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Gratitude and Pain: 2015 Hardrock 100 Race Report

     "That's one gnarly course, but the pierogies were delicious!" Those words were for Dale Garland, race director and greeter of every single Hardrock 100 finisher making the journey back to Silverton. Apparently, after kissing the painted slab of mining stone and effectively stopping my race time, I thought Dale needed to hear not only that his race called Hardrock was indeed "hard" but that the starchy sustenance was pleasing. Don't let the presence of fancy potato delicacies fool you. Pierogies couldn't negate the wild and toughness of this "graduate level" loop through the San Juan mountains. A 100 mile foot race with 33,992 ft of gain, 33,992 ft of loss, and at an average elevation of 11,000 ft seemed manageable on paper. On hands and knees, trekking poles, and sometimes on foot however, the route that touched 12,000 ft 13 times, 13,000 ft seven times, and topped out at over 14,000 ft would exact it's payment in all the effort I could give. For my reward, gratitude and pain.

Smoochin' the Hardrock. Photo: iRunFar/Mauri Pagliacci

     I left for Silverton the Sunday before the race and picked up super fan Bill Dooper in Leadville along the way. This garnered some good karma points for me while I got to better know the most incredible octogenarian around. A year ago Bill had a stroke, but his rehab goal wasn't simply to return home, he wanted to be at Hardrock in July. Bill has been at every Hardrock since 1989 and he couldn't let his streak end.  Though probably a little biased, after some thorough prognosticating with Scott Jaime, Bill scratched me onto his handwritten top ten list, a list Bill organizes alphabetically and keeps safe in his back pocket. Quite a powerful vote of confidence!  

     As the days passed, more and more of the running community began to trickle in. Among the folks arriving were my all star crew of friends and family that would sacrifice their weekend for me. My parents made the drive from North Carolina to crew at their third 100 mile race. By now, they had become accustomed to this obscure little sport and I sensed their level of enjoyment was greater than their level of worry. Assisting them with crewing duties and navigating the more rugged access points would be friends and former Barr Camp caretakers Renee and Anthony. These two really came through in creating and executing a seamless logistics plan that minimized the effort on my part. Zach, who would pace the 43 mile "Hardrock Half" from Ouray to Silverton, arrived a day before to get a quick run down of his segment. And lastly, Kelly arrived the morning of the race and would keep me company along the 16 miles from Grouse to Ouray 

     In the early morning light, further softened by a torpid blanket of clouds, 152 runners stood outside of the Silverton High School. I found Scott towards the front and brought up an old joke about my sphincter pulsating. He smiled and assured me that this was a good thing, that this was supposed to happen when you're at the starting line of Hardrock. Yet nervousness wasn't the right word. I felt eager yet calm, just ready to commune with the spirit of the mountains.


Photo: Salomon Running/Rickey Gates

Start in Silverton: Mile 0, 6am

     The first miles rolled pleasantly through the wide streets of Silverton before we funneled onto a cut of single track paralleling the Animas River. As I wrote in my last post, my goal going into the weekend was to find flow and to stay present, enjoying the moments. Running Hardrock was a privilege and I wanted to treat it as such. I believe that happy running is the best kind of running and things would fall into place if this was accomplished.

     During the first climb over Little Giant Pass, nothing was forced. I simply let the terrain dictate my speed and mixed hiking with running as I settled into a rhythm. Along the way I was able to chat briefly with Matt Hart, a source of inspiration for last year's Nolan's adventure. I also ran into Jason Koop and eventually fell into pace with him. The two of us shared the early miles of the Zane Grey 50 together earlier in the year and I took it as a harbinger of good things to come. Offering further assurance that I was right where I needed to be was a Karl Metzler sighting ahead. With his propensity for well executed 100 mile races, I knew I was in good company. As we rose above the blanket of clouds, crested Little Giant Pass, and began our way to Cunningham Gulch, Koop quipped that we'd be in good shape if we were running the final descent like the first. Oh was he so right!

Karl and I just before cresting Little Giant Pass. Photo: iRunFar/Justin & Denise Ricks

Koop ready to karate kick Cunningham Creek. Photo iRunFar/Maury Pagliacci

Cunningham Gulch Aid Station. Mile 9.3, 8:02 am

     With fantastic efficiency on the part of my crew, I was able to drop off a handheld bottle and pick up two more, all without  breaking stride through the first aid station. The next climb up Green Mountain/Stony Pass was a section I had previewed a bit of in training. I resorted to hiking most of the initial climb, running only as the grade allowed. On the way up, I met three time champion Darcy Piceu who was looking strong and steady. Higher up, I got to chat a bit with Jared Campbell, Nolan's finisher and whose Running Up For Air challenges were part of the inspiration for my Inclinathon adventures.  Jared would be going for his 10th Hardrock finish and he was kind enough to keep me on course a couple of times. Thanks dude!

Maggie Gulch. Mile 15.4, 9:47 am

     After Maggie's the route jumped onto the Continental Divide Trail for a bit. At some point around this stretch I spotted Scott ahead and was disheartened to see him now slowing a bit after a strong start. A lingering cough left his oxygen intake compromised, intensifying the detrimental effects of altitude. I offered a cheesy remark about Ricola cough drops and the fact that we were in the Swiss Alps of Colorado to cheer him up but this probably offered little relief. Scott took me under his ultra running wing in a lot of ways and I hoped his day would turn around. Unfortunately this would not be the case, but he made the right decision and I'm looking forward to seeing him do some big things at Tor des Geants later in the year.  

Running into Pole Creek. Photo iRunFar/Travis Trampe

Pole Creek. Mile 19.7, 10:38 am

     While finding your pace regardless of the happenings of others is important, the route finding and social advantages of running with a small gang, especially in an event of such length, can make the race a little more easy and enjoyable. The trick is to find a gang that closely fits your pace. Fortunately Karl, Anna Frost, Koop, Ben Lewis, and myself had formed such a symbiotic caravan just after the Pole Creek aid station. 

      Overcast skies held for most of the morning with only fleeting episodes of spitting rain. Nevertheless, with plentiful late snow this year, much of this the trail was in various stages of soggy and there was one report of 168 stream crossings from start to finish! It was across one such boggy section that my stride turned to single leg hop as I ripped a shoeless left foot from the suction of the terra not so firma. Fortunately, Koop was immediately behind me and he removed my boot from the clutches of the tacky slop. Another benefit of group running. 

Sherman. Mile 28.8, 12:24 pm

     Descending into Sherman, Anna and I had now fallen into a similar pace. We arrived into the aid station together and, after a compliment from the great Rick Robinson (Scott's father in law) on a "smart race", we left in similar fashion. The skies were beginning to darken and threaten a bit more, making the upcoming climb over 14,000 ft to Handies more trepidatious. Anna revealed that she carried a trusty good weather charm so we kept moving with fingers crossed.  

     It was along the gradually climbing jeep to Burrows that I was able to identify my strengths for this course. I didn't consider myself as a terribly fast hiker or descender over the hundred mile course, but I was gaining confidence in my ability to maintain a running cadence up the more sustained jeep road climbs without redlining. Fortunately, I knew I'd see plenty more of these before the finish. 


Burrows Park. Mile 32.6, 1:13 pm

     After the small aid station at Burrows, gravel road gave way to single track once again for the trip up Handies. What little space I gained over the road was quickly closed down by Anna and Ben who were now closely in tow. Once above treeline, I was able to make some nominal ground on Karl and led our small group to the summit under cloudy but stable weather conditions.

    After grinding up Handies, my legs struggled to make the switch to a descending rhythm. Cramping a bit, I stopped to pee, hoping that the forced rest would let the spasms subside. This worked to some extent but with 60 miles left, I made sure to keep the effort in check the rest of the way to the next aid station.  

Trying not to cramp on the descent into Grouse with Anna. Photo: iRunFar/Joe Crilly 

Grouse Gulch. Mile 42.2, 3:59 pm

     Grouse Gulch was bustling with activity from runners and their support crew. This second major crew access point was a bit disorienting to navigate but my crew was great at directing me on where to go and restocking my supplies. I decided to drop handhelds and go with a pack and trekking poles at this point in the race. Though I hadn't trained much with poles, volatile legs convinced me to hike most of the climb up Engineer's pass and save my running efforts for later. I'd also pick up Kelly as pacer and it gave us a chance to catch up. Rick Robinson found me before leaving and gave me a great bear hug of positivity which almost brought me to tears. Now recharged, we hung with Anna for much of the climb as blessings of relatively good weather were finally starting to dissipate and lightning cracked around us. Karl, Ben, and his pacer remained ever in sight and we formed a loose group once again over the last high point before Ouray. With each flash of electricity, I shrieked reflexively as inding shelter in treeline was the only remedy for this kind of vulnerability. 

Gavin, myself, and Kelly. Photo: iRunFar/Mauri Pagliacci

     Kelly and I ran down to the Engineer Aid Station now trailing Karl, Anna, and Ben and his pacer. Fear of the flashes prevented me from stopping to put on a rain jacket during this stretch and despite being prone to overheating, my body temperature was dropping. The wonderful folks at the Engineer Aid Station offered me a sip of warm broth which worked wonders for preventing the shivers from setting in.

     Engineer. Mile 48.7, 5:45 pm

Anna, myself, and Kelly dodging rain drops and lightning. Photo: iRunFar/Eric Senseman

     Moving on, Kelly and I resumed a steady pace over the remaining downhill stretch into Ouray, gaining momentum literally and figuratively with each passing mile. With only a handful of switchbacks to go, a bit of hubris set in and I let the stride open more and more. So much so, that my attention to the trail lapsed a bit and I found myself taking a head first digger across the shale path. Rising, I realized that the crimson medical ID bracelet, once attached to my right wrist, had been lost in the corporeal wreckage. We pushed on, deciding it was a lost cause, and made the first volunteer we saw aware of its unfortunate fate. It was soon after this unfortunate series of events that I encountered the surprise of the day. My good friend Harsha had made the trip out from Colorado Springs and had wandered up the trails overlooking Ouray to greet and cheer me in. The smallest of gestures can offer powerful emotional boosts after 13 hours. 

Ouray. Mile 56.6, 7:14 pm

     As with Grouse, Ouray was alive with activity. My parents, Renee and Anthony, Kelly, Zach, and now Harsha were all there to tend to my needs. I decided to stick with the pack/poles set up as it helped not only with hiking up, but also in allowing my legs to make the downhill transitions. Broth and mashed potatoes were shoveled into my gullet and I made a quick shoe change, inexplicably perhaps opting to stick with the same soggy socks. I spent 8 minutes at the aid station which would be my longest break of the day. We were at the cognitive halfway point and the race was just getting started. 

Gullet stuffing with Anthony, Renee, and Zach. Photo: Harsha

     The climb up Camp Bird Road was the same usually miserable and boring jeep road grade that I convinced myself was my strength. With Zach now pacing, I was pleasantly surprised with how much "quality" uphill running I could muster. When I say "quality" it probably wasn't very pretty by any means but at least it felt efficient. Just before we lit the head torches, we moved past Anna and Gavin (pacer) and Brendan and Dana (pacer), both of whom were battling low spots. Words of encouragement were exchanged and we pressed on. Not soon after, we caught up and scooted past with Karl. We continued our churning until a fork in the road gave us pause. Some discussion about the correct trail cost us an insignificant amount of time before Zach and I committed to the proper direction. 

Governors. Mile 64.7, 9:15 pm

     We wasted little time at the Governor Aid Station, coaxed by the opportunity to get out before the trailing lights moved in. Zach took over flag finding duties on our way up the three pitches of Virginius Pass. Now above treeline, we spotted headlamps moving above us, though with no certainty of the identity of their toters. We continued stomping and crawling our way up the steep and snowy walls, beckoned by the sound of cowbells and cheering from the aid station volunteers. 

Kroger's Kanteen. Mile 67.8, 10:21 pm

     The Kroger's Kanteen Aid Station lives through the dedication of Roch Horton and a hardy collection of volunteers. Precariously sitting at 13,100 ft, it is perhaps the highest aid station in the world and is merely a narrow alleyway from one side of the pass to the other. Crawling towards this high alpine oasis, I found myself quickly ushered under a canopy, plopped down onto a padded stone seat, and then adorned with a sleeping bag over my shoulders. Suddenly, a plate of pierogies appeared and with embarrassingly little conscious thought, I made them disappear without regard to their gluten content. I asked for more and my request was granted. I thanked Roch and his team, not wanting to get too cozy and beckoned Zach to continue on the journey.

Telluride. Mile 72.8, 11:34 pm

     The bolus of starch fueled the cruise into Telluride. Still feeling steady, Scott's adage that "the race doesn't start til Telluride" rang through my head. Navigating through town proved somewhat tricky as a concurrent but unrelated festival was revving up. My dedicated crew was there again to get us in and out in 5 minutes. After one last handful of gluten-be-damned pumpkin pie, I returned once again into the darkness.

    Unofficial splits. Photo: Harsha

     We moved cautiously through the night, aware that remaining on course was more critical than moving fast. The route would take us from gravel road to single track and with Zach's help, we nailed the transition. Once up above treeline however, we reached a snowy basin below Oscar's Pass and things became a little more convoluted. Though a handful of headlamps shone in the distance, a longer window of observation revealed that they were scanning, erratically pointing in different directions in search of something. As we pressed on, the reason for this became clear. Few reflective flags marked the way up and the first major trail finding dilemma presented itself. Compounding this was the fact that the snow pack possessed multiple lines of footprints though many had been laid days and weeks before. We did our best to find "the way" but sometimes any way is the best way. 

     Once atop the pass, we found that the challenges were still not behind us. Zach spotted a solitary flag and so we made a beeline, descending a steep and snowy pitch to tag it. Once there, we aimed our lumens in 360 degree scans but failed to identify any subsequent markers. There was a stone cairn that led the way straight down into a basin but without the expected switchbacks, it didn't feel right. Furthermore, without fresh tracks to offer confidence in this direction we decided to continue wandering the basin. Zach and I echoed words from the pre-race briefing that "the markers will mostly be on the runner's left." Following this soft rule seemed to lead us gently, but nevertheless back up the pass where we came. That couldn't be right.

     We searched for what seemed like forever while entertaining thoughts of hypothermia prevention until a runner and pacer made their way over the pass. Zach spoke with them, and after discovering they had GPS assisted reassurance he led me to that gradual climb with the marker "positioned on the runner's left," just as they pre-race briefing had warned.  

     This created a major mental nadir. Up to this point, we were moving well but interpreted the recent events as a major insult to our gaining momentum. Though with no evidence to support it's accuracy, I feared that the 20 to 30 minutes of uncertainty and indecision cost us precious time and place. I had lost the moment and found that my mental fragility was manifesting in my legs. My knees began to ache and slow on the downhills as Zach offered reassurance that we were likely not the only ones to have experienced a snafu. Discomfort continued to mount and I needed to pull over over and regroup. After resetting the body during a much needed bathroom stop and letting go of that which does not serve me, I knew I needed to reset the mind. 

Chapman. Mile 82.1, 3:34 am

     We pulled into Chapman and found Ben and his pacer who had arrived just ahead of us. Ben looked as haggard as I felt and we commiserated about the adventure over Oscar's. Gradually realizing that I wasn't alone in my route finding ineptitude, I became more hopeful in the possibility of salvaging a race that I never should've feared was lost. As Zach and I departed the aid station, better course knowledge of at least the next couple miles towards Grant Swamp Pass offered comfort. We moved through and above treeline and spotted a couple of clusters of headlamps once again dotting the climb up.

     More diligently than ever, Zach began spotting markers and shouting his successes. "Marker!"... "Marker!"... "Marker!"...Though more generously delineated than Oscar's, I found this climb to be the most difficult of the course. While trailing Zach along the ascent, at some point I realized that he was no longer moving in a bipedal fashion. He had instead opted for a hands and feet bear crawl technique up the sandy scree slope and too brain numb to consider anything else, I followed suit.  

     Finally topping out over the pass, we could see the first traces of the impending sunrise on the horizon.  Island Lake was just below and there would be only a couple more minutes of descent before our headlamps became useless. Morning had arrived. 

     Dawn brought with it a renewed source of energy. My legs were striding well again and my knees no longer ached. We spotted a runner ahead and at a creek crossing, splashed by Iker Karrera and his pacer Gary Robbins. Word was that Iker had some lingering injuries coming into the race and that he wasn't running 100%. It was great to see an athlete of his caliber hanging tough and making it to the end, despite pre-existing hardship.

KT. Mile 89.1, 6:04 am

   Zach cutting in the buffet line. Photo: Harsha

     Zach and I were again unexpectedly reunited with Harsha at the KT aid station. I grabbed another handful of that gluten-be-damned pumpkin pie and was eager to get the last climb over Porcupine-Cataract Saddle. As we hiked through the trees, either actual voices or auditory hallucinations began haunting me and prodding me up the hill. Strategies that had worked for the previous 25 hours like counting my breaths to stay in the moment now seemed overly tedious.

     Scott had warned me of the multiple false summits on this final climb and I thought I was prepared. I counted no less than of the three teasing ridges and was finally convinced we were heading down to Silverton until we lost the trail again. Glancing around, I noticed two silhouettes on the ridge line not far, but very high ahead. "Please tell me we don't have to go up there," I spat at Zach incredulously. "I think so," he returned before leading the march straight up the grassy pitch.

Putnam. Mile 94.7 8:06 am

     We reached the final aid station but having less than 6 miles to go offered little solace. My knees ached worse than ever at this point and appetite fatigue left me feeling pretty drained. I wasn't able to muster much quality running and even staying upright proved challenging as I stumbled along the trail. We began to hear cars and gratefully cleared the trees before the final crossing of Mineral Creek. Two miles to go. 

Final creek crossing with Zach. Photo Nico Barraza

     Working so hard to move so slow! Photo: Harsha

     Kelly and Harsha greeted us on the other side of the creek and escorted us to the final trail into Silverton. No heroics were necessary or even possible at this point. I simply wanted to thank my friends and enjoy their company. As we made our way past the shrine, Nicole Jaime unleashed my dog Charlie so that he could run the finish with me, or at least he would've if he wasn't so distracted by the newfound temptations that came with his freedom. I spied Bill Dooper and asked if I could give him a hug. He indulged my request and told me he was proud of me. Finally, after rounding the right hand turn into the finishing shoot, I was met by the felicitations of my parents, Renee and Anthony, and so many wonderful supporters of the race. I kissed the rock. I was done!  

Finish in Silverton. Mile 100.5, 9:27 am

Finishing chute: Photo Elisa Sundahl

     Sometimes I feel like these big adventures should teach me something. That investing 100 miles and 27 hours of running through the mountains should somehow make me wiser. After some time to recover and let things settle though, I don't think that I walked away with any great new revelations. I am more appreciative of the good people in the world though. I am grateful for meeting more friends that make this tight knit, supportive community what it is. I am more thankful for the sacrifices and gestures of kindness, especially the small ones we show one another. Whether a hug and a smile, a warm pierogie, a "you're on my top 10 list," or simply some shared time together, it's these littlest things that carry us the furthest. 

Anthony, Renee, their dog Buddy, Bill, Myself, Mom, and Dad

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