this far, no further.

How had I gotten myself into this?

Photo courtesy of Hunter Imagery (http://www.hunterimagery.com/)

I wasn't asking how I ended up on my hands and knees, my face just a few inches above the puke-riddled ground in front of it.  I knew how I'd gotten there.  Ten thousand feet of altitude, parched, dusty air, hot, direct sunlight and over exertion can in combination nudge a flatlander into that very position and they certainly had done that very thing to me.

And, let's face it, puking is hardly a novelty for me and my ever shaky stomach.  I'd heaved and hurled before and was sure to again.

But, specifically, how did I get "here" high above Buena Vista, Colorado with a camera buzzing like a bee in my ear while I pondered the half digested salt caplets and chewed bits of licorice in the damp dirt wondering how in the hell I was going to get back up and go another 109 (give or take) miles?

Facebook.  That she devil.

On May 5th one Sean McCoy had used her as the platform from which to post the following missive:

Woke up at 4:30 in the morning and decided to go for a run.  I'd planned to go about 10 miles.  17 miles  later I am home and ready for a nap.  Living in Colorado is making me weird.

I distinctly remember grinning at the handful of "you ARE weird" responses before firing off a reply of my own.

Dude, that's the BEST kind of weird.  If your TransRockies partner bails (but his fees are already paid), let's talk.  :)

Two weeks later, we'd finalized the plan and I was officially a member of Team GearJunkie/Backcountry Edge and bound for 20,000 feet of elevation gain and 120 miles of hard work.  I was going to partake in the 6th annual GORE-TEX TransRockies, running with the herd from the high desert of Buena Vista to the posh ski town of Beaver Creek over the course of 6 days in mid-August.

IF I could get back on my feet.

For one miserable moment, I swear I saw that preposterous emoticon smiling snarkily back up at me from the dirt.

I got back up, of course, though the remainder of the day fluctuated between snail-like pseudo-running, unmistakable walking and pausing to soak up what very little shade mesquite can provide.

Oh, yeah, and I threw up a few more times.

It had taken us nearly 4 hours and 40 minutes and, frankly, there weren't too many teams to come through the finish after us.  We were consoled by Sean's parents, who'd driven in from Breckenridge to check on us and transport Sean's car home from Buena Vista.  They offered words of support and perspective and helped to convince us that things could've been worse.  Sure, we were way ahead of the 7 hour cutoff, but we were also more than twice as slow as the stage (and eventual overall) winning team in the Men's Open Division.  Whatever silly notions we might have harbored about being moderately competitive were swept downstream by the lovely Arkansas River in which we soaked our legs at race end.  

We'd topped out just a bit over 10,000 feet and the next morning we'd be boarding a bus to head to the start of Stage 2, a shorter (14 miles) leg that made up for its brevity with a quad- and lung-blowing climb up, over and down 12,500 foot Hope Pass.

I was concerned.

But a beautiful sunset reminded me that there was beauty all around that I needed to make sure to appreciate.

Rejuvenated, I returned to the communal mess tent where each evening we would congregate for supper, awards presentations, race briefings for the next day and a media presentation of the photos and video footage taken during that day's race.

Martin Gaffuri of Good People Run (http://www.goodpeoplerun.com/), who I'd met and run with a couple weeks earlier in Salt Lake City, was running the 3-day solo version of TransRockies and also weighing in at each evening presentation with his thoughts on the day.  On this night, he decided to inform the crowd of a special performance he'd been made aware of and, next thing I knew, Sean and I had been called up in front of the crowd to applause for having gutted out (ha) a not-so-good day on the trail.

It was good-natured and appreciated, but it did serve as one last reminder before bed that I might just be in over my head.  We'd see in the morning.

I awoke feeling improved but not confident.  I ate a rather sparing breakfast that, thankfully, settled well.  Breathing was still not exactly easy but it wasn't a struggle either.  Of course, I was sitting not running.  Time passed quickly and our jostling bus ride down rutted old jeep roads deposited us right at the foot of the day's climb.

Hope Pass sits high above the valley floor, bisecting Mount Hope and Quail Mountain.  The view from the 12,500 foot pass is stunning and the pass has become iconic due to its inclusion in the venerable Leadville 100 during which runners cross over it not once but twice on the out-and-back journey from and back to Leadville.  If we were going to get to Leadville and enjoy that view, we were going to have to get over Hope Pass ourselves.

Off we went.

The severity of the grade and the congestion of narrow singletrack made for little running, but Sean and I power-hiked surprisingly well.  The first mile or two wound through lush forest but we soon pushed through the trees and emerged above treeline for a series of open alpine switchbacks.  The hiking continued but I couldn't believe how quickly we topped out.

We paused just long enough for a photo.  An aid station perched just a bit beyond the actual pass, sharing the meadow with a dozen or so llamas that had hauled initial supplies for the Hopeless Aid Station that would serve Leadville runners just a few days later.  Dodging the llamas, we grabbed quick drinks and salt before continuing on.

Moments later, we were flying.  Or at least it felt like flying.  Sean said something about it being just like skiing, something I can't confirm or deny as I've never been on skis.  Funny thing happened while I was busy going up, up and up Molehill again and again while training for TransRockies.  To go up repeatedly, I also had to go down and I'd failed to notice that I'd turned myself into a pretty good technical downhill runner.  After my pathetic first day's effort, it felt good to be leading the way as we caught and passed several runners.  We hooted and hollered as we narrowly missed horrendous falls in our breakneck dash down from the pass toward Twin Lakes several miles below.

And then, just like that, we were down and the trail flattened out.  Funny thing happened while I was busy going up, up and up Molehill again and again while training for TransRockies...I didn't run anything and I mean ANYTHING flat.  And, boy, did it show.  The spirits that had soared over the last hour flagged along with my legs.

We couldn't have been more than a mile or two from the finish line but I was struggling.  Sean did his best to talk me through it and we were continuing to move forward though not quickly.  We gave back many of the positions we'd picked up on the descent.

And then, like a mirage, an unbelievable pick me up appeared on the trail ahead.

My friend and running confidant, Kelly Agnew.

He and his wife and crew chief, Jo, were in town for Kelly's second stab at the Leadville 100, he having run it as his first ever 100-miler the year prior.  I knew they'd be out in these parts around this same time but it never occurred to me that I might see them and I certainly didn't expect to find them on the course.  I was happy to see Kelly because, well, I'm always happy to see Kelly and, yes, I was genuinely touched that he'd gone out of his way to be there, a mile out from a finish, to give me a boost.

I won't lie and say that I found an extra gear from his appearance.  My legs were cooked, both by the climb and descent and, likely, by the after effects of the day prior and my still getting acclimated.  But it sure felt like the finish came a whole lot easier with the lift of seeing Kelly and the assurance that Jo would be smiling at the finish line...which, sure enough, she was.  We hadn't smoked the field, but we'd finished a good 10 places higher in our division than we had the prior day.

And I hadn't thrown up.

Sean and I spent the rest of that beautiful day with the Agnews (after another icy soak) and Sean's lovely girlfriend, Sarah, joined us as well.  Leadville played host to our laughter and served up cold beers.  Real beer, not the watery Michelob Ultras that Sean was drinking (and would continue to drink) back in camp as though he was determined to single-handedly drink them into extinction.  What can I say?  It was working for him.

Kelly and Jo were up early again the next day to see us off from Leadville.  Stage 3 would be significantly longer and would include a crossing of the Continental Divide before dropping into the spectacular Eagle River valley which lies between Leadville and Red Cliff.

We ran on pavement for three or four miles which was initially fun as first people lining the streets and then passing vehicles outside of town offered cheers and encouragement.  As we left the support behind, however, I was eager to get off of the road and back onto dirt.

We got there soon enough and with the dirt came climbing.  Up and up a meandering jeep road we went and it wasn't until a few miles later that I remembered to look over my shoulder and discovered that we'd gained a good bit of elevation during the uphill trudge.

My breathing was again pretty ragged which at this point was pretty disappointing and when I couldn't muster much of a response from my legs during a smooth but steep downhill section after we crossed the Divide, I was feeling pretty low.

Luckily, an eventual section of winding, technical downhill came to my rescue as I pushed the pace hard for a couple of miles.  That section was pretty encouraging, but the stage again ended with three or four miles of flat that proved arduous.  My overall fitness seemed to be improving but I was anxious for a solid, consistent day.

Saving graces abounded at race end, however.  Kelly and Jo had decided to surprise us again by driving out to the finish and together we all took in the beauty of that incredible valley.

I can distinctly remember sitting waist deep in a small pond just feet from the finish line, reveling in the effort of the day, basking in the stunning landscape and feeling happy and proud to have friends like Kelly and Jo and Sean with which to share these moments.  The trail binds.  Why? I'm not entirely sure, though I am entirely sure that I'm not going to waste a lot of time on investigating the reasons why.

I knew I wouldn't be seeing Kelly and Jo again until returning home.  Kelly was going to give Leadville hell even if Leadville gave it right back and Jo was going to be the rock solid crew she's been from the start.  A big part of me wished I could be there too, not because I didn't want to be where I was, but because I wanted to be for them what they'd been for me over the course of the last two days (and more days than that, if I'm being honest).  All I could do was tell them that I loved them which I did.  The word bittersweet is pretty trite and overused, I think, but I can't think of any other way to describe my feelings on our parting that day.  I was definitely sad to see them go, but, hey, Sean and I really didn't have any room for them in our tent.  So, off they went.

After three consecutive days of running and with mileage having crept up toward 60 miles, our bodies were starting to fatigue.  Sean's toes were bad.  They'd get worse, it turns out, but we didn't know that then.  Looking at the blisters and cracked nails, I couldn't believe he wasn't fully hobbled.  But he wasn't and when morning broke we dragged our aches and pains to the start line for a 13+ mile stage that basically amounted to one long, extended climb followed by mile after mile of switchbacking technical downhill and a number of water crossings.

The long, extended climb earned its reputation.

And so did the descent.

Our solid, consistent day had arrived.  We careened down, down, down the hill and blasted through the water crossings.  Again we hooted and, yes, we hollered.  And, when we were done, having arrived in quaint little Red Cliff in just over 2.5 hours, we'd managed a top 10 stage finish in our division.

At last.

To celebrate Sean cracked open another Michelob Ultra and we settled into another icy recovery soak.  And this one was REALLY icy.  Had the water been any colder, we would have been sitting on top of it.  A trooper and all around tough guy, Sean grit his teeth and managed to stay in the water for all of 3 minutes.

We caught a shuttle back to the valley where we'd be camping for the second night in a row.  With the solo runners having finished up the day before, camp had thinned out and there was a relaxed air.  That evening as I drifted off to sleep, I was serenaded by the calling of nearby coyotes.  It had been a pretty good day.

A pretty good day to be followed by a long, punishing day.  I didn't get sick during Stage 5, a 23 mile slogfest that began with an 8-mile climb up a jeep road from Red Cliff, followed by wickedly steep singletrack and many miles way up above 10,000 feet as we navigated the back bowls of the Vail ski area before miles of downhill on tired legs into Vail itself.  No, I didn't get sick, but I did take a beating.  The vantage points offered breathtaking views, they must have, but my breath was already literally taken by the thin air and the effort of ambulating at those great heights.

At one point on one of the final descents, I became aware of the grunting and whimpering that was escaping my body with every step.  I made a concerted effort to cut it out only to find that similar sounds were coming from Sean who was right on my heels.

It was a proper soundtrack for the day.

Sean's parents were waiting at the finish line and, despite the suffering, we were able to hold our heads higher than the last time we'd seen them.  Like minds were waiting and continued to arrive at the finish with "it was a long day" being the apparent theme of the stage.

The upside was that we were in Vail and the spectacular Gore Range served as a memorable backdrop to what would be our last day in the tents.

At the pre-race briefing, we were informed that some modifications had been necessary for the final stage, reducing the original 21 mile leg to just 19 miles.  At 4,900 feet, this stage promised more cumulative climbing than the five that had proceeded it, so learning that a couple of miles had been lopped off of the course wasn't too disheartening.

Which made things that much more crushing when 10 or 12 miles into the race the next day we learned that an additional re-route had been required and we were actually looking at a 21 or 22 mile day.  And, in the end, it turned out to be something more like 23 and change.  But who's counting, right?

Long, long story brought to a close...Sean and I did it.

We made it to Beaver Creek.  It seemed to take forever, but, as these things go, it also came all too soon.  We'd clawed our way up from way, way down the list to a respectable 12th place overall finish in the Men's Open.  With the first five slots populated with consistent podium finishers and decorated athletes, we had reason to feel good about what we'd accomplished.

Sean and I were still friends which may not be as insignificant an accomplishment as it first sounds like under the circumstances.  And, actually, we weren't STILL friends, we were far better friends for having worked together and stood by each other over the last several days.  I still couldn't run flats and Sean's feet probably didn't have another day in them, but none of that mattered.

We were finishers and once you break that tape it doesn't much matter if there isn't any more left in the tank.

I'd finished.

And, after that first day, I hadn't thrown up.

I'm smiling right back at you, you dusty little emoticon.


O.R. they?

As I sit here typing, it's hard not to think about the fact that this time next week I'll be trying to get a good night of sleep ahead of taking the first step of the 6 days and 120 miles that is GORE-TEX TransRockies the following morning.

Am I excited?  Yep.

But concerned too.

The more my fitness has improved, the more aware I've become of my weaknesses and the fact that there's just no way to properly mimic running at altitude when there's no altitude to be had.  Not without money (and the contraptions that money can buy) that I do not possess (and couldn't justify on said contraptions if I did).

I spent the past several days in Salt Lake City at the Outdoor Retailer Summer Market trade show and, while there, had a couple of different chances to test the legs, lung and heart at higher elevations and had first hand opportunity to confirm that while being fit is a good foundation it doesn't always overcome science.

A whole summer of diligent nurture turned on its head by nature.  Go figure.

But up on the Great Western Trail in the Wasatch Mountains, I got myself the taste I needed to know more tangibly what I'm up against and that can't be all bad.  The racing pulse that signals my arrival at 9,000+ feet doesn't need to be a total deal breaker, but I've gotta handle it.  Feeling that pounding again firsthand before the actual first day of "racing" was definitely worthwhile.

It was also a blessing to be able to witness far more talented and experienced runners do what they do, either by bystanding or by running right alongside (or just behind) them.  I picked every accessible brain and tucked away what I could from offered advice and/or accounts of races and adventures.  I watched the way incredibly skilled trail technicians chose their steps and transitioned paces depending on the terrain.  I listened to them describe highs and lows and found that in many cases the moments they seemed to cherish weren't necessarily finish lines or medal ceremonies, but more often the same minor triumphs or beautiful landscapes that us less accomplished plodders  hold dear.

I'd been reminded, as I often am in the presence of trail runners that the majority of us are in search of the same camaraderie, friendship and shared passions.

I wasn't going to be able to thieve any of that talent or call upon experience that belonged to others, but maybe just maybe I stored away some new perspectives and nuggets of insight that I can draw from during those pending 6 days up high in Colorado.

We can't all stand atop podiums or set records, but we can each take another step along the trail, up the next climb or down the next descent.

Not being entirely sure what lies around the bend isn't a good enough reason to not go see.

I'm gonna have a look.