This story was archived from the August 29, 1999 Denver Post Online

Runners encounter rough challenges en route to summit

By Cate Terwilliger
Denver Post Staff Writer

August 29 - MANITOU SPRINGS - Somewhere below the 16 Golden Stairs, those fabled rocky switchbacks that pour ragged runners at last onto the summit of Pikes Peak, one of our legion was losing it.

Sinewy and tan, embarrassed and exhausted from her efforts in the 14,000-foot chill, the woman was alternately apologizing and throwing up, unable to cajole her queasy stomach into digesting the sport drink she had hoped would power her through this last half-mile.

I touched her lightly on the back as I moved past - slender consolation in thin air - then concentrated on planting one foot after another on terrain that, almost four hours into the race, had become as precarious psychologically as it was geographically.

We - 1,800 of us, young and old, male and female, fit and foolhardy - were in the last throes of the Pikes Peak Ascent, an annual footrace up the eastern flank of America's most famous mountain.

The fleetest would make the 14,110-foot summit in about 2 hours. The slowest - except those pulled from the race by exhaustion or course officials - would take seven.

For 44 years, the 13.32-mile race has humbled the most hale and hearty of mountain runners. Some are elite athletes like Manitou Springs' Matt Carpenter - the nation's best mountain marathoner - who nonetheless hurled bananas and sport drink after completing his first Ascent in 1987.

Most are ordinary mortals seeking an extraordinary challenge: racing 7,815 vertical feet from Manitou's City Hall to the lofty reaches of the mountain that shadows this picturesque tourist town.

"The message I am getting from everybody ... is that, no matter how prepared you believe you are - physically, emotionally, mentally - there is the day that arrives, the day of the race, and there's really no preparation for that,'' said Gretchen Dianda of San Francisco two days before her first Ascent.

The mountain itself is capricious, creating a world of weather in which start and finish line temperatures can differ by as much as 50 degrees. High winds, chilling rain and even snow are possible on the peak's upper reaches, as well as intense sun that sears unprotected skin.

But it's the elevation that undoes most. At 6,000 feet - the start line is slightly higher - there's 18 percent less oxygen than at sea level; at the summit, 43 percent less. Even runners who have trained at altitude can expect a 27 percent decrease in their body's ability to deliver oxygen to the muscles near the summit. The insidious dehydration that accompanies exertion at higher elevations makes matters much worse.

Inevitably, some runners get into trouble.

"They have no concept of what it means to gain 7,815 vertical feet,'' says race director Dave Zehrer. "They have no concept of what it's like once you break treeline and can see the summit and it's still 3.1 miles away.

"We get an exposure factor. We encourage them to take fluids, because they don't realize how much they're respirating, they're not perspiring that much and they'll go right by our people trying to hand them cups of water.

"And they get to the top and get an IV jammed in their arm. ... We go through a lot of units of glucose solution up there every year.''

But the Ascent also offers the possibility of glory, and, occasionally, a kind of grace that feels like benediction from the mountain itself. Not knowing whether race day will bring misery or majesty is part of the peak's allure.

"There is some kind of inherent mystery about this mountain,'' Dianda said. "People seem to have this really awed sense of respect and humility. There are elements here I've not experienced with other physical endurance races.''

I knew what she meant. A year ago, in my first Ascent, I was granted a race I had not earned. I'd pushed myself in training, but not like other runners I knew, who had spent weeks before the race doing long runs above treeline.

Still, that Ascent was glorious. Working hard but well within myself, I stayed comfortably ahead of the 4-hour goal I'd set, arriving at the summit giddy and grateful in 3:46, good for 60th place among 473 female finishers.

This year, I was to experience the other side of majesty. - -

The most common mistake runners make in the Pikes Peak Ascent or Marathon, the knee-grinding, 26.21-mile round-trip race held a day later, is going out too fast.

Wise runners record the splits - the time it takes to travel between course landmarks - that will allow them to meet their goal. The trick is controlling race-day adrenaline enough to go sufficiently slow at the start, then overcoming fatigue enough to go sufficiently fast in the course's upper reaches.

Many fail, of course. They lose their goal in that first mile, with the good-natured encouragement of spectators - "Way to go! Only one more hill!'' - still fresh in the ears. By the time the course leaves pavement for Barr Trail, their story is written, though it may not become apparent until halfway or farther up the mountain.

I'd gone out ahead of pace, though not dramatically so. Nonetheless, I was beginning to feel my hamstrings too early on. The lower, unprotected switchbacks were aswelter beneath a burning sun; many runners already had begun to alternate a fast walk with a slow jog, a strategy used sooner or later by all but the elite.

A tiny woman from Oklahoma was just ahead of me, her short legs churning efficiently up the trail. Behind, a middle-aged man who belonged to the large and amiable Arkansas runners' contingent was hoofing it skyward toting the state flag in a waist caddie at his back.

More than four hours later, he'd unfurl the banner for the finish, but for now, we were all guts and no glory, each of us settling into the course and starting to sense how our race would unwind.

I was dreaming of a cooler day three weekends earlier, my best run during sporadic training. I'd hiked faster than ever up the Incline - the spellbindingly steep, 1-mile roadbed of the defunct Mount Manitou cog railway - then picked up Barr Trail to run/hike an additional 4 miles to Barr Camp, at 10,200 feet roughly the halfway point of the race.

It had been a memorable day, cool and lush from an unseasonably rainy summer. Above an icy, gurgling brook commonly called French Creek, aspen leaves fluttered in a breeze fragrant with pine. Wildflowers burst with color: blue chiming bells dipping their demure heads; blue and pink columbine, whose gay blossoms always remind me of court jesters; delicately striped wild geranium; brilliant red fairy trumpets; richly yellow butter-and-eggs; and the spectacular, shy nodding onion, its tiny blossoms exploding beneath the stem like fireworks.

On the way down the trail, I'd been chased by clouds that shrouded the high forest and eventually caught me in great sheets of rain that turned the already gutted trail to rivulets. My shoes slapped the water with every footfall; in short order, I was soaked, the sweat stinging my eyes.

It was glorious.

This run was not going to be like that. I knew it a fifth of the way in, as I approached the top of the W's - the end of the worst of those early switchbacks. There, a slight man with piercing blue eyes sat alone with a camera, letting us know we'd reached the landmark, offering encouragement, calling some of us by name.

It was Matt Carpenter, king of the mountain.

During the 1993 Marathon, Carpenter set course records for both the Ascent (2:01:06) and the round trip (3:16:39). A wisp of a man with magnificent lungs, his max VO2 - a measure of the body's ability to deliver oxygen to the muscles - is the highest ever recorded in a runner and roughly twice that of the average recreational athlete.

The 34-year-old is best known among local runners, however, not for his rarified ability, but for his egalitarian stewardship of the Incline Club, which offers biweekly training to athletes of all levels.

Notorious for their intensity, these all-weather runners on Valentine's Day did a "four-peat'' of the Incline - four times up and down the railbed, which has an average grade of 41 percent and a section that climbs at 68 percent.

Still, Carpenter said last year, "It's not an elite thing. Anybody can come out and do these runs.

"People don't have to be the same speed, but we all push each other in different ways. Each of us at our own level hopefully wants to push themselves a little bit farther.''

The club and Carpenter's Web site,, dish up the best information available about the Pikes Peak races, which have become increasingly popular in the last few years.

This year the Ascent and Marathon fields, limited to 1,800 and 800 runners respectively, closed in mid-May, earlier than ever.

"In the last three or four years, we have seen a more pronounced interest in it,'' Zehrer says. "Somewhere in the upper 40 percent of runners are returning runners.''

More and more are women. In 1990, they represented 25 percent of finishers; in recent years, they've accounted for 32 to 34 percent. Last year, 995 men and 473 women finished the Ascent. This year, 1,082 men and 557 women crossed the line.

Some of the women belong to Peak Busters, an all-female group made up of Ascent and Marathon runners. First-timers get a T-shirt and plaque, recalling the group's origins.

Back in 1975, Walt Stack, the leader of a San Francisco running club, lured club members Annabel Marsh and Kay Atkinson to Pikes Peak with the promise of a T-shirt and a trophy.

"There has been so much put-down with women - unconscious put-down ... that they need this sort of thing,'' Stack told a reporter in 1976. "It's exciting. It's thrilling. It's dramatic. It's a challenge.''

Marsh and Atkinson ran the race. Then, on the flight home, they created the group that would embolden other women to follow in their footsteps. At the time, 17 years had passed since the Colorado Springs Gazette Telegraph described the first woman to enter the Pikes Peak races, in 1958: "pretty Arlene Grundmann ... trim in running shorts and a sweater.''

Peak Busters now publishes an annual newsletter and welcomes first-time and veteran women racers to a pre-event dinner. Members who ran this year were as young as 17 and as old as 76 - founding matriarch Marsh.

They included Californians Gretchen Dianda and her mother, as well as a family that boasted three generations of runners.

"There's no other race like it,'' said Peak Buster Caroline Merrill of San Francisco. "It's a very challenging race; it's very tough. ... But you sure are happy when you finish; you're proud.''

The Pikes Peak races have come a long way since a Finnish doctor who hated tobacco challenged smokers to race him up and down the mountain. Arne Suominen, who lived in Florida, joined forces with Colorado Springs Realtor, outdoorsman and health buff Rudy Fahl to bring about the first marathon in 1956.

Only four of 13 racers finished; all were nonsmokers, including vegetarian Monte Wolford, a body builder who won the first two races. Suominen, then 56, finished third.

Until 1981, the Ascent and Marathon were held on the same day, with about two-thirds of the runners calling it a day at the top. The Ascent remains the more popular of the events, partly because it's more accessible to mere mortals. "It's not just the physical ability (in the marathon),'' race director Zehrer says. "It's the psychological. That's one reason we require that someone has completed a marathon, the Pikes Peak Ascent or an ultra race, before we will accept them as a participant in the Marathon.

"You have to have the ability to focus on not just getting up but saying, "Oh, my goodness; I have to turn around and go back down' - knowing full well the damage that can be done to the lower joints.''

Less than half of Marathon participants hail from Colorado; 55 percent come from other states and countries. By contrast, the Ascent is largely a hometown affair. This year, 38 percent of registrants - the most ever - were from the Pikes Peak region; Coloradans taken together represented 64 percent of Ascent runners. Still, runners came from 48 states and five foreign countries to make the uphill climb.

Some elite athletes, including Carpenter, have pushed for prize money as an incentive to lure top runners and sharpen competition among the cream of the crop.

But race officials are determined to maintain what Zehrer calls "a citizens' race.''

"My entire race committee, to a person, would agree we don't cater to elite runners,'' he says. "Rudy (Fahl) was very adamant there would never be any cash paid for this, that this would always be a race anyone could register for and participate in.

"This is a race for everyone.''

It's tough to remember that on the naked upper reaches of Pikes Peak. In those last 3 miles above treeline, we had become a faceless, nameless necklace of exhaustion, strung out along the mountain's rocky flank like so many flawed pearls.

I knew at the halfway point of Barr Camp that my four-hour finish was in peril. I was on pace, but barely, and struggling. More than an hour later, with 2 miles remaining, I was three minutes off my goal and - in the increasingly thin air - unlikely to make up for lost time.

Still, I trotted gamely where I could, stumbling by a leaden-legged legion of spent runners who nonetheless managed to gasp "good job'' as I passed. Exhaustion had made us the kindest of comrades, focused all on a common goal - the fogshrouded summit, still impossibly far away.

I was remembering - with some effort - a dialogue I'd had with Randy Kunkel during one of the early morning Garden of the Gods training runs Randy helps lead each spring. I had never seen a more encouraging soul; Randy's positive attitude never seemed to waver, and it was contagious to all of us, from rank beginners sweating out 12-minute miles to veteran marathoners.

That spring morning, we'd recalled George Sheehan, the running guru who died in 1993, and Ralph Waldo Emerson, whom Sheehan liked to quote.

"Be first a good animal,'' I wheezed to Randy as we charged another hill. "Isn't that what Emerson said?''

He smiled, recalling Sheehan's philosophy. "Be first a good animal,'' he said. "Then a child, then an artist, then a saint.''

"Running has given me the chance to be a saint, to be a hero,'' Sheehan wrote in "Running to Win.''

"Like everyone else, I want to be challenged. I want to find out whether or not I am a coward. I want to see how much effort I can put out ... what I can endure ... if I measure up. Running allows that.''

By now, the sick runner was behind me. I halfhiked and half-crawled over the 16 Golden Stairs, an allegorical reference to the last gilded steps on the marble staircase to heaven. Then I picked up my head and ran across the finish line. The clock read 4:01.

I'd missed one goal, but not another. Rudy Fahl had been right.

"If one trains hard and pushes human courage and endurance to the utmost, you come out on the summit,'' Fahl had written years ago.

"There is a joy in mastering Pikes Peak. Every normal person can do it if he has the will.''

The 2000 Pikes Peak Ascent will be run on Aug. 19, with the Marathon the following day. Entry forms are available beginning Sept. 15 on the Triple Crown of Running Club's Web site, The entry fee is $45. Call 719-473-2625 for details.

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