I’ll never forget the Gatorade bottle. It made me think I might not make it.
I was crouched over, head down, in a half-run shuffle, eyes on my muddy running shoes. I stood up only when the trail snaked between large granite boulders that I had to reach to climb up and over. Heavy snow was falling, the flakes in my eyelashes making it hard to see. But when the lightning came, the strikes were quick, loud cracks that boomed as they hit the ground and made the dirt fly.
It was late summer 2005, and at thirty-eight I was attempting to complete my second Pikes Peak Ascent, a race that gains nearly 8,000 feet over thirteen miles, from Manitou Springs, Colorado — elevation 6,320 feet — to the top of Pikes Peak, at 14,114 feet. Because of the rapid elevation gain, ending where the partial pressure of oxygen is only about sixty percent of that at sea level, and the potential for storms that can roll in and turn a blue-skied August day into a struggle for survival, it’s considered by many world-class mountain runners to be one of the hardest races of its kind in the world.
“Kílian Jornet has said that along with Zegama [in Spain] and Sierre-Zinal [in the Swiss Alps], Pikes Peak is the toughest,” boasts Pikes Peak Marathon race director Ron Ilgen.
Jornet, twenty-six, of Spain, has won at Pikes Peak, as well as at the so-called Olympics of high-altitude running, the Skyrunner World Series, and the 100-mile Western States Endurance Run in northern California.
Back when the Pikes Peak races started, in 1956, there was only a small group of runners in each one. Now, as Ilgin says, the races have become “bucket list” events, with 1,800 runners in the Ascent on the third Saturday in August and 800 in the Marathon on Sunday — which involves running up the mountain and then back down again. Some runners try for the “double,” meaning that they run both the Ascent and the Marathon. Qualification times have tightened, and the race is now an established stop for some of the best mountain runners in the world. But somehow, the race still feels like a small-town event in a friendly mountain town.
In the shadow of Pikes Peak, Manitou Springs is a small town of artists, hippies, outdoorsmen — and serious athletes. One of its most famous inhabitants is Matt Carpenter, forty-nine, who holds records in the Pikes Peak Ascent and Marathon, as well as the Leadville Trail 100 Run. He also owns an ice cream shop, the Colorado Custard Company, on Manitou Avenue, and can reliably be found with other extreme runners gathering in the town park, dressed for either nine degrees or eighty-nine degrees, then making their way through town, past the old Victorian houses, Cog Railroad Depot and the buses of tourists to the Barr Trail, which begins the journey up Pikes Peak.
Carpenter and the Incline Club, which he co-founded eighteen years ago, are a self-described “group of nuts who meet most of the year for Sunday long runs on and around Pikes Peak, running no matter how extreme the conditions.”
“You know what time it is when it’s nine degrees and eight a.m. on a Sunday?” Carpenter joked recently as he and a group of runners, myself included, got ready for a couple hours on snow-packed trails and ice around Pikes Peak, bolts screwed into the bottom of our running shoes to provide much-needed traction. “Time to go!”
And off we went, up the main street, Manitou Avenue, toward the Barr Trail, which leads to the summit of Pikes Peak and was named by Brigadier General Zebulon Pike during his discovery and subsequent failed climb of the mountain in 1806.
It was here, almost ten years earlier, about 11.5 miles from the start of the race on Manitou Avenue, where the 900 runners in the second wave of the Ascent gazed up at the Peak thirteen miles in front of them, that I was crouched next to my friend and unofficial coach, an old-school ultra runner named Gary Sobol. It was 2005 and my second Ascent. We were doing the race together for the first time. And Gary, who at sixty-five, was — and still is — an athlete from the “do it, make it good, and don’t complain about it” school of extreme running, didn’t seem worried about the extreme weather conditions.
Gary had run Pikes many times in the 1970s and 1980s with no water or food (“That’s what we did; we didn’t know any better; we just did it,” he says now). He clocked round-trip times (i.e., up and down the mountain, the full twenty-six miles) at around five hours. His wife conveniently was an ICU nurse who didn’t blanch at using her camp stove to heat up a hemostat and paper clip to make holes in his black and bloody toenails to relieve the pressure at the halfway mark of the Leadville 100, one of the country’s toughest ultra races.
As with many Great Santini–style coaches and athletes I’ve known over the years, I’ve learned that Gary’s bark was worse than his bite, that underneath it was a love for running and a zest for challenges that he found great pleasure in sharing. Which was a good thing, considering that at about 13,000 feet, we still had a little over a mile to go in nearly whiteout conditions. We’d been on our feet for over four hours, and Gary, in true “do it or lose it fashion,” who had had surgery for colon cancer only a year before, was also wearing a urine drainage bag in addition to everything else.
“Keep moving,” he said to me as we shuffled along and lightning lit up the sky. “Just remember the finisher jackets at the top.”
It was the fiftieth running of the race, and instead of a technical shirt, we would receive special commemorative fleece jackets. To runners like us, it was better than cash. When I flew to Colorado that summer from my home in the Bay Area to train, we constantly reminded each other of the finisher jackets. A thousand feet to go on Boulder’s tough Green Mountain trail, “Remember the finisher jacket!” we would say to each other. Another few miles to Barr Trail on a training run up Pikes, “It’s all about the jacket.” It was our mantra that summer, on the phone or on the trail.
I was probably so busy thinking of that jacket, keeping my head down, and making it safely to the top that when the lightning hit a stray Gatorade bottle in front of me on the trail, I think I was too scared — and tired — to scream. It ricocheted across the trail in front of us, sending a plume of dirt in the air. Though snow continued to fall, the air smelled metallic. I was scared then. Would I die up here?
I looked over at Gary, who was crouched next to me and saw the lightning strike, too. But before I could say anything, “Stop talking and keep moving,” he said. “Let’s get to the top and get our finisher jackets.” So we kept on, until we came upon a man and woman stretching out against some boulders.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” Gary shouted. “You stay away from those rocks. You gotta keep moving.” So we kept going, the couple falling in behind us, picking our way up and down the increasingly large boulders that make up the trail in the last mile of the race, until we saw a man on a cell phone leaning against a rock. It was still snowing and bitterly cold, and we could see lightning strikes in the distance.
“I’m not sure I’m going to make it,” we heard him say on his phone as we approached.
“Man, you need to get off your phone now — it’s not safe. You’re going to make it.” This, of course, from Gary, who didn’t for a minute doubt that we were going to be OK.
My love affair with trail running — and especially mountain running — had begun only the year before, when I met Gary through his wife, Anne.
“My husband is a pretty serious trail runner and runs with a lot of different people here in town,” she said. “You should meet him.” It was a fortuitous meeting, in many ways. I had just been downsized from a publishing job and wasn’t sure what to do next. I was searching for something unyielding that would anchor me as I decided what my next move would be.
Enter Pikes Peak and Manitou Springs, or I should say, re-enter. It was not a new place to me, having spent summers only miles away and a couple thousand feet up at even higher elevation, in Florissant, Colorado, at a girl’s camp called High Trails Ranch.
When my brother and I were small, my parents decided to send us to camp in Colorado. At eleven, I was playing soccer on grass, but in New York that’s about as close as I got to nature. I think my parents wanted us to gain some independence and see another part of the country, but they also fought a lot and wanted to spare us that, or at least give us a break from it, my mother says now.
I was a serious kid, a reader and a dreamer — and I thought if I practiced dribbling my soccer ball enough I would be worthy of Pelé, whose poster hung in my room. I also played tennis, having been made to play with an all-boys playgroup by my dad, who told me it was the only way I would get better and beat them.
“You don’t like it now, but you’ll beat everyone else later,” he would say. In the 1970s and 1980s, he was a runner who also played tennis and racquetball. Though only 5´ 7´´ and 135 pounds, he hit the ball so hard no one could return it. “You know what, Jerry?” my mom would say when we got home from the tennis club and he would brag about winning, about aces and shots no one could return. “No one wants to play with a lunatic.” I agreed, but I also saw what determination and hard work could get you.
The years spent there, first as a camper climbing “fourteeners” like Mt. Princeton, Mt. La Plata, and Pikes Peak — so-called because at over 14,000 feet, they are some of the highest peaks in the United States — then as a counselor leading these climbing trips, drew me to Colorado. New York never felt like home to me. But in the shadow of Pikes Peak, I felt like I had found my home. The trails were more welcoming than city streets and the blue skies lifted my spirits. I had no use for the skyscrapers of the city.
But by my late teens and early twenties, I took the mountain for granted. I loved it enough to feel secure in its presence, but instead of hiking it, my friends and I were more interested in the taverns of Manitou Springs: the Ancient Mariner, the Keg, and even the biker bar the Royal Tavern. Time off during my counselor years, and later on after I moved to Colorado Springs post college, meant hard drinking, partying, and maybe sitting on someone’s car and looking at the lights of Colorado Springs from Cheyenne Canyon. We listened to and followed the Dead, hung out, and tried to figure out what to do with our lives. Staying in Manitou or Colorado Springs wasn’t on anyone’s radar—it was the place of our youth.
Except that I kept coming back to it.
I tried moving to a beautiful part of California near Yosemite for a newspaper job, but I missed Colorado and returned, working in book publishing in Boulder for over ten years, and though I had been running for a while (10Ks and half marathons around Boulder and Denver, where I lived) I had never considered running the Pikes Peak Ascent or Marathon. But when I was laid off after my company decided to close their Boulder office in late spring of 2004, I felt like I was drifting. Suddenly that mountain I saw daily during my commute, although it was over 100 miles away, was still the talisman of my childhood. After all these years, it was still the place to go to make sense of the world, a place that might provide me with some direction.