Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Flashback, August 2008 Pikes Peak Ascent

I wrote this up a long time ago but it has never been in my blog. The conditions this weekend in Huntsville while bad still don't compare to the worst weather races I have been in. This race, the 2008 Pikes Peak Ascent is still number one in the top bad race weather days of my life. Actually they stack up like this:

1. 2008 Pikes Peak Ascent (Seriously just thought I would die. Hypothermia)
2. 2009 Leadville Silver Rush 50 mile (Rain, hail, wind, lightning, everything but locusts.)
3. 2011 Dallas Whiterock Marathon (Rain every step of the way)
4. 2012 Rocky Raccoon 100 (2.5 inches of rain and tons of mud.)
5. 2009 San Juan Solstice (Nice blizzard along the continental divide)
6. 1989 Kaiserslautern 13.1 (All rain)

At any rate, here is my old race report from that PPA. In hindsight I still have never been that afraid during a race.

Sometimes It's Great to Just Finish.

It has been almost four months since the Pikes Peak Ascent. I think enough time has passed now for me to be able to write about it without experiencing some weird post traumatic effects as I write. It was a race, no, not even that, just something of the likes which I had never experienced before, except for maybe once on a river where my own death seemed very real and very imminent.

To back fill some information, this year had been very challenging for me running and training. Nothing felt easy ever. There seemed to be some imbalance that prevented me from ever operating 100%. My legs might feel good and the rest of me but maybe my heart was not in it for some reason. My spirits could be good but my body would revolt in one way or the other on a run or post run.

One of my best friends William suggested that my chakra's were out of alignment or some such stuff, or my chi was off. Whatever, even he was able to notice there was something off as well. Regardless, I stuck to my training, and my plan and pushed on. I even managed to PR a mountain race in July to my surprise.

My goal of course this year was to beat my Ascent record of 3:33:33. That had been my goal all year. Focus on the Ascent, those 13.3 miles and 7,815 feet of elevation gain and get that PR. As I mentioned though my training was a struggle and mentally I was not sure if I could really pull that off.

I knew that the race was going to either go really well, or it wasn't. No gray area with either good or bad, those were the options. Little did I know it would be something more than I could have ever dreamed of in my worst running nightmare.

Ascent day, August 16, I woke up at 5:00 to get ready for the race. I had not slept well the night before. Pre-race jitters, anxiety, and a few other things made it tough for me to find center and relax. Also it had rained a lot the days before and the summit of the peak was not visible for two or three days. When I got up to leave on Saturday morning it was raining and 52 degrees.

52 degrees is not something I had planned on nor was it anything that I had trained in this summer. It was HOT here this summer. Most Sundays for my long runs I was running in 90 degrees or more, even at altitude. It was tough. All summer I trained in hot/dry... now I had to race in wet/cold. I tried to put it out of my mind as there have been times in the past where I have gone to a race and it is raining early and cleared up for the race. It could very well happen again.

It didn't. It rained the whole drive to Manitou. I sat in the Jeep as it rained. A real rain, rain like we had back east when I was kid. Honest to god water and lots of it falling from the sky and it was still cold. What was I to do though? Throw away months of work and go home and go back to bed? Only if I could have.

I walked to the starting line, in the rain of course and I was wearing my running shoes, socks, shorts, an Under Armor T-shirt with a long sleeve poly shirt over that. I had on my knit cap, fleece jacket, Adidas windbreaker on too. In my pocket I had my light weight poly gloves just in case. I had to make some decisions. What do I wear on the trip up, and what do I send up in the support van to have on the summit?

Found my way to the start line looking for my buddy Erich. If he had any sense he was somewhere staying dry as he was in the second wave and would start 30 minutes after me. I never found him nor did I see him as I was standing under a tree pretending to stay dry close to the support vans. The idea of a PR was fading because I just could not see myself performing at that level under these conditions. I figured I would do okay but not that great. Oh well, at least I was going to run.

Just minutes before the gun was to go off the announcer broadcast over the PA that we would be getting above the storm that it was clear at top. YEAH! That is exactly what I needed to hear to both help in my decision of what to wear and to also boost my spirits about the day. It was still raining.

I shed both jackets and put them in the bag to be sent up to the top. Probably not the best idea in hindsight but going on what information I had an acceptable move. I figured I could run cold and wet for an hour or two then once I got above it dry off and keep going, at least that was the plan. I did decide to keep my hat on and wear my gloves and that was the smartest decision of the day probably.

The national anthem was sang, and the gun went off and away we went. Of course I went out too fast as usual as I wanted to get a good spot in the herd before we actually hit trail and the trail became a muddy mess. It was still raining, still cold but I figured 3-4 hours of anything I can handle. I've been through worse...

About halfway though the race at Barr Camp I began to have my doubts about 'getting above it,' as the announcer had mentioned. Sorry, my experience in the mountains just made me believe otherwise. I was at 10,200 feet in elevation and still in the thick of the storm, still raining and oh yeah, definitely COLDER.

I was soaked of course. Shoes, shorts, shirts, hat and gloves. I would squeeze my had into a fist and my water would just flow out of my gloves. Unbelievable. Keep going.

When I got close to treeline about 10 miles into the course I saw something I had never seen before. People coming DOWN the trail on Ascent day. It didn't make any sense but I kept going. Treeline, 3 miles to go to finish, approximately 2000 vertical feet in elevation left to gain, this is where chaos reigned. This is where the story really starts.

It was mayhem... The search and rescue team checking people out. People were turning around and going down. That answered my one question from before. I was told that it was horrible above the trees... windy and cold. They also told me to plan on an hour and half to reach the summit as it was that bad the last mile. I joked with a S&R volunteer that this was really turning into quite the sufferfest and we agree that the day was no longer about racing, times, shirts or medals, it was about surviving. This was a whole new game.

I was smart enough to know that if there was any wind it would cut right through my wet clothes. I got a garbage bag and the S&R guy I was talking to helped me to get it fitted over my shirt. Just about everyone at that point was doing the same. Gotta somehow find a way to prevent from losing more heat the rest of the way and the bags offered no insulation they do block the wind. Got my bag, got three miles to go, so off I went.

Okay, the only way that I can truly describe life above treeline that day is to call it a pure frozen hell. Not just cold, not just rain or snow. This was ungodly to be in even in the best mountaineering gear. A pure frozen hell. The wind was blowing out of the southwest at about 20-30 miles per hour sustained. This wind was carrying the snow, sleet and hail (read: no more rain) in a horizontal direction. That snow and hail cut into any exposed flesh like a million tiny needles. My neck and my face felt like I was dry shaving with a rusty dull razor.

I managed pretty good for the first mile. It sucked for sure, but I trudged along. It was halfway through the next mile where things went bad. It took me some time looking back on the race to figure out exactly what happened but now I can see it clearly. I bonked, I ran out of go, I stalled, I flamed out... whatever you want to call it, I had nothing left at that point. I was then in pure survival mode.

Three and half hours to get to this point. Of course there would be no PR. It dawned on me that my training and diligence through the summer was going to be useful as it was probably that same training and diligence which would keep me alive for the next mile and half. As I kept going I passed another S&R volunteer and could here the chatter over his hand held radio, the race was closed.

This means that anyone who was not above treeline or past 10 miles into the course, well they were being sent back down the mountain. They would not get to finish but instead would have to hike/run/walk 10 miles back down the trail to Manitou. I still don't know who were the lucky ones and who were not that day...the people who went through those three miles up to the summit or those who went down the 10 in the rain?

I made to the one mile to go marker. That signified that I only had 800 feet in elevation to gain. The wind had died down thankfully as well as the snow but the trail was a frozen mess. This last mile, well I don't know how I made it but I did.

In Manitou Springs there is an old tyme photography shop where they take those cheesy tourist photos. In one of their windows there is a photo from the 1800's of a couple, a man and woman lying dead on Pikes Peak in the snow. A very macabre scene. That image kept going through my mind that last mile. Would I end up like that?

I was in pain. I was cold. By this time, my feet are completely frozen and soaked. My feet hurt, my toes hurt with every step. The pain sucked but I also knew that if I could feel the hurt then frostbite was not a huge problem yet. My right leg locked up. I could not bend my right knee which forced me to negotiated the step-ups in a weird way. I was also beginning to shiver uncontrollably. I covered the last mile by maybe going 100-200 yards then bending over with my hands on my knees and shivering violently until I generated enough heat to stand up and go another 100-200 yards. I welcomed the shivering as I did the pain in my feet as I knew as long as I was shivering, hypothermia did not have that strong of a grasp of me and though I was miserable, I was still somewhat safe.

I was scared. I knew no matter what I would probably not die, and somehow they would cart me off the mountain if I collapsed but I did not want to test that theory. Only one other time have I felt as close to death. Less than a mile to go but I had no idea if I could really make it.

The top of the mountain was void of the normal spectators during race day. A frozen wasteland. Two race volunteers grabbed me as I got across the finish line and escorted me indoors and covered me with a dry blanket. I could not stop shivering for about 20 minutes. As soon as I stopped shivering I got out of there to make room for others and proceeded to get myself down the mountain via the shuttle. I shook nearly the whole 20 miles down the road.

Got home made some quick phone calls and got into a very hot shower. I was in shock, the whole experience really got to me. I never wanted to run again, and forget ever doing anything on a mountain at that. Somehow, well, it is me after all, I bounced back really quick after getting home so I boogied to the grocery store and the liquor store as I was actually having a party that night.

My buddy Erich, well he was one of the ones who did not make it above tree line. He came over on his way home. I was so glad to find out that he was safe.

Had a great party and the next day I found myself standing on a bridge with the South Platte River flowing under my feet. The sun was at my back and warm. I was more sore and stiff than I could have imagined but I was alive. I had a full stomach of some great Mexican Food and a few Corona's in me. I was so glad to freaking be vertical. Life is all about contrast...

What a difference a day makes, eh?


  1. Without a doubt, one of my most memorable days of racing ever. It was nuts. For what it is worth, we got through SAR ... I feel worse for the folks who got turned back.

  2. Yeah. Fun stuff. This made me find my pre-blogging days race report that I sent to the local tri club. Thought it might entertain ya:

    I got the pleasure of competing in the Ascent this morning. Figured some of you might be interested in hearing some of the stuff I got to experience.

    The weather forecast was accurate. In the five minutes it took me to walk from my place to the starting line, I was already soaked. Amazingly, volunteers were out in full force as if it was 60 and sunny. Wow.

    I'm not sure what the deal was, but the field went out a bit faster this year than in previous campaigns. Dressed in shorts, a short-sleeve T, a clear cycling shell, and some cotton gloves (cotton anything = mistake), I settled into my pace and just enjoyed the conditions. While I was a touch on the warm side when I started, I knew it was going to get quite chilly as the race progressed.

    Met up with fellow club members Brett Wilson and Cindy O'Neill somewhere on the W's and ran with them both for a while. Hit Barr Camp in 1:23. Just before A-Frame, I saw my first race casualty - some guy wearing only shorts and a singlet had wisely turned around due to the cold. I'm not sure how wise the decision to wear just shorts and singlets in the first place was...

    Volunteers at the A-Frame struck the fear of God into all of us..."Good job,'s about to get a LOT colder, watch out!" they said. Surely, the wind did pick up above A-Frame, the snow began to accumulate, and the trail began to get slippery. I managed to actually run most of the portion above timberline and felt good if not great. Other than my hands, I wasn't cold either. I slipped and fell one time...kinda felt like that old lady from those "The Clapper" informercials as my hands weren't working too well. Got to the top in a PR of 2:53:34, kept jogging to my bag full of warm clothes, jogged into the summit house, changed into dry stuff, and got the heck off the mountain.

    Off the top of my head, there were some impressive performances by some other P2ers. Michael Hagen in, the Masters winner, 14th overall in 2:38. Brett Wilson, 21st overall in 2:50. Cindy O'Neill, the 5th female in 2:56.

    I haven't heard of any casualties, but the med tent was chock full o' shivering souls. Many people didn't wear windproof or waterproof layers...I think that was the key to staying warm today. I've never really had a chance to participate in something so off-the-wall and I enjoyed every second of it. This was no doubt one of the most fun races I've ever competed in.

    I hope the weather is a bit more tame for the marathoners tomorrow.

  3. I didn't realize that the both of you had been a part of that fun as well. I have the picture of me that the photographer took near the top of the peak in poster size in my office to remind me of well... a lot of things. Thanks for putting your writeup in here too Sean. Misery loves company! :)

  4. Such vivid memories of that race day. Definitely the most cold I've ever been...and the most I've ever shivered. I remember trying to down a PowerBar on the van ride down in hopes of getting some fuel into the body to spur the re-warming. Gave me a whole new appreciation about perseverance and, well, the need for gloves.

  5. Yes, that was quite the day (and weekend). I went back for more the next day at PPM, the snow was so much nicer than the sleet. Everyone on the shuttle after PPA was shivering so hard that the van was shaking.

    I was there for #5 too. I need to run SJ50 again so I can actually the see what the Continental Divide Trail looks like.