Wednesday, August 24, 2011

D-D-D-Doubler! 2011 PPM

I recently overheard my high school cross-country coach tell one of his current athletes the following:

An old coach of mine once said to me- "you can't put in what God left out." My response then and now... "Well, let's see how much he put in."

Saturday was a pretty rough day on the mountain.  I was dejected, to say the least.  This marked my third disappointing Ascent in a row, and afterward I didn't even feel surprised.  Not because I was unprepared, but because I was used to the disappointment of falling short of my perceived capabilities when it came to this race.

What made this year's disappointment different than those of 2010 and 2009 was that once I was done with those years' races, that was it.  Race season OVER.  Suck it up.  Reflect.  Stew.  Move on.  This year, I intended to come back and run the Pikes Peak Marathon the following day.  I didn't have the luxury of sitting back and letting answers come to me.  I had to make some immediate changes to my racing strategies to ensure I didn't put together yet another above-timberline gong show.

So what did I alter?
I decided my struggle on Saturday was likely caused by three factors:

  1. An overly aggressive early pace
  2. Insufficient hydration on a hot day.
  3. Insufficient nutrition.

To address, issue #1, I punched a slower finish time - 2:50 - into the trusty ol' pace calculator and committed to memory some of the early splits.

Issue #2 required I change how I like to race.  I decided to carry a water bottle on Sunday.  Some folks have absolutely no problem with this, and I don't mind running with one for long or slow days.  However, carrying any extra weight in the "sprints" has always felt unnatural and uncomfortable to me.  I bit the bullet and filled up the bottle.  I figured if it truly was a hinderence, I could ditch it up top.

For issue #3, I forced myself to come up with a more structured "plan" for what I was going to eat and when I was going to eat it.  On all of my PPA races, I had always gone light on calories, choosing to eat anything between nothing and two gel packets.  On Saturday, I had just the two gel packets.  While I never felt underfueled, it just makes sense that I probably was.  I stuffed an easy-to-digest energy bar and two gels in my water bottle holder and another two in a pouch around my waist.

All three remedies forced me into a "slower" mindset - one that got me ready to expect a longer, less pedal-to-the-metal type of day.

I was not surprised to find that my warm-up was painful.  I went through all my pre-race motions, just accepting the fact that I was one sore dude.

2011 Pikes Peak Marathon
Just prior to the gun, I lined up with a few of my peers.  While I smiled and let them think we'd all be running near or with each other, I fully expected to lose sight of them within the first few minutes of the race.  Right from the start, I continued to hurt.  Every step I took sent dull pangs of discomfort throughout my body - a grim reminder of the experience I had endured the previous day.  All I could think was "How the @#$%@# am I supposed to come even REMOTELY close to a respectable effort today?"  The only answer I had for myself was in the fact that others before me had done just that, so I knew it must be possible.

As the field sorted itself out on Manitou Avenue, I found myself a few strides behind GZ and Brad.  I could feel a different energy from the field - more relaxed than the front of Saturday's race.  Whereas virtually no one around me on Saturday besides myself walked the steepest paved section of Hydro, a majority of the marathoners switched to a powerhike on that stretch.  Brad began to disappear above me, but GZ and I were essentially matching pace somewhere around 40th place as we hit the top of the W's in 33:48.

Not much happened through the tame part of the course.  GZ and I played accordian, switching leads, but never leaving each other's sights.  Every once in a while, Brad became visible in the distance.    Every time the slope angled up, GZ, would catch up and blow by.  Whenever it dropped or flattened, I took the opportunity to open up my stride and would re-take the lead.  I had no choice; I only felt OK when I wasn't climbing!  Through Barr Camp in 1:28, I met up with Harry Harcrow and worked with him through the Bottomless Pit sign.  GZ had dropped a little, but Brad was now clearly visible ahead of me. At this point, I had no clue what was in store for me up above the trees.  Another meltdown?  My legs were bricks, but they weren't cramping like they had on Saturday.

A-Frame to Summit
I hit A-Frame in 2:08 and change - a full 12 minutes slower than the previous day.  Brad and I found ourselves in kind of a no-man's land.  Dude was delirious from altitude, as he chattered constantly for the next mile and a half.  I had sadly been alternating between run and walk for a very long time now.  My walk wasn't as fast as Brad's, but my run was, and I was running for longer stretches, so I went ahead and passed him a little before the 2 to go sign.  It wasn't a very confident pass; I just figured as long as I could keep squeezing in good running pulls, I should.  Matt passed me on his way down soon thereafter.  After a long gap, Daryn came into sight on his way down too.  This was somewhat expected.

What happened next, though, caught me completely off-guard.

I thought I was in about 30th at this time.  I expected to start seeing the trickle of downhill traffic turn into a full-fledged downpour, but I kept climbing and climbing and no one came.  I made it past the 1 to go sign and realized I was in MUCH better shape on this day than the previous one.  I realized there were quite a few guys within just a couple of minutes of me and a strong last mile might get them.  Most importantly, I began to realize that with a strong descent, I could end up catching a ton more.  I ran hard but comfortably through the last mile, passing a good five or six guys just past the Golden Stairs, and a couple more just before the summit.  When I hit the turnaround in 2:59:30, I had counted 18 guys in front of me.  Of those 18, almost half of them were within striking distance.

I got rid of my water bottle - both to save weight and give me two full working hands in order to catch myself in event of a spill - and sprung down from the summit like a shot.  Within a minute, I had passed two guys.  I felt like I was dancing on the rocks; the descent was coming so easily to me and I was thrilled.  By the time I hit the cirque aid station, I had passed a bunch more and suddenly found myself in 12th.  I knew exactly what top 10 meant and realized that if I held together, I was going to get it.  The thought pushed me as I caught another and yet another guy before AFrame.  JV was somewhere in that mess.  Just as I hit AFrame, I went by a cramping Brandon Stepanowich, who had been in 8th place.  This was the last downhill racer I would see for a long time.  Passing Brandon was one of my friends, it pained me to see him struggling, and it didn't look good for him.

A-Frame back to Barr Camp only took 15 minutes, but it was an eternity.  The initial high of moving into the top 10 had worn off.  My quads were beginning to remind me what they had been through in the previous 26 hours.  As I dropped lower and lower, the temperature rose.  I began to call out, "BARR CAMP!??!"  I knew my pace had settled into something a little more pedestrian and the fear of getting caught creeped in.  Eventually, one of my calls for camp was answered, and I rounded a blind turn just to find Teresa and the crew there to refuel me and cheer me on.

The lower parts of the course were lonely.  Barren.  I felt someone gaining on me, but couldn't see a soul.  I tried to visualize another competitor struggling in order to focus myself on what was ahead instead of behind me.  The uphills sapped any remaining energy I had.  The downhills had become tiring.  I was hanging on by a thread.  When I hit the Bob's Road aid station, they told me that someone had indeed just left the station and had maybe two minutes on me.  I redoubled my focus and visualized catching him.  At the same time, I tried to shut out the feeling that I was also being hunted.  The aid station workers at No Name said I was less than a minute away from 7th...I tuned everything else out.  I remember nothing except trying to make up ground and being aware that I was running out of distance in which to do it.  Just before the top of the W's, two pro Euro cyclist guys emphatically pleaded to me, "fifteen seconds, allez, allez!"  Finally, I heard footsteps!  Just before I hit the Incline Cutoff aid station, I caught Corey Hanson - who was still going at a decent clip.  I tried to put a surge in to lose him for good, but he stuck with me and I could still hear his footsteps a switchback behind me.  Suddenly, my stomach turned.  Those weren't a set of footsteps I heard - that was two pairs.  I looked up, and there was Brandon, flying down like he was being propelled by an outboard motor.  I knew there was no holding him off for the next two miles.  At the same time, I was so proud of him - he had found a way to bounce back from his cramping issues at AFrame and had put together a very strong descent of his own!  (I soon learned of some sort of salt shot off of Teresa's wrist that cured him.  Not sure what that looked like...)

Oprah ran 4:44, right?
Hitting the pavement, I found myself alone again.  Neither Brandon ahead of me nor Corey behind me were going to alter the order by now.  As I passed the Cog Railway, the reality of what had happened started to hit me.  I was going to top 10 the Pikes Peak Marathon after throwing up a stinker the day before!  A spectator at the cog shouted a word of encouragement.  I gave a thumbs up in response, and next thing I know, all of the people waiting at the cog were cheering me on.  The number of people lining Ruxton continued to increase the closer I came to the finish, and the emotion traveled to my face.  When I saw my good friend and training partner Amanda with a half to go, my day was officially made - she couldn't hide the shock to see me so soon.  By the time I passed her, I was smiling ear to ear.  I came around the last corner into the crowd, and crossed the line in 4:37 and change, good for 8th place.
Tired, happy

Here is a comparison between my Sunday ascent and Saturday ascent by section.
Start to Hydro - 30 seconds slower Sunday
Hydro to W's - 2:33 slower
W's to 7.8 - 3:07 slower
7.8 to Camp - 3:07 slower
Camp to AFrame - 1:49 slower
AFrame to 2ToGo - 1:37 faster
2ToGo to 1ToGo - 2:32 faster
1ToGo to Summit - 4:37 faster

Gutsy race by Brandon.
Courtesy of

Top 10.  Courtesy of
Post-Race Thoughts
Nothing like ending on a high note!  While my plan has been to race Leadville next August, I'd be lying if I said I didn't think about coming back for another PPM.  With fresh legs, I think it could be an even better experience.  Yes, I've thought to myself, "How fast could I have gone had I been fresh?"  Coulda.  Shoulda.  Woulda.  I chose to double, and I'm glad I did.

The awards ceremony on Sunday was fun; not just because I was happy with my performance, but because I had the opportunity to talk to so many friends and other competitors.  I'm not alone when I say that the past few days have been anticlimactic.  I need a new goal...soon!


Double results

Sunday results

This song...I guess it just makes me happy.  Mellow. least for a little bit.


  1. Great Race and Great Race Report! I vote you do PPM next year! And for a new goal focus on North Face 50 San Francisco.

  2. Congrats Sean! You were on fire running that downhill, so stoked for you!!

    Oh, FWIW, I coincidentally looked up Oprah's marathon time and neither of us beat her 4:29:15. I was bummed to find that she has a PR better than my 4:52 (PPM was my first/only marathon). Granted Pikes probably has a bit more climbing than what she faced at the Marine Corps Marathon, but the MCM has two hills vs. our one.... ;).

  3. Great race report. Congrats on such an impressive Day #2.

  4. Brad - the annual LT 100 vs. PPM debate will ensue. San Fran is four months away, definitely looking forward to it. Although I know you still have downhill demons to exercise at PPM, the lure of Pb must be pulling on you too...

    JV - Damnit. Even P.Diddy nipped us.

    Jim - thanks a ton. Many before me have done the same (bounced back strong after a struggle on day 1), just thought I'd try to put it into words.

  5. Wow! This was fun and exciting to read, and also very informative. If you come back next year for PPM, w/o doing PPA the day before, the sky's the limit for you!

  6. I'd like to see your actual splits from each day being the dork I am. I thinking you put 8 minutes on above Barr Camp.

    Well done. So Leadville for sure next year, eh?

  7. Inspiring read Sean.