Surviving the Pikes Peak Marathon


It’s perfect weather for the 2017 Pikes Peak Marathon. A stroke of luck since the Summit is often freezing cold with snow, hail, thunder, lightning, or heavy rain.

At 7am, the gun sounds and 721 runners full of energy start to run the Pikes Peak Marathon in Manitou Springs, Colorado.

And we better have energy, because we’ll be running 26 miles (42 km) to the top of Pikes Peak and back, on this notoriously insane course at high altitude. No wonder it’s called “America’s Ultimate Challenge!” And is #2 on the list of the “World’s 15 Toughest Marathons!” 

Below are the fastest runners. And number 72 from Switzerland will win this very tough marathon in 3 hours 38 minutes. The others are from Colorado. No surprise since the fastest mountain runners live and train at high altitude.

Here at Manitou Springs we’re at 6,000 ft. elevation and breathing 21% less oxygen than the 100% oxygen in most races. And later at the 14,000 ft. Summit we’ll be breathing 41% less oxygen. But it won’t affect the lead runners because they’re acclimatized to high altitude.

But what about runners like me and most others who rarely go to high altitude?

Well, the Mountain runners call us “Flatlanders” because we live and train iflat areas with 100% oxygen. So we aren’t acclimatized to high altitude and risk getting altitude sickness.
It happened to me long ago when I threw-up for 4 hours climbing to the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro in Africa. And if it happens in this race I won’t be smiling like this!


Fortunately over the years I’ve learned how NOT to get Altitude Sickness. And the big secret is to start out running/walking much slower than you think you should. It’s the last thing you want to do in a race, but the best way for your body to gradually acclimatize to higher altitude and less oxygen. 

However many runners don’t know much about altitude sickness. So on this first steep hill of the race some are going much too fast. Soon a few will get sick, nauseous, or dizzy and give up in the first couple of miles.

 The first half of the race is uphill on steep dirt trails, and on very narrow parts we have to go single file. So each time someone up ahead yells “Runner” we all stop and quickly move to the right so the fastest runners now speeding downhill can fly past us. The stops slow us down but are also nice breaks on the steep climb.
Running through the forest, the scenery is spectacular! Although I don’t see it very much. Too busy looking down at my feet so I won’t trip over rocks and stumps. 
After slogging 10 miles (16km) uphill on dirt trails, we reach the Tree Line. It’s called the “Tree Line” because all the trees joined a union, then drew a line on the ground and said, “We’re not goin’ any higher past this line. There’s not enough air up there and we’ll die.”
So the trees are smart enough NOT to go higher than the Tree Line. But we runners aren’t that smart. So we just keep going higher and higher.  And now instead of trees, there are fields of huge boulders that we have to run, walk, and crawl over. I always thought Boulder Colorado was a city. But it’s really the top of this mountain.
Now there’s “only” 3 miles (5 km) of trudging uphill to reach the Summit and Marathon half-way turnaround point. But those 3-miles will be toughest of the entire race, with the steepest trails, highest altitude, and least oxygen in the air just when you need more!
At 12,000 ft. (3,657 m.) there’s 37% less oxygen with each breath I take. And at the Summit there’ll be 41% less oxygen with each breath. That’s what I call really, really BAD BREATH! And possible Altitude Sickness.

Here’s how Altitude Sickness affected Jill Parker in the 2013 Pikes Peak Marathon

“Every single step was a decision. Pain. No oxygen. Nauseous. Light-headed. My head was a bowl of mush. I wanted to stop so badly, but couldn’t. I have never felt this miserable…ever!”

It looks like the woman below feels the same way, and many other runners are also hurting. Especially those who went too fast in the beginning. And now, so close the top, quite a few will simply give up and be disqualified.

Now I’m slogging up the last mile to the summit, puffing and panting, going painfully slow, and I just want to give up. But thanks to the slow pace I have no severe Altitude Sickness. Just a bit dizzy at times, so I hug boulders and use them as crutches to stay upright .

Finally I reach the Summit, after a slow 5 hours 40 minutes and uphill for 13 miles (21 km). What a relief! But don’t let the smile fool you. I’m totally trashed! And like the sign says, I’m afraid the organizers will put me in a bag and dump me in that trash can.
Instead they offer me food. But high altitude kills your appetite, so I eat nothing and will regret it later. Just rest for a minute and drink gatorade, then turn around and begin the 13 mile (21 km) run back down to the Marathon Finish Line. And almost instantly I start to feel better thanks to more oxygen with every step down to lower altitude.

Going downhill is faster than coming up, but not as easy as I thought it would be, cause now you have to dodge other runners coming up, and there’s increased risk of leg cramps, or tripping on rocks and taking a tumble.

Luckily I get no cramps and fall only once. Nothing serious but I stop at an aid station where the nice workers put on bandages, and tell me many runners have been falling today.

My big mistake was not eating at the summit. At 5am this morning I had a good breakfast, but for the last 10 hours only a few energy gels that I’m carrying and some M&Ms at aid stations. So now I’m running out of energy, and slowing down.

I stop and reach for my last few energy gels… but don’t have the energy or willpower to open the package and eat them…and worried I’ll finish over 10-hours and be disqualified…so I just keep running. 

Then a nice surprise as I get closer to the finish-line in Manitou Springs. Suddenly I’m running much faster without even trying, cause down here at 6,000 ft. altitude there’s much more oxygen to breathe. 
I cross the finish-line in 9 hours 38 minutes. My second slowest marathon ever. But under the 10-hour cut off time, so have survived my 85th Marathon. And surprisingly win 2nd Place out of 5 in the Men 70-74 Age Category.
(1st Place is a high altitude runner from Colorado Springs, 3rd is over the time limit, and 4th, 5th Do Not Finish.)
721 runners start the Marathon and 79 drop out before the end. So 11% of all runners Do Not Finish “America’s Ultimate Challenge.”
Congratulations to the High Altitude overall winners, and all of us Flatlanders for making the effort. And a big thanks to the helpful Aid Station workers who kept us going.
Next is the Berlin Marathon, and it’s totally flat with lots of oxygen. Yippee!!! 
Richard St. John






  • Mark Cafiero

    Excellent! You are such an inspiration. I ran the pikes peak marathon in 2002 and the ascent in 2000, 2001, 2003. I was in my 20s

    I decided why not do it again at 43 (just the ascent!). Just a month away, your story is just what I needed!