SI Vault
A hurried peek at Pikes
Anita Verschoth
August 18, 1975
English fell runner Joss Naylor and 349 fellow masochists ran 13 miles to the summit of the famous peak, wheeled around and plunged back down
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August 18, 1975

A Hurried Peek At Pikes

English fell runner Joss Naylor and 349 fellow masochists ran 13 miles to the summit of the famous peak, wheeled around and plunged back down

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Two days before taking part in the most strenuous marathon race in the world, Joss Naylor rode the cogwheel train to the top of Pikes Peak. He sat just beneath the 14,110-foot summit and looked down at the barren slopes of shale, or scree, as it is known in the North of England, and at the narrow trail that zigzags through dusty-pink rocks and around precariously balanced boulders. The trail came into view more than a thousand feet below, where a craggy cliff shields a 1,500-foot drop called The Cirque, carved by a glacier in the Ice Age. Beyond, Naylor could see the verdant lower ridges covered with blue spruce, and still farther down, Colorado Springs as an expanse of tiny dots and, in the hazy distance, the beginning of the plains of Kansas. Clouds brushed the wooded hills like mammoth feather dusters, occasionally revealing two or three lakes. And Naylor said, "For four years I have been wanting to come here to see for myself how beautiful Colorado really is."

Naylor had arrived earlier in the week in Manitou Springs, a tourist town at the foot of Mount Manitou, a 9,455-foot neighbor of the grand peak. While his exploits as a fell, or mountain, runner (SI, July 28) had taken him above 4,000 feet in Scotland and to 9,000 feet in Switzerland, he had never experienced the dizziness that had now overcome him while running above 12,000 feet in Colorado. In training for the Pikes Peak Marathon the 39-year-old sheep farmer from the English Lake District had pushed himself up the 13-mile trail three times: it took him three hours on Tuesday, when he was forced to walk the last 2,000 feet; two hours and 40 minutes on Wednesday, running all the way; and two hours, 15 minutes on Thursday when he stopped at 13,000 feet.

"I could feel the blood thump in the back of me head," he was saying now. "I just couldn't get enough oxygen in me lungs. You are not going at your maximum, fast-like. I know I don't have a chance against the local chaps. I'll be about 40 minutes slower than at a lower level. If I come within 30 minutes of the lucky lad who wins, I'm happy."

Naylor pointed to a nose-dive slope of scree that looked as if it would turn into a deadly avalanche at the slightest touch. "I could run down that and pick up quite a few chaps," he said. Naylor held up a small rock. "It's for a friend back home, Eric Roberts. He raised the money for me trip, about �600, half of it from IBM United Kingdom Limited. He's a fell runner, too, and he said to me, 'I want you to do me a favor, laddie. Fetch me a bit of rock back from the summit of Pikes Peak.'

"I don't mind losing if I can finish respectably. I want to make fell running an international sport. There are so many good athletes that have dedicated themselves to running hills. They should be able to compete more."

Naylor was already lending a special glamour to the 20-year-old marathon. Strangers rushed up to him in the streets of Manitou Springs, eager to shake hands. "Are you the Englishman?" they asked, and the inevitable question was put to him by a hefty lady who inquired, "Why do you want to do it?"

"Because I'm in top condition," Naylor replied.

The Ute Indians must have climbed the mountain many hundred years earlier, but Lieut. Zebulon M. Pike of the U.S. Army was credited with having "discovered" it in 1806 when he attempted its ascent and was stopped by waist-deep snow. Pike remarked that no mortal man would ever climb to the top, yet 14 years later three men managed to do so. The Barr Trail, on which the marathon is run, was the work of Fred Barr, who between 1921 and 1923 shoveled his way up so that he could start a business, leading tourists on burros to his Barr Camp cabins at 10,200 feet and proceeding the next morning to the peak for a splendid sunrise.

A race on the trail was held in 1936, but it was not until August 1956 that the first 26-mile marathon (385 yards short of the standard distance) took place, from the cogwheel-train depot at 6,571 feet to the top and back down. Ten nonsmokers had challenged four smokers, and only four, all nonsmokers, finished. Since then the marathon has been an annual affair organized by Rudy Fahl, who has been up the trail 140 times, including 13 races, but who is, at 77, no longer a competitor.

The race starts with a steep three-mile climb, winding through scrub oak up Mount Manitou before the runners can stop for a drink from French Creek. Then there are four miles of fiat terrain shaded by aspens and blue spruce, allowing for a fast pace. After Barr Camp, the halfway point which offers the first view of Pikes Peak, the trail climbs rapidly again. Two miles of switchbacks lead to the Forest Service's A-frame shelter. Just above it, the runners pass through the Dismal Forest, a cemetery of gray twisted tree trunks left from a fire half a century ago. At 12,000 feet, the timberline falls behind and the rock-strewn wasteland opens up with patches of moss and lichens and pillows of snow. (This year it snowed heavily 10 days before the race.) Just above the Dismal Forest a bronze plaque serves as a reminder that Mrs. G. Inestine B. Roberts made her 14th ascent at the age of 88 in 1957 and that she died of exposure on the way down. Farther on, The Cirque looms to the left, and then the trail rises on the last precipitous slope in tight, grueling switchbacks that are rather inappropriately called "The 16 Golden Stairs."

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