Wild West Relay celebrates tenth year

It’s not for everyone.

Most people, even dedicated runners, might pass on an invitation to join a group of sweaty bodies stuffed into vehicle for a 24-hour-plus trip from Fort Collins to Steamboat Springs in the dog days of August. At least three and up to six times, these bodies leave the vehicle and run a 5 to 9 mile leg, in the heat of the day, at sunset or sunrise, or in the dark of the night, and then pile back into the vehicle. When everyone has run a “leg”, the vehicle will come to rest and a second vehicle transporting another load of sweaty bodies will become “active” and complete their laps. And on it goes until all members to the two-vehicle teams finish running and arrive in Steamboat Springs to celebrate. By then, total strangers of a day and night ago, know each other’s quirks quite well.

At this writing 65 teams, mostly of 12 runners, and a hardy few “ultra” teams with 6 runners, are trained and ready to embark on the 10th annual Wild West Relay, affectionately known as “Get Your Ass Over the Pass.” It gets underway at 5 a.m. on Friday Aug. 2. It will be dark at the Budweiser Brewery parking lot off Interstate 25 in north Fort Collins when the first teams take off to cover 200 miles by Saturday afternoon. Speedier teams leave during the morning, with the fastest starting at noon.

Event founder and owner of Roads Less Traveled Relays, Paul Vanderheiden, organizes at least four relay races each year. He takes pride in providing participants with an enjoyable, safe running experience with friends, on roads with limited traffic, and in a beautiful part of the country. Undertaking an event like WWR with 36 legs, each requiring a manned exchange station, and accommodating the needs of hundreds of runners is a logistical challenge. Vanderheiden said the secret is being organized, providing clear maps, signage, and pre-race instructions. He originally got into the business after participating in a poorly run relay.

This year’s Road Less Traveled relays are Flaming Foliage, from Idaho Springs to Buena Vista in September, 165 miles; Heartland Relay in Iowa which will take place in April 2014; and the Civil War Relay, a one-day sprint from Albany to Eugene, Ore., the week after the Oregon-Oregon State football game this fall.

Safety is a priority. From sunset to sunrise every runner on the road is required to wear a reflective vest, headlamp and blinking red light. No headphones are allowed and Vanderheiden doesn’t hesitate to insist that anyone who won’t abide by that rule leave the event.

In connection with the relay, the Volunteers with a Purpose organization recruits volunteers to serve as marshals and man the 36 exchanges where vehicles switch off to begin their resting or active times. Volunteers are paid for their work from registration fees and donate their earnings to charities. Vanderheiden predicts between $14,000 and $15,000 will be raised for charities at WWR this year. To date the relay has raised $170,000. Gamma Chi sorority and Larimer Dive and Rescue have worked exchanges for many years. These volunteers welcome tired runners, make sure they hook up with their teammates doing the next leg, and assure their comfort (that’s a relative thing) and safety.

Participants can snooze in their vehicles if they can find a spot, or relax at an exchange point to await their active time. Walden high school allows runners to spread sleeping bags on their grounds but does not accommodate runners by altering their early morning sprinkling schedule.

The relay welcomes runners of all abilities and both 12 and 6-person divisions have competitive and non-competitive divisions. There are men’s, women’s, mixed, open, masters, and flatlanders, a team that requires participants who live below 2,500 feet. This year Colorado, Wyoming, South Dakota, New Mexico, Missouri and Illinois will be represented. Planning begins early and teams come up with clever names, costumes and slogans to paint on their vehicles. This year’s teams have chosen “Burning the Midnight Soil,” “You Just Got Chicked,” “Tutus and Teabags,” “Mountain Mamas,’ and “Roadkill,” among others, to identify themselves.

Beginning close to the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, the route winds its way through scenic remote areas on dirt roads in Roosevelt, Medicine Bow and Routt National forests and through small mountain and ranching communities until it arrives in Steamboat Springs. Vanderheiden appreciates the cooperation he’s received from communities and private landowners that makes the course possible. He works hard to minimize noise and make sure all trash is collected, out of respect for the inhabitants and the areas the relay traverses.

By the end of the relay, many strangers have become friends, and everyone is ready for a plunge into the hot springs at Strawberry Park outside Steamboat Springs. WWR may not be an event for everybody, but Denver Post journalist John Meyer called it, “the most fun I’ve ever had while running.”

The best way to find out if you agree with him is to sign up for a Roads Less Traveled Relay and see for yourself.

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