Friday, August 27, 2010

Pikes Peak Ascent - World Long Distance Mountain Running Challenge

While some trail races are certainly longer (Leadville 100 miler, our own North Face 100km, to name a few) and some trail races incorporate higher altitudes and elevation gains (eg, Tour du Mont-Blanc), there remains one race that captures the attention of all trail runners across the world. Mention ‘Pikes Peak’ to a runner and it can only mean one of two things, the Ascent and the Marathon, held on a weekend in August starting in the town of Manitou Springs in Colorado every year.

Andrew Lee, Stuart Gibson and myself were fortunate enough to be selected this year for the Ascent, which was incorporating the World Long Distance Mountain Running Championship. Unfortunately, Stuart withdrew with a stress fracture, leaving Andrew and I to fly the Aussie flag. I considered myself quite fortunate to make the team and be in such elite international company; 6th place at 6 Foot Track in a depleted 2010 field was my ticket over, but I was determined to take my opportunity and give it everything I had!

To prepare for this event is almost impossible in Australia. Sure you can run trails, run hills until the cows come home and prepare mentally; but the one thing we cannot replicate in Australia is the altitude. To give you some idea; the race starts at approximately 1920m and finishes at 4302m (almost double Kosciuszko), a total elevation gain of 2382m (higher than Kosci!). However, we were both incredibly lucky to have found an altitude chamber at a gym that was nearby to both of us. Although the chamber could only replicate atmospheric conditions up to about 3200m, we both put in considerable hours inside training on a treadmill to prepare ourselves for the challenge that awaited.

Flying into and touching down at Colorado Springs airport, you are immediately met with the menacing, imposing sight of Pikes Peak monstering the surrounding mountains. Clouds surround the peak, and the grey colour of her faces expose the jagged cuts of rock which give the Mountain Range their famous name. This race is going to live up to its reputation!

Although the World Challenge was originally chosen to be the Marathon event (up and back, run on the Sunday), the organisers made a late decision to change it to the Ascent run (on the Saturday). Bluntly, Andrew and I would have preferred to run the Marathon event on the Sunday. We both felt we had more to offer on the downhill section of the run where the altitude is not such a problem and doesn’t give the local runners too much of an advantage. However, the organisers had their reasons and we would have to go with it!

Andrew and I were billeted with a local guy, Rick Lourenzi, who besides his quirky nature and far fetched beliefs, was a cool guy who ensured our preparation was perfect. He himself had run both the races many times, and he gave us a very detailed course description. Andrew and I also spent some time on the summit and ran the last 2 miles of the race up there together 4 days out. In brief, that little run left me with an elevated heart rate; I knew then that this was going to be my ‘Ultimate Challenge”!

The course

When it comes right down to it races are about their courses and this course is one of the most challenging in the world. The 21.4 km course is essentially a single-track uphill trail, with a little bit of road thrown in at the start to spread the runners. The route follows the legendary ‘Barr’s Trail’ which was handmade in 1914. In took Fred Barr 7 years to complete the trail to the summit. We were hoping to run it under 3 hours! It is a well-constructed trail, that for the most part eases at a reasonable (11% average!), but consistent, grade up the mountain.

The race begins outside Manitou Town Hall, where an antique rail engine from the Pikes Peak Cog Railway is displayed - a massive mechanical reminder of what it is going to take to get up this mountain. From the start, 2km of paved road, leads to the train station, where the course pitches up a short but violently steep hill before turning to dirt. The course continues along a short section of rough double track, and the first aid station appears at 2.5km.

The next section of the course is known as the ‘Ws’ and is a series of 13 sharp switchbacks up Mount Manitou, which culminate in another aid station around 3.6km. This section is narrow and a poor place to pass, and Rick, advised us to makes sure we were in a good position to maintain a constant effort here.

After here, the trail turns to single track and climbs considerably, eventually widening into a relatively ‘flat’ section at approximately 9.6km. This section is known as ‘Bobs Rd’ and is probably one of the easier sections of the course and is a good time to recover, drink fluids and control the breathing. Soon, the trial leads to Barr Camp at 12.9km. The trail here consists of many water bars and step-ups.

Following Barr Camp, the trail leads to a series of switchbacks culminating in a long traverse northwest to a sign, which reads ominously ‘Bottomless Pit’. Fifteen short but steep switchbacks later, you reach the ‘A Frame’ which signals the start of the treeline and the huge east face of Pikes Peak rises up. The sheer size of the barren and rocky slope is intimidating, and the scarcity of oxygen at this level may prove to be the biggest obstacle. There is a good reason why no trees grow here!

From here, the 5km left is pure guts and hard work. A series of switchbacks called the ‘Golden Stairs’ require hands to scramble over rocks. Trying to maintain a constant momentum here is the most difficult. Finally the summit awaits and the view that inspired “America the Beautiful” is the reward.
Andrew and I. Pikes Peak can just be seen between our heads!

My race

A steady, consistent effort all the way was my mantra for this race. I knew that there was no place where I would be able to stride out and use my pace and agility (my biggest assets on trails). The best way to achieve a good time was just to keep grinding away and dig deep when the going gets tough.

From the start, I settled into a good rhythm, running very much within myself on the gradual climb out of town towards the trail. I was happy to let most of the elite guys, including Andrew, run ahead. I slotted into a pack of runners and after the first aid section, settled into an easy, short-striding, quick cadence rhythm.

Gradually, the pack thinned out up the ‘Ws’, but I found that I was passing just as many as were passing me. The leading females cruised by effortlessly here and trying to go with them would have been suicide. The pace and rhythm remained more or less constant to the tree line. I was running smoothly; avoiding any unnecessary step-ups and going around objects to save energy. I was taking on board plenty of fluid and my legs felt OK, even though this kind of running for such an extended period of time was new to me – I always seemed to be on my toes and using my calves to drive me forward. It was frustrating not to have hardly any flat or downhill sections to stride out in, and the sections that did decrease in gradient were a welcome relief. I used these to get away from those around me and I was happy with my time at Barr Camp (13km) of 1:25. The people in the know say that if you double your time here you have your finishing time. I would have taken 2:50 at the start of the race so I was happy with how I was going at this point.

Upon reaching the ‘A Frame’ and switchbacking out into the treeline, it was obvious to me that the hardest part of the race was to come. The effort increased; there were more rocks to step up onto, sharper switchbacks and a looser surface to confront. Made up of broken up granite, it was much like running on sand in sections. The toes dug deep and effort to push off was in vain as your footing slipped backwards up the steep inclines.

It was here that my heart rate was elevating and recoveries from efforts were taking much longer. The breathing had increased and at about the 4km to go mark I was forced to take my first walking break to settle the heart rate and recuperate. A strategy of ‘run when I could, walk when I had to’ was employed and this worked well. I reached the 3.2km to go mark (2 miles) and my watch said 2:23. I thought that surely a time under 3 hours was obtainable. It would have been a good time for my first attempt. At the 1.6km (one mile to go) mark, I heard the announcers loud speaker at the summit announcing that an ‘Aussie’ had made it. It was Andrew, and I was so happy to hear that he had run a great race (2:41). I was only a mile behind and surely would be at the top with 19 minutes to break 3 hours!
However, regardless of what I believed, Pikes Peak would be the one dictating terms. The altitude was heavily affecting my senses, and I was stumbling over boulders and my balance was unstable. I was walking most of these sections and only putting in sustained runs when the trail was clear of obstacles (which was very rare!) I knew my time was blowing out now, but I didn’t care. My new aim was just to finish in one coherent piece!

I must have looked a sight when I shuffled over the finishing line in 3 hours and 5 minutes. My strong finish, which I always try to do in races, was nowhere to be seen. I was just a beaten up mess. Thankfully, a sit down and some fluids and food did the trick and without the heavy effort of running, I recovered soon after to soak up the atmosphere on the summit.
The race taught me a lot of things that I am very thankful for. It was a humbling experience in so many ways. It showed me what the discipline of Mountain Running is all about (in fact, it redefines what I call ‘running’ in general), what it takes to train for a run of this magnitude and that competition is such a relative thing. It taught me that having a good road marathon time means nothing in this sort of race and that specific preparation is the key to success in this sort of race. Overall, I was satisfied with a time of 3:05:35 and 85th overall (1800 starters). Andrew Lee, the other Aussie, ran superbly and finished in 2:41:10 for 26th place. He is to be congratulated for such a great run on a brutal course.

The post-race party and presentation ceremony was the feature of the whole event. Seeing Andrew receive and age category award was wonderful, and for me the highlight was mixing it with athletes from all over the world. Andrew and I also were staying in the same house as a Scottish and Mexican runner, and I was glad to talk about what I love doing most with guys and girls from all around the world.

Where I go from here, I am not sure about. Although it was a great honour, I feel that as far as my running goes, I probably have my ‘thumb in too many pies’. I have to reassess and figure out what I am going to concentrate on...road, trail, mountain or ultra? But one thing is for sure, if I don’t ever do any serious Mountain Running ever again, I am at least going away with a fond memory and an experience that will stay with me forever.