Hardrock 100 Mile Endurance Run

July 14-16, 2006 (Silverton, Colorado)

Why did I choose Hardrock for my first 100 mile race? Why didn’t I participate in some other race that would have flat course and see how fast I can get to the finish line? There are lots of reasons for that but the main point was that I wanted to get into a race which I maybe wouldn’t be able to finish at all. I needed a real challenge. Something to really test my guts and to push myself forward no matter what would happen.

I first got interested about Hardrock when I heard that Hardrock is one of the toughest 100 mile trail races in the world, but I still wasn’t convinced enough about the challenge of this race until I read the following points from the 2006 HH Runner’s Manual: “1) No whining!, 2) This is a dangerous course! In addition to trail running, you will do some mild rock climbing (hands required), wade ice cold streams, struggle through snow which at night and in the early morning will be rock hard and slick and during the heat of the day will be so soft you can sink to your knees and above, cross cliffs where a fall could send you 300 feet straight down, use fixed ropes as handrails, and be expected to negotiate the course with or without markers. See philosophy above. Much of the time you will have wet feet and it is recommended you have dry shoes in your drop bags and dry socks in you pack. Feel free to include any specialized equipment such as ice axes or crampons that you are willing to carry between drop bag stations as part of your paraphernalia.”

The Runners Manual kept repeating such words as: acrophobia, exposure, thunder, lightning, glissade, ice axe, crampons, snowfield, switchback, timberline… The minute I finished reading the manual I was sold and I knew that nothing could ever stop me from getting to Silverton and finishing Hardrock. This was definitely the right stuff and just what I’d been looking for.

I enjoy the attitude according to which the runners are totally responsible for everything during the race and there is no one to blame in case of failure but yourself. What could ever annoy me more than runners complaining about the weather, course marking, aid stations, hilly terrain, shoes, injuries or the fact that they haven’t been able to train enough before the race. At that point the enjoyable running turns into a tragedy and I would pay the fortune for some earplugs. Here whining is useless because no one is willing to pay any attention to it. And in most cases there is no one around you to even hear what you’re saying. So I love the atmosphere. They say that one day’s exposure to mountain is better than cartloads of books and I can easily relate to that.

I understood that in this kind of races it’s also very common to have pacers to join you at some part of the course and help you finding the route. I didn’t search for any since I wanted to enjoy finishing the race knowing that I was able to survive the course all by myself. The same goes with the crew so I decide to run alone. Imagine this: “…while a crew cooks yummy meals for you, tends to your feet, drives you to a hotel and lifts your spirits at the lowest moments.” It just didn’t feel right for me. Even though having a running partner at some points of the race is fun, I really needed to survive my first Hardrock without any help. All I wanted to do was to join in as many trail marking days as possible. Luckily I got a chance to arrive almost two weeks before the race to Silverton for acclimation and learn a lot about the race.

What could I tell you about the race itself? It’s not very easy to express feelings by writing some report. It’s also kind of hard to write briefly because there are so many things to mention that I could write a book of every section between any two aid stations during the course. But I’ll give it a shot and hope to get some sense out of all this.

So I got a chance to experience something new and totally different from running flat marathons on paved roads. I enjoyed all of the changes and found out how euphoric running can be if you just get out in the woods. After running the first two miles on the course you find the first stream crossing and you’ll have wet feet from that point on right until to the finishing line. Sometimes there is no trail but instead you run from point to point finding the shortest possible route. “Dirt is good” is what the say in Montrail’s leaflet and somehow that sounds like the right stuff for me. I enjoy the feeling of running through obstacles rather than going around them. At last there are some good “hills” for me to run over instead of finding the lowest point to avoid ascending.

After running for three hours I arrive to the first aid station just to sip a cup of coke to drink and I’m right off toward the next one. I feel no urge of stopping and replenishing my energy levels at this point. But by the time I arrive to Chapman Gulch at 18.9 miles (next aid station) and begin the ascend towards Oscar’s Pass I realised the mistake that I’ve made. My quads are in flames and begin to have some major cramps even if I switch to walking. I’ve had some cramps before but never in my quads so it feels kind of strange thing to happen all of sudden (and painful too). I figure out that it must be due to combination of these three things: 1) A lot of downhill running (without any training for it), 2) lack of electrolytes and 3) hot (I really mean hot) weather. I’ve never needed any electrolyte capsules or stuff like that before (not even in Spartathlon) so I still feel pretty confused. I receive some ordinary salt, E-caps and Endurolyte capsules from other runners with some advice of eating bunch of potato chips at Telluride so I should be ok. I couldn’t get rid of the cramps until I reached Virginius Pass five and half hours later but when I did, it felt really good. I just had to believe the fact that you can always recover from cramps if you just have enough time to spend. And because of the strong start I had plenty of time to waste. I met Blake Wood when I was descending down from Virginius towards Telluride and it was a very nice experience to run few miles with him. To a guy from Finland it’s very unique to get a chance to run some sections with experienced foreign runners and have a little chat on the way.

There were lots and lots of beautiful places along the course and there is so much to tell but maybe I’ll just stick with the most memorable ones so that you don’t get too bored to read all this. After descending and hour from Virginius Pass I experience something strange that I would definitely bear in mind for the rest of my life. After tackling the mountains for 11 hours I had once again reached the point where I can no longer focus properly and my mind starts taking over the control. Running feels natural and I switch to autopilot mode. My mind wanders around so I begin thinking about the distance I’ve covered so far. Only a third of the course completed and my mind is already full of nice memories and beautiful places to remember. Checking the digital numbers from my watch I realise that the time I’ve spent running through these sections has no connection at all to the experiences and feelings that I have faced. Suddenly time becomes totally irrelevant and it begins to feel more or less disgusting. Counting seconds, minutes and even hours seems unnatural and pointless. If I arrive at Ouray 1pm or 2pm, what would be the difference? How would it change the experiences that I've been through at this point? Or how do I define the meaning of this race to myself? Is it just something to get through quickly or do I instead enjoy being on this course? Why on earth would I travel here all the way from Finland just to get pass all the beautiful places as fast as I could and leave the course in no time? It just doesn’t make any sense.

I feel the urge to get rid of this trash that suffocates my thoughts with shallow lies and tries to lead me somewhere that I really don’t want to go. Now I have a new goal to achieve and that is to figure out what would be the most efficient way to erase this devil out of my life and from my mind. So I have a problem to solve: Should I throw my watch down from Handies or would I crash it between two solid hardrocks in the Bear Creek Trail nearby? Since I’ve been told to avoid littering during the race I choose the latter one and speed up towards Ouray just to get the job done faster. There is a good runnable section all the way down to Ouray and I feel like I’m flying. At this point course director John Cappis drives by and I wonder if he is surprised to see me so fresh after 40 miles of running. All the sudden I see a man coming up the hill alone with a wheelchair with no one nearby. I just have to stop and chat with him for a while because I feel little confused. His name is Brett and he’s from Oregon. He’s just enjoying the beautiful day and decided to get some fresh air! What a great attitude he must have towards all kinds of problems that he encounters during his life. Coming up towards Governors Basin with a wheelchair may no pop up to everyone’s mind and it’s really something to give credit for. And since I now have this lousy watch I have no use anymore, it seems a very natural choice to give it to him as a present. The look in his face was something incredible and fortunately I had the camera with me to immortalise this fleeting moment. A quote flashes before my eyes: “The more reach out and give to others, the stronger and richer in every sense of those two words our, own life’s become.” Shedding a few tears I feel great for “doing the right thing” and can’t control my feelings anymore. I just let my emotions go and get down on my knees crying and start packing my camera back to its place. Brett wonders if I’ve hurt my legs or something and asks where it hurts. I point my chest and he thinks I have some water in my lungs (high altitude pulmonary edema) because I’m having hard time to breath but when I rise up my thumb and tell him that I feel great he understands that I’m just dealing with some strong emotions here. “I’m happy for you”, he says and it feels good. It’s also kind of funny that the cramps don’t bother me anymore so I keep thinking that this was a great thing to do and perhaps a start of something new.

Finally I arrive at Ouray and see lots of pacers waiting for their runners to arrive. After filling my bottles once again I start getting ready for the night to come. I take some warm clothes from my drop bag and continue the adventure. As I’m climbing up towards Engineer’s Pass I feel like looking for a souvenir to take back home to my parents. I find a fist-size “hardrock” and stuff it into my backpack. It feels great to add some extra weight because usually people tend to go as light as possible and have things easy. That brings me the same feelings as was the case with pacers and crew. I don’t run ultras for doing stuff easily. I don’t try to get off the course with as little hardships as possible. If I would like to do that, I definitely wouldn’t be here. I would be home drinking beer and watching TV. It’s true whet they say that life really begins beyond the “comfort zone”. Soon the night falls and I catch up Sue Johnston on the way up towards Engineer’s Pass. I felt very strong all the way to Grouch Gulch aid station after enjoying some warm soup and chips.

By the time sun rose I had already reached Burrows Park. It’s a shame that I ran over Handies Peak during the night because I really wanted to take some pictures there. At course marking we didn’t have a clear sky so I was hoping to get some good shots from the top during the race. I just couldn’t imagine to get there before morning so I was really surprised of how fast I was going (even though it felt very slow). I could run most of the little road section to Sherman and by the time I got there my legs felt really tired again. The next section was going to be five hours of struggling to reach Maggie Gulch and if I reached that I knew I would finish no matter what. Starting from Maggie’s I started to have some strange feelings in my head. I wasn’t sure if would stay up all the way but I knew nothing could stop me from this point forward. The biggest concern that I had was the fact that I was afraid to pass out some place before the finish. I had been running with Jason Poole and his friend for a while starting from Pole Creek and tried to keep up with them as hard as I could just in case I would start feeling worse and really needed some help to stay awake.

When I arrived at Cunningham aid station I really got worried about staying awake and not passing out. I felt really weird and my mind wasn’t all with me. It was like watching myself running from high above and when I heard what the time was I couldn’t believe it’s true. I had been running less than 33 hours and was already at the last aid station at 91.3 miles? So that would mean that I had 15 hours to run less than 10 miles and reach the finishing line. All I had to do was to get over Little Giant and descend down to Silverton. That just didn’t seem possible and I kept asking myself that is this race really over after doing just that? That wouldn’t take more than few hours so I would finish well under 40 hours and there was just no way I could believe that to be true.

The jeep road at Arrastra Gulch felt like it would never end. Finally I reached Silverton and Chuck Wilson was the first one I saw at the finish. He kept yelling that I made it under 36 hours but I still couldn’t believe it. I didn’t believe it when I saw the written results and I still don’t. This is one of the hardest 100 mile trail races in the world so it just doesn’t make any sense that a guy who lives at the sea level and couldn’t train properly (actually almost not at all) few months before the race, could succeed this well. But I was happy. Happier than I’ve been in a long time. I will always remember Hardrock as one of the best experiences and without doubt the strangest thing that has ever happened to me so far.

I’m very amazed by all the efforts that people have energy for to make this all possible. The possibility to participate in trail marking is something totally unique already so a big thank you to John Cappis and Charlie Thorn for that. I also want to thank everybody who made my holiday the best ever and helped me by explaining all the details about the course and trail running since this was something totally new and different for me. I especially want to thank Chuck Wilson for teaching me a lot about everything. There’s now nothing that could keep me from coming back here next year. Hardrock really inspired me and opened up my eyes.

Life is great.

Pasi Kurkilahti
Vierumäki, Finland