[Canadian couple Sara Montgomery and Derrick Spafford ran the 2011 GORE-TEX TransRockies run this August after winning their entry in an iRunFar contest. Below they share their stories from the race.]
Sara: Everyone calls this race “Summer Camp”, but coming off a very long period of injury and now trying to rebuild fitness, I suspect for me it will feel more like boot camp. It has been too long since an event has intimidated me like this, and I relish the fearful excitement.
Derrick: I know the upcoming days will be challenging, but am looking forward to running the race as part of a team with Sara. I’ve never raced as part of a team, and it’s this part that really intrigues me. Not only going through your own checklist, but also helping to problem solve any issues that my partner may have along the way.
Stage Zero: Getting to the Start Line is Half the Battle
Our flights to Denver are cancelled due to thunderstorms across New York State, so we only get as far as Syracuse, NY on our first day of travel. The next day, after a full day of rescheduled flying, we have missed all the shuttles to Buena Vista, so the race arranges for us to drive one of their rented trucks to the race. Before we even escape from Denver’s highways we are stuck in a two-hour traffic delay. We have no water in the truck and we’re tempted to try buying some from vehicles around us. We force ourselves to stay positive but are growing weary. We finally get into Buena Vista after dark the night before the race.
Stage One: Buena Vista to Railroad Bridge
(20.8 miles/2,500 feet ascent/max elevation 9,336 feet)
Derrick: Downtown Buena Vista is a bustle of 360 runners from 13 different countries competing in the three-day solo race or six-day team race. We are impatient to get running and let the race and days on the trail take care of themselves. As soon as the gun goes off, the excitement of the event takes over from the fatigue of travel. I thought it would be cool in the mountains, so I’m surprised at the intensity of the heat as the initial hours go by. The thermometer on my watch confirms this as I see a reading of 102F. I decide not to share this information with Sara as she really seems to be struggling with the heat. The sand-covered canyons are very fascinating to run through, but offer no shady relief from the sun.
Sara: Cloud cover this morning makes me decide to not bring a hat. Soon after starting, the sun blasts down fiercely through the thin air. After an hour, tiredness and the heat catch up with me, and I downgrade the pace and wonder how on earth I am going to even finish this stage, let alone the entire race. By the time we wind our way to the second aid station at 14 miles, I ask the crew if there will be any shade on the remaining miles. After hearing no, I duck behind the shade of a truck and don’t want to leave for fear I might pass out. Derrick lends me his hat for a stretch, and we trade it back and forth several times on the next leg. On the last four miles of seemingly endless dirt road, I am reduced to a walk several times. I can’t believe I’m so fried already. I am totally demoralized.
Stage Two: Vicksburg to Twin Lakes Dam
(13.8 miles/3,200 feet ascent/max elevation 12,532 feet)
Sara: A new day, and I’m determined to stay well within myself for the first hour, and we drop into a long line of people making their way up Hope Pass. The hiking is at an easy pace, and it feels good to be comfortable. I want to enjoy parts of this week without being miserable, so I ask Derrick not to pass much. I feel bad, being so much slower than him, and I know at times like this it will be frustrating for him. The week before we had discussed each doing the Run-3 option instead, so we could go our own pace, but in the end we wanted to do it together.
We hit the top of the climb feeling fresh, so we fly down the backside of the trail. Running down on the more technical dirt is incredibly fun. We are passing teams and having a blast. The down goes on for miles, and I hope I am saving enough for later and not doing too much damage to my quads. Finally, we reach the level ground of the last five miles of single-track that run along Twin Lakes, and I am determined to keep running strong. A few miles in I start to tire and we finally decide to tow. Derrick is feeling good, and on the slight upgrades it helps me keep up a better pace. I feel ambivalent about it – it helps even up our team, but am I like one of those people being short-roped up Everest because I can’t do it on my own? Only after the race do I realize how many teams relied on it, and make my peace with it as simply being a potential part of teamwork in a race like this.
Derrick: After wilting in the heat yesterday, the goal today is to get through the stage feeling good. The shuttle bus to the start of the race takes us to much-cooler Vicksburg, so this is encouraging. We begin on a few miles of rolling dirt road before switching onto single-track and the climb up Hope Pass. This is a section of the race that I have been looking forward to after having heard so much about this famous climb. The long train of runners on the narrow trail necessitates us moving at a slow pace, but that’s fine. A part of me wants to pass whenever possible, but I know it’s probably best to hold back a little. The altitude starts to play havoc with some and we pass a few runners who are throwing up from the exertion in the thin air. We feel fairly good in this sense and are glad that we spent some time sleeping in an altitude tent in our sea level home in Ontario. The views at the top of Hope Pass are spectacular, and we look up at Mount Hope and Quail Mountain and down the other side to Twin Lakes. The descent is a welcome relief from the hard miles of climbing and has us flying downhill bordering on recklessness. We know we should probably be a little more careful on this remote section of trail, but throw caution to the wind.
Stage Three: Leadville to Nova Guides
(24.3 miles/2,700 feet ascent/max elevation 11,004 feet)
Sara: I’m falling hard, sliding along the dirt. I swear loudly and repeatedly as if the words will somehow shield me. I look down to see a stone lodged in my hand, and when instinctively I pull it out it leaves a gaping, ugly hole. My heart is racing and Derrick tries to calm me down. We can go back to the aid station, get help, he says. Eventually I see it isn’t going to bleed a lot, so I decide to keep going, get to the end. We wrap it in Derrick’s buff and I’m pissed and start running better than I have since we arrived. The jolt of adrenaline has helped my sore legs and given me energy. Earlier, on the pavement out of Leadville, and then the steep climbs and descents, my sore, tired legs once again left me discouraged. Now, on the Colorado Trail, we find our kind of running – rolling single-track, and more technical than we’ve run on yet. Winding through the edge of a huge valley, I dare to gaze at the scenery when the path is even so I won’t trip again. The valley is beautiful and wild and reminds me of the Canadian Rockies.
After the final aid station the trail spits us out onto another horrid, hot road, but we’re almost to the day’s finish. Derrick spots a team we should try to reel in, and I’m game. We tow past, me compelled to work harder than I would on my own but going faster. When we reach the last descent into Camp Hale, with the sun beating down, I want to run it in myself. I feel strong, but then fifty yards from the finish my body suddenly shuts down. I can’t breathe, and I have to stop. This is crazy and I don’t care if the entire field passes by. In a few seconds the worst is over, and we jog to the finish. We spend the rest of the afternoon going to get my hand stitched up in Leadville. Sitting in the doctor’s office, hours after finishing the stage, my heart rate is still 145. I’m not keen on antibiotics or having a tetanus shot, but they talk me into both. After we are done, we finally get some food, and I gradually start to feel normal again as we head back to camp.
Derrick: Today is a mix of emotions. In one sense we are firmly planted in the race now and seem to have gotten into a groove. It’s tough going, but Sara and I are working well together and feel encouraged from this. In fact, we seem to be inspired as soon as we get to the beautiful Colorado Trail and our pace quickens noticeably. We’ve started passing some teams and continue to look ahead, all while enjoying the beauty of the trail we’re running on. Then all of a sudden Sara goes down hard on the ground and plucks a good size rock out of her hand, exposing raw tendon. We discuss going back to the previous aid station, but with surprisingly little bleeding Sara opts to wrap it up and keep moving forward to the finish. I am stunned, inspired, saddened and frantic all at the same time.
We continue on and finish out the stage strong before making the trip to the medical tent, and eventually a visit to the 10K Medical Clinic in Leadville where Sara gets stitched up and given a tetanus shot and antibiotics. Even though all of these things are not ideal for optimal running, the thought of dropping out does not cross her mind. We are grateful for the excellent care provided by the medical team at the race.
Stage Four: Nova Guides to Red Cliff
(14.2 miles/2,800 feet ascent/max elevation 11,679 feet)
Sara: A short day again, but with a steeper ascent than Hope Pass. I start out feeling strong, but when the grade gets ridiculous I put my head down and hike up as best I can. The down is very runnable but I’m cautious, not wanting to fall again. Finally at the bottom, a rocky creek bed feels amazing to run through and numb the feet. I want to lie down in it. The last couple of miles on a dirt road is a nice easy down grade and I finish feeling good. The stage was encouraging, and it is helpful to have a longer time in camp afterwards. It’s nice to relax and enjoy hanging out with friends old and new. The crew at TransRockies is fantastic and looks after all our needs.
Late that night I gaze up at the stars over Camp Hale and make note of the Big Dipper looking just as it did in our backyard the night before we left. I think of Bill Bowerman training here in 1943 with the 10th Mountain Division, maybe gazing up at a similar sky. It’s a unique place, and I feel fortunate to be here.
Derrick: As a race director myself, I’m noticing all the things that the TransRockies team does on a daily basis to keep the operation running smoothly. The remoteness of Camp Hale, where we are for two nights, has me shaking my head in awe at the precision of the team. I am amazed at the logistics involved with picking up and moving camps, providing excellent meals, a hospitality tent, daily awards, videos and slideshows each day and a detailed preview of the next day, countless portable toilets, a mobile shower truck, plus an assortment of really cool swag for all participants. No detail has been left out – there is even a place to charge cell phones and GPS running watches.
Stage Five: Red Cliff to Vail
(23.6 miles/4,100 feet ascent/max elevation 11,698 feet)
Derrick: I rarely listen to music while running, and have never listened to it during a race…until today. With the first eight miles being a long uphill dirt road grind, both Sara and I decide to bring our iPods as a diversion. It’s at this point of the race that I notice my legs no longer have the same soreness or fatigue of the first few days of the race. It almost seems like they are adapting to the added stress of all the climbing and descending that the race is throwing at me, and I feel I could keep going on for long after each stage is complete. Being diligent with hydration, fueling and electrolytes, in addition to simply putting one foot in front of the other, seems to have me in a very pure, almost primal place. This is the feeling that I came for and the alpine surroundings make it all that much sweeter.
Sara: I’m starting to feel stronger and more confident, but the stages are also getting harder. We start with eight miles straight up on a dirt road, and I run strong for about six of them before I start to fall off. Derrick tows to help me until we get to single-track. I try to get my breathing back, but am in a hole and the trail keeps going up for miles. The ribbon of single-track up on the ridge offers a reprieve as it winds through the most beautiful part of the course so far. Wildflowers are in bloom, and snow-splotched mountains surround us against the perfect blue sky. It is stunning up here at over eleven thousand feet.
I need more downhill so I can further recover, but uphills continue to rise in front of us. Once we climb into Vail Ski Area and pass the second checkpoint, I think I am home free, but then an exposed dirt road incline almost breaks me; I am so shattered and now my gut is starting to reel from the drugs. I didn’t know I could go down through so many layers of self-induced suffering, and I ask myself the dreaded, unhelpful question of why I put myself through these things. Finally, mercifully, we start going down for real, and I can finally just let gravity help me out. I’m satisfied to break five hours, and to know there is just one more stage remaining.
Stage Six: Vail to Beaver Creek
(23.6 miles/5,000 feet ascent/max elevation 9,532 feet)
Sara: I’m excited to tackle the last day. We head out on a road section through Vail that leads to trails up and then down a few times before a big final up, then one last short down to the finish. The last uphill in particular is a struggle, but at this point everyone is struggling. We pass the couple who are honeymooning at TransRockies and I feel a wave of affection for them, maybe from having spent our own honeymoon on a trail.
The last two miles down into Beaver Creek we spot a team ahead of us that Derrick tells me are three minutes back from us in the cumulative total. I mis-hear him and think we have to make up three minutes so I start racing as hard as I can down the ski hill. I know it is too much of a deficit to gap, but I’m feeling the pull of the finish anyway. After we cross the line we sort out the miscommunication and have a good laugh. Later we find out that we ended up in sixth in Mixed 80+ by only 17 seconds, so that last effort was useful.
Derrick: Today’s stage looks long and tough, but by now we know we will finish. The climbing is relentless, but we keep plugging away knowing with every step that we are approaching the end. We pass a number of people who we’ve seen regularly throughout the race, and a few people who have finished ahead of us in previous stages and this spurs us on. I think of all the people out on the course and all of the different reasons they are running, what they are going through, the personal demons and battles that they are up against. I am amazed at the high percentage of runners who complete the race. I feel a sense of the race having been an effort that we all shared against this beautifully rugged and challenging terrain.
Stage Seven: Irene
Sara: After a fantastic final banquet and the most luxurious hotel room ever, we head home. Only nothing is that simple on this trip, and we have all our flights cancelled on this leg too, this time due to Hurricane Irene. The details are not worth dwelling on; we eventually make it back, and life returns to normal. Except that, for how many times the TransRockies Run chewed me up and spit me out, I know I’ll be stronger for it. It was just the thing to get me back to where I left off in 2009. That’s what boot camp is for.
Many thanks to the wonderful people at iRunFar, Gore, La Sportiva; to our fellow racers, and all our family and friends; and to two extremely helpful American Airlines ticket agents.
A special thanks to each of the 100 TransRockies staff and volunteers for the hard work that they put into the event and the extra effort across the board. One of these unsung heroes is Magi Scallion, who may have single-handedly saved the race on the last day. One of Magi’s jobs was to pre-ride the course on her mountain bike to make sure that the trail had not been tampered with. During Magi’s pre-ride of Stage Six she discovered that someone had take down all of the trail markers near the end of the race. With the race ticking down and the potential for runners to become lost – not to mention a great deal of prize money at stake – Magi biked at breakneck speeds to go back for more marking tape and redo the missing miles. Her exhausting and stressful five hours of hard riding and trail marking was completed just 15 minutes before the first runners arrived. All of the week’s tremendous efforts by TransRockies staff were exemplified in this final act by Magi.