At 120 miles and with over 20,000 feet of elevation gain, the TransRockies Run in Colorado appears to share a claim as the nation’s toughest race.
However, the race is known to three Kenai Peninsula runners for something completely different.
To Mark and Kenda Blanning of Kenai and Connie Best of Soldotna, the six-day event serves as an ample opportunity to take delight in nature’s spectacles and form bonds with fellow runners who tackle the daunting challenge.
In an amazing display of organization and unity, the field of 389 racers are greeted each evening with a “tent city,” set up by race organizers that features everything from hot showers to delicious meals to masseurs waiting to give tired, sore runners a relieving massage.
“They have volunteers that work their rear ends off,” said Best via phone Wednesday. “They work hard.”
The TransRockies Run, a six-day stage race in Colorado, sends runners off every day in one big mass. Some of the more elite athletes take off and establish a fast pace in hopes of winning, but many are happy to enjoy their surroundings and breathe in the atmosphere of what they came to see.
“The faster ones you hear about in magazines, they come from Flagstaff (Arizona) to Colorado,” Best said. “But you would never know. They love it.”
With a total elevation gain approaching the height of Mt. McKinley, the race sends runners on a varying degree of terrain, starting up dirt roads that occasionally morph into jeep trails, singletrack trails and switchbacks that cruise up ski resort mountains. At one point, the course takes runners wading through a creek.
At its highest point, the course reaches an altitude of 12,500 feet. From Buena Vista to Beaver Creek, the 120-mile journey drives through the heart of the White River and San Isabel National Forests,
In her second time doing the race, Best took second in a total time of 20 hours, 7 minutes, 56 seconds, out of 23 women in the female age 50-plus race. Kenda Blanning finished fifth in 21:54:19.
In the men’s 50-plus event, Mark Blanning finished sixth out of 46 men in the 50-plus category, with a time of 20:36:21.
In her training, Best said she maximized her mileage at 90 miles. Blanning has a 3:25 time at the 2015 Boston Marathon to his credit and Best has a 3:27 personal best in her three attempts in Boston.
After shelling out $1,400 to run the race in August 2015, Best won the Team 80-plus division with fellow Alaskan runner Kyle Colburn. The victory wiped away the next year’s entry fee for the pair, encouraging Best to run again.
This time, she brought along the Blannings.
“Kenda said she got caught up in my excitement when I would call her and text her about the race,” Best said.
Day by day in Colorado, the peninsula runners took off from the nested area of a tent city and reunite miles later amidst another settlement thrown together by the race organizers. Best and the Blannings would settle down for dinner, a shower, a course preview for the next day and sometimes a movie. Men could shave and everyone could get a massage for sore muscles, and at the end of each stage, individual stage winners receive leader shirts.
Each morning, tent city is picked up and plopped back down in another location.
“You just meet a lot of people and you see them again next year,” Best said about the environment. “I think when you get a bunch of runners together that like to do it, everyone forms a bond.”
Best said she did not enter the race with the intent of winning, but by the third day was made aware that she was close behind the leader. Best was fastest in each of the final three days, gaining time each day.
On the final day, racers gain over 5,000 feet of elevation in a brutal climb that is capped with a three-mile descent. As a downhill running expert, Best said she was able to gain several positions, but ultimately came up short to winner Vicky Oswald of Port Costa, California.
The intense training allowed Best to recover enough to run the Lost Lake Trail Run, held near Seward just a week later, where she finished 21st among women with a time of 2:25:21. Kenda Blanning finished 63rd, about 17 minutes behind Best. In the men’s race, Mark Blanning finished 20th in 2:02:58.