I spent Friday afternoon two weekends ago stuck in beach-destined traffic somewhere past New Buffalo, Michigan. The sun was shining, birds whisked ahead, and music blared out of the cars idling by, each one with its own colored kayak on top.
All of this, we ignored. Even our own thoughts on our upcoming 50k the next day were pushed away. Our focus was instead on the tweets scrolling down the phone, as my mom and I, both passionate ultrarunners, were sucked into iRunFar’s live coverage of the Hardrock Hundred Mile Endurance Run in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado.
News of Anna Frost, Kilian Jornet, other top runners, and, of course, the iRunFar power couple, Meghan Hicks and Bryon Powell, were constantly being refreshed. For me, though, one runner out there, who was not on the lead-runner radar, accomplished more than just a finishing time.
In 37 hours, 19 minutes, and 57 seconds, Billy Simpson kissed the Hardrock in 44th place overall. It was his 10th finish on the Hardrock course, and by far his hardest journey through the San Juans yet.
Billy, age 60 and from Memphis, Tennessee, began his endurance-running career a little late in the game, but has been running for years. A jogging class during his years at the University of Memphis turned him toward the sport. He walked onto a team with guys who were recruited from Great Britain, became confident and extremely competitive in the sport, and never stopped.
It wasn’t until 2000 when Billy literally stumbled upon the ultra world. On a backpacking trip with his son, the first of his four children, he saw a sign on a door in Leadville, Colorado that read, “Home of the Leadville Trail 100 Mile Run.”
“I said, ‘Ben, this is a wild deal. We have to go in.’” The small office was filled with pictures and awards of the original Montrail team: Scott Jurek, Karl Meltzer and others. “It was far out.”
“That was the beginning,” he said. “That sign on the door.”
With just two local 50ks to prepare, Billy signed up for his first 100, Leadville, in 2001.
Back in the early 2000s, there were not many Tennessee locals with endurance-running experience. Sure, there were those who dabbled in 50ks, Billy said, but no one who had finished something like Leadville.
“I was so frightened,” Billy admitted. “I didn’t have anyone to bounce anything off of.”
It took him 28 hours, including walking the last 30 miles, but crossing that finish line was huge.
“I didn’t know anyone who had done that before,” he said. “It was life changing.”
And, it only took him two years to wrap his head around another 100-mile event.
This time he found the Hardrock Hundred, and again his life was changed.
“I found my home in Silverton,” he professed. “This place is just… authentic.”
The list of praises did not stop there.
To Billy, Hardrock is one of a kind. Beautiful. Special. No hoopla. Home to the most beautiful mountain range in America. Sticks to core values. Makes you appreciate what you have.
“It just changes you,” he said. “In this day and age you get so much pressure to change for the bigger, better, and faster. Hardrock starts on a dirt road in a small mountain town; that is hard to find these days.”
I nod my head yes as I try to picture this genuine world he is describing, while scribbling down the words pouring from my iPhone and refreshing the screen on my Mac laptop.
Then Billy comes at me as if he knows I am straining to envision his descriptions.
“Go. Right now. Name five things that are truly authentic today.”
At first, when I called Billy, a couple weeks before the 2015 Hardrock Hundred, I thought I was making a phone call to a runner who lived in Utah or Colorado all year thanks to an UltraSignup resume of mountain races. Instead, I learned Billy was camped out early in Silverton, training for the big day. He drives up from Memphis weeks early to train on the Hardrock course. The morning of the interview I spent my time watching the live feeds and Twitter coverage of this year’s Western States. And Billy, well, he was running through the mountains away from cell service and the “hoopla” of the WS100 event.
We finished our interview with me summarizing those Twitter updates: “Rob Krar was still grouped with the other runners, and the women were leap-frogging for first.”
“I have no desire to go Squaw for Western States,” he admitted. “I would like to run to see how fast I can go on the course, but the prestige of the race does nothing for me.”
“I totally respect Western but it is just not my cup of tea.”
His tea is better served overlooking the San Juan Mountains. Now with 10 finishes on the course, Billy claims each one was unique and special, mostly due to inconsistent and unpredictable weather.
2011 brought the most ice, water, and snow, making the water crossings pretty intense. Last year held harsh thunderstorms. This year Billy battled stomach issues more than the grueling trail conditions.
Yet, according to Billy, you can never have a bad experience in the San Juans.
“You can’t look up and see what you’re doing, see the wildflowers up to your shoulders, see the mountains, and have a bad time,” he said. “Yeah, it is hard and difficult. There is no payback. But, it is not about that.”
It is about the experience.
“There is a time at 12 or 1 a.m. in the morning where you are out there and you can hear a pin drop,” he described. “You can see and hear the wind, see the stars across the sky, see the long line of headlamps coming up the mountainside. And you ask, ‘How can this be happening to me?’”
After five successful battles with the Silverton course, Billy, like others who have achieved the same, was considered a veteran of the race. His first race in 2004, he got in race morning off of the waitlist. Leading up to the 2008 run, his foot was packed into a walking boot, yet he still ran and hiked his way through to the last mile. He’s only had to run through a second night twice, and has even had his share of missing out in the lottery.
In the years Billy has been a Hardrock disciple, the race directors have only added about 30 openings to the public, while demand has jumped “1,000 percent,” Billy told me.
“It is incredible and kudos to them for trying to keep the race a small, authentic run,” Billy exclaimed. “Races can become a zoo when they succumb to the pressure, but the board of directors here doesn’t care.”
The small atmosphere allows the runners to become a part of the Hardrock environment. For Billy that means arriving weeks early and climbing mountains every day. The bulk of his training lasts from January until the race, including a couple of 50ks for speed and a few 100-mile weeks for endurance. There is no cross training and rest days are spent binge watching Netflix shows.
Days leading up to the race, he focuses on acclimating to the Colorado landscape and practicing the ascents and descents he meets on the Hardrock course. He sports an Ultimate Direction prototype vest that was a given to him by the designers back in 2009, and stashes bottles of Ensure shakes in his drop bags for the long miles out on the trail. On his feet are the up-and-coming Skechers GOrun Ultra 2.
“They are an incredible shoe, I’m not kiddin’ you,” he said, after I laughed a little. “They shouldn’t be a good shoe because they’re Skechers, but they are.”
With his veteran status, he knows that hundreds of great training miles will not guarantee anything out there.
“Walking from the hotel to the start of the race, it kind of hits me,” he said. “You have to brace yourself, give yourself a pep talk. After nine [Hardrocks,] you have seen everything, and you know what not to do, but it is still easy to fuck up here.”
And, after nine years of doing this type of thing, you know when something is off.
“This year was by far the hardest of all 10 races,” Billy said. “Walking to the gym is supposed to be fun, getting ready in the quiet, but something was wrong. I don’t know what it was. I just knew something was not right.”
Stomach issues set in early, causing him to sit and force down calories. Though he felt trained and prepared, Billy said the miles were not clicking off at the pace they should be.
I asked, already sensing the answer, if quitting crossed his mind.
“No,” he stated. “I never considered dropping. I knew I was not looking forward to the long night of running and not feeling well, but I knew I would finish.”
Remember when Billy said there are no bad experiences during Hardrock? Even with 100 miles of stomach troubles he was able to look up and enjoy the mountainous land, and share another Hardrock experience with his son.
“Max came out and paced me,” Billy said. “It was his fourth time pacing me and he gets it. He gets how difficult it was and knew what to say and what I needed. The last 10 miles were hard but with him out there, I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything.”
Max is only 18 years old and has more good memories of the Hardrock course than most seasoned ultrarunners, came to the race to pace the last miles with Billy.
“It was a bad day for sure, but neither of us had any doubt that he was not going to finish,” he said.
Max, used to seeing his role model come in within the top 20 at Hardrock, was taken aback by Billy’s struggles.
“Yeah, I found out that my dad is actually human,” he admitted. “But very few people could go through what he went through and not DNF. I mean, the guy’s a freak. He has started Hardrock 10 times and finished Hardrock 10 times.”
When watching this guy trek through the trail, you would never guess he was 60 years old with 10 Hardrock finishes on his feet.
“Age is great to accumulate experiences and help you navigate life,” he said. “But age itself is just a number. It has never stopped me from doing anything.”
“Your body is a machine, just like a car,” he said. “It wears out. You have to listen to your body.”
When you have been running all your life, it may be hard to notice these signs, and listen to them. And, it is even harder when the signs aren’t even there. In Billy’s situation, an addiction to drinking was that problem, and one that would take years to overcome.
He started drinking when he was 14 years old, and is now three and a half years sober.
It was a life of running hard and drinking hard. And it was fun, he said. “Alcohol never interfered with my performance.” Until it finally did.
Once Billy decided to change, he joined Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and got the help he needed. But it was running that really helped him fill the void of alcohol.
It is like the quote by Krissy Moehl, he told me. “There aren’t many issues in life that a long run can’t solve.”
“Running gave me something to do,” he said. “I would go and get the demons out.”
It is the “live fast and die young,” “fuck everything” mentality that influenced Billy’s addiction.
“Yeah, it reads good on paper, but at the end of the day there were a lot of bad, lonely nights,” Billy admitted. “When you face a problem like alcohol, you have to look at yourself and see why you’re doing this. Having an addiction doesn’t make you a bad person or less of a human being, it just makes you have a crazy life.”
Just like having a bad race doesn’t make you any less of a runner. Billy was able to solve this problem with help from friends and family, some of them the loyal souls who meet in that small mining town every summer.
“I don’t mind talking about the drinking because it may help someone,” he said. “I think there are some people in our sport who can relate to a problem like this.”
The Hardrock family is one of the strongest bonds I’ve heard about from reading running articles and listening to these dedicated followers talk about their Hardrock bonds.
“That’s why you come back to this race,” Billy said. “The family.”
The camaraderie of Hardrock is the inspiration for a film being created by Matt Trappe of Matt Trappe Photo & Film. Just entering the editing phase and to be released next year, the film will feature Billy as one of the prominent figures within the Hardrock circle.
The Hardrock congregation includes many ultra legends such as Deb and Steve Pero, and the newest couple on the Silverton block, Meghan and Bryon.
The training trio of Meghan, Bryon, and Billy was the inspiration for this profile. Meghan recommended the Tennessee native after training with him in the San Juans and absorbing some of the love he has for this race.
Described Meghan, “Billy and the Hardrock family, they won’t coddle or cuddle you. That’s not how these people work. Billy opened the door to me, welcomed me across the threshold, showed me the most efficient steps inside, and the left things up to me to get through the door and become a Hardrock finisher. Billy showed me just what I needed to know to do the work for myself, and he made me feel welcome as I did it.”
Maybe the racer and crewmember will switch soon, allowing Max to follow in his father’s footsteps and join the Hardrock clan.
“As an ultrarunner, I think my dad is really wise and I look up to him a lot,” Max said. “I really want to do Hardrock one day. It is a great place with so many great people, from the young fast guys like Kilian to the older guys like my dad. He’s 60 years old finishing in the top 40, and is one of the oldest guys out there. It’s crazy.”
I talked to Billy again while he was driving the long road back to Memphis. With a head cold and a boring drive ahead of him the idea of another Hardrock was not looking that appetizing, he told me. (Yes, we’ve heard that one before.) But the idea of other adventures may be enough to fill that Hardrock hole.
Hiking the John Muir or Appalachian Trail? Competing against those tough European guys?
“I still have that competitive edge,” he said. “It adds value to your life. Age has nothing do with it. It is all about the experience, and there’s so much out there.”