Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Adversity, Faith, and the Long Run - Training for the Hardrock Hundred

Red Mountain Pass

Heading south on highway 50, I steered my trusty Subaru through the small town of Ridgeway, Colorado. Directly ahead of me, enshrouded in a mass of thunder clouds, lay the jagged, intimidating outline of the San Juan Mountains. Purple streaks of lightning struck the peaks, and I whooped in uncontained excitement. I was almost there – the San Juans, Silverton, Hardrock!

It’s been an interesting journey, this first half of the year spent training for Hardrock. Some days I feel like I’ve thought about little else. My training changed considerably from previous years. Of course, I am one year wiser as an ultrarunner, but I confess, I still don’t know if I am experienced enough for a course like Hardrock.

This is what has given me occasional nightmares throughout the year:

Don't try to tell me your 100 is harder than mine.

In a practical sense, I changed my training by focusing primarily on climbing and on staying at altitude. (Of course the 6,000-10,000 feet of most of my training grounds pales in comparison to the 8,000-14,000 feet of the Hardrock course, but we do what we can.) I dropped my weekly speed workout of last year in favor of a weekly 14 miler with almost 4,000 of vertical. I stayed in Tahoe as much as possible instead of driving down to lower elevations for weekend long runs. (The barely-there winter we had assisted greatly in this effort!)

Early season training at 10,000 feet.

Mentally, everything became Hardrock training. I called it “adversity training.” Every time something was more challenging than I’d expected, I’d simply shrug and think, Oh well, good Hardrock training. A long day in the Grand Canyon; That Matt Davis Trail and the entire Miwok experience; Getting lost; Running in the rain; Route finding in the Yosemite high country. All seemed like good contributions to the experience I would bring with me to Colorado.

I’ve realized that I don’t see Hardrock as a race. I don’t even really see it as a run. It’s more like a journey the body, mind, and spirit must embark upon together. In order to complete Hardrock, one needs strong fitness, experience in the mountains, mental toughness, and probably a bit of luck. I’ve tried to train in all of these aspects. (Although, if you can tell me how to train for good luck, I’d love to know. I’m not sure the right tone is being set there with the race starting on Friday the 13th and all.)

The biggest test in my adversity training regimen began in the middle of June when I developed a painful and somewhat mysterious abdominal issue. Essentially it feels like very intense muscle cramps, keeping my torso curled forward when it was at its worst. I think it was brought on by NSAID use, which I was taking the prior week in order to get me through the final days of school during an illness. A variety of treatments has it feeling much improved at this point, although still quite a concern.

The problem is, running is a primary irritant. It makes my stomach worse. Thus, I had to quit running during what were to be my final weeks of hard training. I squeezed in a couple runs once the pain was at a tolerable level, but they only brought the pain level back up. So essentially I’ve been tapering for a month, stewing and stressing over whether this pain will still be with me on race day.

The other pain-inducing activities are deep breathing and eating. So, as long as I can avoid any running, breathing, and eating at Hardrock, I’m sure I’ll be fine.

With race day imminent, this is where the faith comes in. Faith that my training was enough, in spite of too many days off in June. Faith that two more days of rest will be enough to heal my wounded digestive system. And most of all, faith that I will know what to do if the hard decisions come knocking at my door. I am well aware that 48 hours of hard activity are eventually going to bring back the intensity of pain that struck me three weeks ago. There’s little question about that. It’s not a matter of pain tolerance either. I wouldn’t be here if I had a low tolerance for pain. The question is whether I will know if it’s reached a point when I am putting my health at risk.

My husband, who knows much better than to counsel me not to do this thing, not to run the hardest hundred miler in the country with a vaguely diagnosed illness, tried to explain that I am in this for the long run, not the 100 mile run. My mother reassured me that it would be okay if I decided not to run. These are not things that I need explained to me, although I appreciate the love and support that they convey. I also understand why the people who love me and worry about me feel compelled to explain them. I’m known to be a bit on the stubborn side, at the cost of reason, when something has a grip on my heart like Hardrock does. Still, I'm going forward with faith in my ability to make the right decision, should the time come.

Unfortunately, the condition of my stomach has dominated my psyche for the last three weeks. Now that I’m here, however, the distractions of friends and race week events are getting me excited. Each day, I feel the pain in my stomach, little by little, making its exit, giving me hope. I organize my gear and study the course map in eager anticipation. I meet up with old friends and make new ones. Silverton is alive with Hardrockers, and I’ve realized one thing since arriving this week: I am truly lucky to be here.

That thought is what I plan to take with me out on the course – gratitude. No matter what challenges await me out there or how my race turns out, I am grateful to be here, to have the support of so many wonderful friends and family, and to be surrounded by such a spirited and strong community of ultrarunners.

With my awesome crew/pacers, Geof and Paige, after hiking the Bear Creek trail in Ouray.


  1. I hope the tummy troubles are past you and you are able to soak in every second of the amazing Hardrock experience with no pain. (well, only the to-be-expected running 100 very hard miles pain) I look forward to reading about it! Good luck, have fun!

  2. You truly are amongst the lucky ones. Believe.

  3. Oh, I didn't know about this. As if this challenge wasn't already daunting enough.

    I can't think of anyone I know better suited mentally and physically for Hardrock. If anyone can keep a relatively calm, patient mind going into this, it's you.

    I'll be crossing my fingers that your stomach allows you to do what you're in the San Juans to do.

    1. Thanks, Stac. I've been thinking the exact same thing - apparently Hardrock alone wasn't enough of a challenge for me. I needed something to make it even harder. ;)Things feel pretty good at the moment though, and I am feeling quite hopeful! I certainly have a rockstar team here supporting me!

  4. I am intimately acquainted with that mindset -- your head is ready, your spirit is ready, and your freaking body just won't cooperate. Breathing and gratitude: I think you have it right. I so love that you're doing this race, Gretchen. You are the perfect person to toe the starting line in Silverton. You deserve this race. And no matter what happens out there, you're my Hardrock Superstar.

  5. This sounds like one of those epic journeys you'll be reflecting on in years to come. And, I bet the NSAID was indeed behind the stomach aches. That stuff is real trouble if you take it and then indulge in intense exercise.

  6. You made it!!! I was watching the Hardrock site all day. So thrilled for you. Can't wait to hear the story....

  7. Congrats on finishing Hardrock! Looking forward to your report!

  8. Woo hoo! Way to go, Chica. I'm incredibly proud of you ... but at the same time, I never had any doubt you'd fight your way through. You're simply awesome.

  9. you did it, you did it!! i can't wait to hear the blow by blow. i hope you are resting up. way to go!

  10. Thanks for all the support, you guys. The whole thing was unbelievably epic. I have no idea how I am going to find words for this experience. But I promise to try! (Just as soon as I can stop sleeping ...)