Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Finally, the 2011 Hardrock 100 Race Report

There is really so much I have to say about my experience at Hardrock that I have been taking a while to actually write up a blog post about it.  It seems daunting, just like the course itself.  I was in Silverton, Colorado for 2 1/2 weeks and I loved every minute of it: big mountains, sunshine, tough climbs, cool people, lots of snow, amazing beauty.  Oh, and a truly epic 100 mile race as well.  And I don't say epic lightly.
On our first day in Silverton we joined course markers and other volunteers to mark the course from Chapman to KT.  This is how they transport the volunteers on these sort of roads:
that's the truck ahead of us.
And this is the kind of ascent you do on your first day in Colorado at 13,000 feet.  Yes, we just jumped into the whole thing.  Those are little people in that pic climbing up the big steep 12,600 foot "hill," and I'm at the top taking their picture.
I've been anticipating my trip to Colorado since the day after Orcas Island 50k when James got into the race.  Despite the 33,000 feet of climbing and 33,000 feet of descent at an average elevation of 11,000 feet over 100 miles, 600 and some people put into the lottery to get into the race this year.  Like most ultras, there's a limit to how many people the course can support, and only 140 of the 600 people got into the race. Amazingly, James got into the race on the first draw of the lottery and did not even end up on the wait list.  He has started the race twice, and finished once.  It seemed like this might be the year to conquer some Hardrock demons and experience some of the most incredible running in the world.

I was lucky enough to go to Colorado as James' crew and hopefully as one of his pacers.  I say hopefully because I almost ruined my chances of running in such a spectacular place by racing too much in May and early June and had to take 3 weeks off before the trip to recover from what was probably tendinitis of the tendons in my left ankle.  My ankle was really swollen after R2R 50 miler in early June and as it healed it became a very unsettling "crunchy" feeling, much like Styrofoam, around my Achilles.  Every time I ran it would begin to hurt and that evening or by the next morning it was crunchy again.  Three weeks was a long time to take off in June as I have been building my mileage up for my first 100 mile race in late August.  June seemed like a key month to get in good training.
James enjoying Peter Rabbit fruit puree on the trail
running in the San Juans with hiking poles, a first
By the time James and I started our road trip to Colorado, I was desperately icing twice a day, massaging the tendons, and using Arnica and Ibuprofen.  Over the next few weeks in Colorado the injury disappeared, I think because the trails are so steep in the San Juans and the air so thin (9,000-14,000 feet) that you do a lot of hiking.  The trails are as steep and vertical as I've ever seen.  Imagine the hardest climb you've done in an ultra, say 1,000 to 1,500 feet of elevation gain per mile then imagine that for 100 miles, half of it being downhill miles.  The downhills strained the ankle a little, but the uphills weren't a problem.
I continued to ice my legs until race day, here James and I are icing in the river after a long run.
James has a little fun getting airborne coming down from Handies
James and Billy on one of our many hike/runs
Runners joke about this race being a walking race, and it is in many ways true.  Yes, there is a lot of running, but there is a lot of walking or "fast hiking" involved, much more than most races.  Even the winner is hiking up the 14,000 foot Handies Peak, and most other steep climbs of which there's something like 9 major climbs, the largest two of which gain almost 4,500 feet.  The climb from Sherman (mile 28) to Handies Peak (14,000 feet, mile 36) is 8 miles long and the second largest climb is from Ouray (mile 56) to Virginius (mile 67) in 11 miles.  The more of the course I "ran" the more I respected the people who were about to take on the challenge of 100 miles of wo/man eating mountains.
One of the many snow crossings in the race, this one was from Handies to Grouse in American Basin, and melted a lot by race day.  Picture taken during course marking.

How do you race on this kind of terrain? I found 2 miles an hour difficult to attain on some of the steepest climbs.  The trails are narrow, dangerous, often covered in snow, rocky, and as I mentioned previously they are steep!  There were times that we were scrambling up scree using hands and feet on a non existent trail, summiting a 12 or 13,000 foot peak only to descend a just-as-steep snow bank hoping to not slide to our death on the rocks below.  I was so freaked out after our first run in the San Juans (Grants Swamp Pass) that I went to the outdoor store the very next morning and bought hiking poles so that I could self arrest if need be, and also to stabilize myself on the slippery snow, which at that time (2 weeks before the race) covered large parts of the race course.
New hiking poles

After the first week of helping volunteers course mark and going on our own runs on the trails, I was feeling a lot more confident in the snow.  I needed to learn how my body and shoes would react on the slopes to let go of my fear of sliding to my death.  As I became more confident I learned that I could glissade down some pretty gnarly slopes.  And it was so much fun!  By race day I had decided not to use my hiking poles.  If at all possible, I like to race with less, and it was great to feel confident enough in my abilities in the snow to not need poles.  We did have tent stakes for self arrest and yak tracks for our shoes in case we had to cross a icy dangerous slope at night.

In the weeks before the race I had the privilege to work with some of the runners to help prepare them for the race.  I brought my massage table to Silverton so that I could work with the athletes and as I put it, to make James the most massaged runner in the race.  We did 4 massages of varying lengths in the week before the race and a few a couple weeks before the race.  It was fun and interesting to work on so many ultra runners.  Lots of tight calves, quads, gluts, hams, and shoulders (backpacks).

Race morning came quickly, after a bit of a restless night.  James and I both had trouble sleeping.  Go figure.  I was worried about my pacing duties, knowing that the course would be tough and wanting to be fast enough to keep James in the running.  We planned to have me pace from mile 72 to the finish (102.5 miles total in the race, so 30.5 for me to pace).  I drove James to the start line where he just barely had time to check in and line up with the other runners.  And the runners were off!
Almost GO time!
And off they go into the mountains!
My crewing duties were to meet James at most of the crew aid stations with a bag of food and running stuff that he might need.  This gives him the opportunity to carry less because he can count on having his choice items at certain places throughout the race and I got to see the race unfold.
Julien Chorier
James in yellow shirt, leaving Cunningham
After the start it would be a few hours before I'd met him at the first aid station at Cunningham.  At Cunningham I ran into my friend Dan and we made plans to surprise James at the Sherman aid station (mile 28) where he had not expected me to be.  Sherman is a long and tough drive on really rough 4 wheel drive roads, but if we waited until he got to Grouse (mile 42) we'd have to wait most the day without seeing the race.  It took us about 90 minutes to get to Sherman.  As we approached the aid station we saw Julien Chorier, the first place man, running up the road.  He was  followed by Dakota Jones, Joe Grant, and Nick-(the-bad-ass-who-just-kicked-butt-at-Western-States-100-miler-two-weeks-ago)-Clark, Daniel Levy, Darcy Africa, and Diana Finkel.  Phew, we still had time to catch James coming into the aid station.  I'd been worried that the drive would take too long to catch him at Sherman.
Sherman Aid Station was awesome.  Pie, quesadillas, soup, and anything else you might possibly want.
James comes into Sherman
An hour passed and James was still not at Sherman.  This was an hour later than our planned time sheet, but I figured that it was no matter so early in the race, hour-shmour.  Still lots of time to get on track.  Within 15 minutes James came walking into the aid station.  He didn't look good for only 28 miles into a 100 mile race.  He said his legs hurt and he was in a hurry to leave the aid station. I was barely able to convince him to sit for a minute and eat some food, and he still insisted on rushing out of the aid station.  I was worried.
Dan and I took a break from driving to take a pic and, Dan, to take a little jog.
Dan and I drove back to Grouse Aid Station, mile 42 in the race.  Considering how James looked at Sherman I thought we might be in for a longer wait than anticipated and I decided I'd better get dressed for pacing him early.  It would be 30 miles early, but I was ready for the challenge.  I knew it was a good possibility that after the climb to Handies Peak, James would need me to pace him to keep his spirits up and his feet moving in the perpetual motion needed to finish such a tough 100 miler under the cut-off. 
Runners and crew at Grouse, before the storm hit.
 As I waited at Grouse, James tackled Handies Peak (14,000+ feet) the highest mountain on the entire course and in many ways, one of the toughest mental challenges of the race.  From my seat at Grouse I could see runners coming down the switchbacks of the mountain.  I searched the hillside for James, his yellow Yakima shirt or his orange Patagonia rain jacket.  The clouds had closed in and the landscape became ominous.  It was 5PM.  Clouds in the evening in the San Juans mean thunderstorms, and before long the heavens bellowed out and the rains came.  The race quickly became dangerous for the runners who were climbing and descending Handies.  Death by lightening is a very real threat in the San Juans.
James and me at the top of Handies Peak a week before the race, on a beautiful, unusually storm free afternoon!
It thundered and the rain pelleted down, so I covered up James' race supplies, food and our backpacks.  The rain abated and I saw a yellow shirt descending and sure it was James, I  uncovered the supplies, only to realize it was another runner and then rain began again.  This time the rain hammered down and I rushed our stuff into the medical tent.  I looked at my watch.  It was 7:30 and James was 2.5 hours later than expected.  But since he'd been late to Sherman Aid Station, he was only 1.5 hours slower than he would be if he had kept up our anticipated pace.  Still within range.  But he wasn't here yet.  Again I thought I spotted him descending the mountain only to realize it was another runner.  The rain abated again, but the black clouds above held the promise of a night-long San Juan storm.

As the valley became darker it began to rain and again I thought I saw James coming down the mountain.  This time it was really him and I met him at the bottom of the hill.  He was happy and friendly, unlike he'd been at Sherman when he seemed upset.  I guided him to the aid station and he told me how awful he felt.  I was worried.  He seemed to have given up.  He was feeling very nauseous and I had to pretty much force him to try to sip some soup.  The rain was coming down hard and the Aid tent was crowded with runners and their crew as we all tried to stay dry.

Despite several hours at the aid station and my not-so-gentle pleas to get him to continue on to Engineer with me ("Fine, I'll go by myself!"), James decided to drop out of the race.  The storm didn't look like it was slowing down any and he was wiped out from the first 42 miles.  He told me something had felt wrong from the very start of the race, that his legs felt dead and began aching very early on.  It was very hard for me to accept.  I had really wanted to pace him and see the rest of the race and I struggled to let go of my own expectations of the race.  I knew it was his choice and only he could make the decision as to continue or not, but I was really disappointed and I was afraid he would be too.   

The very next day, as the first runners were crossing the finish I couldn't bear to be in Silverton.  I had to get  into the mountains and go for a run.  I headed over to Grouse, where James had dropped, hoping to find my lost sunglasses and looking forward to tackling Handies Peak on my own.  No sunglasses, but ready for an adventure, I climbed the 5 miles to Handies and took in the view from 14,000 feet.  I let go of my upset from the night before on the mountain top.  I returned to Silverton feeling refreshed and ready to join James cheering on the runners as they finished their epic 102  plus miles in the wild San Juans.
Runners cross a major river at mile 100, 2.5 miles from the finish
Our friend Billy crosses the river
Devon, pacing Nathan, crosses the river
James, race director Dale, and friends and family congratulate Billy on his Hardrock finish
James, Mike, and 4th place Daniel Levy pose in Silverton on Sunday
James and I spent the next 3 days driving home from Colorado.  We stopped in Ouray and ran the Bear Creek portion of the Hardrock course.  In Utah, we ran on the Wasatch race course.  In Eastern Oregon, we ran in the Eagle Cap wilderness on an epic snowy, rocky 5 hour adventure and I was thankful that James was not exhausted from the Hardrock race so that we were so able to enjoy the incredible trails on the way home!


  1. Your race report was a great read. I've never ran those distances, but to just "toe the line" at Hardrock must be a great experience.


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