Between A Hardrock And A Place

As a child I dreamt of wild places and sought them out, splashing through creeks, climbing trees, and exploring the forest at every opportunity, believing if only for a moment that those minor dalliances were far grander adventures. There was and still is abundant wildlife in the ever-scarcer undeveloped places of my Pennsylvania homeland, but the nearby mountains were of the rather tame, aging Appalachian variety, storied but no longer standing tall. High peaks were the stuff of imagination and in those ardent visions prevailed snowy peaks, windswept rocky ledges, narrow ribbons of weathered trail, and vast open skies.

Many years later with childhood far behind, those imaginings came to life in photographs of the San Juan Mountains of Colorado. First glimpses of those photos took my breath away to an extent unmatched by anything previously seen with my own eyes. I couldn’t even initially identify the range as residing on the North American continent, but wherever those peaks were, they stood as the living embodiment of pictures my clumsy hands were too un-artistic to have drawn but that unmistakably matched those early daydreams.

Little Giant scenery

Scenery on Little Giant, what will be the last climb in this year’s Hardrock 100. Photo: Joe Grant

Not only are the San Juans most certainly in the United States, they are also the awe-inspiring setting for the Hardrock 100, one of the truly iconic 100-mile pedestrian events on the planet. Setting off from tiny Silverton, Colorado each July, a relatively small group of runners makes its very best effort to navigate a cumulative vertical gain of 33,992 feet and an equal amount of descent within 48 hours on a course that averages over 11,000 feet altitude.

As if the setting and the challenge of the course aren’t enough, the event itself and the people associated with it have fostered a unique culture that adds even more depth and texture to the landscape, making Hardrock a happening that many participants find themselves returning to over and over again and speaking of in reverent tones and with an unmistakable joy and sense of awe. While someone inevitably finishes first each year, all participants are applauded just as loudly and congratulated just as heartily at the run’s awards ceremony. It’s telling that the word ‘race’ is absent from the event website and the course manual. Veterans stubbornly avow that Hardrock is a run, not a race, and all entrants are treated as equal members of the group.

Yes, there are trophies for the fastest woman and man and awards are distributed to every finisher, but all seem to agree that the real prize is just getting back to Silverton and placing lips upon the actual Hardrock, the sizable boulder that rests at the finish line adorned with the event’s bighorn-sheep logo and signature “Wild & Tough” motto. In fact, it’s right there in the Executive Rules Summary in the runner’s manual, “You must kiss the HARDROCK upon your successful completion of the run.”

I’ve yet to set foot in the San Juans myself, but that oversight will be corrected when I arrive in Silverton to pace for my friend Terry Sentinella on his second go-round at Hardrock. With my curiosity fully piqued and anticipation growing, I was fortunate enough over a period of several weeks earlier this spring to have many seasoned Hardrockers indulge my request to try to express what defines the event for them personally and what makes Silverton and the San Juans places they hold in such high esteem. I cannot tell you that I have come to know what Hardrock is all about. If anything, I have grown that much more certain that the only way to have any true comprehension (of anything, really) is to go and take part, but, at the very least, I can share some of what was told to me by some of the people who know Hardrock best, explore some of the themes that emerged, and hope that some justice has been done to the event and for all involved.

The Setting, A/K/A The San Juan Mountains

Landscape near Virginius Pass 2

The landscape around Virginius Pass on the Hardrock 100 course. Photo: Joe Grant

Of the countless trail races that take place all over the country, the continent, and across the globe, only a small percentage are truly deserving of being called a ‘mountain race.’ And even among true mountain races, some stand out as being higher and wilder than most of the others. Hardrock is without a doubt a mountain race, scoring highly in both the high and wild categories. Idyllic photographs taken in high summer reveal pristine alpine lakes perched atop wildflower-blanketed basins that lead to forests of spruce and aspen in the valleys below, but ever present in the background are the tall, ragged peaks, stripped entirely of trees and littered with scree.

“Well, if the pictures are daunting, the reality is always more so,” was the report from David Horton, one of the original Hardrockers and a living legend who has won numerous ultras and set many astounding long-distance fastest known times over a span of more than 30 years. The ever-present and mischievous twinkle in David’s eyes was apparent in his voice as he spoke of how his first look at the San Juans changed his entire perspective. Before his initial visit back in 1992, he’d already completed Western States and Leadville, marveling at the beautiful settings of both races. “Then I ran Hardrock and knew what pretty was, knew what beautiful was. It was Hardrock,” he reminisced before pausing as though he’d transported himself back to that time for just a moment.

David Horton in front of the Hardrock in 2012

David Horton in front of the Hardrock in 2012. Photo: iRunFar/Bryon Powell

Karl Meltzer, he of the unmatched 36 wins at the 100-mile distance (five of those at Hardrock), first set eyes on the San Juans back in 1999 when he drove east from his beloved Wasatch range in Utah and while he was certainly no stranger to high peaks and wild places, he was immediately moved by the mountains that seemed to go on endlessly. “When I pulled into Ouray, I was just like, you know, looking around with my jaw dropped to the ground like, ‘wow’. I don’t know if it’s because of the higher elevation, if it just seems like you’re higher in the sky or whatever it is, but the San Juans have this intimidating feel to them that makes it so much more magical when you’re out there by yourself in the wilderness.” He continues, “People look at the pictures from Hardrock, and there’s no other place like it, and they go, ‘What a place that is.’ Until you’re out there you can’t understand it. When you’re out there, out in the wilderness, there’s just no comparison.”

Karl Meltzer after winning the 2003 Hardrock 100

Karl Meltzer after winning the 2003 Hardrock 100. Photo: Tom Burr

Someone who really seems to fully embrace running as a way of connecting and even communicating with nature is Joe Grant, a two-time Hardrock finisher and runner-up to winner Hal Koerner in 2012, and he seems to concur. “The San Juan mountains are incredible. The landscape in itself just pulls you in and it’s a very compelling place to be.”

Joe Grant and Dakota Jones racing the 2012 Hardrock 100

Joe Grant and Dakota Jones racing the 2012 Hardrock 100. Photo: iRunFar/Meghan Hicks

The Course
The San Juans certainly pulled in Charlie Thorn. Few individuals can possibly know the course as intimately as he, one of the original people to have scouted and determined the course and the person entrusted with marking the route (or not marking it, as some have playfully suggested of the man who likes to leave a little route finding up to the runners) and documenting the cumulative results and finisher’s statistics. Charlie good-naturedly suggested that the only reason he is in charge of keeping track is because no one else wants to, but a look at the data he’s compiled over the years also strongly suggests that he is the right person for the job. His love of the event is evident as he speaks of Hardrock’s inception.

John DeWalt and Charlie Thorn after their 10th Hardrock finishes in 2005

John DeWalt and Charlie Thorn (right) after their 10th Hardrock finishes in 2005. Photo: Blake Wood

After responding to a letter written by runner Gordon Hardman in the November 1991 issue of UltraRunning magazine seeking anyone interested in joining him in establishing a 100-mile race in the San Juans, Charlie and his pal and original Hardrock race director, John Cappis, spent the winter that followed poring over maps of the area, trying to determine which path the course should follow. An average annual snowfall of over 150 inches in Silverton proper and more in the mountains surrounding town isn’t exactly ideal for scouting on foot during winter months and, in fact, snow on the passes can impact the course all the way out in July or, in extremes, even lead to the run being cancelled, as was the case in 1995.

Snow and snowmelt are so impactful at Hardrock that the event website has a separate tab for snow-pack conditions and historical records are kept year after year. Early indications are that snow may play a role in this year’s running with video clips and photos posted recently to Hardrock’s Facebook page showing quite a bit of the white stuff and at least one poster’s half-joking suggestion to “bring your ice axe.”

Virginius Pass on June 29, 2014

Deep snow on Virginius Pass on June 29, 2014. Photo: Quintin Barney

By the first week of June of 1992, there was still plenty of snow up high, but a few determined individuals decided it was time to brave the conditions to try and piece together a route, despite not being entirely sure if any of the passes would cooperate.

“The way we figured out things was by trial and error,” begins Charlie in his telling of how he, John, Ouray-native Rick Trujillo, and easterners David Horton, Nancy Hamilton, and Rick Hamilton first scouted 12,900 foot-high Grant Swamp Pass, one of 11 points on the course that climbs above 12,000 feet, and an absolutely stunning vantage point that crops up frequently in photographs of Hardrock because of its spectacular but intimidating beauty. In fact, the 2014 Finisher’s Print, a poster-size print given to each Hardrock finisher, was taken by Katie DeSplinter from atop this pass. In the deep snow on the approach, the Hamiltons lagged a bit behind and it was Charlie, John, Rick, and David who first reached the pass to find a vast, steep snowfield on the other side. The four of them decided to vote on whether or not there was a way down, but a two-to-two result ended in a stalemate. Rather than suggesting a revote, Rick took matters into his own hands, jumping down off the pass and disappearing from view. Five minutes later, having descended about 450 feet of snow and scree, he returned to the pass with a simple, “It’ll go.” The other three jumped off and followed him back down along the very route the course now follows.

2014 Hardrock Finishers Print

The 2014 Hardrock Finisher’s Print photo, looking down the north side of Grant Swamp Pass. Photo: Katie DeSplinter

“There are more stories like that,” said Charlie rather casually. “We found out what we could do by trial and error. What are our limits, the limits of our courage or stubbornness? Can we do this? Are we physically, mentally, psychologically able to do it?”

His first-year accomplice, David Horton, concurred with Charlie’s sentiment, recalling that “over the course of a couple of weeks, we measured and flagged the course. The thought was, We’re going to do that in one shot? You have got to be kidding. That’s ludicrous! What we did in two weeks, we were going to do in one shot. So I remember the first year before we started, we thought, This is not possible.”

Betsy Kalmeyer finishing first woman at the 2004 Hardrock 100

Betsy Kalmeyer finishing first woman at the 2004 Hardrock 100. Photo: Tom Burr

Even though she has completed the race an astonishing 14 times and finished first female on five separate occasions, Betsy Kalmeyer offers similar sentiment from her first Hardrock. “When we would get into an aid station my crew didn’t even want to tell me what I was gonna’ go up and over. They didn’t want to point out Grant Swamp [Pass], afraid to even tell me that was what I was going up and over so I wouldn’t get intimidated.” That was back in 1996 and even though Betsy will be lining up this July for a go at a 15th finish, she still has moments of doubt during training runs on the course. “Even as familiar as I am with the course now, I still go out on a section and think, How in the heck am I going to do 10 times the 10 miles I did today in 48 hours?’” Despite that admittance, the passion for Hardrock shone through Betsy’s every word and she admitted that she was immediately smitten and loved the race like nothing else she’d run before it.

Despite his success on the Hardrock course, Karl didn’t hesitate to give it credit for having doled out punishment and challenged him immensely, even suggesting an early concern during his first time there that it might actually “kill him.” After chuckling at the memory, he went on, “It’s hard, you know? It doesn’t matter how fast you are, how elite of an athlete you are, it beats you down like no other race will beat you down because it’s absolutely relentless. There’s nothing, doesn’t matter if you have eight miles to go, the eight miles will consist of a 4,000-foot climb and a 4,000-foot drop that’ll just freakin’ hurt.”

As difficult as the route was and still is, it has proven to be doable in a single, long push, as David confirmed by winning the inaugural Hardrock in 32 hours, 34 minutes. He would win again in 1993, lowering the mark to 29:35:48. Again sounding almost as if he was actually standing in the mountains he spoke of, David said, “You get up one of those 13,000-foot passes and you look 3,000 or 5,000 feet down below to where you just were and you look up at the other mountains and see another 13,000-foot pass over there and you know you’ve got to go there after dropping down to 10,000 or 9,000 feet before climbing back up. That’s mindboggling, humbling. It’s tough. And then to go over a 14,000-foot mountain [14,048 foot Handies Peak is the highest point on the course] in a race. I don’t know of anything else in the world like that.”

Over the years, only four individuals have ever broken 25 hours at Hardrock and that’s a testament to just how demanding the course and the conditions are that in an era of sub-15 and even faster course records on other 100-mile race courses, the 23:23:30 benchmark set at Hardrock by Kyle Skaggs back in 2008 is considered by some to be one of the most astounding 100-mile performances ever. Sébastien Chaigneau’s win last year was the second-fastest time ever but was still more than an hour off of Kyle’s finish.

The challenging 100-mile loop is a mix of terrain that varies from trails, snowfields, talus slopes, creek crossings, jeep roads, dirt roads, and short stretches of pavement in the three towns on the course, Silverton, Telluride, and Ouray. The mountains are ever present throughout the route. As Joe puts it, “It’s a natural course, the loop, you go from town to town and it makes it a logical progression in my mind. It’s not a contrived course at all. To go over the mountain passes, you can look from one pass to the next to where you’re going. They’re following a really natural movement through the land that I can really connect with and appreciate.”

Diana Finkel after winning the 2011 Hardrock 100

Diana Finkel after winning the 2011 Hardrock 100. Photo: iRunFar/Meghan Hicks

“Absolutely, it’s a natural loop,” enthusiastically echoed four-time first woman and female course record holder at 27:18:24, Diana Finkel. “You’re on one pass and you look ahead and you can see the drainage below and the pass beyond. It’s very organic and if you look at a map, you make a circle, and there it is.” There was enough joy in Diana’s voice when speaking of the course that it made me want to head off down the trail with her and try desperately to keep up.

The whole idea of ‘keeping up’ is a comical one at Hardrock where the wildness of the terrain, the extreme altitude, unpredictable weather, a small starters’ list, and a host of other variables lead to runners getting really strung out along the course, often spending hours alone. Though the mileage between aid stations may not seem excessive, the time to get from one to the next can far surpass what runners experience at other events.

As Karl explains, “You start off with the other 140 and for the first 10 miles you’re within reach of other people, but it spreads out fast. It’s really a battle of you against the mountains not you against anyone else, so you have to keep telling yourself, As slow as I’m going up this hill, it’s going to be a long day, I’m going to be alone most of the time. They put it on you to take care of yourself, so that’s something you really have to embrace, too. You can’t just take it for granted that it’s only an hour and 20 minutes to the next aid station. It might be seven hours. You have a bad patch and it could take even a leader seven hours. No other races have a section between aid stations that’s seven hours and that’s what makes it special, too.”

The mountains go on forever in the San Juans. Near Virginius Pass. Photo: Joe Grant

The mountains go on forever in the San Juans. Near Virginius Pass. Photo: Joe Grant

Betsy also talked about the contributors to Hardrock’s singularity, the time required to circumnavigate the loop and the factors that make getting around the course take so long. “The remoteness, the beauty, the limited number of runners, the extreme terrain, all of those factors make it a whole other level. The altitude, how high you are, [you have to be] a lot more self-reliant with the weather, the winds, the solitude. Going a lot longer. My first year, my pacer just couldn’t believe it was getting dark for the second time by the time we finished.”

An eight-time Hardrock finisher and the outright winner in 2010, Jared Campbell agreed that the San Juans and the course can be pretty humbling. “Certainly it’s humbling when you’re out there trying to run in it. The altitude pretty much brings you to your knees, you know what I mean? That and the weather. It’s an awesome place. It’s incredible and I hope it never changes.”

Jared Campbell finishing his 8th Hardrock 100 in 2013

Jared Campbell finishing his eighth Hardrock 100 in 2013 with his wife, Mindy. Photo: iRunFar/Bryon Powell

A veteran of so many Hardrocks who has witnessed the minor tweaks made to the course over the years, Charlie, when comparing the past and the present, suggests that for all its difficulty, it may actually be more navigable than it was when those gritty scouts determined the route without any trails. “There are a lot of areas now that I don’t mark as carefully as I did 20 years ago because there’s a trail there now. But the adventure is still there. I think most everybody that does it for the first time nowadays is still up there having an adventure. That’s the idea.”

Silverton
Even the most adventurous of runs needs to begin somewhere and at Hardrock, the run starts and finishes in Silverton, nestled at 9,305 feet above sea level and home to a standing population of just over 500 hearty–and hardy–souls. While the course was always intended to include Silverton, the original concept for the event intended that hosting duties would pass between Silverton, Lake City, Telluride, and Ouray, all the developed areas of the San Juan Mountains, from year to year.

Silverton panorama in 2014

Silverton panorama in 2014. Photo: Quintin Barney

“But right away as soon as they were designing the course and talking to the towns,” said Betsy, “Silverton embraced the run more so than anybody else and said, ‘You know, we want to be the focal point.’ And the mayor, the whole town, and most of the volunteers come from Silverton.” Scrapping the plan to rotate the start line each year, those involved with the race agreed to make Silverton the permanent launching pad for Hardrock, choosing instead to keep things interesting by changing the direction of the course.

Dakota Jones running the 2011 Hardrock 100

Dakota Jones running the 2011 Hardrock 100. Photo: iRunFar/Meghan Hicks

Dakota Jones, who moved to nearby Durango at the age of 15 and discovered ultrarunning through volunteering at Hardrock as a teenager, weighed in as to why it was such a good fit, “That was probably because they wanted to support economically depressed Silverton, and because the low-key, non-glitzy, ski-area-less Silverton appealed to the founders, whose aim was not to create a world-renowned high-profile race but to make a super-hard race through the most beautiful places they knew and loved.”

As for the local economy, mining, the reason for Silverton coming to be in the first place, has long since ceased to be the town’s main revenue source with most of what little income the town derives now coming from tourism. There is certainly backcountry skiing to be had in winter (and one ‘resort,’ which has a single chairlift that is meant to deliver users to that backcountry skiing a little quicker), but access to the town itself can be difficult due to the significant dumps of snow that occur in the San Juans from October into April and even May. While crews work all season long to keep the high passes clear for vehicular traffic, frequently access is at least temporarily blocked by snowstorms and even when plowed, the roads still call for four-wheel drive and a steady winter-driving hand. Pristine powder or not, there is simply easier access to be had at any number of resorts in Colorado or neighboring Utah.

When the high country finally does start to open up, tourists begin arriving on the historic steam locomotive that runs a 45.5-mile stretch of rails that runs from Durango to downtown Silverton. Other than those here-and-gone visitations, the off-roading that takes place on the old dirt and jeep roads outside of town and a reportedly raucous annual Fourth of July weekend, Hardrock is the big to-do.

Jared had this to say, “July 4th is a zoo. It’s a mess. Every fossil-fuel athlete around for a 300-mile radius comes there with their Jeeps and four wheelers and it is just a madhouse. When that crowd ushers out and the Hardrock crowd arrives, which is a more subdued crowd that respects the environment and treads quietly, I think that it’s a big relief for the local community and I think that’s why they embrace it. Everyone who flocks to the town loves it, eyes wide open as you walk down the road, looking up at the mountains, but it’s a quiet crowd, relative to what the locals experienced the week before.”

Karl adds, “At Silverton, everybody wants you there. They really embrace the fact that you’re there and it really makes you feel good. That’s something that most races don’t have.”

Family, First to Last
Whether it’s a reflection of the close-knit ties of a small town like Silverton or a reflection of the personalities who conceptualized and then brought Hardrock to life in the first place, ‘family’ seemed to find its way into every conversation about the event.

There always seems to be a general sense of ‘we’re all in it together’ associated with ultrarunning, certainly in comparison to other competitive athletics, but discussion of Hardrock hinted at a stronger commitment to equally applauding the efforts of every runner on the course.

“I think Hardrock more so than just about any other race is that way,” agreed Jared. “It doesn’t matter where you finish really. The last person in many ways gets more attention than anybody. That’s fantastic. These people are iconic because they’re finishing in 47.5 hours.”

Karl also eagerly offered stories of grizzled veterans just barely making the cutoffs. “It doesn’t matter if you’re Kilian Jornet at the back of the pack or John DeWalt in the days that he finished. When he’d come hobbling around the corner with like four minutes to spare, drop off his jacket at his car, and we’d be like, ‘John, you’ve only got four minutes!’ And he’d be like, ‘I got time.’ John, who passed away last year, was really what the spirit of Hardrock was all about, you know, seeing a guy like that come around the corner is absolutely incredible and everybody is there to cheer for him.”

John DeWalt finishing the 2009 Hardrock 100 with 13 minutes to spare

John DeWalt finishing the 2009 Hardrock 100 at 13 minutes under the cutoff, his final Hardrock finish. Photo: Blake Wood

A true Hardrock treasure and a man missed and mourned by all who spoke of him, John DeWalt notched 14 run finishes, most recently in 2009 at the age of 73. The Hardrock family continues to cheer for him and others who will no longer be returning to Silverton. So much so, in fact, that time has been set aside the day before this year’s run to remember John and three-time finisher Garry Curry, who passed away in his sleep just last month at the age of 60. In true understated Hardrock fashion and announced via the run’s Facebook page, the intent of that gathering is to “share stories, thoughts and memories of these two Hardrockers who are no longer with us. There will be no official program, just a chance for us to come together to remember.”

Every person who chimed in on Hardrock also tipped a cap to Run Director Dale Garland for his role in establishing or at least maintaining that ‘same team’ ethos and Betsy went to great lengths to credit Dale for emphasizing the importance of each and every person in the field. “He takes notes the whole time on these little cards and almost always has a funny quote that each runner says along the way to personalize the awards ceremony. You go away from that feeling like you’re the winner of the whole event because of his recognition of every runner and how important every runner is.”

Dale Garland and Seb Chaigneau after the 2013 Hardrock 100

Run Director Dale Garland and Seb Chaigneau after Seb’s win of the 2013 Hardrock 100. Photo: iRunFar/Bryon Powell

“It’s something I love about the race,” agreed Joe. “It’s something that you stand there and go, Wow, people really care, and you feel very included. You feel like you’re part of the event. Completely. Not just like your name is on the list of finishers, it’s like, ‘No, you are valuable to me whether you finish in 24 hours or 48.’ That’s something definitely special about the event and anyone who does Hardrock recognizes the difficulty of the race and whether you’re running it up front or at the back, you’ve got the same worth in terms of getting through it.”

Diana didn’t hesitate to say how much she embraces the solitude of Hardrock with often enormous gaps of miles and times between runners on the course, but she also credited Dale and the Sunday awards ceremony with completing the experience and cementing the connections and bonds that begin to take form just by knowing that other people are out there following the route, too. “You’ve had this experience by yourself, but then to validate it, it makes it more real and you feel like–and I didn’t realize this until the second time that I ran–you’re a member of the family. You’ve become a member of this family and it is great how everybody makes up this community, it’s such an overused word, but it’s quite a welcoming community whether you finish or don’t finish or you had an epic out there or not.”

Asked to respond to what others had reported, Dale confirmed that it “is not only something that we pride ourselves on, but that we work on. The fact that everybody is part of Hardrock and we celebrate everybody’s accomplishments is something that we foster. It’s a very conscious thing. My feeling as the ringleader, so to speak, is it’s a joy and a real important part of what I do, making sure that everybody feels that way. It’s a very conscious decision on my part because I firmly believe that whether you’re finishing in 24 or 48 hours, the accomplishment is the same and it’s worth celebrating. I just think it’s really important to me that everybody’s accomplishment be recognized. When Jared Campbell or Karl Meltzer or somebody else gets up at 5:00 in the morning to watch the last finisher, that says something about their character as well. That’s really cool for me.”

Dale Garland and Lois MacKenzie at the 2013 Hardrock 100 award ceremony

Dale Garland and Aid Station Director Lois MacKenzie at the 2013 Hardrock 100 award ceremony, or what’s called Hardrock’s ‘graduation.’ Photo: iRunFar/Bryon Powell

Hardrock isn’t alone, of course, in doing its best to make all feel included, but with so few starters and even fewer finishers, the event takes place on a small-enough scale to allow very real, very intimate relationships to sprout and grow. It’s hard not to love Dakota’s take on the closing ceremony, “We’re just honoring our close friends. It’s a social event founded on shared values of appreciation for real things, like the mountains and the challenge, not fleeting things like winning. Is winning fleeting? Who knows, but that seems to be the Hardrock culture and I’ve embraced it.”

The Future
Is the integrity of that culture vulnerable as Hardrock’s visibility, like it or not, has heightened with the rapid growth of trail and ultrarunning? Some interviewed expressed concern over increasing pressure to commercialize Hardrock or bring an exposure to the event that erodes that family feel. Rigid U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management regulations and a shared ethic from race board members to be stewards of the run’s fragile alpine landscape has led to the cap that only allows 140 runners into the event each year which in and of itself and certainly when coupled with Silverton’s simply not being an easy place to get to serve as obstacles to commercialization, but the threat does exist.

Meghan Hicks training on Stony Pass in 2011

Commercialization not needed: Meghan Hicks training on Stony Pass on the Hardrock 100 course. Photo: iRunFar/Bryon Powell

A lottery system was instituted a few years ago to try and reward longtime Hardrock veterans who wanted to return ’home’ again while also allowing first-timers a chance to get in. Most years, there have only been a small handful of elites or notables who make it into the race, but this year, at least on paper, looks to be a step up in terms of competition and while that may not mean commercialization it does make some worry that there will be too bright and narrow a light cast on those vying for a podium spot, causing an imbalance in the respect shown all of the other runners strung out behind them on the course. [Editor’s Note: See our preview of the front of the field for details on those fast runners.]

Ultrarunning isn’t immune to modernization and on-course photographers and camera crews have become the norm at many high-profile and even not-so-high-profile events. Considering the picturesque backdrop, the number of registered high-profile, sponsored athletes, and the speculation that Kyle’s stout course record could possibly be threatened, it is hard to believe that there aren’t parties interested in visually documenting every aspect of this year’s race.

Jared offered his thoughts on the matter, “In the races that I’ve done in Europe, a helicopter or two buzzing overhead is kind of annoying, but it would really be sad at Hardrock, because it’s not about that. I hope that doesn’t happen.”

Island Lake from near the top of Grant Swamp Pass

No helos here, please: Island Lake from near the top of Grant Swamp Pass. Photo: iRunFar/Bryon Powell

Charlie’s comments give insight to at least one full-blooded Hardrocker’s take on the higher-than-usual number of elites and if that changes anything about the event. “Will I pay much attention to them? Probably not. We’ve got guys who show up with their camera crews and they take the movies and leave and that’s the last time we see them and that’s okay, too, but if it takes away from the guys who are out there in the middle, the back, the ‘real people’, that’s the one thing that would be a problem. I go at midnight on Saturday and watch the last 40 or 50 people come in. That’s what’s fun. You see people that have given their best. Even the people that don’t finish within 48 hours, those folks, the spirit is alive in those folks. That’s what Hardrock is for me anyway. Commercialization? I’m not too worried about it.”

In one fell swoop, Dale expresses genuine excitement about watching this year’s race unfold, admits that the board hadn’t sought any greater visibility, and again confirms the familial ethos. “We’re in a very fortunate position in that we certainly don’t need the exposure to generate more entries. It’s kind of an embarrassment of riches for us, but I think in a sense as a spectator, as a follower of the sport, I think it’s danged cool that we’re going to have a bunch of people here all in one place on a course that is tough and we’ll let them sort it out with each other. As the Run Director, I’ve tried to keep it in perspective that whoever crosses the finish line first and whoever kisses the rock at the end has run the same 100 miles and accomplished the same thing.”

Garrett Graubins after finishing the 2011 Hardrock 100

The Hardrock family exemplified: Garett Graubins after finishing the 2011 Hardrock 100. He is running the 2014 race, too. Photo: iRunFar/Meghan Hicks

Pressed to speculate on the years ahead and whether a future Hardrock can still look and feel like Hardrock past and present if any steps were taken to open up the size of the field to accommodate expanded interest, Dale seemed quite hopeful that it could and would if (and it sounded like an ‘if’ not a ‘when’) that were to occur. “If there are increases in numbers, it will be done slowly, gradually, and with great analysis, and consideration of the overall impact and the effect on Hardrock. We’re not gonna’ go from 140 runners to 210. You know, if the Forest Service and the BLM as the permitting agencies go, ‘We think you could go bigger if you want to,’ then we’ll have to decide if we want to do that and if we do want to do that, it would be in smaller increments because we want to be able to look at things and evaluate them and continue to provide a good experience for people.”

It’s impossible of course to actually see into the future, but it’s hard to imagine those who worked so hard to craft an event that celebrated the land that hosted it and treated all involved with an even hand allowing sea change to occur. It was a fine collection of hands that built and shaped Hardrock and the event seems to remain in those capable hands today.

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As humans, we have a tendency to build things up in our minds to a point that reality, no matter how miraculous, can fall short of those inflated, unrealistic expectations. There’s no reason to hold Hardrock up as the hardest, prettiest, best 100 miler out there because those terms aren’t definable and even if they were, differing personal perspectives and biases would place different events at the top of the list.

But in its authenticity, the ‘realness’ of the people involved with making it what it is, Hardrock is well worthy of the respect and esteem it seems to garner. Tell ‘em, Mr. Grant:

“I think the underlying theme or tone to it is that it’s a very genuine, authentic event, put on by people who really believe in it, who believe in its context, who have molded it over the years in their minds and it’s just like an articulation of what they want it to be and that is probably one of the main reasons that I connect with anything in life really is just, you know, authentic self-expressions are really beautiful things when you encounter them. I think Hardrock is an event that really embodies that. It doesn’t mean it’s going to be a great fit for everybody, it doesn’t mean that everybody has to run it, but the people who do get it, who do connect on that level, it’s going to be a fantastic experience.”

Sounds about right to me and, as to my own aspirations for Hardrock weekend, I simply extend best wishes to everyone out on the course, look forward to thanking in person the generosity of those who have already made me feel a welcome part of the family, and hope that I can be the good pacing company needed for a long, hard, fantastic experience in the mountains of my childhood daydreams.

Quintessential Hardrock 100 scenery from Virginius Pass

Dreams come to life on the Hardrock 100 course at Virginius Pass. Photo: Joe Grant

[Author’s Note: My sincerest thanks to everyone who contributed words and photos to this article as well as a number of other folks who also shared or offered to share their thoughts, including Billy Simpson, Hal Koerner, Matt Hart, Besty Nye, Peter Bakwin, and Harry Smith.]

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