Monday, September 01, 2008

TransRockies Recap

The TransRockies run is hard, tough, grueling, exhausting; all adjectives that are necessary but not sufficient to describe the experience. It is difficult because of the altitude, the climbing, the distance, the daily wear and tear, the sleeping in tents, the carrying of gear on one's back, etc. On the other hand, it is six days where you don't have to worry about much else beyond running. In fact, it'd be a pretty good way of life-- get up, eat, run, eat, hang out, eat, sleep, repeat. Roughly speaking, the TransRockies is somewhere between traveling circus and military exercise.

Still, it's pretty hard, especially for us sea-level folk. Running a 100+ mile week is tough in any case but i was surprised at just how much of a toll the altitude could take. At 8 or 9000 feet it slows you down; at 11000 feet it makes you delirious.

Day 0 - Denver to Buena Vista

On Sunday, I arrived at the Denver airport along with hundreds of Democratic National Convention attendees. I had about 3 hours to kill before the shuttle would pick us up for the trip to Buena Vista. By 1pm four TR teams had assembled, including myself and Mr. P. We didn't chat much with the other teams on the way out, but later on it would come in handy to know these particular runners.

We got to Buena Vista in late afternoon, and checked in our team. Buena Vista is a cute little town, with a mixture of older buildings and modern stores and hotels. It's pretty easy to walk from end to end, which we did a couple of times in going from the Super 8 to check-in, and then back to the community center for the pre-race barbecue. On the way home from the latter we got rained on and jogged back to our motel, which was a disconcerting introduction to the difficulty of running at this altitude. A few hours after the barbecue we got hungry again and went to the local Mexican restaurant for a snack.

Day 1 - Buena Vista to Numbers - 13 miles

We went back to the community center for our first pre-race breakfast, which was good but seemed heavy at the time. We met a couple from Maine; the husband had been asked to come out and play music at the campfire for the Salomon runners and employees.

The first day was a "gentle" introduction to the altitude. We started at Buena Vista and ran primarily on a gravel road that ran along the Arkansas River. It was a relatively mild incline, and a total distance of just under 13 miles. At my normal altitude that'd be an easy 1:40 or so. We worked pretty hard to finish in 1:54, about 30 minutes behind the race leaders. Maybe this altitude thing was gonna be harder than i thought.

After the race we soaked in the river for a while, and then caught a shuttle to the nearby Arrowhead campground, which was the site of our first tent city. After settling in, we traveled into Buena Vista with some other runners, our purpose being to buy some gloves for Mr. P. We also got some Alleve and the other runners got beer-- a sort of combination carb source and sleep aid for runners.

Tent City at Arrowhead Campground

Day 2 - Vicksburg to Twin Lakes - 10 miles

The second day was the shortest mileage of the week, but we were still all a bit anxious about it because it would also be our highest altitude. The first half of the run, after a short flat section, was a climb up to 12,600 foot Hope Pass. It was an exhausting climb. The slopes were never too brutal, but at 12000 feet it's tough to keep moving. Coming up over the pass and seeing the Twin Lakes area in the distance is one of the highlights of the week. The single track descent on the other side is fun too, because it's both beautiful country and well-maintained trail. It eventually took us 2:24 to finish the run, both the hardest and slowest 10 miles i've ever run.

After the run, a shuttle took us into Leadville, which is a Mecca of sorts for trail athletes, both runners and mountain bikers. Leadville was my favorite stopping point in the race. It has decent restaurants and shops, but doesn't seem like a tourist trap. This was also our first experience of the "portable shower truck", basically a semi-trailer with shower stalls and a set of sinks outside. Without this innovation, the event would probably not be very popular.


Day 3 - Leadville to Nova Guides - 24 miles

The third day was the first long day, and the longest day of the week in terms of mileage. The profile didn't look too bad-- there was one climb and descent to about 7 miles, and then another climb to about 15 miles, after which the rest was downhill and flat. I felt OK on the first climb, but the second was hard. By the 15 mile control station i was tapped out, and i had to do a GU shot. That seemed to help a bit and we moved well through the downhill section. The last 3 miles was a flat section on a dirt road leading into Camp Hale. It was pretty hard but i vowed to continue running, no matter how slow. We finished in 4:24, which was at least within our limit of 4:30, so we felt good about it.

Our camp site for the night was a place informally called Nova Guides. Actually, there's a sort of lodge there operated by the Nova Guides, an outfit that does everything from jeep trips to rafting. They have a restaurant, and a grassy area where we could stretch out and rest. We also had a memorable dinner that night. Mr. P and i sat with a group of young women who are all in the military. I can't remember the last time i've laughed so much.

The campfire that night was a bit rowdy, in part because there wasn't anywhere else to go, and in part because several people got involved in the music making. It was fun, but i was more interested in the sky, which without much artificial light was deep and detailed.

The circus comes to Nova Guides

Day 4 - Nova Guides to Red Cliff - 14 miles

The fourth day was slightly shorter, but had another tough climb at the start. It wasn't obvious from the elevation profile, but it turned out to be very steep at the top part of the climb, and everyone slowed to a crawl over the last mile. At the top though we had a beautiful section of trail along a ridge with great views in every direction. For some reason, i was feeling relatively good this day and managed to keep up with Mr. P despite his much longer stride. We totally bombed the downhill and had our best finish of the race, albeit in a none-too-speedy 2:34. Still, it moved us up a couple of spots in the overall ranking.

Our stopping point for that night was the town of Red Cliff. There's not a lot to Red Cliff, but it does have this amazing bar/restaurant called Mango's. They have probably the best fish tacos i've ever had outside of San Diego. We sat near the race leaders that evening, Erik Skaggs and Max King, the latter of whom had been in the shuttle with us from Denver Airport. It was kind of cool to talk about running and other stuff with the elites of the race; something that would not likely happen in a typical race.

Red Cliff

Day 5 - Red Cliff to Vail - 23 miles

This was the day that had made me nervous all week. It was long, but the scary part was the elevation profile, which looked like a big "M". Ten miles up, followed by a jagged 5 miles at above 11000 feet, followed by about 9 miles of down.

As it turns out i was right to be concerned. I was feeling relatively good up the first climb, but during the stretch at altitude i began to feel very bad. This was my first real problem with the heights. I began to feel dizzy and a bit nauseous, and there were sections where it felt like i was blacking out between steps. I had to walk a lot on runnable sections, and by the final summit i was beginning to wonder if i would finish. For the first part of the downhill section, i still couldn't get into a rhythm, and had to walk occasionally. After the final control station with 5 miles to go i finally began to feel better, and we ran the last downhill section pretty fast. We had to push to come in under 5 hours, about 4:57. It was a disappointing time, but still one of the hardest physical efforts of my life. This was the only point in the race where i doubted my ability to finish, so the poor time was largely compensated for by the mere fact of finishing.

Our camp site that night was just outside Vail Village, so we were essentially back in civilization. We had cell-phone reception and were relatively close to a Starbucks, so it wasn't quite the hard life. We also had steak that night, for which i'm eternally grateful to the caterer, The Gourmet Cowboy.

Vail Village

Day 6 - Vail to Beaver Creek - 21 miles

The distance and profile looked pretty daunting for the last day, but it was easier to face since we knew we'd be done at the end. Unfortunately, Mr. P was struggling with a sore foot- an apparent case of bursitis at the point where his Achilles tendon connects to the foot. It made it very hard for him to run downhill, which we'd be doing plenty on this day. He still kicked my ass up the hills- even if i could match his cadence he'd pull away since each stride was so much longer.

The run started with a pretty long climb, but it topped out at only 10,500 feet so it seemed much easier than the previous day. We then had a long, steep, descent on a pretty but very narrow single track. It would have been a blast had Mr. P been feeling better.

As a cruel twist, the organizers added another climb with about 5 miles to go. To add insult to injury the very last section of this climb was straight up a ski slope. I felt like i needed a rope to climb it. It sucked. The very last part of the run was another steep downhill cutting across the face of another ski slope. It was an awesome finish, but again pretty hard on Mr. P's injured foot. It was extremely gratifying to run the last few paces into the finish chute, knowing that we'd just finished a damn hard event. There are too many platitudes about the value of finishing over winning, but in this case finishing did feel like a pretty amazing accomplishment.

That night we were comfortably bunked in a hotel in Beaver Creek, with warm showers and flush toilets and cable television. We had our finisher banquet at the Park Hyatt and i got to drink wine (mediocre, way over-priced wine, but still...). We sat with the Polish Gore Tex team and had a good time exchanging stories and jokes (please, no Polish joke comments). By then, i'd started to feel happy about surviving the week without any major injuries, extremes of weather, significant sickness, or encounters with aggro sheep dogs (inside joke, you had to be there). I even started entertaining thoughts of maybe, just maybe, doing it all again some day.

1 comment:

May said...

That was a pretty picture of Vail.