Tuesday, June 2, 2009

The Peak

There is a looming presence in this town. We are under threat all the time. We are also reassured. We know where to look for orientation. We know how to find our way. We know what’s important. Ultimately, we are drawn upwards; by the looming massiveness, by the promise of a better perspective.

Three weeks ago I first approached Colorado Springs from the East. Pike’s Peak appeared suddenly on the horizon as I drove the gradual slope up from Kansas. As the road meandered slightly north or south, my focus remained centered on the mountain.

Left to my own devices I likely would have found a way to proceed all the way to the peak by now. I met with Nippert first, though, and he gave me a schedule. Not until June 6th does it say: run up to Pike’s Peak and back from Cog Railroad. He had reasons for me to wait. I needed to acclimatize to the altitude, for example.

Even the first several easy runs at 6400’ left me more winded than I would have guessed. After 10 days, my first climb up to 10,000 feet was a real wake-up call. Climbing at these elevations is hard work for lowlanders. After two weeks I was lured up the Barr trail to the 7.8 mile sign. That means I still had 7.8 miles to go to get to the summit. Paul DeWitt calls the timed event a “tempo run.” I call it a lung buster. My diaphragm was still sore as of yesterday. Two and a half weeks in, we went up to 9000 feet for my long Sunday run. I would circle Rampart reservoir twice, and add a side-trip to Nichol’s reservoir.

Though still exhausting, the run at that altitude didn’t have the edge of earlier runs. I didn’t struggle to catch my breath as I had on earlier runs. The most striking element of the run was the continuous view of Pike’s Peak. Its stare, at times inviting, had become an icy glare.

The biggest reason for me to wait to climb Pike’s Peak, it turns out, is the snow that still covers the trail over the last 4000 vertical feet. Each day the warm temperatures melt snow. Each afternoon, and several nights, precipitation falls across the peak, and often in the form of more snow. At midday I can look up to the mountain and see where the snow has receded. The whiteness is less monolithic – brown fingers reach up and point to the summit. When I look again the next morning the mountain has brazenly donned a fresh coat of snow. The gleaming reflected sunlight pierces my ambition to get to the top.

This past Sunday I received an e-mail update for Western States 100 runners. The theme was: welcome to your taper. I have written before about the downsides of tapering. As little credence as I give to the power of mind, it may be a useful way to look at the attitude problem created with the “four-weeks-to-go” window. Namely: what do I have to look forward to? Yes, I have a race in less than four weeks. It will surely pose a challenge, and I do look forward to it. But what’s everything about between now and then? It’s about doing less and less, less and less intensely. It’s about staying safe, not getting hurt, and recovering. That’s not exciting. That’s not conducive to a racing state of mind. A mind ready to embrace flow needs immediate challenges. We have to reconcile the real need to recover from months of hard training and the need for the “mind” to be occupied and challenged leading into a peak competition.

I’ve got three things in mind. One is the peak. I check it every morning. This morning it is still shrouded in clouds after being pilloried all night. I want to climb it. I look forward to climbing it. It will require over 7000 feet of vertical ascent in about 12 miles. I’ve circled around the base of about 270 degrees of it. The singularity of Pike’s Peak makes it especially regal, as does its white crown. I will run the course of the widely renowned Pike’s Peak Marathon. It starts in Manitou Springs and runs past the Cog Railroad station. The initial climbing is marginally runnable. The wide path switches back and forth as it ascends what are called “the W’s.” I would like to see how much of the climb I can run. I am curious about how difficult I will find it to breathe and fuel my muscles as I approach 14,000 feet. The weather will be different at the top. The wind will pick up, and afternoon rain is likely. I will have to carry a jacket. The run down will feel like a relief at first. The constant quad pounding will take its toll, though. I’d like to see how my legs hold up. I need to bang up my legs.

The other thing on my mind is the Team CRUD tempo run. This is the one organized by Paul DeWitt up the Barr Trail. Last week I could only manage to run it in 51 minutes. It wasn’t my assigned workout, and Nippert wasn’t thrilled that I had gotten mixed up in it. You don’t need to be able to run fast up the side of a mountain, he said, to get ready for States. He’s right, of course. But Scott Jaime ran it in 48 minutes. I want to see how much difference two weeks at elevation can make. Doing the run again will give me a good measure of my acclimatization. And more importantly, it gives me something to look forward to.

The third thing is reuniting with my family. Robin, Gavin, and Catherine will travel in our van from Emory Virginia to Colorado Springs Colorado to pick me up next week. We will proceed on our first cross country road trip. I look forward to watching my kids scramble around the boulders and feed the jays at the crags. I look forward to seeing them race down the sand at Great Sand Dunes National Park. I want to show Gavin the Hoover Dam, because I know he is fascinated by marvels of engineering. Robin and Catherine will especially appreciate the fragile desert wildflowers.

A spirit of adventure leading up to and surrounding an event will help create a mindset for optimal performance. One of my favorite running adventures to recall was my trip to Japan with a combined Brown-Harvard-Dartmouth alumni team. We were invited to compete against Japanese collegiate teams in a championship Ekiden. These are long-distance relay races. Eight-person teams ran legs of varying lengths to cover about 100km. So much of the experience was new to me: chasing the sun on a transpolar flight from the west coast, the vast but low-slung cityscape of Nagoya, lavish attention from gracious hosts, a culture that honors long distance running. We were picked up from the airport in a bus with “Happu” written boldly on the side. For us it was the Happy Bus. We soaked in the novel sights and sounds, and enjoyed the company of the interpreters who had been assigned to us. We spent several days before the race in Japan. We weren’t worrying about how to correct for jet lag, or how to get our digestion on track. We were caught up in the moment, embracing the adventure.

It rained most of the day of the race. We rode sheltered in the Happy bus, though, until it was our turn to run. I ran the anchor leg, the longest of the race at about 21 km (13 miles). Yukiko, my interpreter, got off the bus with me and held her umbrella over my head while we waited for my teammate to enter the transition zone. There were about 20 teams that had qualified for the championship. Going into the anchor leg we were in the middle of the now widely spaced teams. I saw no one close in front of us. My teammate handed me the purple sash and I started running – cheered away by the rest of the team and our Japanese hosts. I was quickly in the rural countryside. I can still recall the faint smoky smell, not unpleasant, of backyard incinerators. I soaked up the miles of road, like I had everything else in Japan. When the Happy bused passed, I waved back at all the smiling yelling faces behind the windows. I ran alone, neither passing nor passed by another runner. Still, when I charged up the final climb to the shrine that marked the finish I found myself in the middle of cheering throngs. I had run a strong leg.

My adventure now lies to the West. Snow-capped Pike’s Peak most immediately, then the desert sand and the Grand Canyon. I’m looking forward to it.


  1. Taper to me means "fine tuning". In other words, short(er), fast(er), steep(er) stuff that makes your diaphragm hurt for days.

    I have no doubt you will eclipse your 51 minute run up to 7.8 tomorrow. This CRUD tempo run is a love/hate thing - you hate the anticipation of the pain that will inevitably come but you love to see that sign, check the clock, and know that it's over.

    The peak is beckoning you! The donuts at the top are a MUST!

  2. unlikely I will do the tempo run this week. I will try to fit it in next week before we head further West. May or may not be with CRUD.

    Using the taper to "sharpen" seems like a good strategy. I've always found it hard to run fast enough to hurt when I'm fit. That was before I tried a tempo run up Pike's Peak!

  3. I've enjoyed all your posts Eric. I'm sure this month will pay off immensely at States. Altitude running for us "low-landers" is no joke. I learned this last summer when I hopped in to Meltzer's 50K while on my honeymoon in UT. It is not fun at all running above 10,000 ft when not acclimatized. It is very smart that you have that training element accounted for.

  4. Your blog is a wonderful read, Eric!! I am very excited about Western States for you!! Also, I second that the doughnuts at the gift shop at the summit of pikes peak are pretty freakin awesome!! I rode the cog railroad with my 2 little boys there last year in july ( I was enroute to leadville to run leadville trail marathon) and it was snowing at the summit and was 80F at manitou springs!! I did have a matt carpenter sighting that day when I was walking through town, and I saw him running.. very random!! cheers!! and happy running!!! I am so happy for you that you are able to train out there.. I LOVE CO!