A cluster of vans was parked near the Copper Mountain exit off of Interstate 70 in the middle of the night. Dozens of runners milled about, music playing, a full-on party in progress.
Michelle DelPiccolo reveled in the joyful energy of the scene, but then it was time for her to start running to Vail Pass under a full moon.
Fifteen years later, the Lakewood woman still draws on that memory when describing what she loves about running long-distance relay races in the Colorado mountains with her friends. Her 5-mile climb that night between relay exchange points at Copper and on the pass, halfway through a 170-mile race, became one of the “most magical” runs of her life. She remembers how bright the night was, how reflected moonlight shimmered in a creek along the running path.
“You think, ‘I will never run in the middle of the night up Vail Pass again,’ ” said DelPiccolo, who has run 10 relays or so. “I remember the moonlight. You left this party, you had the peacefulness of running up to the top of the pass. Then your teammates are so happy to see you, and the next guy takes off. You just sit there and wonder about this life you’re living, where you were just able to run up Vail Pass in the middle of the night. That was so wonderful.”
Long-distance, 24-hour relays typically involve teams of 10 or 12 runners, each running three legs. There is a lot of camaraderie between teammates and with runners on other teams at exchange points. It becomes an adult sleepover party that makes grown men and women feel like kids again.
Relay running is great fun, but the races require considerable long-range planning by team captains to be successful. A team has to be assembled, fees paid, rental vans reserved.
Now is the time to begin preparing for the three Colorado relays being planned for August and September.
“It’s herding cats,” said Paul Vanderheiden, race director of the Wild West Relay (August) and Flaming Foliage Relay (September). “You’ve got to get everybody to commit, you’ve got to get everybody to agree on one thing or another. As you get closer to the race, you’re deciding who’s going to run what leg, who’s going to bring what equipment. This time of year, you want to be recruiting, getting commitments and putting in reservations.”
The legacy of Colorado mountain relay running goes back to the Colorado Outward Bound Relay, a 170-miler from Idaho Springs to Glenwood Springs that was created in 1998. The route included Guanella Pass, Georgia Pass, Breckenridge, Copper Mountain, Vail Pass and Glenwood Canyon. Like DelPiccolo, Clint Boston remembers that race fondly.
“It just felt like it was the Wild West,” said Boston, a teacher and track coach at Green Mountain High School. “For me, it was adventure.”
Fans of relay running say they enjoy the experience of running on a team, but they’re also running for a team. No one wants to let the team down, and some get extremely competitive. When runners finish legs, they report “road kills” to teammates, meaning the number of runners they passed on the leg they just finished.
No one wants to report they actually were road kill.
“It’s the excitement of putting a team together and running with a team,” Boston said. “I enjoy all the logistics, I enjoy the running, but for me it’s sitting in the van with a bunch of people who want to get out and run, enjoy each other’s company, get competitive, or just enjoy the beauty of the relay.”
The Colorado Relay no longer exists. It was taken over several years ago by a national brand, Ragnar Relays, which made a series of changes to the course to the point where it had little in common with the old route. This year, Ragnar abandons the mountains altogether with a September race on an entirely new route along the Front Range from Castle Rock to Fort Collins.
“We wanted to explore an option this year with a Front Range course and see the turnout that we get, if it’s a positive reaction or not,” said Ragnar Colorado race director Will Strauss. ”We’re trying to implement a lot of the cool scenery that can be seen on the Front Range. Kind of an experimental year.”
Vanderheiden created the Wild West Relay from Fort Collins to Steamboat Springs in 2005. After Ragnar began removing key pieces of the old Colorado Relay route, Vanderheiden took the best of those and used them in the Flaming Foliage Relay from Idaho Springs to Buena Vista via three mountain passes. That race debuted in 2014.
“As a generalization, my relays are for runners,” Vanderheiden said. “My sense is that Ragnar, their relays are events that just happen to involve running. Now in my marketing, I’m targeting Ragnar people and saying, ‘Hey, you’re going to be running in the plains. We’re still running in the mountains.’ My relay is still in Colorado. Theirs could be in Kansas or Nebraska.”
For those who want to run a relay but don’t have a team, Vanderheiden has a message board on the website for his races where teams seeking runners or runners seeking teams can connect. Registration isn’t cheap — currently $1,649 ($50 less when paying by check) for a 12-person Wild West Relay team, for example. Vanderheiden has some advice for runners putting together teams.
“Don’t register until you have money. Not just commitments, but have people write checks and give you their share of the registration fee,” Vanderheiden said. “Almost every year I hear from a captain who (says), ‘Everybody bailed on me, can I get a refund?’ ” The answer is no.
All three relays also have “ultra” options, meaning teams of five or six doing twice as many legs as the normal teams of 10 or 12. Teams of 10 or 12 utilize two vans, meaning one van full of runners is “active” while the other van is waiting for its turn. After everyone in the first van runs a leg, the second van goes active, and that happens two more times.
And don’t forget the views. There is a stretch on the Wild West Relay route descending into the Laramie River Valley in northern Colorado as shadows lengthen and nightfall approaches that is breathtaking, and sunrise approaching Rabbit Ears Pass is unforgettable. Guanella Pass early in the Flaming Foliage route is stunning, too.
“I think it’s neat how those relays offer up something for everyone,” said Boston. “The teams that want to be competitive get to be competitive, and it’s like they’re giving back to those teams that are out there having fun.”
Colorado road relay races
Wild West Relay: Aug. 2-3, Fort Collins to Steamboat Springs, 200 miles, 36 legs designed for teams of 12 or six runners. The route heads northwest on rural roads in Larimer County, crosses U.S. 287 and climbs through the Roosevelt National Forest via Red Feather Lakes before swinging north into the Laramie River Valley for a 20-mile loop into Wyoming. From there, it crosses back into Colorado via the Medicine Bow mountains, passes south through North Park, crosses Rabbit Ears Pass and descends for a finish at the Steamboat ski area. Registration is open, and late registration fees go into effect on July 1.
Flaming Foliage Relay, Sept. 6-7, Idaho Springs to Buena Vista, 165 miles, 30 legs designed for teams of 10 or five runners with 29 miles of single-track mountain trails. The route climbs Guanella Pass (elevation 11,669 feet) and passes through the Pike National Forest to Georgia Pass (elevation 11,585) before descending to Breckenridge. From there it swings north to Frisco and west to Copper Mountain before climbing Fremont Pass (elevation 11,318) and descending into Leadville with a loop around Turquoise Lake, then following the Arkansas River to Buena Vista. Registration is open, and late registration fees go into effect on Aug. 4.
Ragnar Colorado Relay: Sept. 13-14, Castle Rock to Fort Collins, 200 miles, 36 legs designed for teams of 12 or six runners. The route passes through Castlewood Canyon State Park and the Parker area before heading west to the Chatfield area and turning north through Lakewood, Golden, Arvada, Westminster, Broomfield, Longmont and Berthoud. Registration is open until April 16, and price increases go into effect July 2.
NOTE: Ragnar also organizes a mountain trail relay race near the Snowmass ski area, June 7-8. The registration deadline is April 30.