By Scott Brockmeir
Pre-race (this section is easily skipped with background, training info, and other boring details)
Having quit my Ph.D program in Chapel Hill, NC in May, I moved away from North Carolina and headed for Colorado. My plan was to live out of my car for the summer, train for and run Hardrock, settling down somewhere in the fall. I spent time with family in CO Springs and with Jeff Heasley in Gunnison. (Jeff was also a Hardrock entrant.) Jeff has a very successful concrete business and when I asked him in the Spring, he said that he'd likely be able to give me some work when I got out his way. After some family time and a bit of hiking near Salida, I joined Jeff for some pretty intense physical labor. I worked with Jeff and his crew for two weeks and then headed towards the Front Range intending to catch a plane to MN for the FANS 24-hour race.
I've been dealing with sciatic pain caused by bulging discs in my lumbar spine since February of 2005. Through the help of chiropractors, physical therapists, Bikram Yoga, and epidural cortisone injections, I've been able to gradually get back to running and hiking. After a relapse in March of 2006 and another cortisone injection I was feeling good as I headed to Colorado. The very physical labor I did working with Jeff was hard on my back. Concrete work involves lifting lots of heavy things and bending over to work close to the ground, two things that one should not do with my back condition. Being stubborn and stupid, I thought that I would be able to work through the discomfort - what a huge mistake that was.
Shortly after leaving Jeff's place (and perhaps from sitting for several hours driving) my sciatica got so bad I couldn't stand up straight or take a single step walking without excruciating pain. I ended up canceling the MN trip, being brought to tears daily by the intense pain, and spending the next two weeks arranging an appointment at a pain management center in CO Springs. I spent almost all of this two weeks on my back in my mother's spare bedroom in CO Springs. I finally saw a great doctor and got a pair of cortisone injections on 9 June. This helped tremendously but a follow up appointment showed that another pair of injections were needed so I returned for two more epidural steroid injections on 29 June, just two weeks before the start of Hardrock. Having all this steroid injected into my spinal column in the weeks leading up to the race was not my optimal plan but by the week of the race I was feeling about 90% and fairly confident that the back wouldn't be a factor during the race.
Within about 4 days after the first injections I was able to start to do some hiking and climbing. I was able to continue to train with a normal day eventually consisting of about a 5-6 hour hike with 4-6k feet of elevation gain. I wasn't running at all. In fact I did hardly any running from the middle of April until the race had started. This lack of running was a big concern. I was hiking strong but I knew that I'd want to do a lot of slow running on the downhills during the race. Though it caused some anxiety, the running I did during the race felt good - it was no problem at all.
Going into race week I was feeling fairly fit but nearly so fit as when I finished in 2004. I wanted to go conservatively to help guarantee a finish and leave me healthy after the race. Jeff was unfamiliar with the course and with his busy work schedule wouldn't be able to do much scouting or climbing/altitude training so I suggested that we try to run the whole course together. This would help me to start slow (presumably with two of us trying we could hold back) and give Jeff a better chance of not straying off course. We had found that we move at about the same pace at the Bighorn 100 in 2004. Jeff agreed so running together was our plan. We knew it'd be tough to match pace the whole way but we'd try as best we could.
Sometime in late spring, Bob Boeder, the author of the excellent "Hardrock Fever" as well as a book about his Grand Slam finish and a recently published novel, invited me to stay with him at his house in Silverton. He also offered to crew me. In the last three years Bob has helped runners from NC coming out to do the Hardrock. He's finished the race and knows the course intimately. I took up Bob's offer and stayed with him off and on (between camping trips) as the race approached. Our plan on race day was for Bob to meet me at Chapman, Telluride, Ouray and Grouse, as well as pacing me from Cunningham into the finish. Nearly everything worked out perfectly and having such an experienced and competent crew was a big logistical load off my mind. Bob also took care of my pooch, Sierra.
On the Friday, Saturday and Sunday before the race I did trail work, first on the Bear Creek trail above Ouray and then on the trail through American Basin on Handies Peak. During this trail work I met Liz Walker, a strong and experienced 100 miler who just a few weeks before had won the Old Dominion 100 mile run. We both wanted some Smartwool socks, which the Silverton outfitter didn't have, so we decided to drive together to Durango to get some. She wanted the warmth of the thick Smartwools and I needed the thick socks to help fill out my old and stretched out Asics Trabucos. My feet had been feeling tight, cramping at night and just generally not feeling good. I really wanted a foot massage before the race and had even asked Bob for a recommendation for a local masseuse but being cheap I hadn't gone ahead to make an appointment. And then I had a rare brainstorm.
I screwed up my courage and asked Liz, on the drive back from Durango, if she'd be willing to do a foot massage exchange. She thought it was a great idea and we agreed to do it the following morning, the Thursday before the race. The reason I bring this up is that I want to share this great idea. It felt so good and was so relaxing that I plan to try to get a foot massage the day before all my long races. Not only does it loosen up and make your feet, which are going to get pounded, feel great but I think it really does a great job of relaxing your whole body. It seems to just drain off tension and anxiety. So I say "Try it! You'll like it!"
You can describe the course giving all the numbers and elevations and so forth but you just can't imagine the enormity of this monster until you go out and see it for yourself. It's a loop course that begins and ends in Silverton. The course never goes below about 7700 feet and goes as high as the summit of Handies Peak at 14,000+ feet. The average elevation is about 11,000 and a substantial amount of the course goes cross-country in some of the most rugged terrain in Colorado. There are road sections and sections where you're on good trails too but there are few sections where you aren't either climbing or descending sharply. It's quite amazing to look back and see a peak way off in the distance that you climbed a few hours ago and is maybe 20 miles away, and then to think about the previous 60 miles and the 20 miles in front of you. It makes one feel that anything is possible; that we are capable of so much more than our minds will sometimes admit.
Besides being rugged these are some of the most beautiful mountains I've ever seen either in person or in picture books. I find this course inspiring like no other that I've ever seen or heard of. Every turn of the head at nearly every spot on the course gives you a view that would look right at home on any postcard rack in any convenience store or tourist trap in the country. The mountains are steep, colorful both from oxidized metals in the rock and the profusion of wildflowers, rugged, and piled on top of each other for miles past the perimeter of the race course. This course is so big and so daunting that merely finishing is truly a great accomplishment for anyone of any age. This is one course where the advice to only think about getting to the next aid station is essential. Try to think about running the whole course and you risk madness. Completing the course at the age of 70 seems that it must be beyond human capability. But you might ask John DeWalt just how impossible it is....
In 2004 I finished Hardrock and felt in control the entire time. My energy levels were good, I never had any stomach troubles or really sore muscles or joints, and only needed an eight minute nap to get through the first night. I did, however, have one big problem in 2004, or I should say, two big problems. My two big problems were attached to the ends of my legs. There are so many stream crossings and so much travel across fields of wet grass, not to mention alpine bogs that your feet rarely get a chance to dry out. In 2004 I changed shoes and sock four or five times but by mile 80 or so they had absorbed so much water and got so prune-like that every time I put my foot down it was painful. If there was a stone or piece of gravel the pain was intense. Stumbling down the rubble strewn trails and roads of the last section of the course was agonizing. I really needed to do something about that this year so I was taking the advice of 10+ time Hardrock finisher, Blake Wood.
Blake recommended smearing the bottom of the feet with diaper-rash ointment. He did this at the start of the race, reapplying the ointment a couple of times during the run as well. So before putting on my shoes and my new $18 Smartwool socks I smeared about 1/8 of an inch of diaper rash ointment to the bottoms of my feet, heel to toes. It felt kind of odd, to say the least, but I soon stopped noticing it and the little bit of sliding around I felt at first soon stopped. The rest of my race prep consisted of eating oatmeal and drinking coffee. I was starting the race with a single 20 oz. water bottle, shorts, a silk weight capilene shirt, a mid weight long sleeve thermal shirt, and a Patagonia Dragonfly, a 3.5 oz. wind shirt stuffed in my pocket. I also had a few Clif Shots in a pocket. The weather for the race looked to be good and dry after 3+ days with hardly a cloud in the sky. This was in marked contrast to the daily (and sometimes all-day) rain that we had been experiencing from about the 2nd of July until the Monday before the race.
During my hiking training I had been carrying a single water bottle and pulling water from streams. I was very careful about where I took the water from, generally only pulling from creeks whose entire source I could see above me. I think if you're careful and know where to get your water you can do this safely but it's certainly not without risks and I don't recommend it for everyone. I found, though, during the race that I was keeping better hydrated than in most any other race I've ever run. I think this is because the water is so damn good! It's cold, clear and has the wonderful clean taste of freshly melted snow. So I think I was drinking more simply because it tasted so good. We all know what warm Succeed Ultra tastes like after sitting on your back in a hydration pack.... I'll certainly do this again when running Hardrock unless it's exceptionally dry.
An Easy Start
I had trouble finding Jeff just before the start of the race but I was able to spot him about 2 minutes before Dale told us to "Get out of here!" We started by just walking and jogging easy until the first hill where we settled into an easy walk at the back of the pack. There were only about 10 people that were farther back than we were as we started on the trail leading to Nute's Chute. Almost everyone was carrying some sort of hydration pack or hip pack with water bottles. Hans-Dieter Weisshar was using the rule allowing a pacer the entire 100 miles for those over 60. (His pacer was Liz Walker whose feet were probably feeling every bit as good as mine at the moment.) Both Liz and Hans were traveling as light as I was with just a single bottle and no pack of any kind. Jeff was carrying a pack and both Hans and I mentioned that it was too much to be carrying over this course. Jeff said it was much lighter than a concrete form and that it wouldn't be a problem.
Soon we were down to the Mineral Creek crossing which was very low and quite casual. I jumped in just downstream of the rope (which had runners using it) and crossed with no problem. As we started up the Bear Creek trail to Putnam Basin there was a lot of light-hearted banter and joking as we headed up in long snaking conga lines. Jeff and I were together for most of the climb up to Putnam Basin but then we lost contact and I thought that he had gotten ahead of me when I stopped to pull some water along the way. The long climb and descent into the KT aid station were uneventful and I spotted Jeff just behind me as I was climbing to the road that leads to KT. We left KT together after enjoying some awesome aid station food. I chowed down on cantaloupe and watermelon as well as some wonderful, greasy, foccacia bread with sun dried tomatoes. A couple of delicious gourmet-quality oatmeal cookies also found their way into my pocket. I had come into the aid station with a nice appetite which was to be standard through almost the whole race. I certainly didn't want for calories or energy in this race.
As we approached the water crossing in this section just before climbing steeply to the Ice Lake trail I was wondering about whether the crossing had been improved since I had crossed it about a month before. At that time it was about a 50 foot mess of criss-crossed logs, pools of water and fast moving cascades. Fortunately someone had done some work and there was a nice set of 4 or 5 logs laid together providing an easy path across. From here there was a lot of steep climbing to get to the summit of Grant-Swamp pass which lies just a bit below 13,000 feet. I was feeling very good climbing but Jeff was having a bit more of a struggle. He was a little slow but it didn't seem to be a problem. When he told me how hard he was working and that he was feeling lightheaded up there I started to get a bit concerned. There were a lot of climbs to go yet that were even higher than this. In fact, we could see one on the far side of the pass. Off in the distance we could see the old jeep road that zig-zagged up to Oscar's Pass at over 13,000 feet. Not only is that climb relentlessly steep but most of it is also completely exposed to the sun. And there were hardly any clouds in the sky at all. It was sure to be miserably hot going up that nasty 3,000 foot climb.
The descent went by with no hitches until I tried to jump over a fallen tree about 1/2 mile from the aid station. It was about mid-thigh high and I tried jumping up on top of it to go over. The problem was that I jumped up about 4 inches less than I needed to. Over the log I went, into a classic face plant on the other side. Fortunately I landed in soft dirt and pine duff. Jeff and another guy were right there wondering if I was okay until I started laughing. I was unhurt and it really was kind of funny. When I got up and started jogging down the hill though, the patellar tendon on my right knee, which had been achy for a couple of weeks, was more sore. It wasn't really a problem but it took a while until I stopped having to limp a bit.
Soon we were at the aid station faced with a dizzying array of fine foods! Again I was hungry and I dived in with absolutely no sense of shame at the amount of food I was stuffing in my face. I remember eating 4 quarters of these wonderful cheese quesadillas with a very tasty salsa. As I was stuffing myself, Liz and Hans came into the station and I pointed Liz to the quesadillas because she had told me how much she loves real food during an ultra. She was nearly frantically grabbing food and stuffing it in her mouth. (I didn't realize it at the time but this was just one indication of the challenges she was facing as Hans's pacer.) More fruit, cookies and foccacia went down the gullet and then I met Bob who had a jug of Spiz meal replacement drink. There were just over 1,000 calories in the quart-sized bottle and I drank off 1/3 of it. Okay, now I'm feeling full! Then the aid station worker mentioned popsicles. Mmmm, there's always room for ice cream or popsicles! I grabbed a couple raspberry ones and started walking to the car with Bob. When I unwrapped the popsicle it was so cold I could barely bite off a chunk and ended up giving the other half to Bob because it was too hard and cold.
Some "Unsettling" Miles
Hans, Jeff, and Liz had all gotten ahead of me at the aid station so I started waddling up the trail wondering if maybe I had overdone it a bit food wise? In addition to all the food I had slammed a bunch of Succeed. I decided not to grab another water bottle for the climb up Oscars because I didn't want to carry it all the way to Telluride. Knowing that there wouldn't be water until after the pass I thought I should get a bunch in me. Soon I could see Jeff ahead, walking with another runner and I kept walking to catch up. When I did catch up Jeff wasn't anywhere to be seen. I asked the runner he'd been walking with if he was ahead and he said 'No'. Hmmm, I hadn't noticed him off the trail and it hadn't been too far to catch up so I waited a bit to see if he had just gone into the woods for a minute. I waited a while and then decided to start walking slowly, looking back regularly. Eventually I started walking faster and slowly caught up with Hans and Liz.
I walked with them for a while continuing to look back to find Jeff. In places I could see quite far but there was no sign of Jeff. Hmmm, again. I remembered from running this before that higher up you could see down past many switchbacks so I just decided to continue on and I'd surely be able to see where he was once I got higher. I was walking along with Hans, Liz, and some other folks. I was trying have some conversation but no one seemed much interested so eventually I just shut up but not until after suggesting a sing-along to lift everyone's spirits on the hot, sweaty, fly-infested climb. The idea proved less than popular as indicated by the total absence of response to my suggestion. Oh well, we do what we can do.
I was actually feeling quite good and had taken Liz's lead in tearing off an aspen branch to swat away the flies. Eventually we got up to where we could see runners that were a good 3/4 mile away, down the switchbacks. Still no Jeff. We continued climbing and then, finally, I thought I saw a runner that looked like Jeff. I got to a spot where there was a nice rock to rest my back on and I sat down cross-legged to wait. I was feeling great and didn't mind stopping and enjoying the view of the descent from Grant-Swamp and the rest of the great panoramic view. I think I sat there for about 20 minutes and a lot of runners streamed by, some stopping to chat and admire the view and some just trudging on. When Jeff got up to where I was sitting I asked him how he was feeling and he said he had vomited only a short way outside the Chapman aid station. Ooh, not good. He needed those calories. He'd gotten sick and hadn't even been able to drink any water since. I looked closer and could see he was suffering. I saw Deb Pero a short ways back and I told Jeff to keep plugging away and that I was going to wait and chat with Deb a bit.
Deb was doing well, moving strong and feeling pretty good. We caught up to Jeff and shortly after he sat down on a rock and soon was dry heaving. It's so nasty feeling so sick that you have dry heaves and watching someone suffering like that you feel so helpless. After a bit Jeff got up and started trudging along again. It was remarkable how his attitude was really upbeat even if tinged with a bit of sarcasm. He certainly wasn't showing that he was feeling sorry for himself with all of his joking. Though his attitude was good it was easy to see by his dry lips and uneasy eyes that he was suffering. To say that his stomach was "unsettled" was definitely an understatement. Soon we got up to a snowbank and I remembered that an aid station worker had recommended I fill my hat with snow. Jeff needed it worse that me so I put my cap on his head and he said it felt good. I was warm but not pushing myself much so I was fine. And when I put some snow in my cap and put it on my head I couldn't stand it anyway. I was getting a serious brain freeze headache. I guess my bald pate wasn't giving enough insulation.
Once we got over Oscar's pass and down to the Wasatch saddle Jeff was still feeling really sick. I think the heat, too much food, and the altitude had just wiped him out. We sat down with Deb who had cracked open a mini can of Coke. Jeff couldn't do any coke, water, and certainly not any food. We didn't sit for long before I urged Jeff to keep moving because he needed to drop some elevation if he was going to start feeling better. We started moving but quite slowly. As we were walking Jeff said he was experiencing a serious bonk. That's not surprising when you consider the big climb on no calories. He must have been terribly dehydrated. A little ways along we came to a small stream flowing across the trail. Jeff stopped here and tried drinking some of this cold water but it came up almost instantly, setting off another round of dry heaves. Not surprisingly Jeff took a while to get moving again while I was walking ahead and waiting until I could see him moving down the trail. He stopped several times and my back was starting to really bother me from standing around so much. I even dropped to the ground at one grassy spot and did some exercises that ease the pain in my back. We kept moving down in this start-and-stop fashion for a while and when we got down to about tree line Joe Prusaitis came by and said Jeff was on the ground again.
Joe said it was foolish to keep waiting for Jeff. He's finished over 20 100 milers and he often has to deal with stomach issues. He was down near tree line and could take care of himself now. Joe was right. I don't think it would have been a good idea to leave him all the way up at Wasatch saddle but he'd be okay now. Probably I was worrying about Jeff too much but since we were to run together I felt obligated to make sure he didn't curl up and die on the trail! Jeff eventually made it down and got a ride from Bob out of Telluride. He had no desire to face the next climb out of Telluride to over 13,000 feet.
Soon after Joe went by I started running down the trail. Joe was moving well and I passed a few runners before I caught up with him a couple miles from the Telluride aid station. We ran in together and ended up leaving at the same time. Deb had moved well down to the aid station too, beating Joe and I in and out of Telluride. She was still looking strong and fresh. I took the opportunity at this large aid station to regrease my feet and to fill up on more Spiz, potato soup and other aid station goodies. I didn't load up like I did at Chapman but I was still quite full and had a pocketful of cookies when I left.
Having Bob there was great because I got to see Sierra, get some moral support, and not have to worry about finding a drop bag or about cleaning up after myself before leaving. I was feeling good and pretty casual and Bob, the old veteran, was calm as well. He said he'd see me in Ouray and gave me a pat on the back as I headed out through the town of Telluride on my way to Virginius Pass. Joe was leaving just as I was and maybe because we were chatting we ended up going about a block off course but we figured it out quickly and were on our way. I was climbing a bit more strongly than Joe so left him not too far up the hill.
A "Passing" Phase
Okay, another big climb to another high pass. I was feeling good, well-fueled and not at all tired. I probably had taken an extra 45 minutes or so keeping an eye on Jeff so the stretch from Chapman to Telluride had ended up being a chance to get some rest. And once I started moving faster again the pain my back was giving eased off completely. Moving strongly up this hill I started passing people without even feeling like I was pushing all that hard. I eventually caught up with Deb and stayed with her chatting for a while. The flies were bad here and I grabbed another aspen branch to shoo them away. After a while I moved past Deb and not too much farther up the hill caught up to John DeWalt. He was kind of wobbling up the trail and said he just didn't have any energy and couldn't figure out why or what to do. Soon there were about 4 or 5 of us offering gels, salt, and shot blocks. I left first so I'm not sure what he took or what worked but he got moving again and managed to stay ahead of the cutoffs. John is 70 and no one 70 or older had finished the course so we all wanted to see him do well. He's also a helluva nice guy.
I kept chugging up the hill moving well up this 4,390 foot climb. I was steadily passing people and feeling really strong. In 2004 I had struggled climbing, especially at the higher elevations but this time I felt strong right up to and over 13,000 foot passes. Looking at the results I see that I got to Silverton ahead of 39 people that left Telluride before me. There were probably quite a few more that left Telluride before me that dropped along the way. I know that I was steadily passing people and very rarely getting passed all the way to the end. With the easy start and the slow miles around Oscar's I had a lot of reserve energy. Eating 1200 calories at the aid stations probably helped too! I'm not a terribly competitive person and I wasn't being motivated to pass people by wanting to move up in the standings. I was just moving well. Even so, it does one's attitude and psyche good to be moving faster and passing people. It makes you feel strong and confident. I probably passed about 15 runners by the time I got to Virginius and if I remember right it took me 2:35 to do the climb.
Virginius. It's hard to see exactly why anyone would want to climb up into this inaccessible eyrie. It's still harder to imagine what could possibly motivate anyone to have a running race go through such a place! To have an aid station here defies logic. It's sheer lunacy. These people are not well. Virginius aid station sits at just over 13,000 feet. The climb on both sides is mountain goat steep. The total square footage is less than a Manhattan studio apartment. They have food, water, Succeed, hot soup and about 6 lunatics manning the station. If any of them ever commits a heinous crime the insanity defense will be a slam dunk!
Usually leaving Virginius in the clockwise direction involves an exhilarating and speedy 300 foot butt glissade. This year, though, there was no snow and one needed to negotiate a steep and unstable scree slope. I was able to move quickly down this and the next two pitches of steep scree passing another 4 runners. I found Steve Pero on the big flat before hitting the trail/road to Governor's basin. Once again the heat had sent Steve's stomach south and he'd been heaving and unable to drink or eat for hours. He said he thought his race was over and he did end up stopping once he got down to Ouray. I really sympathize with ultrarunners whose stomachs go bad too easy. I'm lucky and have a pretty strong stomach. It's got to be torture to want to move but to not be able to get the energy because you can't eat. Put the awful feeling of nausea on top of that and you have to be tough to keep coming back.
I didn't sit with Steve too long before continuing the descent to the Governor's Basin aid and then on to Ouray. It was nice to be able to really run for the first time since Telluride. I passed Kristina Irvin, who was going for her fifth, and avowed last, Hardrock finish. She said 5 is enough. She looked completely casual and confident moving down the trail with a smile on her face and lots of spring in her legs. As I was moving down these jeep trails a guy kept passing by and then slowing so I would pass him. Eventually we ended up running and walking some and we introduced ourselves. George (Hitzfeld) and I talked about our school experiences and other random stuff as we moved down the hill. Eventually Matt Mahoney caught up with us too and the three of us ran into Governor's Basin aid station together. I chose to just pass on by because I wasn't hungry and there was a long nice downhill section into Ouray. I don't like eating much before running down a long hill and I planned to run most of this road.
The light was fading and I tried to move down the hill steadily so I could take advantage of the fading light. This turned out not to be so important because I found that even after the sun had set and the light completely faded I could still see well enough on this mostly nice and smooth road to run without a light. I did have a small headlamp that I used down close to town but mostly I ran in the dark. About half way down Camp Bird road I came up to a guy with a sleeveless shirt and I though it was Rodger Wrublick who had passed me on the climb up Oscar's. But it turned out to be Bob Combs. I urged Bob to run some with me but he was down in the dumps a bit thinking that he was going to slow and didn't have enough time or energy to finish the race. He had just been listening to the demons in the head. I told him that he had plenty of time and that the deadness in his legs and low energy were nothing that a bit of a rest and some food in Ouray couldn't set straight. This was Bob's third attempt with no finishes and he belied his state of mind when he said "I think I just might not be a Hardrocker."
We started running and I think his mood improved as I pointed out how much time there was and how I had finished two years ago with 7 hours to spare and had been at that spot only a little bit earlier. I urged him to go slow and easy, just shooting for the finish. I was psyched when I saw him on the finisher's board Sunday morning. It shows talent and an ultrarunner's resolve to persevere, coming back after two dnf's, with minimal acclimation time and getting the job done. This is one of the joys of doing tough ultras - meeting tough, humble, and down to earth people like Bob. Eventually Bob and I caught up with Hans and Liz who were alternating walking and running. Rather than continue down I matched my pace to Hans's and chatted with Liz. She was running 10-20 feet behind Hans, as she had been going up Oscar's. I asked her how her pacing duties were going and she said it was okay but tough. It seems that Hans was expecting Liz to get him his food at the aid stations while he took care of himself and then he would take off right away leaving Liz scrambling to take care of her own fueling needs. He was asking her to go down to creeks and fill his water bottle while he waited. Liz was also struggling to keep up with Hans when he would (frequently) spot a runner ahead and put on a spurt to pass the runner. This slow steady pace interrupted with strong spurts was wearing her down and having a negative impact on her attitude, not surprisingly.
Regarding Ouray and my behavior there I have only one word - 'Oink'. I've been known to slam the calories at hundreds and 50 milers before but this time I was totally out of control. I'm sure that medical science would say that it's impossible to eat so much and then make good time up a 5,000+ foot climb. Here's what I stuffed down my gullet at Ouray: a large (1/2 lb.+) plate of spaghetti with a slice of whole wheat bread; a hardboiled egg; a 350 calorie ensure-type drink; a Starbucks mocha frappacino; and a cookie. I also stuck a cookie in my pocket but gave it away a while later in disgust. Needless to say I wasn't feeling especially hungry at the Engineer aid station though I did have a cup of Miso soup as well as a cup of the strongest Folgers Crystals coffee ever produced on God's green earth. At least it kept me awake through the night.
Even with enough food for a family of four in my stomach I managed to climb strong and pass some folks that had gotten ahead while I was gorging at Ouray. I passed Bob and his pacer, Bill Losey, as well as George and his pacer. I eventually came up to Rodger Wrublick and walked with him up to the Engineer aid station and on up to Engineer Pass. Rodger was at the Handies trail workdays and being as far from a "hands-off" guy as you can imagine, worked his butt off both days. He seemed to be feeling pretty good and we climbed strong to the top of Engineer pass, passing yet more runners. Rodger and his son, Jim, both have a severe case of Hardrock Fever. And Jim is only 17! He was on the wait list this year and will almost certainly get his shot next year. If he doesn't end up being the youngest ever Hardrock finisher in the next few years, I'll eat all the elk poop in any given square foot of the Pole Creek basin!
Once we got on the road down to Grouse I was ready to run and Rodger started down with me but I think I was feeling a bit fresher so I went on ahead. The moon was well up in the sky and with my good night vision I was able to run well down towards Grouse without using a light. Just from the top of Engineers down to Grouse I passed about 12 people though I think many were pacers. I was feeling strong and kept moving at a steady pace. I wasn't flying down the hill but I ran almost all of it. The big bone headed mistake I made on this section was to take a detour through Animas Forks just a half mile before the aid station. For some reason I completely missed where you could go straight down to the aid station and took a right turn for a 1/2 mile detour. I don't know if the runner's behind me were following me since I wasn't using a light but I saw at least 3 lights go down the way I did. As I was approaching the aid station I passed two guys who I had passed just 10 minutes earlier so I asked Bob at Grouse if we were supposed to run through Animas Forks. He said, "Uhhh, no." Doh!
I had changed shoes and run without the diaper rash ointment from Ouray to Grouse. At Grouse I put on a fresh layer of goo and a fresh pair of Smartwools. I also put on the pair of Trabuco's that I had not worn in the race yet but they were causing pain in the side of my left foot so I changed into the pair I had been wearing from the start to Ouray. There was still some pain so I tore off a bit of bandana, folded it, and stuck it in between the shoe and where it hurt. That pad eventually fell down into my shoe but it never bothered me again. Jim Wrublick and Bob took care of me, bringing me breakfast burritos. I also left Bob a nice mess of nasty socks, shoes and an empty Spiz bottle. (Now that sounds gross!) I'm a little fuzzy on what I ate here but I know I ate 2 burritos and drank some Spiz. I think I also drank a Frappacino. A pretty light meal by the standards I was setting but then I wasn't feeling very hungry when I got there.
"Pacer, Get Thee Behind Me"
I started up Handies at 5:47am, which was probably an hour or so later than my 2004 run. In 2004, a short ways up Grouse Gulch, I got so sleepy I had to curl up on the side of the trail to sleep. The next runner came along in 8 minutes and woke me up and I was fine after that. This year I didn't feel sleepy at all. Once again I was climbing strong and passing people regularly but more slowly than I had been in the last 12-14 hours. After the first big climb and descent into American Basin it was nice to walk along the sections of trail that we had worked on the previous weekend. There were some beautiful new steps and corners and a 100 yard section that had been transformed from a muddy mess into a nice dry rock and gravel path.
On the way up Handies I passed Mike Dobies and said, "Hi Mike." He returned my greeting but didn't remember it after the race. I think he just thought I was some random runner and probably didn't notice that I used his name. He was moving well and wasn't out of it - maybe his mind was wandering. That's pretty excusable after 25+ hours on the trail. Most everyone was looking pretty good as I went by, energized, I suppose, by the rising sun. We were on the west side of Handies, though, so were climbing in shade until very near the summit. A mile or two before the summit I spotted Hans and Liz again. They were quite a bit higher and a few switchbacks ahead. It had taken me about 8 hours to catch them and I was moving very strongly. Hans must have been feeling good ... but how was Liz holding up? As I caught up, once again, Liz was walking 10 feet behind Hans and I pulled in behind and chatted with them about the night. Hans, being able to see lights below him, had been picking off runners on the road down to Grouse. Liz said she'd had trouble keeping up with these rushes to pass people. Her spirits were good though, and Hans was moving more slowly here.
I stayed with them and about 1/2 mile before the summit Liz pushed on ahead when Hans stopped to say hi to a dog some backpackers had up there. I stayed back with Hans and we chatted some. He seemed tired but still steady strong Hans. As we approached the summit I got a bit ahead of Hans and Liz was already at the top. I mentioned to Liz that I just wanted to descend quickly. I was feeling a bit headachy and my throat was starting to get sore and I thought I might be feeling something funny in my lungs. I didn't really want to hang out here at 14,000 feet for too long. Liz headed down before Hans reached the summit and I followed after a short stop at the top. The first part of the descent is pretty steep and rocky in places but further down it smoothes out and gets nice and runnable. And that's what Liz started to do - run. Like a deer. She was flying down the trail like she was doing a 10k race! After a bit Hans whistled and started yelling and Liz stopped, turned around and lifted her hands, shrugging her shoulders as if saying "What's the problem?"
She started running again and Hans yelled and whistled a few more times but I think she was too far down to hear. She was moving so fast! I was continuing my steady and easy downhill run (the trail is really nice through here) but Liz was soon nearly a mile ahead. As I passed a couple of hikers headed up, they said that Liz had said to tell me that she was going down into the trees and that I'd find her there. (It turns out that Liz had meant this message for Hans but I don't know if they repeated the message to him - he was pretty far back up the hill.) When I got down to the first clump of trees there was Liz flat on her back resting. I stood over her for a bit and when she didn't respond I poked her in the tummy. Man, did she jump! She'd been asleep already and I'd really startled her. I said something about Hans sounding mad and then even hurt and she said she'd just wanted to stretch out her legs and also to get out of the sun. Neither of us had thought to put on sun screen at Grouse and the sun was blazing on us during the descent. And Liz wasn't even wearing a hat. Her nose and cheeks were already a bit rosy and we still had to get all the way to Sherman to get some sun screen. She didn't think that running ahead a bit was going to be that big of a deal. Hans's attitude was a bit different.
I asked Liz if she wanted me to stick around to have someone to chat with and she said 'Yes'. Her and Hans hadn't been talking all that much and Liz and I got along well so I didn't mind waiting. When Hans came down he said something like, "Sweetie, you shouldn't be running ahead of me like that. You are fired as my pacer." He didn't even break his stride as he said this and continued down the trail. Liz and I looked at each other and she said that he'd get over it so we started walking, letting Hans stay a ways ahead. Liz said that she'd let him cool off a bit and then she'd talk to him and apologize, hopefully getting him to change his mind. After a while we started running again and I told her I was going to run ahead to Sherman to get out of the sun and that I'd wait there for them. When we caught up with Hans he let me go by and all I heard as I ran ahead was "Hans, I'm sorry. I just wanted to....." The apology was sincere and I thought she'd be able to sort things out. But it wasn't to be....
Soon enough though Liz was flying down into Burrows Park and as we ran together down the gravel road to Sherman she told me that Hans was adamant that she could not continue as her pacer. She had apologized and told Hans that she would be happy to continue to pace and that she would stay behind him, or she would go on to the next aid station and sign on with another runner. He told her to find another runner. We decided that she'd sign on to pace me the rest of the way into Silverton. Lucky me! At Sherman we ate a lot of fruit and pumpkin pie, and downed a bunch of cold drinks as it was getting pretty hot. After slathering on some sun screen we headed up Cataract Canyon, one of the prettiest parts of the course despite the lack of grand vistas. This path leads up along a cascading creek with big pine trees, waterfalls and fields of wildflowers until you get above tree line where it wanders through scree slopes and small lakes, eventually reaching the Cataract/Pole divide which is also the Continental Divide. We climbed strong and steady here, passing Craig Wilson paced by Mark Dorion, and Flavio Dalbosco from Italy. We were even running the flats and the downhills through the willows and open alpine tundra. I think Liz was happy to be running a more even pace, not to mention not having to match her pace exactly to someone else's. She runs better downhill so she pulled me down and I led on the uphills. It worked well and we made good progress.
From the Cataract/Pole divide the trail soon drops down toward the Pole Creek basin eventually contouring along the right hand side of a gently U-shaped valley, just above the Main Fork of Pole Creek. As we were descending this trail there was a large grey cloud hanging above us rumbling threateningly. At this point we're at nearly 12,000 feet and the cloud was distressingly close. There were no ground strikes and we couldn't even see any lightening flashes but there was nearly continuous thunder and it was kind of worrisome. We were moving well and wanted to keep dropping down in case this storm got worse when it suddenly opened up with a vengeance. There were no lightening strikes but the rain and the hail started down suddenly and heavily. When the sky opened up I was only wearing my short sleeve lightweight shirt and Liz was only wearing her sports bra. We were almost instantly soaked the rain was so sudden and strong. And it was coooold! I should mention that we were still both running very light. Liz had lycra shorts, her sports bra, a lightweight long sleeve shirt, a rain jacket and a pair of gloves that were just a windproof/waterproof nylon shell. I had on baggie nylon shorts, a lightweight short sleeve shirt, a mid weight nylon sweater, and a Patagonia Dragonfly which is fully windproof but only water resistant. I had no gloves but the sleeves on my sweater are long so I pulled them down over part of my hands. With so little clothing getting caught so high in such cold rain could easily become dangerous due to the risk of hypothermia.
In fact, this was probably the worst spot on the whole course to get caught like this. We still had almost 6 miles to go across the Pole Creek basin most of which is above 11,500 feet. We were going to need to move strong to stay warm enough if this rain continued. And continue it did. We were both pretty miserable almost right away but neither of us complained. We both knew this was kind of serious but we were also feeling strong and we're both very experienced in the mountains. We weren't scared ... yet. When we got to the aid station at Pole Creek we found a completely open shelter crowded mostly with aid station workers. Pole Creek aid station is packed in so there were limited supplies. They provided us with soup and a cup of hot chocolate but then ran out of hot water. More water was put on right away but Liz and I agreed that we couldn't wait for it without getting too chilled. We were both soaked and it was cold and a bit windy. It would have been nice to get more hot liquids inside of us but by the time the water was hot enough we might be irreversibly chilled so we decided to press on.
Even just stopping that short time at Pole Creek (11 minutes) was enough for our legs to tighten up because of the air temperature and wind. After a few minutes though, we were once again moving well. We both looked (and felt) like drowned rats. I led the way through most of this next section trying to keep a good pace. (It turns out we did move well with a time only 7 minutes slower than winner Karl Meltzer and only 10-12 minutes slower than most of the top runners.) This section of the course is very wet and boggy and going through all this water was making Liz's feet get uncomfortably cold. She said that her feet were cramping up a bit and not working all that well but she continued to move well. Her core was fine and she even said (can this be true???) that she was "toasty"! I was not toasty. I wasn't dangerously cold but I was cold. I was uncomfortable because the rain had soaked through my jacket and while the rain let up as we approached the Pole/Maggie divide it hadn't stopped. If I had had to stop for any reason, not able to continue generating heat, I would have become hypothermic all too quickly.
In running with so little clothing both Liz and I had taken a calculated risk. The weather had been good and we had chosen to be able to move quickly over the margin of safety we would have had carrying more clothing. If the weather pattern had been more like that of early July we would both have obviously been carrying more. In retrospect I wouldn't have changed my clothing choices - I don't think we did anything stupid. We got caught in bad weather in one of the worst spots for getting caught out and we made it out. We're both strong and experienced in the mountains. I wouldn't recommend our method to everyone but for us it was a sound choice. I'm sure that many would disagree and think we were taking too great a risk but I adhere to the mountaineers adage that says "Speed is safety in the mountains." And if you're competent and confident and aware of what's going on around you weather-wise you can make do with much less than what most people carry.
As we were climbing to the Pole/Maggie divide we came upon an obviously chilled and struggling runner. As I came up to him I asked him if he was alright and he said that he was really cold and had told a couple of runners ahead of us to go down to Maggies and have a warm vehicle ready for him to get into. I didn't recognize him at first because he had the hood of his rain jacket cinched round most of his face but then I said, "It's Bur!" It was Mike Bur from Maryland, Hardrock finisher and friend from many VA adventures. It turns out that Mike had been crossing a stream when he slipped and fell backwards into the stream. His gloves and shorts got completely soaked in the freezing water. I asked him if he'd be okay getting over the pass and into Maggie and he said 'Yes' so Liz and I continued on. Once over the pass Liz led the way down to the aid station where they immediately put us in chairs, wrapped us in blankets, and started plying us with hot chocolate and hot soup. The folks here really had their shit together. They were efficient and had lots of blankets and attentive volunteers. And the soup and chocolate were that perfect temperature - just the right temperature for maximum internal warming but not so hot that you couldn't drink them down pretty fast. Their efficiency and skill provided a huge turnaround, I'm sure, for every cold runner coming in from chilly and wet Pole Creek. I know it did for Liz and I.
A Finish and a Misunderstanding
Climbing out of Maggie Gulch we were passed by a runner and his pacer whom we had followed into the Maggie Gulch aid station. We got to the top of Green mountain and paused for several minutes to take in the gorgeous 360 degree view. Damn! What a course. We could see Handies off to our right and I pointed out the direction towards Silverton and where we had started. Looking at the distance between these two points and thinking about the terrain we had covered between them was mind-boggling. This course is just so big! What a wonderful sense of accomplishment and strength it gives one to take all this in. I should mention here that I was calculating in my head how far we could get before it got dark. We had both been carrying lights since Grouse since it seemed highly unlikely we'd reach our crews at Cunningham before dark. I was hoping we might be able to get to the top of Green mountain in time to see the sun set but figured that we'd be too late. With the spur we got from the storm in Pole Creek we actually summitted shortly after 5:00! Cool! The storm had really made a difference but Liz and I were also working well together with me pulling her up the hills and her pulling me on the downhills.
As we started down towards Stony Pass road we were still feeling great and were running the flats and downhills again, strongly. I pointed out the spot on the opposite ridge where we needed to cross and we both laughed about how this course just never lets up. We could see some runners heading up that slope and they looked pretty small.... As we ran down we passed the guys who had passed us on the way up and when we got to the road we continued straight across and up the other side. Once through the pass we could see Cunningham Gulch and I figured about 40 minutes to the aid station. This was the section where the sheep were in 2004 and where I thought they were to be this year but we didn't see a one. We had seen a bunch in Maggie Gulch but they had just been dropped off early that morning. (Waking up the aid station workers.) The traverse to the start of the descent and the descent went well. We passed a couple on the road with binoculars and I asked them if it was fun watching the runners come down this improbable descent. They said yes and that Liz and I were the fastest they'd seen come down. We jogged into the aid station where I met Bob, and Liz went to get her stuff from Hans's wife and crew, Suzy. Since she'd been fired she just put her bags in my car which we'd pick up after the race.
Bob mentioned that I might want to regrease my feet since it had been so long since Grouse but they were fine and I said I didn't want to mess with them but just wanted to get this thing done. I ate some random stuff but not too much. I wasn't really hungry and had lots of energy plus a couple of Clif Shots that I'd been carrying since Silverton. I was sure I'd get to the finish okay. As I was checking in with the official keeping track of runners and pacers I faced a bit of a problem when he asked who my pacer was. Before the race Bob and I had agreed that he would pace me into the finish from Cunningham but in the meantime I had picked up Liz as a pacer. Thinking on my feet I said that Liz was my pacer and that Bob would be leaving soon too but that he was just going on a training run. I said this with a smile and the guy said "Ok, that fine." I don't know for sure if there's a rule against 2 pacers but if it had been a big deal Liz would have been happy to hook up with someone else so Bob could run with me as we'd planned. Both Liz and I were feeling strong and alert so it wasn't like we really needed Bob to push us or keep us awake.
After talking to the timekeeper I went back to my car to get my better light for the final miles in the dark. Bob was there at the car and I told him what I had said to the timekeeper, again with a smile. My thought was that Bob's "training run" would coincide with our trip into town. It was right around 7:00 when we were ready to leave and I said that we should be able to get some good running in down the other side of the Dives/Little Giant pass before it got dark. Bob said that it was a 2 hour climb and that it'd be pretty dark by the time we got to the top but I thought (and said) that it shouldn't take us that long to climb 2,500 feet. Bob shrugged his shoulders and we headed out. As we left the aid station Liz and I looked for a place to cross the creek without getting our feet wet but Bob just walked right through the water and started up the trail. When Liz and I got across we too started up the first switchback but Bob had already gotten 40 yards or so ahead of us.
I was ahead of Liz and setting a pace that I could tell was pulling Liz along. The pace wasn't that fast and it was steady and I also kept checking to see that she wasn't falling back. I also figured she'd say something if it was too fast. Bob continued to pull ahead and I found it curious that he wasn't back chatting with us. I thought maybe he was trying to pull us along but he was pretty far ahead for that. We were catching up to a runner and his pacer and Bob slowed a bit, chatting with the pacer and we got pretty close to catching up but then Bob took off again. Towards the top there are places where you can't see ahead on the switchbacks ahead and Bob was nowhere to be seen. I thought for sure that he'd be waiting at the summit but when we got up to where we could see the summit saddle he wasn't there. Hmmmm. Somewhere along here it started to dawn on me that Bob might be pissed off about something but I still thought that maybe he was up there somewhere (maybe on a higher summit or something) and soon he'd come down to join us for the descent.
Liz and I reached the top of the climb in 1:35 and I was pretty psyched about that, thinking how cool it was that we could move so strongly up such a steep and relentless climb so late in such a tough race. We must have been 10-15 minutes up at the top enjoying the beautiful views both near and far. We also marveled at and traced the route down into Cunningham gulch. While we were up there, enjoying this final summit, I noticed a fox scurrying among the rocks off to our left. The fox, hunting the pika, promptly proceeded to walk straight toward us only veering off and down the far side of the slope when it got about 15 feet away. Too cool! Two years ago on this very same climb I had been hiking up with Matt Kirk, Russ Evans, and Charlie and Emily Thorn. We all saw a fox too but down lower by the large talings pile. This fox had sat there as we passed by, 15 feet away, and calmly went about it's business watching us with interest and not the slightest bit of fear. This fox even started romping around, obviously playing. Matt thought it was rabid and along with Russ and Charlie, continued on. But Emily and I stayed a few more minutes to watch.
The sun had set just a few minutes before Liz and I got to the top where we could see off to the west but there was still some nice pastel sunset action happening. There were clouds and distant peaks making for a picture postcard sunset. This spot was one of the most special parts of this run for me. I felt really happy about how strong I felt, how little soreness I had, and how well Liz and I had been moving, especially when we got hit by that cold and wet storm. I felt totally at peace with the world. And then I remembered the descent ahead of us. It's a bit of an ignominious finish after such a glorious first 94 miles. The problem is that the trail and then the roads have so many rocks that it's really hard to run while using a light. Before the light faded I was able to run some without a light but once it got dark the best we could do was 20-30 feet of running at a time, and this a bit of a stumbling run. Once you get down to the point where you turn off of the Arrastra Gulch road you get away from the rocks but besides a short (maybe 1/4 mile section) it's nearly impossible to get into any kind of a running rhythm. This is the part of the course that traverses 3 miles above the Animas river and for the most part theres not much climbing or descending. The problem with this trail is that it is constantly zigging and zagging with short, sharp ups and downs. Then there are the beaver pond sections where there's a lot of water running across and sitting in the trail. It's hard to pick a line through these spots and just splashing through is a bad option because you usually can't see what lies under the water. All this makes the trail seem to go on forever.
I mentioned at one point that I thought that this part of the course must have been designed by some kind of evil genius. The trail seemed perfectly designed to be maximally annoying and frustrating. I wasn't in a bad mood or anything but it was really frustrating to feel strong but not to be able to move fast. A few minutes after I mentioned this to Liz she slipped off a rock at one of the numerous small stream crossings and struck both of her knees. Ouch! With my unbounded compassion I said, "See, I told you. An evil genius!" She laughed and we stumbled on. Finally, we could see lights and then we were headed down to the rec center/ski area and then on into town. We ran every step of the way in to town even though Liz confessed later that she wanted to walk really badly. I could tell it was hard for her but I'd have stopped and walked if she had slowed or said anything. I told Liz that she *must* kiss the rock. She'd done every inch of the course and it would be wrong for her to peel off before the official finish like most pacers do. In my book she's as official a finisher as anyone. If anything, she ran a harder course than the rest of us. She didn't say anything and I wasn't going to say anything more but I was prepared to physically drag her to the rock if need be! No force was needed and we recorded a finish of 41:17.
As we were descending from the last climb I expressed some worries about Bob several times but I was mentally occupied with getting down to town so it wasn't to far forward in my mind. About 20 minutes after finishing I started thinking about what was going on. I'd been up for about 43 hours at this point and had just run Hardrock so my thinking was less than perfectly clear. Hahaha! That's an understatement! I was actually thinking that maybe Bob had gotten lost and was wandering around out there in trouble. This should have struck me as completely ridiculous because Bob has been living here for 4 years and has been on the course many many times and probably done that climb and descent 10 times or more. But like I said, I wasn't thinking clearly. I talked to Liz about it and then it occurred to me that Bob had driven my car to Cunningham and that if he had gone back down there he wouldn't be able to drive because he'd given me the key before we started the climb. I was seriously starting to worry.
(I'm sure at this point the reader can see what had happened but it had still not occurred to me what was actually going on. I was genuinely worried and had thoughts of rescues and searches going through my mind. I was seriously wondering who I should talk to. I should also mention that I'd been hallucinating mildly since late afternoon so my mind was not functioning on all cylinders.)
What we decided to do was to drive by Bob's place to see if there were lights on and if he wasn't there to drive out to Cunningham to see if he was there. We drove by his place and though the porch light was on there were no lights on inside. I didn't even think to go inside and look to see if he was there. So we drove out to Cunningham but that turned out to be an adventure in itself! Liz was driving and not very well but I doubted that I could do any better. I had driven to Cunningham before so I was the "navigator". I put it in quotes because it was a classic case of the blind (and hallucinating) leading the blind. We were both experiencing pretty severe hallucinations with our minds turning trees and other objects into things they weren't. At one point Liz was sure there was a giant slug in the middle of the road. We were also both experiencing serious time dilation while driving out on those very dark and winding dirt roads. Somehow, after wandering around and backtracking we managed to find the road into Cunningham by figuring only the aid station would be generating the stream of cars we came across.
Once we got to the aid station I asked around if anyone had seen Bob Boeder but no one there even knew who he was. My car was there and after asking around I finally got in and Liz followed me back to town. Driving out it seemed like I had been driving for days before getting to the main road and Liz later said she thought the same thing. When we got into town Liz drove over to the gym for a shower and I went back to Bob's. When I went inside I saw that Bob's bedroom door was closed which I'd never seen before so I figured he was there and had shut the door so the noise of me returning wouldn't wake him. I still thought about knocking on the door to be sure but decided to just shower and get some sleep.
The next morning, when I talked to Bob, it became clear that he had misunderstood what my intentions were when I told him what I had said to that timekeeper. Bob had, in effect, took me to be telling him to get lost because I wanted to be alone with Liz for the last section of the run. I told him that that had never entered my mind and that I really had wanted to run in with him. I really was looking forward to telling him about the run since we'd had little time during the crew aid stops. Even if I had wanted to be alone with Liz I would have asked Bob if he minded rather than just telling him to "take a hike."
I can imagine what must have been going through his mind as he went up and over that last climb. I would have been furious if I had thought that someone that I had invited into my home and then spent two days supporting in a run, had treated me like he thought I had treated him. I would have felt terribly exploited. I apologized and tried to convince him that it really was a misunderstanding but it was obvious that he wasn't buying it so I cleared out of his place right away. We haven't spoken since. I'm hoping time will heal the wound. I feel really bad about what happened but not guilty. It was just an unfortunate set of circumstances.
Some of the lessons I learned in this run are: 1) start easy and you'll be able to finish strong, feeling good. 2) Carrying a single bottle and pulling from streams can work really well on this course. I was better hydrated during this run than ever. 3) Running with minimal clothing is okay if you have confidence in your strength and ability. Liz and I got caught about as bad as possible and made it through with a decent safety margin. 4) Don't assume that someone can read between the lines of what you say when you're half out of your mind with lack of sleep.
My final word: Come visit the San Juans! This area is so beautiful and this race so inspiring that chances are you'll want to come back year after year. Hardrock fever is a virulent and contagious disease so be aware that you risk infection if you come out here in early July.
July 21, 2006