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Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Hardrock 100: The Hardest Thing I've Ever Done

On December 6, 2015 I was on a hike with my wife and a couple of friends.  Sarah was four months pregnant with our first child and was enjoying the second trimester boost, so the going was good.  Just yesterday I got the word that I finally made it into Western States, on my fifth try.  I had a 45% chance of getting in, so I was thrilled to finally be in the race, but not surprised.  WSER seemed like a doable challenge for the year.  I would get most of my training in before the due date on May 13, and muddle through the remaining weeks after Oliver came.  I dreamt of taking him for the final lap around the track.


Then the texts and Facebook messages started coming in.  

Go buy a lottery ticket right now.”
“Dude. WTF. You are in Hardrock too. No. Way!”

W. T. F.  I was speechless.  With a 10% chance of getting in on my fourth try, and my season already set with Western States, I counted Hardrock out for the year and didn’t even bother watching the lottery.  My first thought was “OH SHIT”.  As soon as I heard the news, I knew I was going to do them both.  Given how hard it is to get in, how many years it took, I viewed both races as once-in-a-lifetime opportunities.  Each race increases the chances in the lottery exponentially based on the number of consecutive applications, so in order to have a reasonable chance of getting in, one needs to qualify and apply many years in a row.  Who knows if I will be able to qualify for Western States or Hardrock again for so many years in a row?  But doing both of them back to back in one year?  In the years where I’ve done more than one 100+ mile event, I always had a couple of months in between.  Now I had three weeks!  And six weeks and nine weeks post baby!  And all the sleep deprivation!  Not to mention that I just started a challenging new job where I was trying to accomplish a lot before going on paternity leave.  WOW, this year is going to be intense.

While Western States was a race I’ve always wanted to do, Hardrock was the big one.  Just thinking about it or seeing pictures of those mountains gave me goosebumps.  The San Juan mountains just looked so beautiful.  They were also very tall and rugged.  With a 48 hours time limit, Hardrock is the hardest 100 miler in the US, except for Barkley.  It has 33000 feet of ascent at an average altitude of 11000 feet.  We summit a 14er as part of the course.  The weather is tough, with regular thunderstorms.  The trails are very technical, and sometimes there is no trail at all.  There are countless stream crossings (so feet are always wet and more susceptible to blisters).  And big chunks of the course I often covered in mud or snow.  It’s hard.  

I focused my training on Hardrock, since it is by far the harder of the two events.  I figured if I’m in Hardrock shape, I can finish Western States.  Training started out very well.  We were going to Mt. Diablo on a regular basis, and finding ways to continue going out into the mountains together even as Sarah’s belly grew.  We got into a mode where Sarah would be mostly hiking and I would take the same route, but do out-and-backs to/from her on the steepest hills to get the vert in for Hardrock.  

Still going out together during the pregnancy. This is about 7 months.
Then in mid-March my right foot started to hurt.  And then the left.  It looked like a mild case of PF, but just wouldn’t go away despite rest.  I had to pull back significantly for about two months and tried lots of different things.  Instead of my beloved Altra Lone Peaks I started running in the cushy Altra Olympus, and got Currex RunPro shoe inserts, and tried a bunch of other things.  Around the same time I was also putting in long hours at work trying to get more done before the baby came.  It was a stressful time.  Things were looking grim for a while, and I even considered to just give up to preserve my feet and focus on my family and my job.  But thanks to unwavering support and encouragement from Sarah, and support and good advice from friends (Elke and Bob, thanks, you’re awesome), I pushed on.

Around early May my feet got better!  But now I had only five long runs left before Western States.  With both races seeming precarious, I decided to go after the bird in the hand than two in the bush and focus my remaining training on Western States instead.  Also if I decided to DNS (Did not start) Hardrock, my number of tickets will be preserved for next year’s lottery.  I figured if I can survive Western States injury free, then I will toe the line at Hardrock and see what happens.  

I still can’t believe that Sarah supported me going out for a long run five days after Oliver’s birth.  It was tough carving out time for the long runs during those intense wonderful delirious early weeks.  Luckily, Sarah and Oliver joined me on most of them!  I was able to ramp up to a 35 mile long run essentially pain free, and was cautiously optimistic about Western States.

Going out as a family after Oliver's birth - he is about 2 weeks old.

At Western States I enjoyed seeing many friends, and cruised through the heat with pounds of ice all over me at all times.  At night, during the flattish runnable section, things got rough as my feet began to hurt a lot.  But all I could think about as I was moving along the American River with my awesome pacer Chloe, was “Shit, that pain is not structural… looks like I’m going to Hardrock.”  I made it through Western States in one piece!!!  It took 29 hours to get to Auburn.  Sarah paced me for the final 6 miles from Highway 49, six weeks postpartum, and I carried Oliver for the final lap around the Placer High School track.  This was truly a family effort: we finished together with the three of us and Sarah’s parents Harold and Kay who crewed me and watched Oliver while she paced.  Wow one dream came true… one more to go!

Finishing with Oliver and the fam just like I imagined

I recovered from Western States surprisingly easily.  I decided not to do any significant running in the three weeks in between, and just focused on getting as much rest as I could with a 6 week old infant.  We instituted family bedtime at 9 p.m. which helped a lot.  I was feeling pretty good, and actually started contemplating having a shot at this thing.

We got a house for the week leading up to the race in Ouray.  Sarah and I have been thinking for a while about how Oliver would handle the altitude at 8 weeks.  We first flew into Salt Lake which is about 4500 ft.  Spent a few days there to get him acclimated (and introduce him to the family and all his cousins), and then drove to Ouray with Sarah’s parents, her sister Esther and her daughter Lena.  Ouray was the lowest point of Hardrock at 7800 ft.  We decided it was prudent to stay there rather than in Silverton at 9300 ft.    

I stared at this chart countless times leading up to the race, and the previous years too.

Oliver handled the altitude just fine.  He went up the Telluride gondola to 10500 ft with no issues.  I marveled at the beauty of the San Juan mountains.  They were vast, huge, breathtaking… and that was just a small taste.  No matter what happens during the race, I was just happy to be here.  We explored the course a bit, hiking up the famous Bear Creek trail, which I would only see at night during the race.  I was feeling pretty good, except for some lingering throat/nose congestion I picked up in Utah.  

Checking out Bear Creek trail in the light.  It was much less scary in the dark.

I went to the long trail briefing on Wednesday and the main thing I took away from it is that the descent down from Virginius is one of the places where I could die.  Duly noted. Oliver did some clutch sleeping. He slept through the night not one but two nights before Hardrock.

At the last minute I decided to start in different shoes. I hated the big awkward Olympuses during Western States. They got the job done, but just didn't feel right. I kept stepping on things funny, and my ankles weren't happy about it. Also they may have contributed to my feet hurting during the night. It felt risky, but I went with my gut and decided to start Hardrock in the Lone Peaks. I love those shoes.

Thursday came, and I checked into the race.  I had my picture taken with my number by Howie Stern no less.  Wow this is actually happening.  I’m in Hardrock.  

We are driving to Silverton at 4 a.m. on Friday, Oliver bundled up and peacefully sleeping in the car.  I went inside the gym to get my Spot tracker turned on, and then back out to spend the last few minutes with my family.  Then back out into the cold and off we go.

I started out towards the back of the pack, and spent some time with Jon Shark, a cool guy I met three weeks earlier at Western States finish.  He finished Hardrock for the first time last year with 15 minutes to spare.  We joked around that he would get more time to spare this year.  And hopefully so will I.

I was so happy to just start Hardrock and feeling healthy enough to have a chance of finishing after everything this season has brought.  I adopted the same mindset I did at Tahoe 200: I want to see as much of the course as I can, and if I finish, that would be awesome.  I set my goals as follows:

  1. Make it to Kroger’s Canteen on top of Virginius Pass (mile 32) in daylight
  2. Summit Handies Peak, the 14er (mile 65) the next day
  3. Finish

With those goals in mind, I decided not to look at my watch and just run by feel and go with the flow.  I usually do better that way and enjoy myself.

In the meantime, Jon Shark and I went over the first, and the biggest river crossing, holding on to a cable.  Jon recounted how last year he lost his trekking poles there, when the river was much higher, just a few miles from the finish.  I was glad we didn’t have to do this in the dark.

The climb up Cataract ridge was relatively mellow and reminded me of Col Arp, the first pass of the Tor.  It was gradual and very green.  Wildflowers everywhere!  I let Jon pass me by and went at my own easy pace, talking to folks here and there and taking pictures.  

Luckily for me, this was the hottest year on record for Hardrock, which meant very little snow or mud on the course, and fewer and smaller stream crossings.  Hottest year for Hardrock meants temps in the low 80s.  Since I just did Western States and the requisite heat training and in general prefer heat to cold, this was fortunate for me.  

I hit Chapman Gulch (mile 11.5) feeling good.  Quick in and out and up to Grant Swamp Pass.  That was another thing that stuck out from the long trail briefing.  Because of the unusually dry conditions this year, the descent from the pass was particularly treacherous: “going down a concrete wall covered in marbles.”  Going up to the pass I was floored by the view of Island Lake and not thinking about what was on the other side.

Island Lake, right before Grant Swamp Pass

Then I was on top of the pass.  Where is the descent?  A few hikers hanging out at the top pointed to behind a rock outcropping.  I walk over there and the trail ends at a steep drop-off.  I look up at the hikers, and they point to the drop off.  That’s where I go.  

I love downhills, especially the technical ones.  But I have a fear of slippery slopes where the sliding is hard to stop.  If it’s slippery but zig-zaggy, that’s OK because there the switchbacks are natural braking points.  But if it’s slippery and straight down, I find that very scary.  And that’s what I was staring down at.

View from Grant Swamp Pass.  Oscar pass, coming up next, is straight ahead.

I took a deep breath, sat down on my butt, and gingerly made my way down the scariest top section and off to the left where there was some scree.  Scree I can do.  After a while of awkward slow progress, I gained some confidence, and stood up, and let myself slide down in a small river of rocks.  But then the river started going faster and faster, so I got scared and sat down again.  I really don’t want to slide uncontrollably!  Clearly my screeing skills need to improve.  I could have probably done better had I been feeling more confident.  But the sketchy top section took that away.

My arms and hands banged up from being used as brakes, my butt covered in dirt, and shaking from adrenaline I finally made it down to a place where I was not afraid of sliding down the mountain. WOW, THAT WAS INTENSE.  I AM PUMPED.  LET’S DO THIS!

Descent from Grant Swamp Pass. "Like going down a concrete wall covered in marbles."

My crew, Sarah, her parents, Esther, and Lena, were waiting for me at Chapman Gulch.  Sarah told me one of the runners we met earlier was hit hard by a rock in his ankle descending from the pass.  I guess it was good to be in the back of the pack for this section where there aren’t too many of us going down at once.  

Greeted by Sarah and Lena at Chapman Aid

I saw this runner later, his ankle was seriously swollen, but he still finished!  What a stud.  I think this kind of perseverance is the spirit of Hardrock.  The race is dedicated to the hard rock miners who pioneered this area in the late 19th - early 20th century.  They carved these trails and roads through the mountains and burrowed into the rock.  

Sarah and Oliver walked with me for a half mile along the crew access road, which was really nice.  Then I was on my own going up to Oscar pass.  Oscar pass is not nearly as intense as Grant Swamp.  An old mining road zigzags all the way up to the pass at 13000 ft.  The mountain side here was red and orange, probably from all the trace iron.  I made a good time up, and chatted with some nice folks, feeling great.  Pass number three of Hardrock!  I’m actually doing this!  Things looked promising for goal number one, getting over Virginius in daylight.

The descent into Telluride was fun.  I picked up an impromptu pacer - an ultrarunner from Georgia who was traveling around the area, and decided to check out the course.  We hiked/ran together to the aid station.  Hey, I’m actually running!  That’s the first sustained running I did so far and it felt good.  Sometimes it just takes 25 miles to warm up.

Telluride, mile 28, had a ton of food.  I had a breakfast burrito, and Sarah convinced me to eat part of giant donut.  The donut wasn’t very good.  Sarah walked with me through Telluride to see me off on the climb up to Virginius.  

I pressed on in a steady hike.  I was excited to get up to Kroger’s Canteen.  After watching the video so many times leading up to the race, I am actually going to get up there!  This aid station is perched on top of Virginius pass at 13000 ft.  All the volunteers are Hardrockers, and there is a waiting list to volunteer.  They backpack in all the food and provisions, some years through a lot of snow.

I caught up with Jon Shark again, and chatted with him for a bit.  I was still moving well, but starting to get tired.  Finally catching sight of the pass, I am elated that I’m almost there.  Then another runner tells me it’s about a mile from the top.

What??  A whole other mile??

Of course he is right.  Once we crest the fake pass, there is a lot of traversing and a little grunt of a climb at the end.  I succeeded at not looking at my watch for the whole day, and in that spirit just accept reality and keep moving.

Finally I hear the cheers of the volunteers and I am in Kroger’s Canteen!  I happily tell everyone how getting here in daylight was my #1 goal for the race.  A friendly volunteer points me to a rock to sit on, hands me some soup, pats me on the back and tells me “You’re safe.”

I feel anything but safe.  For whatever reason I feel uneasy hanging out up there.  Maybe it’s the exposure - the aid station is literally a small tarp stretched over some rocks -  maybe the altitude, or maybe the anticipation of the descent where I could die according to the trail briefing.  I do not linger.

In the Kroger Canteen video, the frontrunners make the descent look easy - just run down some snow - WEEEEEE!  Staring at it from the top looks terrifying.  Luckily, there is a fixed rope for the first pitch.  I cling to the rope for my dear life and make my way down in fits and starts.  Then there is some steep snow, but I can see grooves where people slid down it.  It’s pretty slippery, and I’m told gets icy after dark.  Good thing I got there in daylight.  I can barely brake enough with my elbows, can’t imagine going down in the dark and ice.  My hands, arms, and butt are freezing from the snow.  Oh yeah, here is the 3rd pitch they were referring to in the trail briefing.  Looks like some rocks covered in snow with water running down somewhere underneath.  There are some grooves where people have gone down, so I started on one of the grooves.  Steve Ansell, a runner I met earlier, tells me to go further left.  The danger is falling into the water and rocks through the snow.  So it’s good to go around where the water flows.  

I’m glad to have people like Steve around.  And I am glad that three quarters of the Hardrock field are veterans.  Steve has been talking the whole day about how the weather is too hot.  In the evening once it started getting dark, and I’m starting to get cold, I grinned and asked him if it’s still too hot now.  He said yes, in fact it is.  He tells me he does Alaska stuff with Beat (i.e. Iditarod) and likes it cold.  Ah OK, that makes sense.  I’m definitely in good company.

Third pitch over, we’re now on a steeply descending dirt road making our way down to Governor’s basin aid.  We’ll be on this road for around 11 miles, all the way to Ouray, the lowest point of the course at 7800 ft.  I enter the aid station full of adrenaline and yell in exhilaration: “I made it down Virginius!!!”  The volunteers chuckle and help me get on my way.  

It’s getting dark and I get into a good running groove with Andy Barney.  He’s a three time Hardrock finisher, and has done many other races I’ve been in, like Wasatch, Bear, and Bighorn.  He thinks we’re on 42-hour pace.  That’s encouraging to hear, but I know better.  The shoes haven’t began dropping yet.

The descent into Ouray (mile 45) is a long, gradual, smooth dirt road.  I ran all of it and felt good.  Little did I know that was pretty much the last running I would do for the rest of the race.  I took a wrong turn around Box Canyon, but used my phone with preloaded course route to quickly get back on track.  I got into town around 1 hour ahead of the 48 hour pace, at 10 something.  (I still don’t look at my watch, but ask Sarah what time it is!).  

I am greeted by Sarah and Kay.  I change my socks again, get some food in me, put on some layers and head back out with Sarah.  Yay, I get to spend the night with Sarah with just the two of us!  WIth Oliver’s arrival, we had spent very little time with just the two of us.  I think our first “date” was when Sarah paced me for the final 6 miles of Western States three weeks earlier.  So getting to spend this night with her was special.  

Pretty soon after heading out the excitement of being with Sarah wears off and I start feeling really tired.  Not in a pain cave or a bad head space like often happens during nights, but just really tired.  Like I should be somewhere taking a nap.

The Bear Creek Trail is not nearly as scary during the night.  Just point my headlamp tunnel vision straight ahead and pretend the steep drop offs are not there.  We walked at a steady pace and were alone for most of the night.  There was something enchanting about walking with Sarah in the middle of these mountains under the stars.  Though at the time I mostly just felt tired.  

The long walk up Engineer pass ends with a grunt of a climb off trail.  I was told that in normal years that section is also rather muddy.  Hard to imagine how much more difficult that would be!  We crested the top as it was starting to get light.  Now it’s around 6 miles smooth sailing descent on a dirt road to Grouse Gulch.  I started running… and my body did not want to run.  It said “Nope, no running.”  To Sarah’s chagrin, I did not take advantage of the nice runnable downhill, so we walked it into Grouse Gulch (mile 58) a little bit after sunrise.  Dale, who was to pace me for Day 2, and Harold were waiting for us.  

Handies peak, the 14er is coming up next.  Am I up for it?  I just felt really tired, and wanted to take a nap.  Also, after doing some business on the trail, I had to clean up and change.  This was going to be a long aid station.  Right as I was about to go down for my nap in Dale’s car, I decided that I wanted to continue.  It’s a new day!  (This was still my longest aid station, 28 minutes)

Dale and I set off for Handies Peak - Goal #2 of the race.  Dale brought a new energy, and we had good conversation for a bit.  But pretty quickly the lift from seeing Dale and the new day wore off, my replies became monosyllabic and the walk up Handies became a death march.  I had very little power going uphill.  That congestion I picked up last weekend in Utah has now taken over my lungs and airways.  All the dust and ascending to 14000 feet were not helping.  On top of it, my left hip/glute area was getting ominously sore.  I’ve never had pain there before.  I’m guessing it gave out because of the undertraining.  This caused me some anxiety as I still had nearly a day to go.  A whole day!  I popped an Aleve preventively.  I’m very frugal in my Aleve usage due to potential strain on the kidneys, saving it only for structural issues… and now was the right time.

Dale did an awesome job prodding me to keep moving with just the right combination of encouragement and tough love.  Who knows, he was probably prodding me with his trekking pole too, I wouldn’t remember.  I often had to stop and pant to regain my breath.  When we crested the Great American Pass at 13000 feet, I thought we were almost there.  Instead we had to descend way down… and climb the big dark mountain way off in the distance.  Am I going up Mordor?  

Going up Handies Peak.  Am I in Mordor?

Oh but the view from the top was breathtaking!!! Jagged ridges covered with a patchwork of snow stretching to the horizon.  Wow!  I climbed Handies!

Dale and I on top of Handies.  I was floored by the view.

Goal #2 accomplished!  Now Goal #3, I have to finish this thing.  Descent down to Burrows Park (mile 68) went pretty quick, and I was greeted by AWESOME volunteers.  This little aid station turned out to be my favorite of the race.  We chatted (or mostly Dale was being nice and friendly while I gulped down food), spun hula hoops (mine maybe went ¾ of a turn), and they had these most amazing homemade potstickers!  As soon as I saw them, I realized this was exactly what I needed.  I was so happy.  I scarfed down a few, took a few to go, and was stuffing my face with them, as we walked to Sherman (mile 72).  

Harold and Kay were actually waiting for us at Sherman!!!  They drove 3.5 hours from Ouray to be there.  I was so grateful.  The main thing that I remember from Sherman is the bathroom.  They decked out a pit toilet into a spa-like bathroom complete with candles and motivational running posters.  Dale convinced me to lighten my pack a bit.  I came into the race with a lot of respect for the mountains and was prepared for the worst.  I carried an emergency blanket, and lots of extra layers.  Given that the previous night was pretty warm, I decided it was OK to drop a layer or two.  

Only 28 miles and 3 aid stations to go, and 16 hours to do it (yes, I was watching the clock now).  I could move at less than 2 miles an hour and still finish.  Sounds easy, right?  Well, it’s Hardrock… nothing here is easy.

The 8 miles going to Pole Creek felt very long.  After a relatively easy 2500 foot climb in the heat, that still took a good part of 2 hours, the trail stretched forever along a beautiful flowery valley.  The flowers were out of control.  But all I could think of was keeping a good pace on this “easy” section.  Dale said I had to make 3 miles an hour here to be on pace, so all I could do was focus on keeping up the pace. I summoned my Tahoe 200 powers to the rescue.  In Tahoe 200 I couldn’t run for pretty much the entire race, but I still managed to keep a good pace walking over 4 days, and made it before the time limit.  So this is what I had to do here as running was out of the question.  Dale pushed me by telling me to reel in the runners in front of me.  I could keep up with them fairly well, and even gain a little bit on the flat sections, but at the slightest uphill I fell behind.  Dale was consistently on my case about moving.  So after a sadistic little climb to the aid station, I looked at my watch and was thrilled that we made it before 6!
Wild flowers are out of control.  But I was very focused on making 3 miles per hour.  

Took a quick break in this stream.  It felt good to chill the feet.
I had 20 miles left to go and 12 hours to do it.  The 48 hour pace times in the Hardrock manual suggest I need to get to Cunningham, the last aid station, by 1:50 a.m., leaving me 4 hours 10 minutes for the final climb and descent.  We wanted to try and gain as much buffer on this as possible.  

We crested another little pass at 12500 feet on our way to Maggie Gulch aid.  Sun started to go down and the wind picked up.  I put on my jacket and we descended down to the aid station.  

At the aid station I had to escape the smoke from the fire!  No matter where I sat, the smoke followed me.  One sweet volunteer kept moving the fire around, but no matter where he moved it, and where I moved, the smoke found its way back to my nose.  We all had a good laugh about it.  

The penultimate section is undervalued.  It seems easy by the numbers - 1700 ft of ascent and 3160 ft of descent over 6 miles.  But the 1700 ft was almost entirely straight up.  We left the aid station and started walking straight up the mountain.  No switchbacks, and I’m pretty sure no real trail either.  In my exhausted wheezy state, this was torturous.  I had to stop and pant increasingly more often despite Dale’s urgings to keep going.  

We finally topped out at the pass!  It was windy, but the night was clear.  I was so happy.  We looked around and way off in the distance saw a string of lights going up a huge black mass.  We decided this must be the climb out of Cunningham, the final aid station.  Getting close!  

Then it was time to descend.  The descent was also partially off trail, following sparsely placed flags.  Wow, I cannot imagine doing this in the fog or rain.  You’d definitely not be able to see the next flag with low visibility.  And without a clear trail to follow, I can see how folks get lost.

Even with my bright headlamp, I had a hard time seeing my footing.  Then I remembered that I still had my 600 lumen UltraAspire waist lamp!  I paused and turned it on… and everything around me illuminated!  This made me very happy.  The other awesome thing about a waist lamp is that it’s not at eye level, and therefore produces shadows.  Seeing clearly gave me confidence to descend quickly.  

After descending for a while, Dale told me that we’re going to cross that road and go back up.  What road??  All I see is a snow field somewhere off in the distance.  I argued with Dale for a while that it was a snow field, not a road.  Of course Dale was right, but I saw a snowfield all the way until I was standing right in front of the road.  Wait, did you say go back UP?  What do you mean?!  Turned out that big black mass with a string of lights going up it was just our next little climb up Green Mountain.

After another long crawl, we made it to the top of Green Mountain, and started the off trail descent straight down the mountain.  Luckily I had my downhill legs, and was making a good pace.  Eventually we got on a steep technical trail.  I stopped dead in my tracks as I saw something that looked like a cackling looney donkey.  Eventually I figured out it was a cairn.  But something was wrong with it.  “Dale, is that a piece of wood in this cairn?”  “Yes,” came the reply.  “Ah, OK.”  And we descended down to 10,000 feet to Cunningham aid station.

We made it to Cunningham by 12:15, gaining about 1.5 hours on the 48 hour pace!  And Sarah greeted me at the aid station!  It was now her turn again, and night number two for her.  Did I mention she was 2 months postpartum?  With over 5.5 hours to go 9 mostly downhill miles, I got comfortable and let myself relax.  Until a kind stern authoritative volunteer (aid station captain?) who was a Hardrock veteran grilled me over my equipment and told me to get out of here.

I can see why I should not have felt comfortable.  As soon as we got on the uphill, I quickly slowed down to a crawl.  Sarah made me eat a couple of caffeinated Gus… and they were not helping.  With all the congestion, dust, high altitude, and almost two days, 90 miles, and 30000 feet of climbing I had nothing left.  I trudged along, trying to focus on my walk, and take one breath for every step uphill, a rhythm that seemed to work on the previous climb.  But I just could not keep my focus.  I felt miserable and I was thinking about how miserable I felt, and stopped to wheeze and pant.  

We looked at my altimeter, and it was not looking good.  At this pace it would take something like 4 hours to do the 2500 feet, ~2 mile climb, leaving me less than 2 hours for the 7 mile downhill to Silverton.  Not the odds I wanted to play.  And that’s assuming I make it over the pass in the first place.  I was feeling worse and worse, and was stopping more and more often.  Sarah did an amazing job of cajoling, encouraging, and tough-loving me to move forward, and not letting me stand around and pant for too long and pushing caffeine on me, but all I could think about was “Is this how it’s going to end?  To come such a long way, overcome so many obstacles just to get here, and it will end right here on this pass.”  

I’ve had lows in other races, and plenty of negative spirals, but I was able to keep moving forward no matter what the voice inside of me said.  Now, I was so taxed and on the brink, that unless every ounce of my body was focused on moving one foot ahead of the other, I could not move forward.  Sarah was reading out the altimeter readings every 5 minutes to try and motivate me.  But as soon as the self-pitying negativity came up, I halted, leaned down on my poles and panted.  

If I let despair sip in, I would not make it.  I focused on instilling a sense of calm, and kept repeating “A sense of calm” as a mantra in my head, while I put one foot ahead of the other.  Eventually the steep switchbacking trail turned straight up the mountain, and the dark outlines of the pass became visible.  The straight up trail was particularly difficult because I really had to engage my calves which took a lot of energy and oxygen, making me break to breathe.  But thanks to being calm, I had an idea that I could side step on the steepest sections, like going up a snow slope, so I wouldn’t have to engage the calves.  That helped a bit.  And the little victory of solving a problem made me feel better.

Finally the relentless grade eased up a bit, and the outlines of the pass became clear.  We made it to the top just after 3 a.m., leaving almost 3 hours for the 7 mile descent.  This seems totally doable!!!

The trail on the other side of the pass was technical and eroded.  But I’m very motivated by technical downhills!  I picked up the pace and bounced down over the rocks.  At least that’s how it felt.  Then there was a very steep slippery section.  Did I mention those scare me?  I slowed down to a crawl and wound up falling on my butt.  Sarah got down quickly on her butt and was imploring me to do the same.  But I had this thought that if I slide down on my butt, I wouldn’t be able to stop sliding and slide right off the mountain.  So instead I pulled myself up, which was a challenge in itself, and slowly picked my way down with poles.

I got into a good groove once the grade eased up… and stepped too close to the edge of a narrow eroded exposed section of trail and fell.  I had the instinct to fall upslope, so I found myself laying down on the trail, listening to rocks I set in motion bouncing for a long time below me.  And every time I moved, I sent more rocks bouncing down.  I figured that the ground on which plants grew was more stable, so I eased myself towards plants, and used that soil for support to get back on my feet.  Did I just almost die?  I felt disassociated from myself, like my body was just a vessel, and the thought felt remote.  All I could think about was moving forward to the finish, though logically I knew this was a very dangerous thing that happened and I need to be more careful.  

Sarah later told me that it wasn’t quite that steep, and there was a snow bank not far below, but at the time I thought I almost died.  In my 6 years of trail running I’ve never eaten it like this.  But It was mile 94 of Hardrock and two days of no sleep and I got sloppy.

Finally we got on the jeep road.  It was 3:39 a.m., and I just had 6 downhill miles on the road to cruise to the finish.  I started jogging and realized I was only going slightly faster than walking.  So I picked it up, but quickly ran out of air.  The body really did not want to run.  So I settled into what felt like a fast downhill stride.  Now that I was a little more relaxed, it occurred to me that the air passageways in my nose were clogged down to a small fraction of their normal size.  The mucous mixed with dust created a cement like mixture.

Sarah implored me to run.  But I decided that 2 hours 20 minutes was plenty of time to walk down 6 miles of road.  Sarah reasoned logically that we did not know that it was definitely 6 miles, the segments lengths are not always accurate, and we did not know for sure how much distance we’ve already covered.  More importantly, Sarah argued, we did not know if what looked like a steady downhill on the elevation chart actually had some steep surprise climbs that could slow me down a lot.  But I dug in my heels and walked.  I was done.  

Eventually the lights of Silverton appeared, but we seemed to be moving in a circle around the town and not getting any closer.  I started getting anxious and kept asking Sarah to estimate how much distance we had left by looking at the route in her phone’s GPS.  She was using her thumb to try and gauge the distance and I was worried. And there were some little hills that slowed me down.  I started panicking and even ran for a bit.  And finally we entered the town with plenty of time on the clock.

I relaxed.  This is actually happening!  I could not believe it.  After nearly two days out in the mountains, I’m finishing Hardrock.

FINISHING.  HARDROCK.

I tried to let that sink in but it felt surreal.  Sarah and I held hands as we neared the finish.  Then I saw a stroller.  Oliver!!!  Sarah’s parents, her brother and Dale were also waiting for us.  It was nearly 6 a.m. and my little boy was peacefully bundled up asleep.  I stared at him and considered taking him out and kissing the rock with him, like I imagined I would do, but he looked so peaceful, and it just didn’t feel right.  Finally I was overcome with emotion, turned towards the rock, spread my arms wide, ran towards it, and kissed it.  It was 5:44, so I made it in 47 hours 44 minutes, with 16 minutes to spare.

I hugged Dale Garland, the race director, and Blake Wood, who just finished his 20th Hardrock came over and hugged me.  

I finished!  I am now a Hardrocker.

We're back in Silverton!

Dale and Sarah, my awesome pacers.  Can't believe this happened.  

Picture taken by Daniel Petty for the Denver Post.  My look says it all.  

I couldn’t have done this without the support of many people.  I could not have even gotten to the start line without the love and encouragement from Sarah.  She told me to keep going and to keep training even when things looked grim, and even supported me going out on long runs in the first weeks after Oliver was born.  And she paced me for not one but two nights while taking care of Oliver during the day.  What an incredible woman.  I am also so grateful to Sarah’s parents who came out to support me and watch Oliver for both races.  We would not be able to do this without them.  And I’m so thankful to Dale for taking me through that second day and pushing me to gain precious time which turned out to be critical.  Thank you to Dale G. for flawlessly organizing this race, and to all the volunteers who fed me, encouraged me, moved the fire around for me, spun hula hoops, kicked me out of aid stations and gave me potstickers.  You all are so awesome.  

4 comments:

  1. Woohoo! Glad to have been a part of it!

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  2. Beautiful! My only complaint is no painful feet pictures.

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    Replies
    1. Feet surprisingly held up well, despite all the stream crossings!

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  3. Very impressive! Congratulations!

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