Saturday, August 16, 2008

Note to self: buy better gloves

Here's a rundown of the big race day - the 2008 Pikes Peak Ascent.

My morning prep:
  • 6 am - ate a half of a banana and a few bites of a Clif bar
  • 6:30 ride my bike about a mile up the road from the kitschy Rainbow Lodge, then lock it and walk the rest of the way to the starting line
  • 6:45 down a Clif Shot and some water
My gear for the run:
  • polyester running tights
  • polyester long sleeve shirt
  • North Face GoreTex rain jacket with large vents
  • gloves (most definitely not waterproof)
  • one handheld water bottle (empty to start the race)
  • one Clif Shot packet (energy gel)
  • my Mizuno Wave Ascend 2 trail running shoes - the best shoes I've ever owned
As predicted, it's wet and chilly. It wasn't too cold in Manitou Springs (at 6,300 feet) but it was certainly wet. The race started at 7 under a steady rain. For the first few miles, I was actually a little too warm in my rain jacket, even with the vents wide open and the front zipper mostly open. Nevertheless, I don't want to get too wet because I know the mercury is gonna drop big-time as I go up. I felt strong this morning - unlike my start on Mt. Evans in June.

Miles 2 to 5 are the steepest part of the race, on a section of the Barr trail called The W's because on a map the switchbacks make it look like a bunch of W's strung together. Despite steady rain for the past 24 hours, the trail isn't too muddy for 2 reasons: first, because it's too steep for water to collect anywhere, and secondly because the surface is crushed granite gravel - granite doesn't absorb water.

As I rose past the W's, we seemed to rise above the clouds and the rain diminished to a mere annoying drizzle. I was optimistic that I'd seen the worst of the weather. I was soon to be sorely disappointed.

Miles 5 to 10 are less steep - this is the easiest part of the race. A few spots are even flat enough to have puddles. At this point my hat is wet and pants are slightly damp, but I'm comfortable. Make that comfortable temperature-wise; I'm running at about 91% of my max heart rate, right at the edge of my aerobic max, which is never exactly comfortable.

So why would I start the race carrying an empty water bottle? The first 4 aid stations are close enough together that I don't need to carry my own drinks. However, between aid stations 4 and 5 (Bob's road to Barr camp) is 2.3 miles, and the distance between stations 5 and 6 (Barr camp to the A-frame). The amazing volunteers at the stations fill my bottle with gatorade to keep me going. Here's the first problem with my cheap water-resistant gloves, though - filling a small-mouthed bottle from a pitcher of gatorade results in spillage - on my already damp gloves. And it's starting to get cold up here at 10,000 feet. Did I mention that it was raining, too?

At the A-frame aid station, the volunteers are telling people to turn around if they're cold. One guy heeded their advice and turned around. The trail emerges above tree line. At this point, the rain has turned to rain-hail mix. I'd take hail (very small hail, anyway) over rain anyday. Hail bounces right off and doesn't get you wet. The trail gets steep from here on up, and the boulders I have to step over get bigger, too. I've passed several people over the past few miles, and I'm still feeling relatively strong.

Now things start to get interesting. That GoreTex jacket that was keeping me too warm 2 hours ago is now a Godsend. The wind has picked up and the temperature is somewhere in the 30's. I'm in a dense fog with hail/snow falling on me. And I'm wearing wet gloves. I took one off to see if I was better without them, but bare wet skin was even worse, so I pulled it back on. It's cold enough now that I put my hood on and closed the jacket vents. With about 2 miles to go, I pulled out my earmuffs and put them on too (I'm damn glad I decided to pack those for the ride). It's now hail/snowing steadliy and it's accumulating on the trail, first as slush and later as bonafide snow.

With about a mile and a half to go, my hands are starting to get numb. Finally, the thought occurs to me that I should pull my fingers back into my palm, which gives my freezing hands some slight relief from the icy cold, wet fingers of the dreaded water resistant gloves.

Now my calves are cramping each time I need to step over large boulders. For the last 3-4 miles of the race, I'm mostly doing a fast hike, although I still break into a jog when the trail isn't too steep.

I can't see anyone else around me who has warm clothing - many of them are wearing shorts with rain-resistant tops, and nobody has a hood.

I crossed the finish line at 14,115 feet after 3:03:30 (approximately - I haven't seen my official time yet); a minute and a half faster than last year, but 3:30 slower than my goal of 3 hours. At the summit, it's cold, windy, foggy, and snowing. Not quite a blizzard, but damn close for mid-August. I made a bee-line for the shelter of the Cog railway station/gift shop for some warmth. The race organizers haul a bag for each runner up to the summit - typically filled with dry clothes. My hands are so numb and cold that I can't untie the knot in it, so I head to the men's room and warm my nearly frostbitten hands under the air dryers. As they warm up, the pain starts - shooting pains as my flesh defrosts. One of the other runners in there is shivering hard. While I'm inside, I learned that the race was just stopped due to thunder - any runners who hadn't passed the A-frame (about 10.5 miles into the race) would have to turn around and run back down. I can only imagine the utter disappointment.

After changing clothes and doing a bit of stretching (although not nearly as much as I would have done if I was warmer), I jumped on a van for a ride down the mountain. The guy next to me didn't go inside to warm up - he went straight from finish line to van - and he is shivering violently. I untied his bag and helped him get some dry clothes on.

"We'll look back on this tomorrow and laugh about it", says one of the other guys on the van. He's right. I promised myself that I'll buy warm, waterproof gloves before I run any more races like this. Are runners crazy or what?

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