Thanks for visiting my blog. This is where I document and share all of my running adventures with my friends and fellow runners. The good, the bad, and the unquestionably painful. All for your entertainment! Enjoy!

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

2016 Hardrock 100: Savage Beauty in the San Juans

I don't yet know how I feel about Hardrock. But I know I still hurt. A lot. And that's something.

If you're reading this report, you probably already know a thing or two about this race, its history, and the long road to gaining entry, so I won't bother with too much of that detail. But I will say this...it took me 5 years of running qualifiers and entering the lottery before I got the bad news that I had secured a spot in the 2016 race.

I almost vomited when I found out.

For me, gaining entry into the race meant that I had to totally change my approach to running for the year, because I race A LOT. If I had any hope of finishing Hardrock, I would need to (for the first time in my life) focus on actually training. And NOT finishing Hardrock wasn't going to be an option. So I cleared my calendar from April until race day, and focused on running long and climbing high.

Hardrock changes directions each year, but always starts and finishes in Silverton, Colorado, at 9400' above sea level. 2016 is a clockwise year, which is supposed to be the "faster" of the two directions. So I had that going for me.

The race starts at 6:00 AM, just as it becomes light enough to see without the aid of a headlamp. Because the race has a very small field (about 150 runners), the start is a pretty low key event, but still full of nervous energy, anxiety, and more than a little whimpering.

The course takes us uphill (big surprise), out of Silverton for about 2 miles, before dropping us into the valley for our first, of many, water crossings. This is a popular spot for spectators to gather and cheer for the runners as the field has started to thin out.

Heading into the River

Shortly after the river crossing, we begin our first major climb up Putnam. This climb reaches around 12,600'. A 3000' climb over about 4.5 miles.

About 2 miles into the climb, it really began to sink in that I was actually running the Hardrock Hundred. And the people around me must have began to dwell on that fact as well, because the line of runners became eerily quiet as everybody began praying to whatever deity they were relying on for help.

I think this is an appropriate time to point out that for most of us, there's not much running in this race. Even some of the best runners on the course will advise against running the flats. Focus on strong climbing, fast walking on the flats, and running the downhills. But as I learned, even running the downhills can be hard in the San Juans. So if your dream of running Hardrock includes thoughts of flying over mountain passes and dashing down steep, scenic valleys, you may be somewhat disappointed in the face of reality. They call this the Hardwalk Hundred for a reason.

After reaching the top of Putnam, we traversed the ridge line for a bit before tipping downward for a nice jog into the KT aid station at mile 11.5.

I was feeling strong as I left the KT aid station and started the ascent to Grant Swamp Pass. I was climbing without the use of poles, because I'm stupid like that sometimes. 

As I got closer to the pass, I began to encounter a growing number of day hikers and race spectators on their way up and down the trail. They all stepped off the trail for me, even though I would have happily taken a break to let them by. The climb to Grant Swamp Pass, got steeper with every step.

The top of the pass was almost crowded with people because it's an awesome spot to catch photos of runners. I heard a few people calling my name, which meant I had to pretend the climb wasn't kicking my ass.

Photo by Myke Hermsmeyer

Photo by Chris Gerber

I was greeted at the top of the pass by my friend, Chris Gerber, who had made the climb to support the runners. I tried to act cool as he greeted me, as if the climb hadn't wrecked me, but it clearly had.

Chris followed me along a short traverse, then pointed me toward the beginning of the descent. I seriously thought he was kidding. I looked back at him, hoping to see a sly grin that would confirm the joke, but he was serious.

The descent is a near vertical drop in loose rock and scree. I started to slowly pick my way down before deciding the best course of action was to slide to the bottom and hope I didn't kill myself in the process. I dug my right foot in and rode it to the bottom like a size 9 toboggan.

The rest of the descent was only slightly less perilous, and I cruised into the Chapman Gulch aid station at mile 18 without doing any serious damage to my body.

Coming into Chapman

My crew was waiting for me and they jumped into action, getting me ready for the next climb. Leon Lutz had flown out to help me with the race and this was my first time seeing him since he got into Colorado. He was a welcome sight. Leon is often the voice of reason when he crews and paces me, and I've learned to pay close attention to what he says. So when he suggested I take my poles with me before leaving the aid station, I took it to heart. Thank god for Leon.

Game Face

The climb to Oscar Pass starts out moderately, but gets steeper as you gain altitude, before topping out at 13,100'. I was feeling really good on the climb and was in a great mood.

I didn't know it at the time, but this would be the last time I felt good in the race.

I ran into Justin Ricks and his family as they were making their way off the mountain after working on race coverage of the leaders. Justin is giving me advice on conserving energy for the flat section in the back half of the course. I don't think I'll ever be able to trust Justin again.

Photo by Denise Ricks

I had an amazing climb to the pass and quickly dropped over the other side for a long downhill run into Telluride.

I was fueling well and was feeling great all the way down the mountain. The views were amazing and I was having fun. Fun wasn't an expectation I had when I showed up at Hardrock, but I was happy to take it.

When I rolled into Telluride, I was in high spirits. When Leon rushed up to me at the aid station, I looked at him with a grim face and said, "Dude….I'm almost embarrassed". Looking worried, he asked why, then I gave him a huge grin and blurted out, "FOR THE SHAMELESS ASS WHOOPING I JUST PUT ON THAT MOUNTAIN! HAHAHAHA!!!".

We both laughed without knowing that would be the last time.

The climb out of Telluride, up Virginia's Pass, is a monster, so I took some time at the aid station to get prepared. I updated my crew, and for the time being, we were all happy and optimistic.

Leon Showing me the Way

One mile outside of Telluride, my race turned. Instantly.

I was struggling with the climb and started to fall into a funk. My mood turned bad and everything appropriately followed. I was having to slow my pace, and even then, I was stopping to rest my legs and catch my breath.

The weather had promised to provide a hot day, and it was delivering. Much of the climb is exposed and I was boiling over. Heat has always been my greatest enemy in a race, and it winning a very one sided battle.

I was desperate to reach Kroger's Canteen, the aid station that is famously perched on the narrow ledge at the mountain pass. After an eternity of climbing, I could see the pass just above me, but not the aid station.

When I got to the top of the pass, there was no aid station. "YOU HAVE GOT TO BE KIDDING ME!!!"

Seems as if I need to make another descent before climbing back up to Kroger's. Well if that isn't a pleasant surprise...

After wiping a few tears of frustration, I made my way down, then back up into the warm embrace of Kroger's Canteen. I took a few minutes to pout and fuel up before pushing on.

BTW…you know it's a serious mountain run when the aid station staff has to wear mountain climbing protective gear just to stay safe.

Leaving the aid station requires a rope assisted descent through a vertical snow field before hitting some really terrible single track. I wasn't amused.

After a short piece of trail, I had a 10 mile downhill run on old mining roads that would lead me to Ouray and my crew. A 5500' descent. Over 10 miles. On a road.

Just shoot me.

By the time I made it to Ouray, I had decided to DNF.

I felt sick, my entire body hurt and I just didn't care anymore. Night had fallen, and a cold beer, warm bed, and 18 hours of sleep sounded WAY better than climbing another mountain. Or five. I had five more mountains to climb.

When I met my crew, the whining started immediately. Did anybody REALLY expect me to finish this race? I sure didn't.

But when I looked at my crew, with concern in their eyes, but a slight annoyance on their face, I decided to press on. These people had sacrificed a lot to be here to help me and I owed them my best possible effort. I didn't need to quit. I needed to stop being a whiny little bitch.

I grabbed Jennilyn Eaton, my first pacer, and we headed up the mountain.

We had a 10 mile climb up Engineer, back to 13,000'. We slowly picked our way up the mountain while we chatted. I was struggling, but we were still moving ahead. One painful footstep at a time.

We made a brief stop at the Engineer aid station before moving over the top of the pass, making our descent into Grouse Gulch.

Jennilyn did a great job keeping me focused and somewhat amused with her "Girl Power Music". I couldn't have made it to Grouse without her.

When we got to Grouse, I sat to fuel and rest, and ended up staying for over an hour. I tried to take a quick nap, but sleep wasn't coming. I swapped Jennilyn for Leon, and we started another climb.

We headed off into the dark, making our way to the high point on the course. Handies Peak, at 14,058'.

Allow me to put this in perspective for you…

Climbing Colorado 14'ers is never easy. At Hardrock, you run 60 miles, climbing about 20,000 feet along the way, then bag a 14'er before running another 40 miles with 13,000 feet of climbing. That pretty much sums up Hardrock for me.

Before hitting the summit, the sun had come up and exposed the dramatic beauty around us. It was meaningful to share this time with Leon because we both have a profound love for the mountains, and he's one of the greatest friends I've ever had. At that low point, I was happy to have him there with me.

We didn't linger at the summit. The wind was howling and we had someplace to be. We immediately started down the other side of the peak, picking our way through brittle shale, trying to stay upright. Not an easy task.

And this is when I lost my mind.

I didn't want to alarm Leon, so I didn't really mention it. I just told him I was "sleepy". But in reality, I was freaking out. For the first time in my life, I was hallucinating in the daylight. I couldn't trust anything my eyes showed me. It was mostly subtle stuff, like large homes along the trail, vehicles in places they couldn't possibly be, people riding animals that would never allow themselves to be ridden…stuff like that. You know the drill.

We made a stop at the Burrows Park aid station at mile 67 and I found a seat. Leon rustled up an egg and cheese sandwich and a couple of Mt. Dew's. My head began to clear and I started to feel better.

We pushed on toward the Sherman aid station, 4 miles down a gravel road.

We walked the entire way, just talking. I was happy to be feeling better and I was even happier to be there with Leon.

I started to think I might actually finish this race. But I didn't share that with anybody. I wanted to keep them guessing.

Coming into Sherman

At the Sherman aid station, I would lose Leon in exchange for Traci Falbo, who would stay with me for the next 20 miles. Before leaving the aid station, I fueled up and rested while updating the rest of my crew on my condition.

I didn't tell them I had lost my mind several hours earlier. I didn't want to needlessly worry them.

World Best Crew Chief 

The climb out of Sherman, toward Pole Creek, was the most gradual I had encountered on the course. Which means it was only "very difficult", versus what we'd previously experienced. It was a pleasant change.

Traci was fresh and eager, and I tried my best to keep moving at a reasonable pace so she wouldn't get too bored. We climbed up through Cataract Lake before making a rolling descent into Pole Creek aid station.

Pole Creek is so isolated that the aid station supplies are brought in by donkeys. Which meant it would have a limited variety of supplies. All I needed was ice for my pack, and of course, that wasn't available. The sun was high in the sky, and bearing down on me again. Ice would have been nice to have.

Things got far more intense after Pole Creek. The climb toward Maggie Gulch was steep. And annoying. My mood had severely soured again and dark thoughts began to creep back into what was left of my mind. I was slowly becoming detached from the race and from myself. I had never been this exhausted.

We made a quick stop at Maggie Gulch aid station, where Traci was trying to force me to eat while I sat with my arms folded like an infant and kept saying no. We were both glaring at each other a little bit, her trying to be patient while I was trying to be stubborn for the sake of being stubborn.

She had yet to learn that I had gone completely insane during the descent from Handies. I was amused by my little secret.

The climb out of Maggie Gulch was pure brutality for me. I was moving uphill at a snails pace, on steep, rugged terrain. There were several very steep climbs, with equally steep descent, all of which I thought would be the last before dropping down toward the final aid station at Cunningham.

Every time I topped out on a peak, I was greeted by another peak in the distance, where I could see runners struggling to climb up and over. I must have said "REALLY?!?!?!" and "SERIOUSLY?!?!?!" about a thousand times.

My spirit was completely broken by this point and I was only moving forward because I really didn't seem to have much of a choice. Who drops out at Hardrock, 90 miles in? Maybe me...

We finally found the last climb and began the descent into Cunningham. I was having intense hallucinations all the way down the mountain, which wasn't great timing because it's a pretty gnarly descent with a fair bit of exposure.

At times, I was simply forgetting what I was doing and would suddenly remember I was running Hardrock. Then I'd drift back off into a fog of confusion, much like how I imagine full time crazy people live.

We made it safely off the mountain and into Cunningham aid station where we were met by Leon and Jo. Traci was done with her babysitting duties and Leon was slated to take me the rest of the way.

In the aid station, Traci was trying to force me to eat again and my sanity returned just in time to prevent me from blurting out. "HA HA, you're not my pacer anymore so I don't have to listen to you!". Dodged a bullet right there!

Leon and I, Leaving Cunningham

We only had 9 miles left, but they were nine savage miles. Leaving Cunningham launched us right into an ascent up Little Giant. Dumb name, because there's nothing little about it. It's a 2500' climb, over 1.8 miles. Steep, exposed and brutal.

But there was nowhere to go, except to the finish.

The sun was setting, once again, and as we gained altitude, it started to get cold. As night began to settle in, my insanity worsened. During the entire ascent, I was sure Leon and I had made this exact climb together at least twice before. Maybe a training run? Then I would remember this was my first trip to the San Juan Mountains and force the thought away. But not for long.

And once again, I forgot where I was and what we were doing. After finishing the steepest part of the climb, but before hitting the pass, I sat down in the basin and struck up THIS conversation with Leon:

Me- Where is everybody?
Leon- What?
Me- The people. I don't see people.
Leon- What people?
Me- Shouldn't there be people down there? Coming up here?
Leon- (vacant stare)
Me- (now frustrated) Is this a race course we're on?
Leon- It is!
Me- We should probably go now.

Sitting in the Dark, Being Crazy

After the final scramble, we found the pass and dropped over onto a very narrow piece of rocky trail that led the way down. We had a few other people with us now, so we formed a train as we made our way toward Silverton.

After about 100 yards, the trail seemed to disappear, then Leon pointed straight down the mountain to what appeared to be a small rock slide, and said we had to go down that to pick the trail below us.

It was time for me to come clean with Leon about my mental state. If he was expecting a mentally incapacitated person to fling their body OFF this mountain and slide down a nearly vertical chute, while effecting a perfect gymnast landing on that tiny patch of trail, he needed to know I had doubts.

In the end, I did fling my body off the mountain. While my technique was less than gymnast caliber, I didn't fall to my death.

The rest of the runners dropped in behind me as we picked our way off the mountain, kicking rocks and cussing the entire way. After an eternity, the trail dumped us onto an awful mine road, where we continued to follow it down toward Silverton.

At this point, I decided to start calculating an estimated finish time. I had never possessed a goal for this race, because I had absolutely no way of determining how I would perform in this type of terrain. But two miles out, I felt confident in assembling a good guess. I decided we should finish before midnight, and I made that our goal. And we had plenty of time to do that.

With ample time, I felt no pressure to rush. I wanted to walk because the ground was heavily strewn with rocks and I didn't trust my brain and my feet to work well together at this point. They hadn't been getting a long for a while. So we hiked toward Silverton.

The road led us to a dark, swampy trail, and for whatever reason, I held firm to the belief that we'd be at the finish line in a matter of minutes. So me and my addled brain just plodded along behind Leon like a dog that had been kicked in the head by a mule.

After several minutes, I began to worry we were lost. But we continued to find trail markers…so we must be close. Then that worry would return…then another trail marker. Glancing at my watch, I realized we were growing very near my last minute and very arbitrary deadline, and I began to panic. Genuine, crazy person panic.

My panic began to boil over, so I told Leon to run ahead to find if this trail ever actually dumps into Silverton. He ran. I walked and kicked rocks.

Leon returned with confirmation that Silverton was, in fact, a reality. And we were close. I picked up the pace.

The trail led to a parking lot and the town became clear. I glanced at my watch and realized I only had 4 minutes remaining if I wanted to meet my self imposed deadline. I did. I ran.

I ran through Silverton with every last ounce of energy remaining. Like a crazy person.

I rounded the corner and the finish line was there. Waiting for me. The clock mocked me, counting it's way to midnight far to quickly.

I crossed the finish line at 11:59:59, for a finish time of 41:59:59.

And with all the reverence and humility required of the task, I knelt and kissed the rock.

I was in complete disbelief.

Hardrock had proved to be the most challenging thing I had ever done. I had pushed my body beyond anything it had ever experienced. I suffered severely in the heat, struggled in the altitude, was ravaged by the climbs, then crushed by the descents. But I finished.

I have never experienced the depth of the low places I found myself in, and I had never suffered from such mental exhaustion and incapacitation.

I found a new limit in the San Juan Mountains.

My Crew and Friends

Special thanks to my amazing wife for helping me get through this. My pacers were top notch professionals and put up with a lot to get me back to Silverton. If I was any of them, I probably would have left me for dead.

And thanks to Hammer Nutrition, Topo Athletic, and Osprey Packs for supporting me and providing me with the gear and fuel to get me through the 2016 Hardrock Hundred.