38° 50' 27.1356'' N 105° 2' 32.136'' W

The Pikes Peak EPIC Adventure Life Project

Aaron McHugh

I breathe in and count to five. I exhale slowly on the same rhythm, repeating until I feel my heart rate lower. I visualize myself on the windblown summit of Pikes Peak at 14,115 feet—52 miles from where I began 14 hours earlier. After four previous failed , I’m leaving nothing to chance. I’m borrowing every flow-hacking method I can conjure.

The Pikes Peak Epic T-shirt graphic from 2005

The EPIC for short

Sixteen years ago while running in Palmer Lake, I came up with this big idea to celebrate my 30th birthday. “What if we started here in Palmer Lake like a triathlon, and we biked, ran and climbed our way to the summit of Pikes Peak on my birthday, April Fools Day?” I blurted out to my running partner. And the Palmer Lake to Pikes Epic—The Epic for short—was born. I recruited a rag-tag crew that year, and we plodded through a spring blizzard from beginning to end, finally declaring our valiant effort frozen and tuckered by Barr Camp.

My “sufferfest,” as one friend calls it, combines the three-pronged spirit of triathlon—bike, run, hike—with the quad-busting Incline and the Pikes Peak Marathon. The real bragging rights come from its timing around April Fools Day, regardless of weather. With every attempt, there’s been rain, sleet, and snow.

Just above A-Frame with perfect weather and six inches of fresh snow for the last two thousand feet of fresh tracks in 2017.

I intend to tell my grandchildren about this gnarly amalgamation of weather, endurance, friendship and adventure. “When Pikes Peak was brimming with spring snow, a few mates and I would fire up our headlamps just after midnight, say a quick prayer and start peddling our mountain bikes two towns away, aiming toward the towering summit of Pikes Peak,” I’ll tell them. “A few gritty hours later, we’d reach Red Rock Canyon just before dawn, swap our two-wheeled steeds for running shoes and trail-run our to the base of Pikes Peak. That’s where the real work began, as we caught the Pikes Peak Marathon course—but we’d throw in the Incline just for fun.”

Why did this sound like a good idea?

It’s difficult to articulate why I initially thought this would be a good idea. But big goals, the kind that force me to dig deeper, are more seductive for me than a bachelor party in Las Vegas.

“Why don’t you make it easier?” friend have asked over the years. “Why don’t you attempt it in July when the weather is stable? Why not drop the Incline from the route?” My answers are always the same. I could easily scale back my vision to a more attainable scale, but that wouldn’t satisfy my journey.

With repeated attempts, I’ve come to realize that The Epic isn’t a race—it’s a quest, a life project, the kind you have no idea how it will shape you when you blurt out a crazy idea in a younger moment of endorphin-fueled inspiration.

Nearing the last 500 feet towards the summit of Pikes Peak in 2017

I’ve yet to accomplish my original goal. Last year, four friends and I pushed to within a mile of Pikes’ summit before the setting sun turned us around. In previous years, I’ve reached Barr Camp and the A-Frame twice. In the early years, I had as many as 60 other people join me throughout the day to offer birthday wishes.

Most came for the pre-dawn bike ride or Incline ascent, and then returned home for a hot shower and nap. We printed T-shirts with the family mantra of the famous Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton: “By endurance we conquer.” I required mock last-will-and-testament signatures and even had web registration.

Fighting our way up Pikes Peak after twelve hours of forward progress, but so much mountain yet to climb.

To call it failure is to suggest that this project is a bust or a waste. To do so would only be a failure to recognize how much I love the camaraderie I’ve been able to foster, and the joy I’ve experienced from witnessing friends and strangers do things they’d never done before. The Epic has created a zany excuse to ride our bikes in nocturnal snowstorms, rolling toward a snowy iconic summit—always pressing toward a distant dream.

I’ll be back out there on the journey again early this April. If you see us in the pre-dawn darkness, shake a cowbell as we pass or cache a thermos of hot broth along Barr Trail. It’s been a dry winter; this could be the year. Maybe we’ll pack a few small fireworks to shoot from the summit.

The EPIC Route

2 a.m.: Mountain bike the Santa Fe Trail from Palmer Lake to the Bear Creek Dog Park.

28 miles, 3 hours

5 a.m.: Run Bear Creek Park to the Manitou Incline via Section 16 and Intemann Trail

11 miles, 2.5 hours

8 a.m.: Hike the Incline and Barr Trail to Pikes Peak summit

12 miles, 6 hours

2:30 p.m.: Descend Barr Trail to its trailhead finish line

12 miles, 4 hours

6-10 p.m.: Finish

Pikes Peak Epic Website 2005 which resulted in some 60+ participants