July 31, 2013

Run Report: The Incline (Manitou, Colorado)

While out in Colorado Springs for some business, two coworkers and I decided to tackle the local legend...a trail that ascends a brutal mile into the Colorado sky. Figured The Incline (yes, that's what I'm calling the official spelling, capital "The" and bold) was worthy of a race report, but since I didn't come close to racing it, let's just label it a run report.

The Trail

Ominous scar above Manitou Springs.
The Manitou Springs Incline, known as just The Incline, rises above Manitou Springs near Colorado Springs. The trail is made up of the remains of a cog railway that was wiped off the mountain in a 1990 rock slide. As a portion crosses through private company land, it was run and hiked illegally for years until it was finally declared a public hiking trail in January 2013. Famous for being one of the toughest miles in trail running, it rises almost 2,000 feet with insanely steep grade, 68% at its worst. Perhaps harshest of all, three-quarters of the way up lies a false summit; with the true summit obscured by the steep grade, suffering hikers crest this oasis and get a sense of dread when they see an additional several hundred feet to climb.

With the US Olympic Training Center headquartered nearby, it's become a popular fitness gauntlet for athletes, or punishment by coaches. Athletes from all sports, from wrestling to ice skating, challenge themselves with The Incline; see the ESPN article linked in the final section of this post for some additional information on athletes training on the trail. Though Wikipedia reports Olympic Champion Apolo Ohno crested in 17:45, the record for the climb is 16:42 by a professional triathlete.

The Incline rises from the valley.
Although to keep calling it a trail is really not doing it justice. Between the railway's wooden ties and the rock slide two decades ago, the scar up the mountain is littered with broken wood bars, exposed metal rebar, rusted hydroelectric pipes, and two- or three-foot steps at extreme grade. It's one of the few places I've hiked where you could reach your arm straight out and touch the ground ahead of you. Add to that the effects of elevation; starting at 6,700 feet and topped out at 8,500, there is less oxygen in the air and leaves even the fittest "sea-level flatlander" sucking for wind. Most locals, and those with sanity, take the 2.5-mile Barr Trail back down.

The Ascent

Arriving after work, I was ready to tackle the legend...unprepared in a pair of fairly minimal Saucony shoes and a borrowed laptop backpack with two water bottles. I downloaded the Map My Run app for the iPhone to estimate the overall elevation and grade I would be climbing. So standing at the first cog railway tie, the official starting line, I fired up the app and started to run. Within the first few steps it was clear this was going to be brutal. Stepping beam-to-beam over deviating gaps and on uneven steps, the elevation started to suck the wind out of my lungs and I was at a double-digit pace before a tenth of a mile. I was no doubt a sight for sore eyes as huffed and puffed my way to the quarter-mile mark. After managing to hit the 0.3 displaying a sloppy and poorly-paced running motion, that was it. I stood on the side of the trail (or railway as it were) with my hands on my knees, drooling like a newborn, and clutching at the backpack for water. It was suddenly obvious that the elevation didn't care about my fitness level; there just wasn't enough oxygen in the high, dry air to fuel my lungs.

View from the false summit.
The remainder of the way to the false summit, which my app showed around 0.7 mile, I tried to power hike, jog, and rest frequently. That stretch was one of the toughest climbs I've accomplished; it was a neverending line of uneven railway beams, exposed pipes, rebar spikes, and there was nothing uniform about any step: some were just like a high stairway, some were two or three feet tall, some were at an angle, and most were at a grade where I just didn't want to think about slipping or falling backwards. I spent a good 25 minutes at the false summit, catching my breath as locals huffed past me, including a puppy, and waiting for my coworkers to link up.

We made the final push to the true summit together, continuing to hop from beam to beam and stopping when necessary. Thankfully the final few hundred feet are merciful and not as steep as the prior section's notorious 68% grade. We topped out to some amazing views of the valley and Colorado Springs. It was pretty incredible to soak in the evening air and reflect on what we just tackled....

...we just raced up the stairs of the Empire State Building. Twice!   

Our descent was a little lighter, jogging down the few miles of Barr Trail.

Started from the bottom...now we're here.

The App Data

Well I obviously didn't meet my goal of running half of it, lesson learned for the next trip and the importance of acclimating before tackling an Olympic challenge. The app showed me with an ascent time of 33:40, but it was really closer to an hour; in looking at the pace chart in the mobile app, it's clear it paused itself on the 25-minute wait at the false summit.

On the map below the red line tracks ascent up The Incline, and the yellow line tracks descent course along Barr Trail.

The data below shows just how brutal the climb is, covering almost 2,000 feet in a mile with a maximum grade of 68% and an agonizing average grade of 35%. It's rated a hors cat├ęgorie climb, which is a cycling term that means "beyond categorization" and is reserved for the toughest climbs. 

The Pictures

Starting from the bottom....
First quarter-mile seems fun.
Okay, not cool. Not cool at all.

This is just getting ridiculous.

Final few hundred feet.

View from the top step.

Additional References

  • Manitou Incline Official Sitewww.manitouincline.com - features a lot of great information and pictures, including brave climbers making the ascent in winter's snow and ice.
  • ESPN: Trying to survive The Inclineespn.com/olympics/incline - interesting ESPN Summer Olympics article with great descriptions on what it's like to climb the beast.