Sunday, July 3, 2011

Pikes Peak or Bust

Pikes Peak Marathon Route (Barr Trail/Cutoff from Manitou)
26+M, 7800' gain
6 hours moving, 7 hours with gaping and donuts

I decided to go up Pikes Peak on foot for Independence Day weekend. This wasn't necessarily spurred by my patriotism and the desire to go up the peak that inspired "America, the Beautiful," but mostly laziness on planning a route for a decent long run and wanting to go up a peak without snow or routefinding issues (that also has donuts and coffee on top). Plus, though I knew it would be relatively crowded, that made it easier for me to be lackadaisical about overpreparing for safety considerations. Especially since I decided to do this at about midnight before going to bed, only to wake up at 4AM to drive down there on Sunday. (I wish I had planned better, I certainly could have carpooled with some folks from the Fort. When you ride alone, you ride with bin Laden).

The Barr trail is a Class 1 trail that winds its way up from Manitou Springs, below 7000 feet, to the top of Pikes, which is above 14,000 feet. This is the most gain of a single trail in the state of Colorado. For this reason, it's the site of the annual Pikes Peak Ascent and Marathon in August of every year (the same weekend as Leadville). I've never done it, but certainly appreciate the vast amount of information online about the course. Some people are really into this race. I didn't initially "get" this, as my only previous visit, driving, made me feel like it was an uninspirational tourist trap, but after spending the day on the trail, I only just began to understand the appeal: the varied terrain and character of the race make it a very tactical one, and I can only imagine that charging back down into Manitou with crowds at the finish line would be quite memorable.

But this was just a training run, and I had no idea what to expect. I do recall reading that a common estimate of the ascent is roughly your flat marathon time (if you're used to some altitude), so I figured 3-ish hours on the ascent. Mostly, since I left at 7am, I wanted a realistic buffer for getting up and back down to treeline before possible afternoon storms. But that would be a consistent race effort without taking any wrong turns, and since I characteristically failed at that, I ended up taking almost 3.5 hours up. First, I ended up taking a wrong turn somehow and ending up near the top of the Incline. On the correct return route, I traced my wrong turn to a small trail between the National Forest sign and the Rock Arch. Whoops! I'm guessing I followed somebody nearby on that turn or saw people above and headed that way, it sure got steep in a hurry. I had to ask a few people how to get back the Barr trail and only one guy out of a dozen or so had an idea, which led me back on track.

Shortly after that, back on track, I felt something hit against my leg. I checked my pack and found it was still closed, thinking that my pockets were otherwise secure, so I kept on. Luckily, I noted the spot that that happened, because 5 minutes later my keys fell out of my back pocket (mt. bike shorts with a hole in them). That meant that the previous item was my cell phone, which was also in my back pocket, 5 minutes back up the trail. I headed back and looked for a good 6 or 7 minutes, before luckily spotting the phone off the side of the trail. Glad I found it, and perhaps with better preparation in the morning I wouldn't have done silly things like this.

Now I was back on track for a grind. I certainly enjoyed the cooler, shaded areas on a day when the cities below were pushing 100 degrees. Trail traffic was heavy for what I'm used to, but definitely respectful and easy to get around people. All kinds of shapes and sizes were out for hiking, backpacking, and running. The running group certainly filtered out after the top of the Incline, and even moreso after Barr camp.

Barr camp had a fair number of people milling around, but I kept on moving. I knew I could get water here if necessary, but I way overdid it and brought 4 bottles with me. I switched out for the other 2 bottles here and the lighter weight in my pack was noticeably appreciated.

Now more of a grind up, and I was definitely appreciating the above-treeline views. It now looked like a legitimate mountain. The weather was gorgeous, with a very light wind that was manageable with shorts and a long-sleeve shirt. Again, in the theme of overpreparation, I had a solid windproof/waterproof shell that I ended up not needing at all.

Despite some sections being steeper than others, I prided myself on running every step, save for a few 2-3 step sections through tight boulders. Finally I hit the (in)famous 16 Golden Stairs, which were rockier, and I didn't mind hiking here with short occasionally running spurts. Finally, I hit the summit right around 4 hours on my watch (including the backtracking and cell phone search) -- the most surreal summit situation I've ever been on.

Inexplicably, however, despite having a routine run on a mountain route I wasn't particulary focused on, I was hit with a massive wave of a runner's high at the top. This hasn't happened quite as dramatically in a year or two, and I can't quite predict when it will, although my unscientific observation is that it generally occurs when relaxing after a very long but steady effort (I've had the feeling more frequently on long, multiple-mountain pass bike rides). I can't predict nor understand this stuff. I was quite at peace and relaxed on the way up, and said hello to every single hiking group I encountered (which was dozens). The entire run, I was quite happy and at peace with the surroundings. But then, after all that work, you're treated to a parking lot full of tourist gapers, huffing and puffing at the prospect of getting from their car to the gift shop.

So, my runner's high was short-lived as I re-acclimated into the mundane. I had to cut through gift shop lines just to get to the cafeteria area. I waited in line for summit donuts and a capuccino. In a thick southern accent: "Daddy got a dozen donuts, so 2 for each of you" as the kids whined impatiently. Despite perfect weather outside, the tables inside were packed with people eating, consuming crappy food and crappy gift-shop trinkets. Why experience something when you can buy it? The American Way. At the time, though, I was just an amused and calm observer.

I didn't feel like waiting in line to take a picture in front of the summit sign, so I walked over to a non-descript pile of rocks forming the true summit. I was alone, briefly, before a few others wandered over and thanked me for showing them the "real" summit. I snapped a few pictures for them before heading off.

Now despite my superior mountain attitude evident in the previous few paragraphs, I finally looked up at the sky after 25 minutes of dawdling, only to notice a dark cloud enveloping the entire summit. Rookie! Time to head down, quickly! Right at the top of the trail, a family posed for a picture for Dad above, without room to sneak behind. (Never stop in the middle of the trail/Be sure of what's around you). Call me a jerk if you want: I'm not sure if I was too impatient to wait 3 seconds or if it would have been 20, but I kept running, and the guy sarcastically said, "Thanks." In stride, I replied, "I have to run 13 more miles to avoid a storm, I'm not concerned about your *@#$ picture!" I hope that picture was a keeper.

Within minutes, it started precipitating. Guesses? Snow! Snow, on the 3rd of July. Enjoyable for the time, though, as the wind wasn't picking up, and there was no lightning or thunder. On the way down, as the snow stopped, a few people asked for weather reports. One group thought about turning around, and though I'm very conservative about lightning, I told them I couldn't strongly recommend not going for the summit, which might even be safer/closer for them. As it turned out, a few large clouds came over the summit, and all of them swept nicely to the Southeast, leaving most of the trail safe from weather.

I took it easy coming down and it was probably relatively slower (compared to race day) here than going up. Nearly everyone yielded but I didn't expect it, as I generally yield to uphill folks if possible. Happy to make it back down to treeline but still no real storms to speak of. Then, just kept plugging away down to Barr, and traffic was light and sometimes non-existent for longer stretches of time.

Finally got back down to the split toward the Incline and made note of my wrong turn. I knew I was within 40 minutes or so of my car and still had 2 water bottles left, so I switched out for the final time. Just before I started running again, 2 guys flew by. They were going slightly faster as I started running again, and they had bright white shoes and cotton sports shirts on, military muscle, and music loud enough to hear as they passed. I hadn't been passed all day, and my pride made me want to go a bit faster, but I told myself they had been doing a much shorter run and this was foolish. I kept my own pace while thinking about it, and as they hit the next switchback I heard sliding gravel, a thud, and curses.

One dude was face down in the dirt, his friend waiting by him (earbuds still in on both of them). We both asked the guy on the ground if he was OK, no response. I said, "Let's give him a minute, it probably hurts like hell and he's trying not to pass out or puke." After awhile, he sat up and did a systems check. His leg was scraped, but his friend checked out his ankle. "Oh, dude!" He could feel the ankle, but it was already visible swollen, an extra golf ball that appeared in minutes. He explained how he "Just did that last week but it was feeling better" and that they were feeling good coming off the Incline so he wanted to push it. I offered him water and he accepted, then his friend asked for some since they ran out. No problem, that's why I had extra. I said I'd stick around to see if he needed 2 people to help him down. He eventually got up and slowly hobbled under his own power, so it seemed like his buddy would have been sufficient if he needed it. I told him to find a stick (I didn't see one immediately) to keep weight off of it, but there wasn't much more to do (and plenty of other traffic), so I headed down.

Finally, back down to the creek, then the merciless pavement (Ow-Ow-Ow) and then Manitou itself. It was so quiet and quaint in the morning, and now it was lousy with tourists! I dodged parked cars, Harley's, and cigarette smoke, eventually getting back to the car in the park by the civic center, 7 hours after I started.

I enjoyed the simple route and logistics, and although I can't stand the summit parking lot and the sad way we generally relate to nature (at least I had low expectations: the crowded valley floor of Yosemite was more disappointing to me because I wasn't expecting it), the Barr trail itself is actually decent. This was slower than I might have liked, but I won't read too much into it with the extra gear I was carrying. All in all, a fun training day with some elevation.


  1. hey nice post -- shoulda come out on saturday with the group of us!


  2. I know, that would have been much better than driving and running alone. Hope to meet up soon!

  3. I'm endlessly amazed at the level of detail you recall and convey, in/after these runs.

    In my years of running ... 90% of the time ... my ability to recall WHERE I just ran ... ended at roughly the same time as the run finished :-)

    Great entry. Great run. FWIW, you ARE in that family photo I was trying to take. The kids have adopted you as their de facto mascot :-)

  4. Neil, if I don't write these up immediately (see how far behind I am on other reports), I forget 50% of it.
    The other half, as you suspect, is embellishment and lies.

    But your Europe travelog was much better. Somehow, my de facto travel plan of little sleep, running around, then finishing a bottle of wine or a liter of beer; rinse and repeat; ends up not leaving much time for writing details immediately!