Ascent of Pikes Peak on 2009-08-15

Climber: Kevin Tilton

Date:Saturday, August 15, 2009
Ascent Type:Successful Summit Attained
Peak:Pikes Peak
    Elevation:14110 ft / 4300 m

Ascent Trip Report

“Why would anyone want to run up a 14,000 foot mountain if you don’t live at altitude?” That is a question I’ve been asked hundreds of times. It’s hard. It’s a challenge. I couldn’t find a better race in August to fill my schedule.

I blame Paul Kirsch (White Mountain Milers President / Cranmore race director / “running spouse”) for planting the seed in my head a few years back, after reading his first-hand account of his 2001 Pikes Peak Ascent in the White Mountain Milers newsletter. His story of little oxygen and trails with no roots peaked my curiosity, as those are things that are abundant in mountain races in New England. I was curious about how the other side lives.
Scouring race reports and looking at others people’s photos can only hold you over for so long. In 2006 I finally signed up for the Ascent, to test my climbing abilities in one of the oldest races in the country. I had proven myself as a mountain runner at New England races and the famed Mt. Washington Road Race, but I wanted to see how hard running at 14,000 feet would be. This is where Pikes Peak became my white whale. I had to forego my entry that year as I had made the US Mountain Running Team and would not be able to travel for both Pikes Peak and the World Trophy.

2007 was a year where training and racing was going great in the winter and spring. I was pumped to try the Ascent knowing that I was in good shape. Funny how quickly plans change. I got a mold spoor in my lungs in April that hampered my training and racing after the Tuckerman Inferno, where I managed to beat Paul Low in the uphill climb into Tucks by about 20 seconds.

In the fall of 2007 I got healthy and was able to train hard all winter and spring. Once again, I signed up for the Ascent wanting to test my newfound fitness. Unfortunately, I could have used a lobotomy as I ran below my standards at Mt. Washington and barely trained all summer and got fat. My lack of fitness did not deter me from going to Colorado for vacation though and attempting to run in the land of little oxygen.

Race day greeted us with freezing rain, lightning and four inches of snow on the summit; on August 16th mind you. Cold weather is usually not something that bothers me while running. In fact, I usually relish it. It’s a little different story when you mix it with rain and lightning. 10 miles into the Ascent I decided that dying in the Rocky Mountains did not sound all that appealing. The race directors also realized this after 2/3rds of the first wave had already finished. It was only the 4th DNF of my life, but I had no regrets and still don’t.

2009 started much like 2008. I had a solid winter of training, some decent races in the spring, but another disappointing Mt. Washington. This year was a little different though, as I didn’t pack it in after Mt. Washington and hide in a cave for the summer. I rebounded nicely at the US Mountain Running Championships at Mt. Cranmore by placing 9th. I was still a little disappointed in my climbing ability, or lack thereof, and vowed to add more climbing to my training. After a month of three to four hour mountain runs and numerous ascents of 2,367 ft Black Cap, I felt about as prepared as I could for a race into the rarified air of a Colorado mountain peak.

Having raced at altitude a few times, I have a pretty good routine down to prepare myself for racing up mountains whose starting elevation is higher than the peak of Mt. Washington. I don’t get there any earlier than two days before the race and I drink lots of water. I also had the luxury of staying with CMS teammate Peter Maksimow, a former top five finisher in the Ascent, and his girlfriend Nora Duane, at their cabin, about a mile from the start.

Walking to the start I felt pretty loose and not terribly nervous. Weird considering I was staring 8,000 feet up at the finish line the whole time during my warm-up. This year’s weather was much better. Cool at the start, but warm enough to warm up in my Inov8 singlet and X-Talon 212’s. No humidity like the wet blanket that covered us at Mt. Washington.

The start of the race felt a little like the start of a New England mountain race. After the cannon went off we ran up the main street in Manitou Springs and I recognized White Mountain Milers Linda Comeau and Allan Aldrich, CMS teammate Peter M., US Mountain Running teammate Anita Ortiz, and blogger George Zack. It was like running in front of the hometown crowd!

Despite the fact that the racecourse climbs 7,815 feet in 13.32 miles, some people still feel the need to sprint to the front. Mike Selig, Zach Thomas and myself decided that it was too early to race and worked together in a chase pack to feast on the lactic acid ridden corpses that would soon lie in our path.

Most of the first mile of the race is on paved streets, passing businesses, houses and Colorado’s non-smoke spewing version of the Cog Railroad. I passed one guy who looked like he was racing a triathlon and caught former UNH runner Matt Russell after turning off Ruxton Ave. and onto the famed Barr Trail. Matt, Zach and I worked together on a set of switchbacks known as the W’s, as we passed Payton Batliner, who was already having a rough day two miles into the race.

At the top of the W’s the course flattens out a little and I opened a little gap on Matt. I noticed the gap and reminded myself not to push too early while going after the leaders. Little did I know I was entering no-man’s land.

I passed through Barr Camp (7.6 miles into the race) just under 1:11. According to multi-time race winner Matt Carpenter’s race pace calculator I was right where I needed to be to run 2:20 to the summit. Unfortunately, the race didn’t get any easier.

I kept my steady pace up, just putting one foot in front of the other. I could tell that all of the mountain running that I had done in the last month was paying off. The flats were where I was feeling the most discomfort. Every time I opened my stride I could feel the altitude in my quads. The flats didn’t last very long though.

The last mile or so below the A-Frame (10 mile mark) are as technical as it gets on this trail. It’s still pretty tame compared to most of the trails in New England though. Most of the rocks were well placed and fairly easy to run on.

I came through the A-Frame aid station in 1:41 high, about two minutes behind 2:20 pace, but still felt pretty strong and wanted to go after anyone that may have fallen off of the lead pack. As I peaked out above treeline I could see Alex Nichols, a Colorado guy, a couple of switchbacks ahead of me. I didn’t know how he was feeling, but I figured that at 12,000 feet we were on even ground, literally and figuratively.

I lost site of Alex at the 2 miles to go sign, but found an overwhelming feeling of lethargy come over me. The altitude was really starting to hit me. Not surprising considering I live at 500 feet above sea level. I immediately went into damage control mode, walking the short, steep stuff and rock steps. Most of the trail above treeline is well graded with switchbacks, so I was able to run (if you want to call it that) most of the way to the finish. Mike Selig caught me with about a mile and a half to go as I stopped in the middle of the trail staring at two different rocks, trying to figure out which one to go over. Did I mention I was getting lightheaded?

With about a mile to go Matt Russell passed me and offered me some encouragement. I needed more than encouragement, I needed an oxygen tank. Unfortunately I had to settle for an energy gel. Taking a gel at almost 14,000 feet with a dry mouth is like trying to eat a peanut butter sandwich after swallowing sawdust. I managed to force down the chocolate gooeyness, and made my way through the last of the 16 Golden Stairs, a set of switchbacks leading to the summit. I put on my best game face and ran the remainder of the way to the finish. I crossed the finish line in 2:31:50 for 8th place. The last 3.2 miles took me about 49 minutes, probably the slowest 5k I’ve ever run. The NCAA altitude conversion charts probably convert that to a 45:00 though.

Racing at 14,000 feet while living at sea level is probably not a bright idea, but it was a unique challenge and really tested my limits. Plus, I got to eat a donut at the finish.

Video of race:
Summary Total Data
    Route Conditions:
Maintained Trail
Ascent Statistics
    Time Up:2 Hours 32 Minutes

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