Sunday, August 20, 2017

Race Report: Pike's Peak Marathon

"I climbed a mountain, and I turned around..."
- Fleetwood Mac

I started training in February, and today was the day: the Pike's Peak Marathon.

This last week, Eric has played coach for me: checking to make sure I didn't run too much, got enough sleep, and wasn't disturbed... so from Wednesday on, he insisted on sleeping in the guest bedroom, where he didn't get much actual sleep. Saturday, we saw our friend Amy and my old co-worker Dave off on the Ascent, (which they both rocked!) and then Eric was on to ensuring that I didn't do too much, and was well-rested for race day. I owe him - including for nearly a week of missed sleep. Trust me, I know from missed sleep.

This morning, we headed down to Manitou relatively early, mainly so I could pee about 4 times before the race. Amy and her husband Garret returned the cheers and met us down there. THEN! While I was in yet another porta-potty, GUESS WHO SHOWED UP??? Colleen, Matt, Tess, and Alex! Oh my gosh! I was totally surprised, and of course, started bawling, right there near the starting line. They made posters and everything and were my very own cheering squad. I couldn't believe it, they came all that way to see me off!

I was toward the back of the race, so 7 minutes after 7, I took off. The race runs down Manitou Avenue, through downtown, and then turns up Ruxton Avenue. The race started well, and the run down the road felt good. Ruxton is uphill, but it's something I've done about a zillion times, and so it felt normal, other than it was hot. I've been training in relative cool, as it has been a cooler and quite rainy summer here, and when you start before sunrise, you are well into cooler tree cover at a higher elevation before sun-up. The race was at least 20 degrees warmer than my average Barr Trail training run,

Soon after mile marker 1, not long after I hit the trail, things started feeling not great. My head didn't feel quite right, and my legs felt tight. Up the W's (the first three miles of trail and the steeped section except for the very top), was a grind. Past the W's, things got a little better. This is a more level part of the (sum-total uphill) of the course and I made up some time - especially the sections that actually go a little downhill. Things felt more normal, but on some steeper uphills, I found my legs hurting badly enough that I downed some Advil, asprin and/or Aleve (because I like my pain killers to start with A)- whatever two pills I reached into my belt and pulled out.  A bit later, as things hadn't resolved, I broke into my Hyland's Leg Cramp medication early - if and when I have needed this in the past, it has never been before mile 9. Whatever, I thought, I had to get through this.

"Getting through this" and "grind" were my mantras for most of the uphill, mixed, of course, with the obligatory Hamilton soundtrack that goes through my head involuntarily when I run this course, because, as it happens, I was not going to lose my shot.

I got to Barr Camp, the half way point, three minutes faster than my goal time, which was good. I spent very little time at the aid station there, refilling my water bottle, and heading out. I pulled out my PowerBar, and literally said out loud (because my monologue doesn't always stay internal well when running), "I know you don't want to, but you need to eat this."  And then I did, while running the next half mile, before the trail gets really rocky and the route becomes more of a power hike than anything else.

I had planned to get to A-frame (treeline - 3 miles above Barr Camp) in an hour, because that's what I have been doing in training. However, I was four minutes over my planned time, which meant I lost 7 minutes in that three mile stretch, which isn't exactly a great feeling. But whatever, time to keep moving and down more pills.

Above treeline, to quote my old co-worker Dave, is "where I make my money." Well, he said it was where he makes HIS money, but the same is true here. The higher I get, the better I get. Also, the higher I get... in all ways that matter. See, as the air gets thinner, I get better, for several reasons. I've spent so much time training up there I know what I'm doing. Lots of other people don't, and start fading, and it pumps me up to pass folks, especially those who passed me earlier in the race. Oh, and a side effect of elevation for me is a sense of euphoria, which has, in the past, gotten so significant, that I have said crazy things like "next year, I'm going to run the marathon," and "I'm queen and this mountain is my kingdom!" Out loud. For God and whomever else happened to be around to hear.

Well, I didn't get that level of endorphin rush this time, but things did get better the last three miles. The last mile, which is slow for everyone, felt good and felt fast (relatively speaking). I passed goodness-knows-how-many people, including catching up to last year's race running buddy, Andy from Arkansas. Andy and I met somewhere between the W's and Barr Camp, and ran several miles of the Ascent together, then happened to run into each other the next day at breakfast. I saw him again when I picked up my packet Thursday evening, and it turned out he got a little crazy like me and decided to do the full marathon. He wasn't moving as fast as I was at that point, but he didn't look too bad, all things and living-at-lower-elevation considered. On the 16 Golden Stairs, the last, rockiest and steepest part of the trail, I picked up Karen from Wisconsin. She was struggling a bit, but we made it to the Summit together. I hit the Summit in 5:07:55, which was significantly faster than last year's Ascent, even though I didn't feel as good. We spent just a minute or two at the top, refilling water bottles and chugging Gatorade, and then it was turn and burn back down. I felt almost immediately better, as did Karen, and we chatted for a mile and a half. Karen ran Boston in 2013, and has done a bunch of other marathons and ultras. Since I know the trail better, and was feeling good, I ended up speeding up as we got a little lower, and I lost her at some point.

And then I flew. I seriously have no idea what got into me, other than endorphins and elevation-induced euphoria, but I don't normally go down that fast. This time however, my footing felt good, and while I didn't jump over rocks and roots, I dug in and motored. I hit the A-Frame aid station - below treeline, at exactly 6 hours, grabbed some Cheezits (My race food of choice! Although not generally while actually running...), dumped my jacket in the trash, sucked down some liquid, and took off.

Coming into the race, I told everyone that finishing in under 9 hours would make me happy. I was hoping for 8:30, and thought that if I could hit the Summit in 5 hours, there was a slight chance I could finish in 8, which would be thrilling. I'm never going to be the fastest runner out there, and while the course record may be 3:16, I'm never going to approach anything like that. I am, on my best days, a middle of the pack runner, and I'm ok with that. When I saw that I was at 6 hour, I thought "well, if I can get to Barr camp in 45 minutes, I have a shot at making 8:15." So I went for it... and realized I was running hotter than that, and maybe I could get close to 30.

I made it to Barr Camp in 35 minutes, watered and Gatoraded myself, grabbed a handful of Cheezits, and took off. I realized that I would have to do 10 minute miles for the remaining 7 miles, but if so, I would beat 8 hours. I wasn't really sure that was possible - 7 miles of downhill with rocks and roots, and a history of taking that route much, much slower so as to not kill myself. But I figured if I kept up with current pace, I could hit in range of my 8:15 target.

So I took off. It was something akin to letting out the clutch and seeing what I could do, and letting the downhill take me. I raced down that trail, and kept pace up going uphill (remember when I said there were downhill parts on the climb? That meant there was uphill on the way down.) I flew by people. I stopped briefly at Bob's Road aid station, and realized that stopping was a bad idea because my muscles didn't want to go into "stand up and not move" and almost fell into a volunteer, who must have thought I was in trouble.

I wasn't. I raced down the trail, and clicked off mile after mile. I flew threw No Name Creek aid station without stopping, passed the top of the Incline, skipped by the Incline aid station after a bit of a traffic jam on a narrow stretch of the trail, then went as fast down the rest of the W's, at an average 16% grade, as I could. When I hit the cutoff from Barr Trail to the spur that takes you down an alternative path to Hydro street, the volunteer said I had about 2 miles to go, and I had 30 minutes to hit 8 hours.

I wondered if I could maybe, just maybe, hit the 7 hours, 48 minutes that was my completion time for a 23.5 training run up Barr Trail and down the Crag's Trail in July. Let's find out, I thought.

I sailed through the final aid station without stopping. The trail gets really steep at this point, and I shortened my stride, and kept going. I pounded out of the trail and onto the paved road of Ruxton extended, and flew as fast as I could go down that 20%+ grade, feeling the burn of the pavement through my trail shoes. I crossed Hydro Street, the one mile mark, and reminded myself that I had for months imagined this final stretch of the race while I trained down it.

That last mile of pavement, in trail shoes, after 25 miles of trail, felt hard. It pounded and I had to tell myself to not give up. Ruxton Avenue is slightly downhill, but nothing like the previous 12 miles. As I closed in to the finish, people were cheering. I gave kids high-fives. Eric was there.

I finished in 7 hours, 47 minutes, 23 seconds.
374th Place.
78th woman.
17th in my age group.

Turns out, Eric bolted out of a restaurant with Colleen, Matt, and the kids to make it to the finish in time, when he realized that "Find Friends" told him I was way closer to the finish than anyone, including me, anticipated I would be.

I sat in the recovery tent for a bit, getting my breathing under control. I was pretty tired. When I came out of the tent, my cheering section was there. We caught up and I blabbed about the race, and we walked over to the celebration tent in Soda Springs park.

In the end, I learned that the absolute best way to end a race is to have your niece try on your finisher's jacket first, and have your nephew do his best to eat your medal.

I am a happy runner (incidentally, that's what my tank top says "Run Happy" over and over.)

Epilogue: I've run a lot of races in my life. I have never, ever had the kind of support I got for this one. My husband, my family, friends from all over the world, cheered me on, sent well wishes, asked how it went. I have no words for how grateful I am to have this kind of community. I love you all.