Falling Off Edges: Hardrock 2014
Erik Skaggs and I are in Timothy Olson’s crew vehicle with the man himself. He leans forward with a look of wide-eyed shock, “There was lightning striking right next to my head!” He is referring to where he was less than an hour before, on 13,000-plus-foot Engineer Pass, trying to maintain even a walking pace in the midst of what was likely the worst race of his life. The spot we’re parked is 60 miles into the Hardrock 100 course, at the Grouse Gulch Aid Station. He just spent the last six hours hiking barely 13 miles from Ouray, an episode that included such antics as 45 minutes lying spread-eagled on a rancid mattress in the woods and then crawling into the creek with breathless thanks to “nature’s aid station.” He hasn’t kept any food down for uncounted hours and has even sparked a debate on Twitter about what truly constitutes throwing up. It’s dark, it’s storming hard, and the very next climb goes up Handies Peak. And he’s getting ready to keep going.
You can’t really fall to your death on the Hardrock course. It’s a rugged system of trails but it isn’t quite that dangerous. Nevertheless, the edges are often precipitous, and calamity can strike in many different ways, as the runners at this year’s race witnessed. For example, while doing nothing more dangerous than hiking up the Bear Creek Trail, Tsuyoshi Kaburaki was struck–in the face!–by a falling rock. Just walking up a trail making no mistakes and the mountain attacked him! What bad luck. It was good luck, however, that he didn’t then lose his balance and fall into the roaring gorge 200 feet below, since at that exact spot the trail is about as precipitous as Hardrock gets. Given that edge, anything could have happened, but Kaburaki kept his cool and continued up the trail, working toward a gaut and bloody finish that for him wouldn’t take place for 14 more hours. And Kaburaki’s story wasn’t even the closest call of the race. That honor goes to a Canadian.
In the late evening, as the final light disappeared from the sky and they turned on their headlamps, Adam Campbell and his pacer found themselves in the midst of a raging thunderstorm. Bright flashes of lightning exploded like mortar shells all around them and the rain poured down in freezing torrents. They were on the final ridge leading to the summit of Hardrock’s highest point–14,000-plus-foot Handies Peak–and as the rain came down the lightning came down with it. Have you ever heard thunder from the inside of a thunderstorm? It’s all-out war. Climbing up the ridge, they watched lightning striking directly ahead of them, on the summit, but being in an exposed position themselves (and being ludicrously, perhaps inappropriately, impatient) they decided to continue over the peak. Up they went, following the ridge.
You’ve all heard the story by now. They were hit, or close enough to hit. The lightning struck the ground near them with an almighty blast of thunder and knocked them both from their feet. Adam’s headlamp vanished as the batteries exploded in a fiery pop. Their hair stood on end. Copper in their mouths. Recollecting themselves, they fled to the far side of the peak, staying close to the one remaining headlamp. Somehow they made it down without being hit, and they hardly broke stride after that. Early the next morning Adam finished in third place in one of the race’s fastest times. It’s now a good story, fascinating and fun to tell. But they nearly died that night. The edge was a lot closer than they thought.
Tim is punch-drunk and hilarious. He keeps asking for more clothes and then forgetting to put them on while he eats Fritos. Skaggs points out that if Tim’s going to wear a down jacket on the next section, he needs to also wear a rain coat so that the down won’t get wet. Tim is so surprised and grateful to learn this that he pauses in silence for a while and then nearly hugs Skaggs. Tim’s wife, Krista, blonde and petite, has transformed from the kind and doting young mother we’ve gotten to know over the past few weeks into a goddamn field marshall. She’s bustling between their two crew cars, shouting orders, wrangling pacers, organizing clothes and gear, finding food for Tim, and more than anything whipping his sorry ass into shape. Tim’s only job is to eat and change his shirt, and he pauses frequently with head in hands to groan at the thought of going back into the storm. Krista, now beside him and anxious, will have none of it.
“Here. Put this jacket on. You’re freezing. Now keep eating. Do you want a bar? A gel?” she asks, digging through a duffel bag.
“NOOOOO! No more gels!” Tim is distraught.
She pats his back. “Okay, do you want some Fritos?”
“I love Fritos…..”
“Do you want to just wear this down jacket out there? Do you want a poncho?”
“I really don’t want to go back out there. Can I just drop?”
“No!” Krista’s composure shows no cracks. “You’ve never dropped before and you don’t look bad enough to do it now. You’re going back out there!”
At this comment, said to a man so fatigued he can barely see straight, in the black of night with rain pouring down torrentially outside, Skaggs and I stare wide-eyed at Krista in horrified surprise. But we say nothing of her questionable aggression, fearing that she might make us go out as well.
Tim groans. “Okay. Uh. I need…. This…. Fritos….”
And that’s why one gets married, I presume: to have someone outside yourself help you through life’s low points. I watched all this take place with nothing around my left wrist, a conspicuous absence given the race medical band that had been wrapped around it for the past two days. I had just dropped out of Hardrock after running 40 miles on what turned out to be a figurative lightning strike of my own. Jogging contentedly into Telluride early in the race, I had somehow missed a step with my right foot, which slipped off the edge of the trail and somehow–I still can’t figure out exactly how–caused me to fall with all my weight plus whatever force I gained in falling onto my left ankle, which seemed to twist and crumple. A flash of lightning through my ankle and all of a sudden I couldn’t even weight my own damn foot, my perfect foot which I had spent so much time preparing for this one day.
Eventually I forced it to loosen up enough to get me almost 40 miles farther, but by 65 miles my race was unequivocally over. Not even the ankle brace that Scott Jurek pulled off his own foot and stuffed onto mine could prevent my ankle from seizing up and swelling considerably. And after limping in a strange fog up Grouse Gulch with Skaggs, I turned around and limped all the way back down to the aid station amidst the rapidly growing storm that was soon to devastate all my friends. And I dropped. My race was over. One stupid mistake and my dream vanished.
Incidentally, on the way down the mountain we passed several runners heading up into the storm. Scott Jaime and pacer Nick Pedatella were among them. We chatted briefly, and Nick nodded toward the storm and turned to me.
“What do you think of this weather?” He asked.
“Hooo-weeee,” I responded, unable to think beyond my own ills. “I’m sure glad I’m not heading up into that….”
“Thanks man. Really reassuring.”
This is relevant because not long after this, Scott and Nick were huddled against some slightly overhanging rocks in American Basin with Jason Koop, Diana Finkel, Ben Woodbeck, Jeff Browning, and a still-slightly-bleeding Kaburaki. The storm that was electrocuting Adam Campbell on the summit of Handies above them was ripping down in torrents upon all the poor stupid runners who had left the last aid station with little garbage bags they call coats. This is a good reminder of how fine the edge is between ‘light and fast’ and ‘irresponsible.’ The small amount of gear runners take into the mountains is usually enough. But when something goes wrong and you can’t keep moving, your heat source vanishes. Staying put and getting rained on at night in the mountains has a nasty tendency to cool someone off real quick, and most of the skinny little runners clinging tenuously to the underside of a rock in American Basin that night are too competitive to stay put very long anyway. Soon nearly all of them threw caution to the wind and headed up into the night sky lit frequently by bolts of electricity of one million volts or more. Only Jason Koop had the sense to do what was most safe. And he ended up dropping out because of it.
That is to say, he grew so cold sitting in the rain that night that he was forced to run down the trail and dive without warning into a tent occupied by two hikers well into a night of partying. A bottle of Southern Comfort was being passed around and marijuana smoke–now legal!–floated around the ceiling of the tent. They stared at Koop in blurry-eyed surprise. He stared at them in frigid expectation. Nobody moved. Suddenly Koop lost his patience and started ordering them around, explaining the situation at the top of his voice, and directing the two campers on how to help him. Because when you’re hypothermic, screw cordiality.
Soon he was neither dry nor warm nor enjoying the company of his new tentmates, but his lips were no longer blue and the fits of violent shivering were growing farther in between. The storm relented slightly. Feeling desperate to find some new company, he shed the clothes and lit out for the summit of Handies. The storm moved back in. He got soaked, but only after he had dragged his yowling self over the summit and started down the other side. By this point many hours had been lost in the race, and his mindset had shifted to what we assume the Hardrock Board of Directors wants everyone to think–it’s a run, not a race. The finish line was Koop’s only goal. But hypothermia lasts longer than the weather, and the cold wouldn’t relent for him. The valley was 50 degrees–a good running temperature. But he was cold deep on the inside. And in the end he was forced to drop.
Joe Grant’s story is best told from his wife’s perspective. She and Tony (Krupicka. Famous!) waited for Joe for hours at Grouse Gulch, much longer than expected. Eventually they began to get updates from the aid stations. Joe’s quad was hurt. He could hardly walk. He was going to take four hours to go the last six miles to where they awaited him.
“So we said ‘alright.’ He’s okay. We’ll wait for him here,” she says. They hunkered down and watched the other runners coming through.
But then the storm came in and night fell. Joe was climbing up Engineer Pass in the dark and in the rain and moving barely fast enough to even qualify as walking. His quad busted, his spirit broken, his very ability to move forward compromised, and all of this above treeline in the midst of an uncharacteristic but undoubtedly HUGE lightning storm. Deanne heard this and decided he was too close to the edge. Her husband was out there very possibly dying and she had to do something. His race was over anyway and even if not he didn’t have to get in the car…. but by god they were going to drive up Engineer Pass to get him!
So she and Tony leapt in the car and started creeping their way up the road. The rain was coming down hard and every so often a bouncing light appeared out of the gloom and passed in the other direction–runners. More frequently than runners were the lightning strikes which illuminated the entire alpine basin with lurid silver light for milliseconds, leaving the bright picture gleaming in front of their eyes in the pitch dark long after the lightning faded. The road was bad and wet and they had no idea where Joe was or how long it might take to find him. They drove for a long time, bouncing back and forth on the rocky road.
Suddenly, out of the darkness he appeared. Joe Grant–in running clothes splattered with mud, hair frizzy and wild under a bike helmet. He was riding a mountain bike down the road toward them. Beside him sprinted the owner of the bike doing his best to keep up, a huge backpack bouncing painfully on his back. Deeanne honked and Joe came to a halt.
“Oh hey!” He said, giggling. “You came to get me.”
Deeanne could hardly speak for surprise. “Yeah! What…. why are you on a bike?”
“Oh, this guy lent it to me. I’ll get in with you now though. Thanks, man!”
And in he got and off they went.
Kilian Jornet displayed a characteristic dominance all day that precluded all competition. His normal racing style is to stay with the front pack regardless of the fact that he could be going faster, until the very end when he pulls away for the win. At Hardrock, he ran away from people who know the course and the race far better than him, literally running up climbs that are so big and so early in the race that even hiking them too hard is usually frowned upon. The course-record pace of the front pack was so easy that he changed his racing style and ran alone most of the day. He had a cavalier attitude about the whole endeavour: waiting at the top of climbs, spending 10 to 15 minutes in aid stations chatting, telling his crew he had thought he’d get to run with someone during the race. Kilian’s ability in the mountains is unmatched. He is the sport’s breakaway star whose skill is miles ahead of that of his next competitors.
Kilian is the most conspicuous runner on the course who has had nothing go wrong, but he is certainly not the only one. The people who really push the edge are the ones trying desperately to keep up with Kilian, but behind them hike legions of fit, prepared runners who are eating enough, staying hydrated, wearing the correct mountain gear, and basically ensuring themselves anonymity. In a race renowned the world over for its objective danger and wild stories of close calls, the people who have everything under control and hardly falter a step are wont to pass unnoticed. The public wants intrigue and scandal, guys! Not poise and preparation (except, of course, in the winner.) Key examples of people who you’ve probably never heard of because they’re so solid are Eric Lee, Drew Gunn, Robert Andrulis, Kirk Apt, Billy Simpson, and too many others to count. These are the people who deserve the most respect precisely because they don’t run along the edge, who stay well away from the possibility of disaster and execute with professional aplomb. They are strong and safe, and all too often overlooked.
Just the act of running 100 miles is treading an edge–between safety and vulnerability; strength and weakness; sometimes even life and death–and the drop gets a lot bigger when that 100 miles is in a big mountain range like Colorado’s San Juans. The verge is especially apparent in the mountains, where cliffs abound like clouds, but despite this obvious comparison people have a way of ignoring the edges that aren’t right in front of their eyes. And when that happens, people get their asses kicked and learn a lot from it. Hardrock is awesome because it’s such a terrible thing to do to yourself.
Tim Olson crossed the finish line in 30 hours and change–nine hours after the winning time and 17 since I sat with him at Grouse Gulch. He was wearing sunglasses and appeared to be doing his best to stay conscious while acknowledging the wild applause all around him. His two-year-old son, Tristan, ran out to meet him but couldn’t muster the focus to run down the chute, and was left behind. Tim’s finish was in some ways a magnanimous acceptance of temporary weakness from a professional athlete, and in other ways a miraculous show of mental determination. His was not a slow time, despite all his travails, and his effort fit squarely in with the Hardrock ethos of setting ego aside for the opportunity to finish a challenge unlike anything else in the world. Tim fell off the edge, and then crawled right back up onto the trail and finished the race.
Call for Comments (from Meghan)
- What are your thoughts about all the edges found during the 2014 Hardrock? Is there a particular story that strikes you more than the others?
- For those of you who ran Hardrock, did you find and edge and, if so, where and what as it?