Insider Tips on the Pikes Peak Ascent and Marathon

Master Sgt. Robert Mielish, an instructor at Marine Corps Communications-Electronics School, makes his way up the 13.3-mile Pikes Peak Ascent.
Master Sgt. Robert Mielish, an instructor at Marine Corps Communications-Electronics School, makes his way up the 13.3-mile Pikes Peak Ascent. U.S. Marine Corps
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The Pikes Peak Ascent: 13.32 miles up the majestic mountain to the summit, with an elevation gain of 7,615 feet. The Pikes Peak Marathon: Take those 13.32 miles and add another 12.89 miles all the way back down an average 11-percent grade.

If you’ve lived in the Springs for any amount of time you've likely: 1) run one or both; 2) dreamed of running one or both (and are maybe signed up this year); or 3) have little-to-no interest in running either, but are curious about the approximately 2,500 folks who do (especially those "doublers" who tackle the Ascent on Saturday and the Marathon on Sunday).

No matter which of the above you fall into, check out these insider tips on the Pikes Peak Ascent and Marathon, which will celebrate its 60th anniversary this year and are scheduled for August 15 and 16.

The views from the Ascent and Marathon trail are pretty dreamy.
The views from the Ascent and Marathon trail are pretty dreamy. Kirsten Akens

First, registration for this year's race is already full, so if you're gunning to run it, you'll have to wait until 2016. And depending on your fitness level, that might work out just fine, because Pikes Peak requires a qualifying event. For most people, that means having finished a half-marathon in under 2:25 or a marathon in under 5:45 in the past two years. (Other qualifying options are having completed Pikes Peak in the past three years; or running both the Garden of the Gods 10 Mile  and the Summer Roundup Trail Run  12K the year you want to run Pikes Peak, and finishing in the Garden under two hours flat.)

It's worth knowing, however, that registration slots always go fast. Registration generally opens in mid-March, according to Mary Baldwin, a race official for the Pikes Peak Marathon and Triple Crown of Running. The year, she says, registration opened March 18, and "the Marathon was full within 9.5 hours and the Ascent was full in 22 days." Bottom line: Be ready to sign up as soon as registration is announced.

If you've never done the Ascent or Marathon, but have it in your sights, local two-time Ascent runner and Boston Marathoner Amber Tong has two recommendations. First: Make a qualifying race a priority. "I would run any half or full that fits into my schedule to get my qualifying time for next year," she says. (One Colorado Springs option is the American Discovery Trail on Sept. 7.)

Two miles to go. Here's where those "hill legs" are needed the most.
Two miles to go. Here's where those "hill legs" are needed the most. Kirsten Akens

She also emphasizes the importance of hill training (which also goes for runners registered for 2015).  "Try to get to altitude once in a while," she says. " Section 16 is an excellent climb. Buckhorn, anything in upper Cheyenne Canyon. And then do hill repeats in Ute Valley Park or Palmer Park. You need your hill legs, because it’s one big hill from start to finish."

If you scored a slot in 2015, congrats; Baldwin has three suggestions for you. Like Tong, she says hill training is a must-do, "even if it’s on a treadmill. Intervals, tempo runs, and fartleks on hills will help prepare your legs for the long uphill. If you’re training on a treadmill, set the grade to simulate the course, and acclimate your body to running at that grade."

Her second piece of advice: "As runners we hear this all the time, but it bears repeating in these races: Don’t go out too fast."

This is especially important on the Peak, as the first few miles of the trail, known as 'The Ws,' are among the steepest, most difficult sections of the course. "Remember, once you get above 'The Ws,' you still have over eight miles to go and you need to have plenty of energy left," Baldwin notes.

Finally, she says, don't forget to look around every once in a while. "Take in the views!" she says. "It’s a unique experience to run above tree line, so even when your legs and lungs are no longer enjoying [it], be sure to look around at the amazing scenery."

And finally, if you're not running but supporting someone you think might be a little bit crazy for tackling the mountain in this way, you can get involved, too, by volunteering or spectating from a few locations. The starting line is located in Manitou Springs, at 600 Manitou Ave. Both days kick off at 7 am, and runners start in waves.

Spectating? Enjoy a leisurely ride up (and back down) the Cog Railway.
Spectating? Enjoy a leisurely ride up (and back down) the Cog Railway. Alan Stark

To cheer runners across the finish line for the Ascent, drive the Pikes Peak Highway up to Devil's Playground, where shuttle vans will drive you up to the Summit House, or make a reservation to take a leisurely trip on the Cog Railway.

If you want to be at the turnaround point for the Marathon, you can drive all the way to the Summit House (fewer runners means no shuttles). Then turn yourself around, and drive back down to Manitou to meet the runners at the finish line, 100 feet north of the intersection of Ruxton and Manitou avenues, near Soda Springs Park. Hug your runner, buy him or her a big breakfast, and maybe, just maybe, rethink your stance on racing the Peak.

One more sweet note: To commemorate this year’s 60th running of the Ascent and Marathon, Josh and John’s is creating a special ice cream flavor—and they need your help to name it. Baldwin says they’re looking for something “creative and relevant,” and suggestions can be posted on the Pikes Peak Marathon Facebook page or tweeted to @PikesPeakRun until the end of May. From there, staff will compile a short list and create a Facebook poll “to give runners and followers a voice in the final name.”

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