Love and Running in the Rockies

Can a relationship stand the test of competing as a team in a six-day, 120-mile trail race through the Rocky Mountains?

Not every couple would consider spending their summer vacation running 120 miles together through Colorado’s Rocky Mountains.

Romantic mountain retreat? Sure, if you can keep that loving glow as you sleep amidst hundreds of other dirty trail runners in a tent city, strain to keep up with your partner on steep mountain climbs, and ice aching muscles after each day’s arduous journey. 

It takes a certain mindset and appetite for adventure to tackle the Gore-Tex TransRockies Run with a significant other. The six-day stage race takes participants on scenic, remote trails from Buena Vista to Beaver Creek, Colo. Each day, runners tackle anywhere from 13 to 25 miles in teams of two. Unlike most races, athletes must stay with their partner, meaning runners can only go so fast as their weakest link. (As a nod to those who prefer to run solo, TransRockies last year added a highly popular three-day, no-teammate option.)

During each day’s run, TransRockies crew transport tents and gear from one camp to the next. Runners cross the finish line of each stage, rest their weary bodies in lounge chairs or massage tables, shower in mobile trucks, consume heaping plates of catered food, sleep on camping pads on the ground, and then get up and do it all over again.  

Despite the luxuries of having a staff schlep equipment and cook for you, TransRockies is still a far cry from sipping mai tais on a Hawaiian beach. When my boyfriend, Charlie, and I told friends and family that we’d signed up to take on the run, many said, “That’s a vacation?” Indeed, racing 120 miles in the Rockies together wasn’t what I’d call relaxing. In fact, it was one of the hardest things we’ve accomplished together. But it was also one of the most rewarding.

I came into the TransRockies Run this year knowing what I’d be getting into. , I tackled the race with my good friend and running partner, Caroline. During the six days, we ran up dramatic peaks, through meadows filled with flowers, and along stunning ridges. After running each leg, we settled into a regular afternoon social pattern, making new friends from around the globe in an experience many aptly dub “summer camp for runners.” Caroline and I learned about each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and felt an enormous sense of accomplishment when we crossed the final finish line as a team.

Though I could have happily recruited Caroline for another go at TransRockies, I decided to experience the race in a new way by inviting Charlie, my boyfriend of the past year. Unlike Caroline, who is a veteran ultramarathon runner, Charlie hadn’t spent a ton of time on the trails. We are rowers, and more inclined to head out on the lake together than venture to the mountains. I didn’t doubt Charlie’s strength, athleticism, or competitive nature, but I did wonder if he’d limp out of the week injured as a result of suddenly tacking on so many miles. And I also wondered: How would our relationship at home translate to a partnership on the trail?

At TransRockies, the crowd was decidedly divided on the wisdom of entering such an event with a significant other. Several male athletes (who all whom had paired up with male friends) told me, “There’s no way I’d do this with my wife.” Another woman said that she’d never take her husband as a partner. He’d want to snap photos and linger on the trail, while she’d be gunning straight for the finish line.

Even couples who dared to sign on for the race together did not always exist in bliss. During one particularly long, hot, 25-mile day, I heard a woman shout to her boyfriend, “Why did I let you talk me into this?”

On the flip side, I also saw couples who said they couldn’t imagine doing TransRockies with anyone but their significant other. One woman told me that she and her husband have so little time together during their hectic regular lives, she’d never consider attempting TransRockies with someone else. At the finish line, teams hugged, kissed and cried. One young couple even got engaged, with the guy popping the question as soon as they crossed the line.

And as for Charlie and I? Amazingly, we weathered the race unscathed. Aside from a few minor aches and pains, we didn’t endure any real injuries. And since we both are fairly competitive people, we tried our hardest every day, with an unspoken agreement that we were both working to our maximum. Our conversations on the trail were usually limited to “you OK?” and “did you take a Gu?” Not exactly soul-searching topics, but since both of us were content to simply run, breathe and soak in the mountain scenery, it worked. 

Charlie and I agreed after the race that we somewhat had it easy, as we ran about the same pace. (Most trail tensions typically arise when one teammate is much faster than the other, leaving one runner to grow frustrated with waiting and the other to feel hopelessly behind.) We found it fairly effortless to push hard together, with the main difference being that I was a bit faster on any flats and roads, while Charlie could cruise up steep inclines.

As the week went on, we learned tricks for lessening any speed differences. Some mixed teams utilize a tow line on the hills, with the male partner pulling along the female with a rope tied around their waists. Since we hadn’t brought one, Charlie would simply push my lower back from behind on the steepest climbs. During the final mountain charge on the last day, he asked once, “Is this getting annoying?” Most definitely not! Indeed, when I told celebrity ultramarathon runner and TransRockies participant Dean Karnazes of the technique, he told me, “They call that the Hand of God.”

For both Charlie and me, the best moment came when we crossed the finish line together in Beaver Creek. We felt we’d accomplished something together, as a team. We made it through nights of little sleep, steep rocky trails, scorching sunshine and thunderstorms. And through it all, we still managed to appreciate the camaraderie of fellow runners, the sheer beauty of the Rockies, and the best camp food we’d ever tasted. For us, TransRockies was more than a scenic summer camp. It also was a real relationship test.     


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