I have just returned from a racing tour in Europe – Slovenia, France, Italy – taking in places where mountain running is an extremely popular sport. It’s where spectators are highly knowledgeable and highly passionate about the competitions. Where race history is long and every village you run though erupts like a giant party with the noise of cow bells and screaming spectators. Where the courses induce maximum levels of lactic acid and the technical downhills rattle your teeth out of their sockets. If you’ve experienced a mountain running race in Europe, you’ll know what I am referring to.
There is nothing like this in the US. We just don’t have the atmosphere and history at our races, as they are too recent. Us Americans care more about overpaid ball sports like football, basketball and baseball where big men smash into each other and where only a fraction of the game actually has any activity. And apple pie, we love our apple pie!
But wait a minute… what starts at 6,300ft (1,920m) above sea level and climbs to within a few feet of a lung bursting, mind numbing 14,115ft (4,302m)? What gains 7,815ft (2,382m) one day and then gains and loses that same amount the next day? What has been around for 61 years and has the honor of hosting the first woman in history to participate and finish a marathon (yes, even before the Boston Marathon)? And what has been known to devour some participants and send them to the medical tent for a dose of oxygen? Well, it’s a little race we here in Colorado call the Pikes Peak Ascent & Marathon. That’s what!
Pikes Peak: America the Beautiful
Not so little, actually, the Pikes Peak Ascent & Marathon has a deep history in mountain running on what is referred to as “America’s Mountain”, Pikes Peak. It is the location that inspired America’s most popular patriot song, “America the Beautiful”, when in 1893 Katharine Lee Bates was so awed by the location that the words for the poem came to her high atop the mountain.
A trailblazer for women in sport
It is also the race where, in 1959, Arlene Pieper became the first women to run and officially finish a marathon in the US, eight years before Katherine Switzer and seven years before Bobbi Gibb finished the Boston Marathon. Arlene completed the Pikes Peak Marathon in 9 hours 16 minutes, but the time is not important, it is the perseverance and the historical significance that is important. Plus, there is no comparison when it comes to course difficulty between the Pikes Peak Marathon and the Boston Marathon. Not only is Arlene a trailblazer for women in mountain running, but a literal trailblazer for women in sports. That is your women in mountain running history lesson of the day, kids!
10,000ft high – and you’re still not even half way up the ascent!
And let’s just talk about altitude for a second. The races start at 6,300ft (1,920m) of elevation in downtown Manitou Springs. That is quite the elevation to begin with and even surpasses the highest point in the Northeast of America, Mt. Washington. The altitude accumulates quickly in the first few miles of the race and you even get some downhill sections on the way up. If the altitude gain has not gotten to you yet, just wait, it gets better!
It is at about 10,000ft where you notice that any sort of mild effort, like climbing stairs or breaking into an easy run, becomes a huge effort. And that is not even the halfway point of the Ascent! Barr Camp, situated at 10,200ft (3,109m), is the current home of our good friend and neighbor, Zach ‘Banana Boy’ Miller (2015 CCC Champion, 2015 The North Face Endurance Challenge 50-Mile Champion, 2015 Madeira Island Ultra Trail Champion… are you seeing the pattern?) Then after another three miles, you arrive at treeline, 11,950ft (3,642m) above sea level. At this point, you begin to feel very woozy and the body feels very heavy, sort of like a gorilla just jumped on your back.
Lips turn blue and fingers tingle from the lack of oxygen
From here, there are three miles to go and, let me tell you, it feels like the longest three miles of your life! With two miles to go, your vision begins to get blurry and you have the sensation of running underwater. Your lips begin to turn blue and the tips of your fingers tingle from the lack of oxygen.
In the last mile, you encounter the most technical section of the entire race, lovingly named the 16 Golden Stairs, because of the very tight switchbacks containing steep rock steps that shine like gold in the sunlight. Or maybe it’s just the lack of oxygen to your brain that makes you think that? Your brain can play some funny tricks on you during the last five minutes of the race, like telling you that one minute feels like 10 minutes and exclaiming, ‘why are all these rocks trying to trip me!!??’ You have to remind yourself to pick up your feet because those rocks really want to make contact with your face!
Then, one more switchback…. one more turn …then another turn…and another…….. and another. WTF!? OK, there is the finish line just this last big rock to jump onto… if your muscles are still listening to your brain. ‘That might be the most difficult thing I have ever done in my life!’ has come out of quite a few mouths on the top of Pikes Peak at 14,115ft (4,302m). The finish line, finally…. well for those racing the 13.32-mile Ascent race on the Saturday it is. The marathon runners on the Sunday turn here and race back down to Manitou Springs!
If you’ve finished the Ascent, you turn around and witness this…..
….. and it is all worth it. And immediately you break into song:
America the Beautiful
O beautiful for spacious skies,
For amber waves of grain,
For purple mountain majesties
Above the fruited plain!
God shed His grace on thee
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea!
Celebrating Colorado’s incredible running legacy
Last year, before the 60th running of the Pikes Peak Ascent & Marathon, the ‘Run Fest’ was added as a way to celebrate the region’s incredible running legacy. Who doesn’t like a big party for someone that has lived this long!? So once again this year some of the world’s best mountain runners with rub shoulders with the middle of the pack runners and the general public. Arlene Pieper will also make a guest appearance and tell stories of her historic journey that happened 57 years ago.
The perfect trail running shoes for the Pikes Peak Ascent & Marathon
On Saturday, I will be breaking out the new TrailTalon 250 to climb Pikes Peak in the Ascent, then I will come back on Sunday (valiantly or stupidly) and do it all again, but this time I will turn around and run back down the mountain in the Marathon.
I will keep in my woozy mind that I am part of an amazing 61 years of rich history that includes some other the most passionate spectators, volunteers and fans, all alongside some of the most talented mountain runners in the world. Oh, and I can guarantee you there will be cow bells! After all, I didn’t need to travel across the Atlantic Ocean when I could have just stepped out of my front door and taken in the Purple Mountain Majesties!