A few years ago I read an article in Runner’s World magazine that featured The Trans Rockies Run — a 6 day trail race across The Rocky Mountains. “Well, this doesn’t take a genius”, I thought, “I’m having that”. Unfortunately we had to defer entry last year but this August it happened — flights were booked, training puttered along appropriately off the grand plan, general preparation woefully inadequate — it was, inevitably, an extraordinary adventure…
How should one prepare for traversing a mountainous 200 kilometers with 20,000 ft of elevation gain at lung subverting altitude? Well I didn’t really know and that became agonizingly obvious in ways that I hadn’t conceived.
I tried some novel training techniques; a respiratory muscle training mask, glycogen depletion fat-adapted training based on studies like ‘FASTER’, even running in the Wicklow hills! Unfortunately I was asking the wrong questions like ‘will I be fit enough for this?’, ‘what would be the best nutrition?’, when I should have been asking something like
‘what temperature is it in a tent at 10,000 ft elevation at 3a.m. in Colorado?’
Good question dear reader, I’m so glad you asked. Having polled several runners I can tell you it varied from ‘a bit sweaty actually’ to ‘I was so cold I couldn’t sleep, I think my body was worried it might die’. The temperature seemed directly related to level of preparation. For instance, our tent neighbours on day 5 basically had a full double mattress and arctic sleeping bags — unsurprisingly they were pleasantly warm and cozy at night. My wifely running partner and I, however, each had a thin roll out sleeping mat and what could only be described as ‘the cheapest sleeping bags we were able to get our feckless hands on’. They were the type of sleeping bags that made you leave the heater on in the room for a kiddies sleep over. Sheet-like at best, symbolic representations of sleeping bags at worst. Our laissez-faire attitude was set to take its toll!
Day 1 — Arriving in Buena Vista
After 5 days acclimating a little in Denver (over 5,000 ft) we got the delayed bus to Buena Vista in the Rockies. This was the picturesque little mountain town where the race was to start from. Of course we naively thought that a bus to Buena Vista would drop you off in Buena Vista — we hadn’t considered the American public transport infrastructure — so we got dumped out about a mile outside of town with a few other hapless runners as the bus made dusty tracks to the next town. Oh! There’s no taxi service in BV… Suffice to say we relied upon the preparation and charity of others to get us the few miles to the other side of town to Liar’s Lodge where we were staying. I began to realise that we were unprepared in a whole host of ways full of nervous potential.
Liar’s Lodge is a stunning cabin-style B&B right on the Arkansas River but it’s a bit outside of the town and a few kilometers to the race registration / race start, something else we hadn’t actually bothered to look up. ‘Do we have to carry all of our bags?’, ‘should we have rented a car?’, ah the questions! Fortunately we met some other race participants in the lodge who were actually ready for the event and they kindly helped us out with transport. Oh and don’t panic, the race organizers collect all of your heavy bags from wherever you’re staying on race morning — phew!
Race registration and the race briefing was an entertaining event by itself. There was even a parade of nations with kids carrying the flags of all participating countries to the stage (I’ll forgive the lack of Irish flag this once provided the reason is not ‘but we had the Union Jack’). It was great fun and the event was obviously going to be way bigger than I though, 550 competitors. The 10th anniversary of the TRR was their most ambitious yet (mine too!).
We had fun, we chatted with other racers, we bought gear with ‘TransRockies Run’ plastered across it for future bragging rights and conversation starters at other events, and we did all the usual fun race stuff you do before getting dinner. There are a few great places to eat in BV but we went to the restaurant attached to the town’s big running and adventure store ‘The Trailhead’. If only we hadn’t already bought so much new gear in Denver… oh well.
This is as far as my race preparation got me. Looking back at this picture, thinking that I was ready, I feel an overwhelming need to double facepalm. If you look very closely, you can make out a tiny sleeping bag. It’s about the same size as my beach size pac-towel.
Stage 1: Eureka! Buena Vista to Railroad Bridge; 20.8 miles, 2,500 feet elevation gain (33.5 km, 760 m elevation gain)
You know the feeling —the race is about to start, it’s finally here, you’re finally there! It’s a tremendous sensation, full of nervous excitement and, with 5 days of racing to follow this one, a lot of trepidation.
As races go the starts aren’t too early, 8:30a.m., very civilized. This stage was like nothing I had ever run before. Not just the stunning scenery and the altitude, but the heat — it was punishing. Apparently this is a mountain desert stage, deservedly famed every year for the heat and lack of shade.
After winding out of Buena Vista we climbed for a while on single track which was fun. Everyone began to relax and have some banter. It was then that I knew, this was definitely going to be one of the most fun events we had done! Soon enough the race opened up and the field began to spread out. Still so far to go…
We met some great people from all over the world along the course, most were TRR virgins, some had never even run a trail race before — I loved their attitude! However some had returned many times — those were the ones I didn’t like to pass… what did they know that I didn’t? Should I slow the pace down or am I just faster? Hmm…
As the hours wore on the heat climbed and we slowed. Our plan of finishing day one as though we could have kept running comfortably for another 10k was shattered. It became about finishing stage 1. Still we had a great laugh and had no crossed words… until the last 4 miles on dirt road. A sluggish, staccato run/walk — mostly walk — to the end with maybe one or two cranky outbursts followed by mumbled apologies.
I’m pretty sure I developed mild heat stroke but all was forgiven when, at the finish, we found a refreshingly cool mountain river to lay down in! It was a bliss for which I can find no words! A quick bus ride to camp brought us to cold beers, hot showers in ‘Chillville’ (yes, there is a proper, decent, hot shower truck after every stage). Behold below — the incredible, all powerful Chillville charge station!
Salomon Stage 2: Vicksburg to Twin Lakes; 13.3 miles, 3,200 feet elevation gain (21.4 km, 975 m elevation gain)
A short day but with the highest climb; we clambered over Hope Pass at around 12,500 ft above sea level. From around 11,000 ft we really began to huff and puff with every step getting heavier than the last. It was like wading uphill through a torrent of treacle. It was on this stage that we agreed — this race is measured by the hour hand.
The descent off Hope Pass was exceptional! It was fast, technical switchback. After only a few minutes I noticed my legs feeling stronger and my breathing settling down. Oh sweet oxygen, don’t ever leave me again!
From the summit of Hope Pass we had a great view of Twin Lakes Reservoir. For the second half of the stage, we ran right along Twin Lakes. It was one of the most scenic places I have ever been— and there are still 4 days to explore!
GU Stage 3: Leadville to Nova Guides at Camp Hale; 24.5 miles, 2,700 feet elevation gain (39.4 km, 823 m elevation gain)
OK, so stage 3 was a fun day. A lovely long day ahead and hardly any climbing! Except for that outrageously steep first climb that never ends. Last night we camped in Leadville. LEADVILLE! A famed old mining town reborn as an adventure and endurance racing hub. We were destined to run part of the infamous Leadville 100 trail race. Fortunately we were not doing the full 100 miles.
Last night we camped in Leadville, over 10,000 ft. Maybe it was partially race recovery or dehydration but I suspect the altitude was the culprit; regardless, I barely slept (a common side effect of altitude acclimation). My normal resting heart rate is around 40, last night it didn’t drop below 90. Being awake, I got to listen to the rage of Thor as a storm crashed and rolled outside. All I could think about was part of the first race briefing — ‘we don’t really worry about bears in The Rockies, we worry about lightning. If you start to feel a charge building in the air and the hairs on your arms stand up, get as low as you can as fast as you can’ — now that I think about it, fear might have been the reason I didn’t sleep! Did I mention that the next day the race clock was broken? Apparently struck by Thor. When the storm had passed I looked outside… the stars! From the shadowy mountain peaks up and all around there were more stars than I’d ever seen, I had no idea the naked eye could see the night sky so dark and scattered with glitter. Gazing up while pacing up and down the lines of tents, I wanted to etch that picture onto the back of my eyelids so I could look at it whenever I closed my eyes.
The race started, we ran a few steps, got out of breath, walked. That didn’t really matter, I was just super excited to be running in Leadville!
Things went on like that for a while until we found our super slow rhythm that the paltry amount of thin air could fuel. Oh, and a pace that watermelon and whiskey could fuel — well played Sheef!
Suffice to say that after an idyllic run we arrived at the picturesque Camp Hale with some more fatigue in our legs and heads. Camp here was magnificent and home to the infamous (‘never happened’) Beer Mile. After stage 3 around 150 runners finished up their event so there were celebrations, live music, booze (thanks to Stephen, the old goat, for the margaritas!), camp fire, smores and general fun shenanigans (photo not found!). The evening of stage 3 is party time!
Kahtoola Stage 4: Nova Guides at Camp Hale to Red Cliff; 14.5 miles, 2,800 feet elevation gain (23.3 km, 854 m elevation gain)
Last night we had our lowest point. We had a chat in the tent and had all but decided that we were going to drop out and volunteer for the next 3 days, or maybe just slip off back to Denver.
How could we possibly complete 3 more stages — a total of 100 km and 3,600 m climbing at high altitude?
That night our decision was confirmed as we struggled to sleep in our ‘sleeping bags’, wrapped up in almost all of the clothes we brought with us (2 thermal layers, 2 long sleeve race tops, goose down jacket, 3 pairs of socks, leggings, tracksuit pants, hat and hood, buff, gloves) and any spare clothes stuffed down the bag around our feet (a trick I’ve seen homeless people do with newspaper) with the drawstrings for the bag pulled as tight as possible. Like I said, our sleeping bags were for display purposes only. If you’re thinking of doing this race, talk to someone in the know about what kind of sleeping bag to get!!! The temperature was below zero, the tent was frozen on the outside in the morning.
Yep, we’re packing it in today. Let’s just get breakfast before we inform the race organizers.
After we had some hot chocolate and pancakes, the sun was coming up and things started to look brighter. Jamie and Megan, our supportive father and daughter team, had breakfast with us. We didn’t say we wanted to drop out yet, then they stood up to go get ready and casually said:
— ‘See you on the start line’
As they walked away we stared at each other…
— ‘How about we just try to start today’s stage and see?’
Well! That was the turning point that carried us to the end — thanks Jamie and Megan!!! When we looked outside we saw a beautiful morning!
I’m so delighted that we continued on — the best was yet to come!
We used stage 4 as a ‘recovery day’ as much as possible. We took in calories, walked most of the stage, and had a laugh while enjoying where we were. We finished feeling stronger and ready for day 5.
Nathan Stage 5: Red Cliff to Vail; 24.1 miles, 4,100 feet elevation gain (38.8 km, 1,250 m elevation gain)
Pfh! Not even a marathon?! Only 4,100 ft of climbing?! Come on, make it a challenge! Oh, so about 15km of that is at around 11,000 ft. I see…
I’m running out of superlatives but I’ll try to describe day 5. Today we spend a good portion around the fun filled skiing regions of Vail. In particular, we traversed Mongolia bowl and crossed over the top of the world, yielding spectacular views all round.
I never want to finish this race.
On the penultimate day I became acutely aware that we only had one day remaining and, despite the cumulative exhaustion, I never wanted to finish this race. It is truly an extraordinary experience. Perhaps not a holiday, but definitely an adventure.
We took today handy, walked when it was exceptionally pretty and ran when we felt strong. About a mile of the course continues along a shallow river — that was fun! Our feet were numb by the time we got through to the far side but we were warm again in no time!
Day 5 finishes in Vail, a beautiful ski resort town. We didn’t get to see much of it as our time today was our slowest by far. My stalwart running buddy had several troubling blisters that our field dressings were not doing enough to keep at bay. Even still, what a day!
Beaver Creek Stage 6: Vail to Beaver Creek; 22.4 miles, 5,250 feet elevation gain (36.0 km, 1,600 m elevation gain)
The last day. A long route and a lot of climbing. The brief by Ryan and Bo, who set the course, advised us that the last hill get’s hot in the afternoon. With the temperature set to hit 36 Celsius, in the words of Bo — ‘it bakes’ on that hill. We had learned from our experience in Stage 1. Our plan was simple, go as fast as we can until we hit the heat of midday, then we just try to stay cool.
The day started with a visit to the medical tent for proper blister care — which was outstanding and held out all day. When we got underway we could feel a hum of excitement all the way through the field of competitors. There were bandaged feet, ice packs, blister plasters, kinesio tape all over the place holding people’s limbs attached, but the enthusiasm and craic was more akin to festival fun!
I don’t have many photos from the last day. Like I said, our plan was to push hard — no time for photos! But let me describe one section for you. In the middle of this stage is a long, rolling descent on unsteady singletrack barely wide enough for one shoe. The plants are over grown on both sides and the track is hidden at times. The sun is shining, you can hear a river somewhere nearby. You run from trees all round to sweeping meadows back to woods. The terrain underfoot was much closer to what we have at home in Ireland, but it went on and on downhill. Who was I to argue with gravity? I opened up and let the legs stretch out. It was the most fun I had all week! Despite the quad burn, I would do that every day if I lived there!
As we trotted down into Beaver Creek I could see Siobhra’s eye’s getting a little glossy with emotion. I felt tingles down my skin (men can’t cry) as it began to sink in that we were about to complete the TransRockies Run. I was proud of Siobhra, surprised at us both, disappointed that the experience was ending, elated that I could rest in a real bed in a real hotel room, and thrilled to have been part of the 10th anniversary of the TRR!
I want to go back. Already I want to go back. I want to do it with more preparation, not necessarily to go faster but to be less distracted by the pain in my legs and sapping effects of altitude. The direction of my general preparation was misguided this time round. Fitness wasn’t the key to a funky time in The Rockies. Oh sure, some can finish fast. Hell those folks who finished first are insanely quick, less than half our cumulative time. I can’t get my head around how the winners wrestled those towering peaks into submission and skipped down toward the finish line as each day while I was still lingering around aid station 1 deciding between M&Ms or GU waffles. I want to go back to enjoy not just each stage from start to finish, but the evenings, the nights, the partying, the beer mile, sleeping under the stars… there is so much more to the TRR than 3 or 6 mountain routes.
There are holidays and there are trips; there are tours, cruises, sports, festivals and vacations, but the TransRockies Run is an adventure. It’s an unforgettable experience with great people and outstanding support in what is now one of my favourite parts of the world!
Thank you runners and crew of TRR, I hope that I’ll be back!