Thursday, November 20, 2008

Hat Trick Finish at the 2008 Hardrock 100 Mile Endurance Run

WARNING: Very long writeup, but then again the Hardrock 100 is a very long event!
Read at your own risk!

The Short Version:

The HARDROCK 100 is a mountain run that passes through some of the most beautiful and rugged mountains in the world…connecting the four major mining centers of the San Juan Mountains; Silverton, Lake City, Ouray, and Telluride, while staying as much as possible on trails and abandoned roads originally created by the miners to give the participant the maximum feeling of wilderness… Elevation changes range from a high of 14,048' to a low of 7680'. The total vertical climb and descent, accumulated while crossing thirteen ridges over 12000' in elevation, is about 66,000 feet. Much of the route is at elevations above tree line… This is a dangerous course! In addition to trail running, you will do some mild rock climbing (hands required), wade ice cold streams, struggle through snow which at night and in the early morning will be rock hard and slick and during the heat of the day will be so soft you can sink to your knees and above, cross cliffs where a fall could send you 300 feet straight down, use fixed ropes as handrails, and be expected to negotiate the course with or without markers… Mountaineering, wilderness survival and wilderness navigation skills are as important in this event as your endurance. We expect the individual runners to have enough knowledge about the course that they can follow it
without markers. (From the 2008 Hardrock 100 Runners Manual, )

Unlike my previous four Hardrock starts (two finishes and two failures), this year I was very fortunate to spend three weeks, at altitude, in Lake City, Colorado just 30 miles from the race start. Being acclimated meant that I could climb here as fast as I’m used to back home. And for a course notorious for absurdly steep trails, acclimating made all the difference. However, competing acclimated, I had no idea how fast I’d be able to cover the very difficult and remote course. Luckily I received sage advice from some of the faster Hardrock veterans that I happily followed. So despite some stomach and caloric intact issues during the first half of the race, I was able to mount quite a surge, once the sun came up for the second time, covering the remaining 28 miles faster than almost everybody else that day. I was completely overcome with tears of fatigue and joy as I cruised into Silverton to “Kiss the Hardrock” at just after 3:36 p.m. on July 12th, 2008 completing the Hardrock 100 Mile Endurance Run for the 3rd time. My time of 33 hours and 36 minutes was good enough this year to place me 10th of 98 finishers (141 starters). This year’s performance surpassed my personal best time by over four hours and, more importantly to me, was more than ten hours faster than my horrific two night adventure back in 2005. This truly was a “Dream Race” for me. I’ve found my mountain running niche and, plan to return to the Hardrock 100 Mile Endurance Run as long as I’m able.

I’d like to thank my very able crew, my wife Kathy and my good friend Blake Thompson and my Pharaoh Hound Cairo, without whose assistance I would not have been nearly successful as I was. I also wanted to apologize to Blake for running off and leaving him behind in those last 28 miles, I was just feeling too good! At least he was able to shortcut back into Silverton just in time to see me finish!

The Longer Version:

Training and Pre-Race:
My 2008 Hardrock 100 preparation began Super Bowl Sunday evening when the results of the entry lottery were posted online. The Hardrock 100 is one of the most difficult 100 mile foot races in the world because of the extremes in altitude, vertical climb and decent, navigational challenges and the unpredictable course conditions and weather. Therefore this race is considered at “post-graduate” 100 mile event and as such requires every entrant to have qualified by finishing another difficult “mountain” 100 mile race. And if the qualifying part is not enough, qualified entrants also must be approved by the selection committee and then be selected in a weighted lottery that favors Hardrock 100 veterans. With my previous two Hardrock finishes I had pretty good odds of getting selected and sure enough I did (darn!). So now I began the long training road until the July 11th race day. My initial goal was to complete five fifty mile training runs in the months leading up to race day, culminating in three back to back 100 mile weeks. In the end I compromised and completed two fifty mile runs, the Delano Park 50 mile in March and three repeats, plus some extra, of the second half of the Mountain Mist 50km course in April. I also ran the Strolling Jim 41.2 miler in May and did a back to back weekend of 50km and 20 miles in June right in the middle of my “300”, a nick-name for my three back to back 100 mile weeks. I was to also run the San Juan Solstice 50 Mile in late June. However, come race day I felt like I was about to peak in my training both physically and mentally so decided not to run but save my physical and mental energy for the ordeal that was to come soon enough…

So three weeks from race day I travelled to Lake City, Colorado where I would be spending most of my time over 9,000 feet elevation vacationing and at the same time acclimating for the high altitude race to come. My “300” was completed right before I left my home in Huntsville, Alabama so the next three weeks I would be largely tapering for race day. I did manage to spend some significant time above tree line (~11,800 feet) on some long speed hikes, summiting several 13,000 foot plus peaks including a fourteener, Handies Peak which tops out at 14,048 feet above sea level. My last week I didn’t run a step but instead spent some time fly fishing and riding around on my mountain unicycle while my wife Kathy ran.

The night before we were to drive to the race start Kathy and I picked up our good friend Blake Thompson in Gunnison, Colorado who travelled all the way from our hometown just to crew and pace me in my race! So with a feeling of excitement we all packed into our Jeep Wrangler along with our Pharaoh hound, Cairo, for the 30 mile, 4-wheel drive, to the race start in Silverton, Colorado. It was a two and a quarter hour, bumpy, adventure to get to Silverton, which involved traversing mile after mile of rough road and summiting Cinnamon Pass (12,620 ft.). Wow what a gorgeous drive along the Alpine Loop!

We drove to the race headquarters at the Silverton High School Gymnasium and checked in and received my race number (#178) and then my resting pulse and blood pressure were checked and recorded. After check in we sat through the mandatory race briefing where I learned that there was still a significant amount of snow on the course, in all the usual high, north facing slopes, and that where there wasn’t snow it was quite often a soupy, muddy mess! Also because of the combination of record snow fall over the past winter and spring and a warm spring and early summer, the fast snow melt meant frequent deep stream crossings! In other words, typical Hardrock course conditions! As the Hardrock 100 is a loop course, and the direction in which the loop is run alternates yearly, this year’s high, north facing, snow fields would only be descended which is much easier than ascending; think butt-slide! So after the briefing we retired to eat and relax back at the hotel and hopefully catch a few winks before our 5 a.m. wake up call…

Silverton (Start) to Kamm’s Traverse:

It is hard for the uninitiated to grasp the “Bigness” of this event; the shear scale and size of the mountains the participants must continually ascend and descend over the next two days. After a fitful night’s rest (at best) we arose at 5:00 a.m., made ready and loaded everything we’d need over the next two days into the small Jeep. In silence, we slowly drove to the race start in the pre-dawn twilight. Instead of being excited about the impending adventure, instead I felt an impending sense of doom as if I was on my way to be hanged. Even dinner the night before felt like my “Last Supper,” as my crew and I ate in silence, as if they pitied me in these last hours before my execution. In truth it is always the pre-race moments that are the most difficult; once we are unleashed and the race clock starts it is as if a huge burden has been lifted and now all we have to do is what we’ve (hopefully) been training to do: relentless forward motion. The trick is not to EVER think about the “Bigness”, of how far you have to go; but break it up into manageable chunks. Think about just getting to the next check point; about getting to top of the next climb; about getting to that next switch back; about taking one more step.

Thirty minutes before the start I checked in again, assuring my spot in the starting field. Race management intends to start a full field and to that end everybody must check in, first, the day before and, second, race morning by a certain deadline otherwise their spot will be filled by somebody on the very active wait-list Incredibly there were several wait-listers who got in the day before and at least one runner who got in that morning! Wow!

So precisely at 6:00a.m. (on the race director’s watch) 141 runners slowly made there way out of Silverton (well all that is except for Kyle Skaggs, the eventual race winner, who tore up the course and set an unbelievable new benchmark in just under twenty three and a half hours, but that is a different story). I really enjoyed the first couple of miles running in dry shoes, idly chit chatting with long time running friends and acquaintance. Soon enough, however, I arrived at the South Mineral Creek crossing and instantly I was soaking wet from the waist down in the frigid, pure snow runoff waters! Oh well! Now the climbing began in earnest as I slowly made my way up Putnam Basin and the first of many trips above tree line. I really had no idea what kind of time or pace to shoot for as this was the first time I’d arrived at the starting line acclimated to the altitude. I felt like I was climbing strong but was holding back somewhat (we had a long way to go!). Luckily I spent the duration of this first ascent on the heels of fellow 1998 Grand Slammer Tyler Curiel, who has 8 consecutive Hardrock finishes to his name including multiple top ten postings. So he was the perfect race veteran to talk to in terms of pacing and race strategy. He gave me some very sage advice and admonished me not to go too hard on day one, to take it easy through the night all in order to be able to feel good at Sherman, the 72 mile point. He said that the race begins at Sherman; that if I could still move well that I could make up a lot of time in those last 28 miles if I just put my head down and went for it. I said there’s no reason why I couldn’t go 33 hours with my conditioning and acclimating to the altitude. I thanked him and sure enough just as we peaked out on Putnam-Cataract Ridge and began the high altitude traverse over to Cataract-Porcupine Pass, he shot off, like a rocket, on the steep, rough and slick cross country downhill. His strategy, like many other Hardrock veterans, is to take it easy on the climbs; aim for a climbing pace around 2 miles per hour but to then rip the down hills as fast as you could safely go. I consider myself a pretty good climber so this common pacing strategy seemed backwards to me. So I chose to defy convention and work my strengths; namely to climb at a pace more like 3 miles per hour (or sometimes faster) and to not punish the down hills; to use the descents as a break from the quick climbing, but to stay steady and safe on the mostly ridiculously rough terrain. At any rate, I quickly lost contact with Tyler and a few others in our early pacing group as we made our way down, down, down to the small first checkpoint called Kamm’s Traverse. I didn’t waste any time here as I arrived I quickly refilled my pack with water and pre-measured Extran Electrolyte powder and after downing a couple swigs of some electrolyte drink I quickly moved on down the trail with a couple of slices of watermelon in hand. The sun was beginning to come up from behind the shield of towering mountains; it was starting to really warm up…

Cumulative Stats: 11.5 miles, 3 hours 5 minutes, 4069 feet up, and 2749 feet down.

Kamm’s Traverse to Chapman:

Warm up indeed; as I made my way across the Kamm Traverse I started to feel warm for the first time. At around a mile out of the aid station I took a drink from my pack and nearly gagged! I’d either not added near enough water or else I’d over measured my pre-mixed electrolyte powder! Yuck! I was thirsty but the concentration was almost more than I could bear! So I decided to drink sparingly and totally flush out my pack at the next check point. Besides overly depleting myself on this section I really enjoyed to moderate climb up to the infamous Grant-Swamp Pass, site of the Joel Zucker memorial and my infamous melt down from 3 years ago. Nearing the pass I was surprised to find I was just ahead of Betsy Kalmeyer. Uh oh I thought, this is the lady has run under 30 hours on this course and won the women’s race many times! What business do I have being in front of her! Yikes! So I pulled aside and let up on the climbing pace to let her get ahead. Even still, we both topped out about the same time. The descent down Grant-Swamp Pass cannot be fully appreciated in the numerous photos taken here; no picture I’ve seen has come close capturing the steepness, the looseness and the overall feeling of being part of a semi-controlled landslide as one makes their way down the precarious rock face. Well, at least I’m going down and not having to climb this! I carefully chose a different descent line than Betsy to avoid loosing rocks and sending them tumbling for her head. As it was I had to yell “Rock” a few times as a rock or two would take an errant bounce and suddenly jibe right toward her! Luckily nobody got hurt; a small miracle. Now below the rockslide, the fun truly began as we descended another thousand feet or more purely on large, steep snow fields that were much easier to descend on one’s bottom than try to remain up right. Imagine a quarter mile long slip and slide! Wow what fun! But all fun comes to an end and soon enough I had to run again as the snow fields and landslide area were left behind. I did take the time to pause and empty out what debris had collected in my shoes from the steep and loose descent. It was at this time that I started to feel the heat and the fact that I was getting pretty dehydrated because I stubbornly refused to drink from the syrupy concoction in my pack! This was Mistake #1 this year as I would later learn. At any rate, I finally pulled into the Chapman aid station along with a running acquaintance of mine, Keith Knipling. I took refuge under a shaded canopy and sucked on a Popsicle or two as I dumped out the liquid mess in my pack and filled it up with pure water. Going on pure water in this heat was Mistake #2, I should have filled it up with the race supplied electrolyte drink. With mounting dread I trudged out of Chapman along with Keith, not yet ready to tackle what I feel is the most difficult climb on the entire Hardrock course: Oscar’s Pass.

Cumulative Stats: 18.5 miles, 5 hours 2 minutes, 6519 feet up, and 5669 feet down.

Chapman to Telluride:

What makes Oscar’s Pass so tough? Well for starters it climbs about 3000 feet in 3 miles on probably the steepest jeep roads I’ve ever seen. Then there is the fact that most of the route is south facing with almost no shade so the sun just beats down on you without relief! Still this would be a tough climb at any time, but particularly in the heat. Fortunately just as Keith and I began to separate and begin climbing in earnest, leaving what little shade the thin aspen trees provided, a wave of clouds rolled in to shield us from the brutal sun. So, all in all, this was the most pleasant ascent of Oscar’s Pass I’ve done of the four times of done it. I drank a lot of water in this 3 mile stretch, trying to make up for how little I drank in the previous section. Unfortunately this had the adverse effect of totally turning my stomach sour to the point that I couldn’t eat or think about drinking anymore. I was in trouble but I still forged ahead like a head-strong mule powering my way up and up to the pass. I must not have been climbing too slowly as I steadily reeled in the pack of runners ahead of me and finally just as I was to strike the pass I caught up to John Beard. Together we made the traverse over to Wasatch Saddle and then descended into Wasatch Basin and began the long, snowy, descent into Telluride. We hadn’t descended very long before we passed by John Cappis (one of the original Hardrock course designers) who was snapping off photos of the passing runners. I was so distracted trying to get a good photo that I ran right by the trail intersection where Mr. Cappis was standing! I teasingly blamed him for missing my turn and we all chuckled! John Beard was having trouble keeping up and so soon I began to pull ahead. I wasn’t running alone long when all of a sudden I caught up with Paul Hopwood, winner of this year’s H.U.R.T. 100. I was just starting to bonk at he was coming out of one from, as he told me, going out to fast. Thus we were about evenly paced and passed the remaining miles into Telluride sharing stories from ultra marathon events we’d taken part in the past. I managed to stave off my bonk by downing a bunch of Cliff Blocks, but I was running low in the electrolyte department having just filled my pack with water. So with my head in a fog, though still feeling pretty good despite a sour stomach, we finally rolled into the aid station amid the bustling town of Telluride. I was pretty excited to spot my friend Blake as I strode into the large open air pavilion. The place was a mad house and a flurry of activity as aid station volunteers rushed to assist the incoming and outgoing runners. Runners’ support crews were milling about or tending to their runners. All in all, quite a culture shock after being out in the woods nearly alone for most of the day! I didn’t want to waste any time here so I quickly topped my pack off with some bland electrolyte drink, downed some Coca-Cola, grabbed a Popsicle and off I went with an avocado sandwich lovingly prepared by my awesome wife!

Cumulative Stats: 27.8 miles, 8 hours 3 minutes, 9609 feet up, and 10169 feet down.

Telluride to Kroeger’s Canteen (Virginus Pass):

I’ll be brutally honest, leaving Telluride was tough! My stomach woes were really just starting and I was feeling the heat and the effects of pushing so hard to get to Telluride. I’d probably have took it easier down from Wasatch Saddle if I hadn’t caught up and decided to run with Paul, but what will be, will be! This was the fastest I’ve ever run to Telluride by a couple of minutes and both times previously I’d ended up dropping out later! So I was quite worried that perhaps I was in over my head at this point. Anyways leaving the aid station a kind race volunteer ran up behind me to point out how the course had been re-routed at the last minute. In the course description and pre-race briefing the race officials described a new alternative route out of Telluride that by-passed some house construction that was always a problem on the traditional route. Well it turns out that somebody decided to revert back to the traditional route but this route was NOT marked when I went through it. Luckily I roughly remembered how to go and the race volunteer sort of pointed out the gist of the route so I had a fair idea where to go. So, against my better judgment I ran right by a couple of course markings that clearly were still directing runners into down-town Telluride! Yikes! And things didn’t get any better as I made my way up a steep residential road and then onto a rough trail that meandered just feet between numerous old and new construction houses. Where were we going? All this time there were no official race markers though there was some orange surveyor tape??? Well sure enough I passed by some hikers, crew personnel actually, that confirmed that I was on the correct route that they’d just followed the route out with their runner and had put out the orange ribbon I’d just seen. So I breathed a sigh of relief as the new/old route returned us to the actual race marked course. Now I could focus on my sour stomach and contemplate how to reverse the caloric deficit I was facing. The initial climb out of Telluride is fairly steep, not unlike the Oscar’s Pass climb. I was still climbing fairly well apparently as I quickly caught back up to Paul, but Betsy Nye and Diane Van Deren were close behind. As I caught up to Paul he was fairly enthusiastic as I think he was finally over his pre-Telluride “bonk.” This was also the tipping point for me as all of a sudden all the wind went out of my sails, the boiler had run dry and Paul immediately began to pull away from me again and not long after Betsy and Diane went right on by as well! I had to do something or I wouldn’t make it past Ouray! So I began the long process of trying to eat my avocado sandwich. I also realized that just drinking water wasn’t doing a whole lot to fix my electrolyte situation, so I poured some pure sea-salt into my mouth and forced myself to swallow the bitter concoction of water, avocado sandwich and salt! Bite by bite I worked on that sandwich the whole rest of the way to Mendota saddle. I was starting to feel a bit better by the time began the traverse over to Virginus Pass as I found that I’d had eaten a solid majority of that sandwich. So, finally, I scrambled slowly up that last gravelly pitch that brought me into the cubical sized aid station at Virginus Pass known as Kroeger’s Canteen. The aid station workers here are just amazing! They spend most of the day and all night at this tiny, 8 x 8 foot space perched at over 13,000 feet! Crazy! Anyhow, as I arrived, Diane was still in the aid station and not long after I sat down and was working on my first Coca-Cola, Daniel Benhammou (the Trekking Pole Guy in my mind) arrived. So, after pulling back another Coca-Cola or two I watched Daniel’s plunge step technique as I quickly descended the steep, 300 foot vertical, 45 degree pitch, snow filled drop down into the hanging valley below.

Cumulative Stats: 32.8 miles, 10 hours 30 minutes, 13999 feet up, and 10209 feet down.

Kroeger’s Canteen (Virginus Pass) to Governor Basin:

As I had gotten a little chilled waiting for Diane and Daniel to descend from the bird’s nest that is Kroeger’s Canteen so I decided to go for the plunge step as well and not try and butt-glissade down the steep snowy slope. I figured I’d get pretty cold sliding in the snow. Turns out there were nothing to it, I took large step after large step down, down, down; my feet easily “plunging” into the pliant snow and not slipping. After making quick work of the first pitch, of which there are three just like it, I made my way down a gentler slope to the next steep downward pitch. I just had gotten to the top of the next descent when I saw Diane and Daniel disappear from view, somewhere near the last pitch. Anyhow I decided to butt-glissade this part and boy was that a mistake as that snow was wet and cold and I was getting even more chilled! I just kept moving as I knew after the last pitch I’d have a good jeep road to run down the last 2.75 miles to the next aid-station. The last pitch wasn’t so bad but now my gloved hands were soaked as I’d use them to control my rate of descent in the butt-glissades. So as I began to run down the steep, switch-backing, jeep road I continually blew warm air from my mouth into the gloves and tried to keep flexing my numb fingers. I’d warmed up nicely and noticed my stomach was finally coming around as I spotted the next aid station not far up ahead. Around this time Tom Remkes had caught up and past me by. As we approached a large stream crossing, right across the middle of the good jeep road, I saw Tom cut down into the woods parallel to the lower side of the road. I was wondering what he was doing as there was no trail markers indicating a turn, but I saw that made his way down to a rough man made bridge that crossed the large stream. After crossing he made his way on a trail that ended up converging back onto the jeep road I was on. I kind of chuckled as I just plunged right through the stream anyhow, why all the effort to keep your feet dry at this point? So by the time Tom hit the road again we were abreast and so together we ran on the remaining distance into the Governor Basin aid station. Not long after we pulled in, so did John Beard. Honestly I felt pretty good rolling into this aid station as I think the calories from the sandwich were kicking in and the salt had helped quiet my stomach, for now. I decided to fill my pack with the electrolyte drink Succeed that was provided by the race. I knew the stuff didn’t taste that great but I also knew I needed the electrolytes to keep my stomach in line enough for me to be able to eat. I downed some more soda and thanked the volunteers and then John and I left the aid station together with Tom just a bit ahead of us. Next stop Ouray to see my crew again and pick up my pacer and good friend Blake Thompson!

Cumulative Stats: 36 miles, 11 hours 21 minutes, 13999 feet up, and 12529 feet down.

Governor Basin to Ouray:

It was good having John to run with in this section as it is a long 7.9 miles mostly downhill on a rather boring yet well maintained jeep road into Ouray. Not long after leaving Governor Basin we passed by Tom as he was walking down the road, obviously fighting a funk of his own at the moment. John and I continued on and passed the time making small talk about lots of different things and so after what seemed like forever, but not really, we started so signs of civilization and realized that we must be getting close. Sure enough just ahead I spotted down town Ouray and the spectacular ribbon-like waterfall that lay just behind the city. Wow I wish I’d had a camera! Still, we ran on and on until finally there was Charlie Thorn up ahead to direct us onto the new route into Ouray. This was my fifth time coming into Ouray and the fifth different route! Anyways this was, by far, the best version yet as the newly constructed trail took us right across Box Canyon on a metal mesh floored bridge that gave us a view straight down, over 200 feet down, to the ragging torrent below! Not a place to be for the feint at heart that was for sure! Then just across the bridge John and I had to duck our heads and traverse carefully along a dark and spooky 100 foot long tunnel. Wow again! Just past the tunnel the trail emptied us out onto some neighborhood streets that we followed toward the aid station located at the far end of town at the natural hot springs. There were some pretty cool houses along this route, including several that were hidden behind giant boulders that constituted their front yards! Another house had a very realistic deer lawn ornament in the front, but then it moved and alas it was a real deer! Then we dropped down a couple of more blocks and finally the Ouray hot springs were in sight and soon enough we were into the Ouray aid station. I immediately saw Blake, all ready to start his pacing duties. Kathy came up quickly with the bag containing my night clothes and equipment. As it was still fairly light out, and would be for at least a couple of more hours or so, I just stuffed the night clothing and head lamps into my pack for later. I reloaded on my energy foods and electrolyte drink and then we were off after giving Kathy a kiss. We’d see her at Grouse Gulch several hours from now if all went well…

Cumulative Stats: 43.9 miles, 12 hours 44 minutes, 13999 feet up, and 15629 feet down.

Ouray to Engineer’s:

The route out of Ouray was almost as interesting as the route in. Again we passed by Box Canyon, at least close enough that I pointed out to Blake the metal bridge John and I had crossed; boy it sure looked very high up from our current vantage point! John had left Ouray just ahead of Blake and me but we caught up just as we entered the ice climbing park trails. We wished each other luck and I explained that I was sure that I’d seem him again soon enough. Slowly but surely in the fading light Blake and me made our way up and out of Ouray, after a short rolling section of trail that first took us up away from the Umcompagre river then back down to it only to then climb up and away from it one last time! Next we climbed to the top of a roadway tunnel and crossed above the Highway 550 the so called “Million Dollar Highway” and began to climb in earnest heading for the high Engineer Pass still a long way away. It was during this next stretch that I had my mental meltdown; where I almost gave up. I was good at faking how I was feeling for a short while because this section of trail was so spectacular. The trail here was literally blasted out of the side of the mountain and maybe 3 feet across at the widest point. For a full mile or more there is just a sheer rock face to your left and a steep drop off to your right. How deep is the drop off? Well there are points were the drop off is over 300 feet straight down into the roaring gorge below! Needless to say the view is awe inspiring and I was happy we got to see it in the day light. So for the next mile or so Blake and I both kept to the rock face side of the trail! I had a small hope that we might reach the next aid station, Engineer’s, before we had to cut on our headlamps but it was not to be. The sky had clouded up enough that we didn’t get the benefit of the post sunset twilight and so, still a couple miles out from the aid station, we finally succumbed to the darkness and cut on our headlamps. Not long after we had done so we came across somebody sitting along side the trail. As we got closer I realized it was Paul Sweeney! I had a big smile on his face and just told us he was resting. Okay. So we kept going and a little while later a recharged Tom Remkes, and pacer, blew by us like we were standing still! Little did I know at that time, but Tom would be the last person to pass me and still finish ahead of me. With Tom going by so strongly it just pushed me over the edge mentally and I really started to have doubts about finishing. My stomach had grown a bit sour again, but mainly with the darkness comes those little demons that play mental games with you. I was starting to consider dropping at Grouse Gulch (the next place I’d see my wife Kathy) and let Blake know that. The novelty of the whole event had worn off, I was tired and spent and just wanted to get off my feet and rest. Blake would hear none of this nonsense but wisely just told me to wait till we got to Grouse Gulch before I decided anything. After all we still had a long way to go to get there! Still I was adamant that I was going to quit. I just felt lousy, my energy level was at an all time low, I was getting winded just walking and I was starting to trip over everything which just infuriated me even more! Bahh! Then some lights from ahead, it was Diane Van Deren with pacer. We greeted them as they paused to let us by. We hadn’t gone much further up the trail when the pinnacle of my misery and self pity came as we were about to cross a small stream. To cross one first had to descend a steep rocky staircase and just as I was about to make the first step down, somehow my right toe got hung up and all of a sudden I was plunging head first down the steep rocky slope! It all happened so fast that I’m not sure how I avoided smashing my head into the rocks but I think I must of impacted the back of my forearms and chest first ( I’m still bruised in these places even as I write this). Anyhow my head was just inches from the jagged rocks and my feet still near the top step; I was in physical pain now! The sudden fall just totally knocked all the wind out of me and I just laid there for many moments. I slowly picked myself up and gingerly sank to the creek bed to sit down. Blake quickly scanned me over to make sure I wasn’t gushing blood from an artery or anything or that any bones were exposed. Nope. But even has I got my breath back I lost my self emotionally and just started crying, bawling really (Blake can attest to this), and I exclaimed that this whole thing was just really stupid and that that was it that I’m definitely going to quit at Grouse Gulch! The pain! It took many minutes to get moving again, but when we finally started moving along the trail again I had to stop as the pain in my forearms were still pretty intense. This repeated a few more times until I just decided to sit down and take another break. Not long after we sat down, Diane and pacer went by and then another group of lights coming up the trail. It was Blake Wood with pacer and third who paused and then sat down right next to Blake and me. It was Paul Sweeney taking yet another break, this time with us! Blake and me paused a bit longer then, aching, I got up and headed back up the trail, trying to keep Blake Wood’s light in view. This last bit before the Engineer’s aid station seemed to really drag on as we had to cross and re-cross several icy streams, one after the other. At last though we heard a voice bellowing out of the woods ahead just as we smelled the smoke of the campfire this check point is famous for. So we’d finally reached the aid station, but I was still at an all time mental low as I crumbled and sat on a log facing the large campfire. I was now just over halfway but that just meant that I still had a long, long way to go yet and the night was still young. Even at best I still had to travel through this night and through most of the next day to finish before the sun set again. That was if I was lucky. Worst case was I’d still be out on the course twenty four hours from now and still have miles to go before the finish! And the way I felt at that moment, staring into the flames, the later scenario seemed more likely. Yikes! In every 100 mile race I’ve done there has always been a point where I’ve had to make a simple choice: to continue or to stop. Analogous to “hitting the wall” in a marathon this 100 miler nadir occurs for me when I’m at my lowest point both mentally and physically. I was physically down because of the long day of pushing fairly hard and because of the tumble I’d recently had. I was mentally down because I’d made the mistake of looking at the big picture and realizing how far I had left to go; also is was way past my bedtime and all I could think of at that moment was to curl up between the log I was sitting on and the nice warm camp fire. However I knew that if I truly wanted to quit I had to get to the next checkpoint since to quit here meant I’d be leaving my wife stranded at the next checkpoint all night long and not knowing where I was! So, after downing an excellent cup of hot chocolate Blake wrestled me away from the warm campfire and on up the trail and to Engineer Pass.

Cumulative Stats: 51.8 miles, 16 hours 14 minutes, 18564 feet up, and 16074 feet down.

Engineer’s to Grouse Gulch:

There was something about the cool night air, the way the clouds drifted by the nearly full moon that seemed to recharge me. Perhaps the electrolyte drink was now doing its job, the calories I’d put down had started the old furnace going again. I don’t know what it was but I do know that I was coming out of my “funk.” I realized what a stupid thing it would be to quit now. I only had very few hours left before daylight and then I could just cruise in. Who cares how long it takes? So with a mental click I was back “on.” I’d re-engaged and I knew, baring a total body failure, I was going to finish. I knew from prior experience that if I got my “head” into it that there was nothing I couldn’t do as long as my body didn’t give out (which has happened on occasion despite being mentally tough). I told Blake he could forget about stopping at Grouse Gulch; I was going to finish this darn race no matter what! He cheered and was happy I was out of my funk. We still had a long way to go but at least I was through worrying about it.

The route goes kind of cross-country as it leaves Engineer’s aid station and basically climbs steadily straight up through a spotty snow fields until you reach Engineer pass (really we hit the road well below the actual pass). In the darkness one can’t tell where exactly the road at the top of the climb is so to assist runners the course markers placed a blinking red light right at the pass to give the runners some visual cue to aim for. This beacon can be seen for miles and really helps orient one’s self on the cross-country ascent. The only problem it the little light never seems to get any closer! Still after a reasonably short period of time, following several other flash lights up the basin, we at last crested the pass. That red flashing beacon was nothing more than a small bicycle safety light attached to a wooden stake driven into the ground! I’d expected it to be much larger, hmm? Now onto a good 4-wheel drive road we began a nice long descent to Grouse Gulch. In this downhill section Blake and I made good time since the surface is good and the grade jus steep enough to let gravity do most of the work. We passed the time chatting more amiably than in the previous few hours and tried to pick out the other flash lighted runners well ahead and behind us. We’d been descending for a good couple of miles when we stopped seeing those lights ahead of us. I knew from past experience that this “road” section of the course is often not marked very much and that there are a few confusing intersections that runners have made wrong turns on and lost several hours or cost them a finish! So, although we chatted I was keeping a careful eye out to prevent such an off-course adventure. Still, no lights ahead; had we already gone wrong? I’d driven our jeep on this very road a few times in the past so I was very certain about the route but still? Then all of a sudden we turned a corner and there not 100 feet from us were three runners walking back up the road towards us! Yikes we must have gone wrong after all I thought! We hadn’t even passed an intersection yet? We quickly closed the gap and I was surprised to see John Beard, Betsy Nye and her pacer! Betsy I thought was well ahead of me and John must have snuck by while I sat in self-pity back at the last campfire! Betsy immediately asked if we were going the right way. I replied that I was confident that we were going right but still she seemed unsure. Wow, this was very shocking, a seven time Hardrock finisher asking me if we were on-course. She said she and her pacer, and possibly several others had made a wrong turn just ahead that had cost them a great deal of time. John, being just ahead of us, probably had just caught up to her on her way back up the road. We all continued down the road now and soon enough we got to the unmarked intersection. I knew from prior experience that the road to the right led back down to Ouray and that we needed to keep on the main route to get to Grouse Gulch. It appears that Betsy and pacer made the wrong turn (as it turns out several others took the wrong turn here as well including my friend Bruce Grant who definitely should have finished well ahead of me) and finally second guessing their decision decided to turn around and find another runner to verify the route choice. So, back on track we kept descending in one group. Along the way I kept hammering down the electrolyte drink and eating more Cliff Blocks to keep the furnace going and my mind sharp. We ended up passing a couple more un-marked intersections but I insisted each time that we were following the correct route. It just seemed right to me and, like I said, I’d driven the way a few times in the past; of course it all looks so different in the middle of the night! Still, we hadn’t gone much further when we finally saw the bright lights of the Grouse Gulch aid station. Now everybody was indeed confident we were on the correct route. Even though we could see the lights we still had a good two more miles to go before we finally reached Grouse Gulch and a mildly concerned spouse! The first words Kathy said to me as Blake and I pulled up were, “Where the heck have you been?” and then “Cairo and I are freezing!” Jeez, I thought we’d be here by midnight and despite all the troubles I’d had we were still less than forty minutes past midnight! Anyhow, we didn’t want to waste any time here since I’d already spent too much time around that campfire at Engineer’s, so we quickly tanked up on fluids and grabbed some warmer clothes (which I never used). I also remembered to get my Yak-Tracs to put on my feet for the upcoming snow/ice field traversals. We would not see Kathy again for a long time after this point; not until I had just 9 miles to go! So I gave her a kiss good-night and told her to get some sleep. So with a final wave we were off again into the night!

Cumulative Stats: 58.3 miles, 18 hours 36 minutes, 19784 feet up, and 18384 feet down.

Grouse Gulch to Sherman:

This next section is the longest stretch between check points on the entire course; nearly thirteen and a half miles. Also in this stretch we’d be ascending to the highest point of the course, Handies Peak at 14,048 feet above sea level. However to get to the highest point we still had a fairly healthy ascent from Grouse Gulch to Grouse-American Pass, which stands at over 13,000 feet. Grouse-American Pass is on one end of a giant bowl known as American Basin; we had to descend into the basin only to head back up the other side to get to Handies. After Handies we could expect a long, mostly downhill, route to the next checkpoint; the first part descending steeply cross-country but this would give way to a nice, more forgiving, 4x4 road the rest of the way.

The climb up to Grouse-American Pass was fairly uneventful as it, though fairly steep and longer than expected, is on pretty good trail and was largely snow free. In this stretch Blake and I got ahead of Betsy and pacer once again just as we made the final push to the pass. In the days before this race my family and I had visited American Basin by jeep and I’d seen how much snow there was on both sides of the basin so I knew then that I’d want those Yak-Tracs in this section. So at the pass I stretched the rubber and metal contraptions onto the bottom of my shoes. Although I’d just bought this pair and a similar pair for Blake, he found a way to lose them between Grouse Gulch and now! Doh! Oh well, perhaps someone behind us found them and made use of them! Almost immediately the Yak-Tracs proved their worth as the first of many snow fields appeared. Though nice pliant snow in the daytime, it was nearly solid ice at this early morning hour and so it was nice to have reliable traction underfoot. Blake wasn’t as fortunate as I heard him slipping and the occasional cuss word could be heard! Chuckle! Still, even with the added traction I still had to be careful on the frequent exposed, slippery rocky sections. The narrow descent was a place to be cautious as all around there were several large drop offs that could surprise the unawares. So we slowly made our descent into the basin, traveling from reflective course marker to reflective course marker. At last we’d reached the heart of American basin and began to ascend once again. Not far from Sloan Lake we overtook a pacer with his charge (which looking back at the splits must have been Paul Hopwood) and then we began to climb in earnest. I really surprised me that most other runners that night wore so much clothing and I was getting by comfortably in the same shorts and short-sleeve shirt I’d worn the first day; with only the addition of a lightweight rain-resistant top and some gloves. If I got cold I just pulled the jacket hood over my head and if I warmed up I removed the hood and unzipped the jacket. My internal furnace really must have been keeping me warm because it was close to freezing out and with the frequent wind gusts I should have been cold but I wasn’t! During this finally upward push to Handies I think the altitude was finally catching up to Blake as he started to fade back a bit. The wind really was whipping around pretty good when I reached the top at precisely 3:36a.m. I quickly found the register and filled it out, the first group to sign it on this day, July 12th. Obviously I wasn’t the first to the top this day, just the first to pause and sign the register! “Where is Blake?” I wondered. Finally he appeared and off we went, down, down, down into the dark abyss! It was such an awesome sight to be up so high in the middle of the night and to look across the route which we’d come and see several tiny lights making there way along American Basin. Wow what a sight! I knew this first pitch down from Handies would be a little tricky as I’d done a training run up this way a couple of weeks before and remembered a fairly long and steep snow field I had to ascend to get up here. This time I’d be going down, in the dark and with over 100km in my legs. It wasn’t as bad as there had been ample traffic along this route since I last was here and there was a fairly good “ice stair case” descending straight down. With the Yak-Tracs I made short work of that pitch and waited for a slipping and sliding Blake to once again play catch-up. Still I wasn’t waiting long and soon enough we began the rest of the largely snow-free descent to the Burrows Park road far down in the valley below. Just as we crossed back under tree-line again we could tell that the sky was starting to lighten up; the sun would be coming up soon. Yippee! In the early morning twilight, when it still is dark enough to require flash lights because of the uneven terrain, we broke out of the woods and marched up to the road that would take us the rest of the way down to the almost non-existent town-site of Sherman. I was excited though and feeling good. The sun was coming up, already recharging my batteries, and my in-laws were going to be meeting me as the Sherman town-site in only fifteen miles, or so, from their place in Lake City. It was all I could do to not run the whole way down the road! I reeled myself back in and had a pleasant talk with Sean Andrish and his pacer as the remaining miles to Sherman ticked by. As we descended, intermingling walking and shuffling, we took in the wonderful scenery that surrounded us. Like the shelf-trail we’d ascended partway out of Ouray, the road we descended on now was an analogous shelf-road. At one point the road is just a car and a half wide with a sheer rock face to your left and an unguard-railed cliff to your right that drops very steeply and deeply into Black Wonder Canyon. Very spectacular! This road is fairly well traveled during the day, as it is part of the famous Alpine Loop and favorite of both the 4-wheel driving crowd and, because of its access to five Fourteeners, the hiking community. Luckily we had the road all to ourselves at that early hour which was good because one could tell from the dusty road that conditions could be fairly bad with a lot of wheeled traffic! At last we turned off the shelf-road and onto a steeply descending, cross-country path that brought us abruptly down onto another jeep road just at the Sherman town-site. If you blinked you might have missed the remnants of a mill and some mining related buildings. Up the jeep road just a bit and then there were several cars parked on the side so we know that the aid station was imminent. As Blake and I approached the first car parked on the side we saw some familiar faces; it was my in-laws! Unlike the horror stories I’ve heard about people’s in-laws, we get along as if I was their true son and they my actual parents! I guess I’m rather fortunate? So it was so cool to see them there, the moral boost was amazing and I was feeling good. I was chomping on the bit to get going, but Blake and I took a pretty good break here to refuel and retool. The aid station crew here were just great by the time I sat down they’d already had all my drop-bag stuff laid out on a table and were ready to take my breakfast order! Wow! They had egg and potato breakfast burritos all fired up and ready to so I worked on devouring it while I took stock on what I needed to drop from my pack and what to keep. As the night was now through I decided to leave all my night clothing with my in-laws and just travel as light as I could. I knew, baring a severe melt-down, that I would be able to finish well before sunset so the only additional clothing I packed was my trusty light-weight rain jacket and my gloves; essentially the same gear I packed during the first day. I still kept one small flashlight, just in case. After wolfing down that burrito, and while the aid station helpers refilled my pack with electrolyte drink, I decided to change my socks. I knew that I’d only have dry feet for a little while longer but just putting on something dry just feels good. And boy did it feel nice to put on some dry socks! I encouraged Blake, who was just half-heartedly nibbling at his breakfast burrito, to change his socks as well but he said that he’d just pack them and change them in a few miles. Whatever. So refilled, restocked and re-energized we gave my in-laws a hug, thanked the Sherman aid station workers and started to head out of the aid-station. Just as we were leaving my father-in-law asked what time did I think I’d be finished. I told him that surely it wouldn’t take me more than 10 hours from here to get back to Silverton; that would put me kissing the Hardrock at half past four p.m. It turned out that I’d made a pretty poor prediction; I’d under-estimated my closing speed.

Cumulative Stats: 71.7 miles, 24 hours, 23972 feet up, and 23642 feet down.

Sherman to Pole Creek:

Blake and I left Sherman along with Blake Wood, Sean Andrish and their pacers; Sean leading the way then myself and Blake Wood not too far behind. The climb up to Cataract-Pole Divide starts out fairly steep as this part of Cataract Gulch was sheared off by an ancient glacier which is why the upper portions of Cataract Gulch are considered a hanging valley. Viewing this route from a distance, it appears that the climb is nearly straight up; zigzagging next to this gulch’s namesake, a huge cascading series of waterfalls also known as a cataract. In actuality the trail switch-backs often enough that this route is no where near as steep as some of the terrain already encountered. Just a mile up the trail I could already tell that my good friend and pacer, Blake, was starting to have difficulty keeping up. I don’t know if I was starting to “smell the barn” or if it was all the calories starting to kick in, but I felt very strong on this climb and soon had gotten ahead of Sean and his pacer and I could barely see Blake Wood further on down the trail. The trail keeps switch-backing and coming closer and closer to crossing the cataract but not quite yet, so the dream of dry feet was maintained (for at least a little longer). However, all dreams, and dry feet, come to end on this course and after a switch back or two more the trail crossed the cataract creek for the first time. I believe my pacer Blake caught up just at the first “wet” crossing. After we crossed a couple more times he decided to stop to change his socks as he believed we were through (for a while) with crossing this creek. So, as I was climbing up past a pretty healthy sized waterfall I looked behind, and down, to see Blake sitting on a stump getting ready to change his socks. I kind of chuckled when I realized that I was about to cross the cataract again just above the waterfall I had ascended by! So much for dry socks Blake! Little did I realize then that that would be the last I would see Blake until I finished many hours from now! At the moment I just kept climbing strongly making my way up onto the Continental Divide. Soon I’d reached the hanging valley and the trail began to level off quite noticeably even as the footing and route worsened! I now found myself stomping through some tall and thick willow bushes; the trail quite soggy. I had to exercise my full attention to not get off course here as there were numerous “sheep trails” here amid the towering, maze-like, brush. I’d literally find myself holding my breath until I came across another trail marker, just hoping that I was still on course. Incredibly I didn’t lose the trail, although it would have been very easy to do so! I must be part sheep? Anyways I finally climbed out of the low, soggy, willowy basin and began the last push for the Divide. I kept looking back hoping to spot Blake and possibly the other runners I’d left Sherman with. I saw nobody! I got kind of worried that possibly Blake had gotten lost in the basin, it was fairly tricky! Even when I finally arrived at the Divide and had a pretty good line-of-sight back down the trail I saw nobody! Well, Blake and I had had this discussion before the race, I had told him that if, for any reason, we got separated out here that he was on his own and that I was not going to wait up. Actually dropping pacers at Hardrock is a frequent occurrence as it is often difficult for pacers to acclimate as fully as their charges so even if they are in great shape the altitude often wins! So now I was on my own to finish this race up. No problem. I was still feeling pretty good even though the sun was really starting to come out and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky! Passing by Cataract Lake the trail leveled out appreciably and I began to shuffle the best I could, trying to take advantage of this rare piece of flat ground. This part of the course reminds of photos I’ve seen of the Scottish highlands, nothing but tall mountains and endless green grass with the occasional tree. Absolutely beautiful! It was still a struggle to run as I was well above tree-line and even this flat bit of trail was fairly boggy. I kept pushing and pushing, still occasionally looking over my shoulder in hopes that Blake might miraculously appear. It wasn’t long before I noticed a pair of runners ahead. Though still quite distant, I could tell that I was steadily closing the gap. I urge to speed up was tremendous but I reigned myself in as I still had a long way to go yet, if I caught them I caught them no need to rush it. Soon I could see the distant Pole Creek aid station, a small collection of tents out in the middle of the vast Continental Divide. I plodded on as best I could, crossing and re-crossing stream after stream. The ice cold water was very refreshing in the warm morning; I’d scope my hat into the water as I crossed and place the drenched, cool hat on my head. Ahh! With the aid station just a quarter mile away I finally caught up to the pair of runners ahead of me. Turns out it was Kim Holak and her pacer Leland Barker. This was one of the more remote check points along the entire course as these dedicated volunteers had to pack in quite a ways from the nearest jeep road! As I walked into the aid station I explained to the radio operator there that I’d dropped my pacer somewhere after the last checkpoint. I told them I wasn’t sure if he was still coming this way or if I had turned around to go back? The told me not to worry that they’d tell him what to do if he came through there or here. Anyhow, I decided not to waste too much time at this aid station as I knew the next one was just over four miles away. I downed a quite cup of miso soup and kept on going. As I left I saw Kim just coming in along with another runner, it turns out (I found out later) that was Wouter Hamelinck. I found out that he had made a wrong turn just before this aid station! I never saw him but all of a sudden there he was! I thought he’d been racing up from behind. Thanks Wouter for the shock you gave me! It was the incentive I really needed to really start pushing the pace leaving Pole Creek. I knew I only had less than 20 miles and 3 major climbs to go, time to lay all the chips on the table!

Cumulative Stats: 80.8 miles, 27 hours 31 minutes, 27182 feet up, and 25032 feet down.

Pole Creek to Maggie Gulch:

I was now at the point in this race when I knew I was going to finish, there was no question. The only question was how soon would I finish? The sooner the better hopefully! I pride myself by trying to finish strong when I can and this year’s Hardrock was no exception. I really worked hard leaving Pole Creek; heading up the massive Continental basin aiming for Maggie-Pole Pass. The climb to this pass was really just a small bump compared to the many long climbs earlier on; a scant 1400 feet of climb! So before I new it I was nearing the top of Maggie-Pole Pass. It was getting fairly warm out but I could see some thin clouds starting to roll in, hopefully a bit of protection from the intense, high altitude, sun light. During the ascent I still, periodically, looked behind in hopes of catching a sight of Blake, or anybody. I saw nobody. Oh well! I also noticed that the small snow fields I encountered seemed to have very few foot prints traversing them. Hmm? I must be breathing the rarified air of being near the front of the pack? Or so my delusional mind told me; after all I’ve been on my feet for over 28 hours at this point! Still, this was something to investigate at the next check point; finding out what position I was in. For the moment I just focused on keeping my footing in the beveled snow surfaces and made for the pass. With one look back the way I’d come, hoping to see somebody, I turned around and headed down into Maggie Gulch. This really was a short section as I could already see the Maggie Gulch aid station and I’d only dropped a few hundred vertical feet down the washed out trail. Soon enough I found myself descending rather steeply through a thigh-high grassy meadow and on into the aid station. The volunteers there were great, they quickly helped me refill my pack with electrolyte drink and were gung-ho about getting me out. Before I left I decided to find out what place I was in. The aid station captain consulted his clipboard and told me I was the 14th runner to come through this check point. Wow! I was thinking top twenty perhaps but with fifteen miles to go and still climbing and moving strongly I had a real shot at catching some folks; maybe I could nab that tenth spot yet? Then as I started out of the aid station I asked how long ago the last runner passed through. Again the aid station glanced at the clip-board and then his watch and told me that the last runner had left about twenty three minutes ago. Doh! Maybe I can’t catch anybody else? Oh well let’s just get this thing over with I told myself. So with that last tid-bit of information I left the Maggie Gulch aid station.

Cumulative Stats: 85.1 miles, 28 hours 56 minutes, 28522 feet up, and 25992 feet down.

Maggie Gulch to Cunningham Gulch:

The climb out of Maggie Gulch to Buffalo Boy Ridge does so quite severely; ascending over 1400 feet in less than a mile and a half! Most of the route is straight up these grassy knolls and steep sheep trails. If your legs are trashed this is one tough climb but I was still feeling great and quickly made it up the first pitch of the climb, really the worst of it. Once at the top of the first pitch the ascent eased up a bit and I traversed a bit to get to the final rock-scramble cliff face that would take me to the ridgeline. Just as I was reaching the start of the long, rocky, traverse to the last pitch to the ridgeline I spotted a pair of people ahead and above me. I couldn’t quite make out who it was, but it must be a runner and pacer; probably the runner who left Maggie Gulch in thirteenth place. It was all I could do not to just speed up and catch them; but I just kept plodding along, concentrating on my footing. The rock scramble was quite precarious, one slip and one could go tumbling a long way down! So I tried not to look down and just looked up toward the ridgeline above me. I’m sure glad there was nobody climbing under me because I sure let loose a lot of small landslides! Who marked this course? Wow! At last I stood on top of Buffalo Boy Ridge and looked around, taking in the panoramic view. Before and below me lay Rocky Gulch and the remains of an old mining tram shed. The old course, I remembered from my finish in 1999, used to pass right by the old structure and head down into Cunningham Gulch. Not today, instead we had to traverse Buffalo Boy Ridge around and then descend slightly to Stony Pass then climb just a few hundred feet to Green Mountain Pass before dropping steeply into Cunningham Gulch. There was no sign of the runner and pacer I’d seen earlier, perhaps I put a scare in them? So I made my way along the ridgeline, the route was classic Hardrock high-altitude cross country; lots of exposure, panoramic views and totally devoid of any real trail! Epic! This is why I love this part of the country! After traversing around for a while I could finally spot Stony Pass and right across the four-wheel drive road there was the runner and pacer. I could see them but they were still a good quarter of a mile ahead and probably a few hundred feet below me. I started to drop steeply, through tall grass, down to the pass when I found a large snow field that looked like a good candidate to glissade. Sure enough this was the route of choice to the pass as I could see several slide marks across the snow. So rather abruptly I slid down the steep snow slope and all of a sudden I was at the pass. I crossed over the four wheel drive road and started the gradual ascent to Green Mountain Pass, pushing fairly hard to catch the runner ahead of me. A short time later the runner and pacer were finally in view and quite close; it was my former Montrail Ultrarunning teammates! Krissy Moehl was pacing Roch Horton. Krissy is the Hardrock female course record holder and Roch’s a wily veteran who always seems to finish well here every year. I think I recognized them both first because they just stood there staring at me for a moment before Krissy said, “Is that Rob Youngren?” I greeted them and drew to a stop next to them. Roch told me that he was having some intestinal issues and that I had a lock on thirteenth place; he also said I could still break thirty four hours if I hussled! Really? I thought at best I’d be lucky to break thirty five hours! So with his encouraging words I wished him luck and told him there was probably a sizeable gap behind me and that he’d not have to worry about anybody else catching him. ( I was right, in fact he ended up finishing twelfth!) I pushed hard over the last bit of loose gravel to the top of Green Mountain Pass, paused to catch my breath, and then began to move as quickly as I could down the steep cross-country path. Down, down, down I dropped, my quadriceps taking all the beating! I could see into Cunningham Gulch but not the bottom! Across the other side of the gulch I could see the last climb of the course. It seemed an awful shame to be losing all this altitude only to have to regain it all over again once I crossed the floor of Cunningham Gulch! Wow what a view though, a huge cascading waterfall seemed to be dropping thousands of feet straight down the opposing mountain face! How are we going to be able to climb up that? It was an optical illusion though, I was descending the same steepness of trail, only I was on the other side of the gulch so I knew it could be done; just must be really steep! Finally I could see Cunningham Creek so I knew I was getting close as the last aid station is just before it. After dropping a bit more I could finally see the tents and cars that signified the aid station and crew vehicles. Yes! I stopped at a ledge that looked out over the aid station and looked straight down, a few hundred feet down, to see Kathy and Cairo sitting on a blanket on the side of the gravel road. I yelled down to her and she looked around and finally up to me and then waved. I waved back and then kept descending the last few hundred feet to the gravel road just outside the aid station. As I hit the road I realized there was yet another runner just ahead of me; it was Phill Kiddoo walking gingerly. He barely looked my way as I ran past him, into twelfth place, and met Kathy and Cairo at the aid station. Kathy’s first question was natural enough, “Where’s Blake?” I told her that I’d lost him somewhere not long after Sherman. She then asked if she needed to wait around for him to show up. I told her I didn’t think so as the Pole Creek aid station volunteers would probably direct him to Maggie Gulch and then from there I’m sure they’d direct him on the shorter route back to Silverton. Else they’d make him stop and he’d be hitching a ride with one of the aid station workers sometime tomorrow! Ha ha! So one more climb to go and a long descent and traverse into Silverton! Whew! I quickly topped off my pack with some water and kissed Kathy goodbye and then I was out of there!

Cumulative Stats: 91.2 miles, 30 hours 58 minutes, 30222 feet up, and 29152 feet down.

Cunningham Gulch to Silverton (Finish):

Immediately after leaving the aid station I plunged into the icy waters of Cunningham Creek. In the early after heat it was deliciously refreshing! But quick enough I was across and for the last time I began to climb, climb, climb. I wasn’t too far up when I saw Kathy and Cairo driving away from the aid station, taking the short way home. The steepness of the Cunningham Gulch cannot be adequately described in words and no photographs I’ve seen do it justice; it just has to be experienced. But boy is it ever a gorgeous climb for almost constantly you hear the roar of the steeply descending stream and the vast open space between the gulch’s high walls. Essentially all I had left was one last two mile climb to Dives-Little Giant Pass, a fairly lengthy descent into Little Giant Basin and Arrasta Gulch and a last rolling traversal the remaining miles into Silverton and the Finish! Still I kept on climbing, feeling pretty good but trying to not over do it on the climb. Roch has also reminded me to leave a little in the tank for the last four miles of the course as that last part can really tax you; especially if you’d really put the hammer down in the last descent thinking that you’re going to ride the downhill train all the way into town! But I still had the goal to possibly break thirty four hours. I thought I could do it, especially if I covered this last section as fast as I did back in 1999. That was my first year at Hardrock and I had no idea what I was getting into. I ended up having a great run and finished fairly fast out of necessity because I’d neglected to pack a flashlight and clothing for a possible second night of running! So I sped up to get done before sundown and ended up finishing in just less than thirty eight hours. I felt fairly confident that I could keep things together for another couple of hours, hopefully. Fairly soon I began to notice some movement up ahead and well above me. Sure enough I came across some people hiking down the trail, probably some crews taking in the view. Not long later I passed some other hikers heading up the trail. I’d gotten kind of used to seeing other non-racers out there that when I saw three hikers up ahead I thought initially they weren’t in the race either. As I got closer I saw race numbers on two of them, the third was obviously a pacer! I was in twelfth place so if I got ahead of these two guys I could finish in tenth place, my dream race goal! I tried to not get too excited and it was all I could do not to accelerate anymore than I did. Even if I could pass them on this climb I’d still have to stay ahead on the long downhill to come! Patience, patience! I was obviously still closing quite quickly because it wasn’t long from the time I first spotted them, still a fair distance ahead, that I passed the first runner, Glenn Mackie. I didn’t say much and looked kind of rough. I kept on and in the last steep pitch to pass I caught up to Mike Burke and his pacer taking a short break on the side of the trail. Mike didn’t say anything but his pacer said, “You’re climbing like you’re at sea level!” I didn’t know what to say but encouraged them that we were almost done now, not far to go. But in the back of my mind I was already thinking that he may not want to give up the tenth spot too easily! So I quickly ascended the last bit and tore across the short, knife-edge ridge at the pass as fast as I could at 13,000 feet! I wanted to get over the other side and out of sight before they reached the pass; out of sight out of mind! So I started down into Dives Basin, a messy, rock strewn talus filled trail that descends very steeply the first half mile or so. I moved as quickly as I dared but it still seemed too slow to me! The footing was very precarious and I didn’t dare risk an injury here this late in the game! Still, looking back, I probably descended that section a bit out of control but somehow I managed to stay upright. I knew that anybody trying to chase me down would have to take some risks like I had so it was a good gamble. Now onto a more gradually descending trail, but no less technical, I moved as quickly as I could, down, down, down. At last just as I was coming off the trail onto Arasta Gulch road I once again saw John Cappis snapping some photos. I gave a quick wave, a hearty thumbs-up and I was gone onto the four wheel drive road and continuing down, down, down. Boy this was a long, fairly steep and loose road! I just kept running and running, hoping that every time I’d round a corner that that would be it! But no, I knew I still had a ways to drop as I could look out between the trees and see the drainage that Silverton sits in was still pretty far down. I just kept on, the sun was really beating down on me now but I still didn’t feel too bad. I’m sure it was the adrenaline pumping through me; the anticipation of finishing my third Hardrock; the thrill of being chased; trying to hold onto a top ten finish. I simply felt amazing, words can not describe it. I’ve never finished a race this strongly before. Still I could crack at anytime so I tried to keep a governor on my rate of descent to try and save my legs for the rolling section to come. Finally it seemed like the Silverton drainage was pretty close now and sure enough I rounded one last bend in the road and I was at a cross roads. I took the split in the road and descended past another old mine structure and crossed a stream. It’s a good thing I knew where I was going because it sure wasn’t marked well here! All the major ups and downs were through I had less than four miles to go now and it looked like I’d break thirty four hours as long as I didn’t blow up. I just put my head down and kept running; I was running scared; running to cement my place in the top ten. I was running crazy really, I ran everything! Uphill, downhill it didn’t matter I was running it. Who knows, the ninth place runner could just be around the next corner? It was pure madness, flying through the woods at sub seven minutes per mile pace, no lie! It just felt right, felt natural to be moving this well! Still, this section did drag on and finally I backed off a bit as I was now starting to get tired. Adrenaline only lasts so long! I was still moving fairly swiftly but surely as I was terrified of going off course this late in the game. The markers were few and far between and I was fairly certain of the route but you never know? At last though I could start seeing some of the outlying houses of Silverton and knew my job was almost done. A few more minutes and I popped out of the woods just above the Silverton Ski Hut and jogged down the easy grassy slope. There was a large party of bikers hanging out at the Hut but they paid me no mind as I ratcheted the pace back up to try and finish strong. Tears started to well up in my eyes as I crossed the Animas River and entered town. I was hot, I was tired, and I was mentally exhausted. I barely bothered to look both ways when I crossed the paved Greene Street (the main thoroughfare) and rounded the last turn onto Reese Street. Just two blocks to go and I was running as full tilt as I could manage. One block to go and I spotted Kathy and Cairo standing in the middle of the street clapping (well Cairo was wagging his tail actually). Suddenly there was the Silverton High school Gym, the Hardrock Finish banner, scores of onlookers milling about and at last THE HARDROCK! With a fist pump and a yell and came to a halt in front of that cursed rock and bent over and gave it a kiss. It was over, I was done. Whew! The race director Dale Garland greeted me and placed my finisher medal around my neck (just as he does for every finisher, staying awake for over two days in the process). I told him it was getting kind of hot out there and he just chuckled and said, “Hot? You’re from Alabama, how can this be hot to you?” I just smiled then we both laughed. I started to walk away from the Hardrock and noticed, standing there on the street corner was my friend and pacer Blake Thompson! He had made it to Maggie Gulch aid station and then ran back to town on a series of jeep roads. He probably ended up covering more miles than he would have if he’d been with me! Turns out he’d just made it to the finish line just minutes before I arrived! Wow! He gave me a hug as we walked back to Kathy and Cairo. Boy I was glad to be done! And, that was that we all climbed into the jeep and headed back to the hotel to get cleaned up and some much needed rest…

Cumulative Stats: 100.4 miles, 33 hours 36 minutes, 32992 feet up, and 32992 feet down, DONE!

The Aftermath:

My friend Josh Kennedy spoke to me over the phone at work several days later and told me that he could tell that Hardrock really resonates with me; just as Western States really resonates with him. That was really a very apt way of describing my whole Hardrock experience and my love affair with the San Juan Mountains of South West Colorado. It just gets in your blood I guess. I plan to return to Hardrock as long as I’m physically able. I may never run this fast again, may never come close to a top ten finish but that is okay with me. I just truly enjoy the experience, being OUT THERE for hours on end. It is all those epic moments out along that Wild & Tough course that I most cherish. All those memories may fade one day, “… like tears in the rain.” Yet the feeling of fulfillment, of completeness, for at least a moment anyways, will never die.


  1. And Mike Burke's pacer was I:) Imagine that, a Goat! You did climb really well, because I thoguht we did not too shaby either!
    Good report, and congrats on an awesome race.

  2. Nice.
    And I thought Pinhoti was an experience...

  3. Awesome report Rob. That was a fantastic effort and congrats on such a stellar race. Look forward to meeting you soon now that we are fellow goats.

    Charlotte, NC

  4. Congratulations on an awesome finish! It was fun to watch you at Cunningham ("I lost my pacer!") while waiting for my husband. Well run course, excellent finishing kick.
    -John Beard's wife, Marcy

  5. My Man -- though I heard some of the story back in July, what an awesome race and detailed report. Jeez, I wrote up a pretty lengthy discourse on Pinhoti, but can't capture all that detail as you have here.

    And I think you may have invented a new term for dropping your pacer: getting 'Blaked'! Hell, I couldn't have kept up with you through that.

    Your experience during the night brings to life one of my favorite quotes: "Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education alone will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotentt" (Pres Coolidge). Time and again the concept of mental toughness has served you, be it VMI, the Grand Slam, other ultras, graduate school (a Ph.D.?), learning to unicycle, etc....and now this turn at Hardrock. Take care.



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