Pikes Peak Marathon Review


Pikes Peak Marathon is branded as America's Ultimate Challenge. I ran it on Sunday and I think they are way too kind. Based on my experience, it should have been called America's Ultimate Suffer-Fest. I’ve run races in Minneapolis in December, races in Dallas in August, I ran the Twin Cities Marathon in 2007 (which was on same day that the Chicago Marathon was cancelled due to heat — and it was even hotter at TCM) and I’ve done 3 Ironman distance tri's. And I’ve have to say, Pikes Peak was the most difficult race I’ve ever run.

In a nutshell: the race starts at 6,300 ft, climbs non-stop for 13.1 miles to the summit at 14,115 ft, and then comes back down the same route. The weather at the summit can be fickle (as in, it has snowed in previous years). There is a great documentary video here and a very good "pace" estimator here.

If I were to run this again — and it's a big IF — I'd plan to do a heck of a lot more hill training and trail running. And I’d practice 

I believed that I was reasonable fit going into the race. I'd completed the Roth Triathlon six weeks earlier with a marathon time of 4:16. Since the tri, I'd done several tough hill workouts — including some decent distances: a 10 miler and a 14 miler — and an hour long treadmill run at maximum incline all at a respectable pace. And I’d had some experience racing at altitude (I’d run the Boulder Ironman a couple of years ago and didn’t find it to be particularly more difficult than my training in Dallas).

So, in theory, I should have been okay. In practice, my Pikes Peak marathon experience was a very …  LONG … day in a pain-cave. Admittedly it was a pain-cave with a very nice view, but it was still a pain-cave.

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The view from the pain-cave...

I ran Pikes Peak with fellow Dallas runner JP (of Peak2Brew fame). JP has done Pikes Peak a couple of times before including a “double”. (Doublers run the half-marathon Ascent on Saturday and then run the full marathon on Sunday.) Oddly, JP likes running Pikes Peak* and had offered to run it again if I signed up.

*This says all you need to know about JP.

The race started in the town of Manitou Springs, CO at 7:00 AM about a half and hour after dawn. It was about 60F at the start, no wind to speak of, and sunny. We couldn't have asked for nicer weather. The start had an informal atmosphere. A couple previous Pikes Peak winners were there to wish us luck and the race director invited people to come up and have their pictures taken with them under the start banner. The race starts in waves.

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At the start… A windbreaker around my waist (just in case) and cycling gloves to protect my hands from the inevitable fall.

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JP in thoughtful contemplation before the start of the race.

To qualify for Pikes Peak Marathon you have provide proof that you ran a marathon in less than six hours. (There are other ways to qualify, but let's stick with this one for now.) That is not a terribly difficult achievement. For example, of the 40,557 people who finished the Chicago Marathon last year 37,227 people ran it in 6 hours or less. In other words, better than 9 out of 10 people who finished Chicago in 2016 would have qualified to run Pikes Peak Marathon.

But supplying an official qualifying time has a bonus. The Race Director is able to place you in a starting wave based on your qualification time. There are 100 people per wave and each wave starts 1 minute after the previous wave. It doesn't seem like much, but the mechanics work well to prevent congestion on the trail (which is often only one person wide). I was in wave 5 (bib number 507) and started at 7:05. JP was in wave 3.

The race starts uphill (of course) on Ruxton Avenue for about a mile and then switches over to trail running. I had been tapering for a week prior to the race. My last runs were an easy 4 mile hill run on Thursday and a 5 mile recovery run on Friday. But despite that, my legs felt heavy on Sunday right from the start. I chalked it up to the altitude (Manitou Springs — the start of the race — is over a mile high) and pushed on at a very moderate pace. I stayed with the crowd and certainly wasn't sprinting to get out in front.

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The beginning of the trail.

I averaged about a 10:00 min/mile pace for the first mile and switched over to walking as soon as we went off road. JP had told me that Pikes Peak Marathon is more of a power-walk, than a run. I had hoped that I was going to maintain a run for at least the first few miles (based on my previous hill work), but apparently a power-walk it was going to be.

The average incline for the entire ascent is 11% and the two steepest portions are near the beginning (in the W’s) and at the summit. The race reports I’d read stressed the importance of not pushing hard through the W’s and burning out a mere 3 miles into the race. I was content following the people in front of me.

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In the W’s. The trail is wide although for a single person to run (or walk) comfortably, but you could squeeze past if you tried.

Because the trail is often only one person wide, runners call out to the person in front of them to announce that they’re passing. When someone wanted to pass me, I happily stood to the side and let them by. Occasionally, I’d pass the person in front of me if he or she was going much slower than I wanted to. But for the most part, I just was a contented participant in the conga-line walking up the trail.

I’d predicted my ascent time based on advice from the Pikes Peak Marathon website: your flatland marathon time + 30 minutes. My marathon PR is 3:30ish and my Roth marathon time was 4:16 (you know, after a 2.4 mile swim and a 112 mile bike ride) so I guesstimated a 4 hour marathon and thus a 4:30 ascent time. I’d printed out “splits” from Skyrunner and taped them to my water bottle. I was on pace for the first 4 check points and then lost 6 minutes by the fifth one and 10 more minutes for the sixth one: Barr Camp.

And then the wheels came off the bus. 

Barr Camp is 7.6 miles into the race and over 10,000 ft in elevation. It was less than 2 1/2 hours into the race but the elevation was starting to affect me. With only 5.5 miles to the summit I still had hopes of reaching it on pace. (C’mon — 5 miles at a slower than 20 minute per mile pace? It should have been trivial, right? Nope.)

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I was in a conga line behind this woman (in orange) for several miles. Pikes Peak was her 100th marathon!

I’d heard that the real challenge came above the tree line at the A-Frame aid station about 3 miles from the peak. The altitude there is about 12,000 ft and there is a serious lack of oxygen for us flat-landers.

Once I left Barr Camp I was stopping frequently and resting for a minute to catch my breath and let my heart slow down. All the runners are in tune with everyone on the slope and invariably I was asked multiple times, “Are you okay?” The real problem was that I was feeling a bit lightheaded and dizzy.  The trail was rocky and mildly challenging. I had to watch my step carefully to avoid tripping. If I let my attention slip (by drinking from my water bottle or looking at the scenery) I’d stagger slightly left or right. I found it almost impossible to walk a straight line.

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Above the tree line. The footing on the trail isn’t treacherous by any means, but you do need to pay attention. 

About this time, the first down hill runners started showing up. Down-hillers have the right of way and people up slope would call out “runner!” to give the ascenders time to move out of the way. I used these opportunities to pause and lean against a rock. At first, the down-hillers were far and few between but after a while they became a steady stream.

Once we got above the tree line I noticed a faint “tweet!” every now and then. It sounded like a cheap whistle from a cracker jack box. I figured that someone was using a whistle to announce the down hill runners instead of calling out “runner”. It wasn’t terribly effective (in my opinion), but I supposed it saved a little energy. But the weird thing was that I kept hearing it from all over. Could more than one runner have the same cheap whistle?


A Pikes Peak Pika

When I got to the bottom JP told me that I’d been hearing the pikas that live on the mountain; they make that whistling sound. I never saw any pikas, but I did see several chipmunks. The chipmunks would dart across the trail and stop just out of arms reach and watch me. Apparently, they weren’t afraid of anyone doing the zombie shuffle.

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The chipmunks I saw were quite a bit fatter and they had a bad attitude. Just sayin'

My last three miles of the ascent were at a 28, 30, and 27 minute mile pace. I was passed frequently and happily. I was no longer trying to meet any goal other than finishing.

I kept my eye out for JP and saw him above me on the Golden Staircase coming back down. I moved to the side, grabbed my phone, and captured this video. Watch his footing as he comes towards me. That’s exactly the Pikes Peak stagger that I was using by then.

JP in a banana costume coming back from the summit of Pikes Peak.

I made it to the summit shortly after that (5h 10m).

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The summit!

The temps at the summit were in the mid 50’s and the wind was mild. No rain, no hail, no snow, no lightning. We couldn’t have asked for better. I rested for a few minutes and then started the trek back down.

A couple of race reports that I’d read said that you should expect to feel better immediately after heading back down. I was fully expecting to put it in fast gear. I only needed a half minute rest on the way up to feel substantially better after all. And, with every step you take, you’re at lower altitude. (Newsflash: oxygen is good.)

And while I did feel better I didn’t feel good. I was still slightly dizzy and I just couldn’t trust myself to pick up my feet over the stones and not face-plant on the rocks. I stubbed my toes many times on the ascent and descent nearly going off balance on occasions too numerous to count. I assumed I’d feel great as soon as I hit the tree line. Until then I was just going to concentrate on not falling down.

I continued to get passed on the way down. By the time I’d descended a mile or two, there were no more runners coming up the trail. It was clear that I was at the tail end of the marathon.  Normally I’m a bit competitive. (Heh.)  I typically finish in the top 25% of my races and in smaller races I may even place in my age group. Pikes Peak was different. This time it was “whatever”. I just wanted to finish.

I made it all the way down to Barr Camp before I felt my head was on straight. If the path was smooth and if there was room in front of me, I’d run for a bit. As soon as there were rocks or roots to navigate I dropped back to a walk. Many times the people in front of me offered to let me pass but I knew as soon as I picked up my pace I’d trip and fall. 

(Which is what happened to one person who chaffed at being stuck behind us. As soon as it became obvious we weren’t going to go any faster and as soon he could squeeze past us, he called “runner passing”. We stopped to the side, he ran past us, and … as soon as he got 50 ft in front of us he went down. We caught up and asked if he was okay. He wasn’t bleeding and he waved us on but he was moaning loud and long. I suspect he clipped his shin or knee hard against a rock.)

Reaching Barr Camp seemed like a big achievement coming up the mountain and I was stunned when I did the math on the way back: I had 7 more miles to go! I’d already been running for 7 hours and 12 minutes. This was no longer any fun. I grabbed some M&M’s and some gatorade and shuffled forward.

(In hindsight I fueled very poorly for the race. I was focused on the 4 1/2 ascent and basically forgot to factor in the time on the descent. I had one gel on the way up and I figured I’d eat at the aid stations. I grabbed M&Ms a couple of times but I probably had the equivalent of one normal size package all told. The poor fueling and the altitude were probably the two biggest factors in my suffer-fest.)

I was amazed to find out how hard it is to walk/run downhill. Sure, I know it’s tough on your quads, blah blah blah. Living it was much different than I thought it would be. I had been so happy when I got to the top of the mountain and I could finally start going down hill. Now, a couple of hours later, I hated going down hill.

I tried running more often — not because I was feeling better but because I just didn’t want to be on the course any more. I wanted it to be over. I was ridiculously over my estimated time. My legs hurt. My arches ached. At one point my eyes got dry and they hurt. I just … wanted … to … sit … down … and … stop.

(You’d think there would have been a bench somewhere on the trail in a frikkin’ national park. Trust me, I looked. No benches.)

Around mile 21ish, I caught up with a guy in a banana costume. It was JP. He wasn’t having fun anymore either. He’d been training for the Telluride 100 Mountain Bike Race which he’d raced couple of weeks before and had neglected his running. Now he was paying the price.

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Look Ma! No common sense!

We walked and ran occasionally. At some point we realized that if we wanted to finish before 9 hours we’d have to pick up the pace a bit. And we immediately came to the conclusion that it just wasn’t worth it. We’d get the same finisher shirt and medal for coming in at 8 hours 59 minutes as 9 hours 29 minutes. Why bother?

And then we mused that we were actually smarter than everyone else. They were all trying to get off the mountain as quickly as they could while we were getting the most value for our money. We snickered at the poor foolish people who passed us. They were so misguided.

Around mile 25.5 some spectators cheered as we marched down the hill into Manitou Springs. They had seen us on the way up and had bet that the banana costumes we were wearing wouldn’t last the marathon. They were surprised to see us come off the mountain wearing them and offered us a congratulatory can of microbrewed beer. It would have been rude not to accept so we gladly took them.

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Beer in hand, we discussed how far away from the finish line should we be before we start running so it looked natural on the finishing photo? 50 feet? 100 feet? I think it was JP who had the epiphany: let’s walk across. We both know that we didn’t run down the mountain. Who do we think we’d be fooling? The photographer? He doesn’t care. And we could spill our beer… 

I had started 2 minutes later than JP (wave 5 versus wave 3) so if we crossed the finish line at the same time, I’d actually have the faster finish time. I offered to hang back for two minutes. JP snorted at me. He wasn’t going to be printing off the finishing times and have them laminated to a walnut plaque any time soon.

So we sauntered across the finish line, banana costumes proudly on display, and beers in hand.

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The “saunter” courtesy of MarathonFoto

I finished in the ludicrous time of 9hrs 11min.

What’s With the Banana Costume?

Several years ago, JP ran his first Spartan race. The race happened to fall on Halloween, but the instructions on the website said that a Spartan race is a serious thing and runners should not wear costumes. So naturally, JP wore a costume. 

He was a giant yellow banana with maracas. At one point, a woman stopped JP while he was running and asked if he’d sing the peanut butter and jelly song for her. Of course, he did. The next year he ran the same race with the same costume and lots of people shouted out: “Hey, it’s the banana guy!”. One man told him that he had a friend with a disability who ran the race the previous year and how uplifted she was when JP had stopped to sing the peanut butter and jelly song to her. Which is pretty awesome.

When we signed up for the Ragnar Trail Hill Country relay race I was inspired by JP’s tale and named our team, “Go Bananas!” .

I happened to host our pre-Ragnar race meeting a week before Pikes Peak. JP is on the relay team. We decided it would be a really good idea to wear banana costumes during the Pikes Peak Marathon. (In my defense, beer was involved and I had been left unsupervised.)

 © Phil Miller 2014, 2015, 2016