Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Transrockies, take two




photo courtesy of Raven Eye photography


Transrockies is a 6 day run in the Colorado Rockies, covering 120 miles, 20,000 feet of climbing, and 2kms of running through a creek. It takes place at elevations ranging from 8,000 to 12,500 feet. It's called a run, and not race. Really, it's summer camp for adults - adults whose hobbies involve pain, walking slowly uphill, caffeinated gels, and 5:15am wake ups. It's a week spent with race organizers and crew who have names like Houda, Turbo, Florida Joe and Scooter and wear cowboy hats and flannel shirts. It's the type of event where the organizer talks about the day's events during dinner, and the day's events include a participant called "crazy Tracy" paying back $20 by sticking the bill in her cleavage and having the guy pull it out. It's a bit corny and a bit funny and a complete departure from real life. It's waking up at 5am to a chilly sunrise, steam rising off the lake, putting on damp shoes and drinking too much coffee before a stiff uphill. It's holding hands at every finish line. It's a cold tent and disorganized clothing and hanging out in lawn chairs or with foam rollers in the afternoons. It's putting on every piece of clothing and trying to fall asleep to the snores from the tent next to you. It's listening to a guy with a harmonica and a guitar in front of a camp fire as the light fades behind the mountains and the stars come out, so bright and so close.

standard TRR aid station volunteer, photo courtesy of Raven Eye photography


I don't want to wait anymore / I'm tired of looking for answers / take me some place where there's music and there's laughter
I dreamed of doing this run when I got a stress fracture diagnosis and put on a boot at the beginning of February.  I dreamed of this run when I was in the pool, doing lap after lap, as the March rain streaked the windows. I dreamed of doing this race in April when I tried to balance on one leg at the YMCA and watched the sky lighten through the windows outside. I thought of this run when I ran around the entire seawall for the first time in May, and then required needles poked into my leg the week after. When I paced Barry in the San Diego100 mile this past June and did my first slow, downhill run on trails to the early evening light, I thought of this run. And then in July, when I did my first week with 100kms of running, I thought again about how much I wanted to go to this run - and I talked to Shannon, talked again, and finally booked a plane ticket.

Our pre-race training consisted of three easy runs around False Creek, talking about boys and life, and our pre-race planning consisted of co-ordinating outfits.

Day 0

Post-afternoon thunderstorms in Buena Vista

That's how I found myself on Buena Vista the day before the race, running dusty uphills through scrubby pines, feeling like my lungs would burst. Once again, I scattered 6 days' worth of running and camping clothes across the 1970s style cabin at Pinon Court. Shannon arrived early evening, having hitched a ride from Flagstaff with a husband and wife who were running as a team for 6 days to celebrate the wife's 40th birthday. 

Day 1, really: 21miles, 2700ft
We woke up at 5:23am to my alarm clock playing "the Circle of Life" from the Lion King. Shannon did not kick my ass for this, and instead settled into writing the last exam of her university undergrad at the tiny kitchen table. She finished her exam at 7:40am, and we walked over to the start line.

I had trained for the race for a grand total of 6 weeks (4 weeks + 2 weeks taper). Both of us had no idea how our bodies would hold up. We did know that another women's team had the a former Olympian runner - so we knew we'd be gunning for second place, in the best scenario.

The race started with an uphill, climbing switchbacks on a sandy road through short pines. The sun was already hot at 8:30am. We were breathing hard, and moving not so fast. And then we looked ahead - and realized we were in third place. Shannon and I were definitely not the fittest runners, and we are not the best at hill climbs, or even sprints. But we had each other, and we had the memory of the year before, when we realized we could drop, and drop hard, on any downhill.

So we just told each other good job, told each other to keep going, and slowly passed the team and took second place. At the top of the first hill, surrounded by red rocks and a dusty road, we didn't bother with the aid station. Instead, we took a gel, took a deep breath, and kicked it downhill as hard as we could.

Like some kind of miracle, my ankle was pain free. We kept dropping - skimming over rocks, taking sharp turns, and muscling up the remaining climbs. It was hot, and getting hotter. I ran out of water the final stretch - a slight uphill on a dirt road with far-off clouds.

We finished - first place was far, so far ahead of us. But we had a 20-minute lead on third. And that day we realized that, yes, we would have to work, and work hard for it, but we could do this.

The first night at the camp, we squeezed into a yurt with Shannon's new friends from Flagstaff and tried to settle into a jumpy sleep.



Day 2 - Vicksburg to Twin Lakes - 13.2 miles, 3100 feet
The day started at 5:30am where I woke up five people in a yurt to the sounds of the Lion King.

At the pre-race briefing the night before, the weather was discussed. Particularly, the forecasted thunderstorm over Hope Pass. Shannon and I came up with a race plan for the day - the plan basically consisted of not getting struck by lightning and dying.

When it came time to start the long climb up switchbacks, we jogged a bit. Then power hiked. Then ultra walked. Then observed how the third place and fourth place teams were right behind us - and not just behind us, but chatting easily. To be fair, there were also several guys - teams and solos - who were also talking a suspicious amount. We told them - go ahead, pass us. No, it turned out they just wanted to check us out.

Some people, at the top of Hope Pass - with the lake spread off in the distance, with the clouds moving over huge peaks - took pictures. Some people, the year before, got engaged. Photos show people doing handstands, jumps, any type of poses. For me and Shannon - we saw the girls ahead of us, trusted our downhill legs would kick in, let out huge yells, and cut the brakes down the loose rock, down along roots and streams and switchbacks as fast as we could go.

At the beginning of the race, I started talking to a fellow running skirt-wearer. We both agreed that skirts were better than compression gear, because everything was a bit, um, free-er. As we moved downhill, I saw my friend ahead of us, skirt flapping in the breeze. I yelled: "Hey skirt buddy, how's your crotch?!" She was wearing headphones, and didn't hear me. So I yelled it again. And again once more. (Shannon: "It's fine, you can say things like that. Just don't drag me into it.")

Finally we were done the long downhill, and we rolled alongside Twin Lakes. Through trees, along a rocky shore, past abandoned houses.

The finish line had us sweating in harsh sunlight, racing into the lake to ice before the clouds passed over the sun.

We crammed five of us into a Super 8 motel room. We showered, and Shannon dried and straightened her hair until my crankiness and hunger forced us out to an awesome Leadville coffee shop in search of food (and possibly cute runners who were competing in that weekend's Leadville 100 mile race).

at 10,000 feet, you wear socks with sandals


Day 3 - Leadville to Nova Guides, 24.4 miles, 2800 feet
I woke up already feeling caffeinated, and immediately stepped on Mike, who was sleeping on the floor. The thunderstorms from the night before were gone. On the way to breakfast, we admired the now-snow-covered peaks in the distance - then realized we might well be running through snow ourselves if the weather in Colorado continued to try to kill us.

The race started right on Leadville's main street. We ran about half an hour on the side of a highway until the turn onto an uphill dirt road was a relief. The third and fourth place teams (our fellow Vancouver-ites, Tory and Katrina, and a strong team of former cross-country runners from Oregon) clicked past us on the uphill. We ran when we could, and walked most of the time. We kept up with our "run like Oprah" strategy, where we told each other good work, told each other to keep the pace reasonable, as runner after runner passed us.

As soon as we topped over the hill, the downhill legs kicked. It seemed like we went downhill forever - down a rutted jeep road, across the highway, and onto the Colorado trail, weaving through pines under a grey sky and a few raindrops. It was a long day, and all the runners were spread out. It was just me and Shannon out there, ticking off distance. We ran through open fields with thunderheads over the mountains, wound along the side of a valley, and, finally, out onto a dirt road. At the end of the road, at the far side of the valley, nestled against the mountains, was the finish line.

By this point, my lack of running base was started to show, and I was struggling. Shannon, however, had recently had caffeine. This means that, while I was panting along, running into a headwind, Shannon was singing me love songs. After a walk break on the final uphill, continuing my tradition of wimping out about 1km from the finish, we crossed the day's line holding hands.

We sat in the lake, then I had a shower and immediately fell asleep in the tent. After eating about a pound of potato chips I felt better enough to brave the foam rollers in the massage tent. One of the really fast guys joined me and showed me some foam roller "tips". Holy hell. The tips basically involved finding really painful positions and holding them until you wanted to vomit. So I did this for an hour, alternating with stretching and yoga and swearing at my quads.

evening campfire


Day 4 - Nova Guides to Red Cliff, 2800 feet, 14 miles
That night in the tent was cold - really cold. The alarm went off at 5:30am, and I stepped out to a bright moon in the lightening sky, with clouds rising out of the valley. 



The route was basically a big climb and a big downhill. About ten minutes into the run, the Oregon girls passed us. Another five minutes, and Katrina passed us (their team strategy was a bit different than ours: one would go ahead for uphills, and the other would catch up on the downhills). We were both  breathing hard, going as fast as we could, which basically translated to very slow walking.

As people continued to pass us, I started to get a bit anxious. Then Shannon announced she had to go to the bathroom, and jogged into the forest. At the same time, the other member of the Vancouver team passed us, whereby I impatiently yelled at Shannon that she had gone into the forest far enough, damnit, we had to get back there on the trail. (me, later: "I am sorry, that behaviour was unacceptable. You can go to the bathroom as much as you like.")

photo courtesy of Raven Eye photography


We crested the climb to open meadows, and slowly shuffle-ran to get closer to the two teams ahead of us. This passing sounds really dramatic, but what actually happened was that the other two teams slowed at the top so we could all be in a group selfie photo. After posing, Shannon and I trundled on. And finally, thank god, had our downhill legs. We kicked it down and down and down until we hit a section that was brutal for us last year: a couple kilometers through a creek bed. This time was different: the water was bottle green and clear and cool, with the sunlight making bright webbing on the rocks. Our footing was solid, and we were so happy. The finish had us on gentle downhill and strong legs, high-fiving other runners just before the finish.

The run finished in Red Cliff (pop. 275). To help our legs recover, we jumped in the world's coldest creek. Out of dedication to not sucking on the next day's downhill, I made it an entire 5 minutes in the water (Shannon did 10 minutes: "That's fine, you can get out of the water early and be slow tomorrow.''). I was so chilled after that my changing basically consisted of me telling the guys to look the other way and putting on dry clothes immediately after getting out of the water.

We ate nachos and guacomole in the sunshine on the third-storey floor of Mangos restaurant. The altitude killed our normal appetites, and even Shannon's desire for margaritas (Shannon only likes sweet drinks).

Returning to the camp, the weather was still a bit sunny with a stiff wind. Our run clothes finally had dried from the day before, so we hung out the day's run clothes. This is an important detail, because we were hanging out in the Nova Guides lodge as the sky darkened. A small drizzle started. We looked at the sky and decided, no, the rain will just pass. This was not the correct answer. The sky got even darker, and then there was thunder. And a rain so hard we could barely see the mountains. And then, to further reinforce that Colorado weather wanted to kill us, it started to hail. So what I am saying is that our clothes got the very opposite of dried (thank god we brought plastic bags!).

I would like to note that I was very grateful to be on the podium every night, and for the amazing prizes we received. However, I would also like to note that this was the 2nd year in a row that the Day 4 prize resembled something out of a sex catalogue.

Shannon smacked me shortly after this picture was taken

That night it was really cold, with the damp coming straight up from the ground. My memory of the night is that I wore every single piece of warm clothing I brought, and then tried to move my sleeping bag right next to Shannon's in order to generate some warmth. Shannon's recollection is somehat different: "She just kept trying to get on top of me until I was pressed right up against the side of the tent." Needless to say, neither of us slept particularly well.

Day 5 - Red Cliff to Vail, 23.2 miles, 4100 ft
To say this route started on an uphill is not entirely correct. This route was pretty much all uphill - for 2.5 hours, we climbed and climbed and climbed - back through a valley, up switchbacks through meadows on a dirt road, then through low pines on singletrack. Somewhere in the first couple hours, the two other teams passed us, and we were in fourth place. I remembered the day before, and how we dropped downhill. As the girls ahead of us got farther and farther in the distance, we just kept telling ourselves we would catch up later. And, weirdly enough for a type-A, semi-anxious, completely competitive person - I believed.

Sure enough, at the top of the first big climb, we dropped down onto a winding, rooty trail, to catch up and get into third place. We pushed, and kept pushing - as we broke out on the back side of vail, past the trees, to mountains on all side and white clouds racing across the sky. We ran slowly, and walked quickly, up the final climb to the top of Vail mountain - switchbacks through wildflowers into a stiff cold breeze.

photo courtesy of Raven Eye photography


Finally, we got to the final long downhill, and caught sight of the Oregon team. We kicked, kicked hard, and kept going, down the 1kms of singletrack, through forests and across fields, until we finally got to Vail.

We arrived right in the village, hot and sticky and dusty, and plunged into the creek.



The campsite looked like a postcard from a vacation too good to be true. Our wet clothing dried in the stiff wind and hard sunlight. People lounged on the grass, rolled out on yoga mats, got ready for one last day.



Day 6 - Vail to Beaver Creek, 22 miles, 4300ft
And then it was 5:30am, and I was up before my alarm. The sky was cloudless and pale purple. One last time we packed our gear, laced up our shoes, filled up our water.

We went out, and we went out hard - as did the 3rd and 4th place team. We jogged more than we ran up switchbacks , until Vail was once again tiny and we entered a forest of Aspen trees - bone white and straight. At the top of the first climb, we were ahead - not by much, and we were working hard, but it was enough. Down one long climb, just the two of us, alone, through a field of nettles, descending on the edge of a narrow valley.

After 5 days, after 170kms and almost 20,000 feet and too many gels to count - we were on the final climb to Beaver Creek.

A year ago, we had done the same climb - the same burn in the legs, late-summer heat, weaving yellow grass and roasting pine needles. Later that year, in December, I showed up and Shannon's apartment and cried until I shook, cried because it felt that my world was ending. Later still, in February, Shannon struggled to race a half-marathon while I cheered her on in a boot. Later still, she stopped hard workouts, then stopped even easy running for a while.

At that moment - jogging when we could, walking the rest - we were back, as if we had never left. We were moving - had been moving the whole time, since the day we finished the race in 2013. 

Later, that day, we would cross the finish line, holding hands, and hug. We would gratefully respond to the texts and messages of our run community cheering us on back home, in Vancouver, and the rest of our trail friends. We would shower for a long, long time, put on makeup, put on a dress, drink too much and laugh until we were exhausted.

But that one last climb, I kept moving past the thoughts of the people back home, past my apartment, full of light and waiting for me, past my new job, past the ocean and the sunsets and the life I had settled into. I kept moving past pain, and past regret, and past love and sadness and it was just me and Shannon, together in the mountains under the wide blue sky.



Thank yous

FITS Socks
My feet were comfortable and blister free through heat and hail and way too many stream crossings. I wore the same pair of socks for 4 days straight and it didn't even smell bad. During the nights at below freezing, my feet were the only warm part of me.

Also - as a company, FITS stood by me when I was injured for months, and didn't race for over half a year.

My amazing partner
Who planned her Day 6 banquet outfit well in advance, who wrote her final undergrad exam at 5:30am on our first day, who laughed and toughed out the uphills and sang to me on the flats. I didn;t know what my body would do on this run, but I knew that being part of our team made my head and my heart strong enough to make it through day after day in the Rockies, and I am so grateful for our friendship.

The best friends and community
To Lucy, who went with me on the first stiff trail runs to Norvan falls, and who jogged slowly next to me as I walked the downhills. Who had me over for countless dinners, tried to teach me how to knit celebrated each 10 minute baby-run with me. Who did her own amazing first marathon this year, and taught me how to celebrate the process, do as much as a body can, and love the rest of my life while I'm at it.

To Craig, who biked from North Vancouver to downtown at 5:30am during busy season to meet me to swim in the tiny pool at the Y. Who stopped asking me how my runs were, and started asking how my swims were when injured, and kept me feeling like an athlete.

To Barry, who trusted me enough to let me pace him in San Diego and finally get a taste of what running in a beautiful place is like.

To the VFAC and trail community - to Nic, who convinced me on my taper it was better to be fast than it was to be skinny. To Brian and April, who swam with me on dreamy evenings at second beach and learned to belay, and played game after game of hearts in the sunshine with too much wine - who helped teach me that there is more to life than running, and helped me to have one of the best summers of my life. To Katie, who went around False Creek with me, as we have early mornings for the past three years, where every run and conversation, if it's days or weeks or months apart, feels like coming home. To Andrea, who joined me for yoga and drinks and made me the best racing tutu ever. To Anthony, who paced me and pushed my very cranky self up the grind in the early mornings. To Ramsey, who answered so many phone calls or texts with me in tears, who gave me hope and positivity and the strength to believe I'd get better. To Allison, who picked me up at 6am in West Vancouver to drag me to yoga. To James, who has been running begrudgingly for over five years, who provides the best sarcasm and "British encouragement" out there (sample quotes: "Is that your maybe meeting some boys face? You may be aiming too high." or "After being shamed on FB I just did 10km in the baking heat. Now have blisters between my toes. I think I need your special socks.") To Seth and Lauren, for coming out after almost-pacing Leadville to visit with us, to show me that you can meet someone for an hour a year ago and it turns into a great friendship.

To everyone who sent us e-mails or texts or wished us luck or ran with us - not caring if we placed first or tenth, but wanting us to be happy and healthy - I am so lucky to be part of this amazing community.



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