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.

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