Total distance :: 23 miles, 2110 ft.
Climbing :: 4407 ft.
I was sort of sad to be leaving Camp Hale this morning. This place and the surrounding area really captures the essence of trail running and why we run in the first place. It has been just us and the trail for two straight days. Today, we head back into civilization at Vail Ski Resort.
This year, Salomon started a daily photo contest in response to comments from last year suggesting ways to allow non-elite runners to win prizes along the way. Each morning, a Salomon representative would hand out 20 digital cameras—first come, first served—with a different theme each day. At the awards ceremony each night, the top three photos were shown and the photographer won a Salomon backpack. Today’s theme was Flora and Fauna and I grabbed a camera as we boarded the shuttle to Red Cliff.
It was a chilly 36 degrees in Red Cliff so everyone packed into Mangos where many of us had crammed in yesterday for lunch. The starting chute was literally outside the front door of Mangos. This was going to be the longest stage of the race and Kevin and I were prepared to be out there for seven hours or more. Well, mentally prepared, anyway.
As we sat at Mangos for nearly an hour before the start, Kevin went to sit with Blaine Penny of Team Evan Can Run from Calgary Canada who we had met in Leadville over breakfast. I was going to join them, but they seemed engrossed in a deep conversation, so I left them alone. I thought Blaine might appreciate the chance to talk to Kevin due to his medical background. You see, Blaine is another runner here with a bigger cause. His son Evan suffers from a degenerative mitochondrial disease. He has started a foundation to raise funds.
Start times are always precise at TRR since Timex has been running the clock since the first year. We set off at 8:00 am. eager to knock out a few easy miles. The first two miles took us back through the last two miles of Stage 4. Then the daily challenge of climbing began. Our goal was to keep a steady pace to the top of the climb since we weren’t losing much time on the ascents.
Along the march up the mountain, Kevin grabbed some flora along the side of the trail as we tried unsuccessfully to think of a creative photo for the contest. A woman passed us, raised her running skirt, and offered to have her photo taken with the flora planted inside her shorts. I snapped a photo as quickly as I could so as not to miss this serendipitous Kodak moment.
We reached the first checkpoint at 7.5 miles without feeling like we had lost much time. After a quick re-fueling, I charged ahead as we continued to climb on singletrack. I figured Kevin would catch me as we climbed to 11,700 ft. We reached the top of the climb and enjoyed the views together as we crossed the ridge.
I tried not to ask Kevin too many times how he was doing. I only asked at the beginning of the day and at key points during the stage. I knew he was suffering but didn’t want to remind him by constantly asking him about it. I knew it was a constant struggle for him to keep his mind off the pain, find a comfortable cadence with the trekking poles, and still try and enjoy the run. The best thing I could do was to stay positive, encourage him, help keep his mind off the pain, and try to anticipate his needs and his condition.
The final 9.5 miles of this stage runs straight through the famous back bowls of Vail ski resort, all the way around to the front of the resort. I’ve done a lot of skiing my day but never at Vail, so it was sort of strange to be running along some of the most famous ski slopes in America with no snow on the mountain. We imagined carving new tracks in fresh powder as we slogged up the mountain single file along switchbacks to the top of Mongolia Bowl. Everyone was walking and it was hard to imagine anyone actually running the final ascent.
We reached Checkpoint #2 to see several teams putting on their best display of dancing to the theme of “So You Think You Can Dance” as a TRR videographer captured the nonsense. Still, it was another moment in the race for me that personified the liberating feeling the simple act of running can deliver. Dance like nobody is watching, live everyday as if it is your last, and run wild and free.
Fortunately for me, Kevin was on a mission at this point in the race. I don’t think either of us was ready to lock arms and do the Samba, and I could tell Kevin had his mind fixed on a different sort of Quickstep to get down the mountain as quickly as possible. He quickly re-fueled and I told him to go ahead and get a head start. I, on the other hand, took some time at the aid station inhaling salt tablets, peaches, Coke, Goldfish, recovery drinks, oranges, and more peaches. And then another fistful of Goldfish for the descent. Yum.
To my amazement, Kevin had managed to find another gear or an effective sedative and had set off at a faster pace than I expected. When I finally caught him and his clacking poles about 15 minutes down the mountain, I had never seen him breathing so hard. He blurted out that his heart rate was at least 170. I knew he couldn’t keep up that tempo in his condition with eight miles to go, but I think I knew what he was thinking. He had come to a point where he had suffered enough, he was frustrated that he couldn’t run any harder, he was cursing his injury, didn’t want to spend more time than necessary on the mountain, and he wasn’t going to let the mountain get the better of him. I get that. So I stayed with him step for step. We slowed as we continued the long descent, zig-zagging our way down the ski slopes into Vail Village, but the mountain lost. We crossed the finish in 6 hours, 15 minutes, our longest run of the race.
We were wiped out by the time we reached our hotel. After a shower and a cold beer at the bar, we decided to skip the awards ceremony and treat ourselves to a nice dinner at the hotel. The hotel restaurant was offering 50% off all entrees and 50% off all wine. We didn’t need much arm twisting. Kevin treated me to an exquisite bottle of 1998 Shafer Cabernet Hillside Select which we thoroughly enjoyed with a fabulous dinner that I’ll remember for a long time. And remember that photo I took for the daily contest? I was told the next day it took second place, so Salomon is sending me a backpack. I took the picture in such a hurry that I never even saw the final photo, but I am all schwagged out.