A Middle-Aged Man Tackles the Pikes Peak Ascent: America’s Ultimate Challenge.

Pikes Peak from Manitou Springs. Its unusual to see the finish of a half marathon from the start.

Last week, I did the Pikes Peak Ascent, a half marathon from Manitou Springs, Colorado up to the top of Pikes Peak, almost 8,000 feet straight up to the rarified air of 14,115 feet. As befitting a peak known as America’s Mountain, the race up it is described as America’s Ultimate Challenge.

True, the Marathon deserves that moniker, but at my age turning around at the summit and running 13 miles down hill just seemed like a stupid idea. I’d rather keep my knees in tact for other adventures. And a month before my 48th birthday, with life’s finish line visible in the distance, I’m all about maximizing my time.

The Ascent was appealing to me because I got to climb a mountain. My Bucket List includes hiking the Colorado 14ers; the 50-odd peaks in Colorado that are over 14,000 feet high, and this seemed like a nice way to knock Pikes Peak of my list.

“Make no mistake this not a run. It is a collective hike with competitive people.”

I’m not a runner. Sure, I’ll jog 6-10 miles with my friends at the weekend, and I’ve done a few half marathons, but I’ve never run a marathon and the desire to do so has never taken hold. I’ve always described myself as a “13.1 Miles Ain’t Half of Nothing” kind of guy.

People say I should do the NY Marathon. No thanks. I’ve driven through Queens and the Bronx. They are grim. I can’t imagine willingly running through the outer boroughs. I prefer the trails, and with an average grade of 11% this was much more manageable than most mountain trails.

After registering for the race during the winter I forgot about it until, after I completed the North Face Endurance half marathon at Bear Mountain in New York on Mother’s Day. That run took me 2:49 and was definitely a step up from the local trail race, the Paine to Pain Half Marathon around greenways of Westchester County, NY, which was my qualifying event for the Ascent. I did that in 2:04 for those using me as a yardstick.

When I finally dived into the Pikes Peak online community, I was confronted with the advice that as a flatlander I should train for the Ascent like I was training for a marathon. That was not particularly welcome news, as I’d never met anyone who enjoyed training for a marathon. Fortunately, I only had 12 weeks left before the race so I got to avoid the standard 18-week marathon-training program. Surely, having run a hilly half was worth an additional 6 weeks?

By early July, I was running longer than I had ever run in my life. I did an 18-miler around the local trails. Even though it is 10 degrees cooler in the trees, it was brutal in the New York heat and humidity. Driven by a fear of chaffing I took my shirt off to wring the sweat out of it fours times during that run. I even did a couple of sessions on the threadmill simulating the grades I’d be running at; neutralizing the boredom by watching rugby on my iPad in true Kiwi-expat style. My training was interrupted by a slight calf muscle pull on July 9. That was followed by two weeks intensive physical therapy. On Thursday 20th I asked my physical therapist when I could start running again. He advised that I should try a 10-minute jog over the weekend and see how I went.

That Sunday, I went for a jog in San Francisco. After 10 minutes all was well, so I carried on and completed the San Francisco Half Marathon. I figured if the therapy had worked I needed to get back into training for the Ascent, and if I pulled up lame? Well, it wasn’t meant to be. Besides, when you are 48 you can’t throw away the opportunity to run across the Golden Gate Bridge.

Heading to Godley Head from Taylors’ Mistake on the Port Hills, Christchurch, New Zealand.

After San Francisco I flew to New Zealand to visit my mother. I was able to map a few runs for the Trail Run Project on the Port Hills overlooking Christchurch, before arriving in Colorado the weekend before the Ascent. Most people don’t have the luxury of having a week to acclimatize for the race. The first day I was there I drove up Pikes Peak, walked a mile down the Barr Trail and “ran” the last mile. After 200 yards I was gasping for air, and I was soon reduced to a fast walk. It took me almost 19 minutes.

Working on the dictum that the best way to acclimatize was to climb high and sleep low, I decided to base myself at 9000 feet in Frisco, the cheap-man’s Breckenridge, and polish off a few 14ers. First up was the DeCaLiBron loop, which enabled me to summit four 14ers in one day: Mounts Democrat, Cameron, Lincoln and Bross. There was a lot of heavy breathing involved, but by the time I’d summited Torreys and Quandary Peaks mid-week, I was feeling much less breathless above 13,000 feet. I was tempted to check off Mt. Sherman to complete the 14ers in the Mosquito Range, but my wife cautioned that I didn’t want to overdo it before my race. In tackling the Class 3 Kelso Ridge on Torreys and the even gnarlier West Ridge of Quandary I was more than satisfied with my efforts.

Crossing the Knife’s Edge at 14,000ft on the Kelso Ridge of Torreys Peak.

It was on to Manitou Springs the day before the race. Manitou is a lovely looking town, with the impressive Garden of the Gods as its backyard. I would have liked an extra day to enjoy it, and if I’d arrived on Thursday I might have got a PPA running cap before they sold out. At the Packet Pickup I was adopted by a group of Kansans, who couldn’t quite fathom that I would show up for the race without friends or a support crew. They were repeat runners, and over dinner they convinced me to ditch my hydration backpack and tackle the race with a water bottle and a pouch full of snacks.

Race day morning dawned bright and clear. It was warm at the start line. I didn’t feel cold in a t-shirt. At the last minute I threw my thermal top into my sweat bag, and decided that meeting it at the top of the mountain was a risk I was prepared to take.

I was well-versed in the course description provided by legendary Pikes Peak competitor Matt Carpenter at skyrunner.com. I had it well drummed into me that passing runners on the Ws, the first steep hill above Manitou Springs, was a waste of time and energy, so I stopped running half way up Ruxton Ave. Now, that was a slope I could easily handle, but as most of the runners had started walking by then I didn’t want to become one of those hares who blew his race in the first mile and got overtaken at the end.

Once the course hit the trail, it was pretty much single file up the Ws. A few people tried passing, but they hardly advanced their cause.

I was expecting after we got to the flatter stretch between No Name Creek and Barr Camp things would open up and we would start running. That was not really the case. After the 7miles to go sign the trail rounded a corner and headed down hill for a bit. That was the only time on the whole trail section of the race I saw everyone in front of me running in unison. I suspect that once I got on the trail I ran less than half a mile, and I feel I ran past more people than passed me.

Make no mistake this not a run. It is a collective hike with competitive people. Sure if you were in the first few waves you might get to experience the race as Skyrunner describes it. I was bib number 1497 out of 1842, so there were 1500 people ahead of me when I crossed the start line; 1496 competitors and 4 random people who decided the hike the trail that day. Among my Kansan friends even those with lower bib numbers found themselves stuck in traffic.

Join the Queue. On the Ws section of the Pikes Peak Ascent.

Hiking is my thing, but this was quite different to a hike. When I hike I will stop and take in the view, but when I pulled off the course with 2.5 miles to go to reapply sunscreen, I felt the pressure, as all the people I’d passed during the previous few miles seemed to stream by me.

Truth be told when I rejoined the procession up the hill, I was glad for the wee rest and concluded that had I not dropped out of line I might have fallen back naturally. The last two miles were a struggle. I was more than happy to settle in behind a woman I’d previously passed and let her set the pace.

If I had run more of the course I doubt I would have placed as high as I did. My official time was 4:52. Strava gave me 4:20 and 14.4 miles, which is consistent with the usual distance error on my phone, but it is hard to see how my cumulative stops would add up to 30 minutes. That said there were numerous points where my Nike+ decided to pause my workout even though I was still actually moving. As a result of failing to register a few restarts it only credited me with 11.5 miles when it is normally over 14 for a half marathon.

The last mile took me over 35 minutes. Maybe a week of hiking had done more harm than good? At times I had to slow my hiking stride to allow people running next to me to complete their pass or to avoid kicking the person in front of me. How much energy did I waste slowing down during the previous 12 miles? Who knows?

At the end I was pretty knackered. I must have been, because I managed to sleep on the bus on the way down the mountain, which is no mean feat on a long and winding road with no headrest. I met my friends from Kansas in the beer garden, and we spent the afternoon soothing our aching muscles with free ale. As we were limited to one slice of pizza for lunch, there was little to stop the alcohol finding a nerve to dull.

Apart from the official store running out of merchandise, and a bit of a scrum to get your sweat bag at the summit, the race was very well organized. Thanks to the volunteers who staffed the route at various remote points on the mountain.

That evening my 8 year-old daughter, who has yet to relinquish her child’s understanding of “a race”, asked me if I’d won.

“No,” I replied.

“Well, who did?” she continued.

“Some guy who finished in more than half my time!”

“Uh?” she muttered, he voice trailing off as she handed the phone to her brother.

Someday she will understand. Besides, my friends from Kansas said it was much harder than a marathon.

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At this point the finish-line selfie is more important and a few seconds of my time.


Men, Mountains and Middle Age

Morning light on Longs Peak
Morning light on Longs Peak.

I’ve been thinking about a chance happening this week; I was in Colorado to climb Longs Peak, one of its more famous 14,000-foot summits, while an old workmate from Los Angeles was in the Sierra Nevada trying to ascend 14,505-foot Mt. Whitney, the highest point in the lower 48.

We are both men in our mid-forties and I joked on Facebook that we were “trying to prove that we still have it”.

I’m still trying to figure out what the “it” that I was referring to is. But it was not just lazy throw-away line. Well, it might have been as far as my friend is concerned but he is stuck on a mountain in California with limited reception so I can’t ask him.

One hesitates you use the term midlife crisis. A crisis is when you do something really reckless like buy a Ferrari or run off with a younger colleague. Suddenly deciding you are going to drop tens of thousands of dollars paying someone to guide you up Mt. Everest might count, but not these peaks. They represent more of a midlife measure. An accounting of what you are still capable of.

According to this account in the Havard Business Review a midlife malaise affects people of all classes and cultures. Psychological well-being takes a U-shaped trajectory through-out life. We are happiest when we are young and very old, but have a notable dip in life satisfaction in our forties and fifties. This can manifest itself in different ways.

So, it is possible my ex-workmate and I were responding to a similar impulse despite our many differences. I am an introverted stay-at-home dad. He is gregarious and unmarried; From my settled perspective he seems like a playboy without a trust fund. Maybe, I am reading too much into that time he summed up his weekend by claiming that “50 was his new 40” when it came to women?

A statement that inadvertently captures a truth. Our generation is getting older later in life. It’s hard to feel old when you have kids in elementary school. I notice I am getting older. I’ve started having to move the screen in and out to focus on the words in front of me, but I’m not panicking about it.

When I turned forty-five I calculated that I’d probably already lived half my life, but that realization didn’t shake my equilibrium. I was just as much of glass-half-empty guy as I’ve always been.

Perhaps I haven’t entered my midlife nadir yet? I wonder if my current occupation will make it worse. I tell myself that traditional conceptions of masculinity are out dated and that I am near the leading edge of some great and necessary social change. That works intellectually. At a deeper emotional level those old macho stereotypes can still work me over.

I posted a photo of one of acclimatization hikes on Facebook. Someone commented that I should “Get a Job”. Because he was English, I could brush it off with a timely sports-related retort. But it did bring up some self-doubt, even though I suspect he was motivated by envy, rather than the imposition of traditional ideals.

The journey up Longs Peak is a substantial endeavor; 15-miles round trip from the trail head with a 4,800 foot up and down on the way. Furthermore the last mile and a half from the Keyhole is off trail and there are a few spots where you wouldn’t want to slip. In good conditions it requires a head for heights and some scrambling, otherwise proper mountaineering skill is required.

The Keyhole, where the scrambling begins.
The Keyhole, where the scrambling begins.

Before I left I doubted I could still do it. The alternative to a 10-15 hour day was to camp at the Boulderfield, 6 miles up the trail and 12,760 feet above the sea. I brought my tent, although it was not clear that hauling camping equipment that far up the mountain would make the trip any easier. As it happened a stormy forecast the day before my summit push ruled out a two-day expedition.

I used to hike for a living. When I wasn’t getting paid to do it, I did it for pleasure. Then I moved to places where the hiking lacked the aesthetic appeal I’d grown addicted to and I did less of it. This was no random addition to my bucket-list, which only added an element of pressure.

I was definitely a middle-aged man out to prove he could do “it”. I imagine this was like a marathon. I got pre-race jitters. At the last minute I rented an ice axe and crampons because word around town was the conditions on near the summit were “technical”. I was worried about having to use them. I’ve done it before, but I am not an expert. Hell, I was worried I might not make it to the point where I would have to use them. Was I fit enough? Was I acclimatized to the altitude?

Then I started my climb on the internet, which is never a good idea if you are in a compromised frame of mind. This meticulous climber died, and these guys, by their own all-capped admission, got lucky (This is not a good route description. Several names and elevations are wrong. I used 14ers.com)

I went to bed at 8:06 pm and probably got less than 2 hours sleep. I was trying not to look at the clock, which didn’t stop the possibilities stampeding through my head.

The mountain would still be there if I didn’t make it. Don’t get summit fever. The top is only halfway. Bailing out 300 feet from the summit was a great and noble story. At one point I planned the video farewell I was going to record for my wife and kids in the hope my phone would survive a 1000-foot fall better than my body. That brought me to tears, although it was hard to find the right balance between the sentimental and frivolous.

It would be quite an interesting thought experiment if you weren’t also counting the minutes your weren’t asleep. I know I got some sleep because when the alarm went off at 2am I felt like absolute crap.

As it happens the conditions were ideal. I made good time, fatigue didn’t cloud my judgment, the ice axe or crampons were not required and got back to the car just as the forecast afternoon rain began to fall. Afterwards, I treated myself to a massage, which I’ll regard as a sign of maturity rather than an admission of my eroding capacity.

I felt good. I didn’t turn back the years as much as they haven’t caught up with me.

The next day on the rental car shuttle bus at Denver airport I almost offered my seat to a man standing in the aisle. I didn’t, which was just as well as on closer inspection I realized I had more grey hair than he did!

So, yes, right now, I can say, “I’ve still got it”. Until the next fourteener comes along.

The Author on the summit. © vjcphoto.com
The Author on the summit. © vjcphoto.com