Editor's Note: This is long. But so is Hardrock. John describes this fantastic run in great detail. We think it's worth your time. Read this, and you might get an idea why the "Hardrockers" are so fanatic.
"There are now dozens of ultra runners who have a good working knowledge of the course. Many of them are more than willing to lie about the course details and difficulty" - taken directly from the 2007 Hardrock 100 Mile Runner’s manual. Wonderful! I’d waited three years for the opportunity to run here. In the days leading up to the event I enjoyed the company of my fellow runners and listened to their tales about the mountains. I’d find out soon enough what was and was not true. As I attempt to recount my experience and speak from memory know that any embellishment or exaggeration I could offer will pale in comparison to the reality of this event. Hardrock’s reputation needs none of that; the truth of the matter is amazing enough and speaks for itself. And yes . . . . . . . . . . . . . . it rocks!
I have been attempting to write about this year’s Hardrock 100 Mile Endurance Run since race’s end on July 15th. I blame my writer’s block on awe and wonder and maybe a little laziness. I’ve started and stopped more times than I can count. The wonder of the journey through and over the San Juan Mountains (also known as North America’s Alps) in southwest Colorado overwhelms any writing skill I possess. The urge is to describe everything yet know I cannot. It’s just too big. The mountains are too high and the trail too rugged and long. There is no way that I can adequately describe the splendor and the diversity of the wild flowers thriving in the high open meadows or along roaring mountain streams filled with snow melt or growing in the nooks and crannies atop 13,000 foot passes. Awe inhibits my attempts at accurately describing the people who embrace this challenge. How do I depict what the cold dark stark beauty of a moonless heaven filled with stars and the rising Milky Way feels like at midnight; eighteen hours into the run? I’ll try. I’ll try to tell of how it feels to realize that with the dawn on Hardrock’s second morning resurrection of sorts begins and that indeed a brand new day lay ahead; this in spite of the struggles through the previous night. So "the hell" with writer’s block, I will tell as best I can.
I have nothing but admiration for those conceiving of the idea of this endurance run and then dedicating it to the memory of the rugged prospectors that searched for gold, silver and other precious minerals in these mountains. By the end of the 19th century thousands of miners sought riches that lay hidden between the peaks and valleys near Silverton, Colorado where Hardrock takes place. The run follows foot and burro trails and old wagon road that were built for transporting materials to the mines and then ore to market. Evidence of once working mines, stamp mills, tramways, and smelters as well as the decaying cabins miners once lived in can still be see as the Hardrock runner traverses from start to finish. I was fascinated by these examples of man’s sheer strength of will imposed upon the land.
This run describes itself as offering a graduate level challenge for endurance runners. It is unlike any other 100-mile run I have partaken of including ultramarathons that serve as a qualifiers for the event’s entry. I’ll mention those differences during this attempt at painting a picture of 100+ miles in Colorado. It is a course that offers extremes in altitude; from a low of 7,700 ft to a high of 14,000+ ft with the average elevation for the entire 100+ miles being 11,300 ft above sea level, much of it exposed and above the tree line. This event offers extremes in steepness; some climbs and descents are as much as a 25% grade. The land is remote and can be lonely, it does not take long for one hundred or so runners to become spread out over the distance. Near vertical cliffs complete with hundreds of feet of sheer drop-off are run using narrow shelf trails that had been somehow cut along the mountain’s side. Large stands of evergreens provide shelter for herds of elk hundreds in number. I could continue to write that it is different . . . . . or I could simply say it is Hardrock..
The course takes the runner through four different life zones. Because of the "wild" reputation this race carries runners are expected to gain enough knowledge about the course so they can follow it without the help of trail markers. This worried me as I do not have the best sense of direction. Hoping to overcome that I accompanied Charlie Thorn, one of the original Hardrock runners on eight days as he marked sections of the course. This was part of my "pre race" acclimation. Instead of the normal "taper" leading up to a race; I and many of my companions hiked 8-to18 miles a day while Charlie and his trail marking partner John Cappis set the course. During those hikes Charlie would name the flora, speak of the fauna and talk the history of the region, in particular as it pertained to mining. It would have been nice to come to the starting line on race day completely rested but for this "newbie" the benefits of seeing much of the course beforehand far outweighed any advantage rest would have offered. I also was able to begin understanding the theory for marking or not marking trail.
On a Friday morning, July the 13th at 6AM to be exact, Hardrock 2007 began. Outside of the Silverton High School Gym the field consisting of 17 women and 117 men; 18 to over 70 years of age waited. The 100.5-mile run would end where it began there in town at an elevation of 9300 ft. It would begin at the "Hardrock" placed outside the school and end with the runner ‘s return and their kissing that rock. I had been sleeping in a tent at 10,500 feet for two weeks prior, attempting to acclimate to the San Juan Mountain "skinny air". I’d moved into Silverton; total resident population of 500 on Wednesday greatly appreciating a real bed and flush toilet. It was a simple 2-block walk to the school’s gym on race morning where the 134 runners and associated well wishers awaited the hour and the word - "Go"! The energy felt from runners and others present before the start was intoxicating. I was "buzzing". I was ready.
The word was spoken and we began. After a quick left onto its only paved road we left town. The deal agreed upon was that we would return within 48 hours. The first mile or so were gifts of gently rolling trail alongside the Animas River (El Rio de Las Animas Perdidas, or the River of Lost Souls). I did not feel lost yet said a quick prayer hoping I’d not be. There were beaver dams to skirt along the willows growing near the river and in the first two miles we passed the remains of two mines, the Lackawanna and Mayflower. Up and up onto the jeep road we went to Arrastra Gulch and then to the Little Giant Trail. The first 11,000 ft mark came and went as we moved up and out of Little Giant Basin. Runners were strewn-out ahead and behind me as we climbed and I sucked wind. The field spread out as far as my eye could see. The cloudless morning skies were the perfect backdrop for what lay ahead. The wildflowers in the meadows seemed to smile. During that first climb on the trail one of my heroes, John Dewalt, 71 years young passed me while on his way to his to his 12th Hardrock finish. We were moving towards Dives Basin and the trail that was cut across the steep east face of the next peak. More from our runner’s manual, the following: "In low snow years, this wide trail in no challenge at all. However, in heavy snow years, there is extremely hard steep snow or ice. For three of the runs, steps have been cut in the snow. About a hundred yards below the trail, the steep grass slope disappears over cliffs that are several hundred feet high. A slip here could be fatal. Exposure, acrophobia. IF THE SNOW CONDITIONS WARRANT IT, THERE WILL BE A FIXED ROPE. (Note we have not yet had to use a rope here.") This year snow was not an issue but still this was Hardrock.
What goes up does come down and down we went after those first seven miles. Atop Dives-Little Giant Pass (13000 ft) we were offered a clear view down to the aid station. I moved quickly along a well-worn animal trail where at that moment gravity seemed to be my friend, it would fight me soon enough. Closer towards the Cunningham Gulch Aid station the ruins of the collapsed Shenandoah mine came and went. The trail switched back and forth bringing us closer to aid. During the descent into the timber the next climb up Green Mountain, complete with waterfall appeared in view. Over and over again during the run one reward for completing an ascent was the view of the next climb; sometimes that was good and at other times damn scary and discouraging. Aid was earned after wading Cunningham Creek. Without the help of the two people waiting for me at the Cunningham aid station completing my run would have been near impossible. Jack Jewel from Boulder, Colorado would serve as my pacer from mile 42 until 82. I met and ran with Jack on two different occasions at the Massanutten Mountain 100 Mile Trail Run. Jack found himself deep on the waiting list for this year’s event and offered to accompany me on my journey should he not get the call to "suit up" and run come race day. I find myself feeling very close to other runners who I have shared trail and distance with in spite of spending only hours with them. That is the case with Jack only now that bond is stronger. The other person who made this possible was Teresa Sukiennicki. Teresa and I have been many things to one another over the last three years, she has seen me up at my best and at my worst. On this adventure she would act as crew when logistics allowed and then bring me in across the last 18 miles. I cannot say enough about both their efforts, I am in as much awe of her and Jack as anyone or anything Hardrock exposed me to.
Aid was taken in the form of fruit and drink, well wishes were accepted then it was time to climb moving up through the meadow filled with columbine and Indian paintbrush. I was now on the steep Green Mountain trail climbing between two bands of cliff along a narrow shelf where at one point there is a near straight down 600-foot vertical drop. While switchbacking along this high open meadow I again realized just hard I was breathing – very hard and deeply. I knew I must follow the advice of those who have done this before and not fight the mountain. That became one of my mantras - "do not fight the mountain, accept it". When breathing became labored I stopped, put my hands on my knees until I recovered. Later in the race I used a prayer my friend Deb Pero taught me, "God, You pick up my feet and I’ll put ‘em down". There were no sheep grazing in the Green Mountain Basin at 12,000 feet this year. I thought that might be a cool thing to see. I’d heard that in years past when the race was run in the clockwise direction and Green Mountain came at 88 miles rather than 12 miles runners found that sheep had knocked down trail markers and the reflection of headlamps from their "beady little eyes" lent some confusion to those trying to find their way towards the finish line. Here I found myself for the first but not last time on the Continental Divide. I learned that the Divide is the line of summits in this part of the country that separate streams flowing toward the Gulf of California and Pacific from those flowing toward the Gulf of Mexico, Hudson Bay and the Arctic Ocean. Running here has made me want to learn more geography and geology and then I would know stuff like this - while on the course’s second climb over Green Mountain the headwaters of the Rio Grande River could be seen. Doubts about my ability and capability began surfacing more and more and it was still very early in the event. I’d covered a little more than 12 miles and the climbs were knocking it out of me. As I crested Green Mountain I came upon two of my favorite runner folk, Deb Pero and Joe Prusaitis. Both are Hardrock veterans who were taking a break. Joe could tell that I was stressing and he told me to relax. He said that he views Hardrock as a war to be won with these first two climbs and the next to come as battles he chooses to lose. He reminded me not to lose faith and that all would be well as long as I continued placing one foot in front of the other. I promised to remember that. I thanked him and left feeling somewhat reassured. After the Green Mountain/Stony Pass ridge the next climb was seen as we headed towards Canby Mountain (13000 ft) with Stony Pass between us and it and vistas of the Grenadier range and Weminuche Wilderness behind.
As the elevation profile of the course illustrates it is either up or down. Over the entire course the total vertical ascent is 33,124 feet with an equal amount of descent. Thirteen ridges of over 12,000 ft in elevation are climbed. Buffalo Boy Ridge came and the third climb was accomplished followed by a drop cross-country into Maggie Gulch and the aid station at 15.3 miles, a mere 11840 feet above the sea. Approaching Maggie Gulch near the remnants of the Intersection Mill and Mine I met and chatted it up with the youngest member of the Hardrock running tribe, James Wrublik. Both he and his father were running this year, just one more very cool piece of the event.
Maggie-Pole Creek Pass came as the fourth climb. It was soon after this climb near the stand of pines off in the distance that we saw a herd of elk while marking trail the previous week. There was no evidence of these animals on the horizon or on the trail, which was a good thing for elk have the reputation of stomping on trail markers and eating the attached ribbon. Minimal aid was offered at the Pole Creek aid station but it was aid and very much appreciated; appreciated more when understood that all supplies had been packed in by horse. 20 minutes before reaching the station it had begun to rain and hail. I watched the storm approach, complete with thunder and lightening but at least the flashes in the sky looked like they were far, far away. I grew cold as the rain began to soak through my clothing. I had dumped many of the supplies I had started with realizing that I was carrying too much weigh in my pack. My rain gear was one piece I gave my crew to hold. But I did have a thin disposable raincoat folded up tight and small for use in emergency. My hands did not want to work as they should because they were cold and I waited until reaching the aid station before attempting to unwrap it and put it on. With the plastic on I felt much like a "sandwich" encased in a baggie but it did the job of keeping the rain off me. I took some drink, refilled my camelback bladder and was off again onto the trail now littered with hailstones the size of my fingernails. It was 1:21 in the afternoon when I left Pole Creek. I had come into that station 8 minutes before that taking over 7 hours to run/walk 19.6 miles. This is Hardrock.
I was now on my way to Cataract-Pole Pass, the fifth climb. Looking down from that pass Cataract Gulch was seen and the pyramid outline of Sunshine Peak at 14,001 ft and surprise, surprise, we were not climbing it but instead the goal was to get to it’s base and the ghost town site of Sherman Cross. We passed Cataract Lake (just one of the many sparkling high lakes seen during the run) and this section of the course was one of the most enjoyable of the day(s). I was feeling pretty good now that the rain stopped and was actually running well downhill and knew that would continue until I reached Sherman. Moving cross-country at 12,000 ft the trail became obvious and because of that was unmarked. I was heading down towards Cataract Creek and it’s spectacular falls. I’d wade the water four times as we; the creek and I meandered down towards Sherman. Wet feet were just something to be accepted along with many other Hardrock charms. 800 yards from the aid station a volunteer asked me for my number then radioed ahead that I would soon arrive. When I did I was directed to a chair where my drop bag awaited me along with offers of food and drink, very nice treatment! I gratefully accepted pieces of turkey and copious amounts of ice cold chocolate milk and relaxed a bit as I changed shoes and socks. I sensed that I was at lower altitude as breathing was easier and indeed I was at 9640 feet and 28.7 miles into it at 4:10 in the afternoon. I have learned not to fixate on the distance and time remaining early in ultras. But I did a quick calculation and then tried to put that math behind me – it would be more than 36 hours before the task was complete. Yes it was better not to think too hard on that nor worry. I took a 12-minute reprieve from my journey knowing what lay ahead. The next manned aid station was almost 15 miles away. Between here and there lay clouds.
Leaving Sherman with a full belly and camelback I briskly walked down a dirt road watching for the faint trail up the bank to an old mill site. For the next quarter mile the course was hard to follow and I got off trail for a moment or two but remembering the general direction was up found it easily enough. I passed an old mill and an abandoned wagon road looking for a game trail, then more road and more game trail leading to the Cinnamon Pass Road. This was more a rugged and rough jeep trail than road but perhaps that is just my western New York showing. I reveled on the three miles of it used while on my way to Burrows Park and then onto the Grizzly Gulch trail.
Grizzly Gulch is the most popular trail to Handies Peak, my next goal and is one of five 14,000 ft. peaks in the area. It is indeed a beautiful trail and off to my left was the spectacular view of the roaring Silver Creek and it’s valley. The trail led me through spruce, fir and aspen before dumping me onto the open tundra that was carpeted with wildflowers of every color imaginable. In the midst of this rugged climb into what seemed like the clouds doubt resurfaced. For once above the timberline I could see my target. There was Handies complete with what appeared to be little specks moving across its face and peak on the distance horizon. I can honestly say that I felt like weeping in the midst of this sight. Was I really expected to go up there? Was this part of the deal? Would the mountain break me here? Isn’t the chance of being beaten by the mountain or the distance what brings us to the ultra? What would be the point if success were guaranteed? Ah the conversations I had with myself distracted me somewhat and I remembered a warning I had heard many times in this life, "be careful what you wish for". I would continue as best I could for as long as I could. I kept reminding myself that yes I had been wishing and hoping for just this chance for three years now. Today at this moment I was lucky enough to be where I was and I refused nurture any to regret. Up the switchbacks I went with runners ahead and behind me then onto the steeper, looser dirt trail above the saddle. I was getting close but remembered that cresting Handies from this direction involved climbing a "false summit" so I was not surprised that there was still more to come before reaching the rounded top of Handies Peak. So 36.8 miles into this event I was treated to an unbelievable 360-degree vista of the San Juan Mountains and knew that at 8:30 on that Friday evening there was nowhere I’d rather be. With the view drank in and spirits revived it was time to leave the course’s sixth pass and move down into American Basin.
It would be dark by the time I reached aid and my pacer at Grouse Gulch. I found that I could run the downhills if only in the most conservative of fashion, a fall here would not be good. Care was taken. I was looking to skirt Sloan Lake that I remember sparkling like a blue diamond on trail marking day. The trip into Grouse was not all downward fun and games, some climb was required up into another saddle to the American Grouse Pass, the 7th peak over 12,000 ft. There was snow here and it was not without charm. The cold felt good on my tired feet and it was a soft reprieve from the hard rocks of mountain. I did take a moment to turn around to see from where I’d come and I found that beautifully disturbing – had I really been up there? The conversation with myself continued. I ran down onto an abandoned jeep road full of loose rock and stone, switchbacking six or eight times. I could see aid station lights glowing against the dark backdrop, a very welcomed sight. I crossed the bridge over the Animas River and found both Teresa and Jack waiting for me. It was 10:27 PM. Into a chair I went, Jack took the bladder from my camelback and returned it full. Teresa offered me smiles, lunchmeat, fruit and soup. My shoes and socks were changed and I reveled in the motionless act of sitting. 21 minutes flew by, Jack was suited up and ready. It was time to go.
We moved up the jeep road with Engineer’s Pass kind of being the object of our attention. I found I could walk the reasonable inclines quite well and we passed a number of people. It was a welcome change having a trail companion. Although night obscured the view I knew that in the canyon below lay the remains of the long abandoned mining town of Animas Forks. At 12600 ft the road was carved along the west face of Engineer Mountain and headed towards Oh Point Road. "Oh Boy, the 8th climb!" Care had to be taken here not to get off course. The road we had been enjoying up to this point curves around dropping into Engineer Pass – not where we had to go. I remembered from trail marking day that a not so obvious sharp right turn was required onto a steep cross-country slope over and down into the meadow. We found our mark and began the descent to the Engineer Aid station. Here I realized that I was quite thirsty and drank deeply from my camelback. Water seemed not to satiate me. I promised myself something thirst quenching as soon as aid was offered. Minimum aid was offered there at the remote station as all supplies were as in other remote stations packed it. It is funny or maybe not so funny but for as many times as I have run through the night I often neglect my electrolyte needs once the sun goes down. My tummy was a bit upset and full of water yet I did not make the connection that I was low on salt. I accepted orange slices when aid workers offered them instead of chips or pretzels. I carried salt yet kept it in one of my pouches. Some running lesson must be relearned time and time again.
We were encouraged to leave Engineer’s as soon as possible and did after thanking the kind folks there. Within minutes of leaving I began puking on my shoes. This was not good. Only half the race distance had been spanned and now I was emptying the contents of my belly in knee buckling fashion. Damn! Trying to distract myself from the nausea I told Jack what I knew of the course before us and that we would be on good trail for quite a while and that remnants of the Yellow Jack Mine complete with a still standing cabin was near. Bear Creek was on our left as we moved slowly into the narrow and steep canyon. Care had to be taken while wading the many streams feeding the creek because to the slippery feel of algae growing on the rocks. Moving deeper towards the lowest point on this year’s course dramatic drops of over 400 ft into the gorge were skirted. Making use of 13 switchbacks we dropped over 1000 ft in elevation quickly. After 20 hours on the trail sounds heard in the night can trigger the weirdest associations. Just before dropping down to the highway 550 tunnel I heard what sounded like china plates breaking. That was the sound of the runner ahead of us on the "shale trail". Pieces of fragile shale, some as large as dinner dishes littered the path and with each footfall a kind of "tingling" or "crackling" was be heard as they broke. I thought it quite humorous in spite of my nausea and the looks of concern from Jack every time I noisily emptied my gut onto the trail.
Lower and lower on the course we went down to the Uncompahgre River Dam service road and over a very big pipe coming from the dam using the wooden stairs provided. I continued to vomit every time I tried drinking or eating and felt perfectly horrible. The town of Ouray was close as we passed the solid looking stone building once used to house mining explosives. Aid came in Ouray City Park at 56.6 miles, 7680 ft and for this runner at 5:10 on Saturday morning, a little more than 23 hours after his start. Yikes! Most of the 8 miles before had been a blur. What I wanted most after a bathroom was to simply sit and close my eyes. I could not tolerate the thought of eating or drinking anything. I knew enough not to get too comfortable or lie down on a cot or the ground. I accepted the blanket offered me and wrapped up in it after finding a chair inside a large tent next to a space heater. I asked to be awoken in 30 minutes. I came to with Teresa saying my name and patting my shoulder. Yes I would try eating some turkey breast if only I could have another 15 minutes of sleep. Teresa’s frown told me what I knew was right – I had to eat and get up and continue soon if there was any chance of my coming across the finish line in the allotted time. I still wanted to continue, wanted to finish what had been started. At that moment the chances were that I would fail if I could not get a handle on my nausea. While Teresa got food for me Joe Prusaitis’s best friend and pacer appeared and asked me what I was doing in that chair. "I’m so sick Paul. I can’t keep anything down" was my reply. He then simply stated the obvious and saved my race. "You’re low on electrolytes. Take these now!" The light went on in my head and I knew he was right. "Thanks!" I swallowed the two capsules he offered and promised that I would pay closer attention to my salt needs. If my body were to process food and drink I needed to stabilize the electrolyte content in my body - simple. Some solid food was eaten and Jack was roused from his short nap on a picnic table. I would try. I would do my best to remember that I had never died from an upset belly and I would have faith that fortune would change once the sun rose and the sodium and potassium my body craved was replenished.
We left at 6:26 AM. Time had slipped away! I have never before spent 76 minutes in an aid station, but then I have never done anything like Hardrock before. The ninth pass of the run would come 11.1 miles later. Reaching there would entail climbing over 5400 ft. I did my best to "fake" being in good spirits leaving Ouray and told Teresa that I would see her again sometime in the afternoon. Walking out of Ouray Jack and I smiled at the doe and fawn feeding from a flower box next to a small home. And not surprisingly I began to feel better and better as the day dawned. I could still hike the gradual uphills at a decent clip and as the morning blossomed distance was covered. Jack shared with me tales of a recent trip to Africa as he snapped photos of the gorges and old mines we passed. Jeeps, touring vehicles and 4-wheelers drove by on their way up onto the mountain and we waved. Following the signs toward Yankee Boy Basin and Imogene Pass we passed the Camp Bird Mine with it’s many still standing buildings. Above Sneffels Creek the road had been blasted out of the cliffs making me marvel over and over again at what man can do when his mind is put to it. The sun and my spirits rose higher. I continued to feel better and drank from my pack, ate peanuts, some gummy candies, jerky and Gu I had brought and I remembered to swallow salt, lots of it!
The Governor Basin Aid Station arrived unexpectedly and that was a treat. There we learned that Scott Jurek had been the first runner through just before 11PM the previous night. The strength and speed of the front-runners always amazes me. Following the markers we turned steeply up a snow covered slope to what once was the dump of the Virginius Mine. Then to the upper road to the Virginius mine that was clear for the most part with the minimum of snow and was easily traversed. Then again the course got interesting. It was cross-country up to Virginius Pass; a narrow notch in the ridge at 13,100 ft. Three steep pitches brought us there. All were partially snow covered but certainly not as badly as they could have been based on what I’ve learned about previous year’s runs. The first pitch crosses a series of mine dumps. I found it best to stay on the snow where there was better traction. It was on that snow that I saw something I’d never witnessed before. There were spiders scurrying across the white surface. Snow spiders? I moved across that first pitch I watched what looked like large robins chasing and feasting on those eight-legged snowbound bugs. After the first pitch the grade leveled allowing me to catch my breath. The second was a little harder due to the very loose nature of the rock and dirt crossed. After this pitch the terrain again flattened some and we were then looking directly up the chute at Virginius Pass. Runners were ahead of us and we watched them struggle up. It was a simple task but not an easy one, just climb up straight and grab onto the fixed rope there should that seem like a good idea. I thought so and before I knew it we were there at the 67.7-mile mark – 2/3 of the run completed at just after 11 AM, 29 hours after my start. It was surreal to say the least.
Telluride resident Chuck Kroger, who has since become a regular participant in the run, started the aid station on Virginius, the 9th pass in 1992. Now a group of Chuck’s friends from Telluride carry on the tradition and backpack supplies up to the minimal aid station into there. In my opinion theirs is one of the more remarkable efforts of this event. The windswept pass is barely wide enough for their shelters and they had been up for many hours before my arrival. We took a moment to say hello, appreciate the view and then left by dropping 200 feet steeply down the gully into Marshall Basin then onto trail through the scree. This was another happy part of the run, a function of the downward trail. I had regained a buffer of time having arrived at Virginius earlier than projected and confidence had returned. The drop down into Telluride was 4400 ft and I allowed gravity to work for me. The sun shined and the breeze blew, the flowers seem to speak in living colors as the tree line returned. The town soon came into view, as did the canyon we would travel through after the aid station. A large white canopy marked the station’s location. It felt strange to be in a town and again on a street. Over the bridge across the San Miguel River and almost 73 miles had been covered. I felt great!
The Telluride station was a cheerful place. I sat and Teresa brought me my dropbag. I treated myself to a change in shirt and socks and ate more lunchmeat and some fruit and drank a coke. My camelback was refilled with water and I felt quite content. It was 12:41 PM on Saturday and at that moment I felt that I was certain of finishing this thing barring the unexpected. I dawdled here trying as best I could to ignore being told from many directions by many caring people that I should leave. I did at 1:04 PM telling Teresa that we would see her at the 82-mile mark in Chapman Gulch where she would take over the pacing duties from Jack.
Walking briskly out and through the soccer fields near the station I smiled hearing sounds of the "real world"; in this case the cheerful noise from youth skateboarding competition taking place in the cement bowl designed for that activity. As we climbed out of town I saw the biggest beaver house I’ve ever seen off to my right in a small lake. Maybe the beaver were town mascots? We shared dirt road with smiling pedestrians for the next 2 miles before turning onto the Wasatch Trail complete with the expected Hardrock steep climbs and switchbacks. This was the first time during the run that I felt warm. We criss-crossed Bear Creek a number of times always stopping to splash cold water on our faces. I dunked my hat in each time accepting the fogging up of my sunglasses as payment for the cool reprieve. We used the footbridge just before the Nellie Mine to get across the steep rock face having been warned to take care should we suffer from acrophobia. I told Jack that I was not afraid of spiders and he only groaned in response. A few sentences ago I mentioned my confidence in reaching the finish line back in Silverton barring any surprises. The unexpected came in the form of the Wasatch Saddle and then Oscar’s Pass, parts of the course I’d not seen before. I had not accompanied those marking this trail so everything was new to me. Surrounded by the rugged beauty there I again felt that I was winding and wearing down. I found myself stopping often with hands on knees waiting to recover enough to begin again. The 4400 ft climb over 8 miles seemed to go on forever. The views were incredible and I kept turning around fascinated with seeing where we had come from. The valley behind was ablaze in color, from the white of the snow melting, feeding the churning creeks to the blues of the columbines and the yellows, reds, and pinks of unnamed wildflowers growing midst the grey and red rock and dotting the green grassy meadow. I’d see runners behind me and thank my Higher Power that I was not there. I saw those ahead and wanted to catch them. We met two runners descending the saddle, a young lady and man out for an afternoon run on the mountain and they wished us well. A pretty blonde woman pushing her mountain bike down one very technical area also bid us good day. I enjoyed seeing these "earth people". I slowed down and staggered at times and asked Jack how far he thought until we crested. He was the perfect companion that day never lying to me. Although he could not accurately judge and answer me he replied that Oscar’s Pass was at 13000 ft and well above the tree line. Since we were stilling climbing through pines we had a ways to go. With that info I paid closer attention to my surroundings and eventually there were fewer and fewer trees and more and more snow. The top would come and it did. Crossing the snowfields I glissaded down into Bridal Veil Basin. That was chilly fun gathering up snow in my shorts during the slide downhill. At the bottom I shook the white stuff out and laughed or maybe giggled for 34 hours into this I was getting a bit "twisted". One more snowfield to cross before reaching Oscar’s Pass, the 10th climb. Yes! But . . . . . . . . . . directly across from us in the distance we could look into Swamp Canyon and the saddle at the head of the dreaded Swamp-Grant Pass, the next climb. While viewing what was to come I felt a chill ran down my spine but there was no need to worry about what lay ahead yet, I’d remain living in the moment as long as I could, it was relatively safe there. We kind of ran down the remains of the steep rugged jeep road consisting of large red rocks that moved beneath our feet. Switchbacks helped bring us down about 2800 ft back into the trees and nearer Chapman Gulch and it’s aid station. It was time to change socks and pacers, to eat and issue some half-hearted braggadocio now that I was sitting down and breathing well. It was about 6:30 PM and Teresa was ready and I predicted a finishing time of 4 AM or 9 ½ hours hence, maybe sooner. At times I marvel at the stupid things that come from my mouth.
I thanked Jack for all he’d done and promised to see him back in Silverton. We left on the jeep road then quickly onto the trail. From our runner’s manual: "After 0.5 miles, turn right [WSW] off road onto trail. Watch carefully for this turn off. It is on a level spot in the fir and spruce. (If you find yourself getting into willows and nearing the water in Swamp Canyon, you missed the trail turn off. Go back and find it.)". OK? Got that? We did not miss the trail and found the high meadow filled with skunk cabbage while following the patchy path into the rockslide. Only at Hardrock would a rockslide obviously be part of the course. I was breathing quite hard again and stopping more than I am proud of. We continued to move into and out of rock glaciers knowing that these piles of stone could be leg breakers. At the base of the final ¼ mile climb we stopped dead in our tracks. By then there were about six to eight of us conjugating here trying to triangulate and choose their easiest way up to Grant Swamp Pass. The climb is all about very loose scree. I remembered from the trail-marking day that it seemed that I’d go up two or three steps only to slide back down one or two. And I remembered how hard it had been on relatively fresh legs. It was dusk now and I wanted up and over the 11th pass before darkness fell. But still we all seemed to wait and wonder until Teresa found her mark and began scurrying up in switchback fashion. She moved across the face of the last piece of the mountain in one direction all the while moving up and then back across the other side and back over and over again. It seemed like the logical way up and I followed, as did most of those waiting below. At times shouts would come down from her or from others and me to those below to watch out as one of us had loosened rock and it was on its way down. No one was affected and all arrived safe and sound if not more than a bit weary from the effort.
Below was the turquoise colored Ice Lake, shrouded as darkness approached but there in my memory as beautiful as it was at midday a week ago. Behind us was the stunning vista of Swamp Canyon and Oscar’s Pass. It is a very special place with spectacular views ahead and behind. More special because 100 yards around the bend lay the Joel Zucker memorial plate mounted on the face of a rock. After stopping a moment to speak to Joel I followed the others down the loose stone along faint animal trail. We were coming down fast targeting the ridge to the left side of Island Lake. Then onto the cross-country Kamm traverse named after Ulrich Kamm who suggested using this route based on some hundred-year old maps he obtained after his 1993 run. One section of the course I dreaded would have to be faced very soon. Of everything I’d seen during the trail marking days crossing Ice Lake Stream bothered me the most. It simply looked treacherous. It looked dangerous. It looked ready to eat any weary runner who misstepped. At the bottom of our descent the stream lie filled with avalanche debris; broken trees and branches all helter skelter. There were options on how to get from one side to the other, none that I particularly liked but that was beside the point. The goal was to get across without breaking any bones or worse. Last year one runner scouting during the course marking was badly injured here when the fallen tree he was on shifted dumping him in the water breaking his ribs. I chose to ignore the logs that could be used as a makeshift bridge and instead forded the stream on the right side of the trail. The water was cold and I slowly worked my way across stepping over the fallen timber and sharp broken branches, carefully placing each foot down not knowing for sure how deep the water was. I expected to be thrilled and relieved with my success reaching the other side but that emotion was clouded by bone-deep fatigue and worry surfacing once again. I was moving as best I could yet using too much time and doubting whether we were really on course. Teresa was confident that we were. I worked on having a little more faith that all would be well. We were searching for an abandoned jeep road; it came, as did the KT aid station.
Worry soon blossomed into full-blown panic when I realized that it had taken me 4 hours and 17 minutes to go these last seven miles; that would be in excess of 36 minutes/mile. I’ve an road running acquaintance who commented on my long distance running with this, "I do not know you are doing out there Prohira but its not running." In this instance I could not argue with her. It was 10:45 PM when we left KT with 7 hours and 15 minutes left before the final 48-hour cutoff and 11 ½ miles to go including the last two climbs. It would be close at that pace. I really do despise "flirting" with cutoff times. Soon after KT there was another creek to cross with the water seeming colder than the last time I got wet. The climb up onto the Porcupine trail "crushed" me and left me a mere shell of what I’d been. The mild reprieve that came along the almost level bench went unnoticed. I remember this part of the course from the first day of trail marking and knew it to be a lovely, flower filled meadow. That was the image I tried to keep foremost in my head as I moved so slowly up, up and up, walking 10 to 15 steps before breaking to recover.
If that 12th pass up to the Cataract–Porcupine saddle was tough what came next was for this weary Hardrock "wannabe" was simply overwhelming. I must have been quite the sight to see moving up to the Putman-Cataract Ridge at 12600 ft. At least my pacer did not laugh at me (or at least not too much). Nearing the top I was actually down on all fours, maybe fives, if my tongue hanging out and dragging counted as an appendage. I thought the end would never come and then it did. It did! It did and now it was all downhill from there. We’d drop over 3000 ft in the next 7 miles and started by moving cross-country then onto stone filled switchbacks where the footing was marginal at best but gloriously down, down and down.
So it was back down to the timberline and then the last aid station was seen. It consisted of a simple tent and campfire set up out there in the middle of nowhere. The two volunteers there were very cheerful and confident of our success. I wanted to believe them and spent only moments there leaving 3 minutes before 3 AM. There was still 5.9 miles to go. But I was licking my lips because I had a date with a rock.
I could feel the surreal promise of the finish line pulling us down, down and down on that narrow path of loose stone almost running. A number of times I slipped, fell and ended up off the trail with my legs below down the side of the mountain and my face in the dirt. I know this disturbed Teresa who would stop and turn around checking on me. Once I actually believe I’d fallen asleep on my feet for I did not remember slipping or falling. I was too tired and too excited about approaching Silverton in the pre dawn to allow this to bother me. Down and down we went towards the sound of water and through the skunk cabbage and willows brushing up against our legs. And there it was! What a welcome sight! Mineral Creek that lay just outside of town. The 20-yard passage through the thigh deep water was aided by using the fixed rope there. The lights in Silverton could be seen. I could feel the extra oxygen in the air here down at 9300 ft. and began to shuffle along the Nute Chute, the ledge trail along the face of a huge mine tailing. Stopping long enough to empty my stomach down the chute (nausea had returned but it couldn’t hurt me now) I continued to walk/ hobble/ stagger/ run (no not run) on the trail under the power lines and through the aspens to the Shrine of the Mines road. The Shrine statue was on my left and I made the right turn steeply downhill on a trail that merged onto 10th street in town. I was back from where I had started. All that was required of me was covering another two blocks and then the Hardrock appeared exactly where I had last seen it a couple of days before.
Almost 47 hours after the start race director Dale Garland was there waiting to witness my return to town and the "rock". My journey officially ended, as did the race for all who had reached the rock before me, with a kiss. I had been dreaming of that kiss for a long time. I had played out in my head different scenarios for that final smooch; I’d embrace the rock or peck at it playfully perhaps even perhaps even passionately as I heard runners had in years past. That kiss would complete the task. I asked myself, "shouldn’t that last Hardrock act be as was big and grand as the last 100 miles had been?" But when the time came to place lips to stone all I had for that rock was a deep respect and admiration. A reverent kiss expressed it all.
Finishing up this report two months after the fact I am amazed at how fresh the memories of those mountains are. I returned home exhausted and refreshed. I find it so easy to summon up images of the first descent down into Cunningham when I felt on top of the world. I vividly recall the climb of the final pitch up to Virginius Gap and how satisfying that was. At times I can still feel the sun’s warmth on my face as I felt it on my way up towards Oscar’s Pass. And of course the memory of the finish is still fresh, intense and easily relived. I’ve read that the sensation of pain is, curiously, one of the hardest to summon from memory. I can attest to that. I effortlessly remember the resurrection that dawn brings but not as much the nervous depleted struggle that preceded daybreak. I cannot as easily conjure up in vivid a fashion the ugliness of my nausea or the discouragement that accompanies fatigue 40 hours into my journey. I am grateful for this aspect of my short memory, remembering best the good stuff. And as always lessons are always presented, be they while on the trail or in real life. It is up to me to decide whether I will learn from them or not. If not those lessons often will be presented again and again until mastered or at least accepted. Forgetting past lessons about salt and neglecting to maintain my electrolyte levels resulted in some nausea making for a difficult night. No big deal. The real tragedy in my book would be my forgetting or even rejecting what was shown me during this endurance event regarding reverence. This July I was reintroduced to the concept of reverence; in the form of a deep respect for the mountains and the people who live or lived there and for those accepting the challenge that celebrated that life style. I like viewing the world around me with “new eyes” and through a reverent filter. Since my return from Colorado I’ve sought to recognize more and more around me as wondrous, that to be respectful of and grateful for. There are many, many parts of life deserving of that. A promise to myself is that I will try my best when speaking of what those “new eyes” see to use reverent lips when forming the words.
"When we walk to the edge of all the light
we have and take the step into the darkness of the unknown, we must believe that one of two things will happen. There
will be something solid for us to stand on, or we will be taught to fly."
"Your body will argue that there is no justifiable reason to continue. Your only recourse is to call on your spirit, which fortunately functions independently of logic."