I recently competed in the Pikes Peak Ascent Half-Marathon. My friend Kristie, a hill-addict, had signed me up a full seven months prior to race day. The course demands limited runners and this popular race fills up months in advance by eager masochists. Pikes Peak, standing at 14,110 feet (4,299 meters), looms over Colorado Springs, CO. The United States has 61 “fourteeners” …52 of them are located in Colorado. Pikes Peak is the fourteener charged with guarding the Front Range as it overlooks the great plains heading East.
At the base of the mountain, the race starts in the town of Manitou Springs, a peculiar hybrid of Southwest architecture and a Swiss village. The altitude of Manitou is 6,295 feet (1,918 meters). The race distance consists of 13.32 miles with an average elevation gain of 11%. The summit elevation is 14,110 feet (4,299 meters). The net elevation gain is 7,815 feet (2,381 meters); hence, 1700 sadistic individuals climb on average, 590 feet (180 meters) per mile, mostly on single track and rough terrain no less.
At the time Kristie registered me for the race, I figured I had months to prepare for the event. However, other things came up – life. During those months before the race, I only averaged an hour and a half to two hours of running per week; Tuesday morning track sessions or hill repeats with my local athletes, and one other hilly run for 45 minutes to an hour each week. As I am sure is true for many of you, precious time flew by as I dedicated it to my careers, WHP Triathlon and Legendary Property Real Estate, as well as my 3 year-old daughter, Makenna. Two weeks before the event, I became ill for five days and I told Kristie I was not going to race. She persuaded me to do it anyway; as she wanted support for her “A” race…as Kristie did put in the proper base training for this event. So, race day came, the gun went off, I ran….and I finished in the top 10 out of 1700!
The objective of this article is not to boast an overall finish, but rather to explain how I accomplished this gnarly endeavor. An opinion could be made that it is because of my residual muscle memory from over two decades of doing triathlon; however, since retiring from triathlon in 2001, I have only averaged one to two hours of running a week. This can’t explain such a high overall placing, competing against high-altitude runners and ultra-athletes. Genetics is part of the answer; however, I am now 37; no longer a young buck with an endless supply of muscle elasticity. So what enabled me to achieve this respectable result? Your answer: The mental capacity to suspend the agony of physical pain to achieve a goal.
Nobody instinctively moves toward pain. You have to have the courage to be willing to accept short-term pain for the long-term payoff. Meaning, the pain on race day lasts a specific number of hours; however, the feeling of accomplishment from achieving goals lasts much longer. I have always believed talent is not just physical, but also mental. In any race, a competitive athlete will experience pain. If they don’t, then they are not competing, but rather just participating. Everyone has a pain threshold, but few reach it in a race. Many are afraid of realizing their pain threshold; thus, doubting their ability to achieve success. The mental aspect of racing separates those from just the physically talented athletes that excel in training, but falter on race day, from those athletes who combine athletic ability with mental tenacity, finding true satisfaction at the end of an event.
For several years I competed against 2004 Olympic champion, Hamish Carter, on the World Cup circuit. In 1996, I asked Hamish how he consistently raced so well. He responded by saying something along the lines of “I have done all of the physical training in preparation for the race. On race day, I put my body on auto pilot as it knows what to do. It is my mind that determines my performance on the day.”
I would like for you to imagine being in my shoes as I climb each of the 13.3 miles to the top of the mountain; relating how this might have felt in your past races and how you responded to your pain. It is race day. You admit to yourself that you aren’t as physically fit as you would like to be, but with your toe on the starting line, let the strength of your mind help you achieve success. Allow your mind to take over, ignoring the gripping in your chest, or the stabbing, ripping pain of muscle cramping. At what point will you reach your pain threshold? If you do reach it, do you slow down, give up, or push on to new limits?
Pre race: You have never done the race. All you know is it is up and you have a goal time of 3:15 based on other entrants’ times of previous years. You have eaten a smart breakfast for energy and are well hydrated. Ten minutes before the scheduled start time, the race announces a delayed start by a half hour. The rain in Manitou from the previous day laid eight inches of fresh snow on the summit. You relax when you hear the news as it gives you time to stretch, continue to hydrate and take another trip to the bathroom.
Race start to mile marker 1.5: The gun sounds, triggering your instinctual competitive drive. No longer is this a race to finish, it is a race to compete. You have one and a half miles of paved road to get yourself in good position before the single track. The goal is to be in front of as many of the 1700 competitors as possible, yet not go above lactate threshold (LT). You are not wearing a heart rate monitor. You are doing this race by feel. You reach the single track in about 70th place. You feel no tingling sensation, but by the early steep grade, you already know this will be an epic run.
Mile 1.5 to 3: This section, called Barr Trail, traverses along the east face of Mount Manitou. Switchbacks and steep grades are the norm for this section. Think short little steps. You follow a person who looks strong that you picked up at the beginning of the trailhead. You go his pace, and fall into rhythm by focusing on nothing else but his leg turnover. You stick to him like glue. You pass about 10 people. Your body screams as your pain increases. It has been months since you experienced this feeling. Negative thoughts enter your mind telling you to slow down. You have both the devil and the angel whispering in each ear. “Slow down. Why do you want to be in pain?” “You are doing great, even pace while suffering and you will be rewarded with accomplishment at the end!”
Mile 4: The next three miles traverses over to Pikes Peak. The grades of this section are much gentler, and even include a couple of downhill sections. The end of this section is Barr Camp and a big aid station. Your left hamstring feels overworked, pinching as it is continually stressed on the incline. You remind yourself of your goal. After about 10 minutes, the pain goes away or you just forget about it. It doesn’t matter anyway because the only way to go is up.
From the heavy breathing, you hear that a person behind you is closing the gap. Although you shouldn’t care since this race is for personal achievement, your competitive spirit drives you forward. You and the person you follow come upon two competitors at once. You sprint around your pacer and the two others during a slight opening in the trail. Ouch, that hurt as you feel tingling in your body from going above your LT. You need to get your breathing back under control. You look at your watch and realize you have only been running for 45 minutes. Stay in control; you still have 2:45 of racing left.
Mile 5 to 6.5: Since you have made your move on the pacer and the other guy gaining ground, you feel obligated to stay ahead of them. This propels you forward, ignoring your tightening chest and the increasing discomfort you feel in your quadriceps. On some of the turns, you look back and you see them within 30 seconds. Why are you doing this? Why do you want to hurt so badly? You don’t race competitively anymore. You gave this up three years ago. Ahh, but race entry fee was $55. You need to get your money’s worth! Around mile 6, you pass a guy that is walking/running. He has race bib #5. Hey, he must be good. At the halfway point of the race, you look at your watch and you are at 1:15. Whoa, if you keep this pace going, that means a 2:30 finish! You continue to run up the mountain; pain is suppressed to the back of the brain if you can continue this pace.
Mile 6.5 to 8: During this segment, you have a mile of flat terrain with even a slight descent. The good news is you get to rest some, in a different body position, relaxing your shoulders and back. The bad news is this only adds to the steepness of the ascent for the course overall. The downhill counters your climbing of altitude, thus making 11 miles of the course an average of 720 feet (215 meters) per mile. The pacer from earlier catches you on the downhill, shadowing your chosen line between the protruding rocks. As your knees twinge from the jarring impact, you encourage him to go ahead of you. He steps in front just as the climbing starts again. You concentrate on his legs, trying to work in his rhythm, but realize how skinny his legs are. They have no power you say to yourself. He is slowing you down during the climbing. At an opening of the trail, you power past him. You are stronger than he is climbing. The air is definitely getting harder to breath, your body has an overall ache, and you wonder if you will reach “the wall.” Why do you allow yourself to hurt so badly? What made you decide to accelerate past this person? Why?
Mile 8 to 9: Mile 8 is the last aid station until mile 11. You fill your water bottle halfway with the Gatorade powder you had it. You didn’t want to carry the liquid up the first 10 miles. Yes, yes, this is not a competition, but you want to have the least amount of weight possible. You have your third of four Clif Shots at that aid station. The three miles from Barr Camp to A-Frame bring back steep grades and there are more rocks and boulders to negotiate along the trail. You are in no man’s land. You see no one in front of you as there are many turns through the trees. You know there are people behind you and you can’t slow down. It seems like you will be in this place for the last four miles. You are two thirds done and this seems to be your destined position, around 40th place. Not good enough. You make the decision that you can take more pain.
Mile 9 to 11: Keeping the same pace, you see a competitor in front of you. Wow, you caught that person quickly. You thought you were done catching people, but that person came to you quickly. Then you see the lead woman about a minute up the trail. Wait, she is passing two people and catching another. You can get four people within three minutes! You pass all of them. It is nice to pass the lead woman. You are not a sexist, but there is something about letting a woman beat you in a grueling race such as this. This is a “man’s” course!!! After passing her, you hear her talk to another competitor as you climb. Their voices aren’t getting distant, but rather staying about one minute back. How can they be talking as you suffer through another step?!
The final three miles from A-Frame to the summit are the toughest miles on the course. It is entirely above tree line. The grades are still steep and the high altitude means the oxygen supply is less than abundant. Still, you pass others. These guys look like elite runners, who have been dismantled and demoralized by the climb. They had such high hopes, yet now they trudge up the mountain. They succumbed to the pain their mind tells them which slows their physical movements. It inspires you all the more to push on. At the end of mile 11, your time is 2:00. Yes, you can even split to get a 2:30 time. That mile and half of downhill helped your overall average on the back side. There is starting to be more snow. The people at the aid station warn you of icy conditions on the trail. Your abdominal muscles hurt from breathing in the thin, cold air. You are no longer in your body. You are watching your body climb. It hurts, but you have been doing this for two hours so what is another 30 minutes? A hiker/spectator says you are in the top 20. This is an unexpected surprise and all the more motivating. You remind yourself that tomorrow, you will have forgotten the pain. Next month, you will still relish in your overall performance.
Mile 11 to 12: The voices behind you have stopped, but now Anita Ortiz, the lead woman, is within 10 meters. You press on, but you are feeling nausea, or altitude sickness, as you are above timber line and the air is thin. The views are said to be incredible, but you watch the trail, navigating the snowy, rocky trail. Ortiz catches you. She is amazing and you have no qualms of having her pass you. Her talking partner passes you as well. You encourage them, yet their momentum as they pass you, makes you even more aware of your pain. You won’t be like the ones you have passed, beaten by the mountain and lack of will.
If the incline is an even grade up to 1-2%, then your mind tells you to run, but it is really a quick shuffle. You can’t slow down now. Since you are above timber line, you see competitors below you on the traverses. You have worked too hard to let them beat you now. They inspire you to press on. You look at your watch and the last mile took 20 minutes. There goes your even split. You hear the race announcer at the top blare out the arrival of the first finisher across the line. Someone passes you that you have never seen before in the race. He is flying. Great pacing you think to yourself. You are so close. Just one mile!
Mile 12 to 13: This is no ordinary last mile. You navigate the 16 Golden Stairs with frequent step-ups of some 12 to 22 inches (the Golden Stairs were so named as an allusion to the golden stairs leading to Heaven). This last mile has an elevation gain of 900 feet. As your lead leg climbs up a set of boulders, your quads lock up. This is not good. Ortiz has gapped you, but the other partner is right in front of you. You have leap-frogged with him for the past 20 minutes, offering each other words of encouragement. This motivation has enabled you to catch a few other competitors. Yet, there are still runners in the distance you can catch. They are done, slowly marching toward the finish – so close, just a few switchbacks up.
For the last three miles, the snow has deepened and the trail is intermixed with sandy gravel, loose stones and slush. You no longer try to keep your feet dry as streams of icy snowmelt rush down the trail. You hear the announcer, yet he doesn’t seem any closer. The mind is outside of the body.
The body screams in pain, yet your mind ignores it. If this race went another mile, your quads would lock for good, but you are almost there, so let the quads suffer. You will guide your leg forward with your hands and arms if you have to.
Mile 13 to 13.3: Spectators are cheering excitedly and ringing their cow bells. Your partner for the last 40 minutes is 10 meters back. You push it to the end. Through the snow, freezing water and lack of oxygen, you cross the finish line and you are approached by race volunteers. You don’t feel the pain anymore. Wow, you say to yourself, that was an awesome experience! But, the volunteers realize you need oxygen as your eyes roll up into your head and you stagger for stable footing. In the medical tent they place a mechanism on your finger to measure the oxygen content of your blood, 82%. No wonder you don’t feel pain. They give you oxygen through your nose and within 10 minutes, the content is 98%. As the oxygen absorbs inside you, you start thinking about next year. What if you actually trained for this race? What if you did plyometrics twice a week? What if you did weight training? It is amazing how quickly you forget the mental pain, yet how well you remember the achievement and experience.
You finish 10th place overall male with a time of 2:45. Finishing top 10, race organizers award you with lifetime free entry into the race. That in itself is a motivating factor, yet you lose one of your primary inspirations for the race, to get your money’s worth!
Ortiz finished 30 seconds in front of you. Dang, she is good and she deserves the utmost respect. You hear from the race organizers that she has won this race for several years, including setting course records, as well as competing in ultra runs all across the country. For her third year competing, Kristie had a personal best time by taking 16 minutes off her time, and placing 3rd in her age group. Great time as the course was much slower this year with the snow.
So, what is your pain threshold? Too many people give up too early in a race. They feel pain and say that is enough, and instantly slow down or pull back to provide the body with relief. You won’t know your pain threshold unless you push through it a few times, usually reaching a higher level each time. Leave no doubts when you race. Don’t second guess your effort at the end. Your heart rate will never be able to tell you your pain threshold. Only your rate of perceived exertion can make you realize your pain threshold. Go for the 20 on the scale of 1 to 20 and see how long you can hold it. Only then will you realize true achievement and satisfaction with yourself during competition.