After my late Glasgow call-up, I felt that I had to be honest with both the selectors and my Scotland team-mates (Claire and Shona) and let them know that I would not be on top form for the World Long Distance Mountain Running Champs as it was less than 3 weeks after the marathon. They were all still keen that I join them to make up the team, so after 10 days back at work, I headed over to the States.
The race being used for the 2014 WLDMRC was the Pike's Peak Ascent, a very famous race in Colorado. The total race distance is 13.32 miles, which doesn't sound very far, but the challenge comes when you realise the altitude and climb involved. The race starts in Manitou Springs at 6,300 feet (1920m) above sea level, and ascends 7,815 feet (2,382m) to the summit at 14,115 feet (4,302m).
I could not take any more time off work in order to go across early and acclimatise, and I also thought that I would recover from the marathon better at sea level. Luckily, I managed to arrange flights that meant I had a couple of nights in Colorado pre-race. Richard, an old friend of mine (and previous Boulder resident) kindly offered to pick me up at the airport (in a convertible!!!) and spent some time acting as my tour guide, so I got to Colorado Springs (to meet Claire and Shona) via the Rocky Mountain National Park, and hence got some in-car altitude acclimatisation!
Driving up to the summit
The official race accommodation for the International runners was at a semi-religious retreat, situated slightly out of Colorado Springs itself, and so was rather isolated. Luckily, Richard offered to drive me up to the top of Pike's Peak (so that I could see/be freaked out by what was in store for race day) before dropping us all at race registration and a pasta buffet. An early shuttle back to the accommodation meant we were all tucked up on our bunk beds early (munching on carrot cake) thinking about the day ahead (and listening to the cheers of the Italian squad pep talk through the walls)!
Alarm clocks were unnecessary as the Italian coaches were laughing loudly by 4:15 am, but at least it meant that I could find out about the European Champs marathon before focusing on our race. We were up, dressed, and on the shuttle buses by 5:30am.....and so at the start line with more than an hour to go. People were milling around, doing warmups and stretches, checking their bags etc, but Claire and I escaped to go for a coffee and sit down in the Town Hall (which had the bonus of flushing toilets rather than portaloos).
I felt rather self-conscious as the girls had persuaded me that a crop-top was de rigeur for the heat, rather than a vest, but having your surname and flag on your back bib and first name on the front, took away from any worries that people might notice a potbelly! As we lined up behind the gantry, I saw some "famous" runners that I had only ever read about before and other similar big-shots that I had met the previous day at registration. There was little time to worry about what a high quality field I was mixing with, as after wishing Claire and Shona the best of luck, I worked my way right over to the side to avoid any potential tramples.
The first mile and a half are run on tarmac up past the cog railway that goes to the summit, and so many people race off to try to get ahead of the "traffic" before the narrow trail starts. I had been warned about this, as some people sprint off and then blow up, causing a traffic jam behind them, but obviously not everyone had read the same manual, as I did find myself in a chain when we turned onto the Barr Trail, which we would then follow all the way to the summit. The trail was rough and very narrow so there was little chance to pass, hence we all had to run at the speed of those at the front. Runners who were familiar with the course could time a burst of speed for any slight widening of the trail and avoid being trapped for too long, but for most people,this was not possible.
Numbers front & back
As all the runners had their first name written on the bib on their chest, people cheered them on individually (only those in the international race had back bibs), but it took me most of the race to realise that the "Jessica" everyone was encouraging wasn't another lady constantly on my tail, but was how they were reading "Joasia"!!
Although we hadn't actually gone that far, I was already hungry (no surprise there) and so was overjoyed to hear the sounds of an aid station ahead. All the pre-race info had suggested that faster runners should pass on the left, and so I was surprised to be cut off from the food table (on my right) by an "overtaker". Pausing at the table, I was rather surprised to see what was on offer - surely not many people would want mini pretzels in that dry climate, and as for taking some grapes and having to avoid inhaling the pips...... I made do with a handful of jellybeans wash and some lucozade. The trail had widened out making it possible to pass a few people, so I ran on while trying to chew the jellybeans. I wasn't sure exactly what flavours I'd picked up, and so it reminded me of "JellyBelly Roulette" first played at the OMM when in a dark tent (I'm allergic to coconut so try to avoid those ones, and the chocolate ones aren't the best while running).
It was at this point that the Glasgow marathon seemed to catch up with me. I wasn't struggling to breathe or suffering with the altitude, but just seemed to have nothing in my legs. I felt like I was having to force them to turn over with no power output at all. Still, I was there to represent Scotland, and so whatever happened, I wasn't going to give up, even if I had to walk the remaining 8 miles to the summit!
Luckily, I'd just come on to the most enjoyable part of the course, as the gradient lessened (and there were even a couple of slightly downhill stretches) and so I just relaxed and enjoyed looking around and running through the trees. The sun was peeking through the leaves making the trail all mottled, and as the field had spread out on the wider section, it was really peaceful.
Approaching the treeline
There was a huge amount of noise and support as we passed through the Barr Camp checkpoint/aid station, and it was great to know that just over half of the course had been covered. I heard another runner commenting that we had taken 93 minutes so far, so I knew that it was definitely going to be the slowest "half marathon" of my life!
Unfortunately, the next few miles went back to being a bottleneck as the trail was rather narrow and rocky winding its way up to the treeline. Unlike the previous "train" of runners, this was more of a walking train, "driven" by a girl in spotty shorts. None of us could actually get past her, so we all ended up doing a fast walk behind. You could occasionally run a few steps, but then had to go back to a walk, either clambering over rocks, or just because the group had bunched up again. Not only was there no space to pass, but it would involve quite a burst of speed to avoid affecting others' progress as well. We seemed to follow those shorts for ages - and I think I can still see them if I close my eyes!
Above the treeline
On leaving the treeline there were "just" 3 miles to go. The trail became loose gravel and, outwith the confines of the trees, it was now possible to move at a better speed as there was room to negotiate round others. I chatted briefly to a man going a similar pace to me, as he'd spotted my bib and was asking about where I was from ("sea level" I exclaimed!).
Hands on quads ascending!
The final section involved using your arms a lot when going through patches of broken rock and rubble (now my strange arm ache the day after the race makes sense!), and seems to take forever. The sun reflecting off the rock was rather bright, and the atmosphere was definitely feeling much thinner. Encouraged by my new friend with his repeated "Come on Sea Level", racepace became a bit of a run-walk fartlek. I thought I was never going to get there, and this sensation was made worse by the fact that you could hear the finish for over a mile before you got there.
The last part of the route is known as the 16 Golden Stairs - it consists of 32 hairpins (I forgot to count them) and many 12-15 inch step-ups (getting the arms to push down on the quads definitely helped). Although I was finding it tough, others were obviously finding it more so, as I was still passing men with every turn (though admittedly a local lady did "fly" past me looking fresh as a daisy).
I made it!
A marshal suggested it was a good time to "run from here" when I still had a couple of bends to negotiate (there were a few false alarms of the finish being just around the corner), and though I tried to finish strongly, I'm not sure that it appeared that way at all! How I managed to veer off course 20m from the finish is beyond me - I blame the confusing bollards amongst the rocks, along with the crowd noise!
Looking back at the summit
It was great to cross the line and see some familiar faces - Richard there with a Saltire, and my teammates Claire (who'd had a great run, finishing as first British lady) and Shona (not far in front of me)! What was even better, was the pizza and beer provided for all the runners when we got back down to Manitou Springs!
With Shona at the finish
I would say it wasn't the best performance for me (but not bad considering the recent marathon), but what an amazing event to be part of! I loved the atmosphere, the camaraderie, the scenery, the route......yes even the race.....and I am now in love with Colorado and definitely want to to go back there!