Colorado Springs has to be one of the fittest towns in the United States judging by the number of joggers and trail runners that can often be seen getting their exercise fix in at the area’s various parks and forest land. However, the best place to see the city’s fitness culture as well as experiencing something that is really unique to Colorado Springs is spend a morning running up The Manitou Incline:
The Manitou Incline is an old bed of an incline railway that was built up the side of Mt. Manitou in 1907 to aid in the servicing of water tanks and pipelines that were built on top of the mountain to provide gravity fed water to Colorado Springs and Manitou Springs. After the construction was completed the railway was used as a tourist attraction. The railway operated for eight decades until 1990 when a storm caused a major section of the track to be washed out. Instead of rebuilding the railway, the company decided to remove the track and ended operations all together.
However, they left the railway ties in place and soon locals found jogging up the old railway ties to to the top of Mt. Manitou to be a great work out. It spread by word of mouth and eventually became the premier running location in Colorado Springs:
The only problem with the growing popularity of The Incline was that it was technically illegal to run up because it was considered trespassing on private property as well property owned by the Forest Service and the City of Manitou Springs. Eventually “No Trespassing” signs and even at one point there was a part time security guard on site to ward off runners. However, people continued to run up The Incline in violation of the law, but no one wanted to arrest people for something so innocuous. It took many years to sort out the legal issues between the three land owners, but eventually a deal was struck that made it legal to run up The Incline beginning on February 1st, 2013. It is estimated that The Incline sees about 500,000 people run up it every year and now since it is legal to run up, the city can begin promoting this unique attraction to people outside the city. It is likely the use and popularity of The Incline is only going to grow.
The Incline is so well known that local runners will often judge each others fitness not by asking what their two mile run time is, but by asking what their time on The Incline is. Generally if you run it in 45 minutes you have a good time. Running it in about an hour is considered average. However, since the US Olympic Training Center is located in Colorado Springs, American world class athletes regularly train on The Incline:
The U.S. Olympic Committee has a sprawling training center in Colorado Springs, a multimillion-dollar facility where hundreds of athletes train.
But about 15 minutes away, at the base of Pikes Peak, a trail carved like a scar up the mountain and lined with railroad ties has been, as much as any newfangled training device, the pathway to Beijing for many U.S. Olympians. Elite American athletes have gathered here for years in search of the most basic and punishing workout: Man versus Hill.
“It’s the one workout where people truly have to face something that is unbeatable,” the speedskater Apolo Ohno said. “It is you against yourself.”
The trail, known among the athletes as the Incline, is a mile long, roughly 1,600 meters, and rises more than 2,000 feet, or 600 meters, in the thin air. Olympians call it a beast, a bear and a battle ax, a source of pride and exhaustion for them.
The wrestler Daniel Cormier first conquered the Incline in 2002. On his drive back to the Olympic Training Center, he developed full-body cramps, and the van carrying the freestyle wrestling team had to pull over so that coaches could administer a rubdown.
“It’s not running,” the Greco-Roman wrestling gold medalist Rulon Gardner said. “It’s not walking. It’s surviving.” [The New York Times]
You can read more at the link, but because world class athletes train on The Incline this leads to some unbelievable times. The unofficial record holder currently for The Incline is triathlete Mark Fretta with a time of 16:42. You have to have ran The Incline before to appreciate this time, because it is incredibly fast. In fact it is almost unbelievable that a human can run such a time on The Incline, but Fretta did it which is a great credit to him:
This is probably my favorite quote from the NY Times article about The Incline:
The wrestler Steve Mocco played nose tackle at Oklahoma State and still counts the Incline among the most grueling workouts of his life. Mocco revels in standing at the base of the trail at 5 a.m., surrounded by silence, ready to be humbled. Or working his way past the weekend warriors and fitness freaks, his 275 pounds, or 125 kilos, pushing ahead.
“It’s weird,” Mocco said. “You think of yourself as this great athlete. Then you look left, and there are two grandmas passing you. Then you look right, and a man with a long beard and a walking stick goes by.”
This is my favorite quote because it is so true. The fitness and the variety of people you see on The Incline is amazing; it really is a melting pot of everybody who lives in the city. You will see hippies from Manitou, Army Special Forces personnel from Ft. Carson, Olympic athletes, and old grandmas who have been running this for years pushing themselves for faster times on The Incline. I am in pretty good shape, but the first time I ran The Incline I was pretty exhausted by the time I got to the top because this run uses different muscle groups than most people are used to. Additionally I am not used to running at above 8,000 feet like The Incline causes people to do. So all in all it was a fantastic workout that leaves me impressed by the people who pass me, especially the elderly grandmas.
At the top of The Incline is where people stop to catch their breath and I have had plenty of good short conversations with all the various people that make Colorado Springs a great place to live. Here is the view of the rock outcropping at the top of Mt. Manitou at the end of The Incline run:
At the end of the run the foundations of the old buildings that were once up here for the tourism operation are also still visible:
From the top of The Manitou Incline there are two options to get back down. The first way is to just go back down The Incline steps. Due to the steepness and the fact the stairs bottlenecks at some points most people run down Barr Trail back to the parking lot. From the top of The Incline it is about a 2.3 mile run down Barr Trail back to the parking lot. The trail is not that steep and switchbacks down the mountain. Running down the trail provides some nice views of the surrounding scenery as well:
The Manitou Incline really is the quintessential workout for people in Colorado Springs. For anyone who likes a challenging run I highly recommend running The Incline at least once if in town. Really the only thing harder than running The Incline is finding parking along the streets of Manitou Springs. The streets have parking meters that charge a dollar per hour for parking. Fines are steep if you do not pay and the city regularly patrols and enforces the parking regulations. I recommend that people do what I do and just pay the $5 and park at the Barr Trail trailhead. It gets rid of the headache of trying to find a parking spot and you do not have to walk a long ways to reach the start of The Incline since the parking lot is right next to it.
One final thought about The Manitou Incline is do not kill yourself trying to get up and I means this literally. People have died running up The Incline. If you feel sick or your chest getting tight, stop and rest. There is a bail out point about half way up The Incline where people can access Barr Trail and walk back to the parking lot. The Incline is not going anywhere and will be there to try another day. So enjoy the challenge of The Incline, but be safe doing it!