I’m actually a little disappointed in myself for the fact that this is my first time to be a part of the Hardrock experience. This is the epitome of mountain ultra running… in every way. Big climbs, steep descents, high elevation, massive distance, and mountain weather are just the main aspects that characterize this run. I know a lot of you are familiar with Hardrock, but for those who aren’t, here’s a little rundown as described on the Hardrock 100 homepage:
…a big loop through the San Juan Mountains of beautiful southwest Colorado: 100 miles which includes 33,992 feet of climb and 33,992 feet of descent for a total elevation change of 67,984 feet with an average elevation of 11,186 feet – low point 7,680 feet (Ouray) and high point 14,048 feet (Handies Peak).
The bottom line is that this is a freakin’ tough run. Period. And I have no problem understating it that much, as there is nothing that will adequately do justice to just how tough this race is unless you actually get ON the course in some form or fashion. And then, unless you actually attempt (and/or complete) the full 100 can you *really* know. It’s just the way it is and I wont pretend to understand just what it will take to finish it until I do, in fact, run and finish the Hardrock 100.
So, to get to my first (regrettably) Hardrock 100 (HRH) experience…
It was a last minute decision, but Jamie and Laney were coming with me. I was dreading being away from them for the entire weekend, so I was pumped that Jamie decided to make the long trip down with me. I was planning on helping Kari, the Chapman aid station captain, set up and run Chapman, along with many other Special Idiots. We were there in full force and ready to cheer on some of the worlds wildest and toughest runners as they made their way through the course. Then I was to pick my good friend Alan up in Ouray and pace him the last 55ish miles of the run. I was going to get a nice taste of the course…
So, we were off! The 7+ hour drive from Estes to Silverton went by fairly quickly as we were excited to be heading down to the action. We got there Wednesday night and hit the sack as soon as we could. The next morning, Alan was too excited about his hike the previous day, to Ice Lakes Basin, and had to take me there. I could write an entire post about this hike alone. It IS the MOST beautiful place I have seen in Colorado. And that’s saying something. The mountains and the water. I wont say anything else… you’ll have to go see for yourself.
Race day was upon us. Alan was as cool, calm, and collected as I have seen him before a race… ever. I was taking notes. We went down to the start and mingled with everyone, saying hi and wishing luck to great old friends, and good new friends alike. The buzz in the gym was awesome! Everyone was ready and eager to head out of town. A few minutes before 6, we made our way onto the street and before we knew it, they were off! Jamie and I went to grab a cup of coffee, then I, once again, headed over Ophir pass to Chapman.
It was a lot of fun getting everything ready in anticipation of the runners coming through. We had bacon frying, mac and cheese warming up, all sorts of goodies and snacks ready for the runners to devour as the came down from Grant/Swamp Pass getting ready to head up Oscar’s Pass en route to Telluride. Everyone at the aid station was cheery and eager to see the runners start coming through. Soon enough, the lead group came through… Dakota, Joe, Hal, and Timmy, with Nick Pedatella about a minute back in 5th… which I was pumped about as he’s one of our sponsored athletes and one hell of a runner! So it was exciting to see him up there in the lead pack. I followed Nick into the aid station and helped him with his stop and he was soon on his way. I spent another few hours there helping runners, taking pics, and cheering everyone on… some of the toughest people on God’s green earth.
But, it was soon time to head back to Silverton and make my way over to Ouray so I could finally get a taste of what this run was all about. I was to pick up Alan in Ouray and pace him for the final 57 miles (or however far I could make it). I was a wee bit intimidated as my training this year has been minimal at best. I think my biggest week was when I ran the Leadville marathon and my weekly mileage topped out at just under 40, including the 26.2 marathon. Yikes. 57 of HRH was going to hurt! And I didn’t want to jeopardize Alan’s run in the slightest, so I knew I would have to dig deep to keep on point. Plus, it was very committing. I had about a 14 mile stretch from Ouray to Grouse Gulch. After Grouse, the next time we’d see our crew, and be able to change out pacers (if needed), was at Cunningham, 35.2 miles (and a crap ton of up and down) away. So I had better be ready! Then there would be the final climb of 3k-ish feet and 9+ miles to the finish… I was going to give it my best while making sure I wasn’t going to potentially inhibit Alan in any way.
Alan came into Ouray a bit after 9, I think. And we were soon headed out on the 10 mile, 5,500 foot climb to the top of Engineer Pass. This section was awesome and I really wish we could have seen it in the day light. Basically, think of someone chiseling a path directly into a cliff face. There were spots that were only a couple of feet wide and a drop off of unknown depth to our right… you just looked into a black abyss. Incredible. Looking up, our lights lit sheer cliffs and mountain peaks high above. Alan was kicking serious ass here. We made great time and just kept putting one foot in front of the other. And he was 50 miles into this thing! We wound up and up and, what seemed like forever, we finally reached the engineer aid station. A little fort of a station that was in jeopardy of being blown away into the chilly San Juan night.
Alan and I always have a great time when we are out. I don’t know if I get along with anyone better. We can often go hours and miles without a word, but we usually have some sort of great conversation going about whatever. Or we are just in awe of our surroundings. But it’s always easy and rarely do I want to punch him in the throat. And that reminds me to fill you in on a little of Alan’s story over the past however long…
Alan is a rare bird. He’s like that really pretty toucan that lives in the Himalaya. You know.. the one with hair instead of feathers and feeds on snow leopards. The one that you’ve heard stories about but it’s all second hand, and you can’t track down anyone who has ever actually seen it… alive. First of all… Alan can only eat 3 things (beef, potatoes, and Vi Fuel). This makes ultra running excessively difficult as one needs to put things in ones body if one expects to put out the effort to run a Hardrock, or a Leadville, or whatever. Alan has had a lifelong struggle with all sorts of allergies. Getting a form of meningitis when he was born and not being expected to live but a few days, the virus wrecked many of his systems. His gut can literally only handle a very small number of foods with grass fed beef being the saving grace for Alan. He has always struggled to maintain his weight (if you’ve seen him, you know – he’s a little guy), and earlier this year began drastically losing weight and getting sick and colonically inflamed after eating just about anything. This was going to be a problem. Actually the only reason he didn’t shrivel to nothing was by eating Vi Fuel and drinking obscene amounts of MCT oil (one of the secret weapons in Vi Fuel).
Alan had finally gotten through the Hardrock lottery and was in! He was going to run Hardrock! He had also signed up for three other 100′s comprising what’s known as the Rocky Mountain Slam. He would be running the Bighorn 100 in June, Hardrock in July, Leadville 100 in August, and The Bear 100 in September. Gut issues weren’t on the agenda. Long story short, Alan had to have emergency surgery on a dark secret spot in his body, mere weeks before Bighorn. We didn’t know what to expect and being healthy in time for Bear was in question… let alone the three 100′s before.
I’ve seen Alan down before, but he was pretty upset that this was going on. We suffer through the winter up here just to take advantage of these few months in the high mountains, and it was looking like he’d have to sit on something other than his rear all summer long.
So, cut to Bighorn… Alan was, somehow, confident that he would be fine. And he was! He finished in 32:xx I believe… and felt fantastic. And this was with almost zero training. I think he was averaging approx 15 mile weeks. Just doing what he could. So ok, I knew he was tough, but this was pretty amazing. However, Hardrock is a different animal and I was a little concerned how he’d hold up. With Bighorn in the bag, he had a great training run behind him and was getting up high quite a bit in the weeks before HRH. He was moving well and seemed to be healing remarkably quickly from his surgery. As it is for many people, 100′s don’t fall apart from physical reasons, it’s usually the mental game that shuts people down. Alan’s mental outlook on this season was better than it has ever been, and he’s a tough hombre… so whatever. If he felt good about it, then I believed in him 110%. The Rocky Mountain Slam was on!
Back to engineer. As we left the aid station we had another 1000 or so feet to climb to the top of engineer pass. We kept plodding along and soon I was getting my first taste of the true character that is Hardrock. As we climbed into the valley towards the pass, I knew there were switchbacks up there from looking at maps of the area. But of course that isn’t steep enough for HRH, so they stake the course straight up the slope toward the pass. It actually went by quicker than we thought and we were soon cruising down the jeep road towards Grouse Gulch.
This was the crux of the entire thing for me, and it seems like Alan had a pretty massive low here as well. We were just tired. It wasn’t necessarily fatigue for us, even for Alan… we were simply tired. All of the hype before the race, setting up for Chapman, not enough sleep, etc… This was the only time for either of us that we actually dozed off while hiking. It happened a couple of times to each of us. For me, I’d close my eyes and only wake up from teetering over to one side or kicking a rock. Strange. We made it to Grouse feeling like zombies, but didn’t spend too much time and were headed up the trail towards the next goal, Handies Peak – one of Colorado’s 54 14ers!
I was pumped for this stretch, as I have always thought it would be cool to summit this mountain for the first time at Hardrock. And while I wasn’t technically running Hardrock, I was still involved in some capacity. Sweetness. The only problem was that neither of us knew the course well enough to realize what was to come. As we were heading up the valley, we figured the mountain in front of us was Handies. So we slugged away as the sun rose and it seemed we would never get there. Alan took a couple of breaks, and we started our 30+ mile leap frog with runner Levi Burford and his pacer Brendan. We stopped to take pictures, to let Alan rest his ailing feet, and to just bitch about the climb. All good fun!
So, we finally began to crest the ridge that had been above us for so long, thinking we were just about there.
What. In. The. Hell.
The view that unfolded was a massive mountain (Handies) a mile (or so) across American Basin, in which we’d have to descend 700ish feet to get across. Crap. I saw life, literally, fall from Alan’s shoulders. He looked defeated. I tried to keep it upbeat, but it was hard for me to do, and I’d only gone about 19 miles at this point. It was what it was and we just struck off across the basin. Alan filled his bottle, I took a potty break, and it really didn’t take too long to get to the base of the beast. This would be the highest point on the course at 14,048 feet.
So up we went. This was another low spot for Alan, but I was feeling pretty dang good… as a pacer should. So I tried to keep everything light, and kept pushing him up the hill. We took a few needed breaks, but as we climbed higher, our speed slowed to a crawl. We took it one step at a time. I would sound off every hundred feet and I think it helped pass the time as every time I’d call out how much we had left to climb (700! – nice work; 600!; 500! – almost there!; 400!; etc…) Alan seemed to pick up the pace for a minute or so. He really got pumped when I told him we were at 14,000 feet… less than 50 to go. Bam, we were there.
We took a couple of pics and made the steeeeeeeeeep descent off the mountain. Once down in the relatively flatter terrain, Alan took a break to wash off his feet. There was dirt pressed up in the crevasses in the lines of his soles causing a little discomfort. Once he got cleaned up, we made great time down to Burrows Park. We didn’t stay long and were soon making the 4+ mile journey down a horrible jeep road to the Sherman aid station.
This is where Alan made his race saving decision. His pack was wreaking havoc on his shoulders and back causing all kinds of other issues. He was sleepy, fatigued, and spiraling downhill pretty quickly. As we were coming into Sherman, he decided to lay all of his extra layers on the ground and lie face down/arms up in an attempt to take a quick nap. While he was napping, I scarfed down as much food as I could. The spread here was great! I had the inner workings of a breakfast burrito… eggs, bacon, cheese, salt, etc… wowza! That hit the spot.
Alan woke up a new man! He was as fresh as when he started the race! We hit the trail out of Sherman and into Cataract Gulch with a renewed sense of purpose and new found energy! It was here, too, that we fell in with the same group Alan would ultimately finish the race with. Ernie Floyd, and Mark Heaphy (14 time finisher) among that group. We ascended into the gulch as the day got a bit warmer. We dunked our hats in the stream, and relished the cooling air as we climbed higher into the mountains.
Being the third to last climb, there was a sense of ‘the end,’ but the expansiveness of this gulch is astounding. It’s miles and miles of gently sloping tundra all above 12,000 feet, with larger peaks surrounding you. Amazing. However, beautiful or not, this was a lot of miles, and therefore a lot of time, up high and the altitude was affecting Alan. We kept plodding along as best we could and made decent time on our way to the Pole Creek aid, which was sadistically put on this steep little knoll.
It was here where I started to really feel fatigued. It wasn’t so much exhaustion as it was my feet hurting. They just weren’t in shape for doing 57 miles of Hardrock. And, for some reason, I was not being diligent about my fueling and nutrition. At this point, all I had consumed was about 1/4 flask of gel and the guts of a breakfast burrito. Not enough. And I was dry. Alan recognized it and from then on I focused a bit more on it. I guess I was so caught up in Alan’s race that I didn’t pay much mind to what I was doing. Once I got some Vi in me I began to feel better, but man, my feet still hurt like hell.
Once out of Pole Creek and in route to Maggie Gulch, Alan started moving really well again. Especially after an impromptu nap in some willows just below the pass. Alan tried to snuggle up close, but, even though we were out in the middle of the wilds, I figured it was still inappropriate. Plus, Chippy might get jealous.
Alan blew up the hill, leaving me in the dust… all alone with my feet and my thoughts. I was getting a little down as I thought that maybe I shouldn’t have paced him this far, but it was what it was, and I was going to have to deal with the feet until Cunningham, at least. I had told our good friend Kristel to be ready to go at Cunningham just in case. After all, I hadn’t trained too much for this and I wanted to make sure Alan was taken care of.
Alan was maybe a quarter mile ahead when a little storm moved through with some electricity. It wasn’t bad, but if there is any lightning I get very motivated to move very fast. I was back with Alan as we crested the pass and we cruised into Maggie together.
We didn’t stick around too long and were soon heading up Buffalo Boy. In this next stretch we head up Buffalo Boy, then down to Stony Pass, and then up Green Mountain… both are 13ers, so you are once again up pretty high… yes, there is a theme here. As you climb up Buffalo Boy, you crest a low ridge that drops you (slightly) into a ‘bowl’… basically a depression in the tundra for approx 1/4 mile before heading steeply up the flanks of Buffalo Boy. It was here that we saw the next storm coming.
Now let me give you a little insight into my and Alan’s view on storms: Living near Rocky Mountain National Park, we are unaccustomed to the San Juan weather. In Rocky if it rains it passes overhead quickly. It is excessively rare for a storm to settle in and keep dumping rain on you. A light rain coat will be fine for 99.9% of the storms in RMNP. So we see this storm coming, and considering our experience with the storm we just went through as we were approaching Maggie, just 40 + minutes before, we weren’t too worried. I threw the rain coat back on, and saw Alan do the same as he was a bit ahead of me. Then the storm hit.
It was instant sheets of sideways rain, the temps dropped 15+ degrees, and there was skin stinging ice pellets in the rain (not quite hail, maybe freezing rain – or super small hail). With the wind, these pellets hurt! I looked up long enough to see Alan holding his hands over his face to shield himself, and I had to do the same. I was already soaked to the bone and the rain coat might as well have been a fish net. Then came the lightning. Flash, boom! Ok, this storm had my attention. I rushed the rest of the way across that bowl to the base of the steep flank of Buffalo Boy. Alan was waiting there contemplating what to do. We hunkered down for a minute or two to get a better feel for what was going on around us. The lightning was getting closer and the rain was just settling in… this wasn’t blowing over. At least not quickly like our little baby storms in Rocky. My temp regulation systems were still working okay. Alan, being 85+ miles into this thing wasn’t so lucky. His body wasn’t warming itself. He had to keep moving or he was going to freeze to death… not an exaggeration. He was already shaking uncontrollably, and was soaked to the bone as well. The only hope he had was to keep moving. It was right when we were discussing what to do (as we were watching a couple of runners come across the ‘bowl’) when the scariest lightning struck. We didn’t see it hit the ground, but it was only about 1000 feet over our heads and the thunder shook our entire bodies. Talk about scary. The two people in the depression dove for cover and we were all a bit stunned. After that we saw another couple of runners run back towards Maggie to drop… they had had enough.
But not Alan. He was too cold to sit there and marched into the deluge. I told him that I didn’t have the balls to follow and began looking for some sort of cover. It was here that I saw a group of runners huddled under a big rock. I asked if there was room and joined them… Sitting there, I got pretty cold, but wasn’t about the head out into the mess. And it still hadn’t let up… this was 20 minutes after it started. Lightning still going on all around, and I was sick knowing that Alan had marched on ahead. I must have said the Lord’s prayer 200 times… and prayed for the safety of all of the runners 200 more… I hate lightning.
But, yes, the storm did begin to break. I quickly got up and dug through my pack to get as many layers on as I could. My down coat was soaked, and my gloves were icy wet, but I had a fleece pullover and a wind breaker that was dry… perfect. I threw that on and put the wet raincoat on over it all, as it was still raining fairly hard, and began the chore of catching Alan to make sure all was okay. My adrenaline was turned all the way up and I flew up Buffalo Boy… we all did. Mark Heaphy lead the charge from under the rock, and myself, Ernie Floyd, and two runners that I cannot remember the names of for the life of me, followed. I think we were climbing about 100 ft per minute to the top of Buffalo Boy. It was an all out dash up steep, wet tundra at 13,000 feet. We couldn’t tell if more storms were close behind, as the clouds had settled in on us and we couldn’t see more than 100 yard in any direction. Plus, we could still hear thunder. Not as close, but it was still around.
Once we topped out on Buffalo Boy, we began the descent to Stony Pass. This is when the storm really began to break and revealed one of the most beautiful mountain evenings I have ever been witness to. I’d try to explain it here, but I would fail miserably. Just use your imagination. Cold mountain air, whispy clouds literally floating in front of your face, the Grenadier Range in the distance with a cloud bank below, herds of sheep in the distance bleeting, incredibly green tundra, the sun providing that magic hour, low angle, light, and massive, steep, mountains as far as you could see in every direction. It was magical. It was here that I got my first glimpse of Alan since the storm broke. He was already down and across Stony Pass. Whoa. I had some work to do.
I jogged down to the pass with the crew, then went on ahead and began the climb up Green Mountain. Alan was almost to the top when I was starting the climb, but I was gaining ground pretty quickly. Once I made it up I was greeted with some of the best views of the entire run. I stopped to snap a few pics, then made my way over the ridge and began the descent. I couldn’t see Alan though??!! When I finally found him, he had made up some serious ground and must have flown down the first part of the descent. I would have to run hard to catch him, but at least I figured that he was ok if he was moving that well.
I took off and caught him pretty quickly as I was able to run pretty fast over that terrain. He said he was just then getting his breathing under control and was warming slightly, but he looked rough. I think he was coming off his adrenalin rush and was feeling the effects of pushing so hard, and being so cold, through the storm. So we just took it easy down the valley. I was feeling much better at this point and really wanted to push on to the finish with him. If I was out there solo I would have, or if I was racing it, I would have. But I was out there for Alan and I had told myself before the start that if there was a chance that I could slow him down or hinder him that Kristel would take him in from Cunningham. If my feet were feeling even 10% better than they were, I would have been fine with going on, but they were definitely the limiting factor. My legs had rebounded and felt great, and my energy was feeling pretty good as well. But I stuck to my original plan and knew that once we descended to Cunningham my Hardrock experience would be over. I was a little bummed, but super happy with my 48 miles and all that climbing.
Alan was going to need another nap, so just before the ridiculously steep drop into Cunningham, I went on ahead to alert the crew of what Alan would need. I guess we made pretty good time coming over from Maggie as they were shocked to see me when I came in. Jamie, Lori, and Kristel scrambled to get everything ready, and Alan came in right as they had finished setting up. He went into the tent, plopped down on his sleeping bag, and Lori repacked his pack as Kristel made the final preps for her pacing duties. Alan woke up 10 minutes later, and he was off. His next stop would be after he kissed the rock in Silverton.
I went home, got a shower and an hour or so nap before Lori knocked on the door and told us he was coming in. I hopped up and went down to the finish line. We saw a few others come in and then we saw Alan and Kristel turn the corner! I was so pumped! Alan mustered up his energy and started running hard, finishing super strong! He sprinted down the chute, puckered up, and kissed that rock he’d been after for 43 hours and 52 minutes! Absolutely incredible! After all he has been through it was amazing to see how calm and collected he was as he pushed through the trials and challenges of this run. Absolutely incredible! I don’t know if I’ve ever been more proud of a friend for anything.
We mingled at the finish line, then went home and got as much sleep as we could before the awards at 9:00am. Hardrock lives up to the legend. It’s an insanely challenging course that’s as beautiful as it is difficult. The people involved in every aspect of the run are top notch. It is truly a family and everyone, from the elites, to the back of the pack, to the crews, to the pacers, to the aid station volunteers, to the radio operators, and spectators, share in the camaraderie and all support one another as this event takes place. I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s a race that I hope to be at every year and truly hope to be running at some point in the very near future!
Thanks to all who make this run possible and a HUGE congrats to all who finished!
Alan’s Bighorn 100 Race Report: Click THIS!
Alan’s Hardrock 100 Race Report: Click THIS!