Pikes Peak Ascent

Pikes Peak. The mountain looms over the cities of Colorado Springs and Manitou Springs - dominating the skyline. And for past 62 years, the mountain has hosted "America's Ultimate Challenge" The Pikes Peak Ascent and Marathon. The Ascent is hard enough - about a half marathon that climbs almost 8,000 feet from the base of the Mountain in Manitou Springs to the Summit at 14,115 feet. The Marathon also treks to the summit, but then turns around and retraces the course back down to Manitou Springs. I've competed in both many years ago and have nothing but respect for the mountain and the runners that choose to take on the challenge of racing to the summit and back down.

Three Thelen Coaching Athletes took on America's Ultimate Challenge this year - setting their sites on the Ascent. Merideth and Shana were both competing in the Triple Crown of running, have raced in the Garden of the Gods 10 Miler and the Summer Trail Round Up earlier this year. Kendall was focusing primarily on the Ascent. And with any race of this nature, there were good moments and bad moments. There was elation and disappointment. There was the makings of a great race and then the realization that the altitude always wins, regardless of how well we have trained.

Shana took on the challenge as one of Pikes Peak Sport's Mighty Marmots. She documented her journey through the summer for them, laying bare her nerves and fears regarding event. Life threw as many curveballs her way as possible as we built up towards the Ascent. Each one we handled, making steady progress towards the summit. We had no goals on the mountain other then finishing and showing the demons of the summer that perseverance wins every time. On her practice hike, the mountain had won and she'd been left wondering how she would finish. But on race day, Shana ran smart and steady. At Barr Camp at 2:26, with a 5:00 finish a narrow possibility. This time she handled the altitude well, stayed on top of her hydration and had a solid last six miles. Shana finished in 5:17:11, proving to herself and anyone else who doubted her that she could do it. After everything she went through this summer, she discovered sometimes all it takes is the power of positive thought and an encouraging word to keep going. Nothing will ever be perfect - but we take what we can do and work with that.

This is what elation looks like at 14,115' Shana met the challenges head on! From the start in Manitou Springs so far below to the summit of Pikes Peak
 
Merideth also had a successful trip to the summit, but had a harder journey getting there. The start was smooth and she had a solid strategy for the W's and up to Barr Camp. On a practice hike, there had been some issues with the elevation and dehydration past Barr Camp, so we'd made a plan to keep getting fluids in throughout the middle miles. But the mountain doesn't always respect the plans we make. Merideth reached Barr Camp in 2:41 - in a good position to be able to reach her 6:00 goal for the race. Even at A-Frame, she still had time to spare. But... I've been on the mountain - having volunteered at the Cirque Aid Station for many years in the early 2000s. I've seen what the altitude can do to even the most prepared athletes. It's not something you can really train for since it's different every time. It is a testament to Merideth's mental strength and perseverance that she was able to reach the summit. The altitude hit her hard above A-frame - harder then even on her training days. One foot in front of the other, unable to eat and drink because of nausea and she kept moving forward. Finally, she reached the finish in 6:13:45.
 
And finally - Kendall. When Kendall had done her pre-hike in July there were serious issues with some prior injuries in her back. We'd discussed pulling out of the race at that point as she spent two days in significant pain and unable to function. No matter what the race is, it's not worth long term damage. But once the pain diminished and she was able to run and ride again, we decided to keep the Ascent on the plan - but to be smart about it. Listen to her body, take the moments as they come. Sometimes being smart is the hardest choice there is. We often wonder what we would do - faced with the possibility of serious injury later or accepting a DNF, which would we choose? The smart athletes, with an eye on long-term ability to participate in the sports we all love, should choose the DNF. But in the moment, making that decision requires more self discipline then just pushing forward. Kendall recognized early that she wouldn't be able to finish. When she was already getting shooting, debilitating pain within the first three miles, she realized that her back wasn't going to take the race up the mountain. It was time to face the choice no athlete ever wants to face. There is a joke that DNF really means "Did Nothing Fatal - but that's not really a joke when it comes to trail and mountain running. Pulling out of a race like the Ascent isn't as easy as stepping off the road. The further up the mountain you get, the harder it becomes to get help. While Kendall didn't reach the summit, I am extraordinarily proud of her. She listened to her body and made the smart choice to turn around. There will be another mountain to climb - perhaps not literally and not Pikes Peak, but when faced with that mountain, I know Kendall will be ready.
 

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