Thursday, August 26, 2021

Pikes Peak Marathon & Ascent: An Insider's View of the Race-The Shoes and the Unusual Gear and Shoe Hacks

Article by Shannon Payne

I haven’t tested much new gear over the previous couple of weeks, I’ve just been living that Rincon 3 life. I do love that shoe RTR Review. I did however spend this last weekend in my home state spectating my favorite mountain race, the Pikes Peak Marathon and Ascent. 

While there, naturally I had to scope out a few of the notable shoes, pieces of gear, and even shoe and gear modifications. I’ll touch on a few that caught my eye.


Before that though, I’d have to say that the most popular shoe choices I saw were the new Salomon S/Lab Pulsar (RTR Review) and the Hoka Torrent 2 (RTR Review)  .


Anyway, for those unfamiliar, Pikes Peak is a 14,115 foot mountain in Colorado. Now in its 64th year the Ascent, which took place Saturday, starts in the town of Manitou Springs, and as its name implies, ascends the mountain traversing Barr Trail and covering nearly 8,000 feet of gain in 13.4 miles. It’s one of my favorite races and holds quite a special place in my heart. 


Editor’s Note: Shannon placed 3rd in the 2014 World Mountain Running Championships held on the Pikes Peak Ascent course.


The Marathon takes place the day after the Ascent. As you might guess, it follows the same course as the Ascent, but then does an about-face at the summit where the Ascent finish would be, and goes right back down the mountain to finish in Manitou. 


Every now and then, you get a handful of folks who “do the double”: racing the Ascent on Saturday and the Marathon Sunday. 


I got to spend quite a lot of time hanging around with mountain running great Peter Maksimow as he took some fine photos doing his work for the American Trail Running Association, along with Sage Canaday and Steven Gnoza as they put together some terrific content for their great new website www.mutrunner.com (check them out and give them a follow on social media for some awesome mountain/ultra/trail coverage! Shameless plug.). Additionally, Gnoza has an YouTube and Instagram account known as Serious Runner which is anything but serious. Check him out for some very amusing satirical content revolving around our sport and some of the ridiculousness that we cannot deny sometimes takes place within it.


Now onto the shoes and gear, which is what you’re all here for.

Photo by Peter Maksimow

Day 1 saw high winds, snow flurries, ice,  and bad visibility above treeline for the final 5k of the Ascent and the times were not quick as a result. Joe Grey took his fourth win wearing the Hoka EVO Jawz (RTR Review).


2014 and 2018 US Mountain Running Champion Allie McLaughlin took her second win for the women wearing the On Cloudflow. 

Photo by Peter Maksimow


Yes, you read that right: the Cloudflow. Possibly the shoe with the least affinity for trail running ever made, besides maybe Birkenstocks or Toms or something. But the shoe seems to work for her on the rocky and occasionally gravelly Barr Trail. McLaughlin was in fact picked up last year by ON as a sponsor when she finished 3rd in the Pikes Peak Marathon and won the Moab Trail Marathon wearing the Cloudflow...so it seems to work. Also if you look closely, you’ll see that she also modified a Salomon hydration pack to instead feature ON logos given that On doesn’t make packs. You do what you have to, I guess. SalomON anyone? 

McLaughlin post-race at the 2020 Pikes Peak Marathon


Following her Ascent win on Saturday, McLaughlin rallied again to finish runner-up in the Marathon on Sunday. Now, it’s safe to say that McLaughlin is a little unconventional when it comes to all things running. In her first Pikes Peak Marathon attempt in 2020, she entered on a whim to take third place, using minimal hydration, no gels, and fueling in the latter stages of the race only with a single-serving shot of Kahlua liquor that she found in her vest. Additionally, she left quite a lot of blood and skin on Barr Trail (as do most people who descend the mountain at high speeds). 

McLaughlin at the 2021 Pikes Peak Marathon

Photo by Shannon Payne


This  year she eliminated that issue by sporting BMX dirt bike knee guards and padded gloves--which she retrieved at the summit turnaround--coming away unscathed with second place, on day two of racing and a cumulative 15,000 some odd feet of vertical gain, and was a mere 3 seconds off of the course record for the Double, held by Kim Dobson. However, unintentionally, her energy, enthusiasm, and unorthodox methods to success have solidified her status as a fan-favorite at this race.


It seems there are always interesting gear modifications and hacks at this race. Pikes Peak running legends Matt Carpenter and Scott Elliott were notorious for shaving bits and pieces off of their shoes to cut weight, even cutting the laces shorter, going so far as to snip bits off of their clothing, and even modifying water bottles to be carried at precisely the correct angle so as to impact running economy the least. In the days before the aggressive lugs of modern trail-running shoes, Carpenter was known to put sheet-metal screws into the heels of his Fila running shoes, giving him better grip on the descent. His astonishing 2:01 Ascent time still stands as the course record--even against assaults from such legends as Joe Grey and Killian Jornet--which was set en route to his still-standing marathon course record of 3:16. 


Anyway, for this year’s race, my friend Dan Vega, a stellar Masters mountain runner, shaved down his Hoka Torrents to create something of a Torrent racing flat that looked like a really great idea. He also modified the heel counter to relieve pressure on his ever-angry Achilles bursa. He later also made this same modification to McLaughlin’s heel counter in her Cloudflow after some irritation to her Achilles following her Ascent. She claimed to have zero pain with the shoe the following day racing the marathon in the same shoe.

Dan Vega’s Hoka Torrent “racing flat” with less midsole and Achilles-friendly heel counter.


Something else I saw more than once on both third place Marathon woman Bailey Kowalczyk as well as on the arm of 2019 Spartan World Champion and spectator Nicole Mericle was an odd patch on their upper arm. I thought it was an iontophoresis patch but couldn’t fathom why a runner would need that on their arm. I was able to speak with Mericle, who was spectating at the race this year as she returns from ACL surgery, and she informed me that it was a constant glucose monitor from NutriSense. Kowalczyk’s was the same device, but from a brand called SuperSapiens, not sold yet in the US. Apparently these monitors track things like blood glucose levels, stress levels, and the body’s response to food and exercise, among other things. Perhaps in the same vein as the Whoop Strap, it enables the wearer to be more proactive and to have much more awareness of the many physiological components that help or hinder performance and that may typically go mostly unnoticed until a poor performance happens.


Mericle’s shoes were another thing that caught my eye. At first glance I thought they were Newton’s, when I realized they weren’t, I took another look and thought maybe IceBug. No, she informed me, they’re neither. 

They were VJ Shoes Spark (RTR Review soon), from a Finnish brand with insanely good grip and an Altra-esque toebox that are supposed to be the stuff of obstacle racing and trail running shoe dreams. RoadTrailRun has tested the VJ Ultra in 2021 (RTR Review)  and VJ Maxx (RTR Review) in 2020. I think VJ Shoes will definitely be a brand that will become more prominent on the trail running scene in the future.

Left to right: Sage Canaday, Allie McLaughlin, Peter Maksimow, Shannon Payne, Dan Vega


In short, it was a great weekend for mountain running nerds and shoe/gear nerds alike. Always my most anticipated race of the year whether racing or not!


Shannon is a Colorado native currently residing in Northern California. NorCal is nice, but Colorado has her heart. Having run competitively for around 20 years, she was a 7x All American at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, was a 2x member of the U.S. Mountain Running Team, 2x winner of the Mt. Washington Road Race, and was 3rd at the 2014 World Mountain Running Long Distance Championship. Her favorite shoes currently include the Hoka Torrent, Saucony Kinvara, and Brooks Launch, and her favorite runs include anything that goes uphill


 Some tested samples were provided at no charge for review purposes others were personal purchases. RoadTrail Run has affiliate partnerships and may earn commission on products purchased through affiliate links. These partnerships do not influence our editorial content The opinions herein are entirely the authors'.

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