On the beautiful, sunny Friday morning of August 16th just after 11:00 a.m., I left my apartment to pick up the boys. Months of training had officially come to an end, and our Pikes Peak weekend had officially begun.
That whole day was pretty relaxing. . .for me. I didn’t have to think about a race the next day. We first hit downtown Manitou Springs to pick up our bibs, bracelets, and hit the race expo. That was the first time that weekend I saw him: the one – the ONLY – Mr. Bart Yasso, Chief Running Officer of Runner’s World Magazine and running legend. And, of course, I had to say ‘hello.’
“Hi, Mr. Yasso! I followed your marathon training plan again. Running the marathon this year!” “I’ll be at about a half mile from the finish line cheering runners on.” “OK, you’d better look for me!”
Then, after settling into our hotel room, we got to work – Sifted though our bags to load hydration vests with Gu energy gels, salt pills, and extra technical tees; set out running attire; completed emergency information on the back of our bibs. Ready!
After dinner, I had something I had been waiting to spring on the boys - a last-minute good luck charm sure to put us in a racing frame of mind thanks to our friends at Trail Runner Nation. Yep, you guessed it. . .none other than authentic Performance Enhancing Kokopellis!
Saturday morning, I played a role I’d never played before: race support. I was up with the guys at 5:15 a.m., asking what they needed and offering bids for casual conversation to keep them relaxed.
At 7:00 a.m., JD’s wave of the Pikes Peak Ascent was off. Dakin was next, and he was nervous. And suddenly, so was I. Only 24 hours until the gun went off for my race. Gulp.
Once Dakin was off, I was ready to take off. First, though, I just had to take advantage of what was very likely a once-in-a-lifetime photo opp. Readers, meet Arlene Pieper, the first official woman to finish a marathon in the United States. Which one was it? I’m glad you asked – Pikes Peak in 1959! Kindred spirits? Maybe. A gal after my own heart? Most definitely!
She had some words of advice for me as a first-time marathoner at Pikes Peak that ended up coming in handy: “Whatever you do, don’t stop. Just keep going. You’ll do great!”
After committing these words to memory and offering a whole-hearted ‘thank you,’ I sped walked back to the hotel, quickly got ready, and grabbed a few articles of clothing requested by the boys before jumping in my car and heading to the summit of Pikes Peak.
I had never been a spectator at the Ascent, and I both loved and was completely stressed out by it. It was fun to watch the racers as they approached the finish line, especially because I knew exactly what that was like and empathize with them completely.
I saw the ‘death marchers’ and could feel the burning sensation in their lungs and wary legs. I saw those lucky enough to still have some ‘umph’ to run at that elevation, and I felt their hearts pounding in their chests and heard their internal monologues: Almost there. Stay tough! And, after what seemed like an eternity of squinting and studying runners from a distance, I saw JD and Dakin race to the finish.
We wasted no time getting back to my car and down the mountain to pizza, potato chips, cookies, and most importantly, a much higher percentage of oxygen in the air back near the starting line in Manitou Springs. Back at the hotel, the guys started winding down. . .and I started winding up. It was my turn, and the clock was ticking.
Two awesomely calm guys slash amazing friends kept me calm when, right before heading out to dinner, I realized that I had forgotten an essential piece of racing attire – my sports bra. Really, Mel? REALLY?! Ladies, I know you feel me on this one! You don’t mess with the sports bra! A few clicks of the iPhone and a quick trip to a local running store within an hour of closing later, we finally found ourselves at dinner.
After what had been a long, rushed, and stressful day, I was all worried out. I had no energy left to feel nervous about the race the following morning. All that was left was a surprisingly relaxed and even smiling girl enjoying a night out to dinner with the best trail running buddies for whom anybody could ever ask.
They, and a few good luck charms – the necklace my good friend Dave gave to me after I paced him for the last 15 miles of what was then his marathon PR and the shirt that my NC running buddy Melissa bought for me at the Boston Marathon expo after our first year of running together – proved the best possible companions on my marathon eve.
When my alarm went off at 5:05 a.m. the next morning, I woke within seconds and shut it off before the guys heard it. I thought they might have slept through my getting up; but the minute I stepped out of the bathroom, I was greeted by both Dakin and JD, sitting up straight and at my beck and call. “What are you gonna do now?” “I think I’m going to go grab some breakfast.” “I’ll come with you.”
Their attentiveness and concern the entire morning – and the entire day – was a welcome deviation from our typical razzing each other for every reason under the sun for twice weekly bouts on trails and at Snug runs. In fact, I think they were more nervous about the race than I was:
During my warm up, I felt great. My muscles were loose, and I had not even the slightest pain or strain anywhere. Even better than that, I had somehow remained not only completely relaxed, but even a bit jovial leading up to the start – a far cry from my typical ‘get the eff out of my face’ demeanor and straight-lipped game face self before a big race. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever felt that relaxed and positive before a race before.
All systems were ‘go.’ Today’s gonna be a good day.
And then, I saw him for the second time. “Hi, Mr. Yasso!” “Hi, Melissa!” “You remember my name?!” “Your bib helps.” “Oh, ha ha! You’d better be looking for me at the finish, because I’ll be looking for you!”
Shortly thereafter, I handed my coat to Dakin, geared up, and hugged Dakin and JD before heading over to the start to line up. “See you guys in twenty-six point two.”
And I was now on my own.
The gun went off, and I started my watch when the slow-starting mob of fellow competitors finally started moving and I hit the first chip sensor. A whole year of thinking about that very moment and four months of dedicated training and mental preparation for it were about to be put to the test.
The first mile felt amazing. Maybe a little too amazing. Slow down a bit. Don’t burn up too much energy just yet. But I had no way of knowing my pace. For the previous two years, I carried a laminated chart with pace markers for key landmarks along the course. Hey, I don’t call myself a nerd for nothing, peeps!
Well, most of my belongings were still sprawled out in disarray across my bedroom floor as they had been since moving into my new apartment weeks before. I couldn’t find my chart when I remembered to look for it just before I left my apartment two days before. Too late now!
I thought I slowed enough; but feeling a bit fatigued after only a few switchbacks of the Ws, I wasn’t so sure. The remainder of the Ws were a bit of a physical struggle, but I was finally able to get some good running in when the course flattened out after the last switchback.
Flattened. Ha! “Flattened” along the Barr Trail means that the incline grade is only about five percent. After continuously climbing at a much steeper grade, though, that five percent could feel just as welcoming as a gentle breeze.
The ‘breeze’ was not as gentle as I remembered it last year. Then, I felt so much stronger and gained ground in a good time. At that point during the ascent this year, though, I wanted to run harder; but my body couldn’t. Instead of picking runners ahead off and passing them one by one, I had to spend the easiest part of the ascent catching my breath, knowing that steep and technical terrain – and an extra 13.1 miles – awaited.
At every single aid station, I grabbed a fist full of something – grapes, Skittles, dried cranberries, whatever. I think it was at the Barr Camp aid station that I had some cranberries and felt as I always imaged Popeye did after he downed a can of spinach.
Woah! That helped! And then, it hit me. You moron, when was the last time you took a Gu? I brought several with me but had completely forgotten. Is that why I’m so tired?
I took one then, but I really should have taken one about two miles – and at least a half hour – earlier. During the next few miles, I felt weird. I thought at one point I was dreaming about the race rather than actually running it. Can I stop? And then I realized that if I indeed did stop running in what I thought was a dream, I would actually stop in the middle of the course.
That weird feeling came and left for a couple miles more, then I hit the next big climb of the trail, this one particularly technical and very notably steep, especially when compared to the “easy” part of the trail I had just left. I actually started to feel a little better and managed through this section all right.
And suddenly, I was there - tree line. The switchback passing the A-frame marks the end of forest and shaded trail riddled with exposed tree roots, big rock step ups, and loose gravel and the beginning of the unobstructed sight of reddish colored trail and complete exposure to whatever the elements had in store, which, that day included cloudy skies and distant thunder.
Even on my strongest of days during my past two ascents, tree line - a.k.a. the elevation at which the air is too thin for vegetation to survive - has marked a very different race. Three more miles is all you’ve got, then it’s downhill from there. Keep with it. I ran for the first part; but then it hit me like a ton of bricks. Much sooner than I thought I might be, I was part of the dreaded ‘death march’ along the trail.
During miles eleven and twelve, I winded back and forth along the trail up the mountain alternating between feeling OK and running past a few walkers ahead to walking myself slower than a snail’s pace and feeling like I was going to die. No sooner could I tell myself, “No more running for you until the way down!” I felt fine and wanted to push forward faster again.
I thought of that Tuesday at Mt. Falcon when I did my 6 x 800 workout on the technical ascent up the mountain. Remember how much that first 800 hurt? How you thought you couldn’t possibly do all six uphill? But you did! And Arlene’s advice echoed in my head. Whatever you do, don’t stop. Just keep going. And I did.
Finally, with one mile to go to the summit, I got a most unexpected burst of energy that made me want to get to the top as fast as I could. The faster I got there, the sooner I would (hopefully) stop hurting and have only the downhill left. I ran a few steps past walkers when I could, kept my eyes on the trail a few yards ahead to propel myself forward instead of looking down at my feet to will them to take another step.
I even had a bit of energy to share a little humor. For the two years prior during the Pikes Peak Ascent, there was a set of spectators playing kazoos at a switchback shortly before the Golden Stairs. And, they were there again this year. “Are you taking requests?” “Sure, what do you have in mind?” “The Ants Go Marching.”
More and more spectators and race staff cheered me on as I pushed forward. “Good job, Melissa! Almost there!” “You look good, Melissa, stay strong!” Their encouragement was most welcome, and it definitely helped me to power through the pain. I managed to gasp many a winded ‘thank you’ to them and tried to offer runners already coming down the mountain my own kudos as well.
Still, my body pushed back with a slight pang of ‘ouch!’ in my right hamstring. My fatigue, combined with the elevation and my suspected lack of proper fuel along the way all added up to my hamstring wanting to cramp. Flashbacks to my first ascent – and the terrible cramping pain in both hamstrings and calves during the final mile of the ascent – came to mind. Oh, hell no! Not again!
Finally, I could see the bright yellow banner announcing the summit and turn around point not twenty-five feet ahead, and I couldn’t possibly get there fast enough. The faster I neared it, the faster I seemed to move. The faster I moved, I kept telling myself, the faster I could head back down. And, when I did finally make it there a few moments later, only two words came to mind. . .um, pardon my French, please. . . F$#% ME!
You on the edge of your seat yet? Stay there, and stay tuned for the exciting conclusion of the story of my FIRST marathon. . .
Melissa Mincic, Ph.D., a long-time road and trail runner, conducts applied child development research and works to influence child development policy at the University of Denver. Follow Melissa on Twitter at @nerdinrunshoes.