My fascination with Hardrock began when I ran it for the first time in 2007. Every year they swap the 100-mile loop of the towering San Juan Range in SW Colorado. My first time at HR was counter-clockwise, 2014 was to be a clockwise year.
The race entry for 140 coveted slots is now sought after by more than 1,000 people each year. Since running Hardrock in 2007 (my then 5th hundred miler), I’ve entered the race 5 times. I’ve been on the wait list several times over the years, as close as No. 8 — no luck. Hardrock boasts 33,000 feet of climbing — all at high altitude. The high point is Handies at just over 14,000 feet and the average elevation is 11,100 feet. It’s relentless and stunning.
The hiatus gave me a lot of time to reflect on my hands-down worst 100-mile performance (out of 17) — I wanted a second shot knowing what I was getting into. Hardrock is kinda in another league. It’s gorgeous, wild, HUGE, views galore — worth every lung-searing step. But, of all the hard mountain 100s — well, this one demands a wee bit of respect. Not to mention you have to qualify with a list of hard mountain hundreds to even enter.
There was a lot of hype and media in town for this year’s race. With good reason. It’s on the map now. After a huge feature in Trail Runner Magazine recently, the obvious talk was of ultrarunning phenom Kilian Jornet’s Hardrock debut (and with it rumors of Kyle Skagg’s stout 23:23 course record going down). Not too mention, a long list of stellar runners in the elite men’s field. Former Hardrock winners both Frenchmen Seb Chaigneau and Julien Chorier, Western States course record holder Timmy Olsen, Canada’s Adam Campbell, Japan’s Tsuyoshi Kaburaki, Dakota Jones, Joe Grant, Jared Campbell, and Scott Jaime. This was a stacked field of veteran 100 mile runners.
Pre-race Week: Family road trip, camping and scouting
I wanted to come early to top off my AltoLab’s Intermittent Hypoxic Training (IHT) acclimation efforts. Plus, for this race, it doesn’t hurt to get a few days scouting — the latter half of the course. Route finding can be tricky on the course and it’s an advantage to see it before race day. Especially the night sections.
My family and I (wife and 3 kids — ages 3, 8, and 11) hit the road on July 2nd and camped for few days as we traveled (Bruneau Dunes, Moab and our final base camp near Silverton). We rolled into a packed Telluride on Independence Day, fresh off a roller-coaster 48-hour road trip (over 1,000 miles with a 3 year old — bit of a crazy train). Within 15 minutes, we bumped into Timmy Olsen and his family and hung on the street for a bit. Good scene and was stellar to be in the San Juan range again. So big. We made it to Silverton that evening and found a base camp a few miles above town below Red Moutain Pass. Only after some bumpy 4WD searching and a harrowing creek crossing in my Honda Pilot (of which my wife was not the most enthusiastic about). This would be our base camp for the next 3 days.
The next few days I scouted Bear Creek Trailhead to Engineer Pass and back, Maggie Gulch climb with my oldest son (and saw Seb and Kilian scouting too), and Green Mountain/Stoney Pass area on Monday morning. And finally a 3-hour hike/jog up Grouse Gulch to American Basin just below the 14er on the course, Handies Peak for some photos with Fredrik Marmsater and testing out Black Diamond Z-poles.
We checked into our condo for the week in Ouray on Monday and settled into beds, showers and a sweet spot next to the city park and Ouray Hot Springs. I did my final race prep and planning with my crew: Patagonia Team Manager, my man, George Plomarity (aka Surf Monkey) and his wife Stephanie (a talented photographer) and Bryhn Ireson, Patagonia’s Gear Man (aka Trail Running’s Product Line Manager ).
The morning of the race dawned partly cloudy. Shortly before the official start on Friday morning, we all gathered at the start line with the infamous hard “rock” to our back. At 6am we rolled the few blocks out of Silverton’s gravel streets on our way to our first stream crossing at Mineral Creek, 20 minutes into the race.
As the jockeying began, I settled into a comfortable pace with Jason Coop. We cruised along letting the early morning miles roll by — talking some, or running quietly as we moved through KT and Chapman aid stations. And, we were together on the climb out of Telluride. Jason was climbing well and pulled ahead on that climb when I was having a small rough patch and by Virginius Pass, Kaburaki caught up to me and we ended up in Kroger’s Canteen aid station at the same time (mile 32). This aid station is captained by Roch Horton (long time buddy, mentor and Patagonia Teammate). It’s basically a 12′ x 12′ flat patch of earth that you climb a scree field in order to get through a knife ridgeline at 13,100 feet. You then drop off the north side’s steep drainage onto a large series of snow fields that hits in 3 steep pitches.
The snow conditions were pretty junky, with lots of patchy rocks sticking through and inconsistent firmness. Easy to only sink 4 or 5 inches then all the sudden punch through to mid-thigh. Not ideal for making up time with a snow glissade. I ended up using the fixed rope line to get down the first pitch and then cruised down the other two pitches of junky snow to the 4wd road. There I did a shoe dump to get rid of the snow and scree and got moving again.
At his point, Kaburaki passed me. I was content to hang back, as my stomach was a little off on the Camp Bird Road descent into Ouray. So, I just focused on hydrating and cruising comfortably down the road.
I started feeling a little better near the bottom and caught Kaburaki as we came into town. I was stoked to get to Ouray and see my family and crew. My family was waiting as I crossed the footbridge into the park and was greeted by my kids, wife, crew and Krissy. I downed some avocado, chugged some ice water and was off at the same time Kaburaki was leaving with his pacer.
I led out of Ouray, but as I got up on the trail above town, I let Kaburaki pass me and then just settled in for the climb to Engineer Pass up the Bear Creek drainage. Before accessing Bear Creek Trail I came across Timmy Olsen. He was sitting on a log with his pacer standing over him. He started to get up, then sat right back down. He looked a little hammered. I said a quick “hello and hang in there” and was climbing up to Bear Creek Trailhead.
As I climbed Bear Creek Trail into the steep cliff face section, I soon caught Scott Jaime, who was moving slow, but seemed still together. Scott’s a veteran and I figured he’d rally later (and sure enough he did for 5th place). Soon after passing Jaime, I passed Joe Grant sprawled out on the side of the trail, looking pretty cooked. White faced and complaining about his quad. He ended up having a tear in his quad and dropping. I was bummed for Joe.
The entire climb up Engineer Pass I could see Kaburaki and I topped out the climb maybe 150-200 meters behind him. I relaxed on the long 4wd road descent into Grouse Gulch. As I got lower down, ultra legend David Horton, was riding his mountain bike and we chatted a bit. He said I was “running smart and looking good.” I felt good.
When I got into Grouse Gulch aid station and checked in, I smiled at George as he shuffled me over to a spot where he had all my gear laid out. I had held back for 58 miles and was ready to let it loose a bit after Grouse. That was my race plan. I did a quick shirt change to a Patagonia Cap 1 long sleeve, my Black Diamonds lights, and heavier gloves. After chugging a mate powershot, I was off to hunt down a few places. I left the aid station and entered the singletrack climb right behind Kaburaki and his pacer, Justin Angle.
Within a couple of switchbacks, I passed Kaburaki and set into a solid hiking pace up Grouse Gulch to American Basin. As I was climbing, I kept seeing flashes and hearing thunder to my right over the ridgeline. The wind was blowing right to left, so I knew the storm was heading my way.
Right before topping out the climb and dropping into American Basin, I met Dakota hiking down with his pacer Erik Skaggs. He mentioned a rolled ankle and he was dropping. Bummer. As I topped out the ridgeline and started the traverse across the basin, it quickly got dark and the storm moved into the basin in earnest.
Lightening was striking all around with no break between flash and sound. Right on top of me. I was nearing the far end of the basin before the final push to Handies summit, when I came across Jason Koop huddled next to a cliff band, waiting the storm out. I hunkered down with Koop, put on all my layers and waited too. Lightening was hitting the summit about every 30 seconds. It was now full-on dark and pouring down rain.
After about 20 minutes, Kaburaki and Justin caught up to us too. We all sat there. Koop and I had been standing in the downpour, not moving the longest and were both getting very cold. I was shivering and needed to get moving soon. Sean Meissner and his girlfriend showed (reporting for iRunFar.com from the summit) — chased off by the storm.
As we sat there, they gave us extra jackets to divide up to keep warm while we waited. Coop took a coat, I held a women’s jacket around me while we huddled and Angle agreed to pack the layers back to Sean afterward (he had a sizable hydration pack). So, we sat some more in the rain trying to ward off hypothermia. Freezing and shivering (my jaw was sore afterward from my teeth chattering so hard). We tried to decide our next move.
Eventually Diana Finkle and her pacer arrived too. At this point, we had been there almost an hour. As we all stood there huddling and waiting, Koop decided he’d had enough and was too cold. He backtracked to a backpacker tent we’d passed in the basin 200-300 meters before. That was the last we’d see of Koop. He eventually warmed enough to make it to Sherman, but could never get warm enough again and dropped. Bummer, as he was running a strong, smart race up until that point.
After another 5 minutes, Diana, Kaburaki, and I (and their pacers) hiked up to the lake and stood there another 10 minutes or so and watched the lightening flashes and counted. Once we could count to 6 or 7 we decided the storm was moving off the summit and made a group decision to make a push over the summit.
I was so cold that I just took off hammering up the final exposed climb to the summit and gapped the group by 60-70 meters pretty quickly. Once you summit, you quickly drop 20-30 feet off the summit and the trail traverses a saddle and loops around a large crag, then drops off into a steep scree field above Grizzly Gulch. As I dropped off the summit onto the short saddle, BOOM! Lightening struck the crag 60 meters in front of me! I immediately hit the deck to my hands and knees. I quickly jumped up and hauled across the saddle, around the crag that was just struck and had my poles out and hucked off into the steep, wet scree and bombed down at top speed. After a couple of benches, I stopped, dumped the mud and rocks out of my shoes and then took off again to descend the 2,000 feet of exposed mountain side to reach treeline.
The trail becomes increasingly better as you descend and soon I was into the trees and jamming down to the aid station at Burrows Park (mile 67). I arrived Burrows Park aid and jugged some broth and continued down the road to Sherman. The rain let up for 20-30 minutes as I made my way down.
Just outside of Sherman, it started raining hard again. I got into Sherman’s large aid station in 4th place and asked about 3rd. Adam Campbell was just over an hour in front of me. I have to say I was pretty bummed at this point, as I had burned over an hour in American Basin. So it goes with 100s in the mountains.
I got in my drop bag, ate some bacon graciously offered — crunchy or soft — from an aid station volunteer while I put on every layer I had (double houdini jackets, buff headband, hood up, houdini pants, and gloves). I big “thanks” and I was off climbing the switchback into the pouring rain to gain the willow-covered upper Basins of the Continental Divide.
Luckily, Joe Grant had given me some beta on route finding above Sherman, as it’s a cross country, off-trail section in a big basin. I ran into him on Tuesay before the race and he drew me a map in the dirt. He was spot on and I only had to stand around a few short times scanning with my headlamp to find course markers.
This whole night section was kind of a wet wandering in a series of rolling, off-trail web of small streams. All running full from the constant rain. Wet feet, soaked layers from bushwhacking through wet willows. There was a lot of motivation to run more to stay warm.
Around Pole Creek, I had creeped back within a half hour of Adam during the night, but as I reached the mid 80s mark, I figured I wasn’t going to catch him unless he sat in an aid station for a long period of time. Also, I hadn’t seen the lights of 5th place the previous 10 miles of above tree-line running. It was hard to be motivated the last 15 miles to push. I just kinda fell into cruise mode.
Soon I was through Pole Creek and heading to Maggie Gulch. I had (what I think was) a coyote encounter when something barked once at me across the drainage from the hillside opposite me. I talked back with something like “WHAT’S UP?! YOU DON’T WANT A PIECE OF ME, I’M MEAN! I’M CRAZY!! That was followed by a ton of grunting and ape-like “oo-oo”ing. “I’ve been through lightening, sucka.”
After dropping into Maggie Gulch aid, I downed a quick half turkey sandwich and some broth, I was climbing up to Stoney Pass as it was just getting light out. I dropped off and traversed my way down to the final, steep trail through the broken cliffband into Cunningham Gulch (mile 91).
I arrived Cunningham with my crew there to meet me, wolfed down some more avacado, ditched a small pile of layers, wet gear and lights and got moving again. A quick wade of the creek, I settled into a plodding pace up the final 2,800 foot climb to Little Giant. This climb is steep. Lots of switchbacks and exposure. As you climb higher, there are some nice false summits to mess with your head too. But also a spectacular waterfall. Hardrock — it just keeps coming at you with every angle.
Finally, I was on the final grunt to the top. I hit the ridge, grabbed a quick glance at the morning sun coming up over my shoulder and dropped down the singletrack into the final basin. Soon I was merging onto the 4wd road and making my way across the final trail traverse back to town.
This section is long and rolling and you keep thinking you’ve got to be almost there, but then you keep traversing and traversing — and traversing. I finally hit the edge of town, crossed the bridge over the Animas River to find George and Steph waiting on me to run it in. Within another block, my son Benjamin met us and we all ran it in together.
I was cutting it close to getting under 27 hours and told them we had to pick it up. We rounded the final block clipping off sub 7 pace. My daughter joined us too and we all ran into the finish shoot together for 4th place in 26 hours, 58 minutes, 59 seconds. First masters, first American. Giddyup.
I kissed that Hardrock and plopped right down on the gravel street, leaning against the rock and soaking in every morsel of my 18th hundred finish. Everything a hundred can throw at you — lightening, rain, hail, wind, wildlife — unpredictability. I guess that’s why I like them so much. You have to learn to roll with the punches.
It was so special to have my whole family there to share it with me after such a long break. It was the first 100 they’ve been to since Bighorn in 2010 (before our 3rd child was born). He’s finally 3 years old and travel with him is getting easier (albeit not smooth as butter yet). No matter — it was worth the crazy train road trip to have them there.
Two 100s down, two to go in the Bronco Billy Suffer Better Tour.
Thanks to everyone, especially my family who puts up with my sometimes insane schedule of working full time and training my rear off. Their patience and understanding is deeper than an ocean. Thanks to the Big Man Upstairs for keeping my feet straight and lightening free (yeah, I was praying up on Handies) — definitely the closest I’ve ever been to getting struck by lightening. Giant thanks to all my sponsors that support me.
Patagonia Air Flow Sleeveless Jersey (day) and Cap 1 Long Sleeve (night)
Patagonia Strider Pro Shorts (ah yeah, tons of pockets)
Patagonia Duck Bill Cap (Buff headband at night over the hat)
Patagonia EVERlong Shoes
Patagonia Arm Warmers
Patagonia Merino Gloves
Patagonia R1 Gloves
Patagonia Houdini Jacket, Pullover, and Pants (I needed all 3 at night in the storm)
Rudy Project Zyon Glasses
Ultraspire Alpha Pack
Black Diamond Ultra Distance Z Poles
Black Diamond Storm (as waist lamp)
Black Diamond Icon (as headlamp)
Pre-race: Barlean’s CoQ10, Omega 3-6-9, Organic Greens, and Olive Oil Complex
During the Race: Tons of gel — Gu Vanilla Bean, Salted Carmel, Roctane Cherry Lime, Roctane Island Nectars; organic avacado w/ sea salt and fresh lemon juice; organic dates and banana chips; broth, turkey sandwiches and bacon at aid stations