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Trans Rockies Run 6

"If there is a deeper and more lasting message behind our venture than the mere passing sensation of a physical feat, I believe this to be the value of comradeship and the many virtues which combine to create it. Comradeship, regardless of race or creed, is forged among high mountains, through the difficulties and dangers to which they expose those who aspire to climb them, the need to combine the efforts to attain their goal, the thrills of a great adventure shared together.”
 - Sir John Hunt
The finish of Stage 6 of Trans Rockies Run 2015. Embracing our friends and competitors, Brian Condon and Eric Senseman.
Photo by Stéphane Bailliez
The Trans Rockies Run has been on my bucket list since I first heard about it years ago, but I couldn't imagine doing it without my brother, Tommy Rivers.  After years of hoping to both be healthy and free for the same week during the summer, we finally cleared our schedules and got into the race. We both spent the previous year recovering from injury - a broken tibia for him and severe sciatica for me - so our preparations for the race were more mild than they may have otherwise been.

Our training leading up to the event consisted mainly of bike, hike, and run commuting to and from graduate school each day.  In the early parts of the summer we both continued to bike and run and gradually increased our volume in the months of June and July.  I was at sea level in Oregon and California for much of the summer and Tommy Rivers was touring the country with Iron Cowboy James Lawrence as he completed 50 Ironman distance triathlons in 50 states on 50 consecutive days. As soon as he returned to regroup and prepare for Trans Rockies he was whisked away to the Outdoor Retailer Show to practice synchronized disco treadmill running and model the new Altra IQ technology.



By the time he returned we had one day to get ready while also filming portions of a documentary that our friend, Paul Nelson, has been putting together about a lifetime of shared running experiences culminating in our participation at Trans Rockies Run.


After one final run/photo shoot together in Sedona, we threw everything we might need for a week of running and camping into our bags and made our way to Buena Vista, Colorado.  

The night before the race we went to the pre-race briefing and a number of women approached Tommy with open arms, thanking him profusely for making an appearance.  It didn't take long to realize that they had mistaken his beard for that of the infamous Rob Krar.  We didn't have the heart to tell them that the man they were hoping for was a couple inches shorter and 40 pounds lighter.

Then we spent at least 45 minutes trapped in our car awaiting the end of a thunder/hail storm.  The looming clouds and accompanying darkness didn't do much to imbue confidence about the challenge for which we had volunteered.  After a long day of traveling we decided upon a local Mexican restaurant and consumed copious amounts of carne asada, pollo asado, and camorones to assure we had enough protein to get through the week.

STAGE 1: BUENA VISTA TO RAILROAD BRIDGE 21 Miles, 2,645 feet of gain


Tommy Rivers sending one final text to his family before leaving wifi and cell service for a few days.
Photo by Altra Running
While we didn't particularly enjoy the downpour the previous night or the forecast for similar weather throughout the week, shortly into stage one we found ourselves appreciating that the heavy rains had packed down the sandy sections of the course allowing us to run a bit quicker than we otherwise would in the deep sand.

The Start of Stage One in Buena Vista. Photo by Raven Eye Photography




Last year I attempted the TRR Run 6 Solo (the same race, only without a partner), but went into it a bit broken and was only able to run the first few miles of ascent on day one. My leg went back and forth between seizing up and going completely numb on the descents and flats.  By the time I had drug my dead leg to the finish I had blown out my hip flexor and was unable to get out of my sleeping bag to start day two.  Given how hard it was sitting out last year, I trained much more conservatively this year so that I would start the race healthy.

Getting past the first aid station without wanting to drop was the first of many milestones we experienced throughout the week.  Getting to the long, dirt road with fresh legs and the ability to run others down was another. We finished stage one in good spirits, having run within ourselves and feeling ready to tackle stage two.

Finishing Stage 1. Photo by Altra Running.
Almost immediately after the run, we ate a tube of Trail Butter, a quart of Ultragen and as much watermelon, potato chips, and peanut M&M's as we could fit into our stomachs and made our way to the river to ice bathe so that we'd be ready to run up and over Hope Pass in the morning.

Knowing that we'd be ice bathing in rivers we packed some neoprene to keep our core body temperatures warm.
Photo by Altra Running.
It was an honor spending so much time on the trails with friends from Flagstaff and beyond.
Men's Open Team Podium after Stage One.
Eric Senseman, Brian Condon, Rob Krar, Michael Smith, Tommy Rivers Puzey, Jacob Puzey
Photo by Stéphane Bailliez
In addition to running and relaxing, the meals at Trans Rockies are second-to-none.  The breakfasts and dinners are both delicious and nutritious and usually include guacamole.  Needless to say, we didn't have a hard time replenishing our calories each night. Meal time is a great time to visit with and make new friends as you share your experiences from each day.  Most nights we were fortunate to break bread with a large contingent of friends from Flagstaff.

Breaking bread with Caleb Schiff and Sara Wagner of Flagstaff, AZ

STAGE 2: VICKSBURG TO TWIN LAKES 13.4 Miles, 3,111 feet of gain


Waking up on day two with relatively fresh legs was a welcome difference from last year.  Little did we know that Mike Smith would do his best to assure that no one had fresh legs the following day. Although his legendary status as the "Honorary Mayor of Flagstaff" preceded him, I didn't really know Mike.  He moved back to Washington D.C. to coach the Georgetown Women's Cross Country team around the same time I moved to Flagstaff.  All I knew is that when he is in town single and married women alike celebrate his presence and mourn his return to the East Coast.

Despite rumors around town that he was struggling to acclimate to the altitude, I knew Mike was a baller.  He ran one of the first trail ultras I participated in and took it out hard against a strong field of Geoff Roes (while he was in the middle of his streak of winning every race he ran), Adam Campbell, Eric Skaggs, and me trying to hang on as a clueless newbie to the sport.  

Trying to hang with the leaders on the flats.  Photo by Altra Running.
Within the first few minutes, Mike was already surging to the front, taking the tangents and surging again as if it were a 5K cross country race.  The problem was that we started at nearly 10,000 feet and so even a modest effort felt anaerobic and then we had to climb over historic Hope Pass and then bomb down the other side.

After day one it looked like it would be a team battle between Rob and Mike and us.  Knowing that Rob is a strong climber and descender we did our best to maintain contact with him up Hope Pass. Knowing that Mike is an equally capable runner on the flats, we did our best not to let him pull away too much before trying to reel him in.

Climbing Hope Pass with Brian Tinder, Tommy Rivers, Jacob Puzey, and Rob Krar
Photo by Raven Eye Photography
Last year's individual winner, Jonathan Toker, led the charge to the summit. A pack of Flagstaff runners chased him up the hill led by Brian Tinder.  With my brother's cycling background he's always been a stronger climber than I.  I did my best to hang on to his coat tails up the mountain knowing that eventually we'd drop a couple thousand feet and I'd be able to make up any ground he gained on me on the ascent.




Tommy handled the technical descent better than I and maintained a 25 to 50 meter lead on me through the technical sections.  At one point I stepped in some deep mud and lost a shoe so I had to turn back and pick that up otherwise the last 7 miles would have been a bit more painful.  By the time the mud and rocks cleared, I was feeling good and started to drive toward the finish.  The descent beat Tommy up a bit so I waited for him at the bottom of the hill at which point Rob and Mike passed us.  Once we regrouped and got into a rhythm we were able to reel the leaders back in.

Trying to reel Rob & Mike back in.  Photo by Raven Eye Photography.

We started building momentum and it appeared as though Rob and Mike were hurting.  Eventually we caught them and Martin Gaffuri who was aiming at a Strava record on the descent.  Somehow we were able to put about a minute on Mike and Rob over the last mile.

Running into the finish together after Stage 2. Photo by Altra Running.
Men's Open Team Podium for Stage 2.
Mike Smith, Rob Krar, Jacob Puzey, Tommy Rivers Puzey, Eric Sensemen, Brian Condon.
Photo by Stéphane Bailliez

STAGE 3: LEADVILLE TO NOVA GUIDES AT CAMP HALE 24.3 Miles 2,346 ft. of gain


Winning the stage for which neither of us felt well suited certainly surprised both of us.  We had simply intended to maintain our efforts through the first half of the week and try to have some legs by the end of the week.  However, with only a little over a minute between us and the leaders going into Stage 3, we were met with the strange realization that we might actually be in the mix by the end of the week. That euphoric feeling, however, was abruptly halted  just minutes before Stage 3 even started.



Stage 3 starts on the main road that runs through Leadville. One lane of traffic was blocked off and there were police ready to lead racers up the street.  About five minutes before the start, Eric Senseman was warming up just outside the Start chute and an elderly driver of an SUV didn't see the lane of traffic was blocked off and drove into the lane, clipping Eric.  He went down and almost in the same instant Martin Gaffuri hurdled the fence to assist him.

I'm still not sure which was more impressive the fact that Senseman got up, dusted himself off, and toed the line to race or how ready to help Gaffuri was.  That moment reaffirmed to me how special this community of trail runners is.  Not only did Senseman and his partner, Brian Condon, start the stage that they had every reason not to, but they went on to win the thing.

Running together with heavy legs and hearts on Stage 3.
Photo by Altra Running.
My brother and I knew that goal number one should be maintaining contact with Rob and Mike so we were focused more on them than anyone else.  We had a good cushion on Senseman and Condon and after seeing what Eric had just been through it didn't seem right to literally kick a man while he was down - especially when he's your friend.  We were tired from a hard effort the previous day and hoped to simply get through Stage 3.  Unfortunately, our hopes of running with Rob and Mike didn't materialize when Rob decided that it would be imprudent to continue racing with the pain he was experiencing in his lower back.

As news traveled up the pack that Rob had dropped, an awful sadness overcame me.  While I pride myself on being competitive and not backing down to anyone, there is no pride in seeing someone you respect and admire unable to do what they love.  To make matters worse, Rob was dealing with the same issues that forced me to drop from Trans Rockies last year and inhibited me from walking, much less running for the next three months.  I wouldn't wish that pain or frustration on anyone - especially a friend.

Rob was one of the first people back in Flagstaff to know that I had to drop from Trans Rockies last year. When I saw him at the end of the week and wanted to congratulate him on his victory at the Leadville 100, he wouldn't even allow me to talk about him or his race before apologizing profusely (in true Canadian fashion) that I wasn't able to do the race I had hoped on doing.  Seeing Rob hurt did not in any way make me feel good about the fact that we would be awarded the Leaders jerseys. In fact, it made me feel guilty.

Finishing together after a long day on the trails. Photo by Altra Running

The one high point of the day was seeing my friend, and McMillan Running athlete, Yariv Dolio Kariv, complete the Trans Rockies Run Run 3.  The previous night he spoke to all of the participants at dinner and talked about his journey.  He asked what we thought about going over Hope Pass and then said, "Now imagine how that would feel with Stage 4 lung cancer!"  Dolio led an active life until he was sidelined with lung cancer two years ago. After his first bout of treatment he wasn't even able to walk a half mile.  He has since dedicated himself to raising awareness about the benefits of physical activity for those battling cancer. His words and his example lifted me up through a rather hard day on the trails.

Celebrating the completion of Stage 3 with Yariv Dolio Kariv

 STAGE 4: NOVA GUIDES AT CAMP HALE TO RED CLIFF 14.1 Miles, 2,792 ft of gain


Stage four was another one of the stages that we planned on just getting through.  It started as a gradual ascent and then a steep descent into Red Cliff on a trail that merged with a stream for a couple of miles. While we both enjoy adventure, the injuries from which we've been recovering have made us cautious.  After Rob dropped we still had a solid lead in the overall category so we weren't too concerned about losing a couple of minutes by playing it safe.

Start of Stage 4. Photo by Raven Eye Photography.
About 400m into the stage, however, there was a good sized puddle that we'd have to either run through or hop over.  Knowing we'd eventually get wet, but would be climbing for at least 8 miles before we entered the stream my brother and I decided it would be best to avoid getting our feet wet early on if we could avoid it.  Consequently, we went out hard so that we'd be able to clear the ditch without having to navigate between other runners while in the air.

Clearing the creek/puddle. Photo by Altra Running. 
We ascended relatively well.  Tommy Rivers and Condon were up ahead and Senseman and I climbed together for much of the first hour.  Eventually, we got to the other side and began descending.  My calves were taking a while to warm up and felt like bricks for the first 45 minutes so it was nice to be able to give them a break and begin the descent.

We got through the knee deep creek with the use of trekking poles without taking any major spills and then began rolling when we hit the dirt road leading into Red Cliff.  As we entered town we were moving well and were greeted by a resident and his pit bull. The dog was not on a leash and lunged toward my brother.  Instinctively, Tommy extended the pole toward the dog and was met with threats from the dog owner. That wasn't wise. In an adrenaline induced moment such as this, we both responded with similar words and invitations to test one another's manhood.  My brother stopped for a brief moment to exchange words, but we continued running and finished the stage.  Ever the pacifist, Tommy circled back to apologize to the gentleman and his dog and informed him that many more people would be coming through and that some may not take as kindly to him lunging at them. It must have been a bit disarming to see a thick, bearded man in a cut-off pink sportsbra (the leader's jersey which he altered after trading with the lead women), because they eventually hugged and made up.


The highlight of Stage 4 was not the battle between the brothers, trekking poles, an angry resident and a pit bull, but rather the festivities at Mangoes - the site of the Red Cliff finish line, excellent watering hole and source of fish tacos.

Post race festivities at Mangoes. Fish tacos and margaritas all around.
Photo by Raven Eye Photography.

STAGE 5: RED CLIFF TO VAIL 25 Miles, 4,309 feet of gain


Tommy and Women's Team Leader Kathryn Ross showing of their leader's jerseys before the start of Stage 5.
Photo by Raven Eye Photography.
Finally, after a couple of days to recover and regroup we planned to solidify our win on Stage 5.  We knew that all of us were hurting, but we felt relatively fresh and knew that the long, non-technical descent into Vail would play to our strengths.  Again, Tommy ran well up the mountain and I tried to maintain contact.  I ran much of the climb with Eric Senseman while Tommy ran much of the climb with Sensman's teammate, Brian Condon.  

Start of Stage 5 Coming out of Red Cliff
Photo by Stephane Baillez
My calves were still tight and I was struggling mightily to keep climbing without much return from my legs. Eventually, Senseman began to pull away.  Out of no where Mike Smith came up from behind me and put his hand on my back and began to sprint up the hill - more or less carrying me to the top.  When we reached the top I felt fresh and he was tanked.  I had never experienced anything like that and don't know what other than genuine concern for the well being of another would motivate someone to do such a thing, but I was beyond humbled.  

Mike didn't have to continue running.  His teammate, Rob, was no longer in the race so technically he was not even competing any more.  He could have done as many do and returned home, starting the trek back to Georgetown early, but instead he stayed.  Rather than focusing on himself he made it his purpose to help others, like me, have the best experience possible.

I was at a loss for words.  How do you thank someone for that sort of unsolicited boost to both body and spirit? Just as soon as I reached another climb and wasn't sure how I was going to make it up, Mike caught me and once again carried me up the hill.

I grew up watching Chariots of Fire and always enjoyed when Eric Liddell quoted from the book of Isaiah: "But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint." However, I had never experienced that sensation while actually running.  I assumed it was all figurative and I was ok with that, but I experienced an actual lift from a fellow runner - a competitor - that helped me run and not be weary. That physical and if you want to call it "spiritual" boost reset my purpose for the day, helped me catch and pass Senseman and then Condon.  I could see my brother a short distance ahead and knew I'd be able to catch him on the descent.  

Ready to pounce.  Photo by Raven Eye Photography.
Apparently, he was feeling good and catching the early leaders.  Just as we crested the penultimate climb Tommy began bombing the descent.  I was a short distance back and ready to join him. Somehow, as he was pulling away from a few of the top runners he missed a sharp right turn and continued down the mountain.  They yelled for him.  I yelled for him.  I started following him, tried to catch him, and yelled some more for him. Eventually after about 15 minutes of running off trail and losing my voice I wasn't sure if I was doing any good so I slowly backtracked and hiked to the next aid station in hopes that he might realize he went off course and retrace his tracks to get back on the trail.  I checked in at the aid station and notified them that he was off course and running down the mountain.  

I felt bad just sitting there at the aid station, but I've been lost and also searched for others enough to know he'd be ok and that I would probably complicate things by going rogue and trying to find him when I didn't have a clue where we were either.  I knew he was capable of surviving for at least 48 hours and that he'd eventually find civilization, but I also knew that he wouldn't want to inconvenience anyone or cause them to go look for him.  Selfishly, I really wasn't looking forward to calling his wife and telling her that although she had entrusted me with him that he got lost and I couldn't find him.  That would be the end of our adventures together.  

Getting back on course and trying to finish a long day.
Photo by Raven Eye Photography.
A group of search and rescue volunteers went to try and catch him in the truck. By the time they found him he had already run an additional 90 minutes without water, fallen on his face, busted some teeth, and was covered in blood.  The good news was he was already back on the trail and moving slowly toward the aid station where I had been waiting for an hour and a half.  

Pressing on despite dehydration, loss of blood, and chipped teeth.
Photo by Altra Running
By the time he reached the aid station he was exhausted and had lost a lot of blood.  He hadn't had anything to drink in 2 hours and was pretty thirsty.  We spent a few minutes in the aid station where he consumed about a half a gallon of Gatorade.  Then we continued on down the hill toward Vail.  It wasn't fast and it wasn't pretty, but we were able to meet some people we otherwise wouldn't get a chance to run with.  We enjoyed the conversations and making new friends.  We enjoyed the extra time together and tried to make the most of an extra two hours on the trail.



After losing the lead by nearly two hours we tried to remain positive and enjoy ourselves.  It took a while to get cleaned up and eat something.  We spent the evening meeting new people and enjoying the company of friends old and new.  To a certain extent it was a relief to not really have to worry about the next day.  We knew that all we needed to do was finish and we'd have a good experience.  The pressure of trying to win was no longer there because the only way that would happen is if something terrible were to happen to our friends and we weren't about to hope for that.

It began raining again and neither of us was really in the mood to sit in a wet tent so we hung out under the big tent speaking with many of the support staff.  It was nice to see them get to relax a bit and thank them for all the work that they did to make the event a success!

STAGE 6: VAIL TO BEAVER CREEK 22.1 miles, 4,579 feet of gain


Start of Stage 6. No one wanted to take it out hard.
Photo by Stephane Bailliez
Stage 6 started fairly easy and was on relatively runnable terrain for a bit so that was nice.  However, once we started climbing my calves locked up again so I struggled up the first long climb.  After about 45 minutes of running things loosened up and then we got on some wet, technical downhill for a while. Once we hit the bottom and began running through town I felt good and ready to roll.



It was nice seeing some of the people we had met the previous night at the relaxation station out on the course directing traffic.  By the end of a long week, the unity one feels and the bonds that were formed really made us grateful for the time we were able to share together.

As we ascended the final climb my brother asked me whether I thought he could be a successful trail runner or if he'd be better off sticking to triathlons or road marathons.  While this may sound comical to those who have seen him race, he actually hasn't done a lot of trail racing and he doesn't realize that his performances have been impressive.  I encouraged him to continue to train like a triathlete as much as possible to keep him strong and healthy, but to race more on the trails especially while he is in school full time and doesn't have 5-8 hours a day to train.

Then he asked which events he might be best at. I pointed out that he beat one of the best trail runners in the country in the one 50K he's run and that would be a good place to start, but I also pointed out that most people would have quit the previous day given what he experienced so he could probably do well at any distance.  When I asked him why he didn't just run down to Vail or get in the truck with those who went looking for him, he said that he might have thought about it if he were running solo, but it wasn't even an option in his mind because he knew that if he had we wouldn't be able to do what we had set out to do together.

His remarks embodied what we experienced all week.  Although we both have different strengths and weaknesses, we both did everything in our power to help the other have the best experience possible. I am grateful to have a teammate, friend, and brother so willing to sacrifice for my well being and I am grateful we were able to share such an incredible experience together in such a beautiful place with some of the most remarkable people I've ever met!

Finishing Stage 6. I didn't mean to pull away I was just excited to be done!
Photo by Altra Running
We got it done.  Photo by Raven Eye Photography
It is hard to imagine a more rewarding end to a week than to finish such a long journey with friends and loved ones.  The only thing that would have made it better is if Rob had been healthy enough to continue.  We will certainly be back again next year - hopefully a little better prepared for the climbing and the altitude - and that damn turn that cost us a couple of hours and teeth.


Here is a trailer to a piece Altra Running is putting together about our week at the Trans Rockies Run.

Thank you to the directors, staff, volunteers, and participants that make Trans Rockies what it is.  Many thanks to our family, friends, and sponsors for helping us realize this dream together!

7 comments:

  1. Thanks for telling this amazing story Jake. I don't read many race reports, but the journey you guys took together was an essential exception!

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    Replies
    1. Thanks, Schlarb! I don't usually feel all that comfortable writing reports, but I wanted to share some of what we experienced out there. It really was a dream come true for us. Looking forward to running with you in a few weeks at RRR100.

      Delete
  2. ...plus I had to see the Altra IQ treadmill show once more

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