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This page last updated: Saturday 20 March 2010

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The Hardrock 100 mile Endurance Run - An Australian's Experience

The Hardrock 100 mile Endurance Run - An Australian's Experience

by Bill Thompson, Queensland resident

Introduction

The Hardrock 100 is a 101.7 mile run through the spectacular San Juan mountains of southern Colorado in the USA. It is regarded as one of the more difficult 100 milers and is promoted as "Wild & Tough". The average altitude of the course is over 11,000 feet, the highest point reached is 14,048 feet and 12 ridges over 12,000 feet are crossed. The total vertical climb and descent is over 66,000 feet, more than climbing up and down Everest from sea-level. The run starts and finishes in Silverton and is run in a different direction each year. The course was counterclockwise in 2000. There is quite a debate on which direction is the most difficult. The five long road sections are all uphill in the counterclockwise direction and have to be mostly walked, which is not good for fast times but they could be run flat out downhill, so you could expect potentially faster times for clockwise years. I was pleased with the direction we went as some! of the best scenery is travelled in daylight during the latter stages of the race. Although the terrain sounds a little daunting, it is the weather that is often the most threatening factor with daily thunderstorms the norm. After reading accounts of the run in running magazines, I browsed the Hardrock web site and decided immediately that I would have to have a go at this run, and being no spring chicken, the sooner the better. With the 48 hour time limit I thought I would have a good chance of finishing. There are very generous cut-off times at Hardrock to allow participants to sit out extremes of weather. My only experience at ultras was at the "Glasshouse 100" where I had managed to finish the hundred miles twice in just under the 30 hours allowed, walking most of the way. Luckily this was deemed to be a sufficient qualification by the Hardrock selection committee.

Preparation

Looking at a profile of the run, it is pretty obvious that the best preparation is to concentrate on hills, preferably at altitude. Apart from a few miles in the towns, the entire course is up or down. The local Australian scene could provide a few hills but not the altitude, so I decided to make a holiday of it and spend about a month before the race in Colorado. The literature suggests that it takes three to four weeks to become acclimatised. My intention was to get fit enough to enjoy and finish the event while coming out of it in one piece. Although I didn't want to be competitive I realised that the faster you went the less time had to be spent on the second night. I started from a reasonable fitness base being a fruit farmer who spends upwards of 70 hours a week on my bare feet, either walking or climbing trees and ladders. I did a bit of hill work around the Glasshouse Mountains to strengthen the legs before leaving for Colorado. ! My best effort was six mountains in under six hours, about 5,000 feet up and down. All I had to do was to keep doing this for another 33 hours and I would have finished Hardrock. Piece of cake!

Within two days of arriving in Colorado, my wife Jane and I were sleeping above 9,000 feet and rarely ventured below this altitude. This gave me exactly four weeks acclimatisation. I don't know what the poor old body thought - breathlessness from altitude, reduced caffeine intake, withdrawal from going off the booze and jet lag. I bought a book called "The Colorado Trail" which describes a 470 mile walking track through Colorado. I picked out the best sections for acclimatisation. Many parts of this trail are above 10,000 feet and pass mountains worth investigating. It is well marked, there are plenty of access points, and it provided me with an excellent base for a get fit campaign. Camping out in Colorado is no problem and it appears you can leave your car safely just about anywhere. BLM (the Bureau of Land Management) encourages low impact bush camping and we never failed to find excellent camping spots. It is a good idea to wear shoes! in town. What is it about bare feet that gets people so excited? I was close to being arrested for going into a shop that sells food. On the fifth day I climbed to 13,700 feet with no ill effects except from a little sunburn after walking along the summit ridge naked for half an hour. The sun really packs a punch at that altitude. I can't remember if I was wearing shoes.

We passed through Leadville, the home of "The Leadville Trail 100", where I met some of the race committee. They get around 500 starters with another 500 in the mountain bike event!! Close to Leadville are Colorado's highest mountains, Mount Elbert and Mount Massive. Colorado has 54 mountains over 14,000 feet, but none over 15,000. It appears to be a national obsession to climb them all and many people you meet out on the track are on this mission. They then start on those over 13,500, and there are hundreds of these. Most of the higher peaks would usually not be accessible in mid-June but early hot weather had melted much of the snow, so I only had a few small snow fields to contend with on ascents up Elbert and Massive. You could probably see most of Colorado from the top - pretty spectacular stuff and what a way to get fit. I was intending to spend a lot of time on summits above 14,000 feet to acclimatise but usually had to retreat! because of high winds and cold. We spent two weeks walking and climbing mountains. I climbed nine mountains over 14,000 feet before arriving in Silverton, the base for the Hardrock run. One of these was Uncompaghre. If you are going to Colorado put this one on your list. I was going to do more walking on the Colorado Trail but was drawn to the mountain like a magnet from many miles away as it looks pretty spectacular. I ended up going up twice. BLM recommends that you get off the summits by 1pm because of thunderstorms. I was on the top of Uncompaghre by 8am in a white-out. After coming down and then climbing to a nearby pass, the mountain cleared, so I returned and went up again for lunch in perfect conditions. Being one of the highest mountains around, it gave a view of most of the country we would be travelling through on the run. I was not disappointed, the Hardrock sales pitch looked spot on.

Silverton is the headquarters for Hardrock. It is in a great mountain setting and I thought it would have been more appropriate to ride in on a horse spaghetti western style. Charlie Thorn has a house here and makes visitors most welcome. He is responsible for marking the course, an activity which begins about two weeks before the event. First timers are encouraged to join in this activity so as to get to know the course. I spent two days doing this on what I considered to be the most difficult sections. It was a lot of fun and I met plenty of people and their dogs. The Americans are crazy about dogs which are generally well behaved and you find them in the most amazing places. Some of the dogs are gear freaks. We saw a dog in Telluride, a town you pass through on the run, with saddle bags on the side and a moggy on its back in a carrier. On one marking day we went to Virginius Pass accompanied by a couple of mutts. This is one of t! he most spectacular and difficult parts of the course. I was getting pretty worried about how we could get back down the very steep snow slope we had just ascended to the pass when one of the great characters of Hardrock, Bozena Maslanka, a lady who has been the last finisher twice, gave a great yell, leaped over the edge and slid down several hundred feet on her bum. Like a mob of lemmings we all followed with no problems except for a Canadian bloke who took plenty of skin of his arse, which lent itself to some great photographs. They put a fixed rope here for the run. I got to know the rest of the course on my own, except for most of the first 30 miles as I thought it would be better to have some surprises on the day and I knew I couldn't get lost with so many people around. I went through plenty of mental ups and downs before the event as did most people we met. There were several days when I had serious doubts about finishing and my sanity. Some sections of the course appe! ar so difficult that you wonder how they will be possible after 80 miles or so. I think the best way to get through Hardrock is to think of it as a series of fourteen different events and just take them one at a time and not think too far into the future.

When you look at previous results for counter clockwise years, most of the dropouts occur after Handies Peak. This is the longest section of the course with a steep climb of 5,248 feet to the top of Handies at 14,048 feet and then a descent of 4,178 feet to the aid station. You are over 30 miles into the event before starting this leg which takes between three and a half to seven hours. I made sure that I got to know this section very well and used it as my last training venue on the Sunday before the event, travelling the leg in both directions in under nine hours. It was a great morale booster and I really believed I had a chance to finish. By race day I had been to the top of Handies five times. After a short walk on Monday, I had three days of relaxation before the big day. We kept sleeping high at around 12,000 feet except for the night before the race where we camped closer to town. Tuesday before the event was July 4. I march! ed around the town with other entrants under the Hardrock banner in the Silverton parade and we got a good response from the locals who I am sure regarded us as a mob of friendly lunatics. There was a very spectacular fireworks display in the evening put on by local fire brigades, the audible effects being particularly good in the mountain setting.

The Hardrock 2000

There was quite a bit of talk around that this was the year for wimps as there was little snow on the course and the rivers were low. I reckon that some of the steep sections are more difficult and certainly slower without snow and for those of us who ventured out into the second night things turned out a little differently.

Right on 6am 118 participants left the Silverton High School, most running, but quite a few at a fast walk. The first couple of miles are pretty flat which is great for a warm-up. It is important not to underestimate any section of Hardrock and this first leg to Cunningham Gulch, mainly on good trails and 4WD roads is no exception, with a climb of 3,980 feet to 13,000 feet and a descent of 3,190 feet. I went a little faster over this section than I intended as I got carried along by the mob on the steep descent to the aid station where it was a little difficult to pass. This was obviously going to be very different from the Glasshouse Trail where after the first hour I rarely see anyone except when they are going in the opposite direction.

The next section to Maggie Gulch is very similar to the first, a long climb mainly up roads to 13,060 feet and then a very steep descent to the aid station. I went arse over at one point hurting an old war wound in my shoulder but luckily it was more a fright than anything else. The course was very dry at this point in time, making the loose steep gravel slopes extremely slippery. I was praying for a bit of rain but not as much as eventuated.

The next two sections to Pole Creek and Sherman are over gentler grades on good walking tracks, some of the route following the Colorado Trail. The scenery is magnificent but a couple of thunderstorms were licking at our heels and keeping the adrenalin high. There was enough rain to dampen the track and make us haul out the rain jackets. The Gods were with me! You are up fairly high most of the time so being well acclimatised is a distinct advantage. The speciality food at the Pole Creek aid station was peanut butter sandwiches with jelly. Jelly?, the mind boggles. In for a penny in for a pound, I find out that jelly is jam, not a bad combination at all. At Sherman aid station I was about 70th and already two and a half hours behind the leaders. I had my scheduled 15 minutes here to gather strength for the big ascent.

A forty minute steady climb up a road gets you to the bottom of Handies Peak where the terrain gets decidedly steeper. I knew this part of the course really well and this along with my concentration on climbing in preparation for the event, started to pay dividends. I managed to haul in about 15 people on the way up to the top of Handies. I was pleased that I didn't need to stop at all. Quite a few were having difficulty with the altitude and there were several people being sick. There is one very steep scree slope to regain a ridge where good technique conserves energy. I found I had to change gear at about 13,500 feet and start breathing at double the rate in order to keep up a good pace. This altitude became progressively lower further into the event. This was the only effect the altitude had, no headaches or nausea which was great. In fact I believe I felt better up high than down in the valleys. We were told we would have to clip our! race number on the top to make sure we reached it but the gear wasn't there. The descent into American Basin is very spectacular, passing a semi-frozen lake on the way. There was a spot here where we did clip our race number to ensure that short cuts were not taken down an environmentally sensitive slope. A short haul back up to 13,000 feet over American-Grouse pass with a little lightening and hail to make life interesting and you are then on the long descent to Grouse Gulch aid station. You can see the station many thousands of feet below but the thought of seeing the "crew", having a Guinness, my performance enhancing drug, and then a good feed, kept me well focussed. I had decided to only have a Guinness if I continued with the race, so I really had no option but to proceed. I had been carrying lights but didn't need them as I was well ahead of schedule. The aid station looks like a small village from above, centred around a huge yurt where they serve you their well renow! ned food. The Guinness gave me a great appetite and I downed plenty of food including a couple of Buritos which is the speciality of this aid station. As in previous years, the mountain had taken its toll and 24 people dropped out at Grouse. I have a feeling that some of them could have kept going but were disappointed with their times. Many however had trouble with their stomachs. One of the front runners we met can't keep any food down after 50 miles which must make the last bit of the event very difficult. Jane and I have a couple of theories about this, which you probably won't agree with, but it will give you something to think about.

  1. Waist packs, which in any way put pressure on your stomach, are bad news.
  2. Don't drink anything after eating for as long as possible, preferably at least 15 minutes.
  3. Consume sports drinks in between aid stations.
  4. After a good feed, rest for a few minutes. I spent a total of 230 minutes at aid stations, way too long I know, but at least I didn't throw up. Unfortunately, aid stations are usually at the lowest point, requiring strenuous efforts soon after departure. This is not good for digestion.

After just over my scheduled half hour stop I started the long haul up a road to Engineer Mountain in good spirits. A German fellow, Hans Dieter Weisshaar who is quite a character, was just coming in as I left and yelled with great enthusiasm "Vee vill finish ya". "No worries" I replied. I think Hans completed nineteen hundreds this season - a fantastic achievement for a bloke of 60.

You can pick up a pacer at Grouse but I reckon half the fun is to be out there on your own at night, occasionally bumping into other runners. I got the lights going about half way up the road. On looking back nearing the pass it was a great sight seeing all the lights bobbing along behind. It reminded me of the chase scene in "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid". A steep cross country descent to the Engineer aid station is the start of a very long descent to the town of Ouray, the lowest point in the course. I had another good feed at Engineer including a "turkey hamburger roll-over with sauce" I think. This aid station has to be packed in but seemed to have all the luxuries one needs including cheerful people and hot food. A few miles after Engineer the route joins the Bear Creek National Recreation Trail which is a pretty spectacular track with big drop-offs. At night you can't see the bottom but you can hear the water thundering down i! n the canyon below. One slip and you die. When you break out into the main valley of the Uncompaghre River, you can see the town of Ouray, which appears close enough to touch. This however is not the case and it takes quite a while before you reach the aid station. At this point a very strong wind began to try and blow me off the track, and I was frightened of branches crashing down. After you ford the river with the help of a fixed rope, there is a never ending jeep road which follows a pipe line and when you finally reach town the aid station is on the far side. Needless to say I reached Ouray, the lowest point on the course, on a low. I spent nearly an hour trying to sort myself out with the help of the crew. I had my legs massaged but we couldn't get out of the wind which was still howling. At no time did I think of withdrawing from the race.

I finally struggled out at 2.30am to start the long haul up to Governor Basin, not totally confident of reaching Telluride where I would meet Jane again. She was going to wait until daylight before driving the long way round by bitumen. I definitely found this 3 hour, fairly gradual ascent up a good road the most difficult part of the course. I went for about 2 hours without seeing one course marker and even though I knew I was right it was still a little disconcerting. A half hour refuelling stop at Governor Basin with the dawn coming, changed my mental attitude altogether. And not too soon either, as the next three sections are pretty spectacular with some very steep climbs and descents with marginal footing. A road gets you up to the Virginius mine, and then the fun starts. There are three very steep cross country steps to climb to get to the pass and Kroger's Canteen. The first is up a old mine dump of very hard dirt with almost no tr! action and if you are not careful a case of up one and down two. After negotiating several hundred feet of this you come out into a basin and get your first view of the pass. It is really just a notch in the ridge and you finally realise that the course designers have a sense of humour. The second step was almost free of snow up a very steep scree slope. No real drama but hard work and a good place to warm up for the third step which is near vertical snow. They had a fixed rope dangling from the top enticing you up the first couple of hundred feet of snow which was rock hard at dawn. Once I got to the rope it was an easy haul up the last hundred feet or so. The aid station is situated in the pass at 13,100 feet, with tremendous views of the route ahead. They were a really friendly crowd who had to pack in all the gear to this spectacular spot. It would have been nice to stay for the rest of the day. After a piping hot cup of coffee with lashings of fresh cream, I felt pr! etty good. Things don't get much better than this. I had managed to pass quite a few people from Governor, for some reason the steeper it got the better I seemed to feel. The trail ahead is a knee trembling 4,400 feet descent to the town of Telluride, losing in just over an hour most of the height gained in the previous four hours plus.

Although the vertical loss and gain of 33,000 feet over the whole course sounds pretty dramatic, it isn't really as bad as it sounds. There are long sections of either uphill or downhill, so after ascending for maybe 4,000 feet and feeling fairly stuffed, you can then rest those muscles while descending. Just when you think the knees and hips will wear out, you are off on another big climb using different muscles. I tend to go uphill on my toes then use my hips and heels for the descent.

Having said that, the next stage to Chapman is very long and demanding, climbing 4,500 feet and descending 3,090 feet. Luckily this is a very beautiful section of the course and the wild flowers were magnificent. There was certainly no reason to become bored. A lot of this section follows the well maintained Wasatch Trail. There are some great understatements in the course description here like "switches back several times" which really means about 20 times. Just as I was running out of steam, and well before Wasatch Saddle at 13,060 feet, the thunderstorms started to roll in. If ever there was a way to get you going , this was it and I really poured on the power up to the saddle. A few minutes before, I had stopped for a breather with a girl who I had been meeting continuously during the event and we were wondering how the hell we would make it (I find out later that she won Western States back in the late eighties). I had intended to av! oid the snowfield after the saddle but with the lightning getting close I leapt over the cornice with barely a thought, slid down the snow and then managed to jog up to Oscars Pass. The course then follows an old jeep track down to the aid station. I was glad that they had cut some steps over a very steep snow slope just past the pass. The descent was demanding on the knees. It was like glissading on gravel but it was a quick way to get away from the lightning. I often have to go into panic mode on the farm because of weather and this may have helped in this situation.

Jane had driven around to Chapman and met me with the news that my drop bag was not there. To make matters worse they had had to move the aid station to get good wireless transmission, so that crew couldn't now get close with vehicles. This was the last station where drop bags were allowed so it had goodies for three sections. I stayed at the aid station for a time drinking soup hoping the bag would turn up while Jane dashed off in a panic to try and work out what I needed. It was difficult to remember what we had actually put in the drop bag. The people at the aid station could remember seeing my number, but it must have been sent back to base in the "used" category. The only essential item for continuation was batteries and luckily I had plenty in the vehicle. I checked out of the aid station and joined Jane at our vehicle where we tried to reconstruct my missing food supplements, clothes and batteries.

After a good feed of bacon and eggs, I took off a little ruffled but in reasonable spirits. There were thunderstorms milling about and the general outlook on the weather didn't look good. Six people had passed me on my extended stay but I managed to haul them all in before Grant-Swamp pass. This part of the course has to be seen to be believed and it confirmed my suspicion that the designers had a sense of humour. The scenery is great but it is the most technically difficult section of the course in this direction. The route starts up a good road, then a well benched track, then across some scree and finally to a steep climb to the pass with the final section being up a mixture of scree and dirt. This final climb can take ages but I worked out a way of getting up and only spent about ten minutes on the ascent. Several people took ages and consumed vast stores of energy. Some people thought it looked easier on the right up a line of rocks ! and started rolling great boulders onto those below. An added incentive to my rapid ascent was the approach of a very electrical storm. This, along with a surge of energy from the bacon and eggs, saw me flying down the steep scree on the far side of the pass in order to lose height and get away from the lightning. After removing a large amount of gravel from the shoes at the bottom of the scree, I continued at a fast shuffle to KT. It was obvious that the weather was deteriorating and I was determined to get as far as possible in daylight. For some reason, I was feeling really good and full of energy. In just three miles I managed to gain half an hour on those I had left at the pass. After a bit of cross country, then a reasonable track, the KT aid station is reached by the Kamm Traverse. This is a fairly exposed thin track about 1,200 feet above the valley. I am certain you could self arrest before reaching a cliff line but it is best to concentrate and stay on the track. The! husband of the KT aid station captain, Lisa Richardson, is an Australian, so I received a fairly raucous reception. Lisa is the Hardrock aid station director, and is one of these people who seems to be constantly happy and has an infectious smile. I doubt if any runners left KT in a bad mood.

I cut my scheduled 15 minute break to eight, quickly downing some food, putting on rain rear and checking my lights. It was just 6pm so I had a good chance of making Putnam Basin before dark. Although regarded as a fairly easy section by Hardrock standards, it still required a climb of 2,465 feet and a descent of 1,705 feet. There was also some very exposed country to cross. I made good time to the tree line (about 11,400 feet at this point) in increasing rain with the route being well sheltered. I should have put on all my warm gear here but was feeling good and warm so I pressed on. After a saddle at about 12,200 feet there is a long exposed easy slightly downhill section before the final climb to 12,600 feet. I started to get very cold here, with no shelter and the rain continuing to pelt down. 30 days in Colorado and this was the first time it had really rained. I couldn't complain as the country really needed it. I was hoping to find! a large rock to get out of the worst of the weather but there was nothing. I decided I would have to get on the small amount of warm gear I had, a jumper, gloves and over-mittens. This all took a fair bit of time and energy as my hands were frozen and not working too well. The final climb sapped a fair bit of energy. I was panting like the people you see on Everest and my throat was pretty sore from so much action. On topping the ridge, the sight of the aid station 1,700 feet below was quite an emotional experience and I knew that nothing would stop me now. They had a powerful light which made it look closer than it really was. I sorted myself out on the descent just as the daylight was fading and was heartened when the bloke who met me said that I was the first person to arrive for quite a while with a spring in my step. They were very caring at Putnam Basin and met me several hundred yards out, obviously realising that I had been through a bit of an ordeal. There was ! another bloke there who had arrived some time before who looked like he was suffering quite a bit. He and his pacer left the aid station with me but arrived at the finish over an hour after me so they must have been feeling exhausted as I wasn't setting any speed records. The aid station tent had blown down but they managed to prop it up in a sort of fashion and serve up a wonderful mug of cocoa. After thawing out a bit, I got my lights going and headed out on the mainly downhill last section. The Hardrock trail markers are very good at night and I had no trouble navigating even though the elk and marmots (low grade ground hogs) had removed quite a few of them and the rain was still coming down. This section is fairly rough over large scree, but well benched high above the valley for most of the descent to Mineral Creek. With a few encouraging words from Jane after crossing the creek, I started on the last two miles or so into Silverton. We had to clip our tag again here to en! sure we didn't just run down the road. This took me some time as my hands still weren't working and my race number was on the bottom layer of clothing. The last mile seemed to take an eternity. I finally reached the finish and kissed the Hardrock at 11.05pm. After the reception at KT and Putnam, the finish was a bit of an anticlimax. I suppose I was tired. After a hot shower and a Guinness things seemed a bit better. I had completed Hardrock in 41 hours and 5 minutes, over 5 hours under my schedule. You beauty!!

After a couple of hours sleep we attended the award ceremony and brunch. All the finishers were presented with a poster, after the race director said a few personal words. I received a special prize for being the median finisher.

This was more than an ultra, it was an adventure. This is a well organised run in a very spectacular part of the planet. Pity it wasn't a bit closer and our dollar was worth a bit more.


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