The Pikes Peak Marathon is often described as one of the toughest marathons in the world.
It is the oldest continually held marathon in the United States and one of the first that women were legally allowed to run. The Pikes Peak Ascent is part of the Golden Trail World Series.
In this guide, we will give you all of the information you need to prepare yourself for the Pikes Peak Marathon.
We will cover:
- Signing Up For Pikes Peak
- What Is The Garden To Peak Challenge?
- The Course
- How To Cope With The Elevation
- Train For The Up And The Down
- Must-Have Gear
Let’s jump in!
Signing up For Pikes Peak
For both the Marathon and the Ascent, race signup opens on March 1, 2023. The Marathon typically has about 800 spots open (the Ascent 1500-1800).
Registration typically fills up quickly, although some years, spots are available for weeks or even months. There is also a waiting list for those who sign up after the spots have been taken.
Due to the nature of this race, many people on the waiting list typically make it into the race. People sign up for the race with the best of intentions, and then a few months go by, and they realize they aren’t ready, so they cancel or defer.
What Is The Garden To Peak Challenge?
For those able, I would highly recommend taking part in the Garden to Peak Challenge.
The Garden to Peak consists of three races: Garden of the Gods 10 miler, the Barr Trail Mountain Race (12.8 miles), and culminates with the Pikes Peak Ascent or Marathon.
The Garden of the Gods 10 miler is a road race through Garden of the Gods, a city park featuring red rock formations millions of years old.
The Barr Trail Mountain Race is a great warmup for the PPA or the PPM. It starts next to the parking lot for Barr Trail, goes a little over 6 miles to Barr Camp, which is located at 10,000 ft of elevation, and then comes back down.
The BTMR uses the same trails as the PPM, so you are able to do a dress rehearsal before the big day.
Finally, the series ends with the PPM or PPA. The series is scored based on your cumulative time (using your time on the PPA or your ascent time if you are running the marathon).
You do have to qualify for the Pikes Peak Marathon in order to run. However, unlike Boston or one of the marathon Majors, the qualifications are doable for most runners.
The main way to qualify is to have a marathon time of under 6 hours.
There are other ways to qualify, such as previous Pikes Peak Marathon or Ascent results, running the Barr Trail Mountain Race, or using splits from an ultra.
You can see a full list of ways to qualify on the race’s website.
The Pikes Peak Marathon is almost exclusively run on the Barr Trail, with a short segment at the start and finish being on asphalt through the town of Manitou Springs.
The race starts in downtown Manitou Springs. The first 1.5 miles are on asphalt, steady climbing towards the start of Barr Trail. Once runners get on the trail, the course turns into a single-track trail with little room for passing.
The average grade of Barr Trail is 12%. The course varies from wide smooth paths to sections with many rocks and roots. It can be incredibly technical in some sections, with large boulders and rocks requiring the use of hands to navigate.
Runners will climb a series of switchbacks known locally as “the Ws.” The top of the Ws is 3.1 miles. There is fluid located at an aid station there.
Runners will then hit No Name Creek at 4.3 miles which features a full-service aid station. Shortly after, runners will come to Bob’s Road at 5.3 miles, which has water should runners need it.
At 10,200 ft and 7.6 miles, runners will arrive at Barr Camp. There is a cabin here that supplies hikers attempting Pikes Peak during the year. For the race, runners will find a full aid station with fluids and food. Be on the lookout for the SAR helicopter parked in a nearby clearing, and hope you don’t need a ride in it.
The next aid station and landmark is A-frame. This sits just below the tree line and is roughly 3 miles below the summit.
Above A-Frame, the trail features a lot of rocks and big step-ups that can be tricky after several hours of running/hiking and in the oxygen-starved air. Take your time and be careful.
For marathoners, keep an eye up the trail and step aside as runners come down. Downhill runners have the right of way during the race.
The last aid station below the summit is the Cirque at 13,300 ft. It’s a little more than a mile from here to the summit. Both the Cirque and A-frame are full-service aid stations.
At 13.32 miles, you arrive at the summit. There is a full-service aid station at the top.
If you are running the Ascent, congratulations. Grab a world-famous donut from the summit house and catch a ride back down.
If you are running the marathon, it’s all downhill from here.
The race starts in downtown Manitou Springs, at an elevation of 6,312 feet. The summit is 14,115 feet. This means you gain almost 8,0000 feet over 13 miles. Then you turn back around and go back down.
There are 12 miles of this race that are above 10,000 feet. There are 6 miles of the race that are above the tree line, where there’s not enough oxygen in the air to support large plant life like trees.
If the views don’t take your breath away, the elevation certainly will.
How to cope with the elevation
The most challenging part of this race for most runners will be the elevation. The last 3 miles above the tree line can easily take 1-2 hours to reach the summit.
While the elevation is tough, it isn’t impossible to overcome. Many “flatlanders,” the local name for those who come from areas closer to sea level, successfully complete the race each year.
In 2012, I summited Pikes Peak for the first time myself. I was living in north Louisiana at the time, which is practically at sea level.
We drove from Louisiana to Colorado over two days, and then the next day, I hiked to the top. It took me just under 5 hours.
I wasn’t especially fit at the time. I was in my early 20s and was running 35-45 miles a week. This was also without much hill training.
I remember the last few miles being tough. My legs felt heavy from the lack of oxygen. I hydrated a lot which helped stave off some of the effects of the altitude.
If you are planning on running the race and are coming from sea level, I would recommend having a solid aerobic base and doing some hill training. These things will help mitigate the effects of the altitude.
I’ve had some people ask about altitude training masks. I wouldn’t recommend those because they aren’t recreating a low-oxygen environment.
As you climb higher and higher in elevation, there is less oxygen in the air you breathe. Those oxygen masks aren’t mimicking that; they are just making it harder to breathe. But the air you are getting still has a higher concentration of oxygen than you will find at 10k or 14k feet.
A lot of people ask about acclimating. Unless you can come up 4-8 weeks ahead of the race, there’s really no benefit to getting there the day before or a week before. The benefits of a few days are negligible.
For the safety of the runners and to respect the volunteers’ time, there are 5 cutoffs along the course that runners have to meet.
- No Name Creek in an hour and forty minutes (1:40)
- Barr Camp in three hours and ten minutes (3:10)
- A-frame in four and a half hours (4:30)
- The summit in six and a half hours (6:30)
- The finish line closes after 10 hours (6:30 for Ascent)
Train for the up and the down
Aside from the altitude, the elevation gain and loss is the next toughest thing for runners. Climbing 8k feet and then immediately descending 8k feet is tough on the body. Especially given that you are doing it on trails that can be tricky to navigate.
Here are some tips to train for the up and down:
Training For the Ascent
To get ready for the first half of this race, I would recommend focusing on 2 things: hills and strength training.
Short hill repeats for power, and long hill repeats for stamina. Get used to climbing for long periods of time. In this race, it’s likely to take you 4-6 hours to reach the top.
The reality is that aside from the elites, most people will be hiking large portions of the ascent.
I would highly recommend getting on a treadmill and working on hiking uphill on a steep grade. Setting it between 10-15% and hiking 2-4 mph for 20-60 mins is a great workout or can even be a double for runners looking to get in an extra workout.
Strength training is also very important. Squats, lunges, calf raises, and step-ups can help prepare your legs for what they will experience.
Training For the Descent
What a lot of runners fail to realize is how hard it can be to run downhill for long periods of time. It’s in your best interest to train your body for it.
If you are doing hill repeats, make sure you are running the down portions of those. It will train your body and prepare you for the second half of this race.
Running downhill is tough on your muscles and joints. Strength training is crucial here. Having strong muscles and tendons can help protect you from injury.
The trail itself is difficult on the downhill. One year, the 1st place female wore knee pads for the second half of the race. She busted her knees up badly the previous two years and decided she had enough of that.
The rocks, roots, and boulders can be tricky to navigate when your brain is starved for oxygen, and you’ve been on your feet for 5-7 hours. Practice running on trails with obstacles to prepare you for what you will be experiencing.
You really have to focus on what you are doing on the downhill. Every time my mind would wander, I would find my toe catching on something and almost falling. After seeing a friend wearing mountain biking gloves for BTMR, I wore some myself for the PPM.
Luckily, I didn’t trip and fall, so I didn’t need them, but they help when grabbing rocks and boulders in certain parts of the course.
The bottom line, make sure your body is trained for the up and the down.
The weather for Pikes Peak Marathon is mostly unpredictable. There have been years when it was sunny and warm and years when it was cold and snowy.
Occasionally, runners will get to experience both in the same race, with warm temps in town and cold as they near the summit.
When I did the Marathon in September, the weather was near perfect. Shorts and a singlet were fine from the bottom to the top and back down.
My first year doing the Ascent was in August 2021. It was comfortable in shorts and a singlet at the start of the race.
Once I got to A-Frame, and then above the tree line, temps dropped to the 30s, and there were 20mph winds. There was ice on the railing at the top of the mountain.
This year, the race was moved to September. In August, I was doing a training run starting at the top of Pikes Peak, known as 3-2-1s.
For the workout, you drive to the top of the mountain to start. You run 3 miles down, 3 miles up, 2 miles down, 2 miles up, 1 mile down, 1 mile up. 12 miles total, all above 11,000 ft.
When we started, the sun was out, with a clear view. I was somewhat warm in my long sleeved shirt. When I got back to the top after my 3 down and 3 up, the summit was covered in a cloud, and I couldn’t see very far.
I was about a mile down from the summit when the small hail started coming down. I immediately turned around and made a beeline for the summit before it worsened.
The ground was covered in hail and snow as we drove off the summit less than an hour later.
In short, be prepared for anything. 14ers are notoriously fickle when it comes to weather and often have thunderstorms in the afternoon.
This is what probably led to the gear requirements.
Must have gear
Starting in 2022, the race requires all runners to start the race with a raincoat and a means of carrying fluid. This caused a bit of an uproar, especially with the elites, but with the number of people who come to the race, I think it’s a great idea.
I had a rain jacket I put on during the Ascent in 2021. Others were being given trash bags by Search and Rescue at the tree line because they only had a t-shirt on.
Not having the proper gear could lead to a dangerous situation.
Having the means to carry liquid was another good idea. There are a lot of aid stations, but depending on your fitness level, it can take a while to get to each one.
It’s also very easy to get dehydrated at elevation. A handheld, waist pack or vest is a good idea for all but the fastest runners.
I’d also recommend gels or whatever else you consume during races. Some of the aid stations are stocked with gels and food, but it never hurts to have a few extras on you.
Gloves, a hat, sunglasses, and a winter hat are also good ideas to help stay warm and keep the sun off you. Sunscreen is also not a bad idea. You burn very quickly when you are above the tree line.
Trekking poles and headphones are not allowed at the race. The narrow trail does not allow much room for passing, and trekking poles would make it harder. Headphones would make it difficult to alert other runners that you needed to pass.
The Pikes Peak Marathon is a tough race that will test your training and your determination. However, while it may seem daunting, it is doable with the right preparation.
If you are looking for a challenge, I highly recommend adding it to your list.
And while you’re in town, don’t forget to try the Manitou Incline!