Mile ten of the Pikes Peak Ascent is always memorable to me whether in the actual race or just running on Pikes for training. Whatever the mountain, running hard above tree line takes you to a special place where it suddenly starts to feel like there’s a whole lot less air…in the air.
At last weekend’s Broadmoor Cycling Hill Climb (photo below) — which is essentially the cycling version of the Pikes Peak Ascent, but instead traverses the highway to the summit rather than following Barr Trail — I felt the same way, as did many others… evidently.
“Few things can break your spirit more than racing at 13,000+ feet. Thanks for coming to my Ted Talk,” local Colorado Springs pro-cyclist, renowned climber, and coach Renee Eastman titled her race on Strava for that day.
In my case, the race consisted of a little over an hour and thirty-three minutes of ascending twelve and a half miles of the Pikes Peak Highway. The headwinds on the steep switchbacks were enough to reduce us all to an out-of-the-saddle, ten-minute mile pace crawl in places, where it was difficult even to continually push the pedal down, complete with the feeling of lungs bursting. It was exactly akin to the feeling of running above tree line in the Ascent: where over 15-minute miles have a funny and sometimes demoralizing way of somehow feeling just like running all-out quarters, sans recovery between sets, and where it’s hard to tell if the chirping marmots are cheering you on or mocking you. In other words: it felt like home.
It was a good enough effort for a third-place overall finish among the women. Still, having now ascended Pikes in both the footrace version and now undertaking the two-wheeled method, I’d still argue that running the race is harder, but to be fair, it’s very possible that I haven’t developed the skills to push beyond a certain level in cycling yet at this point. I have noticed a certain feeling of a “lack of equality”— you might say — cardiovascularly versus how my legs feel, with the legs feeling like the limiting factor on a bike, where I’ve always felt it to be the opposite in running.
For some background, I’d rather be running, as would we all, but a pesky injury has kept the running miles a bit more minimal than I’d like for the past couple of years. That situation eventually led me into a local bike shop (shout-out to the Bikery at the Brewery in Littleton, Colorado!) in the spring of 2018. Shortly thereafter, I discovered that—whaddya know? Colorado is a mecca for cycling hill climb races! Turns out, you really don’t need to have Cat-1 caliber bike-handling skills to be successful at them, you just need an engine — and I’m talking heart and lungs here, not that e-bike nonsense – and a willingness to hurt, which all runners seem to possess in ample measure. These factors make riding up long, grueling climbs the perfect complement – or in some temporary instances – a replacement for running. It is, I have found, the only thing that precisely replicates the feeling of a long, hard run, with the added bonus of staying outside beyond the terrible confines of the dreaded gym. Wins all around!
I’ve always been intrigued to see just how various sports can translate one to the next. Take high level Nordic skiiers, for instance, who ditch the poles and skis every spring in favor of trail shoes and blow everyone’s doors off come mountain running season. In this case, if you’ve spent most of your life running, or engaged in any highly aerobic activity for that matter, there’s also strong chance that you’ll find yourself having success riding up mountains shortly after you very first throw your leg over a bike saddle. I noticed that in myself, and while gradually becoming more interested in the cycling scene, I became fascinated to see just how many national-caliber climbers on a bike came straight from the sport of running, while also being excited to learn just how many of my favorite mountain running ascents also have a cycling counterpart.
One of my favorite memories of my first year spent getting my feet wet in a pursuit other than running was competing at the 2018 Mt. Evans Ascent: a 28-mile race to the top of the nation’s purported highest highway, climbing around 7,500 feet to the over-14,000-foot summit. Comparatively, the running version of this race begins at what would be the halfway point of the cycling race. Toeing the line (or whatever they call that in cycling) on race-day, I looked over to see 2013 US Mountain Running Team member and University of Colorado runner Tabor Scholl (pictured above), who turned up on a whim, in Big Shooter Coffee cycling bibs (her family-owned coffee shop in Kremmling, CO), with a borrowed road bike, intent on getting in some cross-training during a summer of high mileage for the upcoming cross country season with the Buffs, and then proceeded to best the entire stacked field of talented professional women as though she’d been doing it all her life: hammering out of the gate, winning by 10 seconds, and donating all of her resultant prize money. It was amazing. I saw her rear wheel for just a couple of minutes and that was it. Among those whom she out-rode were world-class pros and uphill enthusiasts Margot Clyne and Aimee Vasse, who both got their starts as runners.
A couple of other extremely noteworthy runners-turned-riders are Mike Woods, a formerly stellar runner for the University of Michigan who has ridden in the Tour de France, and the impressive Emma Pooley, a Salomon athlete, who between mountain runs this summer also set the world record for “Everesting” on her bike: accumulating 29,029 feet of gain in 8 hours and 53 minutes.
After Evans, Vasse would then go on to win the Mount Washington Auto Road Bicycle Hillclimb a few weeks later. Which I also decided to take a crack at, with the help of Mount Washington Road Race elite athlete coordinator Paul Kirsch and bike race director Jotham Oliver, who generously helped me navigate the process of getting in. No year, after all, is complete without a trip out to my favorite mountain! This time wasn’t as simple as packing racing flats and singlet however, the logistics that came with getting a bike out to Gorham, New Hampshire were tricky: first…get a bike box. Disassemble bike. Pack bike (very carefully). Find a reputable bike shop in the area (shout-out to Stan and Dan’s!). Ship bike to said destination, and time it in a such a way that if it arrives with anything broken or wrong, you have time to address it. Have techs reassemble bike (they did an amazing job). Pick up bike. And do it all over again when you’re done with the ride. Granted, once you’re able to trust yourself with bike disassembly and reassembly, things probably get easier. I was not at that point, I’m still not.
Being at Mt. Washington without runners milling nervously about in the white tents at the mountain’s base waiting to line up for the cannon to go off on race day was a little different. Instead, those same white tents this time were occupied by cyclists warming up on trainers. I was thrilled to meet up with mountain running veteran Kevin Tilton (pictured below), who has run the Mount Washington Road Race 19 times, and has made two US Mountain Running Teams. Suffice it to say, he’s a familiar fixture in the mountain running community. It was a bit odd to see him on two wheels, he had started pursuing the sport more seriously the previous year, and he joked that he was one of few runners to pick up cycling by choice rather than because of injury.
Mt. Washington is touted as one of the most difficult climbs in the world in cycling. There are grades averaging anywhere from 10% to the final climb known as “The Wall” that is 23%. It’s difficult to run, and a whole different sort of difficult to ride. Many a chain has broken when rounding the corner to embark upon that final ascent to the finish. Riders going for the win do everything from changing their gearing set-up to removing their brakes to save a little weight. Tilton himself currently has a secret Mt. Washington bike in the works that he claims will weigh in at a mere 11 pounds.
While talking at packet pick-up with race announcer and four-time women’s winner Marti Shea – a former runner herself – she pointed out with almost a look of disappointment that my gearing was somehow “wrong.” I quite frankly had absolutely no clue what she was talking about, so I smiled and nodded and was just happy as a clam to get to be here and go up my favorite big hill and give it the ol’ college try. I still think there’s way too much to overthink in cycling. Still, maybe I will take her suggestions to heart next time.
The race itself follows nearly exactly the same course as the footrace, given that there is only one highway, but there is perhaps 100 meters less at the start. If you look over previous times, on average across the board they’re not terribly different from the running times. Intuitively it seems that the mechanical advantage that comes with a bike ought to be consistently faster, but not with the 12-18 extra pounds of dead weight that is the bike itself. When you get to the course records however, where all of those 1-percenters that could create an advantage have been utilized, two wheels certainly trump two legs: Tom Danielson holds the men’s cycling record of 49:24 to Jonathan Wyatt’s run of 56:41, while the women’s course record on the bike is Genevieve Jeanson’s 59:58 to Sherwarge Amarein’s 1:08 run.
I was fourth overall that day and was surprised that my finishing time was slower than my fastest running time by a solid couple of minutes. Still, I was happy with the first go-around, and happier that the mountain’s infamous high winds didn’t show that day, which I am told sometimes blow people off their bikes. Still, I’m looking forward to taking another swing at it while employing some of the tactics used to make bikes even better to climb with. There seem to be so many ways to take more time off, in addition to simply riding more, that it’s almost like you just can’t resist going back to try things again but a little differently next time. On the one hand, it keeps things interesting and keeps you going back for more, but on the other hand, that is one aspect that somewhat rubs me the wrong way when it comes to cycling versus running: gear matters. To an extent, you can always “buy” a little more speed. To that end, cycling in my opinion lacks the purity and simplicity that a sport like running has, where success is determined largely by work, although there is absolutely a genetic component as well.
At any rate, the transition from running uphill to riding uphill has not only proven itself to be fun, but also surprisingly natural.
“The two definitely translate,” said Tilton. “The cadence is very similar and having the ability to just put your head down and get into the hurt locker definitely translates.”
Which I guess would explain the legions of runners who sometimes swap their trail shoes for wheels and find near-immediate success riding the mountains that they normally run.
As New England trail runner, coach, and 2016 US Mountain Running Team member Kim Nedeau (pictured above) explained to me in a previous interview, “I encourage all of my athletes to find one other thing that gives them what running gives them.” While it may be true that running is our first love, there are other equally satisfying ways to get to the top of our favorite mountains.
Shannon Payne is a Colorado native currently residing in Auburn, California. She was a two-time qualifier for the US Mountain Running Team, two-time winner of the Mt. Washington Road Race (pictured top of page), and a seven-time All-American at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.