Saturday, August 21, 2010

Hardest thing ever

Laurel and I both completed the Pikes Peak Ascent today. For me, it was easily the hardest thing I have ever done -- especially considering the amount of training I was able to do in preparation. She wrote up a post about her experience, this is mine.

The race started off on the streets of Manitou Springs, at 6,300' elevation. We ran roads for over a mile before turning onto the trail. That first part before trail was steep -- 7% grade -- but actually that was one of the less steep sections of the course. Laurel was a few hundred feet ahead of me.

The trail is only wide enough for one person in most places. Here and there it's possible to squeeze by someone. But for the first few miles, the trail was so full of "runners" that I really couldn't pass very well. So instead, I walked along with the pack. This was unfortunate, because there were good places to run in this early section of the race.

Around mile 3 things opened up and it was possible to run -- as long as you were willing to say "On your left" and "Thank you" about 10 times a minute. After some time I passed Laurel at a switchback.

There were "reverse" mile markers indicating how far to the summit. In the beginning these seemed to go by pretty quickly. I don't recall any "splits" until I got to the Barr Camp aid station. At that point, 7.6 miles into the race, my watch said I had been going for two hours.

When I saw that, I did some math in my head and concluded that there was a remote chance I could finish in under 4 hours. After all, 7.6 miles completed meant there was only 5.8 miles remaining! But that's lousy math.

A short while later I saw the "5 miles to Summit" sign, and I thought, "Great, now all I have to do is one of my 'long' runs." Ouch. Quite a reminder of how poorly prepared I was.

The next time I looked at my watch was at the "3 miles to Summit" sign. I had been going just about 3 hours. I thought, "Wow! I haven't slowed down much. All I have to do is three 20-minute miles to finish in 4 hours."

That's more bad math -- not enough O2 getting to my brain I think. My pace prior to Barr Camp was averaging a 16 minute mile but my pace after Barr Camp to the "3 miles" sign was over 21 minutes per mile.

That's when the course got noticeably tougher for me. About 25 minutes later I was convinced I had missed a mile marker, and I was starting to wonder where that last aid station was (supposedly 1.5 miles from the summit). Wrong. I should have known, because at this point I wasn't running at all. I wasn't even walking/hiking that fast.

So I was very surprised when I passed the "2 miles to Summit" marker at three and a half hours. What? A 30-minute-mile? This isn't running! Even on the super-steep Mt. Sanitas trail I was doing better than 20 minute miles!

I was totally wiped out. My leg muscles were fatigued worse than they have ever been. I stopped at the last aid station, where they were mixing Gatorade in garbage pails filled from a garden hose running down from the summit. I realized it was going to take all I had just to finish -- that 4 hour idea was totally out the window. The thought of a 4:30 finish wasn't even in my mind -- I just wanted it to end.

I had nibbled down all the granola bars in my pockets, all the gummy-cubes, and a bunch of animal crackers and pretzels from one of the aid stations. I was guzzling water from my Camelbak like mad and having a cup of Gatorade at every aid station. I figured I was over-hydrated* and under-nourished. I had more food in my pack but figured it wouldn't stay down if I tried eating it.

At four hours into the race, I passed the "1 mile to Summit" sign. There goes another 30 minute mile, and I figured if I was lucky, it would only be another 30 minutes to the finish. I didn't know if I was going to make it, but having no other option, I kept walking along slowly.

All along the course there were volunteers, Search and Rescue personnel, and other people offering encouragement. That was fantastic. At the top though it was surreal to hear people shouting "Good job!" and "Looking good!" when all I was doing was walking slowly. I thought, "this trail race has nothing to do with running -- it's more like competitive hiking."

When I say "competitive" I don't mean it in the sense that I'm competing against other people. For me, the point of a race is not to see who you can beat, but to see how fast you can go. So when 100s of people passed me in the last mile of the course -- because they could walk slowly faster than I could -- I felt no competitive urge to speed up or not let them pass.

But I had decided that at the end of the race, I would run through the finish line, no matter what it took. Walking through a finish line just didn't seem right. That expended the last ounce of energy I had. I felt as braindead as Louis (Rick Moranis) in Ghostbusters -- when a race volunteer asked, "Would you like to sit down?", I just did, without even asking, "Would I?" I spent the next half hour on the summit recovering, stretching, munching on grapes and pretzels, sipping water, and changing into warmer clothes.

Laurel found me on the summit! It was great to meet up with her then instead of back in Manitou Springs.

I think the only way I would do this race again is if I became a better runner. If I could run enough of the course to honestly call it "running" instead of "competitive hiking" I think I might enjoy it more.

* -- Actually, I was not over-hydrated. I drank over a gallon of water during the race and sweat it all out. My face was covered in salt.

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