Wednesday, September 24, 2014

The State of The Pikes Peak Ascent: The Prez's Speech

I am slow.

I can’t help it, it’s just the way I am.

                Wacker (169) eyeing Gute (3)...wins stink-eye contest!                                 photo:

But let us disregard my punctuality on race write-ups and talk about running uphill with some of the top mountain runners in the world, shall we?

The 2014 Pikes Peak Ascent doubled at the WMRA World Long Course Challenge and 20 countries were represented, making it an Olympic-atmosphere feel full of colorful kits and comical communication barriers. My race preparation consisted of spending the week in Detroit--don’t ask, I’m trying to forget about that part of my training. Upon my return to Manitou Springs, my legs felt like pixy sticks from running along the river with a nice southern view of Canada (yes, southern!) and my head felt like it had been punched by the very large fist statue of Joe Louis himself.

That's a big fist, Joe!

I arrived back in time for the pre-race press conference, which was chocked full of foreign athletes, which race MC, Bart Yasso, taunted in the nicest of ways and attempted to get all the English he could out of them. It’s the American way: making people feel uncomfortable in the most comfortable way possible.

Wacker, not just a name...nor a pretty face
Now, I didn’t have the weight on my shoulders that I potentially could have had. I thought I had a good shot at being part of Team USA after have some really good results in qualifying races but was eventually not selected. I’m often the bridesmaid and not the bride, but at least I am in the wedding party! Plus, I had Team Inov-8 and Team Colorado to represent, not to mention Team Manitou Brewing Company, which had the best post-race prizes for me no matter how I finished. It was very encouraging to have some of the Team USA members make me feel like I was part of the team with supportive comments, kind words and a good ol’ ‘merican slap on the ass. Andy Wacker gives the best ass wacks, hence the name. And that Shannon Payne, yeah, her slaps hurt pretty bad! Again, hence the name.

The grandioseness of the weekend did not set in until I began to see all the uniforms: South Africa, Wales (just one), Eritrea (it looked like a 2:10 marathon uniform, and it was worn by four-time WMRA Long Course runner up and 2012 & 2013 WMRA Grand Prix Champ, Azerya Teklay), Ukraine, Italia (that’s how they spell it on their jersey), Norway, Slovenia, Mexico, Australia, Germany, Japan (another solo), Romania (the Romantic Romanian Runner Ionut Zinca) and many more. Even Kansas! I finally met fellow Inov-8 teammate and obstacle racer-extraordinaire, Cody Moat—it’s difficult to miss a bright red jersey with a foot as an 8 on it. I searched for another Inov-8 team member, friend and all-around good guy, Scott Dunlap, but he was somewhere gathering his strength for the Ascent/Marathon Double and knew that he had to partake in our now-traditional celebratory beer on the Peak after the race. Team Colorado was well represented with Stevie "Sunshine" Kremer, Brandy "Mile-A-Minute" Erholtz, Donna "Gar-Gute" Garcia, Amy "Chef l'équipe" Perez, Simon "Gute" Gutierrez, Sage "The Rage" Canaday, Neil "Big McD" McDonagh, and myself, Le Prez, as they say in France.

A few Team Coloradans under the lined and one circle-spangled banners. 
Quick! Look right!
The start line looked intimidating with all the cleanly shaven legs (except for Team USA’s Zach Miller, you need to join the club, Zach!) and intense looks. My ego wouldn’t fit on the front line, so it was pushed back to the second row of the start line. It was, by far, the most competitive race the Pikes Peak Ascent has ever assembled, but I knew that the race was not won in the first mile so I had to run smart and know if I did I would deserve that beer at the top.

Zach: refusing to join the club. Wacker: doing his best chicken leg impression.         photo: Eddie Metro

The starting cannon detonated and either gave you an additional shot of adrenaline or stopped your heart momentarily. I did not fall down so I guess I received the former. There goes fellow Team Coloradan and 3 X Ascent Champion, Simon “Gute” Gutierrez, to the front in his patented lead-out sprint. Oh, what’s this!? The guy with the freshly shorn legs and pretty hair, Andy Wacker, goes by Gute at an even faster cadence. It is times like these that I wish auctioneers would commentate on races in the lead vehicle. Now that would be entertainment!

Watch that elbow!                                       photo:
The lead pack is three times the size it usually is during the Ascent and I felt like I was in a swarm of bees that had just had their hive kicked, buzzing and eager, almost angry. Apparently, I was eager, too, because a 6-flat first mile on the road climb to the Barr Trailhead can lead to the death sentence in this race. Oh well, can’t take that back now!

The next section, the Ws, is one of the toughest sections of the race, in my opinion, with its long and steep switchbacks that appear as Ws on an aerial map. It seemed I wasn’t moving fast enough because the entire Italian contingent went by me in a matter of about 10 seconds, each one saying “sorry” to me as they passed. They were so nice in their competitiveness. I think the English translation would have been, “get out of my way you American with a fairly decent mustache!” Next a Mexican went by me, then others that I didn’t recognize because all I witnessed was their asses. That’s what happens with steep grades, you get right on someone’s shoulder but really you are face to ass with them.

Brandy talks as fast as she runs!         photo:
I had a short chat with the Scottish-Coloradan, Ryan Smith (first UK finisher--Scotland is still part of the UK, you know!--living in Colorado has done him well.). He was thoroughly impressed with how loud I was belching 2 miles into the race. We did a great job of entertaining ourselves amid the misery of the climb…and it had just begun. As the saying goes, misery loves company…and it does!

After the Ws did a good job of stringing out the field, I found my self running with Thomas Cornthwaite of England. I only understood half of what he said with his thick accent, but I appreciated every word as it took my mind off the hard uphill grind. We fed off each other like a proper English breakfast and pushed the pace when it began to slow. Every time I went by him it was, “You look crackers!” or “Bloody Good, mate!” My encouragement was usually a slap on the ass and some American words that he hopefully couldn’t understand…just so we could be on the same page. It was working! We were gradually catching and passing runners who had underestimated what wrath the mountain could impose.

Zach Miller likes to chomp bananas!
We caught and passed an Italian, an American, some more runners, then Gute just before Barr Camp. His race strategy was to go out hard the first half and bank some time for the second half. This is where I told myself the race was to begin, even though I had already had almost 70 minutes of hard racing and jockeying for position, I had to convince myself this is where it started. We acquired Gute in our train to the Peak and continued to catch the carnage on the trail like Pac Man chomps up fruit.

The next couple of miles was like purgatory, it had to be done to breach treeline and face the most difficult section of the course, A-Frame to the summit (3 miles) aka the surface of the moon, where you are either struggling or have already turned into a zombie. We spotted more runners up ahead! As Thomas and I approached, he stated who the runner was (Emanuele Manzi of Italy) and excitedly exclaimed “Maaaanzi, gooud runnah!” (That’s the best New Castle accent I can hope to impart in written word). I knew the field was world class and everyone we came in contact with now held an impressive resume, so I seemed to be acquiring 1UPs with every person I passed. One more person and I would have the ability to throw fireballs! Well, I already had so much red on I looked like I was on fire: racecar red Inov-8 jersey and hat, razzel red Swiftwick Aspire 4 socks and the new rad red, ectoplasm green and black TrailRoc 245 (next season’s color, keep an eye out, you can’t miss them…they're bright!).

Gute and Gar-Gute, a couple of youngster!   photo: Gar-Gute
I came up on Ionut Zinca, the Romantic from Romania, who placed 3rd at last year’s WMRA Long Course Challenge, and we exchanged a few words before he accelerated off ahead at such a difficult point in the race to do so. This explains why he was 3rd last year! I felt good, I had trained for this and I was racing to plan. How many more pieces of fruit could this Pac Man get? I looked down the switchbacks and saw friend and recent training partner Marco Sturm of Germany running well and making up ground. Gute was still right there, don’t ever count him out even though he is almost 50. Where did Thomas go, he was just right with me!? Marco’s high altitude prowess was due to his month of training and living on Pikes Peak before the race. After seeing him up on the Peak every time I was up there we got together for runs, found him Team Colorado housing in Manitou Springs and he even defected to the Colorado! (Not really, but he is still staying in Manitou Springs as of early September.)

Marco Sturm: elite mountain runner, cat sitter.
Stevie "Sunshine" Kremer shows that mountain who's boss!   photo:
Neil, exorcizing the demons!         photo:
2 miles to go and close ahead I could see Zinca passing a pair of runners. I followed suit and decided I needed to do the same. It was Amed from Mexico and Mei from Italy. I had no idea what place I was in at this point. I could have been anywhere from 7th to 15th from my rough calculation, but the brain doesn’t really function properly at 13,000 ft. My brain did know to run as hard as I could with as little oxygen as was available. And so I ran on…

1 mile to go. I couldn’t tell who the black singlet belonged to until I passed him, Stefan Hubert, Germany’s top runner.The front side of the German uniform is red, that's a sneaky trick! One foot in front of the other, the senses are getting blurred now. Struggling runners. I am struggling, but I am still passing them. How!?!? With a half mile to go, you encounter the crippling rock scramble which is lovingly referred to as the 16 Golden Stairs. As the name indicates, 16 tightly weaved switchbacks over boulders make 15 meters seem like 800. For lack of better terms, a real kick in the balls! Zinca is slowing to a crawl, am I really going to pass him!? I hear someone yell “10th place!” Are they referring to me or someone else? Halfway through the stairs Zinca willingly moves over and allows me to crawl by. BluhBluhBluup--1UP! I needed that extra life!

Within a half mile of the finish, I am energized again by a red, white and blue-clad superhero perched on a precipice, waving an American flag, mullet flowing in the breeze and muscles rippling in the vacant-atmosphere sunlight. Could it be!? Captain ‘merica!? He vaguely resembled my Team Colorado teammate, Brandon Stapanowich. This put a smile on my misery-stricken face for the first time in 2 hours and 20 minutes. I still couldn’t let up since Zinca was hot on my tail. I knew the last two minutes of the race are among the most painful I would experience in life and at any second I expected the Romanian to push past me, offer me a romantic gesture and say, “Sorry!”

Zinca trying to catch me to say sorry
Last turn! Don’t catch your toe on that boulder! Don’t fall over! No “Sorry” was whispered from behind and I cross the line to a congratulatory high-five from race director, Ron Ilgen, and all of a sudden the world is audible again. I placed 9th overall in 2:21:11, a 5:28 personal record on the mountain, along with being 6th American and behind only two Italians and one Eritrean. I was interviewed by the local newspaper the previous week, The Colorado Springs Gazette, and was asked what I thought my chances were of winning the race. “Top 20 would be amazing, top 10 would double amazing, winning would make me famous pretty quickly,” was my response. Silly questions solicit silly answers. In previous years, my time would have made me famous pretty quickly, but I was extremely happy with “double amazing.” My “double amazing” time this year would have “made me famous pretty quickly” in a few past years. Just to display how competitive the race was, 23 males broke 2:30 and 16 women broke 3:00, while only 3 men and 4 women broke those respective barriers in 2013. Women’s winner, Allie McLaughlin, ran the 3rd fastest women’s time in race history. 4th place finisher from last year’s Ascent, David McKay, was 22nd this year…and that is even with a faster time! Holy Schiße, as they say in Germany! 

Holding hands with RD Ron Ilgen at the finish, and Nora, the First Lady quick to hold me up so I don't fall over.

I was very proud to be part of it.

I would like to congratulate all of the participants--winners as well as those whose goal was just to reach to finish in under the cutoff time. To the US men’s and women’s team for both capturing the individual and team gold medals (Individuals: Team Coloradan Sage Canaday and Colorado Springs native Allie McLaughlin; Women's Team: Allie McLaughlin, Morgan Arritola, Shannon Payne, Stevie Kremer, Nuta Olaru; Men's Team: Sage Canaday, Andy Wacker, Eric Blake, Joe Gray and Zach Miller). Thanks to those on the US Team for making me feel like I was part of the team, even thought I was not. After all, the slogan for Pikes Peak is “America’s Mountain.” Alanis Morissette would say “isn't it ironic…don’t you think?” I would say "it's coincidence" because, after all, it is in America.

There is an "US" in Team USA! Congrats on the gold medal Sage Canaday, Andy Wacker, Eric Blake, Joe Gray and Zach Miller.                                                                 photo: The Prez

The best part of the event, and reason why I love the sport so much, is celebrating with the amazing people after the hard effort is over. In this case, we had the Team World Pool Party at a little watering hole called La Piscina (thanks Brandon, how do you always seem to miss your own party!?), where 50+ people from all over the world turned it into the “Official (Unofficial) Post Race Party.” Because, in the long run, becoming famous is not all that important…but it definitely does help your popularity at the after party!

Team World Pool Party! Amy Perez (not pictured) taking picture.

There's Amy! This is equivalent of being photoshopped into the above photo.  
photo: Not Amy this time but, you guessed it,

The smallest and largest participant at the Pikes Peak Ascent. Allie McLaughlin would have been very popular if she had been at the after party.   photo:

There's Thomas Cornthwaite! Bloody thumbs up, mate!        photo: