female in this race, winning by a huge margin and placing 12th overall.
Many of the runners ascending as I descended would say, “Way to go, Bill!” or “Looking good, Bill.” I responded with, “Right back at you, Kym. Go get that summit, Calvin! Looking strong, D’Squarius!” It was so fun.
A mile and a half down I was shocked to notice that I had closed on Kristi. She is a much more accomplished runner than I am and she beat me pretty nicely on the ascent, supposedly my strength, at least versus coming down. Before I could say anything she called out, “Is that Bill?” without even looking around. She obviously heard me talking to all the other runners. She stepped to the side and let me pass and I said, “You’ll be passing me back further down, just like at Barr Mountain.” But she didn’t. Apparently the technical parts up high allowed me to build a big enough lead to hold her off, despite the troubles that lay ahead of me.
Things went reasonably well down to Barr Camp and I didn’t get passed at all. I was running alone at this point. I couldn’t see anyone ahead of me and nor anyone behind me. Down in the trees the line of sight isn’t that far, but it was quite a change from the crowds above treeline. This race starts in downtown Manitou Springs with a crowd of 800 and throughout the morning the field is spread like peanut butter on bread over the flanks of Pikes Peak.
I stopped briefly at Barr Camp to get my bottle filled and grab some pretzels, as I was on the edge of cramping. I tried to run as smooth as possible, with no sudden jerks of my legs, for that would have surely locked me up. There is a short uphill section on the way to Bob’s Road aid station and I walked this hill. My watch beeped at me and I was sure it was because my heartrate had fallen below 140. I figured I must be bonking because I sure felt like I was working hard and I couldn’t really work any harder. I took a sip of my bottle and finally remembered the two GUs I had put in my bottle holder. I thought I was out of GU because my pockets were empty. Then I looked at my watch: 160 bpm. That was good. It didn’t make me any faster and I was still a dead-man shuffling, but at least I wasn’t bonking.
As I entered Bob’s Road Aid Station, my right thigh locked up completely and I couldn’t move. I staggered around, trying not to fall over and a medical volunteer trotted up to me, “How are you doing, Bill?” “Not so good, right now.” I massaged my thigh and walked, Frankenstein-like, into the aid station. I grabbed more pretzels and some grapes and was able to start running again, albeit very slowly.
I was starting to watch the time now and did some calculations. If I could run 9 minutes/mile I’d break 5:30. Normally, doing this on a smooth, downhill trail wouldn’t be an issue, but there is nothing normal about the Pikes Peak descent. Things just progressively fall apart for me. I already had one wheel off and by the time I got to No Name Creek, I was in such a world of pain that I could only think about stopping, about walking, about lying down. I feared I wouldn’t break 5:40 but never seriously thought I’d do a personal worst, going over 5:44, though if I had to walk much, I’d go over six hours. Many runners caught and passed me, including Chris Reveley with about three miles to go. I thought he was ahead of me, but he had cramping issues above treeline and had to stop for five minutes. The race can bring even the very best, the most experienced to their knees...
I continued to descend in my world of agony, going embarrassingly slow. We were all extremely lucky for some cloud cover on the descent and that saved the day for me. Thunder rolled even and I prayed for rain. If it had been clear, the heat might have ended me. I was hot, but the pain in my legs was the overwhelming factor for me here. Hikers would give me passage and I wanted to explain to them why I was going so slow. I wondered if they thought, “Dang, this race isn’t very fast. Maybe I’ll enter next year.” The first year I did the Ascent, in 1998, I got to the top and thought, “I feel great! I could easily run down.” Ignorance is truly bliss compared to the suffering of intimate knowledge. I thought to myself, “never again.” As I write this the day after the race my attitude has already changed, at least somewhat, even though I still can hardly walk. That ability to forget pain and suffering is essential if you want to continue doing things like this.
I finally made the last turn and now only had a mile to go, though it was the steepest mile of the entire race. As I hit pavement, there were Sheri and Buzz encouraging me. Buzz waited for Kristi to come down, not far behind, and Sheri fell in beside me to encourage me to the finish. Normally I’m a chatty guy, but I wasn’t then. I was just in so much pain and could only think about stopping. It crowded every other thought from my mind. With a half mile to go, my right thigh locked again and I nearly toppled. Sheri massaged out the cramp and I continued. Anyone who has ever done this race will tell you that this final mile is interminably long. I knew this and just focused on my watch. It should all be over before 5:35...
I finished in 5:31:37, good enough for 5th place in the 50-54 division, 93rd overall and 82nd male. I was surprised how close I came to my goal and glad the finish came a few minutes early, but I couldn't get myself to go any faster. My body was failing, but I'm sure a stronger mind would have succeeded. That was my slowest ascent ever and my second slowest marathon, only exceeded by crampfest of 2001. I thought I could break 5:30 and I was on track for most of the way, but I got what I deserved and I’m fine with it. I sat in the shaded, finishing tent for a long way with bags of ice on my knees, neck and forehead. Homie joined me in the tent, already looking fully recovered. I thought about the fact that the Hard Rock 100 is almost exactly like doing four Pikes Peak Marathons, back to back to back to back. Homie has done that twice. So, essentially, he was recovered already. He finished around 5:21. Full results are here. My history of results on Pikes is here. The 3:45 ascent time in 2010 I don’t really count, as I was pacing Sheri. Also, the 1999 marathon time is actually Mark Oveson. I broke my back a couple of weeks before the race and he took my spot. That is illegal nowadays and they prevent that by requiring ID to pick up your number and they put a wrist band on you, though this is easy enough to circumvent if you really wanted to cheat. So, this was my sixth time doing the Marathon. I’ve also done the Ascent five times. I’ve also run up/down the Peak for training in February before, taking shortcuts above treeline. And I went up only once, getting to the top so wasted that I hopped on the train to come down.
Somewhat embarrassingly this result earned me the title of USATF 50-54 National Trail Marathon Champion and 10th overall. This is cool, of course, but a bit of a joke, as it only takes into account people that are actually members of the USATF. I guess that will give you an incentive to join the USATF, but it change the fact that four other Americans in my age group beat me and probably thousands more in the US could have beaten me, if they had raced.
The day before, on the Ascent, the Masters record-holder Lisa Goldsmith had a tough day, running uncharacteristically slow. She texted Sheri: “Training is not overrated.” She hadn’t been able to train like she has in the past and it showed. I find myself concurring with this conclusion. I think training can definitely improve your times. Maybe I’ll try that next time...