Surviving Hardrock100

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Photo: Blake Wood

WHAT IS HARDROCK 100? If you already know the answer, scroll down a little.

In short, Hardrock100 is one of the hardest 100-mile races in the mountains that has ever existed. The race is 21 years old. The time limit to complete the entire course is 48 hours.

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Photo: Fredrik Marmsater/100 Miles High

1,367 pre-qualified athletes competed for 152 spots, and with only one ticket in the hat somehow I got in. Kilian Jornet, Anna Frost, Darcy Piceu, Iker Karrera, Karl Meltzer, Mike Foote and other world’s top mountain goats were signed up as well for this little stroll through San Juan mountains in Colorado. 10 countries were represented. Lots of other well known runners came over to cheer, pace, hang out, and help at the aid stations (Timothy Olson, Garry Robbins, Dylan Bowman to name a few).

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Here are some great videos that help to get an idea of what it is like to race Hardrock:

 

 

Few facts about the race (from the official website): “To complete the Hardrock Hundred demands that an athlete run elevation gains comparable to running from sea level to the top of Mt. Everest and back at an average elevation of more than 2 miles above sea level. This running includes going over 12,000 ft. above sea level thirteen times, above 13,000 feet an additional seven times and summitting one of Colorado’s famed “14er’s”, Handies Peak, 14,048 feet above sea level”.

You can click on the image below to have a virtual tour of the entire Hardrock100 course:
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PREPARATIONS:

Well, I had next to none of that..

My longest continuous run ever was only 24-hour long (training run to the top of Bear Mt, NY). I also have never been to the altitudes above 12k feet (with much trouble at mile 45 I climbed up to 12k in 2013 during the Leadville100 race, which I failed due to overly aggressive racing during first 30 miles).

I live at sea level (NYC) and originally I planned on going to train in the high mountains of Colorado for at least a month or two before the race. But I didn’t get to go. In the month before the race I was more preoccupied with traveling to my homeland than with training for any race. By the way, the trip was AWESOME, here are some videos:

Back to the Hardrock…

I didn’t have time to acclimate and flew to Colorado just a few days before the race, spent one night in Leadville (highest city in US, at 10,200 ft), and then headed straight to Silverton, where the race starts.

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Photo @ TAA_indiefilm

It might sound strange, but I’m actually glad that I didn’t have a chance to train at all for my first Hardrock. It made the challenge more authentic, more adventurous, more like a fair test of human spirit and body surviving some of the harshest elements of nature.

I am also glad that despite a mention of my name on iRunFar.com as one of the candidates for a top-10 spot in this race, I knew that I was definitely out of the consideration, which actually was a great relief.

I didn’t have to be watching anyone else, taking unnecessary risks, and be tempted like many others to use stimulants, painkillers, altitude pills, etc (all of which are legal and quite effective, but also detrimental to long term health).

This race was going to become just my own affair with the mountains, with no need to disrespect my body by taking any external stimulants at all. Also, I had not seen any parts of the course and was ready to be surprised. Everything was set up for me to have the survival adventure of my life.

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The race starts and finishes in the town of Silverton. This place is truly magical. I was quite amazed by Leadville, but Silverton sits right in the mountains and looks just like a magical town from some fairy tale.

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With permanent population of only around 600 people, this place has very unique character. It is surrounded by stunning mountain peaks. Also, by local law, all chain businesses (stores, restaurants, hotels, etc) are banned from Silverton. Every establishment is local (the only exception was made for Harley Davidson store). Some fruit could be found only in one small grocery store in town. I got a few ripe bananas, avocados and celery there to fuel up before the race.

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 Photo @ liveworkdream.com

Silverton (and Colorado in general) has very kind and chill people. Let me illustrate:

Upon my arrival into town it turned out that all hotels and hostels were booked for the night before race. After I called the town’s information line, they confirmed that there is no vacancy in town, but since I’m in the race and really need a room, they’ll try to figure it out and call me back. Meanwhile they suggested to stop by the Blair Street Hostel and speak with the owner.

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I came over and indeed there was no vacancy, but the owner Jan just couldn’t let a perspective hardrocker sleep in a car before the run, so she offered me to stay in her room, free of charge, while she would sleep on her friend’s couch. This is a new level of hospitality… Thank you Jan for saving my run!! I highly recommend Blair Street Hostel, here is their FB page.

My other close encounter with the locals happened when I met my pacer – local runner Steve Collins. He lives nearby (in Durango) and he left a note on the Hardrock’s website about looking for someone to pace during the run. I was counting on Steve’s expertise and knowledge of the local mountains. His help was invaluable, it was great to have a company later in the race. At the aid stations we both were taken care by Steve’s friend Leonie Dodd. Thanks again Steve and Leonie, you’re awesome!!

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FUEL:
My favorite race fuel is freshly squeezed OJ, but I didn’t have any crew this time, so I bought several bottles of Naked juice and some organic fruit&nuts bars. I also knew that there would be a ton of fruit at the aid stations, so I didn’t stress about fueling too much. No salt pills, no caffeine, no painkillers, no music, no stimulants. The plan worked and I was adequately fed all race long with no issues.

WEATHER:

I knew that hypothermia could be a major threat as I get cold very easily (I even had to quit VirgilCrest 100 in 2013 at mile 86 due to getting too cold). This time during the whole run I had my gloves on and since around mile 40 I also had the heat packs inside my gloves at all times (replacing heat packs at the aid stations).

I had a total of 5 jackets, one always with me and the others stashed in the drop bags along the course. I also had a space blanket in my backpack at all times. Carrying the space blanket was a good idea, it really helped. When around mile 60-70 we got caught in a sudden storm during the climb, we had to hide under a huge cliff and wait until it passed. This sudden pause in movement and heat generation by my muscles meant that I’ll have hard time to stay warm, so I opened up the space blanket, made a hole there for my head and put it over myself, on top of the rain jacket. This really helped. We decided to stop waiting and move on despite ongoing storm. Steve’s intuition was correct in making this decision. Shortly after we started moving again the storm stopped, the sun appeared, and it became hot again. The space blanket is not designed to be worn while moving, and it got torn up pretty badly. However, later on I was still using a large piece of it to put on my chest under the rain jacket to reflect heat back to my body. This trick worked really well against cold wind.

Another trick that worked was filling up my water bottle with hot water, putting it in the front pocket of the running pack (right next to the heart) and putting a rain jacket on top of the pack, covering the bottle. Works great.

The main reason why hypothermia was a big concern for me is that given the terrain I wouldn’t be able to move fast enough to generate a lot of heat, and at the same time due to lots of raining in the prior days, the course was very wet, keeping runners feet cold and wet at all times. One of the runners counted the number of all water crossings on the course, and his number was 167. A few of these crossings were pretty high rivers, with freezing water waist-deep.

During the pre-race meeting we learned that race course is very wet due to frequent raining in the past week. Also it was very comforting to know that twice in the history of the race runners were struck with a lightning (including one instance last year). Both times runners survived, but just in case everyone at the meeting still received detailed instructions on how to increase a chance of survival when caught in the storm.

THE RACE:

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It wasn’t too cold in the morning (although most people were wearing jackets anyway).

All I needed to do is survive. Humbled by the huge mountains and epic collection of elite trail runners around me, I started very conservatively.

Here is a short video from this race, you can see me at 1:32-1:50 (wearing orange jacket).

Steadily and slowly I moved from one aid station to another. I already failed to finish a couple of 100-mile races in my life, and I’m very aware of dangers posed by going too fast early in the race (especially downhill), getting too cold, and getting lost. I tried to avoid any of these scenarios and finish my run no matter what. Considering my complete lack of training, this was my only objective for this time.

While prepared runners could manage to put on a smile, I was struggling to make each step up at the high altitude (I’m the one in the orange jacket here):

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Climbing the first peak (around 13000 feet), I felt very underpowered and sluggish. There was a stabbing pain in my lungs (probably from change in the air pressure), but running above the clouds was amazing. The views were unbelievable. I didn’t feel any altitude sickness (no headache or nausea), but my heart rate went very high and it was limiting my speed. I was dreading going over the Handies Peak (14k feet, at around mile 40). I knew that once I make it over that peak, I’ll be okay and the rest of high altitude climbing won’t feel as bad. Mile 42 (Grouse Gulch aid station) was a major mark for me because I knew that I won’t have to get over 14000 feet again, and for the rest of the run I’ll be accompanied by my pacer Steve.

Going over Handies Peak was tough. At first it was just the altitude:

But right before approaching the final stretch to the top, the weather got sour. Cold wind picked up and it started snowing…

Here is a photo of Kilian going through the same peak. This is where the lightning incident happened last year:

CJ4N89OVAAAf2z3Photo @ Fred Marmsater

The footing at times was very dangerous in this race, often with only one step away from serious trouble.

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Photo @ em10taque.com

There wasn’t too much snow, but occasionally we did get to run on it. It made my wet and cold feet even colder…

 Photo @ Myke Hermsmeyer / Matt Trappe

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Photo @Howie Stern

And on two occasions getting down a steep slope required some long butt-sliding on the snow! That part was a bit scary but quite awesome.

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The aid stations on the course deserve a special mention. The volunteers were attentive, patient and very dedicated to helping each runner achieve their goal.

Photo @ Myke Hermsmeyer / Matt Trappe

Here is a short movie about the most epic aid station of the Hardrock (Kroger’s Canteen):

In the middle of the night Steve and I had to stop at one of the aid stations for almost an hour to warm up. It really worked. Miles 70-100 I was going strong and steady, and even managed to pass quite a few people after speeding up on those long downhills.

The final time was 41hour and 34 minutes, way longer than any of my previous races. Mostly it was due to the fact that I REALLY wanted to finish and was moving through the course very cautiously.

The course was “minimally marked”, which meant to me that I had to have some plan for navigation. I found a GPS track of the entire course and put it in my iphone (Garmin’s Fenix watch had some trouble dealing with a large GPX file of the course). This overly cautious plan worked really well. Some of the markings (which were indeed quite infrequent) were completely lost from the view (which led even the leaders to lose some time searching for the trail), but GPS navigation and Steve’s expertise saved the day.

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If one’s body is fit enough to endure and complete the whole course, than the main factor deciding in what time you will finish this race is level of adaptation to the altitude.

My objective for this first time was just to finish the race, and even though I could have pushed harder for a faster time, I didn’t want to increase even by a bit my risks of failing. My legs didn’t get a chance to get too tired, heart and lungs were limiting me the most. Despite wet feet, I had only one blister by the end.

This race is very different from anything else I have experienced. It is truly a post-graduate run. Everything about Hardrock is so grand and real that I couldn’t let myself DNF (did not finish). No way. I would crawl to the end, but I’d get it done. This is not the same deal as doing loops on some runnable course like in many other ultras. This race made me believe that it is the hardest thing that I’ll ever have to do and I had to get through. The whole race I had that primal feeling “I need to survive and just get to the end no matter what”.

Photo @ Myke Hermsmeyer / Matt Trappe

I wouldn’t call Hardrock a running race at all – it’s more like a 100-mile-long collection of tough natural obstacles. The diversity is unique, you get to go through almost everything that this planet can throw at you (except desert). At times we were climbing on all fours up steep and long rocky slopes and on the snow. We passed over 150 total water crossings (with a couple of major mountain rivers, which were freezing cold and waist-high).

Weather drastically changed several times a day (it goes below freezing at night and bakes you during the day). Marking of the course is very minimal. At times the footing was very dangerous with significant risk of falling down the slope. And of course high elevation just sucks all the energy out of you. All these obstacles (and the unbelievable views) make Hardrock 100 so unique.

 This climb on loose rocks was awesome:

Photo @ Myke Hermsmeyer / Matt Trappe

You never get bored on this course, the setting is changing all the time: bare rocks of high mountains, meadows, swamps, large rocks, small rocks, mixed rocks, some nice soft forest trails, quite a lot of running on the snow (sometimes deep) and some dirt roads. There is no pavement. Nothing repeats, it’s just one huge loop, which makes a huge difference to me. I find repeating loops at other races a bit demotivating and compromising the sense of adventure and that feeling “I got to get home”.

OUTCOME:

Finished 74th out of 152 people at the start.

Numb fingers, swollen feet, burnt face, lost about 10 pounds. But I was happy. And I got what I came for – a finisher’s buckle and some priceless memories.

 Peeling skin after the sunburn earned during the run:

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This year a record number of runners successfully completed the race (123). Twenty six athletes had to drop off, and three others finished after the deadline of 48 hours.

After finishing the race I just crashed and slept for a few hours on a soft pad at the school gym (which served as a main race gathering place) right by the start/finish area. In the morning it was time for the post-race awards ceremony.

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This event was great, all finishers were recognized (with a short story told about each one), well-deserved respect was paid to the aid station workers and all the people who make this great race possible.

The winners were invited to say a few words. Kilian and Anna won (with Kilian setting another record)… Anna’s race was quite dramatic. She started fast and assumed the lead right from the start, but later she burned out and was passed in the last third of the run by the 2014 winner Darcy Piceu, only to surprise everyone and regain her leading position pretty close to the end. Her post-race interview is here.

Photo @ Myke Hermsmeyer / Matt Trappe

And of course there was some nice swag:

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After the ceremony I had very time left to get back to Denver and catch my flight. I was still very sleepy and in some pain, but it was time to hit the road. The most annoying thing was that my feet swelled up quite a bit and didn’t fit in my shoes any more.

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It became very painful to drive with shoes on so I stopped at a gas station to get some flip flops…  And of course they only had bright pink ones. At that point I was very late for my flight and didn’t have a chance to get any other shoes, so I went all the way to New York (and through New York City) looking like this:

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What can go better together than an ultra beard and some pink flip flops, right?..

As I mentioned, the official cutoff for completing the race was 48 hours. Now check out this video of Bogie Dumitrescu, running at full steam through the last stretch to finish with only 1 second to spare before the cut off (in 47:59:59):

After this race I felt like nothing can scare/break/surprise me in life. It’s just hard to imagine a harder challenge. This guy can confirm:

Photo @ Myke Hermsmeyer / Matt Trappe

One more video to wrap it up. This one will make you feel like you followed the race in the mountains yourself:

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2 comments

  1. Steffen · · Reply

    CONGRATS! You did it. I was looking forward to read your Hardrock race report. Great write up and awesome pictures.
    Thank you for sharing!

  2. Pink is a good color on you Denis. : )

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