Some races forever change you.
Maybe it’s because the event requires epic training. Perhaps an inspiring coach or truly special training buddies elevate the mundane. Or the reason could be its spectacular location. Sometimes, the race simply changes your beliefs about what is possible.
For me and a small group of training buddies, the 2005 Pikes Peak Marathon was all those things.
This race report was written in the days before blogs were a thing–certainly well before I began keeping an online training log in preparation for another epic race, 2008 Ironman Coeur d’Alene. No, this was written back when race reports were emailed among friends and randomly shared on obscure running forums.
So in celebration of this year’s upcoming Pikes Peak Marathon, here’s my original write-up about that life-changing trail run.
2005 Pikes Peak Race Report
I owe it all to Cathy Bridge; I don’t think I would have decided to run the Pikes Peak marathon for many, many years (if ever) if it hadn’t been for my friend announcing at a February “ditch” that she was doing this race. Several people around the table murmured that that sounded like fun. I went home to look at the website; I got several emails over the next few days; I talked to James about what it would mean to our family for me to commit to this; I checked with Steve Sisson as to whether it was in the realm of physical possibility for me; the next thing I knew, I was signed up for the round trip.
Which is how I found myself in Manitou Springs, Colorado, this last weekend.
We arrived on Friday and headed up for a leisurely walk along the course through the Ws. Now, I had completely panicked as we flew in and got my first glimpse of Pikes Peak. It was huge. Yeah, I’d seen pictures but this was real. The mountain was too big to fit into the giant window at the airport, and we were a few miles away.
The walk up the Ws calmed my nerves. The trail was pretty easy going compared to the Rogue Trail Series courses, more along the lines of a mix of Town Lake [now Lady Bird Lake] and the paths out at Walnut Creek (sans incline). Bandera was much, much more challenging. I found myself relaxing and thinking, “OK, I can handle the trail.”
Trapped at the Top
On Saturday, James and I and the Bridge clan loaded into a car for the 19-mile drive to the Summit to cheer in our Pikes Peak Ascent finishers. That drive was amazing; I kept looking at how we appeared to drive away from the Peak and then turn back to it. Above tree line was unlike anything I’d ever seen before. The highest I’d ever been was on Haleakala in Maui (about 11,000 feet) see the sunrise—all of us in the car noted when we exceeded our previous highest elevation. We parked and caught the shuttle up to the top, an approximate 3-mile ride.
I panicked again when I saw the boulders at the finish. I’m such a cautious runner and the air was THIN; how was I going to navigate through all that? The runners seemed to just appear out of the rocks; I couldn’t really even see much of a trail.
James scampered about a bit, checking out his position for Sunday as he was the halfway support for me, Cathy, and Carrie. I was scared of falling walking around on the rocks, so I stuck close to the flat portion up top. Then, the bad weather rolled it. Thunder, lightening strikes (they were below us and then, suddenly, around us), and pelting hail; we were instructed by officials to take cover.
Runners were still coming in. We (spectators and runners alike) crammed into the tiny Summit house. Hours passed; people were amazingly calm and nice. We had no idea who was still coming in, who was still out on the mountain heading up, and who had been turned around. When somebody inside passed out and another vomited, I fled to the fresh outdoors. I got to have a snowball fight with Abe, who told me to drink, drink, drink (fortunately, I’d brought both water and food). We were trapped up there for about 5 hours. It was quite an ordeal for those with kids; things did not go well for the Bridge clan, who were put in one of the first vans by medics once the roads opened up. About 45 minutes later, we were on a van heading down—amazingly, we got to the car only minutes after Cathy and family; they had inched down after the snow plow. The drive back was sobering.
Sunday morning was absolutely gorgeous (but it had been that way Saturday, too). I felt a very calm acceptance that the day would bring what it would; I simply would do my best to put one foot in front of another.
We started out and Carrie kept us in check, reminding us that we gained nothing by taking off in the first few miles. We rounded the corner onto Ruxton street, all of us (Carrie, Cathy, Dan, Lorrie, and me) in full “power walk” mode — I was relieved, however, that the fire truck that marked the last of the runners was not directly behind us.
We hit the Ws and began to spread out. My plan was to stay firmly in power walk mode, moving efficiently and consistently through the steepest part of the course, conserving my energy and staying in line. I found Monica and Leslie; we were all in the same mode; Leslie and I could converse, yet we were moving briskly.
I was surprised at how warm it was when we came out of the Ws and very glad that I had my sunglasses. I began to jockey for position and move past people, opening up my stride a bit when the trail widened and took a downward slant. I came to Barr Camp 40 minutes before cut-off and was pumped; since my primary goal was to be a legit finisher, to make it down before the 10-hour cut-off, I knew I was on target.
I felt great; there was no appreciable difference in my breathing here than at the start. I remembered what Matt Carpenter had said about the half mile into A-Frame feeling like the longest half mile on earth, so I was shocked to come into A-Frame, again, 40 minutes ahead of cut-off—it was all a joy. I had even looked at the view many, many times, exclaiming to people around me, “This is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen. Isn’t this what we came for? Amazing.”
Not many people were talking back to me.
We were heading up to the tree line and I began to see the faster Rogue runners zipping down. I was excited at how well everyone was doing! The support from each as they came by was fabulous. I remember thinking to myself, “I’m feeling fine; there is no difference now from how I felt at Barr Camp; I’m going to make it to the top in about 5:30.” Life was good.
Shortly thereafter, I came upon Cathy. Yesterday’s stresses had taken their toll and she told me, “I’m stopping at the top.” I told her to let me pull her up; there was no doubt in my mind that Cathy would get to the Summit. We relentlessly pulled on and then we came upon the most sobering scene, a crowd of runners performing CPR on a motionless body. Every person on the course fell silent as we came by; I began to cry. I had to get a grip, because there was not enough air to cry and move at the same time. EMTs began to come down the trail; some minutes later, the rescue chopper hovered overhead. I thought about living and dying while I moved along.
Reaching the Summit
We were well within the 3 miles to the Summit when I began to get woozy. Every so often, my knees wobbled, and it took great concentration to keep from staggering. People began to pass me during these times. I began to wonder what would happen if I passed out.
The sky had darkened and what had been rain turned into snow. The ground was slick and slushy and we were within the step-ups and boulders that had scared me as I looked down from the top.
Runners were coming down; less experienced people were stopping dead on, regardless of whether there was space on the trail for two to pass. I could not stop; I began to push anyone who stopped in front of me; runners coming down were offering encouragement: “Don’t stop; keep pushing; you’ll make it.”
I had lost the ability to be anything other than a consistent, though slow, moving machine. I couldn’t look at my watch; I completely forgot to take in any drink, HammerGel, or Thermalytes; and I totally forgot Matt Carpenter’s instructions to NOT look up to the Summit. How the hell did it get so impossibly far away?
There was only 1 mile left to go but it looked like 5, 10, 20.
My fingers were numb. I had a poncho in my Camelbak pocket but I did not have the coordination to get it out. When the trail allowed (often, I had to hold on to rocks as I climbed from one clump of slick boulder to the next), I was stuffing my hands in my shorts, trying to get them warm.
I admit; I began to cry.
The woman behind me kept saying, “We can do it; we only have x more switchbacks to go.” Water was streaming through the slush on the trail. Runners coming down were warning us to go around the deep puddles and climb on the rocks if we could. The woman behind me began to cry and say, “I can’t do it; I can’t do it.” I yelled at her to stop and keep with me. I could hear my husband calling my name long before I ever saw him. We made the last switchback and there he was—“You’re 100 yards from the turnaround!”
As I headed into the turnaround, the official stepped in front of me to mark my bib; I told him, “Do what you gotta do, but I am not stopping for you.” He walked backwards ahead of me, marked my bib, and I moved back down toward James. I had made the Summit in 6:00, 30 minutes ahead of the cut-off. I was crying again as I told James about the fallen runner. My husband replaced my wet gloves with dry ones, handed me my refilled bottle of Accelerade, put my poncho on me, fed me Thermalytes and ibuprophen (he actually put the tablets in my mouth), and forced half a peanut butter and jelly sandwich into my hand. Cathy came up and said she was going straight to the medic tent; James assured me he would take care of her. I headed back down.
Everybody tells you that you immediately feel better with each passing step down, and it is true.
The slush on the rocks made it easy for me to stick to my strategy, which was no running for the first few miles until I’d refueled and gotten some breathing back. I was sick to my stomach but forced small bites of the pb&j down (people who passed laughed at my little half-eaten sandwich in my hand).
After the Cirque, I began to actually run, my first real running in the whole race. It felt like magic. I finished my sandwich; the sun came out; I clawed the plastic poncho off my body and began to catch people who’d passed me earlier. The tree line came so quickly; I was at A-Frame before I knew it. I felt amazing. There were light smatterings of rain but, again, I found myself getting hot. The volunteers at the aid stations were great; I grabbed water to throw on the back of my neck to the cheers of all the wonderful volunteers. I looked at my watch when I got out of Barr Camp and tried to calculate when I’d finish—would I make it back before the cut-off?
The two uphills before the Archway were nothing; I briefly shifted back into my power walk for those. I was pushing it and catching small groups of people who were shuffling and staggering back in. As I blew through the second-to-last aid station, I heard one of the workers say, “She’s going to make it.” I looked at my watch—maybe 9:30?
I told myself to pick it up, pick it up.
The descent through the Ws seemed like a cake walk; Friday’s slippery shale was like taking an escalator down. Why had I thought this would be tricky? I kept hearing Brenton Buxton’s warning to pick my feet up, because I was running as fast as I could–the last thing I needed was to go down and ruin my rhythm. I came off of the trail and hit the road: less than a mile and a half of sweet downhill pavement. There were cones to the left side and I knew I was supposed to be in them but screw that—I was not going to deal with camber, so I hung in the center to the outside. Besides, the course was full of people I was passing. One guy was startled as I came by and called out, “Whoa! Take it easy! Slow down there.”
Runners were yelling, “Way to finish strong!” All of a sudden Bob Janiak was beside me and he said, “Throw me anything you don’t want.” I heaved my handheld at him, stripped off the camelback, and picked up the pace as much as I could. It felt like an all-out sprint.
As I came into downtown, I heard someone call out, “Here comes Leah!” There were my Rogue training buddies, in the middle of the road, on the side walk next to me, ahead of me, holding out their hands, screaming, running along beside me. It was the most awesome finish to a race I’ve ever experienced. I hit the finish line at 9:39, having left everything I had behind me.
Pikes Peak Marathon Finisher
There are few times in my life where I’ve experienced the kind of joy I felt running down that mountain. It wasn’t until I was on the way home that I realized I’d had my first negative split marathon (well, duh) and had continually picked up the pace throughout the second half until the finish.
Once I came out of the rocks above tree line, no one caught me. No one. I passed somewhere around 30 people on the way down. I accomplished my goal and met the mountain. Even sweeter, I had enjoyed every minute of the training and come away with new, close friendships with some truly wonderful people.
It was an amazing journey. Many, many thanks to all of you who were a part of the trip—I couldn’t have done it without you.