Previously in the life of this nerd in running shoes. . .I had just reached the summit of Pikes Peak, a.k.a. the half-way point of the Pikes Peak Marathon. . .
A few deep gasps for air and a fist full of grapes later, I was on my way back down Pikes Peak. I still had a half marathon – half the race – to go, but it already felt like a lot less. Within the first few steps, I immediately felt so much better. I was no longer out of breath. Somehow, it felt like a whole new race; and I felt like a brand new runner.
The first two miles down the mountain will forever remain in my memory as one of my absolute favorite parts of the race. Thanks to bibs donning runners’ names, we were able to offer our fellow competitors personalized positivity between gasps for air.
I so much more than appreciated it, especially during my last mile to the summit, and I was happy to pay my good fortune forward during the first few miles of my descent. “Good job, Tim, Amy, Matthew!” “Stay tough, Nathan, almost there!” and “Keep going, Todd. One foot in front of the other!”
And, because I felt so much better, I, of course, asked a second favor of the kazoo players. “I’ve got another request.” “What?” “Baby Got Back.” Whether or not they actually played it, I don’t know. I was well on my way down the mountain and out of earshot moments after asking.
What felt like a very short time later, I left the comfort of lots of company suffering with me above tree line and again entered the forest feel of the trail at A-Frame. I didn’t know it at the time, but I would now see only a runner or two at a time along the course for about the next seven miles.
This was one of the steepest parts of the course, and it was riddled with exposed tree stumps, loose gravel, and rock steps. I was dreading this part most on the way down and knew that if I was going to biff it, this would probably be the place. Careful. Lift your feet.
Much to my surprise, it wasn’t nearly as bad as I expected. I was moving faster than I thought I would, and it seemed effortless. It reminded me a lot of the technical decline we’d been down over a dozen times during trail runs the few months prior. I’d even say it was, well, kind of fun!
Next was the spot along the course where the trail widened, was much less technical, and seemed to level off a bit. Now I can RUN. I was now moving much faster, and it felt really good. I purposely ignored my watch each time it beeped at me to signify the completion of another mile – didn’t want to look at how far I’d gone for fear that my mind would tell my body that it was getting tired and achy. I still had a long way to go.
I saw another runner ahead and was slowly gaining ground on him. And then, it happened – just like the last two times - so fast that I didn’t have time to mentally react. I suddenly hit the ground, slid down the mountain – leaving a bright red three-inch long scratch on my right hip I found later Sunday night – then did a crooked half somersault backwards to a sitting position looking up at the trail I had just run down.
I looked around for a second, then behind me at the runner I was trying to catch just ahead. The scuffle made enough noise to distract him from his own race. “Are you OK?” “Yeah, I’m fine, thank you.” And, just like the last two times, I got up, dusted myself off for a second, took note of a new bloody scrape on my knee about an inch to the right of the scar from my previous two falls, then kept running.
Damn! Was hoping I could dust myself off, and no one would know! Oh well. A little souvenir, courtesy of the mountain itself.
Nineteen miles – about half way down the long, lonely seven-mile stretch of trail. I wouldn’t necessarily say that this is where I hit the “wall” of the marathon experience. Not a physical one, at least.
Having spent the entire ascent and the first few miles of the descent – the first sixteen miles of the race - with the company of my fellow competitors grunting and fighting their own mental wars, running alone made those three short miles feel so much longer, even despite my now much faster pace. I’m ready to be done running now. I just wanna go home!
Rather than the wall that I hit several times during miles eleven and twelve during the ascent - physically and psychologically taxed beyond explanation, feeling on the verge of literal collapse – I just felt like a big whiny baby in my head.
Shortly afterward, I saw it. The sign signifying that six miles of the race remained, a.k.a. the twenty mile mark. I grinned to myself my first step past it. This is officially the longest distance I’ve ever run in my life! That was all I needed to pick up the pace a bit and push through. About than an hour to go. You’ve got this.
Somehow, those next few miles seemed to go by a little quicker. I managed to continue to pick runners ahead off and then found myself in a game of leap frog with one or two of them as we began to descend the Ws.
I was thinking that they would be an easy section of the course to gain good speed on the way down. Thanks to recent heavy rainfall in the Manitou Springs area, though, the mini ravine dead center of the now more narrow trail – at times just wide enough for my feet to fit, at other times narrowing and threatening a twisted ankle – proved me wrong.
When I couldn’t run down it – which was most of the time – I had no choice but to widen my gait, reaching for the far right or left ends of the trail with every step in an awkward, clunky fashion. Pair that with the now five or so runners lined up directly in front of me, all of us nipping at the heels of the next runner ahead.
Every now and then, I’d hear the all too familiar sound of trail running shoes sliding on loose gravel followed by a “Woah!” serving as a warning to runners reaching that exact same spot only seconds later. I suddenly realized that I was so on the heels of the guy just ahead that I couldn’t very well see what the trail would offer my next step until my foot approached it mid stride.
Even though the few runners ahead were slowing me down, I was relieved that they were there. It was nice to be back amongst everyone else panting, steps pounding, and realizing that the bright red needles on their energy gauges were crawling dangerously close to the ‘E’ as was mine.
I decided to slow it down a notch to prevent an ill fate. I’ve got to be getting close to the end of the trail. I’ll hit the pavement hard. The switchbacks seemed to grow closer and closer, and I was looking for the opening through the trees marking the end of the trail and beginning of the pavement – a.k.a. the last 1.25 miles of the course – with every turn. I was starting to have those ‘ready to be done’ slash whiny thoughts again.
I heard cheering up ahead past the next turn, and I was praying that it was the first set of spectators we’d meet at the end of the trail. No such luck. It was the last aid station along the course, and the first aid station I ran past without accepting any sustenance offered.
And then, we were FINALLY there. THANK YOU!!! I was a bit nervous that the pavement would hurt my legs, but I didn’t feel anything different. In fact, it felt comfortable to be on stable, solid ground for the first time since the second mile of the race. This is IT. Almost there.
I ran at full speed and was bound and determined to run as hard as I could until the finish line. I tried so hard to catch the two runners just ahead of me, the only two I couldn’t catch along the trail on the way down. And, I knew that at least one other runner was trying to catch me too, thanks to one of the scattered spectators we were now meeting along the course.
“He’s on your tail, Melissa! Don’t let him catch you!” Thanks in large part to her help, I didn’t.
A bit further down the road, I saw him for the third time. Spotted him right away. As I neared, he noticed me too. I lifted my arm and pointed at him, and he extended his arm to point back. Once I reached him, I held up my left hand, and Bart Yasso ‘high fived’ me as I ran past: Shortly after my third and final brush with running royalty, I saw another of my heroes – Dakin – ready to root me on. He saw me pretty much immediately and started yelling encouragement while crossing the street and snapping a few pictures.
I thought he would stop walking and continue to cheer once he reached me. Instead, he started running alongside me opposite the line of bright orange construction cones marking the course along the street.
And, of course, he continued with words of encouragement I really needed at that point: “You’re doing great! You’re amazing! Only point three miles to go, just up ahead and around the corner. You’ve got this!” I couldn’t speak a word at that moment; but I was screaming, “Thank you, Dakin! Thank you!” in my head.
I kept running as fast as I could toward the left-hand turn marking the home stretch. Stay focused. Almost there. The crowd of spectators had grown more and more dense as I neared, and the sound of distant cheering exploded into full-fledge ‘Wooooos’ and clapping once I turned the corner. I could see the finish line!
And, right before I got there, I also saw my mom and my dad, whose voice I clearly heard above the crowd. “Come on, Liss! GO!” Every muscle in my body was in full flex, and my eyes were glued to the clock at the finish line of my first-ever marathon.
Just a few moments later, I crossed it; stopped my watch; walked a few steps into the tent; and bent over, resting each of my hands on my knees, trying to catch my breath, looking down at the dusty shoes – now still – that had just carried me 26.2 miles up and down one of Colorado’s ‘fourteeners.’ A volunteer placed a medal over my head. “Congratulations!”
A few more slow and wary steps, gasping for air and still coming to the realization that the race was over, I leaned on a table past the quartered bagels, bananas, and orange slices and thought about the many mental and physical struggles along the way. Four words came to mind. That. Was. SO. Hard.
I stood, grabbed a plastic cup of Gatorade in one hand and water in the other, and walked out of the calm and shaded tent into the sunlight of the afternoon and frenzy of runners and spectators passing by. My support crew was waiting.
They offered congratulatory hugs, and I nodded when they asked if I was OK. “So how was it?” “Hard.” And soon, I shared some of my thoughts and feelings about the race and was up to speed on how they all passed their time in Manitou while waiting. And, once Dakin and Joe decided that I was recovered enough, they surprised me with a full-fledged post-victory-locker-room-style shaken champaign shower:
I was already covered in sweat, trail, and a little blood. Why not add some booze to the mix?
And then, we drank some booze with dinner before heading back to Denver. Our Performance Enhancing Kokopellis were tired. Their work was done, as was ours.
A whole year of thinking about the Pikes Peak Marathon, and four months of dedicated training and mental preparation for it, were over.
The next morning was, well, not at all unexpectedly, pretty painfully slow. Despite my attempts to curb the ‘AAAUUUGGGHHH’ factor with a soak in Burt’s Bees Bath Salts – AH-MAY-ZING, by the way – the night before, every body part from the neck down absolutely ACHED. When it was finally time to head down three flights of stairs to the front door, then another flight down to my car, I hesitated.
I had joked the day before about how it was probably going to take me a half hour to get to my car that morning. Surely, though, it was only a joke. I’m fine. It won’t be that bad. And so, I took my first step down the first step and. . .cried out loud! OOOOOOWWWWWW!!! I only hoped I didn’t wake my roommate on his day off.
After that, I held onto hand rails and leaned into walls - did whatever I could to try to put as little body weight as possible on my legs and feet – whenever I absolutely had to walk up or down stairs. If I could help it, I avoided it all together. That descent down a mere four flights of stairs – on that day and the next two – hurt WAAAY worse than the entire thirteen point one miles down Pikes Peak the day before.
Once I did reach the bottom of the final flight of stairs at the sidewalk, I had to wait until I saw no cars coming down the street even from a distance. It took me a while to creep across not only like a zombie, but like the epitome of divine decrepit death warmed over.
Finally, I reached my car; slowly opened the door, then shuffled just inside of it; placed my right hand on the steering wheel, left hand on the inside door handle; fell into the driver’s seat, right leg inside the car, left leg still hanging out on the curb; and loudly sighed in momentary relief and gratitude at not needing to use my muscles to sit a few seconds. I had never been as wrecked after a race than I was after my first marathon.
I grinned to myself. Three words came to mind. TOTALLY worth it.
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.