From Mole Hills To Mountains
It’s not hard to imagine why I was so intrigued by the possibility of running the GORE-TEX TransRockies Run. It had all the excitement of my youthful expeditions, only with real mountains. The original TransRockies Run is a six-day staged trail race covering a total of 115 miles through the Colorado Rocky Mountains. Two-person teams run all six stages together, reaching screeching-high elevations. While I was drawn to this event, I knew that my schedule didn’t allow for the training or teammate commitment. When the organizers announced that they’d be holding the first three-day solo race, RUN3, this year, I was immediately hooked. I’ve raced in endurance events all over the world, but none that offered the challenge of performing a single sport with extreme hills and high altitude. Every stage would bring a new distance to cover, tough terrain and a hard-earned view. I had to be ready.
One of the most challenging aspects of RUN3 is the altitude. Consider this. Performance begins to decline at 3,000 feet above sea level. Altitude sickness can set in at 8,000. The race would climb up to 12,500 feet.
In order to prepare for the Colorado Mountains, I needed to somehow simulate these conditions in Chicago. The ace in my pocket was Midwestern heat and humidity. These sticky conditions proved to be a great way to prepare for the breathing resistance I’d face in the race, as the body has to work twice as hard to cool itself in hot conditions. It turned out to be one of the hottest summers on record. As my long runs progressed, I learned to run by effort rather than pace, mentally linking the struggle to breathe in the humidity with the breathlessness at altitude.
To mimic the terrain, I weaned myself off roads and onto local trails. I incorporated endurance workouts where I’d run and walk, as I know I would be walking a significant portion of the race. To protect my body, I wove in training sessions on the ElliptiGO (an outdoor elliptical bike) as well, which allowed me to train harder for longer and simulate a climbing motion. Later in the season, I added trekking poles to a few of my long runs to improve power and balance on hills. My finishing touch was a portable altitude simulator, which I used to ready my lungs.
Buena Vista To Railroad Bridge – 20.6 miles
Total Elevation Gain: 3029 ft.
Total Elevation Loss: 2703 ft.
Starting Elevation: 7939 ft.
Finish Elevation: 8265 ft.
Average Grade: 4.8%
I woke to a cool, crisp Colorado morning in Buena Vista and packed my bags, separating what I needed for the race from what would be stored until the finish. The amazing support crew would be working day and night to set up and take down the competitor tents, transport our baggage and cook our meals as the event made its way to Beaver Creek.
To say I was nervous toeing the line at the start of the race is an understatement. I knew I was well trained, but the altitude is a wildcard: it can play havoc on even the most seasoned mountain runner. Combine this with epic climbs and mammoth descents, and I couldn’t be sure how my body would react. Stage One was the second longest leg of the race, but as it snaked along at the lowest altitude, I hoped it would be gentle. As I began to make friends with the foreign terrain, my anxiety quickly dropped away. I was mesmerized by the desert-like mountain scenery that greeted me at every switchback. You can’t see this in a plane, train or automobile; this view could only be earned with my own two feet.
I ran conservatively the first day, respecting the altitude, and trying to concentrate on the fact that I had two more days of racing ahead. The narrow single-track trail wove through the high desert and wide-open terrain, leaving competitors at the mercy of the heat and sun. Although I was challenged by the onset of long hills, the heat seemed mild as it lacked the humidity I’d trained in. I let the trail’s grade dictate my pace, running most of the flat and downhill sections and power walking the significant inclines. Conversations with nearby runners sprung up like tulips in springtime, and I soon realized running in the solo division wouldn’t mean running alone. Ultra running is a social sport and one that invites new friendships and unites kindred spirits. I finished the first stage in the middle of the pack. I quickly made my way to the river for a natural ice bath to help decrease inflammation in my tired legs. I made even more friends while soaking. It was only day one and I felt like I’d known these people for years. I was strangely at home in the most unfamiliar of places.
Vicksburg to Twin Lakes – 13.5 miles
Total Elevation Gain: 3617 ft.
Total Elevation Loss: 4062 ft.
Starting Elevation: 9660 ft.
Finish Elevation: 9214 ft.
Average Grade: 10.4%
Stage Two has deceptively short in distance, but packed a punch with its brutal climb above the tree line to the highest point in the race at 12,534 feet (roughly ten times the height of the Empire State Building). This stage was vastly different than the first and would test my skills on technical rocky terrain. The medical team warned us that the weather could change in an instant, and we were required to pack a shell, hat and gloves for safety. My breathing became more labored with every step, and the temperature dropped over 20 degrees. I joined in a line of competitors as we made our way up steep switchback trails, all of us drawn to unveiling the mystery of the summit. I was filled with gratitude at the top and spent a few minutes taking it all in. What a gift to be able to run in such deep wilderness, while having a safe support system every step of the way.
As I started the descent, I began to silently whisper my mountain running mantra, “slow and steady,” willing my tired legs not to slip on the difficult terrain. I ran the bits I felt comfortable on and power hiked the rest, making my way down the steep 10k descent. It is easy to get caught up in the drama of the uphill climbs, however, it is the screaming declines that really punish your legs. Although it took me over four hours to complete Stage Two, and I had slipped back from my middle of the pack position, I felt empowered by tackling the trails and taming the mountain in my own way.
Leadville to Camp – 24.3 miles
Total Elevation Gain: 2737 ft.
Total Elevation Loss: 3662 ft.
Starting Elevation: 10147 ft.
Finish Elevation: 9222 ft.
Average Grade: 10.4%
On the morning of Stage Three, just getting up and walking out of the tent felt like a Herculean effort. My legs were sore from the long descent in Stage Two and my gait felt awkward and stiff. I wasn’t sure whether I’d be able to run very strongly in the final stage. Although I’d conserved my energy by taking it slow the first days, the impact from the downhill left my squads shot. I couldn’t help but think about the TransRockies teams lined up next to me that would only be half way through their journey at my finish line today.
I found solace in the knowledge that the thought patterns of an ultra-endurance runner fluctuate greatly while racing. One moment, you can conquer the world, the next you’re wondering how you are going to take the very next step. This was my last stage, and I relied on my mind to take the lead and guide my body through fatigue and pain.
Although it was the longest distance at over 24 miles, it proved to be my favorite leg of the race. Stage Three started in North America’s highest city, Leadville, Colorado. We’d slept through the storms that had rolled in the night before, and the morning was now perfectly sunny and crisp. I took a few photos of the legendary mining town, dropped off my gear bag and toed the line with determined focus.
After only the first few miles, I started to feel that the end was near. I knew that I was going to finish. The course included two challenging mountain climbs in the first half and ended with a gently rolling descent. I used the first major incline to warm up and find my tempo, and then let loose up the second and final ascent.
It was freeing to run with such conviction. The terrain began to roll more gracefully through shaded trails and meadows, and crossed the Continental Divide at Tennessee Pass. Then the course opened up, and I could see the finish from a mile away. Volunteers came out to cheer, and as I took the final turn, I could almost hear my legs screaming with gratitude.
I crossed the finish line with a smile on my face and was greeted with a hug from the true spirit of the race: GORE-TEX’s public relations director, Cynthia Amon. She waited for every competitor to finish and made us all feel equally special. I stayed at the line and cheered on the RUN3 finishers and teams as they crossed.
Taking It With Me
I expected to run on scenic trails, but couldn’t have prepared myself for the pure spirit of the journey. The TransRockies organizers created an epic adventure chock-full of breathless views on authentic trails. I’d run through heat and desert-like terrain, I’d survived the epic summit at Hope Pass and I’d finished running freely through historic mountain trails lined with wild flowers and open meadows.
Climbing up the limestone mounds of my childhood, I’d only dreamed of an adventure of this scale. I was lucky to have my neighborhood friends replaced by like-minded runners this time around. Some ran fast, some slow; some raced professionally, while others did it just for the adventure. Although the clock defined our skills, it didn’t divide the runners. Every night we sat around our campfire (with real flames this time) singing songs, roasting marshmallows and sharing our passion to run and explore the world.
Every race offers a chance to learn and grow. Sometimes the lessons are unveiled through unattained goals. Other times, pushing beyond our limits allows us to discover unknown inner-strength. RUN3 challenged me to move outside my comfort zone of Midwestern flatlands, and explore the mountains. Although I loved reaching the finish line, it was the adventure along the way that captured my soul. Through reliving my quarry days, I was reminded that a journey shared with friends creates memories for a lifetime.