Kim Dobson glanced at her watch as she loped through Barr Camp on Aug. 18 in the Pikes Peak Ascent. She knew she was on a record pace, but what she saw frightened her. Dobson had covered 7.3 miles and climbed 3,900 feet in 1:12:30. She was 5 minutes ahead of pace—but she knew the mountain has become famous for crushing those who don’t respect it.
A 28-year-old teacher and cross country coach who lives in Grand Junction, Colo., Dobson said a quick prayer and charged on to the summit finish, 6 miles ahead at 14,115 feet.
“I just kept saying the verse I’d memorized, ‘Do not fear, I will help you,’” she said. “You don’t want to set limits for yourself and slow down because of expectations, but you don’t want to push yourself so hard that you blow up.”
The course follows the famous Barr Trail, piercing the foothills of Pikes Peak, and then twisting across the mountain’s broad, eastern rocky face. It is the 31st highest peak in Colorado, one of 54 recognized “14ers.”
Dobson, a relative newcomer to mountain running, had come to beat the women’s Ascent race record. She made her first trip up Pikes Peak in 2009, doing the race just for fun.
“My husband Corey and I had plans to climb all of Colorado’s 14ers, so I entered the race not knowing what to expect,” she said. “I just kept passing and catching up to ladies and the crowd was telling me I was fifth, fourth, third and second. I remember thinking, what if I win? It was so exciting to see that my hobby was something I had a talent in.”
She finished second in her first attempt, followed with a second place in 2010 and a victory in 2011, when she finished 30 seconds off the race record.
How good is she? In less than 36 months, Dobson advanced from recreational runner to become the 2012 U.S. mountain running champion with a win in Mount Washington Road Race on June 16 in New Hampshire. But she fell short of one goal this year. She failed to qualify for the U.S. Mountain Running Team at the 5-mile Loon Mountain Race in New Hampshire in early July.
Pikes Peak and the Ascent race record of 2:33:31, set in 1981 by New Mexico’s Lynn Bjorklund, became her goal.
Race-day conditions were perfect this year and Dobson arrived at the starting line in Manitou Springs looking thin, fit and strong. As the top men closed in on the finish, the summit crowd began to buzz with word that she’d reached the famous “Cirque.” She had only a mile to run. Everyone checked their watches and attempted some quick addition in thin air that made clear thinking difficult.
“Oh, my gosh, she’s fast,” said Nancy Hobbs, the executive director of the American Trail Running Association and Pikes Peak veteran who excitedly picked her way across the scree. “I think she’s going to be way under the record.”
The final mile of the Pikes Peak Ascent is a ribbon of singletrack that ties itself into a knot at the “16 Golden Stairs, ” a series of switchbacks that add one final sting to weary legs and lungs. The altitude becomes a strangling force that the best mountain runners negotiate. But it’s also a place where emotions and overwhelming feelings of accomplishment leave runners in tears.
Dobson knew she was running like no woman ever on Pikes Peak, but she kept her focus. One mental lapse and she could have lost it all within shouting distance of the finish line.
“I felt pretty good the whole race,” she said. “But I knew the pace was fast and I didn’t let my guard down. I was pushing it, but not crossing the red line.”
In the final minutes of the race, Dobson caught and passed three-time men’s Ascent champion Simon Gutierrez of Colorado Springs. They forged a momentary bond and worked together.
“I passed him and realized my heart rate was way too high,” Dobson said. “I asked him if he wanted to go by and he said, ‘No, only if you need help.’ It was very sweet and the highlight of the race for me. I feel like he sacrificed a little at the end to finish with me.”
The two soon hopped over the last boulders on the Golden Stairs and Dobson caught race organizers unprepared.
“She caught me and I thought ‘this is cool, I get to see history here.’” Gutierrez said. “I know Kim very well and it was fun to finish with her.”
Nobody thought she would run so fast. Ron Ilgen, the Pikes Peak Ascent and Marathon race director of 11 years, scrambled to stretch a tape across the finish line.
“I was stunned and didn’t know quite what to think as she surprised us all with her amazing time,” Ilgen said. “I did think that this was the most impressive performance that I had witnessed in my time with the race organization.”
The course flattens a bit in the final meters and Dobson glided through the finish, her arms spread wide in celebration. She wore a Pikes Peak-sized smile.
“I finally let myself hear the crowd and the cheering,” Dobson said. “I knew then that this was going to happen.”
She looked fresh and strong for the cameras, but soon crumpled into the arms of her husband as the weight of the accomplishment and old-fashioned exhaustion hit her.
She had officially clocked 2:24:58 (chip time), demolishing the race record by more than 8 ½ minutes, and placed sixth overall, about 11 minutes off of Jason Delaney’s winning pace. Dobson also beat the women’s Ascent Bounty time of 2:32 to claim a $5,000 bonus. She collected $8,000 total for the win. Ellie Keyser, 23, of Fort Collins, Colo., placed second in 2:38:11. Brandy Erholtz, 34, a former Pikes Peak champion who lives Evergreen, Colo., was third in 2:45:40.
Bjorklund, who lives in Los Alamos, N.M., and works as a forest ranger in the Santa Fe National Forest, said she is surprised her record stood for 31 years.
“I didn’t think it was all that amazing at the time,” she said. “But I am thrilled that there is someone who has finally ran that fast. I can feel for her. I know just how much fun it is to run your best. I’m sure she must be somebody who loves mountain running and probably had a blast on Pikes Peak.”
That’s an accurate assessment.
This year, the Dobsons moved to Grand Junction. With the big mountains two hours away, Kim became a commuter, driving 200 miles four days a week to reach quality training ground and pound her body into shape for a Pikes Peak record attempt. She hit the 14ers near Denver — Grays Peak, Torreys Peak and Mt. Evans — and made road trips to the San Juan mountains in southwestern Colorado.
“I had a pretty high gas bill for a month,” she said. “But I love the training and the driving was beautiful and peaceful.”
There are no secrets to her training plan, she said. Eight-time Pikes Peak Ascent winner Scott Elliott provides some structure, and he is a big believer in intervals.
“I’d always try to up the intensity and add one more interval,” Dobson said. “I remember having to fall down a couple of times.”
Dobson said Pikes Peak fits her ability. At Loon Mountain, the course was more about speed and power. Pikes Peak is long and gradual. It lures runners to high altitude and then breaks them down. Dobson loves it.
“I just really enjoy the elevation gain and high altitude running,” she said. “I like the way it feels to run above tree line, gasping for air and the feel of my heart beating.”
Now, those are the true words of a Pikes Peak champion.
Tim Bergsten of Colorado Springs is a longtime sports writer. He owns and manages the website PikesPeakSports.us, a social network for runners and cyclists.