Monday, July 23, 2012
Ride The Lightning, Kiss The Hardrock: The Hardrock 100 Experience
Following a premature ending to my Western States 100 crewing experience (our runner, Kami Semick, suffered a severe asthma attack less than 30 miles into the race), I definitely felt the pull to come to another 100 mile event to help crew, or even pace a fellow runner to the finish line of one of these epic events. Though our runner could not complete her WS100 journey that day, we were able to return to the race and participate in other roles. One friend picked up another runner to pace, and I was able to provide general good cheer and support, help move some cars around and give rides, and finally, make it to the finish line to see another runner, Claire Price, make it to the track at Auburn for her first 100 mile finish. The feat in and of itself was incredible; knowing then what it took in the way of support to make that happen inspired me to put my name in the hat again to help the next time an opportunity came to pitch in for a runner in pursuit of a finish at the 100 mile distance.
Fast forward just a week or two. I'm in a Facebook group for regional ultra runners, crew, and pacers. It is set up for the purpose of coordinating all things ultra running; finding people to run with, setting up crews, making travel arrangements for races, and other activities. One runner, Adam, whom I'd met at the Bangs Canyon 30K/60K in January (AKA...the Fatass Run) posted a request for pacers at the Hardrock 100. It's one of the most grueling and difficult 100 milers out there, and there was a pretty immediate response from group members. I threw my name in, but wasn't necessarily expecting to hear anything. Soon, though, I got a message asking if I'd like to pace from the Sherman to Cunningham aid stations, approximately 20 miles, late in the race.
There would be a lot of power hiking at altitude in this stretch between 73.9 and 93.2 miles. It would be very scenic. Also very wild. And tough. That's the motto of the race; Wild and Tough. Unlike other 100 mile runs, where runners might average around 24-25 hours and have an absolute finish deadline of 30 hours, the Hardrock 100 has a 48 hour absolute time limit, with more than 32,000 feet of elevation change. It also has some of the most scenic and spectacular views, with a route that leaves the single track trail many times, climbing straight up and down mountains in place accessible only by foot or horseback. Yes, let's do this, I said. A few weeks later, I found myself down in Silverton, getting ready to pace and help crew for Adam, as well as provide general good cheer for John and Kirk, the other two area runners doing Hardrock.
I'd been running regularly, and did all my required reading, including this awesomely hilarious but highly informative three-part blog series called How To Be An Ultra Pacer. I read, amongst other gems and morsels of useful information that "By the time your runner shows up you're amped up like a rabid squirrel that just shot an eight ball mixed with white heroin. Your runner, on the other hand, looks as though he just fell off a 1,000 foot cliff onto a ten lane highway and got pummeled by speeding traffic. Balancing this odd mixture is an art form and imperative if you want to make it twenty feet together, let alone 40 miles to the finish." I knew it would be less about going at some specific pace, but figuring out what to say (not say) and do to help get Adam down the trail a stretch, and not in worse condition than when I found him. Didn't know how that would play out but felt ready. I also pored over details of the course handbook, read blogs, and just tried to stay as informed as possible about what might go on out there. When it came down to it, though, I know my endurance is good, and I like to think that I'm decent at solving problems and keeping a generally optimistic mindset. It seemed like those would be the most important factors-stay positive and ready to work problems that could arise.
Getting down to Silverton, Colorado, I had the chance to tool around town ('town") before the race. Silverton's a big tourist spot in the summer months, with the Durango to Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad stopping off here, and there were plenty milling about. I think very few people there knew that 140 runners were getting ready to set out for a 100 mile loop, traversing the mountains, with stops in Telluride, Ouray, and near Lake City before coming back to Silverton. In order to finish the race, the runners must "kiss the hardrock," a massive thing dedicated to the memory of the miners who once worked this rugged land. Following a night of sleep at John and Julie's apartment which would also be used as a home base for all the local crews, I headed down to the start to meet everyone. At 6am, the runners took off from the starting line, immediately turning and climbing up into the mountains. Nothing was certain, but Adam, John and Kirk had trained well, and were as well-prepared for this adventure as anyone. It was going to be an exciting two days, but would also have a lot of "hurry up and wait."
I caught a ride over to Telluride with Karie, Adam's wife, where we would await runners at 29.8 miles. The skies went from bright blue with sunshine and a few clouds to a torrential downpour during this time. When Adam got in just behind John, he had some good spring in his step, acting hammy and cracking jokes. The guys took a few minutes to sit, eat, and change out gear. Then, they were off again down the trail. I'd missed Kirk coming in earlier but those who were there said he looked great. No surprise; he has more finishes at this race than any other runner. Completion of the 2012 race would mark his 18th time finishing the race.
We caught a quick bite before moving on to Ouray,where runners would enter the city park near the Ouray Hot Springs Pool, and be able to pick up their first pacers. Our friend Kevin would pick up Adam, and Greg would pace John. At the park were many from the Grand Junction area running community; most of us who were pacers or crew for any of the runners were here to hang out and cheer, along with others as well. We hung out, bounced around a volleyball, did yoga tricks and other stuff to pass the time, along with cheering in other runners as they made it to Ouray.
Kirk was in first, and well ahead of his best time estimate. So early, in fact, that his pacer was not there yet.
Kirk was all mellow and chilled-outness to the nth degree, though, and soon his pacer arrived to take him on his way. John was in next, looking better and stronger than the last time we'd seen him.
Adam then made his way in, still chilled out and smiling in the darkness. After some discussion about whether Adam needed pants for this leg, he eventually accepted a loaner pair just in case they were necessary overnight.
Then, he was off with Kevin, heading out to burn the midnight oil, and eventually make it the Grouse aid station where Marty would pick up pacing duties. I drove Kevin's vehicle back to Silverton, and tried to get a few hours of sleep, knowing that a text would come pretty early when Karie was en route from Grouse (several hours away) and ready to take me to Sherman (also several hours away). I napped some but just couldn't get into a deep sleep, knowing I would need to jump up, ready, when she contacted me.
Sure enough, that text came and I was glad I was mostly ready the night before. Karie got to John and Julie's apartment, I hopped in the car, and off we went. She was really nervous about not making it there in time to Sherman; while I knew that was a possibility given the distance, I tried to keep things positive. We would likely make it in time, and if not, Marty would not leave him hanging, and had the endurance to keep going with Adam if that worst-case-scenario played out. Luckily, though, would not be a concern. We made it in about an hour before the men came down the road. Adam sat down for a full meal here at Sherman.
I chatted with Marty about the prior leg, and learned that Adam had been doing great with gels mixed into a handheld water bottle. It was decided that we'd keep going with that as long as it was still working. He couldn't stomach the solid gels but in diluted liquid form, it was great. I also learned that they'd been mostly hiking, and that Adam really just wanted to finish. Adam was quieter than he'd been earlier but still looked great. In my two other cheering or crewing experiences at 100 milers, I'd seen some rough looking people. Adam looked focused, and nothing more than an expected level of fatigue after being on his feet so long. Heading out, I sensed that it was probably not a good idea to talk a blue streak. So, when we left, that's what I did-kept my yapper shut. Climbing switchbacks through the woods over multiple stream and river crossings, Adam would occasionally point out a landmark or feature, but we generally let the sounds of nature be the soundtrack for the course.
Getting above treeline, we traversed our way across stretches that could best be described as "Sound of Music" in feel, climbing the Alps. If I was here to be a total goofball doing my own thing, I might've done a Maria Von Trapp spin out here. Instead, I tried to stay just a bit ahead of Adam, providing a little bit of a "pull" without getting too far ahead. Whenever he stopped for a minute, I'd tell him to drink. We got into a rhythm when I didn't even need to say drink-he knew if he stopped, it was hydration time. I knew he was exhausted and hurting like everyone else at this point, but you wouldn't know it. After reading all the stories in "How To Be A Pacer" (and hearing stories from other pacers and ultra runners), I'd never really had to lay down the law hard. He even got a little bit of run/skitter in him, and went down the few downhills with nice kick.
Passing Cataract Lake across a willow filled valley, we hit more single track trail, crossed Pole Creek a few times, and had a huge climb up a hill and reached our first aid station together-Pole Creek. It was pretty much in the middle of nowhere. Horses brought in the supplies (they were resting nearby), and a small shelter/canopy covered it all. When the wind picked up, aid station volunteers had to hop up to make sure it didn't blow away. The food was pretty deluxe, and while Adam picked a rock out of his shoe I figured out what he wanted (hot, salty, noodly broth, and a little bit of Coca Cola). I got down some of that delicious broth and soda, along with a wrap of some kind. Less than ten minutes later, we we were on our way again.
Moving toward Maggie-Pole Pass, I was taken by the view, and how there was really no other way to see this than on two feet. I've finished the Imogene Pass Run four times and this altitude is challenging; somehow, though, it felt easier to move when we were almost the only people out there. A few pairs of runners and pacers had passed us earlier but it was pretty much just us, and another runner with her pacer. We flip-flopped with this runner and pacer some through here. By now, we were climbing, the sky was spitting regularly, and Adam and I had put on our rain jackets. The women seemed to do a lot of putting theirs on and taking them off, but we just kept ours on since we were climbing and weather could move in fast. I continued to lead and Adam made some hilariously dry comment with a near-smile about how he felt like his body had been hit with a baseball bat. I replied that if he could even tell me that while continuing to move forward, he was sort of rocking it at this point. After a huge climb we finally dropped down through what I'd describe as the most spectacular field of wildflowers I've ever seen; these things looked unnaturally dayglo in their brightness, but it was all Mother Nature's doing.Then, we were at the Maggie Gulch aid station, roughly 87 miles in. We took less time here, with Adam getting some potato soup and a little more Coke. On we went.
Now, the skies were turning darker and the rain picked up again. We reached the top of the first ridge and it was amazing to look down and see the aid station far below. There wasn't far to go mileage-wise to get to Cunningham, but it was going to be a challenging and time consuming stretch to get there. Coming down some single track trail with a steep dropoff to the right, we stopped and leaned in against the mountain to put on our gloves and allow the two women running near us to pass. As the rain started getting harder and the air grew colder, the pacer in that duo looked at us quite seriously and said "I am SO SCARED." She wasn't kidding; she was petrified, and her runner was now a bit ahead of her down the trail.
Rather than this being a bad distraction, it wound up being a good thing that Adam could tell her it's all good, there's some more open, greener stuff down the trail a bit. Once we hit that greener stuff, the skies opened up fully. The rain then turned to hail, which blew in sideways at our faces. Adam and I aligned the brims of our hats/visors to try to block it, and he made a crack about "Well, there's your Hardrock Moment!" Famous last words as we hit the bottom of that ridge and began climbing the next. We moved along with the other team, and the downpour became even more intense. We joked with the other team, and "Man, that Mother Nature sure is a bitch" and "Okay, we get it, Mother Nature, you're in charge"-type remarks were passed. Climbing again with the rain pouring down, temperature dropping and not a dry spot on our bodies, lightning exploded through the sky. It was frighteningly close to us.
Looking ahead, we could see lots of fog, a shadowy figure crossing the next pass, and several terrified runners and pacers running backwards down the trail toward us. "The lightning hit the pass," said one of the runners. Everyone was shivering, and teeth were chattering. Someone suggested that we all huddle for warmth, so we did that. I'm not an alarmist but it was of immediate concern how cold I was getting so quickly, and that every single one of us was shaking. One runner even said "#uck it, it ain't worth this, I'm quitting and heading down the road to Silverton." "NOOOOOO! You can't do that. You're so close" was the collective group response, but this weather was no joke. We had two bad choices-go over the pass, totally exposed, and risk a lightning strike in a downpour. Choice two, stay put in the middle of nowhere, where hypothermia was certain. I said to Adam that I thought we needed to go for it. Right then, big lightning strike number two happened. It was still pouring. Shit. In a bizarre bit of twisted comic relief in this situation, all I could think of was my friend Cassie. She'd come to my birthday party last year, the one roller derby chick among a whole bunch of runners. "You guys are ALL crazy," she'd said as several of us debated how far was "too far" or what was too extreme for us to race. I also remembered telling Karie I'd get her husband in unscathed and ready to finish his race. I knew the mountains don't care but this was the mountains not caring, and then proceeding to kick the crap out of us.
Before the second lightning strike, it seemed that Adam and I were on the same page with going over the pass rather than staying still, getting colder and becoming hypothermic. After a few more minutes with the skies still unloading on us, but no more lightning in the immediate vicinity (we could see flashes and hear thunder rolls, but it seemed to be moving), we agreed that going for it was best. We were no more protected where we were standing, and getting up and over with less time in the storm seemed to be the best good option. Trying to get other teams to move along with no avail, we started climbing. Visibility was crap, and sometimes we'd have to stop for a minute to look for the little Hardrock 100 trail markers. Soon, though, we were on top of the pass, and the weather was, in context, not as bad as what we'd just experienced. Adam had pick-me-up in his step that I didn't know was possible after almost 90 miles. In a weird way, the intense weather had provide a shot of adrenaline to keep moving as fast as possible.
Descending the pass in the fog, visibility continued to suck. At one point, Adam slid and fell three times in a row, something he hadn't done at all while I'd been pacing. It was very slippery and pretty easy to do now. On the upside, the third slip/slide put him down directly in line with the course marker we'd failed to see until that point. Finally, the downpour let up into some regular old rain and then a drizzle. We encountered some people coming up the trail from the next aid station, Cunningham, and told them that there were a bunch of runners behind us who might wind up needing medical. Just about now, though, we could see them off in the distance, finally making their way over the pass. Relieved, we were able to keep moving knowing that those guys were all going to be okay too. I'd never been close to a serious medical/weather event while running, let alone a potentially life-threatening situation. It felt easy to move now, knowing that all of us who were stuck in the storm were on the way to Cunningham now.
Dropping through the switchbacks on a very steep ridge, Adam was still very light on his feet, and I kept the pace up since he seemed to be moving well. We started hearing his crew and other friends cheering, and eventually got down to the road. Yes! 93.2 miles. Here, Rob would pick up with Adam, getting him through to the finish. After a little more time here to warm up, change clothes, and eat a bit, Adam and Rob took off, and I caught a ride back to Silverton, changing into dry clothes and and getting a bite to eat. Heading to the finish area, we learned that John and Kirk had just finished, and visited with them for awhile. This was Hardrock finish #18 for Kirk, and #1 for John. John had come in so happy and pumped that this would be what the race director remembered of his finish to share with the crowd at the next day's awards ceremony and breakfast. And Kirk, well-that's just plain amazing. This is a guy who would never tell you how good he is at this sport, how many times he's finished the race. It makes it all the more special to be around him and see him get it done yet again.
Rob was to text his wife, Jane, when the men were in town (about two miles away). The distance on the last section to pace was not great, but the effort required to traverse the mountains would be gargantuan. Sometime after 1am, we got the text, and everyone assembled near the finish chute. They texted again a mile out, and we were becoming giddy with excitement, everyone catching a fourth or fifth wind looking for head lamps coming down the road. Then, someone called it-here comes Adam! Then, in a surreal moment, someone else says "Hey! There's a bear!" I didn't quite get it at first. Then, again, "Hey! There's a black bear!! Right THERE!" Turning to the right, half a block away from the finish chute, a massive black bear crossed the street and moved on down the alley. Holy crap! Then, Adam and Rob were THERE. Coming down the block, turning toward the finish chute, Karie followed Adam up to the rock, where he kissed it and then turned around to get a hug and kiss from her. Forty-three hours and four minutes after starting, he was now a Hardrock 100 finisher, starting with 140 runners, and now one of 98 runners to finish.
His finish also make for a 100% finish rate for the "Junction Boys," an incredible feat given all the things that can go wrong during 100 miles. The two words that came to mind were Freaking Awesome. The training takes a LOT of time. This race takes a lot of time, physicality, mental toughness, patience, and a variety of other factors. Kirk, John, and Adam did it, and it was Freaking Awesome.
After getting a few hours of shuteye, the runners and crews assembled for an awards breakfast during which the race director dressed in a graduation gown, and handed out "Master of Mileage" awards, moving through from the "caboose" or 98th finisher, and working all the way up to runner #1, Hal Koerner, winner of the 2012 Hardrock 100 Mile Endurance Run. It was special every time a runner was honored, and I felt lucky to be there to help them celebrate. I kind of knew a little about the race but being able to pace and then celebrate at the end was something else. I got to see the payoff for all that work, the sacrifice that family and friends make in training and on race day, and got firsthand why a runner would want to do this race.
After the incredible rush of being a part of that weekend, it's been back to business and life as usual, running, training, and getting ready for other things. Is the Hardrock on my list of possible future races? Yes. Very much so. But it'll be first things first now-time on my feet, trails, speed work, and all the basic bread-and-butter running I need to do now to think about running Leadville in 2013, with a goal in mind to finish. If that goes well, I'll make a decision then as to whether bigger and even tougher ultras lie ahead on the trail. Either way, this was an incredible experience at Hardrock. If one ever gets the chance to pace, crew, or spectate/cheerlead, do it. Expect it to be not at all what you expected, and expect it to be amazing.