[Garett Graubins will be running the Hardrock 100 for at least the third time this weekend. He ran it in 2005 and again in 2010. I was fortunate enough to pace him from Grouse Gulch (mile 42) to Ouray (mile 56) in 2005 and will do so again tomorrow. Below, Garett, a Trail Runner magazine contributing editor, shares the story of his 2010 Hardrock. It’s our hope, that while last year’s race was run in the opposite direction (Hardrock alternates direction every year), it gives you a sense of what 140 runners will encounter as they run 100 miles through the San Juan Mountains over the next few days.]
2010 Hardrock 100 Recap: Sometimes reality dictates what you can and can’t do out there. A tale for anybody whose training fell woefully short.
By Garett Graubins
Both times that I have run the Hardrock 100, I had every intention of writing a recap afterward. Both times I failed to put pen to paper, or finger to keyboard. I would sit down afterward, with an icepack on some part of my body and a microbrew somewhere nearby, and find the words flowing with the viscosity of molasses.
That is the allure, mystery, and magic of Hardrock. The magnitude of the experience it delivers is so epic, and the effort that it requires is so Herculean, that it can reduce a normally verbose and overly dramatic writer to a zombie, staring blankly at a computer screen.
Last summer, I surrendered when I tried to capture the experience after the fact. I closed my laptop clamshell and decided to chew some more on the highs and lows.
Now, nearly 365 days later, I find myself preparing for a return to the San Juan course that has humbled me like an ant staring down a vast ocean.
Maybe it’s a positive that I didn’t immediately write a recap while my legs were still throbbing so soon after last year’s race. I would’ve lingered on all of the details that really are only interesting to me. By waiting so long, I’ll only include the events that were so memorable that they survived all of these months – and you can be spared from an eight-thousand word diary manifesto.
Start to KT (Remember, this was a Clockwise Year)
With a belly-full of pancakes and coffee (thanks, Holly, for the continued tradition!), I settled into an easy shuffle from the very start. I watched the front-runners vanish into the woods.
As the sun came up, tickling the tops of the surrounding peaks with the day’s first rays, I pulled down my arm-warmers, popped out my trekking poles, and braced myself for the day’s first big climb.
For a short time, fog rolled in as we hit the top of the pass. It created a ghostly effect as I could barely make out the shape of other runners ahead and behind.
The descent off the pass went smoothly as I focused again on simple conservation. I was heartened by the fact that my muscle injury was showing no signs of flaring up.
I walked into the KT Aid Station and spent a few minutes longer here than I normally would. This became a theme throughout the day – I took my time at aid stations. By the time my race ended, I would have totaled over two hours in aid stations.
KT to Chapman
I left the aid station with a handful of food and enjoyed the flowers all along this incredible traverse. There was a lot of trail debris and tree fall-down once I got into the forest before I entered a clearing, fully expecting to see snowfield up above, In 2005, I recall post-holing through a lot of this section. This year, there was no snow to be found – the trails were clear for every step.
Soon Island Lake appeared downhill on my left. How is the color of that water possible? It’s one of those views that is quintessentially Hardrock. Here, I settled into a nice rhythm with Hardrock legend and past champion Betsy Kalmeyer. We stayed in lockstep to the top of the pass. We picked up rocks and placed them at the base of the Joel Zucker plaque and shifted our sights to the dreaded Grant Swamp Pass descent.
With scree sliding out from under my feet, I kept my ears peeled for shouts from behind me and above – it’s so easy for rocks to dislodge here and come barreling down at other runners. I shifted into a skiing motion, schussing from side to side until I reached the bottom of the descent.
Back down into the trees, across the drainage, and a short climb later, I arrived at the Chapman Aid Station. Here, a Hawaiian them greeted runners – a volunteer placed a lei around my neck, I called for my drop bag and took a seat. It was time to get some food and prepare for a lot more trail ahead. I slathered on way too much sunblock and wrapped a water-soaked bandana around my neck.
Chapman to Telluride
Normally, I’m very conscious of people ahead of me and even behind me. And, even thought I tried hard to check my competitive urges at the door for this race, I was surprised to feel the juices flow as I left the Chapman station and began the monstrous climb up to Oscar’s Pass and Wasatch Basin. I credit this to the fact that I was feeling good – and my muscle injury was not giving me so much as a twinge.
With a belly loaded with food – and plenty of calories down since the start – I set a tick-tick-tick rhythm with my trekking poles. Soon, I popped up above treeline and could make out the seeming endless series of switchbacks leading up to the sky. A lot of runners up above had the hunched-over look of those struggling against gravity, fatigue, and altitude. I worked to stay upright, keeping my airways clear.
Soon enough, I crested the climb, crossed the basin, and mentally checked the day’s third pass off my mental checklist (in all, there are 10 or 11 passes on the Hardrock course, depending on how you count). I pointed my Montrails downhill, soaking in the views while descending to the Telluride Aid Station. I knew that my wife, Holly, and son, Sawyer, were waiting for me down below, and my pace picked up.
At some point on the descent, I realized that I had not seen any course flagging for at least five minutes. I looked around and had that sinking feeling that I had missed a key turn. The fact that I did not see any other runners made matters even worse. Had I ventured off course while soaking in the views? Was I headed down the wrong drainage? The last time I was on this part of the course (in 2005), it was dark and I was maneuvering my way up endless snowfields. So, obviously, nothing looked familiar.
Thankfully, I soon saw another runner and he said that he’d recently seen a marker. A wave of relief swept over me and I continued downhill.
I was ecstatic to see recreational hikers on the trail many minutes later. This is always the tell-tale sign that I’m nearing the bottom.
I arrived in the clearing near the Telluride Town Park that houses the aid station and immediately spotted my crew. I’m sure that I picked up the pace here. I promptly gave Holly a sweaty kiss and handed over my hydration pack for a much-needed refill. I also sat down and focused on taking in some food. The next climb is a whopper and I knew that I’d need some very serious fuel to get me over it.
Telluride to Governor’s Basin
I left Telluride on an emotional high, with the feeling that I might actually finish this race. I should know better – the race had not yet begun. There would be so many difficult miles, and many mountain passes to go. And that would include the one staring me in the face, Virginius. As if on cue, a deafening clap of thunder sounded directly overhead. I turned off my iPod and put it in my pocket, thinking that the trace amounts of electrical current might attract a bolt to my head.
During the first mile of the climb, I worked to get in as many calories as possible. It is always so much easier to consumer and process foods at these relatively low altitudes during Hardrock.
My pace was methodical and probably a bit too fast. I slowed substantially to catch my breath a few times. A few times, I landed alongside another runner. But, as th air grew thinner, I was feeling less and less chatty – I just wanted to focus.
Near the top of the climb, traversing across Mendota Ridge, I did not feel like I was making any progress at all. The climb seemed so much longer than I could recall. Finally, I spotted the very short, steep final approach to the Aid Station.
I can’t ever eat or drink much this high, so I had some soda and a few crackers before heading out (down, actually). I had an ulterior motive as well – Betsy Kalmeyer was leaving at the same time. With the wide open scree fields awaiting us down below, I had concerns about getting off course. If anybody would know the best lines – or the right general direction – it would be Betsy.
After a thousand or so vertical feet of rocks sliding out from under me, I nearly kissed the dirt road that woulc continue to take me downward. Finally … normal running! I kept a reasonable cadence without bombing downhill, and soon arrived at Governor’s Basin.
Governor’s Basin to Ouray
I took some extra time at Gov’s. There were a few other runners around and I did not want to get myself caught up in a downhill footrace to Ouray. Here, at lower altitude, I wanted to get some food while I could. Noodles, soda, a hydration pack refill, and I was gone.
Somebody had warned me about the downhill to Ouray. It is several miles long and abundantly run-able. Nearly everybody hammers this stretch … and most pay dearly for it. So, with those sage words in mind, I ran a very conservative pace down here. I even forced myself to stop and walk some sections that I ordinarily would have run. At the same time, I felt the gravitational pull of my crew down below and wanted to hurry along. It was an exercise in self-restraint – then again, doesn’t that sum up the first half of Hardrock?
This was the first time I had run the new trail section into Ouray. It was a rockside carnival, complete with a bridge over a bottomless gorge and a tunnel blasted through a hunk of rock bigger than a barn. As I exited the tunnel, I stood up much too quickly and knocked my head on the unforgiving stone a bit hard. I continued on, slightly woozy for the next minute.
In Ouray, I first spotted my good friends, Tiffany and Ryan Welch. They ad made the trip to Denver to soak in some of the race and take in the San Juans. It was such a lift to see their familiar faces.
Holly had everything waiting for me at Ouray. This being the lowest spot of the Hardrock course, I felt so good at this point. I also wanted to capitalize on my comfort level and eat as much as I my body would let me. I sat down, pigged out on pasta and potatoes, and even wiped my face and put on a dry, fresh shirt – heavenly. I also geared up for the night. Standing up, my legs magically did not feel stiff at all – obviously a positive sign. Here, I kissed Sawyer good night – he had been playing in a sandbox during my stop and was pretty much oblivious as he pushed plastic trucks around.
Holly decided to walk me out of Ouray and it became a very pleasant evening stroll through town. She told me about their great day in the mountains. It always helps my mood to know that they are enjoying themselves … it makes me feel less guilty about hogging all the trail time. Along the way, I savored a Frappucino drink. The caffeine was exactly what I needed to help my body process all of the calories I had just put down.
When we got to the outskirts of town, I said “goodnight” to Holly. The next time I’d see her would be at Cunningham the next day, just nine miles from the finish. In my mind, I said a silent prayer that I would make it that far.
Ouray to Grouse Gulch
As the sun began to set, I pushed the pace here more than I normally would. It’s always a good idea to take advantage of daylight while you can. Things simply slow down so, so much in the dark.
I also wanted to be able to catch the views into Bear Creek. This section of trail is mind-blowing – it’s carved into the side of a sheer cliff. As my friend Roch Horton said in a recent course description, “If you fall here, don’t worry. It won’t hurt. You will be dead.”
As the canyon opened up higher up, there were more sweeping views of the trail up ahead. I could soon see other runners – struggling just like me. I kept my monotonous pace – tick, tick, tick with the poles. I broke into a jog from time to time, but it did not feel natural. It was not flowing at all. This was a race where I just had to take whatever I could get. And, right now, I was not getting much. Still, on the upside, I was making steady progresss.
By the time I reached the various creeks and drainages above the canyon, it was completely dark and I had to click on my light. Here, I caught up to Betsy Kalmeyer . Looking up above, I kept expecting to see the Engineer Pass Aid Station, but it was not making itself visible. Finally, there it was. I rolled out of the darkness and asked for some noodles while they topped off my bladder. I had a sense of uphill momentum – if that is at all possible – and I left fairly quickly.
The remaining climb to the top of Engineer’s is deceptively long. When you arrive at the aid station, there is a sense that you’ve completed the climb. But there remains at least another 1,000 vertical feet – a slow grind through brush, trying to maintain a straight line toward a blinking red light that sits at the top of the ridge.
I believe that I caught up to another runner somewhere in here and we exchanged barely a grunt. Two cavemen, reduced to little energy, and still with 30 or so miles to go.
At the top, I experienced a dose of adrenaline and patted myself on the back for clicking off another pass. I immediately sobered up, however, when I looked down and across the broad valley before me. Pinpricks of light bobbed up and down miles in the distance, switching back and forth down a seemingly endless descent to Grouse.
There’s not too much sexiness or drama to this section of the course – at least, in the dark. It’s just putting one foot in front of the other, working hard to be efficient and not fry yourself. At the bottom of the switchbacks, there’s a fairly long stretch of flattish dirt road to the aid station.
As I neared the Grouse Gulch Aid Station, I spotted Roch Horton’s crew heading up the road to Cinnamon Pass. I tried to send my thoughts to my pal, wishing him a great climb up Handies Peak – and a successful 10th Hardrock finish.
The (relatively) bright lights of Grouse Gulch came into view and I dove into the brightness and culture shock of being surrounded by others. Here, my good friend (and Trail Runner Magazine Editor) Michael Benge was ready to go – all geared up to pace me through the rest of the night and most of the next morning. If he had his way, we would have promptly check out and started the next segment. But I had other plans, and issues to tend to.
Grouse Gulch to Sherman
Arriving at Grouse, I plopped down in a chair to gather myself. I didn’t feel horrible – I’ve certainly felt worse – but I didn’t feel good, either. Just that 100-mile funk settling into my whole body, including my stomach. This was also the first part of the race when there wasn’t any food that felt good. As I tried to eat some noodles, I looked up and met the eyes of Denverite and trail veteran, Kevin Lund. His eyes showed concern, and my heart sank a bit more.
After working to eat more food, I figured that I could sit in the chair and feel like crud, or be moving closer to the finish, while feeling like crud. So I peeled myself from the camping chair and said, “Let’s get out of here.” Michael’s excited energy returned to his face and we left the cozy confines of the sent, intent on climbing up 14,000-foot Handies Peak.
The climb was not all that bad – or, at least the first few hours of it. Michael is a great friend and I enjoyed lobbing questions at him in an attempt to catch up on life stuff – how the magazine is doing (great!), his two boys, his upcoming adventures (he always has some in store), etc. Before I knew it, we were descending into American Basin. In the pitch darkness, we could look across and upward and see lights. With a light head, extreme fatigue, and a little sleep deprivation, I could not be sure if the lights were jets cruising high overhead, or other runners on their way to the summit of Handies.
Above the basin, I struggled as I expected each 100-foot pitch to reveal the summit. But it kept going, up and up and up. The wind was also picking up, howling at the very top. Normally, I like to savor a climb completed – especially when it reaches these heights, but Michael and I basically fist-bumped before agreeing to “get out of here.” We scrambled down the opposite shoulder of Handies, appreciative that the worst of the race’s climbs was behind us.
Somewhere on the descent, I began to feel wonky. My energy flagged and I started kicking stones as I dragged my feet. As the steep trail yielded to more forgiving terrain and finally a fairly flat stretch, sleepiness began to settle in. This brought with it some tunnel vision and even zoning out. I had to snap out of an apparent trance a few times. As we reached the trailhead at Burrows Park, a cairn morphed into the Velveteen Rabbit before my very eyes. I made the decision at that point that I would take a nap at the next aid station … if we ever got there.
I was fairly confident that we needed to turn right to get to Sherman, but not 100% positive. So I sent Michael down the dusty road in search of markers. He did not see any, so he looked the other way. All of this as I stood there with the Velveteen Rabbit. We knew we couldn’t just stand there, so we made the decision to head down the road and see where it would take us. As we did, a set of headlights approached – it was Roch Horton’s crew, Catherine Mataisz and Krissy Moehl. They confirmed that we were headed in the correct direction.
When I arrived at Sherman, I immediately asked to sit down in a chair with a blanket. The crew set me up beside the fire and I asked them to wake me up in 30 minutes. Why not? I was not competing. I was mainly in it to finish it. And I could not stay awake. So I closed my eyes and dozed, stirring only with the conversations around me and when one other runner apparently came through the station.
Once I woke up, I ate some helping of pasta noodles and could feel my body beginning to warm up again. The impending sunrise also helped – the sun had not yet appeared, but the sky was taking on a slight glow. Night was fleeting. And I knew that I should flee soon, as well.
Sherman to Maggie Gulch
I must admit, for the first mile after I left Sherman, I fought the urge to turn around and head back to call it a day. If Sherman weren’t so isolated, I might just have done it. But, as I climbed up toward Cataract Lake, I felt better and better the more into the backcountry I went.
I was making slow progress up the climb, but at least it was progress. The scenery was stunning, even through my puffy eyes. The columbine was in full bloom and the sun was beginning to paint the highest ridges all around. At Cataract Lake, we passed by a few tents; I was green with envy toward the people cozied up inside, still sawing logs.
After cresting the pass, we dropped into the long, marshy drainage that eventually leads to Pole Creek Aid Station. This section has frustrated me the two times that I have run Hardrock. It’s filled with scrubby vegetation and the trail seems to meander carelessly. The little mojo that I had regained during the climb, was succumbing to my dislike for this stretch. When we slowly hiked past an emaciated-but-still-beautiful elk, likely near death, my spirits sank into a basement of despair once again.
During this race – as I’ve mentioned before – I was never in a hurry. And I feel that played a major role in my ability to eat and digest well throughout.
As I progressed through the next stretch, I was able to establish some rhythm for the first time since climbing un Engineer Pass. Was it the meal from Sherman kicking in? Or a slight pull from the still-faraway finish line? Whatever it was, I discovered strong legs on the climb up Maggie Pass and I was able to shuffle fairly well down to the aid station.
Here, I remember bumping into Michael Ehrlich. He is a long-time Hardrock devotee, and was plugging away toward his tenth finish. I had not seen Michael since the top of the race’s first climb, and I felt good that I was able to keep pace with such a stalwart of the event.
At Maggie, I sat down and ate even more – mashed potatoes with a banana. I added a fair amount of salt to the spuds, too. It went down as well as can be expected. My stay there began to feel long, so I slowly rose from the chair and told Michael that we’d be heading out. Just two more climbs to go ….
Maggie to Cunningham
My lasting memory of climbing Buffalo Boy Ridge is simply the fact that my motivation level was soaring. On the other side of this and the next pass, Stony Pass, I would see my crew. So Michael and I mustered a strong pace up this steep pitch. Again, the fact that there was so little snow made a big difference – especially after I cross the dirt road and began the second climb over Stony. I remember this wedge between two rock towers as being snow-covered on most years.
The descent from this climb may be one of the most glorious of the entire race. The hues of green were Disney-like. Yes, it is a battle to keep the Sound of Music theme from entering your head during this stretch!
The final drop to Cunningham is very steep and reminds your toe nails who’s the boss. Across the gulch, I could see the zig-zagging of the next section up a seemingly impossible wall. Far down below, I could make out my crew’s red station wagon and, lower down, I could even see them.
I walked into the aid station and sat down on a beach towel for some food.
Cunningham to the Finish
The temptation to leave here quickly was very strong, but I knew that I’d need some more fuel for the final climb. I also wanted to re-connect with my family – it had been over 16 hours since I’d seen them.
After ten minutes, I began to feel like I was dallying around too much. So I chugged a final bit of Frappucino, stood up, and hit the trail. I said good-bye to Michael after yet another memorable pacing stint – he is such a great pacer because he knows when to push and when not to, and when to chat and when it’s best to be quiet.
I was amazed at how steadily I was able to climb this very steep pitch. Although I had not been treating this as a competitive race, I drove myself to compete with myself up the swtichbacks. “C’mon,” I’d mumble to myself, “You can get up this … leave nothing in the tank … you don’t need to conserve anymore.”
With storms beginning to gather in the distance, Ryan and I hit the top and stopped for a photo.
As we began the descent, I spotted a batch of runners not too far below. Any other year, I would have mounted a charge to catch them. This year, however, it was all about doing the best that I personally could do, without regard for where I placed. In that sense, this year was so very different and I am grateful for the experience. It’s so easy to get caught up in who is beating who, and where your rivals are in the field. Didn’t we all get into this sport because we wanted to see what we had within ourselves? I know that was the case with me.
The descent – while grueling and difficult – felt a lot like a parade lap or homecoming. It was more ceremony than suffering or competition. I bashed my toenails even more and was reminded of my friend Roch Horton’s trademark song, “My Running Shoes Don’t Fit Me Anymore” – a ballad that he uses to serenade Hardrockers at each year’s awards ceremony.
Near the bottom, the trail flattened and turned into a rolling tour back into town. Soon I could spot Silverton off to my right. So close we were to “civilization” that Ryan was able to pull out his cell phone and let the crew know that we were getting close to the finish.
As we entered town, a runner and pacer – Tim Stroh, I would later learn – glanced over his shoulder and spotted me. It seemed that he didn’t want to run (none of us do at this point), but he picked up his pace to a respectable shuffle. Little did he know that I had no interest in chasing him down!
As I entered the last 100 yards, Holly and Sawyer came out to greet me, and I asked my three-year-old (3 ½, actually!) to run the last stretch with me. It was incredible – and I was struck at how big he’s grown in such a short time. Myself, I felt smaller than when I started, a ghost of myself.
We registered ourselves as official finishers by “Kissing the Rock” – the both of us. (OK, I have to be honest here, and say that I wondered if Sawyer would one day run this beastly race … if he does, I cannot wait to crew for him and I hope that I have enough knee cartilage remaining that I may even pace him!). As my body cooled off, the gravity of what I’d done set in. The journey to simply reach the starting line was long and filed with more uncertainty than any ramp-up I’d ever had (nine previous 100 milers … yes, this was my tenth 100-mile race finish). Injuries, early mornings, lunch-time dashes in between work responsibilities, bronchitis, and even some very odd blood test results that brought an unexpected scare (there turned out to be a very good reason for it: some people experience elevated white blood cell counts as a reaction to NSAIDs). It all came bubbling to the surface as I stood next to that rock and erupted into tears. I was reduced to a blubbering mess. Somewhat embarrassed, I walked away for some privacy.
It’s said so often that it’s a tired cliché: the journey is what matters. For me, the journey to simply get to the race was the true test. Don’t get me wrong: the 2010 Hardrock 100 pushed me in ways that I’d never experience before, and it had been some time since I was so strongly tempted to DNF. What made the biggest difference for me was the fact that I reined in my competitive hopes and desires, took realistic stock of my fitness level, and decided to truly enjoy the experience of the event. For that reason, I will never forget this year’s race.
If it were not for the support of my wife, Holly, there is no doubt that I could not have completed this race, which is quite possibly the most ultimate physical and emotional test in all of trail running. She believes in me and encourages me, even fooling me into thinking that I am a better runner than my talent dictates. If the front runners have been dealt a full house talent-wise, then I am the guy at the poker game that’s trying to piece together a few pairs of 4’s and 5’s.
My son Sawyer provided incredible motivation and energy every day. He also keeps me grounded, often reminding me of what’s really important when I might be obsessing a bit too much over this race, or other details.
Trail Runner Magazine Editor and friend Michael Benge, who endured yet another long pacing assignment with me. Over my two Hardrock 100 finishes, Michael has dragged me over nearly 80 miles of the Hardrock 100 course.
Ryan Welch, for his pacing inspiration and weekly runs around the gravel paths of all-too-flat Lafayette, Colorado. His wife, Tiff, for helping to crew during the race.
My employer, Boa Technology, and the MoAB group (Motivated Associated of Boa). We all do a great job of keeping each other focused.
Montrail, for making great trail-running shoes. It is incredible to see them getting their mojo back under new leadership – while reminding everybody of their unyielding commitment to the core of the sport. How genuine is that commitment? Two days before this race race, I realized that I would need another pair of the Montrail Rockridge. There aren’t any running stores in Silverton, so I called their headquarters and explained my quandary. They dropped everything and overnighted a pair to my little rental cottage in Silverton! If you haven’t worn Montrails for some time, it is time to give them another shot!
RecoFit, makers of the calf compression socks. They sent me a pair of their socks as I was scrambling to find any way to increase my hobbled chances of reaching the finish line. Does compression work? I’ll leave it to other runners to decide. But my personal opinion is that they do – in fact, I have no doubts. I had a lot less fatigue build-up in my calves.
And, speaking of gear that got me to the finish line, I need to thank Black Diamond. Those Z-Lite poles are destined to become a must-have staple for anybody aspiring to race well at a mountain ultramaraton. If you haven’t checked them out, get to their site right away. Yes, they are pricey, but they are worth every last penny as you’re huffing up to the summit of a fourteener – or running down.
So, as I type the final words of this recap (it turned out far more verbose than I thought), I am gearing up for another run at Hardrock. I leave tomorrow for Silverton. Training has gone so much better this year – I’ve run more mileage, bike further, and stayed injury-free. I’ll give it a hard try to crack the Top 10, but the field is absolutely stacked this year. If the chips don’t fall in my favor, I’ll know from my 2010 experience that it’s always an option to dump the competitive juices and simply take the Hardrock for what it is – an unequaled experience that can make you feel more alive (and, at times, closer to calamity) than ever.