Monday, August 29, 2005

 Pikes Peaked 

Good lord. What an epic.

You may remember that I had been in training for the Pikes Peak ascent for several months. Well, it's done. Barely.

The race was on August 20, with about 2500 total participants. About a thousand of them were in the "First Wave", starting at 7am, with the rest of us starting a half hour later. The weather was nice that morning, with a few altocumulus clouds and temperatures a bit warmer than expected, around 55 °F. It was clear to me that convection would likely develop over the summit today, but I hoped that with this early start and projecting a finish in under 5 hours, I could make the top before the worst of it hit. Heh. How's that for foreshadowing?

The "Second Wave" started on Main Street in Manitou Springs, with all 1500 of us lumbering up the road to the trailhead, 13.3 miles and 7,860 feet of elevation gain ahead of us. With the road narrowing to merely a trail, things got cozy in the earlygoing, and jogging gave way to "powerwalking". It was just as well, since you don't really want to burn out in the first couple miles anyway. Still, I kept a good pace, always thinking about getting to treeline and within eyeshot of the finish.

The miles ticked by, and the pack thinned gradually. By about 5 miles in there were actually stretches along the ever-rising trail where I could actually resume jogging. It felt great to run, if only to stretch out my quads. That didn't last long though, and I had to be mindful of my pace, and keeping it sustainable. I passed Barr Camp at 7.5 miles (10,000 ft) in just 2 hrs and 20 min, and still felt quite good. Unfortunately, things went "downhill" from there.

Initially I wasn't sure what the problem was - I was well hydrated, and had munched on pretzels on the way up. But I was simply feeling gassed. I stopped to eat part of an energy bar, hoping that I could get a second wind soon. And I even believed that I did for a few minutes after resuming. But as I kept trucking up the trail, getting closer to treeline, I realized that my exhaustion would not be so easily remedied. The slog had begun.

And it only worsened. As I approached the next waterstop at 10 miles in, I got clearer views of the sky above. My, that sure looks dark and threatening up there. How can this be, it's only a little after 10am! Fighting off the fatigue and my diminishing morale, I kept pushing to the rest stop, slowing only a little as I refilled my water and grabbed a few more pretzels. A number of the people I had been grouped with or passed on my way up were now passing me. It was discouraging, but I remembered that my goal wasn't to beat them, it was just to finish. Onward I went.

I made it to treeline, and finally had a view of the summit. Well, not really. The summit was obscured by a huge dark cloud. There was no blue sky remaining in any direction, and only a terrible sense of foreboding. Still 3+ miles left, and I could see the train of runners winding up into invisibility beyond the mist. I looked around me, and everyone was unconcerned about what lay ahead. Not a word from anyone, even at the last rest stop, of turning back or closing down the operation. Then a flash, and a couple seconds later, thunder everywhere. Was I going heed the lessons learned on Mt. Bierstadt just a month earlier? Apparently not.

My conscience didn't accede so easily though. Each subsequent thundercrash had me shouting back at the sky and at myself, asking why I was doing this. The other runners still went on, even encouraging me to stick to it (despite the fact that I probably seemed like a total nutcase for yelling), you can do it, you're almost there, just a little over 2 miles to go. I understood the encouragement, and in any other circumstance I would have taken heart in it. But when it means immersing yourself into the kind of danger that any outdoor organization admonishes you against doing, that even I had admonished myself against doing just a month ago, insanity sets in. I actually did turn back at one point, and walked toward the previous rest stop for about a minute as the my rational, sensible side took over in a short-lived coup d'état. I begrudgingly turned back up the hill though, not from summit lust like what drove me the last bit up Bierstadt, but the realization that as hazardous as it looked ahead, toiling back 10 miles on this trail feeling as exhausted as I did was no more inviting. The best I could hope for was to just get this damn stupid thing over with.

Easier said than done. Another lightning bolt, this time a "flash-BOOM!" episode of absolutely deafening thunder. It must have struck only a couple hundred feet away in the rocks up the hill. I was too tired to react anymore - all I could do was trudge ahead, hope that I wouldn't meet my doom today. Lightning continued intermittently over the next 20 minutes, after which the ice pellets began to come down.

I hadn't brought along my windbreaker. It was so warm at the start, and I was so confident that I could summit before any inclement weather that I opted to leave it behind to keep my weight down. Another bad idea, I guess. My arms began to redden from the pelting. At least I had some light gloves for my hands. They stayed warm for a while, at least until they got soaked.

I passed the El Paso County Search and Rescue stop at 11 miles in. Still no word of turning anyone back. I wondered what the hell had to happen for them to cancel this thing - I had the impression from all the literature that they weren't going to endanger the runners or help-crews in the event of bad weather, and yet here I was, 12000 feet up Pikes Peak in a hailstorm with lightning all around. Maybe they were waiting for a couple more signs of the Apocalypse before calling it? Some grasshoppers? A blood red moon? I continued, practically flailing myself forward, muttering constantly about how I'd never do this again, I had to keep moving, I couldn't stop, I hope Cindy and Mom and Kent are OK, I wonder if they got turned back, am I going to collapse, I sure feel like it, god I hate this, this is so stupid, so insane, so absurd, gotta keep going, can't stop, how much farther, am I getting closer, my arms really hurt now, I'm freezing, I can feel the ice pellets going down my shirt, I better not slip on the pellets, I can't believe hundreds of us are here doing this, and why am I the only one complaining?

With less than a mile to go, another stop, and this time someone actually fitted me for a makeshift poncho. It didn't help much, but I was in no state to complain. I drifted into this dreamstate of exhaustion, compelled by a will that I previously wasn't sure I had, to keep hiking to the finish. About 20 minutes later I finally saw the finish line through the mist and continuing hail. I finally felt a second wind, and my pace quickened like it hadn't in almost 3 hours. I stepped strongly, greatly encouraged for once, knowing I had only a few minutes left until real assistance, and real rest. But the second wind subsided after about a minute, and I fell back into my near-sleepwalk. A third wind came about another minute later, as I hoped to at least have a triumphant-looking finish, but that too receded quickly. If I was to cross the line, it would be pathetically. And so it was.

At a little over 5 hours after starting, I finished. I heard the congratulatory remarks as I approached and crossed the line, and once I knew I was done, I stopped, completely. I fell to the ground, conscious, but having no more energy to even stand. I was helped back up and carried to the aid station on the summit, fully awake and aware of what was happening, but utterly powerless to effect any speech or gestures. I'd never felt so spent.

In the aid station, they laid me down, took off my wet shoes and gloves, gave me a blanket, and hooked me up to oxygen. (I knew it wasn't the altitude that got me, but they didn't know that. Besides, I'd always wanted some pure O2.) As someone began rubbing my extremities to warm them, the intense emotion of the previous 2-3 hours overcame me, and I started to weep, especially as I thought of my mother and Cindy, most likely still out there. It would be a half hour before I was strong enough to get up and start looking for them.

I later found Cindy and Kent amid the masses on the top of the mountain. None of us knew where my mother was, nor did we have any way of finding out while up there. It was time to head down, except that the road to the summit had been closed for about an hour or more because of the storm - it had to be plowed first. Unbe-freakin-lievable - August 20, and there's half a foot of frozen precip on the mountaintop, on race day. Several hundred to a thousand people lined up outside (there's no place inside any building there to line up that many people) to wait for the shuttle vans to arrive to take us off the peak. After another hour or so, the road opened, and we could start back to Manitou Springs, and try to find out what happened to my mother.

Another 45 minutes later, we were back at the race start. It had obviously dumped rain there. After talking to several race organizers, we had word that my mother had been turned back around mile 11, and picked up by the Search and Rescue people. She had been crouching under a rock, obviously very cold, and was told by the rangers that conditions higher up were even worse (which they were). They bundled her up and put her on a horse (her first horse ride of her entire life!) that took her back to the inclined rail junction around mile 7, at which point she rode the train back to Manitou. Not long after hearing the story, we were all reunited, and after heading back to our hotels to tidy up, recounted our travails over dinner.

An experience I'll never forget. And if I have any choice in the matter, never repeat.

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