This story has been archived from the Thursday, August 17, 2006

With Pikes Peak races, it’s a sprint to the starting line


Runners shut out of the area’s biggest races are seeing red in Pikes Peak’s purple mountain majesty, and race organizers are facing a predicament.

The Pikes Peak Ascent, the 13.32-mile race that finishes at the 14,115-foot summit, is set to start at 7 a.m. Saturday in Manitou Springs. The Pikes Peak Marathon, the 26.21-mile, up-and-down version, begins at 7 a.m. Sunday.

Both are grueling races even for the fittest of runners, where it’s routine to see competitors crossing the finish bent double, or with broken bones or limbs bloodied from falls on Barr Trail.

Yet they have become almost too popular. This year, the Ascent’s 1,800-runner field filled up in nine hours, 53 minutes through online entries that opened at 8 a.m. March 1. The marathon, capped at 800 entrants by the U.S. Forest Service, took just 23 hours to fill up.

Signing up for the event has become the race before the race. Some don’t mind. Others do. Talk about tension. Ladies and gentlemen, start your hard drives.


The Pikes Peak Ascent starts at 7 a.m. Saturday in Manitou Springs. The Pikes Peak Marathon gets under way at 7 a.m. Sunday.
“I felt like I was buying U2 tickets,” wrote one runner on, a local running club’s Web site where debate raged more than a month after registration.

Race director Ron Ilgen agrees something has to give.

“Once we get this race over, it’s one of the biggest decisions we’ll have to face,” he said Wednesday, referring to the event’s five-member board. If registration was uncapped, he estimated, 3,000 would run the Ascent and 1,500 the Marathon.

If it were up to Ilgen, he’d give more weight to entries from “streakers” — those who have competed for several consecutive years, El Paso County and Front Range residents and entrants in the Triple Crown of Running, a local series that includes the Summer Roundup and Garden of the Gods 10-mile races.

“It could be a lottery, it could be first-come, first-serve,” he said.

The idea of a lottery makes some runners’ blood boil. It leaves your entry up to luck. You get no points for getting up early and getting through online. That’s too random for those competitive types who take entering so seriously they’ve been known to take a half-day of vacation time to sit by their screens March 1.

Others say the problem can be fixed by weeding out slower competitors or those who walk the whole way. They want applications parsed by using qualifying times, or lowering cutoff times at points on the course. Others think the method in place is just fine.

“It’s fair, first-come, first-serve,” said Erik Schneider of Colorado Springs, a nine-time Ascent runner.

At the crux of the matter is a predicament common to competition from running races to Little League: Should everyone get to play, or just the better people?

Pikes Peak, after all, is a race. But it’s different than most. The course is so brutal, only about a dozen competitors in each race actually run the entire course. Most, even those who train for months, speedwalk a good portion, especially the 3-mile section above tree line where altitude makes you feel as if you’re breathing through a straw.

Ilgen, a self-described “middle of the packer” who has two Pikes Peak Marathons and one Ascent to his credit, is a proponent of mass participation. The mountain race is too wondrous an achievement to not be experienced by run-of-the-mill runners, he said.

“It’s something an average person can accomplish. If they train on the mountain and acclimate, they can do it,” he said.

But even Ilgen admits being taken aback by some neophytes who gained entry in past years. One asked which mountain was Pikes Peak. Another did not know that the bib safety pins issued with race packets are for attaching the bib to a shirt.

“They worry me,” he said. “They’re either not prepared physically or are not wearing the proper clothing. That, again, is the reason we have cutoff times.”

Last year, on the marathon’s 50th anniversary, Gary P. Williams, 59, of Norman, Okla., died of a suspected heart attack on the ascent portion of the Marathon. He was an accomplished runner with 45 marathons to his credit. Bob Love, 57, of Earlham, Iowa, died in the 1992 Ascent.

Saturday, Denver’s Karen Voss, an elite masters runner, won’t be feeling the burn. But she’s been doing a slow one since March. She tried to sign up March 3 and found the Ascent and the Marathon fields full. A past Ascent runner, she said it’s unlikely she’ll try to enter future races on the peak.

What irked Voss most is not just the fact that she can run a 3:10 marathon. It’s that she was a top-10 finisher in the Summer Roundup and Garden of the Gods 10-mile races and only needed Pikes Peak to complete the Triple Crown, which is promoted heavily by local organizers.

“It’s most frustrating for the individuals who were planning on doing the Triple Crown and are elite runners,” she said.

Voss is happy the system might change. She doesn’t hold it against race administrators.

“I’m looking at it more as lesson learned,” she said.

Entering the Pikes Peak Ascent (capped at 1,800 runners) and Marathon (800) has become a competition in itself. Below are the times from when registration opened to when the event filled.

YearEventFill Time
2004Ascent11 weeks
2004Marathon2 months
2005Ascent3 days
2005Marathon4 days
2006Ascent9 hours 53min
2006Marathon23 hours

Copyright 2006, The Gazette, a division of Freedom Colorado Information. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

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