I felt like I wanted to die.
Yet, I've never felt more alive.
Several months ago, I signed up for the Pikes Peak Ascent, a grueling, 13.32-mile mountain trail race from Manitou Springs to the top of Pikes Peak. With a few exceptions, the run is all uphill. The vertical gain is an unforgiving 7,815 feet.
I've been running most of my adult life, a sport I took up in college to lose weight. But to train for the Ascent, I knew I had to kick it up a notch.
For the past two months, I've trained like a madman, hitting the gym hard and getting up at 5:30 in the morning to hit Barr Trail, the rugged path that leads to the top of the peak.
I found out Saturday I should've trained like a beast.
I crossed the finish line in about four hours and 11 minutes, which is 11 minutes away from my goal. Don't worry, I've already forgiven myself.
It is, after all, my first Ascent. But the race was definitely harder than imagined.
The first three miles and the last three miles were the toughest, but for different reasons.
In the past two months, my body has grown accustomed to jogging the first three miles, which are among the most challenging. But I had walk most of it Saturday because the trail was packed with a string of runners and walkers. The trail is narrow, making it nearly impossible to pass the scores of people who mostly walked the first three miles even though they had started the race in front. I'm sure I lost crucial minutes in the first leg of the race, which was frustrating.
My lower back and feet started to ache at about mile 7, the same place I encountered a runner who was throwing up his breakfast.
The last three miles, though, were daunting.
Running at timberline is no joke. Scratch that. Walking at timberline was no joke. My shoulders felt like they were carrying 50-pound weights.
I stopped several times to rest and catch my breath. I cursed, too. But mostly I gave myself words of encouragement and prayed my misery would end soon.
So, more than four hours after I had embarked on the final chapter of my months-long journey - five pounds lighter, I might add - I stepped across the finish line. Triumphant. Emotional. Relieved beyond belief.
Needless to say, I didn't finish first. But my journey was never about winning.
In fact, it ended up being about quitting.
You see, when I signed up for the Ascent, I had no choice but to give up smoking, a nasty, deadly habit that had slithered back into my life about three or fours years ago. Knowing I had a mountain to conquer, I kicked the habit again.
Coincidentally, Saturday marked exactly two months since I made the decision to quit smoking cold turkey.
And that, my friends, is truly smokin'.