This past August I raced in the Pikes Peaks Ascent (PPA) for the second time. The experiences between last year and this year were very different including the amount of training I was able to complete. I obtained a personal best time by 12 minutes but not because I trained more. Read on….
The PPA starts from the town center of Manitou Springs, CO and finishes on the summit of Pikes Peak. It is approximately 13 miles with an average 11% grade and run exclusively on Barr trail within the confines of Pike National Forest. The Barr trail is highly trafficked throughout the summer with hikers, runners and people who hike up the Incline and run back down the trail. Severe floods damaged much of Manitou Springs this past summer and also tore through the trail creating a trough on the lower half. Compared to other hiking trails in Colorado Springs, Barr trail is somewhat refined for hiking, but when it comes to running, it has its own mental wear and tear and physical duress. The Pikes Peak Marathon (PPM) as you would guess runs to the peak and back to the start. I would enjoy running the PPM someday when I have enough time to train and recover from the amount of downhill running required. This website created by Matt Carpenter shows the race course in Google Earth. Matt Carpenter won PPM 12 times, PPA 5 times, and holds record for the Leadville 100 run in 15 hours 42 minutes.
The standard basic training for PPA is to run the Barr trail to Barr camp which is an out post for hikers to purchase a few select granola bars, gatorade or rent a lean-t0. Everything is carry in carry out and most people I know only rely on Barr camp for backup fueling since they are not a grocery store and can only store what is carried to the camp by foot. Running there and back down is approx 14 miles. If you haven’t been training very much in the mountains before running to Barr camp, the run back down initially is hard on the legs and takes me three days to recover. However, for most people who run Barr trail in the early spring (without ice) or who are logging many more miles, this run is a piece of cake.
I was a late bloomer in terms of getting onto Barr trail and training this year. After a few late snow storms and finding ice on the Barr trail in April, I stayed away from the mountain. I wasn’t able to start training in earnest until mid-June at which time I ran to Barr camp for the first time! Last year I also started training late but had run on the mountain more during the winter. I had been training consistently up until May when I had my first flare up of an ongoing hip/glute injury. Within the first mile of a local trail race I was in debilitating pain but was able to run through it – however, it took me two weeks to recover. I tried again in July and again had the same pain in a road race that also set me back two weeks. In July it was right in the middle of my build to increase my mileage and time on the mountain. I went through my usual treatments of dry needling and chiropractic work but can never reproduce the pain in training.
Last year I trained on the peak four times running 3-2-1’s: run down three miles and up three miles, run down two miles and up two etc. This year, I only got to the summit twice: the first was a run to Barr camp via Elk Meadow with hike to the summit, and the second was a four mile run down from the summit with a very painful walk back to the top due to pain in my hip. After my second attempt to run on the peak, I decided I was literally running out of time and the best I could do was run consistently during the remaining 2-3 weeks until race day. I had more to lose and less to gain (e.g. less training due to more recovery time) by training on the summit.
What did I use to fuel my training? In June when it was very hot in the “W’s” or switchbacks in the first three miles, I tried nuun but this did not suffice. I usually like the simplicity of nuun, but even though I was thirsty I simply wasn’t drinking enough. By the time I hit Barr camp, I was craving Gatorade and drank an entire bottle. This showed me that to get the fluid down, I had to drink a more concentrated carbohydrate beverage during the run. The added benefit was that besides the fluid, the carbohydrate intake maintains blood sugar levels without having to eat a comparable amount of gels or chews. Last year I used a Nathan vest during the race but this year I wanted to rely more on the eight aid stations that were serving Gatorade and water. Racing with the same fueling plan you use in training is always a good idea! Volunteers for this race do not have it easy. To help at one of the eight aid stations, requires them to camp out on the mountain the Friday before and remain for the weekend so that both races, PPA and PPM, are taken care of.
Friday before race day was hot. I drank nuun and water throughout the day and grazed so that I could eat a light dinner. The weather on race day was perfect. I ate ½ banana with homemade almond butter, 1 slice of Ezekial buttered toast, and a nuun in 16 oz water. My mindset from the start was to take it easy and go with the flow. I ran up Manitou Avenue conservatively in an attempt to prevent aggravation of my hip injury but to my dismay I was in so much pain by the Cog I was forced to walk. My first thought was that I should quit the race. My second thought was that if the pain subsided after walking, I would continue. Once I hit the connecting trail, the pain subsided and I did continue. The “W’s” are the lower section of Barr trail that is constant back and forth and where the trail is narrowest and had the most erosion. Passing in this area is always frustrating for everyone because there is limited space and you are always running on the banking of the trail. I could feel the wear and tear of the uneven banked side of the trail and stepping through the erosion in my feet. The goal was to not get antsy while at the same time pass people when it was courteous. During run races, my mindset mimics that of when I was a bike racer – bridge the gap! That thought is so ingrained in me, that whenever a bridge forms where a pack or runners separates from another, I think the right thing to do is pass that person (trail permitting) so that those behind me can also maintain contact with the ‘peloton.’
I was able to move up through the pack by No Name and continued to progress. I actually felt my best ever running up to Barr camp. I alternated with Gatorade and water at the aid stations, and ate Honey Stinger chews throughout the entire race, popping two per time in my mouth. Leaving Barr camp, I ate a gel and walked briefly while drinking more. For me, I find the trail between Barr camp and A-frame to be the most difficult. One of the challenges during this section is to not walk. If people in front of you are walking its difficult to pass, which perpetuates more walking. This is also when the effects of the altitude and fatigue from the race begin to set in. I felt better when I kept moving, so that is what I focused on.
At A-frame (very top of treeline at 10.2 miles, approx. 12k’) I refilled my 20 oz Amphipod water bottle with Gatorade and had a slurp. There were several women directly a head of and behind me, so I needed to keep making steps forward. Shortly above treeline, the gravel gets really thick and loose. For me it took less energy to walk in these sections even though it caused pain in my left hip. The aid station above treeline at 13k’ receives water that is pumped through a hose that runs down the mountain from the summit. Thanks to the men and women of El Paso County Search & Rescue for hooking that up! I drank about 4 oz from my bottle and once from the aid station – not very much fluid intake. I felt normal and didn’t think the altitude was affecting me, while at the same time had some awareness that it obviously was. My focus was to move forward – go, go, go. I didn’t notice how tired I was unless I walked so I minimized that as best I could.
I crossed the finish line trashed and was assisted to the finish line aid station where I was greeted with a great assortment of fruit, salty snacks and fluids. I find it difficult to eat after this level of exertion but Sierra Mist and French fries always go down easy! The carbonation settles my stomach and the corn syrup is a shot of sugar I need to offset my underfueling during the race. Knowing the ride down to Manitou would be long, I packed a whey shake in my summit bag. Whey is the preferred fuel source immediately post workout or race to increase recovery and adaptation. If you are vegan, you can use pea or hemp protein that is fortified with branch chain amino acids and glutamine.
Here is a summary of my approximate intake (I was spacey above treeline). The average recommended intake of carbohydrate per hour is 30-90 grams with most people averaging 45 – 60 (2 gels or 2 bags of chews). Depending upon the sport, duration and intensity calories are sometimes used when making fueling recommendations, however, its best to focus initially on the amount of carbohydrate that can be utilized by the body. This shows I averaged 39 grams of carbohydrate per hour, which is low. I also didn’t drink enough fluid. If I drank 20 oz more and 1 gel, I would have been better fueled.
|Gatorade Perform 02||20 oz||40||140|
|Aid Station Gatorade||10 oz||20||70|
|Honey Stinger Chews||1 bag||27||160|
Even though I set a PR of 12 minutes, I was under trained and rested for this race. I find that most runners have trained more than enough but have not recovered or rested enough before race day. When I woke up Sunday morning with the usual altitude headache I thought about all the doublers who woke up and ascended that mountain again. Impressive.