Hardrock Hundred: A Different Take

Joe Grant writes about pacing Bryon Powell at the 2015 Hardrock Hundred.

By on July 28, 2015 | 10 comments

For the past four years, I have been fortunate to make the Hardrock Hundred lottery, granting me the privilege to take part in one of my favorite running events each July. The trip down to the San Juans has become an annual ritual that I look forward to on many different levels. The race has offered me some of my most memorable running experiences ranging from the highest highs to the lowest lows. Outside of the excitement of the race itself, my enthusiasm in being a part of Hardrock lies in reconnecting with friends in one of the more glorious mountain ranges in the country.

While my lottery luck ran out this year, I got an email from Bryon Powell wondering if I would be up for crewing and pacing. I was eager to help and get a different perspective on the race outside of my own running.

Crewing at Hardrock is very much a “hurry up and wait” kind of game–charge to the aid station, jump out of the car, and look up the mountain knowing perfectly well that no one will be coming through for another four or five hours. However, the banter, speculation, and anticipation transform a seemingly slow mountain race into 48 hours of action.

Gretchen, Bryon’s sister, was the designated crew chief, assisted by Hillary Allen and Vince Heyd. Hillary is Bryon’s first pacer, taking him from Grouse Gulch to Ouray, which is just over the halfway point on the course. Typically, runners are starting to show a little wear and tear by then, but all of the top 15 or so runners that we see come through look fresh and alert, transitioning swiftly through the aid station. Bryon is no different, asking us to move our mini-station set-up to the picnic table while he uses the bathroom.

He takes a seat, makes a quick change of socks, all the while telling us precisely what he wants in his food and gear stash and where exactly to put it. He wastes no time, leaving in a controlled frenzy with Vince to tackle Virginius Pass. It is late evening now and we catch the last place open in town for some fish and chips before heading to Telluride where I will commence my pacing duties.

When we reach Telluride, after 11 p.m., I have a flashback to 2011, coming into the aid station beat up and sick. A friend had warned me that Telluride, which is mile 72, is the black hole in this direction and it is easy to get sucked in by one of the heaters at the aid station, wasting a bunch of time. I had sat there staring into space with the crazed look of a lunatic for a good 20 minutes. The ambiance now, though, is festive, led by Rickey Gates on the accordion. The Salomon crew is waiting for Frosty who is having a fantastic race so far. When she comes in she looks a little worked, but does not linger long. Once she leaves, the aid station quiets down significantly. It is 1 a.m. and I am starting to feel a little drowsy waiting on the bench. The weather is mixed–raining for a bit, then clear, then drizzle again. At this point, I am somewhat hoping Bryon will want to resort to the napping tactic he used at The Bear 100 last year–a five-hour nap sounds oh so wonderful right now. Yet, quite the opposite happens. He comes in fired up, triaging through food and gear efficiently, and we are back out on the trail after only a few minutes pause.

Pacing, I have come to realize, is not as easy as it might appear. Bryon has his rhythm, slow or fast, chatty or in his head, and it is for me to adapt. We march up Bear Creek at a good pace. While we can see other runners’ lights up ahead, Bryon is quick to note that there will be no racing, just maintaining. We discuss shoes, as people have expressed surprise with Bryon’s choice of New Balance racing flats. In my opinion, he has made a judicious choice as happy, comfortable feet trump everything in a long race. We start to run into snow a few miles below the Wasatch Saddle. We lose any sign of trail markers, wandering confused. There are some low clouds obstructing the moon and a clear view of the pass. We can see lights moving horizontally as if runners were retracing their steps. A light appears to be on the pass and we lock onto it for direction. I punch through deep, crusty snow that tears into my shins. I let out a slew of expletives under my breath. I have gone three miles and feel pretty wrecked. Turning to Bryon, I ask in a chipper voice if he is okay. As a pacer, I cannot show any signs of weakness, complaint, or fatigue. The conditions are serious though and it is crucial for me to stay alert. An injury would have severe consequences up here. On the Wasatch Saddle, we stop for a few minutes to air out Bryon’s feet. There is no wind and the first rays of sunlight are cracking the horizon.

As we top over Oscar’s Pass, Bryon starts to pick up the pace, nimbly negotiating the technical terrain downhill. I am impressed with how well he is moving. The morning sun gives us a strong mental boost, with the precarity of the previous miles quickly forgotten.

The miles click by with Bryon striving forward with remarkable determination and focus. I often wonder in times like these, when the body is on the verge of failure, why it is that we electively put ourselves through such adversity. As an observer looking in, I gradually begin to sync to Bryon’s rhythms, feeling the rational blur into the sensory. My usual chatty self goes silent. My gaze locks onto Bryon’s heels as we move steadily toward the finish line. You cannot manufacture the authenticity of these types of moments, where vulnerability and strength coexist. Every five or so minutes, Bryon pauses for 30 seconds, no more, no less, to catch his breath and summon just enough energy for a few more steps.

Running the Hardrock Hundred is an elemental journey, rich in emotion and personal discovery. It is hard to not be moved by the uniqueness and fascinating allure of this run. I look forward to coming back year after year as a runner, pacer, crew, volunteer, or spectator. Thanks for letting me tag along, Bryon. Until next time.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Were you a part of this year’s Hardrock Hundred? In what role did you serve? Runner, pacer, crew, volunteer, fan, something else?
  • What was the experience like for you? What were your biggest takeaways from the weekend?

Bryon Powell - 2015 Hardrock 100 1

Bryon Powell - 2015 Hardrock 100 2

Bryon Powell - 2015 Hardrock 100 3

Bryon Powell - 2015 Hardrock 100 4

Bryon Powell - 2015 Hardrock 100 5

Bryon Powell - 2015 Hardrock 100 6

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Bryon Powell - 2015 Hardrock 100 8

Joe Grant
frequently adventures in wild places, both close to home (a frequently changing location) and very far afield. He inspires others by sharing his words and images that beautifully capture the intersection of the wilds, movement, and the individual at Alpine Works.