© Pikes Peak Marathon
By Pikes Peak Marathon and Ascent Runners
Months of training, one day to race, and a lifetime of memories! Stories updated monthly by guest bloggers, check back next month for another great tale from Barr Trail!
It was August 16th, 2008. The 53rd running of the Pikes Peak Ascent. If my memory serves me right, which is getting harder as the years slip past, there was a little drizzle in the air at the start. Dave Sorenson, official timer for the Pikes Peak Road Runners, summarized the weather on the clubs “results” page as this: Weather: At the start, light rain with temps in the 50s. Summit weather was in the 30s with fog, sleet, grapple, wind, cold. It was pretty miserable on the top (1).
At the time, I was 52 years old, this was my 7th or 8th Ascent (see note about memory above). I had done pretty good in the previous Ascents, averaging around four hours. I knew this one would be different, what with the weather and all, but what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, right?
Waiting at the start line I thought the cloudy sky and light drizzle would be welcome. I had always believed the stretch of trail from Barr Camp to the A-Frame as the toughest – weather wise. That’s where the sun breaks out and the heat is on. You’re not high enough in elevation yet to get the cooler air and you sweat gallons trudging out of a forest of shrinking trees into a blazing sun. At the start I had worn a long sleeve tech T and shorts and brought along light gloves and a Tyvek, zip up hoody that was a Fall Series 2006 shwag gift; I still use it today. My Shag Bag had warmups, a sweatshirt, socks, slippers and a snickers bar (my go-to post run power bar).
The gun went off and we stopped standing in the drizzle and began running in it. Like most races I run, I find a pacer and stay back behind, trying to keep an even distance. Should I end up passing that person – good for me, if I lose them, good for them. I’m always looking for that perfect pace. This year it was wet, and people generally don’t train on the mountain in inclement weather. I know I don’t, but that’s because I’m “solar powered”, but that’s a story for another time. I went through pacers like a shopper on Black Friday gets through the front door. No one was a pacer for any length of time, and I contributed to that by running inconsistently at best.
I began to struggle at the A-Frame. It was much colder, windy and dark with thick storm clouds overhead. I began to think about putting on the gloves and hoody but that would mean I’d have to stop. God forbid the folks I passed would pass me and then I’d have to pass them again. Usually by A-Frame you get into a “death march”. That part of the race where the person ahead of you will stay ahead of you until the finish line and the person behind you will stay behind you until the finish line. I was not going to be a leap-frogger. I trudged along, thinking more about my beat-red quads and my freezing snot faucet. At about the marker commemorating the death of G. Inestine Roberts (who at the age of 88 died above timberline during her 14th climb) there was a huge, loud and sudden clap of thunder. I immediately knew now why this race would not be like any others. Lightning above tree line is so dangerous that I could place a bet that the folks still below A-Frame were getting turned around and they were.
I thought of turning around, for a second, but then kept on trudging. It was less than three miles to the summit. Little did I know that these miles would be the worst miles I ever encountered, ever.
Trouble began when I had made the decision to put on the gloves. I stopped and reached back to my pack. I couldn’t move the way I wanted to. My hands were stiff. The first joint that I could control was my elbow. There’s no way I could pinch two fingers together to clasp a zipper. I started trudging onward thinking “this is going to suck, I got to speed up and get it over with”. The next few steps were clumsy and not well placed. I thought if things below my waist still worked I could make it to the top. I vowed never to stop again because bad things happen when I stop; like trying to get going again. I kept thinking, problems with my body are mine to work out, I can do this. Then the hail and snow hit and everything went white-out.
I knew I was on “The Grand Traverse”, that long stretch of trail that goes across the face of Pikes Peak and ends at “The Cirque”, but where? I stopped hearing the crunch of gravel, that noise that reminds you that you’re not alone. The sleet and blowing snow increased and the trail was getting covered and icy. I heard voices in the wind, it was the Aid Station, the last one before the finish line. When I got there, snow had made drifts around the rocks and the water cups were frozen. A volunteer asked If wanted some M&Ms and I nodded. I held my hand out and noticed it was shacking, really bad. The M&Ms rolled off, I couldn’t close my hand to hold them. Somebody hollered loudly over the wind “I’m going to bag you, can you make it to the top?” My mind wanted my body to say something, but I couldn’t move my lips to form words. I stumbled away in a black plastic leaf bag that sounded like “Old Glory” in a hurricane. My last memory before the finish line was a mantra; “If I keep having to climb up, I’ll find the top”. Visibility was about ten feet and all the rocks looked the same. Where’s that trail?
My memory of the finish line was of two people, one under each arm, dragging me across the finish line. My second memory was lying in a cot, under warm blankets, wearing dry clothes taken out of my shag bag. I had an IV in my arm, I think. A friend walked by and looked at me and said “Jon, you look like shit”. I looked around and found I wasn’t alone. There was a long line of cots. I closed my eyes and teared up. It was over, and I was shivering uncontrollably.
Other memories I have of the 2008 Ascent came from friends and volunteers. Recovery from that kind of cold and dehydration isn’t a memory, it’s a condition. My hands didn’t stop shaking for days. I had lost feeling in my fingers which lasted for weeks and was followed by tingling that lasted for months. My lips finally warmed enough to form words that evening. Of the 761 runners that crossed the finish line, I was the 748th. I’m sure the hundreds that were turned back at the A-Frame thought they were cheated. What they lost was an opportunity to have a near death experience and put the lives of volunteers at risk just to save them, like they did for me. I’ve been told that I was found off trail, climbing on my elbows and knees over boulders going straight up. If that’s what was taken away from those that were turned around and feel cheated, then so be it. Remember, things that don’t kill you CAN make you stronger, they can also cripple you for life. I didn’t return to the Ascent starting line for two years and my hands still have sensitivity to cold. When you chose to run Pikes Peak, just know that the mountain has the final say.
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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