Monday, August 18, 2014

2014 Pikes Peak Ascent, A New Respect, and Missing Mountains

     My iPhone started ringing at 5 a.m. on Thursday to wake me up, but I had been lying awake for several minutes anticipating its annoying digital bells sound. Three hours of sleep is all my mind would allow. Getting up and out of bed was no trouble, though, because I had a running date with a mountain to get ready for. It was still two days away, but the 2014 Pikes Peak Ascent had all of my attention.  
     A debilitating case of sciatica had me unable to run much, and then not at all, for 3-4 weeks prior to the race. I saw two different chiropractors to see if they could work some magic, but it became obvious it was an ailment that would have to run its course. Cycling didn't hurt, so instead of running I rode my bike to keep some type of fitness. With my leg not getting any better with a week to go I began to worry I wouldn't be able to complete the race. Since I had already invested time and money I decided to go anyway (I actually never really contemplated NOT going).
     The situation would improve, though. Before leaving on Thursday morning I was able to run relatively pain free for an hour. After stopping for a coffee and gas I was off toward Salina and then a left turn to the Rockies.
     After arriving in Colorado Springs I walked around downtown for a bit before getting dinner and going to the hotel. Friday morning I went to Garden of the Gods for a run. It was beautiful weather, and needless to say beautiful scenery, but the elevation gain from Wichita was evident in my breathing. I completed my planned 50-minute run, but just as I was finishing a man stopped me and told me there was a rattlesnake in the middle of the trail just a few feet ahead. He had two smaller dogs with him and said, "It almost got one of my dogs." I looked just ahead and saw it AND heard it rattling and abruptly made a U-turn to find another way back to my vehicle. I grabbed my camera and walked back toward the danger zone to take a picture, but as I got closer to where it was I didn't see it and started to get nervous so I turned around and got the hell out of there.
     At 3:55 a.m. on Saturday I woke up and started preparing for the days adventure up the 14,109 ft. mountain. By 6:00 a.m. I was parked in downtown Manitou Springs and walking toward the starting line. Wave 1 had a 7:00 a.m. starting time.
     One very cool bonus about this years Ascent is that it was also the host for the 2014 World Long Distance Mountain Running Challenge. There were 30 countries (that's the number I heard) represented. It was really, really cool to see elite mountain runners from South Africa, Italy, Mexico, Canada, Great Britain, and many more wearing their countries uniforms and intermingled with the other Wave 1 racers. Team USA did a fantastic job, but more about that later.
     Two girls sang "America the Beautiful" (a tradition at the Pikes Peak Ascent and Marathon because Katharine Lee Bates wrote the words atop Pikes Peak) and a few seconds later we were off. I positioned myself about 10 rows of runners back because (1) I didn't know how my body was going to hold up, but (2) mainly because I didn't know what the next few hours had in store. I have backpacked and hiked up Mount Harvard before, but I wasn't racing up it.
     The first mile to mile and a half takes runners through downtown Manitou Springs on a paved road that leads directly to the trail up Pikes. The road was a steady uphill but once the pavement meets the trail the incline gets serious. I knew I was going to do be doing some walking/hiking at some point during the race, but I didn't know when or how much because I just didn't know exactly how intense the inclines were going to be. The first four to six miles are tough, but definitely an appetizer for the later stages. I made it through the first hour and came to an aid station and decided that should be my first walking portion. Since I've never participated in a trail or mountain race I wasn't accustomed to the aid station fare of M&M's, pretzels, cookies, grapes, bananas, and some other goodies. While the M&M's were looking tasty, I went with grapes when I came across the aid stations. I had some gels with me, as well.
     The terrain gets progressively rockier and more technical as it elevates. The soft dirt trail becomes a boulder field by the time you end. Every so often there would be a sign stating "8 miles to the summit," "4 miles to the summit," etc. Pace is almost irrelevant in an event like this. It couldn't say, "I want to x-minute miles" because each mile is different and more difficult than the last.
     The last four to five miles are brutal. After climbing above treeline 20-minute miles are quite respectable amongst non-elites. The last two miles took me around 40-minutes, I think. The last kilometer is literally climbing over boulders and rocks. You can hear and see the finish line well before you reach it. But at least it gives you hope (it did for me, anyway).
     I crossed the finish line in, 3:12:55. It was such an amazing finish line with a beautiful view of Colorado and spectators scattered on boulders and around the summit cheering on the runners. 
     During some of the toughest parts of the race I was debating if running up Pikes Peak is more challenging than running a road marathon. I've decided it's too hard to compare, but the Pikes Peak Ascent was quite possibly the most challenging endurance event I've ever done. My legs weren't trashed at the end of the climb like they are after a marathon, but I'm never gasping for air or required to be so physical in a road marathon. I'll let other people debate that one.


     I respect all runners. Everyone has their own path and journey. However, after completing this race I have a much bigger appreciation and respect for the top mountain runners. The winner of the race was, Sage Canaday. He was running for Team USA and finished in, 2:10:03. That is equally as mind-boggling to me as someone who runs a 2:05 road marathon. It's just absolutely incredible to me that someone can run up a mountain that fast. I know I am a "flatlander" and it's probably more impressive to me because of that, but I think that's jaw-dropping regardless of where someone is from.
     The men for Team USA took first and third overall, and the women for Team USA swept the podium.


     Some people like to get home after a getaway or vacation and "get things back to normal." I'm not like that. Especially when I come back to Wichita from Colorado. As I drove east on I-70 out of Denver on Sunday I watched the mountains slowly fade away in the rear view mirror. I was sad to see the horizon go back to a straight line with no mountainous undulations. I don't "hate" Kansas or Wichita, but when I come back from destinations like this weekend and feel the way I do I know I'd be much more happy in a different location. I woke up this morning and went to my first day of my last year at Wichita State University and kept thinking about how I wish I wasn't back. I know it sounds like a typical "back to reality" period, but I don't really feel that way. I see it as another sign that I should go somewhere where I'd be more happy. People are riding their bikes, hiking, running, walking the streets, being active, being outside in places like Colorado. I understand that's not the case with everyone, everywhere in that state, or that nobody does that in Wichita. But I don't see it. I don't feel it like I did this weekend. I am excited to think about where I might be in a year when I am done at Wichita State. Maybe it's nothing more than I just miss looking at the mountains?