Mountain Running and Nothing Else

I started mountain running at the Hardrock Hundred, which is why I have such strong sentiments toward the aspects in mountain running of camaraderie and respect for the environment. Hardrock is a race that could attract 1,500 runners or more every year, but which restricts itself–on the pretense of U.S. Forest Service limitations–to 140. Hardrock was borne of a deep love of adventure and the San Juan Mountains. It came from a group of people who had known and loved the area for decades, often participating in some of the greatest adventures the Colorado mountains have yet seen. In 1988, Hardrock race director Dale Garland and three others ran the entirety of the brand-new and largely nonexistent Colorado Trail in about 17 days. The same feat has been repeated many times since and much faster, too, but their pioneering effort into the unknown underscored the passion for the mountains that would eventually lead to Hardrock.

Of course, ‘unknown’ is relative. The miners who swept into the area beginning in the 1860s learned the land intimately as they toiled and sweated under backbreaking labor to extract minerals. The Native Americans before them likely knew the area even better, but their stories are lesser known. Hardrock the race is dedicated to the miners. In an homage to their hard work and desperate lifestyles, the race loops through many old mining towns in the region as well as countless high-alpine basins, valleys, and peaks where the mining debris is still very obvious. The race is undoubtedly one of the hardest hundreds in the world, but it holds much more appeal than many other ‘harder’ hundreds, which are often more difficult simply for the sake of being more difficult.

Hardrock is a race intended for people who love the mountains. It’s an event tailored to people who travel in the mountains for the sake of personal and spiritual renewal. It values people and landscape far more than times and records. Fittingly, the ‘Hardrock family’ has surrounded the event since its inception in 1993. This group of people returns year after year to be part of the mountains, the challenge, and the camaraderie that has grown around them. No event is quite like Hardrock because Hardrock is not simply a race. It’s a mindset manifest.

So, when I first visited Hardrock at 17, the physical challenge was only one part of what attracted me. The real draw lay in the combination of that physical challenge with a deep love of the mountains and the people sharing the challenge. It was, in one word, respect. Respect for the environment. Respect for the history of the region. Respect for the people drawn to such a challenge and the strength of partnerships that naturally arise from so difficult an undertaking. Hardrock doesn’t dive into the mainstream world of mountain running like every other race because Hardrock was founded on much stronger principles than public notoriety and money.

That’s not to say that the race doesn’t encourage competition. The winners’ times are dutifully noted and applauded every year. Kyle Skaggs and Diana Finkel–the two course-record holders–are heroes among the Hardrock family. Furthermore, the huge demand for the race has elicited responses such as restructuring the lottery system, rethinking the qualifying events, and working with the U.S. Forest Service to increase the race’s numbers. What sets Hardrock apart in this sphere is that, in addition to all the attention and admiration heaped onto the winners, the exact same amount of attention and admiration is heaped upon the last finishers. The best example of this is one of the race’s traditions. At 5:00 a.m. on Sunday morning–one hour before the 48-hour cutoff–everyone gathers to cheer in the last finishers, all of whom have just survived two full days and nights of mountain running in the San Juans.

That’s the spirit that makes mountain running so special. And it’s the spirit to which we must remain true. That spirit is why athletes should only have sponsors whose products they actually use, rather than endorse a host of energy drinks and gimmicks that would pay much more. It’s why races should focus on mountain running, instead of the business behind mountain running. Getting paid to do what you love is great, as is mainstream popularity and high-profile racing. Getting lots of money to endorse products that have little in common with what you actually do is to give up on the values that make the sport special. If the values aren’t given consideration they will disappear, and with them will go the culture of respect that makes mountain running so special.

I make a living off mountain running, but that doesn’t mean I have to sacrifice the values that keep this sport special. I run for only companies whose products I use and believe in. To support brands that make big money but no necessary products is to sacrifice one’s own integrity as an athlete, as a person. At least in mountain sports, where the environment dictates the passion, we have a responsibility to stand up for that environment and the culture it has created. If we lose our roots, we lose the reason for being part of all this in the first place.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Dakota has discussed his ‘roots’ in our sport, the ethic and values of the Hardrock family. What are your roots? Where did you begin and how have your beginnings shaped your present relationship with trail and ultrarunning?
  • What values of trail and ultrarunning do you hold dear, and do you think should stand the test of time, commercialization, and growth?

There are 17 comments

  1. @OutdoorsPhoto

    Well said Dakota… both the roots, and your thoughts are very important. I saw your comment to a certain energy drink manufacturer on Twitter, and thought at the time how good to stick to your beliefs in the face of a (probably lucrative) offer.
    My roots as an ultrarunner come from having spent the last 20 years walking in the hills – now I've just sped up a little so I can see more. Currently my focus seems to be on entering races, but more and more I'm beginning to think of just setting my own adventures in the hills.

  2. ClownRunner

    Growing up in the 1970's in New Hampshire, I hiked in the White Mountains and naively thought every place must be as rugged and beautiful. Only after living in several other places did I come to realize that some areas are just more deserving of "respect" and "awe". It was a special time and a special place, before I knew anything about anything. I can remember sitting by an awesome mountain stream chewing on my GORP trail mix and cheese & pepperoni slices…and utting down my over-sized metal frame pack and huge hiking boots, and putting my 10-year-old clown feet in the frigid, healing current. Great memories…

    Re: commercialization, it's sad, but what you can you do, you've just got to keep moving through beautiful terrain and not worry about what others are doing. And when all the beautiful terrain is gone, just keep moving. That's all you can do…

  3. UKquosh

    Very thoughtful post. I enjoy your writing immensely Dakota.

    Although I still think your sport is better suited to being amateur; like fell running in the UK. Maybe I'm being unrealistic. Maybe you wouldn't get time to write if you were up all night doing a shift. Maybe Bryon wouldn't have got this far with the site if he were still a lawyer. The pro vs amateur debate is a not going to be resolved here.

    Anyway, good luck to you and enjoy your running.

  4. Steve Pero

    Loved this post….thanks, but of course Hardrock is held deep in my heart and soul. I have been involved with the "run" since 2000 and just this year I'm stepping away, as a competitor after getting my 3rd finish in 10 starts. My hope this year is to pace some first timer and show them the way (unless Deb gets in again) ;-)

    I got my beginning in 1975 after watching Bill Rodgers finish the Boston Marathon in a new American Record, have been running since, almost every day. Roads for over 20 years morphed into trails, which morphed into ultras and then Hardrock, which was the epitome to me….I am thankful to have had the opportunity to run in the San Juans all the years I did. Deb and I even decided to get married while climbing up towards the Virginius aid station in 2001 and made the announcement to Chuck Kroger and his team up there, which is now called Kroger's Canteen and manned by 10 time Hardrock finisher, Roch Horton.
    I could talk about Hardrock all day long ;-)

  5. MikeD_

    Reading your writings about sponsorship are really great. The wisdom with which you approach the balance between ethics surrounding our role in the sport, the passion we have for nature and how sponsorship is more than just money should be the life motto for all of us around any sort of trail running.

  6. barwic01

    I wish we all had mountains to run in! I can hardly call my local trail loop anything other than hilly @ 1200' of climb in 7.25 miles.

    I love the comments on values because that is what keeps the off-road runners coming back for more.

  7. Sarah

    I loved this post — thanks for writing it and for advocating that Hardrock stay true to its roots. My roots actually extend to Telluride — grandfather born and raised there, and was a miner in Camp Bird when they reopened it during the Depression — and he and his brother were founding members of the San Juan Mountaineers club. A value I hold dear to the sport, and which the Hardrock pioneers embodied, is self-reliance. Yes, I love and need aid stations, but the more we can go these distances on our own and embrace the solitude and challenges found on the trail, the better. That's what will continue to distinguish trail/ultra running from road marathoning.

  8. jmctav

    Maybe if every other Op-Ed on IRF mentions, or dedicates at least a paragraph to the increasing commercialization of trail/ultra running it will stop trail/ultra running from being too commercialized. If one mentions the "problem" enough maybe it will actually manifest itself.

  9. Shelby_

    After pacing/racing at five mountain hundos last summer, I was able to see firsthand why Hardrock is so special. I felt instantly connected to the people, the towns, the trails and told Dale to remember me, because I'd be back again as part of the "family". I had the privilege of seeing all the final finishers come in and that was my favorite part of the whole amazing weekend. I don't so much mind if I never get to run it myself as long as I can participate in some way and draw inspiration from the runners, especially those that battle the obstacles to finishing over the longest periods of time.

  10. Schlarb1

    It is tempting to sustain a dream job via businesses who we really don't respect. Thanks for reminding our community about sticking to our values.

  11. senelly

    Yay Dakota! Thanks for your mountain running homage. You live there. That gives you a huge edge on folks like me who live at or near sea level. But, many of us who have been fortunate to run Hardrock are not jealous… on the contrary, we truly appreciate your homeboy knowledge, experience, and dedication to the San Juans. I started running alone in these mountains back in 1990 while on short vacations at a small hideaway hotel halfway along the Durango-Silverton Railroad. Until 2013, I was the all-time slowest (last) finisher of the race. I DNF'd 3 times before finishing, and although I was thoroughly humbled by it all, I used to tell people who asked why on earth I wanted to do something so foolish, I always said the same thing: "I'd rather run in those mountains and not finish than not run in those mountains at all." I absolutely loved the wildness, the crazy weather, the amazingly tough terrain, the spooky and precipitous nights, the elk, the marmots, the welcomes into towns and aid stations, and so on. Now, each year I follow all the Hardrock exploits, including those of superstars like you, with admiration and joy. Rock on!

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