When Shacky and I were offered the opportunity to run in the The 6th annual GORE-TEX® TransRockies Run from August 14th-19th, 2012, we jumped at the chance. Traveling from Buena Vista to Beaver Creek, CO, we would join the migration of the “Trail Striders” as we wove through Colorado’s spectacular rocky mountains.
Trail and ultra runners at heart, Shacky and I had no idea what to expect from this more-expensive-than-what-we’re-used-to event.
Shacky and I were interesting participants at Transrockies this year, because we’re normally less social and more independent. We love the challenge of supporting ourselves. We crave the solitude of trail running—just the two of us and the dog, as simple as possible. With the entry fee money, our first thought would be to spend it on living off the trail for several months instead of trying an event like this.
But Transrockies this year gave us the opportunity to do something we never had the chance to before—push our limits on the trail with no concerns over running out of supplies, and competing against other very fit and talented running teams.
Shacky and I are used to running together, but never as a team against other teams. It was more of a competitive vibe than your typical ultra, and I enjoyed pushing myself. We bonded amazingly well where some other teams bickered and fell apart. I felt validated in our training and impressed with our positivity and chemistry with each another on the trail. I learned that chemistry like this is rare.
Never at any other race have I seen more of a payoff from our training. This was place we could push our limits among a different crowd of competitors. It was big wake up call for us as far as what our bodies are actually capable of (much more than previously thought). We are very proud of ourselves.
- Distance: 120 miles
- Time: 32 hours
- Team Rank: 16
Here are some surprises:
1. “It doesn’t get easier, you just get used to it.”
In the shuttle to the packet pick up, we chatted with the volunteer driver who was local and accustomed to living and running at elevation. He mentioned that we shouldn’t be too concerned with the elevation. The truth is that everybody pants while running. Everyone feels like there’s less air. People who run there are just used to it.
This is true for mountain running as well. Running up a mountain is always hard. Running down is always technical and rocky. But the more you do it, the more familiar your body feels with the difficulty of it. It doesn’t get easier, you just get used to it. This knowledge allowed me to feel less disadvantaged and more competitive.
2. “If I could sleep as long as I wanted, I could run 50 miles every day.”
Ultra runner Michael Arnstein once said this, and after this week I fully believe him. Sleep is the key to consecutive days of long distance trail running. Except for one night, I slept well and was feeling 100% at the start line. The one exception was a night I kept waking up, and I felt sluggish and fatigued all day.
Everything rejuvenates while we sleep. You may be able to pull off a couple of good days on poor sleep, but to be at your best on a stage race, you need to highly value your sleep. If you want to be stronger runner in general, make sleep a big priority. And don’t be afraid of naps.
3. “We’ve got nothing but time…”
One of the biggest benefits of quitting our jobs for trail running and RV living is that Shacky and I have all our time back. This is a tremendous edge when it comes to training. The challenge of the high mileage week is not physical—it is practical.
While people generally assume that it takes a certain athletic prowess to run a 100-mile week, I believe anyone can do it if they have the time. Ultimately, training becomes more a question of priorities than physical skill.
4. “Why are we on a road again?”
About 50 percent of this race was run on roads, mostly dirt ones. This was a disadvantage for us, since we’re much more competitive on single track. We’re great climbers and strong technical downhill runners. But the road running slowed us down, as we were highly unmotivated to run these sections.
Every day, we had to run anywhere from two to eight miles to get to a trailhead. On top of that, we would often finish the run on at least two miles of road. Shacky and I walked these sections and let people pass us.
I hate how my trail shoes feel on the road, and I just plain don’t enjoy running roads. However, the majority of our competitors were road runners, and this was a big edge for them.
5. “It’s all in your head.”
I decided to not record any altitude or GPS on these runs. Instead, I recorded the elapsed running time to help me estimate mileage and speed. Basically, I didn’t want to know how high I was at any given moment, or how far I had gone.
Before this race, the highest we had ever climbed was 10,000 feet. This race capped out at around 12,500 feet, spending quite a bit of time around 11,000. I knew that there probably wasn’t much difference between 10 and 12 thousand, but I also knew that if I was aware I was running that high, I might be overly cautious about symptoms of altitude.
I wanted to go completely by feel, and that strategy worked. I figured if I was sick, I was sick. But it wouldn’t be because I knew in my head that this was all new territory. I wouldn’t get nervous as soon as I knew I was higher than 10,000.
Not knowing the mileage also made the runs go by so much faster. The 20-mile days seemed short and the aid stations came up quick.
6. “Races are won on the downhills.”
I believe this quote was said in reference to ultra runner Killian Jornet, and I really embraced it this week. Shacky and I did a lot of hill training for this event, and it worked. Going uphill, speed was unnecessary to stay ahead—just endurance. As long as we didn’t stop to gasp for air, we could keep a good pace.
But coming downhill was where we could easily pass 20 to 30 runners with very little effort. It’s actually much easier to run downhill faster than it is to run it slow. We passed many very cautious downhill runners.
Of course, you don’t want to run any faster than what you’re comfortable with… but training hills made Shacky and I comfortable quick stepping those descents, and it was a tremendous payoff. We built such a huge lead on the dowhills that even though we walked around two miles to every finish line (roads), many runners would not catch up.
My strongest asset was secure footing. The descents we had trained on were much rockier, technical, and steeper than what we raced. So running down these trails felt like a roller coaster. My footing was secure and I could let my legs loose and allow gravity to do the heavy lifting. I ran between six- to 10-minute miles downhill, bounding along for several miles at a time.
7. “In running and in life—choose your partner wisely.”
There was a lot of drama, in-fighting, and bickering among running teams at this race. That was a surprise because Shacky and I never do that. I think we often take our chemistry for granted, and it was interesting to see just how rare it was to find a well-functioning team.
Some of the drama was due to mismatched skill levels, or different running goals (one wanted to compete, the other wanted to have fun). Plus other things like hunger and fatigue were making people snap. One husband told Shacky that he had to stay two miles ahead of his wife at all times, because he was afraid that she would kill him if he got any closer.
The rules of this race were that each team had to check in together at each checkpoint, and could never be more than two minutes apart. So you were essentially running very close to your partner for six days.
Shacky and I had a good system going. He would usually pass me on the uphills, and I would pass him on the downs. If one got ahead of the other, we waited at the checkpoint. The longest wait at any time was 10 minutes.
Often, I would be running thinking Shacky was further behind me only to find him right on my ass. Neither of us had any goals other than to run our best, and we both did.
I pushed Shacky by staying ahead of him when he was struggling (he’s motivated by me NOT passing him), and he pushed me with data (how many miles left) and edging me on to run to a shorter distance target (like the next marker) when I was feeling low. An advantage for us is that we train together all the time and enjoy each other’s company more than we enjoy competing.
8. “Why won’t you run with me?”
There was a lot more competition among the mid-packers at this race than I’ve ever seen in an ultra. Instead of catching up to someone and enjoying a chat, teams would try to build new leads. This wasn’t always the case, but usually it was.
You were much less likely to get a good conversation here than at an ultra. These runners were more focused and driven to pass you, not run with you. At first it was a little strange, but later I was just as happy to compete… and got a kick out of watching people’s expressions as we tore past on the downhills with a friendly greeting.
The crowd was primarily made up of road runners, not trail runners, and many times had a road marathon vibe. A lot of people running trails for the first time, and quite a few triathletes.
9. “We are a family.”
The Transrockies staff and volunteers put a lot of effort into trying to build a close-knit family-like camping vibe. Although they partly succeeded, it was frankly not as strong of a bonding vibe as you feel at a trail ultra marathon or even an ultra timed event.
Some runners were only running the first three days, and these were usually the most goal-focused individuals. There was also a lot more whining and complaining that what any ultra RD would generally tolerate. The vibe shifted to a little more homey on days four to six, but still not anywhere close to what is felt with smaller trail running groups.
If you are a social butterfly, you might actually prefer this since there are more people to make the rounds with. Shacky and I bond better in smaller groups, so we made a couple of new friends, but generally prefer a tighter-knit atmosphere. We make fewer friends, but hold them much closer.
10. “You don’t want to wait until you’re 80 to see this shit.”
This is what I said to Shacky at one of the summits. The beauty of these trails, the quality of the climbs, and the scenery from the single track were all spectacular. Shacky’s favorite was Stage 5 where we realized how grateful we were to be able to experience all this while we were still young and able-bodied.
I loved Stage 4 where during a brutal climb the runners behind me were bitching loudly. Although my legs were stinging and lungs were burning, all I could think of was how much I love this.
Don’t wait to retire to see the world. Take vacations. Downgrade your life. Cut your expenses to get out and see these things. The views are free, you just have to get your ass there. You won’t regret it or forget it.
Is Transrockies worth the money?
- You’re a very social runner and you love being surrounded by new people to meet
- You like to be catered to, encouraged, surrounded by support
- You’re used to dropping larger race fees (triathlons vs ultra running events)
- You’re a newer trail runner and would appreciate some extra support
- You love organization and work well with schedules
- You like to compete with other teams at your level
- You want to push your physical limits in a safe trail environment
Maybe not, if…
- You’re happier running in solitude through the mountains, unsupported and with no agendas to follow
- You’re a seasoned trail or ultra runner and you already train high mileage weeks
- You dislike the camping experience
- You don’t like to be fussed over or aided
- You have all the time in the world to explore these trails on your own
Shacky and I found out that Colorado has a state law where you may park your RV anywhere that is not private property, and you don’t have to move it for 13 days. We plan on coming back to Colorado soon for more running—more mountains, more mileage, less roads, and less aid.
We were so grateful for this opportunity. The biggest thing I learned was to highly value our partnership and the lifestyle we’ve chosen. It puts us at the top in both running and life, and it’s extremely rare.
For many, this can be an epic, once-in-a-lifetime adventure. But this week we also realized—this can be our everyday life. Just the two of us and the dog. Just the way we like it.