It’s 13.32 miles to the top of the 14,115 summit of Pikes Peak with 7,815 feet of elevation gain along the way. Although most will end their day on top, a hearty group of others will run back down to the marathon’s finish line in downtown Manitou Springs to complete what’s called “America’s Ultimate Challenge.”
Most of us view Pikes Peak from a comfortable distance, the towering mountain’s 14,115-foot summit a constant reminder of its majesty in the western sky.
Then there’s a much smaller cross-section of the population that just isn’t satisfied with that vantage point. They’d rather see, feel, and experience the rocks, crags, switchbacks, dirt, and gravel up close and personal—on foot.
The heartiest of trail runners train all year long at extreme altitude in preparation for one glorious race: the Pikes Peak Marathon. This year’s edition is scheduled for August 25, one day after the Pikes Peak Ascent takes some 1,800 runners up to the summit in a 13.32-mile trek.
For the 800 athletes who get to run the marathon (based on qualifying times at previous races), reaching the top of the mountain means they’re only halfway through. By the time they reach the finish line on Manitou Avenue in downtown Manitou Springs, they will have conquered what’s called “America’s Ultimate Challenge.”
It’s Not for Everyone
“I think, like most people, it’s the sense of accomplishment and doing something challenging,” says Nancy Hobbs, the founder and executive director of the Colorado Springs–based American Trail Running Association and multiple-time Ascent and Marathon contestant. “It’s not an ordinary event in that the weather and mountain dictate a lot of what’s going to happen. The unexpected can happen, and that makes this race really interesting.”
It’s the final event of the annual Triple Crown of Running Series, the opener having taken place June 9 with the Garden of the Gods 10-Mile Run and followed by the Summer Roundup Half Marathon, which is scheduled for July 14 at Cheyenne Mountain State Park.
Each of the first two has its own allure, from the spectacular views of Garden of the Gods to a rolling course around Cheyenne Mountain State Park that was changed to a half marathon prior to the 2018 race.
But when it comes to running up—and down—“America’s Mountain,” there’s simply no comparison.
“By far, it was the toughest thing I’ve ever done,” says Ron Ilgen, the president of Pikes Peak Marathon Inc. and race director for the past 18 years.
The event dates back to 1936, when the Pikes Peak Footrace was staged for the first time as 18 men and one woman finished the ascent. The Marathon made its debut when the race returned to Barr Trail in 1956 after a 20-year hiatus. It’s been an annual event since then with very few changes along the way, save for a 1.1-mile change in the Marathon’s start location to its present site on Manitou Avenue in 1976 and the decision to split the Ascent and Marathon to separate days in 1981.
If you’re counting, there’s 7,815 feet of elevation gain from the event’s start in Manitou Springs to the top of Pikes Peak. “You get a real surge when you get to the summit in the marathon,” Hobbs says. “Even though it’s only the halfway mark, you have a sense of accomplishment. Of course, coming down Manitou Avenue to Ruxton, and you see the finish line, that’s the real accomplishment, just to finish this race.”
Marathon Earns Elite Status
Although the Pikes Peak Marathon for years has attracted runners from around the world, this year’s race takes on added significance as North America’s only event as part of the six-race Golden Trail World Series, sponsored by Salomon.
Pikes Peak hosts the series’ fourth race following events in Spain, France, and Switzerland. Sites in Italy and Great Britain will hold races before the top 10 men and women in the final standings (rankings are earned by participation in three of the races) qualify for October’s grand finale in Nepal.
The Golden Trail series made its debut last year, and Pikes Peak saw the impact of the increased world-class competition as American Megan Kimmel broke a 37-year-old course record in winning the women’s race.
The GoldenTrail World Series bills the Pikes Peak Marathon as “The Impossible Record,” alluding to the overall record time of 3 hours, 16.39 seconds set by race legend Matt Carpenter in 1993. No one has come within five minutes since then, and even with the world’s top runners participating last year, the winning time was only 3:32.20.
The best will return to take their shot again in 2019 for the crown and record, which makes all of us wonder, are all records made to be broken?