Perfect weather greeted the runners Friday morning as we lined up for the start at Silverton High School (9310'). A couple of miles of rolling terrain led to the first stream crossing, thigh deep, where we were provided a tight rope for balance. A few runners stopped on the other side to change shoes or socks, but most realized that wet feet are the norm at Hardrock. We climbed gently through a lovely forest to Putnam Basin (timberline) and on up to a 12,600' ridge at 7.7 miles. We followed the ridge for over a mile, with spectacular views in every direction, then descended steep wet grass and mud for a thousand feet, eventually reaching a rough trail leading down to another stream crossing and the Kamm Traverse aid station (10,640', 12.2 miles). The Kamm Traverse, named for Hardrock veteran Ulli Kamm (whom we may thank for this one of many course "improvements" over the years), is a foot-wide path crossing an incredibly steep grass slope for about a quarter of a mile. A slip here could result in a sudden loss of hundreds of feet in altitude, though in odd-numbered years it's not really a problem. (The direction of the course reverses each year, so in even-numbered years back-of-the-pack runners do this section in the middle of the second night out.) After another challenging stream crossing we began the beautiful climb through lush meadows, then snow, then steep scree, up to Grant Swamp Pass (12,290'). Many runners stopped here for a moment to carry a pebble up to the plaque in memory of Joel Zucker, who died of a brain bleed two days after finishing his third Hardrock in 1998.
The descent from Grant Swamp was a precipitous blend of scree and snow--a great place to make time and shake out the legs. Gentler snow slopes led down past beautiful waterfalls and into the trees, where a good trail led to the Chapman Gulch aid station (10,160') at 18.6 miles. What is it that makes the next stretch, up to Oscar's Pass (13,120') so hard? It's relatively early in the run, and it's on a good jeep road. Everyone agrees that it seems to go on forever. Eventually I reached the top, paused to take in the fabulous view, stepped over a small snow cornice and traversed around to the Wasatch Saddle. Wonderful glissades led down to the beautiful Bear Creek Trail, where occasional easy rock scrambling was required to avoid snow-covered portions. A light rain shower inspired some people to get out their rain gear, but I took a chance and won. In less than an hour the sun came out again. Down, down, down, to Telluride (8750'). Sylvia greeted me here and fed me lots of good food. It was 4:45 in the afternoon; I had covered 28 miles, climbed 9700' and descended 10300'.
After a luxurious 8 minutes, I hit the trail again, carrying the flashlight I'd need before the next drop point at Ouray. This short down-time got me out of Telluride a little ahead of the relentless Ulli and the remarkable 71-year-old Carl Yates. I soon caught Margaret and Mark Heaphy, both of whom had finished near the front in past years but were taking it easy this year due to Margaret's recent knee surgery (they would drop out at 59 miles). We passed each other repeatedly as we plodded up the endless jeep road. What a relief when we finally left the road at the tree line and headed up the tundra to Mendota Saddle! From here we contoured around the head of Marshall Basin on scree with occasional snow patches (in contrast to the exposed snow slopes of some years), to the steep rotten gully leading up to Virginius Pass (13,100', 33.3 miles). What a spot! A tiny notch in an almost impenetrable ridge, with a steep scree gully on one side and a 50-degree snow slope on the other. On this airy perch sat Kroger's Canteen, the most remarkable of the Hardrock aid stations. I arrived here at 7:51 PM (just as Ulli was departing), had some hot potato soup and put on my tights for the long steep glissade. Since several runners were waiting to use the rope, I just moved to the side and plummeted down the slope, yodeling insanely.
The next stretch, a good gravel road leading down to Ouray (7680', 43.7 miles) would have been a good place to make up some time, but I just didn't feel like running. I walked quickly and tried to think happy thoughts, hoping to see Sylvia in Ouray, though she might wisely decide to sleep in Silverton to rest up for her pacing duties, which would begin at mile 59. But there she was, cheerfully efficient as always. I set off at 11:23 PM for Engineer Pass with renewed energy. After some minor route-finding confusion I reached the dreaded Uncompaghre River crossing. The crossing is protected by a rope, but, still, taking on the over-waist-deep river, just upstream from a dam, all alone and in the middle of a moonless night, was daunting. Actually it was no big deal once I started across: Lock the elbows around the rope and go. Soon I was climbing the switchbacks of the Bear Creek Trail up to the spectacular (at least in the daytime) shelf trail, where a misstep would take you over a 400-foot cliff into Bear Creek Canyon. The two miles from the top of the canyon to the Engineer aid station (11,700', 52 miles) were hard. It was cold and breezy, and the trail could not decide which side of the river it wanted to be on. Each ankle- or calf-deep stream crossing brought a deep chill, and I arrived at the aid station feeling hammered. The lengthy process of changing batteries with frozen hands resulted in my ruining my flashlight. The aid station folks kindly gave me another one and I set off again at 4:02 AM, having spent a depressing 24 minutes at this bleak stop. There was still a long climb up to Engineer Pass Road (12,910', 53.8 miles), but I felt better and was especially heartened to realize that I had no asthma symptoms.
Considering my bad record, I was keeping a low profile in 1999. Only Sylvia served as my crew and pacer. A pulmonary specialist had prescribed various asthma medications, including a Proventil inhaler. (This has the same ingredient--Albuterol--as the more common Ventolin inhaler, but in powdered form. Ventolin does not work at high altitude, a medical curiosity not noticed until a couple of years ago.) This year I was taking it easy on the uphill stretches, keeping my pulse below 125, and pushing more on the downhill sections. As a further safeguard against asthma I planned to avoid aspirin and Ibuprofin.
The climb into the upper reaches of Grouse Gulch brought back memories -- of our difficult midnight descent last year after Sylvia's fall, of Joel Zucker, whose steady, confident strides had kept us going two years earlier. This section passed through stunning fields of wildflowers -- acres of columbine. Lovely waterfalls and cascades softened the stark reality of the impending headwall. The tundra gave way to a steep scree slope, and soon we reached American-Grouse Pass (13,020', 61.7 miles) and a dazzling view of Handies Peak, our next goal. After a steep snow descent we crossed the basin and began the long slog up the peak. Until 1998 runners could stash their packs for the final 600' dash up the Peak, but the new course -- named Up-Chuck Ridge in honor of its perpetrator Charlie Thorn -- goes right over the top. This last section, from 13,400' to the 14,048' summit, took 35 minutes -- a good compromise between the 50 minutes required during the early stages of my 1997 asthma attack and my 21-minute dash in 1996. Sylvia and I recalled the glorious sight of the full moon rising the year before, just as we and course director John Cappis had reached the summit. This year we shared the midday sun with Bob Boeder, who also had failed to complete the course the three previous years. With Carl close behind and Ulli now far ahead, we began negotiating Up-Chuck, a gloriously exposed arete with sheer cliffs to the left and steep, rotten gullies to the right -- a scary place to be in a thunderstorm, as some folks a couple of hours ahead of us in 1998 had discovered. Soon we reached the descent gully -- slightly less steep than the others -- and did the hand-on scramble down the top fifty feet and the ensuing 600' descent over unbelievably steep scree and scrub. Looking back, we saw Carl picking his way slowly down this section in dramatic contrast to his usual graceful downhill dance. This section destroyed his quads, and he dropped out at Sherman four miles ahead.
Descending Boulder Gulch, we criss-crossed the stream amid a dizzying array of waterfalls and wildflowers, reaching the Cottonwood Creek Jeep Trail at 10,590'. The 3500' drop from Handies had taken just over an hour, but the next 2.4 miles into Sherman (9640', 70.1 miles) took another 45 minutes. Sylvia ran ahead and by the time I arrived (at 1:09 PM) had a nice lunch ready and had arranged my drop bag stuff for easy access. Still two hours ahead of the cutoff and feeling strong, I arranged my gear and set out. I didn't feel like wading the waist-deep Cottonwood Creek just after changing into dry socks, so I bravely started walking the single log. About two-thirds of the way across I felt shaky and feared a headlong fall into the creek. I did a little dance and dashed across the final 20 feet. Sylvia wisely straddled the log and inched her way across; she had little difficulty catching me. Half an hour out of Sherman I had surpassed my previous best Hardrock effort and had only thirty miles to go in the next 16 hours. The trail here was excellent, climbing gently up Cataract Gulch, and we encountered several hikers and backpackers. Toward the top of the gulch there were many stream crossings, one of them just above an 80' waterfall. (For this one we detoured a hundred yards to a safer spot to cross.)
We reached timberline and continued on to Cataract Lake, perched smack on the Continental Divide at 12,100'. We would remain in this unprotected environment -- never dropping below 11,400' -- for another 15 miles. The last few miles to Pole Creek were tough. We should have moved quickly on this rolling, amorphous terrain, but I was dragging. Sylvia was wonderfully encouraging, but I sensed her concern that we were losing our cushion. The sudden onset of a painful blister did not help, and I stopped to double up my socks. I also gave in and swallowed three aspirin to dull the pain. By the time we reached the Pole Creek aid station (11,400', 80.0 miles) we were half an hour behind the recommended 48-hour pace. A kind and competent race worker fixed my foot with Second Skin and duct tape, and I recovered some energy.
The 48-hour pace allowed 2:45 for the 5.2 miles from Pole Creek to Maggie Gulch. This was an easy section, the only challenges being a few stream crossings, some knee-deep mud holes, and a thousand-foot climb up to Maggie-Pole Pass at 12,530'. In a fit of hubris I vowed to get to Maggie Gulch in two hours. I made it in 1:52, gleefully (and somewhat maliciously) leaving Sylvia behind on the 900' descent to the aid station. I was now ahead of the 48-hour pace and full of confidence, perhaps gloating a bit. We gathered our flashlights and batteries and started the long climb up to Buffalo Boy Ridge, 13,060'. The route left the trail and zigzagged up through little cliff bands (not killers -- just leg breakers) up horrendously steep dirt, bushes and rocks. No need to lean over -- just reach up and pull! As night fell the slope leveled out, but where was the route? The markers reflected our flashlight beams from a hundred yards away, but sometimes we'd sweep the beam for more than a minute before picking out a marker. Eventually we reached the ridge and began the long dreary march down into Cunningham Gulch. This four-mile stretch was all on steep, rough, ankle-wrenching jeep roads. It was impossible to find a comfortable stride and was particularly hard for Sylvia with her lingering ankle problems from a year ago. After a brief consultation I continued on my own; Sylvia would catch a ride back to Silverton from the Cunningham aid station.
Alone again, I found the descent interminable. The lights in the valley began to float around eerily like hovering spacecraft; I was in the early stages of serious sleep deprivation. (Before the weekend was over I would have gone 90 hours with a total of 6 hours' sleep.) The gentle 300' climb on the final 1.4 miles to Cunningham (10,380', 92.1 miles) was a welcome change. For the last 20 minutes I enjoyed the company of the aid station captain, who had walked down to cheer on any stragglers who might still be in the race. He told me that 40-year-old Blake Wood had won the race in 30:10:58, a course record for the clockwise direction.
At 13 minutes past midnight I waded across Cunningham Creek and began the 2.6-mile ascent to Dives-Little Giant Pass (12,970') with utter confidence, expecting to reach Silverton with more than an hour to spare. I decided to push a little on this ascent, figuring that I could handle the descent into Silverton even if asthma set in. Physically I was fine, but the brain was going. Each time I passed a marker I tried to keep its location fixed in my mind, so that I could backtrack if necessary; but several times I woke up with a start, still walking, and had no idea where the last marker was.
By 2 AM I knew the pass was nearby, but the route was hard to find. Several times I'd make long forays in the wrong direction, only to return to the last marker to try a different direction. I wasted an hour on these forays and wished for someone with half a brain to point me in the right direction. Finally I found the pass and started the short but exposed traverse over to Little Giant Saddle. I stayed alert, knowing that a slip off the narrow trail could result in a 100-yard tumble down a steep grass slope, followed by fatal plunge over a huge cliff. Reaching the saddle with relief, I took stock. It was 3 AM and there were just 6.8 miles to go, most of it downhill. In 1996 I had ascended to this point in two hours, so it seemed I should have no problem finishing before the 6 AM deadline. Alas, route-finding again became a problem. In my addled state I constantly feared that I had missed the trail, and I repeatedly dug out the 11-page course description for guidance. The Little Giant jeep road seemed MUCH longer than I remembered, but I still had 1:20 left when I finally reached the Arastra stream crossing with 3.2 miles to go. Knowing that that I could do this section in an hour, I cheerfully forded the creek and started down the steep road toward the muddy trail to Silverton.
The next hour was a confusing mix of emotional highs, when I would find a marker and know I was on track, and depths of despair when I felt lost. In fact, the trail was well marked, but in my mentally exhausted state I couldn't sort it all out. My goal was slipping away; but finally, with 50 minutes left, I reached the muddy trail. From here on in the way was clear, but time was short. After two puffs on the inhaler I began to run. What a sight that would have been, had there been anyone to see it! I was galumphing along, sinking into calf-deep mud every twenty steps, desperately hoping I wouldn't lose a shoe. At 5:35 a hiker going the other way assured me that it was less than a mile to the ski hut. This was scant comfort, since it would take at least seven minutes from the hut to the finish. But it was much less than a mile, and at 5:40 I saw the hut just two hundred yards ahead! It is hard to describe the joy I felt at this sight. I really had it made! I slowed to a walk and headed for town, where Sylvia joined me for the final few blocks to the finish.
I arrived at 5:51:25, less than nine minutes inside the 48-hour limit. As the last official finisher -- 59th out of a starting field of 109 -- I received the coveted Caboose Award. There was Ulli, enjoying a well-deserved beer 20 minutes after his sixth Hardrock finish. Five more runners who had survived the 1:30 AM cutoff at Cunningham straggled in over the next few hours, among them Todd Burgess (48:03:35) and an elated Bob Boeder in 50:36:04. This year the women's field was incredible, as three women -- Betsy Kalmeyer (31:55:19, 6th overall), Sue Johnston (32:37:02, 9th) and Betsy Nye (35:19:20, 18th) -- beat the old record of 37:22:32. Perfect weather alone cannot explain these fantastic times.
The Hardrock is described as a "post-graduate" run -- not a good choice for your first hundred. Endurance, mental toughness and mountain savvy are more important than speed. It is in every way a brilliantly organized event -- pre-race activities, course markings, course aids such as ropes when necessary, wonderful aid stations, radio communications. At the 9 AM award ceremony we were given complete race results with all split times. The people putting on this race are fantastic, if a bit crazy. The course has evolved over the years, as more and more road sections are replaced by trails. Of course, each change results in more elevation gain, and even the length has inched up a little, making Hardrock not only the most difficult hundred-miler but also the longest! Though my experience is limited, I believe it is the most beautiful run in the country. The San Juans are truly spectacular, and the contrasts between the lush valleys and the stark, rocky summits are stunning.
Finishing the Hardrock was an important milestone in my life. It was something I really wanted to accomplish, and after three failures I feared that it was simply beyond me. Now that I have finished it, what's the next challenge? That's easy: Run it counterclockwise! Both Sylvia and I will try that next summer.
2000 UPDATE: We didn't make it this year. Sylvia and I stayed together till Grouse Gulch at 42+ miles, at which point Sylvia dropped out, having had a difficult time on the descents with her lingering ankle problems. By now we were close to the cutoff, but, with excellent pacing by our daughter Andrea, I managed to make up some time by by the time I reached Ouray. The 5500' climb up to Virginius Pass in Saturday's midday heat was tough, but the easy descent into Telluride (74 miles) went well. Tired but somewhat refreshed, we hit the trail for the long climb up to Oscar's Pass. As soon as I hit the upgrade, however, asthma set in. When, after half an hour, my inhaler had had no effect, we turned around and gave up.