One of the best parts of being the designated “Trail Trotter” for the American Trail Running Association is the exciting adventures I find myself partaking in to cover stories of the incredible happenings in the trail running community. Last month, I accompanied and filmed trail runners Alex Nichols and Brandon Stapanowich (pictured above) on a winter summit attempt of Pikes Peak, one of the most iconic mountains in Colorado and the goal of Nichols’ “Pikes Peak Streak.” The February ascent would count as the fortieth time in as many months he has successfully made it to the top of the mountain.
In addition to Nichols’ personal story on the mountain, I look back on this amazing experience with my own story to tell. Pikes Peak is a special mountain to me. It’s the first peak I summited in Colorado and this past summer at the 2020 Pikes Peak Marathon was also where made my departure from a cycle of career threatening injuries. In the days leading up to my journey on Pikes Peak with Nichols and Stapanowitch, I found myself excited to reconnect with the mountain for the first time since completing the marathon six months prior. This would also be my first winter ascent of Pikes Peak.
For this article, I reflect on my experiences summiting the mountain both during the Pikes Peak Marathon and winter ascent with Nichols and Stapanowich. Some of the most significant differences between these two experiences included nutrition, gear and mental preparations before each summit attempt. I will explain what I did to make it to the top each time and offer my recommendations for anyone looking to complete a summer (or winter) Pikes Peak round trip.
Nutrition and Gear Considerations
The Pikes Peak Marathon, held annually since 1956 in Manitou Springs, Colorado, is one of the most classic mountain races in the United States. From my experience completing the race this past summer, I can say that it lives up to its tagline “America’s Ultimate Challenge.” The race takes runners from the town of Manitou Springs, CO (6,300 feet) to the top of Pikes Peak at 14,115 feet in roughly 13.1 miles. Runners then turn around at the summit and descend back into town to complete the full marathon (see also the Pikes Peak Ascent which finishes at the summit). In addition to being well trained, having a proper nutrition and gear strategy are essential to making it up and down the mountain safely.
Fueling for the race
One of the key components to a nutrition strategy for the Pikes Peak Marathon is having a regular fluid and electrolyte intake. Temperatures can vary 20 or more degrees from start to finish with weather on the summit often vastly different from that at the start line in Manitou Springs. It’s not uncommon to start in sunny 60-degree weather, reach the summit under cloud cover with temperatures in the 30s or 40s and return to 80-degrees back at the finish line. Although humidity is typically low, storms can develop quickly in this mountain environment.. The elevation, starting at 6,500 feet and ascending to over 14,000 feet, can, along with low humidity, lead to dehydration. These harsh conditions make it imperative to ingest the proper amount of fluids and electrolytes to reduce the onset of cramping, dizziness, fatigue or other symptoms associated with dehydration.
Caution: drinking too much water can result in hyponatremia, or a low concentration of sodium in the blood, whereas the intake of too many electrolytes, namely sodium, can cause hypernatremia, or sodium excess as compared to water in the body. Both of these conditions can be extremely dangerous and result in not just decreased performance, but nausea, low blood pressure, loss of energy, and in some cases can be life-threatening. This is a good reason to work with a sports nutritionist or coach who is knowledgeable about hydration and can give you recommendations for achieving the proper balance of fluid to electrolytes that results in optimum performance for your body.
[PRO TIP] As a general rule of thumb, carrying your own hydration and “sipping” consistently throughout your race as opposed to intaking large amounts of fluid at one time is easier on your stomach and will result in a more effective fluid intake.
Another important nutrition consideration during the Pikes Peak Marathon is carbohydrate consumption. The race environment and more runnable sections of the early parts of the course may encourage you to overexert yourself and run faster than your body can sustain for the full duration of the marathon. This can lead to depletion of carbohydrates stored in your muscles, ultimately causing a “bonk” or feeling of “hitting the wall.” Many runners claim to experience bonking after this race and attribute it starting out too quickly. High altitude also contributes to increased carbohydrate usage, which makes it even more important to ensure your carb stores aren’t empty during the race. Ways to ensure your muscles get enough carbohydrates include eating higher carbohydrate foods in the days leading up to the race and carrying high-carb foods such as gels, drink mixes, energy bars, etc. with you during the race. Pay additional consideration to how your body feels above tree-line (roughly 11,000 feet), and remember that the higher you get the more quickly your body burns through those carbs!
Outfitting for the race
Figuring out what gear you need to wear or bring with you is particularly tricky for the Pikes Peak Marathon. This is because the race features many terrain types and potential temperature and weather changes. Although temperatures are hot and dry on many parts of the course, temperatures are typically 30 to 40 degrees cooler on the summit than in town below. Afternoon storms can roll in without warning and it’s not uncommon for it to snow or hail on the trail even in summertime. Additionally, parts of the trail are smooth and rolling whereas terrain near the summit is more rocky and technical. Having the right gear will help you manage whatever you may encounter on the trail and stay safe.
Pikes Peak Marathon Gear List
- Gloves: This is the number one gear recommendation tip for the Pikes Peak Marathon from Nancy Hobbs, ATRA executive director and founder, who has completed the marathon four times and finished in the top ten. It can be quite easy to fall on the way down, especially after exerting yourself on the uphill. Wearing gloves will spare your hands from getting cut and bruised should you fall.
- Sunglasses: High altitudes increase the intensity of the sun and it’s likely to be sunny on race day. I recommend wearing glasses that have a category two or three lens grading. These lenses offer ideal eye protection for the exposed, high altitude climate you’ll be running through. Don’t forget to also apply sunscreen before the gun goes!
- Light-weight Protective Jacket (Waterproof): Although you may not need to wear it, it’s a good idea to carry (either in a small pack or pouch, or tied around your waist), a light moisture wicking jacket should there be an unexpected storm. Storms on Pikes Peak are often severe and runners have been turned around for safety concerns in past editions of the race.
- Trail Running Shoes: The versatility of terrain on this course makes it difficult to choose the right shoe, but in general a light-weight, trail-specific shoe will perform best on this course. Some runners prefer more cushion for downhill parts of this course, while others prefer shoes lower to the ground to avoid rolling their ankles. Pick a shoe that feels comfortable on your feet and provides a good blend of stability, cushion, and traction, while remaining as light as possible.
Winter Nutrition and Gear Considerations
My winter ascent of Pikes Peak with Nichols and Stapanowich followed much the same route as the marathon, departing from downtown Manitou Springs, CO and arriving at the summit. We took several minor variations due to snow and conditions on the trail. Although the route was much the same, the physical challenge and preparation time of this winter ascent was far greater than the traditional Pikes Peak Marathon. If you’re looking for a way to make “America’s Ultimate Challenge” even harder…this is it!
Conditions on the mountain are less predictable during winter months. There’s no race atmosphere with hundreds of runners around to push you to stay on pace. Aid station volunteers or race organizers won’t be there to assist you should you run out of food, drink or if something goes wrong. Odds are good that you will be one of few individuals on the entire mountain should you choose to summit in winter. This makes nutrition and gear planning even more essential for winter ascents. It’s also a good reason to not have a winter ascent be your first time summiting Pikes Peak.
Fluids and extra calories are keys in a winter ascent nutrition strategy. Colder temperatures during winter months may decrease your thirst, which makes it even more important to ensure you are still drinking enough fluids (electrolyte drinks and water in the proper balance). Even if you aren’t sweating at the same rate as compared to warmer months, hard physical exertion at high elevation increases the need for fluid and electrolyte replacement. It’s also important to bring extra calories on a winter ascent because it can be difficult to predict how many hours you’ll be on the mountain. It’s possible you’ll spend more time route finding or take longer than expected to cross snow-fields. Colder temperatures also require a higher caloric intake to keep your body warm. I recommend carrying enough calories to support you for a full day outside from sunrise to sunset. Even if you don’t use everything you bring, it’s better to have it with you than to be in a dangerously low caloric deficit in such extreme conditions. Don’t wait until you feel thirsty to start drinking. Stay hydrated throughout the effort.
You will need a wider range of gear in winter as compared to summer on Pikes Peak. During winter months, you are likely to encounter high winds, below freezing temperatures, snow and ice. Although following the traditional Barr Trail route to the summit should steer you clear of avalanche risk, it’s still a good idea to check the conditions before you go and use avalanche advisory apps such as Avalanche Forecasts or CalTopo. Winter ascents should not be undertaken by those without prior experience navigating mountainous trails in wintertime. Below is a list of gear I would recommend for winter Pikes Peak ascents.
[PRO TIP] Want to preview every step of the trail to the summit of Pikes Peak? Check out all 13 miles of the Pikes Peak Ascent and Marathon course available on Google Street-view thanks to ATRA’s 2017 Pikes Peak Trekker project.
Winter Pikes Peak Gear List
- Traction Device: (Available from YakTrax, HillSound, Kahtoola). These accessories for your trail running shoes are a great way to reduce your chances of slipping on ice. Shoes with built-in spikes like those from Icebug are also effective.
- Water-Resistant/Waterproof Socks: A recommendation from both Nichols and Stapanowich after spending too much time with wet feet during their past winter ascents on Pikes Peak are waterproof socks. During winter months, the majority of the trail will be snow-covered, which will likely make your shoes wet. Waterproof socks help keep your feet dry even when you’re spending hours running through snow.
- Thermal and Protective Layers: Temperatures drop and wind typically increases as you ascend the mountain, so it’s good to have a variety of layers for many different temperatures and conditions. See my article on how to layer for cold weather runs for recommendations. Keep in mind that you are almost certain to encounter high winds on Pikes Peak during winter months, further emphasizing the importance of wearing protective layers such as puffies, hard-shell jackets, wind-resistant pants, etc.
- Sunglasses: During winter months, the sun can is even more intense because of how it reflects on the snow. Snow blindness is a serious concern. I recommend category 3 or 4 lenses to ensure your eyes are protected in these most extreme conditions. Use and carry sunscreen and Chapstick or lip balm.
- Mittens/Gloves With Protective Shells: On steep climbs, you may find yourself placing your hands in snow for stability and support. Gloves or mittens with a protective shell (or that wick moisture) will help keep your hands dry, even in snow. It’s also a good idea to bring a second set of gloves or mittens just in case your first pair gets wet.
Mental Strategy Tips For a Winter Ascent of Pikes Peak
A winter Pikes Peak ascent requires adopting a unique mindset that differs from that of the Pikes Peak Marathon and a normal “racing mentality.”Remember that you are placing yourself in a harsh, unpredictable winter climate and safety should be prioritized over how fast you run or making it to the summit. Listed below are my reflections on the mental side of running up Pikes Peak in winter, as compared to the summer race. With the right attitude, you can have a safer and more enjoyable winter adventure on one of the country’s most beautiful mountains.
Don’t Set A Time Goal
During the marathon, you may have a general idea of predicted finishing time and when you can expect to arrive at certain checkpoints during the race. If you have the ability to train on the mountain before the race, or have run the race before, it can also be useful to track your time to checkpoints such as Barr Camp (mile 7.6 – pictured below) or A-Frame (mile 10.2) to gauge how long certain sections of the course take you to complete. Many participants also reach the summit in roughly the time it takes them to complete a flat road marathon at sea level.
In a winter ascent, all considerations of time and pace go out the window. Snow and ice conditions can be drastically different from one day to the next and it becomes difficult to predict how long any section of the trail takes to run. Softer snow may result in more “post-holing,” or falling through the snow as you step, which significantly slows the speed you can move. Ice may also require you to be more cautious and slow your pace to avoid slipping. It’s always a good idea to prioritize safety over speed! Another factor that may slow you down in winter is route finding. Snow may hide certain sections of trail and it’s not always obvious where to go. Plan to spend time checking your trail map or assessing which way will get you to the summit safely.
Think Adventure, But Don’t Discount Safety
During the Pikes Peak Marathon (or most trail races), staying on course and focusing on your race goals is the priority for most runners. Runners want to finish their race, achieve a certain placement, push themselves, etc. This “racing mindset” may be ideal for achieving your race goals and maximizing performance, but this isn’t the mindset you should adopt for a winter ascent of Pikes Peak.
A winter ascent should be less about performance and more about adventure. Recognize that this won’t be your fastest time up the mountain. It also isn’t ideal from a training standpoint. Most coaches would agree that the physical challenge of completing a winter attempt goes beyond what is advised in a normal training plan and it is unlikely that you will race in similar conditions. Instead of thinking about this experience as a race or training run, spend time appreciating the beauty of the mountain and lack of crowds of racers or hikers you may encounter during other months. Overall, you should make your experience about having an amazing journey through some of the most beautiful nature Colorado has to offer!
Don’t Be Disappointed If You Don’t Make The Summit
When you sign up for a race, you may have many goals and finishing is almost always one of the top priorities. Being in a race environment surrounded by other participants also trying to finish is motivating. Additionally, you find support from crowds, aid stations and volunteers, which improves the probability that you will make it to the summit.
In winter, you shouldn’t expect to make it the top. Instead, focus on seeing how far you can get. Winter conditions are extreme and there will be certain days during winter months where it isn’t possible to summit without putting yourself in danger due to cold weather or strong storms. Know the conditions before you go and even then be mentally prepared to turn should weather change while you’re up on the mountain. Be grateful for the adventure you have, see how far you can go safely, and if you make it to the top that’s a bonus!