Completing the 2015 Hardrock 100 was without a doubt one of the highlights of my life. Before I launch into the tale, I first want to acknowledge my incredible crew (Katherine, Nick and Joy) and pacers (Ian, Dana and Paul) without whom it would not have been possible. Willing myself through the rugged San Juan Mountains and kissing that rock—in under 30 hours—is a feat that concludes months of tireless training and mental preparation. But that’s hardly the beginning…
Rewind to 2011 before I’d even run my first 100-miler (the Leadville Trail 100). The legendary Nick Clark, who I’d only met earlier that year, asked if I’d pace him a leg of Hardrock, clearly doing me a favor as I lacked any qualifications whatsoever for the role. Nonetheless, that July I tagged along with Nick from Grouse Gulch to Telluride—a distance of about 30 miles—in sheer awe of the dramatic mountain-scape.
I’ll never forget that moment in Kroger’s Canteen, atop Virginius Pass (13,100 ft), when Nick and I hoisted ourselves up the rope around midnight after weathering a wicked storm. As we arrived, Roch and his fervent gang greeted us with sleeping bags and hot buttered pierogis, and as we left, I slammed a customary shot of tequila. Every Hardrocker has his introduction, and this was mine. That fall I entered my name into the lottery.
For years I rolled the dice, trying my luck against the odds, and not until my fourth attempt when any hope for entry had all but evaporated, did I catch my lucky break. Hardrock immediately became my focus for, well, just about everything in 2015. My ski season, spring training, trip to Transvulcania—they all served the purpose of preparing me for the goal that mattered most. April and May were some of the most complete training blocks I’ve ever put forth, and when I arrived in Silverton in early July for three final days of pre-race acclimatization, I was as ready as I could be. Here’s how it played out.
Silverton to Grouse Gulch (Mile 0 to 40)
I awoke at 4:00 am in the bed of my truck and fired up the stove, enjoying coffee and oatmeal from the comfort of a warm sleeping bag while tunes primed me for what lied ahead. Whether it took me 30 hours (my “A” goal) or 48 hours (the race cutoff) to complete Hardrock, the 100-mile mountain slog would be my longest continuous effort to date—a big outing indeed. At 5:30 am I tied my shoes, shouldered my pack and proceeded two blocks to the Silverton schoolhouse where I checked in and waited amidst the scurry of nervous excitement for the race to begin. It was a cool, misty morning, more characteristic of Washington’s Cascade Mountains where I’d first been introduced to the ultramarathon distance in 2008. Then at 6:00 am, longtime Hardrock race director Dale Garland initiated a countdown and sent all 152 runners on their way.
This being a counterclockwise year at Hardrock (it reverses each year), we proceeded northeast our of town, past the Kendall Mountain ski hill. Within a few miles I found myself hiking up the first major climb to Little Giant Pass in the company of Jared Campbell, Darcy Piceu, Mike Foote and Scott Jaime. I exchanged jokes with them and admired the beautiful sunrise while consciously keeping my pace in check—no sense exerting this early. My strategy was to hold back the effort and run well within myself, eat as much as possible for as long as possible, and only consider “turning it up” if I could reach Governor Basin (mile 63) in reasonable shape. But sixteen hours is a long time to be patient. We descended to Cunningham Gulch (mile 9) and began the climb to Green Mountain. It didn’t take long for the pack to thin, and I soon found myself pacing with Troy Howard, second place overall at the 2012 Hardrock, and a steady force no doubt. Troy and I would spend the better part of the next 40 miles together, at times leap-frogging as I seemed to be the stronger climber, but he could really roll the descents.
I dropped into the Maggie Gulch aid station (mile 15) and chose to linger for a few minutes and wait for Troy. I’d already moved into 6th place and felt the need to remind myself to take it easy. I used this opportunity to browse the excellent assortment of pre-portioned aid station goodies. A homemade peanut butter cookie, yum! Watermelon? I bit into a nice, juicy wedge and it immediately lodged in my windpipe. “Holy shit,” I thought. “This isn’t good!” Realizing it was really, truly stuck and I was really, truly asphyxiating, I glanced around in a sudden panic. Wide-eyed, I turned to the nearest volunteer and began pointing desperately to my throat. I tried to cry “Heimlich!” but no words came out. “Are you hungry?” asked the volunteer. “Do you want something to eat? Maybe a sandwich?” I shook my head, my face turning red. “Are you… CHOKING?” And just as Josh Gordon realized what was happening, he jumped into action, spun me around and performed five or six quick compressions to my gut with his hands. But I continued to gag as we fell to the ground on unstable footing. For the first time in my life, I seriously, genuinely thought this might be the end. Of all the places, fifteen miles into the Hardrock Hundred! Josh dragged me back to my feet and onto flatter ground, then performed three more powerful compressions. Suddenly, two pink chunks of the offending melon sailed from my mouth and I immediately felt sweet, sweet air reach my lungs. Stunned and embarrassed, I turned to Josh, gave him a hug, then without another word, turned and charged out of the aid station up the next hill. “Sorry for running right past you back there,” said Troy as I caught back up to him. “I can’t stand to watch people throw up.”
Together, Troy and I cruised through Pole Creek (mile 18), up to Cataract Lake, and began the descent to Sherman (mile 27). He pulled ahead with Chris Price while I sauntered down through the thick, green foliage lit with red, pink and yellow fields of stunning Castilleja (better known as Indian Paintbrush), enjoying a piece of the Hardrock course all to myself beneath beautiful midday weather. At Sherman I reloaded my Salomon Sense Ultra vest with goodies (fig newtons, jelly beans, energy bars), topped off the Tailwind in my soft flasks, and grabbed a quesadilla, which I promptly devoured—without choking—minutes up Cinnamon Pass Road. I figured I’d better take advantage of the less technical stretches at relatively low altitude to put down some serious calories. After a quick check-in at Burrows Park (mile 31), I began the arduous climb up Handies Peak (14,058 ft)—the highest point on the course.
I’ve owned a pair of Black Diamond Z-Poles for about three years now, and they are arguably my favorite piece of gear. They accompanied me all the way through UTMB in 2013 and have been on countless trips through the high country. For as light as they are, I’m shocked and impressed that I haven’t yet managed to break them. Handies Peak climbs 3,600 feet in about 3.5 miles, an opportune grade for using poles, which transition a surprising amount of the climbing workload from the legs to the upper body. Poles are just so, well, handy (ba-doom-kish)! I genuinely owe much of my climbing speed to my Z-Poles and all the hours this past winter I spent out in the cold on my ski mountaineering (“skimo”) gear. I’m a believer.
While I’m paying homage to Black Diamond, I may as well add some praise for my Mono Point hooded shell which kept me cozy during a freak snowsquall above timberline on Handies. The jacket is bombproof and weighs next to nothing. I would proceed to bust it out no fewer than seven or eight more times throughout the race, whenever the monsoonal flow unleashed.
Atop Handies I felt the first pangs of distant nausea. It wasn’t bad, but a subtle reminder that cumulative time spent at high elevation will take its toll. I still managed to chow some food and rolled down through American Basin, up to the next saddle, then descended into Grouse Gulch (mile 40) where I’d see my crew for the first time since mile 8. “Oh boy,” I thought. “I can’t wait to tell them about my close brush with death by melon!”
I rolled into Grouse only to be mobbed by an enormous crew of friends. They quickly made it clear that not only did they already know about my choking incident, so did most of the rest of the world.
Grouse to Telluride (Mile 40 to 70)
Like a NASCAR pit crew, Nick, Joy and Katherine (plus a host of others) got me fed, reloaded and back on the course—this time with my first pacer, Ian Sharman, to provide some slapstick entertainment. We “hiked” up Engineer Pass at a 15-minute clip and pulled ahead of Troy and Chris once more. A nasty looking storm was building west of us. Somewhere over on Camp Bird Road a magnificent deluge was being unleashed, and it appeared to be heading our way.
Just as Ian and I crested Engineer Pass (13,000 ft) the storm hit. Fortunately the Engineer aid station (mile 47) was less than two miles distant, tucked just below timberline within a stand of gnarled pines. The first pitch of the descent, however, was greased in mud and slick as snot. “Careful,” said a guy at the top of the pass, “if you make it down this section without falling, you’d be the first to do so.” I tip-toed down using my poles to stabilize me while Ian went ass-over-heels at least three times in the frictionless mud, each time with a mighty “ker-SPLAT” and sending mud flying. As soon as we reached more manageable footing, we booked it for cover at the aid station.
For five minutes we weathered the torrent beneath a Tyvek canopy at Engineer, enough time for a little chitchat with the volunteers who included Ali and Patrick, two colleagues from my weekday desk job. They’d come all the way out here to support me and enjoy their own unique Hardrock experience, and were just two of many familiar faces I saw volunteering, crewing, pacing, spectating throughout the race.
We proceeded down Bear Creek, a seemingly endless descent toward Ouray (mile 55) that drops a whopping 5,300 feet in just nine miles. Fun fact: there are three Bear Creeks at Hardrock, this being the first. The second climbs out of Telluride, and the third is the final descent to Silverton.
Somewhere along Bear Creek #1, I surpassed 50 miles, the distance-wise half-way point. Though it had only taken me 13 hours to run this far, I knew the back half of Hardrock would take much longer. I still had four monstrous climbs and an entire night to endure, and though my body had held up wonderfully thus far, I was about to encounter my first real challenges, perhaps foreshadowed by a gel I could barely gag down about a mile above Ouray. My nausea worsened.
Ian jogged me into Ouray’s Town Park where I was again greeted by a throng of cheering, screaming spectators. It was about dinner time (7:45 pm) and my crew jumped to work, replacing empty wrappers with fresh calories, refilling my softflasks, assisting me with a speedy shoe, sock and shirt change, and sending me out the exit with warm clothes, a headlamp, good vibes, and my second pacer, Dana, who selflessly carried a fistful of pickles and potato chips for me to theoretically nosh on. Thus began the endless march up Camp Bird Road.
I had consumed little more than a few sips of salty broth at the aid station, and nausea was gaining the upper hand. I shook my head as Dana offered me the pickles, and hucked into the woods an uneaten slice of pizza I’d carried out of Ouray. Karl Meltzer and Brandon Stapanowich (with pacer Zach Miller) sped by looking (and clearly feeling) much fresher than I.
Camp Bird Road climbs at a tauntingly gentle grade for many miles. I’d run it numerous times, but this time was different. Fifteen hours on my feet and a sour stomach were holding me back. Then Anna Frost (with pacer Gavin McKenzie) rolled up beside me. We both seemed to be scraping a low point, so we spent a moment commiserating while we hiked up the road into the fading daylight.
As we approached Governor Basin (mile 63) shortly after 9:00 pm, I lit my headlamp, threw on my shell and “poled” my way into the aid station. There I sampled a spoonful of soup (chicken and rice, I do believe) and immediately proceeded to spend the next few minutes violently retching forth the entire contents of my stomach—most of it liquid—out into the darkness.
Sometimes puking during an ultramarathon is like hitting the master reset button. Immediately after the exorcism of my gut, I felt rather good, and proceeded to toss a few cups of Coke and coffee down the hatch before marching off into the cool night. Those poor volunteers.
A few miles further up the basin, the course led us up and away from Governor Basin Road, thus marking the first of three pitches that comprise the stout climb to Virginius Pass (13,100 ft). We followed icy, but well-established post-holes up the pitch as the lights of Kroger’s Canteen—the mythical mile 66 aid station atop Virginius Pass, staffed by Roch Horton and his cronies—came into view.
The final pitch was so steep and icy that Kroger’s crew had fixed a rope to assist weary runners (like me) as we flailed our way up the slope. Cowbell, air horn and shouted encouragement rained from above and slowly, one step at a time, I gained the ridge. Roch sat me on a bench, threw a sleeping bag over my shoulders, and stuck one of those delicious hot, buttered pierogis in my hand. Four years earlier, with Nick Clark, that pierogi had tasted so damn good, but now I could barely tolerate a nibble. Fuck you, stomach!
As I took in this surreal setting, I thought about my first midnight at Kroger’s Canteen back in 2011, how I’d thought this race was bat-shit crazy. But now, somehow, I’d all come full circle. As my weary, hypoxic brain tried to appreciate this, another pair of headlamps inched their way up the rope behind me to the deafening whoops and hollers of the Kroger’s crew; my time to vacate this haven had arrived. Eager to see my crew in Telluride a vertical mile below, Dana and I dropped into the abyss.
It didn’t take long for Darcy Picieu and her pacer Petra Pirc to roll by, smiley and cheery as ever while I struggled to find a rhythm on the rocky descent. As we dropped, the air grew thick and warm and the lights of town emerged from below. It was minutes past midnight, and I soon found myself in a chair at Telluride debating whether or not to continue on.
Telluride to Silverton (Mile 70 to 100)
According to my crew, it had been eerily quiet in Telluride prior to my arrival, but they still greeted me with enthusiasm, disco lights and accordion music. They clearly knew how to keep themselves entertained, but little did they know how pivotal a role their fun and humor played in keeping me in the game. During the final uncomfortable shuffle into Telluride, dropping out crossed my mind. After all, I’d lost six places and many hours since Ouray, and the remaining miles over three monstrous climbs seemed formidable. But I couldn’t let down my crew—not after we had all already invested 18 hours into this ordeal!
Residual queasiness prevented me from consuming much of anything, but I did my best to choke down a “fun-sized” Snickers bar. My third and final pacer, Paul Hamilton, stood by in running gear seemingly ready to charge. Then, without overthinking it, I stood up, grabbed my poles and jogged back out into the night with Paul while Rickey Gates followed, serenading me with his accordion for two or three minutes more—the perfect sendoff.
Telluride marked something of a turning point. I slowly but surely improved as Paul and I hiked away from civilization and began the massive climb up Bear Creek #2 toward Oscar’s Pass by way of Wasatch Basin. I’d lost track of time in the dark and didn’t bother checking my watch—my sole focus was now on putting one foot in front of the other until they were both in Silverton.
Paul turned out to be an amazing pacer. I’d met him two years earlier not far from here, at the Telluride Mountain Run (which he crushed that year), and I proceeded to sell him on Durango. He moved down and we split a one-year rental during which we shared some epic adventures through mountains and desert, on foot and on ski, and became good friends. As roommates, his simple, carefree take on life balanced out my tendency to worry too much and stress myself out. In the context of this race, it was no different.
Up and up we marched, donning our jackets as the temperature dropped and a breeze kicked up. In Wasatch Basin we plowed through a few lingering snowfields and promptly lost the trail; course markers and footprints were nowhere to be seen. Convinced we should head further to the right, I stopped and disputed Paul’s inclination to bear left, but soon gave in, lending my trust to his fresher eyes and mind. He was, of course, correct.
We gained the saddle and, to my relief, found our first course marker in at least an hour. We traversed north over compacted snow to Oscar’s Pass, then dropped down the quad-crushing descent toward Chapman (mile 82), which from hear was no more than a pinprick of light far below. I didn’t feel a, but I felt much better than earlier and even managed to wash down a peanut butter M&M with a swig of Coke every 45 minutes or so.
Chapman, located off Ophir Pass Road, can be a very dark, lonely place. Much to my disbelief, my crew surprised me, making an appearance at Chapman though I didn’t expect (or even ask) them to be here. They informed me that Karl, the Speedgoat himself, had left just minutes ago. The news rekindled a fire beneath me, and I quickly charged back out into the woods where chirping birds signaled the imminent sunrise, and, hence, a new day.
Near timberline, I spotted a lone lamp just minutes above me. Assuming it could only be Karl, I extinguished my own lamp and entered hunter mode, picking my way up the rocky talus, reeling him in. I caught Karl at the base of the steepest pitch. On all fours I bear-crawled up the scree to the summit of Grant-Swamp Pass and, upon reaching it, spent a moment to catch my breath and admire sunrise over the Ice Lakes Basin.
I glanced at my watch for the first time in hours and was dumbfounded. Somehow I’d managed to recover enough time that a sub-30 hour finish was no longer completely out of the question. It would take a valiant effort, however, and one can never count on anything 85 miles into a 100-mile race. But by now, even four or five more hours of this forward trudge seemed comparatively negligible. All I had to do was just keep moving.
We traversed our way into KT (mile 89) where I promptly devoured my first real calories in many, many hours: a big ol’ slice of pumpkin pie. One of Hardrock’s quirky rules states that runners may not receive crew aid at KT, thus my crew could only stand by and offer words of encouragement while Paul equipped me for the finale. Eager to finish this epic journey, we returned to the trail and climbed like madmen up the ninth and final climb.
Just when you think you’ve got it in the bag, nature has a funny way of reopening that bag and plucking it right back out. As we rose above timberline onto exposed alpine tundra once more, we were blindsided by a freak early-morning storm that flanked us from the south. The storm drilled us just as we began the long, high traverse over Putnam Basin. Hail blasted our unprotected legs while lightning struck nearby peaks and thunder reverberated throughout the basin.
Had I been alone, I’d likely have cowered in a bush to wait out the storm but Paul had other ideas. He simply charged up the exposed ridge whooping and hollering, as if to taunt Mother Nature’s ultimate test. So I shrugged and pressed onward, telling myself that Paul’s seven additional inches of height would make him the lightning rod, not me. What a good pacer!
Before the squall, my downhill legs had grown tight and sensitive, but something about the wicked electrical storm had injected them with a surge of adrenaline and I flat-out hammered the final descent of Bear Creek #3, blasting through the Putnam aid station (mile 94) without a word. Earlier I’d determined that if I could reach the crossing of Mineral Creek (mile 97) by 11:00 am, there stood a very good chance I could walk the remaining miles to Silverton and still achieve my goal. Until then I wouldn’t relent.
We reached the river at 10:55 am just as the sun burst from the clouds, erasing any recent evidence of a storm. The elation I felt as I hauled myself through Mineral Creek is difficult to describe. I gave Paul a high five and we trotted toward Silverton. Around the final bend I encountered Dakota Jones standing in the middle of the trail, his arms in the air and a huge smile on his face. Dakota has always been a huge inspiration for me, and is partially responsible for acquainting me with this crazy Hardrock family. I could tell he was pretty stoked for me.
Together, Dakota, Paul and I jogged up to the Miner’s Shrine—a big Jesus statue that stretches his arms over Silverton—and I realized where I was. Down the grassy hill, left onto Snowden Street (where Nick and Joy greeted me in similar fashion), right onto 12th Street and through the gauntlet of cheers led me past the schoolhouse, back to the rock itself in an elapsed time of 29:25:12. I gave that big boulder a mighty smooch while Dale Garland announced my arrival. The journey was finished.
By now I’ve had a few weeks to reflect on Hardrock, recover, regain my circadian rhythm, and reach some closure on my experience.
For one, the San Juan Mountains are beautiful but relentless. Let it be known that the challenge Hardrock presents is real, and this write up doesn’t do it justice. Though it took me four tries to win a spot on the starting line, I’m thankful to have been involved each year since 2011 getting to know the event first. Anyone with any ambition to ever run Hardrock should witness the spectacle firsthand—as a volunteer, crewmember, pacer or even by running “Softrock” (the Hardrock course in 3-4 days) lest he or she fails to truly understand what this ordeal is all about.
And what is it all about? Hardrock is a mighty test, no doubt—a “post-graduate run,” as they say. But the stories that come out of the San Juans every July reveal that it’s so much more than just a race. From Killian’s 24 hour course record to Bogie’s 48-hour buzzer beater, every finish is chock full of its own tales of success, redemption and defeat. While it took me over 4,000 words to capture my experience, mine’s just a lone perspective.
What blows me away above all else, and what I think Hardrock truly represents, is the outpouring of support I witnessed throughout the adventure. “Together we will get this done.” I like to think that the miners who slogged through and toiled in these mountains just to scrape together a modest living over a hundred years ago overcame trials with the same mentality.
The ultrarunning community has always felt like a tightly knit family to me, but nowhere else has that been so intimately exhibited. From Rickey’s polka serenade that likely saved my race, to Josh’s Heimlich maneuver that likely saved my life, Hardrock is much more than a run through the mountains. Hardrock is an infectious experience that draws together talent, encouragement, and curiosity, leaving behind inspiration, gratitude, and new bonds of friendship.
Thanks again to all the friends who made it fun, made it memorable, and made it happen. As my roommate Hannah put it, “friends are family,” and sharing this experience with my family will forever be a highlight of my life.
Ultrarunning can sometimes feel like a selfish endeavor. A friend of mine recently started a neat little project called “Small Change.” The idea is to create a positive impact in the communities we visit as runners. This is done by picking a worthy cause and donating to it.
For Hardrock, I’ve chosen to donate to Mountain Studies Institute, a Silverton-based non-profit that enhances understanding and sustainable use of the San Juan Mountains through research and education.
You can learn more about “Small Change” here: http://adventuresinthumbholes.com/smallchange/.