It’s home to the Air Force Academy, the Army’s World Class Athlete Program and 10th Special Forces Group — not to mention the U.S. Olympic Training Center.
So it’s no surprise that Colorado Springs, Colo., is a hotbed of high-tech workouts and elite-level training programs.
But one of the best conditioning courses you’ll find there comes courtesy of Coach Mother Nature. Dubbed the Manitou Incline, it’s billed as “one of the most challenging recreation sites in the nation.”
At the end of the day, it’s just a trail up a mountain — the first leg up Pike’s Peak — but oh, what a trail, says Army Capt. Aaron Berg.
“The Incline is a very challenging workout. Regardless of the pace you take, it will smoke you,” he says.
It’s only a mile long, but you’ll rack up 2,000 feet of elevation gain as your legs turn to wobbly mush.
Steep grades ahead? The trail earns its name with 70-percent inclines at its worst spots. With hundreds of railway ties staked in for steps, it’s a veritable stairway to hamstring hell.
Originally carved into the mountains in 1907 to a service a cog railway for a hydroelectric plant, for years the trail was technically off limits because it ran through pockets of private property.
That didn’t stop everyone from Olympic athletes and marathon runners to fitness freaks and plenty of local troops from tackling the Incline anyway. But now a new deal with the town of Manitou Springs has officially opened up the trail to anyone looking for a quick yet grueling workout.
“Just embrace the fact that you will be smoked,” Berg said. A medical officer with the 4th Infantry Division, now deployed to Afghanistan, he credits his frequent forays up the Incline with bulking up his legs enough to carry him through Ranger School.
“I finished in sub-30 minutes once and average around 33 to 36 minutes, which is a pretty good pace. Rumor has it that the fastest time is by an Olympic athlete at around 17 minutes. That is stunning to me,” Berg says.
Offering up spectacular views, the trail can become something of a hurts-so-good addiction.
“There is nothing like the Incline,” says Krys Bankard, a fitness instructor at the Fort Carson Army Wellness Center. “It’s beyond challenging, to the point of being addicting — whether it’s to beat your best time, the person in front of you or a friend, or to just push yourself beyond what you thought was your threshold.”
She’s been doing the Incline at least once a month since she first moved to Colorado Springs in 2005.
“It will call you back again and again, and there has never been a time where it wasn’t worth it reaching the top,” she said.
For those looking for a longer workout, you can just keep going up the mountain on the Barr Trail to the summit of Pike’s Peak, where you can catch the cog railway, a tourist line, back down or arrange for a car pickup at the visitors center.
“If you hike Pike’s Peak, start early and pack an extra layer, some food and plenty of water,” recommends Berg. “It’s 13 miles up and if you miss the train or are forced to hike down, it’s another 13 miles. It’s a pretty easy hike, but still wears on your body.”
Most, however, just take the Barr Trail back down to the Incline trailhead.
“If I run back down Barr Trail, instead of walking, I will feel it in my knees,” say Berg. “It is definitely an off-road trail run and you can really mess yourself up if you’re not careful.”
No matter what, he promises, you will be sore, especially in your hamstrings, calves and quadriceps.
But, he adds, “It is a staple here and a must-do, if not for the workout, then for the stunning beauty and scenery of Colorado Springs.”
Climb it: Check out www.manitouincline.net for trail information and other helpful hints for tackling the Incline.
Jon Anderson is a staff writer for OFFduty. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.