2009 Transrockies Run — Final Thoughts

Rocky MountainsLots of people have asked me if the Transrockies Run was everything I expected.  The answer is yes and no.  Yes, I expected an epic week of running and Colorado certainly delivered.  The views were stunning, the TRR staff was incredible, the atmosphere was electric.  But due to Kevin’s injury, we did not get to run hard everyday like we wanted to, so we didn’t get to experience the one thing we wanted more than anything–to push ourselves to the limit and see how we stacked up against a very solid field of runners from 10 countries and 29 states.  Am I disappointed?  Not in the least.  Most things in life don’t turn out according to plan.  I am grateful for even having the opportunity to participate. 

Kevin wasn’t the only one to run with a serious injury.  Ultra running legend Dean Karnazes took a hard fall on Stage 3 and cracked three ribs.  He ended up on a tow-line behind his partner Helen Cospolich (past women’s winner of the Leadville 100).  I ran a few miles with Devon Sibole on the very first day and watched her tumble ass over tea kettles twice right in front of me, putting a nice gash in both knees.  Aaron Heidt of the Two Joes from Canada fell in Stage 2, sustaining a broken tooth and split lip which required a root canal, stitches and glued tooth to fix.  They still finished in third place overall in the Open Men’s division.  There was plenty of carnage along the way.  As each day passed, more runners had bags of ice strapped to an appendage around camp.  And some unfortunate flatlanders seemed to never acclimate to the altitude and felt like crap almost the entire week.  Still, I am immensely proud of my teammate Kevin who ran the entire race with a torn muscle.  I have never witnessed anyone struggle through so much pain for so long in a sporting event.  I probably spent more time thinking of his condition than my own, but in a team event, an injury to one is like an injury to both.  Days after the event, I still wince at the thought of Kevin shuffling, staggering and plodding his way through the last few miles each day.  Every single step hurt.  Kevin is a stud.

Alpine flowersThe final results are humbling.  Kevin and I figured in our best condition, we might have covered the course in about 23 – 24 hours.  That would have put us in roughly 12th place in our division, exactly in the middle of the pack and right where we thought we might finish when we started the race.  I remind myself that our original goal was simply to finish injury free.  Well, at least we finished.  It took us 30 hrs., 57 mins., just edging out the California Old Goats, the oldest team in the field at 65 and 70 years young.  Right behind them were speed-inspiring names such as the Blazing Rocking Chairs and the Big Fat Cohibas.  Notice the lack of major brand names preceeding their team names.  Team names starting with Salomon, Nike, Montrail, North Face, and Nathan all led their divisions and were showered with schwag all week long.  The winnning time posted by Run Flagstaff was 14:59:59, less than half the time it took me and Kevin.  That’s just about the difference between running and going for a hike.

And that raises another point.  Most people think of the Transrockies as an ultra event.  It’s even called an ultra in some of the promotional material, but it really isn’t.  This year the course was 113 miles but we never ran more than 24 miles in a single day.  You don’t need to be an ultra runner to do the Transrockies.  In fact, just about anyone in decent running condition can complete it and fully enjoy the experience.  The cut-off times are very generous and you can walk the tougher uphills and still make the cut-off.  I trained by doing back-to-back-to-back long trail runs for 8 – 10 weeks.  I’m glad I did that but it certainly wasn’t necessary.

Clouds in ColoradoI think there was a big missed opportunity with the elite field that had assembled this year.  We had a fair amount of free time in the afternoon and early evening.  I thought it would have been great to have Hal Koerner do a chalk talk on how to run your first 100-miler, or have Anita Ortiz talk about her recent win at WS100.  Nikki Kimball has great tips on how to run down hills.  Dean Karnazes always delivers a captivating talk on any number of topics.  There were so many elite runners that have accomplished so much, it seemed like a wasted oppotunity not to have them share some of their knowledge with the other runners.  We were together for a whole week and never really had a chance to tap into their wisdom.  I chatted with a few of them during the course of the week, but you don’t necessarily want to jump all over them every time you see one of them.  It’s also nice to just have a beer with them and hang around the campfire.

I’m really glad I decided to use the Transrockies Run as a fund-raising event for the National MS Society.  The emotional boost it gave my sister was worth every step I took.  She spent the entire time I was racing in the hospital getting treatments for her MS.  It gave the whole experience much more meaning for me.  I have raised $7,000 and I still intend to reach my goal of $10,000.  The many other people I met who were also running for charities inspired me to do more and I am grateful for the example they set.

Bear Lake sunriseWould I do the Transrockies again?  I would love to but probably won’t, unless by a fantastic but improbable set of circumstances, several friends from my local running club all decided to do it in the same year.  If I could afford it and could make the time to do another stage race, I think I would choose the Trans-Alpine Run in Europe.  It’s eight stages instead of six, criss-crosses four countries (Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Italy), with over 45,000 ft. of elevation gain over the Alps.  There are also countless other events on my bucket list, so doing the same week-long event again, as memorable and as it was, is unlikely as long as I have to work to make a living.

Others have asked me where the Transrockies ranks in all the events I have done.  Is it at the top of the list?  That’s hard to explain to non-runners or non-athletes without sounding like a pompous ass.  My first marathon, my marathon PR, my first ultra, my longest ultra, my best triathlons–they are all very special to me.  There is no hierarchy of good, better and best experiences.  I remember more of the good experiences than the bad, and each race and every effort adds to a lifetime of experiences.  I hold an unbreakable record in the pole vault at my high school which stood for over 20 years before the school eventually closed.  I’m pretty proud of that. 

The Transrockies clearly has its unique place.  For me, it was the epitome of trail running and a celebration of the sport.  It combined so many things about running you just can’t capture in a single event.  The views are spectacular; the competition is fierce; the atmosphere is fun and exhilirating; the support staff is uncompromising.   But the two things that make it unlike any other event is the 6-day stage format and the team aspect.  Getting up in the morning to do nothing but run for six days in a row is a very liberating feeling.  No work, no commute traffic, no email or voice mail, no family commitments, no responsibilities other than to get your ass over the finish line that day.  Now do it with your teammate and don’t separate by more than two minutes all week.  It was the adventure of a lifetime and I loved every minute of it.

Transrockies Run Stage 6 — Vail to Beaver Creek

Total distance :: 21 miles, 1131 ft.
Climbing :: 4623 ft.

Medical tentThis is it…the last stage.  Wow, what a week!  The day started with a long line of runners lined up to get taped, bandaged or otherwise jerry-rigged to get through the last 21 miles.  We started right where we finished inside the Beaver Creek village.  It was a flat 2-mile run through the village before the day’s climb began, so I took off ahead of Kevin again so he might catch me on the climb.

Team LivestrongI was thinking about my sister Julie who had been in the hospital getting steroid treatments for her MS the entire time I was racing.  I was pleased with my efforts in raising nearly $7000 for the National MS Society until I met Karl Robohn and Bill Grar of Team Livestrong.  They have raised an impressive $300,000 for the Lance Armstrong’s cancer foundation over the last three years.  I need to take a page out of their book and figure out how to go well beyond the $10,000 fund-raising goal I set for myself.  Karl and Bill also took the award in my book for the coolest gear–a mini video camera mounted to the visor and a wrist-mounted camera.

I was cruising through the 4-mile mark contemplating the full meaning of this week’s effort when I tripped.  In an instant, I was launched into a somersault, landing on my back left side off the side of the mountain.  I instinctively stopped the roll with my feet and quickly regained my bearings to see that I was just one more roll away from catapulting myself right over the edge of the mountain.  I scrambled up back to the trail and rejoined the long line of runners plodding up the mountain in a trance-like motion.  I was lucky.  That could have turned out a lot worse.

Aspen ForestThe trail suddenly entered a fantastic aspen forest where the breeze causes the leaves to twist and flutter.  It’s an awesome experience to run through this environment.  As I neared the first checkpoint at around the 6.5-mile mark, Kevin had not yet caught up to me, so I waited for him to avoid being assessed a 60-minute penalty at the checkpoint.

Somehow I got way ahead of Kevin again heading toward the second checkpoint, so I stopped to chat with a staff member of the Trans-Alpine Run who was on the course to cheer everyone on.

Early this morning as we were checking out of our hotel, I decided to check the GC and see where we stood in our division.  We were in 18th place, just 13 minutes behind Wullie Brown and Neil Rhodes of Team Rocks & Alps.  Now that seemed like a margin we could make up if we had a good day, except that everyone was probably thinking about giving it everything they had on the final day.  As I waited for Kevin at checkpoint #2, Wullie and Neil approached, so I intercepted the jovial pair for this brief interview:

I shared a beer with the aid station crew at checkpoint #2 as Kevin started making his way down the mountain toward the town of Avon.  We were less than ten miles from the end of the entire race and I was beginning my celebration.  It was a bit surreal running through traffic in Avon toward checkpoint #3 after spending so much time on the trail. 

Kevin didn’t want to stop and have his leg stiffen up at the aid station, so I grabbed his hydration pack and ran ahead to fill it for him.  He stayed less than a minute and was off to tackle the final 700-ft. climb of the race up through the ski slopes of Beaver Creek.  I stayed for another beer and chatted with the crew.  I knew there was a painful climb ahead, but I was in full party mode.

I didn’t catch Kevin until we were less than two miles from the finish.  Turns out there were numerous bear in the area earlier in the day, and several teams bolted straight down the mountain to the finish instead of taking the switchbacks on the course.  Several other runners were stung multiple times by hornets in the final stretch.  And it was hot.  Kevin had absolutely nothing left in his tank.  On the descent into Avon, his right leg had completely seized up, forcing him to stop.  Now, with less than a mile to go, every single step was a serious struggle.  We exchanged some final thoughts about the day, the week, the race, and crossed the finish in 6 hours 5 minutes.  We had run a total of 30 hours and 57 minutes to finish 19th out of 24 teams in our division.

Finish LineThe first thing I did when I crossed the line was call my sister Julie.  She was still in the hospital and I could only leave a message, but as I tried to hold back my emotions, I told her I am immensely proud of her for keeping up her fight against MS.  She struggles every day of her life.  I only struggled for six days, but I actually had a world of fun doing it.

I have lots of final thoughts about the Gore-Tex Transrockies Run, all extremely positive and fulfilling.  I’m going to save them for a final post after giving myself a few days to reflect.  For now, I am eternally grateful for the opportunity to participate and experience the adventure of a lifetime.  I am in awe of the effort my teammate put in under incredible pain and stress.  I am inspired by the many other teams and individuals who participated for a myriad of reasons and causes.  And I have a much deeper appreciation for the pure joy of running.

Transrockies Run Stage 5 — Red Cliff to Vail

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.

Red Cliff StartIt 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.

Vail Ski SignThe 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.

Top of Mongolia BowlWe 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.

Transrockies Run Stage 4 — Camp Hale to Red Cliff

Total distance :: 14 miles, 1231 ft.
Climbing :: 3009 ft.

Start / finish at Camp Hale
Start / finish at Camp Hale

At the start line this morning, I heard people talking about how the tents froze last night.  Another woman tried applying Neosporin but it was frozen in the tube.  Kevin and I could not have been happier with our decision to get a good night’s sleep in a warm bed.  We brought our coffee and hot breakfast back to our cabin and enjoyed it in the comfort of our cabin before heading to the start line just 150 yards from our front door.

The chute at the start line is full of energy each day.  The music is blasting as the race announcer counts down the clock and makes his final announcements.  We had a different race strategy today.  We had a relatively flat 2-mile start before climbing 2500 ft. over the next three miles.  After taking the first mile easy with Kevin, I took the second mile fairly fast in order to get a head start up the climb.  I thought Kevin would catch me halfway up the climb at around 10,500 ft.

As it turned out, Kevin was putting a big effort into today’s stage.  He wanted to push it a bit while his leg felt reasonably good.  He caught me before we even reached 10,000 ft.  But then the death march started.  This climb up Hornsilver Mountain is harder than the climb to Hope Pass.  At least Hope Pass had switchbacks that allowed us to negotiate the climb.  Hornsilver is basically straight up with nowhere to rest.  How steep is it?  Think of the steepest climb you have ever done.  This one is probably harder.  Kevin and I have never seen anything like it. 

Busted JeepHere’s the Jeep that was carrying the supplies to the first aid station.  The steep pitch blew out the driveshaft and sent the Jeep hurtling 50 yards down the mountain.  The driver told me later there was 30 seconds of panic as they attempted to stop the vehicle from careening off the mountain.  They are actually very lucky to have stopped the Jeep at all on the trail.  An ATV was sent to get the stranded supplies to the first checkpoint and managed to have an aid station ready just ten minutes before the lead runners came through.

Kevin beat me to the top by 2 – 3 minutes.  After exchanging some expletives about the insane climb we had just completed, we continued along the ridge where we stopped several times just to take in the magnificent views.  The view from the top is beyond breathtaking.

View from the topUnfortunately for Kevin, the descent over the next four miles was a rocky ATV trail with uneven footing, forcing Kevin to twist and turn his leg in ways that only made the pain worse.  He continued to use my poles and I grew accustomed to listening for the clacking of the poles to gauge my speed so I wouldn’t have to look back all the time.  It was a slow descent as we were passed by many runners.  We are both fiercely competitive and can’t help but feel the bite when someone passes us, knowing there is nothing we can do.  Someone aptly advised us to “replace the Time Devil with the Finishing Angel.”  Easier said than done.

Another defining characteristic of this stage was the river running.  Less than four miles from the finish, we are forced to run in a river bed for nearly a half mile.  Naturally, this slowed everyone down but it made for some very fun running.

From the second and last checkpoint, we followed the dirt road into Red Cliff.  By this point, Kevin’s leg was on the edge of disaster again, so we just did what we could and crossed the finish line in exactly four hours, which will be the shortest time of any stage this week.  We weren’t tired or spent—we just couldn’t run any harder.  So we headed into Mango’s for the recommended fish tacos and a tall Guinness. 

Back at camp, Kevin and I made our way to the massage tent where Mary Jo gave me another incredible massage.  I asked for 30 minutes again today.  An hour and fifteen minutes later Mary Jo was done.  Not sure I could get through the week without the massages.  I am not sore, tired or trashed.  It’s amazing what you can do when all you have to do each day is run.  After my massage, I found Kevin under the Salomon tent where there was free beer all week long.  It’s also a great place to hang out and meet people.  Kevin was chatting it up with Anita Ortiz and Helen Cospolitch.

There is no cell phone or internet service in Camp Hale so we haven’t been able to check in with family and friends.  I’ll admit it has been fantastic to be disconnected from the rest of the world.  Tomorrow we are back to civilization as we stay in Vail.  We still don’t know what to expect from one day to the next with Kevin’s injury, but very pleased to have made it this far.

Transrockies Run Stage 3 — Leadville to Camp Hale

 Total distance :: 24.2 miles
Climbing :: 2930 ft.
TRR staff member Sarah provides taxi service for me.
TRR staff member Sarah provides taxi service for me.

Today’s forecast:  Partly sunny. Isolated rain showers in the morning… then scattered thunderstorms in the afternoon. Highs 54 to 64. West winds 10 to 15 mph. Chance of precipitation 40 percent.

What a difference a day can make.  We started the day in Leadville, the highest city in the country at 10,200 ft.  First thing I did was leave my digital camera battery in the charger plugged in to the bathroom wall socket.  Sarah from the TRR staff kindly shuttled me two miles back to the Super 8 motel.  Just another example of the staff here who are prepared to do just about anything to make the experience truly fantastic.

It seemed that by Stage 3, everyone had the drill down at the start line.  File in about 15 mins. before the start, go through  the mandatory gear check, scan your ankle chip as you enter the starting gates, and get ready to rock-n-roll.  Kevin and I were mentally prepared for a very long day although his right leg felt better at the start than it did the day before at the start.

Clmbing out of Leadville at 10,600 ft.
Climbing out of Leadville at 10,600 ft.

We decided to take it out slow and steady from the start line in downtown Leadville.  The first three miles are on roads.  Kevin felt pretty good, so we kept up a slow but steady pace.  At mile 3, the course turned up toward the mountains as we started climbing out of Leadville.  Everyone was walking, but Kevin was making great time as his leg doesn’t bother him as much on the climbs.

We were ecstatic to reach the first aid station at mile 7.5 in 1:44.  Kevin was still feeling good, so we kept up a strong pace.  Now we were beginning to pass teams for what seemed like the first time in the race, although we had a ton of ground to make up if we really wanted to run a time we knew were capable of running.  All systems were working properly, so we just kept going.  We hit the halfway mark in a little over 2.5 hrs. and kept a decent pace up to the third and last aid station at mile 20.  From that point on, Kevin really began to struggle.  He was using my poles because I had the Leki antishock poles with springs that are much more forgiving on the wrists, arms and shoulders (see my Leki review here).  We clambered through the finish in 5 hrs. 47 mins.  Kevin is a stud.  I don’t know if I could have done what he did today in his condition.

The course was stunning today, climbing through high timber, rolling through alpine meadows, crossing numerous streams and valleys.  What saved me like yesterday was the phenomenal weather.  It was perfect racing conditions with temps in the 40s at 11,000 ft. and never getting above 65 degrees.  A constantly changing Colorado cloud cover kept us cool all day.

I wore my Vasque Celerator shoes today.  I’m wearing my second pair and intended on writing a review while I was putting 300+ miles on my first pair over the summer.  These were the perfect shoes for the well groomed trails we ran today.  They are also comfortable on the occasional asphalt and quickly shed water from stream crossings.  I’ll probably wear my Inov-8 Roclite’s tomorrow for the steeper and more technical terrain.Camp Hale Cabin

Our tent at Camp Hale.

Camp Hale looks and feels like an oasis snuggled in a vast meadow at 9200 ft.  From 1959 to 1964, 259 Tibetan guerillas were secretly trained here by the CIA. Camp Hale was chosen because of the similarities of the Rocky Mountains with the Himalayan Plateau.  We stay here two nights.  Kevin had made reservations for a cabin but we had no idea what kind of accommodations to expect in the middle of nowhere.  We were stunned and relieved when we stepped in to find a fully furnished 2-bedroom cabin with very comfortable beds and furniture.  When creature comforts are available, there’s no point cramming into a 7’ x 7’ tent.  We’re trying not to brag about our lavish accommodations as it appears there are only three cabins here.  We were especially pleased with our decision to book a cabin when it started pouring rain tonight.

Upon discovering our fine lodging, we quickly showered and headed for a massage.  I stuck with Mary Jo just to be safe.  She had given me an outstanding massage two days ago.  I know I recover faster than most people, but throw a 50-min. massage into the mix (I only asked for 30 mins. but gave her a good tip), and I don’t feel at all like I just ran 55 miles over the last three days.  Kevin and I both feel remarkably good.  Neither of us suffered on today’s run.  We have acclimated and finally feel comfortable running above 10,000 ft. 

That’s not the case for many others.  Today, we started seeing some carnage on the trail.  I passed a guy who described his medial hamstring tear as he limped along, saw someone else getting a massage with a heavily bandaged ankle, and numerous people still feeling nauseated, unable to acclimate. Even yesterday’s stage winner took a rock in the mouth bombing down the mountain, chipped his tooth, and needed a root canal in the afternoon.  Not sure where they found a dentist in the middle of the wilderness.

It’s probably a combination of things that allowed Kevin to rally today.  He continues to take the meds he brought (physician, heal thyself?), the terrain today was very runnable, the massages are really out of this world, and sleeping in a regular bed and not in a cold moist tent helps a lot.  Good thing we upgraded.  Still, I am amazed Kevin was able to get through the day in well under six hours.  24 miles at 10,000 – 11,000 ft. is not easy under the best of circumstances.  To do it with a torn muscle is unbelievable.  We’re well aware we’re only halfway done.  We’re playing it one day at a time, one aid station at a time.

Camp Hale morningCamp Hale at 6:00 am.

This evening we stayed for the entire awards ceremony and really enjoyed it sitting right in front of the stage.  The schwag continues to be doled out.  Tonight everyone received Windstopper ear warmers.  First through third place in every division were awarded Leki trekking poles, a heart rate monitor, and other cool stuff.  Virtually all the big names took the podium in their category–Kami Semick, Hal Koerner, Nikki Kimball, Dean Karnazes, Helen Cospolitch, Caitlin Smith, Anita Ortiz, Prudence L’Heureaux and Devon Crosby-Helms.  Not all of them are winning, but this year’s field is very competitive, largely due to the number of elite runners.  So far the course seems to be favoring the marathoners, not the ultra trail runners.  Except for a few nasty climbs, there are long flat finishes and well groomed trails that make the course very runnable.

As for me, I am living in the moment.  I feel incredibly fortunate to be having the experience of a lifetime.  My wife is taking care of the kids at home while I’m meeting some amazing people, seeing some jaw-dropping scenery, and running the kinds of trails you see photographed in magazines.  The striking feature of the Rocky Mountains is the sheer vastness of what you see.  Most of the time, I point my camera at something to take a picture and I realize the camera will never quite capture the sweeping expanse in front of me.

I’ll be perfectly honest—I do wish we could go bombing down the mountains, race to the finish, and see how we really stack up against this field.  Kevin and I can both go a lot harder.  But then I reflect on what we went through to get here and I am reminded once again that the journey is the prize, and it has been a truly amazing journey.

Transrockies Run Stage 2–Vicksburg to Twin Lakes

Total distance :: 10 miles, 2437 ft.
Climbing :: 3097 ft.

Today we ran the longest ten miles of our life.  Even before we started we knew it would be a run we will never forget.  We were shuttled by buses from our campground about 30 minutes deep into the mountains.  I watched my altimeter reach 9600 ft. before the bus finally stopped at the start of today’s stage.  We had a 40-min. wait before the official start.  That gave us time to chat with Nadia Larsson and Norma Bastidas of Team Crash n Burn from Calgary Canada, who we had met at dinner the night before.  Norma just completed running what she calls the 777 Run For Sight — 7 ultramarathons in 7 months on 7 continents.  She did it to raise funds for the blind and visually impaired as she cares for a son who is losing his sight.  She talked about her trials on the Gobi March and running an ultra in Antarctica and left us wanting to know more.  Her next challenge–climbing the 7 highest peaks on 7 continents in 12 months (yes, including Everest).  Check out her web site at www.normabastidas.com.  What an inspiration!

With a few minutes to spare before the start of Stage 2, I asked my team captain for some advice:

Kevin and I had decided to walk the first two miles due to his injury.  He told me his injury is basically a torn muscle.  He can walk at a brisk pace but just can’t bear any weight on it, so he can’t run.  When we reached the start of the climb to Hope Pass there weren’t too many teams behind us.  We’re not used to running in the back of the pack but today there was no choice.  After a quick drink at the aid station, we started making our way up the mountain, trekking poles fully deployed.  We were following yellow ribbons to mark the course but the trail was still marked with pink ribbons from the Leadville 100 which just finished two days ago.  It was a stark reminder that we are running one of the most difficult courses in the country.

Climbing to Hope PassView at 11,400 ft. climbing to Hope Pass.

We were averaging 2 mph on the climb but Kevin was able to climb faster than me.  I kept a slow, deliberate pace.  I didn’t want to find myself puking, seeing double, or falling off the side of the mountain in a dizzy spell.  I wanted to enjoy this stage.  At 11,600 ft., I actually felt a second wind, but with another 1000 ft. to go, I wasn’t getting too excited.  Every time I glanced ahead, it seemed someone was taking a break with their hands on their knees, probably trying to avoid puking.  The final 2000 ft. is a series of switchbacks.  You can see almost the entire distance from any vantage point.  It’s quite the scene to see a long line of people pushing themselves to their limits. 

Hope PassTwo hours after the start of the stage, we finally reached Hope Pass.  We had passed the tree line at around 12,400 ft. so the scenery abruptly changed.  Everything suddenly looks like Mars.  We stopped long enough just to snap a photo.  The temperature had dipped into the 30s at the summit and Kevin was eager to get to a warmer place.  Descending Hope PassWe started our descent but as we expected, Kevin was unable to run.  It took us another two hours to get down the mountain, finishing in 4 hrs. 2 mins.  We don’t want to be disappointed so we’re not even checking the results tonight.  Frankly, we’re just glad to have finished the stage.

The best part of our plan for the day was Kevin’s foresight to book a hotel room for us in Leadville.  It had started raining about 90 mins. from the finish and it kept raining as we were shuttled to Leadville.  The tent city where everyone sleeps was soaked.  We’re at a Super 8 Motel where sparse accomodations have never felt so magnificent.

I could not be more impressed with how Kevin is handling his injury.  He is taking dexamethosone (a powerful steroid) and naproxen (NSAID) and I can still see how much he is suffering.  On top of the injury, there is also the gnawing frustration of wanting to run this epic event and simply not being able to do it.  We’re still hoping he miraculously recovers in the next day or two, but we’re staring at a 24-ml. stage tomorrow, most of it between 10,000 – 11,000 ft.  We already did the math.  As long as we average 22-min. miles, we can still finish in under the cutoff time of nine hours.  If I was the one injured, I know I would not want to quit.  Any doctor in the world would tell him to stop, but I know quitting is not an option for Kevin.  I’m learning something about courage from my teammate.

Transrockies Run Stage 1–Buena Vista to Railroad Bridge Campground

Total distance :: 20 miles, 2437 ft.
Climbing :: 2721 ft.

TRR Profile113 miles, 20,000+ ft. elevation gain. Let’s get started!

Start LineNervous excitement and anticipation at the start line was palpable.  The race started promptly at 10:00 am.  Kevin and I could not have been happier to get going after laying around doing nothing in Buena Vista for 36 hours.  Our hope was that our 2-night stay had helped us acclimate.

The lead runners were out of sight within seconds.   It seemed nearly everyone else needed the first few miles to learn how to breathe…or breathe less, and find our footing on what would be an extremely sandy 21-mile run.  It was about seven miles to the first aid station and the bulk of the climbing was in the first section.  The entire run was exposed and with a late start time, the heat quickly became a factor.  Did I mention it is hard to breathe above 8000 ft. while running?

There was lots of joking around and getting to know people in the first stretch up the mountain.  By the time we reached the first aid station, just about everyone was spent, including me.  Kevin pulled out his IT band strap and I made a mental note.  He never pulls it out that early in the run.  It’s usually in the latter stages of a long trail run to help prevent onset of an injury.

The next six miles were downhills mixed with energy sapping short climbs that left me out of breath.  We hit the halfway point (10 miles) in exactly two hours, much faster than we intended.  Then miles 11 – 14 turned into a hot, dusty, undulating trail that never seemed to end.  Several of us pulled under what little shade we could find just to try and recover before continuing.  When we left the second aid station at mile 14.5, I could tell Kevin was having trouble.  His adducter muscle in his right leg was causing a lot of discomfort.  We quickly agreed not to push it any harder than necessary.  It’s only Stage 1 and we have a long way to go. 

TunnelKevin had to walk it in for the last five miles but the pain subsided.  He kept a brisk walk while I matched his stride with a slow jog, but keeping a 14-min. pace after 20 miles at 8500 ft. is not an easy task.  The impact of an injury in a team event is different from a solo race.  It doesn’t matter who is injured–it stops both team members–and we will need to figure out a solution as a team.  We crossed the line in 4 hours, 47 minutes and took the next shuttle to our campground.  It took another hour to get through a warm shower, an outstanding 30-min. massage, and a cheeseburger, after which I felt great.

It’s becoming clearer each day that just about everyone here has run a stage race in Tibet, Europe, S. Africa, or any number of fantastic locations, holds an unbreakable record, is a race director for some very cool event, is sponsored by a well known mountain brand, or won a marathon in the Himalayas.  Kevin and I are ready to invent sponsors of our own.  We are supremely impressed with the caliber of runners that have assembled in Colorado and feeling like we can hold our own.  We are in 84th place overall out of 133 teams.  If we could have run the last five miles, we’re fairly confident we could have finished around 60th position today.  The Transrockies organization is absolutely first class.  And we continue to be inundated with more cool schwag–Salomon recovery shoes, coffee mugs, mittens (yes, mittens).

Tomorrow is going to be tough.  We’ll need to see how Kevin’s leg feels in the morning.  We climb to Hope Pass at 12,600 ft. at 25% grade for three miles.  I’m out of breath just thinking about it.