Patience Grasshopper, Patience

By Fred Maas, age 60

Pro-log: I ran Pikes Peak in 1979, ’80 (round-trip), ’81, ’82, and ’83. that includes the 25th annual, so I decided to run the 50th annual. I have run more or less continuously since age 12, but never in a competitive way, just for the joy of it. [View Fred’s Pikes Peak results]

Pikes Peak is not a race to me. It is a journey, a pilgrimage. It begins with a prayer and ends with a song.

The starting line is a nervous collage. Adjusting supplies for the long run, stretching, warming up, people there varied in age from 15 to almost 80. They were every size and shape. Some sported significant packs, these can’t be runners, even runners had liquid supplies, apparently others besides me won’t use Gatorade.

The honorary starter of the Pikes Peak Marathon is Steve Gachupin, six times winner. We spent some time chatting with him and his son, Dom. Then I noticed movement that was out of sync.

Somewhere in the crowd and athlete was sprinting, sprinting through the crowd, weaving deftly between athletes, and coming straight at me. I turned and focused, great scott, it’s ELLIOTT a former student of mine). He landed on me with a bear hug which I returned. Each of us with tears, his bright face glowing he said, “I dreamed you would be here.” A past student of mine, Elliott is a long story. He said he was running this for his father who had taken ill and was unable to participate.

Pikes Peak could be seen far above us, bathed in sunlight even as we were still in shadow. There was a full moon setting next it, sharing the sky with mare’s tales. The warning was taken; get up the mountain or get turned away at A-Frame (treeline aid station, or 12,000 ft) when the storm closes in.

Steve fired off the gun for the B Wave of 1,200 runners at 7:30. The first 1,200 had begun at 7 AM. They would be distinguishable later because of the blue bib numbers as opposed to our magenta ones. I would pass more than one.

Bren and Elliott took off uphill, up the main street of Manitou Springs, at a pretty good clip. I started near the line with most of the twelve hundred behind me. I had not warmed up, but would warm up soon enough. The road even here is distinctly uphill, and I was working on sliding along with as little effort as possible, going as fast as I could without developing any breathlessness. Six thousand feet elevation here in town poses no problem to me.

Large numbers of runners sweep by me. Some are carrying surprising to me packs, not the packs a runner would take, but carrying all sorts of foul weather gear and food for several meals, none of which I would think they will get to use.

A half mile, and we turn onto Ruxton Street, the hill sharply steepens. I have sifted back toward the middle of this pack and know full well many of those going by will become obstacles to my later running.

I notice a child perhaps twelve or thirteen, running. He has no bib number, it is not allowed. He is accompanied by his mother and father. All three have substantial packs. Already they are running for fifty yards then walking for fifteen, before hurrying on. “Keep up,” the mother called to flagging boy. There is no chance I am going to see any of these three on top.

We approach the Cog Railroad Station, the road steepens again. I am moving soundlessly, right on ten minute miles which up this steep a hill is pretty good (for me). Already a few of those who passed me are walking and I am repassing them for the last time. We are in a steep valley, the road is getting rougher, it is cool, shaded, moist. The pain from my heel fracture is subsiding. The pain in my aggravated knee is going away. I have worked up a sweat film that is evaporating, keeping me cool.

The road narrows, becomes more patches than not, there is noise and talking. I pull the homemade super-light water bottle from my back pocket, attach it with velcro to my chest, and unscrew the top with straw, stick the straw into my singlet to hold both, and enter the aid station area.

I glance at my watch. I was looking for 17 minutes, that would be the pace to a 4:30 run. I was projected to run five hours fifteen minutes, and of course from that I would hope to break five hours. But the truth is, I secretly dreamed, no, intended to run 4:30 which is the average time for the entire field regardless of age. My watch says 16:53. So far so good, but everyone is ahead of schedule at the Cog aid station.

There is music blaring. The workers are feeding and watering 1,200 runners in perhaps five minutes elapsed time as we pass. I am holding my water bottle, it is all confusion, I call out, “WATER!” I am answered immediately as a worker near me announces, “here, on your right.” I look. A teenaged girl taking her mission very seriously looked me in the eye, a water filled cup in either hand. I held out my bottle, she understood and poured one cup in. Before she could pour the other, I pulled my bottle back, “that’s enough for now, thanks!” She was on to another.

I was turning, through the station, heading up. Trail. Dirt. Finally. The trail was packed with people, but single file and running, albeit slowly. Up.

The first switchbacks had well made handrails alongside. It seemed almost immediately we were up out of the trees onto an open slope. All the babbling people on the trail, slowing it, goodness, way past time to check my pulse. 150

Yikes! That is not only above fat-burning, but it is up most of the way through aerobic zone, burning glycogen, and I mustn’t. But I am hardly breathing at all. It is SO easy. Stay with the plan, I urge myself. As the people-choked trail turns, the runners are forced to slow. I allow myself to slow also, and the pulse falls to 148.

It is necessary to pay attention to the crowd. People are walking already. I need to maintain a steady climb, and I need to get around them, but without any speed bursts that will consume glycogen. “On your left.”

“On your left.” Pulse rises to 150 again. Patience, Grasshopper. Patience. Sip electrolyte.

Sip. Suddenly empty. WOW! Six ounces of fluid went down so easily, quickly. I stuck the container to the Velcro on the bib number again, reached behind and pulled out a packet of electrolyte, recharged the container, put the top back on and returned it to my back pocket. Keep running.

We had been running back and forth across the old-fire scarred face of the mountain, but now we entered the forest. It was a long switchback, and lots of walkers ahead were passed. “On your left.” Up. I didn’t know we were near the Incline. Voices up ahead. Incline Aid Station.

Quickly I pulled out my container, unscrewed the top, stuck the straw in my singlet, as suddenly we were surrounded by a swarm of aid workers. “Gatorade on your left, water on your right.” I turned my head to the right, it was all a confusion, blurr of motion. I poked out my hand clutching the bottle, “water!” From out of the turmoil a hand, a pitcher, dump, my bottle was full, “thanks.” No stride missed. Up.

I turned another switchback, glanced at my pulse, 148. sigh. Looks like I am going to take Manitou mid-aerobic. But I am breathing so easily, almost no respiratory acceleration from the hill, I must be burning fat, at least some. Sweating isn’t even too bad, and sweating associates with burning glycogen (muscle sugar).

It is time to enJOY this run. For the first time I take my eyes off the trail, off my watch, my mind away from smooth movement, protecting the heel, pulse, and look out.

WOW !!! Through the pines I see Manitou Springs below. We have already climbed six maybe seven hundred vertical feet, and we keep rising. The view is grand, the sky is clear blue to the east. It is a bright, bright, sunshiny day.

Back to work. Up. Sip. Climb over boulders, and onward. Here a more level spot, relax into gear. The trail seems less crowded now, with me, runners. The walkers have been left behind. Left and right, more switchbacks. Water container empties, more electrolyte is placed, and the bottle returned to pocket ready for the next aid station.

Oh my goodness. What was my split at Incline? Was I climbing too fast, too slow? Was I still anywhere near my hope for 5 hour pace, or my dreamed four-thirty? I dunno. Shut-up and run.

We go under the huge leaning boulder, a highlight of the whole trail, what fun, fun to run, full cool, shade, and up. Continue. The steepness is easing now, one hour is gone.

For a five hour run, the pace to French’s Creek aid station would be 1:27. For a four-thirty dream run, the pace would be 1:19. The minutes go by and I am gliding through the forest in silence, breathing easy. But now there is Noise.

Music! Getting louder rapidly. French’s Creek? I move my bottle to the Velcro on my chest, and run both hands free. Person beside the trail. He calls to me, “No Name Creek hundred yards.” I refuse to release the original name of French’s Creek.

It is HERE! I am 4.6 miles and 2,600 feet UP. I glance at my watch; 1:13. Joy spreads through my every countenance. I am six minutes under the pace for my dream run, and I feel marvelous.

Workers shout encouragement, others call out “pretzels,” “cookies here,” “Oranges,” “bananas,” “you’re looking great, Man!” I reply, “water,” holding out my container. Once again a pitcher appears almost magically and the container is filled, I pass six or eight runners fueling and go seamlessly out the other side of the aid station, but not before three more workers call, “you look strong, have a great run!” I love you guys.

Do they talk individually to every single one of the two thousand plus runners like this? Tears come forth and I realize how emotional this whole event is with me. Shut-up and run.

We are gliding through forest now, smooth trail, up and down but overall, little altitude gain happening. The trees are big and the sun only filters through to the forest floor. My pulse falls to 140, low end aerobic, and ahead of schedule I decide that’s a good place for it to be. Sipping.

Empty again. Wow, I am absorbing a LOT of (electrolyte) water. This is very good. I prepare the bottle for the next feeding at Bob’s.

We climbed some, but only a 5% grade along that stretch. More music ahead in the forest. Bob’s aid station coming up. Somehow, Bob had managed to get his Jeep to this spot on the mountain, and ever since, it had become an aid station with trucked in water. What a LOT of work.

The aid stations compete for our vote. Which was the BEST aid station. What a neat thing. Again, there was a warning individual fifty yards before Bob’s so we were ready. The next gap from Bob’s to Barr Camp was the longest of the run, 2.7 miles. I wanted all sixteen ounces in my container this time. I don’t eat because the food requires digestion and that sucks water out of the system. I need blood volume. My electrolyte has the maximum possible, 7% concentration glucose, and that is the only feeding I will do.

I roll into Bob’s. it is a bustle of activity. I am toward the front of the Second Wave of runners, and they are geared up for us after brief respite between waves. Music blares, volunteers are singing, dancing, entertaining, calling out, “get psyched,” There is every assortment imaginable of energy finger food, they are so kindly I want to oblige, but stick to my plan, and just hold out my container calling “water,” and am instantly filled. I am through the aid station in a moment, leaving a dozen runners passed, and the music begins to fade.

There is one last aid station worker waiting. He calls to me and every runner. “thank’s for stopping by Bob’s. There is a downhill ahead, be sure to use it!” Tears are close again. I lean forward and roll into the brief downhill. It wouldn’t be worth mentioning except it is the only one in the Run.

Running through the heavy forest crosses the draw between Manitou Mountain and Pikes Peak. It is soon up hill again, albeit not so steeply. A Robber-Jay lands besides the trail, cocks his head toward, unafraid of my movement, I talk to him, suggest he stop by bob’s a few minutes back on the trail. It is time to take stock.

Pulse is settled on 143. I am comfortable, not tired. I can tell I am higher now, and have increased respiration, but my muscles are loose. Relax the shoulders, keep the jaw jutted forward to open the airway, and always belly-breath. I have downed 50 oz of electrolyte, and am sweating freely. This is a long stretch to Barr Camp. There are gaps between the runners now, nice, you can run almost alone, but if you stop, you won’t be in seconds. Time to sing.

Never went to high school,
Never cared either way.
Never made a difference
Reachin out with both hands
You gotta feel the KICK in-side!

ALL FIRED UP !!!!

I believe there comes a time,
When every thing just falls in line
We live and learn from all mistakes,
The deepest cuts are healed by faith!

Songs fill my heart, thoughts of loved ones. Delicious air goes in and out, strides one after another, no two alike in this climb, and around trees, ever upward. I can catch glimpses of Pikes still sunlit and majestic, but the mares tails are heavy now. Anything can happen; better get up there.

Before I know it, Barr’s Camp aid station. Ten thousand feet. Like all the aid stations, the help is plentiful, energetic, swift, and supportive. I am through it with a full water bottle so quickly I barely remember to glance at my watch. 2:12. I was looking for 2:17 for the dream pace four-thirty. My margin of time has slipped only slightly. I know instinctively I won’t quite make it, but I am going to give it a rip.

The five miles to go sign appears out of nowhere with about 2:49 elapsed, and the trail steepens a lot. My stride shortens and I dig in, while I do some mental arithmetic. Even reduced to a walk, I reason, I should be able to power a mile in twenty minutes. Maybe. So I need an hour and forty, and I have exactly an hour and forty-one now. Shut-up and run.

Steep terrain and boulders to negotiate. This won’t be easy. The four miles to go sign appears in nineteen minutes. First one is made. Trail steepens again, more climbing than smooth trail now, forest thins, sky darkens, light takes on an eerie glow. I’ve seen this before.

Three to go sign appears in twenty-one minutes. Back to even, and here is A-Frame. A-Frame aid station. This is where Danny stopped and had breakfast when he ran this at age twelve. Even now he has been reduced to walking here year after year. I fill my water bottle and charge. It isn’t going to be easy, but I am not going to let go.

Soon the trees are gone, the trail is now rocky, boulder strewn, and steep. It is as much climbing as anything, no way for a twenty minute mile. Runners are gaining. Rats. Run.

Time to begin hyper-ventillating. We are at twelve thousand feet now, I need to pressurize each breath. I sound like a freight train and loving it. Up. I am slowing, but still passing. It is getting darker. Two to go. The peak is out of sight above and beyond cliffs above me.

Anyone can go the last two. Time to press into it. I increase the respiration and the pulse rises to 150. Good! There is still glycogen here or the engine wouldn’t be responding so nicely. Let’s go.

A long reach without a switch back. I glance upward. For the love of all that’s HOLY!! The top of the mountain is gone into a cloud. The cloud is boiling over the top and flowing down. It is mountain magnificent, and I know conditions are going to change fast now. Charge!

It is colder, now much colder. I pull out my 2.5 oz windbreaker, and put it on. Wow, what a difference, I am warm again, r-u-n.

Noise up ahead. It’s cirque! I don’t bother with water or anything now, it’s too late. The hail begins to slash at me. Aid workers cover up with heavy ponchos and anoraks, I am in shorts and micro-light wind-breaker.

Unknown to me, up on topů Brendan finishes a rough run in four-twelve. He didn’t hydrate sufficiently, like so many before him the hill took him out after 8 miles. From there he had to ask forgiveness from the mountain. He went from running with the wave leaders, to an hour behind them. With water from aid stations up high, he recovers, and scampers the last mile and finishes running hard. Dan and Deb pick him up, hyperthermic, get him a jacket, water, food. The hail increases, lightning, thunder immediately following.

The loudspeaker blares, “the trail has been closed at A-Frame. All runners not already past a-Frame are being turned back.”

Dan, Bren, Debby look at each other. Did Dad make the cut-off? They do time estimates. If he was running five hour pace or slower, he didn’t make it, they decide. They have no way of knowing. All decide they will wait until no one else is coming up.

I am driving myself up the trail into a pelting storm. Lightning flashes blinding, and thunder bursts without time gap. The runner next to me, “shall we dive for a rock?” I said, “no worries. That lightning was below us!” (Run, you fool).

My hands are swollen and blue now, I am getting hyperthermic. I am running well, breathing well, the altitude is not bothering me, but I am easily imbalanced trying to climb over boulders in the way.

Out of the fog and driving hail a figure looms. Raincoated yellow, an intrepid lady yells over the wind, “you have reached the sixteen golden stairs!” I can’t see ten feet. Sixteen short, steep switchbacks to go. Slashing hail. I hear her again, now behind me, reannounce, “you have reached the sixteen golden stairs.” RUN for it!

I climb, falter, and climb again, I round a corner and look up. There through the fog I can see a big yellow banner across the trail still high above me. A loudspeaker booms, and music blares, “I need a real live hero.” They sure know how to get a guy psyched.

I break into a run, ice slashing at my face, my legs are numbed by ice, my number is identified and the loudspeaker shouts, “Fred Maas, age 60, Santa Fe, New Mexico.” As I pass under the banner I push the stop button, freezing the watch on 4:35 and I hear another shout nearby to my right, “IT’S DAD!!!”

In the next moment I was surrounded by family, sweatshirt, gortex, and being helped away. I said, “I am hypothermic. Must. Find. Cover.”

There are a thousand runners on the peak, more arriving from the trail every minute. The hail turns to snow, the temperature dropped to freezing. Wind whistles.

We make our way to building we can barely see in the fog and snow, up to the door and push in. It proves to be the emergency room. A man bars my way, “only those with emergencies in here.” Behind me hundreds more hypothermic runners seek cover.

I said to the man, “You can let these hypothermic runners in now while they can still stand, or you can carry them in on stretchers in half an hour..” “I see you point. Stand against the wall over there and leave as soon as the snow stops.” We packed the room.

Unknown to us, some visitors to the peak who had no connection to the run, got in their cars and tried to drive away from the storm. Flatlanders for sure. In a very short distance they slid off the highway, stuck. The police closed the road, sent for a grader to plow it.

When the snow eased some, we sought our escape. We found the road down to where our car was parked three miles away and 1,200 feet lower, blocked by a police car, and cars queued up behind waiting permission to go. The runners jammed the two buildings awaiting vans to take them off.

We got all family members in private vehicles of strangers where they were warm and out of the cold and wet. I felt just too couped up in the back of the SUV I found, so I exited, and when the policeman wasn’t looking my way, went over the hill, picked up the road and began running down.

The snow was sloppy-wet, and splushed out from under my feet. I was in shorts and a gortex wind breaker top. It was cold, but now I was generating heat, and surprisingly, my legs felt good! I had eaten and drank a quart during the huddle-up. Now, my heart sang as I ran, and taking in the incredible view of swirling black clouds with lightning in them, I was in the brief clearing, a ray of sunshine, and down, down I went. It was a long three miles, and along the way, a herd of a dozen bighorn sheep graced the road, what a joy to see them.

In some thirty minutes I reached the parking lot below known as Devil’s Playground. Hundreds of cars there, and a line of vans set up to bring the runners down to their family cars, or then to transfer to school busses to get them back to Manitou. It was sunny for the moment, and the snow was melting fast. The parking lot was rivulet’s and mud. I decided to pull the car out of the parking lot before conditions got worse and it got stuck in there, and park it along the road.

A great blackness was to the north and moving in. The grader had gone up toward the peak. It seemed like yet another hour before, the grader returned. By that time the black cloud had enveloped us, wind, snow, fog, and I still in shorts.

I waited at the parking lot entrance as each vehicle stopped and let out a few runners who had bummed rides, one by one I picked up the family, all except Debby. Dan and I were now searching for her until there no more cars. The wind screamed, snow falling, fog, Dan shouts, I’ll search in the parking lot maybe she got by us.

Indeed she had, was running up and down the rows of cars, not able to see more the a few feet in front of her. She was getting cold, wet, and scared, but Dan found her, and brought her up. As frightened as she felt for a moment, that evaporated the moment she saw Dan’l.

We finally were all in the Outback together, wet, warm, and creeping down the hill in a driving snow storm with another memory for the ages.


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