"The calendar would soon flip to a new year. And with it came a milestone that, as a young man, seemed light-years away. But in eight short months I'd cross the threshold of my 60th birthday and into what I considered old age. While I resented the depressing moniker, aging is a natural process no one can elude. For many it’s a time to cherish memories and accomplishments, but I feared chronic injury would accompany old age and I’d be forced to abandon my running pursuits. As a veteran with 40+ years in the sport, running had provided an identity, and I would be devastated if that were taken from me.
Adding further misery to my depressed state was a relentless chatter from that voice inside my head. It was mocking me as a senior and hurling insults about my body turning fragile. I’m an optimistic person, but had become miserable. So I resolved to silence that negativity by immersing myself in a larger-than-life goal. One glance at my bucket list and I found the answer. An ‘80s running buddy often spoke of its menacing conditions and a feature in Runner’s World considered it one of the “hardest, toughest, races on the planet.”
The Pikes Peak Ascent and Marathon start at 6,215’ in Manitou Springs, CO. There’s a gnarly 7,815’ of vertical ascent on a rugged single-track trail that’s infested with gravel, rocks and roots. Just below the summit, the difficulty increases exponentially with 32 switchbacks known as the 16 Golden Stairs that are anything but ‘golden.’ The weather might be sunny at the base, but change to rain, sleet or snow en route to the 14,115' peak. But there’s more: the Barr Trail serves as passage to the summit and inflicts severe punishment with an average grade of 11% that’s worse at the higher elevations. Then factor oxygen debt above Treeline, and it’s a titanic challenge for an elite athlete, let alone a mere mortal or “Flatlander” like me.
I’d never attempted a 14er, nor had I visited Manitou Springs and seen this majestic mountain. The thought of accepting this challenge was intimidating, but I was convinced it had the power to liberate my attitude. Unfortunately, the 13.3-mile Ascent was my only option since I was forced to “retire” from marathons several years earlier. Once my ticket was punched, it was a new day and I was officially on the clock with six months to train. I’d never encountered such harsh conditions, and time was of the essence to transform myself into a trail running beast. My training plan was simple; hills, hills and more hills whether it was repeats on trails or the treadmill. I could also tap into a reservoir of advice from friends, the Internet, or YouTube videos, but I was resolved that Pikes Peak would not become my first DNF.
The deep woods became the cornerstone for my training. Notwithstanding the altitude, a primary challenge with Pikes is the nonstop climb, so repeats became a staple for building stamina. It required discipline to maintain focus, especially as the months unfolded. Runners will often use a mantra when times get tough, but I never needed that extra motivation. Since Pikes would require a Herculean effort, I adopted “Become Uncomfortable to Get Comfortable.” I recognized that only by becoming uncomfortable from my workouts could I expand my comfort zone to embrace the extreme conditions on race day. That mindset and the fear of failure inspired me to run endless repeats up and down those dreaded hills. It wasn’t a pleasant time to live with me, but my wife stood patiently by my side as I ate, drank and slept Pikes Peak. As for the threat of old age, that small voice had been silenced.
My training was punctuated with many highs and lows. There were two taxing workouts up the famed Manitou Incline as well as a three-mile plunge down the Pikes summit to Treeline and back. Most trying were three treadmill simulations, but it was the final one that left me completely demoralized after three excruciating hours. More remarkable was my gimpy right knee that has survived six meniscus tears, was able to endure the 30-mile weeks and my first 20-mile run in five years. However, the most difficult challenge isn’t always hitting splits or high mileage, but toeing the start line absent of any injuries. The time had finally arrived to learn whether there was a payday from all those exhausting workouts.
I consider race day a celebration because it not only reveals character, but concludes months of intense training. Weather had been a concern, but we were blessed with a beautiful sunny sky and temperature in the low 60s. I circled Memorial Park soaking up an infectious vibe as small wisps of clouds raced high above. A vision of Pikes Peak loomed in the distance, and there were some jitters as I began my warm-up. The 7 AM start time was approaching, and I had to find my wave. Our daughters are Colorado transplants and had joined us along with their boyfriends. After exchanging hugs, it was off to the start line. I had no expectations for a time except to beat the 6:30 cutoff and, if strong enough, a sub five-hour finish.
The gun sounded, and I pushed down Manitou Avenue high fiving my family before turning onto Ruxton Avenue. There were a couple of sections I'd be able to run, with this being one, and it would be my fastest mile of the day. Upon reaching the Cog Railway, the grade turned nasty, and I was forced into a power walk to conserve energy. Then it was Hydro where a short spur joined with the Barr Trail and a series of switchbacks coined “the Ws,” slowly carried me high above Manitou Springs. It was a steep climb, but I knew the trail would flatten after four miles. It was there I enjoyed a short respite, and eased into a trot to offset a slower pace that would come later.
Spectators were sparse and mostly volunteers at aid stations. As I neared Barr Camp, their enthusiastic cheers could be heard through the dense Aspen trees. I was beyond the midway point and had arrived in 2½ hours. I filled the water bottles strapped to my vest and began to think a sub five-hour finish was possible. My energy level was still holding strong, but the worst was yet to come. I passed A-Frame then cracked through Treeline in 3½ hours. I was 12,000 feet above sea level, and the scenery suddenly turned surreal. In a matter of steps, what had been a lush paradise became a mountainside besieged with rocks and boulders. But I was just three miles from the peak and feeling giddy about eclipsing my goal.
My pace held steady through 11 miles, but then the wheels fell off. The altitude was now kicking my a$$, and it took everything I had just to put one foot in front of the other. There were passing opportunities, but any extra effort caused my heart to work harder. I was on the brink of going anaerobic, and the most difficult section was just ahead. I plodded through mile 12 trying to keep my breathing in check, but the grade steepened and the altitude tightened its grip on my lungs. One mile remained, and I was closing in on the Cirque; then it was on to the 16 Golden Stairs. My goal was to keep moving, but I was a punch-drunk fighter. With a couple of switchbacks remaining, I heard the cheers of familiar voices and their cowbells clanging. I made the final turn and the trail flattened, allowing me to bolt across the finish line. I had narrowly missed my goal, but managed to summit in 5 hours and 2 minutes.
Upon crossing the finish line, I felt tremendous relief and my eyes began to tear. But my exhausted state made it impossible to get emotional. What was an epic day also brought a close to my training. It had been a grueling six months, and I was physically and mentally drained. Sir Edmund Hillary once said, “It's not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves.” I could now reflect with immense pride, having persevered to accomplish a lofty goal. The plan to become consumed in a larger-than-life experience had been a success. On that day when the mountain delivered its hardest punch, this Flatlander was still standing and succeeded in his quest to the summit.
Do you have a mountain in your life that needs to be conquered? It doesn't have to be Pikes Peak, but maybe you've been avoiding a personal challenge or have some unfinished business. Taking that first step is often the most difficult and may appear intimidating. You may feel overwhelmed with negative thoughts from those demons dancing in your head. However, the journey does become easier, but you must first commit to “Becoming Uncomfortable to Get Comfortable.” And when it's over, you can look in the mirror and know YOU ARE A BAD A$$!
As for whether I’ve accepted old age…that's a topic for another story."
Gary Chatham is also a race director and HF Member #12273 and lives in St. Charles, MO with his wife, Linda. His pursuit of more BAD A$$ adventures continues.