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Colorado wildfires add poor air quality to challenges of Pikes Peak Marathon

Already facing unusual race circumstances with COVID-19, Pikes Peak racers had to deal with smoke-filled air on race day as well

Despite difficulties caused by COVID-19 and poor air quality due to wildfires around the state, the Pikes Peak Marathon was held in Manitou Springs, Colo., on Sunday. More than 600 people ran the 42K trail race up and back down Colorado’s Pikes Peak, covering 2,382 gruelling metres of elevation gain in the process. The event is well known in the global trail community (Spanish ultrarunner Kilian Jornet won the race in 2019), but this year, all but one of the 655 entrants were from the U.S. (the lone non-American was Mexican), and the results list is overwhelmingly populated by Colorado residents. Seth DeMoor of Englewood, Colo., took the overall win in 3:36:31, and Brittany Charboneau of Denver won the women’s race in 4:25:21. 


Pikes Peak 

First run in 1956, the Pikes Peak Marathon is one of the oldest marathons in the U.S., second only to Boston. It is an out-and-back course is mostly run on Barr Trail, taking racers up and down Pikes Peak, which has a maximum elevation of 4,302m. The mountain is one of Colorado’s famed 14ers — a list of the state’s mountains which reach elevations of at least 14,000 feet (4,270m). This race is no joke, and its intensity is what makes it such an iconic event. In addition to the marathon, there’s normally a half-marathon, named the Pikes Peak Ascent, in which runners go up the mountain but not back down. That race was cancelled for 2020, but the marathon was able to go ahead despite COVID-19. 

RELATED: Monterey Bay Half Marathon cancelled due to wildfire smoke

COVID-19 and wildfires 

Race organizers have spent months preparing to hold their race in a safe manner with COVID-19 in mind, and runners had a lot of pandemic rules that they had to follow both before and after the run and while on the course. Runners were required to wear their masks in the first and last miles of the race, and they were encouraged to wear them whenever they came within six feet of another racer. Masks were also mandatory at aid stations, which had a strict protocol for runners as well.

Steps to the Pikes Peak Marathon aid stations. (Photo: Pikes Peak Marathon)

The race also used a wave start, with nine groups of around 85 runners in each. Runners were positioned six feet away from one another as they awaited the wave starts, and on the course, they were told to give each other as much room as they could (at least six feet where possible) when making passes. The post-race festivities were cut due to COVID-19, and athletes were asked to leave as quickly as possible after finishing the run.

RELATED: The interesting COVID-19 workaround of the Sierre-Zinal race

The more unexpected issue ahead of race day was caused by the wildfires raging in Colorado. This created poor air quality on race day, and much of the state’s air was either rated as “Moderate” at best or “Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups,” such as people with lung disease, older adults and children. Race organizers posted on the event Facebook page to thank runners for “not only braving the smoke-filled skies yesterday, but for adhering to every single rule and curveball that we threw at you to help make our race safe.” 


Sunday’s results 

While the smoky air and COVID-19 restrictions could have made for a slower race, the 2020 Pikes Peak Marathon wasn’t much different from years past. DeMoor ran nine minutes slower than Jornet did in 2019, but he actually beat the Spaniard’s ascent time. On the women’s side, Charboneau (who finished in 13th at the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials in February) was far behind last year’s winner, Maude Mathys, who set the course record of 4:02:45, although she beat the second-place woman by almost 10 minutes. 

Full results from the race can be found here.

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