“It’s this way man...straight up this drainage...”
“You sure? I don’t see any flags...”
“Why would they flag this? It’s sooo obvious...there’s the pass, we just crank up this scree field straight to the top...I’ve been here man...that’s Oscar’s back there where I took that pic last week...I’m feeling better man, lets just lace it...and look they’re people walking up there...”
“Dude, I don’t see anyone up there...”
“Trust me man, I know...you might also wanna watch out for that mountain lion about 20 yards ahead of you...I can see it’s ears and tail moving...”
“Joe, eat a fucking gel man...you’re losing it.”
When we reached the pass, it wasn’t Grant Swamp, there were no people and there was no way of getting over the cliff band to put us back on the right track. I sat there for a minute contemplating the inevitable of having to run back down the way we came to rejoin the route. Another hour lost, another peak tagged but nothing mattered anymore in my state of early morning delirium. Actually, I was finding the situation quite comical and hadn’t felt this good since Telluride which seemed like an eternity away. You see after being up for 26 hours, running (or moving) for 24, things get a little weird. Time warps, an hour here, an hour there, three more to that aid station, which aid station?, more climbing, more descending, more creeks, grass tufts, screen fields, ice fields, traversing, stumbling, mumbling, running through the San Juans becomes in the words of Reinhold Messner,"an adventure towards spiritual and ethical self examination." Let me back track a bit though before I get too esoteric and deep into my sleep deprived hallucinations.
Photo: Bob MacGillivray
About 10 days prior, I got an email from race director Dale Garland saying I had moved up on the wait list and now had a spot in the race if I was still interested. I thought that was a funny way to phrase it, if you are still interested?
and less than 10 seconds later he got a “Heeeeellllll yeeeeahhhh!!!!” back. That day, I packed up the car and dog and I set sail south to recce the course and infuse some high mountain air. On the way, we stopped in Leadville to meet Dylan Bowman
, my pacer for the race, with the hope of getting in a casual ascent of Mt. Elbert. Unfortunately, we were greeted to an apocalyptic storm and decided we best save our lightning dodging skills until the following week. My plan was to proceed on to Silverton and begin a six day hike around the course to familiarise myself with every section but the unusually early season monsoon washed that away as well. On to Cunningham Gulch: free camping, creek side, tucked away between spectacular cliff bands and waterfalls, I couldn’t think of a better place to stay for the week. On my first outing up Green Mountain, where I felt inclined to run every step
but didn’t, I meet Justin “The Lip” Lutick
an Arizona transplant from Brooklyn, New York initially here to pace Nick Coury
but a wrecked ankle relegated him to crew. He’s camped next to me and many long conversations ensue on every topic imaginable with him mainly trying to convince me of the virtues of talcum powder and me making sure his lip doesn’t get caught in the tent guy lines every morning. The week is marked by an absurdly large and long firework display for the fourth of July with over 15,000 people gathering in the small town of Silverton for $45,000 worth of colorful explosions. Los Alamos fire evacuees Nate and Petra McDowell
, spend a night camped by us with Nate sharing many useful tips about the course. Campfires, cold creek dips, strong espresso, pasta diet, some hiking, lots of map studying, meditation on “becoming” the orange course markings, a little coffee shop Internet and before I know it, it’s 8pm Thursday night and I’m still debating over a waistpack
to carry more gels or my trusty handheld. The briefing earlier in the day had me translating for Julien Chorier
but he didn’t buy my explanation that the race now started at 6:30am instead of 6 and would be run clockwise. My crew arrived safely with Deanne, dog and I nesting in the roost, with the invalid
getting the tent and D-Bow
cramming into the back of his jeep.
Photo: Bob MacGillivray
“3-2-1-Go!”, a little clapping and some hooting and hollering and 140 of us trail off into the woods greeted by the early morning sun. I work my way past a few people mainly trying to not get impaled by the pointy walking sticks many are carrying and settle into a comfortable jog alongside Julien. I get excited as we start crossing the first snow field at the top of the climb until I look up and see Dakota
on a switchback up above. We haven’t even finished the first climb and I’m already meandering off course. I pop up the talus field to rejoin the kid and Julien slips into the lead which he’ll never relent until the finish. Dakota and I enjoy an easy descent down into Cunningham savoring the stunning views to which he comments, “This is what it’s all about...fuck Miwok!” I concur.
A quick transition through the aid station and I'm hypnotically drawn to the next climb. I hike with intent but still with a well contained effort. It’s nice that I know this section and am able to relax my focus from searching for the markers. Not for long though since as soon as we reach Buffalo Boy Ridge, I’m confused again. I see Julien plummet down an unmarked drainage towards Maggie’s aid station below. A few minutes later, Daniel Levy and Dakota emerge not too far from me and a marker catches my eye on the line they’re taking down the mountain. I hop down the 10-12 feet off the snow cornice and cut through the swamp to settle in with them. At Maggie’s, Julien now has a 7-minute lead and since it would be silly to play catch up at this point, I’m content to keep jogging along. The miles go by fast and each section is as good as the previous one. I let the wheels spin a little going into Sherman as the trail is perfectly cush with a nice cruiser grade. Cathy, who will be a tremendous help the entire race, helps me through the aid station fast and efficiently and I quickly find myself on the 3-mile dirt road grind, leading up to the Grizzly Bear trail en route to Handies. I catch glimpses of Nick
and Dakota behind me. As the trail steepens and air rarefies, I feel the first onsets of fatigue. Handies looms up ahead while the approach feels interminable. About half way up, Dakota hikes past me looking strong opening up a small gap while Nick catches me too. We exchange grunts and pained looks but gradually make our way over the top and down towards Grouse. The cool wind feels good on my face as does the reverberating freshness of the snow banks we traverse. Relaxed and in control, I enter Grouse pleased with how things are going so far. Deanne and D-Bow help me through and I’m lifted by their words of encouragement and support. Tony warns me not to burn it on Engineer Road and to take my time with the climb.
The road sucks with dozens of jeeps and quads whizzing by, kicking up dust and polluting the otherwise tranquil setting of the race. I do spend most of the ascent though thinking about how nice it would be to hitch a ride up the hill. Nick is running well accompanied by Brendan
his pacer, while Dakota maintains a steady hike several minutes ahead of me.
The descent to Ouray was shaping out to be uneventful until I lose my footing hopping a creek and face plant violently. I shake it off and continue down the Bear Creek trail which hangs to the side of a cliff, with the deep canyons and raging water below. I am mesmerized by the sound of braking slates under my feet, a cacophony that reminds me of the exhilarating and immensely pleasing feeling I got when as a kid, I chucked a rock through a window. Distracted, I decide I have enough water to get me in to town, a half bottle, or maybe I’ll fill at the next creek. The next creek never comes though and I soon find myself on a 4-mile dry stretch, sweating hard in the muggy evening air. It doesn’t sound like much to miss 45 minutes of water and gel consumption but in this type of race the consequences of being a touch overtaxed from dehydration and lack of caloric intake can be hugely problematic.
I enter Ouray feeling haggard and in desperate need of water and sugar. I chug a bottle, down some coke and even a red bull which I don’t think I’ve drank since I was about 16. My crew tells me Dakota looked terrible and just left while Nick looked a little better but not exactly fresh. This reassures me a bit and I plod out of town with the intention of getting things back together by the time I reach Camp Bird road in a few miles. However, at the road, all I can do is kneel over and throw up all the fluid I just tried to take in. Somehow, this perks me up and I regain some running momentum. I’d known from the start that the road wouldn’t be marked but that when I reached a Y with a sign indicating “Yankee Boy Basin” to the right I was to take a left on the unsigned road. When I finally get to what seems like the turn off, I can see light up tents across the way and assume this is the aid station. To my disappointment it is just some campers enjoying a few brats and beer and they had no clue where Governor Basin is but seem to indicate I had either gone too far or that that aid station would be further down the now dark forest road they are pointing to. I run it for a bit but it simply doesn’t feel right so I turn back around to the main road. Then, hesitate again and go back to ask the the other campers if they might know where I went wrong. They are clueless as well so I do the only thing I can at this point which is to start running back down Camp Bird with the hope of bumping into someone. Karl
soon comes up towards me and informs me I turned off too early and there was still a little ways to go. I’ve lost about 45 minutes on this section but at least I have the best guide for getting over Virginus.
We both collapse into a chair at Governor’s and while I’m in good spirits my stomach is bothering me again so I opt to take a minute to eat some broth and caf up on some mountain dew for the climb. Forging on towards Virginus I soon begin a succession of vomiting sprees every time I put something in my mouth. Karl motors past me and my lack of calories starts to become apparent as I stagger up the hill, weakness creeping in at every step. It’s an odd feeling really because I’m not in any pain nor do I feel any disgust with trying to eat, the food simply won’t stay in me. I can see the portaledge up on the pass with lights flashing, people cheering and ringing bells, as I slowly make my way up the steep steps cut into the snow. I reach the rope on the last pitch and wonder if my arms are strong enough to hall me up to the top. Slipping doesn’t sound so bad right now as it would imply laying at least for a minute until I hit the ground. I make it though and Roch Horton and crew are there in full seventies expedition suits. Both the atmosphere and the sleeping bag I am wrapped in are warming and comforting. I eat a pierogi “lots of good fat” along with some broth and ask Roch for a miracle. He says the best thing anyone could have at this point, “Just do what you love Joe, run in the mountains.” With that I pop down the technical descent on the backside with a renewed sense of excitement but then immediately puke everything I just ate...and again...and again...and again. I probably vomit about 30 times, mainly orange bile on the way down to Telluride.
I get there and announce, “I’m not feeling so great and I need to sit down.” Nothing is going down and Tony later described me as simply not looking human. As low as things appear to be, I never feel like dropping. My mind simply forgets about the race and switches to the fuller dimension of the Hardrock experience that transcends times and competition and brings it back down to the intimate individual struggle of dragging ones weathered body just a little bit further back to the rock patiently awaiting in Silverton. Individual struggle
is an unfair assessment though. In this dark introspective moment I can’t help but feel the care and attention focused on me oozing from every person around. Deanne rubbing my back, bringing me food and warmer clothes, Tony finding the words to keep me motivated and tending to my every need, Dylan ready and eager to accompany me through the end of this journey despite how grim the path ahead looks and countless others offering support and encouragement.
Dylan and I finally set off after about 20 minutes in the station. I attempt a little jog but throw up immediately - walking it is and slow walking at that. We chat a bit as we pick our way up the long, long climb to Oscar’s pass. We can see headlamps bopping ahead and assume it’s Diana
and Daniel Levy who passed me while I was sitting in Telluride. I continue my cycle of eating and puking even rejecting the tums which is quite ironic. Dylan’s presence is immensely helpful and despite the weakness of my body, his company makes me feel stronger. Towards the top, we traverse some sketchy ice fields and while I’ve checked out and scamper across paying little attention to the danger, Dylan is more aware and has a harder time with his tractionless shoes on the icy surface. Again, the top comes, like it always does and my stomach starts to feel better. I haven’t vomited in about an hour now and am holding down cookies and gels. We drop down the insanely rocky road off of Oscar’s and run all the way into Chapman where we find Karl asleep in a blanket. Cathy is there yet again to greet us and looks as fresh as she did back at Grouse. I eat chips, down some coke and get out pretty quick.
This is where my over zealous rebound causes us to tag the wrong pass, lose an hour but finally we’re scrambling up the loose, sandy couloir leading to Grant Swamp pass. Fred Marmsater
is at the top shooting photos and I try to give him my best fighting spirit look which falls more along the lines of what Rickey Gates
would describe when referring to pacing Julien as, “the style of a very ambitious drunk [crawling in the dirt.]” Up and over and to KT we go. I’m feeling in a joking mood at the aid station and briefly recount my mountain visions and our visiting of the wrong peak. Everyone laughs but I wonder if it’s more of a nervous chuckle hoping that this crazy hairy homeless looking guy would just carrying on his way. To their delight we do just that pushing on to Putnam - one last climb - only about 3 hours to go. More jokes through Putnam, some pringles and on to the river. I cross leaning with all my weight on the rope and feeling thankful that I don’t let go. Since this is Hardrock we still get another little climb, the longest 300 ft I’ve ever done. Before long though, I’m hi-fiving the statue of Jesus towering over town and making my way through the streets of Silverton to the rock, for the hardest earned kiss I’ve ever had. While the journey was long and certainly trying when it comes down to it running is just running and if you keep moving along you’ll eventually get there, wherever there may be.
Huge congrats to Julien Chorier for his text book race, Dakota for running so strong at the age of 20, Nick Clark for being the toughest mofo out there period, Diana for an incredible come back performance after last year as well as Darcy for her super strong kick to the end and all the finishers who persevered and got it done.
My warmest and most sincere thank you goes out to my crew Deanne, Tony and Dylan for their exceptional support throughout the day and leading up to the race. Their help was invaluable. Special thank you to Cathy and Roch for their amazing support as well and Krissy Moehl
and Bryce Thatcher for hooking me up with the UltrAspire
goods, which will be hands down the best hydration gear on the market. Bob MacGillivray from Drymax
for making the best socks leaving me blister free wearing a 9 gram sock for 30 hours in all conditions and the good folks at Flora
for keeping the machine oiled. I’m sipping the stuff straight from the bottle
as I write. And finally, everyone who helps put on this amazing race and keeps the Hardrock spirit alive - thank you all.