Nathan Stage 5: Red Cliff to Vail
24.1 miles / 4,100 feet elevation gain
Having dabbled in the world of ultra-marathons, I’m familiar with the saying “it hurts up until a point, and then it doesn’t get any worse.” But what I experienced on day 5 of the TransRockies run was a real shocker:
I woke up in the morning and nothing hurt.
Nothing. Not even a twinge of soreness. Not a single reminder that I had already put in over 73 miles of running and hiking, while ascending over 11,000 feet of elevation gain in only 4 days time. The previous morning I had struggled to hobble from my tent to the port-a-potty, and not 24 hours later I felt as fresh as I did when I hopped off the plane in Denver. I’ve heard accounts of similar things happening to AT and PCT thru-hikers, but certainly didn’t expect it to happen to me so soon. It was almost as if all of my muscles and joints waved the white flag and said “Okay, FINE, we give up, we surrender, you clearly aren’t going to quit before we hit 120 miles, so we’ll stop protesting.”
Thank you, body.
This stage would end our time at Nova Guides/Camp Hale, so after 48 hours of calling it our “home”, it was time to pack up. Breakfast in our bellies, duffel bags turned in, and onto the shuttle bus to the start line. (For those of you following along, Geoff’s port-a-potty time actually bumped us OUT of the packed van and into the nicest shuttle we had been on yet. This totally made up for pre-stage 2 disappointment.) Stage 5 began exactly where stage 4 ended: at Mango’s Mountain Grill in Red Cliff. Only instead of serving margaritas, they were serving coffee, and offering up a warm place to wait for the start of the race. Being the coldest morning yet, I was thrilled for a warm place to bide my time before having to head to the starting corral.
Into the corral we go. I’m already wearing all of my required gear, short of the emergency blanket, but don’t think I didn’t contemplate throwing it over my shoulders. Man, I’m a cold weather weenie. “Highway to Hell” plays (you guys know the drill by now!), and we are off.
The day starts the opposite way that stage 4 finished, with a run back up the hill towards where we took a shot of Fireball at check point #2 the previous day. But instead of turning right and heading into the freezing cold creek at that intersection, we keep heading up the hill on the long dirt road. And on and on we go, for nearly 8 miles. It was a beautiful road, but it was a dirt road none the less. No roots to trip over, no single track to cause traffic jams, just a nice wide road.
Like every other day, my body has a hard time waking up in the high altitude. We start at 8,650 feet, but my lungs still protest…thought thankfully not as harshly as they did the day before. Mentally, I’m feeling content. We have 24.1 miles to run this day, the second longest day of the race. I’ve gotten pretty good at compartmentalizing the stages at this point. I don’t think about tomorrow. I don’t think about yesterday. Hell, I don’t even think about the 20+ miles ahead of me that very day. I just focus on where I am and how I feel in that very moment, and I go with it.
I’ve found that running WITHOUT a GPS has been a huge help in this ability to live and run in the mile I’m in at that very moment. Because essentially, I had no idea WHAT mile I was in at any given moment (the course was not marked with mileage). I also had no idea how fast…or lets be real…how slow I was moving. All I knew was which check point I was headed for, and a rough estimate of how long it should take me to get there. And so instead of obsessively checking my pace or distance, and over analyzing everything, I was able to just enjoy my surroundings.
At about mile 8 we reach the first check point. I grabbed my new go-to fuel: stroople. SO much more fun to say than Stroopwafel. Say it with me, strooooople! But it was just cold enough out still that the stroop was rock hard, so I got the genius idea to stuff it into my sports bra, and save it for later. Instead I devoured a Chocolate Outrage GU (the only flavor I like – it tastes like cake frosting) and a cup full of sour cream and onion potato chips. Have I mentioned enough during these last five blog posts how AMAZING potato chips taste during a long race? No? Well let me say it again: potato chips taste amazing during long races. #FueledByPotatoChips is going to be my new hashtag. Maybe the state of Maine will start sponsoring me. Or Idaho. I’m not picky.
We take a right off of the road and hit some absolutely pristine single track. I’m kicking myself now because all of my pictures of this section are downright atrocious. I swear one of these days I’ll get a really good camera, and further, I’ll learn how to pull over, stop moving, and take a clear picture. None of this pictures while running stuff. I can’t even edit what I have of this section to look half way decent.
We climb, and we climb some more, and as is the theme with every other day, the climbs reveal to us the most AMAZING views you can imagine. Everything is so green and lush, *this* is exactly what I had pictured Colorado to look like in the summer.
We are on the very backside of Vail Resort, a place I would have honestly thought I’d never set foot on in my life. Mostly because I don’t ski. That’s right, a kid who grew up in Vermont that doesn’t ski. The list of my anomalies is never ending. The single track continues, but opens up to a ridgeline that consists of green fields full of wildflowers. The sky was perfectly blue, and I’m feeling freaking fantastic. Good enough to do this:
We stop at what appears to be a summit for some photos. You know, blurry Heather photos:
I’m told we maxed out at 11,697 feet on this day, and if I had to guess, it was somewhere near this point in the stage. Today I feel great. None of the dizziness and difficulty breathing that I experienced the day before during stage 4, though we are at nearly the exact same altitude. It’s very funny how it works that way.
Soon after our photo shoot, the first downhill began.
Up until this point, most of our descents have been pretty clean, pretty untechnical, even when very steep. But this trail, a mountain bike trail on the back side of Vail mountain, was pretty gnarly with tons of rocks and tree roots. I LOVED it. It reminded me so much of the trails back in Vermont which would without fail send me flying through the air, only to end up with some sort of abrasion.
Fortunately, I didn’t fall on this day. I did, however, nearly get plowed down by a mountain biker. Just kidding, he was in total control, and actually laughed when Geoff and I jumped as he rolled by, remarking calmly and casually “don’t worry guys, I won’t run you over”.
And of course, I didn’t get any good photos, but I really want to share how beautiful the trail was, soooo…here’s someone who isn’t me, running down aforementioned trails.
The gnarly trail climbed briefly, and though short, it was very steep. A guy in front of me stopped, sat down on a log, and declared to everyone and no one in particular “this is a good place to eat my potato.” Though eating potatoes is NOT out of the norm for ultra running, the whole situation seemed incredibly amusing to me. Man I love this silly, ridiculous sport. The climb ended quickly, and then the trail descended again. Geoff and I picked up a good bit of speed through here, passing numerous people. We even got a “Not too bad for some sea level runners!” compliment as we passed by, which made my day.
The downhill eventually ended (I think it lasted approximately two miles), and we were on the true backside of Vail ski resort. As in, the part people ski on. Now, as mentioned, I’m not a skier, and pretty much spent the next few miles exclaiming “PEOPLE SKI DOWN THIS? How do they not break every bone in their body trying to SKI down this?!” We were in something called a “bowl”, (Mongolia Bowl, I believe?) which I am sure is making all of you ski/snowboard enthusiasts giggle, but I had no idea what that meant…until I saw it with my own eyes. A bunch of mountain peaks converged together to make almost a bowl shaped valley. Apparently, this is fun to ski down.
And so we climbed. Long, though thankfully not overly steep, switchbacks that brought us to the very top of Vail mountain.
Once we hit the summit, we crossed another narrow ridgeline that warned me NOT to ski down the backside, for it was closed, and no longer on Vail property. Don’t you worry Vail, I promise to stay on trail.
A quick hands and butt scramble down a rock face (that’s right, I sat on my butt and scooted down) and we were at the second aid station, which had been moved to mile 15+ ish.
Now, friends, was the time I finally got to pull out the Bra Stroople and give it a taste test. That’s right, I’ve been running for 7 miles with a Stroopwafel in my sports bra. In the wrapper, don’t worry. It was warm and chewy and totally worth the potential chaffage. Oh, the strange things you do while running.
I sit down to take my shoes off and brush out the bits of sand and debris that have made their way into my shoes. For whatever reason, I chose not to wear gaiters that day, and that choice was resulting in some serious hot spots on my instep. Luckily I had packed the tiny tube of anti-chafing gel that had come in my last Cairn box. I put some on the hot spots, and that was the end of that problem for the day. While I was tending to my feet, an awesome volunteer asked if there was anything I needed.
“Yes, I need a Stroop to replace the one I just took out of my bra”. The volunteer didn’t even blink, grabbed me another, and laughed as I shoved it down the front of my bra.
Today I was totally feeling a picture with the shark…
We were now in the depths of the Vail Resort, as was to be seen by the hoards of mountain bikers at the summit. We head across a bit more of a ridgeline, and then the descent begins. About 8 miles worth. On paper (or, computer screen, as it may be) 8 miles of downhill running sounds AWESOME. In reality, it kind of hurts after awhile. Your knees start to feel the constant impact of every foot strike, and your quads begin to burn with the seemingly never ending muscular contraction.
We’re on some sort of old jeep road / ski slope, and we just keep running down. Suddenly we turn onto some single track, and aid station / check point #3 appears just a few miles later at the top of another ski lift, and next to a very busy ski lodge. We can SEE it, but still have a significant amount of switchbacking to go before we can actually GET to it. This section of trail is as single track as they come, if your foot is even a few inches off to one side or another, you’re going to twist an ankle. It’s steep. It’s tiny. I’m ready to eat some potato chips.
As we come barreling down the single track and finally hit a main road again, I’m immediately confronted with a group of three….uhh….laypeople? Civilians? Tourists? I don’t know what you want to call them, but they were not a part of the race, and we were warned about their presence. Yes, previously warned. They were Vail visitors who did not give a flying stroople about the fact that we were running, and insisted upon taking up the entire road as they casually strolled by. Now, I don’t expect every random passer by to give me a standing ovation for my athletic undertakings, but politely sharing the road would have been a nice gesture. Needless to say, I didn’t feel bad when I nearly shoulder checked one of them, as I tried to run by without being run off the road myself. I’m not a violent person by any means…but I had potato chips waiting for me.
CP3: food in, endurolytes in, water refilled, let’s get this stage over with.
We dipped in and out of the woods a few times, but for the most part, followed a long dirt access road, one that I imagine is a ski slope in the winter.
It was long. I distracted myself by reading all of the names of the ski slopes, and checking out all of the funny little sculptures on the sides of the trails…err…slopes.
But more than anything, I’m ready for this stage to be over. I’m tired. I’m done with the down hills. I can SEE Vail’s base village, where we will be staying for the night (in tents of course). But even though I can see it, we’re still nearly three miles away. We’re on high alert, as mountain bikers are constantly whizzing by from behind. I also really have to pee, but the steep banks on either side of the dirt road make it nearly impossible to find a place to go…not to mention there are people everywhere on this road.
Down, down, down. There is really nothing exciting to tell you about these three miles. We see a pristine grove of aspen trees (that we still think are birch trees, silly East Coasters), one that makes me question if Narnia and a giant talking lion are hiding in there somewhere.
We finally make it all the way into the village, where we have to traverse maybe a half mile of pavement. Probably even less than that, but at this point, it felt like it went on forever. Suddenly a right hand arrow appears, and bam: finish line.
Give me a shower. Give me a beer. Give me all of the snacks!
We find a ten to claim as our own for the night, and then immediately trade it for another tent, one of the older ones with walls. It was our last night camping under the Colorado stars, might as well try to stay warm. We find our bags, dig out clean clothes, and leave the bags right at the drop off, because the shower truck is in the opposite direction of our bags. It took us 5 days, but I think we’ve finally figured out the logistics of this race….and how to avoid hauling your heavy bags any further than you have to.
Dinner at Vail is the best dinner yet, by far, with freshly grilled veggies, and I’m sure a bunch of meat products that I didn’t bother looking at. But regardless, carnivores and veggies alike were all raving about how amazing dinner was that night. We sit outside sharing wonderful conversation with new friend Jesse, and another guy whose name I forget, that happens to be the race director of the Ragnar trail relay we are running this fall in Rock Hill SC.
After dinner, the TRR crew shows us a promo video for the Gore-Tex Transalpine run. We aren’t even done with THIS event, and I’m feeling mega FOMO vibes for the beautiful alps. Plus, Houda and Fitzy’s authentic lederhosen puts me in the European spirit.
I’m finding myself starting to become overwhelmed with a bittersweet emotion. Part of me is exhausted. That part of me is so ready to cross the finish line, to see Geoff’s sister and mom, and to shower and sleep in a luxurious hotel room. But the other part of me doesn’t want this adventure to end. I’m not ready to go back to reality.
But no sooner did I start to become sentimental, than I’m brought back to reality with a quick lesson on what to do if and when one of the giant sheepdogs we would potentially encounter on stage 6 decides to attack…
…the adventure isn’t over yet.
…Check back tomorrow for the adventures of the final day, Stage 6. A massive THANK YOU to Kahtoola, INC. for sponsoring our journey to the 2016 TransRockies Run. Also a huge shoutout to INKnBURN for our amazing outfits.!