Tuesday, July 15, 2014

2014 Hardrock Race Report

Feeling cautiously optimistic
photo by Hardrock Endurance Run
** Click here for my 2017 Hardrock 100 race report: A tale of puke, hail storms, and lukewarm Mountain Dew. **

We Probably Won’t Die

My pacer Marc Laveson and I crouched down in the rain at the bottom of Handies Peak wondering how long it would take hypothermia to set in and kill us. We had both curled ourselves into fetal positions, trying to make our bodies as small as possible to avoid the lightning flashing around us.

 Although we didn’t know it at the time, fellow runner Adam Campbell and his pacer had just been struck by lightning on top of the mountain. The blast knocked him off his feet and short-circuited his headlamp.

Marc and I had only been huddled for about five minutes, but I was already starting to get unacceptably cold. I briefly contemplated asking Marc if he thought perhaps we should spoon each other to stay warm. You learn a lot about yourself in a situation like that.

And what I learned was that I would rather risk having my internal organs fried by 1,000 Giga Watts of static electricity than to have Marc’s beard nuzzling against the back of my neck. Instead I suggested that we press on, explaining that the storm was actually moving away from us up the mountain at a faster pace than my tired legs would allow us to hike.

We had just spent the better part of half an hour running for our lives, racing down Engineer into Grouse Gulch dodging lightning bolts in the dusk. We’d been afraid to turn our headlamps on for fear that it might attract the lightning or somehow make it easier for the bolts to see and find us. I’m not sure if that’s really how lightning works. Maybe I should have paid more attention during physics class in high school.

Now we were leaving the safety and warmth of the aid station behind and climbing towards certain doom up a 14,000 ft. mountain into the heart of an electrical storm. I guess this is one of those stories about smart dudes who do stupid things when a shiny belt buckle is on the line.

Scouting the course with Kristina
photo by Kristina Irvin
How Hard Can Hardrock Really be I Wonder?

I first heard about Hardrock 10 years ago from my friend (and ultra-running mentor) Kristina Irvin who has 7 Hardrock finishes along with an unofficial finish where she completed the course just 3 minutes over the 48 hour cut off.

Listening to Kristina describe the rugged course, off-trail route finding, and unrelenting endless climbs I knew that I would one day find my way to the San Juan Mountains. Little did I suspect that it would take me 10 years to finally reach Silverton and the starting line.

I arrived in Silverton, Colorado on Monday evening a few days before the Friday start of this year’s Hardrock 100. This was definitely going to be the hardest thing I had ever attempted. Yet I was cautiously optimistic.

I now had a decade of ultra-running experience under my belt, along with a collection of buckles to go with it from Black Hills 100, Tahoe Rim Trail, The Bear, Western States, and Pinhoti. I’d also fine-tuned my training, nutrition, and race-day pacing strategies. I’d even been sleeping in a Hypoxico altitude tent for the last 3 years in hopes that I would one day get selected in the Hardrock lottery.

There I was, hiking the last 9-mile section of the course on the Tuesday before the race with Kristina, soaking it all in. It was finally happening. I was about to run my dream race! Suddenly panic set in. Oh shit, I was about to run my dream race!

Everyone back home was going to be watching, staying up late into the night and waking up early in the morning to track me online. Bryon Powell  had even given me a shout out as “Other Men to Watch Out For” in the irunfar Hardrock Preview. What if I didn’t live up to all the expectations? What if I had a bad race? Ugh.

Luckily I managed to convince me friend and Quicksilver Running Club teammate Marc Laveson to come out and pace me. Marc is a super-fast and experienced runner who has run 18:47 at Western States and finished on the podium at San Diego 100. I knew that he had put his name in for Hardrock and he hoped to run it one day, so I figured this would be a good way for him to see the course in a relaxed low-pressure situation.

Running down Grant Swamp Pass
photo by Gary Wang
Super Hard, it Turns Out

“Fuck, I just broke my finger” I scream. I’d just taken a hard fall on the top of Oscar’s Pass at mile 20 and shooting pain was sheering through my bloody finger. Luckily I had just passed fellow runner and Veteran Hardrocker David Coblentz who was right behind me. “Stick that thing in the snow for 5 minutes or so to stop the bleeding and numb it up” he wisely suggests.

Five minutes later I pull my now frozen right ring finger out of the snow and shove it into a tight fitting neoprene glove. Time to get moving again. It hurts like hell but nothing is going to stop me from kissing that rock in Silverton.

“Did you kill a deer or something” the aid station volunteer asks I as show up with my shirt and bib number all covered in blood. “No, I just fractured my finger” I explain nonchalantly as I refill my water bottle and scarf down a turkey wrap. Any other race would have probably pulled me out and called the doctor. But this is Hardrock, so they just nod and say “OK. Only 4 miles until the next aid station, but it’s all uphill with a 4,000 ft. climb”. “Cool, thanks” I reply and head off with pockets stuffed with ginger-snaps.

The hike up to Virginius Pass sucks and I periodically blurt out obscenities and loudly threaten the lives of the Hardrock Board of Directors. Luckily my idle threats are only heard by a marmot who seems unimpressed. I catch and pass a few other runners in the section including Shigeru Furuta, David Coblentz (who wisely advised me to ice my broken finger in the snow), and Eric Lee (who completed the grueling Nolan’s 14 in 2012).

Eric later catches back up to me as we summit Virginius Pass arriving together into Kroger Canteen. However Eric descends down the three snow fields on the backside of Virginius like a mountain goat disappearing off into the distance while I stumbled down trying not to fall and bump my broken finger.

Thankfully once we arrive at Governor Basin aid station I learn that we have 8 miles of easy downhill running into Ouray. This is where I go against every piece of advice anyone has ever given about running Hardrock and I drop the hammer and throw down a bunch of 7 minute miles on the road down into Ouray.

Conventional wisdom holds that running this long downhill section hard will trash your legs and leave you unable to climb strong on the long 9 mile ascent out of Ouray up Engineer. But like I always say, “hammer now, worry later”.

Running Bear Creek Trail
photo by Marc Laveson
There’s a Reason They Don’t Make Bacon-Flavored Gels

“I think that bacon was a bad idea” I tell my pacer Marc as I pick him up in Ouray. I’m feeling a bit nauseous. “Well, you’re looking better than most of the guys in front of you” Marc offers. “Timmy Olson looked like he was really hurting. I think you can catch him”. I smile and laugh at such an absurd suggestion. But Marc is following the golden rule of pacing: lie your ass off and tell your runner whatever they need to hear.

After overshooting a turn and getting slightly off course for the second time today (I also made a wrong turn leaving Telluride) Marc and I start the long climb up Engineer. Even with two water bottles in my Ultimate Direction AK 2.0 vest, I quickly run out of water shortly into the long exposed climb.

Marc and I refill our bottles in any creek, trickle, or muddy puddle that we come across. Mark is skeptical and cites the danger of Giardia from drinking untreated water. I laugh and recite my mantra, “drink now, worry later”. After all, Giardia takes weeks to incubate and by then I will have finished the race and flown home where I’ll be sitting on the couch drinking beer and polishing my finisher’s belt buckle.

“Hey, there’s a runner ahead” Marc gestures as we catch up to and then overtake Stuart Air from Great Britain who had been profiled as “Ones to Watch” on the TalkUltra.com’s race preview. We are moving well and I am really starting to feel good.

A few minutes later Marc gestures again, “Timmy Olson”. I nearly shit my pants. But it’s true. Timmy does seems to be struggling (I later learn he was fighting a tough bout of nausea) and I offer what encouragement I can, advising him to gut out the finish in order to improve his chances of getting back in the lottery again next year. I suspect this won’t be the last I see of Timmy in this race.

Bracing for the storm
photo by Daniel Petty/The Denver Post
Cold. So Damn Cold!

As we slowly navigate our way up the long, steep, treacherous wet climb to the top of Grouse American Pass and then up and over to Handies Peak, Marc and I both curse under our breath. It seems like hours ago that we left the warm aid station at Grouse Gulch where Scott Jurek made a point of getting my attention and telling me that I was kicking butt. It was an amazing moment, almost like a dream.

But this climb feels more like a nightmare. I worry that it will never end. The good news is that the rain and lightning have cleared up. The bad news is that the rain has now turned to icy hail. Fuck! Finally after what seems like an eternity we reach the top of Handies Peak at 14,058 ft, the high point of the course. It is windy and cold and we decide against wasting time taking romantic moonlight selfies.

Unbeknownst to either Marc or I at the time, we have moved up another spot as we pass front runner Jason Koop who apparently has had enough of the cold weather and climbed into a tent with some hikers who had – for reasons that are still quite unclear to me – decided it was a good idea to camp on the top of Handies Peak in the middle of a crazy electrical storm.

As we make our way down the 3,200 ft. descent to the Burrows Park aid station I adopt an over-exaggerated arm swing to try and generate additional body heat. Even with my long-sleeve cycling jersey and waterproof windshell I am still on the verge of turning into a ice sculpture.

Finally we make it down to Burrows where we refuel and say a quick hello to Bay Area runner Tawnya Dozier who is working the medical tent. She offers to tape up my bloody broken finger but I assure her that there is no need as I am pretty sure it is already frozen solid and quite immobile. We head out and descend another couple thousand feet to Sherman aid station.

Relentless forward progress
photo by Marc Laveson
“Marc, Are We Still on Course?”

“Hey Marc, are you sure we’re still going the right way” I ask for at least the 200th time. It is dark and we’ve been climbing Pole Creek (or at least what I hope is Pole Creek) for miles and I haven’t seen a single trail marker or ribbon in the hours since we’ve left Sherman. (Side note: Sherman aid station has the most delicious banana cream pie).

“Yes, we’re still on course. There’s nowhere else to go” Marc repeats over and over again like a metronome. He is right of course. But after having gotten this far and survived a broken finger, a lightning storm, and deluge of hail, I don’t want to mess it all up by getting lost now.

Marc leads the way through the dark of night, skillfully spotting the sparse course markings and guiding us through the swamp land between Sherman and Pole Creek like a modern-day Lewis and Clark. Without his invaluable assistance I would probably still be out there wandering in circles through the bog well after the last runners have finished and flown home.

Unfortunately Marc, who has been struggling with a variety of issues all evening, finally has to bow out at Pole Creek at mile 80. He sends me on my way with a hug and his infectious enthusiasm. The section from Pole Creek to Maggie Gulch is relatively straight forward and well-marked, and doesn’t present too many challenges in the day light.

And much to my surprise, Matthew Curtis, one of the aid station volunteers whose shift is over offers to keep me company for a bit as he hikes back out to Maggie’s from Pole Creek. Once I arrived at Maggie’s, I knew that I have just one more 5 mile section until Cunningham Gulch. From there I will be golden as I have already scouted this 9 mile section with my friend Kristina Irvin earlier in the week on Tuesday.

Unfortunately, without Marc’s company (and Sacagawea inspired navigational skills) I find myself stumbling slowly up-down-and-around Maggie-Pole Pass, Buffalo Boy Ridge, and Green Mountain in a daze.  I feel a bit like Amelia Earhart who set out to cross the Atlantic and was never seen again. And although I catch a glimpse of Darcy Africa Piceu ascending Maggie-Pole Pass, by the time I reach the peak over a half hour later Darcy is nowhere to be seen.

After what seems like hours of searching for course markings I have an epiphany! It dawns on me that these little piles of rocks I occasionally see (technically they are called “cairns”) point the way. Apparently, whoever marked the course must have run out or markings and just used piles of rocks instead. Damn, I wish someone had mentioned that to me at the 3 hour-long “trail briefing” I attended on Wednesday!

Emotional at the finish line
photo by Bryon Powell / irunfar.com
Please God, Don’t Let That be Timmy Olson! Oh Shit, it is Timmy Olson!

Once I finally make my way around and down Green Mountain to Cunningham Gulch I am overcome with joy. Now I know that I’ve got this thing in the bag. Kristina and I had done this same section in about 4 hours on Tuesday and that included a bunch of time spent goofing around taking pictures, eating lunch, and chatting with hikers. Plus, we hiked the downhill (which I plan to run today). So I figure that even on tired legs I should hopefully be able to knock this last section out in around three hours or so.

The aid station volunteers at Cunningham are super friendly and helpful, and they send me on my way up the last climb feeling like a celebrity. But my 15 minutes of fame is short lived as only 3 or 4 minutes later I hear those same bastards (who I thought were my friends) cheering for another runner. Those traitors!

I pick up the pace as best I can hoping that my short 3 or 4 minute lead will hold out at least until I reach the top of the climb. If someone passes me on the climb I won’t have any chance to stay with them as I am already moving as fast as my tired legs will permit. But if I can somehow hold on to the top I know that I can find another gear and crank things up on the downhills which I have been running strong all race.

I glance back down the mountain and see that I only have about a five-switchback lead. There’s a male runner and his female pacer down there closing hard. He kind of looks like Timmy Olson! Wouldn’t it be funny if that was Timmy Olson? Oh shit, what if that really is Timmy Olson?

I look back again and now my lead has been cut to four switchbacks. That guy who looks a lot like Timmy Olson is really moving. I look back again and he’s only three switchbacks behind. Shit, I think that really is Timmy. He must have worked through his rough patch and picked up the pace. He’s making a late charge. Part of me is cheering for Timmy – who after all is my favorite ultra runner and a hero of mine. "Go Timmy! Run that guy down" I cheer.

Oh wait, I’m the guy he’s running down. That’s not cool. “Stop cheering for Timmy you idiot” I tell myself. “Come on Big Johnny, one last push to the top and then time to drop bombs on this mother f’er” I shout. “You got this. You’re the man. Nobody can run as fast as you. Nobody’s as handsome as you…”. As I hit the top of the climb I accelerate and bomb the steep technical downhill single-track.

Earlier in the week on our recon “recce” Kristina and I had hiked down this section with our poles, moving very slowly and cautiously down the steep slippery scree. But today I don’t have time to tip toe. I’m running for my life, so I ski down the scree like Kilian. At least I imagine that I look as smooth and graceful as Kilian. In reality I probably look more like a baby deer trying to walk on ice, legs splayed out and flailing in all directions.

As I hit the rocky boulder-strewn jeep road I pick up the pace even more, hammering the downhill as if I were running a 10K rather than a 100 miler. Occasionally I step on a sharp rock and scream out in pain, but for the most part I do a good job of dancing around the rocks and scree.

All of a sudden people start to cheer. I assume that I must be hallucinating. We are still at least 5 miles from the finish in Silverton. Who in their right mind would hike all the way up here spectating. “Hey, that looks like Buzz Burrell” I mumble to myself. “Hi Buzz” I yell just in case I’m not actually hallucinating and it really is him and not a figment of my imagination.

I keep sprinting all the way down the jeep road, across the creek, and into the last single-track section along the beaver ponds. I have no idea whether Timmy Olson is still chasing me or not. But I’m not about to take any chances of getting passed in the last two miles. I keep the hammer down and fly through the twisty, winding single track. I feel transported back to my high school cross country days. Suddenly I’m a teenager running through the woods without a job or a care in the world.

Kissing the rock
photo by Noé Castañón

The Big Wet Kiss (no Tongue)

As I finally pop out of the forest into the edge of town I see my friend Noé Castañón jump out of his car with his camera. He starts snapping pics. My body feels like I’m dying and I desperately want to stop running and walk for a minute to catch my breath. But now there’s another person running next to me with a professional looking video camera. Is that JB Benna?

I am starting to get hypoxic and feel my blood filling with lactic acid. Finally as Noé and the film crew peel off I quickly look back to ensure that no one is chasing me and then allow myself to walk for a block or two to catch my breath. As I turn left from 14th Street onto Green Street Noé and the film crew are back. Just two or three more blocks to go to the rock. I can do this. I start running again. And then for some reason I start crying. I’m running AND crying.

I turn the corner and enter the finishing chute. There’s the rock. I did it. Holy shit, I did it. I finished Hardrock. I come screeching to a halt and lay a wet kiss on the rock. It’s official. I still can’t believe it. I glance down at my watch and am surprised to see that I ran just over 30 hours (12th place in 30:03).

I hadn’t even bothered to look at my watch while I was running the last section from Cunningham. All my blood is in my legs rather than my brain so it makes math calculations a bit difficult, but I think I just ran a 2:31 split from Cunningham. Wow!

Suddenly I am overcome by emotion. Hardrock has been my dream race. I’ve thought about it, obsessed about it, for years. I’d given up beer (which I love almost as much as Hardrock) and put myself on a Greek yogurt and fruit-and-nut diet for a month to get lean and fit for Hardrock. I’d logged over a quarter million feet of vertical gain this year in the months leading up to Hardrock, much of it off-trail on steep game paths and semi-dry mountain river beds.

I’d shed blood for Hardrock – quite literally – when I fell while climbing up a river-bed waterfall and busted my eyebrow open. I probably should have gone to the ER and had it stitched up but I just super glued it shut at home instead. All of my training. All of my sacrifices. It was all worth it. I was now a “Hardrocker”!

Bonus: Click here to listen to my interview on UltraRunnerPodcast.com.
Bonus: Click below to watch my training montage and race highlight video.

P.S. I want to give special thanks to the following people and inanimate objects: My wife Amy Burton for being my biggest fan and believing in me, Kristina Irvin for sharing her course knowledge and experience with me, Marc Laveson for keeping me moving and on course for thirteen hours over the toughest part of the course, SCORE Clinic San Jose for fixing my gimpy knee, and my Hypoxico Altitude Training Systems for giving me the altitude acclimitzation of a Himalayan Sherpa.

Bonus pic: Here's the X-Ray showing the tip of my right ring finger shattered into five pieces!


Larry Neumann said...


John Nguyen said...

You are the Man! After DNFing at my own dream race, this really inspires me to work hard and get back to States, even if it takes 10 years to do it. Hardrock sounds like a great race! I'm not sure if I'll ever be Hardrock worthy, but I've never considered it until now, after tracking your awesome race! Congrats!

Lorenski said...

Dude. Bro! I am SO STOKED for you, but mostly I feel vindicated that you cried. Great performance out there and very entertaining and insightful post. My not-ultra friends asked me if I heard about the race where the dude got struck by lightning. Proud to be able to answer, "Yeah. My buddy came in 12th."

Sarah Lavender Smith said...

You write like you run: efficiently, wasting nothing, but with style and all your heart. Damn, I'm jealous and admiring!

notthatlucas said...

How cool is that to beat Timmy! This is a great race report - thanks for taking the time to get it all down and share it. And congrats on a seriously great time for that race!

Kim said...

Great race report! Congrats on your finish!

Unknown said...

Congratulations! I loved your race report. It had me laughing out loud at some of your comments. Enjoy polishing that buckle.

Unknown said...

Trying to find a good weight vest that does not bounce when i run. What brand is in the video? Do you recommend it?

lilyanna said...

Great RR, enjoyed reading it and congrats on crushing it at your dream race!! Will you be aiming to run it the other direction? :)

Big Johnny Burton said...

Hi Martin, the weight vest that I use (which you can see a few times in my video) is the Hyperwear Hyper Vest PRO. It fits super snug and doesn't bounce at all -- even when running 6 minute miles down the mountain. It's expensive, but definitely worth it.

Big Johnny Burton said...

Hi Lilyanna, that's a good question. Immediately after finishing I vowed that I would never do Hardrock again, as it was just so long, hard, painful, and exhausting. But now that a few days have passed my stance is softening and I find myself thinking, "Hmm, maybe I should put my name in the lottery again next year and go for the harder anti-clockwise direction!"

Big Johnny Burton said...

Awww, thanks Sarah. That means a lot coming from such a great writer and story teller as yourself!

Big Johnny Burton said...

Hey Loren, I thought you and Adam Blum would appreciate the fact that I was crying, especially after I mocked you guys saying that "real men don't cry... unless a bone is sticking out of their skin". But yeah, I got "hella" emotional on that last section of Hardrock. Man, it was such a special feeling. I can't even describe how amazing it felt to kiss that rock.

Big Johnny Burton said...

Hi John, I'm glad if I was able to help inspire you in some small way. While there is something to be said for "digging deep" on race day, if I have learned anything over my 10 years of racing ultras it is that races are not won/finished on race day, but in the months of hard training (and planning) leading up the race. If you put in the work and prepare yourself properly, race day will often go quite smoothly and uneventfully. It is the will to get out and train for several hours a day, every day, that will often inform your race-day performance. You can't dig deep on race day if you haven't already dug a deep enough well beforehand in your training.

Mark S. said...

Congratulations on a great race -- and a hilarious race report.

Jon Allen said...

Awesome. You were moving real well up Engineers when you passed Stu and I- I had no idea you had a broken bone. Nice race, John.

Big Johnny Burton said...

Hey thanks Jon! Luckily fingers aren't too critical to running, so it really didn't slow me down much. It definitely hurt like hell though. I'd say the biggest inconvenience is that it interferes with my post-race beer drinking :)

Jeremy said...

Congratulations John! I notice that you correctly attribute your success to race preparation: Can you name the top three things that you did in your buildup to Hardrock that you believe led to your success? (it's good to have a record for future posterity)

Big Johnny Burton said...

Hi Jeremy,

As always, I am a big believer in "specificity" in training and preparation. Earlier this year when I was training for Way too Cool and Boston I was doing a lot of mile repeats.

For Hardrock though I really focused on my off-trail hiking (often with a weight vest and trekking poles) on steep deer paths and semi-dry river beds. I didn't do a lot of conventional running on established trails.

Also, obviously, I had to prepare for the extreme altitude. Amy and I have been sleeping in our Hypoxico tent for almost 3 years now, so that wasn't really a concern.

And finally, I knew I would run into some problems (though I didn't know specifically which ones) so I prepared myself for as many potential scenarios as possible. I had a plan for coping lightening, cold and hail (which we indeed ended up facing); I had warm clothes and a waterproof jacket in my pack at all times. I had a contingency plan in case my stomach went south and I had to switch to all an liquid-calorie diet like when you paced me at TRT; I had a bottle of Mountain Dew packed in every drop bag. I had a plan for in case my knee, ankle or foot got injured (trekking poles). I didn't have a plan per say for breaking my fingertip into 5 separate pieces, but luckily I had a pair of tight fitting gloves in my pack that I could put on to stop the bleeding, contain the swelling, and stabilize the finger.

Anyway, Hardrock was definitely the hardest thing I have ever done in my life! But on a difficulty scale of 1 - 10 I only give it a 3 or 4. Being prepared and well trained I never had any bad spots or rough patches. And it was nothing in comparison to, for example, what the guys depicted in the movie "Lone Survivor" encountered. It's all relative my friend!

Big Johnny

Scott Noack said...

Well written and humorous! Great RR and read John! Congrats on finishing HR100 and with such a fast time!

trailmomma said...

Great race report! Congrats. I also loved your interview on URP!