Sophia Laukli has proven on multiple occasions this summer that she can run uphill and downhill quickly. There was the win in the Marathon du Mont Blanc in Chamonix in June; the second in the DoloMyths Run in the Italian Dolomites in July; and the win at Sierre–Zinal, in the Swiss Alps, in August. All three races featured both large climbs and substantial drops, in some cases vertiginous ones.
So can Laukli go just uphill with comparable speed? Tune in tomorrow morning to find out! (Yes I know that Laukli has literally claimed a World Cup podium on the uphill-only Alpe Cermis climb when it comes to skiing. I’m setting the stage here.)
The Pikes Peak Ascent starts at 7 a.m. Saturday morning Mountain Time in downtown Manitou Springs, Colorado.
The course is, in a word, steep. The race starts at 6,300 feet above sea level. The Ascent ends at 14,115 feet, for a total vertical gain of 7,815 feet. The course for the uphill-only Ascent is just slightly over traditional half-marathon length at 13.32 miles (21.4km).
The average grade is 11 percent, per the course info page on the race website. Strava lists the segment as an HC (hors catégorie) climb, with an average grade of 11.3 percent. Joe Gray, Kílian Jornet, Sage Canaday, and Rémi Bonnet are among the recognizable men’s names in the segment top-10.
The Ascent, which “only” goes uphill, is held on Saturday, and is stage five in this year’s Golden Trail World Series. The full marathon, which will be held on Sunday, goes first uphill and then down.
This race has some history. The Ascent was first held on a one-off basis in 1936 (!). The full marathon has been held annually since 1956. It now describes itself as “the oldest continually held marathon in the United States.” This claim initially caused me to arch a skeptical eyebrow, but considering that the two older American marathons on this list, Boston and Yonkers, canceled their 2020 in-person runnings, this in fact checks out. Trust but verify. The race’s history means that there are a staggering 94,000 entries in the cumulative results database, which makes my dorky results-stalking self very happy.
Notably, women were allowed in the full marathon starting in its first year, 1956; the first female entrant arrived in 1958, and the first female finisher came in 1959. A few years later the Equinox Marathon, in Fairbanks, Alaska, was founded in 1963, and similarly welcomed women from its inaugural year.
Neither race is a typical road marathon. Neither race is easy. Without fully restating my strident feminism from the preview of the inaugural women’s 50km at Holmenkollen this March, suffice to say that women are, in fact, capable of doing hard things in running, and have been doing them since long before Jock Semple tried to bodycheck K. Switzer off the course of the 1967 Boston Marathon.
Anyway. Races at Pikes Peak, both the Ascent and the Marathon, have been held for a long time. So it is notable that the course record for the full marathon is currently thirty years old (Matt Carpenter, 1993, 3:16:39). And also that the record for the Ascent dates to the same year (Matt Carpenter, 2:01:06, en route to the overall win, which is just bonkers).
The women’s course record for the Ascent has stood for a healthy decade-plus: Kim Dobson, 2012, 2:24:58. The women’s course record for the marathon is of more recent vintage, Maude Mathys’s 4:02:41 from 2019.
Here is a fine recent article from Outside Online about Carpenter’s “Impossible Record,” and the history behind it. It notes that Carpenter’s marks are notably older than, say, Hicham El Guerrouj’s [notorious] mile world record from 1999.
You can watch tomorrow’s race live here, starting slightly before the gun goes off.
So how fast is Laukli going to run, and how does she stack up against this year’s field? Laukli was third in last year’s Ascent, in 2:34:30, roughly seven minutes back of winner Nienke Frederiek Brinkman of the Netherlands and six minutes back of Maude Mathys of Switzerland in second. Neither woman is entered this year, making Laukli, on paper, the fastest returning contender. But much of the Golden Trail World Series field has made the trip over from Europe. And they are joined by Grayson Murphy, who took bronze in, sort of, this event (7.1km long, 3,365 feet of climbing) at 2023 World Mountain Running Championships in Austria.
I don’t see a substantive preview of the race up on iRunFar. For what it’s worth, Laukli leads Outside’s preview article, linked above.
In the men’s race, notable nordic skiing–adjacent names include Sam Hendry and David Norris. Norris was 19th in the Ascent in last year’s men’s race, roughly five minutes ahead of Laukli.
And finally, back to the overall Golden Trail World Series ranks for a moment. After four of six races in this year’s series Laukli is currently ranked first in the women’s standings, with a healthy, though hardly mathematically unsurmountable, lead over Miao Yao of China in second and Theres Leboeuf of Switzerland in third. The next highest-ranked American, male or female, is Eli Hemming, 13th in the men’s standings.
Racing continues next Friday morning at the Mammoth Trail Fest, where the Mammoth 26km will be a Golden Trail World Series event. The series finale will then be in October in Italy. Laukli will presumptively qualify.
— Gavin Kentch