I was first introduced to the concept of relay races last year when my friend Laci asked me to run in the Wild West Relay. Little did I know how much that 200 mile relay was going to change my life! I did a lot of fun things last summer, like the Telluride Bluegrass Festival for example, but the Wild West Relay was absolutely the highlight for me. Nothing says fun like riding around Colorado in a van with five other people and running after 2 hours of sleep, right? Last year was the first year that many of us on our team, the #1 Stunners, had run the race and we really had no idea what to expect. We surprised ourselves and ended up getting third in our category, a nice bonus on top of an already fun race. Of course we had to run it again this year!
Our captain last year was Laci’s dad, who does not live in Colorado. So this year Laci and I decided to co-captain the team, and around March we started making plans for the relay. There were a lot of little details that Laci and I dealt with that I took for granted as a runner, but luckily since we had run the race the previous year we had some idea what we were doing. We also had a large pool of runners to pull from, and our team included five returners from the original #1 Stunners team. However, the hardest part of any relay is getting 12 people to show up at the starting line. Laci and I did face every captain’s worst nightmare with two of our runners dropping the day before the race. Thank goodness Colorado is the land where people find crazy, athletic events really fun, so after some serious scrambling we still had two mini-vans full of runners pull into the start of the relay in Fort Collins this past Friday morning.
Since we again assembled a team full of awesome runners, the #1 Stunners had one of the later starting times at 9:40 a.m. Laci and I are really mean captains and made all of our runners show up for the start! Technically the Van 2 runners weren’t going to start running for at least four hours after the start and they probably could have slept in and left Denver a lot later. I think it’s more fun when the whole team shows up for the start. Somehow tangibly seeing the start and the finish makes the relay race a lot more real. Plus let’s be honest, I wanted some full group photos before the race.
#1 Stunners. Such a fine looking bunch.
I was the number one #1 Stunner – well, running position wise at least! I started out the race for the team, and I was in Van 1 with five other guys: Steve, Ian, Greg, TJ and Jimi. Ironically Laci and I have never gotten to be in the same van as each other during the relay, but I could not have asked for a better crew in my van. The guys even gave me the front seat in the mini-van and decorated the van with some special artwork.
The only positive thing I can say about my first leg was that I could smell hops from the Budweiser brewery as I ran, since the relay started in the Budweiser tour center parking lot. There are many negative things I can say about my first leg: it was hot, the air was stagnant, there was zero shade and I was running by housing developments. I remember thinking to myself during the first leg that I had to keep going since I would ruin the ENTIRE relay if I wimped out. I was being a little dramatic perhaps, but this is where the relay format comes in handy because every time you run you have the fate of your 11 teammates to think about. Alas I made it through my first leg, and my Van 1 teammates equally suffered through their own respective hot and slightly miserable first runs.
Steve cheering on Ian after a particularly brutal leg.
Like I said the rest of my van rocked their first legs, despite the heat, and we finally handed off to the Van 2 runners in the early afternoon. We grabbed a quick bite to eat at a place along the route, which was located near a visibly damaged area from the High Park Fire. I actually received several emails from the race director in May and June with updates about how the High Park Fire could affect the course. The fire has been out for almost a month, but it was still crazy to see the lingering results on the charred hillsides. After eating we went to the next van exchange area to hang out for a little bit before Van 2 finished with their first legs.
Hamstrings, they’re important
As part of “not my smartest race preparation ever,” I had not gotten a lot of sleep the two days leading up to the Relay, and I really wanted to take a power nap. As an additional part of “not my smartest race preparation ever,” I had also done a CrossFit workout on Wednesday that involved 20 minutes of Romanian deadlifts. Accordingly, my priorities were taking a nap and making the two physical therapy students in my van, Ian and Greg, help stretch my hamstrings. I ended up taking a 20 minute nap and then laid down on a propane tank while Ian helped me stretch. It was totally a high point in my life.
My next leg was rated “Very Hard,” with 5.4 miles of a 1,273 foot elevation gain. Whether or not my hamstrings were up for it, I had no choice but to go for it. I knew I was in trouble when I was struggling within the first five minutes of my leg. I ran continuously for the first 20 minutes or so of my leg when it all became way too much for me and I had to take a walk break. As it turns out, hamstrings are pretty crucial to running. I shifted into survival mode and decided to just concentrate on finishing the leg. This was no longer about getting a good time or running well – it was all about making it to TJ at the next exchange. My van was incredibly supportive, and as soon as they knew I was struggling, they stopped every 800 meters or so to give me water and ice. They also sang “Fields of Gold” by Sting, one of my all-time favorite songs, in a round to me, which definitely made me smile. You really have not lived until you’ve had five guys in a mini-van serenade you with “Fields of Gold.”
I also had some great support from the Honey Badgers, a team that had also started at 9:40 a.m. that ended up running near us the entire relay. If this had been an individual race, there was no way I would have finished that 5.4 miles. With the support from my guys and the Honey Badgers though, quitting was not an option. I instead adopted a new strategy.
I decided to start power hiking up the hills and jog as much as I could in the flatter and downhill sections. I’m a decent power hiker, so I actually wasn’t power hiking that much slower than a jog anyway. Finally I reached the beautiful “One Mile to Go” sign, and I almost stopped and kissed it. I got to the exchange, and as it turned out I had averaged 12 minute mile pace. Given the water breaks and power hiking and overall disaster that the leg had been for me, I decided that wasn’t half bad. I did the best that I could under the circumstances, and so the only thing left to do was cheer on the rest of my team.
TJ, the runner immediately after me, also had a no fun leg with lots of elevation gain. He made it look easy but hearing mild-mannered, easygoing TJ yell “This is f*$@& hard!” at one point assured us that it was a very hard leg to run indeed. Our van got to run at sunset, and at one point I think we were all way more into trying to take the most epic pictures of the sunset possible instead of supporting our current runner (sorry Greg!). It soon turned dark, and our last few runners ran with orange reflective vests and headlamps. We finished our second legs at Woods Landing in southern Wyoming, and we pulled into the parking lot to see one of our Van 1 runners sleeping on top of the mini-van. Naturally.
Woods Landing always serves a spaghetti dinner for the Wild West Relay runners, and it was much appreciated to be eating a hot meal at 11:30 p.m. at night. I was definitely ready for some sleep at this point, and we headed to the high school in Walden, Colorado, the site of the next van exchange. There were spaces to sleep inside the high school but I opted to sleep in the grass outside the school on my air pad. After three hours of sleep, I awoke to some really tight hamstrings.
I had kind of been hoping they would magically heal while I slept – no such luck. There was a massage tent at the high school exchange, so I paid $10 and had some lady work on my hamstrings. I popped a few ibuprofen and started running as soon as Jenna got in to the exchange. My hamstrings hurt but luckily the massage and ibuprofen made it at least bearable. I had 6.4 miles that I was determined to run!
In retrospect, I really have no idea how I made it 6.4 miles on such sore hamstrings. I think it was a combination of adrenaline and the knowledge that I would be DONE with the whole relay after I finished the final leg. Somehow I made it! After my leg I was treated to a really amazing sunrise while TJ ran.
Being the first runner was pretty awesome because that meant I was the first runner done on my team. I got to enjoy the rest of the race and cheer on all my teammates.
Even better than being the first runner was being in Van 1. After we handed off to the first runner in the second van we headed into Steamboat Springs for some brunch before our other runners finished. That’s right, I was drinking a Bloody Mary while our other runners were getting over Rabbit Pass. That’s just the kind of teammate I am!
Following brunch, my van went to Steamboat Springs Middle School to wait for the rest of our team. Jenna came blazing in to the finish line, so we all scampered quickly to join her so that we could cross the finish line as a team. Official finish time? 27:13:02, right in front of our BFFs the Honey Badgers.
At the time of our finish, we were second in our category and feeling good. The only team in our category that had beat us was the team that consisted of CSU cross country runners, so we didn’t take that too personally. After waiting around for awhile it finally became official: the #1 Stunners took the silver!
Overall I had such a blast running the Wild West Relay again. Hurt hamstrings and all, it was still possibly the highlight of my summer again. I could not have asked for a better group of people to spend 27 hours with running through Colorado and Wyoming.