Pikes Peak Marathon – a race of two dominant performers

The Pikes Peak Marathon and Ascent race has a long history having been first run in 1936 and then continuously since 1956 to the present. The race is an iconic “mountain” event and has been run by many high-level competitors over the years. It is also a “bucket list” race for many. I had focused training on the 1979 edition when I was living in New Mexico but a road cycling team invite scuttled those plans as I would be only cycling and traveling for the entire summer. As a climbing specialist then, and now, I still have plans to do the race, perhaps even this year.

The 7815 foot (2382 m) 13.1 mile Ascent followed by a return route down the same trail makes the Marathon an “ultramarathon” as the fastest finishing times are about the same as that for some of the faster 50 km trail races. The race regularly draws top talent from the mountain and ultramarathon running world as well some washed-up elite and sub-elite road marathoners looking for a new challenge. In 2014 the Ascent race (run the day before the Marathon) was the designated World Long Distance Mountain Running Championship of the World Mountain Running Association (WMRA). Since 1976 the race has been run on the same course. This allows for performances in this time period to be directly compared and aggregated for analysis.

Even though the race has a long history and has been run by thousands including a fair share of international elite runners, the best results are dominated by two performers- Matt Carpenter and Ricardo Mejia. Carpenter has completed the race 14 times and won it 12 times and Mejia has run 6 times and won it 5 times (I could not find any data on possible DNFs). These two competitors also account for 6 of the 11 performances that are within 10% of the record time as well as the record time (by Carpenter). Carpenter has played a central role in the race for many years and has taken it upon himself to provide a resource for all things “Pikes” at his website Pikes Peak Central. The website provides a comprehensive collection of data, history, and advice on running the race- either the Ascent, the Marathon, both, or both in the same year (known as a “double”) as Carpenter has done a couple of times. A “double” is possible since the Ascent is run on Saturday and the Marathon on Sunday. After Carpenter’s 6 in a row winning streak from 2006-20011, the winners have been international since (Jornet 2012, Miahara 2013, Lauenstein 2014).

The record for the Marathon is held by Carpenter- set in 1993 with a super-human time of 3:16:39. No one has come within 2.5% of this time and this result stands as one of the greatest fixed course mountain running performances ever. There are only four other performances that are within 5% of the record and 11 that are within 10%, an impressive record given the thousands of national and international elite mountain runners that have competed in the race over the years.

Competitiveness

In a previous post, the Pikes Peak Marathon was compared to a number of other (mostly ultramarathon) races to gain an understanding of competitiveness in such long trail running races. The results indicate that Pikes exhibits a very wide range of competitiveness including both exponential and linear finishing time distributions. The “linear” years have competitiveness indices similar to other very competitive races. The “exponential” years have competitiveness indices ranging from values as high as some of the most competitive road marathons to as low as some of the least competitive ultramarathons. The competitiveness calculations utilize the 125% cohort from each year of the event. The 125% cohort is chosen because it allows for comparison of events ranging from 10 km road races to 100 mile trail ultramarathon races. Although a “true” elite population would be best described as those competitors within about 10% of the winning (or record) time, the 125% cohort allows for inclusion of enough ultramarathon results to allow for statistical significance in comparisons. In addition, because of the magnitude of multiplicative pace differentials, the finishing times are naturally more spread out in ultramarathons than for similar pace differentials in shorter races such as marathons and other shorter road races.

Examples of typical “exponential” and “linear” competitiveness plots for the Pikes Peak Marathon are presented below for the 2009 and 2010 Men’s events. Carpenter won both of these races, in 3:37:02 and 3:51:54, respectively. The 2010 event had a much deeper field (20 competitors in the 125% cohort) than the 2009 event (14 competitors in the 125% cohort) something that is partly due to the slower winning time in 2010, although there are likely other contributing factors (e.g. weather).

 

Slide3

Presented below are the competitive indices (CI), coefficients of determination, sizes of the 125% cohort, winning times, winners, and winners age for the Men’s Pikes Peak Marathon from 1976-2014. As noted above, this event period is chosen because the race has been on the same course for the entire time and allows for direct comparisons of finishing times and other, derived, metrics.

 

Pikes Peak Parametrics Summary all years cropped

Competitiveness index (CI), coefficient of determination, size of the 125% cohort, winning time, winner, and winner age for the Men’s Pikes Peak Marathon 1976-2014. The red CI values are for the highly competitive “linear” years.

Within this dataset of 39 competitions, we see 5 highly competitive “linear” years, 6 very competitive “exponential” years (CI>0.130), and quite a number of years (16) with low competitiveness (CI<0.110). Clearly the competitive fields at Pikes are highly variable but can be very competitive. This is not unexpected from a niche event which draws from a relatively small population of competitive runners.

Pikes Peak Marathon and Age

In long events like marathons and ultramarathons the optimal age for top competitors tends to favor an older runner than for the shorter events such as the mile. In another post, an analysis of the optimal age for competition in the road Marathon was presented. What is found is that there exists evidence that the top road Marathon competitors are getting younger, particularly since the 2008 Olympics where 21 year old Samuel Wanjiru won the gold medal. It is hypothesized that Wanjiru’s result has spurred on many more younger athletes to pursue the marathon at a younger age than has typically been observed. A plot of the competitor age on race day versus the percentage back from the record Marathon time for the top 2500 Marathon times is presented below and shows the current optimal age to be about 30 years. There is a “bulge” in the data on the young side of the “whorl” centered on about 30 years, indicating that there is something of additional interest in the dataset.

Slide3

Pursuant to understanding this “bulge” in the data, a more granular look dividing the data into two time periods (1967-2008 and 2009-2014) presented below, shows that as of about 2009, the best results in the marathon are getting faster and that the average competitor age of these fast results is tending to a younger age. This supports the “Wanjiru” effect but does not confirm it.

Slide9

Looking at the same type of data for Pikes Peak Marathon shows a similar optimal age of about 30 years, but with a diffuse indication of increased performance for older competitors. In this graph the red points are Carpenter’s results, the green points are Mejia’s results, and the yellow points are Waquie’s results. Guidelines are included to help the eye detect the lack of symmetry in the data (similar to those provided in the Marathon graph above). Even removing the outlier results of Carpenter in his winning streak as he entered his 40’s, there is still a trend toward older competitors having superior times to younger competitors.

Slide2

Age on race day versus percentage back from the record time for the Pikes Peak Marathon 1976-2014 for the 125% cohort of performances. The red points are Matt Carpenter’s performances, the green points are Ricard Mejia’s performances, and the orange points are Al Waquie’s performances. Even with removal of the outlier results of Carpenter in his 40’s, there is a tendency for older competitors to perform better than younger competitors.

 

So the Pikes Peak Marathon may be a race for the older competitor, at least when compared to the road Marathon. It is not unusual that an event that involves such a high level of endurance along with a high reliance on slow twitch muscle fibers (type I and to some extent type IIa) would favor the older athlete. What is interesting with Pikes however, is that the downhill is run at a very high speed where utilization of fast twitch (type IIb) muscle fibers is important. It may be that the uphill part of the race dominates the skillset needed to be competitive, although it is usually the case that a fast descent is required for a win- something that reinforces the subtitle of this blog- “the race is made on the ups and won on the downs”….. and also something to consider if one should be attempting to put up a good time at this event.

Summary

Analysis of finishing time data for the Pikes Peak Marathon over the period 1976-2014 reveals the following:

  1. The best performances have been dominated by two individuals- Matt Carpenter and Ricardo Mejia.
  2. The competitiveness of the race is highly variable- the competitiveness indices can be as high as some of the most competitive road marathons to as low as some of the least competitive ultramarathons.
  3. Analysis of the age distribution within the 125% cohort for all time performance indicates that the race favors an older competitor when compared to the road Marathon.
  4. It is pointed out that even though the ascent portion of the race likely dominates the skillset needed for high performance, a fast decent is required for a good time. This appears to necessitate that top competitors have an unusual mix of slow and fast twitch muscle fiber development.
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2 thoughts on “Pikes Peak Marathon – a race of two dominant performers

  1. If only we had the height and weight of each competitor taken before each of these events, all the things we would learn.
    By just observing, I can tell the Stillman table can be used as a strong filter when the time comes to figure out who has a chance to prevail.
    I know it is somewhat controversial, but it’s a simple truth athletes outside of Africa seems to ignore.

    • Hi Laurent,

      Agree w/r/t to the “Stillman” hypothesis. Although some of the best performers in mountain running might be a bit lower in weight than what Stillman would predict. But the fact remains that the best route to better performance is weight loss. I have stopped giving this advice however, as many are not welcoming to the observation. There are outliers, as always, but weight remains a primary inhibitor to optimal performance for an overwhelming majority of endurance athletes and participants. And you are correct, just observing the finish of a mountain race and making mental calcs of the height/weight (BMI) of the 110% cohort… will give one more than enough data to secure confidence in what a significant difference weight makes in performance.

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