A broken-down support van. A seven-mile run in the dead of night. A near nose-to-nose encounter with a large female moose in northern Colorado's Routt National Forest.
Those were actual experiences that marked — but did not define — the 2017 Wild West Relay, a raucous 200-mile romp from Fort Collins, Colo., to Steamboat Springs, Colo., through two mountain passes and three forests deep in the heart of the Rocky Mountains, covering some of the most ruggedly stunning terrain I've ever seen.
My middle daughter, Kelly, got me to commit to participating as runner 10 of 12 women on one of four all-female teams at this year's WWR, the 14th such race put on by Timberline Events of Englewood, Colo. Billed as challenging but doable, with all the usual distance running pitfalls — lost toenails, gastrointestinal issues and sore muscles — practically promised, the relay also tacked on a few logistical doozies, such as 16,459 feet of total elevation gain, running a leg in total darkness and, for me, the mind game of a course that meandered over completely unknown territory said to be populated by bears, moose and mountain lions.
Long before race weekend, throughout the spring and early summer, our team members were logging mile after mile on roads in Oregon, Idaho, Colorado, Ohio, California and New Mexico, in hometowns ranging from Scappoose in the west to Cleveland in the east. Conventional wisdom told us to train as if we were running a half-marathon, and to add hills, which we did — something that turned out to be well worth the effort as the relay included some serious climbs and steep descents.
Our team captain, Annie — who had been part of a WWR team in 2016 — told us at the outset that while we weren't aiming to win, we should prepare individually to do our best to collectively live up to the relay's motto, "Get your Ass Over the Pass," a feat that would require physical and mental toughness. We'd also need to bring a fairly lengthy list of required equipment to the starting line: a headlamp for nighttime running; a reflective vest; several changes of clothing; various first aid items; and a whistle and bear spray for those concerned about running into one of the large, lumbering, often-hungry omnivores.
Multiple emails back and forth between team members gave each of us helpful snapshots into the lives of the women we'd meet on Thursday, Aug. 3, when we gathered in Fort Collins for an orientation and potluck. That evening our team, dubbed Not A Sausage Party (NASP), felt complete and ready to go.
How were we all connected? Kelly regularly runs with Annie, Carrie and Bonnie. Kathi is Carrie's future mother-in-law and Rachel dates Kathi's youngest son. Liz and Ashley know Annie and Jen. Two of the women, Wendy and Becky, met in the Army 16 years ago and reconnected on Facebook, with one inviting the other to do the relay.
NASP included three educators, an attorney, a stay-at-home mom, a city climate action plan director, two nurses, a journalist, an accountant, a retirement home admissions coordinator and a U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency officer. We ranged in age from 25 (Rachel) to 59 (me). Each woman was tasked with completing three legs for an average of about 16 miles over two days of running. As a team, we ran a total of 36 legs.
That night we were in bed early, with Van 1 people setting their alarms for 3:45 a.m. for a 5:20 a.m. start. Van 2 got to sleep in, loading up at 8:45 for a 10:30 a.m. start at Exchange 7, taking over for Wendy, Van 1's No. 6 runner. And so it went, with the two vans' occupants tag-teaming each other in a long game of hopscotch until we made our goal.
We finished second out of four all-women teams in 33:40.
On the course
What struck me most as the six runners in Van 1 finished their first legs and Van 2 — me, Kelly, Carrie, Kathi, Bonnie and Rachel — got ready to race was how different from any of my previous athletic endeavors this event was going to be. As a marathoner, I've learned to be pretty self-contained. When you're running solo for 26.2 miles, you are responsible only for yourself. For good or for ill, your only real goal is to get your body over the finish line. If you're lucky, you score a personal best or a Boston Marathon qualifying time. If you're having a bad day, you're happy just to endure the rigors of four or more consecutive hours of running.
In a relay it's a definite team effort, and at the WWR, the way it all turned out was directly related to the strengths and weaknesses of each member. Rest, nutrition and attitude counted as much as the way the team trained. It took patience to wait for my turn.
We'd decided each runner would hug the next one before turning over our team race number — 7 — at the exchanges, a gesture that cemented our concern and care for each other much more effectively than a high-five would have. Sweaty embraces greeted each arriving runner as she sent the next runner down the road with high hopes and renewed feelings of camaraderie. Ashley would whoop and dance and Annie would ring her cowbell.
My first leg was going to be a breeze, or so I thought — two miles is nothing for a seasoned runner. Boy, was I wrong. It was a mistake not to carry water, and as I struggled up the hill my lips were parched, my face was flushed and I could feel my feet slowing to a shuffle. Not only that, but a strong headwind buffeted me with hot, dry air and dust. I turned in a couple 12-minute miles. Humbled, I slumped into the middle seat of the van and tried to regroup.
By the time we rolled into a motel parking lot in Walden Friday evening, Aug. 4, to lay down on a real bed for a bit before beginning our nighttime legs, I was pretty disoriented. Van 2 people had been awake and performing for about 12 hours, but it felt like 24 — and we were entering what I expected to be the most difficult phase of the relay: running in the pitch dark along an unfamiliar highway in northern Colorado. Temperatures that reached the high 90s during the day had plummeted to the mid-40s, so I was glad I'd brought along a fleece top and pants. Kelly and I crashed for two hours on one bed and Bonnie and Carrie on the other. An iPhone alarm woke us at 8 p.m. for our drive to Exchange 18.
The sun had set by the time we reached Woods Landing, an out-of-the way campground where vans converged in a dusty free-for-all just over the Wyoming border. We stumbled inside, greeted by bluegrass music in the bar and really nice restrooms — a welcome respite from the port-a-potties we'd gotten used to along the relay's first segment. It was tempting to indulge in a good Colorado microbrew, but at 9:30 p.m. and with miles to run before we slept again, we didn't dare.
The manager gave us steaming mugs of coffee instead, and we took off on legs 19 to 24. Carrie cruised through a brutal eight miles uphill, her headlamp illuminating the road in front of her, aided by a near-full moon. Kelly jumped out of the van to relieve her, then Bonnie. Sitting in the van's back seat, I tried to meditate away my fears of wild animals, tripping on rocks and various other real and imagined perils — to no avail. When it was my turn, I made a split-second decision to leave my bear spray behind and instead carry Kathi's small flashlight, which I pointed at my feet as I began to make my way down the road. Two male runners passed me within the first half-mile, and I made up my mind to keep at least one of them in my sights for the entire seven miles so I wouldn't feel completely alone. I managed to remain within shouting distance of the slower one, and after a while my heart wasn't beating as rapidly. I was able to settle into a comfortable pace of nine minutes per mile. I was triumphant as I reached the end of my leg because I had not only conquered my fear of night running, but I'd also contributed a solid performance to our team's overall effort.
I felt happy and vindicated.
On our last legs
The Van 2 women were cat-napping in Walden again as the sun rose Saturday, Aug. 5. Simultaneously, our Van 1 ladies were tearing it up on the course as each of them picked off their final legs in fine style. Annie reported coming face-to-face with a moose in a meadow as she emerged from Deadman Pass. Ashley ran the whole race in her signature crazy-quilt-colored pointed hat. When Wendy powered up her last hill late that morning, the remaining 11 of us were standing at the exchange, applauding.
The cowbell clanged louder than ever. It was time for Van 2 to bring us home.
Rabbit Ears Pass was gorgeous. Kelly practically sprinted her four-mile leg, capturing bucolic meadow scenes with her cell phone as she went. Bites of string cheese, yogurt and energy bars were the order of the day as each of us prepared for our individual swan songs. Mine came just after mid-day in the form of a five-mile steep downhill that dropped more than 1,800 feet from the back side of Rabbit Ears to the lip of Steamboat Springs.
Event organizers had labeled my last leg "very hard." I knew I should take it easy on the slope or my quadriceps and knees would pay a big price the next day, but as I eased out onto the highway's shoulder — sleep-deprived yet exhilarated — I felt a surge of energy. Though I wore no watch, I could tell I was picking up speed as I went. The sun's rays baked my back and I was sweating hard, but I loved the freedom of careening toward my stopping point 10 miles from Steamboat. Again I managed sub-nine-minute miles.
Joining the other members of NASP in the tiny ski town of Steamboat was a joyful thing. We toasted our effort with cans of Colorado beer and by literally galloping across the finish line together.
Annie summed up the experience for all of us the next morning with a congratulatory text.
"You know it's not about the time or the place for any of us — it's about the fun, the friends and the Colorado splendor. But we came in second! I am so happy and proud and excited. Way to go!"
It's an experience I'll never forget — and always treasure.
Nancy Townsley, who completed
11 marathons before signing on
to race in the Wild West Relay,
is managing editor of the