I bent double over my ice axe and glanced upwards. Mont Blanc's tin box Vallot Hut didn't appear to be any closer than at my last agonised look, hardly surprising given that in the ten minutes since then I'd barely managed twenty steps. The afternoon sun warmed my neck as I gulped in air, desperate for that reassuring feeling of deep breath hitting the bottom of my lungs. The headaches and nausea were a portent of the horrendous night I had in store and the impending storm wasn't the main reason that there would be no summit attempt that year. Welcome to 14,000ft Mr Bailey, now get back to the valley where you belong...
August 2014 - 14,000 feet above sea level
Where the hell is the A-Frame? We're above the treeline and moving well but there's been no sign of the structure which definitively marks the transition to the open mountain section, the section I'd been repeatedly warned about in the last 48 hours, the one that reduces World Class athletes to arthritic wrecks. My world has diminished to just the few metres directly in front of me. Scotland's Claire Gordon is pushing a solid pace, still running towards a superb category win for her. I'm more than happy to tuck in and keep pace, I was told we wouldn't still be running at this point, I was told wrong...
The Pikes Peak ascent and marathon is world famous amongst endurance athletes and mountain runners. The ascent section climbs a massive 7,815 feet over 13.32 miles of constant uphill over trail and open scree slopes. This year it had been selected to host the World Long Distance Mountain Running Champs adding even more prestige to one of the most coveted titles in running.
|Pikes Peak in the background (from halfway down it)|
The 25 hour journey passed mostly without incident through Dublin to Colorado Springs via Chicago despite a desperate drive from the airport accidentally taking in the long stay car park and some tunnel visioned, sleep deprived Interstate terror. On the way I'd met my NI team mates Justin Maxwell and Chris Stirling and waiting at the accommodation was Peter Bell. The team was complete and full of excitement for the challenge ahead. Despite the exhaustion of the journey the time difference played its tricks and I lay awake from 3am, struggling to relax but consoling myself that it'd make getting prepared at 4am on race day an easy prospect.
|Where we stayed was none too shabby!|
Thursday evening we were joined by Dr William Elliott, renowned physiologist and seven times Pikes Peak veteran. I'd been really looking forward to meeting him and gleaning as much information as possible about the challenge ahead. I've never been faced with any event that has so many inherent uncertainties before and so soaked up his words of caution and inspiration intently. After giving us a really detailed breakdown of the course and the efforts required, particularly for us sea level dwelling 'flatlanders' as we're known in mountainous Colorado he asked us for our predicted finish times. I was caught in two minds, reveal my prior estimate (prior to the continuous warnings to go VERY easy for the first 7-8 miles since we'd arrived) or play safe and avoid risking looking like an idiot. Being someone who is familiar with being driven by a risk of failure and not being overly averse to looking an idiot I stuck to my guns and gave a firm and confident sounding 'sub 3 hours'. The reality in my head was that I had no clue whether I'd be much nearer the men's average time of 4:20.
|Team NI psyched and ready to race|
Mile 1, relax, steady, don't chase. People are streaming past and I could easily keep up with them. This is contrary to all my usual race tactics but I'll see many of these people again when they're dying higher up. Ignore the cheering crowd, ignore the pride, focus on the pace, find a rhythm.
Miles 2-4, this is too slow. I feel far too relaxed. I'm practically jogging and not even breathing hard, I warn people passing me to take it steady but most ignore me. Some are wheezing and breathing really hard, I laugh internally. Get passed by someone with a Go-Pro strapped to their head, a f***ing Go-Pro!! This isn't a serious runner. Have to fight the urge to pass him, bury him, teach him to respect the race and the mountain but relax, back to the rhythm. Pass No Name Creek, into unknown territory. Start passing the victims already including a South African I've been chatting to a bit, I tell him to relax, he tells me he's already in survival mode. He's in for a very long tough ordeal and I'm still not even breathing hard. I think the advice may have been right!
Miles 5-7.5, finally off the leash. The course has flattened and I'm kicking on. Ding Dong battle with a Polish runner, he's faster on the flats, I pass when it steepens. Lost in personal competition we pass a dozen others. Drink, measure effort and get a real sense of enjoyment. Push on towards the half way mark and 'Barr Camp'. I know I want a gel just before the aid station but how will I know where it is? I hear it hundreds of metres before I see it, this is the USA, enthusiastic crowd support is practically a National passtime. I really appreciate the shouts, almost as much as the Gatorade but what the hell does 'yeeeehhhhh represent real good' actually mean? Check my watch, bang on 3hr pace, satisfaction.
Miles 8-10, I've read the course notes, I know that mentally these are the toughest miles. Over half way but not yet on the open mountain, like a no-man's land of extreme effort. Steeper narrower trails, uneven steps, legs rapidly deteriorating but I'm still passing people, still pushing on. Cramping, out of the blue, really didn't expect that. Been chugging the Gatorade but must've sweated much more than I thought. Stuff in a salt capsule, unbelievably disgusting, instant relief. Push on, enjoy the pain.
Miles 10-13, the open mountain. I've read and been told so much about this section. 'It's unrunnable', 'it'll destroy runners', 'people lying and puking everywhere'. Like anything built up that much it's an anticlimax. Contouring trails are 90% runnable, don't walk, I haven't come all this way to walk. Stick to Claire, she's going well and we're still passing athletes. The body feels OK but the head is all over the shop, overwhelming dizziness, vision looks like it's through a filter, fuzzy peripheries. I fall on to boulders deliberately to avoid falling on them accidentally. No summit, does this mountain have a summit? Why the hell does this fella keep sprinting past and then stop in the middle of the track? Dickhead!
Miles 13-13.32, 'go on, you can make sub 3' shout the wellwishers. I know this already, my pacing has been perfect. I will make sub 3. Just a few more short switchbacks, the finish, kick out a sprint, I always kick out a sprint. 2:56:50. Medal round my neck. Medics ask 'are you OK?' Yes I'm OK thanks, but the dude who kept sprinting past isn't, he's collapsed at the finish. I've done it, a rush of emotion, surrounded by smiles, I think I enjoyed that!
The next half hour...
I'm a firm believer that you have to grab your finish line emotion and hold on to it hard. Like a snapshot, how do I feel right at this very moment? If you wait even five minutes til the heart rate is down and the head is clear then you can forever be left with the unanswerable question, 'was that my best'?
As I crossed the line I felt great. Even sitting here long after, even despite the drunken fuzziness of altitude I can still recall a deep satisfaction. I wandered through the other international runners, chatting away. Some were already displaying that post-race malaise, could've, should've, if only. Pretty soon my thoughts will go the same way but that finish line sense of pride, completion, discipline, effort, pain and realised ambition has been banked and I'm all the better for that.
|Summit smiles, just after the finish|
The next ten hours...
Amongst the best of my life! So many highs, enhanced by the mass euphoria of a town overflowing with endorphins. Free pizza and beer (thanks WMRA), massages (thanks Billy) and easy conversation with some genuine running legends, normal people with abnormal abilities. On the hour long drive down from the summit we got chatting to 3rd place finisher Andy Wacker, a phenomenal athlete and really nice guy. He insisted on driving us to the team USA post-race pool party where we relaxed and drank amazing local beers with many of our fellow Internationals. The chat was engaging and fun, I love being surrounded by people who do, not just dream of doing. Next challenges were discussed, I'd better think of one myself. The party wound down before midnight, virtually everyone there would train the next day.
|Top of the infamous 'Incline'|
Everything looked a bit different. The subconscious weight of nerves had disappeared and I enjoyed everything massively, even the mundane tasks of shopping and driving around. We ran the day after the race, a steady 13 miler with the hellish 'Incline' ascent at the end, a 3/4 mile long, 2000ft elevation gain climb which hits 68 degrees at its steepest point. The following two days I did some of the best biking of my life, brilliantly guided by Kip, an ex-pro racer who showed me just a few of the incredible local trails including a 41km descent back off Pikes Peak. It's no easier on the way down! We ate lots, ran more and soaked up as much of the stunning scenery and effortless hospitality of the American people as we could. As ever my mixed emotions of missing Anna and the boys began to tip the balance towards feeling ready to leave and so a perfect trip ended at the perfect time.
|About to descend Pikes Peak. Worth the trip just for this 36km of singletrack!|
1) I'm not a World Class athlete.
Sage Canaday (Team USA) won the race in 2:10:03, nearly 47 minutes faster than me! He is World Champion, I never will be. No real surprises there! I finished 81st of 1,760 starters and 14th in my age category, not bad for a flatlander!
2) I'm nowhere near as far off as this result would suggest.
The defining factor in this race was, as predicted the altitude. I have no doubt at all that had it started at sea level I'd have been way up the field. My 'Triple Donard' final training session ascent times were a combined 2:10:05 and that comprised over 200m MORE ascent than Pikes Peak as well as being steeper and on looser ground. You could argue that I had the recovery time on the downhills inbetween but anyone familiar with running hard down steep ground will tell you that the opposite is true. Team USA dominated Pikes Peak and they all live and train at altitude. Likewise, it's safe to assume that all the athletes from the Alpine countries have been brought up in or moved to the mountains to train and race. One of the Germans lived on Pikes Peak for the 17 days preceding the event, the others used oxygen tents and masks. Team England had to commit to being in the States at least two weeks before the race etc etc, moan, excuses! Team NI would've loved to have been out there long enough to acclimatise but we're part-timers with jobs, young families and very limited funding. I'm happy I did the very best I could in terms of prep but was defeated by the unique attributes of the race.
3) Could I have pushed harder?
This question is one I've pondered hard. I definitely heavily heeded the advice to go easy for the first half and felt more comfortable than ever before in a race. As a result, despite being a sea level dweller I actually picked up ten places in the real high altitude section above 10,000ft. I wasn't going any faster but others were dying on their feet after clearly going out too hard. I could definitely have gone 15 minutes quicker to No Name Creek and probably another 10-15 quicker up to Barr Camp, the question is would that have killed me in the second half of the race? In truth, unless I do it again I'll never know. If I did get the chance to do the race again I'd definitely run it in a completely different manner, going off with the leaders before settling into my own rhythm further up the mountain when they kicked on. I'd love to go back for the marathon at some point but pushing hard in the first five miles of twenty six would be even more ill advised so I'll probably have to accept that I'll never truly know the answer to this one.
4) Colorado was amazing.
I love the USA! As a natural cynic I always thought the over the top friendliness of Americans would feel insincere, an act put on for the tourists. I couldn't be further from the truth. The overwhelming openness and enthusiasm of people I met, from professional runners to garage attendants was completely infectious. I felt like a different person out there, talking to total strangers felt so natural. I met some truly interesting, interested and engaging people from all ages and walks of life. Couple this with beautiful accommodation, great weather, stunning mountains, top drawer running and biking, cheap and good food and it was obviously going to be a truly memorable trip. I'd love to get back there again.
|This sums up Colorado Springs. The Jack Quinns Tuesday night 5k sometimes gets 2,000 participants!|
To any runners looking for a challenge it's pretty clear from the tone of this blog that I enjoyed the Pikes Peak ascent. I'd really highly recommend you do all you can to meet the entry requirements and get signed up. It truly is an experience that'll stay with you for a lifetime.