Not Exactly What I Had in Mind

Well hello again! Long time, no talk, eh? Please allow me to apologize for that – so sorry! Life’s been a little crazy as of late – some of it good, some not so much – none exactly part of my master plan, including my taking this long to fill you in on my second Pikes Peak Marathon. Insert sheepish ‘I hope you can forgive me’ grin here.

In my last post – WAY too long ago, I know – I was starting to feel much better about my bum leg and still planning on a Pikes Peak Marathon PR. I had two nights the week before the race set aside to tell you more about how well my training had been going, how my confidence was building, how my last hard run marked another personal PR.

I did indeed spend that time writing, just not for you all, my very captive audience awaiting with bated breath. Instead, I wrote my grandma’s eulogy.

The new plan at that point – not exactly what I initially had in mind – was to hit the highway after the race and head south to my home town for the funeral the next day. Still, I was going to try to make the most of Pikes Peak weekend – from here forward known as ‘Pikes Peakend’ (Langley, 2014). And so, I did just that.

The Ascent was amazing – always fun to watch! This year, it was chosen as the course for the 11th annual World Mountain Running Association Long Distance Challenge, which meant that teams donning matching uniforms from all over the world – South Africa, Germany, Italy, Slovania, Mexico – joined the usual crowd of bad arses up for ‘America’s Ultimate Challenge.’

At the same time, seeing the pain, anguish, and strain on the racers’ faces leading up to the finish only reminded me of the world of hurt I was in for less than twenty-four hours later. Eesh. Still, it was a most beautiful day, even at the top, for a great event and a lil’ post-race celebration with competitors and spectators alike:

Oxygen is SOOOO over rated

Oxygen is SOOOO over rated

This year was unlike any of the previous three at Pikes Peak for me as well. Thanks to my new trail running BFF Liz, I knew lots more faces by name on the mountain. If you know me even a teensy bit, you could pretty effortlessly see that I absolutely LOVED it!

All fun and games, an hour-long nap, quick bite for dinner – sorry again, JD, won’t ask you to eat at that little dive with me anymore! – then a few organizational tasks-slash-pre-race-prep necessities later, I was in bed and ready to pass out by about 9:30 p.m.

I felt good – felt no strain or pain in my right quad or knee – and was comfortable holding my right ankle, leg bent behind me in a quad stretch. I had only been able to do that – for the first time in a month – just a few days prior. Nothing left to do now but race. A marathon. Up a mountain. Then back down. And so, I did just that.

•              •              •              •              •              •              •              •              •              •

On the morning of the August 17th, I woke within the second of my alarm’s first sing-song note at five o’clock. I had everything organized and ready to go, everything laid out and waiting. I was even ready to leave early, which nearly never happens.

I saw Liz shortly after I got to the starting line and warmed up, and JD was kind enough to snap a quick pre-race pic:

Pre-PPM Pic

Liz looked great for having just raced up Pikes Peak the day before – almost too good if you ask me. She’s SOOOO gonna kick my butt. A few more quick laps up and down the street, and the race was about to start. Don’t go out too fast. Conserve a bit on the ‘Ws.’ Watch your pace. I was ready.

The first mile went beautifully. I was just a smidge faster than I wanted to be but at a very acceptable pace, and it helped to see a few friendly faces along the course. “Hi, Amy! Hi, Neil!” – friends from the Barr Trail Mountain Race a month earlier! Then, Bart Yasso was cheering runners on. “Hi, Bart!” I said, as if I knew him personally. “I’ll see you in a few hours!” “Yes, you will.”

I fell into what felt like a good pace among a steady pack, but I had no way to know whether or not I was on pace for a good ascent until I reached the top of the Ws. Once I did, I was disappointed to see that I was slower than I had hoped by several minutes. Damn! OK, keep moving. You can make up time along the flatter stretch.

By “flatter stretch,” I mean the short-lived portion of the trail that leveled out to only five percent grade. Once you survive what preceded it, it practically felt flat. Only when I got there, I didn’t have the kick I had hoped I would. It was still work. And so, I did just that.

I ran then hiked a little, ran then hiked a little, all the while playing ‘leap frog’ with a few of the same competitors I had seen most of the race up to that point.

Then, finally, I reached the mile nine-ish mark where the trail gets – and stays – pretty damn steep until tree line. It was somewhere in this section that Ben – my Pikes Peak pal since my first Ascent in 2011 whom my long-time readers may remember from a blog post back in March 2013 – passed me.

In case you haven’t been with me that long – or in case you have but either missed that post or forgot – I met Ben during my very first Pikes Peak Ascent, which was also his first Ascent:

The beginning of beautiful friendships with a fellow competitor and the mountain itself!

The beginning of beautiful friendships with a fellow competitor and the mountain itself!

Since then, we’ve both returned every year for our second Ascent in 2011, our first Marathon in 2013, and again this year for Marathon numbah two.

What energy and hope you may gain with less intense incline at that point, though, can easily be lost with rapidly decreasing levels of oxygen.

The switchbacks just after tree line unmistakably marked the beginning of what is known as the ‘death march’ – racers inevitably slowing to a sluggish pace after feeling the effects of miles of incline coupled with less and less oxygen with every step.

Surprisingly, though, this is where I started to feel really good – the best I had felt since the first mile and the beginning of the Ws. Here’s where I can make up for some lost time. Let’s do this!

And so, I did just that. . .for about a mile. I had caught up to Ben again just as we both reached the sign along the trail designating that the summit was two miles ahead. I was right on his heels and about to make my move. OK, one more step, then it’s ‘on your left!’

And then, it hit, not unlike a ton of bricks. The worst cramping I’ve ever experienced my entire life consumed my right hamstring. “AAAAAUUUUGGGGHHH!” I must have screamed right in Ben’s ear as I stepped to the side of the trail and leaned up against Pikes Peak itself, both hands at shoulder height against the side of the mountain to support my standing on one leg.

FACT: Pikes Peak Marathon competitors are nothing short of AMAZING people. Case in point: the numerous peeps checking on me and offering help as they passed. “Are you OK?” “Do you want some salt? I have some!” “I’m OK, thank you, just got a cramp.”

Once my screaming had subsided to broken vocalizations of pain and a wincing expression, I tried to work the cramp out – put some weight on my leg then lifted my leg, pointed then straightened my toe several times. I tried whatever came to mind to no avail. I don’t know how long I was there, but it felt like forever.

More than anything, though, that cramp has just plain old pissed me off. I’ll make it to the summit if I have to crawl, damnit! I had no choice but to keep going, hoping that the cramp would work itself it out. And so, I did just that.

I waited for a short break between runners then jumped back into the single file crawling up the mountain, limping along as fast as I could and stepping up rocky terrain with my left foot while lifting my right foot to meet it, knee straight. I even managed to catch a few peeps who passed me while I was screaming like a little girl. “Feeling better?” “Are you OK?” “Yeah, thanks, just trying to work out this cramp.”

Those last two miles to the top after I started out again went surprisingly quickly considering the pain and my worry that the cramp would strike again. I was even able to speed up to a jog on a few of the flatter switchbacks near the end of the climb. And finally, I made it. Then there was nothing left to do but run a half marathon down a mountain. And so, I did just that.

OK, I really hate to do this to you, especially since it’s been so long since you last heard from me – SOOOO sorry ’bout that again, by the way – but I’ve blabbed on for well over one thousand, five hundred words and still have lots of the story to tell.

But, I guess you have no choice except to sit back, relax, and patiently wait for the rest of the story – which won’t take me another two months to write, by the way, promise! In the meantime, hopefully you’ll do just that.

Melissa Mincic, Ph.D., a long-time road and trail runner, conducts applied child development research and works to influence child development policy and practice at the University of Denver. Follow Melissa on Twitter at @nerdinrunshoes.

1 comment… add one
  • Jordan P November 6, 2014, 7:28 am

    WHOAH talk about a cliffhanger, almost literally!! PLEASE PLEASE tell me how it ended!!

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