By Deborah Sexton
Friday, July 8, 6 a.m., to Sunday, July 10, 6 a.m.
Cunningham aid station volunteer (first aid station about 9 miles from the start)
Pacer from Chapman Gulch, 18.3 miles from the finish
I have to say that Hardrock 100 certainly lived up to every tale I ever heard about it. In fact, in my opinion , after pacing only a wimpy 18 miles of it, most people have not fully described the level of skill and danger that are part of this amazing event.
I dragged my husband and three kids to Silverton, where we arrived on Thursday morning, just in time for me to catch the second half of the runner’s meeting. Since I was thinking of trying to pace, I wanted to hear how bad the snow was. It was BAD. I also wanted to be there to see the who’s who of hardcore ultra runners whom I knew would be there and I was not disappointed. Of course Hans Dieter, Sue Johnston, Greg Loomis, Karl Metzer, Ian Torrance, Joe Prusaitis, Matt Mahoney, and many more names I had often seen on a winner’s list or talked about on the ultra list. I talked to Letha and Mark and also saw Barbara and George Hitzfield. George was pacing someone from San Diego named Ray in preparation for his own attempt next year. Of course Lisa Butler was there to pace Roger Ackerman and I saw both of them too.
Deb Pero (she and her husband Steve were running Hardrock and Deb’s brother Drew Meyer was pacing her.) had just finished painting the Hardrock logo on the rock that you have to kiss when you finish. Awesome job. There also was a wonderful “store” and I bought a T-shirt. At 2 p.m. was the volunteer’s meeting. I was working the first aid station about 9 miles out so that qualified me for a Hardrock volunteer’s shirt. Woohoo. Now I had two!
I met the aid station caption, Kurt Coomis, and got directions on where I had to be by 7 a.m. Friday morning. I went back to my room where the family was at the Silverton Hostel. This was a small, but clean place where you share hallway bathrooms and showers. There’s also a full kitchen to share. Mark Dick called and he took us all out for ride in his jeep. Scared the crap out of me but the kids loved it as he crossed a stream and drove up some sand piles. And I know he was taking it easy.
Friday morning 6 a.m. After gathering in the high school gym, all the nervous runners filed outside by the rock to start. Letha just wanted to get it over with. We all exchanged hugs and wishes of good luck to everyone we knew. Dale Garland, race director, stood on top of the rock, relayed some last minute instructions, we sang Happy Birthday to some runner named Jim, and the gun went off.
I jumped in the mini van and started toward Cunningham. Well this wouldn’t be a Deborah story if I didn’t get lost. I drove right past the place I should have turned, but I actually found someone to ask out there in the middle of nowhere and I got to the aid station around 7:15. Still plenty of time since they didn’t expect the first runner until after 8 a.m. I was very anxious driving out there as the road was very rough and very narrow. Not good terrain for a mini van. I strongly advise anyone who goes to Hardrock to take or rent a jeep or similar vehicle. Many of the aid stations are not easily accessible without four wheel drive.
It was cold! We stomped and wiggled to keep warm while we waited for runners to come in. Cunningham is at the bottom of this huge mountain that the runners zig zag down to and then once through the aid station they run up the other side of another huge mountain. Finally we saw a little ant at the very top start to make his way down. Soon there were other little ants winding their way down to our aid station. Right before they reached us, they had to splash through a stream that came up just past the ankles. Nice cold mountain snow water. Unfortunately I found how just how cold that water was first hand, but more on that later.
Hal Koerner was leading the pack and he was flying. Three or four more came flying through right after him. We filled bottles as fast as we could and sent them on. Not too much interest in food at this point but there was a nice spread for anyone who was hungry. I was glad that the runners left us aid station workers some of that yummy homemade banana bread and peanut butter cookies. It made a great breakfast.
Around 9:30 a.m. most of the runners had gone through and Letha’s full crew was there. Mark Dick, Chuck Chandonia, Jay Norman, Julie Bryant, and a friend of hers named Mike? So I walked over to talk to them as we waited for Letha. Matt Crownover also came with his wife and two sons. Finally around 9:40ish we see Letha making her way down with her two treking poles. She was having a blast and quickly ate some pudding and got refilled and was sent on her way.
We closed up the aid station shortly after that. One more runner came through and he was determined to be the last one.
Fast forward to Saturday afternoon. David and the kids and I went to Telluride to hike Bridal Veil Falls. We are pulling up to an intersection and there is Mark, Letha, and the Billmans. They are looking for a place to eat. We wave and say hi. Around 2 p.m. we start heading back to Chapman Gulch where I have decided I am going to show up and see if someone wants a pacer. I dress in the car and pack my two-bottle waist pack and I’m ready to go. I was very uncertain if I could do it. Not much hill training and of course, no acclimation and I would be climbing two mountains both around 12,000 to 13,000 feet. But what the heck, I was there and I had my stuff. I wanted to try.
David pulls off the highway and onto the access road to the aid station but after about a mile, I tell him to let me out. This road is not intended for a mini van. It was still about three miles but I told him I’d rather hike it in than risk getting a flat. So I set off and it’s about 4:45 p.m. I walk about a mile or so huffing and puffing and this jeep stops and asks me if I want a ride? It’s a man and his nephew from Illinois four wheeling their way to Telluride. So they drop me off at Chapman. This road was pitted with huge rocks and of course, a nice drop off if you got off the narrow little road that would not fit two cars. Every time a car came in another direction, you had to find a little spot to pull over to let him by. Aaagh, my stomach was already churning and I wasn’t at the aid station yet.
So I hop out of the car, and there I see none other than Aaron Goldman. For those of you who don’t know him, he’s in his 70s and from Texas. A well-known figure at ultra runs. I first saw him at Scott’s Ultracentric, Vermont 100, and most recently Arkansas Traveler. He gave me a big hug and I said, I’m here if anyone wants a pacer. He said, great let’s see who’ve we’ve got and he walked me over to some chairs where runners were sitting and says, Does anyone a pacer?
Howie Stern says, Sure and I’m in! Wahoo. I was so excited. So Howie, who is from Mammoth Lakes, Calif. about 45 minutes from Yellowstone and I start off on this nice gently sloping dirt path walking. So far, so good. This is not so bad. Howie starts apologizing for going so slow and I’m say: I’m relieved you’re going this slow. His first ultra was Leadville 100 and he’s done Angeles Crest and many others. I noted he had not done any of the “easy” ones.
After some time, we start hitting some snow. At first, it’s kind of flat and you just step where the 100 plus other people ahead of you already stepped. Then the snow fields start to get a little bit more vertical. So now, you are huffing and puffing and crawling on your hands and knees up the snow. You try to put your feet in the premade steps and sometimes you get leverage and sometimes your foot slips out from under you. I do not look up or down or I will have a heart attack. I just look for that next footprint to go to.
Then you clear a patch of snow and then you’re crawling up this loose dirt/rock stuff. I think the official term for it is scree. Take a step, slide backwards. Crawl on your hands and knees and try not to think about how far down it is if you can’t stop a downward slide. I was pretty freaked out at this point.
Whew, we get to the top, and me, who is afraid of heights, is looking all around me at the most spectacular scenery of my life. Incredible mountains covered in snow, green valleys, rocks, flowers, etc. Unbelievable. There was a plaque on a rock commemorating Joel Zucker who was one of the earlier Hardrock participants. I forget exactly what he did but they also have a foundation in his name and they give scholarships away. Howie had me take a couple of photos of him at this point.
Now it’s time to go down. Did I say going up was scary? Going down was far worse. No footholds at all. It is super steep loose sand and rock. Go ahead and put your foot down and watch it keep sliding down the mountain. I did not like this at all. Howie is out of sight in minutes as I keep slipping, sliding, and falling on my rear. Toward the bottom, it’s all snow and mud. I’m trying to catch up with Howie in this slushy snow and my feet go right out from under me and I land in a nice gooky puddle of snow and mud. Yuck. I lift my hand and watch mud drip from it. But hey, it’s still light out. This was the easy part.
I did manage to catch up to Howie and we came into the next aid station together, which was Kamm Traverse, better known to Hard Rockers as KT. Howie sat down, ate several cups of mac and cheese, changed his socks, and refueled. I had a Boost and helped him change his socks. This guy has been running for about 40 hours now and he’s like fine. I was so impressed. No blisters, no issues, just ready to finish. So we head out of KT for Putnam. As we start walking down this dirt road out of KT, a guy pulls up to us in his truck. It’s pitch black now, I would guess between 11 p.m. and midnight. He says, did you guys want to follow the course or are you making up your own? He points out that we missed the turnoff for the trail. Oops, what kind of pacer am I? I’m supposed to be looking for markers.
We get on the right trail and there’s a bunch of guys with us. We go down, down, down to this stream. It’s about 15-20 feet across. There are four of us, so we link arms as we were told to do, face upstream and wade across. No surprise since it’s melted snow, that it’s cold as hell and I am screaming. (You know how much I love cold water!) The current is strong and I am very glad that I am with three other guys. Charlie Thorn was the first one across. He is attempting to finish his 10th Hardrock. He must be in his late 60s/early 70s. he’s wearing American flag nylon running shorts. Nothing else on his legs. He lives in Silverton, where the race starts. The second guy was Howie. The third guy, I don’t know who he was but two more runners approached the river and he yells Should we help them across? Charlie and Howie were already making their way up the embankment so I bite the bullet and slosh back in that awful water, hook on to the unknown guy on the shore and extend my hand out for the two new guys needing to cross.
We get them over and we all scramble up a nice slippery muddy bank and start trudging back up the mountain. It’s pitch back and there’s no trail. It’s cold, I’d guess in the 30s with a nice stiff breeze to keep you from overheating. My feet are like ice cubes, completely devoid of feeling. I find my place back behind Howie and keep telling him you’re doing great, nice steady pace, we’re almost there, etc. etc. A little side note: This guy recently dated Catra Corbett! What a small world.
Anyway, Howie was much stronger and in better shape than Charlie Thorn, but wisely opted to follow him as this part of the course was extremely difficult to see in the dark. Even Charlie was stopping about every five minutes or so and sweeping his light across the darkness. Then we’d all do the same (there was about six or eight of us in a line) until someone would say, I see it. And we trudge to that next marker.
To my surprise, I say who’s behind me and the guy says George. I turn around and it’s George Hitzfield. What a surprise. So we had a nice chat about Texas trails and his wife’s sister hiking the Appalachian Trail and other stuff. He plans on entering Hardrock next year.
Finally we get to the top of something. I’m not sure what. It’s covered in snow which has now hardened to a nice slick surface It’s about 1 or 1:30 a.m. Charlie knows which way we need to go, but is not too excited about going that way since it means going down this steep snow-covered decline where there’s no way you’re not going to end up sliding down on your rear. At the bottom is a lot of rocks and he was concerned about whether we could safely stop at the bottom. As the six of us sit there and ponder this dilemma, other people start catching up.. So now there’s like 10 runners and pacers and we are all going Oh Crap or some other variations of that word.
Since I am freezing my butt off and didn’t have any helpful suggestions, I sat down on the snow, pulled my legs up and huddled down to cut the awful wind that was cutting through my three short sleeve shirts, one long sleeve, and windbreaker. I decided my best role was to pray, which is what I did.
Finally everyone sort of spread out across the snow field and someone found a spot that by going out of our way, we could jump onto some dirt and make our way back to the point where the trail picks up. So we all did that. Whew! Was I glad to get off that mountain. Not my time to die yet.
We went up another super steep hill and then we got to run along this little strip of trail with lots of big old rocks to stumble over and pitch you head long into outer darkness down the steep mountainside. I kept hearing the river rushing below. I was very nervous on these parts of the trail. There were many places like this and I was freaking out. I didn’t like it. It was runnable but I was so afraid of tripping that I just walked as fast as I could.
We all trudged on and we’d go through a snow field, then some dirt, then some snow again. What sucked about the snow at this point is all the footprints had hardened so it was murder keeping your balance. Plus on downhills, the force of gravity would pull you down so you’re stumbling all over the place. Howie was much better at stumbling than me and he started to pull away.
Finally we got over the last mountain and things started back downhill. I’d guess we were about two miles from the next aid station called Putnam. At this point all I can say is Howie is good at downhills and he got his second wind. He was flying. In the pitch black on those narrow cliff-like sections, I did not have the guts to push any faster. I was scared and I just couldn’t keep up with him.
He got to Putnam a couple of minutes a head of me. By the time I got there, he was ready to check out and I had two empty water bottles. So I had to wait to get those filled, which it seemed like it took at least three or four minutes and with that kind of head start and the speed I knew he was doing, I didn’t think I would catch him unless he slowed down. But I took off and looked for his light. About 1/2 mile out of Putnam (which is about five miles from the finish) I caught up with Nigel Finney, Tom Knutson, and their pacer Virginia. They were all from Minnesota and Virginia was pacing both of them. They were walking at a steady pace and after talking to Tom, who informed me that Howie had passed by about six minutes ago like hell on wheels, he invited me to stay with them and I gratefully accepted this invitation.
At least at this point in the course, the worse of the mountains were done, there was little snow, and mainly it was just downhill on crappy terrain. We crossed several miles of what resembled piles of big rocks. Nigel was going for his fifth finish, and I don’t remember how many times Tom had finished but they had all done the course both ways so I got to hear lots of interesting conversations about that. (For those who do not know, this course is a big circle. On alternate years it runs clockwise and counterclockwise.)
Then we got to THE RIVER. Ok, this one was no just get your ankles wet. This was 40 feet across, a rushing torrent of ice cold water that came up to your waist. Tom told me to hang my waist pack around my neck and put on my gloves. At least there was a double rope stretched across it. It is now about 4 a.m. Nigel went first to show us how to do it. Then Virginia. And there I am standing at the bank of this river thinking, I will never do this again. I step into the water and I scream. It takes my breath away. It is so cold. As I edge along the rocky bottom, my feet slip and slide. I take little baby steps sideways and hold onto the rope and pray that the river does not sweep my feet out from under me. I make it. Nigel grabs my hand and I scrambled up the muddy bank.
So now we’ve got about two more miles to go on mostly dirt road dripping wet with ice water. But the spirit and mood are upbeat because hey, these guys have already gone 98 miles and they are less than an hour from finishing the great Hardrock.
We turn off the road at the Miner’s Shrine and hit the street that takes us back to the high school. We are all telling each other good job and as we hit the top of the street where the rock is then we all break into a slow shuffle. Tom and Nigel kiss the rock and get a medal around their necks. It’s 4:55 a.m. so they finished in just under 47 hours. I wasn’t their pacer but I took just as much pride in their accomplishment and was just happy to be through the whole ordeal. I learned a lot.
I’m glad I did it, but never again. This one is out of my league. I’ve never been truly scared before on a trail run and I don’t like that feeling. I can’t imagine how these runners go through not one but two nights of this
hell. They are all heroes in my book.
P.S. I did go back around 9:30 the next morning to congratulate Howie. He was sitting on the bleachers with his girl friend. I told him I was sorry I couldn’t keep up with him and he let me know he finished the last five miles in about 1 hour and a half. He said he just wanted to finish and he felt good and you can’t fault him for that. He was in the 45 hour range so he finished more than an hour ahead of me.
This is an amazing event to be a part of in any capacity. I was so glad I had the opportunity to contribute in the small way that I did. There is so much courage, spirit, and just gritted determination in these runners. They are willing to give it all and risk it all to finish. They push themselves past so much pain and discouragement and I am honored to have witnessed it. I think this was a tougher year than normal, as if this race wasn’t hard enough. No one who drops out of this race should ever feel like they did anything but made an intelligent, perhaps life-saving decision.