Pikes Peak “I-Can’t” Crisis

I love that after four years of running consistently and thousands of miles, I still feel like the trail teaches me something on every outing.

This weekend was my last-chance training before tapering and letting my legs recover for the Pikes Peak Marathon. The Pikes Peak Marathon is what it sounds like: a race up and down one of America’s most iconic mountains. While running/power hiking/crawling 13 miles from Manitou Springs to the summit of Pikes Peak, participants gain 7,815 feet of elevation, or a mile and a half in the up direction (only the elite can run the whole way). This is my fourth year racing on the mountain and my goal is to finish the ascent portion of the race under 4 hours, 22 minutes faster than last year.

Less than a mile into my trek up Pikes today, my calves seized like tight, hard fists. With every step, both of them burned and pulled every muscle in the back of my legs, from my Achilles to my gluts. I stopped running but I could hardly even maintain a walking pace. The more I tried to push through it, the worse the burning became. I did the unthinkable: I found a flat rock on the side of the trail to sit and massage my legs. Normally I wouldn’t dream of resting during a training session; like the title of a book on ultra-running, my motto is “unrelenting forward progress.”

Because of the issues with my calves, I ended up two minutes behind at my first check point. No big deal, right? Except in my mind the two minutes cascaded into fit of “I’m never going to make this time goal.” I would be behind the entire way up the mountain, and even on race day, I wouldn’t be strong enough to make my goal.

With my calves loosening, I pushed out the “I can’t” chorus and went as fast as my body would let it. But the hard thing about trail running is pacing. Unlike during a flat marathon when a runner tries to maintain a consistent pace throughout the entire course, on Pikes, my pace can vary from an 8 minute/mile pace to 25 minute/mile, or even more, depending on the terrain. If I push too hard, I might bonk by the top. If I don’t push enough, I’ll finish with too much in the tank and time wasted.

In effect, trail running forces me to constantly listen to my body to monitor exertion. On easier stretches of trail, I let my legs push a little harder. On the steeper sections, I rein them in, paying close attention to my breathing and heart rate.

Having a headache for 11 years has made me practiced at ignoring my body’s pain signals at all costs. It’s a different experience for me to listen to it so carefully. It’s refreshing to tune in and listen to what it has to say.

Listening paid off. At the second check point, I had made up a minute. The same for the check point after that. I fell behind by a few minutes in the last 3 miles above tree line, but I finished the practice race in 4:12, a personal record and within striking distance of my goal. To get there on race day, I’ll just need to listen to my body.