Friday, July 27, 2012

The Magic and Madness of the Hardrock 100

With my rock star crew, Paige, Jamie and Geof, before the start. (Photo by Jim Frink)

6:00 A.M. in Silverton Colorado, and I stand amidst the starting line crowd at the Hardrock 100 with tears in my eyes. Dammit, I’m crying again. I forgive myself this time though. These are tears of joy. Excitement. Trepidation. Perhaps a bit of terror. But in a good way.

Every thought in my brain, every waking minute, even my dreams, have been building with increasing fervor toward this one moment. Well, this moment and the 40-some hours to follow. Hardrock is a very long moment.

With Margret and Mark before the start.

On the start line with Darla.

We’re off through the streets of Silverton, 140 runners on 140 different journeys. We hit the first hill after about 30 seconds and switch to a walk. Well, that was exciting. I’m happy to walk. I figure there will be plenty of time for running later. Preferably on the downhills.

I feel good, although I know I’m lacking the same fitness I had back in May. Health issues killed my final training weeks and I’ve barely run for a month. A friend and Hardrock veteran advised that I fatten up during my taper. I drooled over thoughts of ice cream and hamburgers. I couldn’t bring myself to tell him that I’d started my taper three weeks early and my body was accepting food on a very limited basis. My wounded digestive system dictated that calories come in liquid form only, and a girl can only eat so many smoothies. Instead of the best shape of my life, I arrived at the Hardrock starting line with the body of an anorexic swimsuit model. Minus the big tits, of course.

And, we're off!

My abs are still painfully tight; it feels as though I did a thousand crunches yesterday. But for the first day in weeks, I can take a deep breath without pain. It’s something of a miracle, and I know enough to be extremely grateful for it. In fact, my gratitude is enough to erase any worries about lost fitness, or how, with my limited ability to eat, I will possibly take in enough calories to fuel me for 102.5 miles and nearly 34,000 feet of climbing. My reassurance comes from this knowledge: Finishing Hardrock isn’t so much about being fast as it is about being tough. If you can be a bit of a stubborn bitch, that helps too. At least I’ve got that part covered.

I spend time running with Mark Heaphy, whom I met earlier this summer at Pocatello 50, and with Harris, a friend of a friend, who is also from California. I enjoy socializing with as many runners as I can. I’m aware that this is the easy part, and eventually the race will spread out enough that I may be running long stretches by myself.

As the sun rises and lights the surrounding peaks, I remember to stop and take photos. I know I may be too tired to take them later, so I indulge myself as much as possible.

Heading to the mineral Creek crossing. (Photo by Paige Dunmore)

We cross Mineral Creek, and crowds are there to cheer us on. I smile and wave to friends as cameras snap. We’re celebrities. Everyone’s here to gawk at the lunatics. The insane. The heroes. I try not to trip and fall, face first, into the water.

The water is so low this year, this crossing seems like nothing!

I come up over the first significant ridge. We’re above 12,000 feet, above tree line, and the world is vast and filled with possibility. Trails head off to both the left and right, but I don’t see markers in either direction. I don’t see runners ahead, and when I turn to look behind me, the nearest runners are several minutes back. Which way do I go?

There is a trail marker at my feet, and it is my anchor. As long as I’m right here, I’m not lost. But I know I must go forward at some point, and I scan the horizon in both directions, scrunching my eyes up in search of the glinting metal. Nothing.

Hardrock trail marker. (Photo by Katie Desplinter)

Then it occurs to me that this is Hardrock. Instead of looking at either of the trails, I step closer to the edge of the ridge and look over the side of the mountain where there is no trail at all. Sure enough, below me in the distance is the next marker. I smile as I spring down towards it. I can do this. I can find my way on this crazy course.

A runner named Larry catches up to me, and we cruise the downhill together.

“I loved your pacer report from last year!” he confides.

I smile and thank him. It feels good to know that Hardrockers read that post and didn’t think I was a total idiot. On the other hand, I reason, just because he loved it doesn’t mean he doesn’t think I’m an idiot. I don’t care though; I still appreciate the compliment.

“You said you were never going to run this race,” he teases me. He isn’t the first to give me grief about this, and I giggle in response. “But I knew you really wanted to run it!” he declares knowingly.

Well, yes. I think we all knew that. Even I knew it.

At the KT aid station I get a stern lecture from a volunteer who looks to be about 16. My hydration bladder is still too full, he tells me. I really need to drink more. There is genuine concern in his eyes, so I pretend to take him seriously and promise to drink. He doesn’t know I’ve already sucked down a bottle of my GU Recovery drink. When you’re on a liquid diet, hydration isn’t a huge concern.

Departing KT aid station. (Photo by Chriss Furman)

Mark leads down the trail.

We head toward Grant-Swamp pass with Mark leading our small group of runners. Blake Wood is just behind me. He and Mark have over 20 Hardrock finishes between the two of them. I like running with these guys. They’re friendly and easy going. I also find myself hoping that their close proximity will somehow allow me to absorb their ability to finish this thing. There must be some kind of magic they can impart. I imagine if I can stick with them, if I can do what they do, pace how they pace, I will certainly be able to kiss that rock.

Reality check: I have no idea how fast these guys finish Hardrock. Perhaps running with them will be too speedy for me. Dang. I will have to run my own race, after all.

The trail to the summit of Grant-Swamp Pass.

Looking back down the climb.

Grant-Swamp is our first big pass, over 13,000 feet. I still feel great starting up the climb. As we near the summit however, the trail gets steeper and more precipitous. My power hike slows considerably. Under the guise of taking pictures, I repeatedly pause to catch my breath. I remind myself to take it easy – that I don’t want to overdo things this early in the race. I take a sip of water and suddenly feel dizzy and nauseated.

Taking pictures is a good excuse to stop and breathe. (Photo by Ray Dileo)

Really? This is how it’s going to be? I’m only at mile 15! I look at the steep slope before me and the tiny, narrow, switchbacking trail I’m following to the summit. This is not a place that I want to feel dizzy. Falling right now would be bad.

Making the climb up with Blake. (Photo by Ray Dileo)

I breathe deeply and accept the obvious: This is going to be a very slow journey. I’m not disappointed though. I mean, at least I can breathe deeply, right? This is an improvement from yesterday. I resolve to take care of myself no matter what, and to enjoy the race as much as possible. This may be the first time in any race that I have truly let go of any thoughts about my finish time or place. I feel a certain freedom in my singular goal of kissing that rock before 6:00 A.M. on Sunday.

I'm smiling because I'm at the top! (Photo by Tanner Johnson)

At the top: triumph! A handful of spectators cheer and take pictures. The sense of accomplishment is short lived when I peer over the other side of the ridge to see where we’re headed.

“We’re going down that?” I squeak, wide-eyed, to a photographer perched on a nearby rock. His mischievous grin is not the response I’m hoping for.

Peering over the edge. It's so steep, you can't actually see the "trail."

The slope is impossibly steep and covered in loose scree. I can discern no trail whatsoever.
We’ll need to go one at a time for safety, and another runner suggests letting our resident veteran, Blake, go first.

“Show us how it’s done, Blake!” he encourages.

And he does. Blake jumps up and drops into the narrow chute like a skier picking his line on a fat powder day. He disappears over the side, and I tentatively scoot closer to the edge to see him. He is indeed a skier, making expert turns, steering himself through moguls of rocks and dirt.

Blake rides the scree far below.

When he’s far enough down, the next runner goes, and I turn to the photographer. “I’m scared,” I confess, as if somehow voicing this thought will purge the fear from my heart.

He gives me a few words of encouragement, and when it’s my turn, I don’t think about it. I just go. I take small, hesitant steps at first, trying to control my speed. I have my poles out, and they’re critical in keeping me upright. Controlling my momentum is a foolish hope, and I start bringing waves of scree down with me. I’m still scared, but I’m also having the time of my life, and I whoop and holler and giggle. Laughter is a good antidote for fear. Halfway down and my rock pile is a full-on avalanche. I’m riding the wave, steering with my feet and poles, scree surfing at its finest. This race is awesome!

At the bottom, I pause to regroup. My legs quiver from the effort to stay upright, residual adrenaline courses through my body, and victory mixes with relief that I made it to the bottom in one piece.

Looking back up from the bottom. You can almost see my ski tracks!

Looking across to the next 13,000 foot pass: Oscar's.

Approaching the Chapman Gulch Aid Station, the runners who made the climb up with me have now all left me behind. I take the downhills easy, as I will do with everything at this race. Signs on the trail indicate that I’m nearing the aid station, but the signs are curious. “Porcine Pleasure”? What on earth could that mean? I’m feeling a little worried, until the next sign mentions something about bacon. Ah, the bacon station. I like it. The sign after that, “WWBD?” seems obvious: “What would bacon do?”

Approaching the Bacon Station at Chapman Gulch.

Pretty soon, I can smell the bacon, and I’m hit with a devastating reality: I can’t eat solid food. Damn! Bacon sounds so good right now.

I turn painfully away from the buffet of bacon-filled foods and sip some broth. I’m treated like a queen while volunteers wait on me hand and foot. It’s like I have my own crew. One volunteer even gives me props for staying upright down Grant-Swamp pass.

“You don’t have the tell-tale dirt streak up your backside,” he explains when I ask how he knows.

My food and water restocked, I head happily toward the next 13,000 foot pass: Oscar’s. The Hardrock course can essentially be summed up like this: A long, slow climb, followed by a long, steep descent that is so painful, you’re relieved when you start climbing again; repeat for a hundred miles. Knowing this makes it all much easier to accept. There’s never a point in the race where you can say, “Whew! The hard part’s all out of the way!” Until you kiss that rock in Silverton, that is.

Comparatively speaking, the climb up Oscar’s doesn’t seem nearly as bad as Grant-Swamp. It is just as high, but it isn’t as steep or exposed. I make the ascent with relatively little drama until I reach the last thousand feet or so of climbing. Here, the distant sounds of thunder grow closer, and the rain grows strong enough to warrant putting on my rain jacket. I enjoy the climb, even as the rain picks up and soon turns to hail. Of course it’s hailing. I expect nothing less from this race.

Approaching Oscar's

The thunder isn’t close enough to cause real concerns about lightning though, and I continue upward with the hail stinging my bare legs. I see runners up ahead and behind, and I am reassured. In theory, it seems crazy to be out running high on a mountain pass in a hail storm, but I know from my experience pacing last year that this is just part of what the San Juans offer. The other runners seem to feel the same, and we plod on.

I’m just approaching the top of the ridge when a voice ahead calls out.

“Is that Gretchen?”

I squint through rain-soaked eyes to see a purple jacket hopping up and down with excitement. “Who’s that?” I yell.

“It’s Sarah!”

“Sarah!!” I can’t believe I am way out here in the Colorado mountains, and Sarah and Morgan are at 13,000 feet in a hail storm cheering me on.

Reaching the summit of Oscar's Pass. (Photo by Sarah Lavender Smith)

We have a brief, but joyous exchange. Their friendly faces come at a perfect time, as I have been running alone since the last aid station. Ultrarunning friends are so cool.

The next several miles are a long descent toward Telluride at mile 30. The hail has stopped, and the green slopes are thick with wildflowers. I feel myself getting teary-eyed at the ridiculous beauty around me. I don’t know why I’m so emotional, but I accept it as simply part of my experience. I love this race!

The trail down from Oscar's

Hailstones and wildflowers.

I have a little trouble following the markers, but whenever I worry that I’m lost, I look around for reassurance. It’s a narrow valley, and if I simply head downhill, all paths lead to Telluride. There aren’t too many ways to get seriously lost.

Eventually I’m on the road into town. I’ll see my crew for the first time here, and I’m excited. I can’t believe it’s already 4:00 P.M. and I’ve only gone 30 miles. Actually, it’s not even quite 30 miles, but Hardrockers seem to do a lot of rounding. This race doesn’t worry about things like a few pesky extra miles. That’s how we can call a race that is 102.5 miles the “Hardrock 100.” Close enough.

Coming into the aid station, I am thrilled to see Geof and Paige’s smiling faces. Although this is the first crew stop, I can already tell that I couldn’t have hoped for better people to take care of me. I hand off my pack, tell them I want to change my shoes, and head off to the bathroom to deal with a small problem. Of course I’ve started my period. Why not add one more layer to the abdominal pain I already have? At least that might explain the excessive emotions.

Sipping miso in Telluride. (Photo by Geof Dunmore)

Geof and Paige are great about offering me a variety of foods while I change my shoes and socks. So far I’ve been surviving on my GU Recovery drink, GU gels, Honey Stinger chews, Justin’s nut butters, and broth from the aid stations. Now I eagerly scarf an avocado covered in salt. Oh joyous real food! I also chug a strawberry Ensure, which goes down surprisingly well. It’s a quick 500+ calories that I sorely need.

Mmmmm, Avocado!

Goodbye, Telluride!

Soon, I’m off for the next ridiculously long climb, this time up Virginius Pass. This pass scared the hell out of me last year, but I am also reassured by the fact that I am headed into familiar terrain. The next 30 miles of trail are the same ones I ran with Betsy during her race last year. I follow the trail up into the forest feeling relaxed, the rain still softly coming down around me, leaving the town of Telluride behind.

It’s only five miles to the top of the pass, but of course they’re slow ones. On the final approach, the volunteers at the tiny Kroger’s Canteen cheer me on.

“Are you Gretchen?” a girl calls down to me as I climb.

“Yes!” I feel welcome already.

We continue this yelling exchange as I slowly approach the aid station. Did I hike the PCT? Yes. She read my blog post about it. She hiked the AT. Cool! I am happy. I am with my people. This race rocks.

Here is one way to tell when your 100 miler is extreme: A port-a-ledge is required for the aid station supplies and the volunteers wear climbing helmets.

At the Kanteen.

I don’t really need anything from this aid station, but it’s a huge mental boost having these guys up here. It’s crazy that they tuck this tiny aid station up into this little notch at 13,000 feet. Where do they go in a lightning storm?

Now comes the descent, and this is the part I knew would be tricky. The markers lead us down the steep side of the pass. In stark contrast to last year, there is no snow to ease the slide down. There aren’t piles of scree to ride. There is just a steep, hard-packed slope covered with a thin layer of loose dirt. Lovely.

Looking down from the top of Virginius.

At the bottom, in the one patch of snow, is a message for runners:

"Only 65 miles to Go! Go! Go!"

Wait, that means I’ve only gone 35 miles? Can that be right? It’s dark humor, to be sure. I shake my head, smile, and begin my precarious descent with determination.

I once heard some advice, credited to Roch Horton but passed on to me through a telephone game of runners, about negotiating technical downhills. Incidentally, Roch is the aid station captain at Kroger’s Canteen, and I imagine him, at this very moment, watching my progress down the mountain. The advice? “Just make every step a good one.”

This is my mantra right now, and I try. I really do try.

It hurts, and it’s scary, but I almost make it down without falling. Almost.

Other runners within earshot call out to ask if I’m okay. I must have screamed or something. Oops.

Yes, I’m fine. I hear my voice crack, and I struggle to keep from crying. I really am fine, I reassure myself. It’s just a quick scare. At the next creek, I pause to wash gravel from the road rash on my butt. Perhaps I should wear longer shorts for a race like this.

Looking back up the pass.

 A little kiss from Virginius, as seen two days after the fact.

I follow the markers to the Governor’s aid station. A check of the watch tells me I’m not going to make it in to Ouray before 9:00 P.M. Dang! I was hoping to pick up my first pacer, Geof, before it got dark. I’m reassured by the knowledge that the remaining miles to the Ouray aid station follow the wide, smooth miles of the Camp Bird Road. It shouldn’t be too hard to stay on the correct path to the aid station, right?

I make some of the miles with Honey Albrecht, and even when we’re not running together, I am comforted by the sight of her light ahead, bobbing gently through the night. We are tiny stars, giant fireflies, quietly closing in on Ouray.

The lights of the town approach at last, and I hear two runners yell close behind me. I missed the turn off from the road. Disaster averted! I gush my thanks and turn back toward their lights. It was a critical turn to make, and the route into the aid station is confusing. I let my two saviors lead me all the way in.

As in most ultras, long hours of contemplation on the trail are punctuated by staccato bursts of commotion at each aid station. Jamie greets me on the road and we walk into the aid station together while I sputter a string of crazy-beautiful-flowers and hail-storm and oh-my-god-grant-swamp and almost-missed-a-turn and then Paige is handing me avocados and I sit and eat. Ah, food. That shuts me up.

Ready to leave Ouray with Geof. I love this picture because we look so stoked, and that's exactly how we felt!

Geof is ready to escort me the 15 miles along the Bear Creek trail, up over 13,000 foot Engineer’s Pass, and down into Grouse Gulch. We head off together through the quiet streets of Ouray. A deer walks calmly across the street and disappears between two houses. It’s the biggest wildlife I’ve seen so far. Geof would really like to see a moose. I tell him no, there are no moose around here. They’re all farther north.

The trail out of town is as confusing as the one on the way in. Eventually we make all the funky turns and alight on the Bear Creek trail. We hiked this stretch together five days earlier because I knew it would be dark this time around. It gives us both confidence, and for once I don’t worry about getting lost.

I tell Geof how great I am feeling, that I have done nothing but go slow from the outset, but that I feel like I could keep this pace up forever. I am flush with confidence. Maybe I can even run a negative split. Geof is enthusiastic. Supportive. We are so naïve. Twenty hours into the race, and I am still, so, completely naïve.

The Engineer’s aid station comes and goes with little remark, save that it’s difficult to leave the warm fire. Soon we are trekking cross-country through the Alpine tundra, up toward the top of the pass. A lone voice from far above rings out across the flower-carpeted slope.

“That’s what I’m talkin’ about!” he booms. “Git ‘er done!” It’s nearly two o’clock in the morning, and someone is up there cheering us on. Like a fog horn calling ships to safe harbor, his voice draws me upward into the night. When we make the summit, we thank him. He offers us a shot of whiskey in reply. I ask him to meet me at the finish in Silverton.

On the long downhill into Grouse I experience my first yawn. My second. My third. I’m surprised it took this long to start. Geof teases me, but I’m not worried about being too sleepy yet.

When we arrive at the aid station, I look around for the truck.

“What if they’re not here?” I don’t actually think this is the case, but the idea simply pops into my head and out my mouth.

“They’re here,” Geof says confidently.

“I know,” I agree. “But if they’re not, you’re coming with me to Cunningham.” I want to be clear on this. I’m not leaving this aid station alone.

Geof gives a nervous laugh, briefly contemplating the prospect of adding another 32 miles, (and probably 14 hours) to his pacing stint. Of course, the conversation is all hypothetical. Paige and Jamie are right there in the aid station tent.

It’s 4:00 A.M. I’m at mile 60 and I’ve been running for 22 hours. I celebrate with half a shot of 5-hour Energy and a strawberry Ensure chaser.

I swap out Geof for Jamie and hit the trail. We head for Handies Peak, the high point of the course at just over 14,000 feet. I do the math aloud and inform Jamie that I could still finish in 39 hours. After twenty minutes, I realize my math was way wrong. Jamie was already aware of this; she just didn’t want to discourage me.

The climb takes nearly forever, but the sun comes up and I can see the entire world from the summit. It is the first 14er for both of us. 65 miles was a good warm-up for it. I am wide awake.

The initial descent is technical, and Jamie balks.

“You didn’t bring the trekking poles?” I ask, puzzled.

Geof had advised her at Grouse that she wouldn’t need them. Well, yes. The section of trail he paced wasn’t exactly technical or exposed. There’s nothing we can do about it now, so I refrain from comment and pick my way down the trail. She’ll be fine.

A hundred yards down I look back up to see Jamie slowly climbing down with hands and feet. She sputters to hikers climbing up about being a failure as a pacer. I just smile. I remember being in her shoes last year while pacing Betsy. Welcome to Hardrock, Jamie.

Down, down, down we go until I am so incredibly tired of going down. I realize I’m tired of going up, too. It feels like just a few minutes ago  I was swaggering up Bear Creek Trail, crowing to Geof that I could hold my slow-and-steady pace forever. Now the 30+ remaining miles feel like an eternity.

My own exhaustion brings tears to my eyes. My skin is paper thin and I slowly pull apart at the seams while emotions come leaking out all over. Jamie catches up, and I don’t recognize her similar condition until she mentions that it’s probably not a good sign that we’re both crying. I pledge aloud to pull my shit together before we see Geof and Paige at Cunningham. I can’t ask them to deal with my idiocy; they’ve been too good to me to suffer that. I know that scene is many hours in the future though, so for now, I just keep moving forward.

There is a dirt road for a few miles between the Burrows and Sherman aid stations, probably the only flat miles of the entire course. It takes every bit of determination I can muster to run even short parts of it. I’m clearly not getting enough calories, but I force down GU as often as I can.

I keep checking my watch, worried now about making the 48 hour cut-off. Each mile feels slower than the last. As already evidenced, my math skills are long gone, so I really have no guess what my finish time might be. I can only wonder if two miles an hour is really a pace I can maintain. This is the point I’ve reached: Two miles an hour sounds hard.

At the Sherman aid station I plop myself into the nearest chair, not realizing that it belongs to the volunteers who are checking-in the runners. There are tons of chairs designated for runners, but the volunteers are too nice to say anything to me about it. Instead, they encourage me.

“You’re doing great!” One woman says.

It’s a total lie. I look like death, which is why they’re being so nice.

“You only have 28 miles to go. That’s barely more than a marathon!”

Her kindness and the enormity of what I still have left to do are too much for me. I burst into tears. I’m so embarrassed that I put my head down on my knees to hide my face. As if then they won’t know I’m crying. They won’t see how weak I am.

Do I look like I just completely lost it? No, I am perfectly normal. Totally.

I have no intentions of stopping. It’s not even an option. I think that’s what makes it so hard: I know I am going to do this, know I am going to finish, and it is brutal. Eternal.

Jamie brings my drop bag, and I focus on eating while I try to pull my ragged self together. I even manage to smile for a picture and engage the volunteers in some normal conversation. I want my actions to reassure them: Don’t worry; I am not going to drop at your aid station!

We are a team!

We both love the trail out of Sherman, and I distract myself from the pain by gawking at all the beauty. That’s all I have left now: the raw, most bare-bones version of myself, and this incredible landscape. When you feel the edges of yourself melting away, a high mountain paradise is a perfect place to be.

The trail along Pole Creek is magnificent. I have begun a chant in my head: “Pole Creek, Maggie's, Cunningham, Silverton.” The final aid stations. That is the countdown. Soon, soon soonsoonsoon I will be there. Not soon enough, really, but eventually.

“Oh my God, look at the Moose!” Jamie’s declaration yanks my eyes up from the trail. Two moose have also spotted us across the flower-filled expanse.

“Wow!” I am thrilled. I am in love. This is the coolest race ever! “I guess there are moose around here,” I say in wonder, recalling my conversation with Geof. I was such an expert on things back at mile 45. “Who knew!”

We’re running directly toward them, and they trot off until they get too close to the runners ahead of us. Then they turn and make their way up into the willows while we continue to the aid station.

The Pole Creek aid station crew. (Photo byJanet Reichl)

Getting some help from the Pole Creek volunteers. (Photo by Janet Reichl)

There are some semi-runnable miles to Maggie's, but I struggle to make them useful. My poles are out 100% of the time now, not just on the steep sections. I feel like I need them just to stay upright and move forward. My Black Diamond security blanket.

Clouds move in and rain jackets go on. Sun comes out and rain jackets come off. On again. Off. A rhythm as steady as the click-click of my trekking poles.

Maggie’s comes and goes. A light rain keeps the jackets on. One more aid station, one more aid station. I know the finish is still hours away, decades probably, but I feel it coming towards me now. I am closing in. Getting there.

We are between Stony Pass and Green Mountain when it happens. Mile 90 seems like a good point for the climax of our story.

Mother Nature flips a switch, and the rain turns immediately to a downpour. I am soaked before I can get my other layer on under my rain jacket. Large, stinging hail quickly joins the rain. I’m running to stay warm even though Jamie has fallen behind. I look back to see she has teamed up with another runner, Adam, and his pacer. Good.

Visibility is bad, and I search through the fog and the din of the hail storm for trail markers. Lightning flashes with a devastating crack directly overhead. Two more times, and I finally panic. With the next crack I stop running and scream. I have no idea what to do.

I don’t want to be alone, so I wait for Jamie to catch up by crouching down to protect my bare legs from the hail. The fetal position makes me feel like a child and I let myself break down sobbing, begging the storm to move on. I know I’m being hysterical, being idiotic. But there’s no one there to see, so I don’t care.

I think about Martin Luther. No, seriously, this is what’s going on in my brain. Luther was a young German student in the early 1500’s when he got caught out in a terrible lightning storm on his way to school. He feared so greatly for his life during the storm that he begged God to spare him and promised that if God did so, he would become a monk. He held good on his promise, became a monk and professor of theology, eventually challenged the authority of the pope, translated the bible into German so people could read it for themselves, and lead the Protestant Reformation. All because of a lightning storm.

I guess if I were going to find religion, this would be the time, but apparently I’m no Martin Luther. God and I have an understanding, and I know every gift he could possibly give me is already in my possession. I stand up, and although I’m still crying, I keep running.

Jamie is with me now, along with Adam and his pacer whose name I can’t seem to remember. Who has brain cells for such details right now? I think of her as Adam’s wife. In my mind I call her Eve. I’ve got a religious theme going on, I guess. The two of them are incredibly calm, and it helps. They’re not freaking out. Everything’s fine. This is perfectly normal. And I realize that for Hardrock, it is.

Unfortunately the lightning is still cracking overhead and we’re supposed to be heading up to a ridge. It seems unwise, and this thought is confirmed when we see runners heading toward us, returning from part way up the climb because it’s too dangerous. Too near the lightning strikes. We are well above tree line with absolutely nothing for shelter, and the wind is demonic, raging. I’m shivering violently with nowhere to go.

Soon, eight or nine runners are milling about, freezing, wondering what to do. One declares he is running a nearby road back to Silverton and fuck this.

“No!” We all yell through the turbulence.

“You can’t!”

“You’re too close!”

On the verge of hypothermia and getting struck by lightning, but god damn if we will allow one of our brethren to DNF this race.

We become penguins. We huddle together in our own Antarctic storm sharing body heat. It’s a surreal mix of hilarious desperation. I am aware that everything will be fine eventually, but right now, I hate this moment.

And part of me is angry. This race thinks it has me, thinks it’s going to get the last laugh, thinks I’m going to give up. No. No way. I will survive this moment, and when I do I will finish this freaking race. I will I will I WILL. You can scare me to tears and hysteria, Hardrock, but you will not scare me into dropping!

The rain lets up a bit and the lightening finally stops. I know I need to generate some heat, and I begin running with the others, up the pass. Suddenly, I can run even the uphills. Apparently all I needed was the proper motivation.

I look back for Jamie. Other runners are with her. She is not alone. Good, because I can’t stop. I’m still shivering uncontrollably. Movement is my salvation.

On the descent I wait for her though. It’s steep, and I know she won’t like it. And I actually appreciate this about Hardrock: It’s not pacer taking care of runner, it’s pacer and runner as a team. You have to take care of each other, because that’s how it is out here. I don’t like being a high-maintenance runner, so this sense of equal companionship makes me more comfortable.

I insist Jamie take one of my poles for the descent. I don’t want to. I want both of them. But I know it’s going to speed progress for both of us, and I’m not leaving her. I remember that Betsy gave me one of her poles to make it up Virginius last year. Runner and pacer are a team. I like being part of a team.

As we finally, finally drop down towards Cunningham, things warm up. I’ve stopped shivering and I feel confident that I won’t arrive too hysterical into Geof and Paige’s arms. I’ve been formulating my game plan for the last 30 minutes: Find my crew, get in their truck, turn the heater on high, strip off all my wet clothes, and put on all dry ones from my gear bag. It goes pretty much like that, and I’m glad now that I packed so much crap.

I can only imagine that Jamie is insanely relieved to be stopping here, but to her great credit, she doesn’t show it. She is all business helping me get prepped to head back out on the trail. I am now wearing tights, wool top, fleece top, Gore-tex rain jacket, fleece hat, and gloves. Jamie calls me Nanook of the North. I don’t care. I am warm. I feel safe in all my layers.

I give Paige the inquisition about her gear before we head out. Warm clothes? Rain jacket? Trekking poles? She probably thinks I am crazy, but she puts up with me. Good pacer.

Geof reattaches my light to my pack and changes the batteries while I just stand there. He is awesome.

Paige guides me through the aid station where we check in and out at the same time. I already have everything I need and I am so ready for these last nine miles. There will be a steep climb, followed by a steep descent, before we get to Silverton. Well of course there will be. This is Hardrock. It is unending. Relentless.

On the way up we pass Ken and Saunder, who are also Stony Pass Penguin Survivors. I’m stoked to see them. We survived, and we are all going to finish Hardrock. I feel strong, ebullient. I will run, hike, walk, crawl, claw my way to that rock. No problem.

We get another soaking from the skies after dark, but I’m warm and dry this time. I make a mental note not to bother bringing anything but Gore-tex to Hardrock next time. Not that there will be a next time. No way. But, you know. Just in case.

Up, up, up, and down, down, down. In the dark, it feels just like every other part of the course. Paige is good company, and I realize what a good call it was to have three pacers. Jamie ran a long ways, and I feel bad for destroying her. It wasn’t me, I remind myself. It was the course. I feel better knowing she is warm and dry and resting.

It’s after midnight, and I realize I’m lucky I haven’t been falling asleep on the trail. The minor hallucinations remind me: hydration packs in the trail, a child’s piggy bank, a pair of discarded trekking poles. I know I’m almost there though, so I don’t worry.

I’ve actually had a lot of luck in this race. Mainly, I know I’m lucky my stomach hasn’t given me trouble. It hurts a bit now, but it’s nothing, really. I lost weight going in to the race, and struggled to get enough calories during it because of my food limitations, but that all feels inconsequential now.

Because I’m doing it. I’m finishing Hardrock. Oh God, I’m almost there.

We’re finally on familiar trails through the Kendall Mountain Ski Area. At the edge of town, a few stray people cheer us on. It is 1:00 in the morning, and I love them for being out here.

“We have to run it in,” I tell Paige. I remember watching people finish last year, and I was disappointed at how many people just walked it in. Okay, now I get it. I totally get where they were coming from.

But, still.

I am definitely going to run it in. There will be excitement, and joy, and celebrating, even if it all comes from just Paige and me.

We turn the corner to see the finish line, and I switch to a jog, both poles in one hand. We hoot and holler, but it still takes forever to get there. Geof figures out it’s us when we’re still a few blocks away, and I hear him cheer.

When I finally reach the rock, I give it a giant hug along with my kiss. It welcomes me home.

With all my emotional ungluing during this race, I am surprised to find myself relatively composed at the finish. I guess Hardrock took all my tears already, and I have nothing left but smiles.

The team, after the most incredible week.

It is Sunday afternoon, and I’ve had a shower, nap, breakfast, awards, friends, and everywhere, smiles, smiles, smiles, congratulations and happiness. I sit on the edge of the soft, clean bed in my room at our rental house in Silverton. I am warm and dry and clean with very puffy ankles. I think about something I wrote in my pacer report from last year, something I’ve seen quoted in a few other places since then:

“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.

The words ring truer than ever now that I’ve actually run the race myself. How did I know?

For as much fear as I had about this race throughout the year, it actually turned out to be even harder than I expected. It’s an experience that’s difficult to quantify.

And I recognize that if things had gone better with my health and training, perhaps I would have been faster, and that would have made it so different. Possibly less epic. I usually think of myself as more of a front-of-the-pack runner, but not here. Not at Hardrock.

The hardest part for me was simply being out there moving forward for 43 hours. It took me nearly twice as long to finish this race as it did to run Western States last year. It was ludicrous. Immense. And I am so grateful for the experience. Of course, it’s easy to say now that I’m done, but I wouldn’t have had it any other way.

I am surprised to find that I do feel changed. I am the same girl who toed the line Friday morning, but two days and a full circle later, standing at the exact same spot, I am a slightly altered version.

I walk across the room to the mirror and lean in for a good look. There are definitely a few more grey hairs than there were before. I lean back and smile. They suit me, actually.