After spending many hours over the previous week in the gift shop that adorns the summit of Pikes Peak (in an attempt to best acclimatise to the thin air), the day of the World Long Distance Mountain Running championships had finally arrived. The race was held in conjunction with the Pikes Peak Ascent, which rises 2,382m (that’s more than the height of Mount Kosciuszko!) from 1,920m above sea level to the summit of “America’s Mountain” at an altitude of 4,302m, over a distance of 21.44km. For me, along with many of the other international athletes, this would be a new “personal best” for highest mountain summited. The look on the local’s faces when you told them you would be running the ascent but live and trained at sea-level said it all, but I was looking forward to the challenge.
I’ll make a disclaimer now that I will be digressing from the metric system during the remainder of this article. As the race was in the USA, the course was marked in miles!
The American team were the (deservingly) hot favourites for the race, so it was no surprise that as soon as the starting gun went off, they all bolted to the front. I was happy to sit at the back of the large, front pack as we made our way along about a mile of road. I didn’t want to go out too hard, knowing that going into too much of an oxygen debt early on would be devastating later, but also didn’t feel as though I really could run too much faster at the time. I was reassuring myself this was simply due to the fact the first half a mile (or so) was flat, and I would feel more at home when we started climbing.
Everyone (myself included) seemed to hold their position when we hit the dirt and commenced the steady (but gradual) climb up the many switchbacks of the Barr trail. For the next couple of miles I played a game of leap-frog with one of the South African runners. At this early stage both us were more using each other to help hold a steady pace than thinking about racing each other. We passed a couple of runners going up and were passed by several more.
Around 3-4 miles into the race, the buffed out track widened and became flatter, even including a few sections of gradual downhill. I had planned for this to be a section to be passing people, however it wasn’t long until I found myself being passed by a couple of runners, including the eventual female winner. This was when I started to realise this race would be more about trying to survive than racing.
Around the half way mark, I suddenly saw my South African friend walking up ahead. When he had pulled away from me a mile earlier I had thought I might not see him again until the finish, but offered some words of encouragement as I went past. Soon, the Barr Camp checkpoint (about 3,100m elevation) could be heard well before it was reached and the cheers from all the wonderful volunteers was certainly uplifting.
A few more runners came past, including the second placed female, as the flat section of the course ended and terrain became a little bit rockier (but still a very well groomed trail!). By this stage I had to fight the urge to hike any rocky bits that resembled steps. I knew if/once I allowed myself to walk the first time it would be easier to justify to myself doing so more often. However, I also knew that if the course was a sea-level then I would be able to run every step. So I stubbornly persisted.
As we approached the notorious “A-frame” checkpoint that marks the end of the tree line, I finally broke into a hands-on-knees hike up some rock steps. This was the point which many runners has claimed is where “the race begins”. Although I still felt in control of my heart and lungs, I simply felt as though I had no physical strength and had to use all of my will power to force my legs to continue the relentless forward motion.
Despite having hiked the whole course to help avoid any hidden surprises, I followed the third female off course just above the tree-line for 50m or so. I quickly realised this was much too steep and loose to be the real trail and looked back to see another runner take the correct path. I quickly called out that we had gone the wrong way and bounded down to the proper route.
With the trees no longer hindering my view to the summit, I could see many runners lining the switchbacks above me. Many of them were walking. I thought to myself that if I could just force myself to sustain a running gait then I would surely catch a few. Like a slow-motion game of cat-and-mouse, I started reeling runners in. Doing so left me with barely enough strength to give a thumbs up to the course marshals, who were ensuring no-one cut any switchbacks.
When I hit the 2-miles-to-go mark I felt a slight mental boost. I had purposefully run this section a couple of times in the previous week, so felt at least somewhat comforted by the sense of familiarity. I could tell I was moving slower than I had on those “easy” runs, but was certainly working a lot a harder. The desire to just lie down was overwhelming but somehow I made my legs keep running. Tunnel vision had certainly set in and all I could focus on was the piece of trail in front of me.
Entering the final mile, I was actually looking forward to the notorious 16 Golden Stairs as I felt stairs were a good excuse to hike rather than run. I passed a couple more runners on these stairs and felt a massive sense of relief when the yellow arch that marked the finish came into sight.
After a few more staggering switchbacks I crossed the finish line after the toughest 2:39:37 of my life. I staggered away from the finish only to be helped by a medic towards the first aid room, where along with several other runners, I required oxygen to become coherent once more. I felt completely spent, but satisfied that I had finished. My Australian teammate, Harriet Smith, finished just over an hour later and I was elated that we had both made it.
Looking back, it was a humbling experience to be reminded of the respect that the mountains deserve. I relished the experience of a new kind of fatigue, unlike anything I had endured before. I already feel better mentally prepared for the next time I race at high altitudes and more aware of the kind of preparation required. I look forward to the next time I find myself in the mountain ranges of beautiful Colorado and I am incredibly grateful to everyone who helped out with this event, from the WMRA, to the LOC and local volunteers, as well as all those who support me back home (without whom, none of these adventures would be possible!).