Hey, who turned off the air?


Before e-mail, before the Triple Crown, before staggered starts, and before I realized what I was getting into, I heard about the Pikes Peak Marathon (1981) and impulsively entered it — Ascent only, fortunately. I didn’t know how steep Pikes Peak was, but I thought the $10 entry fee was at least moderately steep. Being from Larned, Kansas, elevation 2000 feet, preparations for the race were awkward and done in blissful ignorance. Special training consisted of running against the wind and up and down Morris Street Hill (2 blocks) until friends would come by and distract me with beer.

After driving 7 hours on Friday, August 7, to get to Colorado Springs, and after ignoring almost all pre-race instructions, I found myself standing at the starting line Saturday morning in downtown Manitou Springs amidst a lot of people who looked like runners, but obviously not like Kansans. Suddenly, it occurred to me that my body was slightly numb. I didn’t know if the numbness was due to hypoxia or a partial shut-down of my autonomic nervous system.

When the starter gun fired and I began making my way down Manitou Avenue, I wondered if I shouldn’t drop out and duck into one of the cafes we were passing and have breakfast. (If I didn’t run the race, I wouldn’t have to apologize or explain anything to my friends back in Kansas, even my running buddies. Besides, I already had my t-shirt and number to prove I was really there. I’d even show them the cancelled $10 check!) But, I kept running, I think at least in part, because there were too many cars and spectators lining the street to make even a semi-graceful exit. By the time I got to Ruxton Avenue, and could have dropped out by meandering casually into the background unnoticed, my judgement was diluted to such a degree I had convinced myself I knew something about altitude running. So, with the arrogance of youth, even though youth was no excuse for me, I continued up the street. Surprisingly, this mind-set worked for me. After about 3 hours into the race, I thought I was getting the hang of it, and then they cut the oxygen off. This was at the timber line where trees and greenery ceased to grow. At the point where there truly was less oxygen, and thus, a scientific basis for explaining why my reasoning processes were seemingly compromised, reality was clear. My most acute insight was — trees have better sense than to grow here — why are all these people running here? Motivated to finish, and since it seemed easier to go to the top as opposed to running back down, I trudged forth. The last mile or so seemed like half of the whole race.

When I finished the ascent, I only wanted to get off the mountain so I could get some oxygenated air, a beer, and breakfast at one of those cafes I had run past on Manitou Avenue.

By the time I got back to Manitou Springs and got my breakfast, I thought to myself — as the Germans would say, “Was uns nicht umbringt mact uns starker!” (Loosely, what does not destroy me makes me stronger.)

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