Pikes Peak Pain

August 20, 2000

The Pikes Peak Marathon is Colorado icon and one of the oldest marathons in the United States, but I wouldn’t recommend it as your first marathon. You see, there’s a hill in this race. Just one hill, but it’s rather large. In fact, it is 13.4 miles long and gains 7,830 vertical feet and tops out at 14,110 feet. That’s liable to affect your per mile pace.

The day before the Marathon, they run the Ascent race, which obviously just goes up the mountain. The Ascent race is not surprisingly the bigger race. There are two waves of 750 runners and this year had 1,627 finishers compared to only 723 in the Marathon. To spread people out a bit before the trail running, both races start with over a mile on a paved road, which climbs steeply also. The Ascent is further broken up into two starting waves thirty minutes apart.

In 1998, I ran the Ascent and had to start in the second wave (no recent marathon time to qualify for the first wave or a previous Ascent time). I ran with Sheri, Trashman, Homie, and The Donald. I didn’t know Super Dan at the time, but I’d finish in 62nd place to his 60th place. I had the disadvantage of having to pass people constantly above French Creek as I had started to catch the stragglers from the first wave. I completed the Ascent in 3:09:38. I was hungry to try the big event: The Marathon.

A year ago, Mark Oveson and Trashy, having just finished the 1999 Pikes Peak Marathon in fine style and with almost identical times of 5:25, assured me that there was “no way” I could run under five hours for this race. I wasn’t able to compete that year due to a back injury two weeks before the race. That comment annoyed me and motivated me. I wrote it down and looked at it often throughout the past year. I couldn’t say anything to dispute this comment and even if I could, words are cheap. Actions are what count. I wanted very badly to prove these two wrong. It pains me greatly to say that they weren’t wrong. I couldn’t do it.

On the day of the Marathon, Homie was the undisputed hero. He ran 31 minutes faster than last year (5:11) – almost all of that time made up on the Ascent (3:17:52). He far exceeded his goals and pushed himself hard. He finished proud by passing others. After some recuperation, he strode the streets like a champion. As great an effort as this was, it paled in comparison to what my sister Brook did. She ran the Ascent the day before and set a PR for the Ascent by over 50 minutes! She ran 3:54:54. Unbelievable. If I could ever improve anything by 50 minutes it would have to involve 100 miles or more. She had worked so hard this year and deserved this result. Brook finished as the 81st first woman (28th in her age group of 119). Her husband Kraig is just unreal. He ran 2:38:49 for the Ascent and got 9th place (5th in his age group of 170). This guy is a machine. The following day he went on a 31 mile roller ski with National XC champion Nathan Shultz. Kraig keeps good company…

Trashy, while running slower than the previous year, gave a gutty performance. In the midst of this grueling pain he thinks more of his friends than of himself. In the W’s early in the race, where I wouldn’t waste any breath even talking he yells up to us, by now a switchback ahead, “Go Bill! Go John!” A simple gesture? Maybe, but one that no one else would do as it takes too much energy. When we passed later in the race, he cheered me on and high fived me. What a great friend. Even as he finished this race, about five minutes slower than last year, in pain from the effort the and the heat, he remained full of cheer and goodwill. I only had room for pain, misery, and self-pity. And I had less reason to be surly than the Trashman. His character is something to which I aspire. Trashy set a PR on the Ascent by over 5 minutes and moved up 20+ places in his finish in the Marathon.

In preparation for this report, I wrote the following nine days before this race. It was mainly to psyche myself up for the race:

This time around I've done less running, but more high-altitude training. I've run Longs twice, Grays, Torreys, Evans, Capitol, Massive, Missouri, Oxford, Belford, and Huron - all Colorado 14ers. I have little talent for running, but thes ascents are really more of speed hikes and that is what Pikes Peak will be for me. I've been doing lots of morning scrambles with the Satan's Minions Scrambling Club. Two weeks before I spent a week climbing in the Canadian Rockies and covered over 100 miles and 30,000 vertical feet. In Boulder, I'm an average guy who gets out for an occasional workout. I suspect in other locations I'd be considered a nut.

I write this now only nine days before the big race. My date with pain and suffering approaches. I fear Homie will be riding my tail all the way up the mountain. I'm not ready to relinquish my lead over him. I'm not ready to play the age card (he's nine years younger). I want one last chance to dominate him and I'll be running scared the whole race. Trashy is strong and fast but not nearly as competitive. I feel the strength of my will is enough to best him, but will it be enough for Homie? No. My legs and lungs will have to do their part, but my biggest asset is probably my ability to endure pain, to suffer. I've proven this over shorter distances, but will my mind be strong enough for the three hour climb on Pikes? I worry about failure, but I'm dying to know. When, at 12,000 feet and I slip below my goal pace, the bell rings, will I answer? I figure if I'm not passing out puking, or flat on my face, then I'm not at my physical limit. I'm limited by my mind and my will and my ability to endure pain. It's almost to the point where if I don't hurl, I consider it a failure of will.

Climbing in the Canadian Rockies, Homie turned to me and said, "I notice that when hiking up hill you and Trashy are breathing like steam engines and I'm not even breathing hard." I wasn't sure how to respond to this. It was pretty similar to saying, "I notice you two aren't very fit compared to me." While this might be the case, I wouldn't give in to that thought without more substantial proof. We played many games throughout this trip, testing each other's fitness, but never outright raced. Pikes would be that race. A few weeks before the trip we did a time trial up South Boulder Peak and I had put three minutes on him in 2700 vertical feet. Homie had done a very good time, but was quite disappointed that I had bested him. He wants the title, but I'm fighting to hang on.

While not a great athlete and certainly an average to slow runner, I want the mountains. I love climbing and that passion fuels my desire to be fast. "I'm too big", I think to myself, but Homie is the same size and Trashy is even bigger, the White Rim bigger still. I picked an event that is so bizarre as to not attract real runners. I want to compete. I'm counting on desire and ambition to get me up the peak and andrenilin to get my down. I've heard the finish is tremendous with crowds lining the streets cheering for every runner, even the slower ones like myself. If I work this race right, I'll be on empty during this final stretch and have no ability to control my emotions. I suspect I'll break down at the finish regardless of the time, because of this lack of reserves. Finishing a race with something left is a failure - the only true failure in a race. If I don't make my goal times, I'll be disappointed, but that should be because I didn't do enough training or don't have enough talent. But if I finish the rest with a lot left, then that will be failure.

In the movie Rocky, the title character says,"Cut me, Mick" to his trainer. Rocky's eye was swollen shut and he couldn't see, but he wasn't going to quit and he was ready to bleed. I’m ready to bleed too.

Just as the gun went off, I started my watch. Homie didn’t waste valuable time starting his watch and shot out in front of me. Immediately I’m boxed in as Homie and Trashy execute the pincher move on me. Homie would remember to start his watch once we made the turn on to Ruxton Avenue. We all ran together until things got steep and then formed into a pace line. Homie, as expected, rode right off my hip. He was never more than two feet away from me as we climbed up Ruxton and then switchbacked up Mt. Manitou via a section known as the W’s.

I feared Homie. He is a strong downhill runner and in excellent shape. I wanted to get away from this pressure and I did after about 30 minutes. I was pressing pretty hard in the earlier going and kept my heart rate above 170 bpm for the entire first hour. I wore my monitor and made sure to back off if my heart rate got above 173 and to push if I found myself at too comfortable a range (under 165). I didn’t blow up despite the hard start, but couldn’t maintain that intensity. After an hour I dropped to my more usual pace of 165-170 bpm for the remainder of the ascent.

Near the top, I could see a woman up in front of me. I vowed to reel her in by the summit. With less than a mile to go, a spectator told me I was in 27th place. I had been passing people steadily since I switched to mostly power hiking at the Bottomless Pit sign. I passed about 10 people above the A-frame, the last being this first place woman. I reached the summit in 3:07 – a bit disappointing as I was shooting for sub-3 hours and was less than a minute off with three miles to go. I just couldn’t do it. Now I had a long way to descend.

I took two waters at the top and immediately started down. I flew down the upper section of the trail, working my way into 20th place with no women ahead of me. I had to stop a couple of times within the first few minutes of my descent to stretch my calves as they started to cramp. I worked them out quickly, but this would prove to be ominous foreshadowing of what was to come.

I passed Homie, who was still coming up, after descending for only four minutes. It would be tough to hold him off. I figured he had at least six minutes left to climb and that I’d have a ten minute lead by the time he started down (as it turned out, I had about 11 minutes on him). I passed Trashy next and he cheered me on as did Homie. It seemed that Trashy was only a minute behind Homie, but it was more. Homie did about 3:18 on the Ascent and Trashy did 3:20.

I cruised down the top section and the uphill runners yielded the track almost without exception. The call would go down the ranks, “Runner coming!” and everyone would cheer me on. What a great group of people. I had no breath to respond. One chump decided to pass another uphill runner just as I came by. Now almost all the uphill runners had not only been one abreast, but where frequently getting off the trail and stopping. This guy stepped right out in front of me and I nailed him good. I’m sure it was an honest mistake precipitated by his desire to do his best, but I muttered, “Asshole” under my breath. A couple miles down I closed on a runner wearing blue shorts and when he fell I asked if he was okay as I went by. He was.

The real trouble started for me at the A Frame. My right thigh cramped so badly I couldn’t move. I feared my race was over, but after two minutes I could hobble onwards. Once I started cramping I ate all my remaining food which consisted of a GU packet and five Oreos. Then, at each aid station, I’d down three cups of Gatorade. But it wasn’t working. My legs were cramping even worse.

While I tried to work out my cramp, Blue Shorts passed me. Once I got running again, I’d pass him again well before Barr Camp. At this point no one had passed me on the descent except for Blue Shorts and he was ahead of me at the beginning of the descent. And I was now ahead of him once again. At Barr Camp, I was over halfway down the mountain and had covered that distance in 53 minutes. I was on track for a 4:53 finish. I just needed to cover the remaining distance in 53 minutes.

From this point onwards I had to be careful to always have my foot pulled back. I could not roll up onto my toes without my calves cramping. I’d consciously pull back my foot as far as possible with each stride – sort of stretching it while running. My calves constantly twinged and grabbed. If I wasn’t cramping, then I was on the ragged edge of cramping. I ran in fear.

Trashy had told me that he finished in 25 minutes from French Creek. I got there in 4:28. My thoughts of besting Super Dan had vanished, but I thought a sub-5 was still in the bag as long as I didn’t cramp any more. But even then I knew that was a fantasy. I ran the last seven minutes of this race either on the ragged edge of cramping or cramped. Below French Creek, both calves would seize simultaneously with my right thigh and I went down like a load of bricks. I lay screaming in pain in the middle of the trail with no one to help me. I desperately reached for my foot so that I can pull it back, but it wass locked pointing down like an Olympic diver and my leg was locked by the thigh cramp. I yelled and screamed some more hoping that it will solve the problem, but it didn’t. In agony, I stretched again for my foot and finally grabbed hold and pulled it back for all I was worth. The cramp subsided, but any movement, no matter how slight, brought it back.

I was still lying in the middle of the trail when Blue Shorts comes barreling down the trail. I dragged myself to the side in order to yield the right of way. I knew any effort in standing would result in the cramp of the century, but I had to try. I still had a chance at sub-5. I hobbled up to my feet and fought off the cramps with some more stretching. I continued my Frankenstein run down the trail being careful to never roll up onto my toes.

It was now quite hot and just getting to the final aid station near the top of the W’s was a struggle. Nevertheless, I was back running again, sort of, and passed Blue Shorts when he fell in front of me for the second time. Unfortunately, the aid station had no Gatorade – only water. I took three and threw one over my head before staggering onwards. One runner, charging hard, passed me on the W’s, but I arrived at the pavement and the “0.9 Miles To Go” without any others passing me. It’s steeper here on the pavement and I cramp again and again. I have to stop four times in the last fraction of a mile to stretch or I’ll collapse. The second and third placed women passed me along with a few other runners. Blue Shorts goes by for the third and final time.


With 0.9 miles to go, I’m at 4:53:10. I had to cover the remaining distance in 6:50. There was no chance of that. I struggled painfully onward until five hours has passed and then, in agony, started asking the crowd how much further it was. I’m completely done. The cramping is beyond what I can endure and must stop soon. Just before the final turn my family was cheering me on, but I didn’t notice. I was in my own little world of pain. Super Dan was on the near side of the street and only two feet from me and I barely acknowledged his cheers of encouragement. What a great friend to stick around and cheer me on.

I crossed the finish line devastated, destroyed. A failure. I finish in 5:03:04. It had taken me 10 minutes to cover 0.9 miles of pure downhill road running. I had set my sights high and fell flat. I was massively dehydrated despite taking double water at each aid station. I tend to get dehydrated and this was the worst case ever for me. I finished the race weighing probably under 155 pounds. How do I know this? I don’t. But after the race I drank about three liters of liquid, ate oranges, grapes, four slices of pizza, two salads, two bags of potato chips, and a Mountain Dew. When I got home, I vegged on the couch watching Tiger Woods perform yet another miracle. At 6:20 I went upstairs to take a shower and I weighed myself. I weighed 160 pounds. I started the race at 170 pounds. I hadn’t taken a piss since 6:45 a.m. – almost 12 hours. I’ve never gone through an experience like this before. After a huge dinner and tons of liquids, I weighed 164 pounds the next morning. Two days after I’m up to 166 pounds and should be fully recovered (i.e. back at a pudgy 170 pounds) by the end of the week.

After crossing the finish line, I headed straight for a cot. I asked if they have anything salty to help my cramping, but they had nothing but sugars (grapes, oranges, Gatorade, power bars). I drank and drank until my stomach hurt too much to drink anymore. I knew I was still severely dehydrated, but I couldn’t get any more down. Soon after, Homie finished strong and looking a lot better than I did, despite my extra recover time. Homie had run 5:11 – a 31-minute improvement over the previous year. The sky is the limit for this guy.

So, how does this compare to a flat marathon? First, and maybe surprisingly, it is not any tougher. Frankly, I thought it would be easier because this is like two separate races, but with my cramping it turned out to be a similar amount of pain and the “next day soreness” is quite similar also. But these are very personal observations and I’ve only run two flat marathons so the sample size is too small to conclude much. Of course, if I did a flat marathon in 5:03, it would be much, much easier, but I’m comparing running each at your limit. For me, that is around a 3:40 flat marathon.

Clyde Soles, a friend of mine, has recently taken to running some races. He observes that some people are in pain while running these races and don’t look like they are having much fun. He wonders why they do it. I’ll answer his question - at least from my perspective. A race isn’t about having fun. It is about pushing your limits. If that isn’t painful, then you aren’t pushing your limits. As Matt Carpenter says, “When it hurts, go faster.” You should finish these races completely spent and in need of medical attention. You should be carted away in an ambulance with an IV in your arm. If you want to just run up Pikes Peak with a smile on your face, then do it with a bunch of friends and not in the middle of crowd of strangers. So, why race if it is so painful? Because it is fun and introspective to plum the depths of your abilities; of your mental toughness. I’m curious to see what I can do if I push hard. I’m curious to see how I’ll respond physically, mentally, and emotionally when I have pushed myself as hard as I can. Plus, all trail running isn’t misery. Most of the training is enjoyable running in the mountains. That’s the time for fun. Not races. Races are for pain and suffering and pushing your limits. I have the opposite question for Clyde: Why does anyone have fun in a race? It should hurt. Or are you just out for a nice supported trail run? That’s different than a race. Racing is pain. Don’t sign up unless you’re willing to bleed.

I was the 26th male and 7th in my age group, 35-39 (full results can be seen at http://www.skyrunner.com/ppresults/2000ppmm.htm) Since two of the guys in my age group were in the top 10 in the race, they were taken out of the age group awards and I got a belt buckle and a nice brass coaster for 5th place in my age group. Three women beat me – two of them passing me in the final half mile. I should have been 20th, but “should have’s” don’t mean squat. You either perform or you don’t and I didn’t. It probably sounds like sour grapes to run a time like that and be disappointed, but I am. My legs betrayed me. I wasn't bonking and I wasn't shot, yet my legs wouldn't allow me to run. How did I lose 15+ pounds on this race? Why was it so much worse than anything I've ever done before? I set high goals and I failed to reach them. I can't be happy about that. Misery and failure love company, but I have none. Kraig, Brook, and Homie did awesome and exceeded their goals wildly. Trashy set a PR on the ascent and moved up 20+ places in his finish. Super Dan didn't break 3 hours in the Ascent, but ran about what he did last year (3:04:25 – good for 41st place and 15th out of 212 in his age group). Clyde Soles, another friend, ran 3:29:36 on his first attempt at the Ascent. This was good enough for 162nd place and 23rd out of 192 in his age group. I alone am the failure. While I wish for my friends to succeed and I’m so happy for them, it feels bad to be the only failure.

I’ll get over the disappointment soon. It’s silly for someone of such mediocre talent to take these things too seriously. I had invested a lot in this race. Not so much in training, though I did a fair amount, but in self worth as a trail runner. I guess the results don’t lie. Maybe now I’ll move on to something in which I have even less talent so that I don’t compete: rock climbing.

Below are our splits for this race. According to Matt Carpenter’s race pace calculator (http://www.skyrunner.com/pace.htm), for my ascent time, the average descent time was 1:57:23. Even with my cramping problems I came down in 1:56:06.

Location 3 Hour Ascent Pace Bill Homie Trashy
Ruxon 0:03:58 0:03:11 0:03:11 0:03:11
Hydro Steet 0:11:20 0:11:19 0:11:19 ?
Top of W’s 0:36:11 0:35:00 0:35:?? 0:36:??
“French Creek” 0:52:44 0:51:19 ? ?
Barr Camp 1:31:26 1:31:44 ? ?
Bottomless Pit 1:44:46 1:45:55 ? ?
A Frame 2:08:10 2:14:14 ? ?
2 miles to go 2:26:10 2:31:15 ? ?
1 mile to go 2:41:28 2:47:44 ? ?
Summit 3:00:00 3:07:02 3:17:52 3:20:37
Barr Camp n/a 4:00:00 ? ?
“French Creek” n/a 4:28:00 ? ?
Finish 4:53:02 (average) 5:03:04 5:11:13 5:30:36
Place Overall (out of 723 finishers)   29th 37th 74th
Place in all males (out of 530 finishers)   26th 33rd 65th
Place in age group (5 year increments)   7th out of 74 6th out of 40 16th out of 74

During the first hour my heart rate averaged 171.5 bpm. In the second hour it was down to 168.5 bpm and in the third hour of the ascent, my heart rate averaged only 166. My inability to sustain a high output (170+ bpm) resulted in my failure to break three hours on the ascent. On the descent the heart rate was also kept high except for the frequent stops to stretch. My average on the descent was 168.6 bpm, which was also my average for the entire five hour race. It seems strange to me that my heart rate stays so high on the descent, but this has always been the case for me if I’m pushing on the descent.

As Arnold always says, “I’ll be back!” I’ve got a score to settle with this race. I don’t know how things went so wrong when I did things like I have in the past with success. When I did things just like Homie and Trashy. I’m hoping it was a fluke, but I’ll need to be better prepared next year. Matt Carpenter’s web site has already started the count down: only 360 days to go! Who’s in?


I wrote the above a few days after finishing this race and it reads like I was very disappointed and I was – at the time. With some perspective, I’m actually pretty pleased with my effort here. I had some problems, but rarely if ever does a race go perfectly and I can’t expect that. I ran very close to my goal time, which was aggressive. Most importantly, I gave it 100%. That’s the most important thing for me. And I hopefully learned something from this race and will be back to try again for sub-5 next year.

2001 Marathon report is here.