Only thing missing was the moon!


The 1999 Pikes Peak Ascent was held last weekend. I wanted to share some of my thoughts with you all and encourage more of you to “run” it next year. With a few notable exception (elite runners like Matt Carpenter and Paul DeWitt), none of us have a prayer of “placing” in this race. It is really a race against yourself, with goals set by yourself. Everyone reading this is capable of finishing and finishing strong. Here’s some stuff I learned in my first time out. I did not have a single minute that was miserable and felt strong at the finish. The T-shirt is great and I really enjoyed getting the medal at the end. You can too!

I started near the back of the second wave at 7:30am. I jogged from the starting line to Ruxton (you must jog this section because it’s so cool to run with all those runners past the folks cheering in the streets of downtown Manitou Springs), then hiked basically the rest of the way. I jogged the two, short downhill sections before Barr Camp, but did not jog the last, long downhill section before Barr Camp. I jogged the last few steps of the 16 Golden Stairs at the top, but there was too much traffic to jog it all. That’s it. The rest was a hike.

I was probably the most hydrated person on the mountain. I carried 3 quarts of water in my CamelBak Mule mixed in with a single scoop of Gatorade Powder (very diluted mixture of Gatorade). In addition, I drank 2 cups of water before the race started, 1 cup at French Creek, 2 cups at Barr Camp, 2 cups at A-Frame, and 1 cup at the 1.5-miles to go station. I sucked on the CamelBak between the aid stations. I finished off the last of my 3 quarts between A-frame and 2-miles to go. I was absolutely not going to be dehydrated above tree line! Even with all that liquid on board, I did not have to urinate until the race was complete. Of course, by that time, I really had to go. Stay hydrated. Your body will thank you above tree line.

I learned about “Gu” the Tuesday before the race. Howard Alt and I hiked Bierstadt and Evans (a loop including the East Ridge of Bierstadt, then the Sawtooth Ridge leading to Evans) and he convinced me to use one Gu packet as my sole source of nutrition during the 5.5-hour climb. My stomach grumbled because it was empty, but I had plenty of energy to complete the climb. I was hooked. My Gu schedule during the race, as it turns out, matched very closely to the schedule used by the Ascent winner. I took 1 a few minutes before race start, 1 at French Creek, 1 at Barr Camp, and 1 at A-Frame (about 1 each hour, that is). I chose to put the Gu in my mouth and spread it around my gums with my tongue in an effort to improve absorption into my body (I don’t know if this makes any difference). Of course, I took them with lots of water. I chose the Vanilla Bean flavor, at Howard’s recommendation. Very tasty! That’s all I ate (except for 5 grapes with 1.5-miles to go). Gu is highly recommended. Get it.

I wore Patagonia capilene briefs (highly recommended), light shorts (nylon), sunglasses, and a long-sleeve lightweight Patagonia capilene T-shirt. I put on sunscreen before the race. In addition to the Gu, I packed a pair of light Gore windstopper mittens, a light rain jacket, a couple granola bars, and toilet paper. I didn’t use anything that I packed except for the Gu. The long-sleeve capilene T-shirt worked great, with rolled up sleeves through A-Frame, then rolled down sleeves above tree line. The shirt was absolutely soaked after the first hour, however, and I continued to sweat, so it never dried out. You might want to bring an extra one to change into at A-Frame. I probably should have put on the mittens, but I was too lazy, so my hands were just a bit cold for the last 2 miles. Take advantage of the “Sweat Check” service, because you will be wet and cold when you reach the top. Pack a bunch of warm clothes and rain gear in the sweat check bag and it will be waiting for you at the finish. It’s great!

As for race tactics, you need to make a personal decision as to whether you’re in good enough shape to go out hard and run, or whether you need to hold back and save something for the high altitude conditions above tree line. You must factor in the amount of high altitude (12,000-14,000 foot) training sessions that you have done leading up to the race. The vast majority of us are not elite athletes and should plan on going out slow and saving their strength for above tree line. I jogged the first half-mile, then stopped and watched, sadly, as hundreds of people charged past me. I really wanted to run, but knew that it would wipe me out. I knew this because I did a two “test runs” from the starting line a couple weeks before the race. In those test runs, I determined that I was not in good enough shape to go out hard. I had to pace myself. My test runs did not take me above A-Frame, which was a mistake. Next year, my test run will include all of the mountain. As it turned out, my race day split times almost exactly matched my test run split times. This means that the giant crowds in the first 3 miles should not dramatically affect your time. You may find yourself passing people constantly, but you will probably be able to get close to your target pace. I estimate that I passed about 700 people through the course of the race, including most of those folks that raced past me on Ruxton. Know your target pace and run your own race. Do some test runs from the starting line, not the Barr Trail Trailhead. Don’t push too hard in the beginning. There is a whole lot of mountain ahead of you! This is not your usual 10K flat race...

Another tactic that worked for me and helped to keep me from blowing out too soon was to use the other runners to help with my pace. Above Barr Trail, I made a game of it. Everybody is walking above Barr Camp (well, the elite athletes aren’t, but you won’t see them). The natural race formation is a group of hikers clumped together with nobody saying much. I call them the “line of the zombies.” The zombie lines are composed of 5-20 people and there is typically a fair amount of space between one zombie line and the next one up the trail. The zombies are the ones that went out too fast and are not enjoying the race. Don’t become a zombie... You will not enjoy the race! The game was to push the heart rate up as I approached a zombie line, then file in behind and slow the pace to bring the heart rate down for a couple of minutes. When I started feeling fresh again, I would look for some passing opportunities and make my move through the pack. I’d continue to move quickly past the front of the zombie line and try to catch up to the back of the next line. Then file in, recover, and pass again. This worked well for me, but you really need to find out what works best for you. In looking back, even though I was just hiking, only one person passed me above tree line. Save your strength!

I also suggest trying to do some real high-altitude work before the race. Get out, climb some fourteeners, soak up the limited oxygen at the summit for as long as the weather permits you to do so, try to choose hikes that keep you above tree line for as long as possible. Some people even camp just below tree line near A-Frame for a week before the race to acclimatize. That’s probably more for the elite athletes, and not for us. I suggest driving up to the top of Pikes Peak after work when the weather looks inviting and doing some training above tree line. Jim Engquist recommends doing the 3-2-1, where you go down three miles (to A-Frame), then back to the top; rest a bit, then down 2 miles and back up; rest, then down 1 and back up. That’s a big outing, but will make a huge difference in how you feel above tree line. The more brutal approach is to do a 1-2-3. Same idea, but switch the order. Your final 3 miles will probably track your race-day performance pretty closely with this test! Try to do this training as much as possible during those long summer days leading to race day. Personally, I climbed many fourteeners in the two months preceding the race, and it made all the difference in the world. I felt like I was the happiest guy above tree line in the race. I had lots of reserve energy at the finish and that really made for a more enjoyable experience. Don’t make a chore of it. You’re really only racing with yourself, so you might as well enjoy it. You will thank yourself for all the high-altitude training when you complete the race feeling strong and fresh. Do it.

I really thought getting the medal at the end was the coolest thing. I felt like a winner! So what if there were something like 650 people faster than me on the mountain. There will always be hundreds of people faster than me in this race. I ran my race and achieved my goals. They were all doing the same. There were hundreds of excellent athletes out there at that race. I was absolutely thrilled to end up around the middle of the field. Not bad for someone that doesn’t run! I proved to myself that this can be a hikers race. And, given that everyone can hike, this is a race for everyone that does some preparation and paces themselves appropriately. And, have I mentioned yet how cool it was to receive the medal?

Here are my approximate split times for various points along the trail. These coincide with Matt Carpenter’s pace chart, which you can find at: My splits tracked very close to Matt’s pace calculator (a minute ahead or a minute behind at the various spots).

Personal goal was 4-5 hours
 with a 4:30 target

Ruxton                 4:30
Hydro Street          15:19
Top of W's:           50:20
French Creek        1:13:12
7.5 Summit          1:38:15
Barr Camp           2:06:30  (1st half 2:06:30)
Bottomless Pit      2:25:20
A-Frame             2:59:??
2 To Go             3:25:??
1 To Go             3:45:??
Finish              4:10:46  (2nd half 2:04:16)

PS: Another great way to get familiar with the trail up to Barr Camp is to join me on one of the monthly moonlight hikes to Barr Camp.

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