Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Hardrock 34:42

It's Tuesday, I'm back in Berkeley, and I just ran my first Hardrock last Friday/Saturday in 34:42. I wanted to record thoughts immediately after the experience, because it was hard, and now that it's been a few days, I'm already forgetting the pain. [I don't want kids, so you'll have to insert your own reference to childbearing here if you so desire.]

The race started at 6AM. I slept reasonably well the night before in my truck just behind the school gym where the race starts--Silverton is very low key, so it's easy to dirtbag inside the city limits. I did, however, have a bit of GI non-normality, but it didn't seem like a big deal. I started in shorts, T-shirt, and a windshirt. As expected, the windshirt soon became too warm, likely because of the clouds that were obviously going to bring rain sooner rather than later.

First Climb
I started maybe 30-40 deep in the field, going faster than I'd ever climbed in training, but not feeling like I was pushing it too hard. On the first climb, up Little Giant, I was with Hardrock vet and board member emeritus Blake Wood, so I took the opportunity to politely ask him a couple questions about Hardrock lottery design. See my previous post, but briefly (1) the idea of setting the seed for the random number generator via a livestreamed dice roll hadn't crossed his mind but (2) I don't think the board will go for it, since they don't want to be fully transparent about the RD's automatic picks, and (3) rewarding race completion rather than lottery application is by design--they want largely the same people to run the race every year. We didn't discuss why or whether this has value--I managed to bite my tongue and not make the obvious (to me) comparison to Bay Area NIMBY single family homeowners speaking at City Council against new apartments saying "Renters don't care about the neighborhood."--So maybe I won't be banned from future lotteries. (But read about the awards ceremony first.)

The first climb was lined with photographers and hikers cheering everyone on, so I got pretty pumped. I put away my trekking poles and took the first descent to Cunningham fast enough to enjoy myself, pass a few people, but reigned it in a little to not kill the quads. I got to Cunningham (9.3 miles) in 2:18. The aid station was an amazing bundle of energy, so much so that I just filled a doggy bag with pretzels, chips, and potatoes, and left in under a minute.

I immediately realized that I'd left my long sleeve shirt in my drop bag. Oh well, more incentive to get to my next bag at Sherman before the rain came. I tried to eat some of the potato chips, but found they weren't very tasty and took too much chewing. And I'd also forgotten to pick up any gels, and I hadn't carried any with me from the start. Did I have any with me in my pack from previous hikes? Just a Jet Blackberry, my least favorite flavor. No biggy, it's my first one, I'm sure it'll be fine. Wrong. The very first squeeze made me gag, and I had to spit it all out. I tried one more time with the same result, so I wasn't getting any calories in, which I knew would spell trouble later.

The second climb has a bit of up and down compared to the steep straight up then straight down of most other climbs, which feels relatively nice. I was still way ahead of schedule getting to Maggie Gulch aid station (15.4) in 4:21. They had ginger ale and vegan avocado and tomato wraps, and they tasted so good I wept a little a little bit. Calories, delicious calories! Normally in a race my stomach lasts for 50-60 miles before I have to resort to ginger ale, soup broth, and saltines. This time I figured I'd have to start on ginger ale nearly from the get-go. I re-filled my bottle with ginger ale at Pole Creek (19.7 miles, 5:26) and kept going, but my attention was diverted at the top of the pass. Just past Cataract Lake at over 12,000 feet, the clouds opened up and the hail started. It started tic-tac size and was painful and cold (duh), but I kept going. There wasn't much to hide under, but I passed my friend Steve taking cover under some willows. A minute later the tic-tacs morphed into peanut M&M's, and I too ducked for what little cover was available. I dumped out my pretzels and chips so I could put my phone in a plastic bag, I put on on my windshirt, warm hat, and gloves, and waited.

Second climb before the hail

I soon told myself I'd get going as soon as the next person passed. An older man in nothing but a short and t-shirt with his hand over his head for the hail came by. I figured he either knew exactly what he was doing or was hopelessly clueless, but I jumped up, followed, and then quickly passed him. The rain was still coming and quite cold, but at least we were descending. There was some momentary confusion due to a beaver dam. I was light enough to walk literally on the dam all the way across, some waded through the waist-deep water, others went upstream a bit. As we descended, the stream crossings had swollen to waste-deep torrents, but four of us descended in lockstep to the Sherman aid station (28.8 miles, 7:51).

Sherman to Grouse

The rain stopped, I refilled with soda, chugged some soup, put on tights and a second windshirt, and Steve and I left together. Since the rain had stopped, I quickly overheated and had to take most of the extra clothing off at Burrows (32.6, 8:55). I was also able to quickly chug soup with rice. Steve and I started off up Grizzly Gulch towards Handies together. The rain came and went, and I dropped Steve at around 12,000 feet. I slowed down and was passed by a few people, which bummed me out a little, but only a hundred or so feet from the 14er's summit, I actually caught up to and passed Mike Wardian. That was an emotional boost, but I was still going slowly. (If you don't know, he's a sub-2:30 marathoner who runs a race almost every week.) I didn't quite bomb down the descent as much as I'd like, and I rolled into Grouse (42.2) in 12:22. That's still a sub-30 hour pace, so I wasn't in a bad place. I did sit and chug a ton of soup, and grab my pacer Yuch and my complete nighttime gear setup. In the end I spent 27 minutes in the aid station.

Grouse to Ouray
I told Yuch we were past the point of no return, regardless of what I said later he was to badger me for the next 58 miles, making sure I held to a 3mph pace and remind me to eat every hour. The climb out of Grouse is on a road, so we made decent time. I made a brief wrong turn, which, when corrected, put Mike Wardian, me and Steve, and our three pacers all entering Engineer aid station close to each other. (Yuch was a little bit behind since I'm faster on decents but caught me at the aid station, as required.) I put on my headlamp, souped up again and hit the trail. On the descent into Ouray, Yuch and I passed Steve, and though I saw him briefly at Ouray aid station, that was the last time we ran together. From Engineer to Ouray is mostly a descent down the fabulous Bear Creek Trail. Don't run it if you're afraid of heights. Yuch and I were still working out pacing issues, as he got a little ahead of me on this descent, but we were together by the time we got to the road and did the awful-seeming ~2 circuitous miles to the aid station at the far end of Ouray (56.6, 16:54). Still sub-30 pace? Definitely still sub-32.

I spent another 18 minutes in the aid station. Soup, soup, and more soup. Maybe I grabbed some saltines to try and eat on the trail.
Sunset to the west from Engineer

Climbing up Engineer

Ouray to Telluride
From Ouray we made decent time at about 3mph up Camp Bird Road to Governor's Basin. It's a big climb, but it's all on a road. I'd told Yuch on the way into Ouray that he had to make me run the flats, so he did a good job telling me to run on the flatter parts of this road climb. I spent another 11 minutes at Governor's (64.5, 19:35), and then we began the real climb up Virginius. It was a slog, but this was to be expected, as the last 1,000 or so vertical feet is nothing but a steep snow field. The snow was tracked out and mostly still soft enough to kick new steps, so it didn't feel sketchy at all, it just took a long time.

At the top, at a 13,000 foot "pass" barely large enough to hold 6-8 volunteers, is Kroger's Canteen aid station (67.8, 21:12). Scott Jurek was there and I asked for, and received, a vegan hug. As has been reported elsewhere he was super nice, and he did most of the waiting on me there. But the snow climb had frozen my feet and I just wanted to get down. Five miles downhill and we were in Telluride (72.8, 22:48).

Telluride to Chapman
It was getting light, so I stowed my headlamp, and started the climb, which I've done three times now. Strava says this is the slowest. Yuch mostly stayed ahead of me, and the climb really sucked. I tried a ginger lozenge to try and settle my stomach enough for some saltines, but mostly I'd get my mouth full of flour and then start coughing and double over in a fit. When we got above 11,000 feet I'd have to stop and rest often. It also got cold, and above 12,000 feet the ground was covered in fresh hail. Yuch was struggling, too, and almost the only thing I remember us saying to each other was:
Yuch: "You weren't kidding about the elevation."
Me: "No negativity, dude."
For anyone who has ever met me, this would normally be an absurdly hypocritical thing for me to say, but it makes sense given the circumstances. We made the traverse between the two passes and started the descent. I was bummed that the descent from Oscar's Pass down Chapman Gulch was covered in hail and a little slick. It probably wasn't all that slick and I used whatever excuse I could find to take it easy on the descent. Finally I got into Chapman pretty demoralized (82.1, 27:21). That was the first section where I didn't come anywhere near a 3mph pace, and I sat there for 34 minutes. Soup, soup, and more soup. I realized that I could wash down white bread with water and it felt OK. And ginger snaps! I could actually eat ginger snaps.

Chapman to the End
Yuch and I talked, and he said he wouldn't be offended at all if I replaced him as pacer. Steve had three pacers, so I considered asking one of them. Though we'd seen them at the aid station, they disappeared at the necessary moment. We had a minute or two of me getting worried and Yuch trying to catch a ride to the cars to grab them, but just then a guy just hanging out at the aid station stepped up. "Are you fresh? Look at how tall and skinny and fresh this kid looks!" I said. So Tyler (who I'd never met before) were off, and we did great. We got back on a 3mph pace despite another 13,000 foot pass. We were positively flying down from Swamp-Grant to KT aid station (89.1, 30:12). I actually voiced the hope that we could crush the remaining 12 and make it in under my goal time of 33:20.

Bright spot on the final climb
Despite Tyler's cool stories, that hope quickly died on the climb out of KT. After crossing the creek, I sank up to my knees in mud and spent a minute or two backtracking to clean up. The final climb was hot and exposed, and didn't have a natural line to follow (we weren't tracking an obvious stream, or ridge, or anything). I sat down once or twice to munch on ginger snaps. Finally, much slower than 3mph, we made it to the pass and were told by a few others not in the race running by, "Oh yeah, your last climb is over there, straight up that thing." Ugh. The pass doesn't have a safe route off the back side, so you have to climb another 1,000 feet to the ridge. Then it started hailing again. Thankfully it didn't last long, and the clouds didn't have any lightning with them.

I'd sort of absorbed the idea that the passes would get easier, since they get slightly lower, but they're all still over 13,000 feet. They absolutely don't get any easier. Even once I'd topped out on the last climb, I had to take a break before dropping to Putnam (94.7, 33:08). Finally, four miles of descent back into town that were too rocky to really descend fast (at least after 95 miles and 33,000 feet of climbing), a swift river crossing, and two rolling miles to the finish line, which I crossed, kissing the rock at 34:42. Actually I first went around back tried to make sure the rock was enjoying itself too. Be generous.

[Link to Aid Station Splits]
Five minutes after

After finishing, I waited at the finish line for a few hours. Steve finished just under 38 hours. I quickly went to bed and slept like the dead.

I was actually thinking I had beaten Mike Wardian, too, since I hadn't seen him since Ouray, but then discovered he had left Ouray a minute before me, negative split, and finished three hours ahead of me. Fellow East Bay runner Mark Tanaka finished in 44 hours.

The awards breakfast was the next morning. Dale, the RD, reads through every finisher, starting with the Caboose (who gets some free tickets for the Durango to Silverton scenic railway) and ending with the winner. He said something nice about everyone, or in the case that he doesn't know the runner, read what they wrote via e-mail in answer to the prompt "When I think of Hardrock I think of the ______." I am a smart-ass, so I filled that in with "more egalitarian ways to run the lottery process." By Dale's intonation, he had clearly never read the sentence before saying it over the mic, but he handled it like a pro, playing it off with a joke about "survival of the fittest or eBay, who knows?"
Me and Steve

Aid Stations: A+.
Multiple vegan soups (potato, veg) at every aid station. Excellent volunteers--typically I'd sit down, one person would come to me and stay with me the whole time, which prevented a half dozen people from coming to me and asking me the same question over and over again. (I'm a grumpy jerk at 2:00 in the morning, and having multiple people repeatedly ask me if I want to eat bacon or whatever bugs me.)

Having never run Hardrock before (and having run Plain and Euchre Bar Massacre), it also surprised me just how many aid stations there were: fourteen. Three are 9-10 miles apart, and six let you have drop bags. It's fine, and I'm not saying they should change it, but honestly it felt a little weird for such a hard race in such a remote place to have so many aid stations. I put dropbags at all aid stations where they let you (six of them). Normally I'll only do three or four, but with rapidly changing weather I figured it might come in handy, and I didn't want to have to remember where I put bags and where I didn't.
Feels to this backpacker like a lot of gear for just one night

Course: A-.
God it's so hard. It doesn't stop.

It's also beautiful. The wildflowers were going off. They were good around Maggie Gulch, and great up Telluride's Bear Creek, though I wasn't in a mood to enjoy them then. The only negative is that a fair amount of the course is on roads (Start up Little Giant, Sherman to Grizzly Gulch, Grouse to Engineer Pass, Ouray to Governor's Basin) but there isn't really much traffic since with the exception of Camp Bird Road out of Ouray it's mostly scenic Jeep roads. Running to the far end of Ouray on crummy trail and neighborhood roads to get to the park also isn't great.

The course is deliberately sparsely marked, but I never really got lost or wasted more than a quarter mile and thought that aspect was fine, even appealing. I never pulled out my paper map, and only turned on my phone GPS twice.

Swag: A. Two T-shirts, socks, hoodie, gloves, beer koozies, gaiters, trucker hat, maybe more. The buckle is $50, so I passed.  

Vibe: B+. It's  remarkably fun event, "Camp Hardrock." Runners are in Silverton for a couple weeks prior. Lots of people are dirtbagging and mooching the public library wi-fi, available 24/7 (password colorado) and there is course marking, trail work, movies, and parties for the whole week before the race. I still just can't shake the fact that 70% of runners have already run the race. It's nice to be able to ask an old-timer for advice, but when 70% of people are old hands, I was actually more interested in meeting the other "Nevers."

Gear: I think I made good choices. I ran in my La Sportiva Ultra Raptors through Telluride, and switched to dry Brooks Cascadias for the end just to get some time in dry shoes and socks. The rain, did however, kill my Garmin, so I don't have much record of the run. Thanks for squat, Garmin.


Trekking poles are strongly recommended. Cheap-o's are fine. I stow them every downhill since they throw my weight off holding them in my hands. If you can find a good pack with front-stowing of trekking poles, you win.

Will I do it again? Hopefully, but I'm not dead set on putting in again next year. Mostly because of the time commitment that the high elevation course requires. Unless you're thru-hiking the JMT,  completing a high route in the Winds, or doing Nolan's 14, there's really nowhere in the lower 48 to prep for the race without spending a solid two weeks in the San Juans to acclimate. They're gorgeous, but it's not like I'm going to want to do that every summer. I've never been to Alaska.

Not to mention crew and pacers. For the pace I'd like to go, I don't really think you can rely on just one person (even if that person is a great friend and significantly faster than you at normal elevations). Who has that many friends who want to dedicate their summers to someone else's selfish pursuits? (Yes, it's totally selfish. Volunteering at the race is wonderful and noble and greatly appreciated, but the actual running is for yourself.) 

Is it the hardest thing I've ever done? Per mile it has less climbing than Euchre Bar Massacre, and the EBM climbs are off trail, but only at 2,000 to 5,000 feet elevation. I've also always missed the ~1:00 AM cutoff at EBM, so I never spent the whole night out. Maybe that actually means EBM is harder (to complete). I'm not sure exactly how you define difficulty. It was 40 degrees and there was a torrential downpour at EBM last year, so I was in a pretty similar situation in an outhouse hoping not to get hypothermia in the middle of the night as I was waiting out the hailstorm under some scrub willow at Hardrock.

Am I happy with how I did? I guess. My goal was 3mph, and I took 4% longer than that. I spent 2 hours and 37 minutes in aid stations, which is way too long. It's kind of crazy, but honestly if I'd carried my insulated Klean Kanteen and filled it with hot broth every aid station, I would have done a lot better. Or if my stomach had only balked at mile 60 like normal instead of from the gun.

I was 36th male, 30th overall. The winner (freak of nature Killian Jornet) ran 24:32 with one arm inside his vest after dislocating his shoulder in a fall early on. That's 70% of my time, which is about my normal ratio (see my UltraSignup profile). But absurdly hard stuff is my comparative advantage--Hardrock is a race that is almost entirely steep grades up or down. Bombing down steep grades is my favorite thing to do with my clothes on, and I have a relatively good uphill hiking pace from all the time spent backpacking. So I wanted to crush Hardrock. Going under 32 hours didn't seem out of the question for most of Friday. The race went like normal: I always start out faster than my goal time, update my goal downwards, slow down significantly, and come in somewhere around (usually over) my original goal time. And I'm normally mildly disappointed with how I do (I've only broken 24 hours once, and never on a mountainous course). So maybe this is just par for the (extremely difficult) course.

What's next? I'm running Bigfoot 200 in August and then Waldo 100K five days after that.

Where are all your photos? Try my Instagram.

Huge thanks to Nano, Steve, Yuch, Tyler, and the really wonderful volunteers.


  1. Why does the the fact that the course is on public land require them to be egalitarian? They are not closing the course to the public or encroaching on anyone's San Juan experience. There is no societal need to participate in Hardrock. The only reason this is an issue is the race has gotten so popular. The argument seems to be "Your event is too successful. You have to change it to accommodate all of us who haven't had a chance yet." The comparison to NIMBY housing issues is pretty stretched to say the least.

    1. Clearly nothing, not even using public land, *requires* them to be egalitarian, as evidenced by the fact that they aren't. The question is whether they *should* be, and whether doing so would improve the event. I don't think there's much value in having the same people repeatedly do the event.

    2. We helped start a community garden and everyone involved in getting it off the ground got first dibs on a plot. Every year, plots roll over to those who stayed involved the previous year. Legacy Hardrockers have a lot invested in the event and should be able to keep going, not be forced to move on just because it is trending on social media. New folks should go start their own traditions. There are a million cool challenges out there

  2. Also, I think you can say "We are past the point of no return..." or "we have passed the point..." but "we are passed the point..." Also " I made a brief wrong turn, which, when corrected, put Mike Wardian, Steve and I, and our three pacers all entering Engineer..." should be "which put ... Steve and me..."

  3. Great report, great race! And good luck w/ the August races!

  4. This is seriously fascinating. And amazing. (I can stop gushing at any time, just let me know.) Also, I'm now determined to find a situation where I can quote you to yourself ("No negativity, dude"). Shouldn't be too hard. ;)

    Let us know when you're back in town so we can go drink beer!

  5. This comment has been removed by the author.

  6. Congratulations G, great job! Your pace was quite close to mine from 2005, at least through Virginius. I was spending much less time in aid stations and didn't have to wait out the hail (though we did have a big snow year) so I was ahead of you by quite a bit at Ouray, but due to my rough patch going up Camp Bird Rd we were at Kroger's Canteen at close to the same time, I think. Good on ya, mate!

  7. You do remember the announcement Sunday morning that 53 runners were first-timers right?

    1. Not specifically, but what's your point? That's pretty dang close to the number I cite throughout (70% vets). Happy to discuss whether that number should be higher or lower all you want, but I don't think converting a percentage into a raw number is super insightful in and of itself.