Twenty-five years ago, I attempted to hike Pikes Peak during a youth camp. I made it 3 miles up the trail before turning around. That decision created a bucket list item that I never believed could be crossed off. I was convinced that my asthma, coupled with my fibromyalgia, would make this dream impossible. I was wrong.
But why just hike a mountain when you can race it – time cutoffs and all? First though, I needed to qualify. And as a trail runner who doesn’t race on the road this was easier said than done. Trail races don’t usually fall into tidy boxes like “half marathon”. But last spring during a charity race, I qualified without even trying. And there my journey began.
Fast forward to March where I would casually check the Pikes Peak website, only to discover that the race that usually fills in a few hours still had a few ascent spots left, and my fate was sealed.
And so, I took a break from the Phoenix heat in August and toed the line in Manitou Springs, Colorado, for the Pikes Peak Ascent. A grueling 13.41 mile race ascending 7,814 feet up the rocky Barr Trail.
Years of research on this race told me a very important fact- you cannot go out too slowly on this race. And my trail race qualifying time put me in a later start wave that would ensure that I would keep on track here.
Half jogging, half power walking, we trudged along through the infamous “W’s” in a steady stream of racers. I would watch racers frantically trying to pass here on the narrow single track, knowing that I would see them again soon.
And the spot where I turned around as a 15 year-old camper? I recognized it immediately and loudly cheered for myself as I made it past. Step by step, drinking water, fueling on my Honey Stinger gels, and holding back the reigns on my pace, I continued on.
Knowing that I would need my inhaler later in the race, I did everything I could to delay using the few precious puffs I was allowed until I truly needed them. So hydration was the name of the game- as dehydration can trigger more asthma problems (along with a slew of other issues). And at this point in the race, I only passed when truly necessary- like when I was behind the guy with GI issues.
The first cutoff was at Barr Camp, 8.6 miles in- and I knew I was well ahead of that time and having no breathing issues, or any other issues for that matter. So I allowed myself to run when the trail permitted. Running at this point after hiking for so long felt amazing. But I knew that the race didn’t really start until A-frame, the 10-mile mark.
A-frame marked the second cut-off of the day, and as I was still well ahead of this time, I began to relax knowing that there was no turning around at this point, I only needed to continue putting one foot ahead of the other and I would finish!
I also allowed myself to use my inhaler for the first time here as we were nearing tree-line and my lungs were starting to complain a bit; but not nearly as much as I had imagined. Still, these final three miles took up the majority of my ascent time as the air had much less oxygen at this altitude, and running was completely out of the question for me (as well as everyone else around me).
I believe the term for Everest climbers is the “death march”. That point where your body is starving for oxygen and you, along with all of the other climbers, trudge along slowly, marching onward and upward.
To my surprise, I was still able to pass up until that final mile- which was a doozy. I was still feeling relatively well, with no nausea issues, and only a mild headache. The final mile was a horse of a different color though.
16 Golden Stairs- There aren’t really 16 of them, more like 60, and there’s nothing golden about these huge boulder step-ups. What followed was a half hike- half climbing crawl over the last portion of the Barr Trail. Spectators and volunteers littered the side of the mountain and cheered racers on by name as they read our bibs as we passed. At this point, I knew that I would finish and achieve my life-long goal. But, as the emotion would surge, my lungs would tighten, and I had to force it back down until I got within a few yards of the finish line.
When the finish line was in site, there was no choking back the emotion as years of doubt flooded my senses. I had finally done it; I had conquered the mountain. The feeling of relief was incredible. I had learned that I can do so much more than I think I can. And while physical issues may limit me at times, they can’t stop me.
As to what is next, I’m just happy to be done. And, I’m happy to get back to focusing on the short distance trail races that I have grown to love. Will I be back next year to do Pikes again? I don’t think so. But, I’ve also learned to never say never again.
—A very special thank you to my amazing husband for supporting me on this journey and allowing me to achieve this very special dream. To my son, who had to say goodbye to mommy on his 6th birthday so that I could board an airplane to Colorado. And to all of my wonderful sponsors- Squirrel’s Nut Butter, you kept me completely chafe free during difficult conditions. Honey Stinger, you kept me fueled through this arduous race on just 4 gels. Acel Compression, for helping me recover with your great compression socks. And Aravaipa Running, for giving me the qualifying time I needed and going the extra mile to put the results online so I could use it for this race.