Saturday, 24 August 2013

Transrockies Run 2013

executive summary
Holy shit, this post got really long. To summarize: team FITS Socks came 2nd overall for the 6-day partner open women's transrockies race. I got to know my awesome partner, Shannon, and we had a blast together (and are still talking!). I drank a margarita with Rob Krar and got attacked by leeches in an ice bath. I even had zero blisters after 6 days of hard running (thanks performance crew socks!).

a note on photos
I wore a sports bra with front pockets. So I would basically stuff gels on top of my breasts. This resulted in some photos where it looks like a) I am a C-Cup b) I have a third breast c) my breasts are seriously lumpy. My fiancee (I think) can confirm none of these are actually true.

two years ago
I first heard about the Transrockies Run almost two years ago, which seems like almost another lifetime ago. It was late September, a sort-of birthday party for myself. I was running, a little bit. Allison and Ramsey Ezzat were talking about how they had just registered for a race in Colorado - 6 days, 20,000 feet, 200km. At the time, I was barely running 50km a week. It sounded hard - the good, crazy hard - and the idea stuck to me. I asked my then-boyfriend about doing it together, but it never got off the ground.

one year ago
Things changed, and one year ago I found myself single with an almost-healed ankle and an itch to get into the mountains. I signed up for the race as partners with Katie, and we planned for a solid year of training to get there.

finally here
Things changed again. When it came time to pack up for the race, I was no longer single. The year of training had happened - with more ups and downs than I thought. While my body stayed healthy throughout, my head definitely had its share of issues balancing my drive to do well with my love of running, and the strain that put on friendships.

partner love
I came into the race healthy and about the right amount of crazy. I was even luckier to have Shannon Thompson as my partner. I didn't really know Shannon  until a few months before the race. Shannon comes from a road running background and is fast as hell. Our first run together, we went up Mountain Highway, then took a "shortcut" down. The shortcut led us down a technical, wet trail that popped out on the Baden Powell. During this unexpected detour, Shannon's kept smiling, with an only comment that she, too, had a tendency to get lost, so we would have to be very careful of the course during Transrockies. After that, I knew that we would be just fine together.

I thought that no-one, ever, can be that positive all the time. After several runs together, I started to question that assumption. And after a bit more time, I realized that, yes, being positive is a choice. I had a partner who woke up, day after day, just as sore (often more sore) as me, just as tired as me, and who chose to see the good in every situation and to be excited about what the day would bring. I tend to get a bit intense, a bit (a lot?) grumpy at times, and like I said, I was lucky to have someone who helped to keep it all in perspective.

"Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face"
The week before the race I drove my fiancee crazy and still somehow only packed at the last minute. I didn't check out the course details until the night before I left. The race took place between 8,000 and 12,600 feet. I had never been at elevation before, and had no idea how my body would respond. I figured it was useless having a plan until I got there and saw how bad the damage was.

Joining us on the trip were Chessa and Shannon Berardo, two amazing runners and cyclists / triathletes, respectively, who would be doing the 3 day solo event. Craig also came down to volunteer and cheer everyone on (and also wear spandex as casual apparel for 6 days - "It's just really comfy".).

How it works
Transrockies Run 6 is a 6-day run with or without a partner. It's basically running camp for adults, or for really lazy people. Everything (except the running) is done for us: tents are set up, food is made, trails are marked and marshalled. Every morning the runners get up and get to run a new, point-to-point route in the mountains.

Sunday, August 10
Shannon and I flew down on the Sunday, and got picked up by the TRR shuttle at the Denver airport. Our first indication of what kind of event this would be came when the transportation co-ordinator announced that the shuttles would be an hour late since they were stuck in traffic. Nobody really was upset - instead, everyone in the group introduced themselves and started chatting.

Denver was flat. (A concerned Shannon: "What is this, Trans-Prairies?") However, the van quickly started climbing into the mountains. After hard rain, the evening broke into a moody sunset. We arrived in Buena Vista just as it was getting dark. I booked us a tiny cabin for Sunday and Monday nights, and luckily Shannon shared my love of 1970s decor. We found a Mexican restaurant, ate about a pound of chips each, then crashed into bed.

Saturday, August 11
We both decided to sleep in. Sleeping in lasted until about 7:30am, when Shannon got up to make toast over the stovetop (the 1970s toaster didn't work) and put on coffee. We lazed around the small cabin in pajamas...lazing meant that Shannon did coursework while I looked up the effects of altitude on sea-level runners on wikipedia. I checked out the symptoms: headache (I had a big glass of wine last night, so not affected), flatulence (Mexican last night, not an issue), shortness of breath (I am always short of breath for my first hour of running)...Finally, we just decided to go for a test run to see what the damage was.

Everything was sort of okay, until we found some nearby trails and started to climb quickly uphill. Or tried to climb quickly uphill. Then tried to walk uphill. Then stopped,  and both waited for our nausea to pass. We decided we might have to adjust our plan for the race a bit. The plan would involve a bit more uphill walking than previously expected.

Later that afternoon, Chessa and her parents joined us. The plan was for Chessa to run for 3 days, and then hang out and watch us the next three. She brought her two amazing parents, her two whippets, and a very large van to accomplish this. Chessa is about 5'2", 90lbs soaking wet, with amazing tattoos and wears a boot (when not running) on her foot, which helps to support a sesamoid bone that has been broken for three years. As far as I can see, she is powered mainly by wine, coffee, and an intense drive.

Craig and Shannon joined shortly after. Five of us squeezed into two small beds and an undersized couch. Shannon and I ate Mexican food at 4pm for dinner, then headed over to the opening ceremonies. We scoped out girls who looked strong, and spent the rest of the evening on athlinks and ultrasignup, doing "research". Based on this, we figured out that the team to beat in our category was the North Face Ladies. If by eat, you meant "keep up with". I had raced against both of these amazing women on different occasions, and on each occasion I had been comprehensively beaten. So, obviously, when Shannon decided our plan was to try to keep up with them at the start of the run, I said yes - what could possibly go wrong?

Day 1: 20.8 miles, 2,800ft climbing
We woke up to blue skies in a cramped hotel bed - our last for the next 5 nights. After a lot of coffee and toast we jogged over to the start. People streamed around us as the sun glowed brighter behind the mountains. Music played, and we had a neutral lead-out behind a car until we hit trails. Then it was happening - we were up, running in the mountains. We were right behind the North Face team on rolling uphills. We hiked a bit and ran a lot. The trails weren't very technical, and then we hit a dirt road on a gentle uphill - really not technical. To my surprise, we were still with the North Face women, who were in first place for the open ladies' team. Sure, I couldn't breathe and Shannon was doing all the talking with them, but those were minor details. The more we climbed the more spectacular the view got" red rock, spiny pine trees, and the rolling mountains. The sky was bigger here, the mountains looming. The North Face team got ahead of us when the trail got steeper. As planned, we let them go, and started to walk (power-hike?).

 At the top of the first and biggest climb we grabbed Gu and coke and really kicked on the downhill. To our surprise, what felt like a moderate effort had us catching up with the North Face team. The pattern continued: us catching up on downhill, them pulling away on the uphill. Time went funny, as it does on trail runs - somehow, 2.5hrs had already passed. We started the final stretch: 6kms on a false flat dirt road. Nothing makes legs feel dead like hitting dirt road from downhill, and it felt like we were going backwards - despite this, we still were gaining on the lead team. In the end, we crossed the finish line 30 seconds later.

Five minutes (and a bit of swearing on my part) later, we were submerged up to our waists in an icy creek while eating chocolate out of paper drinking cups.

Getting to our campsite was a bit surreal - a brown tent city spread out against the mountains. There were hot showers available, and as much snack food as we could eat. In my non-running life, I am a sucker for chips, chocolate, candy, and definitely nutella. In a cruel twist of fate, I had no appetite (possibly the first time ever for this). Still, I ate - we all ate - as we were getting it up and doing it again for 5 more days.

That night was our first experience with the "Running Camp" part of TRR. We had dinner - then awards - then a race briefing for the next day. The guy in charge, Kevin Houda, made us feel like campers as he detailed everything from bathroom etiquette to the day's mishaps.

That night was our first camping experience. I chose what I thought was a good tent - close to the washrooms. This was not actually a good choice. We were not-so-lulled to sleep by the banging of the porta-potty doors throughout the night. This night also lead us to discover that camping at 8,000 ft (and higher) is goddamn cold.

Day 2: 13.4 miles, 3,200ft climbing
After a solid three hours of sleep, Shannon and I reluctantly got out of our sleeping bags and into running clothes. As there were frost on the ground, we put a lot of layers overtop of our running gear. We had oatmeal and coffee and then got onto what Houda called "the eight crappiest buses in Colorado" (last year, one of these buses had its grill fall off at the parking lot). We would along a dirt road on the edge of a mountain, then stood in a very long porta-potty line. Then did our warm up into the avoid the porta-potty line again, mostly.

We set off on another dirt road, then started the long climb up to 12,600 ft Hope Pass. As decided, we took it easier on the climb. We got dropped by the North Face team on the first few switchbacks. People streamed ahead of us - mostly. Although I'm sure we could've gone faster, one of the men's team stuck with us the entire way. They were from France, and dressed Euro - with their Salomon compression socks, shorts, and top, they were wearing more spandex than either of us owned.

Cresting Hope Pass was unreal - the rising sun, the hard breeze, and the lakes spread out in front of us on the other side. Then we went down switchback after switchback - from loose rock to roots to packed dirt. When I tried to explain this run, I said Shannon didn't love the technical downhill. I was then corrected by Shannon, who said it was a blast and she had fun. Okay, so we did - but she also had two small ankle rolls on the way down. And, in typical Shannon fashion, walked for about 30seconds before announcing that she was fine to "keep hopping down."

After the big downhill, the trail rolled along a clear lake. Shannon was looking a bit tired. I used one of the pacing tactics I had learned about online: lying to the other person about how much was was left. "Only 1k!" I told her, as my watch read 2.5k to go. Finally, we broke out of the forest, trudged along one last dirt road, and were finished. We were 11minutes behind the North Face team.

We camped that night in Leadville - a cool 10,000 ft above sea level - in a soccer field. The Leadville 100mile race was on the same weekend. Shannon and I took our laptops to a coffee shop in an attempt to do "work". I answered about three emails and half-filled out a spreadsheet over 2.5hrs. The coffee shop was ground zero for the Leadville 100milers - I met Bryan Powell from and Tina Lewis (and saw  bunch of fit-looking bearded dudes who I assumed were fast ultra-runners, but I was too nervous to introduce myself).

The Colorado weather was a constant change: blazing hot from an exposed sun, and cold as soon as clouds rolled over. We had dinner that night in a high school gym, then did a quick trip out to get key supplies: sunscreen, lip balm, painkillers at a gas station with the actual name of "Kum and Go".

Day 3: 24.3miles, 2,800ft
The day started at 5am. Shannon and I woke up wearing every piece of clothing we had brought, pretty much. The 6am breakfasts didn't give us a ton of time to digest, so we decided to try eating in our tent. As we spread semi-frozen peanut butter on crumbly cookies, it dawned on us that maybe this wasn't the best idea.

We started the run from the Leadville main street, perched between historic houses and overlooked by more mountains. The start of the race was about 5km on roads, then a climb. The road part, at least, was perfect for us. We realized the day before that, problematic for a trail race, our strengths were mostly on the most runnable stuff: roads, logging roads. The plan was to push what we could push, and try not to get too injured on the rest. The uphill, as always, everyone passed us. We ran when we could, and rejoiced when we got an easy downhill through logging roads.

I felt okay on the steep ups and downs, but as soon as we hit the flatter stuff Shannon pretty much took off. After two days she had adapted way too well to mountains, and I tucked in behind her and tried to keep up. We passed a couple teams, but were pretty much alone on the trails for most of the four hours we were running. At one point, in the last 45min of running, we were gradually descending along a ride when I spotted a bench. I must've slowed a little bit, and looked longingly at the bench, as Shannon turned around, said: "Alex NO", and kept on going. The end, again, was on dirt road. We could see the finish line from a couple kms out. Shannon ditched the last aid station, and I just grabbed a quick coke. We could see people up ahead, and Shannon just kept pushing - we passed one team, then another team, and then grabbed each others' hands to cross the finish line. We were only 9min down from the top team, and it was one of he better runs we'd had.

The tent city was at Nova Guides, right next to stream-fed ponds. We got into the clear water as soon as we could - and were joined by a couple New Zealanders (one who took his shirt off and stood very close to Shannon). The afternoon was spent watching fast-moving clouds, watching a very amorous dog try to hump multiple other dogs, and eating a lot of chips and candy.

That night had a great awards ceremony - our friend Chessa had won the 3-day solo race for women, and new friend Amy had come second.

Day 4: 14miles, 3,700ft
Shannon and I woke up at 5am, again, and ate cold chicken, potatoes, and rice (last night's dinner) out of plastic cups. The night had been the coldest yet - the alarm went off to Shannon in a sleeping bag with a down jacket covering her head. Even with that, she was still cold. We had been lulled to sleep with the noise of someone having an asthma attack in the tent next to us. As a result, being cold and stiff and creaky was pretty normal.

We started the run, and were still stiff. The day would have a lot of climbing, and we both decided to take it easier in hopes of a fast downhill. After about an hour and a half of one of the steepest jeep roads I have ever been on we finally had some downhill. Unfortunately, Shannon was starting to have some pain in her arch. Even more, her IT was a bit more. Regardless, she was positive. She stayed positive as we got passed by a couple teams - still fine. And when we got to the about 1-mile section where we were basically running through an ankle-deep creek. The creek was bottle-green with sunlight sparkling on the rocks.

At this point, an older couple wearing matching running kilts passed us. Or tried to pass us. They were slowed the husband stopping to take pictures of his wife during the deepest creek crossings. That was when we realized we might not be having the strongest day.

Finally we had some road, where Shannon promptly dropped the pace to a 4:30/km. We crossed the finish line into the tiny town of Red Cliff. I actually got dropped at the finish line - I attempted to give high-fives to our four spectators (2 of whom were Chessa and her mom), while Shannon wanted to blast on.

We did our usual freezing creek ice bath, with a bit of a twist: the creek was extra cold, and there were leeches. Shannon didn't seem bothered by either of these things ("These leeches are tiny! The leeches were much bigger in Borneo").

The finish line was right next to Mango's grill, that had good Mexican food and even better margaritas. The whole trip (and the whole time I had known Shannon)  she had been dry - I figured that, unlike me, wine was not part of her much more dedicated training regimen.) That all ended when one of the guys from the top couple teams invited her for a drink. She was hesitant, but then he told her it would help her IT band. After that, it was only a question of what she would drink - she doesn't like beer (fair enough) doesn't like wine (whaaaaat?!) but does like sweet drinks.

So that's how we ended up drinking margaritas in the noon sunshine with Rob Krar and a bunch of the awesome people from Flagstaff. On one side of me, Chessa was talking through the ins and outs of raising quail in a cage on her balcony. On the other side, Shannon was deep into a discussion of philosophy and sports psychology. There were lots of nachos, and the creek and the alcohol had numbed whatever aches my quads were feeling. It wasn't heaven, but it was damn close to it.

After the margaritas were well-drained, Shannon turned to me: "Alex, I am drunk and sunburnt and I need to be taken home." Home, in this case, was back to the Nova Guides camp." We dropped further behind the North Face team that day - a tough 30-odd minutes to catch up.

Shannon became a celebrity at the dinner that night. Earlier in the day, she had requested a toaster at the finish line food area (she thought toast and peanut butter might be better than bread and peanut butter). When this request was announced to the camp, she then got the nickname "toaster girl".

Day 5: 23.6miles, a shit-ton of climbing (4,100ft)
Oh man, this day just went on forever. It had so many highs (literally) and a couple lows.

This was the morning we re-attended the breakfast with the rest of the group. On a run that was going to be this long, it made sense to just eat whatever we wanted, as our stomachs would be the least of our troubles. I woke up with a sore throat but fresh legs.

The run started just going up forever, pretty much. We had a 14km climb. We decided to accomplish this by having Shannon and I swap life stories (when we were "power hiking"). The climb basically alternated with very personal, heartfelt information - interspersed with me being an asshole, interrupting mid-sentence with: "Okay, we need to run now". We picked up listeners as we got closer uphill, with one girl confiding: "You know what? I haven't talked to my father in five years."

The top wasn't really a top, more of a break - we climbed along a ridge, broke out of trees, then climbed some more. Around here, on singletrack down, we realized that the margaritas had not healed Shannon's leg as much a we had hoped. Downhills were slow, and I could hear her going "Ow! Ow! Ow!" behind me.

Of all the places to go a bit slower, this was it - we hit alpine meadows, with views of mountains everywhere. Bees hummed across bright flowers, and the grass was the yellow and green I hadn't seen outside of tourism brochures. I got my only wipe-out of the trip: distracted by the views I took a bit of a face-plant.

Shannon was a fighter - whenever we got to an easier grade of road, she'd announce: "And now I'm going to run like Forrest Gump!" - and, swinging her leg out to the side, she'd trundle on. The final downhill into Vail took so long, and it was on rooty, windy singletrack. Shannon pushed hard and I knew she was hurting. We could even see the village, way down. Again, we got passed by the husband and wife team wearing kilts - a bit of a low point.

We passed the finish line just under five hours. I had never been wiped like that.

The morning's sore throat had become a full-on head cold. I made the executive and wimpy decision and got us a hotel room that night. We stayed at a cheap hotel with a dubious elevator and stained carpet in a sort-of suburb of Vail - and climbing into bed for a long nap was one of the best feelings ever. The TRR shuttle even let us pick up our gear and head to the hotel. As we were pulling out of the parking lot, Shannon saw a topless guy emerging from the mobile shower van: "Alex, I want to go back to camp!". By the time I had gotten up from the nap, she was already back there.

We were way behind first - about 50mins - that day, but were just lucky and happy to make it alive down those downhills.

Day 6: 21.7 miles, 5,200ft
I had my only real hour of grumpiness as we started our climb on the final day. I couldn't breathe through my nose. I was simultaneously thirsty and had to pee. And my hip hurt (because I had fallen on it the day before). Then, as seemed to happen more and more - I felt better. Anything wrong? Run it off. We were climbing through bone-white and dark grey beech trees. Both our bodies felt solid, and with the huge amount of painkillers, Shannon's foot felt better.

So we went hard. The uphills we hiked fast, or ran slow. Downhills we pushed. There was one area, maybe my favourite area of the face. We were just winding forever down singletrack, through endless fields. The field had nettles, thin nettles, with big purple bulbs. Like they were suspended in space. It was so beautiful and so unlike anywhere else I had ever been.

Then we were on our final climb, up on two rutted lanes through fields of grass. It felt like August should feel - the faded blue sky and fast-moving clouds. The radiating heat. The grasshoppers so loud it sounded like they would break with their own noise. It was what being almost 190k deep of running in 6 days feels: how, each day, layer after layer of real life is scraped away until there is only breath, muscles, and the top of each hill.

Shannon and I crossed the finish line together in the late-summer heat. It wasn't like anything I thought would happen: it was harder, and easier, and better.

Day 6.5: 2 glasses of wine, one margarita, 0.5 of a very girly drink
We shaved our legs, put on dresses, and went to the formal awards party. Then we went to the after-party. Everyone cleaned up very well, and it was great to spend a bit more time with our new friends. Chessa and I left at midnight, and Shannon stayed later.

I had one last early morning - 4:30am to catch the flight back. On the long trip home, I cursed the last drink, my inability to drink, and my lack of water.

Huge thank yous

To my partner - my girly-drink loving, small backpack-carrying (I carried most of our gear the first couple days until we both won new backpacks), psychology-studying partner. My make-friends-with everyone partner. My partner who had never run more than 32km at a time on trails absolutely killed it. She shows me that attitude is a choice, and the right way to live is to get up and celebrate life.

FITS - Team FITS came 2nd in 21:42! For the best damn socks. No blisters. I gave extra pairs away to people who were getting blisters, and my remaining 3 pairs didn't even small that bad. Thanks for all the support!

To Chessa, Craig, Shannon - who all stayed along after racing (and rocking races) to volunteer and cheer and support - you were awesome.

To my training partners - The Ezzats (and Cleo) for being the inspiration to do this trip, and our many other great weekend runs. Matt, for pushing me up Mountain Highway way too early on a weekday. Brooke, for getting me to do a fast grind. Katie, for bringing a joy and appreciation for the outdoors on your runs. Nathan, for planning amazing trips and being such a good photographer.

And, of course, Lucy for following me every step of the way. For the support when I had my downs and didn't know what the hell I was doing. For running, and showing me how to keep going and stay positive.

To Donovan - from freaking out about us going too fast the first day (legit fear?) to dealing with the random taper crying jags.

to everyone - I couldn't believe the amount of people who found and followed us online for our results. Even in Colorado, I felt a huge part of the Vancouver running community and I am so blessed.


  1. Proof that girls do kick-ass. Congrats and thanks for the lively story!

  2. Great read and way to go. Sounds like a lot of fun.