In two days, I have the honor of getting to start the Hardrock 100 after a half-decade break. Unlike my three previous runs, I won’t be heading into the race in peak fitness, but my recent training has proven to me I’m fit enough to finish (acknowledging that countless things can derail a race.)
What follows isn’t meant to be any sort of cohesive dissertation. I suppose I aim for it to be an accurate pre-race accounting for myself that I’m sharing in case there’s anything that others can glean from it. For ease of navigation, you can jump ahead to sections on On-Course Conditions, Preparedness and Confidence, Shifts in Mindset, Assistance, Gear, and Ephemeral Thoughts.
This year’s Hardrock will be a year of fire and ice.
The San Juan Mountains had a big snow year and there’ll be plenty of snow near the event’s high point of Handies Peak and even more later in the course. This’ll mean slippery conditions in many places, not just on snow, but in the more-frequent-than-normal wet sections of trail and tundra. On the upside, there’ll also be plenty of water to drink on the course, which isn’t always the case.
On the fire side, it’s forecast to be a high of 80 degrees Fahrenheit on Friday at 9,300 feet in Silverton, Colorado, where the event starts and finishes. That doesn’t sound hot, but with a bluebird high-altitude sky, those are puke-fest temperatures. A decent afternoon breeze is forecast, which matches up with our unseasonable winds of late. Also, it’s forecast to be extremely low relative humidity, like single digits. This combination of wind and very low humidity could provide a bit of relief heat wise, especially for runners who wet themselves in creeks and at aid stations. On the other hand, it’s so easy to get quite dehydrated in these conditions in which runners are unlikely to notice much sweat except for the very heat of the afternoon. Also, I’d guess that the extremely dry air could lead to more upper respiratory irritation amongst runners than most years.
Preparedness and Confidence
I’ve assessed myself at a B-level of fitness going into Hardrock. For a multitude of reasons (including a long, hard winter, my troublesome Achilles, and a personally unsettled first half of the year), I didn’t start training in earnest until May. Yes, I ran every day all winter and certainly maintained decent base fitness, but I didn’t run any long runs after January and my overall training volume was modest.
In all honestly, I considered not running Hardrock this year. There’s no way I’d start Hardrock thinking I had anything less than a much stronger than even chance of finishing. Fortunately, I turned a corner in May. Of all things, I feel like a spontaneous hill workout helped me course-correct. That run and a series of other hill workouts in the following weeks helped me build calf strength and confidence in my Achilles. They also got me back on the rehab train. Sure, there were some fitness gains to be made, but these were true rust shakers that got my body and mind humming along again.
Even as May wrapped up, I’d not run longer than 16 miles nor had I logged appreciable vert, both aspects which I’d already be crushing by that time in previous Hardrock buildups. That changed as I kicked off June with a 50-kilometer run/fish adventure. Somewhat surprisingly, it went really well, with me feeling good late in the run, and even after two days of travel immediately thereafter. I followed this with a busy week covering the Trail World Championships in Austria, but with a twist. You see, the Alps soar skyward from the outskirts of Innsbruck. In just three quarters of a mile from our apartment, I could start climbing and not stop for 4,000 vertical feet, often in bits of up to 1,600 vertical feet per mile. That week, and during a slightly more relaxed week thereafter in Innsbruck and, then, Nuestift im Stubai, allowed me to get my vert on. Fortunately, my body held together.
Back home late in June, I was finally able to run the San Juan Solstice 50 Mile in nearby, but far-to-drive Lake City, Colorado. Ostensibly, almost everything went really well during Solstice. My legs and energy generally held up and I was able to eat really well throughout, with a planned easing over the long stretch near and above 13,000 feet on the Continental Divide Trail. My main issue was heel blisters — a ultra-career-long nemesis for all 50-mile-and-longer races — that greatly slowed me on the very steep and rocky start to the second descent and, admittedly, took the wind out of my sails. Although I shouldn’t have had any expectations, having the race go pretty darn well and running nearly 13 hours was deflating for a couple days. Fortunately, that passed, even if it did give a snapshot of my fitness. Even at the finish, I was quite psyched to have nearly doubled my longest run of the year, while running strong in the later miles and feeling quite well at the finish. That positive analysis was buoyed when I had no issues in the days to follow aside from completely reasonable fatigue. My Achilles were good, my quads weren’t crushed, and everything else worked well enough.
Exactly two weeks out from Hardrock, my expectations shattered on a run. I started outside of Silverton, climbing Prospect Gulch for the first time. All good. However, as soon as I started the steepish rocky descent, I had a sharp pain in my left side just below my ribcage. Two weeks earlier, I’d fallen hard sideways while descending on my last run in Austria. Rather than hit my side, I braced myself and had a sharp pain exactly where this pain had surfaced. I made my way painfully down Prospect Gulch and started slowly running the now mellow descent. Walking quickly followed. I slowly walked/jogged the seven miles back toward town, hoping to hitchhike my way back at any point, but no cars drove by. Ouch. I’d hoped to make a final training push the following three days, but it’d instead be easy days while I healed up. Healing was imperative. If my side didn’t improve, I wouldn’t start Hardrock. It was the sort of pain that would have made running 100 miles thoroughly miserable, though it’d be tolerable if it resurfaced at, say, mile 75 of the race. Thankfully, it feels much better these days, although I’m hesitant that a single bad slide on the slick Hardrock course could bring it back in an instant. Hence, my opting for more shoe lugging than normal in my gear section below.
Three days later, I set out to scout the Pole Creek and Cataract Lakes section of the Hardrock course for fish. (More on that later.) I’d planned for the run to top out around 20 miles, knowing it might only be a few miles if my side hurt. Well, a beautiful day spent running … and kicking off my high-country fishing season turned into a splendid 27 miler. Aside from a lone off-road vehicle a mile in and a mile from the end, I saw one person and their dog in 25 miles of dirt road, Hardrock course, and the Continental Divide Trail, all on the day before the Fourth of July holiday. It was splendid. The run itself went very well while informing some Hardrock gear choices, most notably on the footwear side (more lugging needed.) This is way closer to the race than I’d normally cover 27 miles and spend the better part of a day running, but the dividends in confidence and, importantly, high country enjoyment, surely outweighed any fatigue that could linger 11 days later.
Shifts in Mindset
Yeah, so this year’s Hardrock necessitates some shifts in my mindset.
First and foremost, this year can’t be about performance, unlike my previous Hardrocks. Each time I’ve run Hardrock, I’ve aimed to run my fastest possible time. I don’t think I’ve ever hit that time, but with my current level of fitness, I’m not running 31 hours and change … or faster. I’m okay with that. I have to be. That in and of itself was a big mindset shift.
I’ve had a few occasions to recount my 2014 Bear 100 Mile recently and that caused me to read the article I wrote after the race entitled “Experiments in Exuberance.” I ran that race primarily to get a Western States 100 and Hardrock 100 qualifier and, secondarily, to have as much fun as I could. The handful of times I’ve read the article since I wrote it, I’ve never failed to smile. Happiness begets more happiness. And I still relearn lessons that I can apply today and, indeed, hope that I will apply in a few days during Hardrock.
I doubt I’d read the comments to the article in a very long time, but I did this time and a pair of comments struck me. A reader, Billy, kindly wished me luck into getting into Hardrock and, in my reply, I noted “I’m thinking I’d much prefer a ‘fun’ 40-hour Hardrock to a miserable 30-hour finish.” Although I’ve never cracked 30 hours, I’ve run fastish-for-me times at Hardrock and while each has been beyond rewarding, there’s been plenty of misery the last third to half of each race, undoubtedly due in part from aiming to attain my top possible performance. This time I’ll be aiming firmly at my most enjoyable Hardrock performance. I want to absorb, experience, and exude joy as much as I can during this loop around the San Juans.
One way I intend to enjoy myself is to add in a little fishing along the way. No, I don’t plan on stopping for hours at a time like I might during a dedicated run/fish outing, but I’ll wet a line a couple times along the course. In theory, there are all four species in the Colorado grand slam of trout — brook, brown, cutthroat, and rainbow — along the course, and it would be really cool to catch all four species during Hardrock. However, theory and reality don’t always align, and I didn’t find easy access to all four species on the course while scouting. However, even one five-minute fishing attempt somewhere on the course will bring a smile to my face, as did my two unsuccessful attempts during the San Juan Solstice a few weeks ago. At the same time, I’ve promised myself that I’ll eat a good bit before any attempt to stop and fish, so, hopefully, I can at least process a couple extra calories while I take a brief pause in forward progress.
In the vein of shifting mindsets, but more related to cultivating an enjoyable experience, I’ve got a couple other tactics tucked away. As in my first Hardrock, I plan to make a list of a particular person (or people) and thing to think about between each set of aid stations. A friend recommended a sci-fi audiobook that I started listening to during Solstice, really enjoyed, and have intentionally saved for race day. I’ll take tons of photos like I always have at Hardrock, as they help me take in the splendor. I’ll spend more time in aid stations, both fueling my body with real food and fueling my spirit with nice chats with volunteers. As I’ll write about in the next section, I hope to spend more time than ever running and chatting with my fellow Hardrockers.
Two weeks before the race, I didn’t have any pacer or crew. I hate to ask anything of anyone and I didn’t want to pull any of my friends away from the iRunFar crew covering the race. I was at peace with this. I ran Hardrock in 2018 with only the memory of my dear friend Bill Dooper to guide me and it was a rewarding experience. I’ve never run Hardrock without a crew, but I’d done long ultras without a crew overseas and ran 66- and 75-mile self-supported runs last summer.
However, over beers at Avalanche Brewing Company, a visiting Andy Jones-Wilkins asked if I had any crew or pacers. I indicated a big ol’ zero with my hands. After a short pause, Shelly Jones-Wilkins, AJW’s better half, asked if I wanted a crew. It didn’t take me long to take Shelly up on that, knowing it was conditional on her firming things up. I’ve seen Shelly in action as an all-star crew going back to 2007, especially in the handful of times I’ve paced AJW at races. A few days later, Shelly confirmed that she was in with the bonus that their middle son and iRunFar author, Logan Jones-Wilkins, was also joining the crew.
I’m still looking forward to going into Hardrock without pacers. I’ve been a spontaneously-picked-up pacer at Hardrock before and wouldn’t hesitate to ask for one if the need came up. Though, since I first wrote this, Logan’s stepped up as a possible pacer should I need one. In reality, I hope to spend more time with my fellow racers during this year’s Hardrock. Now, I’ve spent lots of time with fellow Hardrockers in the first half of past Hardrocks, but that rarely works out for very long later in the race. Not that most (any) of us at my point in the pack are trying to grab an extra position, but, rather, paces tend to vary wildly section by section, runner by runner late in the run. With the shift in mindset described above, I hope that I’ll spend at least a little while longer catching up with any runners who I might come upon late in the event.
For the most part, this is an easy gear year at Hardrock. There’s absolutely no chance of rain throughout this year’s race and it’s forecast to be quite warm, as well. I’ve got plenty of favorites on the apparel front for these conditions and I’ll stick with them.
I’ll start with:
- Patagonia Strider Pro 5″ Shorts — I love these. Period.
- Raidlight half-zip shirt — I’ll start in a super thin Raidlight half-zip that’s similar to their current Dry-Light Trail Top. I’ve got other favorite shirts overall, but the combination of high breathability and half zip is killer for the conditions we’ll face.
- Drymax Hot Weather Socks — After going with Drymax Hyperthins in 2018, I’ll move back to the slightly more cushioned Hot Weathers this go around. It’ll be very wet on the course, so I’ll carry an extra pair of Hot Weathers, swap out the pairs on the course, and dry one pair while running.
- iRunFar Headsweats Race Hat — This is my fishing hat. ;-) There’s a pad for storing flies stuck atop the brim.
- Salomon Adv Skin 12 — This (and the five-liter version) have become my go-to packs. I’ll take the extra volume of the 12-liter for Hardrock, especially with some fishing en route. I only wish I had a color lighter than dark blue! Oh, and I’ll use a Trail Quiver with it to alternately store my fishing and trekking poles.
- Smith Pinpoint Sunglasses — These are my go-to glasses and there’s no reason to change them.
- Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer Hoody Jacket — After a decade of use, it only comes out for special occasions. It’s an awesome full-zip hooded jacket that also happens to be lighter than anything that’s come since.
- Jaybird Tarah Pro headphones — They might not make these anymore and I’ve switched to Apple Air Pod Pros for my daily runs, but it’s hard to beat the battery life of these and I like the tethered design.
- Ultimate Direction Kicker Valve Bottle and Katadyn BeFree — I’ll definitely bring my tried-and-true Kicker Valve bottle for filling in aid stations. I may bring the BeFree for dipping from streams … or I might just go the route I have in the past and dip from streams higher up, especially as they’re flowing clear and copious this year.
Extra gear with my crew and drop bag:
- Patagonia Strider Pro 5″ Shorts — In case I want to change shorts once.
- Extra short-sleeve shirts — I’ll likely have another two or three short-sleeve shirts chosen from the same Raidlight shirt, a decade’s old Mountain Hardwear Way2Cool shirt, and a Montbell Cool Light T. All are great in the heat.
- Extra socks — I’ll throw four or five pairs of socks into my crew bag (and one into my Sherman drop bag.) It may seem silly to change socks when the course will be so wet, but I think footcare will be worthwhile.
- Long-sleeve shirt — Depending on the mid-week forecast for lows on Friday and Saturday night, I’ll pack either a lightweight Columbia half-zip or a thin Smartwool half-zip. (The Columbia shirt is packed for now.)
- Montbell Tachyon Pants — Ultralight wind pants that I’ll pick up before the night.
- Trekking poles – I don’t train with trekking poles, so I will use them as little as I can. I’ve got a pair Black Diamond Distance Carbon Z Poles stashed at mile 30 before Handies Peak and I’ll have some Leki Ultratrail FX.One Superlites in my crew bag that I plan on picking up in Telluride at mile 75.
- Gloves — I grabbed a random thin pair of gloves from my shelf. I’ll bring a pair of gloves to use from Sherman (mile 30) on, both to use on snowy sections and if needed for cooler temperatures at night.
- Yellow tent spike — I’ll bring a yellow tent spike from Sherman to go up Handies and maybe pick up a second at Ouray for the snow climbs later on the course.
- Black Diamond Spikes — I’ve not decided whether I’ll carry the Distance Spike or Blitz Spike from Ouray onward. This might be a game-day decision.
I’ve got two main points of gear indecision as I write this the weekend before the race.
First, unlike previous Hardrocks, I don’t have a no brainer choice for shoes. I’m simply not strong enough to use my trusty New Balance 1400 road flats (with a forefoot rockplate) for all of this year’s Hardrock. Drat!
So what’s a guy to wear?! While the Nike Pegasus Trail has become my most frequent shoe on both roads and trails and I wore them for all 50 miles of San Juan Solstice, there’s pretty minimal grip and while that’s not been a consideration for me in the past, the slippery nature of this year’s Hardrock course and a pre-existing torso injury has me wanting a bit more bite this go around. I’ll likely rely on a rotation of shoes throughout the race, with the Nike Pegasus Trail 4, Craft Pro Endurance Trail, and Inov-8 Trailfly Ultra G 280 being in the mix. It’s possible that I’ll wear the 1400s for the first nine miles where grip won’t be an issue, or even through to Sherman at mile 30.
I also don’t know what I’ll do for a headlamp. I started thinking about this before I had a crew, which complicated the battery issue considering a second night might be in play. I’ll likely pick up one of many short-usage headlamps at Sherman at mile 30, and have one of the Petzl NAO+, Petzl NAO RL, or an 18650-battery-based Nitecore at Animas Forks at mile 45. In the end, I’ll probably defer to the NAO+, as it’s what I’ve used in the past.
- For the first time, I’ll head into Hardrock without burying myself in training for decent stretches of time. There’s no doubt that I’m coming into Hardrock fresh!
- While I suppose I’ll always notice my Achilles/calves, the much-reduced volume means much reduced strain on both. No, my calves aren’t as strong … but my Achilles also aren’t as stressed.
- Taper tantrums are way less when you’ve not trained as hard.
- I ate a bunch of solid food at San Juan Solstice (yay, rice crispy treats!), and I hope to do the same during Hardrock.
- Probably an aspect of changing mindsets, but I hope I can keep my heart rate not much higher than 130 beats per minute in the first half of the run. I did a decent job of keeping it under control as Solstice, but aim to do even better here … and far better than the early goings of past Hardrocks!
- I’m preparing my Hardrock plan and gear a few days earlier than normal this year. Hopefully, this means coasting into Hardrock a bit more relaxed this time.
- While I hope not to be focused on my temporal performance, my top day likely has me back to the rock around 37.5 to 38 hours … if I don’t fish too long. I’d say that 39 hours is right around where I’d finish on a solid day, again, minus the fishing time. Anything after that and still under 48:00:00, it’s still a finish!