Wizards of Oz

"Life is fraughtless ... when you're thoughtless."


Pikes Peak Ascent Post-Mortem

Yesterday (Saturday, August 20th 2011) I began my 2nd attempt at ascending Pikes Peak: 13.32 miles, with a net ascent of 7,815' vertical (though the actual ascent is closer to 8,000' due to a couple of brief-but-blissful downhills between No-Name Creek and Barr Camp).

Last year's attempt (in my inaugural Pikes Peak Ascent) came to an abrupt end due to a timekeeping error at the A-Frame (mile 10.2, at 11,700' elev.).  However, in hindsight, had I made it even a minute sooner last year, I was wholly unprepared for what lay above the timberline....

So this year I entered the race wiser, more respectful of the mountain, and with a balanced hydration - nutrition - electrolyte strategy.

Mi dos amigos, Peter Molik (triathlete and fast runner) and John Veautour (endurance of a mule and a very fast walker), were able to best the Peak in under 4-1/2 hours.  I wasn't in as much of a hurry....  My only goal was to finish in less than 6-1/2 hours -- which is the cut-off for medals and finisher shirts.  Nothing else mattered this year, since I have no intention of ever running another marathon (Denver 2010 was my 7th and final).

Preparation for this year's event was predominantly spent in planning.  After hiking Mt Sherman in early July, I knew I could walk above 13,000' elevation with little impact.  And I also knew that, since I turned 40, my speed has tapered off dramatically -- so no amount of endurance training was going to make me return to my sub-8:00 mile pace of my 30s.  Most importantly, I knew I had to plan for sustenance on the mountain more deliberately than I did last year.  And after my near-disastrous mountain bike ride down the Barr Trail last month, which resulted in five endo's and a still-scabbed gouge on my left shin (even three weeks later), I at least had seen the trail above timberline....

The top issues in my planning:
  1. Attire: What you wear will affect your performance.  Last year I wore a windbreaker for the entire ascent -- which very likely overheated my core and sapped my endurance.  But too little and you'll be unprepared for weather changes above the timberline.  So this year I opted for my NYC Marathon long-sleeve technical shirt, running shorts, running shoes (vice trail shoes), no gloves, and a light running ballcap.  I also rolled up my Marmot windbreaker and kept it in the webbing of my CamelBak.  The start line temparature in Manitou Springs was in the low-60s F.; the finish at Summit six-plus hours later was in the high-50s F. -- so I never needed the windbreaker.
  2. Hydration: Last year I relied on SmartWater in my CamelBak, which is insufficient for the level of exertion ascending 8,000' of vertical.  So this year I had a 2:1 mixture of Gatorade G2 and SmartWater.  Also, I took Gatorade at every aid station if available -- water if not.  At Barr Camp I refilled my CamelBak with pure Gatorade, and at Mile 12 I filled with plain water for the final mile and a half and the ride down the mountain.  Net intake: approx. 150 fl. oz. (or just under five quarts), which is consistent with my body's 16 fl. oz. loss per 30 minutes of exertion (calculated several years ago during my peak marathon days).
  3. Nutrition: Last year I took a dozen Gu vanilla bean gel packets -- one for every half-hour.  But I did not consider the caffeine content in most Gu packets (it's in the fine print at the tear-line), so by my seventh packet I couldn't stomach any more.  This year I added a Pemmican Bar (a mixture of bread, nuts and fruits packed into a small dense package) and only took six Gu packets -- one of which I gave away, and one I didn't use.  Net intake: 4 Gu, 90% of a Pemmican Bar from Barr Camp to Cirque, a few pretzels, grapes and half-banana at Barr Camp, and one (1) plain M&M (a red one) at A-Frame.
  4. Electrolytes: This was the biggest gap in my planning last year, and the primary reason for my calf cramping before Barr Camp in the 2010 attempt.  The one "Succeed! S-Cap" another ascender shared with me helped for about two miles, so I knew I needed to supplement my marathon-honed hydration/nutrition strategies with an electrolyte strategy.  Rather than rely on a Gu every half-hour, I slowed those down to one per hour and split the difference with one "Succeed! S-Cap" (also each hour, at the half-hour mark).  I upped my intake above timberline when I felt the first twinges of calf cramping, so my net intake was seven (7) S-Caps.
  5. Safety: Several years of volunteering with American Red Cross Disaster Action Teams (DATs) and two as a Cub Scout Cubmaster have taught me to anticipate the unexpected.  Since I saw some people in bad shape last year (bordering on hyponatremia -- severe loss of electrolytes), I packed my mylar "space blanket" in the event someone on trail needed assistance before El Paso County Search & Rescue could arrive.  I also packed my self-adhesive athletic tape (which I did need just past A-Frame, as a 66-year-old participant had severe cramping in his calves) and did a quick refresher on lightning safety (since above treeline, you have little to no cover -- and a likelihood of electrical storms after noon).  Thunder above timberline sounds really impressive, so I used that opportunity to tell the others around me -- if they saw lightning -- to crouch low with feet together so you have only one point of contact with the ground; and to do this close to a medium-sized boulder (not the tallest around, which is more prone to be struck).  Lastly, I packed a small tube of 30 SPF sunscreen -- which I reapplied twice to my face, ears and neck.
These five factors led to a very enjoyable and fulfilling Ascent.  Even if I was a bit on the "slow" side (finishing 191st out of 194 finishers in my age bracket).

I made it to Barr Camp (mile 8, elev. 10,200') in 2:29:00 -- about 20 minutes faster than last year.  So I took a ten minute break, sitting by the fence while eating 1/3 of my Pemmican Bar (plus a couple pretzels and some fruit).  Cut-off at Barr Camp was 3:00:00, so I was comfortably ahead of the cut.

Though it was only 2.6 miles from Barr Camp to A-Frame, I was concerned about this final "cut off" -- especially because this was where I was turned back last year!  And since the whiteboard at Barr Camp still listed the clock time of 11:45am as the A-Frame cut-off (even though gun time was about two minutes after the scheduled Wave 2 start), I kept a close eye on my watch.

With so many switchbacks in the high-timber forest, it was impossible to gauge just how far you had to go to make it to the A-Frame aid station.  So I made announcements at the 30-minute mark so we'd all know we had that long to enter the aid station.  I passed the A-Frame cut-off at 3:59:00 -- 80 minutes after leaving Barr Camp (a pace of about 30 minutes per mile).  This was 15 minutes faster than last year, and left me 2-1/2 hours to ascend the final three miles to earn my finisher shirt!

After another ten minute break (and another 1/3 of my Pemmican Bar), I set off for the final leg -- my first time ever hiking up the Barr Trail from timberline!  Though we were above 12,000' elevation, the trail was wide and mostly clear.  The gradient was not as bad as the lower portion of the Barr Trail (especially the "W's"), and the views were truly extraordinary.  Looking up (as the photo at the top of this post shows, as we cleared the last trees) was a bit unnerving, since the summit never seemed to get closer.  But looking down, especially above treeline, gave a huge morale boost -- "Look at all those people way down there -- and look how high I've already climbed!"

I modified my Galloway-style walk-breaks (since I was only walking) to "breath-breaks" -- every few minutes I sat on a boulder for a minute and took some deep, deliberate breaths.  And for those first few steps, I felt like a new man.  This continued all the way up to the summit, so my mile pace slowed to about 35-40 minutes.  But I was also continuously calculating how far to go in how long to ensure I finished in "shirt time" -- faster than 6-1/2 hours.

When I reached the base of the 16 Golden Stairs (of which there are MANY more than 16; it's really about 300 yards with 400' of vertical, so the net gradient is above 40%), the volunteer said "Welcome to the Stairs -- you need to keep moving in order to make cut-off!"  I asked her "We still have 28 minutes, right?" She said yes, so I knew her recommendation was premature.  14-1/2 minutes later, I crossed the finish line (even with three breath-breaks) -- official final time: 6:16:32.

As for my well-being, I had no cramping, no blisters, no sunburn, very minor chafing (from my shorts), and feel excellent the day after.  My faster colleagues (who all beat 4-1/2 hours) had to push themselves, but my goal was not to make it as fast as I could force my body to go.  I simply wanted the shirt....


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