Monday, February 2, 2009

Unwinding the Hardrock 100 (2005 Finish)

38 hours before the start: Barely over a day and a half before the start of the 2005 Hardrock 100 Mile Trail Endurance Run, I arrived at Silverton (elevation 9300 feet), the race start, from Huntsville, Alabama, a mere 600 feet above sea-level, just in time for the 3 hour “Long Trail Brief.” As I sat in the back of the 1930’s era theatre listening to the turn by turn description of the course (along with plenty of accompanying photographs) the realization that conditions were not good “OUT THERE” hit me and the rest of the hardy and brave soles listening attentively, some taking notes. Most (if not all) of those runners in attendance already knew the conditions because they had spent the last several days marking the course and had been acclimating for at least a week or more. No such luxury for me, I had to hope my high vo2 and running way below my potential would get me through again like it had back in 1997 when I finished in just under 38 hours under excellent conditions and running the course in the opposite direction. At an average elevation of over 11,000 feet, the course is run in opposite directions each year; basically a long mountainous loop connecting the old mining towns of Silverton, Lake City, Ouray and Telluride; starting and finishing in Silverton; and traversing 13 passes or peaks over 12,000 feet for a cumulative elevation gain and loss of 33,000 feet. It is for this reason and the possibility of rough conditions that the Hardrock 100 is considered the most difficult, and most beautiful, 100 mile race in the world. My goal was to simply finish this year’s counter-clockwise course giving me, along with my previous clockwise finish, a complete set of finishes: clockwise and counter-clockwise, thus leaving me fully “unwound.”

Assembling around the Hardrock:

Shortly before 6 a.m. on Friday the 8th of July I nervously paced around the starting line of the Hardrock 100. The starting and finish “line” is a massive 4 by 4 foot by 5 foot tall solid chunk of granite that is placed before the Silverton Gymnasium every year before the start. On one side is painted the official Hardrock logo featuring a Ram’s head inside a banner reading “Hardrock Endurance Run 100 Mile: Wild & Tough.” This side is always placed such that runner’s finishing will see it. The anticipation was killing me, I hate all the pre-race jitters and hoopla, I simply can’t wait to get “OUT THERE” and in the mix; at least then I know where I stand and what my options are. With just a couple of minutes left on the counting down race clock, I reset my watch so that my time of day matched the official race start and time zero of 6 a.m. I would just be going by time of day since my stop watch stops at 24 hours and they would be getting all of our “splits” at each checkpoint anyhow. What does a split mean in an event of this magnitude anyhow?

Silverton to Sherman (miles 0 thru 28):

After singing “Happy Birthday” to the race director’s wife the capacity field of 125 headed east out of town. On my feet I wore my Smart Wool socks and Montrail Vitesse. They have been my trail of shoe of choice since it’s inception. On my back I carried the Ultimate Direction’s Spee-Demon with a 64oz bladder filled with Extran and other goodies. I carried an extra layer of clothing and gloves just incase of foul weather. In the first 7 miles we would climb to over 13,000 foot Dives-Little Giant pass. I felt pretty good along this stretch. The early cool miles fast hiking up into the mountains invigorated me; I felt pretty confident about a sub 40 hour finish. (Running under 40 hours pretty much means that you’ll finish not long after your second sunset) Over the top of the pass there was some snow but it was easily skirted.
I remember thinking that maybe they over-rated the difficult trail conditions… After a 2500 foot decent to Cunningham aid station (mile 9) I stocked up with Boost Plus and Red Bull and prepared for the difficult stretch to come to the next aid station at Maggie Gulch, some 6 miles and several thousands of feet of climb and decent away. I moved along pretty strongly in this section, able to sustain over 30 vertical feet/minute climbing. Into Maggie Gulch the wheels began to fall off as the sun really began to beat down from the cloudless sky. Now above tree-line (11,800 feet) and fully exposed for the next 13 miles and plodded along passing over the Continental Divide in this section. The air temperature was not hot, but just he solar loading on my body was enough to cause me to become overheated and nauseous whenever I tried to run for more than short stretches. However the frequent stream crossings helped me to cool externally as I continually soaked my hat and neck bandanna whenever I had the opportunity. Even still, by the time I started heading down, down, down into the Sherman aid station I was pretty well cooked and contemplated dropping out; sub 40 hours seemed out of the question. However, dropping out at Sherman is a very bad thing to do; especially you don’t have a crew there to support you. Sherman is about the furthest drive away from Silverton as you can get because you either must negotiate a very technical 4x4 track up over various mountain passes to get back else must drive over a 100 miles out of the way to skirt around the mountains! For this reason and the fact that the aid station personnel at Sherman were very wonderful (they saw I was cracking and they fixed me up good!) I decided to continue on, at least to Grouse Gulch (mile 42) where it is an easy drive back to Silverton. So with the clouds rolling in and a popsicle in my hand I headed up the road to Handies Peak. At over 14,000 feet this would be the highest point on the course.

Sherman to Ouray (miles 28 thru 57):

Late afternoon, in the San Juan Mountains, clouds starting to obscure the punishing sun; what could be finer? Just a couple miles of fast hiking up the Burrows Park road I started to feel better (another Boost Plus and Red Bull transfusion) and actual began to run up the fairly easy grade; dodging the occasional confused looking 4x4 enthusiast. From Burrows Park it would be a steady and steep 3500 foot climb in little over 3 miles to the top of Handies Peak. This would be my best climbing of the run as I hammered up at a steady mid 30’s vertical feet/minute. I topped out at around 6 pm. Thirty Six miles down in 12 hours; at this point the prospect of a sub 40 hour run seemed again doable. So after snapping a few pictures and an unfruitful attempt to locate and sign the summit register, I headed down into American Basin. In American Basin I was to experience a little foreshadowing of things to come. Snow. From Handies Peak we drop about 1500 feet into American Basin only to ascend another 600 to American-Grouse Pass. Not too difficult under normal conditions but throw in some slick snow fields on fairly steep terrain and it is not difficult to imagine that the scene becomes a lot more dangerous. However I was still clear thinking and the sun was still up so I traversed the various snow fields without much trouble or worry. Heading down to Grouse Gulch as the sun slowly sank below the mountains was a beautiful sight. Marmots lay about on rock outcroppings or in the middle of the trail itself enjoying the last rays of the day. In Grouse Gulch, my spirits again high thinking I can finish and complete my goal of finishing Hardrock in both directions, I performed another Boost Plus/Red Bull injection and loaded up my night gear including a very bright Petzl Duo 14 LED light which also has a halogen lamp to help find the stubbornly hidden course markers. Reloaded I began a nice fast hike up to Engineer Pass (mile 46) some 2000 feet of climb distant but on a nice 4x4 road. There were a few runners either ahead or behind me, but all of us, refused to cut on our head lamps. It is almost a game to see who breaks first and has to turn on a light. With the last vestiges of light slowly slipping away with the very thin, non light giving, moon, we continued to climb; in the dark. When it seemed there was more sky above me than mountains I finally succumbed and turned my very bright headlamp on. The first thing I saw was a course marking leading me off the left and off of the main 4x4 road I had been on! Talk about timing! A few hundred feet later I was over Engineer Pass and heading 2 miles and 1000 feet down to the Engineer aid station (mile 48). There was quite a bit of snow in this section and the footing was tricky and steep. However it was at a good point in the night as the snow was so loose that one would post-hole through it and neither was it frozen so solid that you would skate along and end up on your butt; rather it was firm yet somehow treacherous if one wasn’t too careful. Engineer aid station had a nice warm fire going but I didn’t stay long as I topped off my water bladder and pushed on into the night. It was oddly warm and I needed no jacket or gloves as I continued down, down, down, dropping 4000 feet to Ouray (mile 56). Along this stretch is some fairly runnable trail except for in the last few miles the trail has been literally blasted out of the side of the mountain leaving 3 foot wide path with nothing but a 300 foot or more drop off to the left and a wall of rock to the right! So skirting this section at night calls for caution and so I ran very little of this stretch; listening to the crashing water far below… Entering Ouray runners cross over the highway connecting Silverton and Ouray and then typically must ford the Uncompahgre River. This year, because of the high amounts of snow and the accompanying high melt/runoff rate we were to alter the usual route to cross a newly constructed pedestrian bridge across the river. This was a hastily added route that was announced at the last second and so possibly the marking could have been a bit more obvious. At any rate, descending a freshly cut trail we emerged onto what looked like a river access road and seeing a course marker on the other side of the dirt road and too our right as we came off the trail we naturally thought that we should turn right on the road and continue down it. We’ll after nearly ¾ of a mile we emerged again onto the highway! So we turned back around and headed back the way we’d already come. Sure enough when we arrived back and saw that marker on the other side of the dirt road, it was one of many dropping off the road down to the river! Apparently we were to come off the trail, cross the road and continue down the trail! I grabbed some sticks and arranged them to point down the trail hoping nobody else would repeat our mistake. So that was the first time I got lost. The second time I got lost was a little later. The route the Ouray was supposed to be a thin loop where there would be an inbound and an outbound leg to the and from the aid station with some overlap of the inbound and outbound route. Following markers as we saw them we apparently came in the outbound leg and missed the small foot bridge we would have to cross to get to the aid station at the far end of Ouray. So as we started to walk right out of town we realized this was wrong and began to retrace our steps. Finally we same a runner emerge on the outbound leg and sure enough, tucked in the very back of a construction area, behind several dump trucks and bull dozers was the bridge; no course marking was in sight! But what can one expect coming in the wrong way? If the Sherman aid station had an evil twin that aid station would be Ouray. Out of fluids and energy gels (from getting lost and using up my budgeted amount) I had to search out and locate my own drop bag (no big deal) and had to find a water source and some food to consume. I understand it was after 2 in the morning but the teenagers who were running it seemed unconcerned with the carnage of runners lying strewn about the open field; chattering away about teenage things. After another round of Boost Plus and Red Bull I left that teenage waste land (apologies to The Who) and headed for Telluride!

Ouray to Telluride (miles 57 thru 72):

The long road climb from Ouray to Governor Basin (mile 64) is not difficult physically. But hiking along that constant grade in the middle of the night with no end in sight and knowing you have still to run all through the next day (at least) can be quite demoralizing. It was a lonely ascent with only the roar of Canyon Creek to help keep me awake. Just as dawn started to hint of the possibility of light, and after much cursing and false hopes, I arrived at Governor Basin aid station. I thought about waiting until first light to continue up to the first technical climb of the course: Virginius Pass. But after a few minutes my friend Mike Burr arrived and we both headed up together. We climb 2000 feet in about 3 miles in this stretch. On the way, both of us pretty sleepy pop a caffeine pill to take the edge off because we know we need to be fully awake for the top of this climb. After a couple miles winding our way up, up, up we break off the mine road and begin to ascend the first of 3 steep snow slides. The first pitch was the worst as the slope was nearly a 100% grade and hung over a cliff that dropped hundreds of feet below the mine road! Mike handed me a plastic tent stake to use to steady me on the way up like using an ice axe; it could also be used to self-arrest myself if I were to slip and start to slide down the mountain… So, alpinists from the east and south-east we began to scurry up the first pitch. The snow was frozen solid meaning we couldn’t kick fresh hold for our feet and had to rely on those already there. Luckily the tent stakes were sharp enough to drive them through the hard snow so at least we had good hand holds with each pair of vertical ascent steps. We made are way up to a patch of snow free ground and rested. No snow to climb here, but still very loose dirt and gravel like ball bearings. Cautiously we made it through like a pair of Spidermen and rested at the top of the first pitch. After crossing a snow filled bowl we ascended the second, easier, snow slide. A mistake here meant you just wasted energy by sliding back into the bowl to try again. So we made quick time through here. The last pitch and final push to Virginius Pass was another snow slide ascent from a bowl. Here we had two options, head straight up like we had been doing and grab a rope that hung about half we down the pass, or traverse from right to left along some steps that others had already cut in the snow? Easy, we did the traverse without any trouble, though a slip here could mean a long, quick slide down into the bowl. We arrived at the Virginius Pass aid station just in time for a café mocha and ginger biscotti which was unusual because this aid station perched in a narrow 10 by 10 foot pass (steep drops off each side) had a whole Mexican theme. Mariachi music played from a small boom box, a piñata hung from over head and the aid station workers all wore sombreros and colorful ponchos. The offered us tequila shots but I declined. It was a fascinating place to be at over 13,000 feet! Re-tanked we headed out the other side and along Mendota Ridge before we began a very steep 3500 foot decent into Telluride (mile 72). As the sun slowly began to rise yet again in this run I could already tell it was going to be another warm day. Just great! Though it was all downhill into town it was very difficult to run because it was so steep and rocky. So we just took our time and talked about races of times past. At last the town of Telluride popped into view and in no time we found ourselves under the giant pavilion tent at the far East end of town. I will admit I was feeling pretty low when I pulled into Telluride aid station but I knew all I needed was another Boost Plus/Red Bull shot to get me going. That taken care of I decided to unburden myself of most of my night clothing and lighting. I also decided to take the risk and change my socks! My feet had been wet, off and on, for the past 72 miles and nearly 27 hours! They hurt. As I peeled off my wet Smart Wool socks I found my feet were massively wrinkled and smelled of trench foot. Ughh! I dried them off as best I could and applied a fresh pair of Smart Wool socks and gingerly put my shoes back on (Montrail Vitesse). The operation completed I was then approached by a young man about my age who wanted to know if I needed a pacer. I normally don’t use a pacer but after I heard that he was in training for a future Hardrock himself how could I deny him a chance to see the last 28 miles of the course? Apparently he was going to accompany the guy I ran into Ouray with (yes we both got lost twice, together!). So, Mike and I fixed up, we headed out of Telluride with Will Vaughn my pacer who would become a fast friend and angel when I needed him later on.

Telluride to Chapman Gulch (miles 72 thru 82):

What can I say about this next section other than it is a long, unforgiving climb, over 4000 feet followed by a punishing, steep 3000 foot decent in only 3 miles. From Telluride to the finish we had 28 miles and over 10,000 feet of climb to go. It takes even the leaders over 10 hours to get home from here. It would take me nearly 17 hours but I get ahead of myself… The first 3 miles of the climb are on a nice wide public path where we saw quite a few hikers and runners out for a morning stroll. At mile 75 we veer off the path onto the Wasatch Trail to continue climbing ever upward to Oscar’s Pass at 78 miles. Only 3 miles but very steeply upward Will and I ascended. Mike was having trouble keeping up our rate of climb and backed off. He couldn’t believe Will and I were climbing away from him and talking animatedly at the same time! Not much later we hit the snow in a big way. As we continued to climb ever skyward we had to negotiate difficult conditions as the trail was buried under deep snow and course marking was a bit thin. So the last summit push was slowed by navigational issues and several long sections of post-holing through the snow. What seemed like forever later we finally reached Oscar’s Pass and started down the very steep, bolder strewn 4x4 road into Chapman Gulch (mile 82). Totally exposed, the sun just seemed to melt me so I had to take it easy going down, plus the footing was so treacherous that trying to run was very suicidal, at least on the steeper early switch-backs. There had been a massive avalanche that had torn straight down the mountain last winter, bisecting the road in several places. So the decent started with a traversal over a remnant of the snow slide which completely blocked the road. And a switch back later we had to traverse along the last edge of the slide. Later switch backs brought no snow but did bring huge boulders we had to negotiate like hiking through a field of talus. However, half way down the surface of the road improves and becomes less steep. It was here that a switch was flipped and I seemed to no longer feel the baking heat and so I ran, hard the rest of the way down into the aid station. Even a fresh Will was having a difficult time keeping up! Into Chapman Gulch the destruction of the avalanche was very apparent by the fields of clear cut aspen trees, uprooted by the awesome force. Other aspens head mealy been bent over on there sides, permanently stuck in a gale force blow pose. Chapman Gulch was a quick turnaround, I tanked up yet again on Boost Plus and Red Bull but also packed some emergency night clothes and lighting as this was the last drop bag I had on the course and if I was going to be out here and night again at all I would need this gear. At this point the slow down out of Telluride meant that I wouldn’t finish before dark but that I still had a shot at cresting the last pass around sunset. It would turn out to be a pipe dream.

Chapman Gulch to Kamm Traverse (miles 82 thru 89):

Leaving Chapman Gulch I was once again fat on Boost Plus and Red Bull so I had to walk pretty slow for a bit. I new this next pass would be very difficult, even more technical than the pitches of Virginius Pass. I’d given my tent stake back to Mike and as Mike was well behind us now I told Will that we had to find some appropriately shaped pieces of wood to help us in the final push up and over the dreaded Grant-Swamp Pass. Discussing I don’t remember we some how missed our turn off this 4x4 road and onto the trail up to Grant-Swamp Pass. Only after the road dead-ended into a swamp a half mile later did we realize that something was amiss. So we retraced our steps and found the turn marked, clear as day. So upward we climbed to the final bench that sat just above tree line that we would use to traverse over to the final 1000 feet of ascent up a massive snow field into a small bowl and a final 300 foot 100 % grade push up to the top and Grant-Swamp Pass. Approaching the end of the bench we hit the first of the snow. The nearby peaks that loomed overhead had already eclipsed the descending sun causing massive shadows in the remaining part of our climb. The good part was that in this shadow it was now much cooler. The far worse part was now the good pliable snow was hardening and becoming slicker. It was also around this time that we saw the last of the course markers for this section. I knew where we had to get to as I’ve twice run down from Grant-Swamp Pass in previous Hardrock’s. Let’s recap my present condition, at this point I had been on the go for almost 36 hours covering about 84 miles, experienced two full days of wilting heat, endless miles of post-holing and slippery snow, trench feet, sun burned lips, no sleep and that doesn’t even cover how mentally tired I was from having to cover this course from marker to marker as I was never confident I was always on course and could just let it roll. So you could say I was pretty well fried by this point, undoubtedly deficient in my fluid and energy intake as well. So beginning the snowy alpine ascent along and up the snow field I saw tracks taking the route diagonally across the snowfield and switch backing upward up to the left side of the upper bowl. The problem with that, as I saw it was first the condition of the snow and second below the path that had been cut the snow field continued downward perhaps another 500 feet until it plunged over the side of a massive 1000 foot plus cliff, from which I could here a roaring waterfall creating by the rapidly melting snow! In my goofy state I just didn’t trust going the well trodden path. In stead, about mid way along the first traversal was a massive, snow-less, rock pile that I saw could be ascended, albeit steeply, up to a safer and more gradual traverse up to the upper bowl. So we started along the first traversal aiming for the rock pile. Without incident we got to the rock pile and it was at this point that I did something very foolish and risky. I quickly scrambled straight up the rock pile without any thought of the best line only hoping to get to a more level spot as quickly as possible. Well I guess my mind just snapped because I had acted irrationally and now I found my self on a very steep and unstable region of the rock-pile and my worst fear came true; the rock-pile began to move from under me! In a panic and shot of adrenaline I yelled to Will below to get the hell out of the way and I moved like Carl Lewis up the rest of the pile to a more stable, flatter, region and collapsed in a heap. And there I lay for several minutes trying to get my breath back; going anaerobic at 13,000 feet is never a good thing! I indeed started to panic, my pulse raced, I was hyperventilating and realized what had just happened got me shaking to my core. I could very easily have brought a mass of rocks down onto Will and possibly onto some of the runners that were below. I couldn’t trust my mind to take the proper action, I was acting recklessly and foolishly, how was I going to make it in with still hours and miles to go? But I began to calm back down when I saw Will emerge from the far side of the rock-pile and give a thumbs up. Once I recovered and drank a sip or two of the Extran drink I’d been using from the start in my hydration system, I saw a lone set of Montrail Vitessse foot prints leading away up to the right side of the upper bowl. I could see this route maximized the use of snow-less space and so I was sold; the route was also less steep as I could see compared to the route more traveled off to the left. Also a spill here meant a slide back to this rock-pile rather than a plummet off into infinity with a slip off the route more traveled. So there I was, panic stricken already and still stuck on this side of the pass. Should I just turn around and go back to the last aid station. I could be back before dark and not have to risk my life once again up the final pitch of Grant-Swamp Pass. This realization saddened me greatly, especially when I learned later that several runners who made it this exact spot did exactly what I didn’t do; turn around and head back rather than risk life and limb. Everyone likes a finisher but at the risk of injury or death? I thought about my wife Kathy, her family, and my two dogs. Would they really want me to do something this risky, just to finish some stupid race? Of course not. But no, I realized that I was a selfish and egocentric person at heart and that to quit now so close to the end was dumb, to heck with the risk. Writing this now I am not proud that I decided to go on. But go on I did never the less… The shadows grew deeper and longer as I followed the lone pair of prints up to the upper bowl. Never looking behind and below me I stayed focused on step by step, ever up ward and closer to nice, firm dirt sections. Then back on the snow, up, up, up finally I crested up into the upper bowl. Whew! At least now any slip off the final pitch would just rocket me into the nearby bare ground that sat at the base of the last snowy pitch up to the top. So I probably wouldn’t be killed if I slipped and slide down, only maimed and cut up and probably have to wait overnight until a rescue party could air lift me out! So stick in hand I walked to the base of the final 300 foot 100% grade climb to the pass. At this point I just turned my mind off and became a machine, for the next 10 minutes I was an alpinist robot; kick, step, plant, kick, step, plant. Rather than trust the existing steps I punched fresh steps in despite the snow becoming rock hard; I guess that explains why I’m losing all my toe nails and all the bones in my feet are still throbbing days later as I write this. I was inhuman driving my feet all the way to the ankle into the hard snow; kick, step, plant, kick, step, plant, up, up, up until finally, never looking down I reached a more level place and emerged onto bare ground mere feet from the pass. I panicked again for in a rush to out of the snow I scrambled a bit too quickly up the still steep and slippery bare ground and nearly slid back over the edge of the precipice from which I’d emerged! Arresting my backward slide with my stick thrust with both hands into the soft dirt I stopped my fall in time! Then, slowly but methodically I made my way up the final 20 feet to the pass and collapsed next to the Joel Zucker memorial. Sitting there, waiting for Will to take is turn up the last pitch I just went out of my head, that is the only way I can describe it now. I just lost it; I started to shake in a panic, I was in shock, I began to weep like a child thinking what I had just done, it was so very dangerous and stupid. By the time Will arrived I was full blown sobbing. He asked what was wrong and I told him, he tried to consol me but I was already too far gone. Looking back now it was really just the product of present condition made worse because I probably had really totally depleted myself from my sprint up the rock field and robot-like final ascent. Don’t get me wrong I still feel what I did was foolish, for even if I was fresh it still would have been a hairy ascent but at least I would have had more wits about me. And at this point I was witless! So after a short pause to regroup we scampered down the other side of the pass hardly taking in the awesome frozen aqua-marine beauty of Island Lake as the sun finally passed behind the distant towering mountains. On the descent to the Kamm Traverse (KT) that would take us to the aid station bearing the same name (mile 89), I spilled my guts to an attentive Will who kept trying to take my mind off the situation by reiterating that that was the last bad climb and that we only had one climb to go and that we were so close to the finish now we had it. Even still I told him I was concerned about my post race situation. The house Montrail had rented for us to stay in had to be vacated by 11:00 am the next morning and, as it looked like now I would be done till well into the wee hours of the morning leaving me with like no sleep before the award ceremony at 10:00 am. And then I had to drive to Albuquerque for my flight out on Monday. How was I supposed to do this after missing two nights of sleep? But Will offered a plan and that made me feel better, he would drive me and my rental car to Durango where he lived and I could crash at his place leaving me only 4 hours do go the next day to make my flight at 11:00 am. So I felt at least a little better but like I said I had popped my top and I was still venting all the way to the KT aid station. Even with these assurances I was determined to drop out at KT because in my mind this was the only way I could get a full night’s sleep and not have to inconvenience Will. Not only that but I thought there was no way I could handle another night OUT THERE I would be a hazard to not only myself, but to others as well because I’d probably do something stupid, get hypothermic and have to have the Colorado Search & Rescue come helicopter my lifeless body out of these mountains. With dark cloudy thoughts of dropping filling my mind we arrived at the KT aid station. It was at this aid stop that the full force of my insanity transpired. I sat down and immediately started shivering uncontrollably and continued to mutter about how scared I had gotten on Grant-Swamp Pass and how bad I felt about those poor people who would have to go through what I did, but at night! I unloaded about my post race dilemma and the need to crash some where to get some sleep; of travel plans going awry… The aid station personnel, especially Lisa Richardson took it all in stride but continued to point out how close to the end I finally was. Just one last 2400 foot climb a shallow traverse to the final pass and then a long 7 miles or so all down hill to the finish back in Silverton. Eleven more miles, it might has well have been eleven hundred, I was spent; and what was worse was that I couldn’t stop shivering and crying about what in my mind was a fairly traumatic experience as well as the fear that future such experiences were in store for me if I continued on and didn’t just stop right now. I was shivering so much that I put on all the clothing I had and was wrapped in additional blankets. And there I sat trying to eat some macaroni, soup and even a banana. However with the calories starting to kick in and the arrival of Mike Burr I started to maybe think I could finish, but I would need to hang in a group to do it. Mike quickly agreed and while he reloaded his pack I began to mentally prepare for one last charge into the fray. And with the final rays of sunlight highlighting the top of our final climb, we slowly ambled painfully out of KT and into yet another sunset…

Kamm Traverse to Silverton (miles 89 thru 100):

Shortly out of KT we quickly descended off the main 4x4 road to a very swollen stream crossing. Mike had gotten a little ahead at this point and decided to cross the creek on his own. I yelled for him to wait for Will, myself and this other guy who had two hiking poles so we could all chain up and cross safely together. He was other oblivious or thick headed or just didn’t hear us and crossed anyway. With every sliding and slipping step he took I cringed, but somehow he made it across, albeit a bit further downstream! The rest of us all stood side by side with Will, the strongest at this point, furthest upstream we all grabbed onto a hiking pole set horizontally in front of us. Cautiously we slowly inched across the angry, knee deep creek. Will acted as a blocker creating a comfortably eddy for the rest of us to traverse through and in turn acting as support for Will. In this fashion we made it across in just a few minutes and quickly caught up to Mike. Still fully clothed because of my previous shiverfest we began to climb away from that creek to begin our 2400 foot push to the last pass of the run. Quickly enough I warmed back up and like a light switch had been thrown I was myself again. I announced, “Rob’s back!” And indeed I guess the root cause of my temporary insanity was total caloric depletion, probably caused by my mad scramble up the shifting rock-pile. With a new found energy and excitement coursing through my veins I quickly stripped back down to my trust shirt and shorts yet kept my jacket and cold weather top close at hand around my waist for the eventual cool down of night. I began to climb faster and soon had to part ways with Mike. I wished him luck and told him I’d see him at the finish. With that Will and I made good time until we found ourselves in total darkness in the middle of climbing through what seemed like a tilted swamp; for every step was in mushy, muddy, grassy goo yet onward we had to climb. The trail markers became very difficult to find and it was impossible to anticipate where the markers were trying to take us. I seemed like we were going in circles quite a few times but eventually we emerged out of the slanted swamp to a false yet still gooey summit. We could see the lights of other runners ahead of us on top of the actual summit, Cataract-Porcupine Pass and so we started to dead reckon in that direction, still hoping to find the next trail marker. Slowly but surely we began to leave the muddy tundra behind; before we knew it we had topped out on the second to last pass of the run. Directly ahead and across what I remembered was a large open bowl was our goal, Putnam-Cataract Ridge, the last pass of the run! So we began one last dip and climb to get there, crossing what we found to be a frozen bowl of firm and icy snow and surprise, surprise, very few course markers. We caught up to another runner and pacer in this stretch who explained they were going slow to try and fix the course markers as they went. I thought this was a great idea since I no longer cared about my time since I knew I was going to finish. So Will and I kept going explaining that we’d try and fix the markers we found as we went across the large open bowl on up to the last pass. Crossing the bowl was not treacherous, because it was so flat, but still was very slow because after successfully finding a trail marker we’d sweep out lights around, sometimes with my LED but mostly with my powerful Halogen beam, in order to locate the next marker that had typically fallen over in the wind or simply had been heated up sufficiently by the sun to melt through the snow in which it was planted! So slowly by surely we continued this pattern all the way up and over the last pass and down into the snow choked valley on the other side until finally we at last left the last of the snow behind and emerged on a well marked and easy to run trail. So with my head bent and arms pumping we began to run for the first time in hours. It felt so good to be running, to be through climbing, to be heading to the finish knowing I was about to accomplish my goal of finishing Hardrock in both directions despite all the problems and miscues I’d had. The bottom line was that I never gave up, central to my core we to not quit and despite everything else that happened somehow that one kernel of motivation never eroded away despite my best efforts. Somewhere along this last long downhill we passed quickly through the last aid station, Putnam Basin (mile 94) leaving us a long and gradual 4 miles down to the outskirts of Silverton. After a loonng time we finally approached the roaring South Mineral Creek. I remember from the long trail brief that the flow at this crossing was supposed to peak sometime after midnight. Well what do you know we arrived at the crossing sometime after midnight, I guess a bit after one a.m. And they were right, the creek (really a river to me) was cresting all right and the banks were flooded. Luckily there was a rope tied securely to either side of the 100 foot wide crossing. All the same when my headlamp first peered down into that boiling and bubbling current I wasn’t sure we could make it safely across! One couldn’t tell how deep it was but it was obvious that the flow was really truckin’. I said what the heck and grabbing the rope firmly with both hands began to make my way across. I soon found myself in over waist deep water, the current trying to pull me fiercely from the rope. The rope kinked sharply as I was pulled quite a bit downstream in the force of the late night flow; and it was COLD! I inched along, hand-over-hand until at last I gained the shallower and calmer far side. Will was along shortly and together we hiked up the flooded embankment to the highway crossing. As we emerged onto the first pavement I’d seen in a long time a head lamped figure approached us. The voice said, “Who’s there?” in a thick New England accent. It was my friend Steve Pero from New Hampshire who along with his wife have been to many a Hardrock, I guess today wasn’t there day if there were out here now. But it was extremely brutal out there and I can’t fault anybody who didn’t make it, I just had more guts than brains I guess. Anyhow I replied, “STEVE!” to which he replied, “Steve?” I responded, “No you’re Steve and I’m Rob Youngren!” Relieved he said, “That you Rob? Outstanding!” We traded some further conversation while Steve told me he was going to be the official “greeter” meeting those guys still left out there when they come across the swollen creek. Will and I said good-bye and raced on along that fairly level and runnable last 2 – 2 ½ mile stretch to the finish. Along that final trail I profusely thanked Will for putting up with me and helping through some rough patches. I simply could not believe I was finding myself in the town of Silverton, I could not understand how the heck I’d made it back alive out of those beautiful yet deadly mountains. I was so happy to be back into the comfort of relative “civilization” that I almost wept when at last we made one last turn and the full night lit glory that was Silverton emerged bellow. I don’t think even the Las Vegas strip and night was any more breath taking than seeing the quiet and sleepy lights of Silverton as we breached the last bit of climb and prepared for our final decent into town. With a last push I emerged off of the last bit of trail onto the gravel streets of town and traversed a short couple of blocks before a last right turn and straight away to the finish. Rounding the final turn The Hardrock was in sight, spot lit and glorious, shimmering almost like a huge chunk of gold. Drawn like a the Hardrock Miners of old to their precious ore I sped the remaining 100 yards and collapsed against the massive granite block. The race clock continued to run until I bent over and kissed the multi ton block right square on the painted ram’s snout. The clock read: 43:43:26…. I had finished 35th of 71 finishers out of 125 starters; nearly the same position as I had back in 1999 when I ran 37:50!! Six hours slower yet I finish in roughly the same respective position; a true testament of the brutality of the conditions of the race this year. I began to cry with relief when I finally realized what I’d been through, all the trials and tribulations, the self doubt and worry. My body was trashed, I was exhausted, depleted, dehydrated and I was wheezing with ever breath; but I was finished, I had made it and now all I wanted to do was sit down…

Post Race:

At the time, lying in bed for the remaining short hours before we had to vacate the rented house I remember swearing that I would never do Hardrock in the counter-clockwise direction ever again, especially if conditions were predicted to be similar to this year. Just too dangerous. But looking back now a few days and a few thousand miles removed I realize that my state of mind late in the race had more to do with the fact that this was the hardest and longest I’ve ever had to work to finish a race than the true level of danger that existed. Don’t get me wrong, there were some scary spots out there that probably would freak me out even being fresh. However, my only truly low period was when I lost my mind on Grant-Swamp Pass and that could have been avoided with a good pair of crampons and my double shot of Boost Plus and Red Bull! So what’s next? You had better believe I intend to be toeing the line at the 2006 Hardrock 100!