The first time world-class triathlete Mark Fretta attempted the Manitou Incline, his USA Triathlon coach said she would give her Porsche to any hotshot who ran all the way to the top.
“We were racing. We pushed it. I sprinted for what I thought was the top, but it turned out to be the false top,” he said, remembering that morning in 2001. No Porsche for him.
But like thousands of other hikers and runners in the region, Fretta was hooked. He went back again and again. At one point, after a broken collarbone from a bike crash kept him from swimming and cycling, he ran the Incline every day.
And slowly, as he got to know the mile-long, 2,000-foot stairway of abandoned railroad ties just west of Manitou Springs, he got faster and faster. His record time dropped from a phenomenal 20 minutes to an astounding 16 minutes, 42 seconds.
Over the years he has learned a number of things that can help other Incline addicts — not just elite athletes — improve their times. But the most important thing, he said, is not to worry about your time.
“Just do it,” he said. “Don’t worry about how it is too hard or you are not in shape. If you can’t do it that fast, that’s OK. If you can’t do the whole thing, that’s OK. Just getting out in a beautiful setting and taking up that challenge is enough.”
There really are no tricks or shortcuts, he said. The way to get better at climbing the Incline is to climb the Incline.
The first goal for beginners, he said, should be trying to climb to the top without stopping.
“It will teach you a lot about setting a good, sustainable pace,” he said.
Beginners can work up to this goal, he said, gradually making breaks fewer and shorter.
Once you can climb the whole grade at a steady pace, there are ways to improve your time.
First, Fretta said, don’t climb stairs two at a time at the beginning.
“The start is not as steep, and people try to push it. But you will start building lactic acid in your muscles. So what puts you a little ahead at the start will be a big deficit by the end.”
Instead, he said, step faster if you want to go faster. Or better yet, take it easy and save your legs for the steeps ahead.
The next goal is to not brace your hands on your knees. This will help improve core strength and make your posture more efficient. Try to set goals of pushing off your knees less and less often, until you don’t do it at all.
“It’s hard at first, but in the long run you will increase your power,” Fretta said.
Most important in the long run, though, he said, is to enjoy it. Take time, whether while resting or at the top, to look around and appreciate the views.
“That is what keeps people coming back,” he said.
WHAT’S A GOOD TIME?
For a while, Out There Colorado allowed Incline users to post their times Incline ascents. Those reporting appeared to skew toward the area’s faster climbers, but they can tell a bit about the times climbers should shoot for.
Under 20 minutes Superhuman. Only a handful of athletes like Matt Carpenter (18:31), Apolo Ohno (17:45) and Mark Fretta (16:42), are known to have broken this threshold.
Under 25 minutes Elite athlete, few runners in the region can beat this time. It means mandatory running or stair skipping.
Under 30 minutes Hard core. Not many squeak in under this time, even on the renovated trail. It requires pushing steadily with no breaks. The average time for the top 20 climbers as self-reported to Out There Colorado was 29.9 minutes.
Under 40 minutes Front of the pack. Anyone who can hit this time is faster than the average climber.
42.5 minutes According to self-reporting at Out There Colorado, this is the average ascent time. But Incline junkies who chalk up sub-25-minute climbs twice a week tilt the scales. Plus, with no way to verify times, climbers can fudge.
55 minutes Our unscientific guess of the true average time. Still a big accomplishment.
6 WAYS TO CUT YOUR INCLINE TIME
1. Stay cool Avoid the Incline in the heat of the day, which, because of its orientation, means about 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Heat hastens dehydration and chisels away at performance. Evening is the best time to go to avoid heat and crowds.
2. Warm up Instead of hunting for the closest parking spot on Ruxton Avenue, park down in Manitou Springs and walk or jog lightly up to the Incline. Having a heart and breathing rate elevated above resting pace will help you stay aerobic as you start the Incline.
3. Hold steady Steady wins the race. Pick a pace that will allow you to climb at almost the same speed at the end as at the start.
4. Push the “flats” The Incline is all uphill, but some parts are a bit less uphill than others. Pushing your pace on these flat areas will shave off more seconds than pushing on the steeps. Just make sure you don’t push so hard that you can’t recover.
5. Intervals Pick a section of the Incline with an average grade — or any steep hill or set of stairs. Run/walk hard for one minute. Then rest a minute. Repeat 15 times. Set your pace so that your final interval is as fast as your first. For best results, do this workout once a week. Do this only after you can climb the Incline without stopping.
6. Strength Beef up your quads and calves by doing 20-second intervals up the Incline, taking two stairs in each stride. Repeat five to 10 times. You can add this short workout to the end of any Incline visit. If your back hurts on the Incline, it likely means weak abdominal muscles. Regular sit-ups and crunches should ease the pain.