The interesting thing about arriving at 9000 feet is the uncanny feeling that nothing has changed. Pull into a dirt lot in, get out of the lime green rental, take a deep breath of the crisp mountain air, stretch, grab your things, and proceed. Hah, just another cake-walk in the Rockies, you might imagine. That is until you try walking up two flights of stairs. As the oxygen deprivation sinks in, a warning light goes off in your head- Uh-oh, this is going to be trouble.
I arrived in Leadville, CO on night two of the GoreTex Trans-Rockies Run, just in time to catch the tail-end of dinner. The gym smelled relatively clean considering I was joining 300+ runners who had completed a 10 mile climb over Hope Pass (12,500 feet) earlier in the day. With the last wisps of golden mountain light streaming through the windows, I picked at a plate of chicken and rice, and began scanning the crowd.
Growing up in a community of competitive runners one would surmise that attending a six-day stage race would feel like a home-coming. However, this genre of ultra-endurance racing could not have been more foreign to me. I had been looking forward to this trip with a sort of giddy nervousness for a couple months, and now I was here to look the ultra-running beast in the eye.
Immediately, I was impressed by the broad age range and diversity of the competitors. Compact, small framed youths chatted easily with no-nonsense looking European ladies, while weather beaten ,white-bearded men laughed along-side stylish mom-types outfitted in the latest technical apparel. There simply was no clear correlation between the participants. It was going to take some serious field work for me to uncover the common bond that makes an ultra/endurance athlete.
The following morning I awoke just after dawn and hustled to the starting line. Stage 3 promised winding ascents to two peaks just under 11,000 feet over 24.3 miles of winding fire road and single track. The eventual destination: Camp Hale, home to the legendary 11th Mountain Division. I couldn’t fathom doing this sort of mileage on a day-long hike, never mind a brisk morning run.
The runners took off with a spring in their step and disappeared down the road, immediately igniting my desire to hightail it into the mountains at their heels. Instead I loaded up my car and drove the few miles to Ski Cooper, the location of the first aid station.
My goal for the day was to work my lungs a bit and see how my legs responded to a gentle nudging at altitudes which I hadn’t frequented since college- so myself and Ivy League Devo headed up the trail.
Every twentieth step was accompanied by an aggressive gasp for air. Apparently the body can fake standard operation in high altitude settings, but not for extended periods of time. I could only imagine how the runners hailing from places like Tallahassee, Portland, and Chattanooga were holding up.
We made our way up to an expansive meadow complete with a crystal clear pond and tall wild grasses fronting an exquisite view of the sun-kissed Rockies. As we took in our surroundings the first men’s, mixed, and women’s teams emerged from the woods and splashed hastily through a brook that dissected the trail.
Not one of the runners looked even remotely fatigued. There was potential that I would run a whole stage later in the week, and I began to ponder my capabilities. I mean if all these people can do it, why couldn’t I?
For one, there was the issue of training, but as we finished up our 4 mile jaunt my legs actually began to loosen up. I figured I’d just play it by ear, treating it like any other sport I’ve participated in through the years; head out on mini excursions each day, and see if the coach put me in.
The next day, Stage 4- a 14.2 mile excursion from Camp Hale to Red Cliff, I backtracked from the finish to meet the runners for an exhilarating jaunt through a slippery stretch of wetland, complete with multiple knee deep creek crossings.
The most successful runners in this endurance game pace themselves extremely well. They don’t over-do it on the uphill and they maintain a consistent stride on the downhill. My spastic method of trail moshing and creek tromping left me with a twinge in my knee that I wouldn’t escape for the rest of the trip. Lesson one: take it easy on the downhill.
For Stage 5, I joined the field heading out of Red Cliff toward Vail. At around seven miles I arrived at the first checkpoint, where I immediately inhaled three slices of orange, half a peach, two handfuls of chips, a handful of pretzels, a GU, a small bag of Chomps, half a breakfast cookie and a heavy dose of GU Brew and water. Lesson two- fueling is not a joke. After 11+ miles I called it a day. I was moving along at a decent pace, but was I full-stage worthy?
Later that afternoon I received the call I had been waiting for. Steve Lacky of Endurance Magazine needed a partner for the Sixth and final stage, from Vail to Beaver Creek. I held off on the extra complementary Micky Ultra that evening, ate my fair share of pasta, rice, salad and salmon, and retired on the early side of things.
Following an evening of nervous sleep, I loaded into the trunk of the OutsidePR shuttle, and enjoyed a bumpy ride to the foot of Vail’s Vista Bahn Express. I found Steve in the midst of the flock of runners shuffling around in an attempt to find a spot to thaw in the early morning sunshine. A multisport veteran, Steve was prepared with a bag full of gear, hiking poles, and a variety of other necessities unbeknownst to me, including salt tablets.
The gun went off just as the sun crested over the front of Vail and we set out at a comfortably slow pace. Our goal for the 21.2 miles was somewhere in the ballpark of 5 hours. Steve had promised that our uphill strategy would consist of hiking, hiking, and more hiking- and did not stray from his plan for a moment. We hadn’t even left the streets of Vail before we took our first stroll past the Vail Fire House over a relatively miniscule incline. I felt fresh and confident- this was going to be fun.
We crossed over I-70 with a pack of like-minded meanderers and began the first ascent. Brush and grass lined switchbacks lead into beautiful groves of Aspens glowing in the morning light, which in turn gave way to upper elevation pines and dusty red dirt meadows. An hour and a half later we arrived at the first checkpoint where I devoured a delicious Jet Blackberry GU, a few pieces fruit, and put a handful of bite sized cliff bars into my pocket.
Steve and I jogged easily along the rolling mountain meadows for the next few miles, climbed another challenging steep and somewhere around 13 miles emerged from a spotty forest into the upper reaches of a valley overlooking Avon and Beaver Creek. Here the second checkpoint awaited us. Indulging in a few rounds of GU Brew and water I took a moment to enjoy the scenery before our descent.
Steve, a downhill warrior, took off at a startling pace. We plowed through steep tree lined drops (reminding me of runs I frequent in a powder lover’s dream), and within minutes was wishing I could trade my shoes for a skis. My knees were despising the unforgiving, slippery earth.
The trail narrowed as we continued deeper into the valley, becoming increasingly sketchy as we were negotiated the edge of a steep ravine. Mind over matter; the valley mellowed into wet grassland with the occasional stream crossing and suddenly we popped back into civilization.
A two-mile jaunt through Avon lead us to the entrance of Beaver Creek and the third and final checkpoint. For whatever reason, I opted against the ever-tempting beer cooler, and headed up the comparatively mellow incline. By this time it was late morning and the heat began to set in. Steve had resumed hiking and I jogged ahead, intermittently stopping to wait/avoid keeling over.
At just a few minutes past four hours we had completed all 4623 feet of elevation climb, and excitedly turned down toward the finish at Beaver Creek. Once we were within ear-shot of the finish-line the emotion started to swell. Steve had completed six whole days of trying adventure and although it would be a relief to stop, there was something nostalgic about ending.
We mustered a last push across a bridge, crossing the grass into the finishers corral, and just as I was about to cross the line, I realized that I had lost Steve. There he was: embracing his wife with a full-on, sweat-drenched kiss over the gate. He had made it. Six days, 113+ miles, and having taken in more memorable vistas than the average person sees in a lifetime. Endurance, perseverance, ending with a moment of blissful perfection.
My experience at the Trans-Rockies opened my eyes to a few things. Endurance racing isn’t about glory. While the winners did enjoy their accomplishment, this is much more about expanding internal limits and mental capabilities. The personal satisfaction felt after completing six, very different, beautiful, and challenging stages is enormous.
The endurance racing community was extremely supportive, charismatic and everyone involved pushed each other along the course (quite literally at times). You don’t have to look like anything in particular to qualify as an endurance athlete- what you do need is an open minded. I’m an endurance athlete; ready to tackle anything that grants me the opportunity to enjoy nature and venture into the unknown.
Absolutely Bad Ass Scotty!
I’m an endurance hiker (not an endurance runner) and I couldn’t agree more when you wrote, “Lesson one: take it easy on the downhill.” I find that speeding downhill is hard on both the knees and the quads, while the only really benign effects often seem to be restricted to some toning action on the abdominals.