Imagine a trail-running vacation where you are shuttled every day to various trailheads that bring you to wild heights and stunning vistas. Imagine finishing your run or hike, and making your way to a comfortable tent that has already been put up for you. You gather your belongings, unpack what you need for the evening and next morning, and then head over to the humongous truck that has enough hot showers to help you and all of your buddies wash off all the dirt and sweat accumulated during your journey that day.
And then, once you’re all squeaky clean and warm and not smelling like the wet fur of the mountain lions and black bears that were quietly stalking you during your run, you walk into a large heated group tent, replete with a veritable smorgasbord of make-your-own taco ingredients, pasta and beautifully roasted veggies. After dinner, you saunter over to the massage table, where expert hands work out all the tightness and kinks in your muscles. You rest a bit before lounging in a comfy plastic Adirondack chair in Chillville, sipping hot chocolate or mint tea made with water you’ve carefully ladled from the big, institutional sized pot into a small paper cup. You wait for your devices to charge a bit at the charging station before you head back over to the group tent to hear a summation of the day, a briefing of the next (complete with this many million feet of vert plus that many million feet of altitude, which is totally normal), and some schmoozing and trail-jokes with your newest best friends.
Finally, if there is a fire that some beautiful soul got started in the fire pit, you hang out a bit, warming yourself up (because it is suddenly very cold), listening to one of the French guys sing and play on his guitar ever so sweetly. You warm up, eaves-dropping on the conversation between two shivering bystanders learning how to make s’mores. After a few minutes you stand up, bones creaking and muscles protesting, and shuffle slowly to your tent to bed down for the night. You wake up and repeat, only this morning you decide your left Achilles and calf muscle need taping, so you head over to the PT table before lining up at the start for another day of interminable climbs, dizzy and breathless forward movement, and panoramic vistas that many people have only seen in Outdoor magazine or on the National Geographic Channel.
This was the rhythm of my days at the TransRockies Run, a three- or six-day stage race that takes runners through 120 miles and 20,000 feet of elevation gain on every type of terrain available in the Colorado Rockies. Sand? Check. Stream crossings? Check. Super-technical, rooty and boulder-strewn trail? Check. Scree? Check. There was everything, and this event required everything I had to not even finish. I ended up traveling 72 miles with 14,250 of elevation for the duration, completing two of the six stages, but learning something about myself and my own physicality every day.
Stage one started in the beautiful mountain town of Buena Vista, where we ran down a street, onto a bridge over the Arkansas River, and finally settling in on the trail that would take us up and over many sandy hills, through single-track surrounded by dark, claustrophobia-inducing rock. From time to time we dodged the occasional dirt-biker and couples on ATVs.
This was my first glimpse at the many mountain peaks that were still covered with snow. Those jagged and smooth apices would inform every moment, every view, every struggling step forward and upward throughout the week.
On day two, we started in Vicksburg, just under 2 miles from the Sheep Gulch Trailhead that would take us up steep, windy switchbacks across and up to Hope Pass. We hiked through towering aspen, rocks, bushes just below the tree line, and finally through a landscape that I imagine must be similar to the moon’s.
At just about 12,500 of elevation I finally summited Hope Pass, almost five hours after I had started. A makeshift structure stood at the top with colorful prayer flags, both newish and frayed from the fierce winds and sudden changes in weather. The vistas from every vantage point were…they left me speechless. White, puffy clouds, some with gray shadows within, stood in contrast to the sharpness of the blue sky. The wind whipped ferociously at times and both Heather and Liz, the sweeps (who I would become fast friends with over the next few days) and I marveled at how cold it was, and did anyone need to put on their gloves?
I didn’t finish the course that day. After descending around 3 more miles from the pass and reaching a medical checkpoint, I decided along with the gentle encouragement of the medic, Barrett, that my day was done. I was in last place and traveling very slowly and it would have taken me at least two more hours to get to the finish. Heather and Liz were up for supporting me if I wanted to continue, but in the end, I decided to hike out a mile on another trail to a road where Barrett and I would be shuttled to the finish line. On that trail, which was deceptively easy at first, we talked about how we were meant to encounter each other in that moment—that, even though it had not been my desired outcome, we were destined to be on that trail, trading stories about our lives and how we happened upon each other, and traveling together with the shared purpose of finishing strong.
Even so, even with the uplifting spirit of our final mile, I questioned all of my reasons for participating in this experience. Was it worth moving on? Was it a waste of my time to have even considered embarking upon this journey that I knew would be rife with difficulty and the real, ever-present prospect of failure?
I pondered this as we waited in a trailhead parking lot in Twin Lakes. While I leaned against a tree feeling sorry for myself, my phone buzzed with an inbox from my mother. She had recently started going to the gym so that maybe one day she could do a Tough Mudder or backpacking trip with me and continue to fight the hypertension and diabetes that continue to be a scourge in the family. The blurry selfie of herself on the treadmill that she proudly sent to me and her message, I did 26 minutes, moved me to tears.
It was then that my perspective changed. I was beginning to learn that I was no match for these mountains and this altitude. But I also learned over and over again that I could at least try, and that there were far bigger reasons why I was in the Colorado Rockies doing this crazy thing. I needed to see how far my body was willing to go, and I needed to prove to myself that I could train for and do really hard things. I also needed to continue to role model the idea of chasing goals, whatever they may be, even if you know you will fail repeatedly. Even if they seem impossible to achieve. Even if they are, in a sense, impossible. Why? For the learning and self-knowledge that occurs, future goal setting, and upping the ante on your own preparations for success. My mother’s message forced me to look outside of myself and appreciate the fact that I was even able to start this journey, one that many others cannot because of physical and/or financial limitations, or simply because they cannot envision themselves engaged in such acts.
I had begun the stage with a different set of goals on day three: Start. Do as many miles as possible. Bring my body to the edge. Be smart. The first inkling of altitude sickness crept in around mile 14 at Tennesse Pass, leaving my stomach a cramped, knotted mess and my head faint. With 10 more miles to go I decided I was done. I heeded my body’s needs, and rolled into camp early, enjoying some rest, a peanut butter sandwich a volunteer brought over to my tent, and looking aimlessly out to the pond and the surrounding peaks.
The following day, we climbed Hornsilver Mountain overlooking our campsite at Camp Hale. It was a slog, but I finished the stage, my second and final.
I found myself ugly-crying 6.2 miles into stage five, chest heaving and snot and tears running down my face. My body had failed me/I had failed my body. I swayed with each step, my body leaning forward heavily on my trekking poles. I can do this. I can at least get to the first checkpoint. I can do this. I swayed one too many times, dizzy to the point that I almost fell over.
I need to stop. I’m stopping.
Nature won. Nature, with her decreased oxygen levels at 9,000 feet of elevation. Nature, with her clever ways of reminding you that she is boss. Nature smirking in my face.
Maybe next time.
The final day, I began our trek knowing in my heart and in my mind that I wouldn’t finish the 23 or so miles and 5,100 feet of elevation scheduled for that day, but I was excited to try. I still wanted to see what my body could do after having suffered through extreme dizziness, headaches, stomach pain and general fatigue over the previous 64 miles. At the first checkpoint 8 miles in, I called it a day (I would have been pulled off the course anyway), nibbled on some fruit and sipped on lukewarm water, and chatted with the medics and volunteers, enjoying my final foray into the wilds of White River National Forest.
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