Conquering the Ascent

“You can never conquer the mountain. You can only conquer yourself.”
-James Whittaker

I remember back when Adam first suggested I do the Pikes Peak Ascent,  I told him running straight up for over 13 miles at altitude pretty much sounded like my definition of hell.  I couldn’t imagine it being enjoyable in any sense of the word, but it did sound like a challenge!  I figured if I qualified, I would sign up and didn’t give it much thought.  Then I qualified at my first half… and the marathon, and every half after.  I was officially committed.

Once the injuries and setbacks started, and I began to seriously question whether I would get through the Ascent within the allotted time (let alone the Ultra Beast!).  I didn’t feel like my training had been adequate, and I had serious doubts about making it all the way to the summit without succumbing to altitude sickness… especially when Adam (the superstar) had barely made the time 6.5 hour cutoff last year and didn’t finish due to altitude sickness the year before.  I had been sensitive to the altitude on my previous trip to Colorado and at the NorCal Tough Mudder and that was much lower elevation.

However, I pleased to find when we arrived in Colorado that I tolerated the elevation change much better this time around… mostly owing I’m sure to the massive quantities of water I was drinking. lol We went hiking everyday to help acclimate and I found my body surprisingly cooperative.  My allergies, which normally plague me and interfere with breathing, had dramatically improved thanks to the mountain air.  My legs felt great, and the views were absolutely amazing.

Despite how good I felt on the trails though, I was still terrified about the race.  Surviving the Incline trail felt amazing, but still left me with lingering fears about the altitude.  I was pretty much counting on being miserable the entire race.  I was so nervous about not finishing that I didn’t want to buy anything with the Ascent logo at the race expo for fear of jinxing myself! (I did finally break down and purchase an awesome bright pink jacket- reasoning that if I didn’t finish it would be all the more reason I earned it) The night before the Ascent, I got next to no sleep.  I tossed and turned the entire night, and knew the sleep deprivation wouldn’t bode well during the run.

Arriving at the start, I was somewhat relieved that I wouldn’t have to deal with the worry or anticipation for much longer.  I had done everything I could to prepare (given the circumstances dealt), and now it was up to the universe to take its course.  All I could do is try my best and have faith that things would be okay.

The first mile of the race stretched through the streets of Manitou Springs with spectators lining the way.  It was immediately an uphill climb and only became steeper as we approached the trail.  Before we even reached the trail head, people were already stopping to rest and walking.  That altitude is no joke and neither was the first steep hill!

When we did hit the trail, things seemed to grind to a hault.  EVERYONE was walking and there wasn’t much room to pass.  People around me were already griping, but I took it as an opportunity to catch my breath.  I didn’t have any laufty time goals; I just wanted to finish.  I figured if I kept pace with the pack (many of whom were veterans) then I should stay on track to reach the peak in time… even if it meant walking.

Eventually the traffic did pick up, particularly whenever a photographer was spotted.  I tried to at least jog any stretches that were even remotely flat (or at least not completely vertical!).  I would use the steeper sections to slow down and control my breathing.  Slowly, the miles ticked away.  Within a couple hours, we reached Bar Camp just past the halfway mark. The people there were SO NICE and ENCOURAGING.  You could tell that they genuinely wanted to help and support the racers.  The snack array was nothing short of impressive… anything you could imagine: pretzels, m&ms, skittles, cheese its, grapes, oranges, bananas, pickles, potato chips… it looked like a snack table for a party.  The volunteers would literally put the food in your hands and help refill water containers.  I tried to eat some skittles (purely out of the excitement of finding them there) but found it was too much work to try to eat and breath at the same time.  I only stayed long enough to refill my water and headed back on my way.

The mile or two of the trail leading into Bar camp had been close to flat with some gentle ups and downs (the downhills, despite being small and very few in number, confirmed the existence of a benevolent higher power in my mind, and I felt a deep sense of gratitude for every one).  It also had widened and was much softer with fewer rocks.  I had taken full advantage and burst through most of it (having a tremendous amount of fun in the process!), arriving in Bar Camp on a bit of a high from the whole experience.  I left still in high spirits only to find the 3 miles spanning between Bar Camp and A Frame (the next camp) to be absolute HELL.

The problem: intense sun with no shade, dizziness from the altitude, and nausea- making drinking difficult and eating near impossible.  I became so dizzy and uncoordinated that there were times I thought I was going to fall off the side of the mountain.  I knew I needed to eat, but couldn’t get anything down.  Chewing meant not being able to take controlled breaths, and by that point eating while still moving was out of the question.  I tried my best to keep drinking and kept pushing forward, focusing on every step to keep from losing balance or falling over.  I knew if I stopped and ate I wold feel better, but I was afraid to rest before A Frame.  I wanted to make sure I got there within the 4 hour cutoff and knew if I could just make it there I could eat and take a rest.

That stretch seemed to last FOREVER.  I’m sure my pace suffered dramatically because I was so sleepy I truly could have curled up and slept right on the side of the trail.  I had to work hard at staying focused and tried to concentrate solely on putting one foot in front of the other.  It was painstakingly slow progress.  Every mile seemed to take longer than the last.  I couldn’t imagine how I would ever make it to the summit feeling the way I did.  I was overheated, starving, nauseated, exhausted, and likely hypoxic.  Then finally in the distance I could hear cheering and cowbells.  I had no concept of how far away they were given how far sound can travel when you’re up that high, but I clung to the hope it was close!

After what seemed like an eternity we arrived at A Frame.  Again the staff were wonderful beyond words.  They congratulated us on making it ahead of the cut off and offered another spread of every snack you could imagine.  For the first time since the race started, I took a seat on some grass and stuffed some cliff bloks down.  I rested only long enough to eat and check my time and then headed back out.  On my phone I had a text from Adam that he had arrived at A Frame 30 min ahead of me,  He also texted “I love you”, which cheesy as it sounds was exactly what I need to hear (or read).

I knew if I was only 30 min behind Adam that I was actually making good time; and while I didn’t feel terrific, I did feel better than prior to arriving at camp.  Shortly passed A frame, we traveled above the tree line and the view became SPECTACULAR.  I took a moment to enjoy it and take a picture (luckily I had just enough battery left on my phone… which only lasted to mile 11, likely from searching for signal the whole way).  I couldn’t help but think of what an amazing experience it was.  I could understand now why Adam came back year after year to endure the torture.  I can’t explain in words what it feels like to run/hike that high, push your body beyond your perceived limit, and then come across a view like that.  It was like nothing I had ever seen or experienced.

The last few miles consisted of narrow, steep, rocky switchbacks.  By this point I really needed to pee and the cold air didn’t help.  As spectacular as the view was, all I could focus on was being finished!  I knew we were getting close, but the end still seemed like it would never come.

Before long, we were up so high I couldn’t look out at the view anymore without getting dizzy (especially being so close to the edge on a narrow trail).  There was one more aid station before the finish, but there were also race supporters scattered throughout cheering us on and letting us know how little there was left to go.  At one point I looked down and noticed my hands were blue and realized just how cold it had become.  I had trouble getting my gloves on because they were sore and swollen.  Then, what felt like immediately after, the sun came back out and it got hot again.  We weaved back and forth, higher and higher until we could hear the cheers at the finish.

Once I could see the finish line, I tried to sprint as much as possible, but it was difficult with the crowding and terrain.  As I hurled myself up the last switchback a guy at the summit yelled “You’re like a cheetah! A MOUNTAIN CHEETAH!”  I was so focused on finishing, I didn’t even see my time when I crossed.  I had hoping to finish within 6 hours, which is the qualifying time for the marathon.  However, I was pleasantly surprised to find out my time was 5:09.  I think I surprised Adam, who expected me to take longer.  I told him my Ultra Beast Training most have been paying off after all.

Once at the summit I quickly retrieved my sweats (it was FREEZING up there!) and was happy to finally enjoy some the variety of snacks.  For the record, they were the most delicious pretzels and skittles of my life!  I even got to enjoy a hot cup of hot chocolate Adam’s dad purchased  for me while we waited for Adam’s roommate… and I have to say it was pretty delicious too.  It was definitely well appreciated, as was the huge hug he gave me when he found me at the summit.  As it turns out, Adam’s parents had arrived after we finished expecting it to take us longer.  They were pleasantly surprised to find us already waiting at the top.

Overall, I would say that the Ascent was both the most challenging and rewarding racing experience of my life.  I was surprised at how much of it I actually enjoyed and would absolutely recommend it to anyone who loves trail running.  I couldn’t imagine a better way  to train both physically and mentally for the Ultra Beast.  If I could “run” over 13 miles, up a mountain while barely being able to breath, I think I can handle the Ultra Beast course… finishing before the time cut off may be another story 😉

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