Simon Gutierrez has spent many early mornings atop Pikes Peak's summit, but his mind is usually somewhere else. After a grueling workout and not nearly enough oxygen to replenish his muscles, the 48-year-old takes a moment on the Barr Trail and thinks about his chances of winning the Pikes Peak Ascent for a fourth time.
He plays the odds over and over in his head, and he usually comes to the same conclusion.
"I wouldn't bet on it," he smiles.
Not for lack of confidence - but dose of reality, Gutierrez realizes he's not only stacked up against the state's best mountain runners at the Ascent next Saturday. He's going side by side with some of the top mountain runners in the world, who have made the 59th running of the Ascent their World Mountain Running Association's Long Distance Challenge - the sport's world championship.
"It's tough to think that you have a chance to win with the best mountain runners in the world up against you," said Gutierrez, who last won the Ascent in 2008 - just two years before he had major knee surgery. "I'm a competitor so I'm going to go for it, but, yeah, this is the best competition I think any of us have seen in a long time."
In the WMRA Challenge - the race woven within the Ascent - 75 runners from 20 countries will go head to head in hopes of individual and country championships. The U.S men's team will be comprised of the 2013 Ascent champion, Eric Blake, as well as Joe Gray, Sage Canaday, Zach Miller and former CU runner Andy Wacker. The American women's team will be made up of Colorado Springs resident and the 2014 U.S. Mountain Running champion Allie McLaughlin, along with Shannon Payne, Stevie Kremer, Nuta Olaru and Olympic-skier-turned-mountain-runner Morgan Arritola.
Per Colorado Springs' Nancy Hobbs, the lone U.S. council member in the WMRA, there will be 10 men's teams and nine women's teams competing in the world championship. And the U.S. teams should be considered one of the few favorites in both groups.
"There is so much talent, but you want to think we (the U.S. teams) have a really good shot to lead the way," said Hobbs, who has been a part of the WMRA council since 2000. "It should be a lot of fun."
The rarified competition hasn't gone unnoticed in the civilian ranks either. Ron Ilgen, the race's director for the past 14 years, decided to limit the number of competitive athlete applicants he accepted this year due to the supreme talent already signed up.
In the past, if you were a renowned mountain runner, or at least if you thought your name could bring more awareness and popularity to the race, you could send in an application in hopes of getting your race entry and hotel fees waived. (And many did - Ilgen's office said via email that on average between 23 and 30 runners were brought to the Pikes Peak Ascent/Marathon free of charge.)
For the 2014 running, there wasn't as much of a need for it though, said Ilgen, and the Ascent/ Marathon only accepted nine runners.
"There were so many great, great runners who put in an entry. But we had to think if they could honestly have a shot at placing in the top 10," said Ilgen, who, in one instance denied applicant Nicholas End despite the fact he finished 38th in the 2014 Boston Marathon. "You might be a great runner, but this is mountain running - mountain running at Colorado altitude. It's different in this kind of race, and we were able to be picky this year."
Despite the WMRA hoopla, however, local Colorado runners who are not affiliated with the world championship shouldn't be counted out for the top prize.
That's one thought anyway .
As Saturday nears the hopes of non-WMRA state runners - like Brandy Erholtz of Evergreen, the women's Ascent winner in 2013; Peter Maksimow of Manitou, the winner of multiple local races; and Gutierrez of Colorado Springs - hinge on their detailed knowledge of the course.
"I think that's a benefit for us who can run this course a lot," Gutierrez said. "We know this altitude. And I think training on this terrain and knowing every slight weave and turn could be a big help."
In the past 10 years all but one winner of the Ascent - Blake of West Hartford, Conn., in 2013 - has reigned from Colorado. And although the American team has its fair share of Coloradans, runners like Erholtz, Maksimow and Gutierrez hope their knowledge will still serve well.
Will it be enough? Well, that depends on your view of success.
Maksimow, who lives 1.5 miles from the Ascent start line, said: "If I could get top 10 that would be amazing. If I could get top five that would be double amazing. And if I could somehow win, well, I would become a lot more popular in a hurry. . But that's probably not going to happen."