I did the thing! I finally hiked The Incline and I didn’t kill myself doing it. Solid! It was fun, it was tough, and I finally achieved this goal. When I first decided I was going to do this, I was about 220 lbs. Back then I decided the best way to train for it was to take to the two flights of stairs I have access to, and stomp up and down them until one day I could complete the total amount of steps that are on the Incline. I would’ve had to go up (and down) my stairs about 106 times to reach that goal. How time consuming! How ignorant! I stuck to it for a while though. If I recall correctly, I got to the point that I hit about 50 or so reps there before abandoning the goal. That was long ago. That was before I managed to really change my brain for the better, before I figured out how to lose a copious amount of weight and completely change my life. I’ve lost over 120 lbs. from my top weight. I’m fit (mostly…) and I finally kicked ass up that monstrous stairway to heaven.
History of The Incline
The Incline was originally a railway, built for access to a hydroelectric plant and its respective facilities. The railway quickly became a tourist attraction, citizens could pay to ride the little ‘train’ to the top where sat a summit house. This remained in operation under the Pikes Peak Cog Railway until the tracks were washed out in a rock slide in 1990. Rail ties were left, and shortly thereafter the remaining scar became known to locals as a hiking challenge. There has long been controversy over the legality of hiking the trail, but now it is solidly open to the public.
At the foot of the incline, altitude reads at about 6,600 ft. In less than one mile (approximately .88 mi) the Incline climbs over 2,000 ft. The average grade is around 43%. The first major marker on the trail is about two-thirds of the way up, and is called the bailout point. This is where the Barr trail first connects to the Incline. After this point, the grade quickly becomes a harsh 68% until reaching the false summit. After the false summit, there are around 300 steps left to reach the true summit.
The fastest verified completion time is 17 minutes and 45 seconds. From the top, you may take one of two routes down on Barr Trail. The standard route down tacks on a meandering 3 (ish) miles, making your round trip just short of 4 miles. The extended route continues to climb another 200 feet or so in elevation, ending with a round trip total of about 4.5 miles.
In preparation several weeks before, I designed and worked out the kinks of this leg day routine. It was tough to push through at first; as I’ve mentioned before I’m not big on cardio, and doubt that I ever will be. The night before, I loaded up my pack with what I needed or might need. My standard first aid and emergency supplies, filled my three liter water bladder and packed in several hundred calories of raw almonds and dried cherries and blueberries. I packed in my camera and phone, for a total pack weight of 13.9 lbs. At about 6:00 am I ate what I figured would be an appropriate breakfast – About a half cup of cooked quinoa with a teaspoon of peanut butter, several dried cherries and blueberries, a teaspoon of ground flax and chia seeds, cinnamon, realsalt, and just enough almond milk to partially re-hydrate the fruit and bind everything together. I drank my standard morning coffee with almond milk and a teaspoon of honey. I stretched my legs for about 15 minutes just prior to leaving.
The Stairway to Heaven
It’s about 8:40 am; we have paid the ten dollars to park in the Incline parking lot for up to four hours. It’s a quick trip to the bathroom and sun-screening exposed tattoos before my friend and I begin our ascent. The view up is cause for excitement, and anxiety. I can clearly see where the degree becomes sharper, there is a concentration of hikers there marked by their bright athletic apparel. I look to the false summit, knowing to view at it as a marker of encouragement. There is the silent voice of an obese girl that I know well, and she is protesting in the back of my mind, “Don’t, you’re going to embarrass yourself.” I quiet my past mind, and we begin.
The sun is beating heavily on our backs already and I hear behind me, “Damn I’m already tired! It’s been two minutes! It’s only been two minutes!?!” I laugh, and agree, but within the next few minutes my increased heart rate levels out and I begin to power up the railroad ties, stopping only for occasional pictures. I feel good, I feel strong, I feel confident. I know I am capable, but that I still must pace myself.
Down here on the lower half there are few people. We encounter the first of a handful of folks who have decided they will come back down the incline instead of taking Barr trail, something that at first is impressive, but slowly becomes more and more frustrating as you climb. There is an old man just ahead of us, he steps with a clear familiar method, denoted with intentional full-mouthed breathing. We yoyo with him for quite a while
At around the halfway point, the pressure behind my steam drops. My friend and I swap places at this point, and from then on she remains ahead of me for the most part. The difference between a cardio lover and a weight training lover becomes more and more clear as we go. I begin to feel the weight of a nearly 14 pound pack. We take the first of several off-trail breaks on the steep sides, to catch our breath and cool ourselves behind trees. After two or so minutes, we hop back on.
I can see in much finer detail now the various increases in grade ahead of us. I can spot the bailout point, and smirk. Bail out. Ha! As if. We push on, but at this point the old man has taken his practiced approach far ahead of us. As we approach the 2/3s marker, I can see him just off trail, talking and laughing on the phone. This is routine. He is taunting us. He departs again upwards as we approach. We never manage to overcome him. This is the first of many humbling moments to come.
The Two Thirds Marker
We push past the bailout point. It has taken us around 33 minutes to get here. Here, where the pace slows significantly. Again, the increase of angle becomes much more defined as I look upwards. “How the f*ck do people run up this!?!” I exclaim, a phrase I go on to repeat several times. It is very steep. I’m taking more and more time to take steps up. It is becoming difficult to inhale what feels like an adequate amount of oxygen. My heart rate takes longer to steady. We are up high now; the altitude begins to drag on my body.
Halfway between the bailout and the false summit, we step off trail again. For a moment, I desire to sit, but I cannot – getting up would be far too difficult. Wordlessly, I prop myself on my knees and try to filter enough oxygen to my muscles. I look up, back onto the trail as a group passes. To my awe, I see a very fit woman, no less than six months pregnant, powering up past us with her group. I remain speechless, and lift my finger to point her out to my friend. I am amazed. She is amazed. I manage to squeak out to this powerful woman, “Holy shit, good for you! You are my hero!” She smiles and waves at me before disappearing up the hillside.
It is another minute before we fully collect ourselves. For the first time, my legs protest – though only for a minute. We had stalled too long for them, apparently. Things are steep here. I begin to use my hands on the occasion to lean forward and balance as I push up the next step. This occurs more and more frequently as we continue.
The crowds are thicker now, stop and go traffic as others struggle with their bodies and their minds to take the next step. It is less common now to be heavily outpaced. Everybody seems to feel the struggle at this point. The false summit is very close. We are almost to the top. But increasingly, the closer we get, the farther it now seems.
The False Summit
We hit the false summit, and smile. It is much cooler up here; I can fool my mind into believing that the sun is not actually more intense at this altitude. I can feel it scorching my shoulders and shake my head as I think back to my decision to skip sun screen there. We step into a precious bit of shade for a moment and recharge with the cool alpine breeze. The trail is significantly less steep for a short amount of time before it angles sharply once more to the top. Not much longer now. But my heart rate doesn’t want to slow and my thoughts are not as clear as they had been. My friend hits a wind and powers up.
I hit a wall. I realize that my blood sugar has suddenly dived. It hurts to try to breathe; I can feel swelling in the viscera around my lungs as they fight to pull in copious volumes of thin, thin air. My heart pounds painfully, struggling to keep up with the demand. I feel a faint pulsing in my eyes, a thin blur until I can manage to take a sufficient breath. Things slow down elsewhere, I stop every seven steps or so to reclaim my momentum.
My determination tapers quickly after every new push forward. This is punishing now. I need calories. I know that I need calories, desperately. I have dried fruit and nuts in my bag, I keep thinking, but shoot down the idea every time I think about trying to breathe around chewing. There is no way. I simply must reach the top and eat there. I drink instead.
Every time I look up I think, “Damn, I really thought I had covered more distance than this,” I put my head down and trudge on. I encounter a loose railroad tie, and pull myself up over it. I curse it for causing me to have to expend so much energy to safely get over it. Now it’s every five steps that I must pause and regain my breath. The summit is so, so close. Thirty steps now. I struggle slowly, silently. Finally I look up to see the final twelve ties. My need to increase my blood sugar propels me quickly up these last few. Between the false summit and the top, it has taken me approximately 25 minutes.
The True Summit
“One hour, twenty-two minutes, twenty seconds,” She recites to me as I stumble over the last step. I have no desire to stop and look around yet. My brain is scrambled. I immediately find a spot to lean against and sling my pack off, yanking out the baggy of nuts and fruit. I pull out a palm full of fruit and force it onto my friend before chewing on my own palm-full. I swish water around with it in my mouth, knowing the sugary liquid will absorb quickly into my bloodstream there. I feel an immediate boost, and snack on a few more before returning to the mouth of the summit to overlook the city below.
I choke down some almonds, but I have already recovered. I look down; I can’t understand why anyone would choose to descend the stairs. I just know I would trip or slip and take a handful of hikers out with me.
We exit the crowd and descend on Barr Trail. It’s beautiful. We are elated. We run and jog sections on and off, greeting hikers as we pass them. My stomach lining is cramping trying to deal with the small amount of nuts and fruit, but other than that, I am on cloud nine. My friend slips on the gravel and tears the skin on her knee. We laugh and continue. The endorphins carry us at a fair clip, prancing down the trail for quite some time before they shift down into a more peaceful pace.
We slow down and take in the views, stepping aside for runners as they approached. We talk and laugh about many subjects. We squeak and giggle nervously every time the gravel gives way under our feet and we nearly lose our upright state. We hit a parking lot and stretch our legs using a boulder at the foot of the trail. We’re both confused once we realize this is not the same lot we parked in.
Upon returning to our vehicle, we eat what we can manage to choke down from our small snack supply, and drool over the mention of burrito bowls or chicken nuggets. As we drove back through Manitou, we made a spur of the moment pit stop to fill a bottle with the local spring mineral water to help replenish our electrolytes, and sputtered through drinking it.
At home, I spent thirty minutes deep stretching myself in every which way I could contort before a shower. I was incredibly zenned out, calm and proud. I was so, so satisfied.
Learning From Experience
There are definitely some things I’m going to differently next time I head to the incline. First of all, I’m going to eat a little closer to beginning of the hike. There was about two and a half hours between consuming anything and my start time, and I believe this really impacted me heavily towards the top. I will not, however, eat anything within an hour and a half or so of my start time.
I’m going to put on more sunscreen. Simple.
I will pack with me a small liquid source of calories. My drop in blood sugar coupled with my extreme aversion to the thought of trying to breathe while chewing taught me that I should bring a fruit puree or something in that vein for a boost, should I need it. I can’t tell you how many times in those last few hundred feet I thought about the implications of passing out headlong onto a vertical piece of rebar. I simply don’t want to worry about that again.
I’m pretty happy with myself, all in all. As I write this, it has now been two days since completion. I don’t have sore legs, only some mild tightness in my calves. My thoracic cavity was definitely pretty sore for about 17 hours or so following completion – trying for oxygen in that atmosphere was tough. It really reminded me of the exercise induced asthma I used to suffer through after gym in high school, though without the incredible amount of coughing and hacking I used to experience. Seriously, being so incredibly unhealthy was just shit all around, all the time.
I had a lot of favorite parts of this trail, despite how rough it was in many spots. I can’t really name what I would say the best part is, other than the summit. My least favorite parts, however, are the two (maybe three…) sections where the stairs are so narrow in width that they barely accommodate the front half of my foot. I have wee feet. This must be an incredible annoyance to anyone with regular (or large) sized peddlers.
I still can’t believe people run up this trail. I can only figure that these folks are both addicted to the endorphins, and entirely insane. Good for ya’ll I suppose. Even if I was fit enough to do that, I would surely slip and break my teeth on something at some point.
I want to include a special thank you to my ‘close acquaintance’, without whom many of my adventures and accomplishments could not have been reached, or at the very least would have been very greatly delayed.
Have you done the incline?
Tell me all about it in the comments below, or connect with me on any of the following social platforms!
Now, for the disclaimer – I am not an adventure guide, personal trainer, doctor, nutritionist, or medical authority, this is meant to be only a source of information and inspiration, implementing these techniques into your daily life is something you do of your own free will and at your own risk.
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