Thursday, August 22, 2013

Touching the Sky at the 2013 Pikes Peak Marathon

“Acting funny, and I don’t know why 
Excuse me while I kiss the sky” 
 - Jimi Hendrix, Purple Haze 

Last Saturday, I had the great privilege of checking a race off my bucket list by running the 58th annual Pikes Peak Marathon in Manitou Springs, CO. Considered “America’s Ultimate Challenge”, this marathon has drawn runners from all over the world to climb the Ascent (13.2 miles to the top at 14,117’, with 7,750’ of relentless climbing), or take on the Marathon (complete the Ascent, then as they say on the Price Is Right, “come on down!”), or even do the two races back-to-back if you’ve got the stones. Events like these are destined to push us each to our limit, whatever flavor we may desire, and I was excited to share the challenge with 2,000+ fellow adventurers who were trained and ready. Thanks to great weather, inspiring performances, and world-class volunteering and local support, it exceeded all expectations!

(All smiles at the peak!)
The Magic of Manitou Springs 

From the moment I arrived in Manitou Springs, CO, it was clear that this town knew how to GSD (Get Sh*t Done). A few weeks prior to race day, a flood had wiped out the park where packet pick-up was to occur, as well as nearby businesses that now had no power and basements full of mud. No problem, said Manitou Springs, just move the packet pick-up to a higher elevation park and feel free to grab a shovel if you’re looking for some cross training. I got the impression that the race organizers had seen floods, snow, and everything in between over the last five decades. Mother Nature would not be stopping this crew from putting on America’s second oldest marathon!

(The flood on Aug 11th was no joke)
Fate had a funny way of steering my weekend, and I often wondered if the spirits of the Pikes Peak Marathon weren’t guiding the way. First, I saw the NO VACANCY light go off at the Pikes Peak Inn right as I was walking by, at the same moment Fujio Miyachi (a friend from Japan I met via the XTERRA races, and last years Ascent/Marathon Double winner) was pulling out of the parking lot and saying it was the best place to stay. The finish line was literally 20 feet away, much closer than where I was staying…does this kind of karma really happen? I asked a group of ladies knocking back beers outside of their room if this was a good place to stay, and the group turned out to be the “Peak Busters”, a gaggle of female finishers past that were more than happy to share 30+ years of beer-infused stories. I chugged that beer, booked that room, and grabbed a seat outside their room to hear more!

(Check out the tub...ooooh, yeah!)
(The nearby Garden of the Gods - a great run!)
At the pasta dinner, I caught up with my good friends Gary Gellin (Team inov-8, Team Inside Trail Racing) and his wife Holly, and learned about their funny wager – she would run the Ascent, and he would need to beat her total time in the Marathon. The loser would have to….actually, I don’t know what the stakes were, but given these two had been cycling and running through Colorado every day for the last two weeks, I suspect there was laundry involved. Well, after projecting a 5-hour finish, Holly busted out a 4 hr 13 minute Ascent…DOH! The gauntlet was thrown. And thrown quite hard, actually.

Gary was one of four Team inov-8 members here today, and I was really excited for out potential to place well among a deep international field. Alex Nichols (2nd at Pikes Peak last year, 3rd at Mont Blanc Marathon, also just made the 2013 Mountain Running National Team) had miraculously recovered from his flu, and local Peter Maksimow (many-time top 10 finisher here) was turning the corner on his injuries and running well. All three of these guys were fully acclimated, and although I was not, my training had been consistently good and I was climbing as well as I ever have. This year, the Pikes Peak Marathon was part of the Skyrunning Series and the USATF Trail Marathon National Championship, so there was plenty at stake! Our odds looked good.

(The rather random zombie crawl that went by)
(Meeting Arlene Piper, the first American woman to finish a marathon)
Every hour seemed to bring unexpected fun in Manitou Springs, including being swarmed by a zombie crawl (40+ zombies walking the streets in some sort of amateur film), getting a frozen custard from Pikes Peak legend and course record holder Matt Carpenter (he runs the Colorado Custard Company, and his 2 hr 1 min Ascent and 3 hr 19 min marathon CR’s remain two of the greatest trail records of all time), finding an iPhone in the middle of the Garden of the Gods during a shake out run, meeting Arlene Piper (the first women to complete Pikes Peak in 1958, finishing a marathon well before Katherine Switzer elbowed her way through the Boston Marathon), sharing beers randomly with past winners from ’74, ’87, ’97, and ‘02, sampling mineral water from the seven springs in town (each with its own distinctive flavor and mineral mix), being offered a ride to the top from a leather-clad motorcycle gang of retirees, and enjoying great vegetarian fare at the Swirl Wine Bar. Every restaurant buzzed with anticipation from the 1,500 runners tackling the Ascent and 800 runners going after the marathon the next two days, and the local bartenders knew every aid station name as well as the runners.

The Race 

The Ascent started at 7am on Saturday, so I shuffled out of bed at 6:50am to get some pictures. Nice! The sky was clear, and the temp was forecast to hit 90 degrees, so the runners wasted no time getting to the cooler temps above the tree line. I caught a ride with Gary Gellin to the top to watch the finishers and get a sample of that 43% oxygen level at 14,000 feet; we even caught a snow flurry on the top…whoa! Despite how Eric Blake (winner in 2:13:45) and Kim Dobson (Women’s winner in 2:41:43) made it look easy, there was no doubt this race was going to be tough!

(Eric Blakes get the win at the Ascent)
(Kim Dobson climbs the final few turns of the Ascent)
(Haley Benson gets 3rd Woman while her Mom cheers on and takes pictures)
(Kristin Burrell is feeling good after her Ascent)
Marathon race morning on Sunday welcomed similar hot and clear weather, and at 7am we got the gun and headed through town towards that spec in the sky that is Pikes Peak. My run quickly turned to a shuffle when we caught the first steep pitches of the trail (mile 1.6), and my lungs shriveled in the dry air. It reminded me of the lore of Pikes Peak, which started with a duel for smokers vs non-smokers back in the 1950’s. I settled into ~70th place and watched Gary Gellin, Alex Nichols, Touru Miyihara (Mt. Fuji course record holder), Cameron Clayton, and Galen Burrell set the pace up front. I took the well-heeled advice of “run until it’s too hard, then walk until it’s too easy, repeat”, while Colorado Springs local Sean O’Day played tour guide and talked us through the major sections of the first few climbs.

(And we're off!)
(Cutting through town)
(It gets steep fast!)
The volunteers at Incline (mile 2.8), No Name (mile 4.3), and Bob’s Road (mile 5.3) were amazing, and Sean told me that they came from all over the US every year to be a part of this event. Arkansas alone sent over 40 volunteers! There was enough aid that one could do the whole race without a water bottle, but my unacclimated body sucked up everything I had between aid stations like a dry sponge, so I brought as much as I could. I figured my best race was likely 3 hours up, 2 hours down, and anything faster than 5 hrs 30 minutes would be a solid result for my first unacclimated attempt. As we broke the tree line at A-Frame (mile 11.8, nearing 12,000’), I was slightly behind my goal pace, but moving strong with an alternating 20-30 steps of running and hands-on-quads power hiking.

(Cruising the Barr Trail)
(Shawn O'Day sets the pace for us)
(Volunteers were AMAZING!)
(Up, up, up!)
Touru Miyihara was the first runner to bomb back down, with Alex Nichols and Jason Delaney (first to the top, and last years Ascent winner) less than two minutes behind him. Their descent speeds were amazing, particularly considering the need to navigate both the tricky terrain and the many runners gasping for breath on the trail. Galen Burrell, Dave Mackey, and Gary Gellin soon followed, mixed with a number of fast international runners such as Jokin Mitxelena (Spain), Oscar Casal Mir (Andorra), and Edwin Karlsson (Sweden). The Women’s race was also an international affair, with Stevie Kremer well out front (she won the Mont Blanc Marathon in July) and Salynda Fluery (CO), Laia Trias (Spain), Karoline Dohr (Austria), and Michelle Yates (CO) in hot pursuit.

(Alex Nichols crushes the downhill)
(Getting above the tree line)
(Galen Burrell gets through the staircase)
(Stoked for those clouds!)
(Gary Gellin takes the rocks 20 at a time)
(Oscar knows how to fly!)
(Stevie Kremer is the bullet train)
(Finding that groove)
(Not sure which I'm more stoked to see...1 mile to go, or clouds coming in)
By the time I hit the “golden staircase” (mile 12.2), the two-way flow of traffic was pretty constant and I found myself in roughly 70th place. The lack of oxygen in the final mile was shocking, and even a 22 min/mile pace felt like I was going flat out. I topped out in 3 hrs 13 minutes, and I was thrilled just to turn around. Within 20 steps of descending, I felt considerably better!

(Austria's Katherine Dohr was crushing it all day)
(David Henry enjoys working with gravity)
(Made it!)
I floated down the trail at a comfortably fast pace, giving up a few spots to faster descenders and shouting go-get-em’s to those still deep in the climb. The support from fellow runners was extraordinary, and every close pass generously had a pat on the back as I went by. Even among the normally collegial crowd of trail runners, the bond of runners on Pikes Peak had its own sense of magnitude.

By the time I hit A Frame (mile 15), all of the remaining runners had gone by and I could open up my stride a little. I ran alone for miles, with little more than the views and the sound of a thundercloud threatening to add some liquid spice to the race. It felt like I was going sub-6 minute mile pace with the oxygen debt, but my Garmin reminded me that I was closer to 7:30 min/miles.

(Connilee uses her descending skills to break the Masters CR for the Double)
(Accidental photo, but I like it!)
At No Name (mile 22), I began to reel in other runners a few at a time, and I heard a spectator tell her spouse that by her count there was still a M40-44 podium spot up for grabs. That was all we needed to lean in hard and let the quads scream for mercy. The temperature hit the 90’s in the last few miles, and I could feel myself overheating from the wicked pace. The finish line beckoned from downtown Manitou, so I just let my body redline and hoped for the best (ie, no brownout on camera).

I knocked off a few more 40’ish looking guys before crossing the finish in 5 hrs 13 minutes, then immediately vomited in the finish line garbage can to the delight and cheers of the crowd. Peter Maksimow (4:29 for 17th today, a 35-39 age group win) didn’t even wait for me to finish puking before offering me a beer, but the medical volunteers insisted on an IV and some oxygen first, so I made my way to the Med Tent.

(Heading to the finish)
(Whoops...went a little too hard)
(I was in good company in the Med Tent)
 It turns out that a liter of saline and a quarter tank of oxygen is the PERFECT post-race cocktail. I felt the best I had all week! Remind me to unlunch at the finish line more often. ;-) As I regained my senses and caught up with the top finishers, I found out how the race unfolded up front. Alex Nichols had passed everyone on the descent to take the lead, with Touru Miyihara catching up in the final mile and going shoulder-to-shoulder until the last 300 yards when Touru sprinted away to win in 3:43:23. Alex took 2nd (and the USATF National Championship) in 3:43:46, with Jason Delaney (3:53:45), Galen Burrell (3:56:11), Cameron Clayton (4:00:16), Dave Mackey (4:01:59, winning the Double), Jokin Mixtelena (4:02:59), Eric Martin (4:13:59), Gary Gellin (4:14:10, despite a fall at mile 23, but now doing laundry all week), and Oscar Casal Mir (4:14:51) rounding out the Top 10. I had missed my M40-44 age group podium by 70 seconds (even with all the roll-downs), and settled for 58th, a monumental finishing place for the 58th annual Pikes Peak.

Stevie Kremer (4:17:10) came within a minute of the Women’s course record to win, with Salynda Fleury (4:46:10), Laia Trias (4:49:54), Austria’s Karoline Dohr (4:51:54, breaking all F55-59 ascent and descent records), Michelle Yates (4:56:09), Letitia Dusich (5:03:15), Connilee Walter (5:10:31, new Masters record for the Double), Jamie Falcon (5:17:28), Jennifer Malmberg (5:26:46), and Sarah Biss (5:28:24) making the Top 10.

(Enjoying the stage with my teammates and idols!)
At the awards ceremony, I was pleasantly surprised to find out my time was good enough for 8th overall for USATF runners, so I got a little extra hardware. But most of all it was fun to share the stage with teammates Alex Nichols (1st), Gary Gellin (5th), Peter Maksimow (7th), as well as fellow Californians Jason Reed (9th), Dave Mackey (4th, Masters winner), and Erika Kikuchi (10th) on a day where they all turned in incredible performances. It was also fun to see the look on the faces of everyone going “wait, I beat that guy and he’s getting a medal!”…still the USATF’s best recruiting tool, I think. ;-)

(Team inov-8 enjoys a few laughs and beers at Peter and Nora's house)
(Good swag haul)
I was all smiles at the post-race beer bash at Peter and Nora’s house, occasionally winking at the golden moonlit sliver of Pikes Peak in the distant skyline. We were joined by other top runners such as Durango’s Marco Zuniga (4:15:51, 11th and Masters winner), and friends and spouses who shared the journey to the start line and finish line, and there were plenty of stories to be shared. It’s such a gift to have the health and time to share adventure with friends, and even better to have a few moments to retell it over beers again and again. I can see now why the Pikes Peak Marathon is so full of lore, and why so many can’t help but come back.

My thanks to the Race Directors, volunteers, great people of Manitou Springs, my fellow Team inov-8 members (nice work, guys!), and all the runners and families who made Pikes Peak an epic part of their summer. I hope to see you again soon! But for now, it’s off to Zermatt for one more SkyRunning adventure

- SD

Gear checklist:

Shoes - inov-8 TrailRoc 255
Socks - Injinji toe socks, original length, with 2XU calf guards
Shorts - inov-8 RaceElite 120 SS (coming soon!)
Shirt - inov-8 race singlet
Pack - inov-8 RaceUltra 2.1 waist pack (coming soon!), w/ 10oz water bottles
GPS - Garmin 910XT w/HR monitor
Hat - inov-8 Hot Peak 40
Food - (2x) Hammer Gel plain, (3x) Vitargo, one Vespa
Drink/Electrolytes - 88 oz water, 2 S!Caps


  1. Just FYI - those floods happen every time it rains more than an inch. It's a result of the burn scar from the Waldo Canyon Fire last year. The area has been devastated by Mother Nature - so glad you guys could come in, showcase its beauty and bring some stimulus to the economy. Congrats on finishing, btw! I have yet to make it to Pike's Peak or Mount Evans - a little too high for me.

  2. A great recap and great pictures! And congrats on such a nice finish for a non-aclimated first-timer!

  3. Thanks Scott for the great post and photos. I am truly unacclimated, from Alabama, but managed to finish the marathon a few years back, and this post brought back good memories of one of favorite efforts. Congrats on a job well done.

  4. That is some serious mountain running! It sounds like Manitou Springs was a good time too.

  5. Hey Scott,

    As usual, dynamite report and photos. How many calories of Vitargo S2 did you take in? In flasks? Any electrolytes?



  6. the flood was 9 days before the marathon...Not a few weeks... We were lucky to get this race in... A huge thanks to the residents of Manitou!


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