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?

There are 44 comments

  1. jaxcharlie845

    Thanks for the Article Dakota, I enjoyed the new angle and the honest appreciation of the risks taken in the high country.

  2. astroyam

    Great article! Almost makes me want to run, er… walk, Hardrock. Do people ever sleep – on purpose – in this 'run'?

  3. Shelby_

    So happy to see you mention the mid to back-of-the-packers that ran textbook runs. If you look at the 2014 HR Runner's manual and look at pages 59 – 60, every runner listed has finished this run at least 5x and several of them more than 15x. Most are not famous outside of the Hardrock family, but they deserve our utmost respect for managing all the aspects of a successful finish year after year.

    Well written, Prez. One of your best yet. Glad to see your humor is intact after your unfortunate ankle injury. Hope it's healing up nicely for your future races.

  4. TonyMollica

    I very much enjoy reading your articles Dakota! They are always good for a laugh, and many smiles. Good luck in your recovery!

  5. dotkaye

    thanks Dakota – great stories and writing, excellent work. So sorry about your ankle..

    "But we say nothing.. fearing that she might make us go out as well."
    made me laugh.. you really wouldn't think it, just to look at Krista..

    more than once I've walked out of the mountains, watching the helicopters go over to evacuate people who were pushing the edge.. it's like climbing, getting to the top doesn't count unless you get down alive as well. Getting down is often the hard part, but you never hear about it much.

  6. bazzzzzzzzzzzzz

    Great report. Call me a sick fuck, but I find these write-ups, where everything goes to shit, way more entertaining than the thoroughly professional descriptions of months of meticulous planning and training that result in a perfectly executed race day with only minor hiccups. It also resonates a lot more with my own ridiculous experiences of running 100 miles.

  7. senelly

    Been there… done that… at Hardrock. Got 1 incredibly slow finish out of 4 starts. Still… grateful for it all. Trail lessons are life lessons after all.

  8. @AlaskaJill

    Thanks for this. There's so much breathless narrative about Hardrock, and comparatively less that effectively depicts the reality of the endeavor — it's 100 miles through what's mostly high-altitude mountain backcountry, with limited chances for help and a lot of chances for mistakes. Race mentality does push people to take on risks they never would in any other recreational situation. The ultra community tends to celebrate this regardless of whether these risks were noble or reckless. Whether you're an elite athlete with a win at stake or a back-of-packer simply trying to make a cut-off, it's still important to know where to draw the line.

  9. @DemorestCom

    Wonderful article. You captured many of the things that make Hardrock the hardest thing many of us have ever done in our lives. Indeed, for most of us mortals, it is running on the edge of trying to finish and staying alive staving off hypothermia, dodging the lightning, hypoxia, hypoglycemia, lack of sleep and so on all on a stage of jaw dropping beauty and the awesome drama of the San Juan mountains. And the people that are drawn to this race are some of the most wonderful people I have ever met. Big fun and good times that perfectly celebrate the best of the human spirit…it is moving and unforgettable.

  10. akashjohnson

    Magnificent writing, Dakota. One of the best articles I've ever read on iRunFar. I hope your ankle heals up soon.

  11. tmathi

    really amazing writeup. Thanks for highlighting Tim's run – despite the fact that he didn't place as high as expected, his finish was really Hardrock. Was down for the first time this year for festivities and to pace, and it's really striking how much of the spirit of the race is about the enduring toughness of people like Apt, Simpson and co. as much as it is about the race leaders.

  12. bireweich

    I see Dakota's writeup in a different light. I certainly don't see any negativity. I do read a lot of humbleness from someone who would have preferred to be grinding up that mountain with Scott… And I read a lot of respect for _everybody_ who fought Hardrock this year.

    I hope to read a lot more like this from Dakota. About successful running. And even about less successful running (certainly don't wish for it, but the writing seems to be even more poignant).

  13. EvanKimber

    Tim groans. “Okay. Uh. I need…. This…. Fritos….”

    Joe G: “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!”

    Ahh man these stories are so damn hilarious, because it inspires our imagination to the paradox of picturing elite athletes reduced to toddlers. Vulnerability at it's finest. I really appreciate stories that talk about this deshelling experience in 100 milers or tough ultras. So boring on the opposite are the race reports that merely talk about the experience in descritive and plotted/predicted format.

    FYI – Jason Koop might have benefited from some SoCo in that tent when it comes to warmth…….just sayin'!

    Great write up Dakota, lots of fun.

  14. Shelby_

    I'm gonna go out on a limb and assume that Jaime and Pedatella were NOT among the "stupid" wearing garbage bags. I'd be shocked if anyone inside the top 10 would be that unprepared for the predicable storms while going up Handies. Since Prez and Jaime are good friends, I'm going to assume that he wasn't insulting him in a public forum, either.

    While Prez may have made the "stupid" statement sarcastically (since he does employ it alot in his writing) I would agree that it is unwise to venture out on the HR course without a waterproof jacket. Everyone should have one on their pack or person in the afternoons and evenings due to the rain, the cold and the difficulty in keeping up a pace that can generate enough heat to ward of hypothermia. To not have one and still be able to finish the run is lucky at best and "treading an edge" unnecessarily.

  15. tobinmarsh

    Fabulous story telling, Dakota! Puts us reader runners right there with you on that wild night. So sorry the freak ankle twist laid you up.

  16. @LoomisBob

    Dakota: I was in the car with you, Skaggs, and Timothy in the middle of the night in that wild thunderstorm. Yes, readers, this really happened! Hearing the conversation between these 3 great ultra runners was crazy, bizarre, and in a weird way fun. It was almost as if they were "ultra runner drunk" (does that exist?). Goofy, off the wall, rambling discussion…..in the middle of a beautiful lightening storm! And, yes, my daughter was a drill Sargent. Later, I asked her "why" – and she said that Timothy would have been upset the next day if he quit. Anyhow, I enjoyed reading your article – it was insightful, entertaining, accurate, and most importantly, FUN!!! Take care and Peace Dakota. Great seeing you! Bob Loomis (Timothy's father-in-law and Sargent Krista's father).

  17. Billy

    Such a gifted writer. Such a good young man to be representing our sport. Sometimes when I get the impression that our sport is going the way of, dare I say it, triathlon, I’m reminded that it never will because of people like Dakota and venues like The Hardrock. I need wildness and unpredictability. We need wildness unpredictability.

    I got my ass kicked in that storm on Engineer as well and learned the value of an experienced and level headed pacer. From fear and misery to confidence and hope in less than an hours time.

    Long live adventure and tuff challenges. They are what make for the best chapters in our lives.

    Thanks for the great read Dakota. Keep writing…..

  18. @DGel78

    This is the most hilarious line I have read in ages, well played Dakota!

    '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.'

  19. @debbieloomis

    You forgot about your loving comments to Tim to go with my daughters tough love. It went something like: __ I think the highlight of my day is that you have to go back out and run and I don't. __It was nice spending sometime with you and meeting your mom. Hope you are recovering from your injury and will be back out on the trails soon.

  20. @gobroncobilly

    Great article Dakota. After 20 years in design and marketing…professionally, I can say with all confidence, you've found your calling bro. Keep writing, very entertaining. Take care of that ankle. Good to see you at HR. Cheers.

    -Bronco

  21. @MtnRunner_ELee

    Another wonderful read, thx for sharing Dakota, though I have to take issue with one of the statements in your article.
    Just because the other 90% of us aren't pushing the pace like the elites, doesn't mean we aren't pushing our limits and the races limits all the same. As Billy mentioned above Drew, Billy and I all got rocked by the storm on Engineer, I barely had enough clothing and if I hadn't been in the aid station (napping with a blanket) I might have been hypothermic just like Jason. Billy rolled in dripping wet and quickly dawned two garbage bags from volunteers WITHOUT arm holes to help keep the heat in, pacer did the same. I also crashed and burned pretty bad, slowed to a crawl on all the climbs the last 40miles due to poor nutrition early on. I'm sure most of the runners out there, regardless of finish time, had some big ups and downs and struggles along the way. We just do our best to get our shit together and keep on trudging, no epic stories, its just the norm for the other 90%.
    So while we don't win races, we tread the edge of our own limits, sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't, but we keep on moving just the same. I'm still waiting for that 'perfect race' if there is such a thing, maybe I'm naive in thinking so.

    Eric Lee, 2014 Hardrock 100 Finisher

  22. stayvertical

    Dakota,
    Great writing as always. Salads, imagined conversations with Krar's beard and elitist rants on Patagonian Mountain guides…all great. Keep it coming. Cool to share some miles in the Alps with you. Most of the day was a rainy dizzy mess. But those miles were jabbering with you were memorable. Thanks. Wish I could have hung in longer. About that post race beer in Cham? Maybe next year. Better yet, when they pull my ticket at HR, let's have that beer in the San Juans!
    All the best,
    Jer

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