- Nancy Hobbs
- Up, up and away they go! Runners challenge the mountain to a race.
Think like a mountain. Move like a river.
It's good advice for the downhill section of the Barr Trail Mountain Race, but moving like a river won't help you ascend the six miles and nearly 4,000 feet in elevation from the Cog Railway Depot to Barr Camp, mid-point on the newest mountain race in the national backyard of mountain racing, Manitou Springs' own Pikes Peak.
"It's a growing sport and it's going through the same growing problems that road running did," race co-founder Matt Carpenter told the Indy at his home in Manitou Springs. "Mountain running is going through the same transition. We're seeing the demise phase right now. It is ugly. It is terrible. But there'll be a new crop of people come in that are younger and more understanding."
Carpenter hopes the Barr Trail Mountain Race (BTMR) will help set the standard for future progress in the sport, staging a good race, inclusive of everyone from first time mountain runners to the fastest racers in the world without losing sight of the responsibility to give something back to the mountain.
Pikes Peak is probably the busiest mountain in the country's most mountainous state. On Sunday it will take center stage in the surging sport that pits long distance marathoners with the Herculean feats of running at altitudes often over 14,000 feet and distances sometimes as far as 100 miles. In a state that already boasts newfound prestige from races such as the Imogene Pass Run, the Leadville 100 and The Pikes Peak Ascent and Marathon (PPAM), a full slate of 300 runners will hit the Barr Trail to try and prove the adage that oxygen is overrated.
Because it's there
"There's no mountain running in Kansas," Carpenter deadpans, assessing the appeal of the sport beyond Colorado's borders. "You can just look at a relief map and figure out where there's mountains. If there's a mountain, I guarantee somebody's running up that puppy."
For those who brave the unique elements in mountain running, the altitude is obviously a major factor. There's a 3 percent reduction in oxygen mass for every 1,000 feet a runner ascends above 5,000 feet. "That's blue fingernails and blue lips, that's part of it," said Carpenter. Finishing a close second in critical factors is the terrain. From the undetectable "magic rocks" that can trip a runner off the trail to the water barriers and general uneven terrain, the development of a sharp sense of hand-foot coordination is an essential goal of training.
Nevertheless, in less than ten years, the sport has gone from virtually unheard of to borderline breakout. "People are tired of running on roads and facing cars and dealing with honking horns," Carpenter explained. "When I started The Incline Club (Carpenter's twice-weekly Peak ascent running club) four years ago, we'd get four and five people out on a run, and if it rained it'd be two of us. A lot of the runs this year we had 45 or more. If it rained, we'd even get more. It's like everyone wants the bragging rights. Who's the sickest athlete?"
The essence of sport
Sunday's race may not conclusively crown the sickest athlete, but the competition is strong enough that the winner should be pushed to a fast finish. The racers include a South African cross-country champion, several past top-ten finishers from PPAM, and Carpenter himself, the current PPAM record holder.
"There is no pleasure in winning a race by 20 minutes," said Carpenter, who will not run in PPAM until they can restore a competitive nature to the race. Carpenter set the course record in '93, spurred on by some elite Mexican runners. "The essence of sport is competition. Two years ago the race was won in the slowest time in 34 years. That's insane."
Though only seven of the 300 entrants in the BTMR are considered "elite" runners, they give the race credibility while allowing plenty of room for serious runners to try and keep pace with the sport's champions.
"This is the only sport there is where slow people, fast people, old people, young people all compete together," Carpenter pointed out. "You tell me what you'd have to do to go play a round of golf with Tiger Woods. You're not going to go shoot hoops with Michael Jordan. But if you wanted to next week, you could go plunk down whatever the entry fee is, probably 45 bucks, and go run the Chicago Marathon with Khalid Khannovchi, the world record holder. That is the unique part of this sport."
Back to the woods
When Carpenter talks about the race, much of his considerable enthusiasm stems from the goodwill he is trying to generate with an event whose aim is to help the mountain more than the event organizers.
"There's a lot of use on that trail and a lot of use going on at Barr Camp," he said. "They're to the point where the pit toilets are full. You got a stinking mess up there. They just had to put in solar-powered toilets that cost them $30,000 to $50,000. We got all these people using the mountain. What can we do to help make it better?"
With over 60 sponsors generously covering expenses, BTMR is able to use 100 percent of the registration fees to benefit three local non-profits -- Barr Camp, the half-way point with bunkhouses, toilets, and food; Friends of the Peak, an organization dedicated to restoring and rebuilding trails over the entire massif; and the All American Trail Running Association, a local organization dedicated to representing and promoting trail and mountain running. "It seems like now it's becoming the in thing to do to give back and work on it," Carpenter said of the current zeal for preserving and restoring the mountain and its trails.
Another of Carpenter's goals is to buck the aging trend in running, where more older runners are participating, but fewer younger runners. "The core group of runners is getting older and older and older, and they're not bringing anybody new into this sport. Marathon participation's at an all-time high, but then you look at the little asterisk and it says times are slower than ever. We think participation is great, but we also think bringing in new blood and trying to make things competitive is important."
Five area high schools will be operating the race's aid stations, each earning at least $500 and one earning $1,000, based on votes from runners for the best aid station. "We thought we could help the future of this sport by going out and getting high schools that are hurting for money," Carpenter said. "Manitou Springs High's budget is $500 a year. In one event, for coming out and working for four hours, they're going to get $500. If they happen to dress up neat and bring out the trombones and really impress the runners, that's $1,000."
Carpenter acknowledges the role the mountain plays in his community, and he's trying to address that debt in his approach to the race. "I think Manitou Springs and Colorado Springs in large part owe their existence to this mountain," he said. "Let's be real, Manitou was basically started for the springs and bringing people here for tuberculosis etc., etc. But through it all, Pikes Peak was the shining mountain, the big guy taking all the attention.
"We hope that the point gets across that you can use the mountain and be good citizens at the same time."
Barr Trail Mountain Race
From the Cog Depot to Barr Camp and back
Sunday, August 6, at 7 a.m.
Awards ceremony and drawings in Soda Springs Park at noon
Call 570-9795 for additional information.