For 15 years now, organizers of the Pikes Peak Marathon and Ascent have not had to worry about selling themselves to the running world.
They've simply opened registration for the annual back-to-back races — knowing the fields would fill to the maximum number of entrants allowed by the U.S. Forest Service: 1,800 for the Ascent, 800 for the Marathon. They could even overbook to account for the few usual no-shows and still have a waiting list.
That script wouldn't have to change for what's billed (and not argued) as America's Ultimate Challenge. Pikes Peak has become one of the world's few "bucket list" marathons, attracting runners simply because of its unique attributes.
Yet, those organizers now want to inject new ingredients into the mix, hoping to attract more world-class competitors and attention. With sponsor help, they're adding money — big money by mountain running standards — for the 2012 Ascent and Marathon on Aug. 18 and 19, respectively. At a news conference Wednesday, they'll announce better prize money than ever before.
• Ascent Bounty: Simply, it's $5,000 for first man to reach the summit in under 2 hours, or first woman to break 2 hours, 32 minutes. If not achieved, the amount will grow $1,000 a year to a maximum of $10,000 for men and women. Runners can win the "bounty" in either the Ascent or the first half of the Marathon.
• Race records: For the Ascent, if a male or female winner breaks the race record (but doesn't crack the Bounty standard), the payoff will be $2,000. Current records are 2:01:06 by Matt Carpenter of Manitou Springs in 1993, and 2:33:31 by Lynn Bjorklund in 1981. Last year's winners were Mario Macias in 2:08:57 and Kim Dobson in 2:34:07.
In the Marathon, that record payoff rises to $4,000, again for men or women. These marks are 4:15:18 by Bjorklund in 1981 and 3:16:39 by Carpenter in 1993.
• Prize money: Basically, the money doubles, with top Ascent finishers (male and female) earning $2,000 for first, $1,200 for second, $600 for third and $200 for fourth. For the Marathon, it will be $3,000 to win, $1,200 second, $600 third and $200 fourth.
• Extras: $1,000 from the Skyrunner Federation to the male and female winners of the Marathon, and $1,000 for the fastest ascent time in either the Ascent or Marathon.
Only a few runners might threaten the race records this year, given the short notice of the added incentives. But race director Ron Ilgen believes more world-class mountain runners will come in 2013 and beyond.
"We also want everyone to know that this prize money is not coming out of everyone's entry fees," Ilgen says. "It's all sponsorship money."
This is an admirable step for the event, already one of the world's elite mountain races. As Ilgen puts it, the Pikes Peak Marathon shares an attribute with the vehicular Pikes Peak International Hill Climb "in that both events probably are a bigger deal outside of Colorado Springs, even around the world, than they are here."
That doesn't mean the people in charge want to grow the race. They can't. As much as they want to enhance the event's prestige, they're even more concerned with maintaining the path up Barr Trail to the top for generations to come.
Who will be the first to take advantage of the bigger bucks? Obviously topping that list is the ageless (actually 48) Carpenter, whose 1993 run is regarded among the greatest performances ever in a mountain race. Carpenter has won the Pikes Peak Marathon an amazing 12 times, including the past six years, but faces a tough challenge this year from Spain's Kilian Jornet, just 24 but already ranked first in the Skyrunning World Series. Then there's 32-year-old Max King, the 2011 world mountain running champion.
For the women, defending champions Keri Nelson (Marathon) and Dobson (Ascent) will face their own groups of local and international opponents.
This makes one wish we could have live TV coverage of both races, with cameras at several vantage points along the way. In fact, that might become a growing possibility when more of the world's top mountain runners find their way to Pikes Peak.