© Pikes Peak Marathon
Cloud-Runner (Fred Maas)
12 Time Pikes Peak Runner - Santa Fe, NM
The last notes of America the Beautiful lingered inside my head as I dared one glance up at the peak 8,000 feet and fourteen miles above. We stood in pre-dawn darkness with the peak brightly lit in the sunrise with most of a moon setting behind it. It is the only look upward I would dare until I reached the top. It was 2005, the 50th annual Ultimate Challenge run up Pikes Peak.
We began the run up main straight in Manitou Springs with hoots of our determination, and cheers from friends, relatives, and towns’ people proud of their runners lining the sidewalks. I thought about the 25th annual which I had also run in 1980.
The run was much smaller then and little known. I had only found out about it from an ad in the relatively new Runners’ World magazine, though at that time I had already been running for twenty years. You could sign up ahead of time, or you could just show up and sign up at the run. Even then, there were some 800 avid participants of whom about 250 ran up and down, the rest just the ascent.
Researchers from the U.S. Army were at the starting line that day seeking volunteers to participate in some sort of a study. I asked them what they were doing. They answered, “you have children as young as 12 and a grandfather who is 76 running to over 14,000 feet. We put a pack on the backs of fit young twenty-year-olds and most can’t make it over an 11,000 foot pass. We want to find out why!”
Looking over their questionnaire I said, “you are asking the wrong questions. Doesn’t much matter what my training was last week or last month. Matters what I was doing last year or two years ago!” In addition to the questionnaire about preparation, they also asked for blood and urine samples, took information like height and weight.
The run up and down was for me an epic effort. The year before I had done the Ascent, so I had some idea of what I was in for. After turning at the top and starting down, the euphoric runner’s high settled in. I felt strong and excited, and I could see out forever. I wound up and ran down too fast.
It felt so effortless. The runners still ascending were so respectful, I had to hurdle one who was hunkered down in a boulder slot where there was no room to pass.
Uh-ohh. Before I reached tree line and A-Frame aid station, my quads began talking back, “where do you think you’re going so fast?” I backed off on speed, and settled into a more sustainable descent.
I was pretty darned spent by the time I reached the finish. The Army Docs were there waiting. The medical folks looked at me quizzically. “You have lost 9 pounds and your body temperature is 94. You should be laying on the ground and hypothermic?” I said, “you’re right. Where can I get a beer?” (They pointed to a nearby keg).
Returning to the present, once again ascending the steep switchbacks of Barr Trail, I greet astonished hikers who may not have known of the run, standing aside to let this endless line of runners pass. The sun was on us now, and beginning to feel warm. My two sons, Dan and Bren, had gone on up ahead literally laughing and dancing, and hooting down to me from several switchbacks above.
Weather forecast for this day was good. Clear, still, scattered mountain thunderstorms in the afternoon. Even at 60 years of age, I expected to finish safely before noon.
I met Steve Gachupin after the 1981 Run. He was congratulating my 13 year old son, Dan. He said, “I see you won the 15 and under age group.” Dan answered, “thank you.” Steve went on, “I see you set the age record.” Dan straightened up a bit, and replied, “why yes. Yes, I did.” Steve finished, “I used to hold that record.” Staring at Dan, he teased, “I held ALL the records.”
Steve, an Indian from Jemez Pueblo in New Mexico, had won the Pikes Peak Marathon 6 times in a row for which he now carries the knick-name, King of the Mountain. He taught me to pay homage to the Mountain. He taught me to smear mud from the mountain on my legs at No Name Creek as he had always done, an act of respect to “Mother Earth.” Steve was the honorary starter of the Race this day in 2005.
Onward through the next section of the ascent. Roots, rocks, and trees force a meandering course and constant concentration. The heart beats, the lungs breathe, the feet step, it’s about the rhythm, always the rhythm, the real runner associates, never disassociates.
Next aid station is Barr Camp. The support workers are partying, entertaining, as well as feeding and watering us. They are competing for “best aid station” award/reward. Their creativity adds momentary diversion and joy injected into the seemingly impossible ascent. We can already hear the loud speaker from the peak many miles above. As the music and joy of Barr Camp fade behind the not so faint loud speaker from the peak above is announcing the winner of the Ascent. I have yet a long way to go.
The run through pines and then firs between Barr and A-Frame aid stations seems much longer than five miles. As the trees get shorter, a nod to the altitude, the trail gets steeper, rockier, demanding ever more focus.
Water for the A-Frame Aid station is delivered by a two mile long hose down the hill. Amazing really. In fact, everything about the support for this run is amazing. Well thought out and tested now across so many decades. The aid workers here camped the night and have looked into the eyes of countless athletes some of whom are spent beyond what they ever thought they could handle.
The trees disappear above A-Frame. Too high. Now it is boulders and rocks, not roots and trees, that the runner is wending past. It is two miles to the next aid at Cirque. Altitude is now above 12,000 feet.
At this altitude the partial pressure of oxygen in blood is higher than the partial pressure of oxygen in the air. The only way you can derive oxygen is by the affinity of hemoglobin to snatch it out of the air. The blood of acclimated athletes does this better than those who have not spent time up here.
And for me, running has slowed to a hard paced walk while trying not to stumble on the rocks. My vision is riveted on the ground, every foot plant precisely measured. But something has changed. Why does everything look so different? The color of the ground has changed, changed from a bright white light to a subdued (and ominous) red.
I risk a glance up. HOLY !!!!
Big black billowing clouds were boiling over the peak, obscuring the sun. Suddenly a flash of lightning and the first clap of thunder. The predicted scattered afternoon thunderstorm had arrived early and right over us!
Everyone seemed to get the message at once, and everyone’s efforts redoubled. The only thing, and I mean this sincerely, the only thing to do was to get up top as soon as you can! I pulled out my 3 ounce wind-breaker and put it on, scant, but offered some soon to be needed protection.
I reached and turned and passed Cirque Aid station without a glance or a drink. Up! Get UP! More lightning, more thunder, then the rain began, then slashing hail. Yes, all hail had broken loose!
Hail that stung my bare legs (and later learned actually bruised the legs of many of the fairer sex), seemed to try to push me down. From beneath a boulder a shorts and singlet clad runner called out, “shouldn’t we get under a boulder in a lightning storm?” (Actually, you shouldn’t, particularly along a ridge).
“You needn’t worry about THAT lightning,” I called to him, “it’s BELOW us! RUN FOR IT!”
More breathless than I had ever been, and barely able to see through the driving rain and hail, I came to an intrepid lady in an orange poncho sitting on a rock, seemingly oblivious to the slashing thrashing hail. “You have reached the Fifteen Golden Stairs.”
“I could KISS you,” I called to her above the storm. The workers for this Run are absolutely as dedicated as the runners themselves.
Climbing the slippery ice slicked boulders, there in the mist finally was the Finish banner, my name being called on the loud speaker, and then from the sideline. My wonderful, beautiful wife, Debby, was there, well protected in storm gear, and sons Dan and Bren, we three in little more than running shorts, and lashed by the wind and the ice.
Hypothermia would soon set in if we didn’t find shelter quickly. We went to the gift shop, but it was packed, I mean, PACKED with the bodies of runners who had finished before us. With two or three more finishing every minute, the road down closed to traffic until the storm stopped and a snow plow could clear it, we had to find something else and fast.
There was another building. We went to it and knocked on the door. The guardian at the door said to us, “you can only come in if you have a medical emergency.” I looked at him grimly and said, “you might let us in to stand by the wall now, OR, ten minutes from now you will let us in anyway but as medical emergencies.” He got the point, “OK, go stand against that wall,” which we did.
(This was the first time in the 50 years of the race such dire conditions took place. Every year since, the Race places big tents on top… just in case. Sure enough an even worse condition occurred in 2008, but that is another story.)
The storm passed in half an hour. The sun came out, the hail and snow was inches deep and began to sublimate into steam. Tourist cars lined up to go down the road, waiting for the snow plow. A policeman stood guard at the head of the line. There were waiting busses for the runners, but we begged a ride in a tourist’s car, and crowded into the back of an SUV. The driver was in agony, his head in hands, from sea level, he had a nasty altitude headache. He grumbled, “you guys CHOSE to RUN up this mountain?”
I could see his point.
We were crammed into the back of the SUV like sardines. I decided that this would be better for everyone if there was one less person. My sons stayed with my wife safely and warmly in the back of the now less crowded car. I decided to finish the day as I had started it, on the run.
I walked over to the policeman who was stopping everyone from going down, waiting for the plow to clear the road. The policeman faced one way then another, I kept changing directions with him, but always behind him. When he turned and faced the lined up waiting cars, I turned the other way and began to run. Not that there was anything wrong with that.
Running down, on the snow, but in the sun, and mostly alone, (a few others were doing the same), it was like being released from prison. Down through the mists, vistas of distant snowy peaks, a herd of bighorn sheep crossed road just as I ran by. It was three miles down the road to the parking lot where cars were left to take the bus to the top.
The plow went past as I ran down, down with gloriously quick and lengthy strides each step sliding in the snow. By the time I reached the parking area, cars were also beginning to arrive from the peak.
My family hopped out of the SUV where they had found shelter, and we were reunited. And just in time. Yet another very very black cloud was fast approaching. We got in our car, and made good use of AWD as the second storm of the afternoon enveloped us and kept us company most of the rest of the way down.
Pikes Peak is indeed, the Ultimate Challenge. As a geologist might say, “don’t take it for granite.”
441 Manitou Ave, Suite 100
Manitou Springs, CO 80829
In 1972 Peter Strudwick did the Ascent in 4:20:29 and the Marathon in 7:02:28. What is so incredible about that you ask? Well, soon after his mother had caught rubella, commonly called German measles, Peter was born with legs that ended in stumps just past the ankles, a left arm that had only one thumb and a finger, and a right arm ending at the wrist.
When Zebulon Pike tried to ascend the mountain that would later be named after him he was turned back by the harsh weather. Many claim he said that no one would ever reach its summit. However, it is generally accepted that he meant on that day, under those conditions. The snow was waist deep and his men were not dressed for it and were out of food.
“Militant tobacco-hating physician” Dr. Arne Suominen from Delray Beach FL, became the founder of the modern day Pikes Peak races when he wrote a letter to the Colorado Springs Chamber of Commerce in 1956 and challenged cigarette smokers to race him up and down Pikes Peak. 1956 Results