A Weird Night In Telluride

Telluride, Colorado is home to more festivals than there are weekends in the year. It’s a busy place. Because of this, nobody in town pays any attention when Hardrock passes through each July, despite the fact that Hardrock is one of the premiere mountain running events in the world. This year the race shared both the weekend and Town Park with something called the Ride festival, which only manifested its presence in the form of occasional drunk people wandering through the aid station and blinking blearily in the bright lights for a few minutes before slinking back into the shadows. I think in the daytime this festival had something to do with music, but I was there at night. A few times, while waiting for runners in Telluride through the wee hours of the morning, I even mistook other crews for drunk festival-goers, since the aid station in this direction is more than 72 miles into the race, and by that point anything can happen, so crews always end up waiting for what feels like forever through the middle of the night. This makes them a little bleary-eyed too.

But the wait is worth it, because some of the people that come through that aid station do so in the kind of physical and emotional states that are usually reserved for refugees from war or famine. I was crewing Matt Hart this year, who eventually took about 20th place, so I arrived in Telluride after the first three or four runners had passed by, and that’s when the real fun was starting. The first few runners are rarely interesting because they’re so cool and confident that nothing is wrong. The next several are the exciting ones, because they are the people really epic-ing. Good runners all, often fast in other races, the roughly fifth-to-20th-place crowd at 72 Hardrock miles are the people who maybe don’t expect to win but have ambitious goals nonetheless. If these goals are going to come unraveled, it’s going to happen either at Ouray (56 miles) or Telluride, in this direction. The bulk of the runners who come after this group are generally much more composed because they run more conservatively from the start, and then things get interesting again as the last runners come through ahead of the cutoffs and fully aware that they may be spending up to two full days and nights moving more or less nonstop through the mountains. This year I got to watch the second-pack runners come through Telluride.

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Brendan Trimboli is a friend to many in Durango, Colorado, and over the past few years he has basically taken on the role of Supreme Leader of our running community. He works super hard at everything he does and he really, truly cares about the tasks to which he devotes himself. He likes cold beer and new adventures. He is an engineer too, rather type-A and organized better than a military tour. He bakes a lot of bread and is trying to learn Italian. He’s also hilarious and awesome, which qualities were particularly on display at about 1:30 a.m. on July 11.

“Guys, I threw up on the table at Virginius.”

We all stare at him in disbelief. He looks up at us and kind of shrugs his shoulders. “I feel bad, but I couldn’t help it.”

Virginius, of course, is the aid station in a tiny notch in a ridge at 13,000-ish feet. It’s the coolest spot on the course for sure. Salomon just made a movie about it. As Brendan tells us this, he is sitting in a chair in the aid station, encircled by at least 15 friends. He doesn’t look good. We close in toward him in tight ranks and crane our necks.

“Well, how are you feeling now?” someone asks.

“I haven’t eaten anything since Governor’s [mile 64],” he says darkly.

“He threw up seven times,” cuts in Dana, his pacer.

“Seven times,” Brendan repeats.

I’m pretty sure I would lose count before that. Maybe my will to live too. Brendan wants to eat but can’t and so we give him coke and exhort him with optimistic words of encouragement. Really optimistic.

“You’re doing really well dude. Seriously. You’re kicking ass right now. You’re in like eighth place and you’re well past halfway now and man! You’re headed up into some of the most beautiful country on the course. Look, things feel bad now, but you know what you’re doing. You’re having a rough patch but that’s because you haven’t been able to eat. Get some food in you and you’ll be cruising once again. Hey, by the way, did you really have to get the Heimlich maneuver somewhere?”

For reference, let me just quote iRunFar’s tweet from 9:52 a.m. on July 10: “Report from the field at Maggie Gulch: Aid Station volunteer performed Hiemlich [sic] Maneuver on Brandon [sic] Trimboli and he simply ran on #HR100.”

“Dude, I almost lost my life at Maggie Gulch,” but he gives us a smile anyway.

I continue to encourage him with kind words, and all the while I’m thinking, This is all bullshit. Nothing you say matters to someone who feels like Brendan feels. I have finished Hardrock twice, and both times felt rather similar to Brendan at points. But the funny thing is that as I have been watching all these people run Hardrock for the past day, I’ve realized that I have absolutely no idea what the runners are going through. They are having experiences entirely foreign to me. I don’t feel like I have run the race at all. Hardrock was so overwhelmingly huge for me that I simply was never able to put my experiences into mental boxes, and now they float around my psyche like plastic bags in the wind. Pretty much the only memory that really sticks is that every time I felt like Brendan feels right now, nothing anyone said made me feel better. I can distinctly remember someone at mile 80 in 2012 telling me that first place was “only about 45 minutes ahead!” and thinking, My friend, you have grievously misread my priorities right now. So I have less faith in my words right now than even Brendan. This fact is driven home when I say, for some damn reason, “Don’t think that this low point is derailing your whole race. Everyone feels like this at some point.”

He turns to me and says in complete earnest, “You really think so man?”

Oh my god, he’s actually listening to what I’m saying. “Of course! Hey, no problem, you’ve had low points before and you got through them. This kind of feeling always passes if you just keep moving.” Is that true? That may not be true. Whatever. I rack my brains desperately for something to say that might help in any way, but I’m relieved of duty by everyone else. His friends continue to talk to Brendan cheerfully and to make jokes, and before long he’s making jokes back. Before he has time to consider again how many times he has thrown up and Roch Horton’s dirty-table plight up at Virginius, he is borne out of his chair and, pack restocked, and poles in hand, walking out of the aid station with Paul Hamilton, who will accompany him all the way to his 11th-place finish in Silverton, Colorado.

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My formula for who is interesting at Hardrock may not be true for the women. Perhaps it’s not true at all–generalizations are nonsense anyway (get it?). But the fact is that this year’s Hardrock was defined by the women’s race for first place, which was staged between Anna Frost and Darcy Piceu. Darcy has won the race like three times, while Anna has won just about everything else but was only on 100-mile-race #2 at Hardrock. They were pretty well matched, and ran close together all day, with Anna out front for the majority of the race. But things started to go wrong for her right around Telluride. And I was there to watch it happen.

I have known Anna Frost for a few years now, and I’ve seen her do some interesting things. I’ve seen her win big races like Transvulcania and Cavalls del Vent. I’ve seen her dancing on a bar top under flashing disco lights. I’ve seen her go four days eating nothing but grapes in order to “cleanse” her body, and spend eight hours a day hiking in the mountains in order to prepare for a race. I have seen her outdrink the boys and I’ve seen her swim in the coldest water of all time and I’ve seen her coolly break every traffic law imaginable without seeming to notice or be noticed. One time Anna told me that she doesn’t read many books because she doesn’t have the kind of personality that would allow her to focus for long periods of time, which nearly gave me a conniption fit with frustration because that sounded so childish. But I had never seen her in the way that much of the world sees her, which is as the Inspirational Runnerette who inspires girls the world over. I had never seen that, until she came through Telluride this year.

Don’t let me disregard Darcy here. Darcy is one of the most amazing runners I know, and she came through Telluride about three minutes behind Anna. Darcy looked calm, collected, and in total control as she displayed a mastery of the course and of her ability that most of us will never be able to match. But Anna’s performance struck me as something else. I think in some ways I used to think her almost shallow. But as she came through Telluride this year she was clearly on the verge of a complete meltdown. I know enough about that course to have an idea of what it can do to a person’s psyche, and I know enough about Anna to know how much she wanted to win. The course was utterly destroying her at Telluride. But she walked into the aid station and without a smile or a tear, calmly directed her crew to refill her pack and give her some food. I can still see her standing there, filthy from the uncountable mountains behind her, feet planted firmly on the ground because any wavering would mean total collapse. She asked about the terrain ahead. She asked about Darcy. I think she might have given anything to stop and simply be done there. But she never showed it. She simply ate some soup, exchanged packs, and walked out of the aid station with her pacer. Anna probably spent less than five minutes in Telluride, but she displayed something very real about herself in that time. I don’t really understand it. But I want to be like that too.

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I’m not alone in depicting these runners in heroic terms. In the running literature, people are always “fighting cutoffs” and “emerging victorious” and “picking up the carnage” and so on. This terminology is not surprising to anyone who has spectated a 100-mile race. To watch scenes like Brendan overcoming the greatest fatigue of his life or Anna moving through a fog of agony is to be deeply impressed with the apparent superhuman qualities of the regular, mortal people we call friends in normal life. But it’s worth remembering that these people are going through such hardships entirely by choice. It’s their own damn fault for signing up in the first place. So how heroic are they, really? Yet this line of thought still does the runners some credit, since they don’t have any real reason to keep going except their own principles and wills. These runners are challenging themselves by choice, which is undoubtedly a luxury, but it’s not the same kind of luxury as a nice house or a big TV. Taking advantage of the luxury to test your limits is a way of being grateful for the health and security that gives you such a chance. A lot of people become unhealthy by overindulging in luxuries. And though ultrarunning perhaps can’t be called the “healthiest” sport (rhabdo, renal failure, IT-band syndrome, tendinitis, adrenal fatigue, etc.), it is the medium through which a lot of people aspire to be their best version of themselves. There is no better way of showing gratitude for good fortune than by making good use of it.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Does the best version of you come out because of running? What is it about our sport that makes you better?
  • Did you spectate Brendan or Anna’s Hardrock races this year? What did you think of their efforts?

There are 7 comments

  1. Luke_B

    Nice. I personally find the use of the language of war distasteful when applied to truly elective behavior. Ask your grandpa if he knows what a death march is, or someone who has seen an IED go off in a crowded market what carnage really looks like.

    1. David_FL

      I agree. It would be nice if we could develop our own vocabulary which captures the spirit of what Dakota writes in his final paragraph but which avoids the language of war.

  2. jasonthompson

    Brilliant article as always, Dakota To Megan's question, in my experience what our sport does is strip life down to primal basics, the entirely voluntary and thus rather arbitrary nature of the endeavor opening up a space to reflect on the nature and purpose of any of our endeavors, which for me usually ends up foregrounding the most precious aspects of life and in particular my interconnectedness with family, friends, community, etc.

    I agree with Luke B's war jargon point. See : http://www.duffelblog.com/2015/05/military-jargon

  3. senelly

    Dang! I am experiencing acute jealousy right now! Dakota, you are really irritating… with your elite running, your elite San Juan lifestyle, and (here and now) your elite writing. "Plastic bags in the wind" is not only a fitting metaphor, but an outstanding song title. Great piece. Telluride can be a zoo.

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