Ramzi’s summer bucket list included the following seemingly incongruent events: quitting smoking, visiting his girlfriend Mary’s parents in the US, doing some training for our upcoming ultramarathon in the Himalayas and running an epic race.
Somehow all these events converged on the Pikes Peak Marathon in the US, not too far from Denver, Colorado. For those of you who are as geographically challenged as Ramzi, getting to Denver involves only 16 hours of flying from Dubai, and Pikes Peak is one of the highest mountains in the continental US at 4,300 meters.
Why the Pikes Peak Marathon?
Pikes Peak is considered one of the toughest trail runs in the US, despite ‘only’ being a marathon. The route is out and back single-track up dirt trails along scattered rocks to scramble over 2,350 meters of elevation gain. The original idea for the race was a challenge to see if smokers could beat nonsmokers to the peak and back. Short answer: Nope! Since Mary is from Colorado and Ramzi wanted to quit smoking, Pikes Peak Marathon seemed like the Epic Adventure of the summer – the confluence of Brilliant Ideas.
Getting to Pikes Peak
The Pikes Peak Marathon bib collection was more of a county festival than a running expo, with locals seeming to use the occasion as a reason to have a party outside. Ramzi chats up a fellow runner, Russell, who gave him some sound advice: “When you think you are at the top of the mountain, don’t look up! It’s not the top. There are ‘false summits’, so you just keep going up until you can’t go up anymore.” Russell pointed to the summit and showed Ramzi the mountain they had to climb the next day. Pikes Peak is a daunting sight, even in the Rocky Mountains, but Ramzi noted that Russell said ‘climb’ not ‘run’. With a world-class field of marathoners, the winning time is usually around 3:40 and the cutoff time is ten hours – which is analogous to the Hajar 50 Ultra at 10km longer with similar elevation gain and the winning time is 5:30 and the cutoff is twelve hours.
The 62nd Pikes Peak Marathon
At 07:00 on a beautiful sunny morning in August, 750 runners started the 62nd edition of the Pikes Peak Marathon. The town treats the event as a carnival, with the race announcer getting the locals to provide great support to the runners so they’re psyched to suffer up and down the mountain. The first 800 meters were on an asphalt road when the road ends and the runners hit the first steep uphill. Ramzi was warned that it’s almost impossible to pass people because the next 20km is a dirt single track with small rocks and big rocks.
At the “No Name Creek” checkpoint, the volunteers offered Gatorade, water, fruits, and even pickles! (How cool is it that they have pickles at the Checkpoints! I wonder if somebody could do me a favour and mention to Louise and Pascale of Urban Ultra that some trail events offer pickles at checkpoints?) From No Name Creek to Barr Camp, the track continues very steeply uphill. This is not runnable. The terrain changes above the tree line around 17km at the A-Frame checkpoint and Ramzi is surprised that it’s so rocky. (Ramzi: dude, you are running a marathon in the Rocky Mountains! You probably should’ve expected to see some rocks …)
Hitting the Peak at Pikes Peak
Ramzi is power-trekking up the last 4km before the turnaround at the summit on a rocky single-track when hordes of faster runners start flying down the trail! Downhill runners have the right of way, so Ramzi needs to climb on the rocks on the side of the trail to yield to every downhill runner. With the altitude gain it is very cold and windy – at least by our UAE standards – but, not shockingly, Ramzi was too lazy to grab his long sleeve jacket and gloves from his backpack. After reaching the summit in five hours, Ramzi enjoyed chips and the awesome pickles, before running back down.
The first 4km going down were runnable but slow due to rocks and other runners going up, then as soon as Ramzi hit the tree line at lower altitude, things warmed up again, only stopping for nutrition at the checkpoints. Ramzi particularly enjoyed that all the volunteers at the checkpoints were so enthusiastic and supportive of him, even calling him by his name throughout the race – I don’t think that Ramzi realized that his name was printed on his bib in big bold letters over his race number.
Running is Easy Until It Gets Really Hard
Since the first five hours up the mountain were mostly power-trekking, Ramzi runs smoothly down and even manages to pass a few people over the last 5km. Everything is great … until he hits the asphalt road with only 800 meters to the Finish and his legs give out. It’s all mental, and the crowds were cheering him on through the town when he sees Mary waving and yelling “One more turn!” Ramzi crosses the Finish in nine hours – which is well under the cutoff – where they are serving all-you-can-eat pizza. Life is good!
Confluence of “Brilliant” Ideas and Achieving Goals
1. Ramzi finished the epic Pikes Peak Marathon with dignity
2. Ramzi met Mary’s parents in the US
3. Ramzi got some solid altitude training for our Nepal adventure in October
4. Ramzi quit smoking ■
Words by: David O’Hara
Photos by: Supplied