Thursday, July 23, 2015

2015 Hardrock 100 Race Report

It is 5:40am race morning and both Bethany and I are suited up ready to run the Hardrock 100 mile Endurance Run.  It's a chilly morning and the surrounding peaks are shrouded with fog.  Bethany is 2nd on the wait list, having moved up from 14th in the weeks leading up to the race.  She has prepared diligently.  Her drop bags are out and she is raring to go.  I've been awake since midnight, too excited to sleep.  It has been a while since I've been this amped up for a run.  5:50am, every runner has checked in, and it is now clear that I'll be the only Lewis in this family (Suzanne Lewis being unrelated but a badass nonetheless) making the iconic circuit through the San Juans. I study Bethany's face and can see the active mental reconfigurations projected about her eyes and mouth.  She grabs my arm and smiles, now transformed into my pacer.

The Hardrock 100 Mile Endurance Run is a 100.5 mile alpine loop through the San Juan mountains of Colorado with 33,992 feet of ascending and 33,992 feet of descending at an average elevation of over 11,000 feet.  The course is unrelenting with 13 passes above 12,000 feet with a high point of 14,048 feet over Handies Peak.  Each year the course alternates direction: this year was counter-clockwise, thought to be the slower of the two directions given the long ascent ramps.  The run is highly selective with only 152 entrants this year and involves a complicated lottery system.  My chances of getting in this year were 9%.  A first-time applicant has around 1.5% chance.

I watch the slow countdown on the starting line clock.  The crowd counts down from 10.  The moments hangs in the air seemingly indefinitely and then impossibly, inevitably, off we go down the dirt streets of Silverton.  I am resolved to a mellow first 50 miles and the first climb up Dives-Little Giant feels luxurious.  I hit Cunningham at about 2:05 and lose a few places with an inefficient resupply but am untroubled.  The pace continues to feel easy and unforced up Green Mountain and Buffalo Boy ridge.  I go back and forth through Pole Creek with Jared Campbell, Karl Meltzer, Jason Koop, Scott Jaime, Brandon Stepanowich, right around 10th place or so.  I move through Sherman quickly and prepare mentally for the long climb up Handies Peak.  This is the only stretch I listen to music on and I'm immediately reminded of how potent an ergogenic aid it is.  Having forgot my own gloves I'm wearing Bethany's hot pink gloves which are tight and small on my hands, now swollen from the altitude and dependent edema.  Climbing up Handies I catch up to Anna Frost and Karl Meltzer and we summit together.  Given my proximity to Solomon super-star Anna Frost I'm immediately surrounded by the Solomon commercial film machine - seemingly incongruous in this wild space- and I can't help but chuckle to myself at the thought of an anonymous, disheveled, shit-kicker with a homemade jersey and pink gloves sharing the silver screen.  Anna smoothly descends the steep slope, hair flowing, caught in 200 high-definition frames per second.  I smile toothily into the unblinking camera, blotched white with sunscreen, brown malodextrin remnants smeared on my lips, already chapped from the exposure.

While perhaps the most aesthetically compelling 100 mile run in the world, the Hardrock 100 Mile Endurance Run also captures the tensions and contradictions of the current state of ultrarunning.  This dynamic has played out in the increasing competition to gain access to this event which was once a completely off-the-radar niche mountain enterprise.  A sport in rapid flux, trail ultrarunning for the most part continues to explicitly endorse a value system centered around collaborative experience, the outdoors, and appreciation of the amazingly simple act of putting one foot in front of the other for long stretches of time.   With its simple race format, limited number of entries, and lack of prioritization of elites, the Hardrock 100 is renowned as sticking true to these core values, as witnessed by the language often invoked in describing the race: "family", "tribe", "egalitarian," "authentic," "soul" etc.  And yet it is impossible to walk down the street in the small town of Silverton in the days leading up to the race without running into various corporate representatives, scores of commercial photographers, sponsorship banners and advertisements, and film crews.  (This tension also plays out in the range of other unfortunate, non-deductive, odd, and seemingly soft-headed, social-media amplified associations that seem to come into play in the trail running community including pseudo-spiritual moralizing about nature, philosophical pablum about mountains, vociferously self-satisfied in-grouping validation, and (amazingly non-ironic) breathless scrambling for arbitrary corporate sponsorship.*)   This is all sociologically interesting but peculiar nonetheless for a sport that requires essentially nothing for participation, holds dear to its renegade, fringe, counter-cultural roots, and avers a largely opposing set of values.  Of course, it is also a testament to the fact that for many folks this is no longer simply an avocation but a way to make a living.  A host of interesting practical and conceptual questions are raised: how do you maintain core values when those have been assessed, ingested, deconstructed, and re-packaged for you to consume in commercial fashion? how can you tell the difference between those original values and their repackaging? is there a difference? how do you maintain a family when literally thousands of people are vying for limited access? what high-tech-maximally-minimal naturally-wicking over-priced and odor-resistant fabrics best convey the sort of mountain-hardened authenticity we want?

At 14,000 feet you feel strangely distant from your own feet, interoception is disrupted and there is a strange delay between your movements and your apprehension of those movements.  This gradually normalizes as I plunge down from Handies peak to Grouse gulch.  At the aid station I kiss Ada and Finley, say hi to Zoe and Billy, grab some logo-emblazoned, overpriced and fancified malodextrin as well as my beautiful wife and we start to make our way up the dirt road.  Ada's arm is in a sling as she broke her arm diving off the couch 2 days before the race.  I feel the same fresh visceral pang as I recall the event now.   As we crest Engineer Pass a thunderstorm erupts around us. My hands are numb and we run quickly cross-country down towards Ouray.  I feel great, the effort continues to feel easy, and I now have 60+ mile under my belt: for the first time I allow myself the thought that I may have a good run here.  Another resupply, this one aided by Vivian and family and we're off on the 10 mile climb to Virginius Pass.

Caloric intake slows down considerably from this point on and I rely entirely on liquid nutrition, which makes for less than 100kcal per hour for the remainder of the run.  Nonetheless we make quick work of the long climb to Virginius, in the process passing Anna Frost and catching up to Karl at the top of the 3rd step, Kroger's Canteen.  It is indeed a special place.  Pirogies go down the hatch and we drop down the techy switchbacks on the flip side towards Telluride.

Collecting data points on how to run 100 mile races is tough.  There are a huge number of variables at play: aerobic fitness, race nutrition, response to altitude, mental resolve, race day conditions, course details and differences, navigation.  And most of us are limited in how many of these events we can do in, say, a calendar year.  This makes decision making as to race strategy and fueling strategy difficult.  Each 100 mile race I've done has felt radically different.  Strangely and improbably, this one felt the easiest.  I'm not sure there are any conclusions to be drawn from this fact however.   In certain ways you walk a finer line at Hardrock than other 100 mile races.  The persistently high altitude makes forward progress slower and caloric ingestion that much harder to maintain.  Yet with these external limitations, once one wraps one's head around simply being out there for a longer duration of time and burning primarily fat for the 2nd half of the run there are ways in which this race is much 'easier'- if these words make sense with this sort of thing.  On the whole you are moving slowly throughout the race.  All but the most gradual uphills are done at a strong hike, regardless of how fit you are as a runner.  More so than in any other race, it seems that if you can simply keep moving forward over the last 30 miles you will hang in and do alright.  Given the slower overall pace and huge fraction of the time spent hiking there is overall less acute musculoskeletal trauma sustained and the overall lower intensity of the running is much more solidly aligned with fat-burning capabilities.

We're in and out of Telluride smoothly.  I'm having a blast and it is an absolute pleasure to see folks and be feeling this good so late into the run.  As we climb up Oscar's Pass it begins to rain heavily.  It is the middle of the night and now quite cold.  We find ourselves wandering around seemingly endlessly on a large snow-filled saddle, at times post-holing up to our thighs.  There are no trail markers to be found in any direction.  Periodically we stumble across footsteps and follow them but they always diverge in different directions.  We are clearly not the first party up here to be lost.  The previous placid and serene surface of my mind has ripples now.  Bethany is carrying my iPhone with the GPS track of the course- it takes us too long to pull this out but once we finally do we are quickly navigating back on course, catching up to Brandon and his pacer and traversing some sketchy exposed snow fields.  With one particular short traverse I'm surprised they don't have a fixed rope.  The fixed rope up to Virginius was almost superfluous but here a misstep on the icy snow steps could be fatal.  I hand Bethany one of my poles.  I'd never before done the descent off of Oscar's.  It involves a fairly heinous dance down loose talus precisely when you are hoping to bomb quickly down to Chapman from the pass.  Once we hit Chapman instead of being 15 minutes up on my projected splits we are now 30 minutes behind, having lost about 45 minutes with this difficult navigation.  This is nonetheless less time lost than other runners, including Killian.  Here I pick up my buddy Jason Thompson who will pace me in for the last stretch.  With the recent wanderings on Oscars Pass, the painfully slow descent, accumulated fatigue, and now a switch in pacers my headspace is less peaceful and I never quite recover the blissful relaxation characteristic of the first 70 miles of the run.  At first this change bothers me quite a bit.  But this is the reality of these events: they demand adaptability, even to your own emotional states.  There is a limited pocket of factors you can control, for the vast remainder you are along for the ride.

The last 20 miles go by slowly.  Things never get a whole lot harder but I'm increasingly ready to stop moving as the miles roll by.  Steep uphills feel excruciatingly slow now.  We crest the ridiculously steep and loose Grant Swamp pass as the sun rises.  You have to be there to understand this kind of terrain.  There is a lot of stop and go as we scan the open surroundings for stray course markers.  This halting progression mirrors the new turbulence in my mind.  The terrain remains spectacular, rich, and extravagantly littered with wildflowers.  I'm still able to appreciate the beauty, although notably less so than earlier in the run.  This, too, is okay.  There are many ways of being and this one also has advantages.  One of these is the absolute bliss upon finally reaching the rock and finishing, which I do at 27:55, 7th place overall, completing what is undoubtedly the best mountain running event I have ever taken part in.

Thanks to my generous wife, Jason Thompson and family, my family, my friends, all the volunteers and members of the race organization.  I can't wait to come back.

* Perhaps the best example of this bizarre state of affairs is the apparent recent partnership of runners and beer companies.  The relationship here is complex: I will support your product, help you make money by selling a substance to other runners that can only be said to impair actual running performance (and likely fosters at least some degree of unhealthy relationships to alcohol in others), in exchange for a beverage I enjoy and which contributes in tangible ways to my personal brand (insofar as my personal brand conforms to the stereotype (that we have mutually established in commercial fashion) of trail runner as laid back, beard-stroking, IPA-toting, outdoors person).* The runner here has apparently ingested the corporate marketing and now spits it back out as though it sprang from some genuine personal wellspring.  I suspect this is largely an unconscious process, which makes it even the more insidious.

                                                                *This coming from a hairy guy who assuredly enjoys a good IPA even more so than your average 'trail runner'.

-shoes (very large)
-shorts (very short)
-CPT Jersey
-water bottle carrying mechanism
-kcals (various malodextrin permutations)
-jacket, pink gloves, hat, warm hat, arm sleeves
-long, tight, white socks.
-poles, last 40 miles.
-fancy watch
-contact lenses

Someone can't hold their rum. @Montanyas.
Family portrait.

Little known talent of bad-ass Jared Campbell: singing Little Mermaid songs.
Future Hardrocker?
The major injury of the trip.
Pre-race with the kiddos.
The Hard-Block race.


Race morning.  Matt Hart, me, Jared Campbell.  Nice kit.
Dropping into Grouse aid station
Somewhere around Pole Creek.
Coming into Ouray.

Ouray.  Looking like proper ultra runners.

Jason, pre-race, exploring Grant Swamp pass.


Ada and Phoebe.