It can be difficult for runners to make a game plan for the Pikes Peak Marathon and Ascent. The races begin at an altitude of 6,300 feet in Manitou Springs and the course climbs nearly 8,000 feet on Barr Trail, a single track path that pierces the foothills, montane, sub-alpine and alpine life zones. It’s like packing a week of Colorado backcountry exploration into a few intense hours.
The ascent finish and marathon turn-around top out on the other-worldly 14,115-foot summit of Pikes Peak, and the climb can be intimidating, especially for newcomers. It helps to have a plan. With this in mind, we've broken the ascent part of the course, the hard part, into three sections:
We asked three veteran Pikes Peak runners to share their secrets for a successful race.
The beginning of the Pikes Peak Ascent and Marathon can give you a chance to either do well, or it can ruin your day and perhaps lead to a DNF. The route is pretty simple, but the grades can get downright gnarly. I’ll divide this up into three sections: Manitou Ave to Ruxton; Ruxton to the Cog Railway Station; and the Cog to the top of the Ws.
Running Manitou Ave: Run the tangents! The road is curvy. Running the tangents can shorten the distance. Run up to Ruxton before the race and notice that distance and time can be cut by running a more direct line to Ruxton. Don’t run fast. A gentle pace will keep your heart rate low. You have 13 miles to go from the end of the Ave to the summit, and it makes little sense to run a seven-minute pace unless you plan on finishing in the Top 10 overall. Most mid packers who finish the Ascent in 3:30:00 should be hitting Ruxton at about 4:30. (Adjust this time for your own goals.)
Ruxton: This old road is narrow and was originally built for travel by horse and wagon. It is a bit steeper than the Manitou Ave portion. It’s still good to run the tangents. Make Ruxton as straight as you can and maximize efficiency. Ruxton to the Cog station is a constant uphill for about ¾ mile. It’s not terribly hard, but you will see some of the runners who started too fast begin to wither. Your pace up Ruxton to the Cog should be slower because it’s a steeper climb. This section should take the 3:30 Ascent runner a little over 8:30. Again, adjust for your goals.
Just past the Cog, you'll encounter the first big hill of the race. For the next 250 to 300 yards, your pace will drop significantly. This hill is super steep. Walking is fine, in fact, nearly all runners in these races will find themselves power hiking or walking large parts of the course. Upon cresting the hill, you may want to get back into a gait that is comfortable and steady. This race is all about effort, and you want your effort to be even. The terrain then turns to dirt and the trail running begins as you enter the Ws.
The Ws: Now the real fun begins. You'll be trekking up a series of switchbacks with an average grade of 11 percent. With recent heavy rains, the trail portion of this section is washed out and more difficult than in past years. It’s a constant fight to maintain an even effort, but you can move fast through some sections of the Ws. Expect to move slower in other sections. Pay attention to how much energy you exert. High heart rate, sweat, and/or heavy breathing are all signs of this. Run when it’s flatter, run slower or walk when it’s steeper. Keep that effort as even as possible.
The last switchback comes after Incline Aid Station at 2.8 miles. It’s steep. Walk if you must. You have over 10 miles to go. You are at the top of the Ws when you make a hard right turn at the end of this switchback. There are some huge boulders to the left. 3:30:00 runners, should be hitting the top of the Ws about 29 minutes after your Cog split, Or, just over 42:00 from start.
Wuhoo! Congratulations for conquering the Ws! Your first sustained climb on your way to the summit of Pikes Peak is now over and done. You’ll likely start to feel a bit of relief, both mentally and physically, as you notice that the trail begins to feel more runable and maybe even ... easy. Gasp! The average grade from the bottom of Barr Trail to the summit is 11 percent, but most of this section is about 5.5-percent grade. Don’t let that fool, you, though. Unless you have absolutely no idea of what you signed up for – NOT advised, by the way – you know that you’ve still got plenty of work to do in this section of the trail.
Once you hit this point, assess how you are feeling to determine how to approach the trail to Barr Camp in order to best meet your race goals. If you’re not too taxed and feeling strong along this flatter section, use it! This section of the trail may be your most relaxed time on the mountain, and it can be a great opportunity to move more quickly on your way to Barr Camp. Don’t over extend, but feel free to put forth a little more effort if you feel you’ve still got plenty of gas in the tank.
If, on the other hand, the Ws chewed you up, this section will be your best bet for recovery while summoning trail gods to help you to catch your breath. Keep moving steadily to maintain a consistent effort no matter the pace (advice for any part of the race, really). Think you can jog a bit? OK. Or, if consistency means hiking, that’s more than fine. If you are not feeling strong the worst thing you can do is push too hard. especially if this is your first trip up the mountain. You’re better off playing it conservatively rather than charging ahead and later paying the price while progressing into continually thinning air on the way to the summit.
Inevitably, this soothing and beautiful stretch will come to an end. Keep a controlled, steady stride as the trail begins to reveal rocks and roots that require fancier footwork. Lift your legs a little higher to clear these obstacles, announce yourself as you pass, and allow faster racers to get around you as well. If you recognize anyone from a game of leap frog, cheer them on and take note of some physical characteristic to recognize them later. It’s always fun to relive the day’s highs and lows with a tasty craft brew in hand at the post-race party. You’re getting closer to Barr Camp – a little over the half way point to the summit – and yet another stellar Pikes Peak aid station!
You've reached Barr Camp, about halfway to the finish. The Barr volunteers are awesome and it's like a party! I break the mountain up into sections, it helps keep my mind entertained and focused on something other than the suffering.
After Barr Camp, I'm focused on getting to the yellow Bottomless Pit sign. This section has parts that are rocky. I'll try to not waste a lot of energy bounding through the rocks. When the trail is rough, I power hike. Power hiking is still working hard, just taking it down a notch, so you're not stumbling through the rocks. I'll put my hands on my quads and push off. Control your breathing so you're ready to run again soon.
After the Bottomless Pit sign, you are well on your way to A-Frame. These switchbacks can seem never-ending! I entertain myself by seeing how long I can run before I have to switch to a hike. It’s a beautiful part of the trail. All the time I’m pushing my body as fast as I can go upward. Don't let the person in front of you determine your pace. It's easy to get behind someone and get comfortable, or lazy - keep pushing, but be smart. Just say "on your left" and move on.
The energy from the volunteers at A-Frame is contagious. From here, it’s three miles to the summit. Take in some nutrition, it's about to get real! That first mile after A-Frame seems longer to me, I watch for Inestine’s memorial and give it a tap as I go by. She died at timberline at the age of 88, on her 14th ascent of Pikes Peak. At this point, I'm still doing my run-hike switch off. If there's a fast power hiker near me, I'll use him as a pacer and try to keep up!
Finally, the "2 Mile" sign! Now I'm looking forward to the traverse, a long section of trail that goes across the mountain towards the Cirque. There's an awesome aid station in the middle of it. You're at about 13,000 feet and there's just a little bit of suffering going on! Embrace it, you're running on America's Mountain!
Another mental game I play: I pick out a runner ahead of me and I focus on passing him or her. I'll give him a nickname like "Red Shirt or Arkansas," or even "Blue Hair," if I think she's in my masters age group! It keeps me focused on trying to move faster.
After the traverse, I’m excited to get to the “1 mile” sign. This is the toughest section. The Cirque is right ahead and the best part is El Paso County Search and Rescue is there with their kazoos! And they take requests!
I pay attention to my breathing, sometimes inhaling in deeply through my nose and exhaling through my mouth. I want to suck in that oxygen as deep as I can. This last mile, when I run, it’s in short spurts. Now I’m excited for the “16 Golden Stairs," my favorite section! A few turns through the rocks and the trail opens up. Run! You can hear the announcer on the summit and the cheers from the crowd, give it everything you’ve got! You did it! Now if you’re either relieved and happy to have finished the ascent, or you're making that turn at the top and heading back down to complete the marathon. Enjoy the ride! The fun is about to begin!
Want more? Twelve-time mararthon winner Matt Carpenter's site is rich with running tips and information.