Mike Anderson's 2001 Pikes Peak Ascent
In August, 2001, I participated in my first Pikes Peak Ascent. This is a description of how I got there and my experiences on the mountain.
I hiked the peak for the first time two weeks before the Pikes Peak Ascent in 2000.
As I neared the top on that day, I thought to myself, "Well, I'm never doing this again." It was agonizing. I was delirious from oxygen deprivation. I was dehydrated. However, when I reached the top and looked around I had a change of heart. I had never been atop the mountain before and I felt an unexpected exhilaration.
I couldn't make the Ascent that year, of course, because I had not signed up before the race had filled up months earlier. It was just as well, though, because I was not in the kind of condition that would be required. I did, however, begin to plan for 2001. With a full year to prepare, I figured that I'd be in great shape. I signed up for the race in October and was placed in the first wave based on some unrelated race finishing times. On the application, I estimated my finish time at 4:05.
Unfortunately, the year did not go as well as I planned. The first major setback occurred while hiking in a remote area of Colorado wilderness, on September 6, 2000. I had a small mishap at about 13,500 ft and sprained my right ankle. More detail and a photo are available, but be warned that the description and the photo are rated PG-13 for violence. Though my sprained ankle was the worst of the injuries sustained, I had also twisted my right knee badly and bruised my left leg just below the hip. It took a while to recover from my injuries, possibly due to continuing to hike the high country for another two weeks in September. In any case, I resumed running, with a slight limp, sometime in October.
I was in good physical condition before my fall, but I had lost a lot of ground. One evening in late November, I went for a medium length run from my home in northeast Colorado Springs, something like about 8 miles. I arrived at home in normal condition. The next morning, my left knee was unexpectedly sore so much so that it felt like the bones had fused overnight.
Thus began a long ordeal of rehab that lasted until April. The problem was diagnosed as runner's knee and I was given a set of exercises to perform. I also began to tape my knee and go for short runs until it became sore. At first, I couldn't do any more than a mile a couple of times a week, but by February, I could run 2-3 miles a day as long as I took it slow. Things didn't look good for the Ascent, though I remained hopeful that I could eventually get better. In March, I was able to be rid of the tape and could start to increase in mileage, albeit slowly. By the end of April, I finally felt that the knee problem was behind me and I could get back to serious preparation. However, I knew that I had lost too much ground to effectively make up before August and that I would not be in top physical form. I was only up to about 4.5-5 miles on my long runs. I had done virtually no hill work (most of my running time during that stretch was done at the YMCA track, which is an agonizingly mind-numbing 14 laps per mile).
In spite of that though, I thought that I could still make up for a lot of the lost time and I started to set my sights on a sub 4 hour ascent, which I thought at that time would be attainable. By June, I was feeling great. I was increasing my mileage again. I started following a marathon training schedule, alternating long runs with short runs. Everything was looking up. I even began to attend the Thursday evening Incline Club events with some of my Ascent running buddies. I was doing strenuous hill work and I was up to 10-11 miles (with hills) on my long runs, with more than two months before my date with the mountain.
But on June 7, I went for a medium length run (about 6 miles). I felt fine until I got close to home, when my right knee started to feel unusually sore. Did I mention that it was my right knee? Not my left knee that I had rehab'ed over the winter. The feeling was different too, it was like it was swelling inside the joint, where my left knee pains had been more associated with the knee cap area. I took the next couple of days off, then tried short runs, but each time the soreness would come back stronger than before. Finally, I decided to abandon the idea of running for a few weeks and see if it got better.
Even a month later it was still sore, but I decided that I needed to go on a run to see what it would do because I was losing valuable time and conditioning. I went for a run sometime around the 4th of July, and experienced the same problem. Finally, after the insistence of my wife, I went to a sports medicine doctor and had him evaluate it. I spent the next two weeks on some anti-inflammatory pills, then, with only 3 weeks before the Ascent, I started to run again. At the doctor's instruction, I ran no downhills at all. My first day back I ran 6 laps around a track. Each day I would increase a little bit, but it was going slowly. Two weeks before the Ascent, I still didn't know if I could do it. I was only up to about 3 miles a day and that was slow. Then I started to increase the distance a little and to add uphill runs. I started to feel better. A week before the Ascent I ran about 5.5 miles on a gradual incline. My knee felt fine, but I was obviously out of shape. It didn't matter though, I knew that I could make the Ascent, no matter how brutal.
Planning the Race
Nothing in the previous year had gone as planned, but I was a 'go' for the mountain in spite of all the setbacks. I now started to think about my expected times. Under 4 hours was out. I knew that. I figured my time would be something like 4:30. However, I also knew that 4:20 was on the edge of what I might be able to accomplish. I hoped for that time because that would put me back in the first wave in 2002. Calculating for a 4:20 Ascent, I gathered split times at the major landmarks along the course. In order to hit 4:20, I needed to be at the top of the W's in about :52, Barr Camp in about 2:12, and A-frame at about 3:05.
I planned to run through Manitou Springs up to Hydro street, hike the W's, then run most of the way to Barr and hike thereafter. Because of this, I figured my split times would be faster before Barr than after Barr.
I had GU packets for every half-hour plus an Ice Cliff Bar to eat at Barr Camp. I took to calling this the Barr Camp Bar. I had two water bottles in a fanny pack. I planned to go out empty as far as water goes and then fill them at the first station I came to. This worked out well because it allowed me to run more comfortably through Manitou. I had Gatorade powder in my two water bottles.
Another important element in race planning was to have an appropriate shirt to wear. My wife and I made this shirt with bumper stickers on the back, which I wore on race day. Click here for a close-up.
On race day, as we were driving in to Manitou, I made the mistake of looking up at the mountain and began to wonder if it was too late to bow out. What was I thinking? I was only up to 5 miles for my long runs and was 20 pounds heavier than I had planned to be when I first thought of the race a year before. I had done no high altitude training. I hadn't been above timberline since October.
The race started and I was excited to get going after all the preparation and setbacks it was great to finally be there. I ran with relative ease through Manitou. When I reached Hydro Street I dutifully started to walk. I was following the advice of some outstanding Ascent people, like Jerry Jackson, Matt Carpenter and Jim Engquist, who said that, for someone at my skill level, conservation was king when it came to the W's.
People passed me in a steady stream. Not only runners, but hikers. I was going at a nice comfortable pace that required no special exertion. A hundred people must have passed me on the W's. Even so, I reached the top of the W's 4 minutes ahead of my split time. This really surprised me because I was not pushing it at all, I felt great, and I knew that one of the worst parts of the day was now behind me.
Shortly after the W's I started to look for stretches of runnable trail. For awhile, these came in short bursts, but soon, the trail opened up into a pleasant trail run. I got in to a nice steady rhythm, always keeping in mind the idea of conserving energy.
I was taking GU every half-hour and hydrating during all the walking parts. Having only hiked the trail up here, and never having run it, I was surprised how quickly I came upon some of the landmarks. I made it to Barr Camp with ease in 1:55 17 minutes ahead of my split time. I felt fresh and confident. It occurred to me that I could make 4:20 as long as things kept going so well. However, I had known ahead of time that my split to Barr would be fast, since all my planned running was below that point. I knew that the stretch from Barr to A-frame seemed like the longest stretch of the whole run and that I would have to reserve judgment for awhile.
I ate my cliff bar and started my hike toward A-frame. I was still not hiking fast and was still being passed. I probably passed about as many people as passed me during this stretch though.
About a mile after Barr, I experienced the first possible sign that everything was too good to be true. I stepped up on a rock with my left foot and my left calf camped so hard that I nearly fell (I would have, if not for the timely presence of a tree to grab). For the next little while, my calf kept cramping. I took every opportunity to try to stretch it by stepping with my toes on the rocks and roots, rather that stepping over them. It seemed to help for awhile, but then my right calf also began to cramp. Occasionally, I would experience a cramp so hard that I would exclaim, "Ouch!" or something like it. I reached A-frame in some discomfort in about 2:55, still well ahead of my split time, but I was losing a little ground.
Above A-frame, I knew there were a lot of runnable stretches and I really wanted to run them because I felt strong. My legs were cramping like crazy, but they weren't tired. I felt much better than I expected and wasn't even too out of breath, considering that I was now above timerline. I came to a stretch of nearly flat trail about 30 yards long and decided to try to jog it to see if that would loosen my calf muscles up. I passed about five people, but they must have been smiling when they passed me up 10 seconds later while I desperately tried to relieve the severe cramps in both calves. I got going again, now realizing that I would have to just endure the pain and keep moving forward. Other than my calves, I felt great so I was able to move quickly. I was walking like the tin-man, but I was passing a long line of zombies, one at a time. I wondered how long my legs would hold up.
I reached the long traverse and wished that I could run. I had plenty of energy. I was enjoying myself much more than the poor souls that I was passing. After the Cirque, I tried to run a little again and found that I could actually do it. My calves still ached, but they froze up less often now. I would run stretches wherever I could. Because I was so close to the top and was fully hydrated, I decided to dump the remaining water in my bottle, just to lighten the load. That was an unfortunate decision though, because about a quarter of a mile later, I passed a guy that was just standing in one of the switchbacks. After I passed, he came along behind me for a few feet. Then he asked if I had any water in my water bottles. Of course I didn't have any, and I felt sorry for him. I hope he made it.
I reached the golden stairs and started up them with some effort, but in relative comfort and confidence. That is until about half way up. I stepped up on a high step and suddenly my left quad cramped while I shouted in pain. After that the steps where not quite as easy.
The last little stretch to the top was actually very fun. I was going to make it ahead of schedule and I felt better than I had imagined I would (although I admit that I never imaged the cramps). I ran wherever I had enough room. My family was at the top cheering me on. My daughter had a sign pointing to the "5k Turnaround" and I finished among cheers of "Come on Dad!"
My time was well ahead of my expectations. I finished in 4:09:08. I made the cutoff for next year's first wave by eleven minutes. I didn't set any course records. I didn't win my age group. I never even saw Matt Carpenter. But it doesn't matter. I don't care who beat me. I don't care who was behind me. All I know is I made it and I finished strong. I'm already looking forward to next year.
My plan for next year is to use the same basic race strategy, only faster and without the excruciating pain in my legs.
Pictures from this and subsequent years