To 14,115 Feet: In search of America’s Ultimate Challenge

Death was imminent.  The timing of the the event, however, was yet to be determined.  I’m not prescient, and I certainly don’t prescribe to the idea of tariff cards.  But I know that it was in the cards.  It’s a feeling that washed over me every time I journey into an airport.  The plane is surely going to go down with me on it.  Careening through the air in a heavier than air object at speeds approaching 600 miles an hour simply defies logic.  And how do those wings not tear from the body of the vehicle traveling at that rate of speed?

Walking through the aisle of the aircraft, I find my seat and aisle number.  It seems like climbing over a couple is the prerequisite if you are stuck in a window seat.  Once seated,  the walls begin to close around me.  I’ve said my goodbyes to the wife and kids, hoping to see them on the flip side of this adventure… that is if the plane doesn’t go down in a fiery crash.  I text Teressa one last time to inform her of my foreboding feelings about flying before turning off the phone in accordance with Federal Aviation Administration requirements.  Certainly, a text to my phone will not be the cause of the air traffic control glitch that causes us to plummet to the earth.

As we taxi to the runway, I try to lose myself in Neil Peart’s memoir of short stories, “Far and Away”.  I read… then look out the window… then read again… then look out the window.  This continues until the plane pauses, lines up, engages the thrusters, and begin the run to certain doom.  Or liftoff.

Gripping the armrests, I close my eyes and hope for the best as we careen down the runway.  Feeling the plane leave the ground, and sparing a glance out the window to bid a farewell to the ground, once again my sweaty palms begin to flip through the pages of the book as the plane begins it’s uneventful journey to Denver.

Once in Denver, Teressa greets me with a text.  “See… that wasn’t so bad.”  Touche…

In 4 days, the process will be repeated…  Flying is not my forte.


The mountain rises in the distance, partially hidden by clouds.  It towers over the other peaks in the distance, rising to a height of 14,115 feet.

Garth and I are at a rest stop, Wilkerson Pass, along a two lane road in the proverbial Colorado boondocks on our way to Manitou Springs.  Our plan is to run up the mountain looming in the distance the following morning, participating in the 61st running of The Pikes Peak Ascent.  At this point, however, we are taking in the beauty of the landscape on the ridges of the Rocky Mountains.

Earlier that morning, we crawled out of bed, took advantage of an average continental breakfast, and hit the road looking for scenery and discussion.  We have been driving through the ridges of the Rocky Mountains, often cruising at elevations surpassing 10,000 feet.  The landscape is rocky, grassy, and mere feet from the elevation at which vegetation ceases to grow: the treeline.  The dearth of oxygen and water at such a high elevation stifles the growth of vegetation, so the ground simply grows rocks; it is quite a beautiful sight.

We have passed through western towns that sprout out of nowhere and are gone just as fast.  They are, I imagine, towns not unlike what we see in old western films.  John Wayne’s ghost lingers still in these old towns.  We have seen shacks in the middle of vast fields that would make the Unabomber feel right at home.  We stopped at an old rest stop/restaurant/convenience store place that harkens back to the road trips of the fifties and sixties, filled with souvenir trinkets and road food.  The place smelled fantastic.

We had two route options… the highway or the byway.  Today, it seemed fitting to take the long way from Denver to Manitou Springs.  Tomorrow, we will be in a hurry.  Today, we linger at the scenic overlooks and trinket stands, breathing in the sights and sounds of the byway.

After staring down the mountain we will traverse tomorrow, and paying verbal homage to the god of the mountain, we take a moment to explore the area known as Wilkerson Pass.  As we turn, we are suddenly overlooking an area known as South Park, the name and the area that inspired the Comedy Central show of the same name that will slowly rot the brains of all those who dare to tune in to such vulgarity.  And are greeted with a shocking sign that is a wonderfully terrible testament to the greed of humanity:  “The amount of soil and rock removed from South Park equaled about 3.3 million dump trucks filled with gravel.  In the end, 115,000 ounces of gold was extracted—enough to fill about 8 grocery bags.”  

Nothing greedy or destructive about that…  well done, humanity.

The Gold Rush that yields 8 grocery bags of gold that, at the end of the day, is worth nothing compared to the damage man caused the earth.

We hit the head and, after walking around a bit, the road.  We are a mere 20 or so minutes from Manitou Springs, the home of The Pikes Peak Ascent and Marathon.  The mountain appears and disappears from view, getting larger and larger with each passing mile.

It strikes me, not for the first time, and certainly not the last on this adventure, that 14,000 feet is pretty high.

We pull into Manitou Springs, a small town being accosted by 1200 fool runners who enjoy pain.  A parking spot is hard to come by, so we park on a side street near a church.  We should probably pop in and pray, but we simply nod to the church and walk on down the street.  Ironically, or not, the side street is a steep hill.

We follow the throng of people to the race expo.  It is just like any other expo, except that we don’t get the shirts until after the race.  “This shirt you have to earn,” the volunteer explains with a smile.

And I think her eyes were glowing red.

Alrighty then…

We peruse the expo a bit and a shirt catches my attention…  “Running in CO is the best way to get high.”  I regret leaving that one on the rack.

Garth picks up an insanely expensive, but good looking, T-shirt, and we head back to the car. We hit Garden of the Gods, which is crazy beautiful, and a Bristol Brewing Company, which is in an old school, where we order food and look at the beer.  It is not a good idea to drink beer the evening before a race.  It would be a devastating blow to be stuck on the side of the mountain with explosive diarrhea.  It would have, however, been cool to chug a beer in an old high school.  We then visit a local book shop, Poor Richards Books and Gifts, running to the store while trying to avoid a deluge of rain drops, and then head back to the hotel.

And we begin the prep work for following morning. This includes laying out shorts, shirts, water bottles, my bracelets… one with my name and emergency contact information and  one that let’s everyone know I am supporting my father who has Lung Cancer, and a jacket I just picked up from Target.  It’s going to be a bit nipply on top of that mountain.  And, speaking of nipples, Bandadades to prevent nipple chafing…

One of my goals, aside from finishing the race, is to finish without bloody nipples.

We set the alarms for around 5 and lay down to get some much needed shut eye.

Sleep is slow to come, but after flipping the pillow to the cool side, I drift into a restless sleep.

***********************************************************************The sounds of Garth up and moving wake me before the alarm; I am  slow to rise, thinking about the day ahead and the race plan for the day.  Start easy, perhaps around 10-11 minute miles, never going below 22 minute miles, and work it from there, perhaps finishing in under five hours.

Turns out that this is an incredibly flawed plan.  .

 I use the shower to shrug off any sluggishness that may be leftover from a fitful night’s sleep, pull on my shorts, throw a trusted tech shirt over my head, and slip on my socks and shoes.  And, after pinning the bib to my shirt, grab a banana.  Eating a banana is a race day ritual that has always provided me with the luck and energy needed to finish strong.   

And, after numerous trips to the shitter, Garth is ready to roll as well.  We walk out into a pre-dawn, cool. cloudy Colorado day.  The sun has yet to crest the horizon, but it feels like a great day for a run.  We make our way to the rented Toyota Forerunner, hop in, and point it in the direction of the starting line.

It is 5:45 in the AM.

We are staying in Colorado Springs, which is about a 15 minute ride to Manitou Springs.  The roadways are deserted this morning… until we arrive in Manitou Springs.  Once we cross the town line, we begin to feel electricity ring through the darkness.  There are runners warming up and people along the street walking to the start line… and walking to Colorado’s version of Johnny Blue.

We pull into a parking and prep for the walk to the start line.  We won’t see this car, or it’s contents, until we have completed today’s challenge.  We grab the necessities needed for the run, lock up the car, and begin the walk to the race start area..

Walking out onto one of Manitou Springs side roads, we come face to face with a deer in the middle of the road.  She’s standing there, wondering why her morning is being disturbed by so many people.  Her hoofs click on the hard asphalt, and she seems curious… it seems as if her morning routine of destroying gardens has been tipped on its head.  Naturally, we snap a photo… and continue to the starting line.


The weather is cool and cloudy.  The rain was vicious last night, but the ground has dried, so it is a good day to go for a jaunt.

We come to a line of Johnny Blues… which can’t be passed up.  One of the rules of my father is that you should never pass up an opportunity to use the bathroom.  So we don’t miss the opportunity the universe has laid in front of us.

Finally, we reach the starting line.  It is a journey that has lasted several months and countless hours pounding the pavement.  And that is the thing about a starting line… the journey is nearly finished.  Once the race begins, it is the beginning of the end.  So, along with the excitement, there is a bit of mourning that takes place at the starting line of a race.  

“Can I have everyone’s attention?”  The announcer’s voice bellows from the speakers.  “We have a report from the top of the mountain.  It is clear, and the team just watched a beautiful sunrise.  It’s 29 degrees… the weather is perfect for The Ascent!”  A cheer rises from the crowd.

Ane we join in.

The mountain is unseen in the distance, covered by clouds and fog.  Despite the clouds, she casts a long shadow.

Music blares from the speakers and folks are milling about, jogging, taking selfies, and basking in the pre-race excitement.  I keep hoping for Spingsteen’s “Born to Run.”  But evidently the DJ ain’t a Springsteen fan.

Naturally, Garth and I join in the selfie festivities, taking a shot of us with the starting line in the background.  This isn’t a race we will run every year… so a selfie clearly is the best way to commemorate our achievement.


The pre-race hour goes quickly… with more Johnny Blue runs as the pre-race spectacle continues.  A veteran sings “America the Beautiful,” the race announcer jabbers on about how many years he has been the announcer (Announcers always come with a bit of arrogance, and since I enjoy announcing, I’ll include myself in the previous comment.), and suddenly,  it’s time to hit the trail.

At 6:59:50, a ten second countdown begins, and CRACK!  With the shot of a gun, the first wave of runners hit the ground running.  We cheer the runners on as they quickly hit the first incline on the paved streets of Manitou Springs.  

We are in the 13th wave… lucky 13… so we take off at 7:13.

And, before we know it, the time has arrived.

And suddenly we are crossing the starting pad… it is fairly crowded… the beeps of runners starting their GPS watches are staggered as we all begin our journey.

Our opening pace is around 10:30-11:00 minute miles.  The starting line is at 6,300 feet, and we quickly begin an incline on the smooth asphalt of the city.  It’s a gentle incline, similar to what I run on a regular basis.  We jog, and chat, and joke as we are now inexorably headed for 14,115 feet.   

“Keep going!”  We hear, “Just one more hill!” yells someone from the crowd.  I can’t help but laugh.  We keep a steady pace as we work our way through the streets of the small town.

People line the side of the road… there is great communal support for the event.  People enthusiastically cheer us on as we make our way through the streets of the little hamlet.

And these streets seem to be getting steeper.  Garth points out a good restaurant, which we will enjoy later on in the day; right now, however, we simply run on by.

And we keep running through this little hipster town with its hipster shops, which are fun to see.  

At this point, we are rocking a 10ish minute pace… a bit slower than a bolt of lightning.

We hang a left onto some no-name street, and the grade suddenly becomes steeper.  We are running by some old, small houses with people sitting on the porch, cheering us on.  “Just one more hill!” This, followed by a laugh.

There is no chuckle from the runners as the climb begins to steepen.  That shout is already old by this point.

We are about 1.5 miles in… and the steep paved road gives way to a gravel, then a dirt, trail; this is truly where The Ascent begins.

Turning around, I take a picture of the “hill”  we had run so far.

 We are running along Buxton Creek and have gained around 300 feet.  The going has been fairly slow, but we have maintained the pace of 11 minute miles.  That pace was going to drastically reduce from this point forward.  

As we begin the main portion of the run, we run briefly on Spurr Trail, which joins up with the trail we will run to completion: Barr Trail.  At this point, the “run” changes to an uphill speedwalk.  The footing becomes less sure and we begin the first of countless switchbacks.  Though the footing is treacherous, and we begin to feel what it’s like to climb Pikes Peak, the views are unparalleled.  As we continue up Barr Trail, we look back to Manitou Springs, and the sun is shining through the clouds, casting a golden glow on Manitou Springs below.  It is a beautiful sight.  


Stopping to take a photograph, one guy passes me and says, “That camera is going to be busy today.”  

This was one of many glorious views along the way.  And he was right… the camera was rather busy.

Garth and I continue up the mountain in near silence, saving our breathe for the important job of sending oxygen through our lungs to the vital organs and muscles that keep our body moving forward.  

There are several aid stations along the course.  We reach the first one with little trouble.  We aren’t breaking any land speed records today, but we are way ahead of the cut off time.  Taking a water, we continue up the trail.

And so goes The Ascent.  We trudge up the mountain delivering a fool’s errand.  But while delivering that errand, we are rewarded with beautiful views.  What started as an overcast and dreary day at the base of the mountain turns into a day in which the golden rays of the sun breaks through the canopy to light our way.  

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We chat, and I struggle, up the mountain.  About 9,000 feet, I begin to experience incredible fatigue.  And my hands begin to swell.  My wedding ring is getting tight, and the fatigue is becoming a real issue.  More than once I consider the fact that there is a real possibility that we may not finish.  Garth is trained for a marathon, so he is doing just fine.  My long run was a run of 13 miles, which would have been more than sufficient for a flat land half marathon, but it was not a good training plan for a half marathon that traverses the side of a mountain.  But, then again, my runs are typically right around a soaring altitude of 650-800 feet.  And the altitude masks that are available received mixed reviews by runners, scientists, and physicians.  So it didn’t seem prudent to waste 80 bills on a mask that may or may not provide any physical or cardiovascular benefit.  

Plus, a friend, who is a former marine and an Ironman, made a fairly reasonable statement regarding the mask:  “Why hasten the suffering.  The suffering will come.”

Fair enough…

So we continue our upward climb


We began planning for this race with a simple aside.  We were chatting on the phone about getting together for a weekend visit.  “We should run Pikes Peak!”  This was in February, and we think that sign up has come and gone.  Turns out, we were wrong.

So we decided to go ahead and run it.  

It was a great idea… 5 months ago.

Run, here, is of course a figurative term.  Because at this point in the “race,” there is no running.  

Our pace gets slower and slower as we continue the climb.

From 9,000 feet to the checkpoint known as “A Frame” is a blur.  This aide station is at a dizzying altitude of 11,950 feet and sits at the treeline.  So from this point forward, the run is in desert-like conditions above the treeline.  It is an amazing view… and the finish line is visible, but there is still a 5k to the finish.  And we are moving at a blazing speed of 40 minutes a mile.  At this point, it really does feel like a mountaineering event… we are stepping over boulders, walking along a path where there is little evidence of a path.  This portion of The Ascent is killer on the quads.  Stepping over, and on, large boulders, along with the previous ten miles of climbing, have left my quads a mess.  Cramps threaten, so we have to take regular rests to prevent my quads from voicing their opinion about this whole ordeal.  They certainly wanted rest.  But rest was in sight, and we kept moving forward.  

And up.

And up.

And up.

Finally, we see the glorious sign that reads “PEAK 1 MI, ELEV 13,300.”  The summit is in sight… and the errand is nearly delivered.

Little did I know the hardest part was yet to come.

We are moving through some fairly steep switchbacks made of fallen rocks, when we see a sign that reads “16 Golden Stairs.”  

That refers to the final switchbacks of the race.  And though the rock may be sandy, or “gold” looking, it is a brutal end to a brutal half marathon.  There is a final 16 switchbacks that lead to the finish line of The Ascent.  And they are steep, and technically difficult, and the hardest end to any race I have ever run.  It is a difficult task.  My body is in pain, my hands are swollen, my quads are threatening cramps, and my body is suffering from lack of oxygen at such a high altitude.  

“The suffering will come.”

And it has arrived.

But the end is nigh.  And we intend to cross the finish line.

Throughout the race, one thing Garth and I chatted about was how my Dad, because he suffers from lung cancer, experiences worse than this on a daily basis.  He suffers from a lack of oxygen with every breath.  We decided to quietly dedicate this run to Dad, who bravely faces every mountain placed before him.  He may not run up them, but he keeps moving forward.  

And, like Dad, so do we.  

Finally, the finish line is in sight.  Garth and I grab hands, pick up the pace to a slow jog, and finish the race we started 6 hours ago, together.  

After the journey, it’s difficult to hold back the tears as we cross the finish line.  Today, by far has been the most difficult physical experience of my life.

But the view at 14,115 feet is beautiful.

And it’s even more beautiful, because we earned it; things are always more beautiful when heart and soul are involved.  


We take some time to enjoy Pikes Peak Summit, as well as the food and drink offered by the race organizers.  The goldfish tasted pretty fantastic.

I untie the jacket from around my waist and slip it over my shoulders.  I’m glad Garth talked me into carrying a light jacket with met; it’s about 35 degrees at the summit, but the sun is shining down on the peak and our accomplishment.  The air is thin.  But the 360 degrees view of the rockies and their beauty fill our vision.  Looking down at the tree line, it’s a wonder we climbed the 5k from that point to where we are standing.  It is a shockingly difficult course.  We notice tired souls just emerging from the treeline.  Sadly, they will not make the 6 and a half hour Ascent cut off time.

I feel a certain kinship to these tired souls as they struggle up the mountain; at one point, I thought we might be in their position.

And though we didn’t make the five hour goal I had unreasonably set in my mind, the day was a great success and accomplishment.

After taking in the views, drinks, and food, we get in line to ride the van down the mountain.  

While waiting for the van, we strike up a conversation with a gentleman in line with us.  He is from Austin, Texas.  He completed The Ascent today, and tomorrow he is going to run the marathon, which not only includes going up the mountain… it includes turning around and going back down the mountain.  He is probably mid sixties.  And talking to him is an inspiration.  Perhaps if he can do it at age sixty, we can, too.

After a short wait, we pile into the van with other finishers and head down the mountain.  Sitting down feels fantastic.  Outside, the van snakes it’s way down the famed Pikes Peak road, with no guardrail on either side.  It is a bit unnerving.  But at this point, we are happy to be sitting down in a climate controlled environment.  About halfway down the mountain, we transfer to a school bus for the rest of the descent back to civilization.  

Once back into Manitou Springs, the bus drives use back to the race expo, where we disembark to cheers from a small crowd that has gathered near the drop off area.  A nice gesture for tired legs.

We pick up the race shirt we earned from completing The Ascent and limp back to our rented Toyota Four Runner.    

We drive back to the hotel, shower, check out, and return to Manitou Springs for a beer and a late lunch.  We enjoy a restaurant Garth visited with his wife, Angie, a few years back.  We chat about the events of the day and plan our final day in Colorado, which will entail a trip to 14,240 feet as we travel “The Road into the Sky” that will take us to the summit of Mount Evans, a cool little restaurant in Idaho Springs, and a brief trip into Denver in search of a brew pub or two.

Our adventure complete, we sit on the patio of this little restaurant, chat about our adventure, quickly romanticizing the brutal climb, and watch the hustle and bustle of this little hamlet invaded by fool runners looking for “America’s Ultimate Challenge.”



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