The Journey to Hardrock: A Joyous Gift

The air’s crystal clear in Silverton, Colorado as I sit to type this, but something looms heavy on the horizon. Smoke’s once again become visible in the past few minutes. At the moment, it sits beyond Snowden Peak to the south. The daily upslope winds will probably draw it into town again this afternoon. Further south, nearly a thousand firefighters battle the blazes producing this smoke, protecting a long strip of homes along Highway 550 and, where appropriate, checking the 416 and Burro fires’ advances across vast expanses of wilderness. Not a single structure has been lost in the 27,000 acres burnt in the past two weeks nor a single person severely injured, at least according to public information.

Though quite safe at the moment, a dark cloud hangs figuratively over Silverton itself, as well. The fire has shut two of the town’s three economic engines–the tourist railway and Hwy 550 from the south–and it shows. Town is eerily quiet for mid-June.

What’s more, the entire San Juan National Forest (San Juan NF) has just gone quiet, too, at least when it comes to recreationalists. At 12:01 a.m. on June 12th, Stage 3 fire restrictions were put in place, meaning that no one other than firefighters and a few other authorized personnel are permitted into the nearly two-million acre (7,600 km²) forest with the exception of two roads open to through traffic. There is no set end date to the restrictions. The 416 and Burro fires have respective estimated containment dates of July 31st and July 15th.

Notable within our small ultrarunning world, the Hardrock 100 passes through the San Juan NF from Mineral Creek to Grant-Swamp Pass, miles 2 to 15 in this year’s clockwise course direction. This forest closure, the first of its kind in the San Juan NF’s 110-plus- year history, is only the latest indicia that this year’s Hardrock 100, my focus race of the year, could possibly be canceled. And I’m 100% okay with that possibility.

I suspect I would enjoy few things more this year than lacing up my shoes on the morning of July 20th, joining 144 others on the starting line in front of the Silverton school gym, and going for a 100-mile stroll around the San Juans. However, over the past month I’ve come to realize that training for Hardrock is just as, if not more meaningful, than the race itself.

Over the past few months, when random folks on the trails (here or elsewhere in the mountains) have asked me if I’m training for something (as I huff along), I’ve come to say, “I’m training for the Hardrock 100… but really, I’m in Hardrock so I get to run here,” as I spread out my arms and look around. The journey is the destination. There is joy in every step, even if that’s sometimes more figurative than literal. Having a spot in Hardrock is a ticket for time in the mountains. I cherish this ticket and make the most of it.

Little Giant storm

Taking in the Little Giant traverse after a sketchy crossing.

I had this line of thinking further reinforced over the weekend as, after each of two days of trail maintenance team leader training in Leadville, Jeff Rome (another Hardrock finisher and 2018 entrant) and I summited Mount Elbert together. During each outing, we contemplated Hardrock’s possible cancelation as well as the beauty around us. While the former thought was, indeed, sad, this time in the mountains, with the bonus of good company, was a true reward in and of itself. We were grateful for it. Speaking for myself, there’s no way I would have made the time to go up a big mountain on either of those days but for the possibility of running Hardrock.

Mount Elbert with Betsy Nye sighting

Descending Mount Elbert with bonus Liz Bauer sighting.

I felt the same way a day later when, amidst about 10 hours of Leadville to Moab, Utah to Silverton driving in the span of a day, I stopped in Telluride late on Monday afternoon and followed the Hardrock course from town to Mendota Saddle and back, with some extra climbing thrown in as bonus. The first two hours of climbing were gorgeous, but, as the day aged, the light golden-ed and the sharply contrasting shadows strengthened and grew. It was pure magic… and there was no way it would have happened if I didn’t have a slot in this year’s race.

Mendota Saddle

The stunning view from Mendota Saddle, with wildfire smoke to the south.

Earlier in the year, with Hardrock on the horizon, I spent late April and early May in high altitudes around Alma and Fairplay, Colorado. There, I ran two-hour dirt-road runs in thundersnow and repeatedly summited Quandary Peak, the nearest 14er. Beauty abounded and I challenged myself to improve my fitness that had waned in recent months.

Quandary Peak Kid

A mountain goat kid seen on one of my Quandary Peak summits this spring.

In mid-May, Meghan and I settled into Silverton for the summer and I got right into my Hardrock year San Juans routine: work, run, eat, work, sleep. Each element in copious quantities, with little time left for anything else. One day might feature an impromptu nine-hour, 36-mile outing up Maggie Gulch, out Pole Creek to Sherman and, then, back to Maggie via Cinnamon Pass. The next day I might spend 12-plus hours working with a two-hour hour break to head up Kendall Mountain Road from town. Both days would be worthwhile, helping me build fitness and take in the San Juan splendor. My spirit soars.

Animas Forks sunset

Sunset from Cinnamon Pass Road above Animas Forks.

Now, does all this mean I shouldn’t even bother entering or running the actual race in the future? Hardly. There is no race I’d rather run. Period. And, without the pending challenge of preparing to finish Hardrock–a challenge that looms dauntingly even with past success–I’d make less time for my own running and, certainly, wouldn’t create the time, space, and place to explore the mountains in the same manner that I do now for parts of a few months.

Even with a growing possibility that the race might not happen, my desire to get out there and get after it in the mountains hasn’t waned a bit over the past month and I doubt it will over the coming weeks. Of course, that might change if the race were to be firmly canceled. I can’t say for sure yet. However, even if that’s the case, I’ll be beyond thankful for the gift that has been the journey toward this year’s Hardrock.

Either way, here’s hoping for the safe and speedy end of the local fires, with no loss of life, little loss of property, and the quick return of tourists to tiny Silverton.

Call for Comments

  • When in running and life have you found the journey/the process as meaningful as the destination/goal?
Kendall Mountain Rd - 416 Fire smoke

Sunset from Kendall Mountain Road with smoke from the early days of the 416 Fire.