The sun is a golden ball on the morning horizon, and its light is reflected by the broad eastern face of Pikes Peak.
A mellow, orange glow fills the hillsides along Ruxton Creek as streetlights flicker off and Manitou Springs greets a new day. Higher up on the Manitou Incline, Roger Austin pauses to enjoy the view. It's something he has done perhaps more than any other person.
"That's why I'm out there," Austin says. "The views are the best. Just the experience of being there, no matter the time of the day. It's always different."
Sometime around the first of October, if all goes well, Austin will set the record for Incline ascents in one calendar year. As of last week, he had counted 1,308 completed round trips on the old railway bed in 2015. The current record is 1,400, set from September 2013 to August 2014 by Greg Cummings, a diabetic — and Austin's good friend — who climbed to raise awareness about Type 1 diabetes. There are no "official" incline records, but the community of Incline regulars confirms the numbers as fact.
Austin, 50, is a well-known figure on the Incline, easily recognized by the do-rag that rides atop his bald head. He is angular and strong, with legs that contain cables of muscle. He is not a large man, but his broad chest holds large amounts of air.
Rising 2,000 feet in about one mile, the Incline is practically world famous. The New York Times, Runner's World magazine and many other outlets have publicized its popularity with elite athletes, military men and women, and weekend warriors. Austin says there are 2,716 railway ties along the route's steep grade.
Austin climbed the Incline 379 times in 2012, and 719 times in 2013. He didn't bother counting in 2014, when the Incline was closed for repairs. He scales the Incline easily, but never gets in a hurry. His fastest time from bottom to top is 27 minutes, 40 seconds, but says 29:02 is his best this year. The truly fast climbers can charge to the top in 20 minutes or less.
"My times aren't very fast because I'm always stopping to BS with people or take photos," he says. "But it's always nice to chat with the folks I meet up there. Incline folks are very friendly."
This year he has finished 20 "inclinathons," or sets of 13 ascents in one day — equaling the distance of one marathon and about 26,000 vertical feet of climbing. (Mount Everest is 29,029 feet.) Brandon Stapanowich, an ultrarunner who lives in Manitou Springs, created the inclinathon concept and holds the FKT (fastest known time) of 11 hours and 47 minutes.
"I had my doubts that I could do it," Austin says. "I had several unsuccessful attempts. I didn't have the gas in me. I didn't have the nutrition and hydration. I finally cracked the code on Jan. 28."
Since then he has piled on the climbs before and after work. Some days, it's difficult to motivate himself. He has taken only five days off from the Incline this year.
"It is certainly a physical challenge, but it's also psychological," he says. "Midway through the year, I had pacers who would show up and climb with me. That energizes me ... to see a friendly face makes it easier to go up and down."
He actually started the year with a more aggressive goal in mind than simply breaking the record; with fewer than 100 days remaining in the year, he now feels it's unreachable. But he's learned much on this journey, plugging along in golden morning light, the brutal heat of mid-day, or in wind and snow.
"I've made a lot of friends on the Incline," Austin says. "They always ask, 'How many are you going to do today?' I really enjoy meeting new people. I can see that they're trying to figure out if they can do this, too, and it's neat."
His advice for new Incline climbers is simple: Take your time. Take plenty of water and a snack. And enjoy the experience.
"I really like being outside, and that's why I do this," Austin says. "People say they made it to the top in a certain time. I say, 'That's great, but did you stop to look back at the view?'"
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