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Two from Lee's Summit take on Pikes Peak, America's Ultimate Challenge
August 25, 2012
Alex Gardner, Sarah and Sean Ahern
before the Marathon start.
Photo by Gary Ahern
By Jessica Root
Intern Reporter for the Tribune
This past weekend, the 57th annual Pikes Peak Ascent and Pikes Peak Marathon was held at Pikes Peak in Manitou Springs, CO.
These races redefine running.
The marathon is 26.21 miles long. As quoted from the Pikes Peak Marathon website, “There’s a reason trees don’t bother growing above 12,000 feet on Pikes Peak. They can’t! Makes one wonder if trees are smarter than runners.”
The start line, 6,300 feet above sea level, is under a banner in the 600 block of Manitou Avenue next to Memorial Park in Manitou Springs, Colorado. The summit of Pikes Peak is at approximately 14,115 feet above sea level. Pikes Peak has the greatest elevation rise from base to summit in Colorado.
Originally, the marathon was a challenge between smokers and non-smokers, but that was back in 1956. Today the marathon poses different challenges to different people.
“I decided that this mountain had become the symbol for everything that I had to overcome. Everything I intended to conquer,” Alex Gardner, first time Pikes Peak Marathon runner, said. “And it was with that thought I purchased a simple silver band with one word on it: CONQUER. I wore this ring every single day up to and through the race.”
Gardner is a local Lake Lotawana resident. She has a passion for running, but at the height of her running career, she fractured her pelvis and hip.
“I’d come off my strongest running season yet in the spring of 2011. I set two personal records and earned a guaranteed starting position in the New York Marathon,” Gardner said.
Gardner spent the holidays in bed and didn’t run again until early 2012. She had always wanted to do the Pikes Peak Marathon, but since she was coming back after her injuries, she wanted something different from anything she’d ever done before, and Pikes Peak was the definition of different.
“It was, simply, time to do it,” Gardner said. “I’ve known several people who have done it, and they all are changed by it. No one comes away from this marathon and is the same person or the same runner they were before they went in.”
Gardner finished the marathon with an ascent time of 4:29:51 and an overall time of 7:57:07. She was 501 out of 739 qualified, male and female, finishers, and she was 11 out of 23 in her age division.
“The descent for me was the hardest part. Thoroughly prepared for the ascent, I had no idea the descent would be so exhausting. When I still had nine miles to go, I really wanted to quit. Unlike a typical marathon, though, going up is optional. Coming down is mandatory. There is no other way off the mountain,” Gardner said.
Five weeks before the marathon, Gardner traveled to Manitou Springs to train at Pikes Peak. When she is training, all of her thoughts and cares are enveloped so that she can focus on nothing else.
“I’ve been running long enough that I simply need to run. Running, unlike other cardio exercise, has this peaceful element to it as I put in the miles,” Gardner said. “Also, the side benefits are pretty sweet! I’m very happy to have the energy to do anything I want to do, eat food with passion and wear my skinny jeans.”
Another Lee’s Summit resident, Sean Ahern, joined Gardner on her quest to conquer Pikes Peak. Ahern and Gardner were the only two runners from Lee’s Summit this year. Bruce Holder, science teacher and swim coach at LSHS, has run the marathon in the past.
Ahern was a “doubler” for the second year. This means he did the Pikes Peak Ascent the day before he did the Pikes Peak Marathon. This was Ahern’s third year running the marathon. He first ran the marathon in 2009.
Ahern’s family always accompanies him on his trips to Pikes Peak. Ahern is hyperglycemic so it’s important for him to keep control of his sugar levels. His family poses as his crew, providing him food, water and encouragement along the way. Ahern’s daughter, Sarah, has traveled with him to Pikes Peak all three times.
“I give my dad Ibueprofen, bananas and power bars while he’s running the marathon. Being on top of Pikes Peak I get headaches sometimes, but it’s really cool,” Sarah said. “It’s my favorite place to travel as part of my dad’s crew.”
Ahern was 34 out of 133 “doublers” this year. There was only one other “doubler” from Missouri. Greg Parker of Springfield was 44 out of 133 “doublers”.
Ahern finished the Pikes Peak Ascent with a time of 3:50:08, and he finished the Pikes Peak Marathon with a time of 6:26:40. This brought his “double” time to 10:16:48.
Completion of the Pikes Peak Marathon or Ascent is a serious accomplishment for any runner, but for female runners, there is a unique legacy.
Arlene Pieper finished the Pikes Peak Marathon in 1959. She not only finished America’s most challenging marathon, but she was also the first female to finish a marathon period. Thus, Pikes Peak became the first American marathon to allow female competitors.
“I am utterly amazed that men thought women couldn’t run long distances only a few decades ago and wouldn’t even give them the chance to try,” Gardner said. “I hadn’t realized Pike’s Peak held this history until I ran it this year. Women may not be as ‘strong’ as men when measured by the same ‘ruler,’ but women are fierce and powerful.”
12-year-old Sarah was inspired to run the Pikes Peak Marathon herself someday because she heard Pieper give a speech at the marathon last year.
“It’s a mental thing. If I think about it really hard, and if I really want it, I’ll do it. Pieper motivated me. It would be awesome to run to the top of Pikes Peak,” Sarah said.
This year, 191 females started the marathon, but a few of them disqualified along the way. Regardless, each woman was a part of Pieper’s legacy.
Gardner’s passion for running led her to create a blog, www.sherunsfast.blogspot.com. She was an active blogger through her spring 2011 season, but after her injuries, she focused less on running and more on figuring out if she’d ever be able to run again or if she even wanted to.
“I really enjoyed writing about my training, struggles, triumphs and connecting with other runners. I found release while writing,” Gardner said. “I haven’t written about my time with injuries, mostly because it was a dark place for me, and I didn’t seem to have that element of overcoming the challenge, until now.”
Gardner was a Brooks-sponsored athlete for three years, but her contract was not renewed after 2011. She is considering blogging again, now that she has made it over her mountain.
“I have renewed confidence and joy that I conquered my ‘mountain’. I really can do anything I set my mind to do, and so can anyone else! I’m excited to share my story, and hope to inspire others to attempt something amazing,” Gardner said.
Gardner would like to run the Pikes Peak Marathon again. Since she completed it in 2012, she is eligible to “double” until 2015.
“I really want the ‘doubler’ t-shirt. If my body is willing, I may attempt this in 2013,” Gardner said.
For more information about the Pikes Peak Ascent or Pikes Peak Marathon, visit www.pikespeakmarathon.org.
“It’s Finally Over” – Ted White Settlement