Pikes Peak takes on the Ascent

by Shannon Payne

Pikes Peak Elite will see a handful of competitors take to racing up the mountain of the club’s namesake on August 19th.

Matt Williams, Ben Payne, Adrian Neal and Shannon Payne will tackle the Pikes Peak Ascent, arguably Colorado’s most famous and historic race, now in its 61st year. Beginning in Manitou Springs, there is over 8,000 feet of vertical gain over the 13.4 mile grueling climb to the summit.
Williams spent his high school and college years running up and down the mountains of Colorado Springs, and has his eye on a top-5 finish, a goal certainly not out of his reach even with the highly anticipated elite field that will see plenty of seasoned veterans as well as foreign athletes.
Although this has been Williams’ first year formally dabbling in the mountain running scene given that he spent the majority of his running career on the roads, track, and in cross country, where he has been a formidable presence as a WCAP athlete with the Air Force, he has already shown great promise and will no doubt be a force to contend with on America’s Mountain. His debut mountain race was last June’s U.S. Mountain Running Championships in Cranmore, N.H., where he was only three spots out of making the national team, finishing seventh overall. He followed that with a fifth place finish at the recent Barr Trail Mountain Race.
“It’s going to be a loaded field this year,” Williams said. “To mix it up (in the top 5) would be a great thing.”
Although the Ascent wasn’t necessarily something Williams had planned on doing until recently, having received news that he would soon be relocating per military orders to North Carolina, he decided to race up the mountain as a farewell of sorts to his native Colorado.
“I wanted to get the most out of my Colorado time as I could,” he explained. “When my training partner Ben (Payne) told me he was doing it, I was sold. It’s pretty awesome that this final summer of us training together we get to tackle one of Colorado’s biggest challenges.”
Similarly to Williams, fellow Air Force WCAP team mate Ben Payne got his mountain running feet wet, so to speak, as he ran his first mountain race only recently at Colorado Springs’ famed Barr Trail Mountain Race, where he took second to multiple-time world mountain running champion and local runner Joe Gray. Coming from the roads, track, and cross country as well, Payne has always felt one of his greatest strengths as a runner to be ascents. Naturally, he gravitated towards Pikes Peak, penciling it in on his race schedule last spring.
“One of my biggest strengths is climbing, even back in my high school cross country days,” Payne said. “So the Ascent has been something I’ve always been curious to try. Plus, it’s a race you’re almost expected to do as a Colorado Native and local Colorado Springs runner with Pikes Peak in our backyard.”
He too, has a goal of a top-5 finish.
“The Ascent is very intimidating, as it should be for any first-timer,” Payne pointed out. “The combination of a constant climb and high altitude make for a huge challenge. But I’m excited to aim for top five in my debut, and maybe more mountain racing in my future.”

Photo: 2014 Pikes Peak Ascent, by Kevin Bergsten

Shannon Payne raced the 2014 Pikes Peak Ascent, PC Kevin Bergsten

Adrian Neal will make Pikes Peak her debut mountain race. The long-time marathoner, who competed in the 2012 Olympic Marathon Trials and is a two-time member of the U.S. 50k Road Championship team, is a tough, grind-it-out type runner who will no doubt add depth to an already exceptionally strong women’s field. Neal surprised herself with a fourth place showing at the Garden of the Gods 10 Mile in early June, and followed that with a win at the Summer Roundup.
“A friend asked me to do the Garden 10 Mile, and I did much better than I expected,” she explained. “The Summer Roundup landed on a workout day, so I jumped in that race for some ‘workout buddies.’ After that, I found out that I was leading the Triple Crown Series, so I decided to give the Ascent a try.”
Neal plans to use the race as part of her build-up for October’s Chicago Marathon, where she hopes to notch a sub-2:45.
“I don’t have any specific goals set for this race. In the past I’ve found that any races that I add during my marathon build-ups have been a little scattered results-wise. I’ve had some good ones, and I’ve had some bad ones when my legs are loaded mileage-wise,” she said.
Neal will certainly be a wild-card in the women’s field, and is likely to notch an impressive result.
Shannon Payne, not of relation to Ben, will also be competing with a humble goal of not getting last.