All I could think about was 11 miles over 11K feet and how, in previous years, people experienced altitude issues like headaches and nausea. Being somewhat sensitive, especially to stomach issues, it definitely tempered my excitement about doing the 2013 TransRockies Run–a 6 day, 120 mile, 20K feet stage race in Colorado.
I signed up just about a year ago with my running partner and good friend, Gary. We entered the 80+ Mixed category along with 35 other running pairs. The race starts in Buena Vista and ends in Beaver Creek, though it’s not completely continuous. You are shuttled to and from race start and finishes. When you’re not running, you’re camping with 350 of your new best friends.
We took two days to drive to Buena Vista. Along the way, we stopped at Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. What a beautiful canyon-so steep, deep, and dark. Pictures don’t do it justice. If you’re ever in the area, be sure to see it. It’s not too far off the road.
Next, we stopped at Monarch Pass, which is on the continental divide and sits at 11,312ft. We took the tram up to see the view and also see how we handled the even higher altitude of over 12K ft. The view was stunning–a 360 degree look at the Rockies and the altitude was not an issue (though we were only there a short while).
Day 0 – Buena Vista. We checked in and picked up our race bags and goodies. The bag they give you is pretty big, but it must hold your sleeping bag, pad, pillow, race snacks, clothes for running and for lounging (both warm and cool clothes), race gear, and anything else you bring. Because I have smaller sleeping gear for backpacking, I had a slight bit of room left over, but not much.
We contacted our soon to be new friend Monica. She had to go solo this week after her partner had to drop out. We connected with Monica ahead of time to work out a way to bring our cars forward along the race. We ended up playing leapfrog with the cars which worked, but cut into rest/social time. It was a fortunate friendship though. Monica is a totally fun girl who is sharp-witted and smart. We had a great time while transporting cars and at dinner, though we never saw her during the races since she’s a speedy one!
Day 1 – Buena Vista to Railroad Bridge: 20.9 miles/2550ft elev. gain. It was a cool morning, as every morning would be. We started at the back of the pack and stayed there most of the day. You get lots of time to chat as you huff and puff your way uphill. I met Deana, a water researcher from the midwest and Christina, a woman doing the 3-day solo from Seattle.
It was also on this first day I met Phil and Barbara from Brooklyn. They started each day with us and were great fun to be around. We had told them about our nicknames of “Dirt” and “Skirt” and they greeted us each day this way. It felt good knowing there were other racers who knew you were out there and cared about how you did.
Seeing friendly faces was such a welcome sight. My friend Sherry that I met at Desert RATS in June was working the aid stations by day and doing massages at night. Her smile is infectious and warm. You can’t help but feel good when you are around her. She took good care of me and all the other racers during the week. She and the other aid station volunteers were always cheery and helpful. They were a welcome sight indeed.
This first day seemed to go on and on but did end with a nice foot soak in the river afterwards. Because I had some leg pain that started before we arrived, I decided to get a leg massage. It felt so good I vowed to do it every day afterwards. Unfortunately, I never found the time again.
Day 2 – Vicksburg to Twin Lakes (via Hope Pass): 13.3 miles/3250ft elev. gain. The bus ride to the start took about 30 minutes–enough time to build up nerves of anticipation. I was going to crest the famous Hope Pass. It sits at 12,600ft and is challenged twice in the Leadville 100 race. Thankfully, we only had to go over it once. It was a crazy grind to the top, following along in a conga line on a narrow, steep single track. At one point, someone yelled out to whoever was leading the line at the time to “pull over if you can’t keep up!” I desperately did not want to be that person, so I pushed hard to keep up with the stream of racers. Climbing over 3000 feet in about 3 miles may not sound like much, but when that goes from over 9K to over 12k feet, your lungs are begging for mercy.
At the top, Gary (still in race mode) told me to go! There was to be no lingering or savoring the view. It was time to pass those who did. So I never even got to turn around and see what I’d just climbed. This is where I really found my strength. I flew, almost wrecklessly, down the hill. I was passing people left and right. I probably passed two dozen people. The best part, probably for the whole week, was being called an “ass-kicker” as I passed a group of racers. You never know that what you might say to someone can really make their day, or even their week! I’ll never forget that moment.
Day 3 – Leadville to Camp Hale: 24.2 miles/2800ft elev. gain. Leadville is a cute old mining town–almost. It has potential but it hasn’t been realized. Stage 3 began in Leadville and ran through the town and down the highway before turning up a dirt road. The dirt road immediately began to crank up. It seemed like every time you might reach the top, there was another hill to climb. The uphills are not my strength and took so much of my energy. Plus, my legs were sore to the touch from the previous two days!
I managed hydration and nutrition fairly well, but the continual climb eventually got to my psyche. So much that when it finally flattened out, I could hardly run. It was the only time I tripped and nearly fell, which made me even more angry. Reaching the aid station at about mile 14, you leave most of the climbing behind and begin a steady descent. It’s over 11k feet there and you cross the continental divide. It was a great, run-able portion of the trail, but my legs (and lungs) would not cooperate. I ran some and walked some, but it was more walking. I was frustrated with myself. After crossing the highway, with about 6 miles left, we entered a nice forest trail.
For whatever reason, I got a second wind. Again, I flew down the hill for the next 3 miles to the next aid station. I passed numerous racers and felt fantastic. The final 3 mile stretch is a flat dirt road. Gary pushed me to my capacity there, but no one passed us on this section and we finished pretty strong.
Day 4 – Camp Hale to Red Cliff: 14.1 miles/2900ft elev. gain. The morning began with diarrhea. Perhaps nerves? Then I found out I wasn’t alone. The “camp crud” had made its appearance and about 25% of the racers had it, including Gary and I. After a second time in the bathroom in short order, the medical team gave us Imodium. Fortunately, though it continued after the race, I never had any episodes during the race and it really didn’t impact my energy.
Although this was a shorter stage, I knew it was also a steep one, climbing quickly with crazy grades of 29%. About two miles out of Camp Hale, the road turned up the hill and the climb began. It was innocuous at first, but turned ugly and angry. We were climbing rutted roads that even a jeep wouldn’t want to take. People were using their toes to dig in and make the climb, some slipping and almost losing their balance. “This is nuts!” I kept thinking. But, for the pain, you are rewarded. These were the views you saw in the brochure–the ones you paid the big bucks for. And, you deserved the great views after sacrificing all your energy to get there.
As you crest, you traverse a bowl and then a ridge for a few miles, continually taking in the amazing views. I met Silas, another racer’s partner who had never done more than a half marathon before. As I flew down the hill with him and his partner, he said, “You are amazing!” His partner said, “Who? Me?” And Silas told him, “No! Her!!” Made me smile as I bounded down the hill. Reaching the creek crossing, I waited only briefly for Gary and we trudged through the water. The trail goes about 1/4 mile directly through the creek which felt good at first, until my feet started going numb. Again, Gary pushed me to the finish. I was finally figuring out his M.O. Push me hard to finish, then apologize later for doing so.
Day 5 – Red Cliff to Vail: 23.6 miles/4200ft elev. gain. Each night after you finish and limp around camp, you don’t think you can take another step. You start questioning how on earth you will wake up and do it again! Somehow, morning comes and you get caught up in the moment. Today, I was fearing the extremely long, extremely high-altitude day. I knew there were probably 11 miles over 11k feet and I’d heard of so many people having altitude sickness on this day. Although I brought a drug called Diamox with me, I decided not to take it since it can also cause dehydration. I’m not the best hydrator to begin with, so I took my chances going without. One thing I did do was take Gingko Biloba for the week. I’d read that it was supposed to help. Maybe it did since I never suffered any altitude issues.
Red Cliff is a darling town out in the middle of nowhere. We were bused in and the local sports bar and grill served up coffee and hot chocolate. They even had a fire going outside. It was a beautiful day but I was still nervous. The music they’d played at the start every day, Highway to Hell, started playing and we were off. I was immediately surprised I wasn’t tired at all. I began walking faster and faster, even running some. Having started off nearly dead last, I passed many racers in those first 6 miles. Even Gary wasn’t keeping up and that was a first! I actually had to wait for him at the first aid station and he actually had to hustle in! There’s a rule in this race that you must be within 2 minutes of your partner at each aid station and at the finish. Although you’d assume you’d always be together as partners, you’re not. So, sometimes it can be a challenge.
The road turned to single track and climbed even steeper. I motored right on up and we finally reached an opening with a wonderful view. The trail went up and down for a bit before we reached the back of the Vail ski area and climbed the switchbacks of one of its bowls. Although tiring, it was the most beautiful section of the whole week. The trail wound through wildflowers of all colors while Rockies stood watching in the distance. You could see the train of racers marching up the switchback trail.
We stopped to take a few pictures, including this one on the rock. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the legs or mental focus to do anything other than stand there and smile. Usually I try to do some kind of crazy pose, but not today.
The trail continued along the top of the ski ridge, passing by a couple chair lifts and finally finding the singletrack descent through the forest. By now you’re getting a sense that I LOVE running downhill, especially a soft, carpeted forest trail. I hammered down catching up to our friends Rachel and Helen from the UK. They always finished ahead of us but not today! What a sweet couple of “proper” British girls….so I thought. Turns out Rachel flashed her boobies for the photographer. Some people will do anything to get their photo on the nightly slideshow! She’s a fun gal.
Having lost Gary again, I waited briefly and together, we flew the rest of the way down, running some pretty fast miles. I nearly petered out at the finish but he pulled me through. Working that hard for so many miles with such focus at the end took its toll. For no reason at all, I broke down and cried, The tears just fell and I couldn’t stop them. I suppose it’s a form of stress release–not sure. But I got myself together and felt proud of how we did on the hardest day, so late in the week.
Day 6 – Vail to Beaver Creek: 20.9 miles/4900ft elev. gain. The night before, I sneezed more times than I have in a long time. Was it allergies of some kind? My head and chest felt heavy, though my legs still felt pretty good. By morning, I realized I had a full-blown head cold. Really? A head cold now? I hadn’t had a cold in several years. But I guess that’s what you get when you’re sharing things at camp. It sure doesn’t help when you need every ounce of energy and every breath you can take to run at altitude.
This stage was my least favorite for a number of reasons. It wasn’t fun racing while being sick. Any other day and I would have been in bed! As the trail got steeper and my breath got shorter, I got frustrated and sad. I had to keep stopping and let other racers go by. I knew we were losing ground but there was no way I could keep up. It was a slow march up the hill and the only thing I could think about was not quitting. I’d come this far and had done so well. I also owed it to Gary who was the best race partner I could ever ask for. He often towed me up the hills, dragging me by the hand. Though I knew there were times he could have gone much faster, he was always patient with me.
The ascent went on for about 11 miles and I felt awful the whole way. At that second aid station, the trail turns and goes down a very gnarly singletrack. You could hardly even call it that since it was narrow and cut like a V. It was more like a narrow dry water trough. It took a few hundred yards to get my legs again, but then I was in my zone. I let gravity and momentum pull me down the hill. I passed over a dozen people as I danced and hopped my way down the rocky terrain. Four miles later and I was back in town.
The route winds through the town of Avon in a sneaky and cruel way. Because you’re back in civilization, you feel like you’re almost done. But really, you have 5 more miles and about 1300 more feet to climb. Leaving the last aid station, you climb once again. Up, up, and more up. Every time you think you see the racers in front of you top out, there’s another hill. I had slowed considerably and now my stomach wasn’t feeling so hot. I forced myself to drink but didn’t want to. Gary was patient, sometimes pulling me and sometimes letting me catch my breath. I just had no energy left.
After nearly 4 excruciating miles of climbing, the route finally turned downhill. I tried to run and just shuffled, even though I could hear the finish. Even crossing the final bridge with the finish only a hundred yards away, I was walking. Gary grabbed my hand and pulled me through the line where I just broke down. I cried about how lousy I felt. I cried about the hard work I’d put in all week. I cried that this adventure was over. I cried that I had accomplished something so difficult yet so wonderful. Our racing friends Phil and Barbara were there and gave us big hugs. Our other racing friends Rachel and Helen also gave us hugs. We all hugged celebrating everything we had gone through, everything we had done that week. How can you ever top an epic adventure like that?
We finished 22nd out of 36 in our category. The 120 miles and over 20K feet gain took 33 hours to complete. Lessons learned: 1. If there are aid stations, use them and don’t carry a pack full of stuff. 2. Identify your strengths and weaknesses ahead of time and work on the weaknesses (like uphills). 3. Turn around and look at the view once in a while. Who knows if you’ll ever be back!
You can view all of the photos here.