Hardrock Hundred: High Elevation Never-Never Land

Roch Horton, Krissy Moehl, and I before the start in Silverton HS Gym (photo by Ben Moon)

Well, this was the big daddy of all 100 milers—the Hardrock Hundred. It starts and finishes in Silverton, Colorado. 33,000 feet of climbing and descending, average elevation 11,100 feet, five 13,000+ ft. passes, summit 14,048 ft Handies Peak—one big 100 mile loop through the San Juan Mountains. As the race manual reads: This is NOT a beginner race! Uh, yeah. It definitely lives up to it’s name. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done—hands down. I have to say I was humbled. Even though it was my 5th hundred, it felt like my first again. Killer.

I went in as prepared as I could be, having never seen the course and given I couldn’t come out early or train on the course (phew, I wish I could have in hindsight). For the month leading up to the race, I rented my buddy Steve’s Altitude Tent and slept in it at the foot of our bed on the floor. My son, Benjamin, coined it “the alien pod”— dialed in to 9500 feet. This helped, but going early is obviously the best way to prepare, especially the experience of getting on the course.

Pre Race
I flew into Salt Lake City to ride down with my friends Roch and Catherine Horton. They picked me up in their old Landcruiser and we headed for their friend’s house in Grand Junction, our destination for Wednesday night. It was blazing hot on our midday drive with no air conditioning (well, it has it, we just didn’t use it). Roch’s philosophy that “everyone should adapt to their surroundings” left me with a soaked backside and drinking like a fish across the desert of eastern Utah.

To top it off, Roch told me of an oasis in the little dusty desert town of Green River—a gay dude from Salt Lake had moved to Green River and opened up an ice cream shop and it was “the place” to stop in Green River, he was just there a few weeks ago. Complete with an old timey juke box with Johnny Cash playing on old records…the real deal. I was dreaming of this oasis for 40 miles, drenched in sweat as we pulled into the deserted dusty town on I-70. We rounded the corner to the shop and BAM! Closed. Out of business! Suddenly the shimmering oasis faded to the reality of 100+ degrees as we trudged on to Grand Junction. I guess Green River IS a dusty “old” town after all.

We arrived in Grand Junction to cloudy skies and hot weather. After a meal at a Mexican Restaurant, a little practice session on guitar and Roch on the banjo (more on this later), we retired early at their friends house (who happened to be out of town).

The next morning we headed out early for the 2 1/2 hour drive south to Silverton to race headquarters for check-in. We had a new passenger, one of Roch’s friend who came in to pace him from Sand Diego, Jim. He’d flown in the night before, late. We had a good ride down and stopped off at a Western Store in Montrose to pick me a good cowboy hat out, as I forgot mine (come to find out later, Benjamin had hidden it under our bed), and as you’ll see, I’ll be needin’ that little hat (this ties into the guitar and banjo).

As we approached the San Juan Mountains looming to the south, I first noticed how big they were. It had been a few years since I’ve been to them, back in the 90s when Jennifer and I lived in Colorado. Also, there were some serious looking clouds on the mountains. The forecast was for isolated thunderstorms, and anyone who has any experience with the Rockies, that means crazy afternoon weather with lightening. Not a good recipe if you’re running above tree line.

We arrived at Silverton High School gymnasium just in time, 10:52am. Cut-off time for check-in is 11am. If you don’t check in by 11, they give your slot to the one of many folks that come to the race from the waiting list. Yes, people actually come just in the hopes of nabbing a slot right before the race. And, on race morning, a guy got in 25 minutes before the start! We checked in just in time and caught up to a few friends and hung out for a bit. I set up a tent in the backyard of a rental house that Roch was staying at. They were sharing a house with Betsy Nye and Paul Sweeney and friends and family. After a community dinner that evening, I retired to my tent out back. It rained off and on all night and I awoke at 4am to clear skies overhead and a large cloud bank sitting on the north of town like a wall.

6am: The start in downtown Silverton, bring on the pain! (photo by Ben Moon)

Hardrock Begins
It was just getting light out when we all walked out of the high school gym and out onto the gravel street filled with mud puddles to line up for the 6am start. We took off and made our way through the town of Silverton to the edge of town and up onto a double track trail and into the woods.

I was running in fourth place behind Scott Jurek, Karl Meltzer, and Mark Hartell. After the first creek crossing (~mile 3), we jumped on a 4wd road that we would climb to above treeline. About half way up the road, Ricky Denesik, who won the race back in ’98, caught and passed me, hiking like a fiend and was quickly reeling in Hartell too.

I was in 5th place going into the singletrack above treeline in Little Giant Basin. I heard Jurek give out a hoot and I answered with a “yee-hah” back at him. That’s the thing I like about Scott, he’s always hootin’ and hollerin’ and enjoying himself. He’s a fierce competitor, but humble and good at focusing on the happy place. I could see futher up and Karl was not far back from Scott, with Ricky in 3rd and Mark Hartell in 4th. I topped out Little Giant Pass (13,000 ft) and started to the steep 2700 ft descent in 2.2 miles down to Cunningham Gap. The markers were hard to follow and I soon passed Hartell, as he had lost the flags and as soon as I passed him, he was on my rear. We ran together down to Cunningham, which made me run that first descent a bit too fast. There was a lot of moisture from the rain and as I steep on a double log across the trail, my foot slipped between them and caught my heel and bruised it. This little mishap would prove to bother me the rest of the race on climbs, as my heel jammed the back of my shoes. I also, slipped once and banged my shin. So, I arrived Cunningham aid at mile 9 with a bloody, swollen shin and a bruised heel. Oh, and due to running it a bit too fast, my legs were a little shakey (I like to call it the Elvis leg)…”hold on now, thankyaverymuch!”

Mile 9: Arriving Cunningham Gap Aid Station (photo by Ben Moon)

Ben Moon and and Jason, my pacer, were there with my drop bag out and ready. I loaded up with more gel and was off. I started up the Green Mountain climb and was already feeling it a bit from the last descent, not a good sign at mile 10. I soon found my rhythm and settled in to powerhiking up the long climb to Stony Pass and then to Maggie Gulch aid station. During this section, I was passed by a couple of people and Ty Draney caught up to me and we ran together through the Pole Creek area and into Pole Creek Aid together. We left together and yo-yo’d through the whole upper area before you drop into the trees coming into Sherman. As we were getting into the trees, a storm blew in and started to hail. Luckily, I was on my way down into Sherman and in the trees. The pea size hail hurt a bit on my head, but I pulled ahead of Ty a bit, trying to get to the aid station quickly. I had some potato soup at the aid, replenished my gel and electrolyte pill supply, put on my arm warmers, gloves, and shell and left Sherman a little chilled. Phill Kiddoo and I left together and hung out for a bit as we ran and chatted. After we got up on the upper road the heads up to Bear Creek Trailhead, Phill pulled ahead. I relaxed and ran my own pace and soon arrived at the trailhead parking lot and say Catherine and Jim. They topped off my water and I hit the singletrack to start the long climb up Handies Peak (14,048 ft). Handies approach is long and I was having a bit of a rough patch as I got above treeline. I was running low on water and soon ran out by the summit.

Hardrock is different than many other races in that you can’t just rely on aid stations. You have to carry more stuff, plus, you have to dip in the snowmelt or fresh springs when they come along, even if you don’t need water at the time. I was learning as I raced and had not learned that little fact yet. So, I passed up many good springs and soon was on the upper flanks of Handies. Ty had caught back up to me and we ran together for a bit, but I ran out of water and he pulled a bit ahead. I kept him in sight and as we summited, I was only 50 yards back.

We started the 1600 ft descent off Handies together and hit the traverse over to American Basin, where I found a good spring coming out of the cliff band. I filled, chugged, filled, chugged and topped off my bottles. Then, with a bit of a sloshy belly, started the climb up to 13,020 ft American Grouse Pass and the 2300 ft rocky descent into Grouse Gulch.

Approaching Grouse Gulch Aid Station (photo by Ben Moon)

I sat down at Grouse, ate some soup, replenished supplies and heade up the road to Engineers Pass. This is a long, slow section and my stomach was a bit squirrelly. The storm and clouds had passed and the sun came out. I zapped through my water and was out by the upper section of the road. I was pretty slow through here, as I had run out of water twice in 10 miles and had cotton mouth. I started getting passed and soon Paul Sweeney caught up to me. He has won this race once and been 2nd place a couple of times. He’s really good at going out slow and coming on strong at the end. He and I hiked together and talked. Toward the top, one of my Patagonia teammates, Whit Rambach, caught up to us and he had extra water and gave me a 1/4 of a bottle. Thanks, buddy. Whit, Paul and I topped out together at Oh Point and started the cross country drop off to pick up Trail 242 and into Engineer Aid Station. I had to make a pit stop on the way to Engineer and lost contact with Paul and Whit. My stomach was not right after the two waterless sections.

I arrived at Engineer, sat and drank 5 glasses of water and had a soup with crackers. I left there with a full belly and started the descent into Bear Creek Canyon. This canyon is extremely exposed. Most of the way down you’re running on a dynamite blasted shelf that miners created to make the upper mines in the canyon accessible. It’s rocky, loose choss with a huge exposed drop off to your left. I just focused on picking a good line and cruised down. Soon you go over the Hwy 550 Tunnel and down and cross the Uncompahgre River on a foot bridge, then run follow a pipeline road that drops you out on the edge of Ouray (mile 56). I arrived Ouray at around dusk and you have to run through town to the north end where a park is. I arrived the aid at 8:45pm to see Catherine and Jason who would be pacing me the next 16 miels to Telluride.

I got my lights, refills, new socks and soup and headed out with my pacer, Jason. Garrett Graubins had introduced Jason and I via email and he came out from Colorado Springs to pace me to Telluride. It was nice to have company, as I was feeling a bit sleepy as we headed up the Camp Bird Road. Toward the upper part of the road, Krissy Moehl and her pacer, Darcy, passed us like we were standing still, chatting, laughing. When she passed us I knew she was going to win the women’s race. She’s tough and is good at going out easy and bringing it the second half.

We arrived Governor Aid, sat for about 10 minutes and ate soup. I was starting some bad habits by sitting at every aid station. Once I was off my splits, I just started slowing down and sitting. The problem is by doing this, I was losing mental focus and drive. Bad. So, I continued to plug along on my way to the Virginius Pass wall.

We arrived at the start of the Virginius climb and I could see a line of headlamps floating in the dark way above us, and, as Roch had described, the aid station lantern wayyyyy up there. The Virginius Pass approach is a 3 pitch mix of snow and scree on the north facing gully of a knife ridge at 13,100 ft. It’s about a 50 degree grade of class 3 climbing. The first pitch is the longest and was a loose, muddy mix of snow and muddy scree. There are several big boulders to grab hold of on the climb. Soon we were through the first pitch then the second, which was more of the same and shorter. Finally we reached the last pitch, and there were several people on the straight ahead route where the fixed rope is. Roch had mentioned a single switchback route in the snow going 150 feet to the right then back along the rock band toward the 10 ft notch where the aid station is perched. Koop and I headed for the right route, which in hindsight was fairly sketchy, as it was super hard and icey and the upper part had very poor foot holds. I was glad to have some climbing experience through there.

We soon were at the aid, there is basically room for a couple people at a time, due to the exposure and small notch that this remote aid station sits on. It was windy too. So, I downed a quick potato soup, filled my bottles and dropped of the south side for the 4500 ft descent in 5 miles down to Telluride. After the first drop, you traverse over to Mendota Ridge to the west. There is some good exposure through this section and some straight down sections. It was slow going and loose. Finally we made it down to tree line and got on the old double track for the rest of the way to Telluride. We hit the aid station at the pavilion in Telluride around 2:45am.

I was extremely tired and could not keep my eyes open. I wanted to nap, but the aid station captain gave me trouble for “hanging out”…so, against my better judgement, I staggered out of Telluride solo (as Jason was only pacing to there). This proved to be a huge mistake, not taking a 15 minute power nap. I was dozing off on my feet the entire next section over Oscar’s Pass and it was quite a blur. It took me 4 hours and 40 minutes to go 9 miles.

The only cool thing that happened was coming up on a porcupine on the trail. I was dozing off while hiking, when all of the sudden this ball of spikes flares up 10 yards in front of me and makes me jump and yell. He waddled up the trail and I gave him room while talking to him and he cruised up into the grass and off the trail so I could pass. I reached Wasatch saddle at sunrise, traversed up to Oscar’s Pass and then the 3,000 ft in 3 miles down the knarly, rocky jeep road to Chapman. This was the worst section of the course. There are so many rocks, you can’t really run. Sometimes it’s so technical on this course it made me laugh out loud.

I got to Chapman with one goal, lots of food and a 15 minute power nap. When I got there, I found to my surprise, that Ty and Whit were both there. Whit had been throwing up and was trying to get his stomach straight and so was Ty. Ty was in a sleeping bag snoozing.

I got in my drop bag, situated my gear, at a breakfast burrito, two cups of potato soup, a sprite, water, wrapped up in a blanket in a camp chair and told them to wake me up in 15. I was out in 3 seconds. I woke myself up and asked them how long I’d been there. They told me 40 minutes.

Ah! I gotta get going. I asked for a hot tea, downed it and limped out of Chapman. The next section was okay. I felt better. I still hadn’t got any fire back, or rhythm, but it was morning and I wasn’t dozing off anymore. This was the second to last climb and it’s a long one, Grants Swamp Pass. It’s a long singletrack climb above treeline and into a basin to a 1/4 mile headwall of loose scree. It is hands and feet, take one step, loose a half step by sliding back down. It’s slow going, but I reached the top and sat down, took a gel and started the crazy, steep descent off the ridge.

I hit the Kamm Traverse and cruised into KT aid, sat down, ate a turkey sandwich and Ty and his pacer, Leland Barker arrived…Ty was back from the dead. I left following them and we cruised up the road that parallels the stream, after about a mile, Leland and Ty were about 100 yards ahead of me and I see them coming back toward me. They think we missed the turn. Bummer. We turned around, Ty and I hiked together while Leland ran ahead. We had missed the flag for the cross country turn off because a 4wd pick-up was blocking it.

We crossed the river and started the steep singletrack climb. I lost contact with Ty and Leland and settled into my slow-woe-is-me-hike (with a single breath stop break every 10-12 steps…again, another bad habit that had creeped in since Ouray. My mental game was horrible the second half. As I’m taking the bad-habit-mini-stop break, Betsy Nye caught me and passed me. A tiny fire lit in my brain when she passed. I decided it was time to buck up and get it together and get this thing done. I would just keep Betsy in sight. So, I started hiking with no stops allowed, just keep moving.

After about 15-20 minutes, I broke out of my mental blahs and started feeling better. I soon caught Betsy and Ty. We caught James Varner, who was looking happy, but hammered. James and I exchanged some small talk and I kept plugging away at the climb. The final pitch is cross country in some tundra straight up. Finally, Betsy, Ty and I topped out the ridge, traversed and started the final descent to Putnam Basin Aid.

I started off the top and passed Betsy and Ty. I wanted to be done. My quads were feeling hammered but I decided to push a bit. I arrived Putnam, refilled water, ate a piece of banana and left as Ty and Leland were arriving. I then decided my final motivating goal was to beat Ty.

So, I ran the final descent hard and hit the river crossing, crossed Hwy 550 and was hiking the short grunt up to the powerline trail that marks the last 2 miles of the course. As soon as I hit the dirt on the other side of the highway, Ty arrived at the river….50 yards behind me.

I hit the power line trail and pushed it hard enough to be out of Ty’s sight. Finally, I arrived at the final small road climb on the edge of town, dropped onto the singletrack across the meadow and the last 3 blocks to the finish line at the high school. I crossed the line in 33 hours and 18 minutes in 15th place. I kissed “the rock” (a tradition in this race) and sat down.

This is a great race…beautiful, hardcore, technical, aesthetically pleasing…the ultimate 100 miler. I’ll be back.

So, one last thing, the cowboy hat, guitar and banjo explanation. Roch and I were playing the Hardrock Song at the Awards Ceremony. Roch had been making up a song to himself about 5 or 6 years ago while running this race to the old tune “My Walking Shoes don’t Fit Me Anymore”…however, Roch’s version is “My Running Shoes Don’t Fit Me Anymore”. It’s become a tradition that he adds a verse every year. He’s up to 6 verses and upon hearing I was coming, recruited me to play guitar and sing harmony, while he sang and played banjo. It was a good time and came out pretty well.

All in all, an awesome and humbling race. But, you’re not really a Hardrocker until you’ve run it both ways…clockwise and counterclockwise. So, I’ll enter it again, in hopes of being picked in the lottery. Hopefully, my running shoes will fit me next year, just in time for Hardrock.

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