Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Beauty and Fear at the Hardrock 100 (A Pacer's Report)

People think running 100 miles is hard. 

Well, yes. It is.

Imagine, then, during your 100 mile journey enduring multiple lightning storms at the top of 13,000 foot passes, constant rain, dangerous river crossings, steep, icy passes requiring fixed ropes, nearly 34,000 feet of elevation gain and loss, tricky route-finding, and an average elevation of over 11,000 feet.

That is the adventure faced by runners in the Hardrock 100.

The town of Silverton, where the race starts and finishes, sits nestled at 9,305 feet in the heart of the San Juan Mountains of Colorado. A remnant of early mining industries, it seems a wonder to me that roads and towns even exist in such rugged terrain. Peaks still carrying their white winter coats jut up everywhere, questioning our right to be there. Will they let us travel through, and explore their vastness? The desire to throw myself into such rugged beauty is overwhelming, and the fear makes my heart pound.

Betsy, her seven-year-old daughter Lizzie, and I made the two day drive out from Truckee in Betsy’s white Tacoma, “Betty White” – a group of tough chicks, headed for some tough mountains. We picked up Betsy’s step-dad, Dave, in Salt Lake City, and the crew was assembled. Betsy was ready to run her 11th Hardrock with Dave and Lizzie crewing, while I was stoked to be pacing her from mile 40 to mile 70.

The Crew: Dave, Jay, Lizzie, Betsy, Me

Pre-race activities at the Kendall Mt. ski area were filled with the usual excitement and jitters that precede a 100 mile race. Still in the afterglow from my own 100 miler, I felt relieved not to be racing myself. This was my first time in these mountains. I knew the course was a beast, and I felt nervous enough just going out there for 30 miles.

The pre-race briefing did little to calm my nerves. Talk of heavy snow still on the course and steep, icy passes made me wonder just what I was getting into. I’m no stranger to such terrain, but I generally cover it with an ice axe in hand. Warnings about staying off high ridges during lightening storms made me think twice about the wisdom of carrying such tools. I was seriously considering carrying my tent stakes as self-arrest tools, and to my dismay, several race veterans said that wasn’t a bad idea.

Oh my God. Thank God I am not running this race! These people are crazy! I mean, this is a whole new level of crazy. I am so never going to run this race!

I figured Betsy would reassure me after the meeting that it was always like this. No big deal. Unfortunately she seemed to be a bit freaked-out as well, and we ran off to the sports store in search of YakTracks. (All they had were Stable-icers, which suck in anything except complete ice, but we bought them anyway, just in case.)

I confess to feeling rather foolish about being so nervous when I was only running 30 miles. I worried that Betsy would have to take care of me instead of the other way around. I also worried that my obvious fears were not inspiring the appropriate level of confidence in my runner. When, while socializing with other runners, I suddenly realized Darcy Africa was reassuring me about the course conditions, I knew it was time to shut up, quit acting like such a wimp, and pretend I could do this thing.

We were on our way to dinner the night before the race when Lizzie, who had been sporting one adorable sundress after another on the entire trip, denied the offer of a coat with a shake of her head and the simple truth, “I’m from Truckee!”

I threw my head back in laughter! How many times had I scoffed at someone and thrown out those exact words? Translation: “I’m not worried, I’m tough.”

Usually though, this phrase has a way of coming back to bite me in the ass. For example, someone at work (in Reno) warns me about a patch of ice on the walkway. I respond with a wave of the hand and an “I’m from Truckee.” Then I promptly slip on the ice, barely saving myself from certain broken bones.

Yeah. So I try not to be so arrogant anymore, and I was already sure the phrase “I’m from Silverton” would carry a lot more weight. But I still love that Lizzie doesn’t need a jacket in the chilly mountain air because she is from Truckee.

After 130 men and 15 women set off on their trek through the mountains, Dave, Lizzie, and I grabbed breakfast and headed to the first aid station at mile 8.4 to crew. After 15 minutes, my neck hurt from gawking up at the steep terrain. Waterfalls poured off sheer, green hill sides, fed by the plentiful snowpack above. Crowds of supporters cheered their friends and family members. As runners made their way through the aid station, I finally felt the first pangs of sorrow at not racing.

God this is awesome! I love ultras. I need to get another race on the calendar. Not this one though. This is way too much for me. These people are crazy. But they’re still completely awesome!

Betsy makes her way down into Grouse Gulch.

Late in the day, I stood at the Grouse Gulch aid Station, about mile 40, still making gear selections while I waited for Betsy to arrive. From here I would join her for 30 miles, running up over Engineer’s Pass, down into Ouray, up over Virginius Pass, and down into Telluride. I scanned the sky and decided to bring my windbreaker instead of a full-on rain jacket since it didn’t look like it was going to rain.

A weather forecaster, I am not.

I ended up wearing tights and short sleeves with arm warmers. In my pack I brought my Icebreaker wool top, windbreaker, warm hat, and gloves. I didn’t bust out the Icebreaker until the top of Virginius, but otherwise, I was wearing all of that for most of the 13 hours of pacing.

Betsy arrived looking strong, but feeling a bit worked from her ascent of 14,048 foot Handies Peak. Together, we began the long grind to the top of Engineer’s Pass.

Tangible reminders of the miners to whom the race is a salute.

As we steadily gained altitude, I noticed dark clouds moving in. I refrained from comment, as Betsy seemed pretty focused, and I knew we would simply have to deal with whatever weather Mother Nature decided to throw our way.

As the day faded to night, I looked up and down the mountain and saw us in the middle of a cheerful string of headlamps– runners and pacers paired up, making their way toward the mountain pass.

A bank of fog swooped in to surround us, cutting the visibility to near zero. Our headlamps barely penetrated the thick cloud. There was nothing to do but keep climbing.

Soon thunder and lightning commenced their frightening dance on nearby peaks. The worse things got, the less we spoke, and stress filled the air like the surrounding electricity. I counted the seconds between flashes and booms. 12 seconds. 7 seconds. 4 seconds. By the time I got to two seconds, I quit counting. The clouds let loose and soaked us through.

It suddenly occurred to me that we weren’t really in a fog bank. We were near the top of a 13,000 foot pass in the belly of a thunder cloud. And we just kept climbing.

At the top, Betsy knew we needed to look for a turn off to the right. It’s a good thing she knew, because I’m not sure I would have realized we had to take a dive off the fire road, cross country, down the side of the mountain. Betsy took the lead as we wiped the rain from our eyes, and sloshed down an expanse of alpine tundra that was a soggy as we were.

And then I learned about Hardrock.

The fog lifted and the thunder and lightning abated, though sadly not the rain. The course was marked with metal stakes with reflective tags, and it now became a game of going marker-to-marker down the mountain. In the same way that mountaineers follow wands to navigate safely back down a mountain, we ran to a marker, and immediately had to sight for the next one in order to know where to go. This constant stress of navigation is one of the many challenges of this course, and I took the lead to give Betsy a break.

Where’s the next marker? Okay, found it. Now where’s the next one?

And on it went, just like that.

The Engineer’s aid station is a small affair where the volunteers hike in and bring supplies via horses. They had a roaring fire going, but it still didn’t feel too enticing to stand around when it was raining so hard. Betsy is a master at not wasting time in aid stations. She refilled her hydration pack, I grabbed a PBJ square, and we were outta there. Back to following the markers.

The downhill continued, and the next big challenge was a series of creek crossings. First we had to cross Bear Creek. It was deep and swift, but fortunately the surrounding terrain wasn’t steep, so it didn’t look like it would sweep you away to an icy death if you fell. Betsy crossed with her trekking poles and then handed them back across to me. The water was about knee deep, splashing to mid-thigh, but the force of the current made me grateful for the stability of the trekking poles. Without them, the creeks may have thwarted Betsy’s race.

We crossed Bear Creek one more time, and then proceeded to parallel it down into a steep gorge. The markers finally led us onto a trail which was cut into the side wall of the gorge, and took us across several drainage creeks that led down into Bear Creek. With all the rain, these little creeks were raging, and they provided some of the biggest challenges yet.

“I’m not crossing that!” Betsy declared adamantly as we approached one such drainage. We had already successfully navigated four creek crossings, albeit with a certain amount of terror. This one was on a steeper slope, so it was moving faster, but I knew if we’d crossed the others, we could do this one too.

“I’ll cross it first,” I tried to reassure her. “I’ll see where the footing is good, then come back and help you across.”

I was less than excited about crossing it three times, but I felt pretty confident we could cross it, and I knew it was my job to help get my runner safely across.

“You don’t know what’s down there.” She waved her hand toward the creek cascading over the side of the gorge toward Bear Creek. “I Do!”

It was dark, but it was easy to see that the consequences of a fall could be deadly.  I crossed carefully, against Betsy’s objections, and was pleased to discover the water wasn’t as deep as it first appeared. When I turned around to go back, two runners had come up behind us and were already helping Betsy across. I didn’t have to go back. Sweet!

As we continued down what felt like a never ending descent (the longest on the entire Hardrock course, it turns out), the trail became more technical and I could feel my quads crying out in protest. Perhaps I wasn’t as recovered from Western States as I thought. I focused on careful steps, determined not to hurt myself.

This race is insane. I can’t believe people do this for a hundred miles. I can’t believe I’m only going 30 and it’s still this hard. I have to remember to never sign up for this race!

We dropped lower and lower toward the town of Ouray on the Bear Creek trail, and finally the rain stopped. Now the trail was a sheer drop to our left, above what I began to think of as the Raging River of Death. Numerous people had warned me not to fall on this section, and I continued my focus on careful steps.

The rocks underfoot were flat pieces of shale, and they clanked with every step.

“It’s like being at a Greek Wedding,” a runner coming up behind me declared. I waited in confusion for the explanation. “We just keep breaking plates!”

I laughed out loud. This runner didn’t even have a pacer, but he had a great attitude. I think that might be more important than a great pacer.

My feet were beginning to thaw out since we hadn’t crossed a creek for at least 30 minutes. We both hoped we were approaching Ouray, but the Raging River of Death still roared below. I rounded a corner in the trail when a huge gust of wind caught me and knocked me off balance. Don’t fall here! I steadied myself with a wide-eyed sigh. Thunder, lightning, rain, swollen creeks. What else would be thrown at us in this God-forsaken race?

And just like that, it started to rain again.

Eventually we saw the cluster of lights that, like a beacon of hope, signaled the town of Ouray. In the aid station Betsy actually took a few minutes to sit down while Dave refilled her pack. This was confirmation of what I already knew but what Betsy wouldn’t admit – that she wasn’t feeling so hot.

I had been bonking myself in the last several miles of downhill, but with the tricky footing, course navigation, and creek crossings with which to contend, a silly thing like eating had slipped my mind. I made up for it at the aid station, with a large bowl of mac & cheese, a V-8, and a smattering of goodies for desert.

The long hike up from Ouray felt good to me after so much downhill. Betsy was in better spirits, and clearly feeling stronger.

One of the things we had talked about on the drive out to Colorado was Betsy’s plan to run this race in honor of her friend Allison, who had died that spring in a back country skiing accident. Alison was an accomplished outdoor athlete (climber, skier, ultrarunner, etc.) who was dearly loved in the Tahoe community and known for wearing glitter, sparkles, and feathers into the back country. One way Betsy planned to keep Allison’s spirit with her at Hardrock was by wearing glitter and adorning other runners and volunteers as well.

Thus we sparkled our way into the Governor’s aid station and their offer of soup was met with Betsy’s query, “You want some glitter?”

This became my measure of how she was feeling. When she dabbed glitter onto the faces of volunteers and explained about Allison, I knew her mental state was good. We laughed at the various reactions of the startled, and sometimes confused, volunteers, and we added more glitter to our own sweaty faces. I think sharing the spirit of someone like Allison – someone so strong and vibrant – can only help you in an intense race like Hardrock. It helps you maintain a positive perspective and recall just why you’re out there – to live fully by connecting to the beauty of this world and by pushing ourselves to see just what we can do. Although I barely knew Allison, I definitely felt her spirit out there cheering us on through our tough, beautiful, and glittery run through the mountains.

After we left Governor’s, it was time to approach Virginius Pass. With all of the challenges on the stretch from Engineer’s to Ouray, I had forgotten that this was supposed to be the hardest part of my 30 mile pacing stretch. I had forgotten that thoughts of this pass interfered with my sleep the night before. Suddenly, here it was before us.

“Look for markers up to the left,” Betsy instructed. “We go straight up this snow slope.”
I could see headlamps moving way up the pass, telling me that we would be leaving the dirt behind for quite some time. I tried to shine my headlamp up the slope in search of markers, but something was wrong. My headlamp was clearly dying.


“What?” Betsy asked.

“Oh … I just kicked a rock. I’m fine.” I didn’t think it was such a great idea for me to tell my runner I might need to rely on her light.

God, I’m the worst pacer ever!

Finally we saw the markers leading us up the snow. At the base of the climb, two runners in front of us stopped to put on their micro spikes. I saw that one of them had an ice axe. Envy swelled in my chest.

 Why don’t I have one of those? What happens if I fall? Can I self-arrest with this trekking pole? God I wish I had my YakTrax!

The snow was softer than expected – firm, but with a thin soft layer on top. This meant that A) We would get some traction, but also that B)Our Stable-icers would be worthless. I glanced down the steep slope to see what the consequences of a fall might be and wished I hadn’t. There would be no more looking down allowed!

I started up behind Betsy and slowly we made our way up the slope. As things got steeper and I started getting nervous, I took some time to kick each step a little more firmly into the snow. Running shoes aren’t the best footwear for kicking steps, and each time I slipped a tiny bit I felt a shot of adrenaline spurring me on. When I heard a small whimper escape my throat, I knew I was getting scared.

I started berating myself.

You’re the pacer. You’re supposed to be supportive, not scared! You’ve done things like this plenty of times before. Mountain girl-Up! For crying out loud, YOU’RE FROM TRUCKEE!

And then I took a breath and remembered how to handle myself when I’m scared in the back country. I pause, even if it’s just for a moment, and appreciate the surrounding beauty. There is something about those fear-filled moments that makes the world around you come alive. Your senses sharpen, and it’s like nothing else exists but you and that beauty, right then. It’s one of the most powerful parts of pushing your limits in the wilderness. You’re scared, yes, but you’ve never appreciated life more than you do at that moment.

And when I did look up from my own feet in the snow, I almost cried. The sky was just barely light with the first hint of dawn – that time of day where things are a dark, gray-blue with just a suggestion of pink, but you can still see the stars.  A vast landscape of rugged mountains stretched before me in a soft, gray outline, their snowy shoulders aglow. I knew there was no place else I’d rather be.

I continued my ascent with a smile. The fear was still there, but it was calm and focused. It made me strong rather than weak.

I have no idea how long we spent on the snowy trek up Virginius. I remember climbing it with two other runners behind who kept thanking me for setting a mellow pace. Their lighthearted humor kept me relaxed as we crossed snow bridges over icy creeks, and came to the final, steepest  pitch which was adorned with a fixed rope.

That last part was actually fun; I’m comfortable when I’ve got a rope from above. I paused several times to look behind me at the landscape as the approaching sun slowly unveiled its beauty. Upon reaching the summit at Kroger’s Canteen, Roch Horton and his boys promptly sat us down, wrapped sleeping bags around our shoulders, and handed us hot soup.

“You want some glitter?” was the inquiry to the crowd at large, and Betsy proceeded to add a little sparkle to the Canteen.

I love this race! This is so freaking awesome! I love where we are right now. Look at how beautiful this is. Love it!

The long descent to Telluride, however,  was something less than loveable. My quads screamed even louder than before, and I had to stay focused in order to keep the pace.

Oh thank God I get to stop in Telluride! My legs are dead. I can’t even imagine how these people run 100 miles through this – I can barely handle 30! I could never do it. Never!

We had a brief conversation wherein Betsy tried to suggest that she should just stop in Telluride, and I pretended like she wasn’t serious. I knew she wasn’t feeling well. I knew her splits were way off all of her previous races at Hardrock. I also knew she was going to finish, even if she didn’t want to at that particular moment. She voiced the thought a few more times, and I simply reviewed what gear she could probably drop at the next aid station and reminded her to get some solid food there before leaving.

For myself, however, I was honestly grateful to be finished running. I changed my clothes and crawled into the back of the truck to sleep while Betsy picked up her next pacer, Jay, and headed off to face another day on the trails. That is one tough woman.

She finished in what she summed up as her “personal worst,” but she still had a smile on her face when she did it.

After the awards breakfast I was honored to hang out with the Hardrockers, who, although I didn’t know most of them before, are at least as wonderful as ultrarunners everywhere.

A number of memorable conversations took place outside the tent by the finishline that morning. Including Betsy’s progressive statements of: “This is my last Hardrock.”; “I’m probably not coming back.”; and “I think I’ll take a year off.”

The same attitude was summed up well by Roch: “I’m like an alcoholic – I tried to quit Hardrock, but I just need one more!”

And ultimately it’s all said best by Betsy’s explanation of her race to Jared: “It’s just so intense every moment. I was falling asleep, then we were heading up Grant’s Swamp and suddenly there was lightning and thunder all around. The rain soaked us, the hail stung our faces, and the thunder was so loud we couldn’t talk, and I was like – Okay! I’m awake now! And it’s just so crazy, but then you look down and see this amazing wildflower and think, God, that is so beautiful! It just forces you to appreciate every single tiny moment.”

And it is a beautiful race. Crazy, crazy beautiful.

The trip home was a bit of an ultra itself, pushing from the San Juans back to Truckee in a single day. Of course there was much conversation of a return to Hardrock. I feel the pull of this race, even though everything about it scares me to death. If running 100 miles is about exploring our limits, then Hardrock is about crossing those limits and finding out just who we are on the other side. I can’t say I’m quite ready to run it myself, but it does stir up my emotions in a way I can’t explain.

I’m so inspired by Betsy, and all the runners. I still have trouble wrapping my brain around the feat of finishing Hardrock. A race like this ignites extraordinary fear. And that’s exactly why it’s so tempting.

Truckee Girls!


  1. Simply awesome. Hardrock is a disease. Contagious. Forever. You'll never shake it off. You'll be back. One day, may be next year, I'll see your name on a lottery list.

  2. Wow, Gretchen! I was right there with you. My husband and I backpacked through those mountains ten years ago (when such things were possible...) and the beauty was wildly transcendent. I love how you cozied up to your fear and embraced the immediacy of running through the mountains. What could be better than that??!!

  3. Olga - I absolutely, 100% know what you're saying. Contagious. Completely. It was great seeing you out there, too!

    Pam - Exactly - what could be better? This was my first time to these mountains, so clearly I was a bit awestruck. Simply amazing!

  4. Positively gorgeous, Gretchen. Thank you. For me, it's the mountains for which I've fallen in love. To me, the race is fascinating, but I still don't want to run it, probably for all the fears you articulated. This mountain range us like no other. Thanks for this!

  5. Wow. That does sound tough. And being from San Jose, I don't get extreme weather... I wouldn't know what to do with an ice axe if I had one! But as an ultra runner, I can understand how that fear makes you feel so alive. Thanks for sharing!

  6. Gretchen,
    I've been reading your blog semi-regularly for about a year. You are a great writer. Your prose really catches the essence of your experience. Thank you.

  7. Wow, wow, wow. What an intense experience! I agree with Pam, I felt like I was right there with you guys. I swear my stomach dropped when you described looking down and regretting it. Yikes!! I need to get out to these San Juans and see for myself what all the rage is :)

  8. Good God Gretchen! There have been time when I was lost and scared out of my mind- I'll definitely remember this blog and remember to look for the beauty around me to calm my fears. You are amazing girl!

  9. Gretchen, it was so interesting and moving to read this -- great job, and thank you! Since I paced from Telluride to the finish, I was very curious about the stretch you did leading to Telluride, especially in the dark. Many congrats to Betsy--as I write in my pace report ( it puzzles me why the event is so gender imbalanced, and I admire every woman out there.
    Did you use poles? I found the BlackDiamond Z Poles to be lifesavers in snow traversing and creek crossings. I really debated whether to bring my traction devices for the snow and in the end am glad I didn't, but that's because the poles helped. Also, guess what--the total elev gain and loss is around 66K, double what you wrote! 33K is "just" the gain :-). Crazy, huh? Take care and have a great summer of running.

  10. Teresa - Thank you!

    Meghan - I do think it's the mountains for me, too. But the race holds it's own temptations, simply because of those fears. (And, you know, all the other awesomeness that goes along with big ultras.)

    John - Awesome! Glad you could connect with this in spite the lack of icy passes in San Jose. :) Thanks!

    Anon - Thank you so much. Those kinds of comments mean a lot to me. Hope you keep reading!

    Paige - YES! get out to the San Juans. I know you guys would love it.

    Amber - Yep, that is the trick for when you're scared. ppreciate the beauty, because it never looks better than when enhanced by fear. Definitely.

    Sarah - Yeah, we talked a lot about the lack of women at the race. I definitely have some thoughts on that.

    Trekking poles - yes! They were super helpful on steep snow, creek crossings, and even technical downhills. They helped save my quads a bit.

    Yeah, I know the elevation change is ridiculous. Will you be returning to pace, or run yourself? :)

  11. Inspiring as always, Gretchen. Beautiful words and photos. Love the inner monologue in italics.

  12. Thanks, Turi! I had to edit that inner monologue for language. ;)

  13. Wonderful report and I love your writing! I can SO relate to everything you said. Thanks for a great write-up!

  14. I'm real late posting here...but was reading some reports from last year and came upon yours. I also see that you are in the starting field! ;-)
    See you there! Great report, BTW...