The TransRockies Run

By Euan Lees

I was first alerted to TransRockies Run (TRR) by former FoT member Barbara Walshe; we are both big fans of the Endurance Life trail runs and Barbara assured me that I would love TRR – “it’s like Endurance Life every day, twenty miles a day for six days in a row, but with camping and proper mountains”. I realise that not all readers will feel the same love for this idea but it did quite appeal to me.

Just getting to the start line was an endurance event in itself. I originally signed up for 2020 (no race due to Covid) which rolled over to 2021 (race took place but without overseas entrants) then deferred 2022 due to ankle tendon injury. 2023 first brought a quad tendon injury (from strength training which should have been preventative) and then a nasty sciatic nerve pain which blighted my South Downs Way 50 had caused me to think about packing in this ultra stuff altogether.

However, thanks to physio Lucy and coach Liv I got a clear twelve weeks of prep including 100 miles in four days on the Cotswold Way. So I was slightly under-cooked but not dangerously so, and mainly happy to get to the start in one piece.

TRR Stage One is 31.5km long and a relatively benign 700m of ascent, starting and finishing in the 19th – century town of Buena Vista. It is considered to be “the easy stage”. Of course the main goal on day one is to pace things well enough to save energy and muscle power for the following five! There are occasional stints of walking up the steepest hills but most of the course is runnable and the Rocky Mountain scenery is, as predicted, spectacular. Trail is dusty and pine-scented; it mainly reminded me of running with Ful-On Tri in Mallorca. Some slightly technical descending towards the end. I crossed the finish line in a comfortable 3:05 and 16th place; this includes team entries (which are pairs) and 3-day runners as well as us 6-day people. TRR has only two age groups – Open and 50+; one unforeseen advantage of the deferrals is that I am now in that 50+ category and have come second, eight minutes behind Mark from California.

Each day there is a prize-giving; today the age group winner gets a TransRockies pint glass, second place wins a Mason jar and third place a shot glass. Realising the folly of giving glassware to athletes who are camping for a week and throwing duffel bags in a van each day, the organisers take the glasses back off us and bubble-wrap them for transport to the day six finish. I am thinking that this is a nice bonus for day one, and it would be great to get some more podium time this week but wow, there is a long way to go.

Day two is the shortest distance of the week (21.4km) but has the race’s highest point – Hope Pass, famous from the Leadville 100 race, which tops out at 3840m. It actually takes an hour to power-hike the steep gradient between kilometres four and seven, though we are rewarded with some spectacular views and a whiskey-toting Gandalf who announces “You Shall Hope Pass!” There follows 14km of
technical rocky tree-rooty downhill, really tough on the quads. Once again I do my own thing, some people come past me on the uphill, others on the down, but not loads either way. (I am definitely not trying to race, but other people are a useful benchmark).

I come in at 2:36, just 25 seconds behind Larry from Leadville, who was third yesterday. Larry has done Leadville 100 dozens of times so is on familiar ground. Today Larry gets the Mason jar and I get the shot glass. Mark from California is ten minutes further back, so I am, at this very early stage, leading the 50+ category. My quads are completely battered but I can only assume that everyone else is in the same boat. Recovery options at camp include massage, Normatech leg compression and a lake for cold-water immersion. I take maximum advantage of all three, plus a pizza at High Mountain Pies in Leadville (North America’s highest city).


Day three is an intimidating prospect – 39.4km and 823m climbing – the longest distance day although not too bad for ascent. In fact I am pleasantly surprised – the quads start out stiff but become manageable once moving and warmed-up. There is a steep climb from 5km to 8km, but otherwise lots of runnable stuff, mostly downhill from 18.5km to 35km then flat for last 4km.

Larry from Leadville finishes 12min ahead of me with Mark from California behind, so I am now solidly second in 50+. Finally I get the pint glass at prize-giving! For some reason I am suffering a lot with the pollen today; I also have some blistering on the soles of my heels but that’s what Compeed is for, right?

TRR camp is lively tonight as the three-day runners are finished (including celebrity runner Nev Schulman from MTV’s “Catfish”). There is a beer mile (normally my kind of thing but I’m trying to be sensible) and a band playing an impromptu gig around the campfire. Camp life each day focuses around “Chillville” and there are coolers full of beer (both Sierra Nevada and non-alcoholic Best Day Brewing) and bottles of Mersey Whiskey (you can tell what kind of race this is from the sponsors). Chillville is also great in the mornings. Although there is a dining tent offering full cooked breakfast, pancakes etc., I usually just have porridge, coffee and bagels around the campfires at Chillville.

This is where the family element of TRR really takes shape – athletes and volunteers share food and swap their stories; by now I know not just the athletes who run at my pace but also several of the minibus drivers and aid station volunteers; every day I will see Lulu at checkpoint two and she knows that I like to refill with the pink energy drink not the (caffeinated) blue one. And when I leave CP2, Lulu will invariably make an innuendo about my buns or her melons … this has simply become our routine.

Day four is another of the “short” days – 23.3km and 854m ascent – taking us from the stunning Camp Hale (former home of the US Army 10 th Mountain Division, where they trained for ski warfare) to another historic mining town, Red Cliff, where fish tacos and margaritas await us, as ordained by long- standing TRR tradition. The stage is much like stage two – an hour-long hike followed by some potentially treacherous rocky descending. I do not notice at the time but I strain a tendon in my foot on this descent; foot starts to hurt in the evening. There are also a couple of creek crossings – soaking feet are unavoidable and the heel blisters are much worse at the end of the day. Fortunately Medicine in Motion is on hand to patch us up … each day their queue gets slightly longer.

My competitors have suffered more than me – both Larry and Mark are about ten minutes behind today, so for the first time I am on the top step of the daily podium and have a 7-minute lead overall. I think that recovery is going better for me than for Larry and particularly Mark, who has had trouble sleeping.

Day five is where the serious racing starts. 39km and 1250m climbing, finishing with a 90-minute descent into Vail on the (non-snowy) ski pistes. The foot tendon seems OK-ish (thanks Medicine in Motion!) and the legs feel surprisingly good. I run for a while with Josh and Brian from the Under Armour sponsored team – they have a comfortable lead in their category so can afford to cruise along.
Larry is also having a good day – he catches me at Lulu’s checkpoint and pushes on ahead while I refuel (and receive brief innuendo). Larry and I have a burn-up for 90 minutes down those ski pistes; I lose sight of him when he passes under a ski lift but by my count he is roughly two minutes ahead.

However… when I get to the finish line, announcer Jeff says I am still leading 50+ and there’s no Larry. It turns out he took a wrong turn near the finish and followed the wrong set of flags, so instead of losing 2-3 minutes I have actually gained a couple!

I feel a bit sorry for Larry but navigation is part of the race and maybe he was pushing too hard in his attempt to break me! The competitive situation prompts a discussion of tactics with Coach Liv. Should I do my own thing and risk an in-form Larry catching me at half way again? Or just shadow him all day and try to preserve my (now 9-minute) lead? I only came here for a fun running holiday and did not expect to be worrying about competitive strategy! Liv is clearly excited about how the race is unfolding and tells me just to go with my gut … “but if ever there was a day to race, it’s tomorrow!” … thanks coach, I’m glad that one of
us is enjoying this.

Day six dawns bright and early (and we are up before dawn; it’s an early start to allow more time for the longest day: 36km of running and 1600m climbing). Larry shoots off from the start, sprinting ahead of overall race leader Hector from Mexico, so my plans are out the window and it’s all I can do to stick with Larry and hope that he slows eventually.

Which he does, as the race turns upwards. In fact we have a great chat while power-hiking the last big climb of the race – it turns out that Larry used to be a triathlete, a contemporary of Lance Armstrong, raced Hawaii Ironman when he was 18 years old and ran a 2:20 marathon when he was in college.
I start to suspect that Larry is having a bad day when a group of six (including third-place Mark and leading pro woman Courtney) comes past us on the long climb, having way too much fun. Mark chortles about leaving me and Larry to “play our little games”. I have a thirty minute lead on Mark while Larry has twenty, but surely this has to become a concern eventually? I put this to Larry, who says “if Mark beats me by an hour, then he beats me by an hour”. Not my plan! So at next aid station I increase the pace slightly and head on upwards in search of the fun brigade. They have spread out so I pick them off gradually like a forest-running ninja in a bright blue top.

It’s all relatively straightforward after that (!) barring a benign tumble while climbing over a log and a terrifying high-speed, completely out of control, descending trip which nearly ends my race completely. This last big descent is quite overgrown and I am obviously tired and not picking up my feet well enough. Lesson learned. Heart rate through the roof. The big climb and descent are followed by a lesser climb and descent (cheeky sting in the tail – thanks race organisers!) bringing us eventually to Beaver Creek ski village. I can hear announcer Jeff from a mile away and he gives every runner a rousing reception as we soak up the atmosphere down the long, flag- lined finishing straight.

My first thought is for Coach Liv – we did it! – and my finishing emotions are a mix of exhaustion, elation and aggressive competitive fist-clenching triumph!

Mark comes in about two minutes after me, jokily disappointed that I didn’t let him have a final day victory. Larry finishes nearly forty minutes later, obviously paying for his attempt to destroy us both on the ski pistes of Vail yesterday! There are no hard feelings though – it has been a very friendly rivalry – and at the final podium, during Finishers’ Dinner, we all share hugs and fill the now-familiar glassware with whiskey. Aside from winning the 50+ division, I am eighth overall; sixth individual if you discount the winning team (Josh and Brian). This seems not bad for an old man with a bunch of dormant tendon injuries.

Ever since Trans Rockies finished (ed. some time ago now – sorry for the slow posting Euan!), I have been trying to pinpoint what made this event so special. Obviously the scenery was spectacular, the weather was great, the whole thing was brilliantly organised and yes, it helps to be standing on the podium every day! But more than anything it was about the community that gets built as you spend a full week in the company of athletes and volunteers, chatting at mealtimes or in the queue for massage or shower or medical. There is no other race I’ve done where
I’ve learned the names of the aid station volunteers as well as the other runners. It really did become a family. At the beginning of the week, someone told me it would be one of the best weeks of my life. I was sceptical – you know, I’ve done some stuff in my time – but they were absolutely right. Highly recommended, five stars. Would I do it again? Probably not! I fear that the training would break me, but… never say never.

I hope that all of the above has given you a flavour of something wonderful. Further race photos have been assembled into a tuneful YouTube video here.