In 2004 I paced Mike “Bushwhacker” Burke at the Hardrock Hundred and that experience including the weeks I spent there before the race in those awesome mountains changed my life. The previous summer I had crewed my buddy John Pearch at Western States 100, before that race I had only ran and been to 50k races(my first two years of running ultras were 2001 and 2002 and I had only done two 50ks each year)– seeing first hand folks running 100 miles inspired me. I immediately went home and signed up for my first 100, the Plain 100 in the North Cascades of Washington– it was the closest race to where I was living and with it’s no course markings, no aid stations and no pacers it totally matched my solo, unsupported, tough mountain adventure type running I was already doing on my own in my long training runs. Unfortunately at the last minute Plain was cancelled due to nearby forest fires. In hindsight that was probably a fortunate break for me because it allowed me more time to train(I decided to wait until the following year to do my first 100–see the next post for that crazy story!) and to gain valuable experience by pacing runners like Monica Scholz at Western(7th woman and a PR), Bushwhacker at Hardrock(12th place, 1st super master and a PR) and Kendall Kreft(2nd place, PR and under previous Course Record) at Cascade Crest. Each of those runners were experienced ultrarunners with numerous 100 mile finishes(especially Monica who at the time held the world record for the most 100 mile finishes by anyone in one year with 23) and I was able to learn a ton from them both from their words and from their actions. But as fun and valuable those experiences were they paled in comparison to the time I spent in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado while acclimatizing for my pacing duties at Hardrock.
The Hardrock Hundred course averages an elevation of over 11,000ft above sea level so for most runners that means the runner’s ability to cope with high altitude is a major factor in how their race will go. The course also is largely on terrain that is rugged, remote and requires good navigational skills and previewing as much of the course ahead of time is highly recommended. It is also in a very beautiful mountain sub range of the Rockies, a place I now refer to as paradise and a place I return to every year in large part for it’s amazing scenery. Each of these are big reasons why runners often arrive in Silverton, Colorado a week or two or more before race day but for lots of us who have been making the yearly pilgrimage it’s the people that bring us back year after year. We call it “Camp Hardrock” and in 2004 when I arrived by Greyhound Bus fresh from pacing Monica at Western I was welcomed warmly into the fold. I wasn’t ostracized for being a newbie, or for not having ever ran a 100 or for never even having been to Colorado before.
That first year I was at altitude for almost three whole weeks and each day was a new fun adventure filled with volunteering, running, camping, and lots of quality time with some of the sports nicest and wackiest characters. I was hooked. Instantly. The folks I met that first year and all the years since have become some of my closest friends. This “hardrock family” and the ideals the race furthers of personal challenge, community involvement, and embracing our environment rather than fighting it have not only inspired me to create my own races in that mold but to also try to live a life that is one of hard work, giving back and having fun. Going to Hardrock each year whether to race or to volunteer is something I look forward to all year long and then when I’m there I hope it’ll never end. The race itself and the fantastic awards ceremony actually are bitter sweet because they mark the end of our time there.
And for me each of my four times I’ve ran the race I haven’t ran up to my potential and therefore leaving those mountains and heading home has been even harder to do. The first year I got to run was in 2007, after not getting in the race from the wait list the previous two years finally the third time was the charm. The day before the race a miracle happened and the race let me in with less than 16 hours before the start. Maybe in another blog post i’ll go over the race in more detail but for now I’ll just say that after sticking to the plan for 30+ miles I began speeding up while going up and over Handies Peak(the course’s high point at just over 14,000ft). I moved up from the front of the middle pack to the front of the race in just 15 or so miles and by the time I was running into Ouray(the “mental” halfway point in the race) I had passed a past winner and moved into 4th place. With just Scott Jurek, Karl Meltzer and Mark Hartell(Karl and Mark are two past winners and Scott was the eventual winner in 2007 despite a severely sprained ankle) in front of me and numerous really good runners behind me I felt quite happy to be where I was and I switched modes from trying to catch runners to instead wanting to just maintain and wait for the leaders to push each other too hard. This strategy worked great for the next 20 miles but at Telluride Aid Station(mile 73) I mistakenly believed I had more than enough calories to get me to the next aid station at mile 82. Unfortunately for this nine mile section through the night which had 4500ft of elevation gain and normally takes the leaders three to four hours I only had 200 calories with me– I should have had at least four times that much. But despite bonking horribly and getting dangerously cold from moving slowly at night at high altitude in the mountains with not enough warm clothes I still arrived to the Chapman Aid Station in a three way tie for 2nd place with Karl Meltzer, who at the time held the course record and with Jared Campbell, who won the race in 2010. Normally my competitive instincts would’ve had me in and out of that aid station so fast the other two guys wouldn’t have had a chance but I needed lots of food to regain my strength and I needed to get warmed up before heading back out into the night. I stayed in the aid station a long time(more than two hours) eventually my pacer dragged me out of there and all the way to the finish but I was toast and I basically walked and sat and walked and sat my way to a 25th place finish. After running the first 82 miles in 23 hours the last 18 miles took me almost 12 hours(compared to the 5.5 to 7.5 hours I probably could’ve done it in) and I slowed down from a sub 30 hour pace to finish in 34:54. It was great to tough it out and get the finish but that day took a giant toll on me.
Since 2007 when I finished the race I’ve been lucky enough to have my name pulled in the lottery three more times(well actually four including yesterday). However those three times I’ve ran the race again I haven’t been able to finish. 2008, the year after having a good shot at 2nd place to Jurek I had a chance at a top place again. 2008 was the year Kyle Skaggs ran the race and smashed the course record. Everyone expected Kyle to win and probably win by a lot so the race was going to be for 2nd place. After starting to “race” way too soon the year before (which I think played a role in my mistake of being in too much of a hurry at the Telluride and forgetting to take enough food with me and then not being able to get out of the bonk) I was dead set on running easy for the first 70 or so miles. Despite taking it easy I was in or around the top 5 all day and by Grouse Aid Station(mile 58) I was in 3rd place. I was only 12 minutes behind the 2nd place runner at the time Jared Campbell and 18 minutes ahead of the eventual 2nd and 3rd place runners Scott Jaime and Ricky Denesik respectively. But back at Engineer Aid Station(mile 52) I had noticed my stomach was upset and nothing, food or drink, was appetizing and by the time I had left Grouse I couldn’t get anything to go down not even water and it had been over two hours since I had last eaten anything of substance. I sat and walked and sat and walked my way up and over Handies Peak and down to the Sherman Aid Station(mile 72) for seven hours! By the time I got to the aid station it had been almost nine hours since I had last ate or drank anything. I spent four hours at the aid station trying everything anyone could think of to get my stomach better including taking a two hour nap. But I knew when I awoke and I still couldn’t even drink water it was time to call it quits. It had already been more than 12 hours since the last time I had ate or drank anything and it was still another 12 hours before my stomach normalized. So again I went from being one of the top runners to falling totally out of contention.
The next two years I didn’t get lucky with the lottery. But both 2011 and 2012 I did! Unfortunately those two years directly coincided with starting my race directing business Rainshadow Running and as anyone who’s ever started a business knows there wasn’t a lot of free time for training–even if it’s a running related business! So both races I DNF’d when basically things got too hard. I regret both of those DNFs because I basically just gave up, I probably could’ve finished but I just couldn’t overcome my obstacles and by not being in the best shape it only made matters worse.
For 2013, the whole year not just Hardrock, I’ve set a personal goal of “taking it to the next level” which for me means taking the next steps necessary to reaching my potential of many various aspects of my life (personal, relationships, work, running, spiritual, etc.). As this is a post about Hardrock I’ll just stick to the goal as it applies to this race, my favorite race of all. To me Hardrock is the epitome of trail racing. Of all the races I’ve ever encountered no other race has come close to fulfilling so well the three most critical elements of a good race: the physical challenge, the beauty of the surroundings and providing an atmosphere conducive to getting to know the volunteers, race staff, local communities and the other runners and
their families. So for a race that gives so much to so many folks and that means so much to me I really really really want to do my best there. And I have done that for a few miles or a few hours here or there but that’s not good enough I want to cross that finish line, kiss that rock, hug Dale(the race director) and be able to say “I did my best”.