In 2021, my partner and I moved from the overcrowded, materialistic South Florida in search of a more fulfilling life in Colorado Springs. The move was triggered from years of feeling disconnected from the values and lifestyle of South Florida and a hunger for adventure. When I graduated from business school and landed a job in corporate finance, I quickly learned that status quo was not for me. I turned to trail running in search of grass root connections, yet the more I ran, the more I felt the call for a change and a challenge. After a trip to the Pikes Peak region, and my first ultra, we returned to South Florida craving the mountains, a greater sense of community and the drive to make some serious changes. Just six months later, we became Colorado residents.
During one of my first runs in Colorado, I bumped into another runner that was preparing for the Pikes Peak Marathon and mentioned that he and some friends had just completed a winter version of the same iconic race. I thought they were crazy — who in their right mind would run up a 14er in the dead of winter, several feet of snow, negative temperatures and wind chills, and likely hauling a ton of gear for a myriad of conditions?! Well, me, that is who.
The Winter Tava Frozen (WTF) Marathon (formerly known as the Pikes Peak Winter Marathon) is an informal local event, specifically designed around community. The WTF Marathon is a gathering of local, hardcore runners that are thirsty for a challenge in the dead of winter. Essentially a glorified group run, sin swag & finisher medals, the WTF Marathon is an opportunity for likeminded individuals from a community to gather and take on the same challenge together.
The WTF Marathon, organized by Colorado Springs legend and ultrarunner, Brandon Stapanowich, is now in its third year and has attracted more runners from the community than ever. In 2023 the event saw 16 participants hauling their frozen carcasses some 7,800ft & 13(ish) miles from Manitou Springs to the top of Pikes Peak, only to traverse right back down.
My 2023 racing calendar boasts some big competition and even bigger challenges, but one thing that was missing was that community feeling. As a professional, it is easy to become focused only on what will help you best your competition, and to put the small, lowkey events with your friends on the back-burner. I began to crave that hard, long-duration grind on a tough-as-nails course that offers running, alpinism and grit. So, at 4:30 am on Saturday, March 18th 2023, my girlfriend and adventure partner, Rose, and I set out into the clear, brisk morning with headlamps in route to the Pikes Peak Summit.
I was excited to coax Rose along with me as on she was about to experience a lot of firsts. She had never summited Pikes Peak from the Manitou side, she had never experienced a run with over 7,000 ft of vertical gain at once, and most importantly, never experienced the hospitality of Barr Camp. This gelled well for me as I am very competitive, and Rose enjoys the grassroots of endurance trail running— the spirit of time spent in nature. Having Rose there helped me take a step back and enjoy the day, the scenery, the process, and most of all spending time with the community and my friends.
The event had a fluid start time, which was perfect for us to get a head start up Barr Trail, before it became busy with tourists and spring breakers. It was fun looking down the switch backs to see other runners’ headlamps, and knowing we weren’t the only ones out there taking on this challenge. For me, running in the dark is always something special, and something I wish I did more often. Looking out over neighboring peak, Cameron Cone, and the Pikes Summit from Barr Trail, to see both illuminated in the moonlight with an amethyst glow out over Pike National Forest was breathtaking (or, maybe that was the negative temperatures). It didn’t take long for us to find our groove and the miles started ticking away. The first three miles lacked snow and ice, which made the initial climbing very smooth, especially as we both carried heavy packs, prepared, yet unsure, on how conditions would be above 10,000 ft. The area had received 7-9 inches of fresh powder just the day before, so we were expecting a challenge.
Shortly after passing the Barr Trail connector to the Manitou Incline, the trail was fairly inundated with fresh, dry powdery snow, which made for some uneven footing and slow going, even with spikes. We entered Barr Camp shortly after sunrise and caught up on nutrition- Pop Tarts and Spring Energy gels- and made the necessary gear changes to accommodate for the upcoming deep snow, as we were told by the Barr Camp caretakers that we would likely be breaking some trail on the upper switchbacks. Our gear changes included snow pants, mountaineering gaiters, adding layers, and breaking out sunglasses for the sunny day. After twenty minutes, we were back on our way and the morale was high! The miles of switchbacks above Barr Camp and between tree line were the crux of whole endeavor – nestled in the trees, in deep snow, on never ending switchbacks between 11,000 and 12,000 ft. Those of you who have taken this route understand how hard it is to run this section for even the most seasoned runners. The area is not very windswept, so the snow settles and becomes quite deep. We struggled immensely in this section, post holing and losing time. Unfortunately, we had a rather tight time constraint, having to pick up our dogs from daycare before 3pm, so we knew that our turnaround time was going to have to be by 11:30am.
We turned around a few miles below the summit and just above tree line at a point called the A-Frame. As we passed other WTF Marathoners on their travels up, we encouraged and lauded them for all their determination and fortitude. However, I can remember how elated we were when we crossed over from snow to a dirt trail for the final time on our descent. With another quick pit stop at Barr Camp to change our clothes and gear (pro tip: snow pants are not ideal for running), we quickly made our descent and arrived back at Memorial Park in Manitou Springs by 2:30pm. The adventure in its total equaled out to 22+ miles with 7,000 ft of elevation gain over about 10 hours, a perfect long day out for both of us and an incredible aerobic training stimulus as we both set our sights on big races this summer.
Overall, it was an incredible opportunity to spend time with our running community and work on being uncomfortable for a long period of time. It was undoubtedly an adventure to remember and an event that will occupy my winter running calendar for years to come. If you ever find yourself in the Pikes Peak region in mid-March, be sure to check out the Winter Tava Frozen Marathon!
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