Things would be different in 2000

By Patrick J. Hollenbeck

Last year (1999) was my first Pikes Peak Ascent Race. I finished in 3 hours 50 minutes. Not too bad for my first try, but I knew I could do better. I didn’t have a good race strategy, and I’m sure I went out too fast. My training could have been better too. I also wasn’t familiar with Matt Carpenter’s Pikes Peak Pace Calculator or heart rate monitoring. Things would be different in 2000.

Unfortunately, due to a minor (but persistent) knee injury, I didn’t start my training program until January of 2000. I averaged only about 10 miles a week during January, and I slowly built up my mileage to about 20 miles a week over the next several months. To some, 20 miles a week sounds like a lot of miles. However, I know that serious runners average 50 to 100 miles a week (or more). Given my previous knee problems, family and work commitments, 20 to 25 miles a week is about all I could hope to accomplish during my training program. Fortunately, my knee didn’t bother me at all this year.

I purchased a heart rate monitor in March, and it really made a huge difference in my training program. I kept most of my training runs within my target heart rate zone (70% to 80% of max HR). For me (age 32), this was about 135 to 155 beats per minute. However, during short races my heart rate was much faster. I ran a 5k on July 4th, and my average heart rate was about 180. During the last minute of the race, I got it up to 193. My mile splits were roughly 7:14, 6:35, and 6:30. As you can see, I start out a bit slow (due to slower runners in my way) and then really picked up the pace the last two miles. Certainly not an elite performance, but I was pleased.

About half of my training runs were on flat, paved trails. These runs were only about 3 to 5 miles in length. I got a few miles in each week on a treadmill (10% to 15% incline). In addition, I ran 6 to 10 miles every Saturday on hilly dirt trails. Unfortunately, I don’t have the luxury of training at altitude. I live in Ohio, and the elevation here is less than 1,000 feet. However, I grew up in Colorado Springs, and I visit a couple of times a year to see family, friends, and climb some mountains. Toward the end of July, I climbed the Crestone Peaks (over 14,000 ft). In addition, I ran to the 7.8 Summit Sign on Barr Trail one evening. In all, I spent about 4 days in Colorado during this trip and then returned to Ohio. I can’t imagine this did much to help me acclimate for the race a month later.

My July training run from the race start to the 7.8 Sign on Barr Trail (about 5 miles?) was a bit disappointing. I knew from reading Matt Carpenter’s articles that I needed to run an even effort (heart rate) to perform well on race day. For many weeks I had debated about what heart rate would work best for me. Staying within 180 to 190 beats per minute may work fine for a 5k race, but I would rig up and die after about 30 minutes into the Pikes Peak Ascent with this game plan. Pikes Peak would require a much slower heart rate. During my one hour training runs, 150 beats per minute seemed a reasonable target. I felt that I could keep this effort up for several hours. When I tried this during my 7.8 Sign training run, I found myself getting really exhausted on the W’s. Perhaps this was due to climbing the Crestones just two days earlier. I kept the effort going the best I could, and reached the 7.8 sign after 1 hour 32 minutes. I checked my split times when I got home and found that Matt’s pace calculator was right on target. I was within about 1 minute of each split time on his pace calculator. The bad news was that this pace would put met on the summit in 3 hours 53 minutes. In addition, Matt’s pace calculator assumes training at high altitude. Therefore, I would most likely reach the summit well after four hours. This was bad news since I wanted to beat my previous ascent time of 3:50. Regardless, I had a month of training ahead of me, and I was hopeful that I would do much better on race day.

I arrived in Colorado Springs a week before race day. On the Monday before the race, I did another training test run to the 7.8 Sign on Barr Trail. I thought that things would go much better with fresh legs, but I was wrong. I kept my heart rate right around 150 the entire way, and I again reached the 7.8 sign in 1 hour 32 minutes! This was really bad news! If there was any hope of beating my previous ascent time, I was going to have to run with a faster heart rate and hope that I could maintain the effort.

On race day morning, I was still debating with myself about what heart rate limits I should set on my monitor. I really wanted to do better than last year. My goal this year was to reach the summit in 3:45 (or better of course). I took Matt’s Pikes Peak Pace Calculator split times based on an ascent goal time of 3:45, and I wrote them all on my left arm with a ball point pen. About 5 minutes before the start of the race, I set my upper limit alarm on my hear rate monitor to 160. I wasn’t too worried about setting a lower limit since I rarely find myself going too slow during training runs or races. I didn’t know if I could keep the pace the entire race, but I was willing to take the risk.

Strange things happen to me during races. Even though I felt really exhausted the week before the race, I had oceans of energy on race day. My normal resting heart rate is about 65 just standing around, but it was well over 100 a few minutes before the start of the race. When the race final began, I started running very slowly. I reached Ruxton Ave in 4:00 with an average heart rate of 145 for the split. Matt’s Pikes Peak Pace Calculator said that I should have reached Ruxton in 4:57. Was I really going too fast? This was hard to imagine since hundreds and hundreds of runners had passed me by time I reached Ruxton. For a short time I slowed things down even more, but this was frustrating. I walked some of the steeper sections of Ruxton and reached Hydro Street in 13:20 with an average heart rate of 157 for the split. The Pace Calculator said that I should have reached Hydro in 14:11. Many other runners still kept passing me, and I knew that most of these folks were starting out way too fast.

I kept going over my 160 HR limit on the way up Ruxton Ave, and my heart rate alarm was really starting to bug me. So, I decided to take another gamble. I shut the alarm off and mentally set a new upper limit of 165 with the goal of keeping my heart rate in the low 160’s. This seemed to be a much more comfortable pace both emotionally and physically. It was more strenuous, but I felt that I could keep it up. The only problem was that I had to look at my monitor often to make sure I wasn’t going over my new limit.

Racing through the W’s was challenging, and I always seem to get through this section slower than I should. The trail is so narrow and packed with walkers that it’s almost impossible to pass or be passed through this section. This didn’t trouble me too much since I was also walking most of the time and still able to keep my heart rate around 160. I reached the top of the W’s in 47:11 with an average heart rate of 162. The pace calculator said I should have been there in 45:14. Now I was behind schedule! However, things would change in my favor very soon. Things seemed level out a little bit and get less congested once I got through the W’s, and I finally had my first real opportunity to start passing people. However, passing other runners/walkers during the Pikes Peak Ascent Race is like trying to pass a string of five trucks on the highway as you approach a one lane bridge! It was during these times when I found myself going into the upper 160’s with my heart rate. I reached French Creek in 1:07:50 with an average heart rate of 162. The pace calculator said I should have been there in 1:05:55. Still behind schedule, but at least I wasn’t loosing any more time.

I reached the 7.8 Summit Sign in 1:29:16 (average heart rate 162) and found myself back on schedule. The Pace Calculator said that I should have been there in 1:29:20. From this point on, I kept my heart rate fairly steady and found that I reached each of the remaining split times within a minute of the Pace Calculator splits. I’ll bet that less than 10 people passed my from the 7.8 Sign to the Summit. It was fun passing the hundreds of runners that passed me early in the race.

I reached Barr Camp in 1:53:24 (average HR 160), the Bottomless Pit Sign in 2:10:25 (average HR 160), and the A-Frame in 2:40:04 (average HR 160). All of these splits were within just a few seconds of my goal pace based on Matt’s Pace Calculator.

Things got really chilly after the A-frame above tree line, and I put on my light windbreaker and gloves. It was probably in the mid 30’s, with some wind, but very sunny. Keeping warm was no problem because I was moving fairly rapidly up the mountain. I love being above tree line! I’ve climbed many mountains in Colorado, and I always seem to get another boost of energy when I reach tree line. This time was no different. Emotionally, I wanted to start pushing hard for the summit. I could hear the crowd at the summit cheering as runners were crossing the finish line. However, I checked the split times I had wrote down on my arm and quickly realized that there was almost another hour of racing ahead of me. This was definitely not the time to push. I reached the “2 to Go” sign in 3:02:47 (average HR 161) only 5 seconds slower than the Pace Calculator Split.

On my way to the “1 to Go” sign, I noticed a lot of race participants that were in various stages of agony. The air is very thin here and cold, and most participants were moving very slowly. Others were really hating life and going nowhere. A few were hunched over as they examined the contents of their breakfast on the trail. For a few moments, I thought that I might joint them, but a GU seemed to help me regain my strength. I reached the “1 to Go” sign in 3:22:55 (average HR 158), one minute slower than the pace calculator said I should have been there.

With only one mile to go in the race, and a little behind schedule, I was again tempted to start pushing hard for the summit. However, this last mile is considered by many to be the toughest mile of the course because of the altitude and steepness. At my goal pace, the final mile is similar to running a flat land 5K. I kept a steady pace for the next 10 minutes and then really picked things up. I finally reached the summit in 3:43:43 (seven minutes faster than my 1999 Ascent). My average HR this last split was 164. However, my HR was in the low 170’s the last few minutes of the race.

I’ve always entertained the idea of running the Pikes Peak Marathon some day, and this thought came to mind again as I was crossing the finish line. However, rigormortis set in within minutes after I crossed the finish line. I walked around for about a minute and then sat down to wait for a friend to finish. It wasn’t long (perhaps two minutes), but any amount of sitting was a big mistake. My legs felt like sacks of lead when I tried to stand up, and I could barely walk. I managed to stumble my way over to the sweat check area and put on some warmer clothes, but this was a struggle. Even bundled up, I was freezing cold. I didn’t stay on the summit long, and took a bus ride back to town. Turing around at the summit and running another 13.3 miles down the mountain seemed pretty unrealistic at that point. Perhaps some day it would, but not this year.

The 2000 Pikes Peak Ascent was a fun race, and I had reached my goal. My time of 3 hours 43 minutes placed me in the top third of my age category. Certainly not an elite performance, but better than average. Using the Pace Calculator in combination with my hear rate monitor was great! What really surprised me was the fact that I was able to keep a steady effort and stay almost dead on the pace calculator splits without having had any high altitude training. Matt warns us that the pace calculator assumes high altitude training. “Without training in high altitude, you can expect to lose some serious time after The A-frame.” The fact that I didn’t loose any time is puzzling to me. Could I have run the entire race with a higher heart rate and performed better? I doubt it, but who knows. Perhaps I just adapt to altitude better than most people. Regardless, I’ll be back next year with my heart rate monitor and Matt’s Pace Calculator aimed at a 3:30 Ascent!

Patrick J. Hollenbeck
Bellbrook, OH

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