Thursday, January 1, 2015

Pikes Peak Ascent and Triple Crown of Running 2014- Race Recap

I completed the Pikes Peak Ascent last year in 2014 and never got around to writing a race recap for it but I figured that a lot of people would be starting their train-up for the race this spring and might be interested.  It is a really incredible race, and one that is truly different from anything I have ever done before.  I usually stick to road races and have done my fare share of 5k's, 10k's, and half marathons but running up a mountain sounded crazy to me.  But I found out I would be leaving Colorado soon and that mountain just kept staring me in the face so I decided to sign up for it.  I also convinced my wife, Kim, to sign up as well.  She wasn't too excited to begin with but I think as the race got closer we both were pretty happy.  Kim had a qualifying time already but this race fills up REALLY quick so we missed the registration window for her to sign up with qualifications.  I was deployed to Afghanistan the year before and hadn't done much running previous to this attempt so all of my 1/2 Marathons or Marathons were out of tolerance for the qualifications.  Because of this we ended up registering through the Triple Crown of running series without qualifications which uses your Garden of the Gods 10 miler time as a qualification and then you need a completion (no time requirement) for the Summer Roundup Trail run.  I will say that I am glad we both did this option.  Even though the Ascent is cool on its own the whole series was really a well put together event.  If I was still going to be in Colorado I would definitely be signing up for the series again.  Now the qualifications are pretty strict so if you aren't sure you meet them make sure you check and double check before you shell out cash.  The race officials will check online results for races to ensure you can actually complete the race (so don't try to cheat the system).  Race qualifying details can be found Here, and Triple Crown of running info can be found Here. I can definitely say that this entire series wasn't easy but I learned a lot of good lessons about training and running by trying different types of races.

Garden of the Gods 10 Miler:
The first race of the series was the Garden of the Gods 10 Miler.  This race, if you look up the TCR option without qualifications, requires you to complete it in less than two hours.  Kim and I were pretty confident as we had been training pretty good all summer for the Chicago Marathon in the fall but on a whim decided to do a training run in the park.  It quickly became evident that this wasn't going to be a walk in the park.  The Garden of the Gods is EXTREMELY HILLY, now even though Kim and I were in pretty good shape we struggled with that first run in the park.  We eventually decided that we needed to train specifically for this race or we wouldn't make the cutoff time for the Ascent, which was  our primary goal.  This was a really important lesson for me.  I have never really trained on running the same course as a race before so starting to learn where I could push myself on hills and where I needed to take it easy were invaluable on race day.  I really came up with a race strategy for this one and it worked out great.  Kim and I started by working 5-7 mile runs through different segments of the park each weekend as our long run and then were really able to map out the hills that were going to be difficult.  It also helped that I trained by pushing the baby stroller so on race day I literally felt 30lbs lighter. 
Training Runs in Garden of the Gods
Training Run in Garden of the Gods

On race day we really felt prepared.  My plan was to try to keep 9 minute miles for the majority of the course and to slow it down on the two really big hills (at miles 2 and 5)  On those hills I would let myself drop to 9:30 miles and had my watch set to show lap pace, that way for each mile itself I wouldn't let myself lose too much time.  I ended up doing almost exactly that and completed the race at 1:31:34 almost a half hour under the required time.  I felt great and actually had some gas left in the tank, I think I could have gone a little less conservative and beat the 1:30:00 time. If you complete the 10 miler in under 1:30:00 you actually qualify for wave 1 on the ascent (which I will get into later).  Kim did great too, and despite giving birth only 5 months before she finished in about 1:50:18 or about 11:00 minute miles on a really difficult course.  The race support was great and I loved the high school water stops (the minions were my favorite) the end of the race also had free beer! and pizza which was definitely welcomed.  The only issue I had with the organization was that the handout of the medals and shirts took forever.  We had to wait in line almost 30 minutes to get ours.  Not something you want to do after running a race.  So that was that and we both were set to conquer the Ascent.  All we needed to do now was complete the Summer Roundup.

Summer Roundup Trail Run:
We didn't train specifically for the summer roundup like we did for the 10 miler.  In fact we really just went back to our Marathon training plan and assumed we would be able to finish.  This was nice as it was a low stress event that we could really just have fun on.  I took off from the start expecting to be able to keep an 8:30 or so pace for the 12k trail run.  This didn't work out quite well as the course was single track for a large portion of the way and passing was difficult. My first mile split was over 10 minutes and then really alternated between 8:15 or so when I could break out and 10:00 when I got stuck on single track behind slower runners.  Overall it was a really nice race and I didn't mind too much getting bogged down. It actually allowed me to enjoy the run a little more than constantly pushing the pace uphill.  I ended up finishing at 1:06:33 or just under a 9 min mile and Kim finished at 1:23:52.  That was it, we were now officially set to run in the Ascent!

Pikes Peak Ascent:
We woke up early on Ascent day and headed down to the starting area as we knew parking was going to be a nightmare.  Manitou springs is notorious for being difficult to park and on this day that was no exception so we got there early enough and grabbed our spot to stretch and get ready.  I wore my Camelbak Hawg and came prepared with a ton of GU's and a peanut butter sandwich.  I knew that on this race I was going to need good nutrition.  This was probably the biggest lesson I learned from the Ascent.  On most of my other long runs I have really run out of fuel, especially during the St. Louis Marathon so I wanted to be prepared here and it worked out well for me.  The build up to the race was really interesting and since we were in wave two we got to watch the start for wave one a few minutes before us.

Finally it was time for us to start.  Now I have heard from a lot of people and through reading race recaps that it behooves you to get out in front early because it slows pretty quick once on the mountain.  I took this to heart and tried to move up in the pack from the beginning as we moved along the streets of Manitou springs.  I may have been a little too conservative though because as he hit the trailhead the group came to a grinding halt and we spent most of the next four miles or so walking until the pack thinned a little. If I had to do it over again I would really push that first mile or two to get to the front of the pack, especially in wave two.  That was really the story for much of the race as well.  Passing becomes very difficult (if not impossible) so if you are behind from the get go you will be stuck with a much slower time throughout.  The race stayed pretty stop and go all the way to Barr camp where I had managed to pass enough people that the field was beginning to thin.  At that point I also began to pass some of the slower runners from wave one which really surprised me.  There were several aid stations set up along the route and I made a concerted effort along the way to make sure that I drank Gatorade and ate something at each one. The race was really well supported despite the difficult access to the trail and each aid station had tons of different snacks and water/Gatorade.  The one thing I knew I didn't want was to run out of fuel.  I had my Camelbak as well and drank all of that water too, I will say though if I was going to do more of these races I would invest in a running specific water source (maybe a vest) as the Camelbak worked but it bounced around a lot and got a little uncomfortable.   As the field thinned I got into a good rhythm of running for a half mile or so and then walking to catch my breath and then running again and I kept this up all the way to tree line.  Once I hit treeline, I don't know if it was a mental thing or the altitude actually getting to me but I felt it was much harder to breath and my run/walk cycle started to turn more into a walk/run cycle.  I continued to push up the hill though and was buoyed by the sound of the announcer at the top.  That was one thing that I really didn't expect, I still had miles and miles to go but I could hear him announcing others finishing and that made it seemed like the end was near.  Above tree line there is a long series of steep ascents and quick switchbacks which helped break up the monotony.  At this point in the race my goal was really just to not stop and take any breaks but continue forward progress at all costs.  This worked out pretty well too as I passed quite a few people who were sitting on the side of the trail.  With about two miles to go I started to get a bad cramp in my right calf but stopped to stretch a few times and was able to keep moving with my walk/run.

Finally the finish line was in sight and I pushed myself to run the last stretch.  My final time was 4:04:11 which I was pretty happy with.  They say on the website that your Ascent time is generally equal to your flatland Marathon time and my goal time for Chicago later that year was 4 hours so I think that was pretty accurate.  I do, however, think that if I had run just a minute and a half faster on the Garden 10 miler I could have gotten a much better time with a wave one start.  I lost a lot of time at the beginning when the field stopped on the trail.  Oh well, with my finish time on the Ascent this time I qualify for wave one next year!  Kim had a really tough race finishing in 5:26:06.  I think she may have had some sort of altitude sickness because by the time she got to the top her lips were turning blue...  needless to say we didn't spend a lot of time at the summit, we snapped a few obligatory pictures at the top and hopped on the next bus down the Manitou springs. 

Overall a really well put together race and an awesome series.  I would definitely recommend it to anyone looking for a challenge or for something to break up your training with something a little different.