Pikes Peak Marathon

On August 20, 2017, I finally had the opportunity to do the Pikes Peak Marathon. America’s Mountain, as they call it, is a 14115 ft mountain located in Manitou Springs, Colorado, and the race is considered to be the hardest marathon in the United States. This was the best and worst running experience of my life, and the race took a worse toll on my body and mind than the Pikes Peak Ultra 50k race I had run three weeks prior.

The anticipation

I had wanted to run the Pikes Peak Marathon for 7 years, with missing the opportunity in 2012 due to my pregnancy with my first child. Fast-forward to last year, I had an epiphany when I got on the scale, and realized I needed to do something drastic. Naturally, I signed up for a marathon, dropped ~70 lbs in the process, and qualified for Pikes Peak Marathon. Oh, this is not the “normal” way of losing weight? Now you tell me! If you’re interested in that story, you can read more in the About section.

Prior to the race, I had probably watched more videos about Pikes Peak and running than anyone. I’m pretty sure I hold the record for number of running videos watched i a month. By race-day, I was ready physically, mentally and spiritually. Or so I thought…

The day before… Or the day of… Who knows; they blended in.

As luck would have it, I was assigned to a mandatory training session at work the day before the race, lasting until 9pm. So much for planning out my race in advance! I had to cancel the hotel, and prepare for a 3am wake-up time, in order to be able to drive to Manitou Springs on time to pick up my packet. My brain decided that the night before one the hardest endeavors of my life would be the perfect time to stay awake, and preoccupy itself with the mysteries of the Universe. I swear, my brain is a toddler: the more you tell it to do something (e.g. go to sleep), the more it does the exact opposite (e.g. only allows you to sleep 2.5 hours).

The asshole alarm decided to wake me up at 3am, just as I had told it to do. I woke up, got ready, ate half a bagel with Nutella, had a bunch of coffee, had zero Gatorade or electrolytes, and drove down to Manitou Springs. Basically, I did everything a runner should NOT do prior to a race.

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My Old Friend, Pikes Peak. That summit sure looks far!

At the start-line

I made it on time to pick up my packet, and lo and behold, a lovely lady from Trail and Ultra Runners recognized me while handing me my bib. I’m famous!!!! Not really…  I am also very sorry for being so terrible with names. I know faces, but not names, especially not on 2.5 hours of sleep.

Finally, 6:55am came, and we were minutes away from the start. You see, I was in wave 1, so I  felt I had something to prove. My plan (soon, you will see WHY I hate planning) was to reach summit in 3.5 hours, and then sprint the downhill. You see, downhills are my specialty. Not that you could tell, based on the number of scars I have on my knees, especially from Barr Trail (the name of the trail the race takes place on).  A few moments before the start, lovely lady sang America the Beautiful, and off we were! I told you I’m terrible with name, so people in this blog shall be referred to as guy, gal, dude, girl, woman etc.

To No Name Creek (3rd Aid Station)

I went out fast. My strategy was to reach the trail in less than 10 minutes, then power-walk the Ws. The Ws are 13 switchbacks from hell, and people who run up them are aliens. Kilian and Emelie, I love you, but you’re not of this Earth. The first and second Aid Stations only serve water and Gatorade. They’re fairly close to start, and I didn’t really stop, because I didn’t want to lose my place. I should also mention that the organizers do a very good job at placing Aid Stations along this course. I knew the course very well up to No Name Creek, and I was right on schedule when I got here. They had food, electrolytes, water and Gatorade, so it was a very well stocked station. What did I eat, you might ask? Gu. I ate Chocolate Gu (the only gel I actually like, and doesn’t taste like a mix of sugar and Super Glue). I completely forgot about my poor dietary choices from that morning, so I assumed that the gel would provide enough nutrition. After all, it had coffee!

No Name Creek to Barr Camp

This was the easiest part of the course. There were some downhills, and I got to run. A lot. I even met some guys from Florida, and a lady who assured me we only had about 10 women ahead of us. Yes!!! I was still in the running for top 20! I passed the Aid Station at Bob’s Road, feeling great. I don’t even remember stopping. I knew there were about 2.5 miles left until Barr Camp, so I tried to not push too hard on the uphill sections, but I felt little to no sign of dehydration. It didn’t even occur to me that still hadn’t had a decent meal that day, but I had only been run/walking for less than 2 hours, so I thought I was okay. I reached Barr Camp at 1:58:00, still okay on time. There was a party at this Aid Station, which was the biggest of all. They had pickles, so I had to stop for pickles! I didn’t spend a lot of time here. I was still feeling well, so onward I went towards the next Aid Station at A-Frame, keeping a couple slices of pickles as a reward.

Barr Camp to A-Frame, a.k.a. tree-line, a.k.a. the Point of “what the heck am I doing here anyway”?

The Aid Station at A-Frame came 2 miles and some change after Barr Camp. I didn’t stop for to long, but I did have some Gatorade, and promptly consumed the remaining treats I had been carrying from Barr Camp. Tip: if you want your pickles extra salty, carry them in your hand for 2 miles while running/walking uphill. Sweaty-pickles… yum! When you lack a gag reflex, it makes it easier to consume such culinary delights, and subsequently write about them. Sorry, folks! A-Frame came and went quickly. Suddenly, the trees became smaller, and I started to feel the lack of oxygen, but I had trained at altitude, so I didn’t think it was a big deal. Except I had completely forgotten to train on 2.5 hours of sleep, with only half a bagel with Nutella, a Gu gel, two slices of pickles and about 46 ounces of coffee in my belly.

The Point of “what the heck am I doing here anyway” to summit

With the trees behind, the sun’s relentless rays were shining on my hungry and electrolyte-depleted body. It felt like someone had turned a light switch: I went from being happy-go-lucky to feeling I was about to pass out. In addition, my stomach felt like a very bad case of motion sickness. You know my lack of gag reflex? This was the point I was praying for the ability to empty the contents of my stomach one way or another, but didn’t have the luxury to do so. I thought to myself that this was it: I wasn’t going to make it. Several people stopped to ask if I was okay, and I lied saying I was fine. Truthfully, I couldn’t walk. I was miserable. I didn’t want to move, and I just wanted to quit. I was looking for every reason to get a DNF (Did Not Finish). After all, the best of the best get DNFs, right?

This was also the section that revived my hope in humanity. I had tens, if not hundreds of people ask if I was okay, or if I needed anything. A lady pointed at the search and rescue folks, and advised I should check in with them. One of the many guys who passed me put a jelly-looking electrolyte pill in my face, and said “you need to eat this.” Of course, I vehemently opposed, partly because my stomach felt like I had morning sickness on steroids, but also because I am vegetarian, so I knew that jelly usually contains gelatin. However, when the guy gave me the “you need to eat this so your stomach feels better” speech and literally shoved the darned thing into my hand, I knew I had to take it. I would like to take this time to apologize for the animals that had to die in the making of said pill (if there was, in fact, gelatin), but it was a choice between that and passing out on an 14115 ft mountain. Then, another lady was running down, and said “you can do this, baby!” while looking me straight in the face, giving me additional energy to continue moving.

When I arrived at the checkpoint, they already knew who I was thanks to the runners who had reported that there was a lady in a blue shirt with purple hair sick on the trail. Thanks to the electrolyte pill, by the time I got to Cirque, I felt okay to move, and told the folks at the checkpoint that I really only had two choices: keep going up for about another mile, or go back down with a DNF. I even managed to stomach some grapes at the next aid station, which gave me enough energy to make it to the top.

I spent about 16 minutes at the summit. No, they did not stop the clock for me. I should get extra credit for hiking an additional tenth of mile to reach the restroom. That was more for piece of mind, since I knew I had another 13 miles to go, plus it gave me a reason to sit down.

 

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You know there’s a problem when the color of your face matches the white clouds behind you.

What goes up, must come down

The best part of the race was about to begin. I knew I could get off that mountain in a reasonable time, but I was worried that the constant pounding would bring back the sickness. I started at a fairly even pace, and started picking up. It felt good to finally start passing people again. My passing-business quickly came to a halt when I felt on my face as I was passing an older gentleman, who promptly picked me up from the ground. Barr Trail maintains a 50% record of getting me to fall flat on my face. I have scars to prove it. Falling is just part of trail-running, so of course, I just kept on going, faster and faster, to the point that I managed to make up a considerable amount of time. At one point, another gentleman asked me how long it took me to reach the top, to which I answered sheepishly “5:22…” to which he replied with amazement “I reached the top after 5 hours! How did you make up so much time?” Another guy exclaimed as I ran by “she knows how to run downhill!” I really didn’t want to admit just how horrible my uphill game had been…

If there is one word to describe the downhill, it would be “freedom.” I love running downhill, and despite my sickness and a completely disastrous ascent, the descent was exactly as I had hoped for. I passed many people, but most importantly, I was the one cheering people on, encouraging them that they could do it. By the time my feet hit the pavement on Ruxton, I was sprinting. I didn’t think anyone would still be on the streets, but there were plenty of people, cheering me on as I was running towards the finish line. 7 hours and 58 minutes later, I crossed the finish line with a bloody knee, jumping straight into the arms of another member of my Trail and Ultra Running Facebook group. I had done it! I should mention that the medal is amazing, and the jacket they gave is my favorite.

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I love the medal and the jacket!

After the Race

I met up with my babies as they were cleaning up my wounds. My two year old wanted to be carried, of course, so I also did some strength training after running up and down a 14115 ft mountain. My four year old, on the other hand, got into the business of collecting candy from my fellow runners. My kids are incredibly friendly, and they are always up for giving hugs, and there were plenty of people to talk to and give hugs to at the after-party, in exchange for food. Because food from strangers is so much better than mommy’s food!

Several people I hadn’t even remembered walked up to congratulate me and ask about my well-being. A lady looked at my kids, and told them “your mommy is amazing!” I really just wanted to hug and thank everyone for all their support. I am confident that if it hadn’t been for my fellow runners, I would not have finished the race. While my body gave in, and I missed my goal by almost 3 hours, this was truly one of the best experiences of my life! I will be back again, but next time, I will do more training, more eating, more sleeping, and less planning, because plans always fall through anyway.

Until next time, Pikes Peak, my Old Friend…

 

Disclaimer
I apologize for the lack of photos, but I didn’t have my phone with me.

Acknowledgments
Thank you to my friends and family who have always supported me, especially my running friends, TAUR family and other running groups I am a part of.
Thank you to my boys for being patient with mommy’s training schedule, and for waiting for mommy at the finish line.
Thank you, James, for looking after Alexander and Idenaarin when I can’t, and for bringing them to the race.
Thank you to my fellow racers, without whom I would not have finished.
Thank you for to the race organizers and volunteers for an amazing experience!

 

 

 

Race Review: Pikes Peak Ultra – 50k

I became an Ultra Runner on July 29th, 2017.

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Earlier this year, I decided to take up ultrarunning, and I had the brilliant idea to pick one of the most difficult races in the country as my first ultramarathon. The Pikes Peak Ultra, a race organized by Mad Moose Events, takes place in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and has three courses: 50 miles, 50 km and 30km. The 50k race has a net elevation gain of 9800 ft over what seems like an infinite number of miles. (Not really; the entire race really only consists of 31.1 miles. But when you’re on the mountain, it seems like someone keeps lengthening the trails.) What goes up, must come down, so the race also has a 9800 ft elevation loss. Here is the race website for your viewing pleasure: Pikes Peak Ultra

Pre-Race Shenanigans

The day before the race was highly eventful, and I really hoped it wasn’t a forewarning of how race-day was going to be. The saying “when it rains, it pours” proved to be 100% accurate. I had planned to pick up my bib from the running store the day before the race, so I knew we had to start driving shortly after getting off work. The universe had other plans: we got stuck in very bad traffic, turning our 1.5 hour drive into 3 hours, missing the packet pickup time by less than 10 minutes.   Whatever, nothing goes as planned, so I wasn’t too worried. We checked into our hotel, and went to meet up with friends for a pre-race carb-load pasta dinner. Just as we were turning towards the restaurant parking lot, we were almost hit by someone who ran a red light. I could’ve easily spent the night either in the hospital or jail, because if we had been hit, I would have knocked that dude out.

After dinner, we went back to the hotel, and as I was packing my hydration vest, I realized that I had forgotten my water bottle in Boulder. After filling the bladder with water, it started leaking profusely, only to find a gaping hole on the bottom that I swear wasn’t there before. Luckily, I had a bottle of Smart Water that I used as a replacement. Finally, at about 12am, I realized I only had about 5 hours before I had to wake up and climb to the top of Mount Rosa, a peak standing at approximately 11500 ft. I swear, Mother Nature and Mount Rosa had had a discussion on how to royally screw me the day of the race, because “shark week” decided to start two days early. Glorious, I thought to myself, while hoping that I wouldn’t bleed to death somewhere on the trail. I don’t take pain medication, so pain was a given, but as they say “suffering is part of life,” and not showing up was out of the question.

That night, I had about two hours of sleep, accompanied by several nightmares. Furthermore, the several news and weather outlets had rain and thunderstorms in the forecast. Race-day was shaping up to be a marvelous experience!

The Race

Race-day started with a beautiful sunrise, with no storms in sight. Props to my babies and my husband for waking up at 5am, taking me to Starbucks to get a Vanilla Late, and chauffeuring me to the start line. I swear, I was the only runner with a coffee at the start line! I had four goals: finish under 6 hours, finish between 6-8 hours, finish between 8-10 hours and finish before cutoff. I had to hit one of them!

   (My boys playing in Bear Creek Regional Park by the start line!)

Mile 1 – Mile 7.5: First Aid Station

This part of the race was very misleading: it was easy; too easy. I was running at a sub-9 minutes per mile pace, and so were the other runners. All I kept thinking was that I didn’t want to be stuck in the back, so I had to keep pushing, but I was dreading the climb that was about to begin at about mile 2. I was surprised at how easily I pushed up that hill. Okay, mountain. It was a freaking mountain! But I was able to get some running in with the power-hike, and I made it to the aid-station in 1 hour 33 minutes, only 3 minutes behind target. Not bad! I also met a dog who was so happy to see me that her human parent had a hard time pulling her off. I always make friends with animals on trails!

Mile 7.5 – Mile 11: Second Aid Station

This section had some downhills and single track trails, so I sprinted a little. At one point, I was passed by a couple male runners, which was cool, but I was not cool with being passed by the female runner. I thought “How in the world is she running so fast?!” I didn’t have too much time to think, because the trail quickly took me to a road. A paved road. Really? Pavement?! I thought this was a mountain race! Luckily, my frustration quickly ended along with the pavement at the second Aid Station. I was still mostly on track for an under 6-hour finish.

Mile 11-16: Third Aid Station

The 3rd Aid Station should be renamed Hell Station, because this was probably the most technically challenging section of the entire course. The views, however, were breathtaking. I almost ended up getting lost, but luckily one of the volunteers steered me the right way. I wanted to go straight; he told me I had to go up. Up?! Again?! At some point on the ridge I got very hungry, so I decided to eat half of the Nutella sandwich my husband made for me. Here’s what I learned here:

1. eating with your mouth open while power-hiking is perfectly acceptable
2. eating while power-hiking at altitude makes even chocolate sandwich taste like cardboard
3. so this is what mountain goats feel like!
4. eating solid foods while trying to power-hike is a terrible idea

I felt so accomplished when I passed a few runners, only to get caught by others. I thought I was doing so well! I did meet a lovely lady from Colorado Springs, who assured me there would be a slight downhill up ahead. She was right: there was a downhill up ahead, but sadly, it was a short-lived downhill. We started going up again, and it was brutal. Other runners caught up to me, whom I let pass, but who also advised I shouldn’t have, as I was setting a good pace. At least I wasn’t the only one struggling! These five miles I swear seemed like an eternity. We kept looking at out GPS watches, and all of us showed a different distance. Isn’t that great? Don’t you LOVE technology? I really wanted mine to be accurate, since mine showed we were at 16 miles… Except the aid station wasn’t in sight, so I begrudgingly continued to hike, and listen for music, cheers or any signs of the aid station. Finally, after an eternity (5 miles), I arrived at Hell Station. They assured me that the rest of the way wouldn’t be as difficult, but I knew that Bitch Rosa, I mean Mount Rosa, was still ahead.

Mile 16-20: Fourth Aid Station

I knew that I had two miles to go to the summit, and two miles back to the aid station. At this point, my 6 hour finish was a pipe-dream, but that was okay. I just really wanted to make the 8-10 hour finish. As I was hiking towards the peak (I swear, that bitch was laughing at me from afar!), I saw my new friend from Colorado Springs run towards me screaming how close I was to the top. “Close” is so relative when it comes to running, though… It took me a solid 30 minutes to reach the peak, but I made it. I had been looking forward to taking a panoramic shot of Pikes Peak, but thanks to the clouds, my old friend was hiding. What I did manage to take a picture of is the massive amounts of lady bugs, who apparently have their orgy convention at the peak of Mount Rosa during mating season. I still feel dirty thinking about it…

I was also looking forward to drinking the can of Coke Life I had been hauling in my hydration vest, only to discover there was a hole in it. I thought we had been past the bad luck! I decided to give the middle finger to my bad luck, open the can with coke still spraying out from the side, and enjoying what was left of it. I met more runners at the summit, including someone from California. Great, a flatlander running just as fast as I was. My ego took a hit, especially since two of the runners who were running the 50 mile race also arrived. They had already run 30 miles! After about 20 minutes (way too long) spent at the top, I made my way back. It was supposed to be all downhill from here! I saw several 50 mile racers on the way up, who seemed like super heroes at the time! After the longest 4 miles ever (2 of which were downhill), I arrived at the aid station.

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(View from the top of Mount Rosa… Or what’s left of the view, thanks to the clouds!)

Mile 20-25: Fifth Aid Station

This part was supposed to be fast, as it was downhill. By the time I got here, the clouds started to thicken, albeit still no thunder. It did start to rain, and I knew I wasn’t supposed to get my heart rate monitor wet, so I put on my rain jacket, and ran downhill. About a mile (maybe less) down the trail the rain stopped, and I was sweating profusely in my jacket. Are you kidding me?! I had JUST put the damn thing on! I wanted to push it to the final aid station. I wasn’t going to allow anyone pass me again. By this time, the pile of rocks in my shoes and socks turned into a mountain, and it felt like I was running without shoes. As a result, I slowed down enough to be passed by a runner. My thought: “That’s just great. Maybe it will help if I have some gel.” Except I can’t run and eat, so I started to walk… On the downhill… My California friend caught up to me, and passed. “Pissed off” doesn’t even describe how I felt at that point. I cleaned my socks and my shoes, and I ran as fast as I could from there. When I got out to the dirt road, I could see the aid station. It was still pretty far, about a mile or so away, but I wanted to make it there so badly, that I ran pretty damn fast! I’m sure that the lack of sand and rocks in my shoes helped the pace.

Mile 25-31: To the Finish

This was the last Aid Station. I broke down. I missed my babies so much! I just wanted the race to end! The folks at the aid station told me there was one last hill of about a mile, and then the road veered downhill. Up?! Again??? I just wanted to cry. They offered me food, but I didn’t feel like eating anything, except for pickles. They had pickles! One of the race organizers told me to just power-hike the hill, and then slowly run downhill. At this point, two more runners had caught up to me, and I just about had enough. I said my goodbyes, and ran uphill. I heard several people yell after me “don’t run! Walk!” But I ran. And I power-hiked, and ran some more, and caught up with the people who had passed me, and passed them, with one of them yelling “lookin’ good!” At the top of the hill, I decided to book it, and sprinted for the next 4 miles. I ran at what must’ve been sub-7 minutes per mile pace. My arms were swinging hard, my legs were flying, and my breathing was rhythmic, but easy. I felt great. Screw “Red Bull gives you wings.” How about “pickles give you wings”? I caught up to my new buddy from California who yelled “see you later!” I ran like I am used to running on roads. I thought to myself I should have used this energy in the 3rd and 4th sections. I surely would’ve had a better finish time!

The Finish

As I turned the last corner, I saw my family near the finish line. My boys were screaming for Mommy,” so of course, they ran through the finish line with me. They were my crew after all. Even though they hadn’t run with me on the course, I thought of them every moment, and knowing I would hug them at the very end gave me the strength I needed to move forward. I finished within my 3rd goal time, at 8:38.

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Things I learned:

⁃ Humility.
⁃ Mother Nature is a bitch.
⁃ How to share a bathroom with the bears.
⁃ How to be completely nonchalant after coming out from behind a rock, even though you had previously checked several times if the coast was clear.
⁃ Going on a 2 hour road trip after such a race is a terrible idea.
⁃ Use the aid stations, rather than hauling the food.
– Having to pull yourself up the stairs after an ultra is great arm exercise.
– I need to put more effort in during the tough sections. I didn’t even feel like I had just run a 50k after the race. My husband said I looked good, and my friend from California congratulated me on my strong finish. Maybe if I put in consistent effort in the future, I will finish with a better time.
– I learned a lot about how my body works, and gained a new appreciation for it throughout the entire process of preparing and running my first ultra.

The Day After

Everything hurts.
Where do I sign up for the 100k Bear Chase Ultra?

Acknowledgements:
Thank you to Mad Moose Events and the volunteers for this incredible experience!
Thank you and congratulations to my fellow runners in all three races!
Thank you for all the encouraging words from my family and friends.
Thank you to my babies for waiting for mommy at the finish line, and for being so patient while mommy was out running.
Thank you to my husband for his support, and spending hours with me on the phone during my long runs.
Thank you to all the hikers who encouraged us along the way.
Thank you to Mother Nature for holding off on the thunderstorms.