Hardrock 2011 – Through Hell and High Water

Wow. I’m still a bit shell shocked by the Hardrock experience. I’m still not quite sure how to describe it. The course was intensely difficult, overwhelming, and relentless. But at the same time, the scenery was breathtaking and the scale of the surroundings was just awesome. Even in my worst moments on the course, I was happy to be out there on a trail that so few people have the privilege to see.

My race didn’t quite go as well as I had planned. I got sick early in the race and threw up regularly from Ouray to Oscar’s pass. I spent hours in aid stations trying to recover and pull myself together to be able to make it to the next aid station. For many miles, my pace could barely be considered walking. From my own perspective, this was the worst performance of my life. At times, it was downright pathetic. But at the end of the day, I was the 15th finisher to kiss the rock in Silverton. By Hardrock standards, my worst day was actually a pretty good run. Hardrock is a different kind of race.

The day started out extremely well. The first climb up over Little Giant seemed easy and the views from the top were exhilarating. I came into Cunningham well ahead of my planned pace so I took it easy and just tried to cruise through the next few sections. I ran with Duncan most of the way to Pole Creek and after that we played leap frog all the way to Governor’s Basin. On the downhill into Sherman, I ran a much faster pace than I thought I would but my legs still felt fresh, light, and quick on the switchbacks and I was really having fun.

Trouble started shortly after leaving Sherman. I had planned on taking it easy on the climb over Handies and thought that I had plenty of water and time to get over to Grouse. On the way out of Sherman, a volunteer on the road mentioned that storms might be blowing in. There were a few dark clouds forming so I mentally prepared myself for whatever rain, hail, sleet, and lightning the mountain could throw at me and headed up. Since I fully expected to freeze my ass off, I passed right by the last water drop at the trailhead and charged up the trail. I still had most of my hydration pack full from the Sherman station and it was only a 3 mile grunt to the top and all downhill from there to Grouse. Wrong. It was a 4 mile slog to the top and the descent had another 700ft bonus climb up out of the American Basin. Shortly after passing the last water drop, the sky cleared and the sun came out in full force. It never rained one drop and even at the very top at 14,000ft, I was roasting. And just as I made it to the summit, my water ran out. Oh crap! Fortunately there was plenty of snow and fresh run off on the trail near the top. I stopped and stuffed snow in my pack fully expecting that enough would melt on the way down to get me to Grouse in one piece. Not one drop melted. I stopped several times to slurp some water from streams and grabbed handfuls of snow to suck on but never managed to get more than a few sips. It would have been easier if I had a bottle to dip and fill and in hind sight, I should have dragged my hydration bladder out and scraped it through whatever run off I could get in it. Eventually the snow fields ended and I still had a few miles of dry, hot trail to cover to get to Grouse.

At Grouse, I took some extra time to sit and try to recover. Or at least I thought I took an extra long time at the aid station to pull myself together. But I was still caught up in the excitement of the race. Volunteers and crew were buzzing and Maria was geared up and ready to start pacing me through to Telluride. I left the aid station in less than 15 minutes planning to just walk most of Engineer pass while continuing to catch up on hydration and calories. Well, everyone in the best condition just walks up Engineer pass – seriously, what the hell was I thinking?!? And I quickly found that just walking up to 13,000ft isn’t the best environment to catch up on hydration. It was still roasting hot out and I stopped once to stick my head in a snowbank and then filled my shorts and arm sleeves with snow. Looking back now, I realize that I was already severely dehydrated and overheating and should have been more diligent in icing down to control my body temperature.

At the Engineer aid station, I started to feel better and managed to get a few orange slices down. I loaded up with a fistful of saltines to tide me over until I could get to the low point on the course in Ouray way down below at a reasonable elevation around 7700ft. As we dropped in elevation, I felt better and better and my legs were moving well on the nice gradual descent down the canyon. This is one of the sections of the course that most people are terrified of with a narrow trail winding along the side of a cliff and a sheer drop off just inches away with a raging river below. But the trail was really one of the smoothest and most runnable sections of the course. For a few miles, I forgot about how tired and sick I was and just had fun cruising down the trail. Towards the bottom, I met up with Matt Hart, on a section of loose shale. He warned me to save my quads and I joked that I lost my quads long ago. But honestly I felt pretty good. I’d spent months training my quads for this abuse and they were holding up better than I ever imagined. The shale snapped under our feet like dinner plates and I got a childlike satisfaction imagining that we were crashing our way through fine china so I kept stomping away down the hill.

By Ouray, I was feeling pretty good. I was tired and my stomach was still queasy but all things considered, I felt better than I thought I would 56 miles into this ordeal. I took another extended break at the aid station to re-hydrate, re-fuel, and re-charge for the big push up over Virginius to Telluride. Or at least I thought it was an extended break – I was out of the aid station in 12 minutes. And as soon as I checked out and turned the first corner out of sight, I threw up everything. This really wasn’t the condition I planned to start the 7.9 mile grind up Camp Bird road to the Governor Basin aid station.

The road to Governor Basin was a long, tedious climb. The only upside to being stuck on this road was that we could continue hiking into the dark without using our head lamps. Eventually Maria switched on her head lamp and I stayed a few yards behind in the shadows which helped to save my eyes and eliminate some of the dizzying effect of staring through a tunnel of artificial light. I threw up again along the way and finally realized just how bad my condition was. I was burning hot – even as the sun went down and the temperature started dropping. My forehead was dry and burning and I was dying of thirst. All I wanted to do was guzzle cold water. But I was so nauseous that my stomach protested at even the smallest sip. We still had several miles to cover to get to the aid station and I was seriously worried. I finally ditched the pacing goals and told Maria that we had to stop at the next available rock to sit. I needed to get water down and get myself to Governor Basin in a condition I could recover from. Pushing any harder could put me over the edge and end my race and probably put me in the hospital. It took over half a mile to find a rock to sit on. Seriously?!?! I planned to sit for as long as it took to get 10 sips of water down. I threw up once but bit by bit, slowly counted out the sips and let each settle.

We made it to Governor Basin and I told Maria I would stay there as long as it took to make sure I could recover enough to get up and over Virginius. Getting sick and crashing on Camp Bird road may have meant dropping out of the race to get a ride to the hospital. Getting stuck in this condition on the snow fields on Virginius at 13,000ft at night would be a search and rescue nightmare. Whatever finish goals I had set my sights on at the beginning of the race just weren’t worth the risk. And to confirm just how bad things could get, Hardrock veteran and 2010 champion, Jared Campbell, had been wrapped up in a sleeping bag for an hour when I got there. The volunteers where whispering to Jared’s pacer about dropping. He had an easy way out to just take a ride back down the hill to Ouray. But Jared surprised them and came back from the dead, geared up, let out a huge shout, and stormed out of the aid station up Virginius. Unfortunately Jared couldn’t pull off the same recovery again and eventually dropped in Telluride. I stayed at Governor for a full hour and threw up my first attempt at some tea, ginger ale, and a sandwich. Eventually I managed to alternate ginger ale, broth, and saltines to get enough liquid and fuel in me to have the confidence to push up and over Virginius.

The layover at Governor was just enough to get me up and over the top of Virginius and Maria and I made good time keeping up a steady hike up the pass. At the top, we were greeted by the world’s best aid station crew. Roch Horton, Fred Ecks, and a handful of other hard core volunteers were perched on a the ledge at the top of Virginius under a tiny little tarp. They had propane tanks, lights, and even a stereo blaring. Roch ushered me over to sit on the one available spot with a camp pad laid out while other volunteers draped a sleeping bag over me to keep me warm. In quick succession Roch handed me coke, chicken broth, and a pierogi. He was so efficient about it that I didn’t even have a chance to think about whether or not my stomach could handle it. I just drank and ate whatever he gave me. The pierogi was possibly the best food I’d had all day! While I swallowed the last of my pierogi, Roch gave some good words of encouragement and rattled off the stats, "I was doing great (really?), only 33 miles to the finish, 5 miles to Telluride, just a small 40ft climb over Mendota saddle, one snow field on the traverse below, and just a couple patches on the other side to get to good trail, and you’re out of here in 5, 4, 2, 2, 1." With that, I was on my feet and on my way down the hill.

I had my first big fall on the way down. Snow fields opened up to a really steep and rocky section with running water over loose gravel and scree. I tripped and went flying head first. I was able to get my hands up but I still had a firm grip on both trekking poles so I ended up punching both fists straight into the rocks in front of my face. I took most of the fall on my left arm and just barely bumped my head and rolled over through the running water. It hurt like hell and I couldn’t put much weight on my left arm. But I still was able to grip my pole and was able to use it for balance the rest of the way down.

By Telluride, I was getting seriously sick again. I threw up in the bushes in the park one more time and then settled into a chair to re-start the slow process of getting fluids and calories down bit by bit. Eric, Lisa, and my mom were here to help and while they may not think they did much, it was a huge help to have friends and family with me.

Just before dawn, I finally decided it was time to go and got up and headed up the long climb to Oscar’s with Eric. I was still nauseous and was barely able to keep up sipping water and nibbling on saltines. To make matters worse, I had developed a nasty cough. I kept hacking up crud from my lungs which threatened to trigger another violent episode of vomited every few minutes. Eric and I caught up with Blake through this section and we played a game of slow motion leap frog all the way to the Chapman aid station. I joked with Blake about racing as we traded places ….our head to head battle up to Oscar’s was probably a bit less exciting than watching senior citizens putter along with walkers and canes. At the top of Oscar’s we were rewarded with some amazing views. I actually felt fortunate that I had such a rough night. If I had pushed on through Governor and Telluride without stopping, I would have gone over this pass in the dark and missed some of the best views of the entire course. For a few moments I was having fun again, enjoying the views, and soaking in the experience of being out on such an amazing trail. And then I puked again. Just a few steps from the top on the last snow field, I just couldn’t hold it. I swear, my socks nearly came out through this one. It was awful.

On the other side of Oscar’s, I was greeted by the gnarliest, nastiest, pile of talus. It was almost impossible to walk through this jagged pile of rocks. I took back all the bad things I said about the climbs up the snow fields. This was just brutal!

At Chapman, my day finally started to turn around. Ryan and Megan were at the aid station waiting for their runner so it was nice to see some friendly faces. We all had a good laugh …mostly at Eric in his ridiculous outfit. He’d been wearing Kari’s pink running skirt and a hog heaven tank top all day. We laughed about some other stuff …I’m really not sure what. At this stage of exhaustion, you kind of have to laugh at everything. Otherwise you’d just break down and cry. Good times!

In our short stay at Chapman, I managed to get a cup of coffee down and ate a few cookies. Eric and I repacked our gear to take just what we needed to cover the last 18 miles to Silverton. It was still only a little after 10am and Eric pulled out one head lamp and asked if I thought we should take it. There was an awkward pause for a moment and the head lamp went back in the pack. "Only" 18 miles at Hardrock was still a long way to go and a lot could go wrong.

From Chapman to the finish I was able to keep drinking and eating cookies. I kept a schedule of 1 cookie per mile and wow, what a difference some consistent calories and fluids makes. We hiked steadily up Grant Swamp pass. I pulled myself up the final near-vertical scree chute almost entirely with my poles – just kicking my feet into the loose dirt for enough foothold to plant another pole up the slope and haul myself up another foot. We lingered at the top for a few moments to catch our breath, enjoy the views, and visit Joel Zucker’s memorial. After a few switchbacks of sliding and tip toeing through more nasty scree and rocks, the trail opened up and we were finally able to start running at a decent pace to the KT aid station below.

On the climb up to Putnam from KT, I finally got hit with a major hail storm. Fortunately we stayed below tree line for most of the storm and just got stopped for a few minutes at tree line with Nathan and Devon and several other runners. I was amazed at just how drastically the weather changed. My feet were numb from running through the hail and ice water filled single track and I was starting to have trouble bending my fingers to keep a good grip on my poles. Just 20 minutes earlier I had been roasting under the hot sun. And a mere 20 minutes later on our way up the endless climb to Putnam, I was roasting again under the blazing sun. On the climb to Putnam, the end was finally in sight and I finally started to get some energy for the final push. From the ridge it was all downhill to the finish. But wait, that one wasn’t the ridge. The top is the next ridge over on the right. Oh crap, that’s not it either. The top of the ridge is way the hell up on that next huge hill. Straight up the grassy slope, one pole plant and one foot step at a time. Ugh!

The cruise downhill from Putnam went well. Eric and I stopped just long enough to say hello to Mark Overson and check that we had enough water to make to the finish. I was able to move pretty well through most of the easy sections and only slowed down to pick my way through the intermittent talus fields along the way. At the bottom of the hill, we had one more challenge blocking our way to Silverton – the Mineral river crossing. The river crossing was roped off but after 97+ miles, getting across without losing my feet was no easy task. The water was waist deep and running fast. I had to hold the rope with both hands and lean with my full weight upstream with both legs locked. Each footstep was an effort and it felt like the current was going to rip my quads right off my bones.

After a few hundred yards hobbling on numb, tired legs, Eric and I got moving again ran the last couple miles into town. We hiked a couple of the last slopes, turned the corner at the top of the hill by the shrine and ran every step of the way through town. No one was chasing me at the time. I wasn’t racing any more and really didn’t have any reason to hurry. I just wanted to get to the finish. No matter how bad some of the run had been, I wanted to finish strong and I wanted to run. I can’t describe just how good it felt to get to the end and kiss than damn rock.

This event was far more than a race. Hardrock is ultra running at it’s best. It humbles the elite. It’s ruthlessly unforgiving of the ill prepared and inexperienced. Fierce competitors become allies. Strangers become friends. There is an overwhelming positive force from every person involved that wills you to succeed.

Congrats to all of the 80 official finishers as well as the 2 final finishers who made it back to Silverton after the cut off. Thanks to Duncan, Matt, Blake, Nathan, and Devon for the good company out on the trail. I’m glad you all made it to the finish line. Thanks to Eric and Maria for doing such an awesome job pacing and escorting me safely for over 60 miles to the finish. Thanks Mom and Lisa for coming out to support this crazy adventure driving all over Colorado and staying up all night in the middle of nowhere. And a huge thank you to all the volunteers who made this event possible.

I look forward to seeing everyone again in Silverton next July. If I don’t get a spot as a runner in the lottery, I’ll be out there to volunteer, pace, or crew to try to pay back some of the support that helped get me to the finish line this year.

For more insight into the Hardrock experience I recommend reading Nick, Joe, Dakota, Devon, and Tim‘s reports.

I’ll post more photos as soon as I have a chance to get them organized.

The map info is online here.

  • Mary Boyts

    July 16th, 2011

    What an account! I can’t begin to imagine pushing through all the obstacles in front of and inside of you to finish so strong. Nice write up!

  • Rob

    July 16th, 2011

    Awesome Pete! Two questions: Applying for Hardrock 2012? Has the beard come off yet? Congrats!

  • Derrick

    July 16th, 2011

    congratulations on quite the race. Great report. Was very interesting reading what the race is really about through your eyes.

    Loved this line…
    our head to head battle up to Oscar’s was probably a bit less exciting than watching senior citizens putter along with walkers and canes.

    Recover well.

  • Pete

    July 16th, 2011

    My 2012 application will be in the mail the day they open the lottery. And the beard is still here ….just got a bit taken off the top and sides. It’s much more aerodynamic now.

  • Kemp

    July 17th, 2011

    Just plain awesome Pete!

  • Ashley

    July 18th, 2011

    Awesome report, Pete, and I can’t wait to hear more about it in person. Great work — not just on race day but all those weeks & months of preparation. You worked really hard for that finish, so bravo to you!!

  • Jim P.

    July 18th, 2011

    Great report. I’ve read several HR100 reports and come away amazed by each of them at what you all endured and accomplished on your way around that great loop in the San Juans. Congrats on surviving, persevering and finishing so strong!

  • Alex

    July 18th, 2011

    What an adventure Pete. Truly sounds like ultra running at its best- awesome job. You have got to be the toughest one out there.

  • Kristel

    July 18th, 2011

    Wow! You are so tough and inspiring. Great write up and congrats on an amazing finish!!!

  • Pete

    July 18th, 2011

    I don’t know if I’m the toughest but I’m definitely proud to rank somewhere in the top 82. A lot of other runners both faster and slower struggled to make it to the finish. My hat is off to the 2 who finished after the cut off without any formal recognition for their effort.

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