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.

Hal Koerner - 2012 Hardrock 100 - KT

Approaching into the KT aid station.

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.

Hal Koerner - 2012 Hardrock 100 - Chapman

Regrouping in Chapman.

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.

Hal Koerner - 2012 Hardrock 100 - Ouray

Amongst the Ouray throngs.

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.

Hal Koerner - 2012 Hardrock 100 - Sherman

A quick stop in Sherman.

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.

Hal Koerner - 2012 Hardrock 100 - finish

Kissing the hardrock.

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.

There are 28 comments

  1. olga

    Thrilled to see you kissing the Rock first this year. Old school rocks, you know your thing. Never underestimate Hal:) You've been somehow surprising everyone for a few years, and for unknown reason folks keep getting surprised. Western, Rocky, Hardrock…why do we keep getting surprised? And yet every time you seem to slip under the bets and take it. Awesome run. Wish I were there to see it develop. Great story telling as well.

  2. footfeathers

    Notice to the "slew of youngsters", class is in session with Professor Hal.

    Well written piece on a well run race. Understatement. It was a pleasure being at the same event and on the same course that you owned this year. Keep it up Hal.

  3. Steve Pero

    Very well done report, Hal….and good job at Hardrock. As we all know it is not easy to run this thing, never mind having the persistence to finish first overall.

    Wife Deb, as you know, was the last finisher and the oldest woman to date to complete the course. She hasn't written her report yet, but already told me the title is going to be "The last ass over the pass". I guess that makes you the first ass over the pass! Congratulations!

  4. Josue Stephens

    Great report Hal! You continue to be one of the most inspiring runners for me, your consistency is incredible!

  5. Scott S

    Hal, Great race report and even better running! I just checked out your very impressive stats (http://halkoerner.com/ultrarunning-resume/) and I've read how you crushed the Javelina Jundred course record last year and I've been reading Tony K's blog for quite some time so I am slightly familar with you as a personality, so from the vantage point of my comfortable chair, it wasn't a surprise to me! Great job man, GREAT JOB!

  6. Trail Clown

    Hal's performance once again makes me wonder why Americans have gotten chewed up at UTMB year after year. Dakota, Joe Grant, Hal, Karl Meltzer, Geoff Roes, Scott Jurek…all of them have dropped, some repeatedly. So why did Hal blow up at UTMB last year and not at Hardrock? The cold weather? The culture change? The expectations? Just real puzzling to this armchair quarterback…I know the simple answer is that sometimes we have bad races, but it just seems like Americans have been overly snake-bitten and that the trail running gods have something up their sleeve. Maybe Hal could comment directly on this?

  7. CJ

    Well, Kyle's record is safe for another 2 years. I still don't think it will be broken unless the best of the best lives and trains on the course for at least 3 months leading up to the race

  8. Hal Koerner

    Not too puzzling when I dropped out of Western States extremely sick and missed 3 weeks if training and then developed foot problems I Aug. leading up to UTMB. How can runners be expected to be on top of their game running so many miles in races each year. That is puzzling to me!

    1. Trail Clown

      Ok, that pretty much explains it. Thanks for explaining, Hal. Man, I am on a roll pissing people off on this forum. Putting the muzzle on myself, pronto.

  9. Larry

    Amazing job, Hal!!! Friday was very unproductive at work and nothing got done at home, thanks to refreshing the computer for Hardrock Live & Twitter. Saw the race begin to develop going down Camp Bird Rd into Ouray and was glad to see Hal make a move. Laying low before the race and scouting every twist and turn between Governor and Engineer was brilliant.

    Guess my man crush began to develop back during the days when he ran Sunmart and was solidified while watching him come through Forest Hill on his way to the win when I think a lot of people were expecting Brian to make a comeback from the prior year. I'm fairly certain my wife has been crushing on him for a long time… :)

    And, mucho respect to gutting it out last year with his nuts in a bag at UTMB.

    I think Jenn said it best that "..he's one tough mofo and can bring it on raceday…".

    Huge, congrats!!!

  10. Kurt Decker

    Great race report Hal. I thought to myself when I was talking to you in Eugene while you where looking at clothing for your store at the Nike house you seemed real relaxed and would have a great race. Congrat's on keeping your eye on the prize. Like you said everyone can not be on everyday doing these things. But when you are it sure is special!! Rest up.

  11. Aaron Sorensen

    I really wish Hardrock would give up 10 spots for elites.

    They could just have a 20 person list and go down until 10 spots were filled.

    If one of those 10 did not go, they would not be able to get on the elite list again.

  12. Ultrawolf

    Wow, you´re looking as sharp as a razor blade Hal !

    After running both and apart from having a bad day at UTMB while having a blistering one at Hardrock, which one of those do you believe is the harder one ? Probablly both of them are "hors category", beyond classification. Exciting times for 100 mile running. In the Basque Country they got the Ehunmilak with it´s 11000 meters positiv climb while the Andorra Ultra Trail got even 13000 !

    Enjoy resting your legs, I hope we see you some time soon giving it another go in Europe !

  13. Anil

    congratulations Hal, what a run out there. I was v impressed to see that you broke your estimated time of 25hrs (as reported in one of the pre-race interviews)

  14. Sarah Lavender Smith

    Hal – belated congrats, and that was a fine piece of race reporting! Great writing but mostly, great effort. It was awesome to see you, Joe and Dakota bomb down from Bridal Veil Falls to Telluride.

    I don't think any race report, however, can adequately capture the extreme degree of this course — the combination of altitude, terrain and severe weather (and I say this being familiar with only one-third of the course; I can't get my head around the whole thing!). The fact that you triumphed on this course is an indescribable accomplishment. I'm so impressed! I hope to make a pilgrimage to Rogue Valley Runners again and have a sip of that magical water you all must be drinking up there :-)

  15. Blake Wood

    Nice report, Hal, and congratulations again on having such a great, focused run. It is sobering to realize that although I was center-of-the-pack among the finishers, I was still sitting in Sherman when you were in Silverton.

  16. Jeff Kozak

    Best write-up yet man, although the UTMB report was a piece of classicness as well. Lots of unique Koerner commentary but my favorite had to be… "and your confidence lives at 2,000." My only question is…was the gigantic blue headband for keeping your brains in place in that thin expansive air or what? Actually, one more question…did the Hypoxico tent also have a tanning chamber?

    All joking aside… I'm more than impressed with the 100 mile versatility.

    -Koz

  17. Jon s.

    I was pulling for you… Even wore my RVR t-shirt at work, telling everyone that Oregon was going to bring home the goods… On another note, you should take a crack at lean horse in South Dakota next year… Great (flat) course that deserves to have someone like yourself bring the course record down into the 13's…just a thought… Congrats on the stellar run and see you at pine to palm…

  18. Javelina

    Hal is the best reason for watching and running ultras. Best attitude, best races, best ultrarunner out there. Heart you, Hal!

Post Your Thoughts