SHERIDAN — As she runs along the mountain road at 1 a.m. there is no other light than her headlamp and the twinkle of a clear night sky at 7,500 feet.
Her jog will only last 3.5 miles but at a seven-degree incline it will feel like much more.
The runner is grateful that she has yet to encounter any wildlife, and even more grateful that soon enough she will again meet up with a van full of her friends to hand the baton to the next woman.
You see, this is no leisurely midnight jaunt.
This team of 12 women is running in the 11th annual Wild West Relay — a 200-mile, 36-leg, 24-hour run in Colorado that takes teams from Fort Collins to Steamboat Springs with nothing but manpower.
The “Get Your Ass Over the Pass” is called an adventure race as there aren’t any police escorts or pacing crews. It is a self-supported challenge that takes place on open trails and roads, over tough terrain and higher elevations with a variety of teams who never really know what to expect around the next corner.
This year’s race was held last weekend and a team of 12 newcomers rose to the challenge. The team included three women from Sheridan, and together they took second place in the all-women’s category.
Sara Heywood, Christi Haswell and Brooke Wattam were all runners of different skill levels and a variety of ages and they joined together with nine women from across the nation.
They called their teammates strangers on Friday and life-long friends on Monday.
It all started over a year ago when Wattam heard of the race from a coworker and knew she wanted to give it a try.
“I was working as a physical therapist with a nurse who had put a team together and she talked about how much fun it is,” she said. “I had done a couple half marathons and a marathon but I was ready for something different and I wanted to do something as a team, so I started asking around to some friends to gauge interest.”
Wattam brought Heywood on board right away and from there the team began to form by friends calling friends and strangers of like interest stepping up to the plate.
“She was just somebody who knew somebody who knew somebody,” Wattam said of how the team came together. “It was a great group of women and we all got along.”
About mid-summer one runner backed out and Haswell was called up to be her replacement.
Haswell was a runner at Sheridan High School and also the University of Wyoming and she went to school with Wattam, but she had never done anything like this race before.
“This is a really hard race to train for, I wasn’t quite sure how I was going to feel,” she said. “My last leg was only 3.5 miles but you don’t realize how sleep deprived you’re going to be at that point so it was a hard 3.5 miles. Beyond just staying up all night and trying to get another run in the morning, your in a van in between and you’re muscles aren’t stretching out or recovering the same. How do you train for that? It’s just hard to replicate.”
Heywood was likewise a rookie to relays though she has been running all her life.
The self proclaimed “matriarch” of the group, Heywood said she has been running since the late 1970s but this event will now be remembered as one of her fondest experiences.
“I’ve done a lot of running but most of it’s been on my own and I think that’s the main reason I did this,” she said. “It’s going to be one of my most memorable experiences and I think a lot of that has to do with being with 11 other women who were not only inspirational, they had the same common goals in life.”
The feeling was mutual as Wattam and Haswell agreed that supporting each other was the best part of the event.
“It’s just such an experience that you really couldn’t get anywhere else, the experience itself and the novelty of it as well,” Haswell said. “The bonding with the other women on the team was the best. I only knew three of the other 11 and to be up for 36 hours in a passenger van with five other women is traumatic, but in a fun way.”
She added that she normally runs alone, and that the solitude of the sport is typically why she sticks with it, but the team aspect of this event pushed her forward.
“Now that I am older, it is not only a way to stay fit but it’s also quiet time as I have three little kids so I can get away,” she said. “The friends you make and the relationships you continue building, it was great walking away with those relationships.”
“That was the cool thing about our team, we definitely all had a competitive spirit but we all also cheered each other on and truly wanted each other to just do the best you could,” Heywood added.
Wattam said though the experience was tough, she encourages all skill levels to try it and even hopes to see a similar event come to Sheridan and maybe take runners over the mountain to Cody.
“If you set your mind to it, you can do anything. Have the support there for you so you’re able to accomplish it and you can do it,” she said. “One girl had a very tough leg and when she got back in the van she said it was tough even walking it and was worried she let the team down and didn’t know if she could get back out there but I told her I gave her that leg because I knew she was tough mentally and she could keep going, and she did.”
And whether driving along their runner cheering out the van windows or stopping at an open school to stretch their legs and warm up in the lobby, the women finished the race together and are already making plans for their next adventure together, new forever friends in running.