The past, despite our fervent desire that it leave us alone, has an awful tendency to reach out with withered hands and grab us by the throat. So it was one recent, rainy afternoon that an artifact I had buried, both emotionally and physically, clambered out of a shoebox of running mementos and back into my life.
The item in question: a photograph of a youthful me, moving with anguished purpose along a rocky path two and a half miles above sea level, toward the finish of the Pike’s Peak half marathon. I examined the image as if it were a crime scene photograph, looking for evidence of . . . hmm, well, I’m not exactly sure what I was looking for. Perhaps a clue to what possessed me to race to the top of a 14,115 ft mountain.
Unlike many race photographs, this one displays no hint of triumph or celebration, none of the colour and energy (GO MOM!! YOU CAN DO IT!!!) that propels exhausted runners in the stretch run. There are no cheering masses, only scattered individuals staring piteously at the trickle of survivors making their way to the end of that dreadful haul. The spectators, their solemnity mirroring the bleak mountain terrain, look down as if in mourning, bundled in winter attire despite the mid-August date. Erase everyone from the photo and you could be looking at the surface of Mars.
When Zebulon Montgomery Pike decided to climb the unnamed mountain back in 1806, he was on a mission. Pike, a captain in the U.S. Army, had been ordered by U.S. President Thomas Jefferson to explore the southwestern reaches of the land acquired in the Louisiana Purchase. During his journey, he found himself at the bottom of a mountain in a territory that in another 70 years would become the state of Colorado. And so, with his men, he attempted to climb the peak but failed, driven back by deep snow. Seven years later, Pike, now a general, would be killed in the War of 1812. Nevertheless, the mountain became known as Pike’s Peak, immortalizing Zebulon Pike for his actions as a soldier and explorer, and in particular for attempting to reach the summit of that mountain.
Fast-forward 181 years to August 22, 1987. I’m standing on the main street of Manitou Springs, at the base of Captain Pike’s mountain, at the starting line of the Pike’s Peak half-marathon. Of all the events I could have chosen, why I chose this one is a bit of a mystery. What I remember with certainty is that in the spring of 1987 I wrote away for and received an entry form, and somehow convinced a friend to join me. I also remember filling out the entry, and in the box where it asked for my projected finishing time, I confidently wrote “two hours”. The problem was that the course record at the time was 2:05. This was a rather important reference point, but at the time I had no clue, and my two-hour estimate seemed quite reasonable (at least to me).
The author, hamming it up for the camera, nears the summit
The fact was I had absolutely no capacity to break, or even threaten, this record, held by a whippet-lean, perfectly built mountain runner from New Mexico named Al Waquie. It was his record that I had, with my deluded two-hour prediction, declared my own. Despite all that, I was in sterling shape, having just run a decent half in 1:11 (on an absolutely flat course, on a smooth, paved road, in abundant sea level air, in nice weather), and I was feeling confident, even with the high altitude, the 7800 or so feet of vertical gain, capricious weather, and the rocky, uneven terrain (see photo) factored in.
A bit of an aside here: for those of you who follow this type of thing, you might be interested to know that the fourth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV) calls this a Delusional Disorder, or more colloquially, a personal delusional system. And mine was functioning exceptionally well.
To make matters worse, in the weeks leading up to the race the significance of my reckless prediction percolated into my subconscious, and I was gripped by a vivid paranoia. I imagined an official at race headquarters processing my entry form, reading my projected time, doing a double-take, then becoming slowly incapacitated by a deep, scornful laughter. Compelled to share my madness with others, he passed the form to his colleagues, pointing at the box where “two hours” was printed neatly, after which the entire office collapsed into hysteria. Driving the knife of humiliation even deeper, they would assign me race number “1”, with a mocking “GOOD LUCK!” scrawled on the back.
Other than rampant paranoia, my Achilles heel was, of course, the altitude (hell, it was everyone’s Achilles heel) and by declaring two hours as my hoped-for time, I boldly announced my utter lack of understanding not only of the effects of high altitude on exercise performance, but what this mountain could do to people. To someone born and bred breathing the rich, moist air of Vancouver, and with zero experience running at altitude, I walked blissfully into the belly of the beast.
The week of the race we flew to Denver, then drove to Colorado Springs, an hour south. The start of the race was in the village of Manitou Springs, just west of Colorado Springs at an altitude of about 6300 ft. In retrospect, calling this event a “race” was, for me, a joke, because I certainly wasn’t racing. Any pretense of that had been obliterated the moment I stepped off the plane in Denver, situated at a puny 5280 ft, and found that even walking up a flight of stairs left me short of breath. No, this would be survival, pure and simple.
Race day! The weather was benign, not hot, but stable. Weather in the mountains is unpredictable, even in summer (the 2008 race had a blizzard) and the temperature can easily drop 40 degrees (F) from the start to the finish, so I dressed appropriately: long sleeve thermal top under a short sleeve mesh t-shirt. Also, gloves and a warm hat wrapped up in a windbreaker tied around my waist. If the weather deteriorated, I was somewhat prepared. I felt good.
The gun sounded and we were off. The wild sprint typical of many race starts was absent; we knew what lay ahead, so most proceeded at a relaxed jog. I remember forcing myself to run slowly and found that easy to do simply because it would have been suicide to run fast, so I just ambled along. We traversed some paved streets and after a short time found Barr trail, our path to the top.
The course doesn’t provide a gentle welcome. The first few miles are among the steepest of the race (see course profile), and after just 45 minutes I was already at about 8,000 feet. For most of its length, the trail is narrow, allowing only single file running. I was jogging steadily, passing people when possible but also being passed by others as the field sorted itself out; I noticed after a while the grade becoming a bit less onerous.
As mountains go, Pike’s Peak is not remarkable, especially in Colorado, where it is one of 54 “Fourteeners”, or peaks of at least 14,000 feet. But it is well known, and not just for the two foot races (a full marathon, from the bottom to the top and back again is held the day after the half). There’s also an auto race up the mountain, the famous Pike’s Peak Hill Climb, as well as a cog railroad that takes tourists (those with enough sense not to walk or run to the top) to the summit and back. It’s also popular with hikers, with abundant trails offering many opportunities for high altitude trekking.
Ninety minutes (six miles?) gone. I noticed how altitude fatigue was different than what I felt at sea level: my legs were heavy and every step required effort. The higher I went, the worse it got. My breathing was deep and my lungs were stinging, and despite my best intentions it slowly became almost impossible to run; even fast walking was an effort.
Small things began to eat at me. For example, I found the absence of normal mile markers upsetting. Without those there was no way to gauge my progress, no way to play the mental game of putting one foot in front of the other until the next mile marker, and then the next, until the end. If I’d been running something more civilized and things weren’t going well, I could at least do that. There are, however, critical landmarks along the way, structures, signs, and geographical points that give an idea of where you are and what remains, but those seem to resonate only with Peak veterans (or those who took the time to study the course map, which I hadn’t). With names like French Creek, A-frame, The Bottomless Pit sign, Barr Camp, they offer a way to measure the effort, and reassure participants that despite the slowness, you are moving upward.
Higher now, and things weren’t going well; people began to stream by me in increasing numbers. Trying desperately to keep up I alternated walking with jogging, which soon became mostly walking. My mood was swinging wildly between abject humiliation and despair. I looked at my watch: two hours gone; I’m nowhere near the finish. To save face I began limping; someone asked if I was okay. I stopped limping. I was truly pathetic.
Then, like a flicked switch, an incredible weariness hit me, and the last drops of my youthful vigour evaporated in the thin, dry air. I tried to keep walking, but even that was beyond me. Just ahead, at a wide spot on the trail, was a comfortable looking rock. And that is where I sat and hung my head. I breathed deeply and slowly, and after a few minutes the fatigue lessened. I stood and re-took my place in the stream of bodies going up.
We continued to move higher, but became more strung out. Someone near me said: “We’re comin’ up to the A-Frame.” The what? Did you say A-Frame? What the hell is that? “We’re getting closer, about 12,000 ft.” “Closer” to me meant nothing; for all I knew the finish was in Denver. A while later I masked my growing agitation and asked nonchalantly “Much further?” “Not far now.” I’m sorry, did you say not far now? If a baseball bat had been handy, and if in my feeble state I’d been able to lift and swing it, I . . . well, never mind.
I was alone on the trail. Even though I was above the tree line, the person ahead of me was out of sight, and I didn’t dare look back. I saw something up the trail . . . a marker, or perhaps a sign? My faculties were so badly eroded that I assumed it was a mirage. I looked down and kept walking; when I looked up again the sign was still there, and as I drew near it read two miles to the summit. I processed this information, but could do nothing with it, because at this point the thought of running was absurd; now it was just one foot in front of the other.
Compounding my agony was the fact that even when I knew the finish line was near, it just never seemed to appear. I could clearly hear the announcer on the peak exhorting finishers, his amplified voice flying through the thin air, ricocheting off the rocks and down the barren mountain. It was maddening. The finish was always just over the ridge, around the next corner. I would look up and see nothing, just more mountain. I asked spectators “Am I close to the finish?” and the answer would be “You sure are, it’s just up there,” gesturing to some invisible place higher up on the mountain. Every time I surmounted a ridge, there would be yet another ridge, another switchback. Where’s the f&$#@ing finish??? I was disintegrating, any sense of civility ripped out of me. I longed for The Bottomless Pit, which I would hurl myself into to end this madness. They would find my crumpled body–along with many other shattered souls I’m sure–for whom a different finish line was ordained.
The office worker pops into my mind again, now even more deranged than his previous visits, his face contorted into a grotesque red mask of derision. He jabbed a fat finger into my chest saying “Two hours, two hours,” while laughing hysterically. I was on the brink.
I staggered over the line in 3:53:26. Of the 1270 ascent participants I was 514th; the men’s winner did 2:09, the women’s 2:39 (I report this with such accuracy only because I looked it up). For me, there was no dramatic finish line scene; I just stood there, emotionally numb. Otherwise, and rather oddly, I felt okay. I was used to the searing exhaustion that typically accompanies racing, but that sensation was strangely absent, probably because I had walked at least half the distance.
I recall wandering around like some sort of refugee, feeling displaced and dispossessed, wondering what had just happened and not exactly knowing what I should do next. Perhaps it was the lack of oxygen. I put on warm clothing and found my friend; he had finished well ahead of me.
Then we got on the bus and they drove us back down the mountain.