August 17, 2008 would be a long anticipated and somewhat dreaded payback day for me. The previous October I was accompanied by friends Dean Bott and Kevin Krause in my quest to complete two marathons in one weekend. This year it would be Dean’s crazy idea for the three over 40 flatlanders from Michigan to tackle the Pikes Peak Marathon. With a shrug of the shoulders, it was all for one and one for all. I grew up on the flat plains of western South Dakota and thus my inherent dislike of hills comes from the fact that I never walked uphill both ways to school. But fair is fair, it would be my turn to take one for the team.
Dean Bott was our unofficial captain since he came up with such a great idea (which we never let him forget). He is also the most accomplished runner of the three of us having qualified for the Boston Marathon a couple of times over his running career. He also earned the nickname “The Dream” during one of our training runs when he happened to mention an old high school date. Conversations I am not at liberty to totally repeat (runner’s etiquette is simply what is said on the run, stays on the run) led to the mention of this former prom date letting her dream slip away and thus Dean became “The Dream”.
Kevin Krause is not only a friend but a valued co-worker. A single father of three, he is the one balancing dates, kids, an ex-wife and work much better than I could ever imagine. Again amongst conversations better suited for mature audiences, someone wondered aloud what would happen if he ever missed a date. It was quickly pointed out that a day without a serving of “Special K” would be hard for anyone to bear and thus another nickname was born.
For me, there was no tale of past or current female encounters. I am always quick to point out that I am the only one in our running group who married his last prom date. So, being Kevin’s boss at work, I get the boring nickname of “The Big Guy”.
Thus, the team of 3 who had never walked or ran at an elevation of more than 1300 feet together evolved through juvenile locker room conversations over countless miles of training runs. The Dream, Special K and The Big Guy were committed to running up AND down a 14,115 foot mountain. The goal was discussed over and over during the 5 months of preparation. We must remember that there is 18% less oxygen at 6,000 feet and 43% less oxygen at the summit. Our goal was simply to respect the distance, keep a steady pace, focus on finishing and don’t worry about time.
Entry to the Pikes Peak marathon took place on the internet in about 15 minutes on March 12, 2008. It is such a unique and popular event that if you wait any longer to register, the field of 800 will fill up and you simply will not get in. You have to provide an internet link to a previous marathon that you have finished in less than 5 hours and 30 minutes. We sweated the details and after a few frantic moments at our respective computers that morning, we all got in. Already “committed”, now we had received our official “sentence”. Step one to judgment day had been accomplished.
The most often asked question we got was, “How are you going to train for the incline and altitude?” We joked about plastic bags over our heads and pin holes. Because the marathon would be off road, we trained off the pavement as much as possible. Hiking trails along the Manistee River in Michigan afforded us the opportunity to run over roots and rocks similar to Colorado. However, the inclines, while steep at times, were nowhere near what we would face out west. We simply ran hill repeats and got in the mileage necessary.
Myself, I tried to work at running faster than I normally did. The theory was that this would create some oxygen deficit and maybe my body would get used to working on a little less air. It worked to a point because I did record the fastest times of my career in a May half marathon and a July 15K race. In the end, I would find out that there is no substitute for high altitude training.
With skyrocketing gas prices and escalating airline fairs, we decided to try something different and ride the Amtrak train to Denver. Kevin and his friend, Letty Mansfield, left the weekend before from Chicago to enjoy some extra days of vacation. Dean leaving his wife and me leaving my prom date, caught the train in Kalamazoo, Michigan at 9 am on Wednesday, August 13th.
I found the train to be enjoyable but certainly not without flaws. On the positive side, we got to see the country (Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska and Colorado) roll by without the stress of driving through traffic. Bathrooms were readily available on each car. Food was reasonably priced and surprisingly very good. There was much more leg room than what is available on an airplane and being able to get up and walk between cars helped avoid too much atrophy from setting in.
Kevin had emailed us about his experience on the way out. He suggested a pillow and blanket to aid in sleeping. It was a great tip as our seats reclined a bit but generally we were sitting up the entire 24 hours of the ride. Being comfortable while sitting up to sleep made the nighttime ride across Nebraska much better.
On the negative side, we encountered a few minor things. First, you simply can’t be in a hurry as Amtrak takes a back seat to freight and coal train traffic. We quickly learned from experienced passengers that we could count on being behind schedule. Second, the bathrooms don’t get cleaned on a regular basis. I suppose there were 50-70 people on each car and things got a bit messy over the 8 plus hours between cleanings. Last, no matter how far behind schedule the train is, it will stop so people can get out and smoke a cigarette. A decade or two behind times I think.
We arrived in Denver well before lunch on Thursday, August 14th. The train station was within walking distance of the Colorado Rockies stadium. Since there was a game scheduled for that afternoon, we scheduled our rental car pickup for the next day so we could relax in a nearby hotel and take in the game. The Rockies would lose to the Diamondbacks that day but we enjoyed a nice afternoon in the sunshine.
The next morning we met an old high school friend of mine from Timber Lake, South Dakota, Louie Keller. Louie is a Captain for the City of Denver Fire Department. I had milked cows with him while working on his dad’s farm near Timber Lake before I went to college. We had talked off and on over the years when seeing each other while visiting back home. It had been a long while since our last good get together. We had an enjoyable meal catching up on kids, work, and Timber Lake. Louie also told us about his experience hiking mountains in Colorado with his boys. This would prove to be valuable.
We arrived in Manitou Springs Friday morning and caught up with Kevin and Letty. Together, the four of us tried to drive to the top of Pikes Peak in order to spend some time at the higher altitude and take in the sights. Unfortunately, we would be stopped at the brake check (apparently overheated brakes are a concern on the way down!) gate and gift shop at 11,000 feet. We spent maybe an hour there but left disappointed in not even being able to see the peak let alone walk on it.
We enjoyed a meal with Kevin and Letty listening to their adventures from the week. They had gone to the top once in great weather and been through many of the area attractions around Manitou Springs. Kevin had been hiking, jogging and sleeping above 8,000 feet all week. This would prove to be very beneficial on race day.
Dean and I spent the remainder of Friday and all day Saturday around the hotel watching the rain outside our window and the summer Olympics on the television. When we got totally bored, we went out and had something to eat figuring the extra calories would help us up whatever mountain was hiding in the clouds and fog up above.
Checking the internet late on Saturday afternoon, messages began to be posted from some of the contestants in the half marathon held that day. Snow, wind and very cold conditions were encountered at the top for those who made it past the tree line before the course was shut down. This was after they had run in a steady downpour all day! A 13.1 mile run turned into a 20 miler for those who made it to the 10 mile camp only to find they had to turn around and go back down. There were rides back down at the top but the remainder of the course was so remote there were no roads suitable for vehicular traffic.
Even though we run in winter weather on a regular basis back in Michigan, Dean and I did not pack any cold weather running pants. We knew the weather could get bad but never dreamed it could be below 30 degrees in August anywhere. We made a quick drive into Colorado Springs to find some running pants and regained our sense of preparedness for the next day’s challenge.
Race day morning, we were up before the sun and picked up Kevin whose rental cabin was without power. Letty was then able to sleep in and meet Kevin at the end of the race. When the sun came up, we got our very first look at the snow covered mountain top known as Pike’s Peak that had been a major topic of conversation for so many months and miles.
Starting in Manitou Springs, Colorado (pop. 5,000) at an elevation of 6,300 feet, the course is primarily a single track hiking trail into the Pike National Forest. It is one of the oldest marathons in the country and is billed as “America’s Ultimate Challenge”. From the main street starting point, the course follows an average grade of 11% to the halfway point at the summit which has an elevation of 14,115 feet above sea level. Then, you run back down for a very unconventional 26.2 mile marathon.
Together, shoulder to shoulder, Dream’s Team approached the starting line prior to 8 a.m. It was 55 degrees and the rain had stopped. Reports were coming from the summit to expect temps below 30 degrees with wind and snow. Good thing we had purchased the pants!
Smiling and laughing on the outside (on the inside I was saying, “Holy crap, you big idiot what have you done?), we took a few group pictures with the snow covered peak in the background. Certainly an ominous looking task as we stood surrounded by the confines of the little Colorado mountain village. We waded into the crowd of some 800 hope filled runners and faced the starting line. There was no turning back. Physically, I was ready. Mentally, it was a battle between “you can do this” and “I want my mama”.
The cannon sounded and we were off down the main street. Dean was quickly out in front. Kevin and I looked at each other and commented how we knew this would happen. After months of talking about respecting the mountain and going the distance, Dean’s competitive nature had him pushing the pace. I wondered to myself as to where I would see him on his way down. I hoped to be within an hour but watching him run out of sight I realized that was probably too much to hope for.
After the first mile in town, the pavement turned into the aforementioned gravel/dirt single track hiking path known as Barr Trail. Occasionally, it would widen and allow for some quick step passing. I let Kevin go ahead at this point. I made the decision to pace myself with the masses in a brisk arms pumping power walk up the very steep first 3 miles of approximately 13% incline. To get some sense for what this kind of incline is like, put your toes about 5-6 inches up a wall with your heel on the floor.
Three miles later, I was over 8,000 feet and the trail “leveled” off to what the website called the flat section. Flat in this race was a grade of about 8% (slide your toes an inch or two down the wall). This 3 mile section took me to an aid station at a camp site named Barr Camp at over 9,000 feet and somewhere near 7.5 miles into the race.
By the time I made Barr Camp, I was sick to my stomach and had a blister caused by the steep incline. I never thought about altitude sickness prior to the race but it was beginning to set in. Although I don’t think I was moving that fast, altitude sickness usually occurs during a rapid ascent. Symptoms include headache, fatigue, stomach illness, dizziness, swelling of the hands and feet and sleep disturbance. Almost 2.5 hours into the race, I had at least half of the symptoms.
I wanted to vomit much of the remainder of the run. I contemplated the finger down the throat to force it out more than once but decided against it. This caused me to struggle to eat all day which is never good when you are putting the body under physical stress. Using the bottle from the belt on my waist, I forced small amounts of Gatorade down every 10-15 minutes. I managed to eat one energy gel, spit out some pretzels and finally ate some M&Ms later in the day. One can never be too sick for chocolate I guess.
After Barr Camp, the next goal is an aid station called the A-frame. It is an additional 2.6 miles and another 1800 feet up the trail with a grade near 13% again (get those toes back up the wall). I am now at tree line and about to lose what shelter there is. This is where I put on the extra shirt I was carrying, strapped my summer running cap to my water belt and replaced it with a warm beanie and put on my winter running gloves.
I looked ready, felt sick but thoughts of quitting were still very remote. I was now 3 hours and 31 minutes into the race and about 3 miles from the halfway point. (In May, I ran a personal best 13.1 miles in 1 hour and 42 minutes but that was at sea level, a mere two plus miles lower down!)
I may have thought about quitting more had I been able to see the peak as I left the A-frame camp and the tree line. The peak was once again shrouded in clouds. I knew I had another 2,000 plus feet in elevation and a grade over 12% (slide those toes down an inch) up ahead. What I didn’t know is how long and hard this 3 mile section would become.
Mile 10 to mile 11 took me about 45 minutes as what I call the zombie death march to the top began. The air was colder and harder to breathe. My energy was waning and the arms pumping power walk was now an arms hanging, head down mental effort to put one foot in front of the other.
Somewhere between mile 10 and 12, the lead runners began to appear. Because the trail was not big enough for two way traffic, race etiquette dictated that downhill runners had the right of way. Stopping to let them go by was a welcome respite. I found that by stopping for less than a minute, I could gain a little micro burst of energy to carry me another 25 or 50 yards. Mile 12 would take me 47 minutes and into the snow.
The last 1.5 miles to the top would be snow covered making the footing more treacherous. Adding to the nausea and slight dizziness was the fact that I could slip and fall very easily as the trail was covered in rocks. The end of this last section held what is called the “16 golden stairs”. This is a series of 32 switchback sections that zigzag climbers back and forth across the mountain to the summit. From the air, they resemble a jagged staircase. I looked up once and it was like a cartoon of an escalator carrying a never ending stream of people back and forth into the clouds.
I met Kevin on his way down the golden stairs. He pulled me off to the side and exclaimed, “Dean didn’t make it.” This scared the crap out of me until he explained that he had found Dean at the summit. Dean was very cold, turning blue and disoriented. He had a disposable camera in his pocket but needed Kevin’s help in finding it. Kevin made the decision to point him out to emergency personnel who easily recognized the early signs of hypothermia and Dean was pulled from the race. Wanting to finish and feeling relatively good, Kevin was heading down. I told him I would look for Dean at the top and make a decision as to whether or not to continue. Dean was the strongest runner I knew. I wondered to myself, “What in the hell have we done?”
The last mile to the top took more than 1 hour. About a half mile from the summit, I encountered a young runner who was heading down without reaching the top, essentially checking out. He was my inspiration to keep moving although you would not have known I was inspired if you had witnessed my lead footed struggles.
Finally, I reached the top amidst light snow, a little wind and temps near 30 degrees. I had covered 13.1 miles and reached an elevation of 14,115 feet in a little over 6 hours time. I inquired about Dean and was told that he “may” have been bused into town. Did I know his race number? Heck, I could hardly remember my home phone let alone some obscure number pinned to a friend’s shirt 6 hours earlier! So, EMS suggested I check the summit triage area in the gift shop.
Well, the gift shop was at least 100 yards further up the peak. I looked at my watch and then gazed at the incline with the other. Cussing to myself, I calculated that at a 12 to 15 minute per mile pace on the way down, I could “easily” make the 10 hour cutoff, earning a cool finisher’s shirt and medal.
Friend or not, I simply wasn’t climbing any further. I cussed my lack of ability to not get to the summit sooner. I cussed Dean for not sticking to “the plan”. I cussed the fact that I did not know what condition he was in. Generally, I just silently cussed because I knew what the conclusion was going to be.
We train together and race apart, somewhat of an unwritten code especially since I am the slow one in our bunch. I was shuffling slowly but still in the race. If I went up to find Dean, I knew my race would end. I had actually had a dream the night before that I raced well and had to wait for Dean and Kevin at the end. Those who know me will smile at this because they have seen what a real fantasy it is. Every marathon plan we make ends with, “when Tony gets done…..”. This one time, the tortoise had a chance to beat the hare. I would figure out how to find Dean when I got done. Half joking, half worried, I muttered, “Lord, don’t make me identify the body!”
At breakfast on Friday, Louie Keller had commented that once I started to head down from the summit, I would begin to feel better almost immediately. He was right. It was a huge mental boost to be past the half way point and going downhill. The hour it took to get up the last mile was cut down to 27 minutes. Going down on snow covered rocks, this would be the slowest mile of the last 13.
Back out of the snow and onto the rocks and gravel, I must have relaxed a bit as I stepped wrong and rolled my right ankle. I fell and landed on my hands and knees on a gravely section of trail. I shouted a few choice expletives and was helped up by a passing runner. My right hand was bleeding slightly but I kept moving as I worried about the ankle being a problem. It turned out to be fine. I twisted both ankles again later in the race but never fell again. (“Ankles” was my second choice for a nickname.)
I thought the rocks, tree roots and poor footing would never end on the way down. I was making better time but it was difficult finding a smooth stretch of trail. At the 8 hour mark, I made it back to Barr Camp which was now about 6 miles from the finish since the end was at a slightly different point in town than the start. There was now 2 hours of time to cover 6 miles. I began to feel better, thinking, “focus, watch your step, you’re going to look good in that shirt”.
Shortly thereafter, I picked up a conversation with a nearby runner. The last name escapes me but the first name was Trey and he was from Oklahoma. We were both struggling but determined to finish. We decided to stick together and support each other. We talked football, family and politics but mostly how we could make that 10 hour cutoff. The last 6 miles of any marathon are a lonely time where you can run into the proverbial “wall” if you stay in your individual shell. Having a new friend to converse with allowed both of us to talk our way through the wall without even realizing it.
The last three miles were a very steep downhill. Trey and I alternated walking and running while trying to determine which hurt least. This last bit of misery would take about an hour. Finally, we hit the pavement of town and managed to somewhat look like real runners as we entered the finishing chute with smiles from one proverbial ear to the other.
Thankfully, the 30 yard finishing alley was only big enough for two runners. Looking back, I spotted a determined late finisher speeding up on us and without talking moved side by side with Trey to block the path. Nobody was making a pass on me in the remaining yards while the finishing line photographer had us in his sights! Hands in the air, hooting and hollering, we finished the 26.2 mile course in 9 hours 42 minutes.
Post race was a quick medal around the neck, short glass of water, brief period of back slapping congratulations with my newest friend, Trey, and then the long coveted collection of the finisher’s shirt. Mission accomplished.
Now, where in the heck were Dean and Kevin? I searched the crowd with no luck. Walking to the car, I thought about the movie where Rocky and Apollo Creed fought toe to toe both leaning on each other at the finish. Exhausted neither one wanted a rematch. I didn’t even glance back up at the peak. I wanted no rematch and chose to shuffle off towards my next goal, home. I found Dean walking towards me as I neared the parking site. He was recovered, smiling, walking upright, thankfully coherent and most importantly ready to do the driving back to Denver.
Dean quickly got me caught up on the day. Kevin had finished in 7 hours and 55 minutes which was a great time for the day and conditions. We agreed that his extra few days acclimating to the altitude must have helped him greatly. Dean related that he simply went out too fast, didn’t drink anything and failed to put on the emergency rain poncho I had given him for the climb above the tree line. Then, he decided to wait for Kevin at the top so he would have someone to run with and proceeded to get even colder. Hypothermia then began to creep in and we agreed that pulling out of the race was absolutely the correct move to make.
Finding the public showers closed for the day (yes, I was THAT slow), we headed for Denver covered in the day’s sweat and grime in order to catch our 8 pm train. Reunited with my blackberry, I made a quick call home to Mary only to tell her I was alive and too tired to tell the whole story. I had a few emails waiting from friends that I answered in the same way. Give me an hour or two to gather some energy and I would share the news. Each short response ended with a terse “never again”.
As I regained my senses, I remembered that Louie Keller was on duty at his fire station. Surely, they would have a shower there. Luckily, Denver wasn’t burning and Louie answered his phone. We made a quick exit off the interstate into Denver Fire Station 22 for one of the best showers of my life. As an added bonus, Louie invited us to supper with all the guys at the station.
The next stop was a rendezvous with Kevin and Letty at the rental car drop off. We shared a taxi to the train station to find our incoming train running two hours late. I could have had a longer shower and more food after all!
It was after 11 pm before the train rolled out of Denver and we began the long ride home. Sleeping on the train on the return trip would be much more difficult. Tired, sore, feet swollen, appetite gone, trouble swallowing and generally recovering from altitude sickness all made for a fitful night of short naps.
Freight traffic was heavy the next day. Gradually, we fell farther and farther behind schedule. When we reached Chicago, it was evident that we would not make our Kalamazoo connection. Kevin and Letty offered a ride in their car from Chicago to Kalamazoo. Dean and I were both desperate to get home and jumped at the opportunity. We arrived home before the sun came up on Tuesday morning about 6 hours behind schedule but safe and sound for the most part.
Back at work later that day, I recounted the adventure to curious co-workers. Each time I maintained “never again” out loud but inside I felt a growing change. It was a strange sense that no marathon before or after would ever be like Pikes Peak. I had pushed myself across some imaginary line and my sense of being a runner was different.
Fully rested a couple days later, “never again” turned into “Well, IF The Dream goes back, I’m in”. There is something hard to put into words about the effort, challenge and results that made this marathon unique. When I look at my actual time and placing among all the runners that day (476 of 616 men and women finishers), it truly is rather pathetic. The three of use wore shirts showing a quote from Sir Edmund Hillary, “It is not the mountain we conquer but ourselves.” When I look inside myself at what I went through to get up and down that mountain on that given day, I am at peace with the official results.
Then, I set aside the mountain which was truly secondary to conquering my internal fears and doubts and the joy of conquering the internal battle becomes the prize. Isn’t that what every day is about?