Surprising Myself and Others: Hal Koerner’s 2012 Hardrock 100 Race Report
A couple of months ago, after a night out on the town with the taller, more dark haired Skaggs brother, I let my emotions get the best of me as they usually do when we decide to get whisky bent and hell bound. In a beyond facetious tone I belched, “When is Kyle going to run another ultra or for that matter Hardrock?” To appease me, Erik just laughed at my otherwise rhetorical remark and we went about targeting Jenn Shelton for her renown ultra eminence or whatever else I don’t know. Now, I knew the answer to that question, I think I was just beginning to wrap my head around the immense task at hand, completing the most difficult 100 in the country.
I had my own experience in the San Juans back in 2005, it was one of the best times of my life. I skirted around with the course for a week with my dog, Ian Torrence, Karl Meltzer, Brandon Sybrowsky, and Nate McDowell living the high life and learning what it takes to be a part of the Hardrock community. Learning from veterans of hundred milers and basking in the scenery of one of the most beautiful places on earth. Literally, one of the most beautiful places on earth.
The race, with all my preparations, left a lot to be desired. I suffered with stomach and head pains all day. Although I lead through 70 miles, it was some of the toughest running I had ever done and then I cratered for the final 30. At the time, one of my pacers didn’t even want to leave out of Chapman with me because I was moving too slow. Finishing, however, was one of my greatest accomplishments and I vowed to return to give the course a little more of what I knew I had in me, in the faster, more runner friendly direction of course.
So this year, when I started making plans for the event, I knew I needed to get out to elevation early or suffer the consequences accordingly. I also pondered whether this would be one of my last chances to put in the kind of attention and effort the course deserved for an impossibly executed victory. With a wife, store, and 120 ultras under my belt, things were never going to get easier, and I’m not getting any younger. Heck, this year I was going to have to face a slew of youngsters that have been inspiring the next generation of ultrarunners and one of them was having righteous success in the US and abroad and was even living in Silverton. The other was running 14ers like they were shrinking by the foot and covering all of Colorado so quickly I couldn’t refresh my Facebook feed fast enough.
I knew that my best efforts would be found in the mountains above my home and so for the month of June I took to them as best I knew how – 25-30 miles runs almost every three or four days with roughly 5,000 feet of gain and ascent. A mere drop in the bucket compared to race day conditions, so I ran them hard. I even got in 30 miles at Western States pacing Timothy and that seemed to make all the difference. I got the privilege to watch firsthand as he charged the final miles into Auburn and it brought back a sea of emotion that I had forgotten after my last two debacles there. I became filled with this arcane sense of entitlement and – let me tell you – that’s not a bad thing when you’re facing a race with 33,000 feet of climbing and your confidence lives at 2,000.
Did I mention I started living at 11-13,000′ in a Hypoxico altitude tent four weeks before the race?
Once in Ouray I laid low, literally. I didn’t want to get caught up in the hype of the event, or drug out on the course for hours on end as I know I would have loved. Nor did I want tire myself out with the daily rigors of ten-thousand-foot living in Silverton. So each morning starting on the Fourth I ran six or seven miles up either Camp Bird Road or the Bear Creek drainage to Engineer pass and back down. By Monday, however, I was maxing out at five or six miles. I packed up the tent on that day as well to try and get a little better sleep and taper more efficiently. Now, I had to hope it all worked.
Race morning began with all the usual hectic runaround with an hour to go. Walking into the gym one minute from not making the official starting list only heightened things. If you aren’t there to check in 15 minutes before the race they give your spot to the next person on the waiting list and I ended up cutting it the closest. Things for me were going to be a stepping razor all day.
Out of Silverton we climbed in the post-dawn light, our legs and voices filled with jittery excitement. There was a pack of seven usual suspects that took the nice ascent out of town to KT with what I would call reserved optimism. Dakota had a great pace and began to work the sticks while Joe proved that he was up for the challenge of leading the group all day if he had to. I eased in and checked the lungs trying to maintain a nice pace by breathing solely through my nose.
By KT we started to spread out a bit on the climb to Grants Swamp Pass. The steepness of the course reared apparent and Timmy Parr took off over the ridge and down the talus field like he was riding a wave… a 150 foot wave. I hesitated behind Joe and Dakota as they bounded down the course, trying not to crap my pants even though it looked like it from sliding down on my backside the whole way. Carly reminded meof how at the Death Race in Grand Cache they carry cardboard to quicken the steep descents and although it probably would have helped, cardboard was no match for this section. We immediately regrouped like a slinky and headed into Chapman for the next assault on Oscar’s Pass. It would be a recurring theme.
At the top of Oscar’s, I was pretty happy with my climbing and the ease with which my lungs were taking the effort. My legs didn’t feel anaerobic and Joe and Dakota were only pulling away slightly. Scott Jaime helped push me up and over the pass and then we sailed away to T-Ride.
Once again, Joe, Dakota and I found ourselves in a train going up to Viginius. On the way up, we passed a number of hikers that mused about how we should run up the hill. I got a little fiery and exclaimed to Dakota, “Why does everyone have to be so fucking condescending!” It was a boost and we took off into the alpine. The rain enveloped our efforts on the climb but kept things cool and sent the black flies fleeing for cover. At the aid station we huddled for cover from the driving wind and precip, but my head was pounding and I knew I needed to get down. Joe bombed down the scree once more, but this time everything felt a little more dire. As I scaled down, I’m sure I looked like a novice road runner hitting the trails for the first time, but I didn’t want to do anything herky jerky this early into the race and put my chances of survival in jeopardy. Dakota flew by me and bounced off the wet rock down the narrow chasm out of sight faster than the camera shutters clicking around us. Once in the basin, I could hear him directing me onto the correct path that lead to the rocky road down to Governor. I was relieved to get out of there alive.
Once on Camp Bird Road, I began to feel at home and started to reel in Joe. I didn’t stop at the AS and powered on down to Ouray catching Dakota about four miles from the bottom. I was flying, had my headphones in, and told him I was going to get down off this road. By the time I made it to Ouray, the suffocating swell of oxygen greeted me along with my family and the throngs of cheering onlookers. I was psyched to see my friends Tony K and Mike Wolfe, but I remembered they were there to help get Joe and Dakota over these mountain faster than I and it jolted me out of town and onward to Engineers. I had run this section so much lately that I knew where to push and where to hike. All of it came to me pretty quickly and before long I was at the pass looking back into the basin for any moving speck of life. I could see Dakota and surmised I had about 15 minutes. Luckily another six miles of downhill dirt road awaited me and I took off.
Out of Grouse I felt good, my main goal was to summit Handies, a fourteener and the highest point on the course, before nightfall. So I pressed on. Seeing the mountain from the pass brought back many memories of why I loved living in Colorado. The large mountains are so majestic. They loom and feel ominous at times just standing there. I hastily made my approach in the quickening darkness, watching the pass for runners, but it wasn’t until I had descended almost 3,000 feet that I saw headlamps on the summit of the mountain. I still had 20 or so minutes.
I am not a night runner and one of the most welcome moments was running into Sherman and grabbing my pacer, Chris. With a little burst of enthusiasm we stormed up Cataract Creek boasting of our pace but also that of the two fellas giving chase. No sooner than a few switchbacks up the trail we heard cheers from below, bellowing to ourselves we picked up the pace. Luckily, Dakota would sit at that aid station for a while allowing us to struggle and stammer over the high alpine course over the next miles with little consequence.
I ran the Colorado Trail for the speed record in 2003 and would have liked to consider myself familiar the next chunk of terrain but everything was grey, figuratively and literally, for the next 20 miles and it clearly showed not only in time but also momentum. Chris and I became human searchlights scanning the hills for the elusive Hardrock markers that dangled and dimmed with our pursuits.
It was then that I was reminded of what Erik told me the day after our night on the town, “ Kyle says the only way he’ll run that race again is if YOU beat his CR.” It was a fleeting carrot until darkness fell and now the passes and climbs carried the heavy weight of all the hours and miles. If I wasn’t careful, the green 1992 Subaru Legacy with pink pinstripes that had been abandoned on his farm some months before wouldn’t be mine either. That was Kyle’s precious reward for me in lieu of his CR. This is some pretty serious insider information that motivated me those last minutes.
As we eased into Cunningham, thoughts of winning began to creep into my sleepy, cloudy, oxygen starved brain. As Carly and I marched up Little Giant, the pains of the effort really boiled to the surface. I was a little upset with myself for feeling so down for the first pacing job she had ever come on with me, but that vanished as quick as she did up into the morning light as Joe came screaming into the valley below. I measured it at 25 minutes, with 7.5 miles to go. I had to keep that relentless forward motion going.
Cresting the summit we bailed over to the Silverton side and began the rocky descent into town. I had Carly stop every five minutes or so to look for any stealth silhouettes on the road above. As we eased down to the path into town, I mustered the last bits of energy I had to crank on in. I have to that Carly for her encouragement as well as James Bonnet for believing in me all day.
Striding into the finish was just as I imagined it and will forever be burned into my mind. Friends old and new, family from far and wide as well as that animated rock standing proud below the hanging clock that read 24:50:13.
There are things you know you are capable of, but sometimes it takes special people, places, and circumstances for that to happen. This year’s HR100 encompassed all of that for me and more I would like to say I surprised myself, which I did, but I was also out to surprise others as well. I thought I built off of some lessons learned from running the race in 2005 and that seemed to make all the difference. Going in well rested, making concessions for the altitude, staying patient in the race, and making myself stay focused for 100 miles made the day come to me.
There are so many people to thank, my family first and foremost, my pacers, my wife, and my sponsors (The North Face, GU, Hypoxico). My fellow competitors, from the 2nd place finisher to the 98th. The Hardrock RD, board and all the volunteers that stayed out there for days. Thank you all and ’til I see you again in that special place we all call home.