One year ago, I happened to be in Leadville, CO for work. After a morning run cut short by my inability to breath at 10,000 ft., I came across what I would learn was the Stage 3 start-line of the TransRockies Run. I stopped to chat with two older men tending to some gnarly blisters to find out what was going on. “We are running a 6-day race!” A 6-day race? Crazy.
Fast forward one year, and I was lacing up my own shoes on Leadville’s Main St., getting ready to start the 24-mile Stage 3 with my teammate and coworker, Magda Boulet.
The TransRockies Run
The TransRockies 6-Day Run was created in 2007, and it set the standard for epic multi-day trail racing in North America. Since then, the race has ballooned to 550 participants and also has a 3-day option. The course covers 120 miles with 20,000 ft. of climbing. The shortest day is 13 miles over Hope Pass at 12,500 ft., and the longest day is 24 miles over Vail Pass. It’s a fully supported race, which means runners only worry about getting themselves from point A to point B each day. Meanwhile, the amazing TransRockies crew transports all extra gear, tents, food, beer, adirondack chairs, etc. to a new campsite each evening.
Every day, the TransRockies Crew created a small city called ChillVille, replete with everything you need to recover and lounge after a hard run.
Only as Strong as your Weakest Link
Stage races traditionally include a team competition – the rules are simple: you and your teammate must start at the same time and cross all checkpoints and the finish line together. If one of you has a bad day, you both have a bad day.
Early this year, Magda Boulet asked if I wanted to run TransRockies with her. “Sure!” I said. I then promptly googled TransRockies… and remembered the old men with the blisters. Crazy.
As a team, Madga and I were competing in the mixed division. GU Crew runners David Laney and Ryan Ghelfi (both members of the Nike Trail Team) made the journey out from Oregon to compete in the men’s division, and GU Crew runner Amanda Basham ran with fellow Nike Trail Team member Keely Henninger in the women’s division.
David and Ryan helped each other move quickly through aid stations.
You get plenty of opportunities to race as an individual. Running, at its core, is a deeply individual endeavor. That’s what makes racing with a partner so interesting – you are no longer just accountable for yourself, and your successes and failures or no longer just your own. In my case, I had to worry about keeping up with an Olympian, Western States Champ, and VP at the company where I’m employed. The pressure was on!
The Things We Carried
The high altitude and variable weather conditions of the Colorado Rockies can be dangerous, especially to an exhausted runner. That’s why everyone was required to carry emergency cold weather gear during each stage including a hat, gloves, and emergency blanket.
Finish Today, Get Ready for Tomorrow
Running 20+ hilly miles should feel like an accomplishment. Maybe it earns you an easy day tomorrow, or even a day off! But when you are stringing together back-to-back 20-milers at elevation, your daily recovery routine becomes almost as important as the run itself.
Here was my typical post-run routine —
Cross the finish line, high five Magda. Stop watch. Stagger out of the finish corral, share some more high-fives with other runners. Go directly to the coolers filled with Chocolate Smoothie Recovery Drink Mix. Fill up a paper cup, chug it. Fill it up again, chug it. Fill it up again, walk away intending to sip it, chug it, walk back to fill it up again. Grab handful of potato chips. Wash them down with M&Ms. Find closest creek or pond, jump in. Stand in chilly water to soak sore legs. More Recovery Drink, more potato chips. Shower, water, BCAA Capsules. Roll out muscles with Addaday roller. Sandwich = bread, Nutella, potato chips. More water. Ready for dinner, look at watch, it’s 2:30. Another sandwich? Sure. Crack a beer – I earned it. Finally, it’s time for dinner. Plate isn’t big enough. Seconds, thirds, dessert. Ready for bed, sun is still up. Evening Stroopwafel snack heated by fire. Finally, sun goes down, slide into sleeping bag.
There’s something about standing in freezing cold water that forces you to crack a smile, even though you’re hurting on the inside! Partners David Calleja & Manuel Jesús Gomez from Spain eventually placed 5th in the men’s team category.
Stunning Beauty, Challenging Trails
The Rocky Mountains are stunning. I knew this, but after spending 3-4 hours-a-day struggling up and down their rugged trails, I really know it now. I could go on, but I’ll let the awesome pictures from Myke Hermsmeyer tell a more complete story about the beauty we were lucky to experience.
We made sure to take a moment to pause at the top of Hope Pass at 12,500 ft. to enjoy the view before bombing down the other side.
Teammates Amanda and Keely finishing a strong Stage 1 near Buena Vista, CO.
TransRockies veteran Rob Krar happened to be in town for the Leadville 100 Mountain Bike Race and joined the leaders for the first few miles of Stage 3.
David let Ryan know they were almost to the top by giving him a little push to say “get moving!”
At 10,000+ ft., the slightest incline reduces even the fittest runners to a walk. You don’t really have a choice, and it’s actually more efficient to power hike up an incline than jog it. But it does chip at your confidence a bit to be breathing like you’re running a 400 meter PR… while walking!
A Race… or Summer Camp?
At the TransRockies Run, it’s really not about winning. The event brings together a unique community that’s all about shared goals.
Over the week, we made a lot of friends both on and off the trail.
While everyone was a runner, their paths to the TransRockies Run were diverse. There were 70 year-old couples who’d run more trail miles together than I’ve probably driven. There were teams that had only met a few weeks before and were forging a new relationship over each challenging day. There were newly weds and even a few engagements on the trail. There were pro runners, and there were runners who’d never competed in a race… or even run more than 20 miles.
Buoyed by the enthusiasm of the TransRockies crew at the start/finish lines and at each aid station, the nervous first-timers soon realized that they actually might be able to finish. And in the evenings, stories were shared about the day – that brutal hill, that exposed trail, that rocky decent… or even Salty-the-Yeti sightings!
How can you not laugh when you’re greeted by a sumo wrestler 14 miles into a 24 mile day?
The TransRockies Crew spent hours at each aid station helping runners refill bottles, grab snacks, and even hand out some back rubs.
Spotted! Salty-the-Yeti scaring an unsuspecting runner mid-way through Stage 3.
While TransRockies isn’t just about winning… winning is always a fun bonus. GU Crew runners were able to pull off top team honors in the men’s, women’s and mixed divisions of the 6-Day race.
David Laney and Ryan Ghelfi, the men team winners, have been friends/teammates/roommates/training-partners/business-partners since college… so it seemed obvious that they would run well together. “We sometimes went an entire hour without exchanging more than a grunt,” said Ghelfi, the self-proclaimed weaker link. The pair runs a coaching business called Trails and Tarmac that helps runners, beginners and elites, target and achieve their running goals. Going into TransRockies, David and Ryan each had their own goals – David is returning to Switzerland to race the UTMB in two weeks, a 100+ mile race around Mont Blanc. Meanwhile, Ryan and his wife are preparing to welcome their first child in the world. (They don’t know if it’s a boy or a girl yet!)
Each evening, the overall winners were awarded leader jerseys. David and Ryan made some modifications for function… and style.
Amanda Basham, who recently came from behind to place 4th at WS100, and her teammate Keely Henninger took a few days to find the overall lead, but they eventually grew their lead to almost an hour over the second place team after 6-stages. “This event changed the sport of running from a solo test to a selfless team effort,” said Keely. “We gained momentum through each other’s strengths and weaknesses.”
Magda Boulet and I were also able to win our category, but not without some stiff early competition from the “duo-from-Durango”. After winning the first stage, we lost to the Durango runners in the second and third stages. Unfortunately, one team member suffered a knee injury during stage 4 and made the smart decision to pull out of the race save risking further injury.
After running 20+ hilly miles, it can be hard to execute a properly timed finish-line high-five.
“It’s a Long Week”
While pacing in a normal race is important, pacing during a 6-day stage race is even more important (and challenging). Having never run over 90-miles in a 7-day period, I was really worried about how my body was going to react to running 120-miles in 6-days. “It’s a long week,” said Magda to me a number of times over the first and second days. What she was really saying was “chill out!”
I’ve never been particularly good at conservative starts, and it was hard for me to watch our competitors slide away ahead of us when I thought we could go faster. But, Magda knew what she was doing, and our conservative pace helped us stay healthy and actually grow stronger after each stage.
It did get hard, though, and day-three was particularly challenging for me. With “only” 2,500 feet of climbing, we did a lot of actual running over the 24 miles. The previous two days of running were starting to catch up to me, and I also developed a nasty blister on my big toe from some wet creek crossings. Then, on a particularly smooth section of the Colorado Trail, I clipped my toe on a rock and took a dive. “Nothing hurt but my pride,” I told Magda after popping up from the trail. But after a few minutes, I realized the dirt caked on my palm, shoulder, and knee was actually covering some bleeding abrasions. Nothing a cold soak couldn’t heal.
The stage ended with a long, open road – we could see our competitors in the distance, and we weren’t making up any ground. That’s when I saw Magda’s competitive drive engage. We slowly upped the pace until we were running what felt like marathon race-pace. While we didn’t catch them, we definitely made up some serious ground before sprinting across the finish line, and I’m sure we had the fastest split over the last mile!
The Hot, Hot Furnace
Despite eating a lot throughout the week, I still lost a few pounds. I guess when you’re at altitude and running 20+ hilly miles a day, it’s hard to eat and drink enough… or maybe I went into the week carrying a few extra pounds.
My daily nutrition plan for each stage was simple. I wore a Salomon vest and brought along a 5-Serving Gel Flask filled with Blueberry Pomegranate Roctane Energy Gel and a 11oz soft hydration flask that I filled with Summit Tea Roctane Energy Drink or water, depending on what I was craving. Between the Roctane Energy Drink and the Roctane Energy Gel, I made sure to eat/drink at least 200-250 calories per hour. I would grab a few extra sips of water at each aid station as well. After each stage, I’d consume a massive amount of Recovery Drink Mix (30-40 oz) as wells as pop four BCAA Capsules to help with muscle recovery and repair. Between the Roctane Drink, Roctane Gels, Recovery Drink, and BCAA Capsules, I was consuming about 25,000-30,000 mg of BCAAs a day, and I definitely credit my relative lack of sore muscles to this regimen.
Because each day started early (8 am), I didn’t have time to eat a full breakfast before the gun. (I have a sensitive stomach, and I need at least 2-3 hours to digest before running.) Luckily, we had a ton of Energy Stroopwafels on hand, so I’d eat two with a small cup of coffee about 45 minutes before starting.
One of the things that came with winning our category is that we were invited back with a free entry next year. It’s only been a few days, but I’ve decided that I’m definitely going to go back… and hopefully Magda will be willing to join me again!
Each stage gave us something to celebrate, and finishing the 6-day race with Magda was an accomplishment I soon won’t forget.
Previews and Recaps from the Week