First off I want to sincerely thank Tim Bergsten and Brian McCarrie from PikesPeakSports.us, Ron Ilgen from the Triple Crown of Running, and Colorado Sports and Spine Centers for sponsoring some fantastic running experiences this summer. Last weekend topped it all off with a couple of the most memorable days I've had since living in the Springs. But like a lot of fantastic memories, it didn't begin, or end, quite the way I expected. In fact, when I woke Saturday morning, I was doubtful I'd even make it the first mile to the W's Sunday without dropping out.
Like a good boy, I had tapered and rested all week, running super easy on only 3 of the last 7 days. But, when I awoke at 5 am Saturday to catch the beginning of the Ascent, I was greeted by this seemingly idiopathic, yet incredibly annoying medial joint line pain in my left knee that barked every time I negotiated any non-level surfaces. Not a big deal perhaps if I was racing a pancake-flat 5k or if I had a week to nurse it. But a marathon, THE PIKES PEAK MARATHON, tomorrow? THAT'S BAD NEWS BEARS. Considerably concerned but not yet desperate, I did what I could. I kinesiotaped and kept mobile with some non-impact bike riding into Manitou, trying to suppress my anxiety. After all, I still had 24 hours to scare away this PHANTOM PAIN.
Riding into town, a crescendo of excitement that peaked at an electrifying intensity at the Memorial Park epicenter helped distract me from the pain. There, I offered best wishes to fellow Pikes Peak Sports team members Amy Perez and Aaron Atwood, as well as several other running buddies, before making my way up Ruxton to scope out a spot to play paparazzi. I ultimately settled where the blacktop gives way to trail with Susie and Dave (Amy's Usual Suspects) who were offering their support before a 3 day Trans Rockies run) and got some good shots while shouting encouragement.
Once the runners passed and I began making my way back home, I became increasingly aware that the knee was going to resist cooperation. Feigning optimism, I continued to tell myself it would be fine tomorrow. "It’s just my body catching up with my head's sandbagging modus operandi. The pain isn't real. It's only there so I don't do anything supremely crazy and really hurt myself." Sound a bit ridiculous? You're right. But denial is Kubler-Ross' first stage of grieving (and also death and dying). Somehow though, I convinced myself to try to "let go of that which does not serve" and drop the obsessing. Luckily, another distraction in the form of hosting a pre/mid/post-race pool gathering provided an alternative outlet for my energy. During that afternoon, a great collection of friends- runners (ascenders, marathoners, and doublers), non-runners, and runners by association showed up to share stories. And the surprise attender of the shin-dig, a NC buddy from undergrad, visiting for the just for weekend with his wife, happened to text me that morning. An unlikely, yet favorable omen? I think so.
But that evening, with knee still aching, I succumbed to the last resort, an ice pack and a couple Advil before hitting the hay. Now, I try to avoid most medicines at all costs. In fact, these were probably the first running associated pharmaceutical agents I'd taken all year. But as the saying goes, desperate times call for NSAIDS. And as I drifted off to sleep, satisfied that I'd done everything I could to manage my knee (including of course imbibing one or several pineapple/coconut rum concoctions to quench the thirst and squelch the pain), I felt ready for whatever fate awaited.
And in the morning, fate greeted me with this. It just may be a good day after all!
After the ceremonious peanut butter and banana, I became cautiously optimistic about the condition of my knee. But while definitely better than the previous day, you couldn't have paid me to take it into full flexion, potentially waking the sleeping demon. Ignorance is bliss. Nevertheless, at 5:30 in the morning in my living room, as I did my own little version of the "running man" to test the waters, I began to think it had a chance of holding up, at least the uphill half of the race. And after adding a bit more kinesiotape for good measure, I hopped on the bike and headed down to Memorial Park to join the mass of nearly 800 runners.
Once in town, there was just enough time to take some strides before the mass of runners began migrating to the start. Beside me in the second, "I'm not elite but I can hold my own" row were Sean O'Day and Brad Poppele who I knew would be good running company. And just before the herd set off, Sean pointed out that the LEGEND himself, Mr. MATT CARPENTER, was tucked away to the left, set to defend his title.
Unlike a lot of runners perhaps, I've become more reliant on intrinsic feel rather than external feedback from splits or a heart rate monitor. My objective for the first half of the race was to ease into the climb keeping a steady pace up while saving just enough to be able to push the pace for the return trip into town. It's a long race with big altitude, extreme terrain, and unpredictable weather so I wanted to avoid taking risks early. I'd save that for the latter half. So as I hit the first switchbacks along the W's with knee feeling good, I was satisfied with finding a comfortable, easy pace and passing only when it was supremely convenient and holding back became intolerable.
Just after No Name, I reeled in two guys, Jesse and Tony, who seemed to be running pretty strong. The three of us cruised the extremely mild stretch to Barr Camp at a conversational pace at which point more runners came into sight. Thankful for the company but reminding myself that this was a race, I began distancing myself and dissolving the trio. From here to A-frame, I slowly reeled in three or four more runners until tree line. At just over 2 hours into the race and feeling good with my calorie, fluid, and electrolyte intake, I realized there was a very good likelihood I'd cover the next three miles to the top for a sub 3 hour ascent. Shuffling onward, I continued catching a couple more guys until about 1.5 miles to the top where I began to fatigue a little as no other runners were in striking distance. It was here on the long stretch just before the Cirque that I dove out of the way shouting "hell yeah Matt" for MR. PIKES PEAK as he flew down the mountain. Inspired by the superhuman that passed, I pulled down the RALLY GLASSES for the first time and kept the legs churning.
Oddly enough, the last mile seemed to go by quickly even though I had been reduced to walking the steeper switchbacks of the 16 Golden Steps. And as I counted the passing runners on their downward trek, I figured I was somewhere around 10th place. Just before the top I was presented with a tempting offer, a Boston cream pie from a couple girls who seemed perhaps a bit too excited to be at 14,000 ft. offering pastries to runners. My focus at this point was more on the intensifying twinges of quad cramps so I declined the sweets and kept trudging. Elated with a 2:53 ascent, I paused momentarily to hydrate and down some calories, hoping the nutrition would send the message to the cramps that they were not welcome at this moment in my life. Those first few downhill steps were a foreign sensation after climbing for nearly 3 hours and I knew I was not going to have the easy descent I'd hoped for. So, in need of a little pick-me-up, on the way down I swiped that Boston confectionary, took a bite, and continued on my way.
I apologize to any runners around me during the descent. It seems my R.I.T.S. (Running Induced Tourette’s Syndrome) was in full force for the next hour and 42 minutes. Brought on by vice-grip cramping and belly flops down the trail like the poster boy for a waterless Crocodile Mile, it manifests as involuntary diarrhetic profanity. And during one of the stride breaking cramping episodes around A-Frame, Sean O'Day, who had 13 more miles and nearly 8,000 ft. of up on his legs came flying by. Amazed at how fresh and strong he looked, but determined to not let anyone else pass, I resolved that if I couldn't run, at least I'd keep moving and no longer stop to stretch. Interestingly, I found running when possible and galloping when not kept the cramps contained to a reasonable amount of pain, as long as I didn't stop.
I'd been in this predicament before and knew the solution to the problem. Unfortunately, even though I'd brought 5 salt pills, they'd all been consumed at this point and so my only hope was that I'd strike "white gold" at an aid station. Despite saltless aid stations at the peak, 1.5 to go, and A-frame, I finally found my saving grace at Barr Camp. "SALT!" I cried out. And TERESA, one of the Barr Camp caretakers, sprang into action, grabbing the shaker and returned "I GOT YOUR SALT! WHERE DO YOU WANT IT?" Now at this point, I had to stop and risk more cramping in hopes that more salt would have these cramps at bay after a couple of minutes. The whirlwind of events that happened next were executed with such incredible efficiency that they will undoubtedly be immortalized in Pikes Peak aid station folklore. With my cognitive processing a bit slow from lack of oxygen, quick thinking Teresa took charge and began dumping a SALT SHOT in her hand. With legs splayed to stretch my adductors, I bowed to take the GREAT SALT LICK as Teresa, the seasoned veteran that she is, continued to supplement my water bottle.
Photo courtesy of Don Sanborn
Revitalized but sensing I'd better be on my way before another runner came into the aid station, I galloped off after graciously thanking Teresa and everyone else. All along the way down I'd heard varying reports that the next runner ahead of me was somewhere between 40 seconds to a minute ahead. In spite of this, I neither saw nor heard anyone on the long stretches to No Name. Nevertheless with body responding well to the electrolyte boost, I was feeling stronger and decided it was safe enough to PUSH IT for the last trail portion of the W's. Navigating the switchbacks, I began to get a sense I may be reeling the next runner in. With hikers here and there, I also was beginning to detect the sound of running footsteps, though there source was still hidden. Finally, on one of the last switchbacks before leaving the trail, I came upon not one, but two racers-Corey Hanson and Sean O'Day! Both of these guys had run fantastic races so seeing them lit a fire inside. Somehow, a surge of energy propelled me past, though I still feared for my life that there would be a pavement duel over the last mile on Ruxton. As I approached the round-a-bout, crowds of supporters were now lining the streets and cheering. I crossed the line in 4 hours 36 minutes which was good enough for 7th overall. I couldn't have been more pleased with the outcome.
While smaller in scale if numbers is your only criterion, the magnitude of the experience was absolutely equal to finishing a big city event like the Boston Marathon. And when you add in a post-race lounge in Fountain Creek, the beauty of the landscape, and the support of great friends, it makes this race even better in my book. Though I lost a couple of millimeters of two of my fingertips, suffered a broken watch and broken sunglasses, I finished with a beer in hand, and a smile on my face. I wouldn't have it any other way.
This week's video brought to you by SALT-n-Pepa.