“Hey Elliot, when are you going to write about TransRockies?”
“Fuck. Off. Do you know how tired I am from that shit?”
Seriously. It’s been three weeks and I can’t even do a short, easy run at my usual pace. After the ordeal I took a week totally off from running, but red-eyed to my college roommate’s wedding in scenic Akron, Ohio. Despite not running for a week I think the cumulative fatigue, no sleep for a day, and then drinking every cold beer I could reach kinda set my recovery back a bit. In the remaining two weeks I did short easy runs to test the waters every few days. My legs are just dead. Drained. Looking at my runners, it’s how I imagine Superman feels with kryptonite around his neck.
One of my former swimming coaches once told me “It takes 6-weeks to get in shape, 3-weeks to get out of shape”. And while I sincerely doubt the scientific veracity of that, it would mean that today I go from being able to say “It’s cool, I can eat this bag of doritos, drink this bottle of wine, these beers and all this scotch — I’m recovering” — to saying “Blerch…I’m out of shape and getting rounder.”
So on that note, between me and the remaining wine and scotch — this race is getting reported on tonight. Then Monday I’ll probably focus on hydration and then Tuesday… Tuesday. Tuesday I get back into really running.
After all. I did already sign up for a 50km.
But let me preface this by saying it was a bloodly long race. Not only that, but the TransRockies experience is so much more than actually running the stages: Camp life, altitude, preparation — running 180km in 6-days is only a minor aspect of it all. Tonight I’ll write about the running. Later I plan on writing some notes that future morons might find useful if they wake up one morning to find themselves signed up for this wonderful, six-day hypoxic death march.
Stage 1 — 33.4km — The Desert
Day 1 started in Buena Vista with a lead-out start. I’ve never heard of this outside of car racing. And I’ve never cared about car racing outside of a car racing video games. Basically we all just jogged along, not allowed to pass a cyclist, for the first km or so until we reached a bridge over a river then it was game on for going as fast as you wanted.
Wherein lay the problem. How the hell do you pace a 6-day race? Let alone the start of the first stage. It was supremely difficult to remember that there was a whole week of racing left to go, let alone several hours on the day. Plus it was single track and getting stuck behind someone is just annoying. Patience would’ve payed off — I didn’t do a good job yielding to it. What’s that? My heart rate is too high? That’s okay, I just need to get past this one person then I’ll let it chill out. Silly.
After the first bit of single track (which Tom and I had already run when we encountered the burro race) it widened out a bit and it was a bit easier to run sanely. I still tried to stick to the same algorithm of keeping my heart rate at 145, but admittedly I would pretend to not notice if it went a bit high and I was having too much fun.
Shortly after the second check point I felt a twinge in my foot that could only mean a blister was forming. It really didn’t feel bad unless I was on downhill, and those were almost over. However, this did make me a bit more stoic to the whole race. I wasn’t concerned about being able to run on, I knew I could treat it and manage it. But holy shit, only 3 hours in to a six day race and I was having potentially deal breaker issues? Fuck. Think logically.
The day ended in what turned out to be a characteristic fashion for the week: several km of exposed, false flat, road. Not cool — literally, this was pretty arid terrain. I wish it would’ve rained.
At the finish line there was a river. I hesitantly took my shoes and socks off to soak my legs. Where I thought a blister might have been forming was a quarter-sized black dot of a blood-blister. When I waded out of the water the other runners on the shore actually recoiled in horror. Awesome… that did great things for my outlook.
Fortunately, TransRockies knows what sort of stupid we get ourselves into. The athletic trainers back at the camp lanced and dressed the blister, I switched shoes the next day and, that particular blister, wasn’t an issue for the rest of the week.
Stage 2 — 21.2 km — Hope
They joked at the course briefing on the first night that stage 1 was really just a warm-up stage. It was by far the flattest, and there was pretty much no chance of people not making the course cut-off times.
Day 2 was the opposite. A few km from the start was the first check-point/aid station. It’s pretty weird to have one so early, but the reason was this was the only place they could fit a full aid station. There was only an emergency check point at the top of the pass with a small amount of water for emergencies only. When you left the first aid station you needed to be set for the rest of the run.
We jogged out easy to the first checkpoint, topped off our bottles, then headed up Hope Pass. The top off Hope Pass is the, literally, the high-point of both TransRockies and the Leadville 100. It’s awesome. For Vancouverites, the trail up was similar in length and grade to the Grouse Grind — but there was no urge to punch 800 tourists having holy moments as they ascend for a latte and a gondola ride.
We took it pretty chill up the pass. Power-hiking uphill is one of my strengths, but we just settled in to a decent pace with some people who were decent conversation and enjoyed it. The trail up is much more exposed than the Grind so the view was awesome most of the way up.
We enjoyed the top of the pass for a few moments, took some pictures, froze our asses off — it was freaking COLD up there. The range of temperatures in a given day was so strange, I’ll this more in the non-running TransRockies post, but for anyone planning on doing the race in the future the mandatory safety gear isn’t them being wimpy, it really gets cold.
Then we flew down.
Tom’s pretty much a downhill monster and had been looking forward to this part for a while. We hurled ourselves into the downhill. Again, I was working a bit harder than I should of but it was only for a few km of downhill and it was fun.
At some point on the downhill, and my memory is probably a bit fuzzy (both due to time and the situation which I’m now writing this) so his version may differ, Tom says “I’m getting a blister”. Okay, cool. Communication is super important, even if we’re not acting on something it’s important to know what state your partner’s in.
I swear, not 15-minutes later, Tom says something like “I think my feet are fucked for tomorrow”. What? What just happened? I didn’t remember him screaming out in pain or anything — but he was running a bit ahead of me most of the time.
After the downhill there we ran along a lake side trail, through a tiny ghost town, and to the finish line.
Tom was extremely concerned about the state of his feet and didn’t even want to take his socks off until we got back to camp. Camp was in a baseball diamond in Leadville. We showered up, Tom inspected his feet — they weren’t looking good but some how all his toenails were still, technically, attached. Although they weren’t bloody, the blisters on his soles put mine to shame.
We got lunch and tenderly wandered around town. I wasn’t sure what Tom was planning on doing, or even if he’d come to any decisions. It was not a great afternoon from a Team Ninja moral stand point.
After dinner that night Tom went and saw the trainers. He apparently had the entire training staff tending to his shredded feet for something like half an hour. While he was doing that I realized that I’d lost my cell phone earlier in the day, and went and tried to get some help finding it. The end result was no phone, but I did get to cruise around in the back of a police car while Lake County’s finest went above and beyond to help me try and track the stupid thing down.
Stage 3 — 39.0km — The Burro Race
Tom’s plan was to just make it to the first check point. Saying that sounds kinda lame, but holy shit, his feet were a mess. It looked like he’d run across a cheese grater the day before. I don’t know how he was even walking.
We started off at a really easy trot out of Leadville. I don’t recall much about the first half of this stage. I think it was shortly before the first check point when Tom stopped to tighten his shoes — the way he wrenched on the laces looked like he was starting two lawn mowers. Again, I don’t know how he was still upright. Some how we make it to the first check-point in OK form and Tom decides he’s good to keep going. Off we go.
Some where before the second check point though we devolved into a burro team. Tom was just cooked. We were walking a lot of the flats and downhills, which is pretty much a sign that you’re totally fucked. I wish I’d brought some rope to make it funnier like a burro race, but I don’t think Tom would’ve really appreciated the humor at that point. When we got to the second check point Tom made the call to drop out.
I kept going, really easy though — it wasn’t like I was going to make up any time or anything. It was kind of weird. It was obviously not at all how I had pictured doing the run. The trail was fairly flat and non-technical until the end when there was another pain-in-the-ass false-flat, exposed, road into the finish.
Along the way we did run along part of the Continental Divide Trail and I saw at least one cyclist who looked suspect to be riding the divide.
More than anything this was just the first of 3 of the long, brutal days.
Stage 4 — 22.6km — I’m An Uphill Machine
Over the hump of the race. There was a drastic change in atmosphere on this day. A lot of people in camp had been doing the Run-3 (3-day solo) option, so the start chute was noticeably less full. On top of that I would now be running solo the whole day. On top of this, there seemed to be a general sense of “holy shit, we’re only half-way done?”. All of this combined made the whole pre-race bit seem a lot more introverted for everyone.
The course profile was similar to day 2: easy out to a big uphill, up, then along a ridge this time, then a downhill. I just played my own game, which by now wasn’t an issue. The gun went off and the urge to race ahead like it’s a 10km wasn’t there — just pacing along based on heart rate.
I chugged along the flat section biding my time. Then I just hammered the uphill power-hiking and passed tons of people. I’m not sure why I’m good at this sort of thing, maybe my height gives me longer lever-arms? Maybe I’m just awesome? Whatever. Either way I owned that uphill.
The ridge run along the top was beautiful, probably the most scenic of the whole week to that point. Alpine running is so cool and this section really hit home that I need to explore more Vancouver-local alpine runs.
I took the downhill quite gingerly as I was starting to feel tired and didn’t want to misstep. But also I had a few new blisters from the day before that were a bit sore on the downhill steps.
They warned us there’d be a few creek crossings that were unavoidable. Yup. We crossed a creek maybe half a dozen times. After the first one it was totally fun. Ice cold water up to mid-calf. I was concerned about how it would treat my blisters but it actually felt amazing for them (though continuing to run on soaked feet was probably not so good for them). After the crossings the course actually went down the creek bed for a few hundred meters which was super fun and unlike any run I’d ever done before.
The day ended with another road into the finish line. Thank god though, this one was noticeable downhill and not exposed to the sun. I cruised down at around 4:00/km’s which felt really nice for a change.
Stage 5 — 37.8km — Where The Hell Is The End?
Hold on, I need to fill up my drink before I can talk about this stage.
So, the stage was to run from Red Cliff (not sure if that’s actually two words or one) to Vail. With a day off Tom’s feet had either heeled enough for him to walk or sitting around camp was dull enough for him to pretend they had — either way, he was back in.
The first bit was back up the road that we’d come down the day before, plus a bit farther. Then through some single-track in the forest over to Vail, then along the backside of the Vail ski resort hills, then over the ridge and zig-zagging down the front of the Vail ski hills.
The day’s course was supposed to be 22.4 miles (the race is in America, so even though most of the course crew is Canadian all the official stuff is done in miles). However, the night before at the course briefing the course guys said the way they’d re-structured the dowhill portion towards the end the day would end up being only 21.4 miles — 1,609 meters less than planned! There was practically a standing ovation.
So we run along the road, then up some other traily bits, then on to the back side of Vail. Vail’s pretty big, and we end up zig-zagging up some of the ski slopes for a long time. The view was amazingly nice.
After a while we got to the top and ran along the sort of dull ridge at the top of the Vail resort. As we started the descent down, right before the second to last checkpoint, there was a tiny amount of scrambling — it maybe required 3 or 4 hand holds. I scramble down and turn around to watch Tom. Tom likes running with a hand-held bottle, but this makes the scramble awkward. So he takes his bottle off his hand and hurls it. But we’re practically within view of the next check-point and so the bottle is empty.
It was like he threw a wiffle ball. The bottle gently drifted (in my head it was like a feather, but that might be the scotch altering my memory) into the center of a giant bush. I just looked at him dumbfounded. He looked back at me, scrambled down, looked at me again and said “…fuck it. We’ll never find it” and off we went to the checkpoint.
We refuel and start the descent down. Five stages in and we’re getting a bit cocky and jaded about the distances. On the earlier stages we’d been semi-religious about translating the mileage of the check-points and finish line in to kilometers so that it made sense. This day we hadn’t bothered — 21.4 miles is roughly 34km given the “20 miler = 32 km” standard from marathon training.
Off we go zig-zagging down the face of Vail.
We know the days end is at the village of Vail. We can see the village of Vail. But we can also see the distance on our GPS watches and it’s not all adding up. We keep zig-zagging down, but the village just isn’t getting much closer and we’re almost at 34km.
We arrive at the last check point just after 30km. This is now totally fucked. Why would they put a check point within a couple km of the finish? They wouldn’t. How much farther is there to go? Who’s the asshole that lied to us about the days distance and where does he live?
By our measurements, and the description of the course from the day before, we should have had 2 or 3 km to go. We asked at the check point and they cheerily said 4 miles left. Typing that it doesn’t seem like a big deal. But the brain has a way of mentally preparing for only so much. Given the state we were in, it was like telling an excited child that no, it wasn’t Christmas eve, but it was actually November 24th and Christmas was a month away… also Santa’s not real, you’re adopted, and despite science’s best efforts panda’s will probably go extinct in your life time. In short, it was devastating.
Some how, we kept going. Trying to rationalize that maybe the guy at the check point had missed the course briefing the night before about the day’s course being shorter. But as we zigged and zagged, the km’s kept ticking off on our watches. Eventually we’d passed where we thought the end should be given the shorter course. Then we passed where the end should be given the posted course.
Around about this time I started fantasizing about the end. Obviously it would be downhill into the finish chute. I built up this crystal clear picture of the course measuring dude standing just inside the finish line and me flying down the hill into some crazy Bruce Lee style flying punch and just knocking him out cold. It kept me going.
Around 2 miles after we’d expected to be done, we crossed the finish line. Wisely, the course measuring dude was no where to be found. I cracked my knuckles and swore I’d get revenge later on. Or, I curled up into a ball on the grass and wept — after three weeks some of the details are getting fuzzy.
Stage 6 — 34.7km — Holy Crap It’s Over
Nothing mattered. It didn’t matter if the distance was a lie again, it didn’t matter if I crawled to the end, it didn’t matter if it turned into another burro race: there was no tomorrow. The relief at knowing you didn’t have to recover from the days effort was immense and emotional.
We ran out of Vail and felt like gods. Flat or gently downhill road running on the way out and we were flying with low heart rates.
Up a bit of hill then through some Aspen forests that caused me to make constant references to Bushido Blade. Then some downhill single track.
By this point our feet were trashed. Blisters blisters and more blisters. With blisters, once you get into a stride you can kind of ignore the pain. But what you can’t really do very pain-freely is stop on a downhill. So we ended up free wheeling through quite a long section of downhill.
About half-way through, this turned into a meadow of chest-high thistles. I’ve never seen thistles so big. It was insane. Occasionally one would bump into my arm or leg and scratch me, but most of the time I seemed to avoid them.
Judging by the sounds of Tom behind me though, this was due to some sort of Scottish Thistle Force Field I projected. Tom, being English born, was apparently not able to avoid the thistles:
<tom> “Fuck! Ow! Fuck! God-damnit! Fuck! OW! FUCK! FUCK! FUCK! OW! SHIT! FUCK! SHIT-FUCK! Fuck this trail!”
After this we ran down some roads, through a very suburban bit of town and then back up on the ski hills of Beaver Creek. We approached the last check point and it was kind of surreal: no more gels after this.
Still a little burned from the day before, when we were just out of ear-shot of the check point Tom said to me “If they say there’s 4 miles left to go… I’m going to kill someone”. When he asked how far we had left to the finish, the kindly volunteer replied “about four……..and a half miles.” Narrowly avoiding having blood on our hands, we headed to the hills.
It had been hot all day and we were quite exposed on the Beaver Creek hills. Although we hadn’t been exactly competing all week, we still felt a competitive drive to not get passed in the last few km of a 180km race. A few teams were close behind us and we pressed hard to keep it that way.
Eventually, we stopped going up the hills and started heading down into the Beaver Creek ski resort. Thankfully, these downhills were on very smooth service roads — not the single track from the Vail descent which would’ve been murder on our shredded feet.
We started flying down the downhills as we realized the finish was in range. By the time we could hear the finish line speakers we were cruising at close to my 10km pace — the last km was my fastest of the whole week.
I’ve never felt so relived and thankful for a race to be over. I’ve swum some tough races in the pool, and even in open water, but none of those require you to get up the next day and keep going. This past spring I ran a marathon where I struggled to finish, but that was it — when I stopped for the day it was over.
The fact that this race was now over, all over, was almost overwhelming. We didn’t have to get up and run tomorrow.
Stage 7 — ~0 km — Blerch
Like I said, I’ve been dead tired since finishing. For the first time in a long, long time, I’ve not had the desire to get out of the city and go play in the woods. All I’ve wanted to do is lay on the couch and stuff my face.
Funnily enough, most of the people I hang out with are the “get out of the city and go play in the woods” type. Finally, this past weekend I joined in and did that but insisted on not running, just some nice calm hiking. I even napped on a rock for an hour at the half way point of our trip.
It took three weeks, and I’m sure I’m not completely physically recovered yet, but I think I’m finally ready (both mentally and physically) to start running towards a new goal.
Obviously this race was the driving force behind us starting this blog. But in case anyone’s concerned we have no plans on shutting it down. It’s been great fun sharing our preparation, and the support we’ve received has been truly awesome.
I’m not entirely sure what Tom’s plans are. In fact, I’m not entirely sure what my plans are. But we’re probably both going to keep running for a while, and I think we’re both going to keep (sporadically) writing about it.
…we should probably think of a new tag-line though.
* “Man, he got really lazy with posting photos in this entry…” Leave me alone. WordPress kept giving me errors, probably because of the sheer beauty of the photos. Here’s the flickr set of all of them