With nothing but the glow of a headlamp to guide my footsteps, I barreled through Roosevelt National Forest. My heart was racing. My muscles were screaming. And my mind was playing tricks on me. I didn’t know if I should blame fatigue, dehydration, or sudden-onset fear of the dark, but the forest was no longer the picturesque landscape I had enjoyed during the day. Under the cover of night, branches reached out for me as if they were bony fingers. Boulders cast strange shadows in the moonlight. I even thought I saw flashes of yellow eyeballs between the trees. I kept telling myself to focus on the race’s next checkpoint. Eight more miles, I thought. You just have to make it eight more miles.
The run might have been more bearable had I been able to drown out my rising panic with a soothing JJ Cale tune, but headphones are forbidden in the Wild West Relay adventure race. And after all the training my team had done, there was no way I was going to risk disqualification just so I could quell my phobias with music. So I gritted my teeth, focused on the road ahead, and gutted out eight pitch-black miles to reach my teammates.
I’d always been a recreational runner; I’d run a few miles here and there just so I could fit into my skinny jeans. But when I turned 29 I felt the need to see what my body was capable of. Somewhere along the way, five miles turned into 10, and before I knew it, half marathons became a ritual. I was already hopelessly hooked on finish lines when my friend saw an ad for the Wild West Relay. “We should totally do this,” she said. “It sounds awesome.”
It did sound awesome—a 200-mile relay race from Fort Collins to Steamboat Springs executed over the course of two days. I’d never heard of—let alone done—anything like it. The race seemed like the perfect middle finger to Father Time as my 30th birthday approached. So, my friend and I began to assemble a team.
At least, we tried to assemble a team. Even in a runner’s stronghold like Colorado, finding people willing to run a 200-mile relay race was more difficult than we’d anticipated. Once we explained that the relay is split into 36 legs of varying difficulty—and that each runner in a 12-man team chooses three legs to run—we found more takers. But with several spots still empty as we neared the deadline, we fished for new running friends on the Wild West Relay website to round out our haphazard team of 12.
Huddled around a few pitchers of beer seven weeks before the race, my teammates and I flipped through the relay handbook, a hefty tome full of rules and regulations. Adventure racing is a fairly new sport; the first adventure event was held in New Zealand in 1989 with racers each carrying a compass and map and using any form of transportation (canoes, horses) they could arrange to reach the finish line.
The Wild West Relay (a variation on the traditional adventure race) is only open to runners, and the teams carry a lot more gear. But the goal is the same: to build a team of athletes who can finish a long race under difficult circumstances. Our course, which meandered through three national forests and over Sand Creek Pass (elevation: 10,269 feet) and Rabbit Ears Pass (9,426 feet), followed rural roads that remained open to vehicle traffic during the race. Between sips of Easy Street Wheat, we joked about seemingly silly directives like no running out of order, no peeing in areas that might be private property, and no running alongside bicycles or dogs. But Timberline Events, the race’s organizer, is serious about its racing requirements. And for good reason: Adventure racing can be dangerous. In just the past handful of years, two deaths have been reported in running-only events like the Wild West Relay.
At the end of our meeting, we had a concrete plan: We had decided who was responsible for bringing each item on the equipment list (headlamps, flashlights, first-aid kits, bandanas, a stopwatch, a clipboard, reflective vests, and walkie-talkies). And we had divvied up the legs of the race after discussing the abilities of each racer (the average distance of a leg is just more than five miles). Then we split ourselves into two groups: Runners one through six would ride in one vehicle and seven through 12 in another. Left on the to-do list was finding drivers, volunteers to staff an aid station, and vehicles that could fit our gear and our most precious cargo: runners.
On race day I met my team just outside of Fort Collins. The weather was sweltering, but with the adrenaline and anxiety surging through my body, I barely noticed.
We began to pack the vehicles, and quickly realized why race organizers had suggested 10-passenger vans. “Where the hell are we supposed to sit?” Mike asked as we shoved the last bag into one of the Suburbans. So much for our coolers, sleeping bags, pillows, and elbow room.
The start—held in a parking lot at the Budweiser Tour Center—seemed more like a festival than a sporting event. Glitter, tin cans, and toilet paper decorated team vans. Racers were dressed in costumes. The frivolity didn’t end at the start though: The 12 checkpoints, where running and resting vehicles tagged out, became rolling parties, with teams mingling and sharing GU packets, moleskin, energy drinks, strategies, and, closer to the finish line, Bud Light. Camaraderie, something runners often miss out on in such a solitary sport, is thick in the Wild West Relay—and may be the best part of the event.
In between the checkpoints came the running. My first leg had been brutally hot. I was running scared for most of my night leg. But about halfway through my third leg, running outside of Walden, I came to understand the importance of the team dynamic in adventure racing—and maybe in all sports. I found myself pushing harder for the checkpoint. Why? Not because I was trying to beat my personal best, but because my team was waiting. They were there ready to cheer me on when I was physically and mentally spent. And I was there for them. That’s the whole point of a relay adventure—to not only conquer individual fears of, say, the dark, or of getting older, but to also manage difficulties as part of a team, realizing you are stronger together than you could ever be alone.
Allie Gardner is a Denver-based writer. E-mail her at [email protected].