I can’t believe Pikes Peak is behind me. As with any big event, you spend months preparing, strategizing, obsessing (maybe)… and then it’s over. More than relief, I feel like something is missing. Also, with a week plus to reflect, I have the typical hindsight emotions. Deep down, I know I worked hard and I am proud of the accomplishment, but will readily admit there is still the “what if”. The questions – did I really do my best? If I dug deeper would I have found more?
Hindsight is especially strong when coming away from something that was tackled as “sight unseen.” I am not a trail runner. I have never been at altitude. I have not seen the Barr Trail. And I have certainly not run the Barr Trail at altitude. Of course, one would come away from something like this with a wealth of “Ah-Hah!” moments and a convincing knowledge that next time I could do better.
But part of Pikes Peak is recognizing it for what it is. To be honest, leading into the race, on the course, and during this week of aftermath, my recognition – my take on it – has fluctuated. This is mostly due to my background that has been defined by track and road races. When you ground everything back to that, you end up with pacing and splits. That is not trail running. Actually, trail running is quite beautiful when you step back and embrace it.
Now, the technical trail runners are in it for time – no doubt. I watched some of these amazing athletes shoot down the mountain going sub 6 pace. But I have found that trails give you the opportunity to dial into the journey – not the garmin. While I toed the starting line with something more akin to a Charlotte marathon mentality, I finished in a “Tao of Running” head space. In any other race I may have questioned it as a cop out, but I really have to believe that in this case it was a celebration – and an invitation to a more transcendent experience. There is a freedom that opens up by allowing yourself to choose this path.
The race held quite a few surprises for me. I truly believe that what develops you as a runner and a person is not how you perform when everything is going right, but how you respond in the face of uncertainty or adversity. As much as I’d like to tell you how tough I am and that I am completely impervious to altitude, I’m not. The race started at an elevation of 6,412 feet. We climbed to above 14,000 feet. I didn’t know it at the time because frankly I didn’t recognize it for what it was, but I started really feeling the altitude as we closed in on 10,000 feet. I was berating myself for feeling tired. Probably didn’t train hard enough. Not pushing hard enough. It was altitude. And it wasn’t exactly what I expected. I wasn’t gasping for breath. What I did feel was slightly nauseous, weak, light headed. As we approached the aid station at Barr Camp, I knew I’d see a friendly face we’d met on the Cog Railway a couple days earlier. Looking at Heather, I didn’t want to let on that I was already having some trouble. Especially, when she proclaimed how great Mark looked when he came through earlier (much earlier). No – I’m tough, too. I can do this. As I tried to flash an “I’m-okay” smile, I felt more like someone who’d just inhaled a pile of yayo trying to play normal for the straight folks in the room (at least, I assume that would be the feeling).
The climb from 10,000 to 12,000 was tough. It was hard wrapping my head around the reality of the race. The hours I spent running at a 15% incline on the treadmill at sea level did not seem to be translating well into the rocky, rough-hewn course more than 2 miles into thin air. Around 12,000 feet you come to an aid station at the A-frame. This became a turning point for me. I stopped to hydrate, collect myself, and take inventory. I had to accept that this is where I was and it was not what I had visualized for myself during the preceding weeks. My throat would not open for solid food, I was foggy. I was behind my self-imposed non-schedule schedule. There were rational reasons why this may not be my day. Here is the beautiful part… this is that rare moment. The opportunity only presents when the going has gotten rough. Really rough. It is a chance to see, “what do I do with this? how do I respond?” The response does not have to be rational. In fact, that is the beauty – it is raw emotion. How much do you want it? It was then I decided to let go of my road racing mentality and commit to fully dialing into the beauty – the opportunity – I had been given via this race. I have no clue if I stood there for 3 minutes, 5 minutes, or even 10 minutes. At that moment, I turned and continued on the path up the mountain with my mantra on repeat, “Be determined, be patient, be strong.” I also hung onto an #AttitudeOfGratitude for the moment, my health, and strength.
You crest the treeline above 12,000 feet. As a true testament that things can always turn up, I did find some relief as I continued to climb. This is somewhat counter-intuitive, but I think it may have more to do with another “surprise”… I forgot to factor in my paralyzing fear of heights and how this would play out on the top of a mountain. I have a serious fear of heights – to the point where I avoid escalators at all costs. I know it is irrational, but it elicits a visceral response in me. Thus, my entire focus, my entire being, became 100% focused on managing my fear of heights from that point onward – completely superseding any altitude issues, fatigue, etc.
This is the point in the story where I hit turning point #2 – my angel. It was around this time I ran into Fishwrap coming back down. He is my angel and my love, but not the angel I speak of. We embraced, smiled, took pics. My Pikes Peak angel came in the form of a PP veteran who was climbing behind me. Upon realizing I was in the midst of an acrophobic struggle, he took me under his wing – and literally talked me off the ledge. From that point on we were peas and carrots. And suddenly this race had become fun and an uplifting feeling permeated my being at last.
The final 3 miles to the top is more scramble than run, particularly the 16 Golden Stairs. Also, since it is a true out and back, you are now regularly seeing other runners passing you back as they head down the mountain. This was one of the coolest parts. The downhill runners have right of way, so rather than lean toward the ridge to let them by, we would climb up onto rocks and cheer them on. And they would smile and cheer back for us. Everyone was so supportive and called each other by name – taking the time to read the bibs was a special consideration thoughtfully displayed by both runners and volunteers. The trail community is truly special in this way.
I know this is getting long… the story from here is really quite simple. Admittedly, the energy it took to conquer my fear of heights in getting to the top was doubled in getting back down below the tree line. My partner hung by my side and we did it. Then, I was really just hungry to run. The trail, the altitude, the elevation all had been holding me back. So, I took off and floated through the rest of the race – physically and mentally. Except, those couple of times when I hit an unsuspecting rock and bit it #TrailRash.
I will admit to getting a bit emotional with 2 miles to go and if someone had caught a glimpse they would have seen a few tears. I was taking in the last moments of the race before it was history – saying good-bye. There were tears of joy upon realization that I was finishing this MF’er; there were tears of disappointment for the race I thought I would run but didn’t; there were tears of gratitude for the transformative experience this race had become.
I never hit the wall. I crushed the back half. I came across the finish the bigger person – totally awash in gratitude for this amazing experience.
Was it hard? Well, yes. But in its own way. Trying to hold a PR pace during a road race is also hard. Both can take you to the brink and open that window to tap into something deeper. May you be blessed with a long, healthy running career full of friendship and self-discovery.
Ps. If interested, FW broke in the GoPro for the occasion.