Pikes Peak Hill Climb Shiverfest

shiv·er  \ˈshiv-ər\
: to undergo trembling : experience rapid involuntary muscular twitching especially in response to cold

After completing in the Mount Evans Hill Climb in late July 2014, I knew that I had to ride the only other paved road to the top of a Colorado 14er:  Pikes Peak (14,110;).  After a bit of a search, I found the Pikes Peak Cycling Hill Climb was scheduled for August 26, 2014; I signed up as soon as I could figure out how (it’s a long story).  Little did I know that the Pikes Peak Cycling Hill Climb would be an epic adventure rivaling my most extreme mountaineering adventures.  Three hours worth, anyway.

pikespeakridephoto

A view of much of the Pikes Peak Tollway, including the Crystal Resevoir (the start of the race), the lower switchbacks lead to Glen Cove (the 1/2-way point of the race), the treeline, and the start of the infamous “Switchbacks” above treeline.

I had done a lot of riding since my first organized ride, The Triple Bypass in July 2014.  The road cycling thing had begun to feel like old-hat: I was no longer consumed with attention to every variable or stressing over potential disasters.  For the Pikes Peak ride, I really only had two major concerns:

  1. What would the weather be like at 14k?
  2. Would my lingering illness-related breathing issues (asthma?) be resolved by race day?

Both questions would be slow to resolve, and the answers would reveal themselves rather dramatically.

On Saturday the night before the race, as I lay feeling sorry for myself in my Manitou Springs motel bed, I wondered why I put myself into such a miserable place.  I wondered how I could leave my family so early on a Saturday evening to live alone for a night in a dirty hotel room attempting to watch Bronco football on a TV with reception so poor as to be unmatched since my teen years watching Benny Hill reruns on a UHF station.  The uncertainty of my health and the weather, and the dread of waking up at 3am was making me feel stressed and unhappy; and I wondered out loud why I did this to myself.

But almost immediately, the answer came.  I did it because I loved it.  The feeling of stress and misery vanished, replaced by a feeling of anticipation and excitement.  Although I did retain a hope that I wouldn’t catch anything serious in the nasty room which had not been adequately cleaned since the previous night’s occupant.

I awoke before my alarm and made ready for a hard morning workout.  My first task was to check the weather for the morning. I was surprised at the low temperatures for the early hours (high 40’s), which suggested very cold temps nearly a mile higher, on the summit.  At the least the question of whether to wear my arm and leg warmers was resolved.  I ate, dressed, packed up my car, and left for Pikes Peak at 4:15am to pick up my packet at the tollway entrance, and then drive another 7 miles to the starting line.

Climate data for Pikes Peak summit
Month May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec Year
Average high °F 28.4 38.5 47.6 48.1 39.2 28.4 16.0 10.7 25.8
Average low °F 14.3 24.6 33.7 32.9 24.3 14.2 3.9 −2.7 11.9
Snowfall inches 31.5 25.0 11.3 11.0 13.5 20.9 33.1 36.3 337.6

I didn’t know what sort of speed I could sustain over the 12+ mile, nearly 7% grade course, so I didn’t have much to go by in predicting a finish time. I understood that I had to finish within 3 hours to get a medal, so ‘better than 3 hours’ was my original goal. As always, I hoped to do better than the minimum, and I planned to go as hard as I could. I definitely would not stop, give up, quit, or die before reaching the summit, as per usual.

Official map

Official map

The day before the ride I discovered that the course pro records were only about 10 minutes over an hour (~10 mph), I decided I would do much better than 3 hours but still could not guess at a time. On the Mt Evans ride, I averaged just under 10 mph, but that route is not nearly as steep on average. I just didn’t dare hope for under 2 hours.

After dropping off my summit gear bag (I would not make that mistake again), I arrived at the start line with my jacket in my pocket and 5 minutes to wait.  I managed to secure a spot close to the front, near mile marker 7; the ride would take me to the Pikes Peak summit, just past mile maker 19, for a 12.4 mile ride gaining over 4,700 feet of elevation.

As we waited, the riders around me worried aloud about the wind we all could hear blowing through the tops of the trees. High winds plus cold temps would make for a very difficult day.  I was pleased that I had put on my arm and leg warmers.

“More than 300 riders took part in The Broadmoor Pikes Peak Cycling Hill Climb in the early hours, braving it through bone-chilling temperatures, low visibility, steep cliffs and furious winds at their head.

And the higher they climbed, the tougher the conditions became.

‘Just being a part of this climb this year is an incredible achievement. The times don’t matter,’ elite rider LeRoy Popowski said.”

~ The Gazette

Mile Markers 7-9 (2 miles)

The race started at 6am, and I took off very fast to maintain my near front starting position. The first mile was a mild incline and was behind us very quickly.  The second mile was a bit steeper, but also went by quickly.  The 3rd mile began at mile marker 9, and that was also the start of the hard climbing.  The wind was occasionally strong but didn’t seem life changing, unlike previous mountain rides.

Mile Marker 9-11 (2 miles)

I stayed with my group for about 1.5 miles of steep climbing, but I could not catch enough air to sustain it. I lost contact with the group as I focused on getting enough air.  As feared, my lungs were not working well, and I was suffocating.  It was tremendously disappointing, but finishing was the priority.

Mile Marker 11-13 (2 miles)

Pikes Peak Cycling Hill Climb Route copyI stayed with the effort, though, concentrating on fully exhaling and inhaling. And, slowly my breathing improved. I was able to pick my pace back up and keep my breathing under control. And I stopped losing ground to the other riders that I could see.  I also started drinking my water to prepare for a stop at the 1/2 point at Glen Cove.

At 6:50am, when I reached the half way point (near mile marker 13), I checked my watch and was amazed to discover only 50 minutes had gone by; I was under a 2 hour pace.  I hadn’t finished my 1st bottle of water, so I decided to skip the aid station.  I’d stop at the next station further up the mountain.

Mile Marker 13-16 (3 miles)

Emboldened, I pushed harder. I started passing the people who had earlier crept by me. And the wind started getting worse.

I started up the switchbacks as I left the trees, and the wind transformed into an opponent.

pikes metalWatching the riders ahead of me fight uphill like salmon swimming up waterfalls, the experience was surreal. The buffeting of the wind felt like some of the worst mountaineering experiences I’d suffered through. There were times when I was moving <1 mph, so slowly that I could only barely go faster than the riders who had gotten off their bikes to walk up the road. And, the wind-chill was deadly.  The real fear of death or injury combined with the extreme effort made for a powerful feeling of adventure.

In a weird part of my mind, I loved it.  It was a thrill to be a part of it, right up to the point that I couldn’t feel my hands anymore.

While I knew I should do it to protect my core, I hadn’t put on my jacket yet; I kept thinking I could finish without it due to the massive calorie burn. I didn’t want to lose the time.  I did have on arm and leg warmers, but my well-ventilated, full-fingered gloves were not nearly enough. My hands were so cold I had to keep looking down at my hands to make sure I wasn’t inadvertently pulling on the brake levers.

At 7:35am, the small group I was with finished the switch back section just after mile marker 16, and sped up to capitalize on the temporarily easier terrain before the last 1.5 miles of climbing.  I had 25 minutes to finish under 2 hours; surely 25 minutes was enough to ride 3 remaining miles to the summit.

My legs were still strong, especially when standing on the bike.  While I could no longer stay with the group while I sat in the saddle; I could close the gaps whenever I would stand up and brave the brutal wind.  I decided to pass by the final water station as I hadn’t even started on my 2nd bottle due to an inability to take a hand off the handlebars; I just didn’t dare lose any control while under attack by the wind.

“High winds that forced the windchill factor below 20 degrees thrashed the riders who attempted the 12.4-mile climb to the peak’s 14,115-foot summit.”

~pikespeaksports.us

Mile Marker 16-19 (3 miles)

I couldn’t find mile markers anymore but the ride organizers put up kilometer remaining signs starting with 5k (3 miles).

At 3k (1.86 miles), the final climb was on.  But this final stretch averaged 10% grade.  It would be very painful.

I was feeling strong despite getting progressively hypothermic.  I wasn’t even feeling cold anymore, just numb, as the wind-chill was finally penetrating my core. The thought to put on my jacket was never out of my mind, but I just couldn’t give up the time. I really wanted to beat 2 hours, and it looked like I would be just a couple minutes slow already.

Riders were stopping left and right, and I was determined to stay with this group, and I would sprint to the finish, so help me God.

1 km to go.

I was going to make it for certain; but ‘under 2 hours’ was getting away from me. I couldn’t afford the distraction of calculating an estimated ETA…I just pushed as hard as I could.  The group was bunching up and continued to drop jacket-less guys who were too cold to keep up the pace. We went by another couple guys who had accelerated away from my group a few miles before.

The visibility was bad as we were finishing in a fast-moving cloud. Through the haze, I could see the finish line. This was my time.

I accelerated, finding speed I didn’t think I still had to pass the entire remaining group, ‘counting coup’ as I went by each one.

Results for Pikes Peak Cycling Hill Climb   Fun Ride   USA CyclingI finished at approximately 10:05 am.  I did not finish in under 2 hours.

My finish time was 2:05:55, yet, I still felt I had recaptured that portion of my pride lost during my weak finish to the Mt Evans Hill Climb.

“With bone chilling temperatures, 40 mile per hour winds and a dense fog limiting visibility at the summit this year’s event was a true challenge to every rider!”

~Pat McDonough, Event Director

The race was over for me, but the adventure was still on. I had to get out of the freezing wind NOW.  The thought of taking summit photos never entered my mind.  I was focused on survival, which meant escape the wind, get on more clothes, and get the hell down.

And as I scanned the mostly blank summit area, I realized I had no idea where to find my gear bag or find shelter. There were a couple parked vehicles next to a building in the distance; I rode over to the parked vehicles hoping one of them had my gear bag. A guy in a down parka rolled down his window and told me to put my bike in the van if I wanted a ride down. I asked where I could find the gear bags.  He said to look in the Cog Railway building, and pointed to the other side of the summit. I walked my bike as quickly as I could over broken, sloping ground where I found a door in what appeared to be an abandoned building.  I tried the door and was surprised it opened.

I went inside the abandoned building to escape the wind; I would at least be able to put on my jacket.  But when I entered I found a dozen people milling around or sitting on the floor amid a sea of gear bags. I had found it!

It wasn’t a warm room, but it had my gear.  Unfortunately one-half of the bags looked exactly like my own, which I eventually found at the far end of the room. By this time, I was shivering violently and struggling with stiff fingers to open the bag and put on my fleece sweater. I finally got the fleece on and my rain jacket over the top. My hands were starting to thaw and hurt, so I decided to accelerate the process to end the pain. I put my hands on the skin of my torso, which didn’t feel much warmer but still worked. Absolute agony. The thawing pain was severe; I hurt so badly I was afraid I’d throw up. It subsided after 5 minutes that seemed to last an hour.

I looked in the gear bag to see what else I had managed to pack; I found a balaclava and a pair of socks. I did not find the hand warmer packs which I had expected and counted on to keep my hands warm on the ride down. (I later found the hand warmers in the front seat of my car).  But it was enough; I would definitely ride down.

I put on the balaclava, which prompted another rider asked me if I was riding down. I replied “I had to”; I just couldn’t come all this way and then ride the bus down. Still, he had a point. It was cold, the wind was dangerous, and I was not starting from a warm base.

I consumed the 2nd bottle of water I had carried from the parking lot, and then filled it again out of habit.  There was zero chance I would take a hand off the handlebars on the descent.  Then I left the building and started down the road.

Almost immediately, I started shivering.  But I was making decent progress down the winding road, also weaving between the riders and walkers who did not look up from their misery and efforts. Occasionally, the wind was too strong and I slowed to nearly a stop to keep from crashing.

I was shivering so badly my arms were pulling on the handle bars, twisting my front wheel as I was trying to stay upright despite the blowing wind. The combination of uncontrollable arm twitching and violent gusts of wind made for some of the least well controlled riding of my life…all while riding along-side a steep cliff.

But I made it.  A few hours later I was home and pulling myself together to join my wife at her company picnic.

A couple of days later I found I had finished 17th of 96 finishers of the “Citizen’s Ride”. Not too bad for an old dude.

See index of Mountain Ride reports

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