TransRockies 2012: Bronco Billy and The Bandit

Jeff Browning and Rod Bien TransRockies Run

Bronco Bily and The Bandit, Stage 5, Red Cliff to Vail. Photo by David James.

I was fortunate enough to join hundreds of runners who make an annual pilgrimage through the Colorado Rockies from Buena Vista to Beaver Creek in six days each August. The GORE-TEX TransRockies Run is a veritable vacation for trail runners, albeit a rather challenging one. 120 miles with 20,000 feet of elevation gain in six consecutive point-to-point stages at elevation is nothing to scoff at. The route is mainly between 9,000 and 11,500 feet, with the high point being Hope Pass at 12,550 feet on stage 2 — part of the famous Leadville 100 Mile Endurance Run course. What also makes this adventure unique, is that you run with a partner. Gender doesn’t matter, but the team dynamic definitely adds some flavor.

A good friend and Patagonia teammate, Rod Bien, and I raced in the 80+ (Masters) division. Rod grew his race “stache” for the event. I started coining him “The Bandit” (Burt Reynolds in Smokey and The Bandit). By the end of the week it was set in stone: Bronco Billy and the Bandit.

Going into it, we knew our primary competition was LaSportiva’s team of Andy Ames and Bernie Boettcher. Both are accomplished mountain runners and tough as nails — and from Colorado. In my experience with high altitude, this is always an advantage because you’re already acclimated. Neither Rod or myself had acclimated. We came in right before the race and just decided we’d throw down and acclimate as we raced.

Stage 1: Buena Vista to Covered Bridge, 20.9 miles and 2,550 feet of climbing

Rod and I started out Stage 1 with the simple goal of running smart. Neither one of us had time to get acclimated, and we soon found the rolling terrain to be a bit of a challenge. We would run every roller rise and then at the top, when normally we could take off again, it would take 40-50 meters to catch our breath and get control our heart rates. We still ran well and ended the day in second behind LaSportiva. (we lost about 8 minutes to them). But, in hindsight, definitely our roughest stage of the week.

Stage 2: Vicksburg to Twin Lakes (via Hope Pass), 13.4 miles, 3,250 feet of climbing

Both Rod and I have run and finished Leadville 100, and know the infamous Hope Pass well. We were looking forward to the tough singletrack climb and descent before the final five miles of rolling trails along the southern shore to the finish at the east end of Twin Lakes. We power-hiked and ran up Hope Pass and found ourselves only 100 meters from LaSportiva as we started the technical descent off Hope Pass. We absolutely love and thrive in this type of terrain, and reeled Andy and Bernie about halfway down Hope Pass. We passed and gapped them, and tried to keep pushing to hold them off. However, their acclimated legs were turning over faster at nearly two miles above sea level, and they caught and passed us with about two miles to go. We were able to minimize the damage by crossing the finish line just over a minute back, for another second-place podium finish (a foreshadowing of the days to come).

Stage 3: Leadville to Camp Hale, 24.2 miles, 2,800 feet of climbing

After an afternoon and night in Leadville at 10,200 feet, we took off from downtown Leadville for a longer runnable stage which included a beautiful section of the Colorado Trail. We again watched Bernie and Andy climb away from us at the beginning of the stage. This was a great stage of rolling terrain and good downhills, through Ski Cooper’s terrain before running a mentally tough two-mile section of gravel road to arrive at the historical Camp Hale where the 10th Mountain Division trained for World War II. This was our base camp for the next two nights. Again, second-place podium finish, 6 minutes back. Dang those old Colorado mountain goats.

Stage 4: Camp Hale to Red Cliff, 14.2 miles, 2,900 feet of climbing

We woke up to very tired and tight legs for the start of Stage 4. This was by far my toughest “rise and shine” of the week. Both of us had trouble getting moving, but after a couple miles of slow jogging to shake out the cob webs before the start, I was thankful we were ready to roll again by 8AM. This stage is one giant climb, one giant downhill and a mile through a rocky creek bed before the final two miles on a downhill gravel road into the little mountain town of Red Cliff on the backside of Vail Mountain. We really enjoyed ourselves on this stage. For the first time, we were starting to feel some acclimation taking place. We both felt more normal climbing, without just gasping for air. This stage finish has a nice perk, as there is a restaurant called Mango’s right at the finish line with a roof-top deck featuring fish tacos and microbrews. A welcome hang out after four days of racing, and a good place to enjoy yourself before embarking on the final two hardest stages of the race.

Stage 5: Red Cliff to Vail, 23.6 miles, 4,100 feet of climbing

The route for Stage 5 climbs 11 miles straight out of the gate before traversing six rolling miles on top of the ridge at Vail Ski Resort hovering around 11,000 feet. Then, you descend eight miles of winding singletrack to the stage finish at the edge of Vail Village. I had a pretty significant blister from Stage 2 on my left heel pad, which turned ugly by the end of this stage. An excellent practice session in mind over matter.

Stage : Vail to Beaver Creek, 24.0 miles, 4,900 feet of climbing

We took off on this day in a solid second-place position behind Team LaSportiva and were planning on relaxing, as first place was out of our reach and third place was way back. However, another Bend team and good friends (first-place in the Mixed Open Division, The North Face’s team of Stephanie Howe and Zach Violett) ended up on our heels on the first climb. They had only beat us the first stage when we were struggling with the elevation, and our egos wouldn’t let us off that easy for the final day. I have to say, I was pretty nervous about my gnarled heel and even told Rod so on the first paved downhill through the town of Vail at the beginning. But after we settled in, I hit the first technical downhill section to really test it. All systems go. I knew I’d be fine as long as my footstrike was on the forefoot. We kept plugging away at this hard stage, hoping to hold off Steph and Zach. Upon entering an upper meadow, we caught sight of Team LaSportiva about halfway into the stage — right before the main long, technical singletrack downhill into the town of Avon.

We had been second on the podium every stage, and we really wanted one stage win. Rod said, “I think we can catch them on this next downhill.” Within 10 minutes, we were barreling down the singletrack hot on Bernie and Andy’s tail. Once we caught them, we blew by them with Rod leading. We gapped them slightly and I said, “Let’s roll this.” He stepped aside to let me lead and we took off bombing down and soon reeled in Team Salomon’s Mario Mendoza and Jorge Maravilla. We got to checkpoint 2 neck and neck with Salomon, in and out, and dropped into and through the town of Avon on the pavement. We could see LaSportiva only 200 meters back through town before starting the final 1,800 foot trail climb to the south. We put our heads down and took turns leading and grinding the final climb out of Avon. By the top of the climb, we couldn’t see them anymore and knew if we maintained, we had a stage win wrapped up.

As we arrived into the finish corral in Beaver Creek, it was sweet icing on the cake to take a stage win over the team we’d been battling tooth and nail the previous five days. 120 miles and 20,000 feet of climbing later, a few blisters and some sore legs — a great ending to a great week. I highly recommend this race, it’s a hard but fun week of awesome trail running. Great trainer for Wasatch 100. That’s the next stop. Giddyup.

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