Saturday, September 1, 2012

Pikes Peak: A Tale of Two Great Races

The Pikes Peak Ascent is like no other race I have ever run.  It begins in Manitou Springs, Colorado, at an elevation of 6,300 feet, and climbs 13.3 miles, mostly along the Barr Trail, finishing at the top of Pikes Peak at an elevation of 14,050 feet above sea level.  The average grade is about 11%.

But cold statistics such as these cannot capture the essence of the race.  It is a beautiful course, with incredible views over Manitou Springs, Colorado Springs and the plains beyond, yet natural beauty it not what brought me back to Pikes Peak three times, nor is it what makes me want to come back again next year to run the full marathon.

I came to Pikes Peak for the challenge, and specifically for the challenge of the last three miles of the race.  At the 10.2 mile mark, the course passes through 11,950 feet elevation at an aid station called A-Frame.  The final three miles of the race is at 12,000 feet or higher.   Those last three miles are brutal, especially for anyone who, like me, lives and trains at sea level.  This year, it took me 2:00:36 to reach A-Frame, and another 58:16 to cover the final segment, a pace of just under 20 minutes a mile.  I ran almost the entire first ten miles, but those last three I was mostly walking, with some very slow jogging mixed in.  Even so, this was my best performance on those last three miles.

I finished in 2:58:53, nearly ten minutes faster than last year and three minutes faster than in 2002.  I placed 39th overall, and won the 50-54 age group.  More importantly, I was completely exhausted at the finish line, leaving nothing on the course.  At the end, I was showing the first signs of altitude sickness, and took ten minutes of oxygen before riding in the shuttle down the mountain.  No, I wasn't in any real danger nor pain, just completely exhausted by my encounter with Pikes Peak.  I had taken a chance, run as hard as I could, and gauged my conditioning perfectly.  But the final result also depended on a measure of  luck.  Racing requires that you approach that fine edge between running too easy and running too hard, and whether you go over that edge is a function of things that are sometimes impossible to measure.  That is what racing is all about -- running the hardest, smartest race you can run, and accepting the outcome, whatever that may be.

Watch Data from Pikes Peak Ascent 2012

Jack had a very different experience.  He took the same chance that I did, but this time the mountain won.  There is no objective reason that should have happened.  Jack is in the best shape of his life.  In the first seven months of 2012, he ran his lifetime bests at 10k, half marathon (1:23:07, beating his prior best in 2001), marathon (first time under three hours), 50k and 50 mile.  He was well-rested for the race, and he didn't go out too fast, nor make any other objective mistake.  For whatever reason, the altitude and the mountain just got the better of him that day.

Approaching the Summit: the Start Line is Beyond the Horizon
It took Jack 5:18 to make it to the top of Pikes Peak.  He sat down for a moment to catch his breath before starting the descent, looking utterly exhausted, and I asked him how he was feeling.  He shot back, "I'm fine," with a spark in his eyes, clearly not interested in discussing the matter further.  He probably thought I was thinking of suggesting that he drop out, which was exactly what I was thinking.  But he had no intention whatsoever of dropping out, and was not interested in hearing any negative thoughts from me.

Jack finished the race in just over nine hours, a respectable time for some, but terrible for him.  Nevertheless, he took the opportunity presented by his slower pace to chat with and encourage fellow runners, and to thank the volunteers.    Somehow, he managed to run the final half mile or so, and to finish the race with a big smile on his face.  Not to say he looked good; it was easy to see how badly he had lost his battle with Pikes Peak.

He spent half an hour recovering in the tent before walking back to the car, and spent the balance of the day in the hotel room.  By eight or nine in the evening he was pretty much fully recovered and talking about next year's race.  No harm done.

It is so easy to be gracious when things go your way.  It is easy to finish strong when things go your way.  But, if you race correctly, by definition, things will not always go your way.  The true measure of a runner -- of a racer and of a man -- is how you respond when you do everything right and things still do not go your way.  I ran a great race at Pikes Peak; so did Jack.  The difference is that he had the opportunity to show the kind of runner and the kind of man that he is.  I hope that I perform half as well when I am confronted with that situation.