2011 Race 9: The Pike's Peak Ascent

The first wave of runners, the fast ones, have gone, thirty minutes before. As the serpentine line for the porta potty evaporates and we gulp one last shot of water from the aid table, the start area fills with the second wave of runners.

In the crowd are experienced trail runners, triathletes, mountain air addicts, relative newbies, people doing their 20th Ascents, people doing their first. We chat and find our spots in the pack and look up through sleepy Manitou Springs, up up up to the Peak so far away. I meet Jonica, a triathlete doing her first Ascent. I meet John, a Barr Trail native who's done the Ascent many times. The vibe is friendly and mellow and unselfish and eager with a thousand people ready to do their best.

The race director welcomes us. America The Beautiful wafts over and through us. I am a big softie, and that song always chokes me up. (So does "Oklahoma." Seriously. Now you know my embarrassing secret.)

Three two one go!

The air is still cool but the sun is bright and the lower half of the trail is going to be hot, in the 80s. Feels pretty good to me as I have been running 4-5 hour trail runs in the 90 degree Kansas heat with 85% humidity. I start out at a super slow warmup pace, Matt Carpenter's words ringing in my ears. (Matt Carpenter, short version: GO SLOW.)

For those who don't know, Matt Carpenter is the champion of Barr Trail in more ways than one. He champions trail running, the Pike's Peak races, and has been the champion of them many times. I can't improve on his course description. If you are running the Ascent for the first time, knowing that course description may save you a lot of uncomfortable mental hijinks. It was wonderful to have some feel for where I was on the trail and what was to come, and that description is on the money.

Just after the start, I tuck in behind a woman in a KU tank top, a little Jayhawk emblazoned on the back. I have a hunch. "Hey Jayhawk!" I call out. The woman looks around. "Are you Julie?" I say. "Are you Ann?" she says. We'd traded e-mails back in the summer. We'd never met. And here we were. Julie-from-Kansas was significantly faster than I was. She rocked.

We run up Manitou, hook around the roundabout, and start up Ruxton. N. is photographing the field. He yells as loud as he can, "GO ANN!" just at the point where we are all about to start hiking. I am already tickled by the whole day and I don't know why but this just ices the cake. I try not to use energy laughing but I feel like I have helium in my lungs.

The road starts going up and up and up. Legs aren't warmed up, and this is the steepest hill, so we hurt. We hike. We are now a pack of hikers. What it reminds me of is when I watched fourth of July fireworks for the Statue of Liberty's 200th anniversary in New York City. A million people were packed into a small space to watch the display and when it was over, a million people turned as one and all tried to get into the nearest subway. Like that, only with beautiful woods around and gorgeous dirt underfoot.

How can dirt be gorgeous? I am in love with Barr Trail. When it is smooth it is soft underfoot, finely chipped gravel or packed dirt, a soothing palette of pink or gray or peach or brown. When it is rocky the rocks are inviting, eroded into smooth round shapes but with grippy surfaces. Someone has looked after Barr Trail. It is not rutted or pitted and it wants feet on it.

We are hiking in our big heaving animal pack, surging up the trail. I fall in behind Carrie, a woman in her early 60s who introduced herself earlier as the pack was funnelling from road onto dirt. She is a Barr Trail veteran and would run the marathon the next day. "Hey Carrie, do you mind if I pace with you?" This was fine with her and I was delighted. She knew every rock and since the view was mostly of the feet of the person in front of you it was helpful to be behind someone who knew instinctively where to put their feet, and who also was cheerful company. Carrie and I would be together for the first hour or so. Then I would unwisely surge ahead, and she would pass me at the halfway point and beat me up the mountain by an hour.

I know. It is going to take forever to tell the story going at it like this with all the tangents. But that is how it was. It wasn't like a race where you have tunnel vision toward the finish line and you are only sort of aware of the people around you. This race is everything around you and in you and a sensory swirl, plus the people around you.

Because if you are hiking-to-running at a three to four mile per hour pace, you are going to get to know the people who are ascending at the same pace. They are your peer group. Your graduating class. You are going to recognize their running styles, their voices. They are going to push your pace a bit from behind; you are going to follow them. They will do the same for you. If you stop and they leapfrog you, they will ask if you are OK and you will exchange encouraging words. You will do the same for them. You will want each other to be having the time of your lives.

You know who else will want that? The spectators who hiked early up into the Ws. The mountain biker boys who line the trail and high five everybody and tell you how bad ass you are. And above all, the volunteers, twenty to an aid station it seems for the amount of noise and encouragement and sustenance and smiles they give. I would rather have the heartfelt support of the 100 or so people up and down Barr Trail than any packed and cheering but anonymous 5K course.

But wait, when are you going to tell about the race? OK. Here we are.

We funnelled into the dirt and up the Ws. The trail would widen a bit, then narrow a bit. At switchbacks I could look down through the scrub and trees into the steepness, down, down, dark. Feet in front of me. Feet behind me. Getting a feel for the rocks. Getting a feel for the fast hike. Glad there are barriers. Don't look down off the side of the trail. Breathing fine. Legs loosening. Feet feeling grateful for the dirt and the Pace Gloves. No pain.

(By the way, good people at Merrell — at mile 5 a woman passed me and chirped out: "WOW! Cute SHOES!")

A few people come down the trail our way. "Medicals," says Carrie. She's seen it before. A few runners come our way as well. "Gym rats," says Carrie. These are the people who run the miles of stairs of the Manitou Incline up the mountain, then loop down on the trail. I don't realize it yet but they have canceled the descent for today because of storms that may brew. We will not be making way for oncoming runners. On the other hand, we won't get to see the marvel of those fast folks bounding down the mountain, which would be fun to see.

At the second aid station I had been going hard for an hour and change, and was ready to grab food. But as soon as the minipretzels hit my throat I knew I was going to have to force myself to eat. I ripped open a gel and ate it and drank some water. On we go.

We were past the end of the Ws before I realized it. "That's way back," says Carrie. "We're halfway from there to No Name Creek." Really?? One super tough section done? We clamber up and over bigger rocks. The views open out onto the valley, over dark green trees, with a deep blue sky soaring all around us and birds soaring in it. Little purple flowers bloom in the rocks at trailside. We clamber with quads and core and everything we have gotten ready for this.

We run down little sections that don't go up. I see John from the start line. He tells me I am doing great. I tell him he sounds strong. Up we go, the pack beginning to string out, able to see yards of trail without feet on them, and under the rock arch and to No Name Creek. On this uphill I burn a match.

If you don't know what burning matches means: it means through effort, using up some of your capacity to manage fatigue. I have never before so distinctly felt myself burning a match. It happened when I powered fast up short steep sections or held a slightly fast pace up sections that were longer than I anticipated. It would honestly feel like I had burned something up in me that was now just smoking ash, that I could not get back. At No Name Creek, I am ahead of my projected splits for a 5:45 ascent but not so much that I worry.

However, I am beginning to feel the altitude. I pull aside at the switchback and talk to the El Paso County Search and Rescue guy. He teaches me the rescue breathing technique of breathing out through pursed lips so you suck in more O2. This works. And nice to find out, when I start up again, my legs feel all freshened up. Wow.

That's a good thing because now it is just relentless up up up up up. This is when it really sinks in that I am going to be going up like this for at least three more hours. That there will be scant relief from the pain. It is just going to hurt.

And yet it is the most beautiful place and the most amazing feeling. I am simply numb with effort and my feet are still moving on this luscious dirt and rock. The trail is heavy and thick with trees and it is like running inside origami. Because of the uphill grade, even the hike feels like running. This is not a walk. It is a weird slow run. Then hey!

Hey! Downhill! Woooooooo hoooooooo! I watch as the people in front of me begin to shuffle run, as though they can't believe it is happening, then pick up pace, as I do the same. Yes! This section of 5% grade is like flying! And then it ends and we go back to the relentless up up up up up.

I stop at Barr Camp, which is halfway up in terms of both elevation and distance, to send N. a text. If he hasn't already, he might want to start his drive up to Devil's Playground and shuttle to the top. He texts back: "Cool! Keep it up!" I don't get his text but I assume the sentiment anyway. I have been on the trail for 2.5 hours. This is faster than I thought. I do not know whether I have been going too fast. I don't know what I'm capable of. The rescue breathing has helped. And now it's time for the secret weapon.

After a Larabar and a gel and some deep slugs of water, I unwrap a coca tea bag and stuff it between cheek and gum like a tobacco wad. I wet it down with water. I suck on the coca tea for the next hour until the bag disintegrates. IT WORKS.

My pal Sandra had told me, "On our dig in Central America, they had us drink coca tea before we went up the mountain. Nobody had a problem with altitude." My co-worker Paco: "Yeah, we use coca tea when we go up in the Andes." My co-worker Alejandra: "Here, I have some coca tea. Take a handful of tea bags. You want more? Take some more."

I am giving Sandra and Paco credit but I brought Alex back a present. Alex, you made my day. No headache. No nausea. No dizziness. All of the oxygen got sucked out of my leg muscles and diverted to heart and brain, but OK. It is what it is, and it's not falling off the side of a mountain in a hypoxic hallucinatory state.

Once again, Matt Carpenter is right. The next section of the course is mentally very tough. If I thought it was relentless before... now it is just upstride after upstride, ache after ache, and I feel myself burn through another match but there is no stopping. Except I do stop to rest. And find that I have no trouble getting moving again. It is like the ashes of that burned match have to get blown away and then my legs find what they need. This is heartening.

The big rocks are everything now, with bits of trail between. Keep going. Keep going. Why did I do this? Why did I want to do this? Dear God, I will never do this again. My legs sting. It is a special pain. It is like frostbite from the inside out. It is like my legs are turning into something other than meat and tendon. Pulverized plant pulp maybe. I do not understand how they are still working. It sort of cracks me up. I don't want them to keep working! Why don't they stop? I don't want to do this anymore! This is fantastic and I wish I could actually run Barr Trail — it would be such a fun trail to really run! The whole thing is surreal and I am moving as fast as I can through the folded green of trees. The pocked surface of rounded boulders says to my feet, "Come here, you."

Some kind of bird keeps chattering overhead. It sounds like a child's squeaky rattle toy. Because of the warm day it is humid and stifling inside the forest and I watch for my water, which has to last me between aid stations. There is no way to drink enough water.

The trail winds and ducks in and out of trees ahead, and it is a good thing we can see only the steepness immediately ahead of us because we might weep. We are far up a mountain now. My peer group, the Pike's Peak Graduating Class of Five to Six Hours, surges and swells around me, now ahead, now behind. We give each other whatever positive vibe we can, if it is only an understanding look or a half smile.

And I start to understand that as bad as it hurts, there is more to learn and more to experience yet and that as much as I have just learned about my body and what the previous five months have meant to it, I am about to learn something completely different. The trail is about to totally change. This makes me happy.

As I get to the A-Frame, my spirits lift. I am behind my splits now but well ahead of the cut-offs. And at this point I know, even with treeline ahead, that my legs have everything they need. My core is strong and can carry me up and up and up and up some more. Even with my back hurting because I am pack-muling all my supplies around my waist, which I am not used to doing, the muscles oblige me and let me stretch them out. Three miles to go, and soon we will exit the trees. We arrive at the last aid station under the canopy.

They are almost out of water. No. No. Poor volunteers! Poor us! But we are tough! We can do this as we need! The volunteers put three cups of water in my bottle. "You can fill it at the next aid station," they say, "Plenty of water there!" I stuff the second coca tea bag in my jaw and give it a tiny swish of water.

It will be a long way.

Remember how I said it was like running inside origami? At the end of the trees, at treeline, it is like you step out onto the outside of the origami. And it starts unfolding under your feet. And it unfolds and unfolds and you are UP, and it unfolds bigger and bigger until the planet is just sort of under you, way down there, and you are so far up there is no more sky, just a sort of empty clear soup that the clouds swirl and gather in. You are running on the outside of the folds. You see the mountain. Your feet feel the connection. Everything you see you also feel underfoot. You are as heavy as a rock and as high as a bird.

You see the whole thing. You see down into the forest and across to the other mountains and up the winding trail, and tiny dots of people impossibly high above you moving at an unreal angle to horizontal, and you are to go there though it blows your mind that this will happen.

I loved everything above treeline. The day was warm but the wind picked up and if you are from the midwest you know how to eat the wind. I moved slower and slower but could not tell; for the most part it felt smooth and controlled. I was happy for the rock step ups and boosting off them. I was happy for the level trail and the chipped gravel that wasn't slippery underfoot. I could see so far in every direction! I ate a gel and a couple of pieces of candied ginger.

My legs had almost nothing left. I told myself to let the matches burn slowly. I wanted only one left when I got to the 16 Golden Stairs. At the Cirque aid station I refilled my bottle with welcome cold water. All I wanted now was water and to find any strength at all in my legs. My legs had started shaking. I would stop to rest, and they would come back refreshed.

And the clouds swirling in go dark. Thunder booms over the mountain. A sizzling white bolt of lightning streaks from the clouds to the mountain. OH SHIT. We are too far up for them to find us and send us down. The whole side of the mountain sends up a gasp. You can hear every runner say it. Oooooooooh. And then the storm curls away around the mountain like a big cat that isn't hungry.

As I ascended and my legs could not work any harder, my heart rate was dropping. It had been fairly steady between 145 and 155 beats per minute and now was hovering around 138. Good. I wasn't getting everything out of my muscles, but they weren't getting any O2. Fair's fair. At least I wasn't going to explode.

And then, just before two miles to go: Vertigo. Barr Trail is not unsafe by any means. It is broad enough and level and there is absolutely no reason a person might go staggering crosswise and plummet down the mountain. But there are places where this could happen. All along the trail, there are places where a bad step could turn into a really long bad step. You have to pay attention.

And if you are prone to vertigo, there are places where the correct footing takes the angle of descent directly into your field of vision. It is best to know this. It is best to be prepared. Don't let it scare you away. You can manage. I kept moving forward. Partly because I knew if I got vertigo paralysis I really might not start again. Partly because there were people behind me and as a too-politely raised midwestern girl I did not want to inconvenience others. Partly because I did not come this far to half-ass anything. Find the footing. Boost up. On we go.

But my legs were shaking after every time I looked down and this made the going a little slower. Particularly when there were tricky step-ups to manage, like the gigantic one that I stood in front of saying, "Well, how the hell." And finally I used hands and crawled up the steep side and went over it on my butt, trying not to look down the precipice to the right, not at all trusting my balance.

And the finish line announcer's voice was booming down the mountain and the tiny dots wayyyyy up top were winding forward and there was still more than an hour to go. I stopped three or four times above treeline. I sat on big rocks and looked out at the views. The recovery felt good in my legs, I wasn't concerned about cutoffs, and hey, this was my first time to really be on a mountain. If I never did it again, I wanted to remember what it looked like! It took me 35-40 minutes to cover each mile above treeline.

Two to go. Come on. Come on. You can do this. You have run two rocky miles so many times. You have done it on days when you had already run eighteen miles and those last two were a staggering, slow mess. That's all you have to do. Pull off the same staggering slow mess. Wouldn't this trail be a blast to really run? I never want to do this again. My legs can do this though they feel like they can't.

One to go. One to go! YES! I don't want this to be over. All I want is for this to be over. And suddenly — if there is such a thing as suddenly after almost six hours and climbing laboriously over big rocks and chewing two coca tea bags of which I now have to pry one out every time I see a photographer, and there is a photographer at every switchback — if there were such a thing as suddenly when I am moving more slowly than kelp — if there were such a thing as suddenly in the epochs of time that form a mountain — suddenly, the 16 Golden Stairs begin.

Where is dread? Where is anguish? Every step is an amazement. The 32 switchbacks are so short, they have a rhythm! Closer! Closer! Closer! From the inside I feel smooth and from the outside look like a drunken zombie. The outside doesn't matter or exist. Up. Up. Up. Up! Up!

One after another, the switchbacks rise and I am a tiny dot high on the mountain above the giant trees and the cities and everything I have just seen and moved through. Every step feels huge and strong. I disappear. The mountain disappears. The feeling that is passing among all the people, that is all there is, while the announcer calls my name, the most unimportant words in the world, and the people are smiling and clapping and I raise my fist and run across the line and into a life where this has happened, where Jonica and John and Julie-from-Kansas and N. and the other people there loving their racers and the race volunteers and director and Matt Carpenter are bound to this moment. And it ripples out. It keeps going.

It is the best day of my life.

I wrapped my arms around N. and he around me. I kissed him and he kissed me. I ate some oranges and drank some water. I hugged Jonica (who rocked). We took my picture. N. and I looked out across the sky. We kissed again.

And then we left the mountain.


Anonymous said...

"like a big cat that isn't hungry" LOVE that. I can't wait to hear about this in person sometime. Congrats!