August will mark the 58th time that runners will take on ‘America’s Ultimate Challenge,’ the Pikes Peak Marathon. This year, it will double as the USA Trail Marathon Championship course. These and lots of other fun facts, like the ones you are about to read, can be found at the Pikes Peak Ascent and Marathon website.
These races are no joke. The starting line is at 6,300 feet above sea level, and runners climb 7,815 feet more to the the finish at an elevation of 14,050 feet (just shy of the summit at 14,115 feet). The math figures out to an average of 11% grade from the starting line to the top.
And, of course, let’s not forget the fact that the air considerably thins and gets drier as you climb. Air pressure at 6,000 feet is 620 mm Hg - 18% less than air pressure at sea level. The air thins at 12,000 feet to the extent that trees no longer have enough oxygen to grow. At 14,115 feet, air pressure is 430 mm Hg - 43% less than at sea level air pressure. Humidity is generally less than 15% and is much less above 11,500 feet.
The last two years have brought amazing running weather, but lesser lucky years have threatened racers and spectators with lightning, storms, and even snow – in some cases severe enough to enforce extended cutoff times or even call off the race right in the middle of it.
Why would I – among roughly 2,600 other runners composing both the Ascent and Marathon – voluntarily subject myself to such an endeavor? Three reasons.
First, I like a challenge (and might be juuuuuust a tad massochistic). And not just the challenge of the race itself. I mean the challenge of the consistent dedication required to properly train – hundreds of miles, thousands of feet of elevation gain on trails, and proper nutrition for months (TOTALLY worth it to be thin and toned just in time for bathing suit season – a fun side effect!).
Second, the opportunity to spend time with your fav running peeps, both during training and at the top to celebrate your efforts. . .
. . .and to meet new ones. I first met Ben a couple miles into the 2011 Pikes Peak Ascent, which marked a first attempt for us both. I actually had enough breath at the “flat” part of the Ascent – the short portion of the course of only 5% grade – to sputter out the words, “Nice ink.”
We both ran the Ascent again in 2012 and will attempt our first Pikes Peak Marathon in August.
I also met Runner’s World Magazine’s Chief Running Officer, book author, and running-slash-training extraordinaire Bart Yasso at the 2012 Pikes Peak Ascent.
This was an especially awesome moment for me, as I followed the intermediate marathon training program Bart wrote for my Ascent preparation. I think I earned a quick pic after all of those ‘Yasso 800s,’ even if it was a little blurry!
And these are just the peeps I actually had a chance to get to know a bit. Runners are different, and trail runners are a different breed of runner. I’ve had the pleasure of acquainting several others during the race, some by name, some not.
All, though, were very positive and made the experience all the more fulfilling, whether we shouted encouragement to each other while playing a passing game of ‘leap frog’ along the course, or whether a runner moved aside so that I could pass and said, “I’m going to let you go ahead. You’ve got some really good energy, I can tell.” Not every sport has participants like trail running, and no trail race rivals Pikes Peak.
Third and finally, Pikes Peak, to me, marries one of the best parts of Colorado – the beautiful mountains – and one of my true life passions – running – while challenging me to set my sights on bigger goals each year. Being able to do all of this in my backyard is simply bliss. And to this Colorado girl, that means everything.
Melissa Mincic, Ph.D., studies child development at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and is a long-time road and trail runner. Follow Melissa on Twitter at @nerdinrunshoes.