I’ve written before about the intensity of emotion after finishing a long distance foot race. There’s something about those moments when I am broken down to my core. I am humbled beyond comprehension but still proud. The humility leads to a deep thankfulness, one I don’t feel often enough in everyday life. As I empty myself, I look outward to the things in life that really matter: my faith, my family, and giving to others.
Race morning began beautifully. The downhill half-mile jog from the bed and breakfast to the starting line in the cool 55° dawn invigorated me. Listening to America the Beautiful sung a cappella, with the mountain that inspired its words in the background, was moving. Before I knew it, we were off. The first half of the climb felt wonderful. I enjoyed chatting with other runners. I soaked it all in. I was having the time of my life.
Things got interesting just above tree-line. I was feeling the effects of the altitude. I had a slight headache and was suddenly very tired. I just wanted to tag the top and get back down as quickly as possible. I wasn’t dejected or negative, but I was in zombie mode: one foot in front of the other. Managing the logistics of passing oncoming runners on a narrow trail also saps what little brain power you have in reserve. “Zombie” personifies what I remember of the summit. I sat down for a moment to swallow a few grapes and took an electrolyte capsule with some water. Going down was certainly easier than going up. However, the very top of the mountain is extremely steep and narrow and virtually impossible to run down while navigating the oncoming traffic.
After I cleared the traffic jam, I found it difficult to run. Then I got really sick. A combination of altitude and poor hydration/electrolyte management resulted in a headache and stomach ache that made running very uncomfortable. The nausea climaxed about one mile down from the summit. That’s right, I barfed. The most likely direct cause was the electrolyte capsule I took at the top while dehydrated. Those things can really mess you up if your system is already under stress. Lesson learned.
I can’t help but wonder… What if I hadn’t taken the electrolyte capsule? What if I was properly hydrated so the capsule didn’t make me sick? Maybe taking electrolyte supplements isn’t something you should do while your body is under stress at altitude? I knew going into it the altitude was going to play some role, but did I do something to make it worse? Could I have somehow avoided the problematic stomach ache and ran a much better descent? There’s only one way to find out….
I kept the zombie march going for several more miles, unable to run. I’ve read many stories of ultra-runners facing down the drop out demons. But, I didn’t expect to experience it at this race. I’m glad quitting isn’t a simple affair when you’re half way up a mountain. If I could’ve hopped in a van, I’m skeptical I would have been able to avoid the temptation. I was mentally done. I reached the point of not caring anymore.
A volunteer at the A-Frame aid station (3 miles from the summit) suggested I talk to the medics. They quizzed me. It was then I realized I hadn’t gone to the bathroom since before the race started and that dehydration contributed to my woes. I could take supplemental oxygen, but a) it would disqualify me, and b) I would have had to use it all the way down. I wasn’t too keen on the idea of dropping out and still having to walk down the mountain. Since I was able to move slowly, I gulped some water and kept hiking.
It remained a delicate affair, but eventually I was able to run again. I’m not exactly sure what mile I was in, somewhere between 6 to 8 miles from the finish. And it wasn’t a complete switch from hiking to running either. I never felt completely well. It was crazy how good I could feel one minute and queasy the next. I cherished the good minutes and enjoyed a good bit of strong downhill running through quiet mountain aspen groves. The runners were spread out pretty well at this point. So, occasionally it felt like I had the mountain to myself. I treasure those solitary moments running in the mountains.
I finished with 40 minutes to spare before the 10 hour cutoff. After I regained the ability to run, I wasn’t too afraid of missing the cutoff. But I was thinking about those who would. I probably passed some of them. So, I decided I would stay until the end to cheer the last finishers and offer encouragement to those who might not make it. I began walking back up the race course to my bed and breakfast with 8 minutes remaining. Spectators congratulated me. And I stopped to cheer a few runners that came by. I was overwhelmed with emotion. Out of around 800 runners only 689 finished. A handful of them missed the cut off by a few minutes. Those are some inspiring athletes. I can appreciate their effort in a new way. For a while I wondered if I would be one of them. I know how hard it is to press on when you aren’t sure it will “count.”
I’m very glad I didn’t quit. And I’m very proud of my almost near cutoff finish. It’s unquestionably the hardest, most intense thing I’ve ever done. Despite the low points, I had the time of my life. If you’re the insane type, I highly recommend Pikes Peak Marathon. The course support is amazing, especially considering the logistics involved. This entire adventure strengthened my love for trail running and especially mountain trail running. I hope to try it again. Next time I will spend more time acclimating at elevation and will improve my hydration/electrolytes. Pikes Peak is a mighty mountain, full of beauty, strength, and mystery. I can’t wait till we meet again!