Welcome back to another VERY exciting chapter in the adventures of ActiveSteve! This post finds us high in the alpine meadows of the Colorado Rockies trying desperately to get enough oxygen to finish the last few stages of a 6-day staged trail running race. Yes indeed folks, welcome to the TransRockies Run. I had my choice of 3 days or 6 days of trail running nirvana in the mountains. So of course, you know exactly which one I chose, right? Yup, you guessed it, the 6 day version! In a nutshell, this was every bit as amazing as you might have imagined, IN SPITE of getting a nasty viral bug halfway through that is still lingering as I type this (the day before Ironman Muskoka!). Read on for all the tasty tales!
The story all starts ealy in 2015, on a visit to my friendly neighbourhood podiatrist (and skiing / trail running friend extraordinaire). Since I was turning 40 this year, I had decided to tackle some big fun races, and not turn down any exciting opportunities that presented themselves to me. Well. on this visit, Annie asked innocently “Have you ever heard of TransRockies?”, to which I answered “Yes”. Next question, “Do you think you might be interested in doing it this year?”. With barely a pause to contemplate this, I again said “Yes.” And there it was, I committed to 6 days to trail running in the mountains without so much as looking up the actual event! A few weeks later I’d already booked my plane tickets for the journey, just to show that I was fully committed!
Slideshow of Entire Week
Fast forward to August, and I was Denver-bound on an airplane. I had barely run in the past 3 weeks on account of issues with my plantar fascia, but was no less excited. For the next week, Annie and I would be part of a roving tent city community, moving from start line to start line, and running anywhere from 26km to 40km each day in the high mountains. The whole thing was very much like a summer camp. At the airport we made our first tentative steps towards getting to know a few of the 400+ racers that would be toeing the line each day. From the airport, we’d be shuttled to our accoms in Buena Vista. We had 2 days more or less on our own before the race got fully underway. In that time we had a few training runs for fun, and visited the town a bit to get a sense of our surroundings.
There are SO MANY different stories and sub-plots that I could share with you all. Almost everyone there had their own story, and there were different life journeys unfolding daily before our eyes. For one, it turns out I *almost* got to race head to head with Lance Armstrong! Yup, he was supposed to be the team-mate for one Jenn Shelton. And yes, this is the one and same person known by many as the girl in the book “Born to Run” that was the party girl, and that got separated from the group and lost for a while… for the record, she is just as crazy as you might imagine, and there are several smaller stories about her that week that I won’t write out, but were quite hilarious. In other news, I managed to finish before her and her partner on 2 of the 6 days 🙂
Then there is the fact that one of the hottest current ultra-runners was there as well. Rob Krar. And his beard. Mind you his beard wasn’t the only one at the start line. It was funny as a number of the other bearded runners laughed and shared that they were often mistaken for Rob as a result of the big beards. Unfortuantely, no one seemed to confuse me with such a running legend, in spite of the fact that I was sporting a full growth ;-). In addition to Rob, there were a number of ‘elite’ racers as part of this event. Although they may have been a bit more ‘cliquey’ than the rest of us, they were all, by and large, just part of the group. I doubt the same would have been the case if Mr. Armstrong had been part of our camp! But I digress… onto the racing.
Day 0 was all about registration and race briefings. We learned more about how the race would unfold, and got introduced to the crew that we’d be seeing and taking care of us all week. One was a dude by the handle ‘Houda’. He truly is the pulse of the event. Every night during evening ceremonies, he’d bust out his one mad comedy act, reading various texts he’d gotten during the day, handing out ‘mountain heros of the day’ awards, and generally shaming and making fun of others, while simultaneously taking the blame for anything that went wrong over the course of the day.
I’ve been to a lot of events over the years, and I feel his take was the most refreshing and welcoming. No matter how big or small the problems, he’d openly tell us about them (even if we hadn’t noticed), say he was sorry, and they’d try to do better. Kinda like you wish they’d tell you what is going on when flights are delayed, or why your bags didn’t make it, etc. etc. Taking ownership and informing racers. Brilliant! I’d come back just for the fact that this race made itself accountable for all the good and bad. But really, it was all good! Behind the scenes everyone was busting their butts to see to that!
Race briefing was cut short on account of winds that were picking up signalling the impending storm closing in on us. Rocky mountain weather? Unpredictable and quickly changing, which served as a good warning for possible problems in the days ahead on the high passes. Within 15 minutes of dispersing, we had an insane storm hit the little town. Main street as flooded and it looked like all hell was breaking loose. Luckily, I was indoor, with a beer, waiting on a tasty meal! By the time we’d eaten, the rain was gone, the water had drained, and we headed back to our sweet B&B for one final sleep in a bed before the race.
Day 1 was a good intro to the racing. We had about 34km of running to do, on a range of roads and trails. It was indicative of a lot of the days of racing ahead. About 20-25% singletrack, with the balance being a mix of ATV-type trails, forest service access roads, and gravel backroads. Regardless of the terrain, for the most part, views were great. Mountains around us (or rather foothills maybe?), valley’s below, and plenty of pristine rocky mountain air. We were starting over 8,000′, and would be playing at this altitude and higher all week.
This was a ‘rolling’ day with no giant climbs, but a good amount of elevation. I opted to take it easy and see how the body would adapt to the race. I capped off the day in about 20th place, and felt decent enough that I’d try pushing harder in the next days. Annie had stormed off and managed to grab 3rd place in the open women’s category right away. This was a trend she’d repeat pretty much every day (except for that one day that she nailed 2nd!). That lady was truly amazing every single day out there. You could tell she was in her element and having the time of her life. Rumour has it, she didn’t even miss her bike that week! But don’t tell her bike that!
At the finish of that day was a great cold river that we could rest our legs in while eating the plentiful snacks at the finish. There were no big standouts that day for me in terms of the trail. Just a great day of running overall. From there we hopped shuttles to our first ‘tent city’ experience. Wall to wall tents (around 400 of them) for the racers, and a whole host of other camp-like amenities.
To name them: massage tent with 12 professional therapists (for a price…). There was also an open area with all manner of foam rollers and therapy products free to use. Giant mess tent to hold the hundreds of racers and volunteers, keeping us dry as we ate our delicious catered food each night. Mobile shower truck ensuring ample hot water showers every day at the end of each stage. Of course the obligatory rows of porta-johns to do our ‘business’.
Finally, the relaxation station, later re-named “Blisters and Brews”. This was our daily oasis. It featured lots of plastic Muskoka chairs, sofa, tons of drinks (protein drinks, gatorade, water, and unlimited Michelob Ultra!) and snacks (think skittles, m&ms, doritos, toast and toppings, nuts, pretzels, rice cakes, licorice, etc!). There was also a giant bank of outlets so that everyone could recharge devices daily. Honestly, after 9 years, it was clear they’d pretty much thought of everything we’d need to stay happy and having fun all week. There was always musis playing, stories being told, and SOMETHING going on somewhere around us!
Each day we also had the daily awards during the afternoon to recognize the winners of the day for that stage. Medals and recognition all around. Later in the evening, after we’d eaten our chow, we had more awards, this time for the GC in each category. The GC winners for each category were given jerseys to wear for the next day. Pretty much like a Tour de France kinda thing. No kings of the mountain though. Just the leaders :-). Also each night was a de-brief of the day, a full briefing of the next day, and a quick slide show of the day. I also liked that for every ‘event’ of the day, there was a theme song, starting with ‘Highway to Hell’ each morning before the start, then certain award music each afternoon and night. It became very Pavlovian. You heard the song, and knew what was about to happen. Routine is important in camp, right?
Okay, Day 2… this would be the first big test, as it was a true ‘Mountain’ stage. The profile was straight up and straight back down. I was hoping this was a day for me. It started with a bouncy bus ride to the start, helping loosen the knots in our stomachs from the nerves. Weather was great, and I knew this was a day to fly. Opening part of stage was 3km of gravel before hitting the climb that was narrow singletrack. I knew that to get a good finish I’d have to hit that singletrack before crowds.
At the gun, I took off at a good pace, staying close to the front packs. I had trekking poles with me, intending to use them on the 11km of climbing ahead. They came in VERY handy in my opinion. When we turned to up, it really went up. There was no climbing, only speed walking / hiking. While I had passed Annie at the start, she came past me on that climb, finding her mountain legs. We stuck together for a bit before I told her to hit it and keep going. I loved this climb. Looking behind, we could gradually see the valley and mountains behind as we climbed up out of the tree line. This as the climb to Hope Pass. At 12,600′, it was the highest point in the race and afforded some of the best views too. I was truly on a high at the top. Mind you, the air was thin, so I didn’t stop too long to film or take pictures. That’s when the fun started.
The descent was sweet singletrack, and I FLEW like a man possessed. I passed a bucketload of people again on the way down, feeling really good. The lower we went, the more oxygen I had, making me even more energized. When we finally hit the bottom of the mountain, we were faced with about 4-5k of rolling trails again. A bit agonizing, and nervewracking for me. I kept worrying people I’d passed would catch up and pass. Sure enough, they caught up, but I decided I wanted to keep my standing so I dug deep and stayed ahead, using the little climbs and descents to keep a tiny gap. I finally crossed the finish to learn I hit 9th on that day! I was ecstatic (and secretly worried I’d burned up too much!).
This days’ finish took us to the town of Leadville, that I had a good recollection of from 2012 when I did the Leadville 100 mile MTB race. We strolled the streets and enjoyed the sunshine in the two mile high city. I was pooped, and my plantar issues were causing me to limp a bit, but it was a grand day. Tonight’s meal was in a banquet hall in town, interrupted midway through by fire alarms, forcing an evacuation. Too funny. Later that evening, I felt the unfortunate telltale tickle and pain in the back of my throat telling me I was getting sick. I hoped for the best and crashed as early as I could.
Turns out it is REALLY hard to sleep in a tent at high altitude when you are racing every day, and surrounded by hundreds of other campers separated only by thing wisps of nylon! I don’t think I slept more than an hour at a time any night, and usually only a few hours per night at best! Good thing I thrive on sleep deprivation, right?
Next morning came, and sure enough, I could feel the cold growing within me. Bad timing. This was the longest stage of the entire race, and one of the tougher ones with all the ups and downs. I don’t think I even want to revisit it too much. I suffered. I had some good moments, but also some pretty low ones. I even took a stumple tha day, bruising up my thing and putting a little hole in my hand. Nothing major, but indicative of my state. Luckily, the people racing with you at any point in time are always amazing. Everyone is there for the fun of it. We are all passionate about this sort of thing, so whenever I had the opportunity, I’d latch on to other racers, and chat with them to pass the time and help me forget the pain.
Best evidence of this on the last part of the stage, where we came out at Camp Hale, and faced a mentally gruelling 5km+ run in the sun on a gravel road to the finish. I was cooked, and needed help. So, I latched onto a guy, told him we’d run it together, and proceeded to pick our pace up to a painful speed. I kept my eyes fixed on the gravel at my feet, not daring to look out at the distance we had to cover. However, just having him at my side struggling with me made it better. We crossed the line together, hand in hand, arms raised high. Don’t remember my place on the day offhand, but think it was 17th or 19th.
The highlight of Day 3 though? The camp! We were spending this night and the next here, at a place called Nova Guides. You’ve no doubt seen the picture already. Tents in the valley surrounded by mountains and a little lake? Yup. Pretty much paradise. Didn’t hurt that there was a fellow giving out free Margaritas that day to any who wanted them. Against better judgement, I had a big one with LOTS of tequila, hoping to drown my cold. As this was the end of the road for 3-day racers, there was some celebrating going on, and time to bid adieu to some friends. Others actually stayed on as volunteers for the rest of the week, which was cool.
Oh, and one other thing that day. Impromptu BEER MILE!! I was smart enough not to partake, but it was a hilarious site watching people tackle this AFTER 40km of hard racing in the mountains. Perhaps insanity is what drove one gent to finish it off buck naked, save for the cowboy hat he was holding over his junk! Yup. Summer camp indeed!
Video Review of Days 1-3
Although I now felt like total shit, the taco night made up for it somewhat. I loaded up on delicious tacos and looked forward to Day 4, another of the hard mountain stages featuring a straight up straight down profile again. For this one, we weren’t reaching up quite as high, but holy crap! The incline on this one was INSANE. We were literally hunched over into the mountain making our way up. Very much character building. Once agan, I’d opted for my poles. I knew I’d be suffering, and needed everything I could get to help me. Another funny thing happened though. Once we got to the top, crested, and started descending, my magic flying legs were back on my body.
Even though I couldn’t breathe much, it turns out you don’t NEED to breathe to fly recklessly down a mountain on a treacherous technical trail. You just need BALLS! And I had big brass ones that day. Once again, I FLEW past a ton of people, including some of the ‘pros’ this time around. Each step felt lighter than the last. As I passed other fast runners, I was actually getting compliments, and people saying they wished they could descend like me. I’ll admit it, it was flattering. And amazingly, not once in the week did I roll my ankle!
At the bottom of this big mountain, we then turned onto a creek that ran for about 2km. Once again, I was strong here, leaping from rock to rock very fast and passing more people. By the time we exited the creek, I was so hopped up on adrenalin that the cold was far back in my mind. We hit [another] gravel road to take us to the finish. About 4k of mostly downhill running. I pushed hard again here, hoping to stave off competitors. Only 1 person passed me here. At the finish, I felt awesome, for one brief moment, before the sickness hit me hard again. However, at the line, I was told I was 8th on the day! I secretly celebrated as my legs turned to cement beneath me and my lungs filled with my illness. I had a feeling it would be my last ‘good’ day.
Day 5. Only 2 days left. Both of them were longish stages (nearing 40km) and featured the most elevation gain / loss of any stage, with over 5,000′ each day. When I awoke on the 5th day, I can not even describe to you how terrible I felt. I put on as brave a face as I could , forcing myself to eat and drink properly before the start. I hated thinking I might bring anyone down, but I was miserable in the mess tent. I kept hacking up my lungs, and needing to blow my nose over and over again.
Lack of oxygen would NOT be my friend today, as I could barely get a lungful of air when sitting still. Regardless, there IS no quitting, so I toed the line once again, feeling a bit down, and decided to just let it ride. I started out at slowish pace, and tried picking it up over the day. Unfortuantely, this day in my mind is the absolute killer. We climbed up over 10,500′, and basically stayed there for a long stretch, running along ridges. At that altitude, I was literally wheezing trying to breathe and run. I was seeing a lot of new people that I hadn’t encountered, since I had dropped back quite a bit.
Ironically, some faces were familiar, as others were feeling the effects of 4 hard days racing. At about the halfway point, I hit rock bottom. I wanted to curse and quit and yell about how unfair this was. Then I remembered I loved this. I wanted this. And no matter how miserable I was, I was going to get it done. There is no winning or losing. Only doing the best you can with what you have. The heat of the day and the altitude were definitely conspiring against me, but they wouldn’t win. I walked a LOT more than I’d care to admit, but eventually, like most days, we crested the final mountain and starting heading downhill.
Once again, I mustered my energy for a good run. Unfortunately, this downhill was on the slopes of Vail, a ski resort. And it was on an access road. So 8km of gravel exposed road in the sun. Ugh. Did my best to NOT hate this road, but failed. I also ran out of water. At first, I lucked out by getting a swig of water from a little girl mountain biking with her family. Honestly, she looked like she was super excited to be giving up her water to a racer. It was a neat moment. However, later, I made the choice to fill my water at a creek.
With my cold (and apparently acute bronchitis), I was super dry in the mouth from breathing only through my mouth. I knew Giardia was a risk, but one I had to take. With only 1 day racing left, the effects likely wouldn’t hit till AFTER the race. Plus, I already felt like crap, what’s a little Giardia on top of that, right? FINALLY crossed the finish and took a long time to regroup from that day. Later on, I learned that on the day, I’d dropped off to 30th 🙁
The good news was that with only 1 day to go, I KNEW I’d finish. It would have to be extremely dire for it to end any other way. It took me a VERY long time to walk to our camp (it was supposedly a 10 minute walk, I think it took me 30 minutes!). I had no energy at all. Again, I forced myself to shower, eat drink, and empty as much mucus as I could throughout the afternoon / evening, but I was losing the battle.
People could see just how crappy I was at the supper that night. One fellow racer was kind enough to fish out some Nyquil and Dayquil for me, which I accepted. Popped the pill and tried getting sleep. Probably the best of the week, with what I think might have been a 3 hour stretch of sleep at one point. Then, we were there. The final day! I fought many demons to crawl out of my sleeping bag at 5am once again. Stuffed all my stuff into the duffle bag one final time, and stumbled to the mess tent.
Try as I might, even eating wasn’t working well this morning. Managed to choke down some oatmeal and drink a few glasses of juice, but that was it. I opted to have trekking poles with me today, and even carried my iPod and kept one earbud in all day blasting heavy tunes to keep me going. In the start chute, you could feel the excitement, the exhaustion, and the camraderie. Lots of cellphone videos being shot. Highway to Hell blasted us off one final time and then we were out there one final time, alone with our thoughts. My thoughts were simple. Left, right, left, right, drink. Eat. I was a single-cell being for a while. Looking around, I realized I was with the DFL crowd. Nothing wrong with that at all, but realized that was how slow I was. I was literally walking. At the start. Of a 38km stage!
This could be a long day. First while was on a paved road. We then passed over a highway, and eventually started climbing up a mountain. Given my location in the mix, it was slow going. What I eventually realized was that it was actually TOO slow, even in my current state. With my poles and my music, I slowly started trying to pass other hikers on the trail. Mind you, it was still walking / hiking, but I was able to go a bit quicker than others.
Over the next 6k of climbing, I leapfrogged a good number of people. I also passed the time by picking flowers along the path. It was my reminder not to care about where I was in the RACE, but to care about where I was specifically. In my happy place. In the mountains. With flowers adorning my pack, I smiled. Smiling as I jogged through the aspen forest filtering the sunlight. Smiling as I broke through the forest and followed paths through alpine meadows. Before I knew it, I was cresting the first big climb of the day. It was time to go GAME ON once again. This was another nice technical descent, and I once again through caution into the wind. The body again responded in kind, allowing me to make up precious ground and pass a ton of people again (but obviously not nearly enough to raise me to the top). Ironically, I passed a team of ‘elites’ on that descent, reminding me that anyone can have a crap day.
At the bottom, I knew that all that remained was one final mountain climb and final descent. I held on to my place for the rest of the race, picking up the pace whenever I could. It took everything I could muster, but I did it! I crossed the finish line with my head held high and a giant smile on my face (and flowers on my pack!). It was technically my worst finish of the week (in 32nd), but it felt like one of the greatest victories I’ve ever had. Yes, I still physically felt miserable, but mentally, I was on top of that mountain of the mind.
And you know what’s better than finishing? Finishing when there are people there to cheer for you and celebrate with you. Every single day, Annie was there waiting and cheering me (and lots of others) into the finish. She was joined by others that I had gotten to know, and it was awesome having them cheer me through the last steps. Afterwards, as I crumpled into a chair, we raised one more Michelob Ultra to a job well done, and a week like no other!
There is so much more that I could say, but I have already taken up far too much of everyone’s time. Yes, there was a closing banquet. It was ok. But all that really mattered to me were those days in the mountains. Racing against demons and running with friends. If I had the time and money to do this every year, you can bet your ass I’d be there. If some rich philanthropist said they’d pay for me to live the life of suffering and racing, I’d do it. You are only truly alive when you can feel your own frailities, and push your boundaries. So from that perspective, this was another amazing experience at pushing myself outside my comfort zone. And with that, I must say goodnight. After all, it is 10pm, and I have to get up at 4am to head to the start line of Ironman Muskoka! Writing this up has been cathartic, and has me feeling ready to face my demons again tomorrow, and come out victorious! Stay tuned for that story.