Friday, July 20, 2012

Hardrock Hundred

There are hundred mile runs... and then there is Hardrock. Like many, I'd heard this before. Unlike many, I finally got to experience the truth of the statement for myself. There are foot races that are longer and side-shows that are regarded as harder but no other event has the same perfect storm of beauty, ruggedness, danger, self-sufficiency, community, and obscene amounts of elevation gain.

I used to be a bundle of nerves before a race, but on Hardrock eve I was relaxed and content. My preparations were complete and there was nothing left to do but wait. The finish line glowed outside our third story hotel window and when I got up, I could peek out at the clock counting down to 6:00 a.m. Lying back in bed next to my wife, I felt my daughter kick for the first time; a good omen. Many other preparations were also made alongside those for the race and I felt ready for all the challenges coming up my life, Hardrock and beyond. I slept like a baby.

While the night before the race was different, the start was filled with the same familiar anxiety. 3...2...1... - Oh shit, this is really about to happen! - and then we were off down the dirt streets of Silverton. Shortly, we hit the first hill on the steep road up to the Shrine of the Mines above town and I fell way back in the field. It always works this way and I knew I'd see most of those people again once we reached the first real climb. Soon enough we were off the roads and onto a section of trail called the Nute Chute before descending and crossing route 550, the "Million Dollar Highway", down to Mineral Creek. I waded across in water up to my shins, much lower than in previous years, but still enough to waterlog my shoes and socks just the same. Only 100.5 miles left to go (the official distance this year was 102.5 miles).

After the stream crossing the real climbing finally began; 3,000 feet up through trees, across talus fields, and above cliffs to the top of Putnam Basin where the first views of the day were waiting. It was sunny, cool, and clear and a great day to be above treeline. I was lovin' life. On the way up, as predicted, I'd power-hiked my way past a number of people to about where I expected to be in the field. It reminded me a lot of my other successful runs last year at Wasatch and Massanutten. The descent down to the first aid station, Kamm Traverse at mile 11, was mostly on soft ground and went swiftly. Looking at my watch, I was almost exactly where I wanted to be at this point in the race.

Photo: Ray Dileo

Next up was the climb past Island Lake to notorious Grant-Swamp Pass. The ridgeline that forms the pass is a mess of loose, steep scree punctuated by a handful of rocky outcrops and spires that give a snaggle-tooth look when approaching from below. There were quite a few people spectating from the top, including a bagpiper that was a nice touch, and when I hit the crest I soon found out why. To get down the other side runners have to negotiate a 45 degree gully for about 500 feet before things level out to merely "very steep". I started down before any second thoughts could take hold and found myself shin deep in a field of loose thick gravel and scree that slid down the mountain around me. While quite fun, it was a little disconcerting that I couldn't really stop if I'd wanted to. Luckily, no one was below or above me, as it would have been very easy to send some larger rocks flying down the hill.

I stopped for a moment at the bottom to dump the pebbles out of out my shoes as best I could, then ran down a more reasonable stretch of trail to the aid station in Chapman Gulch at mile 18, dubbed the "Bacon Station". While I wasn't all that interested in stopping for some greasy breakfast food, this station stands out as one of the most enthusiastic. A volunteer was ready and waiting with my drop bag while all kinds of people that I didn't recognize cheered my name. On the way out to the road up Oscar's Pass I ran across Joe Carrara from Vermont and gave him a high five. While it may have been deserving of the term "road" at one time, the route could hardly be called that any more. An eroded jumble of gravel and rocks switch-backed steeply up and over the top of the pass in the hot sun. A faint trail led to a much better road down past Bridal Veil Falls into Telluride at mile 30 where I knew my wife and parents were waiting. On the way down the sky clouded up and began to hail. This was a little annoying, as the hail stones hurt when they bounced of my earlobes, but after a couple miles the precipitation changed over to a steady rain.

The aid station in Telluride felt chaotic and claustrophobic with so many people around. I was happy to see my family and my friend Norm Sheppard there, but kind of bewildered by all the commotion so I only stopped long enough to change into some new Drymax socks and made a quick exit. By the time I'd climbed  over 5,000 feet to Virginius pass, another little notch in a jagged knife-edged ridge, the clouds and rain rain finally started to clear up. I wish I could have stayed to chat with Sue Johnston and Roch Horton a little longer at the tiny aid station they had right on top of the pass, but I didn't really need anything and wanted to stay close to Jared Campbell who knew the descent pretty well. Dropping down from the pass was another loose scree field, much like Grant-Swamp, and I had to be careful not to fall and mow down a nearby camera man. The scree led to a small snow field, some more scree, and then the dirt Camp Bird Road which would take us a vertical mile down into Ouray. Dropping from 13,000 feet to less than 8,000 in the span of a few miles I could feel the air perceptibly thicken as my breathing grew easier.

Ouray at mile 46 was another busy aid station in town that I reached in the late afternoon, high-fiving Jeff List, another New Englander, on the way in. The next section of trail followed an old mining shelf road on what is now the Bear Creek Trail, blasted out of the side of a gorge wall. I was having a bit of a low point here, bonking hard, and it seemed to take forever to get to Engineer aid station at mile 54. There, I just kind of stared blankly at all the aid station food before realizing that I should probably bring my blood sugar up and try to get some caffeine in me. It took conscious effort to get a cup of chicken noodle soup, some Mountain Dew, and a chocolate GU down with a few gags, but I managed to not throw up. 

Plodding up the last cross-country section to Engineer Pass I could see and hear a guy (I named him The Dude) up on the ridgeline hooting and hollering encouragement at me from the top of his lungs a quarter mile away. "Yeah! Whoooo! Do it to it! It's like going to town without any money!" I had no idea what half the stuff he was yelling meant but, combined with the food, it seemed to brings my spirits and energy level up a bit. Before I knew it I was on top of the pass, 5,000 feet above Ouray, and being offered a beer by The Dude from the back of a sweet 4x4 camper rig. While this guy was probably the most enthusiastic spectator, out there on some remote jeep road all by himself at 13,000 feet, he certainly wasn't the only one. Throughout the day, and surprisingly late at night, there were all kinds of people out on the course to watch and cheer us on. Random hikers would give me high-fives and I must have had my picture taken over a hundred times.

With daylight slowly fading, I ran down the long road into Grouse aid station at mile 60, reaching it just before 9:00 p.m. I was pleased to have gotten this far before needing to turn my lights on, about 5 miles ahead of schedule. Grouse would be the last place I'd see my wife and parents until the next morning. The next crew-accessible aid station at Sherman (mile 74) would require either a trip over a rough jeep road or a 100+ mile trip by car in the middle of the night. I didn't want my pregnant wife, or my parents for that matter, driving around so late in the mountains, so I had them to go back to the hotel for some sleep. In my hurry, I missed the chance to change my socks which had been soaked since the rain leaving Telluride. Working up Grouse Gulch towards Handies Peak, I made mental note to change them once I reached my drop bag at Sherman.

Cranking up the climb, I felt really good. Again, I was pacer-less but kept company by my MP3 player. I made it all the way through a good Left Lane Cruiser album and was looking forward to a few hours of Me First and the Gimme Gimmes when the player abruptly went dead. Crap. It was starting to look like a long night as I more slowly hiked my way in the dark up to the summit of Handies, the high point of the course at 14,048 feet. The Grizzly Gulch Trail down the other side was a little rougher than expected and I used my poles so frequently to vault myself down small drop-offs that my shoulders soon got sore. I suppose it was better than achey knees from jumping down. Along the way I passed a struggling Timmy Parr paced by Duncan Callahan and moved into 10th place. I felt a little bad, especially because Duncan was so friendly, but there wasn't really anything I could do to help so I just kept moving. Eventually I came out to the trailhead at Burrows Park where there was a small aid station. One of the volunteers was from Newbury, New Hampshire - just one town over from where I grew up.

I was finally able to ditch my malfunctioning MP3 player when I reached Sherman a little after 1:00 in the morning (forgetting to change my wet socks) and headed up the trail to Cataract Lake. Once above treeline, the course spends a significant amount of time on a really faint trail through open meadows without a whole lot of distinct land marks. A little concerned before the race about getting lost here in the dark, I was happy to have helped mark this section a few days before. There were only a few places where markers were missing or hard to see, but I always knew the right general direction to go. At one point I was using my bright Fenix flashlight to scan for markers when the light reflected off a single pair of red eyes staring back at me. They seemed to be lower to the ground than I'd expect from an elk and I was creeped out that it might be a mountain lion and I was by myself at this point. Luckily for me, the markers went in a different direction.

The hardest section came just before dawn on my way up Maggie-Pole pass. I felt like I'd been moving slowly for the last few miles and was barely making any progress uphill. Periodically, I'd stop and rest my forehead on my poles, staring down to watch my chest heave in the light of my headlamp. I thought of my daughter and the rest of my family, and all the people back home and elsewhere who had wished me well and were following along. I knew this moment had to come at some point, it does during all hundred milers. While I never wanted to quit, it was a struggle to maintain the focus to keep moving steadily forward. As it got light out, I started seeing things in my peripheral vision. It's funny how your mind will conjure up a hallucination and start to run with it before you can get some sense into yourself. A ReMax sign? Why is there land for sale up here? Holy shit, the whole hill is covered with them! Then I refocused my eyes and there was nothing there but some grass and flowers. At least it wasn't snakes this time.

I ran through the Maggie Gulch aid station at mile 83, where the volunteers seemed kind of sleepy, without stopping for anything. With the sun coming up and only a couple big climbs remaining, some of my energy returned. Steeply up over Buffalo Boy Ridge to Green Mountain and one of the most iconic scenes of the course came into view; the too-perfect symmetry of the Grenadier Range. A lot of people don't think you can possibly enjoy the scenery while trail running. After staring at the ground in front my feet all the way up the ridge, I looked up and this scene (with morning lighting) smacked me in the face so hard I stopped in my tracks. Following a long trying night, distorted by fatigue and endorphins, it was one of the most beautiful sights I've ever seen.

Descending into the last aid station at mile 93 in Cunningham Gulch, I was in full view of my crew from a distance. It was almost 8 in the morning and they cheered and watched as I worked my way down through the cliff bands. We were almost done and I took the chance to unload some weight. My poles, race vest, lights, and spare clothing were all left with them as I set out on the final steep climb up Dives-Little Giant with only a water bottle and two gels.

I powered hard up the climb almost halfway before some of the energy started to leave. But I was almost done and I knew that at this point I would have to screw up pretty badly to not finish. Time was another matter and struggled to maintain the same sense of urgency on the last descent down into Silverton. I'd neglected to change my socks since mile 30 and my feet felt like they'd been worked over with a cheese grater. Everything else hurt too; my quads, my core, my shoulders and arms. I probably could have run the last downhill if I'd been able to muster the mental fortitude, I might have even been able to move up to 6th place, but instead I walked almost all of it. And considering the outcome, I can't feel too bad.

Back onto the dirt streets of Silverton I was running again, but only with great effort. It occurred to me that this wasn't so different from when I first started running back in 2005. It was the same feeling; knowing you have to keep going even though your body really really wants to stop. Back then, I had absolutely no clue that if I'd just keep going, someday I'd find myself in this particular situation. As soon as I rounded the last corner, I knew I'd get hit with a flush of adrenaline better than any prescription grade pain killer and I was not let down. The finishing chute came into view, my legs felt new again, and I was able to really run. You're about to finish Hardrock in less than 29 hours and eighth place, I realized. The weight of it hit me and I started to get choked up. 

Photo: Drymax Socks

Photo: Drymax Socks

Photo: Drymax Socks

And I could finally, after 28 hours 55 minutes, sit down, take my shoes off, eat some real food, and spend some time with my family. Over the next 17 hours I alternated between eating, sleeping, and cheering other finishers in - including my fellow New Englanders Bob Crowley, Levi Burford, and Mike Weigand. And last but certainly not least was Deb Pero, formerly of New Hampshire, who finished dead last after almost 48 hours on the course. I really can't imagine what it's like to be out for that long - she certainly has my respect.

While 28:55 sounds like I really good time for Hardrock, I want to be careful to keep things in perspective. From what I've gathered, this was one of the easiest and fastest years the race has been held. I had to deal with almost no snow. Many stream crossings that are often deep, fast, and dangerous, were trivial to walk across this year and many of them didn't require wet feet all. There were only a few hours of rain, no lightning to dodge, and I never faced extreme hot or cold temperatures. Other than general soreness, I suffered no injuries and never felt the need for any ibuprofen. Compared to some of the horror stories I've heard, I got off easy. Hell, a sub-30 hour time would have been enough to win in many past years, but this time thirteen people managed to pull it off, which says as much about the depth of the field as does about the conditions.

One thing I really liked about Hardrock was that this event actually treats its participants like adults. Instead of over marking the course, fencing off every little danger, and nannying over minor medical conditions, you're trusted to use your own judgement and make good decisions. There are places that you could fall down a cliff or get hopelessly lost but you're expected to, you know, "not step there" and "watch where you're going". The lack of hand-holding was very refreshing.

As always, I owe a lot to those around me for making a dream-come-true possible. First and foremost to my wife, Miriam, for months of uninterrupted support from lottery day to race day, to my parents for their love and encouragement (and genes), to the race management and volunteers for putting on a first class event from start to finish, to the Hardrock community for always making me feel right at home in Silverton, to Steve Pero for sharing his vast knowledge, and to all my friends and others who sent me encouragement before, during and after the race.

Someday I hope to come back.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Hardrock Prep

I don't normally like to publicly emphasize the lead up to races on my blog, usually just sticking to race reports after the fact, but I've had so much going on during my last week of preparation for Hardrock that I'd like to share. Since I got here, I've been dirt-bagging it alone around Colorado, running/hiking every day, eating off my Jetboil Sumo, sleeping in the car or on the ground, and bathing almost entirely with baby wipes.

I'm also looking for a way to express how excited and fortunate I feel to be running this race. So much gets said about the community and the race course and the town of Silverton that I thought there was no way it could live up to my expectations. Let me just say that I was wrong. I've been totally blown away by almost everything out here. This is in fact the real deal and I doubt I'll ever look at ultras the same way again.

So, without a whole lot of further blabbering, here's what I did (so far) on my summer vacation!

Never having had any kind of altitude problems before, I made the ill-advised decision to run up Greys and Torreys Peaks (over 14,000 feet) within 24 hours of arriving in Denver. After anointing the summit of Torreys with the contents of my stomach a half dozen times, I got the point. It was still a very cool place to be.

For the rest of the day I felt drowzy and lethargic, so I made my over to Rocky Mountain National Park where I set up my tent and slept for a solid twelve hours. By the time I woke up in the morning I was feeling much, much better, so I set off on the Keyhole route on Longs Peak. On the way up I ran into a really pissed off ptarmigan. You might call it... an angry bird.

The sun came up over the boulder field.

I traversed around the backside of Longs up the third class scrambling of the Trough, the Narrows and the Homestretch. Given that there's a thousand feet of exposure, I'm surprised that this route is so incredibly popular.

The summit is broad and flat and made for a good place to take in the view for an hour before things got too busy.

My half day of sleep must have done a lot of good because I had absolutely no altitude related issues. The headache, dizziness, and nausea that were such torment the day before, had totally disappeared. It's a good thing too, because I wanted to creep close to the edge of the summit cliffs to peak down towards Chasm Lake. I didn't get too close though, after over a year off climbing my fear of heights has made an unwelcome return.

A couple friendly gentlemen from Malibu signed into the summit register just behind me. They must have copied my handwriting.

Saying goodbye the Diamond over the Boulderfield on my way down.

The next day I decided to check out the Maroon Bells Four Passes Loop outside Aspen. Usually done as a four day backpack, it's become reasonably popular as a day hike for trail runners. At 28 miles and 7500 feet of gain it seemed pretty similar to the Pemi Loop by the numbers. After getting a little mixed up on some tourist paths before it was light out, I was finally on my way and was treated to some beautiful alpenglow on the Maroon Bells.

Looking back from Trail Rider Pass (#1).

Wildflowers above Snowmass Lake on the way to number 2, Bucksin Pass.

Fravert Basin was possibly the greenest place I've ever been and had endless smooth single track. Serious Sound of Music scenery over Frigid Air Pass (#3).

Exquisitely runnable trail descending off the final West Maroon Pass.

 It took me just under 8 hours to complete the loop at a casual gawk-and-stare nap-in-the-wildflowers pace, probably the equivalent of a 10 hour effort on the Pemi Loop.  If you're capable of doing the Pemi and are looking for something similar in the West, google the details and book your flight. Right now. Don't wait. It's that good.

Next up, I made my way into Silverton for some course marking and recce. I paid special attention to learning where the course goes over Handies Peak and Pole Creek, where I plan to be passing through in the dark.

Lovin' life after power hiking Handies Peak (I'm not hip enough to shorten it to "pow-hiking").

Handies Peak pika peeking out of the rocks.

Half the fun was just exploring different scenic spots on the course that I might not otherwise get the chance take pictures of. Like Green Mountain...

...Buffalo Boy Ridge...

...Dives - Little Giant Basin...

...Grant-Swamp Pass...

...and Island Lake. This was the picture that really grabbed my attention for Hardrock in the first place and was pretty cool to sit down for a few minutes and enjoy the real thing.

I kept hearing about how marmots tend to cause damage to unattended cars in the high country but I wasn't expecting to return to this. Enterprise is going to be so pissed!

So, with a week left to taper and do more restful things with my better half, I'm feeling really good about the race. I feel like my training in the Whites has prepared me well and I seem to be acclimating to the altitude nicely. Based on my comparing my times to others, I'm prepared to publicly state a handful of goals that I think are reasonable if all goes well. I don't normally do this, but what the hell?
  1. Finish, even if it takes the full 48 hours. I'm determined not to go home empty-handed.
  2. Finish before the second night.
  3. Sub-30 hours.

Above all, I'm grateful for the opportunity to come out here and be a part of all this. I feel like Hardrock is the culmination of all my efforts over the last seven years since I struggled to run my first mile on the road in a pair of cargo shorts and worn out hiking boots. 

I cannot wait.