The Triing Lizard

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Race Report - Pikes Peak Ascent – 2008
The anxiety over the weather conditions started the Wednesday prior to the event. Different coworkers and friends would come to my desk or email me to update me on the projected forecast for the weekend and to get my take on how that was going to impact the event. The weather forecast was mid 50s and rain in Manitou for the race start and 20 degrees at the top with storm force winds and 4” of snow expected above the treeline. Somewhat of a chance for lightning and thunderstorms throughout the day. Oh and add some freezing rain and hail into the mix. My biggest concern was what the heck I was going to wear. Not finishing the race or being turned around didn’t even cross my mind. I figured I am fast enough to make it to the top before the thunderstorms – they will hold off until 12:00. If I start at 7:30, finish in 4:30, I’ll be at the top by noon so I’ll get there before the usual thunderstorms start. So I put the thoughts of potentially not finishing to the back of my head. I settle on some tech capri pants, a long sleeve tech shirt, my paclite gore-tex jacket with hood, a headband, and some wool mittens.

Up early at 4:45, it’s raining, it’s dark. I get dressed in my full outfit and head outside to see how I’m feeling temperature wise. I get outside under the rain and I feel just right, actually a little warm but I figure if I get hot I can always take off layers. That will be a better strategy up top to have the jacket, esp with the snow prediction. But I’ll be generating a lot of heat and the water proof gore-tex will keep me dry so I should be just fine. Plus at the top my sweat check bag will be waiting for me. In that bag I packed a fleece jacket, a pair of long pants, and a new pair of socks.

I eat breakfast, fill my camelback, and throw in some food. I also put my target splits and my nutrition plan that I’ve carefully crafted in my jacket pocket for easy reference. I wake up Chris and he drives me to the race start where I jump out of the car ready to go, ready to start the race.

At this point it has started to pour down rain – and I mean HARD. I am already cold and a little wet. I look up and can’t see Pikes Peak, or even any of the foothills surrounding Pikes Peak, but they are all completely engulfed by the clouds. I am thinking to myself, I would never climb a 14er in these conditions, not with my inexperience, but I figure if everyone else is game, so am I. I am not a quitter, my parents would never let me quit anything when I was little – I’m not about to start now. I can be cold and wet but I’m GOING TO FINISH THIS THING.

Luckily the rain let up a bit for the race start. I’m actually getting warm running up to the start of Barr. I wanted to seed myself toward the front so I wouldn’t have to worry about passing too much. I see what everyone had told me about how close everyone is packed together, it is like a line all the way to Barr Camp. I am annoyed by people passing me who are breathing really really hard, there is nowhere to go because everyone is so close together and plus these people are going to end up having to slow down shortly because they are already probably anaerobic thereby slowing the whole line but I digress. I am berely breathing hard at this point because the pace is slower than I know I can go but I figure I can save some of it for above A frame when I’m really going to need the extra energy.

I am pacing a little slow to reach my goal of 4:30 but I end up making up that time on the downhills and I end up at Barr Camp in 2:19 which is a little slower than 4:30 pace (2:17) but I don’t care. At this point I am completely drenched from head to toe, my pace and nutrition plan has been completely erased by the rain and I don’t know any of the other target splits from here. My gore-tex jacket did not keep me dry at all, the rain was just soaking right through. Luckily my feet were dry and my hands were warm from my wool gloves. I am following my nutrition plan of eating every half hour and stopping to drink Gatorade at most of the aid stations.

We continue upward to Bottomless Pit, thunder every few minutes or so. I commented to someone how sad I would be if they turned us around at A frame. Though I said it I still didn’t really think it was going to happen - I was still very optimistic about the whole thing. I then start to see groups of twos and threes running down the mountain. I figure they are doublers (racers doing both the Ascent on Saturday and then the Marathon on Sunday) who had finished the Ascent but just wanted the extra miles on their legs (I don’t know why but at that point I thought it was possible). Someone asked them if they had been turned around at A frame and they said that they hadn’t but they had heard that they were planning to close down the race at A frame. I didn’t think too much of it, I figured they were cold and decided to hell with it.

Another 20 minutes passed and the trickle of two or three people coming down had turned into a stream of people all reporting that the race is closed past A frame. But no one had actually heard it from an official, it was all just rumor at this point. So I was determined to get to A frame and hear it for myself. But the trail was narrowing and the further I kept going the more I was hearing comments from everyone who was coming down telling me to turn around, that people who were trying to continue up were just in everyone’s way and were making it slower for them to get down. After 20 minutes of what felt like paddling upstream on a river with a very strong current and while being yelled at constantly I decided it wasn’t meant to be and I finally turned around and joined the line.

The journey back down was sad and slow. There were hundreds of runners all in a line trying to get down and there were still people trying to go up so our progress was slow. On my way down there was a woman with the same build as my mother (5’4”, probably 100 pounds soaking wet) who was shaking uncontrollably. Luckily there were people there helping her who sounded like they knew what they were doing. I couldn’t help out because I had no extra clothes that I could offer and I wouldn’t know how to handle hypothermia. There were two guys behind me who were trying to keep their hands from freezing – “put them in your crotch is the best method” I heard someone shout out. I don’t know how they’d manage to keep walking while holding their hands in their crotch. Interesting. We were all just frozen to the bone. Soaking cold. Shivering. Finally the line thinned out a little and I was able to run. I ran as fast as I could all the way down to Barr just thinking about the wood stove in Neil and Theresa’s house and hoping I could go in and get dried out a little before making my way to the bottom.

I arrive to a big line to get to Barr where we have to give them the bottom part of our race numbers and it turns out Neil is there taking numbers and I say hello and he commiserates with me about not being able to finish the race.

I get closer to the house and find that there is tape up so you can’t get into the house (since they were helping man the aid station) so I then realize that in order to avoid hypothermia I had better book it down to the bottom immediately. I drink some Gatorade and chat with one of the volunteers who gave me the summit report – 8” of snow, 19 degrees with strong winds, conditions were too dangerous for the volunteers up there which was why they had to shut down the race. At that point I had heard it from an official volunteer which made me feel better. I continue down the trail, glad that I have the extra body fat that I do so that I can stay warm. I also start thinking about how if they had let us up to the top that a lot more of us would have had hypothermia. Especially the racers who only had garbage bags as rain coats.

I make my way to the bottom, meet up with John who is walking and I end up chatting with him all the way down. By the end I was in some major pain and ready to be done. We get back to the bottom and stand near the tents in the rain, just longing for food and water. But we didn’t know where to go and we didn’t want to expend extra energy wandering around looking for it. So we wait. Not saying a word. Getting more and more soaked. We didn’t care. I’m looking at everyone with finishers shirts and I’m angry, disappointed, sad that the race was over, that I hadn’t finished. That I couldn’t finish. What a journey, 4 months of hard training, of getting up both Saturday and Sunday at the crack of dawn (or earlier) to climb Pikes Peak, Elbert, or to do Section 16. Running at lunch, hiking after work, trying to balance training, friends, Chris, and regular house chores. All that effort and I couldn’t even complete the race. I was stunned. Finally John’s friends (who had all finished the race) let us know that we could get a tiny Subway sandwich at city hall. We walk slowly over there and go inside where it is warm and dry. Wow, does it feel good to be inside out of the rain. But I knew Chris was coming for me so I got my food, said goodbye to John, and headed back out in the rain to wait for Chris. Chris came only a couple minutes later and I happily collapsed in the car. My race journey was over.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Since I've moved to Colorado I've started to seriously consider the whole idea of climbing all the 14ers. I think that just kind of happens when you live here and you like to do outdoorsy stuff. So I printed out a map of the Colorado 14ers and there are two with "Wilson" in their names - Wilson Peak and Mount Wilson. And the best part is that they are near Lizard Head Pass! I love it. I must climb them both. So Wilson Peak is easier, it's a class 3 climb (meaning some bouldering but you should still survive if you don't have ropes and you don't do something incredibly stupid) but Mount Wilson is a class 4 climb (meaning you best have ropes if you wish to survive). In addition neither of these mountains have trails to the summit. I got spoiled by Pikes Peak and Mt Elbert where it was so easy to get to the top! Hmm, so it sounds like I need to get some topo maps, brush up on my compass skills, and potentially learn how to climb! I better start working on my arm and leg strength!
Photos of Mount Wilson here:

This is just crazy - apparently I will be doing 53/54 14ers, Culebra can be left off the list! I am NOT paying some rich guy $100 to climb up a mountain that he has never even been up just because he owns the property! That is just wrong!

Sunday, August 10, 2008

5 days til the Pikes Peak Ascent! It's a race to the top of Pikes Peak involving almost 8000 feet of altitude gain over 13.2 miles.

My journey to get to this race started back in March when one of my coworkers, Shawn, told me that registration for the Ascent was the following day. My response was "What's the Ascent?" He described the race - it's a brutal half marathon hike/run up to the top of Pikes Peak. He didn't sugar coat his experience doing the race the year before (which wasn't the greatest, he had major blisters and his legs were done with 2 miles to go). Despite his story I knew I had to sign up, this is just the kind of challenge I crave, it makes me get out there and train, plus it would hopefully help me get back my strong, lean body that I had lost in the process of moving to Colorado. So on March 12 as soon as registration opens I'm on the website madly typing in my info, desperate for an entry. The race sold out in 30 minutes and I was IN. Oh my God, I'm really doing this.

I had let my fitness go bigtime during the transition from Maryland to Colorado. It was a really stressful and scary thing to do all by myself so I told myself that it was okay to gain weight, that I would lose it once things settled a bit. I estimate that I gained about 10 pounds and I lost a significant amount of my fitness by working out only when I felt like it. So here I am, some extra weight, berely able to run continuously for a 5K (I had been doing Jack Quinn's runs on Tuesday nights), and berely able to get through a step class at the Y without passing out from lack of oxygen. So I had 5 months to get myself back into tip top shape, lose weight, and get used to not only the altitude here in Colorado Springs, but also the altitude at 14,000 feet where there is 43% less oxygen than at sea level. Yikes, this was a lofty goal.

I followed Hal Higdon's Intermediate 1 Marathon training plan. I decided to substitute climbing 14ers for my longest "runs" at the end of the program.

On June 29th I hiked up to the top via Barr trail, same trail as on race day. Started around 7:00 AM, the first part of the hike was tough, it is steep and I wasn't warmed up. Once I got going though I found a groove and got going. I didn't push too hard, this was supposed to be an easy hike.

View of the summit as I'm on my way to Barr Camp. The pile of rocks is the summit. I'm walking up there! Today. Right now in fact.

After the 7.8 sign to the top it started to get tough. I see a guy ahead of me walking, his pace was good but a little slower than mine, I catch him, we chat for a bit, and then I decide to jog a bit because we had finally gotten to the flat part of the hike (there's only one so I gotta take advantage of it)! Then I get to the dreaded 0.5 mile to Barr Camp sign which means that the trail is going to start getting really steep and rocky, I think it's an old river bed. It's a LONG TORTUROUS half mile but the reward at the end is Barr Camp!

Barr Camp is such a welcoming sight. I take advantage of the port a pots and stop in and say hi to Neal and Theresa (Barr Camp caretakers, people can spend the night in these lean to structures there or they can stay in their house) - Theresa always remembers me, I don't know how she does it. This particular day she was helping a group of people from Ireland with their options for getting to the top. She was strongly urging them to either drive up or take the cog, that it would be a long day going to the top and then hiking back down. Hopefully they took her advise! I said hi to the guy who I had talked to on the trail, he wasn't planning on going to the top otherwise I would have offered to hike with him to the top.

Above Barr Camp the trail has some LONG switchbacks, nothing too steep yet so I'm sticking with my comfortable pace and I'm happy with how little I had so far been affected by the altitude. I'm passing people right and left here which is pretty cool and I'm following 2 girls ahead of me, I'm trying desperately to keep them within my sight. I'm excited to get to A frame (apparently there is an A frame shelter here) since I had never been on the trail from a little below A frame all the way to the top - unchartered territory - I had no idea how my body was going to react to the altitude under exertion. I was nervous and excited at the same time. I am closing in on the two girls, this is very exciting for me, I need to ask them about my hands - they are at this point swelling up like sausages and I was getting a little concerned. I pass A frame (it was just a sign for all I could see, I wasn't about to hike around searching for the shelter at this point) and then I catch the girls. One of them turns out to be a PT who specializes in hands - perfect! Both girls show me their hands and they have the same thing going on, they tell me that they normally don't wear their rings on these hikes because of this problem. Sigh of relief! My hands aren't going to explode - that is good news! :)

I hike with them for 10 minutes or so, they have done the Pikes Peak Ascent in previous years and loved it, today they were just doing an easy hike. I start to not be able to breathe and I have to slow down. They keep going their same pace as if it was no effort at all. I stop, drink a bunch of water, eat some food, and just prop mysef up against a rock. I watch them as they get farther and farther ahead of me. No chance of catching them again. I start hiking again and the nausea sets in. I feel like I'm about to puke at any moment. I press on, just concentrating on moving myself forward, careful with my feet placement, and careful to not topple over down the pile of rocks. I have to stop periodically and just sit down. This is brutal. The top looks so far away still.
After a lot more trudging I reach the 1 mile to the top sign! Only 1 mile to go, excellent! I can do this. How long can 1 mile take me, couldn't be more than 20 minutes or so. But at this point my legs are really starting to get tired and the nausea is getting worse. Then I hit the sign for the 16 golden stairs. This part of the trail is basically a bunch of rock stairs leading closer to the top and then you still have to get through tons and tons of switchbacks. The top STILL looks really far away. So I rest against yet another rock (luckily there is no shortage of rocks up here) and a woman is heading down the trail and asks me how I'm doing. I tell her about the nausea, about the Ascent, blah, blah, blah, I think I thought she had endless amounts of time to hear about all of my problems. Then she asked me how I was getting down and I said I had no idea, I was planning to shower in the bathrooms at the top, try to find some tourists who didn't look like kidnappers, and beg them to allow a stinky exhausted hiker to ride down in their car with them (or on top of the car, I didn't care). Back up plan #1 was to try to take the cog railway down. Back up plan #2 was to attempt to walk back down. I had no idea really. I couldn't think with the lack of oxygen and the nausea. She told me that she had 4 people in her car but that she could take one more and I just about gave her a hug on the spot! She said she wasn't entirely sure she could take me though b/c one of the other people who was riding with her might have offered the spot to someone already - that they were on their way up from the bottom, she had driven their car up to the top to meet them. She was on her way down to meet them and hike the rest of the way back up with them. I was so excited that I might not have to beg for a ride, what good luck!! So we exchange names and I tell her that I'll meet her at the top, I'll be passed out somewhere inside.

I press on, I take it one switchback at a time, resting A LOT. That last mile took me 45 minutes, not exactly the 20 minutes that I had planned. :)

The top!! Check out those storm clouds coming in, hiking down might not be the most pleasant (or safe) option!! I've been told that you should try to get off of 14ers by noon and it was already past noon. I needed to come up with a plan fast.

I go inside, eat some freshly made donuts (I figure there is no way I could eat the same number of calories as I burned today so what the hell), and started scoping out people. The harley dudes are a NO, the couple with the million kids is a no, they probably won't have room for me, the other people that look like hikers are probably a no. Hmm, I better go find the woman who offered me a ride, she may be my only option.

Sheer happiness and exhaustion. I am thinking to myself - I just finished my first 14er!!!

I find the woman who I met on the trail, I can't remember her name right now! She has Doritos, gummi bears, sodas, and all kinds of stuff in the car! It was fantastic! I met everyone else, they were all ultra runners who were super cool. We had a really fun ride back down, I was sandwiched in the middle in the back seat but I didn't care, I was so grateful to be sitting down and resting. We regaled tales of past races and upcoming races, put in bets on the car's brake temperature (I won!), we all got along really well. I couldn't have asked for a better group to be with. Hopefully I'll meet up with this group again at some point! They dropped me off at my car, I offered money for the ride but they wouldn't accept it - they just said that if I drive up sometime that I should offer someone a ride back down - kind of a pay it forward type of deal. Turns out a few weeks later I would be doing something very similar, helping out another fellow hiker on Mount Elbert. All in all, my first 14er was a great experience, I enjoyed every second of it! Next time I do this hike, I will be racing it!