In the summer of 1893, English professor Katharine Lee Bates took a carriage ride to the 14,115-foot summit of Pikes Peak near Manitou Springs, Colo., and penned a poem that would become one of the most famous songs of patriotism. The view of the mountains and the plains in the distance inspired Bates to compose “America the Beautiful.”
Her words still ring out, instilling pride into the hearts of Americans “from sea to shining sea.”
It is that pride that motivates many great athletes to represent their country in various fields of competition. The desire for athletic greatness brings some athletes to the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo.—in the shadows of ‘America’s Mountain’: Pikes Peak.
As athletes prepare their mind and body for international competition, one workout has taken on mythical status within the Olympic Training Center: the Manitou Springs Incline. The Incline is the ultimate test of strength, endurance and fortitude. It is the most simple of workouts: man vs. mountain.
Like Bates’ carriage ride, the Incline rises roughly 2,000 feet of elevation in just under a mile up the side of Pikes Peak, ending 8,550 feet above sea level. Formerly a cable car track for tourists to ride up the mountain, the tracks were removed in 1990, creating a wooden staircase averaging 40-percent degrees of incline—enough to challenge the toughest of athletes.
Athletes from all disciplines have taken to the Incline during their time at the Olympic Training Center.
“If you live here, you definitely have to do it,” said fencer Andras Horanyi.
When triathlete Luke Farkas, a double-digit veteran of the Incline, was asked if most athletes dare to conquer the Incline he said, “Yeah, I definitely think so.”
“I know all the triathletes have, and the wrestlers do it for training,” said Farkas. “I haven’t heard about some of the other sports, but it seems like something a lot of people do.”
Fencer Jimmy Moody, who by his count has summited the Incline over 30 times, was even more emphatic: “If you live here, you have to do it at least once. You can’t miss out on the Incline. Even if it’s just to look at it, stand at the bottom and look up and be like okay, now I understand.”
“Every time you do it, you start and think to yourself, ‘Why am I doing this?’” laughed Moody. “Then you get to the top and you look back—that’s why!”
But, it is not just the athletes’ pride and passion to get better that brings them to the Incline for a workout, sometimes it is their strength and conditioning coach delivering them to the bottom of the beast.
Olympic Training Center Strength and Conditioning coordinator Amanda Wittenmyer raves about the cross-training workout that the Incline provides her athletes.
“I think it is a great workout and a great cross-training tool,” said Wittenmyer. “It gets them out of the weight room, off campus and out in nature. It is a different scenery, so usually a couple of times a year I’ll take them to go and do something special.”
Wittenmyer trains Horanyi, Moody and the rest of the fencers on the Incline, along with the Paralympic swimmers. There is no shortage of entertaining stories from the fencers when it comes to their workouts with Wittenmyer on the mountain.
“When we do the Incline for practice, it is the only time we can get Jason [Pryor] or some of the other guys on the mountain,” recounted Moody. “You get to hear colorful explanations on why it is the worst experience ever and why we shouldn’t be doing it. Meanwhile, Amanda is trying to explain life lessons, ‘No, guys, it’s like a metaphor for life: one step at a time; no matter how tough it gets you always push forward!’ Then you have Jason screaming back, ‘Stop talking!’ It is definitely an entertaining experience.”
While the athletes might not like to hear about the lessons they are learning from the Incline while they are trying to fight their way up it, they definitely have learned some of them.
“The Incline is the same every time you go,” mentioned Horanyi. “You get there and you say to yourself, ‘I am going to beat this thing.’ You have to bring that mentality every time: I won’t stop; I want to get a new record, a new best time.”
Wittenmyer described her thoughts on the Incline and its life lessons.
“There is clearly the physical aspect to it, where you are working at a pretty high threshold for a long period of time,” said Wittenmyer. “But, I also believe there is quite a bit of a mental component to it. Where it’s kind of a love/hate sort of thing, where you just want to give up—it makes you mentally stronger and what’s cool about the Incline is there are a lot of life lessons in the Incline. As you hike it you think, ‘This is kind of like life,’ where you just take it one step at a time, you don’t look too far ahead otherwise you want to quit and give up, but if you just take it one step at a time and then you turn around and look down, you see how far you’ve gotten.”
The mental benefits are not just a testament to the power of the Incline, but also to the athletes that train on it.
“The type of athletes we have here have that tough mentality,” explained Wittenmyer. “For them to get outside of their sport and to challenge themselves off the fencing strip, out of the pool, it is something that builds their character and makes them mentally stronger. You get to the top and you see what you’ve achieved.”
And getting to the top is an achievement.
“When you get to the top and then turn around, that is a reward in itself,” Horanyi described. “All that work. All that pain. It’s a great view. You have the fresh air, and you can watch other people coming up. It’s a good feeling with all those endorphins running through you.”
Moody elaborated, “With all those endorphins, for like two minutes you feel invincible. You are like, ‘If I can do this, I can qualify. I can beat anyone in the world. I can do anything.’ Because nothing is going to hurt so bad, and you realize that you finished it and you’re still alive.”
While getting to the top is impressive, each athlete has a story of seeing something incredible taking place on the mountain.
For Wittenmyer, that comes from working with the Paralympic swimmers. She used the example of two-time Paralympian Susan Beth Scott. “Susan Beth crawls up it,” she explained. “The first part she can hike up it, and in the middle part there are sections where she is using her hands and feet. Then that last part, she is just all hands and arms and legs. She joked that her arms are sorer than her legs the next day.”
Horanyi experienced being passed by someone working their way up the Incline on all fours.
“He passed us going up, and we looked at him and he stopped for a second and just said, ‘Any way you can get up.’”
“I am always shocked by people that bring their toy poodle or little Chihuahua,” Moody laughed. “It’s like, ‘Are you serious?’ This dog has to make a vertical leap every time it wants to go up a step, but the dog is just trucking. Every time I see that I just think, ‘You have to be kidding me.’”
Moody, Wittenmyer and Farkas all have stories of people taking the challenge of the Incline to the next level.
For Moody, it was weightlifter Donovan Ford taking on the mountain with a 30-pound pack. For Wittenmyer, a man carrying his toddler up the staircase in a tricked out backpack. Farkas claims he saw a girl carrying her bicycle up the Incline.
It is not always the impressive feats of strength that awe people the most, though.
“If you go at those peak times,” explained Moody. “You’ll see some older people, probably pushing 80, and they will just burn you, and you are just like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ It is too big of a blow to the ego, so I try to avoid those people.”
The young and small, the big and tall; at any time you can find a wide variety of characters on the Incline: air force cadets, Olympic athletes and grandparents, just to name a few. It is this collection of individuals that makes the Incline so special. The Incline is there both to challenge and, for those who reach the view at the top, fill people with pride, just like Bates’ words have for so many Americans across the country.
The Incline is America. The Incline is beautiful. And thanks to that breathtaking view, we have “America the Beautiful.”