Training for the 2012 Hardrock 100 I now understand began when I was about 5. We joined several other young families with lots of kids to climb Mt. Lassen in northern California. I did my best to stay with the older kids and outdistance most parents to the top, where I promptly fell asleep. That began a lifetime love of going up to the top of anything − preferably, but not necessarily, the highest point around. Nearly 40 years of obsessively going up has made for many fine views, moments of contemplation, and great preparation for the Hardrock 100.
Almost as hard as doing Hardrock is getting into Hardrock. The lottery entry favors those who have previously finished Hardrock. The more times one has completed Hardrock, the better one’s chances are of getting in again. The lottery was held December 4, 2011, seven months before the race. This was my third time in the lottery and I had a less than 10% chance of gaining entry. I tried to forget about it that Sunday until Steve Brown texted me that I was third on the waiting list. That, I knew, meant I would toe the starting line on July 13. Yet I promised myself not to become OCD until May or June at the earliest. Just train conservatively, stay healthy and get to Silverton, Colorado without any flaring injuries. Somehow I managed.
Chuck Hansberry gave me the best advice for running Hardrock: Go out to Colorado two weeks early and get acclimated if you can sacrifice the time. Knowing I realistically had one shot at this dream race, I took that advice and told my law partner – probably on December 5 – that I would be gone the first three weeks of July. Barring the unforeseen, nothing would interfere with making the most of this opportunity. My wife knew without asking where we were spending our summer vacation.
Hardrock traverses and circumnavigates the San Juan Mountains of southwest Colorado. It begins and finishes in Silverton, but runs through Telluride, Ouray and the abandoned mining town of Sherman. My exploration began when I rolled solo into Telluride on the evening of Monday, July 2. Having heard about Telluride for decades, and always regretting that I missed catching the Grateful Dead there on its annual Rocky Mountain High summer tour, the town and mountain setting did not disappoint. In fact, the San Juan scenery exceeded in beauty everything I imagined. If you have to give up Montana, and I hope you don’t, you could do much worse than that country. Too bad half of Texas was there too, driving around in high-clearance 4WDs. Better there than Montana, right?
For the next six days I lived out of the back of my car and walked various sections of the Hardrock course until I had covered nearly half of it. Each night I tried to sleep above 10,000 feet. Although most days brought proof this was the monsoon season, those days were exquisite. I had the freedom of a 20 year old, something that probably contributed to a simmering confidence that I could handle the terrain and altitude of this formidable course. I also let my whiskers grow and quit combing all the hair that I hadn’t cut since April. I channeled Jeremiah Johnson for all his legacy was worth.
Melissa and Maisie joined me the next Saturday and we settled into a full week stay in Silverton on Sunday. The house we rented was around the corner from Silverton High School – race central. For the next several days I tried to live clean and enjoy life, but anxiety was taking over, especially since I could not hide from the Hardrock hoopla. We enjoyed the modest tourist life in Silverton, a town without the glitz and glamour of Telluride. Maisie enjoyed the cable TV, Melissa tried to forget we weren’t in San Francisco or Seattle, and I obsessed until 6 am on Friday, July 13.
One hundred miles is a long way to travel on foot. (This year, Hardrock was 102.5 miles, but who’s counting…) Almost anything can and will happen despite the best preparation. I had done three 100 mile runs so I knew some of what would come at me. But Hardrock is different and daunting – 33,000’ of climbing, most of it over 11,000’; 33,000’ of descent; 13 high passes, 5 of them over 13,000’; and a summit of Handies Peak at 14,048’. I knew I could do it if everything went well, but what if something went wrong? Could I overcome it? Hardrock for me was uncharted terrain and I couldn’t shake the worries. Thank goodness for the starting gun.
After those first shuffling steps out of town and into the wilderness I never once questioned whether I would finish the race. I started, like sage Kevin Twidwell taught me, conservatively in the back of the top third. I walked every uphill step of the entire race. That offered plenty of opportunity to chat with other runners for much of the first 10 miles. This being a race, though, I had a mission and never hesitated to scuttle by anyone and move on if it felt right. It felt right several times over the next 30 miles to Telluride. In fact not one runner passed me the entire race; I did nothing but move up and overtake. That was a huge confidence contributor although sometimes I wondered if I’d see some of those runners again if my race fell apart.
On the way down to Telluride just above Bridal Veil Falls rain began and then intensified as Ted Mahon, Tim Long, and I loped into the aid station. My dad was standing in the rain watching for me just before we got there. I think he’ll run 100 miles in his next life. In this life he’s content to have planted and imparted a passion in me to go to all high places along my path. Telluride aid station was a bit chaotic with everyone crowded for cover under the canopy. I regret not staying longer, but I felt so strong and I wanted to keep going as long as the journey was good. I ditched my sunglasses, ate a Pecan Sandie and tore off toward Virginius Pass with the rain coming down. Gratefully, it stopped below the Pass and never started again.
Meaghen Brown, my first pacer, took me out of Ouray at mile 45 and 5 pm. Meaghen paced me the final 35 miles at The Bear 100 last September and saved my race from disaster. I knew she could get me through and past the gates of Hell. Fortunately, she didn’t have to shoulder that burden today. The climb from Ouray to Engineers Pass climbs over 5,000’ in seven miles. Halfway there I reluctantly let Ted Mahon and his pacer out of sight. I had caught and hung with Ted since Oscars Pass at mile 24, but I couldn’t hang with him anymore. Despite that Meaghen helped me keep a strong and prudent pace toward dusk.
A rough jeep road transects the top of the ridge representing Engineers before the course descends to Grouse Gulch. A happy, peppy hippy managed to get his VW Vanagon up there to motivate runners with his maniacal yells as they completed the long climb out of Ouray. This zealous spectator had a display of alcoholic beverages available to tempt runners. He’d clearly been sampling his own wares. It was cocktail hour at dusk, but I had given up alcohol for a month before this race, and I wasn’t about to fall off the wagon until I kissed the Hardrock. (No one officially finishes Hardrock until s/he kisses the large rock painted with the Hardrock logo.) We thanked him for his enthusiasm and let gravity take over to Grouse.
Kevin Twidwell, Steve Brown, and darkness were waiting for us there at mile 60 and 9:30 pm. Steve took over pacing duties from his daughter. Thank you again, Meaghen! I ate pumpkin pie, changed into a light wool shirt, donned light cap and gloves, and stuffed a rain shell in my pack for the long, dark stretch ahead. We wouldn’t see Meaghen and Kevin again until mile 93 well into Saturday morning. From Grouse I knew it was generally straight up until we topped Handies Peak at 14,048’. I still felt remarkably good, but I was into a 16 hour run now and the day was beginning to take its toll. I tried not to think about another long climb ahead with darkness, but there it was.
I had never changed pacers during a race before. I didn’t know what it would be like. It was just fine. Steve stepped right in and helped me keep a steady march forward. Neither of us are big conversationalists, but Steve peppered me with tidbits from the day. Eventually we saw a line of headlights in the distance. It was so dark I didn’t know if they were a mile or 10 miles ahead, but they appeared to be higher and I hoped Handies was at hand. The better to get it over with. The wind picked up and we felt a drop of rain now and then. No moon or stars kept the threat of weather always alive. At exactly midnight – 18 hours and 65 miles from Silverton – we stopped briefly at the top of the Hardrock course. I peered into the darkness and imagined what surrounded me and felt blessed to be alive and able to be at that spot at that instant in my life – a Zen moment if ever I had one. And then we dived back down into the world, 6,000 feet below.
I had explored the next 15 miles of the course. I knew what hid in the darkness. In fact I had spent a very quiet night on the other side of Handies, 2,500 feet below the summit. And I had camped at the trailhead that serves as Sherman Aid station at mile 72. Generators and lights were at Sherman this night and boy was that a welcome sight for my dragging ass at 2 am. I stayed at Sherman longer than any other aid station. Who knew bright lights, chicken broth and more pumpkin pie could feel so good?
I had suggested that Steve pace me through the night. He is training for Cascade Crest 100, his first foray into the triple digit realm. Nothing prepares one to run through the night during a 100 miler like running through the night in a 100 miler. My least favorite time is from 2 am to dawn - unpleasant at best, miserable at worst. And that cussed headlamp guiding the way. We made it through with nothing more than a bit of route finding difficulty when our headlamps weren’t quite up for the task of finding the next course marker over a trail-less stretch. Now Steve knows what he is up against (he’ll get it done) and I don’t have to do that again unless amnesia takes over.
The reward for moving forward all night is the dawn and a slight second wind. Even appetite kicks up a tiny bit. That first light of dawn, I’ve often reminded myself, signals the day that I get to stop running.
That’s motivating and it worked for me at Hardrock. Even though it seemed like forever to get to Pole Creek at mile 81, then Maggie Gulch at 85, by the time I got over Buffalo Boy ridge (13,100’) and Green Mountain Pass (13,000’) and could see the next LONG descent into Cunningham at 10,200’ and mile 93, I felt OK again and more confident than ever that I would kiss the Hardrock. Then, cresting Green Mountain, I also witnessed and appreciated the final climb of the race far across in the distance – a steep, unrelenting ascent out of Cunningham straight up another 3,000 feet. OMG I thought – in the parlance of the generation below me. For the first time all race I really wasn’t sure if I had the energy to do another climb.
Falling forever down into Cunningham gave me another boost, though. Kevin, Meaghen and others were cheerfully under the influence of morning coffee. Kevin took over pacing duties at this point from Steve, whose duty was done. Thank you, Steve. Your reward comes at mile 100 of the Cascade Crest. Kevin assured me that the final climb and long descent into Silverton would be a piece of cake. Whatever, let’s get it done… I got rid of my night gear and that cussed headlamp. Kevin and I were off to find a rock to smooch.
I really wanted Kevin to pace the final leg. He got me into the ultra running business. He got me through my first 100 at Wasatch in 2008. He taught me most of the tricks and wisdom of enduring these things. If anyone could get me home, it would be Kevin. The climb was worse than I thought. I used every ounce of leg and lung strength left. I knew in my heart that I was still as strong as anyone at that point in the race. One runner that left Cunningham right before me was soon several switchbacks behind. I knew he must be hurting worse than me. At that point I felt grateful for every run, climb, hike, yoga class, and backpacking trip of my life. None of those had made me as tired as I was at that moment, but each prepared me to endure it.
A few intrepid spectators started to appear occasionally beginning about 5 miles from Silverton. We were getting close to the moment I could stop moving forward. Kevin kept brow beating me, never letting me walk a step if possible. A few time I ignored him. Everyone we passed heard Kevin emphatically recite ‘this is Johnny Wasatch from Missoula, Montana.’ (Johnny Wasatch is the nickname Kevin gave me after that first finish.) With those words, I had to keep running, at least until we were out of sight.
All of that last stretch into Silverton was good – downhill, spectators, a distant view of Silverton down the valley – but my math skills or lack thereof worked the best motivational magic. For most of the night and early morning I had calculated mistakenly that a noon finish would be a 32 hour finish time. Don’t ask how I could add 24 + 6 and get 32, but one gets loopy in these things. When I went past the last runner I would see before finishing, I half-heartedly tried to make small talk with him and his pacer, including saying something like ‘come on and run with me, I think we’re going to break 32 hours.’ ’32 hours,’ his pacer replied, ‘we’re going to break 30 hours.’ WOW! 24 + 6 really is 30 I quickly confirmed in my head and took off with slightly more pep in my stride. I was going to break 30 hours in one of the hardest 100 milers in North America. Oh, yea, where’s that Hardrock.
As is customary for me in these things I had a tantrum of joy and relief coming into the finish chute. It was exquisite. I was done moving up, down and forward. I had completed something I had desperately wanted to do. Finishing the run of a lifetime felt very, very good. Final stats: 29 hours, 35 minutes; 12th place; 36th fastest time in the 20 year history of Hardrock; and, oldest finisher in the top 15.
Many times during the race I thought about the excitement and encouragement the Missoula running community gave to me in this effort. I truly felt people’s energy and interest even in those dreary hours before dawn. Finishing and succeeding at Hardrock was all the more satisfying knowing that I had exceeded my expectations, made my friends and family proud, and motivated fellow runners like they motivate and inspire me in their races. Let’s all keep inspiring each other!