Pikes Peak Marathon: 3 Facets of Mountain Running (& Life) Strategy

  • August 26th, 2015

This post is part of the Run & Reflection series – where I reflect on running, or a completely random topic. Or sometimes, a little bit of both.


When I first made my way out to Colorado Springs from Boston (escaping a brutal winter) at the end of January, I was not planning on staying longer than the end of April. I just wanted to get a crazy head start on run training.

But the problem was, I was too injured to run!

So, I could abort my mission, but that would mean not taking advantage of running in Colorado. So I stayed. And waited. And waited some more. I bought a mountain bike, I hiked the Incline, and I went to the gym. I worked on an app, Cronster, which is essentially a tool for biding your time more effectively.

Finally, in late April, I started to run regularly. I also decided to stick it out for a while – and registered for the Pikes Peak Marathon. You can’t be a Mountain/Ultra/Trail runner out in Colorado Springs and not go for the Pikes Peak Marathon (and/or Ascent). So I had to!

Pikes Peak Marathon

Pikes Peak Marathon is not your normal marathon. Starting in Manitou Springs (6300′), it climbs 13 miles up to the summit of Pikes Peak (14,115′) and goes all the way back down. The trail is quite technical (and crowded) at times.

I figured on a great day I could break five hours, and maybe place in the top 30. While that didn’t quite happen (5:19, 38th Overall), I managed this race quite well – particularly through the critical first 10 – 11 miles.

While I was fairly fit going in to the race – it was actually the smarter racing that helped me in the end.

To give you an idea of my relative success: I started in the back of second wave (roughly 350 runners ahead of me), and I must have passed 300 runners before mile 10. I passed more than 20 after that, and was maybe passed 3-4 times in the whole race.

2015 Pikes Peak Marathon
I did fall once (I will buy this photo, I promise)

Three Mountain Running (& Life) Strategies

To share what I did right in this race with you:

1. Energy Management

In a mountain race at the marathon or ultra distance, the general idea is your exertion has to feel easy for as long possible. Now I don’t mean leisurely, but it has to not feel like a tempo run.

Racers get excited to race. Excitement is a normal emotion – but one must control their emotions, whether they are up or down. I ran a sub-7 minute mile at the beginning of last year’s Vermont 50K, for example. That led to a ugly down period mid-race. I recovered – but had to fight off some gnarly demons in the process.

If your next endeavor is a marathon, figure out what your true marathon pace is. And don’t treat it like a sprint.

2. Terrain / Course Management

You have to see and react to what is in front of you – with your own eyes and mind. When it’s too steep, you hike. But when it’s flat or downhill, you should be pushing it. Terrain is less technical? Push it. Look ahead to see the best place to pass another runner. To paraphrase all-time great and Pikes Peak Marathon record holder, Matt Carpenter, the race is like a chess match.

During the race, I saw hundreds of runners running when they should have been hiking, only to hike when they should have been running.

Essentially many runners were doing what the person in front of them was doing. And what the person in front of them was doing was wrong.

Herd mentality happens in all facets of life, and when you are tired – it’s easy to follow the leader. But a lot of times, the leader is doing the wrong thing. Evaluate the course with your own eyes, and set the necessary pace as a reaction.

3. Nutrition / Hydration / Pain Management

Nutrition and pain management is preemptive. If you get behind, you cannot make it up.

Your body can only process so many calories and nutrients in an elapsed period of time. You must have the awareness to be taking care of yourself – early and often.

In life, you can’t get too far behind on what’s important – nutrition, sleep, etc. It will catch up with you – and it’s a nasty feedback loop. By that I mean, by starving your brain – you starve your ability to manage yourself, only making things worse.


My positive experience with the Pikes Peak Marathon reinforced the idea that the longer and more difficult a race is, the more mental it becomes.

Of course, there are no substitutes for legs of iron, or a VO2max that is through the roof.

But I’m also sure there are a couple dozen runners in the 2015 Pikes Peak Marathon who would smoke me in a sea-level, flatland marathon, but were behind me when I hit the finish line in Manitou Springs. So, yeah, race as smart as possible!

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2 responses to “Pikes Peak Marathon: 3 Facets of Mountain Running (& Life) Strategy”

  1. Dustin says:

    Nice write up and congratulations! I’d love to run that race someday.

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