30 August 2011

Pikes Peak Marathon 2011 - race report

The Pikes Peak Marathon has been on my to-do list since I first heard about it a few years ago as I was beginning to run marathons and beyond. 

Billed as "America's Ultimate Challenge," it's one of those not-so-ordinary marathons that attract me. 

The race starts in Manitou Springs, CO (at an oxygen-thick elevation of 6,300') and then runs 13+ miles up to the top of Pikes Peak (at a where-are-my-lungs elevation of 14,115') -- and then back down!

Pikes Peak Marathon course profile

The joke around town the morning of the race was, "other than the one hill, it's a very flat course." Okay, that was my joke, and it received only forced half-smiles and a bunch of we haven't heard that one before looks.  

The 7,000' climb looked tough and challenging enough, but it was the altitude that was getting under my skin pre-race.  

Pullman sits a little above 2,000', and the trails I regularly train on are between 3,000 and 5,000'. But I've only been above 10,000 ft a couple times in my life, and though the altitude didn't bother my running too much each of those instances, I was told over and over that 14,000' was going to be a entirely different beast to deal with. I knew I'd be okay with the climbing, but I was starting to worry that my body wouldn't react well to the altitude.

And then I read Matt Carpenter's amazingly descriptive course description. The one-hundred times he recommended slowing down on the climb was enough to make me think I should take the climb slow and ultra-conservatively. 

So that was my game-plan, to run an ascent so conservatively it would make Glenn Beck weep. 

An interesting part about this race, especially for the middle-of-the-pack runner, is the jockeying for position at the start. There's a mile or two section of wide-road pavement before the course hits the nearly single-track Barr Trail for the rest of the climb. With 800 or so people running, it could make a pretty big difference in your ascent time if you get stuck in a slower than you'd like to go section of the mamba line for the first several miles of the trail.  But it eventually thins out and the trail widens a tough to make passing, or getting passed, easier.  

I made it a point to get myself stuck in a slower group to keep from getting too excited and going up too fast. (Is that Beck weeping?) The climb is relentless, with only a couple spots where the trail flattens or descends for even 50 ft. There are, however, a few surprisingly less steep sections that were pretty runnable during the mid section of the climb. You can kinda see this around mile 6 on the profile I posted above -- still climbing, but not nearly as dramatic as much of the trail.

My legs were feeling strong as I power-hiked and ran in spurts. The course had a million switchbacks. The trail was 1 part dust, 1/2 part root, 8 parts rock, and 4 parts really nasty jugged rock. And 50 parts spectacular vista - but only if you could catch your breath enough to lift your head from your chest.

By the A-Frame aid station (around mile 10 and 12,000'), I was feeling pretty going about how I was feeling. I'd taken it relatively easy up to that point and my legs and lungs were feeling as good as I could have expected. And then the real climbing started.

"There's a reason trees don't bother growing above 12,000' on Pikes Peak. They can't!" says the website. The views above tree line were spectacular. The weather was clear and cooperating with us up to that point and the views just went on forever. It was a great feeling to see where we started and how far we had climbed.  (About an hour after I started my descent, a hail storm swept across the peak.)

The last mile to the top was by far the most crowded. This was when people were hitting the top and turning around, so what had been a fairly comfortable single-track was now becoming an often dangerous and rocky passing zone.  But did I mention the views were amazing?

I reached the top in 3:39:33, alive, though hardly breathing, let the volunteer take a tab off my bib to prove I made it to the top, and then turned around to retrace my steps back down the mountain.

With my first step down I felt like I had a new body. 

It was nice to go in a direction that wasn't straight up. The first mile down was still very crowded and I did a lot of walking and stepping aside. But when the trail opens up a little and the crowds thin down there really isn't much to keep you from running down as fast as you can, besides the one million hairpin switchbacks and well-placed jagged-rock booby traps.

After about three miles of downhill I started to pick up some momentum and remember thinking how good my legs were feeling. Maybe I took it way too slow on the ascent if my legs were feeling this good, which was fine with me because that was the plan. I also wondered how long I could keep up my pace. I was passing people left and right, but most of them looked like they must have wasted all their energy on the climb because they seemed to only want to survive the descent.

There were a few near-crashes involving large rocks, and a few upright slides as I hit the breaks at surprise switchbacks, but my legs were holding up and, most importantly, I was having fun.  So I began increasing my pace even more with about six miles to go.  And then even more with four miles left. With two miles left I was feeling borderline out-of-control on turns and switchbacks, and I think I had a smile on my face the entire time.

When I hit the pavement with about a mile left I knew that whatever I'd conserved to the top of the mountain I had burned through on the way down because the wheels were about to fall off. But before I knew it I was done. Crossed the finish line. Finished the Pikes Peak Marathon. Survived my first 14'er. 

What a fun race.

Some stats. I finished in 5:51:06, good for 112th place overall (out of 730). My ascent was 3:59:33, or 210th fastest up the mountain. My descent was 1:51:33, which was, surprisingly, the 30th fastest descent of the day.

This is one of those races that I might try again. Generally, I like running new stuff in new places (especially if I have to travel across states to get there), but this one was a unique and fun challenge. And I think I could cut off a good chunk on the ascent now that I know what to expect. We'll see. :)

Enjoy some photos:

At the start with Pikes Peak
poking out in the background.

This photo proves that I actually ran parts of the ascent.

Running through Manitou Springs

Climbing Barr Trail. It was this
crowded for the first 5 or 6 miles.

At tree line. 

Two miles from the summit. Spectacular views!

I love this view of the trail.

The summit is in view. But still a mile to go.
The last mile to the top took me about 30 minutes.

Views like this make you forget it's so hard to breathe. Almost.

Trying to sneak in some running at 13,000' feet.

Climbing. Climbing. Climbing.

What, still climbing?

Turnaround point!

You really do feel like you're on top of the world.

Glad to have survived the mountain.


Keep running!



  1. Looks tough and crowded, but your words and your smile say that you had a GREAT experience. Congrats on another great race and time.

    P.S. Poor Glenn.

  2. Great race recap! Sounds like an amazing, read "lung searing," experience.

  3. Your smile at the beginning, at the top and especially at the finish line says it all.

  4. 14,115...Wow!! I always wondered what that race was like. As always cool photos!

  5. This race has been calling me for a few years. Being a flatlander, here in Houston, I wonder how I could ever possibly train for it. I've been tempted to do the 10 miler at Garden of the Gods, but it seems silly to travel all that way for a 10 mile race. Though it would be a 10 mile race that would kick my butt!
    Congrats on a wonderful race...my favorite line...
    "So that was my game-plan, to run an ascent so conservative it would make Glenn Beck weep." Pure beauty!

  6. had a local friend run this and it sounds amazing!! congrats on another incredible finish!!

  7. Great race!


  8. Congrats on a great race! I barely beat you to the top, but then you smoked by me on the down hill. I guess I need to work on that :-) What an amazing course!


  9. So that was my game-plan, to run an ascent so conservative it would make Glenn Beck weep

    BWAHAHA! That's funny :-)

    You executed that race perfectly. I'm totally betting you can do better next time. Well done!!

  10. Wow, that is so awesome! Your finish pic captures it all! Looks like you've got mad skills on the decent:)

  11. Welcome to my backyard!! :)
    Glad you got the opportunity to run the Peak, such a special race, really brings out the best trail runners around the area! Congrats on a great race! If you are around next year, let me know and we can meet up! I did the Ascent but not sure my ankle would let me do the full! LOVE all your pictures, too!

  12. that is so awesome! glad you got to experience the famed race!!

  13. Sorry I missed you Jill! Maybe next year -- I really loved this race and could definitely see myself doing it a few more times.

  14. Sweet. Thanks for sharing this report, and that is a pretty spectacular run down. Hope to see you at Pikes in the future.

  15. Great report, thanks! I'm hoping to travel from South Africa to run the 2012 marathon. Will see if I get an entry. I can't wait!