HOLA! This entry finds me one week removed from a taxing & UNIQUE race. It also finds me at the tail end of a savage cold! I've only been able to run two or three times in the past 8 days....well that is, IF you don't count last Tuesday's HISTORIC run. Last week I had the privilege of taking part in the first ever "Pikes Peak High-Altitude Mile". It was decision that while I don't regret, further knocked me on my already debilitated arse.
The special race took place at the staggering elevation of 14,115 feet atop the famous Pikes Peak Mountain. The field consisted of track, road, trail and mountain runners. Call it my love for racing or more honestly a morbid curiosity, but I knew that sick or not I would kick myself if I let this chance slip away.
So with my mind made up and an unrelenting cold to deal with, I decided to prepare for the race the only way I could....by resting and not running for a few days. It was far from ideal, but I felt too weak to train and knew I'd be doing more harm than good. Also I knew with only a few days to go, there'd be little -if anything- I could do to prepare my body for the strenuous task of racing hard at over 2.5 miles above sea level.
I woke up at 5:45AM on Tuesday as I had to be at a park in Manitou Springs in order to catch the race organized shuttles. The other competitors, their friends/family and myself would board special vans and be driven from 7,000 feet up to the top of Pikes Peak. Having never met any of the other competitors before, it was nice to see such an eclectic group of athletes. Some were visibly nervous while others seemed giddy and much like myself, genuinely excited and quite eager.
Mile after mile we wound up the hair pin turns, climbing higher and higher. As the air got thinner, the views became more and more spectacular. Our driver (quite a character he was!) had done this drive many times before and was all too eager to point out different vantage points and feed us tid bits about the road, the course and everything in between.
A few of the runners in my van had been up to the top before and were quick to share their experiences. I hadn't been there before and kept waiting for my head or body to feel the elevation. I gained confidence during the ride up, because I didn't feel any different than I had at 7,000 feet. Two of the guys in our van admitted to feeling a bit dizzy and not enjoying the ride up.
Overall it was a very enjoyable trip to the top. The other athletes were friendly and their excitement and enthusiasm was definitely contagious. I did my very best to push from my mind, any thoughts about my weakened state. I kept thinking/praying/hoping that the 1 mile distance -regardless of the elevation- would be too short to cause much if any damage. Boy was I wrong...
Once we got to the top, we were greeted by both wintery conditions and a medical team. They along with a scientist/doctor that rode up with us would record our resting heart rate, oxygen saturation level and even had us fill out some questionnaires (mood, predicted finish time, etc).
Once we made it through our battery of test, got final race instructions and received our bib numbers, we were free to go "warm up" for the mile ahead. I put "warm up" in quotes, because it was damn cold there, so that was the best way to warm up and also because unlike most races, my fellow athletes and I were visibly (and physiologically) affected by the elevation. This meant that we would all be doing a truncated version of our typical warm up routines.
Feeling weak, but not wanting to reveal JUST how weak, I decided to go out and jog the course. The course consisted of one 268~ meter loop that we would run 6 times. The loop was a combination of hard packed mud and soft/loose/wet mud. It also had a deceptive rise on one half of it and a gradual drop on the other. I decided to try a few hard strides about 10 mins before the start of the race. On the surface I probably looked the part, but inside I had just driven myself into a hole. They didn't feel great, they felt sluggish and on to top it off, I felt surprisingly winded. Still, I decided not to panic and just enjoy the experience.
-Oxygen Debt tim...I mean RACE TIME-
A small but spirited and hard core crowd had gathered. Amongst them, were a random spattering of curious tourist who wanted to see what all the commotion was about. Myself and 14 other competitors lined up, got our introductions and crouched down for the starter's gun. Just after 9AM the gun went off and with a deep an anxious breath, we were off!
We immediately scrambled for the pole position (meaning the shortest rout around the circuit) and bumped into each other. It seemed we all had the same idea in mind, start slow and position yourself well. With 15 skinny and nervous competitors comes 30 skinny and razor sharp elbows. We bumped and jostled for about half of the 1st lap before settling in a bit.
The 1st lap went by in an oxygen deprived blur. I could feel the effort, but it wasn't quite unbearable. We approached the first 400 meters in around 75 seconds (5 minute mile pace) and we were all in a tight pack. I immediately got a great rush of positivity as the pace hadn't felt THAT bad and in fact rather slow. I even contemplated taking the lead and pushing the pace a bit. No sooner had these thoughts gone through my head, than my body/health begun to betray me. "Oohhhh (explicative deleted)", I thought! "Nooo, not now, too soon, c'mon Mandje, c'mooooon!".
Alas it was not to be. I quickly lost contact with the lead pack and started breakdancing my way further and further backwards. I hit 800 meters in around 2:36. Being a runner and a mathlete, I calculated that I was on 5:12 pace, I knew however that I was still far from done with my electric slide backwards. Just like that I went from contender to spectator.
Knowing my race was over as soon as it had started was a tough pill to swallow. I'm a competitor first and foremost and I hate losing. I remained positive and decided to finish the race instead of taking the easy way out... a DNF (Did Not Finish). I wasn't injured (unless you count pride) and could easily -albeit painfully- get to the finish. I owed it to the race volunteers, my sponsors, my fellow competitors and myself to see this through.
There's more to running than coming in first or last (both of which I've done plenty of times during my career). There is the experience of competition and feeling your body's effort as you thrust, push, pull and will it across finish line after finish line. Often time this is lost on myself and most people as we get so single track minded and only focus on winning or placing in our age group.
As I watched the other competitors effortlessly float away from me, I couldn't help but smile a bit (on the inside) and appreciate their mastery of the course and experience at this extreme elevation. Sure I had wanted to win, but now I was offered a rare glimpse into how the other side lives. It's easy to post race recaps and make the social media rounds when you race well. It's however a more human, real or visceral experience when you're humbled in a race and have to pick yourself back up.
My suffering came to an end approximately 5 minutes and 45 seconds after the gun had sent us on our historic mile long journey. I finished 15th ...out of 15 competitors, aka DFL (I'll leave you to figure out what that means). In a year where I've only finished 1st or 2nd in every race I've competed in, this was a sobering result that showed just how quickly things can go awry when you're not healthy. Still, I had no regrets in doing the race. I learned a lot and surprisingly still had fun.
I think it would've been a completely different experience had I been 100% healthy, and perhaps that small but important fact, is what kept me from really beating myself up. I congratulated my fellow competitors and we headed in for another battery of medical check ups. I'm sure some interesting data was collected from all of us, which I'd love to see one of these days.
Afterwards, we watched the much smaller (4 total) women's field race and cheered them on, having a great understanding of the 1 mile journey they were about to embark on. The awards ceremony, photo opportunities and interviews followed afterwards. With the post-race activities complete, we once again boarded our respective vans and begun our free fall to the more humane 7,000+ feet elevation of Manitou Springs below.
The race didn't do my immune system any favors and the week since has/had found me battling a sinus infection and cold. Rest didn't come easy, but I had to give in and get myself back to 100%. I'm still not there (almost though), but I have started training again (just easy aerobic runs). The next race is this upcoming weekend in Steamboat Springs. I'll be racing a 25K called: The Continental Divide Trail Run I'm looking forward to it, but will be treating it as more of a hard long run than an all out race.
Thanks for reading, the road towards XTERRA Nationals & Worlds won't be smoothly paved, but it'll certainly be an interesting journey!