Pikes Peak- One Revolution at a Time. One Breath at a Time.
A few years ago, after reading an article in Bicycling about cycling Pikes Peak, I added the Pikes Peak Cycling Hill Climb to my list of bike endeavors after completing Ironman. 12 miles climbing up the Pikes Peak Highway to the summit at 14,100’ elevation. That would be a long way off but I always kept it in the back of my mind.
I signed up for a medical conference and well what do you know?! Pikes Peak is right there. Could I ride up to the summit? I don’t have time to train for the official Pikes Peak Cycling Hill Climb which happens to be the same weekend- it would take a long time for that but I could ride a small part of the peak while there. I could at least check it out. I booked a bike rental and committed. I obsessed over the map of Pikes Peak Highway, weather, grades, other peoples' cycling experiences, and anything else I could for weeks before I left. I checked the live webcam every day 2 weeks before my arrival noting when the clouds and rain rolled in. I needed to start up the mountain no later than . Early morning is best but my flight in precluded that and I only had one day to do this before my conference.
As the day grew closer, I realized just how hard this really is. I knew this would be the hardest thing I have ever done on the bike, hell it would be harder than any half Ironman or marathon. Initially, I committed to just "check it out" which turned into the need to ride to the top. I realize I am getting way over my head here. My fears were clear- weather, no cell service for emergencies, hypothermia, pulmonary edema at altitude, altitude sickness, getting to the top and having no way down the mountain, absolute solitude (I have no idea how many and what type of people are on this mountain), descending in the rain, falling off the mountain and failure to complete the task. I even voiced a few days before- what if I die? This is something that never crossed my mind in previous events, ever.
The day of the ride I have the map of the road and every stopping point memorized. My plan is to get off the plane, get the car and bike and head immediately to the mountain. I really need to start no later than Pikes Peak Cycling Hill Climb and start really early and skip the last day of my conference. The race organizer was super nice and said it was fine if I registered late. The benefit would be that there would be people and a ride down the mountain. The risk is the timing. I fly out that day. I have no idea how long it will take me with the altitude. So it really is a last resort. My plan C was to ride as far up as I could before the rains and dark and come back early each morning and ride a bit before the conference adding it all up. Not ideal because I would likely continue on and skip the conference. I really did want to attend this conference. After all it was a Medicine of Cycling conference!. The drive takes much longer than anticipated so I start several hours later. I did have a plan B set up. If I did not make it or only made a part of the ride, I could attempt the
Once I was in Colorado Springs I could see the daunting peak. Wow, it's pretty powerful to see. And it really does seem to touch the clouds. As I drive closer I am excited and intimidated. I arrive at the road and go through the gate. The ranger there is really nice. I ask her how the weather looks at the top and let her know this is my first time riding up and I will be alone. She radios to the summit and weather looks great.
I decide to start my ride 6.5 miles from the summit at 11,000 ft elevation at Glen Cove. I will ride to each parking area and re-evaluate. It's a race against time, mother nature and my inner demons. The rental bike is not carbon and it is a double. My non carbon bike at home at least has a triple and is an awesome climbing bike. The shifters are different so I ride a few circles in the parking lot and learn them.
Let's do this.
There is an immediate perceived steep climb on the road and 10 minutes in. I am questioning everything. What did I just get myself into? What was I thinking? I am not at all trained for this. Seriously, I really did not train for this. I stop at the switch back and gather myself and my breath. I remind myself that I am tougher than I always think I am and I can do this however I want whether it is in pieces or not. At least I am here. I am toe-ing the line. The next section of the ride is much better. Less steep. It also helped to realize I was shifting the gears the wrong way. A car drives by and the people yell out at me "Awesome! You are an animal!" Wow, thanks, that felt great. I needed that because I felt like a total baby here.
The grade increases. WTF? I am only 1/2 mile further? My legs were on fire, breathing was tough and my heart was pounding through the top of my head. I remember reading someone's blog about their climb and this is exactly the heartbeat they referenced. It is a strange feeling. I fought myself a bit and let it all go. One revolution at a time. That's all this is. One more pedal gets me closer to my goal.
One revolution at a time.
The first part of the ride is all crazy switchbacks with varying grades. Some I welcomed, others I dreaded. The grades are far more pronounced at altitude. There is a formula that adjusts grades based on altitude. Basically a nice little 6% at sea level feels like a 12% at high altitude. I look up and see even more switchbacks. I'm disheartened. There is a dark cloud in the direction of the summit. The rain is coming. I really did start too late. A part of me is hoping it starts raining. That is my cue to turn around and go to the hotel. Then I'm done. Come on rain, we can end this whole thing now.
Then again I want to do this. I don't want to give up. The cloud is darker. I will ride to the next parking area even if it rains. It looks like I will be going to plan C. I can finish this in pieces over the next 3 days. I am definitely going to do it that way. I continue riding. My heart is pounding through my ears. I'm nauseas. I stop. Rest. My heart rate settles down and I can take in some nutrition and enjoy the view. It is stunningly beautiful. Time to go; but, it is way too steep to clip back in my pedals. I walk up further and take some pictures. Clip in and go.
Cars continue to drive by. More than I thought. All are driving safe, slow and are so polite. Everyone is verbalizing words of encouragement. I am getting pretty emotionally labile. I cry when someone says something nice. People are so nice here. I feel safe. With each 500' elevation gain it gets harder.
A ranger stops to see if I am ok. I ask about the dark cloud. He says so far at the top no rain and assures me that the descent is faster than the climb. Just a few more switchbacks then the road mellows out until the last mile. I look up at those last switchbacks and they look brutal but I do see where it gets better. The last mile is the hardest he tells me but I will have a break shortly. He is really encouraging and says he'll look out for me. I remember reviews of the last mile- a solid 10.5% grade to the top. I am definitely stopping at the next parking area (Devil's Playground is the name) and resuming there tomorrow.
The dark cloud starts moving in and I am feeling some sprinkles. I am not sure if I will make it to Devil's Playground in time. "Oh no you don't" I shout at the cloud. I am going to make it to the next spot. I realize I am not going to make it to the summit. The cloud is darker. It's a matter of safety. I am fine with it though I seem to be going all over the place mentally. This ride is bigger than I ever imagined and I want to get to the top any way that I can.
I finish the switchbacks. The ride is much easier but the air is growing thinner. Devils Playground! There it is along a somewhat flat or at least more humane grade strip of road. I even shifted gears to the big ring and am flying. I finally get in some riding and speed. Even a little spin. Incredible. The landscape is incredible. I have a renewed energy now. I want to keep going. I fly past the next parking area called "Bottomless Pit" and then comes an ascent.
It doesn't look steep but I'm dying here. That renewed energy was very short lived.
I stop to look at my map. I'm going to go to the next parking area, "Boulder Park" which is 1.5 mile from the summit. I can do this and then only have 1.5 miles to piece together tomorrow.
The ride is getting hard. I ride, stop, fight with my cleats, walk, ride, fuss and repeat. Walking is harder than riding. I am having an internal discussion with myself. If I go to Boulder Park, why not keep going? Only 1.5 miles left after that. Why not? Well because that last part is STEEP! While 10.5% is not horrible at sea level, it is horrible at 13,000+'. Everything is different at elevation.
Here it is. Boulder Park. It is not clear where the parking area is. I'm confused. I'm starting to lose it. I remind myself that it is normal this high up. I'm going to be loopy. There is an interpretive sign at Boulder Creek. I stop to read it. It says: "Feeling spacey?" Um yeah, I say aloud. Sure I'm dizzy but that is to be expected. "Short of Breath?" Of course. "There is 40% less oxygen." Yeah, you think? Thanks for the validation. "you have reached the harshest environment on Pikes Peak. Even trees do not grow here ... winds, temperature." That made me cry. How did you know, interpretive sign? Yes- it DOES feel harsh! The landscape looks like the damn moon. The wind is cold. I'm freezing. My fingers hurt. In the midst of all of this fussing I look at that moonscape and see the sun. The dark cloud has moved past the summit. I snap out of the funk and move forward. One revolution at a time. One breath at a time. Leaving the tears behind.
Ride. Unclip. Fight the clips. Walk. Walking hurts.
The reviews said max grade on the this road was 10.5%. They are wrong. My Garmin is holding at 12.5% which sux. Even walking in cleats dragging a bike uphill hurts at this grade and elevation. The grade decreases a bit- just enough so I can clip in and ride.
It becomes a monumental task to even clip in my first foot. WTF? Why? Why do my feet feel weak? Seriously? I sob aloud, "13,500' is mean. Just mean." I give myself permission to continue to talk to myself. It's a moonscape and lonely. I don't even see any critters. Nothing except me. A car stops and kindly offers me a ride to the top. NO! While I told myself I'd reach that summit by any means, I did NOT mean a car. Its bike or by foot. I must do this. I think of Dean Karnazes, the ultrarunner whose father told him "Run, if you can't run, walk, if you can't walk, then crawl." How do I crawl lugging a bike? Who cares, its not an option. I am getting to the summit TODAY.
I notice a very small plant in the moonscape. I applaud it's tenacity. I tear up thinking just how awesome and badass that little plant is. Where on earth is my tenacity because I'm not feeling it. I feel beaten up by the figurative 13,500'.
Another ranger stops, I'll name her "Ranger 2." I immediately tell her, "I'm fine, just acclimating." She tells me the peak closes at . I think it is about 4 right now. I ask her if she thinks I can make it in time because it is right up there as I point in the general direction. While I do not see the peak I have it in my head it is just up and around the corner. She says, the peak is further than that, a little more around. She reminds me again the park closes at . I only have a mile left. She drives away. I clip back in and ride. I do not feel encouraged by her. I liked the other ranger better.
I'm crushed. REALLY crushed. I cry. I'm very cold. My feet, hamstrings and quads hurt. I can't breathe. I can breathe but when I ride I only ride a few feet and get short of breath. I get tired even walking. I hate you 13,500'. I hate you more than 12,000'. I hate you Ranger 2. While you were nice, you did burst my bubble. The first ranger was encouraging and so were all of the drivers. Drivers would yell out "you're almost there!" or "You're doing great!" or "you rock!" I received more cheering from strangers here than in any race I have done. Just about every car that passed up or down cheered me on. It was incredible. Some offered me rides. Of course I declined. But Ranger 2. She made me feel doubtful. What if the last mile is really bad and I don't make it by 7? Is there something she knows that I don't? What if I fall down the mountain? What if I get hypothermia? What will another 500' feet elevation do to me? I cry...again.. like a child. Does she not know I can do this? Does she not know my overall fitness level? DO I look like a slug? Maybe I do. She seems to be the voice of reason because I sure am not.
1 more mile.
Enough of this self pity. Move forward.
I have my kids and spouse who are expecting me to do this. I can not and will not go home with a story of failure. I complete the job I set out to do. I set an example for them. I want them to be proud. It's a mile, I have already done 5.5! I just then realized that.
Ride- one revolution after another. One breath after another. Dig deep because I have arrived at that steep part. The shit is going down now. I calculate the altitude- 600' left. That is harder than Double Peak at home which is 600' in 1.5 miles. This mountain feels like one long Double Peak and then some. No mercy.
I look up, another switch back and it is nasty.
I am blessed. The weather is beautiful. It is cold , freezing cold but beautiful. The nasty cloud is gone.
I AM FINISHING TODAY! I AM NOT COMING BACK TOMORROW!
Climb, ride, short walk, climb, ride.
Last switch back. I still do not see the top but I smell food. OMG food! I giggle. French fries sound fabulous. I am SO getting those at the top.
Last hill. Ride this MF-er no matter how steep. Mash it. Dig deep, deeper, the deepest ever. I can do this, It is the last one and the steepest of the whole damn mountain. I have NOTHING left. Dig even deeper. Count. Count in any language you want, I tell myself. One, two, three, four, five....uno, dos, tres, quattro, cinco, now french--- un, deux, trois, quat, cinq. Hungarian- screw that. I looked down the whole time focusing as hard as I could. And what do I see? a hand made painted sign saying:
"14,100 feet. You did it!"
I sobbed and could not stop.
I'm here? really? I absolutely cannot breathe from the sobbing. I look up and see the dirt parking lot. I studied this entire area online before. I see people. I see cars. I am shocked, disoriented and still sobbing. Two cyclists ride up behind me. They look incredible. They ask me how far I went. I tell them "not far" since I did not start at the bottom and proceed to ask them how far they rode. They started 1/2 mile down from here. I then proudly tell them I started at Glen Cove. They say "Impressive, very impressive. Congratulations!"
I look for the Pikes Peak sign. The sign where I dreamed of holding my bike up noting my accomplishment. I also wanted to find the cog train camera in hopes that James could log onto the live cam and see me.
There is the sign! Still sobbing. Can't stop. Can't breathe.
I park my bike and ask someone to take a picture. I can't very well do a selfie holding a bike can I? They say, "Absolutely! Did you ride up?" Yes I did. "Wow." Then a whole bunch of people come over and also took my picture. "Did I hear you RODE up ?" People treated me like a rock star. Suddenly a mass of people were taking my picture. Someone asked if they could take a picture with me. He said "you're a celebrity to me." I am proud. I tell them it was the hardest thing I have ever done and I live at sea level.
While I am enjoying all of this I am getting colder fast. I am at hypothermia's doorstep. I need to go inside.
Oh how I loved the warmth of the gift shop and restaurant. I milled around shivering for quite a while. I was thrilled to see they were selling Pikes Peak patches. I have a patch from the Solvang Century on my commuter bag. This is perfect. This is my finisher's medal. I step outside to the other side of the building and find the webcam. Wow! It is so strange to be here after obsessively checking the webcam multiple times a day prior to my trip. I text James and tell him I am waving at it.
It's really getting cold. The forecast was in the 30's. I go back inside and get my warm gear out. I start my warmers and keep walking around. No fries. Kitchen was closing. I snack on my own snacks, talk with several people who are impressed with my ride up. Another person hears my story and offers to drive me down the mountain. I thankfully decline. I earned that ride down. I'm not warming up as fast as I'd like. I know I need to go soon especially after I see I had been milling about for a long time. One of the workers tells me his dream of riding down Pikes Peak. He drives up every day to work there. I tell him to just do it.
Ranger 2 is in the shop. She is kicking everyone out announcing closing time. Wow, it's already!It's time. I'm worried about being too cold for the descent. The temperature dropped rapidly in the last few hours and despite hand, foot, body warmers, hot tea and thermals I'm not warm. Maybe I should get a ride- it would be smart.
That same woman who just offered me a ride is getting ready to go. She asks me again and assures me she has a lot of room in her car. I'm tempted. I tell her I really did earn this descent and have to try to ride. She smiles and says she will check on me as I descend and can get a ride anytime. She was true to her word. All the way down she stopped at the turns and waited for me to pass despite Ranger 2.
I get going. Thrilled at the fact that I just rode UP to the summit of Pikes Peak. Ranger 2 is behind me in the ranger SUV. The descent is hard and brutal. The reviews say to stop and rest the brakes or they will burn. Already, I am not accustomed to the fork on this rental bike. It feels floppy and loose. The distance to the brakes is too far for my stubby fingers. As a result my fingers and hands are hurting. I stop at a switchback turn to check brakes and give my hands a break. Over a megaphone, Ranger 2 is telling me "You are the last person on this mountain. You cannot stop. Keep moving." Damn, Ranger 2. I needed you when I was going UP the mountain. I continue riding. Oh this is a quick, painful and scary descent. There are a lot of places to fall off the mountain. My neck and scapula are piercing and burning. That woman who offered me the ride was waiting for me as I descended. Ranger 2 tells her to she is not allowed to stop too over the megaphone. Switchback, switchback... I see Glen Cove, where I started a few switchbacks away... I am so happy to see it.
I get to my car, take a deep breath and look up at the peak. I am proud.
My dream is to participate in the full Pikes Peak Cycling Hill Climb with far less drama and stops. I will do this after Ironman. I will train for it for real.
As for my fears- The weather remained nice. I did not fall off the mountain. I had cell service the entire time. I am ever so thankful for James who texted me through the hard parts, no pulmonary edema (there was a blogger who attempted to ride but had to stop because of this once) and I'm still here. Overall, physically I felt fine- just a wee bit emotional. I think I am allowed to have that given that I started at 11,000' and ended at 14,100'!