As an ultra runner I know I have my limitations; my knees are bad, my back is bad, I'm built more like an ax swinging ORC than a mountain goat and I have a baby's stomach that can only handle soft food and milk. What I lack in raw talent and natural ability I can sometimes make up with in pure ignorance and stubbornness - I don't accept the fact that I'm not a great candidate to run the Hardrock 100. 7 years ago Cory Johnson told me I should run Hardrock because he thought I could do it. It sounded like a good goal to shoot for, so my journey began. Now I wonder if Cory was just messing with me.
After qualifying for Hardrock and waiting a few years to get into the race through the lottery, I finally made it in last year. I started the race but the result wasn't great; I got sick early on in the run, then I got lost but the reality was I just wasn't strong enough to get up those mountains. 33,124 is just a number; it's really hard to equate that number into vertical feet of climbing unless you've actually done it or attempted it. After my first attempt at Hardrock, I just didn't know if that number was attainable for me (they should call it the Hardrock 33,124 because that number is harder than the 100 miles). Anyway, the fates allowed me another shot at Hardrock this year and I didn't want to go out without a fight; I couldn't let a mountain range with a big number scare me off (I have a similar vendetta with Western States I need to make right eventually).
We get to Silverton; half the adventure of Hardrock is finding a place to stay while in Silverton. You need to secure accommodations months in advance; there's a very limited number of beds available in Silverton. Kristin and I left the kids at home but Cory Johnson and his family are there. Matt Connors and Bryce Warren are queued up to pace Cory with Kati (Cory's wife) and their kids on board to crew Cory in his 7th Hardrock 100. In my corner I had the venerable Tom Remkes ready to pace me 60 miles and the master of bodywork, Nate Graven, to help Kristin crew me and to help Kristin drive those narrow mountain roads.
Over the next couple of days in Silverton, there's a lot of nervous energy as runners check-in, get medically cleared and spend the last few hours before the race organizing their gear and finalizing their race plans.
It was a slumber party at the Triangle Motel with Kristin and I, Tom Remkes, Matt Connors and Nate Graven, but I slept like a baby. I normally can't sleep at all before a big race, or on Christmas Eve, but the night before Hardrock I slapped on some Aviators from SKull Candy, turned up some Sigur Ros and entered sandman almost immediately. It was still dark at 4:00am when the ritual began of dressing, tapping up the heels and knees and folding the bandanna a particular way. As we all walked to Silverton High School for the start of the race, there was still a lot of nervous energy with pictures being taken, backs being slapped and all the fist bumping, but honestly most of the runners seemed immune to it. There was intense focus even with all the ancillary excitement. It's a long 100 mile run, so what's the point of jumping up and down and running 'strides' in the street.
At 6:00am sharp Hardrock is on the way with a hug and a wave and Dale Garland yelling 'get outta here.' Holy crap, here we go again.
The first aid station is just over 9 miles away after climbing 3840 feet and dropping 2770. The first runners got to the Cunningham checkpoint at 7:50am, I got here at 9:00am in 92nd place (140 runners). I was feeling fantastic and it was a shot of adrenaline seeing Kristin, Tom and Nate so early in the race. At that point I was only 30 minutes behind Cory, so I saw Kati and their kids too. But, I was on my own for the next 33 miles.
Cunningham to Maggie is only 6 miles but it ascends 3160 feet. I was still feeling strong during this second climb, so I pushed the pace thinking maybe I could catch some runners and move up the field. This was a mistake. Before Maggie's the course takes you up to 13,000 feet twice and I was breathing too heavy and not staying on top of my hydration. I was also sweating like a stuck pig. I was drinking Gatorade and water but not enough because by the time I got to Maggie's at 11:40am, I was already feeling sick to my stomach. I had lost time too, dropping to position 111 (139 runners now).
Maggie's to Pole Creek (19.7 miles) is 4.3 miles and ascends 960 feet and drops 1340 feet. I knew I had to slow down here, catch my breath and start to eat and drink. Try and I might to eat and feel better, I was on a slppery slope. The downhill running was shaking my gut like a blender bottle and all that liquid I was putting in it wasn't getting absorbed. I was brewing a deadly cocktail of gatorade, Ensure, Powergel and salt tablets. The first runners got to Pole Creek at 10:10am, I got there at 1:22pm and I was already green behind the gills. Cory Johnson was pulling away too, he had left at 11:55am. I hadn't thrown up but my appetite was gone and my belly was sloshing, so I figured it was only time. Best I could do was slow down and just hope for the best.
Pole Creek to Sherman (28.8 miles) is 9.1 miles and ascends 1390 feet and drops 3210 feet. Thus far into the run, the course stays above 11,000 feet in altitude. This was the worst section for me. My gut finally gave in and emptied its contents. It was a river of vomit and it came out so violently that my mouth wasn't big enough to contain it all; it burned as it came out my nose and it felt like it was coming out my eyeballs too. I was in a lot of trouble but I knew Sherman would be a good place to drop. I do recall this section smelling like smoke from the Colorado wild fires, but I could have been me just having a stroke.
I hobbled into Sherman at 4:54pm in 129th place (136 runners still in it). My heart was racing and my stomach was flipped inside out. I drank some water...barf. I ate a cracker...barf. I drank some Sprite...barf. I drank some gatorade...barf. I drank some broth and thank the gods, it stayed in...well, until I got up to walk then I threw that up too. Out of pure embarrassment from all the vomiting did I decide to leave that aid station. It was at this point that it started to rain, I heard some loud claps of thunder and saw lightning like Zeus himself was throwing bolts at me. This was not good because to get to Kristin on the other side at Grouse Gulch (mile 42) I first had to ascend Handies Peak at 14,000 feet. I was hiking into the storm, it was getting dark and all I had me was a cheap 30 lumen headlamp and a thin wind jacket. Did I mention I was dehydrated and throwing up? There was one more chance to drop from the race before Grouse at a brand new aid station called Burrows Park (about mile 33). I sat there for about an hour watching the rain come down and thinking about how much I hated Hardrock and the San Juan mountains. I asked the aid station captain if I were to drop if they could get me back to Silverton tonight. He said 'no,' I would have to wait until the morning. 'F**k it,' I said. Runner 194 is out. I can go 9 more miles to sleep in a bed tonight. If I slept at Burrows anyway, Kristin will be up all night worrying and wondering what happened to me.
It was almost 8:30pm as I started the 4 mile trek up to Handies, little did I know I was entering the Twilight Zone.
The first thought that ran through my head as I started up the Handies trail was of my kids and how people would look at them knowing their father met his fate on a distant trail in Colorado. How would it end; would it be lightning, hypothermia, or would I simply stumble off the mountain into the abyss? It was at this moment that my gut emptied for the last time; my insides tasted like the Sprite I just drank moments before. The rain was falling like some pressurized cold shower and the lightning reminded me of the Clearfield City 4th of July fireworks show. But I continued up the trail one step at a time and kept telling myself to not to be a pussy (sorry, my language isn't this bad normally). The trail was a wet, steep and muddy mess and I wished I had carried my treking poles but I made the best of it. It seemed like I could only hike 10 feet before I would slide back down the trail. I was breathing heavy again and my mouth was really dry from not having a good drink in hours, but I continued up and up and up. I'm guessing I was 2 miles from the peak when the rain became really intense and it felt like something wanted me to stop going up. This is when runners who had left the aid station hours before me had decided to turn around and call it quits. They all asked if the aid station was still open and one runner suggested I go back down with him because the storm was getting worse the higher you go. I kept going up and focused my eyes on my shoes as I hiked. I knew there was one lady ahead of me still who had left the aid station about 30 minutes before I did. She had on a bright yellow rain suit; she was the same lady who took my blood pressure and did my medical screening at race check-in. I figured she must have some kind of medical background and would be a good person to hike with if I could catch her. About 20 minutes later I did catch her with her pants down...literally. All I saw was a white ass as I made my way up the trail, it looked like she was adjusting her shorts under her rain pants. She didn't hear me coming, so when I asked her how she was doing her response was a blood-curling scream! I apologized and passed her and suggested she tag along.
It was dark now and I turned on my emergency headlamp, a 30 lumen Black Diamond headlamp a Ragnar customer had retuned used last week. I was glad I had it now but 30 lumens isn't a lot of light at 13,000 feet at 11o'clock PM. I knew I was getting close to the top as the trail was getting steeper and the dirt was changing into loose rock. I turned around to look down the trail and saw a distant light who I knew to be the yellow rain suit lady. The rain and lightning hadn't stopped, I was just above it now. As I summited the top of Handies it was very windy and cold but the sky was clear and bright with stars. I spent zero time reflecting at the top of Handies, I wanted off the mountain; all I could think about were the warm white sheets at the Triangle Motel. I knew I was about 5 miles away from Kristin, who would take me home, tuck me into bed and tell me never to go back to Silverton again. I was good with that, so I started running down the trail.
After Handies (14,000 feet) you drop about 1,000 feet into a basin before making another short climb to Grouse-American Pass (13,000 feet). It was in this basin when my headlamp flashed three times then went black. There was no moon but the stars were bright but I couldn't see two feet in front of me. So, I decided just to lay on the trail until the yellow rain suit lady caught me and I would follow her down. I was tired and sick to my stomach but my eyes were good and I was still lucid. This is why I freaked out then I saw what I thought was a shooting star suddenly stop in its path above me. It just stopped and seemed to be looking at me for the longest time. Suddenly the one bright star multiplied into 5 stars and formed a rotating circle. I watched it go round and round for what seemed like a minute before each of the five stars broke formation and blasted off in five different directions. They were gone and I oddly felt at peace but I wanted to get the hell out of there. I tried my headlamp again and guess what, oddly enough it worked! I didn't see any lights coming off of Handies, the yellow lady was on her own this time, and I wasn't waiting around to be some alien experiment, so I made my way down to Grouse Gulch (mile 42).
Running into Grouse Gulch I knew I was done; there was really no point of going on. I was dry heaving my way down the trail and felt weak, tired and beaten. Hardrock is just, well...too Hard. It was almost 2am, the lead runners had left this checkpoint almost 11 hours earlier; Cory had left Grouse 8 hours earlier. I left my stomach and my will to run somewhere at Pole Creek. I was finished. The aid station was all lit up and from up high on the mountain when I first saw the lights; it looked like the 'Welcome to Wendover' guy when you're driving in from Utah. That's weird I thought. As I looked around I could see faces on rocks, the shrubs and weeds looked like little animals all curled up, sleeping, and every shadow my light made seemed to paint a picture of a face or an object. I had fallen down into the rabbit hole and I was officially in Wonderland. I really wanted to go to bed.
Remember the part when I said Kristin would take me back to Silverton, tuck me into a warm bed and tell me it's all alright? Ya...well, as I ran into Grouse I knew that wasn't going to happen. Kristin was full of energy as she told me how great I looked and how awesome I was doing and that she was going to get me fed and watered and get me out of this aid station as soon as possible - I only had a few minutes to the cutoff. Kris and I clearly had different ideas about how the rest of my race was going to go. Before I knew it, Kristin, Tom and Nate had me sitting down while Kristin changed my shoes and socks. Tom was putting warm clothes on me and Nate was massaging my back. I remember asking if I could sit in the car and get warm, but 'no' was the answer. I asked if I could sleep for 20 minutes and Tom said I could only shut my eyes for 5 minutes but we were leaving the aid station in 3 minutes. Then the aid station lady walked over and said she had a magic cure for a sour stomach and she handed me a 'Chicken in a Bisquit' cracker. There was no way I could eat a cracker. This is when the milk came out and I chugged almost half the gallon. It's time to leave they all said, I responded with 'I don't think I can do this,' but they were going to make me go anyway. As I got up to leave, I made it maybe 4 steps before I threw up most of the milk I just drank. Nothing I could say or do was going to convince this crew I needed to stop. Here we go to Engineer; 6 miles with a 2310 climb and I'm the last runner standing. It was 2:20am.
I wasn't done crying; as Tom and I made our way up the hill I made every effort to stop. I wanted to lay down and sleep so badly. My legs were toast but my stomach was actually starting to settle down a little bit. I was Tom's runner now and he made it very clear I was going to do what he said whether I liked it or not. If he gave me a cracker, I had to eat it. If he told me to suck on a peppermint, I did it. The worst was all the gels he was making me consume - disgusting! Through it all we kept making our way up and up. It wasn't fast but we were moving and we were actually starting to catch other runners. I was still hallucinating but at least it was bunny rabbits and frogs and not demons or dragons. As we were about to crest the top of the hill Tom yelled 'look, pumpkin eyes' as he pointed up. My headlamp I was wearing now was a 150 lumen Petzl and as it followed Tom's directions it shined on a full grown mountain lion. He was big and athletic but I guess he wasn't hungry because just as quick as my light caught him he was racing further up the mountain side. The animal got Tom's adrenaline pumping which just made him move faster, which meant I had to move faster too. I was feeling better but I really wanted to stop. At this point the best quitting point would be Ouray.
As the sun came up on Saturday morning at 6:00am, we were just leaving the Engineer aid station. I was into the race for 24 hours and only 49 miles along. There was still 14,000 feet of climbing left; meaning it would take a miracle to finish ahead of the 48 hour cutoff. Tom kept doing the math in his head and said we needed to run with a purpose. He also said I needed to do some soul searching and ask myself if I really wanted to finish this race. The statement that resonated the most was when Tom said to ask myself if I was doing the best I can and if I could do better? I didn't come to Colorado to run the Hardrock 60, this is a 100 mile run.
As we made our way into Ouray (mile 56.6) it was getting hot and I wasn't feeling great but I was better. Tom made me eat a lot of crackers and gels along the way, so I was burping Chicken in a Bisquit, but it was staying down. I hobbled into Ouray in dead-ass-last with no time to spare. The cut-off time was 9am and I walked out of the aid station at 8:53am. The 8 minutes I spent in Ouray was Kristin cutting the sleeves off my shirt and Kati Johnson rewiring a new Ipod to my ear (you know, I played an Ipod the whole time and I can't tell you one song I recall listening to during the race). I also managed to drink a lot of milk. I finished the gallon from Grouse and Nate filled 3 bottles to take with me. The next 11 miles from Ouray to Kroger's Canteen would determine the outcome of my race; I had to run strong during this next section. It wasn't going to be easy, the next 11 miles features a 5,500 gain in elevation with only 48 feet of downhill. Here we go...
The one thing that pissed me off leaving Ouray was this old mining tunnel we went through; it was only about 4 feet high with low hanging rocks coming out of it. I couldn't crouch down far enough and cracked my head on the roof twice before I finally got out of it. It was only like 20 yards in length but I hated it.
The climb to Governor Basin was all work; Tom and I didn't talk much, he set the pace and I just panted like a dog to keep up. It's a jeep road and at 11:00am in the morning there was a lot of traffic. There was a lot of thumbs up going through here from 'Jeepers' and some wanted to ask me questions but I was grumpy and I didn't want to stop and talk. I drank my milk and kept climbing. Tom kept feeding me crackers, gels and under-cooked sausage from Ouray. It was on this crappy jeep road I decided I wanted to finish Hardrock.
I made it to Governor's Basin (mile 64.5) in about 3 hours, which I'm told isn't too bad. Leaving Governor's, Tom says the next 3.3 miles to Kroger's Canteen (Virginius Pass) is really tough and nasty. He wasn't kidding, it sucked but I made the 2320 foot climb in less than 2 hours and even managed to pass 2 runners. They dropped after I made the pass, so I was still in last place. Before getting to Kroger's you have to climb a narrow, but very steep chute of loose rocks and scree then a wall of snow. My prize once I got to Kroger's was a was a blackberry soda Roch Horton's people gave me. I was out of milk so the soda tasted fantastic. It was almost 2pm, Tom said we had to leave Telluride by 4pm to have a fighting chance to get to Silverton in time. It's 5 miles from Kroger's to Telluride and drops 4500 feet. It was on this section of trail where I curled up under a rock to die at last year's Hardrock. I didn't want to revisit memories from last year, so we made hast as we dropped rapidly into Telluride.
Tom and I pulled into Telluride at 3:15pm. Kristin was all smiles because I made up a ton of time from Ouray. The cut-off was 4:45pm but Kristin and Tom said I only had 15 minutes to the cutoff. By this point, Tom took my watch away from me so I really had no idea what time it was, and I didn't expect to get this far, so I didn't know they were lying to me about the cutoff.
Telluride was a like Ouray; they only gave me time to drink some milk, change shoes and socks and take a shit. Just before leaving the aid station I was rummaging through the cooler and found a Redds Apple Ale. I pulled it out of the ice and told Kris how good it looked and how much I wanted to drink it. Kristin gave me permission to drink it, so I slammed half of it, Tom took a couple of swigs and gave the rest to Nate. It was the best tasting beer I've ever had.
There was a rock music festival going on in the park at Telluride, so Tom and I had to make our way through a crowd of obnoxious, drunk concert goers to get to the trail. To them we probably looked like two over prepared hikers; if they only knew what we had just gone through.
The climb out of Telluride is the last big one of the race, and it's a nasty one - 4,500 feet. From Telluride to Silverton there's still over 10,000 feet of climbing left. I was feeling strong but the single track climb out of Telluride was brutal; it's just so steep and technical you can't catch your breath or get any kind of momentum going. It was here, however, that I moved out of last place. Tom had us churning up the mountain; it felt like we were churning in place, but we were churning nonetheless. It was in this valley up to Oscars Pass where I got lost last year, so I was grateful to have Tom with me, who know the correct way to get to the top. It was slow going but we made it to the top of Oscars and one by one we were picking off runners. It was like a field of zombies as we made our way down Oscars to Chapman Gulch (mile 82.1), some looked okay and like they still had life in them but others we knew were not going to make it. At that point there's not much we could do to help anybody, we had our own deadline we had to keep.
We made it to Chapman just before dark at 8:00pm. I wasn't in last place anymore but I had been running for 38 hours. At this point my demons are gone, I'm still seeing visions of sugarplums dancing along the trail, but with the milk and my new favorite Pineapple flavored Roctane GU, I'm staying fueled and feeling really good. The best thing at Chapman was the potato soup; it was fantastic!
It was getting dark fast and by the time we made it to Grant-Swamp Pass, it was pitch-black dark. Going up Grant-Swamp is about a quarter mile long and has the same pitch as the Empire State building. At least the Empire State building has solid walls, Grant Swamp is all loose dirt and rock. Climbing up that pass was the worst and hardest thing of my Hardrock experience. The only thought that kept me going was knowing once I got to the top it would safe to refer to myself as 'Hardrocker.' Oh my god, it wasn't easy. It seemed to go straight up forever; Tom and I were both on all-fours struggling to get to the top. Finally cresting that monster was a relief but the problem now was my arms were burning, my calves were cramping and I couldn't catch my breath. I sent Tom away with the video camera to find Joel Zucker Memorial plaque so I could just lay there and recover. I thought I had Hardrock in the bag, but Grant-Swamp had eaten up a lot of time and it took my legs with it. When I finally got up to leave there were three small lights in the distance at the bottom of Grant-Swamp just making their way up the hill. My last thought leaving there was 'they're screwed.'
We were moving good, but I really struggled getting to KT. My legs were just hamburger. Tom kept telling not to underestimate the climb out of KT (mile 89.1) to Putnam (mile 94.7). It's only a 2,425 gain in elevation over five miles but most of it comes at the end. Tom pointed to the fact that it took us 4 hours to get through the last 7 miles, which were relatively flat at the end, and we only had 6 hours to get through the last 10 miles. My brother Brad is the only person who has ever witnessed my panic mode at the end on of a 100 mile race when I realize I've run out of time (Wasatch 2009). Tom need not say anything else. We left KT in a flash, but not before going down the wrong trail, backtracking and then climbing up to the right trail then dropping down again to the correct trail. Okay, now we can start climbing.
Tom ran and ran and climbed and climbed as fast as possible and I knew if I couldn't keep up I would be one of those guys who was so close but just couldn't get Hardrock done. There was no pausing or stopping to talk, we were just cranking out the miles. We were passing more zombies but there was no time to talk. Getting to the top of Putnam Ridge was a lot harder than I thought it would be, but I had to keep Tom in my sights. The Ultimate Direction vest Tom had on had two rows of reflective tabs on the back, and as we made our way down to the river my eyes were playing tricks on me again; with the fast downhill running and all the bouncing up and down, from behind it looked like Tom was wearing a Christmas Tree on his head. I kept reminding myself to ask him later on where (and how) he got that hat in the middle of nowhere.
I didn't take a breath until we got to Mineral crossing where we walked through a small, but wide slow moving river. The volunteer at the crossing said I only had 2 more miles. I didn't know what time it was but the sun wasn't peaking its head yet, so I assumed I had enough time to make it to Silverton in time. Once my feet got out of the cold water, they stung with the force of a thousand little knives stabbing my feet once I hit the trail again. Once we got off the trail Tom took me up this road to the 'Shrine of the Mine' monument that sits above Silverton. At the time I thought Tom had taken me the wrong way and I remember being upset; thinking we were on some history tour of Silverton, but I was just tired and wanted to be done. Sorry, Tom. The first person I saw when I hit the streets of Silverton was Terry Foust; the first thing I said when I saw him was 'this race sucks,' but I didn't mean it. Again, I was just exhausted. When I finally saw Kristin at Silverton High school just before the finishing chute, I didn't even care about finishing, I just wanted to give her a hug. Kristin was still in crewing mode and told me to finish first then I could hug her later. Ahhh, kissing the Hardrock...it was like kissing Kristin for the first time 21 years ago on the couch in her basement, I even got a little excited if you know what I mean ;-)
Tom pulled me for 4 hours and 20 minutes over that last 10 miles, which doesn't sound all that fast, but it was 20 minutes faster than Cory's split over that section. Cory kicked my butt by 9 hours, so I have to cling onto any small, insignificant, victories.
Tom Remkes was the main reason I was able to finish, he paced me for 60 miles...2:30am Saturday morning to 4:20am Sunday morning. How many of your friends would travel 9 hours to the middle of nowhere Colorado and run in the mountains with you for 26 hours and get nothing for it in return? Thank You, Tom. I don't know how I'll ever return the gesture but I won't leave this earth until I try. Jamie - thanks for lending me Tom for the weekend!
This was Nate Graven's second trip to Hardrock; Nate helped keep me healthy through the winter and spring as I trained. During the race Nate drove the narrow mountain roads that can cause Kristin panic attacks. Thanks, Nate. You're a hell of a great man.
Thank you, Kati and to your kids for helping me at Cunningham and Ouray even when you had Cory out there to contend with. You and Cory have a great family.
Matt Connors is a stud and will someday soon, we're all sure, conquer the San Juan mountains while the rest of us could only survive them. Thanks for getting Kristin to put down the Ipad and insisting she relax a little. We are especially grateful for driving us all home when it was all over. You're a great friend.
Cory...you're a crazy mountain man! Thanks for the inspiration and for the friendship.
Kristin - Oh my honey, my sweet...what would I do without you? You, better than anybody knew what finishing Hardrock meant to me, I love you!
The final 'Thank You's' go to Dale Garland and all the Hardrock 100 volunteers, committe and staff. It's an unbelievable race, you guys do an amazing job with all the organization. We've fallen in love with Silverton and the San Juan Mountains. Hardrock has become the pinnacle of ultra running. What's an ultra runner to do after finishing Hardrock, there's nothing bigger or better? I guess the only logical answer is to run it again:-)
Here are the final results. Congratulations to all the 2013 Hardrockers!