Friday, August 4, 2017

2017 Hardrock 100 Race Report

Hardrock 100: Wild and Tough
photo by John Burton
Henry Ford… the inventor of ultra running?

Henry Ford, the iconic American industrialist, is attributed with the rather elegant-sounding quote: “Failure is merely the opportunity to begin again more intelligently.”  But technically, that’s not what Henry Ford actually said. Let’s not forget, Henry Ford was essentially a glorified car mechanic, not an English professor or statesman.

What Ford actually penned was a bit more garbled and unwieldy: “Failure is only the opportunity more intelligently to begin again.” Which sounds like it was translated directly from High German… or Klingon maybe? But whatever. We still get the gist. Sort of anyway.

But why am I blabbering about Henry Ford in what is supposed to be a race report about the Hardrock 100 Endurance Run you might ask (quite rightly). Well… I’m sure that the idea of failure as chance to begin again more intelligently next time probably resonates with a lot of ultra runners, especially those who have gone out too hard in a race and paid the price with a DNF or long-slow shuffle to the finish.

But spoiler alert, unlike Henry Ford, I personally rarely ever learn from my failures. Rather, I see failure as an opportunity to fail again – perhaps even more spectacularly the next time. “It’s gonna work this time, I just know it,” is my motto. Well, that’s one of my mottoes anyway.

Some of my other mottoes include: “Go hard, take risks,” “Hammer now, worry later,” and “I’m sure this funny-smelling water leaking out of that rusty pipe is probably safe(ish) to drink”. I may even get that last one tattooed on my chest.

But I digress… let’s get back to the story of how, spoiler alert, I went out way too hard and blew up magnificently at the 2017 Hardrock 100 Endurance Run.

Hold my tailwind and watch this!

There I was… lumbering down the road with a painful grimace locked on my face, dead bugs in my teeth, dried drool plastered to my chin. As I reached up to wipe the sweat from my eyes, I could see Kilian Jornet just ahead, slowly coming back to me!

I was reeling him in! Spectators were screaming my name. Internet servers were crashing across the country as people (well, mainly my buddy Jeff) tweeted out pictures of me flying down the streets of Silverton. This was going to be it. My breakthrough race. My masterpiece!

I put my head down and started sprinting. The finish line was only a couple hundred yards away! Sadly though, the finish line (which also doubles as the start line) was behind me, as the race had only just begun moments ago. In fact, I hadn’t even run a quarter mile yet and I still had 100 miles to go. Shit, this was going to be a long day. But I trudged on.

I’d hatched a plan several days prior to the race. It was a bold, audacious plan. And, like most bold, audacious plans, it was conceived with the assistance of a fair amount of strong ale. I had spent the afternoon sampling various local Colorado craft brews including one beer that the label warned was, “insanely drinkable”. Several hours (and several insanely drinkable beers) later, I wrote four little words down on the back of a napkin: "Go hard, take risks!"

No socks, no shoes, no problems… for Kilian

The only other time I’d run Hardrock, back in 2014, I had finished in just over 30 hours, good enough for 12th place. That was the year I took a hard fall on a snowy mountain pass and shattered my finger tip into five pieces. That was also the year that my pacer Marc Laveson and I narrowly avoided getting struck by lightning – and perhaps more importantly, narrowly avoided having to spoon together for warmth. You can read all about it here

Back in 2014 I’d gone out relatively conservatively – a mistake I vowed not to repeat again. Having come off a great block of training this year, I was feeling fit and confident. Abundantly confident! Exceedingly confident. And slightly drunk.

My beer-inspired goal for this year’s race was simple: finish in the top 10 or die trying (preferably the former), and see how close I could run to 28 hours. Both goals were, admittedly, somewhat arbitrary. But as fellow runner Mike Wardian and I jokingly discussed on the flight home afterward, they don’t make ribbons for 11th place.

My plan going into the race was to hammer the first few blocks through town and try to get into the lead before we hit the trail to make sure I didn’t get stuck in a slow-moving conga line. Then, once I established my lead, I could prevent Kilian or anyone else from passing me on the narrow single-track by running with my elbows out wide.

 “Sounds like a reasonable plan,” you’re probably thinking. [Ed: Nope, not thinking that all. Sounds like a recipe for a shit-show soufflé!]. “Wait, who the fuck is this ‘Ed’ guy,” you are now likely wondering. I don’t know either, but he better check himself before he wrecks himself!

Anyway… I could feel that I was working a bit too hard on the single-track section, but I kept reminding myself that it was just three miles and that soon (once we crossed Arastra Creek) I would be comfortably power hiking up the mountain towards Dive’s Little Giant, smelling the wildflowers and oohing and ahhing at the views.

Kilian beat me with one arm tied behind his pack, and barefoot!
photo by Salomon

As the creek came into view I was surprised to see Kilian sitting on the ground on the far side of the creek re-tying his shoelace. “Double knots, dummy!” I almost yelled… until I realized that he had intentionally removed his socks and shoes and carried them across the river to avoid getting his socks wet.

“What’s he doing? He’s run this race before,” I thought to myself, “He should know there’s twenty creek crossings up ahead all along Pole Creek. No way he can keep his feet dry.” (I later read that Kilian says he’s not a morning person and that he likes to ease into the day. Apparently, he prefers to not get his socks wet before noon. Umm, Ok.)

Being the jackass I am, I did my best to “accidentally” splash Kilian as much as possible as I charged through the river, flailing my arms and legs wildly like an Ostrich trying to take flight. (Yes, I’m an asshole). After the river crossing, I settled into power-hiking mode and began the long four-mile climb up the mountain, my wet shoes squeaking and sloshing with each step. Seconds later Kilian pranced past me, probably sipping a demitasse of espresso and smiling like a man who still had warm dry socks. That fucker!

Don’t talk to me in the morning before I’ve had at least seven cups of coffee

It’s 6 am and I’ve only had a single cup of coffee. I’m half awake… and it’s not my good half. Some of the other runners are doing this weird thing where they look at me, move their mouths, and make strange sounds. I guess it’s called “talking”? But fuck that shit. I’m still grumpy as hell. Plus, we’re at well over 12,000 feet elevation and I’m not sure there’s enough oxygen to go around. So, I do this thing where I breath manically, glare at people, and wave my trekking poles menacingly.

Eventually the dirt road turns into single track and I suspect that I am approaching the top of the climb. Plus, there’s a bunch of excited spectators standing on the side of the trail screaming, “you’re almost at the top of the climb.”

As the trail flattens out at the top, I figure I should probably do a little jogging. You know, just in case somebody decides to take an unflattering pic of me walking (and possibly picking my nose) along what is clearly a very runnable section of trail.

And sure enough, just seconds later, after I pass a guy on his phone, I immediately hear the unmistakable “ding” of Facebook announcing that I’ve been tagged in a photo. Welcome to modern ultra running; I bet Gordy Ainsleigh never had to deal with this shit when he first ran Western States back in 1974.

The descent down from Dives Little Giant down to Cunningham Gulch was super steep and sketchy, and I immediately start regretting my shoe selection, having opted for comfort over traction by wearing my roomy New Balance rather than squeezing my giant sausage toes into my narrow Salomons.

Not to marginalize the struggles of my transgender friends, but I do occasionally joke that I’m actually an elite woman runner trapped in the body of a non-elite man. Which is just a comical way of saying that I often find myself running with the female front-runners (no doubt frustrating the film crews trying to document the women’s race and hoping that the random dude running directly between the 2nd and 3rd place woman will move the hell out of their shot).

While the lead woman, Caroline Chaverot (from France), was already well ahead of me, I also found myself getting passed on the descent by both Darcy Piceu and Nathalie Mauclair. Any hope I had of finishing on the women’s podium was about to go out the window. (Again with the joking). So, I picked up the pace and tucked in right behind the ladies, content to enjoy the stunning views (of the mountains, you pervs).

Paparazzi... at every river, on every mountain, behind every tree
photo by Patchanida Pongsubkarun

That time I got tired and sat down on a rock only 12 miles into the fucking race

At the bottom of the descent we crossed another small creek (where I presume Kilian again de-socked and de-shoed himself) right before the Cunningham Gulch aid station. As I pulled into the aid station I was happy to see my buddy Jeff Clowers, who was supporting me in a dual role as both “Crew Chief” and “Senior Vice President of Water Bottle Refilling.”

Jeff helped me fill up my stupid Salomon soft flasks. Unlike conventional hard-plastic water bottles that can easily be refilled with one hand, it takes at least three hands to properly grasp and fill those stupid soft flasks, which flop around and slip out of your hand – much like an over-lubed, semi-flaccid… umm, never mind.

Also, while I’m complaining. What’s with the super tiny narrow mouth openings on top of the Salomon flasks? Clearly they were designed by some European engineer who has never seen an actual American-size ice cube.

In what was to be just the first of numerous (innumerable?) mistakes I would make throughout the race, I quickly rushed through the aid station without taking on board many calories. For those of you unfamiliar with “calories”, they are these super helpful things that help you keep moving when you would otherwise want to just stop and sit down on a rock.

So, there I was, a few miles later, sitting on a rock catching my breath, trying to pretend I’d only stopped to take a quick picture (or two) of the mountains behind me. I was also pretending that I was having trouble choosing an Instagram filter. Keep in mind that I didn’t have an actual camera or phone; I was just holding my fingers up in the shape of the square and making fake shutter-clicking noises with my mouth.

Eventually I made it to the top of the climb up to Green Mountain and Buffalo Boy Ridge. “Green Mountain” is very aptly, if relatively unimaginatively, named. It’s a mountain. And it’s green. “Buffalo Boy Ridge” on the other hand, which is apparently named after the now abandoned Buffalo Boy Mine, is completely devoid of buffalo or boys. It does however have an abundance of rocks, some of which I managed to conveniently stub my toe on. But I trudged on.

Which Instagram filter to use, Lo-Fi or X-Pro-II?
Photo by IRunFar.com

That time I spent several minutes screaming and rolling around on the ground

As we crested the mountain, now above the tree line and fully exposed in the mid-morning sun, I couldn’t help think about the fact that, at slightly over 13,000 feet, not only is there less oxygen in the air, but we were essentially several miles closer to the sun! At a distance of over 90 million miles, an extra mile or two probably don’t make any appreciable difference. But I was feeling hot just thinking about it!

After descending off the ridge and dropping down a bit in altitude, I immediately started feeling better. I picked up the pace on the descent down to Maggie Gulch aid station and caught back up to a couple runners who had passed me while I was having my make-pretend photo shoot on the rock.

Up in the distance ahead I could see a yellow shirt – which I presumed probably belonged to another runner (garments of clothing rarely run down mountains on their own). But I couldn’t tell whether it was the yellow shirt of Karl Meltzer or Nathalie Mauclair – which is not to say that Karl runs like a girl, or that Nathalie is built like man. [Oh Christ, I’m digging myself into a hole here.].

Anyway, I caught up to and chatted with the yellow shirt; it spoke decent English, albeit with a heavy French àccent. Further up ahead I could now see a red shirt. I wondered to myself which language it might speak?

I had been steadily gaining on the red shirt, when suddenly it disappeared; it was no longer anywhere on the trail. Then, by chance, I noticed some movement out of the corner of my eye on the ridge line above me. I looked up and saw a guy in a red shirt fifty feet above me. How the fuck did he get up there? And why the hell was I still down here? So many questions!

After backtracking, I discovered that I'd obliviously run past a group of three red flags tucked discretely off into the weeds. Even once I corrected course, the "trail" was still pretty hard to follow. I saw a flag above me on top of a steep hill. Well, I guess we go straight up?

Hardrock Pro Tip #1: One key differences between Hardrock and most other races is that at Hardrock you sometimes just randomly turn off a perfectly good trail and inexplicably start hiking off into the shrubs.

Having spent the last hour or so doing some pretty brisk running, my legs weren’t happy about the abrupt switch from running to power hiking. Suddenly my inner thigh seized up. I cried out in pain and frantically started grabbing at my cramping leg.

Just then, three other runners ran by on the trail below (including the yellow shirt of Nathalie Mauclair). They had apparently also missed the turn. They looked up and saw me yelling and thrashing frantically. “Oh look, he’s trying to alert us that we’ve strayed off course,” they probably thought, “What a gentleman.” I felt slightly embarrassed. But I trudged on.

It’s a beautiful day for… a hail storm?

My leg was still feeling “twitchy” as if it might cramp up again if I pushed too hard or took too big of a step. However, aside from the gimpy leg, I was otherwise feeling pretty damn good. So, I just tried to be careful and to focus on running as smoothly as possible.

Somewhere around Pole Creek I caught up with two more runners including, the red-shirted runner who unwittingly saved my race with his choice of such a bright-colored, highly-visible shirt. (What if he had worn green instead? Or desert camo? I probably would have run all the way into New Mexico before realizing I’d gone off course.)

Anyway, it turns out the red-shirted guy was Ted Mahon, a bad-ass mountaineer, skier, adventurer who has completed Hardrock eight times. Oh, and he’s climbed Mt. Everest too. I figured it would probably be a good idea to try to stick with him for a while.

I tucked in behind Ted and started following in his footsteps – quite literally. When he’d run, I’d run; when he’d hike, I’d hike. If he stepped in a puddle, I’d step in the same puddle. If he inadvertently kicked a rock, I’d purposely kick the same rock. If he looked up at the rain clouds and sighed, I too would look up and sigh. 

After a few minutes, I suspected that Ted might be getting a little annoyed (and/or freaked out) by having some weirdo running right behind him silently copying his every move.  I figured I should probably try to strike up a conversation. “So, who’s your favorite Pokémon?” was the first thing that popped out of my mouth. And yet, despite Ted’s blank stare, for some reason I dug in even deeper, “Most people like Tyranitaur because he looks like a complete bad ass, but I prefer Blissey because…”

An afternoon thunderstorm rolls in like clockwork
photo by IRunFar.com

Thankfully, my blathering was interrupted by a loud crack of thunder as the rapidly darkening skies lit up with lightning. And then it immediately started to rain. “This is nice; I kind of like the rain,” I was saying when suddenly the rain abruptly transformed into hard, painful pellets of ice. Ping, ping, ping. “Ow, fuck, shit! Hail!” But I trudged on.

As both the velocity and the mass of the hail stones started to increase, the hail strikes themselves became increasingly less pleasant. I’ll resist the temptation to launch into lengthy discussion of Newtonian Mechanics, and instead just say that there’s a big difference between having a soft, mushy apple fall gently on your head from a tree, than having a frozen pellet of ice shot down from the Heavens strike you directly in the groin. “Nice dick shot God,” I laughed out in pain, “you really got me that time!”

The entire trail was covered in a blanket of white. Ted and I were both laughing at the absurdity of the situation as we descended from Cataract Lake down toward Sherman. Two grown men running down the mountain in a hail storm, whooping and hollering like carefree children (if carefree children cursed like drunken pirates).

I did my best to keep up with Ted but it was somewhat difficult (and impractical) trying to run with both hands securely covering my crotch to ward off any more divinely-guided, dick-seeking, hail-stones. As I stopped to dig my rain jacket out of my pack, I chuckled recalling that just a few miles ago I had been dunking my hat in the cold creek crossings to prevent from overheating; and now here I was I fumbling in my pack for my warm jacket.

Hardrock Pro Tip #2 Another big difference between Hardrock and most other races: at Hardrock, one minute you can be worrying about dying from dehydration or heat stroke; and a few minutes later you are suddenly worrying about drowning in a flooded river, getting struck by lightning, or freezing in a hail storm.

As Ted and I stumbled into the Sherman aid station (mile 28.8), completely soaked despite our supposedly “waterproof” jackets, I jokingly reached into my drop bag and asked him if he needed to borrow any of my sunblock. “No, I’m good. I have my own,” he dead-panned, reaching into his drop bag and pulling out an identical tube of the same sunblock. I wasn’t sure if he was oblivious to my poor attempt at humor, or if he genuinely planned to apply sunscreen in the middle of a raging storm.

I grabbed a quick bite to eat at the aid station and got a hug from fellow Quicksilver teammate Clare Abram (who was there crewing/pacing prolific East Bay runner Mark Tanaka for his first Hardrock). I was ready to leave the aid station, but Ted was still sitting down, changing into dry socks and shoes – even though it was still storming out.

“Hell, maybe he really is going to re-apply sunblock,” I mused to myself. Not wanting to lose too much time, or get too cold waiting around, I told Ted I was going head out the aid station together with another runner, three-time women’s Hardrock winner, Darcy Piceu (Africa). I figured Ted would catch back up to us; but if not, I was probably in equally good hands with Darcy. “Hey Darcy… who’s your favorite Pokémon?” No response.

Darcy didn’t seem very talkative. Maybe she was going through a rough spot. Or maybe she’s just not a Pokémon fan? In any case, I decided to run ahead. That’s when I saw a hand-made cardboard sign on the side of the road that said, “Rare Pokémon ahead”! I started sprinting up the road. I quickly caught up to Kirk Apt and then Anna “Frosty” Frost. “Have you guys seen any Pokémon?” I gasped as I sprinted past. No response. But I trudged on!

Taking on a short “dirt nap” (Handies Peak)

“Frosty” and I arrived into Burrows aid station (mile 32.6) together, but she only spent about 7 seconds in the aid station while I screwed around and was there for at least 13 and a half seconds, if not a full 14 seconds.  It took me a good two miles to catch back up!

About two-thirds of the way up the climb up Handies I started to feel like shit. I wasn’t sure if it was the altitude, or fatigue from pushing too hard earlier, or lack of calories, or maybe some combination thereof? But suddenly I found myself in a rough spot. My pace slowed to a crawl. I resorted to using a mental trick I like to call, “just make it to the next rock”. Each time I made it to a new rock, I would allow myself a few seconds to rest and catch my breath before proceeding on ahead to the next rock.

This well-known motivational technique of picking objects in the distance (like a sign post, or a tree, or a large rock) can be a very effective way of breaking large (seemingly incomprehensible) distances into more manageable bite-size chunks. In this case however, there was a rock every couple inches, so I ended up doing quite a bit of resting in between hiking from one rock to the next. During this section, both Ted and Frosty blew past me.

Once I made it to the top of Handies (at just over 14,000 feet), I wasn’t quite sure where I was supposed to go. I didn’t see any obvious trail, and Ted and Anna were both long gone. I decided the sensible thing to do would be to just lay down and die take a quick dirt nap and wait for another runner to come along. However, I was hoping it wouldn’t be too long as nine of my fingers had already gone numb from the cold (my right thumb was strangely fine).

A few minutes later Darcie Piceu came charging over the summit. And then she charged straight off the cliff side… to her death! Or so I assumed. But alas, thankfully there was a trail down there. Which I guess she probably knew. I gave her a thumbs up (with my non-frozen thumb) and tried to follow behind her.

Photo of a guy who looks a bit like me (but isn't actually me), Mike Foote
photo by Phillip Reiter

Excited to have found the trail again, I was looking forward to a long section of downhill running. However, much to my shock and horror, after not quite even two miles of downhill, I suddenly found myself hiking back uphill… in the snow! Apparently the “descent” down the backside of Handies into Grouse Gulch isn’t all downhill.

I’d forgotten about the tough 500 ft. climb up and over Grouse American Pass, which tops out at a bit over 13,000 feet. I had known this; But I’d forgotten. And thus, a lot of cursing ensured when I found myself hiking back uphill on what I assumed was going to be an all downhill section. But I trudged on!

Hardrock Pro Tip #3: At Hardrock even the “all downhill” sections still have some uphill. And lots of snow. Always with the fucking snow.

That “bonk” (or whatever it was) on the way up Handies shook my confidence. However, I started feeling better (at least physically) after dropping back down off Grouse American Pass once I got back down beneath 13,000 feet.

Coming into the race, I wasn’t anticipating having any problems with altitude. The altitude hadn’t bothered me when I did the race in 2014. Also, I’d recently spent week at altitude up at Lake Tahoe before I flew out to Hardrock; I’d felt pretty good on my runs between 8,000 and 10,000 feet at Tahoe. Plus, I’d been using my Hypoxico altitude tent (on the maximum setting of exactly 13,000 ft.) for a couple hours each day for the past few months.

But in retrospect, it may not be a coincidence my altitude tent tops out at 13,000 feet, and that I seemed to struggle whenever I climbed up above 13,000. Next time I think I will invest in the optional “high-altitude adapter” that boosts range of the tent up from 13,000 to 21,000 feet!

As I dropped down towards the Grouse Gulch aid station, I was looking forward to seeing my crew (Jeff) who I hadn’t seen in over nine hours since Cunningham at mile 9. I was also stoked to be picking up my pacer, Marc Laveson, who’d been instrumental in my first finish at Hardrock in 2014.

Super pacer, Marc Laveson, to the rescue

In our text exchanges leading up to the race Marc had expressed great excitement, at one point exclaiming, “I hope we get struck by lightning this year!”. While I appreciated his enthusiasm, I was leaning more towards not getting struck by lightning. I suggested that Marc should run with a long steel rod sticking out of his hydration pack in order to draw the lightning away from me. And maybe tie a kite (with a set of keys) to the end of the pole for good measure!

Sadly, we I came running into the Grouse Gulch aid station (mile 42.2), Marc was wearing neither lightning rod nor kite! He mumbled something about, “dumb TSA carry-on policies”. Whatever.

I wasn’t in the best of spirits as I was still sulking about my meltdown on Handies. But my Crew Chief (and Senior Vice President of Water-Bottle Refilling), Jeff Clowers, was there… with Mountain Dew! But, for reasons that are still unclear to me, he asked (with a straight face) whether I wanted ice-cold Mountain Dew or lukewarm Mountain Dew.

I inquired, quite sarcastically, whether the lukewarm Mountain Dew would be served with, or without, dead flies? Also, I immediately demoted Jeff, on the spot, from “Senior VP of Water Bottle Refilling” down to “Interim Assistant Manager of Water-Bottle Refilling”. Who the fuck drinks lukewarm Mountain Dew???? That’s not even a real thing!

I chugged a couple gallons of (ice-cold) Mountain Dew. And then, stoned out of my mind on caffeine and high-fructose corn syrup, I set off with Marc toward Engineer Pass – ready to conquer the world! Five minutes I was laying on the side of the trail convulsing.  

Sensing that I was crashing from my sugar high and perhaps on the verge of resorting to turning tricks for Skittles, Marc distracted me by sharing some news of the day:
  • Last year’s co-champion Jason Schlarb had dropped out at the first aid station only 10 miles into the race! 
  • Last-year’s other co-champion, Kilian Jornet, had fallen and dislocated his shoulder! But he’d apparently fashioned a makeshift sling out of some duct tape and his hydration vest, and he was now back in the lead.
  • Women’s leader Caroline Cheverot had gone out ridiculously hard, ahead of most of the men, and was pace to shatter the women’s course record – barring any catastrophe.
  • Joe Grant’s mother had been caught (on camera) screaming at Joe that he better not lose to a girl… or something about not being able to come home for Thanksgiving.
Pacer, Marc Laveson, fills me on the news and gossip of the day.
photo by Jeff Clowers (Crew Chief and Senior Vice President of Water-Bottle Refilling)

Lifted by Marc’s tales of other people’s woes suffering, I suddenly felt reinvigorated! A few hundred yards ahead in the distance I could make out the distinctive blue skort of Anna Frost. I put my head down and “ratcheted” up the pace.

Thus began, what was essentially the world’s greatest slow-motion chase! Every few miles Marc would excitedly exclaim, “I think we made up another inch, maybe two!” Each time I would respond with an enthusiastic (though quite sarcastic) thumbs up. But I trudged on.

As Marc and I crested the top of the climb, Anna was nowhere to be seen. Alarm bells went off in my head. Looking around I spotted another one of those turns where we suddenly veer off the trail and jump down off the side of a cliff. Thankfully this time I had been on the lookout for those little flags hidden in the weeds. As George W. Bush once remarked, “Fool me once, shame on… shame on you. Fool me… you can't get fooled again!”. And I did not get fooled again!

We ran down to the Engineer aid station (mile 48.7) where I pretended to eat (but did not actually eat) some food. My stomach was still feeling nauseous (And my leg was still feeling “twitchy”.) But, my thumb had finally thawed out. So, you know, focus on the positives I guess!

Having basically just spent the past few hours hiking, Marc was excited about doing some actual running on the trail down from Engineer to Ouray. I was less excited. Much less excited. If you’re not familiar with the course, Bear Creek trail is narrow ledge that was basically dynamited into the side of the cliff hundreds of feet above the river. There is no guard rail. If you take a corner too fast and lose your footing… it’s probably not going to end super great.

Despite my objections – which were numerous, frequent, and vocal – we put in some good running on the descent and managed to arrive at Ouray just before dusk. My Crew Chief, Jeff Clowers – who I’d demoted at Grouse Gulch over the now infamous “Mountain Dew-Gate” fiasco – was on hand and redeemed himself by helping me change my dirty socks, and by once again plying me with ice-cold Mountain Dew.

Bear Creek is probably not the best place to be checking your Facebook messages
photo by Big Johnny Burton

This shit sucks!  

It’s important not to waste a lot of time at aid stations. My approach to aid-station time management is similar to my approach to love-making: get in quick; get out quick! But arriving into Ouray (mile 56.6), I decided to take a minute to sit down and enjoy a beer – a ginger beer?

I hadn’t been eating much all day due to nausea, so my pacer Marc thought a ginger beer might settle my stomach, while also sneaking in some calories. I only agreed to drink that crap because I mistakenly assumed it was actual beer – you know, the kind with alcohol! But no, it was all a scam.

Marc and I put on our headlamps and headed out of the aid station into the dark – as sober as we had entered. Originally I had planned to run most of the 7-mile long gradual climb up Bird Camp Road to Governor Basin. But, you know, I’d been drinking when I formulated that plan. Instead, Marc and I power-hiked most of it, with a few bouts of compulsory jogging thrown it on the flat bits.

Due to our erratic pacing, we ended up leap frogging with other runners quite a bit on this stretch of road. I was surprised to see so many runners all bunched together so tightly. Earlier in the day, I’d basically had each aid station to myself. But as we pulled into Governor’s, I found myself going elbow to elbow with Jamil Coury and Anna Frost for the last Salted Caramel Gu.

Leaving Governor’s aid station (mile 64.5) and heading up towards Kroger’s Canteen, I knew exactly what was awaiting us – a steep, towering wall of snow. And I was afraid; very afraid. (Though not as afraid as when you try to kill a spider on the ceiling but it falls on your pillow and disappears and you have no idea where it went. Not quite that bad. But still, bad).

“Winter is coming,” I quietly whispered. “White walkers. The Night King. We’re all going to die!!!”

“Didn't you say they have perogies at the top?” Marc asked, completely ignoring my dire forecast.

“Yes, and tequila too,” I replied begrudgingly.

In the end, I did somehow make it to the top – thanks in large part to 90-meter-long rope on the final pitch that we could use to pull ourselves up. The Kroger’s Canteen aid station (mile 67.8) is difficult to describe. It’s a small rocky saddle at the top of the mountain with barely enough room for a few people to stand. Yet somehow the volunteers haul hundreds of pounds of food and water (and apparently, Tequila) up the steep, snowy cliff in the days before the race.

I was still feeling nauseous, so I just had a small “no-thank-you helping” of Coke to appease ultra-running legend, Scott Jurek, who was working the aid station and didn’t want to send me out without any calories. Heading out of the aid station, Marc suggested that we try and do a little running; I suggested that he go to hell.

This was the section of the course where I had fallen and shattered my finger in 2014, a feat I had no plans to try and duplicate this year. Plus, the trail was covered completely in snow. And there were probably White Walkers lurking behind the trees. I was fairly certain we were going to die horribly. But I trudged on.

After a bit of route finding over some snow drifts, we finally located the road down toward Telluride.  The initial few miles of the descent were snowy and slippery; which sucked. The next miles were rocky and rutted; which also sucked. But, little did I know at the time, neither of those things would suck anywhere near as much as the climb we would encounter leaving Telluride.

This shit sucked!
photo by Mark Tanaka


This shit sucks worse!

As we made our way off the mountain and into the paved streets of downtown Telluride, there weren’t many revelers out partying at 1 am. I’m gonna go out on a limb and say that Telluride probably doesn’t have a vibrant night-club scene?

But, while the town residents may have all been asleep, my buddy Jeff was thankfully still awake and standing by with… more Mountain Dew! At this point I didn’t care whether it was warm, cold, or three-days old. I was so grateful that I decided to restore him to the full rank of “Vice-Admiral of Water-Bottle Refilling”.

Heading out of Telluride (mile 72.8) I was feeling strangely optimistic. Sure, my gimpy leg was still threatening to seize up at any second. And yes, I was still nauseous and hadn’t eaten any solid food since – well, yesterday, technically. But hey, we only had a little over a marathon left to go! Woo hoo.

“Fuck, we’ve still got a marathon to go,” I gasped to Marc as we power hiked up the long dirt road out of Telluride towards Oscars Pass. Suddenly, another runner and his pacer came sprinting by us. Sprinting… On a long, steep uphill. I turned to Marc with a confused look on my face that basically said, “Oh crap. What the fuck is happening? Are these guys really gonna sprint up the entire mountain?”.

Marc smiled, rolled his eyes, and shot back an expression that I interpreted as, “Who do these donkey fuckers think they’re fooling? No way these jackasses are gonna run the whole way. They’ll probably start walking once they get around the corner.”

A few miles later we caught back up with the “donkey fuckers” (who I’m sure are terrific dudes – when they’re not fucking donkeys). They were no longer sprinting. Nor even running. Nor even walking particularly fast. Though in their defense, the section of trail did suck donkey balls. Not only was it ridiculously steep, but it included several sketchy snow-bridges that crossed over treacherous icy mountain streams.

If I had been out there alone, I would have laid down on the side of the trail and cried myself to sleep. But Marc was in great spirits, and he made it look easy as he bounded up the mountain like a perkier (more-heavily bearded) Julie Andrews, belting out, “The hills are alive with the sound of music…”. I won't lie; I kinda wanted to punch him in the face. But I trudged on.

We must have been moving well as we somehow caught up to and passed a couple other runners during the night (including Scott Jaime and Grant Guise) near the top of the Oscar’s Pass, which was completely covered in snow! I don’t recall much about the descent down into Chapman Gulch except that we caught up with Darcy Piceu just after dawn, right before the aid station.

I was in great spirits, having just put in some strong running (well, some strong hiking anyway) through the night, and having moved up 5 places. I was pretty sure that I was now in the top 10. Also, my nausea has miraculously subsided and I managed to eat two whole quesadillas! Correction, I managed to eat two whole bites, of one very-tiny piece, of quesadilla. But still, things were looking up!

And that’s when disaster struck. Throughout most of the race I’d had no idea what position I was in. Earlier in the day, I figured I was pretty far back, as no one had bothered to tell me how I was doing. Spectators rarely shout, “Yes! You’re in 47th place!”. But now I was fairly confident that I had moved up into the top ten and was going to realize my goal of, "top 10 or death".

As we left the aid station at Chapman (mile 82.1), Marc asked a volunteer how many people were ahead of us.  When she looked at her clipboard and said we were in 13th place, I was absolutely crushed. Just like that, I quietly gave up. That's not to say that I plopped down on the trail and tore off my bib number. No, I kept moving. My legs were still willing to fight. But my mind had already put on some comfortable pajamas and poured a giant glass of wine. But, I trudged on.


Where's the flat, runnable stuff???

This shit also sucks… in its own unique way

Things got even worse, when after leaving the aid station, we quickly came to a “peculiarly marked” intersection. By “peculiarly marked”, I mean marked in such a way as to provide no actual assistance whatsoever, and causing more confusion than if it hadn’t even been marked at all!

As we approached the intersection there was only one marker, and it was on the right-hand side of our trail, directly before the intersection. There were no additional markers on the far side of the intersection, nor any markers (to the right or the left) of the trail we were intersecting. Marc and I debated what to do. I suggested we turn right. Marc however, reminded me, that when in doubt at Hardrock always choose the steepest, shittiest route possible. And so, we went straight.

Hardrock pro tip #4: In the absence of any course markings, go uphill. Unless, there’s a river; in which case cross the river and then go uphill. Or unless you’ve reached the top of the mountain, in which case look for the steepest, scariest, most snowy route down and go that way.

Three or four miles after the “peculiarly marked” intersection, as we were almost to the top of the climb, we finally saw a confidence marker indicating we going the right way. “Yeah, thanks for that guys; super fucking helpful,” I yelled loudly while holding up both middle fingers.

“Oh shit,” Marc interrupted. That got my attention! From my experience, it’s rarely a good sign when your pacer blurts out, “Oh shit”. It’s hardly ever, “Oh shit, look, there’s the finish line already” or “Oh shit, someone left this cold beer sitting on the trail.” Rather, it’s usually – as it was in this particular case – “Oh shit, how are we supposed to climb up that!”.

Against my better judgement I raised my eyes and looked up. Fuck! It was a giant wall of scree. (Damn it, I knew I shouldn’t have looked up.) Marc, sensing my trepidation, did his best to reassure me. “I think we can probably make it!”, he chirped. Umm, nice pep talk coach! While I had no idea how this was going to unfold, if I were a betting man, I would have put my money on “death by avalanche or other Act of God”. But, I trudged on.

Spoiler alert: we did not die in an avalanche – as much as I would have preferred it at the time.  No, somehow we made it up the scree field to the summit of Grant Swamp Pass where I promptly collapsed on the ground – to the delight of the film crew who scrambled into action to thoroughly document my suffering.

Summiting Grant-Swamp Pass scree field
photo by Ben Wyrick Imagery

Eventually I got up and started trotting down the mountain. Though, much to Marc’s dismay, I kept screwing around and stopping every few minutes. First to take care of some urgent business in the bushes. Then to extricate a “giant rock” from my shoe, which turned out to be a quite small pebble (or possibly even just a large grain of sand). And finally to change shirts. “Hey Marc, which shirt makes me look faster,” I asked, “the white Salomon tee, or the blue Patagonia tank?”

Alas, my fashion show ended abruptly as Darcy Piceu came flying down the trail. Reluctantly I tucked in behind Darcy and did some actual running for a while. But that didn’t last very long. I was doing my best to “keep my foot on the gas pedal” as they say, but I kept hearing this strange knocking sound. And then my “check engine” light suddenly started flashing. And then smoke poured out from under my shorts. And then my tires went flat.

Embracing the suck

I tried to convince Marc that we should hitch-hike back to the finish… Or, call an Uber! But he mumbled about his phone being dead. And so, we trudged on. Darcy and another runner were just leaving the KT aid station (mile 89.1) as Marc and I hiked in. With only 10 or so miles left, I knew I could make to the finish line, but I was in no mood to race anyone. I was ready to be done.

I told Marc that I didn’t have any fight left in me and that I was just going to hike it in to the finish. I knew his feet were bothering him, as he’d come into the race with some bad blisters from a multi-day excursion in the Olympic Mountains a few days prior. I asked him to catch a ride out from the aid station so that he could hopefully save what was left of his feet for his upcoming races at White River 50 and Run Rabbit Run 100.

And so, I shuffled off alone, once more up the mountain. On paper, the final climb doesn’t look particularly intimidating. “How hard can it be,” I asked rhetorically. Two miles later, I was slumped over a rock puking on my shoes. “Touché. Well played, Hardrock.” After my puke break, I continued shuffling up the mountain, stopping occasionally to catch my breath and take in the views.

At one point, I looked back behind and saw two figures on the ridge below. It looked like a male runner and his female pacer. The guy appeared to be down on one knee, possibly fishing something out of his pocket. I hope he’s not proposing to her, I thought. And I hope he’s not kneeling in a puddle of my puke. But hey, that’s Hardrock for you!

Eventually, after a half-dozen or so false summits I finally made it to the top of Cataract-Putnam Ridge. The descent down to Putnam aid station (mile 94.7) was very runnable; but I walked it. In fact, I walked all the way to the finish! Six runners passed me in those final miles, and I happily stepped off to the side of the trail and cheered each one on.

Lesser men might have been shamed into jogging the last few blocks, or at least running down the finishing chute. Nope, I walked all that shit. I walked proudly, triumphantly! I walked like a man who had embraced his mortality, grabbed it by the ass, and kissed it on the mouth. I went for broke, and I got broke. But I trudged on. 😉

The End


3 comments:

Jean Pommier said...

Fascinating account of your persistence to endure, congrats for another finish! Not sure why, but you make me want to try this one one day... ;-) Let see how UTMB goes first...

Big Johnny Burton said...

Thanks Jean! Best of luck at UTMB. I was almost about to say, "Break a leg!" but then I was worried that you might take that too literally. LOL. So instead, let me just say, "Have a great race".

I look forward to reading your UTMB race report afterwards. That race is definitely on my bucket list too!

Duke said...

It took me a few days to finally finish reading this, so really, it's harder, takes more effort and more time to read your Hardrock race report than it did for you to run the Hardrock. No lottery required, either. Sorry you didn't meet your goal of "top 10 or die trying", but look on the the bright side, you will eventually die.