The Pikes Peak Marathon is an iconic mountain trail race that exemplifies most of what I love about mountain running. Sure, there are some aspects of the sport that aren’t highlighted at Pikes Peak. It isn’t particularly “technical” in that the Barr Trail is wide, easy-to-follow, and relatively smooth. (Kilian Jornet called it “flat.”) It isn’t an “ultra” distance like many top mountain trail races (Hardrock, for example, or the UTMB), meaning it doesn’t require you to run through the night and into the next morning. But it is long enough to test your endurance, and short enough to test your speed. There is a lot of sustained uphill (and downhill) running at very high altitudes. There are steeper parts and flatter parts, that test your power and your aerobic conditioning. The views are beautiful. The quality of the field is excellent; several of the world’s best mountain runners come to Colorado Springs every year for this race since it is part of the world skyrunning calendar. You don’t have to be an elite runner to do this race, but you do have to qualify to enter.
The Pikes Peak Marathon course from Manitou Springs to the summit and back
The 2013 PPM was my first since 2001. My goal was to finish in less than 7 hours, because that’s the qualifying time cutoff to enter next year’s race in Wave 1. I did achieve my goal, and I’m very happy about that. On the uphill I felt generally pretty good, but once I got above Barr Camp I didn’t have the power that I’d hoped to have, and I had to start hiking sooner than I’d expected. Even then, I managed to get to the top in 3:47, which beat 3 out of 4 of my previous ascent times.
The downhill, however, was mostly a disaster. As soon as I turned around on the summit and ran downhill for a few meters my stomach started giving me problems. With every footfall my lower abdomen actually hurt, and I wondered whether appendicitis felt like that (lucky me, never had appendicitis!). By the time I got close to Barr Camp on the downhill trip the jarring pain had been replaced by nausea. I had to stop at the Barr Camp aid station for fifteen minutes to drink and eat and grimace a lot. I thought the sub-7hr goal was slipping away, and it would have had not I been lucky enough to feel better for the run down from Barr Camp to No Name Creek and the top of the Incline. That stretch actually felt pretty good — no nausea and none of the joint or muscle pain that’s common for such a sustained downhill. I wasn’t running hard, but I managed to pass plenty of people on that stretch who I’m sure were all fighting their own pain problems of one sort or another. By the time I got to the top of the Incline I knew the sub-7 was in the bag.
Unfortunately, the trail steepens past the Incline summit and that final downhill turned into a sufferfest. I had been protecting two big heel blisters I’d picked up the week before at the Telluride Mountain Run Hill Climb, and now the balls of my feet and toes felt gangrenous and ready to fall off. The nausea had returned in full force. Any attempts to run (let alone run fast) made me feel like throwing up. I admit that the certainty that I’d finish in less than 7 hours, but over 6 hours, sapped my motivation to extract speed on that last miserable section, because what was the point? So I basically walked in that last mile, and finished in 6:43. If I had dug deep I might have finished in 6:20 or something, but at the time that difference wasn’t worth the additional pain. Wimp!
Happy to get back down to the finish
So, that’s how the race felt. Some bad, but mostly good because I’d done what I’d set out to do. Post-race, though, it’s fun to do some analysis, and try to learn as much as you can about how to get better. Hence, numbers.
Thanks to the great people at the Pikes Peak Marathon and their super-duper timing technology, I have a lot of numbers. Here are my splits for the 2013 race:
NNUp 0:56:54 0:56:54
BCUp 0:42:53 1:39:47
AFUp 0:50:40 2:30:27
Summit 1:16:57 3:47:25
AFDn 0:44:46 4:32:11
BCDn 0:47:20 5:19:31
NNDn 0:30:38 5:50:10
Finish 0:53:15 6:43:25
The first column of numbers is the time elapsed since the last time check, and the second column is the cumulative time elapsed in the race. The splits are from No Name (NN), Barr Camp (BC), and A-Frame (AF, which is at timberline).
To give you a sense of what these numbers mean, here are the splits from Dave Mackey, one of the world’s elite ultra runners who is listed as 42 years old (same as me), and who finished 6th overall:
NNUp 0:44:33 0:44:33
BCUp 0:32:41 1:17:14
AFUp 0:33:40 1:50:54
Summit 0:46:40 2:37:34
AFDn 0:22:52 3:00:27
BCDn 0:16:54 3:17:22
NNDn 0:20:46 3:38:08
Finish 0:23:51 4:01:59
You’ll immediately notice that Mackey’s times are much faster. That’s not too surprising. The interesting thing is that for some of the splits, his times are better to a much larger degree than for other splits. There are a ton of racing lessons buried in here, just waiting to be extracted and used for future races. Obviously the two big ones are that I need to run uphill faster, and I need to run downhill faster. Duh. But let’s look more closely for some more helpful, more specific lessons.
I think these splits say two big things. I need to get faster at high altitudes, and the downhill is killing me. Comparing my times up to AF and the summit with those of Mackey (way ahead) and with many of the runners that had similar times as me up to NN and BC, I pretty clearly slowed down relative to the field above Barr Camp. Of course, it might just be that I went out too hard up to NN and BC. While that’s certainly possible, that doesn’t fit with how I felt on the course. I don’t think it’s just a matter of endurance, either, since I’d been doing plenty of four-hour runs and I’d be surprised if I just ran out of gas two hours in. I’m convinced that the ticket to getting a really good time (a subjective thing, I know) in the ascent or the marathon is being fit enough to actually run the trail above the A-Frame to the summit. If I can manage to do that, my ascent time will drop like a stone.
But the downhill is really where I have the most low-hanging fruit to pluck. Run down, instead of hobble; avoid the 15-minute spell in the chair doubled over at Barr Camp, and I could take an hour off of my descent time without getting any fitter or stronger. Earlier this summer I ran down from the summit with my dog in two hours. My challenge is to feel good enough to get down in at most 2 hours during the race. It’s a doable goal, but I think it’ll take a lot more specific training than what I did this summer. Instead of one trip down from the summit I’d like to do at least 5 or 6. First, run, then think about running downhill faster.
Descending Barr Trail between the A-Frame and Barr Camp with Pele on a training run
I suspect I’m also making technical errors on downhills generally, because why else would I be suffering from such bad blisters? For this race I wore two socks on each foot, and they helped a lot (my heel blisters didn’t get any worse). So that’s a lesson learned. How to prevent ball-of-foot blisters, though, is probably in part a matter of running technique and form. I’m probably leaning back and heel striking too much. There is a strong argument for working with a coach for a few sessions to improve my technique.
Anyway, a big thank you to all the aid station volunteers (and especially those at Barr Camp!) for keeping all of us going on race day. Hopefully I’ll be able to do this race again next year with another season of training under my belt, and do it under 6 hours. Then next year, under 5. Then next year, under 4. Then next year…. OK, yeah, not so much.