August 19, 2001
Marathon 15, State #9
Manitou Springs, Colorado
Once considered an impossibility by its namesake Zebulon Pike, ascending and descending Pikes Peak has become a mid-August tradition for the 800 adventurists in the Pikes Peak Marathon. Known as "America's Ultimate Challenge," this is one of the top two most difficult marathons in the world. The course climbs an imposing 7,815 feet in 13.32 miles from Manitou Springs to the summit (14,110 feet). Once there, the thin air and glorious view of the plains, and west to the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, and the Continental Divide leave you breathless. With the races cult-like following, the race fills extremely early, usually in May. [Craythorn and Hanna]
The first annual race up and down Pikes Peak occurred on August 10, 1956. Race originator Dr. Arne Suominen, of Del Ray Beach, Florida, had two distinct reasons for establishing the event. First, he wanted to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the discovery of America's most famous mountain by Zebulon Montgomery Pike. Second, as a former Finnish marathon champion and harsh critic of tobacco, he wanted to prove that smoking reduced one's physical endurance. By challenging smokers and nonsmokers to race Pikes Peak, he was confident of proving his point. With the assistance of race director Rudy Fahl, who continued as the race director until 1980, thirteen runners including Suominen accepted the challenge. As it turned out, not one of the three smokers who entered the race finished. Suominen, indeed, proved his point, and in so doing so, started one of the most infamous marathons in the world. [Craythorn and Hanna]
Although the average grade to Pikes Peak summit is 11%, it varies drastically including, believe it or not, some downhill portions. Don't get too excited on the downhills though, as the rule of the trail state that for every downhill section there is an immediate steep climb. Most runners can expect to come within a few minutes of their best road marathon time during the 13.4-mile ascent. Adding 25% to your best road half-marathon time gives you a good estimate of the time for the 12.9 - mile descent.
Starting in front of the Manitou Sprints City Hall (elevation 6,295 feet), the course travels along Manitou Avenue before turning left on Ruxton Avenue at approximately .5 miles. After passing Miramont Castle on the right, the route continues up a small hill. At the Cog Railway around 1.5 miles, a gravel road replaces the asphalt, marking the beginning of the steepest section of the course lasting almost a half mile before hitting the wild flowers and switchbacks of Barr Trail. Known as the Ws, the 13 switchbacks on Mount Manitou turn more than 90 degrees, and the last rewards you with the first view of Pikes Peak since the start. The Ws end around 3 miles, but more switchbacks and a short downhill lead you to a natural rock arch at about 5.5 miles. Just beyond the arch, there is a brief flat section. Six steep switchbacks bring you to a welcomed flat to downhill stretch as you lave Mount Manitou for Barr Camp (mile 7). The downhill ends at the "1/2 Mile to Barr Camp" sign, and that half mile is extremely challenging. Barr Camp (10,200 feet) marks the beginning of what many runners describe as the toughest section of the course; from there it's all uphill. The terrain soon turns rocky as you make your way past the sign to the Bottomless Pit at the 8-mile mark. From here, 15 switchbacks, each one longer than the last, take you to the A-Frame (11,500 feet) at 10.5 miles. The "3 miles to the summit" sign signals you will soon be above tree line. Several switchbacks take you to the east face of Pikes Peak. With two miles to go, the trail crosses the east face of Pikes Peak straight to The Cirque (13,200 feet) at nearly 12 miles. Becoming quite rocky, the course winds to the Sixteen Golden Stairs - the 16 rocky switchbacks near the summit. After scrambling up the stairs, you head right to a short flat to downhill section before hitting the next series of switchbacks. These take you to a sign honoring the memory of Fred Barr, the builder of the Barr Trail. Two switchbacks and a few rocky zigzags after the sign and you you've made it to the summit! Now it's time to catch your breath and retrace your steps to the finish on Manitou Avenue in front of Soda Springs Park just beyond the corner of Ruxton Avenue (6,345 feet). [Craythorn and Hanna]
Since few spectators are crazy enough to climb the mountain to cheer you on, most of the crowd support is limited to the start and finish areas. Additional support comes in the form of aid stations along the route and race personnel at the summit. Six aid stations (which runners pass both going up and down) cling to the mountain at the following locations: Manitou Incline - 2.4 miles; French Creek - 4.3 miles; Barr Camp - 7.6 miles; A-Frame - 10.2 miles; The Basin - 12.8 miles; and the summit - 13.4 miles. The rest of the time it's just you, nature, and 799 other runners challenging the mountain. [Craythorn and Hanna]
If you want a hassle-free race morning, try to stay in Manitou Springs. Most motels are within walking distance to the start line, affording you a satisfying shower soon after finishing. Pikes Peak maintains several time cutoffs at specific points on the route. Runners must reach these points by the indicated times or they will be pulled from the race: Barr Camp by 10:15 a.m., A-Frame by 11:30 a.m., and the summit by 1:30 p.m. [Craythorn and Hanna]
I also found very few places for dinning especially after 9:00 p.m. I would recommend reservations. A must stop is a restaurant near the finish line called the Loop which specializes in Mexican food!
Race packets are available for pick-up the week of the race (locations and times provided with your confirmation of entry). On Friday and Saturday nights, the Manitou Springs Kiwanis Club holds a pre-race pasta party in the Schryver Park for $10 per person. The awards ceremony begins at 2:15 p.m. in Soda Springs Park. [Craythorn and Hanna]
Every single race souvenir shirts and accessories were sold out prior to Friday, so the only shirt I received was the one that was in my race packet. There is a "official" clothing store that will add "finisher" to your shirt sleeve with proof of completing the race.
I also noted that the awards ceremonies as well as the after race massage are in two different parks. After finishing the Marathon I went to park where I saw massage the prior day for the Ascent, which was different park from which they were giving massage for the Marathon!
All entrants receive long-sleeve T-shirts, and finishers receive medals. The top three male and female runners in each age group earn awards, with the top 10 overall finishers receiving special prizes. [Craythorn and Hanna]
Overall male and female winners also go a free lifetime entry to the race. I was amazed at the amount of veteran runners and repeat finishers as well as the real crazies that raced both Saturday and Sunday!
Although Pikes Peak has no official race hotel, accommodations abound in the Manitou Springs and Colorado Springs area. But don't procrastinate; August is high-tourist season so rooms go fast. [Craythorn and Hanna]
I stayed at a Bed and Breakfast that had it's grand opening the weekend of the race. The B&B was walking distance to the start line. Devonna is owner, mobile phone is 719-685-0500.
On Saturday, the day before the marathon, the Pikes Peak Ascent is held. The race is limited to 1,800 runners and, like the marathon, fills in May. [Craythorn and Hanna]
During packet pick up Saturday afternoon I was able to talk with some of the runners of the Ascent to answer some of my questions for proper preparedness for Sunday's race. Also Saturday night is a great carbo loading dinner for all. The dinner included awards for the Ascent as well as a video of the marathon course and the history of the race. Be sure to fill out free raffle ticket. I won a VHS tape of photos show for the course!
If you're impatient and don't want to wait for race day to admire the summit view, reserve a seat on Pikes Peak Cog Railway, the effortless way to the top. Two great summit photos available: http://www.cograilway.com/ Also there is a road that winds to the top of Pikes Peak which takes approximately one and a half hours each direction.
Another natural wonder, Garden of the Gods City Park, contains 300-million-year-old natural formations accessible by a 45-minute tram tour. Also the there are horse rides from a nearby stable through the park for 1 or 2 hours.
The U.S. Olympic Training Center provides a different kind of wonder in the from of state-of-the-art athletic training techniques and equipment, with athletes to match. A 75-minute tour of the Center will fuel your training fire. If you are not toured out, head the the United States Air force Academy and jaunt through its grounds.
Also about an hour away is the Royal Gorge Bridge and Park which offers a spectacular view of the gorge.
Since the trail is primarily gravel, I would highly recommend wearing short gaiters. These are especially important on the descent to keep rocks out of your shoes. Without gaiters, I had to stop frequently to dump my shoes.
Training: Since most of the Ascent is spent walking, I would recommend using the stair climber in training. Also hills and stadiums would be beneficial. Not sure how to prepare for 14,000 feet?