Imagine looking over the South Rim of the Grand Canyon and how far down it is to the Colorado River. Imagine running down to the river and back up to the rim 8 times. After all that, imagine running an additional 60 KM (36 miles). If that isn’t enough, now imagine that the elevation of the south rim ranges from 13,000′ to over 14,000′ so each time you get to the top, the elevation is higher and air is thinner. If that’s still not enough for you, get rid of the nicely manicured Grand Canyon trails and cover this distance on technical single track and trail-less cross county sections. Now imagine doing this all without stopping. If you can wrap your head around all of this, you can almost imagine the Hardrock 100.
I have been applying to get into Hardrock for 5 years. This year the lottery gods finally looked down on me and granted me the opportunity to run Hardrock. At various times over the past few years, I have run 60-70 miles of the Hardrock course. I knew the race was hard, but no amount of pre-running short sections of the course could have prepared me for how hard the race actually was. To tie all these sections of trail together with massive climbs, steep decants, technical and rocky trails, cross country running, river crossings, and extended periods of time over 13,000′ takes a toll on the body that for me was previously unimaginable and even now is difficult to explain. Any combination of 3 or 4 of these items has little impact on me, but when you put them all together over 100+ miles and 30+ hours, the additive impact pushes the most well-trained athlete to their utmost limits.
Panorama of Silverton
I laid out my 3 race goals in my previous post. I knew I had to have good day to finish in 32 hours. I also had calculated splits for a 30, 34, and 36 hour finish. The 36 hour finish meant I had struggled to overcome lots of demons during the run. For 30 hours, I knew I would have to have the race of my life. Toeing the line on Friday morning, I felt great, I felt healthy, I felt motivated, and I was ready to give Hardrock everything I had. Little did I know that Hardrock would throw more at me than I ever imagined. Assuming I would survive Hardrock, I had 3 additional post-race goals
- A beer at the finish line
- Mexican food and a margarita once I could stomach some food
- A cocktail at the Montanya bar (Montanya is a rum distilled in Crested Butte)
Thursday night our race house went to bed early. I was in bed shortly before 9, but little did I know I would see the clock strike midnight and still be awake. This was not confidence building since I knew the alarm would be ringing at 4:15AM. I woke at 4:15 feeling rested and excited. I had my usual pre-race breakfast of coffee and oatmeal and we were out the door to starting line. It had rained for several hours during the night so it was a cool, cloudy, and wet morning. The Silverton Gym was bustling with activity as racers checked in and prepared for the adventure ahead. The Hardrock lottery makes the race unique and each year the top 1-4 racers on the wait list show up on Friday morning still with a chance to get in as it is not uncommon for someone to not show up race morning. This year, friends Ryan McDermott and Matt Hart both had their fingers crossed in hopes of being able to race that morning. They had left their drop bags on Thursday and were geared up and ready. Unfortunately the lottery gods did not look down on them as all 140 racers were signed in by 5:47.
The race started with the National Anthem followed by a great run through town (all 3 blocks) onto the single track (iRunFar Starting Line Video). The pack settled into a comfortable pace for the 3,840′ climb up Little Giant. 9.3 miles after the start were were at the first aid station at Cunningham Gulch. I was feeling great and had reached the AS in 2:17, 3 minutes ahead of my goal. I was greeted by my great crew and pacers (Emily and Walter) along with other friends helping out (Matt, Krissy, Mindy Seth, Aimee, Robert, and more). I swapped running packs and kept moving through the AS.
Game face at Cunningham
It would be 33 miles and 9 hours before I would see my crew again. The race stayed consistent with long climbs followed by steep, technical descents into aid stations. This would continue for the entire race. As Roch Horton says, the race in the counter clockwise direction (the race changes directions each year) is a series of ramps and dives (ramps going up, dives going down). I continued to run a smart race pushing the climbs at a steady pace, controlling the steep descents so as not to blow my quads, then pushing the pace up on the lower grade descents. This remained a good strategy for my entire race.
The trail from Cunningham to Grouse Gulch where I would see my crew again would have 5 major climbs over 13,000′ including 14,068′ Handies Peak. The climb to Handies starts at Sherman and climbs 5,285′ in just over 6 miles. This climb would be one of my first lows of the race and also the first of 5 thunderstorms that would be encountered during the race. By the time I reached the summit of Handies, I was feeling very worked and was extremely happy to see Fred Marmsater’s smiling face and words of encouragement. I would have the luck of getting Fred’s encouragement again at Virginius and then Grant Swamp Pass. Each descending step off of Handies made me feel better, but it did nothing for my stomach which was now suffering the effects of exertion and altitude.
Running into Grouse Gulch with my poles stashed ‘skimo style’
It was great to run into Grouse Gulch and see my crew and so many other friends (Missy, Basit, Megan, as well as all those who were at Cunningham). I sat down for about 5 minutes at Grouse Gulch, ate some real food (as opposed to gels, chews, etc.), then took off with Walter Edwards as my pacer for the next 30 miles (until Telluride). I was feeling good at Grouse. I was getting tired, I felt like I had run 42 miles and climbed 14,608′. I was also having nutrition issues. Race food was not working. I was able to eat some aid station food and gels, but bars, chews, etc. were not sitting well in my stomach. Walter and I left Grouse Gulch at 5:19 and I was 21 minutes ahead of my goal pace. I just had to remain calm and stay focused on my race plan and getting my stomach back. Walter and I had a 3 mile and 2,300′ climb up to Engineer Pass. We would encounter the second thunder storm in this section. By this time in the race a tempo had materialized where I would catch Darcy Africa on the climbs we would climb together a while, then I would move ahead. Darcy would catch me on the descents, I would stay with her for a while, then she would pull away. I knew that with a 9 mile descent from Engineer Pass to Ouray, I would not likely see her again after we parted ways at the pass. The descent into Ouray was long, gradual, and amazingly beautiful. We had the third thunderstorm in this section about 30 minutes out of Ouray. We enjoyed this decent and stuck with my race plan of not pushing too hard and blowing my quads. We had a goal of reaching Ouray without headlamps. We made this goal, but it was definitely dark when we ran into the Ouray aid station. Walter and I were in and out of Ouray after some food and dry cloths. It was pouring rain in Ouray and a hard decision of how many cloths we needed to leave with as we were starting an 11.3 mile and 5,500′ climb from the lowest point of the race to the second highest point of the race – Virginius Pass. There is 1 aid station 3.3 miles before Virginius and Watler and I were very worried before this aid station as we had gone well over 5 miles and not seen a single course marking. I knew the course stayed on the road, but being tired and dark, I was convincing myself we were off course. We were less than 10 minutes from turning around and going back to Ouray and dropping from the race when we finally saw the aid station a few hundred meters ahead of us. What a relief that was!
The climb up Virginius is famous in Hardrock lore and rightly so. The last 30 minutes of the climb felt nearly vertical and you could see the aid station lights at the top and it never seemed to be getting any closer. Words can’t describe how difficult the last section of this climb is, a person just needs to experience themselves after having already run 68 miles and climbed 23,000′. By the end of this long and grinding climb I was destroyed. I was thrilled to see the smiling face of Roch at Virginius and was so wasted that I didn’t even realize that my friend David Hayes, who was helping there, was standing next to me the entire time. Roch spent 3 minutes and put Humpty Dumpty back together. After a pierogi and a couple cups of soup, Watler and I were on our way 5 miles and 4,400′ down to Telluride. I was anxiously awaiting the warmer and thicker air of the lower elevation. We encountered the 4th thunderstorm on Virginius, but luckily it was only a small storm. This is by far the greatest aid station of any race. It is perched on a tiny ledge with climbing porta-ledges used for chairs and a table. The 4-6 volunteers are up there all night in often horrific weather wearing full down suits for warmth and helmets to protect against any potential rocks that could possibly break loose and in case they slip. To me, these volunteers are the Heroes of Hardrock.
Walter and I were conservative on our descent to Telluride and by this time I was definitely suffering the effects of a long day and night and was just plain old tired. Never before during a 100 mile race have I wanted to sleep, but that is all I really wanted to do. I knew I had to stay the plan and the plan was to spend 15 minutes at Telluride. Eat, drink, take care of any niggles, clean up a little, and get ready for a new day. Since it was essentially morning (it was 2:30AM), I had oatmeal and coffee, changed socks and insoles, wiped off my body, lubed a few areas that were rubbing, and had Walter pass the pacing baton to Emily who would take me the final 28 miles and 10,500′ to the finish line.
The climb out of Telluride was a 6.3 mile, 4,500′ climb. Emily had specifically went to Telluride on Monday to run this section with Dave and Suzanne so she would know what to expect. We made our first error about 1 mile out of town when we thought we had gone too far and turned around and spent close to 10 minutes looking for the critical right turn before realizing that we were not as far along as we had thought. We got back on route and settled in for the slog up to Oscar’s Pass. This was the 8th major climb and the 7th time over 13,000′ and I was in a deeper and darker place than I had ever been. The extremely steep climbs had slowed me to what I felt was a pace that would surely set me back from reaching my goal, but instead it kept me right on track (I guess it was supposed to hurt that bad at that point and that I was supposed to be going that slow). Emily kept me motivated on the climb and I just kept doing everything I could to keep climbing up higher and higher. At the top of Oscar’s I got cold for the first time. I was at the point of exhaustion where my body had no energy to regulate its temperature and when the cold breeze hit me, I went from forward progress to a dead halt shivering. Emily quickly helped me get my coat on and motivated me off the pass as quickly as possible. The descent down Oscar’s is littered with baby head rocks preventing any type of running and in the dark with exhausted legs it felt more like a drunken stumble than any type of running. Soon we were once again down below 11,000′, the sun had risen, our headlamps were turned off, and I was back to being a semi-functional human. When we hit the gradual road into Chapman I was actually feeling great and we were cranking along at a 7:30 min/mile pace, right past the left hand turn to the Chapman Aid Station. We had seen a marker on the left, but the markers around the corner were blocked by a car as we ran past. It was 0.8 miles and ~900′ down the road when were realized our mistake and had to climb out of the hole we had ran ourselves into. This was mentally the lowest point of the race. I had worked hard to keep ahead of my goal splits, we had just passed a person putting me in 13th place (one of my unofficial goals is to always try to finish in the top 10%). It really took me 2-3 hours to get my head back after this mistake. Between this ‘detour’ and the mental slowdown afterwards, this cost at least 40 minutes of time. Amazingly, when we finally climbed back up to Chapman AS, we had arrived 6 minutes faster than plan (which would have been 46 minutes faster than plan) and I was 45 minutes ahead of my 32 hour goal pace. At this point, I was only focused on a 32 hour finish and maintaining 13th place. I didn’t have any idea that I could possibly finish in 31 hours or less (it turns out that Emily was working towards this goal the entire time, but this was unbenounced to me). We spent a couple minutes at the Chapman AS as the only food I could eat at this time was coke and soup. For the second time, I left the AS with a bottle of coke and a bottle of Hammer Sustained Energy knowing that this would be all I would be able to comfortably put in my stomach until the KT AS (7 miles and 3,000′ of climbing later).
The climb from Chapman to Grant Swamp pass is another famed climb due to how steep and loose it is. We had run to Grant Swamp Pass earlier in the week in order to know what to expect and for Brett to show us the ‘easy’ way up. Easy is a relative term at Hardrock, what that really means is that it is like the hardest climb of other races. The climb up Grant Swamp Pass was literally a scramble requiring hands and feet to claw your way up through the loose rock and dirt. Fred was once again present on Grant Swamp and provided some much needed motivation for the final claw up and the great glissade and run down the other side.
Climbing to Grant Swamp Pass – typical Hardrock Terrain
The ridiculously steep final pitch of Grant Swamp Pass at mile 84
We had a great run down Grant Swamp. I was not running fast at this point, but I was able to run steady and consistent on the descents and that was the most important part. We arrived at the KT AS at 9:08AM (27:08 of moving time) and I was now 1:01 ahead of my pace. I still did not realize that I was far enough ahead of my 32 hour goal to actually be able to finish in 31 hours. We stopped at KT only long enough for me to have a bowl of soup. When Emily asked if I wanted pumpkin pie, I quickly said ‘no’, then realized that since nothing else worked, I may as well try pie. It went down OK and I had 2 pieces, then left with another bottle of Coke. I do not drink any soda in regular life and have not done so for close to 15 years. Looking back at the race, it makes me sick to my stomach to think that I drank at least 80oz of Coke throughout the race, but since that and a bowl of soup every 2-3 hours were basically my only calories, I didn’t had a lot of other options.
We left KT with 1 big climb left – 2,500′ in a little over 3 miles. I had not seen this section of the course which turned out to be demoralizing. We reached Cataract-Porcupine Pass and I was excited to be at the top only to look up and see that we had to climb another 500′ to the top of the ridge. This was my breaking point and the only time of the race (or any race for that matter) that I whined like a baby (or so Emily claims). When I saw the route went straight up to the ridge with no trail and no switchbacks I leaned over my poles and said, ‘I don’t want to go up there’. Emily told me I had no choice and lead the way. It was only a couple minutes later that we could hear cheering on the ridge. Not knowing who it was still motivated me to keep putting 1 foot in front of the other at a whopping 40-50 min/mile pace. As we got closer, we realized this was our friends Missy Gossney and Basit Mustafa who had planed to hang out on the ridge during their morning run and cheer on runners. They were surprised to see us as well. Their happy smiles, cheery voices, humor, and words of encouragement were exactly what I needed. I was pulled from the depths of hell and brought back to life. They ran with us for a few hundred meters and Basit got a great photo as the 5th thunderstorm was approaching.
Running across Putnam-Cataract Ridge – Mile 93. Photo by Basit Mustafa
We reached Putnam AS at 11:29AM and I was 1:05 ahead of my 32 hour goal. It was at this time that I realized for the first time that I could go under 31 hours if I could find a new level of the pain cave. A quick cup of soup and a refill of coke in my bottle and we were out of the AS. As we left, we heard cheering behind us and assumed we were being chased down. Emily took the lead and I did all I could to stay on her feet. Shortly out of the AS, the thunderstorm hit which turned out to be more hail than rain. The 4 miles from the AS to the road had several very rocky sections which were now extremely slippery from the rain. We kept a solid pace through the rocky sections and steep sections, then would put the hammer down (as much as possibly at mile 98+) on the gradual descents and flats. The AS staff said it would take 1.5 hours to get to the finish and we knew we only had 1:20 to get there in goal time (needed 5 minutes of leeway in case my watch time was a few minutes off). For how I had felt for the previous 50 miles, I never could have dreamed I would have run the last 5.8 miles. We reached Mineral Creek crossing where I promptly fell completely in when my foot rolled off a rock on the second step (this actually felt amazing and refreshing even if it was cold and raining), then we were off again to cross the highway for the final climb and 2 miles into Silverton.
Crossing Mineral Creek at Mile 98 (after I fell in)
We power hiked the hill up from the highway, then ran the rest of the course including 2 short hills. We were soon looking down at Silverton, then a right turn at the Shrine of Christ down the hill into town and the Silverton Gym and finish line were in sight. I continued to push and made the right turn towards the finish line coral to not see a single person. Seth Hales suddenly appeared to get a picture, but after the hardest race of my life, it was very anti-climatic to have 1 person there to see me kiss The Hardrock (in contrast later in the afternoon, there were over 50 people cheering on finishers).
The clock stops when you kiss The Hardrock
I have had a tough last 11 months since Leadman with recovering from those injuries, having a bad BST Marathon and Pocatello 50 and never feeling 100%. I felt like I needed a good race at Hardrock to regain some ultra running confidence, but not having had a good race in so long, made it difficult to feel like I could put together a good run. In the final 2 weeks before Hardrock I felt better than I have felt in 11 months. After arriving in Silverton, I was finally mentally ready for Hardrock. I felt Hardrock was my race, I am not a great runner, but I am a great climber so I have always felt that the Hardrock course would suit my running style. As it turned out a lot of things fell into place (weather, race plans, having a good day, etc) and I was able to have an extraordinary Hardrock race. Two days after the race, I am still trying to fully comprehend the magnitude of the race, the challenges it throws at a runner, my ability to put all the pieces together for a great race, and much more. It is just too much to put into words.
Spending a week running and racing through the San Juan Mountains and having the privilege to enjoy the amazing terrain and beautiful mountains was an amazing experience that I can’t wait to do again. I need to give a huge thanks to Walter and Emily my pacers and crew as well as all the other friends who helped me at the aid stations (especially Geoff at Sherman). I could not have done this without all their help and encouragement.
The San Juan Mountains in their fully beauty and bloom
What worked for me
- New Balance MT1210 Leadville shoes
- Drymax socks
- CW-X compression tights
- BD Ultra Distance Poles
- BD Icon headlamp – this thing is awesome at night
- Ultraspire Kinetic Pack
- First Endurance EFS Gel
- First Endurance EFS Powder
- Stinger Waffles
- Hammer Nutrition Sustained Energy
- Hammer Nutrition Endurolytes
- Hammer Nutrition Endurance Aminos
- First Endurance Optygen
What didn’t work for me