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Silke Koester: Pikes Peak Ascent

August 21, 2013

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Pikes Peak may be the most visited mountain in the country (and 2nd most visited peak in the world) but how many people can say they’ve run to the top?! For the past 58 years runners have come together once a year to challenged themselves and each other on this iconic Rocky Mountain peak. The race began in 1956 when a vanguard medical doctor, Dr. Suominen, had this radical idea that smoking wasn’t healthy so he challenged smokers in the community to race non-smokers (including himself) up (and back down) the 14,115′ peak! To no surprise, none of the smokers finished… despite a hefty monetary incentive on the part of a big national cigarette company!

This past Saturday and Sunday, 2600 runners (probably none of them smokers!) joined Dr. Suominen’s challenge for the Pikes Peak Ascent and Marathon. The marathon race is the 3rd oldest marathon in the US and, this year, was the USATF National Trail Running Championship race, as well as, part of the “Sky” circuit of the prestigious Sky Runner World Series (along with the legendary Zegama, Mont Blanc, Matterhorn and Limone races in Europe). To be a part of a race with this kind of history and legacy is an honor and a must-do for any local Colorado road, trail or mountain runner!

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In the days leading up to the Ascent, I had a hard time getting my head in the game for the race – while I was definitely excited about an uphill race I was also distracted by all the buzz around the Leadville 100 going on simultaneously further West in the Rockies – many good friends were running it, some for the first time – my heart, energy and emotions were with them.  As I arrived at the start of the race early Saturday morning, with the sunrise illuminating the Peak, I started to find my focus.

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O beautiful for spacious skies, 
For amber waves of grain, 
For purple mountain majesties 
Above the fruited plain. 
America America!

A local woman sang America the Beautiful as we faced the “purple mountain majesty” itself: Pikes Peak.  Next, the race director introduced Arlene Pieper – the first woman to enter and complete a marathon in the United States! She finished the Pikes Peak Marathon in 1959 – decades before women were even allowed to run marathons! Now I was really jazzed! The smile and pride on Arlene’s face radiated and filled me with energy. The moment was perfect. I was inspired and ready to run!

Me & my fellow Boulder Track Club teammates at the start of the Ascent:

BTC Pikes Peak

The race starts off in the town of Manitou Springs for a mile along the paved roads before narrowing onto the trail. Having never run the race before or ever even set foot on Pikes Peak, I had no idea what to expect. With 1800 entrants, however, I lined myself right up at the front and took off fast. I wanted to take advantage of the wide open road start to get into position before the inevitable bottleneck on the trail.

The early miles seemed to be the steepest – although none of it was any worse than the very runnable grade up our local Flagstaff Mountain. The tricky part along here was the traffic jam. It’s easy to get stuck and settle for someone else’s pace – the race is too short to stay comfortable.  So I motored along, working pretty hard and surging past people wherever possible. Thankfully, somewhere along the middle section of the race the trail flattened out a bit. The string of runners thinned out enough to allow me to finally feel like I had some room to breath and find a rhythm.

From a mountain trail runner’s perspective, the course is not super challenging. The trail is wide and, aside from some big rocks to step over and a lot of hairpin switchback turns, the course is not very technical. The #1 obstacle is the thin air.

Once we broke above treeline only 3 miles and 3,000 vertical feet stood between me and the finish line. This is where the oxygen ends and the race begins. Whatever steepness the switchbacks alleviated was negated by the increasing altitude. The faster I could get to the finish, the sooner I’d stop feeling so nauseous – even if it meant feeling worse before I could feel better.

Ascent

The cheers from the finish line taunted me as we kept winding left and right and up and up and up. I surged past two women in this final stretch – one I passed and dropped easily, the other put up a fight. Her heavy breathing and shuffling footsteps behind me harassed me but I dared not let up – the nausea was on the brink of getting the best of me. As I rounded the last switchback with only a dozen footsteps to go, I nearly lost it. I closed my eyes, flung myself across the line and immediately bent over a pile of rocks. A kind volunteer held me up as I gasped for air and an even kinder photographer didn’t take a picture of me nearly puking. I’ve never felt so terrible crossing a finish line but I held her off (by 4 seconds) which was all that mattered.

Sitting a few yards from the finish line, looking just about as sickly as I was feeling, was teammate Alfred who I had tried unsuccessfully to chase down in the final few miles. We exchanged a few grunts and I let him be, knowing full well that the last thing you want when you feel that rough is company. After a quick refuel and light-headed wander around the summit, I hopped on the first shuttle bus back down the mountain.

Pikes Peak

As it turns out, I was the first woman from Boulder to cross the line and snagged 7th place (out of 566 female finishers; 76th overall out of 1641 finishers) amongst a competitive field of elite-level road and trail runners. And now that I’ve won a complimentary entry into next year’s race I’ll be back for more high altitude punishment in 2014!

Pikes Peak

Congratulations to Boulder Track Club teammate, Alfred, for rockin’ the double – the Ascent on Saturday in 3:08 and the Marathon on Sunday in 5:02!  That’s 40 miles with 15,630′ vertical gain in 8:11!

And congratulations to all of the other BTC athletes who experienced Pikes Peak – whether you had a good race on the mountain or not – it’s a privilege to be a part of such an important running event not just in our state and on a beautiful mountain but in our country and in the history of our sport.