“Over-thinking, overanalyzing, separate the body from the mind. Withering my intuition, missing opportunities and I must feed my will to feel my moment drawing way outside the lines. Reaching out to embrace the random, reaching out to embrace whatever may come.”-Tool Lateralus
In February of this year, I moved to Colorado Springs. I began running with Achilles Pikes Peak on and off almost a year prior to moving as I often traveled between Littleton and Colorado Springs for work. With phenomenal running and cycling mentors like Karen Kantor, Brandon Stapanowich, Anne Flemming, Phil Goulding, Rodger Reddish, Zack Miller, Bailey Eppard, Olivia Zebrowski, Kevan Worley and so many others, it was easy to catch the Colorado Springs running fever.
Choosing the Race
The way I spend my free time has an enormous impact on my personal growth – physically, socially, emotionally, cognitively, and spiritually. My leisure activities have given me amazing and valuable life experiences. From playing on the farm as a child to swimming in the surf on a horse as a college kid, I have always found peace, clarity, inspiration, focus, and transformation through play. Over the last several years, running has taken up a big chunk of my free time.
Eager to explore my new city, embrace a challenge, and learn a few lessons from a mountain that began its formation over a billion years ago, I signed up for the Pikes Peak Marathon (PPM). Prior to registering for the Pikes Peak Marathon, I hadn’t done much trail running. I had run the incline and the bottom 3 miles of Barr Trail and was really eager to get out on more beautiful Colorado terrain. I knew that the race would have some technical aspects and I was prepared for hard training. I will say that I certainly did not have a complete understanding of the challenge ahead. Mark Lucas, executive director of United States Association of Blind Athletes graciously agreed to serve as my guide. Luanne Burke signed up for the Pikes Peak Ascent and according to the race director Ron Ilgen, we would be the first two blind people to attempt these races.
Getting to the Start Line
Jumping into unknown running territory was scary and exciting. As a blind runner, it really takes a team to get from registration to race day and this is particularly true for trail races. I had to learn new techniques for running and since I had no experience, my guides were learning right along with me. Karen Kantor provided me with a fantastic training schedule. She also guided and connected me with guides, offered advice, and gave constant support. So many others gave tremendously of their time and energy so that I could run outdoors and get on the trail as much as possible. I will probably miss someone but thanks so much to Phil Goulding who was brave enough to guide me for my first few awkward and completely graceless trail runs (I only fell off of the mountain one time SMILE), Anne Flemming, Olivia Zebrowski, Kimberly Lindsey (A.K.A Colorado Springs #1 photographer), Brandon Stapanowich (who completed the round trip 4 times from the start of the Ascent to the end of the marathon), Mark Lucas, Dionne Randolph, Michael Everson and so many others who came out to the weekly Colorado Running Company Achilles runs. Dionne graciously agreed to serve as a second guide when I realized the amount of cues that I would need were more than one person would want to give for hours and hours on end. The number of hours and miles others gave so that I could attempt this race was truly telling of the inclusive and selfless nature of our running community. Going in, I knew that the trip down the mountain would take an unusually long time so my goals were to make the cut off times all the way up and to finish.
The night before the race I packed up my hydration vest with a light jacket, long sleeved running shirt, gloves, hat, cliff bars, and a liter of water. I pinned my race bib to my purple mountain majesty Achilles shirt. I went to bed extra early. My mom and dad were visiting from Tennessee which was an awesome treat. Early Sunday morning, Mom, Dad, Kevin and Kevan dropped me off at the start line where I met Mark and Dionne. I was excited to see lots of friendly faces and receive well wishes before the gun went off. The race was a rolling wave start and we were in wave 7. At 7:07 it was GO time.
I started out with a nice easy pace up to Ruxton Ave. to Hydro St. I was a little worried that things were going to get too bottle-necked and that I would not be able to pick up speed when I wanted to. Although there were a couple of slow spots, the pace worked out pretty well. I made it to the top of the W’s in about an hour and to Barr Camp in two hours and 47 minutes. That was faster than I had done it in practice. The energy was high at Barr Camp and I was excited to make my way to A Frame. It took about 1.5 hours to get from Barr Camp to A Frame, but that was where we started running into a little more of a crowd. I was hoping to make this section a little faster but we had to get our groove for letting downhill runners go by at some point in the race and it happened to be here. It was cool to see the elite runners zipping down the mountain and it was even cooler that I had met most of them during my training runs. I was a little bummed about my last 3 miles to the summit. In a few of my training runs, I was able to cover the last 3 in 2 hours. This time it took me about 2 hours and 10 minutes and I did not feel like I was moving very well. The big difference was that I forgot my Skittles. I think that quick sugar really helps me when I start climbing in altitude. I summited in 6:26 and if all things would have been perfect, I feel like I could have done it a little faster. My silly dad climbed part way down so that he could cheer for me which made my heart happy! I think I could hear him from 2 miles away! All of the cheers and well wishes from runners and volunteers were very much appreciated and helped me pass through those tough miles. Ann and her crew even gave me a little serenade! At the turn-around, I gave hugs, took a couple of pics, ate some grapes and Skittles, and headed back down.
The trip down was slow and tedious as I expected. It took a little over 2.5 hours to get from the top to Barr Camp. Those top 3 miles plus the section from A-Frame to Barr camp is just so technical. I found it to be pretty mentally exhausting because I had to pay attention to every single step I took. If I could just figure out how to get speed and confidence in that section, I could have a much faster descent. It was much more lonely on the way down. I was so glad to have the company of Mark and Dionne to keep me going. Because I move so slowly down the mountain, everyone else was already way ahead. I want to take a moment to mention how great all of the race volunteers and support staff were. They not only did a fantastic job when I was going up, but they also stuck around and cheered enthusiastically on my long trip down. I am sure they were tired and ready to head home but everyone was extremely encouraging. At Barr Camp I had to stop and take a bathroom break. I had been going for over 9 hours with no stops. I had plenty of water and fuel to make it to the bottom because I assumed that the aid stations would be going away.
I felt like I was moving pretty well from Barr tothe finish but I think that I was pretty tired from so much time on my feet so this stretch took more time than I expected. In training I have been able to do this piece in about 2 hours. On race day it took about 2.5 hours. By the time I got to the last ½ mile on Barr Trail I was whimpering to myself like a little child and mentally pleading that around every switchback I would find the place where Barr trail split from the trail to Hydro Street. When we finally got there we met a nice man from Iowa. He had his cowbell and was cheering us through. Olivia and her daughter Jasmine ran out to meet us at the blacktop on Hydro Street and we all ran in together. By the time we hit the blacktop, I was feeling STRONG. I know it’s because I was hearing some familiar voices and realizing that I was about a mile from being done. The last mile flew by. I have no idea how long it took but it felt like cake. I could run without being afraid I was going to trip on a root or rock. My mom, dad, Kevin, and Kevan were cheering me on about a block from the finish and Phil, Ann, Denise, Ron, and a crew of kind souls were at the finish line cheering me in even though I was about 1.5 hours past the cutoff. Mark, Dionne, Olivia, Jasmine, and I got a little confused as we were coming to the finish. We had to round a corner. Phil jumped in and guided me which was super cool and very appropriate given the amount of time he spent guiding me during training runs.
Even though I did not meet the cut off time, Ron Ilgen, Race Director, presented me with a finisher’s medal. Most of you know that I am not the type to accept special treatment. Under normal circumstances, I would have said no thank you to the offer of a medal that I did not feel like I earned. But, I felt like I worked harder for that medal than I have in any other race. I was on top of the world! I probably cried. I was super emotional that day which is really weird for me. It was so great to get to give hugs and love to all of the folks who supported me from registration to finish. I am so thankful to Kevin and Kevan who are my constant cheerleaders and to mom and dad (cheerleaders all my life) for giving up a whole day of vacation to sit around and cheer me on. My dad was running around like a chicken with his head cut off. He is definitely not a runner and I think he was as sore as I was at the finish!
It was tough not to beat myself up too much for not finishing in the cutoff time but I knew how much I had been training and I also knew that I tried hard. I was prepared going in to the race that there was a 99.9 percent chance that I would finish after the 10 hour cut off but I just kept hoping that I could pull some cool trick out of nowhere and make it. I am glad that a blind person has now completed both the ascent and marathon. I hope that a blind person will decide to complete the marathon and do it in under 10 hours so that it is official. If no one else takes on the challenge, I will keep training until I think I can do it. I know it can be done, I just have to keep figuring out new and more efficient techniques.
- Respect the mountain! You never know what you are going to get on a given day or even in a given hour. Be prepared and don’t be stupid. We were lucky and got an amazing day but it could have been nasty and I don’t know what I would have done with slick rocks in rain and snow.
- If I decide to do lots of trail running I have to get comfortable with doing lots of falling. This is fine during training runs but I found myself getting a little more emotional about it on race day. I think this is just because I was tired and ready to be finished. Note to self (on race day wear your big girl pants).
- Having 800 other runners on the course is a double edged sword. It is INCREDIBLY amazing to have so many people cheering you on but it can be tough to pass and be passed easily without worrying about knocking someone off the mountain.
- I will never run on a trail without a trekking pole. As a blind runner, the trekking pole gave me essential information about obstacles in the trail, drop offs, helped with balance, and really made it possible to complete the course.
- I would never do the course with just one guide. The process of giving so many verbal cues has to be mentally fatiguing. I think it is only fair to a guide runner to have a break from time to time. Dionne and Mark switched about every 4 miles which seemed to work out very well.
- I want my mommy, daddy, Kevin, Kevan and all of my running buddies there to cheer me on all the time. It feels so good to know you are loved and supported.
- THE HARDEST ONE FOR ME. I had to learn to be okay just for the day with hearing people say that I am inspirational. This is usually something that I find a bit offensive. I do not feel that I am any different from anyone else and the fact that people find it inspirational when I do the same thing that they do makes me a little crazy. This race was different because there were certainly issues that made it tricky for me as a blind person so I had to let go of that knee jerk reaction and hope that if people found me inspirational that they knew that I found them inspirational as well. I think it is beautiful the way that many sighted runners can hop from rock to rock. I hope I can find some techniques to help me trail run even half as gracefully as so many of the runners I saw going down the mountain.
- I WANT TO FINISH IN THE CUT OFF TIME!!! I do not know if I ever will but I will keep working toward that goal. I will sign up for the PPA until I know that I can do the course fast enough. Even though I was prepared to finish without the support of aid stations and medical staff, people waited. It was incredibly kind but I would not want to make it a habit to abuse this kindness year after year. There are time cut offs for a reason but I know that with practice and time on trails, I will get there.
I am not sure yet but I know it is going to be EPIC so stay tuned. This was the hardest thing that I have ever done and even though I did not finish in time, I consider it my biggest running accomplishment. Over the next year I want to train for something that makes this race seem easy!
“Following our will and wind we may just go where no one’s been. We’ll ride the spiral to the end and may just go where no one’s been. SPIRAL OUT! KEEP GOING!”- Tool, Lateralus